Doctor Who is built from nightmares, after all. And expert at inspiring them too. “Knock Knock” makes Doctor Who’s relationship with your nightmares very explicit and extremely squirmy.
Hidden Secrets in Twisting Corridors
Phil Sandifer’s review of this episode, he was right in many ways. The setting of the haunted house is getting a little old in Doctor Who. It’s played a major or minor role in several stories over the last decade since the release of Steven Moffat’s masterpiece “Blink.”
He’s right that it’s getting tired. You can’t really depend on the trope of the haunted house alone to deliver scares. But I do think Mike Bartlett – in his first contribution to Doctor Who – has written an episode that fits his reputation as one of the better television and theatre writers in Britain today.
“Knock Knock” seems disappointingly straightforward at first glance, but Bartlett has put some thought into just how creepy his scenario is. The haunted house is a good place to put shadows, dank corners, musty cellars, and other corners, alcoves, and cracks that disturb and unsettle a person.
But what is a haunted house? It’s most profoundly a place of secrets – repressed memories, facts, phenomena, and processes. They’re the twisting catacombs of the subconscious articulated as a building where our protagonists live, explore, and risk death trying to understand a terrible mystery.
Of course, I can’t discuss that mystery without warning you of the obvious
|In case you couldn't tell from the section title, I'm totally going there.
The haunted house is part of what the literary theorists call our cultural imaginary. It’s one of the mythic images that gets trotted out because of its signifiers. The haunted house is more than just its TV Tropes list, but is the image common in contemporary global culture for a story of the return of the repressed.
Our myths of a return of ghosts long thought buried take the form of haunted houses. Stephen King’s The Shining depicted the inner spirals and caverns of the haunted house as the repository of echoing energy that centuries of human evil have generated.
The catacombs of the hotel represented in one scene with a hornet’s nest. Not long on subtlety. I hate that book.
But the point here is the sheer ickiness of the Landlord’s nature. The trauma of his mother’s illness and pending death becomes a focus for his entire life, fixating on her to the point of erasing her personality. He speaks of her as his daughter, to justify his aged body.
|The Landlord's bargaining in the throes of his trauma began the
process that annihilated any individual subjectivity he could have had.
The Landlord needs no name because he’s given it up. He exists only for the sake of his mother, the house.
The son gives himself entirely over to his mother. He sleeps deep inside her every night, rarely leaving the grounds except to find food for her.
I’m just making the sexual nature of the Landlord’s relationship with his mother* as explicit as I can make it. I’m going full Sigmund Freud on this analysis, almost as a riff. On one hand, it’s because I’m not very well-practiced in psychoanalytic writing. On the other hand, I don’t think I need to.
* Who is also a house and who is also a gigantic swarm of alien dryad insects, just so we’ve got all this at the forefront of our minds.
|Everything I write in this review, I mean in a very literal sense.
Eaten alive. Eaten and still alive.
My own introduction to psychoanalytic thinking largely began with my studies of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s work. So I learned about it by watching its core ideas being utterly broken apart. Not broken apart, so much as shown to be inadequate.
Even though you can understand a lot about human trauma using the familial Oedipal dynamic that Freud described and popularized, Freudian imagery isn’t a universal set of human psychological laws.
It was one set of images that could help us make sense of some common situations. They didn’t fit all situations, and they weren’t the only images to describe what they were about. So we ran up the wrong way on that tree for a while.
“Knock Knock,” however, is about as Freudian as you can get, clearly. The Landlord is a child Oedipus whose trauma crafted a fixation on his mother to the point where even he erased his own identity in favour of his mission. When his mother became the house, he became the house’s protector, just as he was hers as a human. Landlord.
|They are a pure force of becoming, and that's the centre of their horror.
The dryads are a pure force, remaking the territories they pervade. A wall becomes a mouth. A woman becomes a creaking tree. They wipe the world of one nature and remake it in their own.
That transformation is hidden. The dryads’ reterritorialization of the house and the House Mother is the ontological mystery of “Knock Knock.” That’s the suppressed secret of the house, as to its nature.
Most hauntings are a matter of a ghost, what China Miéville literally called hauntological, in his analysis of horror. It’s the repressed evil that echoes from the past into the present. Morally speaking, it’s the call for justice. That’s the typical image of haunting, the most morally uplifting.
Or else it’s a mutated call, an evil so intense that it’s been perverted into a purely malevolent, hungry energy. That’s the sublimation of genocide and murder of Stephen King’s original Overlook hotel.
|"The Rats in the Walls" was the first Lovecraft story I ever read,
and it struck me as I read more of his work how much it stood
out. It was a brilliant story, and a terror that hit me more viscerally
than the more cerebral notes of the Weird for which he's known
best. My own science-fiction work published so far explores
more of what deterritorializing horror can do.
The dryads are a more Lovecraftian creature. I don’t mean this in the sense of the Weird, Miéville’s abyssal twin to the comforting humanity of ghosts. There’s another kind of nightmare in Lovecraft that he never really pursued, as he did his eruptions of the Weird, the Absolute Other.
I’m talking about the rats in the walls. It’s a nightmare of deterritorialization. The invasion of a force that consumes you by eradicating your shape – what was once solid is now a gas. What was once a personality becomes a yearning hunger with no sense of selfhood or reflection at all.
That’s what the dryads have done to the house. They’ve turned the mansion and its grounds from an ordinary, if ostentatious, dwelling, into a humming vibration of breathing hunger.
The Oedipal sickness of the Landlord and the House Mother have kept a shred of personality left in that deterritorialization. The child-mother fixation remains as a single thread of self-consciousness, of subjecthood, in what should have been the eradication of human personality in the architecture and the organisms in its rooms.
The House Mother was the only one who could hold her body’s shape after the dryads consumed her into wood. And it was because of the incredible force of the Landlord’s grotesque fixation, his parody of love and devotion, with his mother.
If you think about it long enough, this is one of the more unsettling stories Doctor Who has done in some time.
• • •
My other philosophical reviews in this season, Peter Capaldi's last.
The Pilot / The Girl With a Star in Her Eye