In Civilization and its Discontents, Freud claims that there are few things less “natural” to the human species than the directive to “love thy neighbor”. After all, my love ought to be valuable to me (my most valuable gift) so why should I cast it off to some stranger merely because of physical proximity? We disperse such platitudes, not because we believe in them, but rather precisely because we do not. We tell ourselves we ought to love our neighbor because we know it is next to impossible to do so.
As I write this, my upstairs neighbors are throwing a rather rambunctious party for the third night in a row. One member of that family seems to pace the floors of the apartment (regardless of whether they are throwing a party or not) relentlessly back and forth like a caged and deranged tiger but with the footfalls of an insurgent army eager to pillage. Of course, during a party, everything is far worse — particularly since they seem like they are somehow combining improvisational comedy theater with a burlesque show set to Lady Gaga and Beyoncé while one of them mimics the sound of a Banshee yodeling with an incessant but demented syncopation. Every sound makes me cringe, every imposition gives rise to homicidal lust.
Why do I have these feelings? Because I begrudge other human beings a bit of hedonistic joy? Of course not. When I cannot myself enjoy hedonism, I am comforted by the idea that others might. Rather, I resent them because they are indulging in their Epicurean delights while I am trying to do something else. My anger is territorial. They impede upon my space and my time. Not because they are inconsiderate, but simply because they are. They are there and thus in the way of the enjoyment I think I should have.
And yet we are deeply social animals. The notion of loving our neighbor is an attempt to vouchsafe our security by suppressing our natural instinct to shove other people out of our space. We rely on our neighbors for a sense of security. We develop the notion that there is an “us” involved in our relationship with our neighbors. Many thinkers feel that this is the cornerstone of our need for society. Fearing the distant Other, we band together with the more proximate (proximate in race or creed or simply location). The world is a frightening place and when in desperation we grab at the comrade of convenience.
Freud suggests that our need for security uncomfortably rubs against our instinctive desire for isolation, indeed, our instinct for aggression. We are a civilization of discontents. Knowing our capacity for violence, we construct a society that forces identification with our neighbors upon us so that we feel that attacking the neighbor is somehow against natural law and our natural interest. In other words, society inverts nature and convinces us to accept it as a sort of second nature.
This deeply ambivalent relationship that we have with our neighbors is the source of innumerable horror stories. The neighbor is the perfect specter. We are supposed to feel comfortable in our neighborhood insofar as it is an extension of our home. And yet a neighborhood, especially I think a suburban neighborhood, is an uncanny space. The word “uncanny” in German is, of course, “unheimlich”, which literally means “unhoused”. That is a rather telling term to employ with respect to the suburban neighborhood.
The neighborhood “houses” your house. Your house resides there. And yet to venture out into the neighborhood is to unhouse yourself, to remove yourself from the cocoon of your domicile and penetrate into the familiar and yet strange (another definition of the uncanny). You know your neighbors in the sense that they are familiar to you. You see their faces as they work in their front yard while you drive by on your way to work. But you have no idea what takes place in their lives. They seem familiar but you know them not at all.
Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s film Creepy explores the liminal standing of the neighbor between the familiar and the strange. A detective (Hidetoshi Nishijima) retires from the police force after a deadly encounter with a serial killer. He moves with his wife (Yuko Takeuchi) to the suburbs and he takes a job as a professor at the local university. The couple takes chocolates to the neighbors as a form of introduction; they are universally shunned.
Soon the wife begins to have strange encounters with one of the neighbors (Teruyuki Kagawa). The neighbor comes across as an oddball but not particularly fearsome or dangerous. And yet — something is off about this fellow. Still, the wife cannot seem to completely sidestep the neighbor. He is not charming and not particularly interesting. Indeed, he doesn’t even have an air of mystery about him. He seems rather dull and peculiar. He is the kind of guy that one ought to get along with as a neighbor in a sort of dismissive and passive manner.
Meanwhile, the husband becomes embroiled in a mystery that has remained unsolved for years involving the disappearance of a married couple and their son who inexplicably abandoned their daughter. The more he investigates, the more he is convinced that there are similarities between the layout of the neighborhood from which the family disappeared and his own. This aspect of the story strikes me as rather preposterous and forced. Indeed, we might see it as something of a red herring, an attempt to create some kind of genre-conforming suspense plot to obscure the real concern of the film.
That concern, I would contend, involves the nondescript malevolence of the neighbor. He increasingly insinuates himself into the lives of the married couple. Neither of them has any interest in him. He lacks social grace, is not particularly intelligent or engaging. And yet he becomes an ever-looming presence in their lives.
We are never shown the technique he employs, the mechanism by which he is able to exert control over what we learn are his victims. This, perhaps, is the most haunting aspect of the film. One need not (as I will not here) give away much of the plot in order to get at what makes this film alluring, if not all that satisfying. Indeed its allurement derives from its inability to provide satisfaction.
The horror of the neighbor is not what is seen but what remains hidden. The neighbor is a specter in that he remains immaterial. His corporeal presence appears cowardly and pathetic. And yet he manifests some strange urgency that compels his victims. I wonder if this is his power in particular or if it is the nature of the neighbor in our age of estrangement.
We live with each other and we look as our neighbors pass by but we don’t see them, not really. They are ciphers to us, but comforting ones. We think to ourselves, “well, at least someone else is around”. But at the same time this person we fail to see haunts the edges of our comfort. Our neighbors impinge upon us; they threaten at the borders of our territoriality. To really see them would be in some sense to define them, to fix them in understanding.
The terrifying power of the neighbor resides in the fact that he remains undefined, indeterminate. He is the smiling face we nod to as we pull into our driveway. But what lies behind the smile? Is it inviting or menacing? The difference requires that we see, but the neighbor only allows us merely to look.