the voyeur's greatest fear is not getting caught

by Katlin Li

Creepers, Peepers

What’s peeping? Peeping is spying on people and sometimes for no good reason, like for your own thrills. It might be wrong. It is wrong, and yet people do it all the time, because it makes them feel that they’re in control, as if merely by watching what they’re not supposed to they become powerful. To be a peeper or voyeur, if you want to use the fancy French term, you don’t need a telescope or a camera, but just the desire to kind of check up on someone without them knowing it—like your boyfriend or girlfriend’s text messages, or emails, or their browsing history, or, you know, what’s in their medicine cabinet. There are a lot of things to check, believe me, I’ve thought about it. So we all peep. It’s fun and it’s human and you get to know other people’s secrets.

So we know that voyeurism is fun, but what’s more fun is getting caught—that’s what every voyeur really wants. Now for those of us who actually don’t have the guts to actually spy on people and get caught, culture has given us the movies, the most deeply peeping art form every created. We’re in the dark, the actors can’t see us, especially since they aren’t real, and we see secrets and more secrets and we want to know more and more. The whole art form is one big voyeuristic thrill, and the movies Rear Window, Disturbia, Caché, and The Conversation show us the extreme highs and lows of what it means to peep.

Rear Window: Love your neighborhood Spy

An impressive camera to snoop with

Rear Window is a 1954 American mystery thriller directed by Alfred Hitchcock. The movie is based on Cornell Woolrich's 1942 short story, "It Had to Be Murder.” The film is about a professional photographer (of course he’s a photographer, how perfect) L.B. Jefferies (played by everyman Jimmy Stewart) who after breaking his leg has nothing better to do than sit in his wheelchair and spy on his neighbors at his apartment complex with his super-powered telephoto lens.The movie is ridiculously ironic. Jeffries doesn’t want to get married to his girlfriend Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly), which is crazy because she’s beautiful and kind, nice, and young and he’s goofy looking, and middle-aged. But he’s so averse to marrying he thinks he sees one of his neighbors, Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr), murder his wife. It’s exactly what a man who doesn’t want to get married would imagine—that all marriages end in murder.

At first, almost everyone in the movie has a negative view about Jefferies’ voyeurism, but voyeurism is so fun that they all become Jefferies' accomplices, including the audience. And every voyeurism movie communicates a similar idea: being a voyeur is okay, because there are always bad things happening. If you snoop you might be doing some good. And so it turns out that Jefferies’ neighbor did kill his wife, and Jefferies and his many snooping accomplishes catch him, and that Jefferies and Fremont get married in the end. Hitchcock suggests that snooping might be suspect, but in the end it leads to good things.

Disturbia, what happens when you’re watching a serial killer?

Be Careful Who You Look At
The same idea applies to D.J. Caruso's Disturbia, a 2007 remake of Rear Window. The film is about a 17 year-old teenager Kale Brecht (Shia LaBeouf) who is under house arrest, and starts to spy on his neighbors. He finds out that one of them, Robert Turner (David Morse) is a serial killer. Rear Window is a better film, but Disturbia is more suspenseful. Why do I say that? A voyeur’s greatest fear is the people they are spying on will spy on them. That kind of happens in Rear Window in the end, but that’s the whole terrifying logic of Disturbia.

That situation happens a lot in the Disturbia. When Kale uses a telescope to look out the window, his mistake is always letting people notice that they are being watched. The creepiest moment in this film is when Mr. Turner finds out Kale and his girlfriend Ashley are investigating and tracking him and he shows up in an unexpected way, over and over again. That, of course, is the voyeur’s worst nightmare—that what they see in the distance will become all too real.

Caché means hidden in French and that’s scary

Who's Watching The Artist?
Caché, a 2005 French movie, director Michael Haneke has a different take on voyeurism. This movie is about a Paris family that receives a series of anonymous surveillance tapes. The tape is always wrapped with crayon drawings on a piece of paper. Georges Laurent (Daniel Auteuil) plays a successful host of a French literary television program and the head of the family. Needless to say, they’re terrified.

The content of the crayon drawings makes Georges think that the voyeur is his childhood friend Majid. Although Majid denies this, George is convinced. The conflict distresses both George’s and Majid’s families. And then Majid kills himself in front of George. At the end, we still don’t know who made the videotapes. It doesn’t really matter who shot the video and this is what makes Caché so disturbing. It’s as if voyeurism isn’t fun if you don’t know who the voyeur is. Unlike Hitchcock and Caruso, Haneke doesn’t let us off the hook, or out of our need to know everything. The big difference is he tells us that we can’t.

The Conversation is a sad end to snooping

Snooping is hard work

That problem is the basis for The Conversation, a 1974 American film, directed by Francis Ford Coppola. The film tells the story of Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) a man who does surveillance work. As a surveillance expert, he gets a job from a chairman of a big company who wants to spy on a young couple (Cindy Williams and Frederic Forrest). Through the conversation of the couple, Harry hears they are going to meet in a hotel room in a few days. Harry doesn’t know the meaning of the conversation, but he hears “He'd kill us if he got the chance.” With this bit of knowledge, he fears for the worst.

So he goes to the hotel room next to theirs and spies on them. When he hears a girl screaming and blood from the window, he assumes that the girl was killed, but surprisingly he finds that the chairman is the one murdered, and by the couple! That is Harry’s huge mistake, the tragedy he thinks is going to happen is not the one that does. Because he is a professional snoop, he believes everything he hears in private. One could say he over-believes what he hears, and becomes tied and obsessed to what he thinks he’s discovered by spying. As he listens to his tapes over and over again, he can’t believe that the young lovers aren’t victims of some kind of conspiracy.

And then Harry realizes the truth—that they are actually murderers—and that there is possibly a listening device in his apartment. This drives him crazy and he destroys his apartment, searching everywhere for any sign that he’s being watched, listened to, or spied on in any way. It’s a sad movie and maybe the most sophisticated view on the damage one can do when snooping.

©Katlin Li and the CCA Arts Review

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