HORROR FILMS AND PSYCHOANALYSIS - FREUD'S WORST NIGHTMARE
edited by Steven Jay Schneider
(Cambridge University Press 297 pp. )
Horror Season at NFT
reviewed by Roz Kaveney
The simplest of reasons for the intermittent usefulness of Freud in the understanding of the horror genre is this - the Viennese doctor turned bellelettrist was as much a product of Romantic literature in its Gothic mode as Shelley, Stoker or any of the rest of horror's creators. One does not have to regard Freudianism as a rigourous representation of the realities of human psychology, let alone as science, to accept that a man as intelligent and cultured as Freud should have many insights that have lasted where his more global claims have fallen.
Freud was a man with a profoundly dedicated therapeutic vocation prepared to draw on all his knowledge to cure souls; the extent to which he put his thumb on the scales in which he weighed the scientific worth of those insights does not take away from the hard work of thinking that vocation resulted in. To accept, or more often to use casually in critical conversation, insights like 'the return of the repressed' or that mode of paraphraxis known as the Freudian slip is no more to accept those claims than to talk about catharsis, or the three unities, is to take on board even the whole of Aristotle's ideas about literature. Freud was in some respects a charlatan, but, then, considered with hindsight, so are we all.
One of the problems with Steven Jay Schneider's survey of the field of Freudian studies of the horror film is that many of the contributors wish to save the appearances of that system in the face of all the evidence. Robin Wood for example talks as if the attacks on Freud by Masson, Crews and others were solely and wholly motivated by reactionary partisan spite, as if the Thatcher and Reagan swing in the affairs of the greater world were echoed by this. (Whereas intellectuals of the Right, in the Eighties and now, had other fish to fry and only turned to kicking the Freudian/Marxist/Lacanian synthesis we call cultural theory when they had nothing better to do.)
Much of the critique of 'theory' came from other parts of the Left, from Thompson to Eagleton and it is a face-saving flight from reality to claim otherwise. Except, of course, that for some of the theorists represented here, reality is so hopelessly compromised a concept as to be easily dismissed as purely an ideological construct: Michael Levin argues that the status of psychoanalytic theory as truth depends on something other than science, though it is hard to see what that something might be.
The usefulness of psychoanalysis, in the absence of its utility as therapy or its status as science, lies in its capacity to explain other cultural constructs - diamond, after all, cuts diamond. Those essays here that are of use tend to be those whose commitment to psychoanalytic theory, and to the habit of verbal obfuscation that many of its devotees have caught from Lacan and Judith Butler, is more complex. Cynthia Freeland's account of the uncanny in Kieslowski's 'The Double Life of Veronique' is exemplary in its clarity and its description of why we are always made uneasy by shadow selves, whether doubles or puppets or dolls. Noel Carroll in his afterword does an exemplary job of saving the appearances by pointing to the extent to which, in the heyday of psychoanalysis as seemingly sustainable theory, it affected film-makers as much as anyone else, and will always be needed as a tool to understanding what they thought they were doing when they used it to construct their tales of terror.
Other critics here worry about the reductive tendency of psychoanalytic theory, or demonstrate it inadvertently. Robin Wood's deeply ideological love of George Romero's zombie films as icons of proletarian revenge makes him passionately hostile to the slasher cycle that succeeded them, let alone to the ironic slasher films like the Scream trilogy that followed them, mocking their tropes and 'rules'. One suspects that Wood might be even more upset by Simon Pegg's 'Shaun of the Dead' which simultaneously inhabits the zombie film and the suburban British sitcom.
Another problem is this - psychoanalytic readings inevitably falsify complex texts by excluding important aspects of them. Rewatching James Whale's 'The Bride of Frankenstein' (whether at the NFT's season or the commentary-laden Universal reissue on DVD) makes clear that it will not do wholly and solely to see Dr. Pretorius as a gay male seducer fixated on making Victor his accomplice in stealing the power of birth from women.
For one thing, Pretorius has already created entirely viable miniatures far more perfectly human in appearance than Victor's. For another, Pretorius forms a working alliance with the monster and has his pop-eyed servant to do the heavy lifting; where do these fit into the seduction scenario? And no such account quite explains why the Bride is so uncannily beautiful - indeed, in the context of the film's apparatus, an avatar of Mary Shelley herself since both are played by Elsa Lanchester. Given the historical fact of Whale's sexuality, queer readings of the first two Karloff films are sustainable up to a point - part though of the successful aesthetic creation of the uncanny is to create areas of the poetically truthful but literally inexplicable.
Several of Steven Jay Schneider's contributors rightly pick on Ridley Scott's 'Alien' for attentive study. It is particularly to miss the point to analyze that excellent film as horror pur sang, for one thing; it is a science fiction film which makes knowing use of horror tropes rather than the other way around. To discuss the creature, in any of its aspects, as a representation of the monstrous vagina is to misrepresent its entirely phallic appearance as the chest-burster, or the endless tiers of jaws with sharp teeth that project from its eyeless face - if it is gendered at all, it is plausibly as male as its covert ally, the android Ash ( who attempts rape with a rolled up magazine and takes his name from the first man of Norse mythology.) Nor is it plausibly a simple representative of the repressed Natural since Scott has made it clear that he always assumed it, though biological, to be a made weapon. It is Ash, hardly an unbiased witness, who talks of it as a triumph of evolution.
More plausibly, Cosimo Urbano uses the apparent paralysis of Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) in Alien's final sequence as symbolic of the horror audience - we peek at what we dare not see. That, though, is not all Ripley does - another possible reading takes that moment of paralysis as echoing the paralysis of her female crew-mate Lambert, as the various actions she takes against the creature recapitulate those of her other crew-mates, and it is left spinning away in space like the corpse of its first victim Kane. Horror and SF film draw on the tidinesses of folk lore as well as the complex incoherencies of high culture and high theory.
Among those tidy finalities is, as many of Schneider's contributors rightly point out, that common sense which characterizes what Carol Clover, in perhaps the best of studies of horror informed by psychoanalysis ' Men Women and Chainsaws' calls the Final Girl. The survivor in slasher films is, like Ripley, competent and mildy androgynous, as perfect a fit for the identification of male viewers as for female ones. The horror film is a complex web of meanings and the analytic turn can never do more than follow one set of threads within it. When we watch horror film properly we are the monster and the victim and the auteur and the makeup artist displaying their craft; and yes, we are the critic who knows their Freud, just as we are the studio boss thinking about release dates and balance sheets. Films that sustain re-watching, as many of the best horror films do, can be looked in in all these lights and more; the best of Schneider's contributors are foxes who know these many things.
One of the weirdest things about this book was that various critics refer to their mentor, the dead film critic Andrew Britton, with whom I briefly shared a flat.(The Plain People of Hackney say ' you must be a terrible person to live with to have all these ex-flatmates' and Roz has no smart answer). And the argument here about the gender of the Ridley Scott Alien, as opposed to those in later films, is, more or less, the one I had with him a couple of days after we both saw it for the first time. And he had read an article which accused the film of misogyny. It was the Seventies and we were doing things for the first time.
I lost touch with him and only heard he had died in the epidemic some years after it happened. I wish I could feel kinder to his intellectual heirs.