“People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually from a non-linear, non-subjective point of view, it’s more like a big ball of wibbly-wobby… timey-wimey… stuff…”’ –The Doctor, Doctor Who S3 E10, ‘Blink’.
After apparently coming across the statue of a weeping angel in a graveyard, and seeing it chained up, writer Steven Moffat went away and crafted one of modern Doctor Who’s greatest episodes, and established a threat which would bleed through from the show into popular culture. In the episode ‘Blink’, a race of aliens called The Weeping Angels have zapped the time-traveling Doctor back into the past. Communicating via a video tape recorded decades in the past, The Doctor enlists the help of Sally Sparrow, who must face down the Angels and return his time machine, the Tardis, to him. But with the Weeping Angels, when you’re looking at them, they’re a statue. And you can’t kill a statue. But they’re incredibly fast, and as soon as you look away… as soon as you even blink…
The Weeping Angels have a range of terrifying points to them. Their speed, their appearance, and their ability to turn off lights by pointing at them makes them a walking jump-scare, and most episodes to feature them have used this jump-scare mechanism in some way. But one of their other points, their method of killing, is of particular note. As is said in the episode, they’re the ‘“only psychopaths in the universe to kill you nicely. No mess, no fuss, they just zap you into the past and let you live to death. Rest of your life used up and blown away in the blink of an eye.”’ This, in itself, is terrifying on a fundamental level to our traditional notion of experience, as I will now attempt to explain.
Warning: some of this can get a bit abstract, but bear with me.
As in the quote from the episode at the beginning of this article, people assume that time moves in a strict movement, everything in a nice, neatline. But this is, of course, simply something that humans have come up with in order to try and comprehend everything happening around us. As Kenneth Denigh notes in Three Concepts of Time, ‘Time is not ‘out there’ as a substantial thing like a river in flow; it is rather an abstract entity, a construction.’ (p.3). Essentially, there is no time; there’s just stuff that happens and we’ve come up with an idea called ‘time’ in order to make sense of it all, to string it together in an understandable pattern. Remember that the idea of everyone being in the same specific time zone (at least in Britain), was to enable the trains to run correctly; before that, everyone had a different time in different parts of the country. I’m assuming the same came in eventually for worldwide, for similar reasons.
And when we do all this construction to our understanding of time, we also give it a direction, because as human beings we can understand directions. We understand the relationship between two different tangible objects, and so we liken the relationship between events in the same way. In his book Space and Place, Yi Fu Tuan discusses this by saying that for us, we normally conceptualise all this by bringing in the idea of ‘forward’. ‘The future is ahead and “up”. The past is behind and “below”’.
What all this means, roughly speaking, is that people have ascribed arbitrary references to direction in order to understand everything. There is no ‘past’ realistically speaking, but we have come up with the concept of it, and discuss it as being ‘behind us’ to help us process it. When we think about something coming ‘up’, we have it to look ‘forward to’.
All of this comes with extra baggage. Concepts of direction also come coupled with social and cultural understandings. Everyone wants to be at the ‘top’, because we’ve said that ‘top’ means best, whether that’s the top of the standings in a tournament, on the top floor of a company building, or coming out ‘on top’ of something difficult. The direction is arbitrary, as there is no ‘top’, but over the years social etiquette has come to associate ‘up’ with ‘good’. There’s a reason why the typical description of a hierarchical system has the most powerful at the top of the pyramid. Why do we ascribe Heaven as being ‘above us’, whether in the Christian belief system or in others, such as Olympus being on top of a mountain, ‘up’ in the clouds? And of course, the reverse is true as well. We can be ‘down in the gutters’, at the ‘bottom’ of the pile; Hell/Hades, etc are ‘below’ the ground. You can see how this goes on. I believe Noël Carroll touches on this in his book The Philosophy of Horror, or Paradoxes of the Heart, by relating cultural repulsion of excrement because it comes from, literally, ‘behind’ us, but it’s been a while since I read the book, so you’ll have to excuse me if I’m getting mixed up with another author on that front. Still, I think the point remains. Behind is bad.
So we, therefore, head into ‘Blink’ with an ingrained cultural understanding that the past, that behind where we are currently, is not as good as where we are, and even that is not as good as what will come, what we head ‘forwards’ towards. This is even in a show with time travel as the norm. And then we are presented with a terrifying monster in the shape of a traditional Christian angel (note the association with Heaven/Up/Forward), who, in the literal blinking of an eye, can send us back into the past. Not only that, these creatures feast on the energy we would have expended had we lived on in that time. Their whole power is their ability to disrupt our culturally ingrained, traditional notion of linear time, sending us into a worse temporal ‘behind’, without the chance to change it, and feast upon the ‘good’ which traditionally is associated with the ‘forward’ future.
There’s no doubting that the Angels are terrifying even without the time-zapping part to them. Sharp teeth, claws extended, appearing from nowhere when we but blink; it’s the stuff of nightmares. But I think that this temporal dislocation might be one of their most terrifying features. That they exist to disrupt how we as people essentially view and understand reality, and use this as a method of sentencing us to a kind of death, is truly horrifying.
-Article by Kieran Judge