Wednesday, December 17, 2008

There is a taxidermist’s shop near my office. It’s a funny little place near Essex Road station with every animal from a wolf to a guinea pig (really) posed in dusty, glassy-eyed silence in the window. I don’t think I’ve ever told many people this before – it’s not the sort of thing that often comes up in conversation – but I really don’t like stuffed animals. They freak me out. Not in a screaming, panicky, and uncouth sort of way but in a hair-standing-up-on-the-back-of-the-neck, quietly shuddering gross-out sort of way.

When I was at university I read an essay called “The Uncanny” by Sigmund Freud. I didn’t get on with most of the rambling psychoanalytic stuff in the essay, but I liked the core concept (which wasn’t Freud’s) which stated that a key component of what people find scary – the uncanny – is “doubt whether an apparently animate being is really alive; or conversely, whether a lifeless object might be, in fact, animate”. It’s a simple idea, but it is true of many scary things: ghosts, zombies, creepy dolls, mannequins, the statues in Blink, and – to get back to what I was saying just now – stuffed animals. They look like they’re alive, but they aren’t – or vice versa. It’s weird. It blurs the line between a living creature and a dead creature.

Today, when I walked past the taxidermist, however, there was no such thing. I stood in front of the window, staring in bafflement for a good few seconds before I started to laugh like a drain. The poor ghoulish soul that runs the place obviously felt that it was a little bit dour given the season, and so he decorated his shop. The thing is; the stuffed animals are pretty much the only thing in the shop, so they were all he had to decorate. Which made the whole thing go from creepy to really surreal.

The deer’s head with gold, sparkly tinsel wound around its antlers is an image that will stay with me for a long time. Nearly as long as the deceased albino guinea pig sitting in the middle of a holly wreath, in fact.