The German origin of uncanny is unheimlich, literally ‘un-home-like’. The thin psychological walls between house and home, inert and inhuman shell and beloved memory palace, are crossed – trespassed – easily. A mirror image of the home, a carbon copy, would still only be a house, a troubling house, invoking unsettling questions: who made this, and why, and what do they have in store for me? The home has to be itself in order to remain a home, since a copy implies a copier. The copier is inherent in the structure, and that lies at the core of the unease; something comforting has been penetrated by something unknown. We are no longer safe. It applies to dolls, waxworks, videogame characters – but also, and still, homes themselves.
All homes are made out of houses, under the skin of wallpaper and ornaments and memories, so the possibility of becoming uncanny is latent within them, for all homes are also not themselves. I had the privilege (unpleasant privilege, but undeniable privilege) of living in a house while renovating it – pipes, wires, plaster and all. The house was made more of spaces than of things. The precipitous gap between floorboards and drop ceiling, suspended on joists, the feeling of walking on air – the revelation that the first story floor was a balancing act. A lintel above a doorway supporting a corner of the house, which we found to be a sponge of rotten wood. The ancient plaster-and-lathe walls we would conceal under sheet plasterboard. All the rot wherever water had made its unbidden way. All these spaces – places where things can hide.
Invariably, they hid costs, and damage, and more costs, and domestic un-bliss, and arguments. But I have an abiding image of a man – a thin, naked man, with pale grey skin, long nails, long hair, sharpened teeth – who exists on the other side of a wall, in the partition where the stud holds the plasterboard proud of the brickwork, or in the space beneath the floor and above the ceiling, or in the roof, or the crawlspace. Pressed against the surface of the home from the other side, a permanent, waiting presence. The geist of the house.
There has been a resurgence in haunted-house stories in the last two decades, Paranormal Activity being the most prominent. A place needn’t be old to be haunted, simply something we could love. The house as active antagonist. A reflection of the subprime mortgage crisis in America and housing anxiety in general. How can you afford it? How can you get by without it? Our homes are betrayed by our houses; the geist of the house is on the warpath. Or picture those old people who die alone, their sheen of memories suddenly inert, the house they are discovered in by the police or a neighbour a cold and meaningless tomb that has, of course, outlived them.
“We read this in reverse order, seeing an architectural space through which play-logic has forced new openings and closures.”
Game levels torture architectural reasoning. The logic of a game-space is that of play-potential, so that a collapsed doorway is no different from a wall, and a collapsed wall is no different from a door, and the architectural signs that give us contrary indications are set-dressing, not fact: the theme-park, playground or theatre set are real world corollaries, where the material conditions of the space are hidden beneath a narrative texture. But we read this in reverse order, seeing an architectural space through which play-logic has forced new openings and closures. These penetrations of the architectural space reveal the inhuman necessity of construction material beneath the homely shell, invoking the uncanny. Games that take place in decaying urban or domestic spaces, such as SWAT IV, Condemned: Criminal Origins, Resident Evil VII, and Outlast, use the uncanny milieu of perforated architecture to heighten feelings of stress and dread. Rainbow Six: Siege, with its richly deformable playgrounds, luxurious damage modelling, and material physics, is extremely responsive to the intrusions of the player. It provokes a direct invocation and confrontation with the uncanny.
In Rainbow Six: Siege we alternately exterminate and embody the wrathful otherness of the house. As defender we become the ur-homeowner; we are terrorists invading the house, weaponising our claim to the space with barbed wire and gas traps (what, in America especially, is a home, if not a place where you can legally murder an intruder?). Our inferred antagonist now has a face: SAS, SWAT, SDU. They are hiding in the ceiling. They are creeping along the walls. Above all they desire to penetrate the barriers of safety and realise the full horror we have always dreaded – they will be the agent of the house’s reprisal. This is literal as well as metaphorical: they will peel away the strata of the house, breaching walls and perforating ceilings to create murder-holes. Death is borne on the uncanny revelation of the home’s always-there houseness, its inert and structural, not semiotic, matter. But here we can fight back. Shotgun and submachine gun bring catharsis, if we’re good enough.
“As we dismantle the house we come to know it on its own terms.”
As the counter-terrorists we precipitate our fear of the uncanny by becoming it. We are the immune system of the house resisting colonisation, we are the rats in the walls. We revel in the naked materiality of the building as we sledgehammer through partitions, machine gun the boards from the ceiling joists, inject cluster grenades through walls, explore the hidden voids through the eyes of a drone. We observe, in the way the house has always threatened to observe the home-owner, as through the wallpaper itself. We enact the power of the house, the uncanny materiality, and in identifying with the house as non-home, understand it, consider it as itself, from inhuman angles (upside down from a rappelling wire), for inhuman purposes. As we dismantle the house we come to know it on its own terms: alien matter, yet known, and therefore if not safe, at least mitigated. We do not dissolve the uncanny, but we can accommodate it. Find a relationship between ourselves and the geist of the house.
At night, listen to your home breathing. The gurgle of pipes and whirr of machines. The little things that tick and pop outside your everyday attention, the creaks as temperatures change and wood and brick settle and resettle. The subtle trickles, the scuffles of unseen animals in unknown spaces. Do you know what all this noise is? Do you honestly, truly know all the secrets of the space you inhabit? You can never prove that there is nothing more to a home than just a home, not until you’re ready to take it apart.