Mark Lewis peering through a window in Peeping Tom

The Morbid Urge to Gaze in Peeping Tom and Perfect Blue

The Morbid Urge to Gaze

in Peeping Tom and Perfect Blue

words by Leonie Rowland


he Gothic is always preoccupied with space.

Chris Baldick argues that ‘a claustrophobic sense of enclosure’ is essential to the construction of Gothic texts [1]. Likewise, for Sara Wasson, urbanisation has ‘made cities a surrogate for the gloomy fastnesses of earlier Gothic,’ mapping the physical and psychological decay associated with monstrous mansions and crumbling crypts onto seemingly innocuous urban spaces: a shop window, a movie set, a magazine shop [2]. In Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960), the urban Gothic is most prominent in the tension between anonymity and voyeurism, where the city ensures the former and encourages the latter.

Peeping Tom is the story of Mark, a cameraman who murders women with a knife attached to the end of his tripod. As they are dying, he films it and makes them watch in a mirror, suggesting that his urge to gaze is synonymous with the urge to dominate, to document, to witness death. He is able to achieve this because his camera (which he hides behind) and the city (which he hides within) both allow him to remain anonymous. As such, Mark’s capacity for transgression is directly linked to the anonymity granted to him by urban space.

In Kon Satoshi’s animated horror film Perfect Blue (1997), the city similarly facilitates voyeurism by granting the voyeur anonymity. However, whereas Peeping Tom constructs urban space from the watcher’s point of view, Perfect Blue is about the horror of being watched. The protagonist, Mima, leaves her job as a pop idol to become an actress, but as she transitions from one career to another, she suffers a psychological breakdown. This is triggered in part by her sexualisation and exploitation at the hands of the media, as well as the fact that she is constantly observed by a stalker who documents her life online. Her identity becomes a contested space, with everyone around her vying for a piece of it: she is part idol, part actress and part porn star, making her little more than an image of herself. The distribution of this image (or images) across the city allows Mima to be watched at all times.

In this sense, as Susan Napier argues, Mima is ‘menaced by a variety of dangers in a dark, convoluted, and forbidding environment,’ making Perfect Blue, at its heart, an urban Gothic text [3]. The sense that she is being ‘menaced’ by unknown dangers is often a result of the city’s ability to conceal potential threats (in the dark, behind closed doors) like it conceals Mark in Peeping Tom, whilst also infiltrating Mima’s private space (usually through technology), making it a threat in and of itself.

Thus, despite their disparate locations (London, Tokyo) and socio-historical moments (1960s England, 1990s Japan), both films treat their respective urban environments as facilitators of voyeurism. As such, both cities are Gothically coded: where London is dark, secretive and transgressive, Tokyo is imposing, labyrinthine and dreamlike. However, whereas London facilitates the creation of images (in the form of Mark’s films), Tokyo allows them to be distributed (in the form of Mima’s many identities). In this sense, Perfect Blue signifies the advancing of voyeurism (and the urban Gothic) into the digital age.

Peeping Tom opens with a woman called Dora standing on a deserted street, surrounded by potential voyeurs. Most of the windows around her are lit up, suggesting the presence of people behind them and therefore the possibility that they are watching. Likewise, the camera is positioned at head height, framing the audience as immediate observers of the scene. When Mark emerges, he is a shadowy, nonchalant figure who shows little obvious interest in Dora until he starts filming, the implication being that his camera is watching, not him. This immediately positions Dora as the subject of multiple gazes, despite the illusion that she is alone, suggesting that the silent streets conceal, and therefore facilitate, the voyeur.

In Perfect Blue, Mima is similarly positioned as the subject of multiple gazes; however, this is because the city facilitates the distribution of her image. The film opens with her fans at a concert, waiting for her to come on stage. They gossip about her and sell magazines with her face on them, suggesting that, thanks to the reproduction of her image, she does not have to be present to be observed. In many ways, this scene is the opposite to the opening of Peeping Tom: the space is full of people who have congregated to watch Mima, but Mima herself is physically absent. It is also devoid of obvious Gothic imagery, unlike the shadowy streets of London. However, the scenes share similarities in the sense that the voyeurs remain largely anonymous: in Peeping Tom, Mark either hides his camera (to conceal his intentions) or hides behind it (to conceal his face), whereas, in Perfect Blue, the crowd is presented as a faceless mass of spectators. This reveals a tension between voyeurism and anonymity, where the voyeur must be concealed in order to adequately reveal the subject. It also frames voyeurism as a one-way transaction, in which the watcher consumes the watched and offers nothing in return.

The exploitative nature of this transaction is clear in Peeping Tom when Mark starts filming Dora. His invasion of her privacy is made possible by the fact that her environment and body are both public spaces: she is a prostitute and therefore invites (or even depends on) voyeurism to some degree (just as Mima depends on being watched by her fans); equally, her only line of, ‘It will be two quid,’ frames her as a commodity (just as Mima is objectified by the idol industry). As a result, she is aligned with the shop she is standing in front of, which is full of dismembered mannequins. If mannequins, in Wasson’s words, are ‘queasy doublings of the living,’ then the shopfront symbolises the way Dora is perceived in life, as well as foreshadowing her imminent death [4]. This image of women in pieces is literally and figuratively reflected in the image produced by Mark’s camera, which is split into quarters by crosshairs. According to Catherine Zimmer, ‘[t]he crosshairs of Mark’s camera focus in a manner that renders the object upon which he focuses as partial objects: bodies in pieces, parts for wholes’ [5]. In Mark’s eyes, which are synonymous with the camera, Dora is already partial: she is part person and part property, part prostitute and part prop. The crosshairs, too, resemble a shop window – she, like the mannequins, is an object on display. In this sense, she is both reflected in and condemned by her environment.

In Perfect Blue, Mima’s environment also reflects her life in increasingly intrusive ways. When she is in her room watching reports of an earthquake that has ‘flattened towns throughout the region,’ shots of her possessions are accompanied by descriptions of the rising death toll, suggesting that the security of her home is vulnerable to disruption in the same way that the city is vulnerable to natural disasters. Although the contrast between collapsing buildings and her cosy flat is initially clear, the stability associated with her home is undermined when, during the announcement, she takes down the poster of the pop group she has just left and says goodbye to ‘idol Mima.’ Here, the destruction of the landscape mirrors the loss of Mima’s identity, establishing her room as an unstable space that is easily shaken by the tremors of Tokyo.

This sense of intrusion is amplified in Perfect Blue when the physical space of the city is extended into the virtual landscape of the Internet, where Mima’s life is documented on a blog called ‘Mima’s Room’. By translating her actual footprints into a digital one, the author of Mima’s Room (who is posing as Mima) transforms her into an object of perpetual gaze: she can be watched anywhere, at any time, by anyone. Overwhelmed by this realisation, Mima asks how ‘they know this much,’ suggesting the virtual world has made her aware of the extent to which she is being observed. Her apartment is also overrun with (usually technological) signifiers of intrusion: phones ring, fax machines beep, curtains billow in the breeze. Her consequent unease implies that the Internet, in its defiance of distinctions between public and private, is just as convoluted and forbidding, and therefore just as Gothic, as the city itself.

The digital and physical landscapes come together at the film’s climax, when Mima, thinking she is in her apartment, pulls back the curtain and finds herself gazing onto an unfamiliar part of the city. It slowly dawns on her that Rumi has created an exact replica of her home where she can live out her life as a double of Mima. It is a literal manifestation of the blog ‘Mima’s Room’ and the result of Rumi’s desire to observe and be observed since she goes to great lengths to inhabit a space associated with fame and success. Thus, the city is framed as a secretive, shifting space: Rumi’s replica of Mima’s room is hidden away for most of the film, just as Rumi hides her doubling of Mima, suggesting that the setting of Perfect Blue works to conceal (threats such as Rumi) and reveal (Mima) in equal measure.

The city is also present in Mark’s private spaces because he captures it on film (a different kind of virtual landscape), but this time it is by choice. During the filming of Peeping Tom, Powell treated London, including his own house and garden, as a set. Mark also treats London as a set, but rather than making his private spaces public, he uses his camera to observe the city from his home, which is ironically safe from prying eyes. The sense that London is a constructed space is enhanced by the way Mark’s films (and Powell’s directorial choices, which often make real places look surreal through the use of vibrant colour) divorce his murders from reality, triggering apathy in the voyeur. For example, the opening credits are projected onto a replay of Dora’s death, emphasising its fictionality by blurring the boundaries between Mark’s films and Peeping Tom more generally. The replay is also in black and white, with Dora’s screams replaced by a dramatic soundtrack, framing it as a work of art rather than footage of a crime. Consequently, horror is derived not from the murder itself but the nature of its reprisal, which distances us from Dora’s distress and implies that we are watching again by choice.

This is consolidated by the fact that in the first ten minutes of the film, Dora’s murder is repeated two more times: first in a newspaper report, which is sold alongside images of naked women, suggesting the murder is just another kind of titillation; then, in a photography shoot Mark conducts, where the model, Milly, stands on a set that resembles the crime scene and says that ‘the same thing nearly happened’ to her because her fiancée caught her cheating. The casual mention of violence towards women, combined with the visual doubling of Dora and the trivialisation of her death, undermines the horror of the opening scene and replaces it with apathy (felt by Milly and, vicariously, the audience).

In this sense, London itself is treated as an apathetic space. When Mark visits the scene of his crime the next morning, people crowd around to see the body in the same way that Mima is crowded by her fans in Perfect Blue. Their reactions are almost comedic: a woman gasps dramatically at the word ‘murder’ and then peers around the corner to catch a glimpse. Likewise, when another woman comments that she ‘can’t help thinking of that poor girl,’ a man replies, ‘shocking, isn’t it,’ in monotone. This frames the murder as a spectacle, whilst also suggesting that the viewers are indifferent to it: it is the act of viewing something they should not, rather than the thing itself, that they are interested in.

The relationship between apathy and voyeurism is most prominent in Perfect Blue when Mima films a rape scene for Double Bind, the TV show she stars in. The scene opens with a series of televisions depicting Mima from all angles. She is kneeling on a stage in a revealing dress, anxiously covering herself. The director comments that he would have preferred to shoot in ‘a real [strip] club,’ but none of them would let him, presumably for fear of bad press. Consequently, the rape scene takes place on a set, divorcing it from reality in the same way that Dora’s murder is downplayed in Peeping Tom. This is enhanced by constant interruptions during filming: as the scene builds in intensity, cries of ‘cut’ serve as a reminder that Mima is (apparently) not being abused. It is this alleged ‘safety’ (distressingly comparable to the ‘safety’ of women taking their clothes off in a controlled environment, which is undermined in Peeping Tom) that makes a member of the production team publicly comment that ‘ex-idols sure make a nice scene,’ despite knowing what is about to happen. The sexualisation of a woman being raped is the epitome of apathetic voyeurism, and Kon accordingly refers to this scene as Mima’s ‘death as an idol,’ framing it as a murder of sorts. Here, as in Peeping Tom, horror is derived not only from the fact that people crowd around to watch but that voyeurism, performed under the guise of unreality, is itself a kind of violence.

With this in mind, it is somewhat ironic that voyeurism played such a significant role in both Peeping Tom and Perfect Blue’s UK marketing campaigns. For the former, the pressbook lists a number of competitions to be run alongside the film’s release, all of which capitalise on the exploitative nature of voyeurism. In the first, newspapers are advised to take photographs of shoppers and include them in a daily segment, awarding two free Peeping Tom tickets to those who feature. In another, cinemas are encouraged to observe audiences of the film with infra-red cameras and award a prize to the person who is most afraid. Finally, in what is perhaps the strangest of the film’s marketing campaigns, radios are instructed to hide free cinema tickets around the city for those who self-identify as peeping toms. In all three instances, voyeurism is either rewarded or treated as something that is beneficial to those on the receiving end. It is almost no surprise, then, that the suggested ‘top prize’ for one competition is a camera.

In many ways, these marketing campaigns trivialise Peeping Tom, but in others, they enhance its horror. Audiences are forced to contend with the fact that they are being observed and documented in a similar way to the victims in the film (albeit with less death). Similarly, they are encouraged to assess what it means to be the observer themselves – even if the only consequence is free cinema tickets. In this sense, the real London becomes an extension of Powell’s London: it is also a site of observation and exploitation, where voyeurism is rewarded with the screening of a film, just as it is in Peeping Tom. However, these kinds of marketing campaigns also mark the beginning of images being circulated to mass audiences without the sitter’s consent, which occurs prominently with the rise of the Internet in Perfect Blue. Thus, the fact the audiences of Peeping Tom are themselves distributed as images foreshadows the kind of voyeurism that Kon observes in turn-of-the-century Tokyo.

The way Perfect Blue is marketed in the UK similarly works to distance the viewer from the horror at hand. On the cover of Manga Entertainment’s DVD release, it is misleadingly described as ‘scary, funny, poignant and thoughtful,’ suggesting that horror is undermined by apparent humour (again gesturing to an apathetic viewership). Likewise, the tagline on the back cover proclaims that ‘IN THE WORLD OF MAKE BELIEVE – THE PRICE OF FAME MAY NOT BE WORTH THE COST OF IDENTITY,’ drawing attention to Perfect Blue’s fictionality and implying that the film itself takes place in a make-believe realm. On the contrary, Perfect Blue conjures reality in all of its psychological unrest, but perhaps it is the implication that this phenomenon is fictional that allows the film to be described as funny. The blurb and accompanying picture of Mima naked in the bath also ambiguously hints at the film’s sexual content – the image holds connotations of despair but also promises nudity (which is appealing from a voyeuristic perspective); likewise, Double Bind is described as a ‘sexually-charged murder mystery,’ where ‘sexually-charged’ deceptively refers to a graphic rape scene. This serves to soften the severity of what happens to Mima and frame the film as a benign, malleable creature that will be enjoyed by all manner of audiences.

The images distributed by Anime Limited also use voyeurism to market the film. In the first, Mima is lying down in a bra-like lace top, and the expression on her face ambiguously connotes anguish and pleasure. In the second, she is wearing an open shirt with both of her breasts exposed. Neither image looks like Mima, and both frame the film as the kind of ‘sexually-charged murder mystery’ attributed to Double Bind. Either this self-consciously urges the audience to reassess their motives for buying the DVD, or it eroticises Mima in the same way that causes her breakdown in the film. The actresses in Peeping Tom are similarly eroticised in the pressbook, which boasts ‘no less than six lovely redheads.’ Cornelia Zulver is described as ‘a tall redhead with an exciting personality,’ whereas Susan Travers possesses ‘an exotic quality’ and Pamela Green is, apparently, ‘saucy.’ By promising the audience ‘an eye-dazzling experience as well as a spine-tingling one,’ the violence inflicted on these women is fetishized and treated as entertainment. This demonstrates the effectiveness of voyeurism as a sales technique, while also suggesting that Peeping Tom implicates itself in the horror it depicts.

So, in Peeping Tom, Mark’s films are treated as gateways to the city. The walls of his studio are bathed in darkness, framing it as a space without parameters. This means that when he watches his films, the recorded city is more present than the room itself; they are windows that open up wherever he wants them to, defying time and space to facilitate his voyeurism. In Perfect Blue, the Internet is also treated as a gateway to the city, but its effectiveness as a platform for voyeurism makes it preferable to physical space. When Mima is chased through the city by Rumi, she calls out in terror, only to find that the streets are completely deserted. The irony, of course, is that the city is threatening throughout the film because of its implied collective gaze; however, when she wants to be noticed, her onlookers are nowhere to be found. In terms of her career, the empty city represents Mima’s worst nightmare, since the absence of spectators symbolically implies that she has failed to become a successful actress. This raises questions as to whether it is better that everyone is watching, or no one is – not least of all because Rumi, who wants Mima dead, is the most intrusive of her voyeurs. It also gestures to the changing nature of voyeurism at the turn of the twenty-first century, since Mima is primarily observed by people who are not physically present: online, the city swarms.


[1] Introduction to The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales by Chris Baldick, 1992, page xix.
[2] Urban Gothic of the Second World War: Dark London by Sara Wasson, 2010, page 3.
[3] ‘Excuse Me, Who Are You?: Performance, the Gaze, and the Female in the Works of Kon Satoshi’ by Susan Napier, Cinema Anime, 2006, page 30.
[4] Urban Gothic of the Second World War: Dark London by Sara Wasson, 2010, page 5.
[5] ‘The Camera’s Eye: Peeping Tom and Technological Perversion’ by Catherine Zimmer, Horror Film: Creating and Marketing Fear, 2004, page 38.

Picture of Leonie Rowland

Leonie Rowland

Leonie Rowland has an MA from the Manchester Centre for Gothic Studies at Manchester Metropolitan University. Her writing has been published by Ad Hoc Fiction, Reflex Press, The Cabinet of Heed and The Dark Arts Journal. She also has work forthcoming from Dreich, Emerge Literary Journal and TSS Publishing.

You can find Leonie on Twitter

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