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100 Objects

Object #2. The Panopticon and Acousmatic Stalkers in Film

28 March 2017

By Sini Mononen, PhD student, University of Turku.

In the film When a Stranger Calls (1979), a young babysitter (Carol Kane) is being terrorized by an anonymous stalker, who keeps calling her over and over again, asking, ‘Have you checked the children…?’ The terrified babysitter is portrayed growing more and more fearful as the scene reaches its peak in the realization of the stalking killer being closer than she expected. The telephone terror portrayed in this scene is familiar from many other films that represent stalkers and killers observing, terrorizing and harassing their victims.

In my current dissertation project, I am looking at the violent experience of stalking and how it is represented in film via music and sound. Stalking is (psychological) violence that is defined as a behaviour that is understandably inflicting fear. The telephone scene in When a Stranger Calls is a vivid example of how film represents the mechanism and the experience of stalking via sound and voice.

The representations of the experience of telephone stalking can be observed through the lens of the voice in Panopticon. Panopticon is an architectural marvel designed by the 18th-century philosopher Jeremy Bentham and made famous by Michel Foucault in the 1970s. In Panopticon, the inmates are controlled and observed by the inspector who is himself hidden in his lodge but who can see the inmates at all times. The inspector’s lodge is connected to the cells with tin tubes, via which the inspector can also listen to the inmates and hear their every move. Every now and then the inspector could also talk to the inmates via the tubes. This made him an acousmatic being – a being that is not seen but heard.

The acousmatization of the stalker character is apparent in the opening scene of When a Stranger Calls – here the stalker appears as an all-seeing and all-hearing character that seems to have an almost otherworldly power over his victim. Thus the ultimate fear factor of the scene is in the representation of an approaching, acousmatic stalker, who can be heard but not seen – and who seems to be able to see and hear his victim at all times.

[Sini Mononen was an Erasmus exchange PhD student at Cardiff University in 2016.]

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