Jessica Lee McMillan
The Dark Crystal and the Uncanny
What Henson's psychological universe teaches us
Master world-maker Jim Henson defined my childhood with alphabet letters taught by adorable muppets and a psychological alphabet from benign Fraggles to terrifying Skeksis.
The dark, sublime universe Henson creates in The Dark Crystal invokes the uncanny, a feeling of eeriness or sensation that makes us feel unsettled. In The Dark Crystal, it is this very feeling that functions to teach us how to navigate an uneasy fantasy world that holds a mirror to evils we would rather forget.
What Henson Did to Disrupt Audience Expectation
By the time The Dark Crystal was released in 1982, Jim Henson had earned enough credibility in Sesame Street to gain a trusting audience with children. Now grown up, Gen Xers will often tell you they are still disturbed by Henson’s unsettling cinematic worlds.
Under all the whimsical puppetry lurks a darkness that is steeped in the tradition of fairytales. In the true Grimm tradition, Henson believed it was not “healthy for children to always feel safe,” parting with fictions of wholesomeness where children can explore existential notions of good and evil in a deeper and safer way.
But The Dark Crystal has an eerie, uncanny resonance despite the dark fairytale plot not because of it. Freud observes:
“the story-teller has licence…to select his world of representation so that it either coincides with the realities we are familiar with or departs from them in what particulars he pleases.”
We know this about classic fairytales and their predictable plot constructs demanding the suspension of disbelief. But Henson was in the business of creating the visual environment, perhaps privileging it over the characters who drove the plot.
It is rather the tone and visual qualities of Henson’s environment eliciting a complex, psychological landscape, where every inch of his universe adds up to an organic whole, invoking themes of beauty, fear, alienation, and awe.
The Dark Crystal is a quest involving good and evil forces but the binary “races” who represent these forces— the peaceful Mystics (aka: urRu) and the twisted Skeksis — are versions of a whole being that was splintered in their ambition to seize the crystal’s power. The Crystal of Truth becomes the fragmented dark crystal.
The Skeksis, who are a major source of abject creepiness in the film, have already exterminated the Gelphlings and moved on to stealing the “essence” of the working-class Podlings through dark sorcery to extend their lives. The Skeksis are overtly portrayed via the Seven Deadly Sins to emphasize their evil ways while hinting at human folly. As they recklessly harness the crystal’s powers, they undermine their life force tied to their spiritual and wise counterparts, the Mystics.
Our hero Jen, is the presumed last of his race of Gelphlings, and he must find a way to locate the missing crystal shard to save the planet, Thra. Jen is believed to fulfill the prophecy of making the crystal whole before the next great conjunction of suns (diagram above).
What is The Uncanny?
Freud explains that “the uncanny” is that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar”. From the German, unheimlich, on one hand, means “that which is familiar and congenial, and on the other, that which is concealed and kept out of sight.”
Freud’s essay “The Uncanny” is pivotal to psychoanalysis, but the concept has been appropriated in critical theory and literary criticism in its conceptual investigation of the root heimlich in “familiar,” “native,” “belonging to the home.” It is not enough for the opposite of heimlich to be “unfamiliar” or “belonging outside” when it is invoked by the very thing that is familiar, whether that be a repressed desire or an alter ego.
Freud surmises the concept cannot be divided into antonyms because the uncanny is the familiar made unfamiliar by repression. So the very sense of uncanny is unsettling in its intermingling of familiarity and existential terror with something unexamined it reveals about us, about reality, or about our desires.
Lacan’s concept of The Real as something irreducible, like the knife that attempts to cut ontological binaries like heimlich/unheimlich, also allows us to understand why drawing the line of the un/canny is impossible. The terms are subject to the metaphysics of similar conceptual pairs (i.e. in/out, body/mind).
The heimlich/unheimlich binary is just an example of the impossibility of pointing to one without a trace of the other, which can call into question the structure of reality, even on the basis of linguistics, in threatening ways. The resulting existential anxiety disturbs our grasp of the Real.
The Uncanny Dark Crystal
Henson’s departs Sesame Street and takes us to a gothic place of desolate landscapes with haunted places, evil omens, supernatural forces, and orphans. The departure itself from the familiar fuzzy puppets to a threatening but sublime world is the first, macrocosmic instance of how the uncanny operates in The Dark Crystal.
Like a grand experiment, the dark themes and textures were foisted on an unsuspecting audience expecting more Big Bird than the Skeksis. But we become entrenched by the inviting, foreboding universe we have entered with child-like inquisitiveness.
The Dark Crystal presents a landscape that drips with thriving, organic life and realism, despite its foreignness of creatures, flora and fauna. The score hints at melancholy doom in its symphonic sweep. Every entity has a place in the universe but there is an unfamiliar element about each, whether it be a rock that morphs into a giant fish, an anemone-like terrestrial plant, or a bat-like spy that invokes the creeping fear of being surveilled with its camera-like eye.
Next, the humanoid qualities of the last remaining Gelphlings (Jen and his travel partner, Kira) also register on the uncanny valley provoking an overall sense of uncanny in the film. The unsettling qualities of the film are heightened by the familiar, lovely features of the Gelflings paired with their not-quite-human vacancy. Despite being aesthetically beautiful, the Gelphlings compound the scariness of the terrifying, vulture-like Skeksis with their lurking, jerking movements, and the gigantic arthropods who swoop around their castle and execute their genocidal plans.
And while the Skeksis are the most unsettling “villains” in most respects, if they were removed from the film, viewers may still sense the uncanny in the sum of the film's textures, sounds, themes, and the other non-humanoid puppets. The visuals of the film create a mode where uncanny lives. While the puppets grossly contribute to the eeriness of the film, Hensen similarly orchestrates a visual formula for unsettling audiences in Labyrinth and Return to Oz, which include live actors but also intensely crafted environments.
The uncanny elements of The Dark Crystal and its blending of good and evil set up Lacan’s definition of the uncanny in that “we do not know how to distinguish bad and good, pleasure from displeasure.” We are mystified by the interdependency of the Skeksis and the Mystics and we are haunted as we are engrossed in the lush atmosphere.
Unlike the common gothic storyline of scapegoating the abomination of our repressed desires, The Dark Crystal depicts characters who are two sides of the same coin: the abomination and the transcendent. The interdependence of binaries complements the etymological interdependence of heimlich/unheimlich. Some hideous creatures, such as Aughra, are, in fact benevolent, while the truly evil characters are splintered versions of a disassociated self that includes the good.
In regard to (non-sexual) repressed desires, the clash between the races is also an allegory of the worst human traits: ambition, greed — and in the case of the Skeksis, supremacist ideology, and exceptionalism. The Skeksis personify human sin.
Rahimi and Lacan both tied the uncanny to mirroring or doubling such as in the alter ego or the doppelgänger, which serves the notion of the good/evil of a dissonant self in the Mystics and Skeksis. They merge to become one in the end — the urSkeks— and appear as spirits, stretching out into the light spectrum, but with more identifiable humanoid features than the contorted bird-like bodies before the conjunction.
As a child, I was still frightened by the urSkeks, as their expressions were difficult to read. The two-made-one does little to restore a sense of familiarity or ease for the viewer. Even when all is restored, the uncanny undertones of the film linger beyond the final panorama of the fantastical landscape and creepy castle to the melodically haunting score.
Freud claims “the realm of phantasy depends for its very existence on the fact that its content is not submitted to the reality-testing faculty” but there are “more means of creating uncanny effects” in fiction. In some sense, he does not seem convinced that fantasy is as capable of producing uncanny feelings because we don’t question it. I would argue Henson’s Dark Crystal with its animatronic puppetry allows us to surmount a conflict where we are imbedded in a fantastical cinematic environment, knowing it is fantastical while feeling deeply unsettled by its puppet protagonists.
Contradictory to Freud’s claim that fantasy has already removed us from the familiar in such a way that he uncanny has less effect, Hensen’s meticulous universe is immersive enough to make us vulnerable to feeling unsettled by something buried in the subtext of that universe. By acculturating to the unpredictable environment Henson creates, we set up a new reality within it. The most uncanny aspect of this is how the film continues to produce feelings of uncanny on repeat viewings despite knowing the outcome.
A Psychological Journey
Through the uncanny, The Dark Crystal is more an adventure of the psyche than a plot-driven fantasy quest. There is no horror, but a lingering sense of atrocity and threat of doom under incarnations of gentleness in the characters. We have mixed feelings about them — especially the rather inert Jen —who allows us to be a foil in his open-ended expressions that elicit uncanny qualities from the same blankness.
The Dark Crystal is a psychological tale about navigating the treachery of emotional ambiguity and it is a tale of harmony and balance of power. The ontological entanglement of its characters makes the story far more complex than the brothers Grimm. Henson wanted to get back to the darker elements of Grimm’s fairytales, but his uncanny universe emulates them.
The uncanny in The Dark Crystal allows us to live with a certain amount of uncertainty that is healthy for the critical mind. In Henson’s assertion that children should be frightened allows them to process the world in truer shades and allows us to survey the dark qualities of our desires, our mixed feelings about the world, and ultimately our inhumanity to each other. The uncanny is a vehicle to explore our psychological dimensions like a sixth sense of darkness.
Jessica Lee McMillan © 2022