The horrified bystander
Lately, I've been getting a different aspect of "the horrified bystander" from old comics, movies and TV. You know, it's a brief gag used thousands of times. Something goofy is going on. A character is dressed like a gorilla or a devil; a dog is driving a car; or someone is invisible and is carrying an object around. You know the scene, and an innocent bystander sees this and does a convulsive double take, eyes bugging out and dropping whatever they're carrying. Or in its classic form, the gag has a blotto old drunk see what's going on and throw their bottle of whiskey away after giving it a resentful glare.
This page is from "Plastic Man Products," in PLASTIC MAN# 17 from May 1949. Of course it's the mad genius of Jack Cole. (As an aside, if Cole had ever gone for a straightforward, quasi-realistic style, I think he would have been just as great. Look at the way he uses shadows and background objects to show it's nighttime.. good work.) Anyway, this page's panel four has two good examples of the horrified bystander. There's the woman in bed (her feet sticking out from under the covers) who looks up to see an immensely long flesh-colored THING coming in one window and out the other. A giant pink serpent? The super-penis of her feverish dreams? Who knows? And I love the way the police officer spins himself almost into a tangle at seeing Plastic Man, although his word balloon seems rational enough. Back to the concept of the Uncanny Valley again. A lot of horror comes from seeing something that is like the human body, but altered or distorted in a way that just seems wrong. Seeing a solid object like an animal or a person (even one who is a super-hero) change shape while you watch would trigger all sorts of alarm bells in the mind. Remember John Carpenter's THE THING? Imagine a person right in front of you, melting and stretching and turning into different shapes in a blink. I think someone who actually witnessed Plastic Man in action would suffer nightmares for years and maybe experience a breakdown. It would seem wrong in a way that just witnessing someone float down from the sky or walk around carrying a car overhead would seem, because it would touch that Uncanny Valley response.