Why Puppets Are So Creepy

Everyone knows about claustrophobia (the fear of confined places), agoraphobia (the fear of public places) and xenophobia (the fear of strangers). But what about pupaphobia, the fear of puppets? Puppets are creepy. Whether they are jerking around on strings or bowing on the tips of fingers, they seem to make people nervous.
So, at the annual meeting of the American Psychoanalytic Association in December, Roman Paska, a master puppeteer, and Eric Neutzel, a psychoanalyst in St. Louis, got together to discuss the fear of puppetry and what can be done about it.
People apparently do not understand their own horror of puppets. According to Paska and Neutzel, the fear of puppetry has less to do with the specter of manipulation than people think. For centuries, Westerners have wrongly cast the puppet as "a symbol of man manipulated by higher forces or beings," Paska wrote in an essay titled "The Inanimate Incarnate."
Heinrich von Kleist's seminal 1810 essay "On the Marionette Theater" treated puppets as surrogate human beings too. But apparently the human aspect of puppets is not what makes them scary.
"It's the absence of the human that is frightening," the fact that the puppet appears both dead and alive, Paska said. "The puppet is a dead thing and it's up there moving. If it provokes deep anxieties, that's why." The closest human analogies to puppets are not powerless citizens under dictators but mummies and corpses made to dance.
In fact, puppets were once explicitly used to represent the dead, Paska said. Pulchinella, the puppet that came before Punch and Judy, spoke with a swazzle, a reedy piece in the mouth, which is still used by Rajastani puppeteers and is called the voice of the dead.
Puppets show us that "our own existence is not so different from a table," Paska said. In the blink of an eye, the inanimate can become animate, and the animate can become inanimate again.
In other words, the puppet is part of what Freud called the uncanny: "that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar," to a time before we were alive.
It is worth noting that "puppet" comes from the Latin "pupa," which is not only the root for the French word for doll, poupee (Freud's example of an uncanny object), and the English word puppy, but also the name for a creature enclosed in a cocoon, not quite alive and not quite dead.
African and Asian cultures have always been more mindful of the puppet's awful "otherness" and its strange power, Paska noted. For example, in Indonesia, puppeteers have the status of priests and are thought to spiritually possess their puppets during the performance. Indeed, it is considered dangerous for puppeteers not to finish a show, Paska said, and when a puppeteer dies, his puppets are buried with him.
Puppetry is a kind of necromancy. "A puppet doesn't exist alone," Neutzel said. By itself, "the puppet is just a dead thing." If the audience fails to imbue it with life, there is no show.
Conversely, "any object to which people attribute life and energy" can be a puppet, Paska explained. He recalled a performance enacted by a coffee bean and a match, a love story. During the show the two objects acquired character traits. When the coffee bean was lost in a pile of other coffee beans and the match made an attempt to find the bean, "the audience knew one was special," said Paska. "And when the bean was ground up, it was heart-wrenching," he said. "The audience was almost in tears."
That is how a ritual object is born, Paska said. "The audience is complicit." And, he points out, that is not a controlling impulse, a wish to manipulate, but a creative impulse, a way to multiply the self.
Or a way to work out inner conflicts: since puppets are not really alive, people relate to them more freely. "Puppets can express the audience's forbidden impulses better than theater," said Neutzel. If Punch throws a baby out the window and almost kills Judy, no one is the worse for it. It works the other way, too. In "The Great Gabbo" (a movie that has occasionally been spoofed on The Simpsons) the dummy, Otto, expresses all of the cruel puppeteer's soft emotions.
"Puppets are ideal objects for working out human problems at a distance," Neutzel said. That is why puppetry is lot closer to Antonin Artaud's idea of the theater, catharsis, than to Bertolt Brecht's idea, instruction.
"The audience projects something onto the object," Neutzel said. The puppet can become what psychoanalysts call a transitional object, like a blanket, which can make a child feel the presence of something that is not really there. It is a connection between himself and something he left behind (his home, his mother). With the use of this object he can, in a sense, bring the dead alive.
Still, with all the fears there are in the world, why would a psychoanalyst deal with the fear of puppets? Maybe it has something to do with the charge of manipulation. Manipulation, Paska noted, is a problem word not only for puppeteers but for psychoanalysts too.
In other words, just as puppeteers do not like to think of themselves as masters pulling strings, so psychoanalysts do not like the suggestion that they are practicing mental manipulation, trying to get their patients to say and do what they command.
Psychoanalysts, like puppeteers, would prefer to think of themselves as liberators who can wake up the living dead. Well, let the show begin.

Saturday, January 17, 1998 Copyright 1998 The New York Times