‘You know when you get the feeling that something’s not quite right but you’re not sure what it is?’: Luther, the Uncanny and TV Horror

Posted by Dr Ross Garner

Luther on BBC One
Series 3 of Luther is currently airing on BBC One

N.B. this post is the first of a two-part response and has been written following on from the transmission of episodes 3.1 and 3.2 of the series. It also contains some minor plot spoilers.

Series three of Luther (BBC 2010) is currently at the mid-point of its four-part run and, if responses to the series on social media sites such as Twitter or in the press are anything to go by, the programme is currently responsible for a percentage of the British television audience sleeping uneasily in their beds. Luther is officially-promoted by the BBC as a “deeply thrilling crime series …beautifully shot and full of exhilarating stories, distinctive characters and intense, psychological drama” (BBC Press Office 2011: online). This post explores Luther’s reception as ‘terrifying’ by examining its connections with a genre that is only implied in its official promotion – articulations of the horror genre in fictional television.

In The Pleasures of Horror, Matt Hills (2005: 112) argues that “[t]elevision has been treated as a para-site for horror; a cultural site that is assumed to be alien to the genre and where horror supposedly does not belong”. The BBC’s press release for Luther demonstrates this point as official promotion forsakes classifying it as ‘horror’ in favour of the (slightly) more culturally-legitimated genre of the ‘thriller’. Horror’s omission from television arises from various overlapping cultural assumptions. These include television’s domesticity and the problems that horror’s tropes and aesthetics invading this location may generate or, in the context of Luther, the need for a broadcast channel such as BBC One to target and sustain a wide-ranging ‘mainstream’ audience that unites a diverse range of audience profiles (e.g. in terms of age/race/gender/sexuality/class).

‘Horror’ is seen as a challenge to these requirements as it potentially alienates viewers through violating dominant taste codes. Instead, the genre is frequently associated with niche-appeal (usually assumed to be males aged between mid/late teens upwards) and as an affront to ‘mainstream’ taste formations due to its splatter aesthetic. Despite narrowcast channels within a multi-channel environment now beginning to directly target horror audiences through programming (I’m thinking here of examples such as American Horror Story (Fox Television/Ryan Murphy Productions 2011-) on FX ), fictional programmes that are industrially-marketed as ‘horror’ on publically-funded ‘mainstream’ broadcasters like BBC One remain a rarity.

This should not be taken to suggest that ‘horror’ intertexts are not identifiable on such channels: instead, horror’s intertexts tend to be downplayed in these contexts and, where they do occur, become articulated through specific understandings of horror’s affects such as Sigmund Freud’s concept of The Uncanny (2003 [1919]). Freud’s theory of the Uncanny attempts to understand how aesthetic objects frighten us and induce anxiety from a psychoanalytic perspective. To do this, he traces the etymology of the unheimlich (the unfamiliar) and, through extensive research, posits that the meaning of the unheimlich arises out of, and is indebted to, its direct opposite –the hiemlich or familiar. Uncanny feelings of fear therefore arise when things that have previously been deemed familiar suddenly become rendered unfamiliar through the re-confirmation of previously-surmounted and rejected beliefs.

Freud identifies the sudden presence of a doppleganger as one potential stimulus to uncanny anxieties as the presence of a double allows for childish beliefs in everlasting life to return and seemingly become reconfirmed. Similarly, processes of repetition (of numbers, of being lost in ‘familiar’ locations, of children repeatedly playing games and so on) are also identified as examples of the Uncanny via reaffirming superstitious pre-Enlightenment beliefs that wider spiritual and irrational forces are conspiring against the individual.  In terms of TV horror, David Lynch’s TV masterpiece Twin Peaks (ABC/Lynch-Frost Productions 1990-1) exemplifies this trend as its otherworldly location of the Black Lodge contains ‘evil’ doubles of each of the programme’s lead characters. Fictional television that intertextually connects with ‘horror’ via notions of the Uncanny are, however, deemed acceptable to ‘mainstream’ audiences as they forsake blood and gore in favour of constructing the genre in more psychological terms.

It is through articulations of the Uncanny that, I would argue, series three of Luther has been scaring its audiences. The opening scene of episode 3.1, for example, plays strongly upon these associations as we follow victim Emily Hammond (Rachel Hankey) from the diegetically-coded bustle and danger of the outside world to the (presumed) safety of her flat. However, the eventual emergence of murderer Paul Ellis (Kevin Fuller) into this location from under the bed renders this diegetic space unsafe: in Freudian terms, the hiemlich contains the unheimlich and it is this sudden de-famililarisation that frightens.

The character of Ellis appears similarly constructed according to this discourse across both episodes: before seeing him render another domestic space ‘unsafe’ at the end of the episode, audiences see the killer as a ‘normal’ member of society – he goes fishing, cooks dinner and eats before going to ‘work’. Ellis is therefore both a ‘familiar’ person we might see on the street and an ‘unfamiliar’ serial killer. The character’s uncanny nature is then re-inflected in episode 3.2. An apparently ‘new’ character is introduced in this episode – albeit through dubious associations with a previous serial killer – but audiences gradually become familiar with the character through his repeated appearance within scenes. However, after breaking into his intended next victim’s house, the character sheds a wig and glasses to reveal himself as Ellis in disguise. In this instance, audience knowledge and perceptions of the character are defamiliarised through revealing the character in his monstrous form suggesting that characters inhabiting Luther’s narrative world may not be what they seem. Moreover, audience awareness of his presence within this new domestic location (we see him moving around the house and are given point-of-view shots denoting his presence hiding in an intended victim’s wardrobe) builds a sense of the Uncanny (alongside other non-diegetic elements such as the soundtrack) as the diegesis becomes rendered as both familiar and safe (it is this to the unknowing characters and is a domestic space like those watching the series) and unfamiliar. This rendering of the diegesis in Luther as uncanny has been employed in previous series as well: series two, for example includes sequences where recognisable locations such as petrol stations and office blocks become immediately defamiliarised through the sudden murderous intrusions of normal-looking inhabitants. The two most recent episodes therefore draw upon draw upon multiple inflections of the Freudian Uncanny to render diegetic locations simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar and, in so doing, locate the programme within ongoing traditions for constructing horror in fictional television dramas on mainstream channels.

Luther’s intersections with the Uncanny can be explored in greater detail than this post affords. This is especially the case if attention is directed towards how Ellis is eventually caught because, as indicated above, Freud argues that repetitions can also give rise to uncanny feelings. Conversely, though, television theorists have argued that TV’s repetitions of characters and programmes on a daily, weekly, and yearly basis render it familiar to people. Luther’s outwitting of Ellis through mimicking his own ‘uncanny’ banging through ceilings seems, from this perspective, indicative of how within these episodes audio cues used for arousing audience fear and anxiety eventually become conventional and therefore become tools for containing these threats. Nevertheless, it appears that the series’ ability to depict the familiar as simultaneously unfamiliar in myriad ways that seems to be unnerving Luther’s audiences at present.