Peeping Tom: The Petrifying Gaze of Mechanical Medusa

It is possible to see in the frightening “watching” camera of Peeping Tom an echo of one of the most archaic figures of terror in Western culture: the ancient Greek monster Medusa. Not only does Medusa embody “the most primitive fears of the kind that men have dreaded since earliest times” (Feldman, 1965: 490), it does so through a complex relationship to the gaze. Even though it has been relatively neglected in discussions of the film, fear, in relation to vision, is the central theme in Peeping Tom: the abuse suffered by Mark and his consequent murderous psychosis are a result of his father’s experiments on fear, which he documented on camera. As Mark compulsively continues this study by filming his victims, he delves into the very nature of fear. “Do you know what the most frightening thing in the world is?” asks Mark. “It’s fear.” This startling circular statement points to the disturbing irreducibility of absolute terror, and to one of the fundamental aspects of the Medusa myth. In this reciprocal quality of fear, as well as in the film’s equation of seeing with dying, the complex mirror effects, and the association of terror with the sight of the female sex, echoes of the deadly Gorgon resonate throughout.

Essay published in MONSTRUM 1, no. 1 (April 2018). Download the PDF of the full essay.

Photograph credit: Peeping Tom (Dir.Michael Powell, 1960).

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