A Peephole Effect In Storytelling and Art

In a position to know, Clarence Coles Phillips, 1921 eavesdropping

Peephole: a small hole that may be looked through, especially one in a door through which callers may be identified before the door is opened.

Though the graphic art below focuses on peepholes — from literal holes in walls to views through trees in a forest — in literature there are established terms for describing the unsettled feeling you get when you look through something to something else.

It goes back to Freud, of course. Freud and the uncanny, or unheimlich.

Freud described the uncanny as “that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar”. The uncanny represents the liminal space between what is capable of being understood as outward in the world and what is hidden. Though we may get a sense of the familiarity, its true connection to the past is never quite in our reach. Through repression or burying, the uncanny is never able to be fully comprehended — it can, however, be sensed or felt.

The word ‘unheimlich’ is the opposite of ‘heimlich’, which has various definitions, all related to ‘the home’ e.g. ‘belonging to the home’. The home is (hopefully) where we experience peaceful pleasure and security.

Some writers are well-known for their ability to evoke a sense of the uncanny in readers. One standout example: Shirley Jackson.

In her novel Hangsaman, Jackson repeats door scenes to evoke in readers a sense of the inbetween. (Liminal space.) These doors runction as a gateway to “the shadowy part of self reserved for the double“:

A knock on her door was a strange thing to her as the fact of the door itself… as she looked at the inside, and meant to mark the next day whether the panels outside were the same as those inside; off, she thought, that someone standing outside could look at the door, straight ahead, seeing the white paint and the wood, and I inside looking at the door and the white paint and the wood should look straight also, and we two looking should not see each other because there is something in the way…

Hangsaman, Shirley Jackson

Below is an analysis of this passage. Before reading, know that lonely college freshman Natalie Waite is the main character and she has created this imaginary friend she calls Tony. (Many readers don’t pick up that Tony is imaginary, instead coding Tony as a same-sex romantic object.)

The knocking figure lurking behind the door, somatically signaling its presence but unknowable until the door is opened, is exactly the fear Freud describes in the uncanny. Natalie’s attempts to understand the odd situation relies her ability to “look” at the inside, to “mark” the day, to observe panels from various angles, to “see” the paint, wood, and otherwise normal harbingers of reality.

To decipher what is happening, Natalie attempts to reassert the concreteness of her room and the door. Jackson’s paragraph instills the fear in not knowing where the boundary between the real and the unreal lays, and leaving the uncertainty open after establishing the obvious.

The “we two looking” are Natalie and Tony, not yet able to meet due to that “something in the way,” whether it be logic, reasoning, perception, or simply, a locked door.

Beyond the locked door is the distance between two selves and mental activities. To look at each other would be to finally confront the shadowy other, an act that Natalie cannot fully confront.

What is beginning to emerge in this passage, though, is an inability to separate the real world self from the non reality. It is unclear who the “I” in the passage is, whether Natalie or Tony, real self or shadowed visage.

“Homespun” Horror: Shirley Jackson’s Domestic Doubling by Hannah Phillips

Useful words from that analysis:

Somatic psychology: The study of the mind/body interface, the relationship between our physical matter and our energy; the interaction of our body structures with our thoughts and actions.

Non reality: A place, situation, etc. that is not reality.

Visage: A person’s face or facial expression, with reference to the form or proportions of the features. And here it means the manifestation, image, or aspect of something. (A metaphorical face, for things which don’t normally have faces e.g. buildings or parts of architecture.)


Peephole, Norman Rockwell (1958)
1938 September, cover by Tom Benrimo
1941 February, cover by George Giusti WW2
1942 May, cover by Hans Barschel, The War of Ships (WW2)
Anglo-American, Erskine Caldwell – God’s Little Acre 1948 cover art by Robert Jonas
High Street written by JM Richards illustrated by Eric Ravilious
by Benji Davies for Grandma Bird 2007
Ed Valigursky (1926 – 2009) May 1958 cover illustration for Amazing Stories

A poignant and heartwarming picture book exploring the nature of sadness, beautifully captured by David Litchfield’s stunning illustrations.

Tadahiro Uesugi
Screen cap from Darkest Hour
1931 January edition of Fortune Magazine. Illustrator not found.
Frederic Edwin Church – El Khasne, Petra crevice
‘Open Doorway, Morocco.’ (1879) John Singer Sargent
LA JETÉE Jean-César Chiabaut, Chris Marker 1962
Face To Face Exhibition 1978 Paris, by Colette Portal, Silkscreen by Jacques Marquet

Corridors create a creepy peephole effect, which explains their popularity in horror (and in spoof horror).


In The Widow’s Broom, a picture book by Chris Van Allsburg, the ‘camera’ moves around to afford readers various views of the story. In the image below, the climax, the viewer has been taken into the trees. We are now seeing something ominous take place, but Van Allsburg makes the axe-weilding axe even creepier by positioning readers as eavesdroppers… who live in the woods. This is a subtle but highly effective way of achieving ominous vibes to a work of art.

This image is also ominous because it takes place in the liminal space between the woods and farm.
Sebastian Pether ‘A Moonlit Bay, with Boatmen, Seen through a Wooded Glade’, oil on a panel, c.1825–1840
Greg Hildebrandt (born 1939) and Tim Hildebrandt (1939 – 2006) 1977 illustration for the J.R.R. Tolkien Lord of the Rings calendar
Michael Foreman for Terry Jones’ ‘Fairy Tales’ (1981)
THE BUSY BOOK Rand McNally Elf Book Szepelak Three Bears
The Easter Party by V. Sackville West
The Sign Of The Dolphin by Irene Byers 1956

Here are further examples of views through trees. Someone is spying on us. Or is it us, doing the spying? Like matter in quantum superposition, this composition places the viewer in two psychological positions at once.

Every particle or group of particles in the universe is also a wave — even large particles, even bacteria, even human beings, even planets and stars. And waves occupy multiple places in space at once. So any chunk of matter can also occupy two places at once. Physicists call this phenomenon “quantum superposition,” and for decades, they have demonstrated it using small particles.

Live Science

The effect is almost always unsettling.

Kinuko Craft – Baba Yaga and Vasilisa the Brave
The Garden of England 1857, by Edward Adveno Brooke (1821-1910). The symmetry adds to the ominous vibe.
Frank S. Burton from Green fields and whispering woods; or, The recreations of an American country gentleman, 1886.

I utilised this fairly common composition myself in Lotta: Red Riding Hood. Sure enough, something bad is about to happen in this Little Red Riding Hood re-visioning.

Tom Adams illustrated the most outstanding Agatha Christie covers. The cover below is ominous in numerous ways. The peephole effect on the back cover adds to the eyes, the gnarled branches, the sly chicken, the obscured face, the blade of a dagger to create melodrama.

Easy to Kill by Agatha Christie illustrated by Tom Adams
c1923-Farm Through Trees by John Nash
Factory Scene, pencil and watercolour by John-Nash, not dated.
Alexandre Calame (1810 – 1864) The Winter, 1851. At night the effect is heightened.


Doors in houses and dorms are meant to conceal what may be behind them. They are passages from one space to another, the divide between the entertaining area in dining rooms and living rooms and privacy found in bedrooms. Tony purposefully disrupts this ordered normalcy.

In leading Natalie from one space to another, she alters Natalie’s connection to the outside world (both in how the girl must relate to her own spaces, the spaces of others, and even to herself).

“Homespun” Horror: Shirley Jackson’s Domestic Doubling by Hannah Phillips

One way to add interest to a composition is to show only a part of it. The viewer wonders what’s missing, and fills in some detail themselves. Below are various compositions from various angles, from the fine art world and from picture books.

Jessica Hayllar – House Cleaning 1882
from The Stranger by Chris Van Allsburg
The Lost Thing by Shaun Tan
‘The Red Door’ by Isabel Quintanilla (1938-2017) Spanish painter. Oil on Canvas.
Painter Michiel Schrijver is known for creating imaginary views through windows.
Tokuriki Tomikichiro (1902-2000), Garden View, 1970s, Woodblock print. In this case, the ‘window’ opens from the floor.

And from the other side of the window:

Vladimir Vtorenko – Trampled shoes
Gun Window Stab in the back
Pruett Carter (1891-1955)
Alfred Elmore – On the Brink

Beauty comes at a price. And no one knows that better than Ebenezer Tweezer, who has stayed beautiful for 511 years. How, you may wonder? Ebenezer simply has to feed the beast in the attic of his mansion. In return for meals of performing monkeys, statues of Winston Churchill, and the occasional cactus, Ebenezer gets potions that keep him young and beautiful, as well as other presents.

But the beast grows ever greedier with each meal, and one day he announces that he’d like to eat a nice, juicy child next. Ebenezer has never done anything quite this terrible to hold onto his wonderful life. Still, he finds the absolutely snottiest, naughtiest, and most frankly unpleasant child he can and prepares to feed her to the beast.

The child, Bethany, may just be more than Ebenezer bargained for. She’s certainly a really rather rude houseguest, but Ebenezer still finds himself wishing she didn’t have to be gobbled up after all. Could it be Bethany is less meal-worthy and more…friend-worthy?

Art can turn us into saviours and voyeurs.

No decent man ought to read Shakespeare’s sonnets because it was like listening at keyholes.

Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway
‘Women from Naples’, 1953 highlighting a man’s regulation sailor’s flap collar (often seen in WW2). Anything can function as a focusing ‘peephole’. In this case it’s the gap between a woman’s arm and her body.


In many of the illustrations and paintings above, a clear light distinction between foreground and background is what makes it great. But sometimes you don’t want that in a photo, perhaps because the ‘peephole’ part of a photograph is too overexposed. The tutorial below is a good guide on how to fix that. (I happen to use Affinity Photo but the concepts are exactly the same for Photoshop.)

In a nutshell:

duplicate layer
set the top one to soft light
play with the opacity (lower it)
create a curves layer
click in the middle of the curve, pull down until it looks good to you, looking only at the part that's overexposed, ignoring what it's doing to the rest of the photo
layer > invert
using a white soft brush with a lowered opacity, paint back in over top of the part you feel is overexposed

Now you’ve got a curves layer, you can also mess around with how shadows and highlights (use a black brush) look across the rest of the photo. You’re basically dodging and burning, with one big advantage doing it this way: You’ve manually adjusted the curve layer yourself, and can go back and adjust it again at any time: a ‘controlled’ dodge and burn, if you will.

Header painting: In a position to know, Clarence Coles Phillips, 1921