Silently Setting And Subverting Expectations
After the title card of DHMIS, there is a series of seven establishing shots, all silent save for a faint background hum. Some are close-ups, and some pan along walls of the room, until the seventh shot, which shows the full room – and is the first appearance of the three main characters. Despite the lack of dialog, narration, or music, these shots establish the physical setting of the episode, establish the mood, foreshadow themes and later events, and establish the viewer’s expectations – but, already, they also subvert those expectations.
The first image is not of any establishing shot, nor any character, but of a felt air mail envelope, complete with red and blue edging and a plane-shaped stamp symbol – one that does not appear to have been cancelled. This indicates that the letter is waiting to be sent – and it’s being sent by air mail. Moreso than a typical letter, air mail is emblematic of communication across great distances – often, places hard to reach by land. It implies that there’s a tremendous gulf between one end of the conversation and the other, and that the sender is possibly quite isolated.
Not all communication is cut off, however: next comes a shot of a newspaper called The Right Wing.
It’s not a glossy magazine, it doesn’t have a charming human interest headline about a celebrity or a local event. Rather, its headline speaks of stocks, and the picture shows a coin featuring a crowned duck. This has connotations of business, investment, rigor – in short, adulthood. A child is unlikely to read about or have interest in finance; even if one did, they wouldn’t be earning their own money, most likely, and couldn’t engage with the information. This implies that there is at least one adult involved in whatever we’re about to see.
More symbolically, the newspaper may imply certain things about the socioeconomic system the characters are in – probably right-of-center, given the title; probably led by a single powerful figure, given the crown; possibly favoring corporations over individuals, given the focus on finance, and therefore conceivably fascist.
However, the implication may not be political as much as it is psychological. In light of later context, the use of “The Right Wing” and the monarchy-implying coin may instead evoke right-wing authoritarianism.
To lazily quote Wikipedia, if just because its citation link is broken, “Right-wing authoritarians are people who have a high degree of willingness to submit to authorities they perceive as established and legitimate, who adhere to societal conventions and norms, and who are hostile and punitive in their attitudes towards people who don’t adhere to them. They value uniformity and are in favour of using group authority, including coercion, to achieve it.”
As will be seen, each episode of Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared features at least one authority figure who, presenting itself as legitimate, tries to inculcate at least one main character with the societal and cultural norms or scientific “facts” it presents. This authority is, at the very least, hostile toward resistance, despite that the information it presents is often spurious and may not even represent diegetic truth.
Though the newspaper establishes the presence or influence of at least one adult, the next shot pans along the well-lit kitchen shelf, where we see a red-and-blue ball cap with a yellow brim. With its bright primary colors, the hat looks like one that a stereotypical storybook child might wear. Though the soft felt objects already bore connotations of harmless childhood entertainment, the presence of the cap reinforces the notion. The camera moves then moves along past a plain-looking white-and-blue canister.
And then we see the first face: a red prism-shaped object with a tuft of hair at its apex, its front face sporting two googly eyes and a flat mouth. Yet the camera keeps panning, putting no focus on this object. Just when the viewer has seen enough felt items to expect puppetry, just when the viewer has prepared to suspend disbelief and accept that inanimate objects will be treated as characters, we see a felt object – one with eyes, a mouth, and even what seems like hair – but it appears to be no character at all.
What is it doing there? What is it meant to be? In the context of the world being established, it’s hard to say. But the object was created, placed there, filmed, and not edited out: its inclusion is a conscious choice. What purpose does it serve, then?
It’s essentially an expectation subverter: a false alarm that compels the viewer to acknowledge what they expected and why they expected it, acknowledge how they could tell they weren’t getting what they expected, and address what it the difference is between fulfilling the expectation and failing to fulfill the expectation. In this case, the sight of the faced and motionless prism compels the viewer to acknowledge that they expected puppetry because of all the other soft felt objects and the presence of googly eyes, hair, and a smile. It compels the viewer to acknowledge that they don’t recognize the object as a character because it’s not being focused on and because it’s not being moved. It compels the viewer to acknowledge that this is what puppetry is: an unseen agent moving and manipulating an inanimate object in order to construct a narrative. And it calls on the viewer to keep that in mind in the later shots, when the main character puppets are introduced.
The prism isn’t just there to kick down the viewer’s suspension of disbelief, though. If the faced and motionless prism were shown after the three main characters were introduced, after the viewer had put into practice their suspension of disbelief in order to accept that these face-having inanimate objects would be treated as characters, then it would seem to have little purpose but to disrupt the viewer’s suspension of belief. The viewer would keep expecting it to move – any shot now, any time now; after all, every other faced thing was expected to move, and did move, and is still moving. Instead, by showing a faced and motionless prism four shots before the characters are seen, it creates a brief hiccup in the still-growing suspension of disbelief. The dissonance begins and ends before suspension of disbelief becomes necessary to engage with the work. This lets the prism work as a symbol – a symbol of what it means to be a puppet. A reminder that it is not a puppet, but the characters to come are. And why are they puppets? Because they are being manipulated by unseen agents – not just literally, but metaphorically. Somebody is controlling them, somebody is influencing what they do, somebody is putting them where they are.
Given the rest of the context: some authoritarian adult is manipulating the characters we’re soon to see – manipulating them, possibly through coercion, possibly through force, into accepting that adult and their indoctrination.
The next shot is of a recurring sight in all videos: a wall calendar reading June 19. The camera pans down – slowly revealing a wall-mounted knife holder, all the blades pointing up at the calendar. This creates an association between that date and danger. The sense of danger is reinforced as the camera pans down further to a stove. On the stove, there is a pot. And in the pot, there is an egg.
Nothing needed to be on the stove in order to establish that it was a stove. It wasn’t necessary for there to be a pot. Even if there were a pot, it wasn’t necessary for there to be anything in it. Even if there were anything in it, it wasn’t necessary for it to be an egg. It could’ve been beans or spaghetti or virtually any food. It takes work to make these props, and it’s reasonable to believe that anything that’s present and focused-on – especially during establishing shots – is meant to be important. What is placed, and where it’s placed, matters. In fact, a real egg wouldn’t float that high in water, and anyone who was actually about to boil an egg or two would have it in the pan, immersed in water. It wouldn’t be visible from this angle. But it seems that the creators went out of their way to handwave physics, just so an egg could be seen.
A clear connection is drawn between June 19th, knives, and a stove with an egg on it. Why?
Let’s take these in reverse order, just for dramatic effect.
Eggs are offspring. Even though the eggs we eat are unfertilized, an egg is still symbolic of youth – of a new generation. In this case, the young egg is in a cookpot. The heating element is in black felt, not red, so the burner’s supposedly not on – but there’s still a looming threat. This egg, this offspring, is going to be cooked. This kitchen is a threatening place to the young.
Above the egg is an array of knives, reinforcing the idea of violence.
And above the knives, the calendar showing the date of June 19th.
What’s the significance of that date? This video, itself, does not hold any direct clues. But beyond this calendar itself, and the other identical calendars present in every episode, there are still other allusions to June 19, 6/19, or some other form of the date throughout all the episodes (as will be described in later entries,) so it certainly isn’t arbitrary. But this video was released in 2011, and June 19th had no particular significance in that year.
To skip ahead to the second video for a moment, though, a character says “The past is far behind us” while pointing to a framed photograph bearing a placard that reads”19-06-55.” This gives us one other year to look at in order to determine the date’s significance.
In 1955, June 19th was Father’s Day.
Father’s Day is on June 19th this year, as well.
This establishing shot establishes a connection between Father’s Day and danger to children. It implies that some father figure – perhaps the adult in this household – poses a threat to his offspring.
Next, the camera pans right to left once more, showing a red radio on a windowsill. Again, this has a connotation of communication, but it’s communication that only works one way – it can be received by the people in the house, but not transmitted. The tuner is off to the left, implying a low-frequency station – one that could be broadcasting from farther away.
On the other end of the windowsill sits a small potted cactus – and a rather anthropomorphic one, at that. Here, again, there’s a blurring of the lines between “face-bearing inanimate object that could be a character” and “face-bearing inanimate object that’s just an object.” But, taking the liberty of assuming it’s meant to be an actual cactus, not some novelty cactus sculpture, it may imply that somebody here does not have a green thumb: they’re not trying to tend something as finicky as an African violet or as commonplace as a Boston fern; they’re tending something that’s even more hardy – and harder to kill.
In short: the adult of this house may not be a particularly good caretaker.
Next, we see what appears to be an assortment of things on a desktop: one edge of the earlier air mail letter, a fairly large skeleton key, a red and angular object off to the left – and a sticky note scrawled with “Get creative.”
Sticky notes like these are generally used as reminders for quotidian tasks – tasks more like “get eggs” or “get milk” than “get creative.” There’s something strangely contrary about the idea of reminding oneself to be creative, as if it’s something you might otherwise forget to do. It could be argued that creativity is a skill more than a trait – that it can be practiced and fostered as much as anything else. This idea that some people fixedly are or aren’t creative is just another manifestation of an entity theory of intelligence, as incorrect as the belief that some people are or aren’t “math people.” While the next entry will analyze this episode’s approach to creativity in much more depth – suffice it to say that its approach to teaching creativity has a variety of contradictions – this establishing shot is a summation of the core concept: that creativity is or should be less about self-expression and more about fulfilling external expectations.
The note appears to sit on the same small table as the air mail letter, and is shown to be somewhere between it and some unknown red object to the far left. The only other object seen in full is a single key. While this could be a metaphor meant to be linked to the “Get Creative” note itself, implying that creativity is a key to success or a key to opening new doors, it may not be meant to relate quite so directly to that message. Instead, it might bear a more literal interpretation: something or someone is, or will be, locked up. As the key is not a modern car key or door key, but rather a more old-fashioned lever-lock key, there’s a suggestion of age. Perhaps it’s a house key and the house is old. But perhaps the key is simply metaphorical in a different way: something or someone is locked up in an outmoded system of beliefs.
At last, the camera moves to the final establishing shot: the one that also establishes the characters.
This gives us an overview of the entire scene: a somewhat poky kitchen. Considering things in counterclockwise order, starting in the bottom right, we see again the small endtable with the sticky notes, letter, and key. The red object is revealed to be a red telephone, reinforcing the subtle association of red with communication that was earlier established with the radio.
Above it, the wall shelf. The orange prism is still present, and is shown to be next to something that might be a cookbook displaying an image of a fried egg and some bacon. This second depiction of eggs being cooked recapitulates the threat to offspring that was earlier established by the egg in the pot.
More of the top of the refrigerator can be seen, and it’s a somewhat strange assortment of items: a scale; an iron; some sort of yellow, red, and blue ball; a percolator; what may be a blue toaster with toast; a blue canister of some sort in the back; a small potted plant in the front.
But each might be interpreted in some way: the scale might be seen to imply measurement and analysis, a weighing of things so that they might be portioned out accurately. It could hint that the people and things in this room are being evaluated somehow.
The iron smooths out wrinkles, when used properly. However, when used improperly, it can iron-in a wrinkle and make it worse, or could even burn the material. This could reinforce the idea of an authority that is attempting to suppress deviations and create a smooth path, but that may be causing worse problems.
The colorful ball may be a pet toy, or a child’s toy, held up and out of reach – another indication of a power dynamic where an authority has control over an inferior.
The percolator is a tool for making coffee, a drink that is generally distasteful to children and preferred by adults, again implying the presence of an older authority.
The toaster, like an iron, applies heat – but an excess of heat could cause burns.
Whatever the blue canister may hold, it’s rather hard to get to, and it’s odd that it wouldn’t be placed on the shelf instead – perhaps where the hat inexplicably stands. Is it a sugar bowl being kept away from a child, perhaps?
Finally, the potted plant sits in front of everything on top of the fridge, rather than being placed in the sun or on the endtable or on the kitchen table. Is the plant dangerous to children or animals, perhaps – or is it a temptation with which they can’t be trusted?
Moving along, we see the calendar and knives again, and also see a small rack of dishes from which also hangs some cutlery. Five dishes are on the rack, though there are seven slots. Seven is, literally, an odd number for a set of dishes. Perhaps this could indicate that there were once seven people in this house, one dish for each person – but that two people are now gone.
The window shows a green and featureless landscape to the horizon, and a blue sky with small white clouds. They aren’t in a desert, on a mountain, or in some other clearly isolated place; it seems to be nothing more than a suburban lawn.
Below, we see the three main characters: on the left, a tall red creature with a moplike head, large eyeballs on the top of its head, and no visible mouth; on the right, a shorter green bird, possibly a duck, wearing a brown twill jacket; in the center, looking directly at the camera, a yellow person wearing denim overalls and a somewhat concerned expression. Mugs that coordinate with the blue striped canister (and with the light above) are near each person; a red teapot is near the middle of the table, near what appears to be a basket of fruit. The newspaper is on the lower right corner of the table; what appears to be a book is diametrically opposite it on the upper left corner.
On the left wall, previously unseen, there hangs an image of a sailboat, and to the left of it hangs a cuckoo clock. By the baseboards below, there is a mousehole; near it is a food dish and a water dish, most likely for a pet.
The picture shows a sailboat on dark and wavy seas. There are subtle things wrong with this ship, however. The hull appears symmetrical, from this angle, making it hard to tell bow from stern. There is no rudder. Since much art in Western culture tends to depict movement from left to right, that might be the initial assumption – that the bow is on the right, the mainsail is therefore red, and the jib is yellow. But this may not be the case: it’s the yellow sail that seems to be attached to the boom, and it sits higher up than the red sail – where the mainsail would be, at least per the most simplified diagrams. Therefore, while it may seem to be true that the red is the mainsail, the driving force of the ship, while the yellow is simply an additional airfoil, the reverse may be the case. This may be true of the red and yellow characters, as well: The Red Guy may at first appear to be the driving force behind the action, the character who propels progress, while The Yellow Guy is his dramatic foil – one who also drives progress and plot, but who provides a stark contrast. However, it may in fact be Yellow who progresses the story along, while Red is his foil.
Of all the possible wall clocks to create for this scene, they chose to create a cuckoo clock. Given the ornateness and complexity of real cuckoo clocks, it seems unlikely that the creators would choose to spend the additional effort necessary to make one out of (apparent) felt if a more ordinary clock would do the trick. Therefore, the question changes from “What is the significance of a clock on the wall?” to “What is the significance of, specifically, a cuckoo clock on the wall?” What features distinguish one from the other? The cuckoo. At a certain time, a door automatically opens, and the small mechanical bird is shown – or is extended somehow – and sings. Until that time, it’s trapped inside the house-shaped timepiece. The cuckoo clock therefore reinforces an idea of this house as a place of isolation and control, a place of specific schedules, a place where action, free movement, and singing do not happen freely, but happen only at their appointed times.
The presence of the mouse hole below implies that this house is being eaten from within. Natural creatures that cannot be reasoned with are, by their nature, seeking warmth and shelter and food, and are destroying the unnatural structure in the process. The homeowning adult, apparently, has responded to this threat by getting a pet – presumably a cat. Its food bowls sit near the mousehole, as if to make it associate the area with a food source. A literal game of cat and mouse is being played within this home.
Finally, to return to the characters: the shot lingers on them for a somewhat awkward span of time. We don’t catch them in the middle of breakfast, or a conversation. They simply sit and look straight ahead. The Red Guy seems to shift uncomfortably. They appear to be doing nothing but waiting for something else to begin. Their expressions are neutral at best – The Duck Guy looks weary, and Yellow seems confused and possibly distraught. This is an unnatural sort of waiting. They’re not looking out the window, idly reading the newspaper, sipping tea, or even resting their heads on the table. It is more like they’re awaiting their cue, or expecting somebody else to initiate the action.
And somebody else does: the sketchbook on the table flips itself open, revealing a face – and, as music begins, the book begins to sing.
Next Entry: Get Creative