Skinamarink and the New Face of Enchantment
Take your childhood home with its domestic inventory of toys, lamps, tables, and chairs, remove your guardian figures and replace them with a malevolent presence, and you have a modern archetypal nightmare. Director Kyle Edward Ball went one further, though, by transforming his own childhood home in Edmonton, Canada into the site of a film that seeks to capture this peculiar kind of terror on screen. A cost-effective maneuver, sure, but one that adds a further layer of eeriness to his experimental project.
Skinamarink expertly introduces tinctures of the alien into a familiar setting to produce what Freud famously called the unheimlich—the everyday contaminated by something otherworldly. The year is 1995 and Kevin and Kaylee, two young siblings, awake in the toy-strewn wilderness of their house to find their father gone and something evil now assailing them. It soon becomes clear that whatever lurks in the nebulous corridors views them as little more than playthings themselves. Meanwhile, their home turns into a veritable funhouse. Doors and windows vanish like images from an Etch A Sketch. Toys are pinned to the walls and ceiling. Hallways stretch out into labyrinthine tunnels.
Much like The Blair Witch Project, part of Ball’s ingenuity consists of the ways in which he seamlessly folds Skinamarink’s limitations into its aesthetics. Shot for $15,000 on grainy 16mm, the film forces you to crawl through its maze of murky images that hover somewhere between the mundane and the menacing. All of these lo-fi trappings only serve to intensify the film’s rich atmospherics. When Ball trains his lens on the yawning darkness of a hall, for instance, the grainy abyss practically seethes with malign shapes. Did you really see something, or are your eyes playing tricks on you, twisting the curtain of darkness into a monster of your own making? If this sounds familiar, it’s likely because you’ve had the same agonizing staring contest with a corner of your room during the witching hour. Skinamarink brings that moment to life and stretches it out for the length of a film.
Though the film’s occluded style will certainly aggravate plenty of viewers, it’s a worthwhile gambit, one that brings the miasmic feel of an actual nightmare to the screen in a way we haven’t seen before. As is the case when you’re marooned in a bad dream, we can’t seem to get a firm hold on anything. Barely a face is seen in the film. We get mostly oblique views of characters, whether it’s the back of their heads or the severed view of legs and feet from under a couch. The audio is compressed, giving it a tinny quality that often necessitates subtitles. The sound seems to be inside your head.
Skinamarink has its roots in analog horror, a subgenre that locates ominous poetics in the analog style of media from the 1960s-1990s. Whether making use of everything from the Emergency Broadcast System to the nomadic stock footage cluttering the web, or meticulously recreating ‘80s news broadcasts and after school specials, analog horror punctuates each of these artifacts with the intrusion of something faintly sinister. Not surprisingly, YouTube has proven especially fertile ground for this new movement.
Analog horror isn’t without precedent, of course. From Robert Wise’s superb adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House all the way to the hokey antics on display in paranormal investigation “reality” shows, there’s a rich tradition exploring the intersection of analog equipment and the uncanny. Given that he’s essentially written the script for late modern anxieties surrounding bodies and technology, it should come as little surprise that David Cronenberg is also a major influence. Not only does 1983’s Videodrome feature the unforgettable scene of a man feeding a VHS tape into a novel orifice in his abdomen, it also revolves around an unauthorized channel of cryptic origins that’s filled with what appears to be real torture and murder. Though analog horror largely eschews explicit violence, many of Cronenberg’s plot points have become staples in the genre.
The style may be retro, but the major player here is the internet. Ball has even gone so far as to state in interviews that the internet was his “co-director.” Revealingly, Skinamarink emerged from Ball’s YouTube channel, on which his audience commissioned him to recreate their nightmares. These efforts culminated in a short film titled Heck, a clear precursor to his feature film debut. And before it even hit the festival circuit, Skinamarink was already a hit on TikTok, garnering a reputation for being unbearably frightening.
Ball’s film, however, manages to expand analog horror’s boundaries by subverting some of its key tropes. For instance, like most analog horror, Skinamarink has no soundtrack. Its feature length status, however, makes it much longer than your average entry. There’s a conspicuous absence of explicit violence in most of these works, but Skinamarink manages to slip in some brutality that’s as chilling as it is subtle. The film also makes brilliant use of royalty-free material. Faced with their father’s absence and the sinister presence stalking them, Kevin and Kaylee barricade themselves in the living room, seeking comfort in the spectral glow of the cathode-ray tube TV and watching old public access cartoons. Filtered through Ball’s grainy lens, these cartoons, with their surreal antics and caterwauling sounds, provide a demented soundtrack for the children’s disintegrating house. Nonsense is fun and amusing when the world feels stable. When it’s as slippery as a nightmare, however, these whimsical violations of order begin to feel of a piece with the general chaos. Imagine Tom & Jerry blaring in the smoky wake of a mall shooting.
John Milbank contends that, in an ironic contrast with most current theology, “social theory increasingly finds secularization paradoxical, and implies that the mythic-religious can never be left behind.” In The Myth of Disenchantment, Jason Ananda Josephson Storm (phew) offers a book-length confirmation of this thesis, carefully documenting an irrepressible spiritual preoccupation that punctuates even the most seemingly secular of thinkers. The notion that we’re disenchanted people eking out a hollow existence against the flattened horizon of modernity simply doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. For Christians who believe that human beings are inescapably spiritual beings, this ought to come as no surprise.
Naturally, enchantment will look different in the age of stripmalls, smartphones, and social media. Skinamarink imbues a ‘90s household with the same haunting intrigue as a decaying Victorian mansion, and many of these new works of horror cast the internet in a gothic light, representing it as a haunted space teeming with vague terrors. Creepypasta is just the tip of the iceberg.
Still, disenchantment is a word that’s hard to shake because it retains a level of descriptive accuracy in spite of our spiritual proclivities, tarot cards and all. Contemporary enchantment often arrives cloaked in the dread that permeates the impersonal air of our post-industrial society. Many of these recent horror tales turn not just on slendermen and other things that go bump in the night, but also on vast government conspiracies that only serve to confirm our powerlessness. Think of the knot in your stomach that comes with an IRS document informing you of an upcoming tax audit. The artist who best captures this feeling remains Kafka. The Castle, with its impenetrable fortress of inscrutable villains, in particular foreshadows the vague terrors that resonate so deeply now.
Not all forms of enchantment are made equal, though, and perhaps the saddest mark of contemporary enchantment is the sense of ennui that emerges from a deracinated view of human life. In ages past, our terrors revolved around a definitive understanding of our place in the universe. All spiritual violations centered on the assumption that people were made in the image of God. We feared possession because it meant the loss of one’s identity to an evil spirit. But when the imago dei becomes a distant memory, the possibility of demonic intrusions is greeted with ambivalence rather than terror. In the disarming We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, for instance, the protagonist talks excitedly about a dream that was “just like Paranormal Activity” and willingly submits to an occult internet game in the hopes of transcending a lonely existence in her attic room. Vague, boring, sad, and unnerving, the new face of enchantment belongs to a cultural moment that sees people tying themselves in knots over what it means to be human.
Ball takes you to a place where boredom meets fear, and his movie does require patience. If you can manage to stay awake through it, however, Skinamarink will leave you with the feeling of being stuck in an empty house where you’re somehow not alone. Consequently, this happens to be an apt description of the tacit assumption today about humanity’s place in the universe. We may not be disenchanted, but that doesn’t stop us from being spiritual orphans.