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Understanding Hollywood horror films through Psychoanalysis

Understanding Hollywood horror films through Psychoanalysis

BMCC undergrad Reyna Gopal takes us through horror with Freud and Lacan.

The horror genre, as Carroll (1990) avers, has been a mass aesthetic stimulation since the early 1970s in America – following the success of The Exorcist (1973). Viewers’ fascination towards horror films is deemed as a form of ‘safety valve’ – allowing them to face frightful situations in a secure condition. The account of horror genre also provides an avenue to liberate the “bestiality concealed within its users” (Andrew Tudor, 1997). As they engage with the cinematic experience, the nature of repression seems almost insignificant under the circumstances – which appeals to the mass viewers.  Essentially, Tudor (1997) expounds that “the genre itself invokes psychoanalytic considerations, at times borrowing its imagery from the symbolic apparatus of dream interpretation”. Hence, this article will explore the crucial psychoanalytical aspects that contribute to horror films in Hollywood using Freudian psychoanalysis and Lacanian psychoanalysis.

One of the points of departure in Freudian psychoanalysis is the concept of the unconscious mind. According to Sigmund Freud, the human psyche is divided into two: the conscious mind that is attentive to reality or the external world and the unconscious, which encompasses visceral desires and repressed wishes (Storey, 2009). The latter is often “pushed out of awareness and into the unconscious” as it is considered as a threat (Hinrichs, 2005). In other words, repression works as a defence mechanism against dangerous or menacing thoughts.

Freud further expands the psyche into a tripartite model which includes the id, the ego and the superego. Basically, the id refers to the human basic instincts, whereas the ego is driven by the reality principle and the superego projects moral judgements based on the ego (Hinrichs, 2005). Murfin (2011) asserts that repression occurs when the conscious (ego) and preconscious mind (superego) controls one’s actions and feelings. As a result, thoughts that are considered undesirable to the conscious mind are coerced into the unconscious mind (id) – which acts as a censor and is regarded as unacceptable. Here, the id reflects the human’s primitive and congenital disposition. Freud mentioned that the id is “our nature [which] is impersonal, and, so to speak, subject to natural law” (Storey, 2009). The brutish nature of the id is not rational; it drives the imagination to attain what we covet based on the pleasure principle (Hinrichs, 2005).

Having said that, horror films are embodiments of what lies in the id or the unconscious thoughts.  Using structural psychoanalysis, Barbara Creed explains that:

The horror genre “helps us to see the unconscious as a structuring element at work in all cinematic representation . . . [It] makes possible a comprehensive reading of the construction of fear in horror texts in relation to filmic codes and mise-en-scene” (Schneider, 2004: 59).

Psychoanalysis helps in decoding the unconscious philosophy behind horror films, revealing its complex connotation (Tudor, 1997). The influences of Freud’s dream and unconscious concept in these films are the driving force behind the audience’s inquisitiveness to be “stimulated and rewarded” (Carroll, 1990: 193). This is to say that horror genre fans seek pleasure in exploring what lies beyond their imagination – even to be frightened or fulfil sexual desires. Wood (2002: 30) indicates that even the cinematic experience of watching in darkness works correspondingly with the mechanics of dream, allowing audiences to withdraw from their consciousness and delving into a fantasy experience.  Wood (ibid.) also postulates horror films as a delineation of “collective nightmares” in the case where nightmares are perceived “so terrible that it must be repudiated as loathsome, and that it is so strong and powerful as to constitute a serious threat.”

According to a post-structural psychoanalytic view, Turvey states that “patriarchal fear of female sexuality” is essentially the crux of cinematic horror – portraying the female sexuality, as Jancovich puts it: “monstrous, disturbing, and in need of repression” (Schneider, 2004: 4). For instance, The Exorcist (1973) played by a female protagonist (Regan MacNeil), signifies the challenge imposed on patriarchal power by female rebellion – in the form of a monstrous woman.

In relations to the repression model, Freud asserts that the unconscious wishes begin during childhood, in which the child faces what he coined as the Oedipus complex. The child’s main desire is to “displace the parent of [their] own sex and take his or her place in the affections of the parent of the opposite sex” (Murfin, 2011). This fixation is formed during the phallic stage, where Freud’s emphasis was placed on boys. As the child theoretically identifies with his genitals, he begins developing sexual conflicts and anxiety of it being castrated (Hinrichs, 2005).  The moment of Oedipal crisis becomes prevalent when the “dyadic relationship becomes triadic”; the child’s desires for the mother are repressed due to his fears of being punished or even castrated by the father (Creed, 1998). A parallel scenario for girls is referred to as the Electra complex, which is the opposite situation: “love and desire for father, resentment for mother” (Hinrichs, 2005).

In the context of Freud’s essay The Uncanny, Cynthia Freeland pointed that reader[s] “go through a repetition-compulsion and experience the related, universal psychological anxiety”. In other words, Freud claims that an individual’s repetition-compulsion is somewhat associated with his or her interests in reading – readers are covertly inclined towards the imagination of a “threatening psychic arena of the Oedipal complex” (Schneider, 2004: 90).

As female are prone to the Oedipus complex as the male, individuals who are unable to reconcile with their proper social roles are disposed to hysteria (Creed, 1998). A vivid illustration of this is depicted in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). Out of his resentment towards his mother’s romantic relationship, Norman Bates’ Oedipus complex led him to murder Mrs Bates and her lover. Desperate to revive his mother, Norman’s crushing guilt made him mummify her and eventually taking over her guise as “mother”. His assumption of her jealousy towards other women reflects his Oedipus complex in terms of a preconceived mutual affection with his mother. Thus, the “mother” guise turns into a killer. Benshoff (2014) concurs:

The Oedipus complex is what gives horror cinema its particular familial cast: the traumatic knot of children’s relationship to their parents, in horror, unleashes a violence that can only be understood as an archaic response to a primal dissatisfaction.

Nonetheless, Creed (1993) contends Freud’s patriarchal views of women with regards to the castration crisis. Her idea on the disposition of a monstrous-feminine in horror films juxtaposes to Freud’s notion of “woman terrifies only because she is castrated” (ibid.: 7).  In lieu of that, Creed familiarises the ‘vagina dentata’ also referred to as “toothed-vagina” – which symbolises “the mouth of hell” that castrates men (ibid: 106). The presence of a monstrous-feminine in popular horror films speaks volumes about the male fears rather than female desires and subjectivity.  The male fear derives predominantly from the atrocious, castrating woman who is complete without a penis. This is manifested in movies such as I Spit on Your Grave (1978/2010) and Sisters (1973), whereby both female protagonists are displayed as castrating women – only in different contexts: I Spit on Your Grave focuses on rape-revenge while Sisters displays a psychotic slasher (ibid: 103).

With reference to Lacanian psychoanalysis, Jacques Lacan reinterpreted the essence of Freud’s psyche model as the foundation of the ‘mirror stage’ theory. Lacan states that the development of an individual involves three stages namely the ‘mirror stage’, followed by the ‘fort-da’ game stage, and the third stage is the ‘Oedipus complex’ (Storey, 2009). These phases are pivotal in establishing the child’s temperament. During the pre-oedipal stage, a child develops into the mirror stage – before he or she is able to communicate verbally.  At this stage, the child’s interpretation of his or her reflection on the mirror is its way of understanding the world as well as “the promise of a more complete self… it is in this promise that the ego begins to emerge” (ibid.: 102).

In addition, Lacan establishes the three orders of human reality: The Real, the Imaginary and the Symbolic. The phase of life begins with the Real, where reality exists before symbolisation. Storey (2009) mentions that the child is unaware of its individuality at this phase. The child’s consciousness of its selfhood arises during the ‘mirror stage’ which shapes what Lacan called the Imaginary stage. Terry Eagleton clarifies the ego is constructed from “imaginary identifications with objects” as the child grows up (ibid.: 102). The child then shifts from the recognition of nature into culture in the Symbolic stage as it identifies who he or she is. The mirror stage or the imaginary stage is rapidly succeeded by the Oedipus stage or symbolic stage (Murfin, 2011).

Miller and Stam (2004: 148) argue that the Imaginary stage is believed to be deceptive and that the child’s unanimity with the mother “does not materially exist”. When the child realises this, he or she is anguished by the memory of this illusion of being one with the mother and world – catalysing the Oedipus complex.  Based on viewer-spectator experience, Lacanian Imaginary prompts a sense of familiarity from the arrangement of the projector and darkened hall to the film’s mise-en-scene (Creed, 1998). Similarly, Christian Metz agrees that cinematic experience often projects the wishes of the Imaginary (Benshoff, 2014). As Lacan suggests, the self is constantly at risk of regressing as it is designed merely on an illusion. Therein, audiences’ boundaries are put into crisis when watching horror films especially “when the [monstrous figure] threatens to draw the viewing subject to the place ‘where meaning collapses’, the place of death” (Creed, 1993: 29). For instance mirror scare tactics in movies like Oculus, Mirrors and Poltergeist, where the monstrous figure or imaginary phantom appears in the protagonist’s mirror reflection – creating suspense for the audience.

Furthermore, scopophilia is a prominent aspect in popular cinema, particularly horror films. Scopophilia denotes the pleasure of looking, in which Laura Mulvey highlights it as a form of voyeurism (Storey, 2009). Citing Lacan, she uses the ‘mirror stage’ to bridge a correlation between “the constitution of a child’s ego and the pleasures of cinematic identification” (ibid.). A child’s tendency to recognise and misrecognise itself in the mirror is similar to the contradiction of visual pleasures between engaging scopophilia and stimulating narcissistic pleasures (ibid.).  This is rampant in horror film’s representation of the ‘male gaze’. Although Sigourney Weaver‘s character, Ellen Ripley in Alien (1979) embodied a sense of masculine heroism, she was still represented as the subject of sexual gaze.

To conclude, psychoanalysis has helped demystify Hollywood horror films and its audience viewing-pleasure. Freud and Lacan’s seminal work on the study of the psyche sheds light on filmic projections of the unconscious mind and the interpretation of a child’s development, revealing significant metaphoric illustrations of the human mind and its personality traits. To cite Noel Carroll, “if interpretation is…the retrieval of a film’s intended meaning and an explanation of its design, then, where a filmmaker intends psychoanalytic significance, it is incumbent on the interpreter to attempt to unravel it” (Schneider, 2004).

Image credit:


Benshoff, H. (2014). A companion to the horror film. West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell.

Carroll, N. (1990). The philosophy of horror, or, Paradoxes of the heart. New York: Routledge.

Creed, B. (1993). The monstrous-feminine:  film, feminism, psychoanalysis. London: Routledge.

Creed, B. (1998). ‘Film and psychoanalysis’ in, Hill, J. and Gibson, P (ed.) The Oxford guide to film studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hinrichs, B. (2005). Psychology. Boston: Pearson/Allyn and Bacon, (Chapter 8) pp.279-288.

Miller, T. and Stam, R. (2004). A companion to film theory. Oxford: Blackwell.

Schneider, S. (2004). Horror film and psychoanalysis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Storey, J. (2009). Cultural theory and popular culture. 5th ed. Harlow, England: Pearson Longman.

Wood, R. (2002) ‘The American nightmare: Horror in the 70s’ in, Jancovich, M. (ed.). Horror, the film reader. London: Routledge.

Tudor, A. (1997). WHY HORROR? THE PECULIAR PLEASURES OF A POPULAR GENRE. Cultural Studies, 11(3), pp.443-463.

Murfin, R. (2011). Psychoanalytic Criticism and Jane Eyre. [ebook] Available at: [Accessed 25 Jun. 2016].

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