How philosophy explains why Steven Moffat's monsters are seriously fucking scary

Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat has created some of the series' most frightening monsters, including the Weeping Angel aliens in "Blink" who creep up when you glance away. This season, the Edvard Munch-inspired aliens called The Silence have a strange but potent superpower: the instant they leave the frame of your vision, you forget they exist. No wonder they've lurked hidden on Earth for so many thousands of years.

Moffat has an uncanny way of making eyes and vision into a source of terror. Though the Weeping Angels and The Silence are monsters that Moffat invented just for Doctor Who, they embody an ancient form of terror identified in the twentieth century by philosophers fascinated by the power of the human gaze.

In 1956, famous existentialist and French resistance fighter Jean-Paul Sartre published his epic work Being and Nothingness. One of the most influential parts of the book comes from his ideas about how vision helps us develop a sense of self. To grossly simplify his argument, which he makes in a chapter called "The Look," being seen by somebody else is akin to being recognized by them. So we make a psychological connection between the act of seeing a person with glasses, and the more complicated act of recognizing the person as a man named Jean-Paul who is French, white, nerdy, and likes to write about metaphysics. To sum up, your sense of self and your sense of others is connected intimately with your ability to see them - and their ability to see you.

How philosophy explains why Steven Moffat's monsters are seriously fucking scary

The Big Other
Sartre points out that this situation can lead to a lot of terrifying situations. First of all, it means we rely on others for a sense of self, and thus for a sense of stability and mental coherence. Even creepier, it means (for example) I basically wouldn't have any sense of self at all if it weren't for some Big Other having coming along at some point when I was a tiny little not-yet-self and saying, "You are Annalee. You are female and white and Jewish and you live in America in a middle-class suburb." Yes, it sounds weird, but parents and teachers and other adults actually say things that more or less boil down to sentences like that.

Playing at the park with my niece, I've heard adults explain to their kids, "She's a girl and you are a boy." That's a major Big Other moment, where two little selves are made to understand that they are genders, and not just blobs of desire to play in the sand. Similarly, I can remember my parents telling me things like, "You are Jewish, which is why you don't have to draw pictures of Santa like the other kids in Kindergarten." And now, decades later, I still feel Jewish as a result. Those Big Others injected a piece of self into me, without my permission, and now I can't get it out. Scary!

The Big Bads
But there's something even scarier. Which takes us back to Doctor Who, and Steven Moffat. We all, somewhere in the back of our minds, recall those moments when a Big Other looked upon us and declared what our selves would be. And therefore in fictional tales, the gaze can take on an additional metaphorical significance. It is the thing that makes us who we are. It is also the thing we use to confer recognition on others - the thing that makes them who they are.

And that's what makes "Blink" such a completely eat-your-undies terrifying concept. It plays into our sense that we control the world with our gazes. The Weeping Angels are monsters who attack only when we avert our eyes. We must remain looking at them, unblinking, if we want to keep ourselves from being consumed by the vast nothingness of death. (Yeah, Sartre would have been a fan of that idea.) But there's something more going on here. These monsters attack from a place we cannot look. Translate that into philosophical terms, and they aren't really others because we can't see or recognize them. And do you know what happens when you are looked upon by an something that isn't an other? The void looks at you! Your sense of self is shattered into a million bits, in the metaphysical equivalent of a scene from Scanners. And that shit goes beyond uncanny, into pure gibbering horror.

How philosophy explains why Steven Moffat's monsters are seriously fucking scary

Moffat exploits this whole shattered self idea in a more obvious way with the Silence. These aliens answer the question that a lot of post-Sartrean philosophers would ask if they weren't all terribly polite: What if we met somebody who could totally fuck up the way we look at them? Like the Weeping Angels, the Silence can only be recognized when someone else is looking directly at them. The moment River, for instance, looks away? Memory erasure. A little bit of her self, her memory, has been ripped out. And of course this little bit of self that the Silence remove turns out to be pretty important, since it's the only thing standing between human freedom and enslavement.

Both the Weeping Angels and the Silence take away our ability to see things, and therefore to control them. As a result, they mess with our basic sense of self at a fundamental level. I suppose what I'm saying is that Moffat is the master of existential horror. Or maybe all horror is, at its root, about losing a sense of who we are for a little while.

Want to know more about the gaze? I recommend Slavoj Zizek's book Looking Awry, Kaja Silverman's The Threshold of the Visible World, Jacques Lacan's essay "The Mirror Stage," and (of course) Jean-Paul Sartre's Being and Nothingness.

I write my editor's column while hunting madly for the Big Thing and desiring little objects. You can read past columns here.