[jahsonic.com] - [Next >>]

Psychoanalytical film theory

Related: psychoanalysis - perversion in the cinema - film theory

Practitioners: Laura Mulvey - Slavoj Žižek

Key texts: Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (1975) - Laura Mulvey

Even staunch anti-psychoanalysis theorist Noel Carroll admits to its value where horror is concerned. --Donato Totaro

It has often been said that the relationship between cinema and psychoanalysis is not coincidental, because both emerged around the same time. Although Freud himself didn't consider cinema of any value, psychoanalysis has greatly influenced modern film theory. --Patricia Pisters


The concepts of psychoanalysis have been applied to films in various ways; however the 1970s and 1980s saw the development of theory that took concepts developed by the French psychoanalyst and writer Jacques Lacan and applied them to the experience of watching a film.

The film viewer is seen as the subject of a "gaze" that is largely "constructed" by the film itself, where what is on screen becomes the object of that subject's desire.

The viewing subject may be offered particular identifications (usually with a leading male character) from which to watch. The theory stresses the subject's longing for a completeness which the film may appear to offer through identification with an image; in fact, according to Lacanian theory, identification with the image is never anything but an illusion and the subject is always split simply by virtue of coming into existence. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psychoanalytical_film_theory [May 2004]

We have Freud to thank for the prestige of film

Has cinema changed the nature of literature?

Below is an excerpt from the Lee Siegel article quoted in Dan Green's 2005 post quoted in my previous post. Siegel holds that "we have Freud to blame for the long-drawn-out extinction of literary character" and that "[film] has replaced the novel as the dominant art form in our culture" and "we have Freud to thank for the prestige of film.":

Thus the postwar rise of the nouveau roman, with its absence of character, and of the postmodern and experimental novels, with their many strategies -- self-annulling irony, deliberate cartoonishness, montage-like ''cutting'' -- for releasing fiction from its dependence on character. For all the rich work published after the war, there's barely a fictional figure that has the memorableness of a Gatsby, a Nick Adams, a Baron Charlus, a Leopold Bloom, a Settembrini. And that's leaving aside the magnificent 19th century, when authors plumbed the depths of the human mind with something on the order of clairvoyance. Of course, before that, there was Shakespeare. And Cervantes. And Dante. And . . . It seems that the further back you go in time, away from Freud, the deeper the psychological portraits you encounter in literary art. Nowadays, often even the most accomplished novels offer characters that are little more than flat, ghostly reflections of characters. The author's voice, or self-consciousness about voice, substitutes mere eccentricity for an imaginative surrender to another life.

But if we have Freud to blame for the long-drawn-out extinction of literary character, we also have Freud to thank for the prestige of film. The depiction of fictional people's inner lives is not the strength of the silver screen. Character gets revealed to us by plot turns, camera angles, musical scores -- by abstract, impersonal forces, much like Freud's concepts. In a novel, character is shaped from the inside out; in a film, it's molded from the outside and stays outside. How many movie characters can you think of -- with the exception, perhaps, of Citizen Kane -- whose names have the archetypal particularity of Isabel Archer or Sister Carrie? --http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=940DE0DA1031F93BA35756C0A9639C8B63 [Jun 2006]

If anything, Lee Siegel's article maintains that film has substantially altered the nature of literature. Which is ironic since Freud is supposed to have said of film:

"The Kino is a vulgar modern entertainment and I doubt if it can tell us anything serious about the modern condition."

Psychoanalytic literary criticism

Psychoanalytic literary criticism is literary criticism which, in method, concept, theory or form, is influenced by the tradition of psychoanalysis begun by Sigmund Freud. Psychoanalytic reading has been practiced since the early development of psychoanalysis itself, and has developed into a rich and heterogeneous interpretive tradition.

Freud himself wrote several important essays on literature, which he used to explore the psyche of authors and characters, to explain narrative mysteries, and to develop new concepts in psychoanalysis (for instance, Delusion and Dream in Jensen's Gradiva). His sometime disciples and later readers, such as Carl Jung and later Jacques Lacan, were avid readers of literature as well, and used literary examples as illustrations of important concepts in their work (for instance, Lacan argued with Jacques Derrida over the interpretation of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Purloined Letter").

The object of psychoanalytic literary criticism, at its very simplest, can be the psychoanalysis of the author or of a particularly interesting character. In this directly therapeutic form, it is very similar to psychoanalysis itself, closely following the analytic interpretive process discussed in Freud's Interpretation of Dreams. But many more complex variations are possible. The concepts of psychoanalysis can be deployed with reference to the narrative or poetic structure itself, without requiring access to the authorial psyche (an interpretation motivated by Lacan's remark that "the unconscious is structured like a language"). Or the founding texts of psychoanalysis may themselves be treated as literature, and re-read for the light cast by their formal qualities on their theoretical content (Freud's texts frequently resemble detective stories, or the archaeological narratives of which he was so fond). --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psychoanalytic_literary_criticism [Dec 2006]

A Fun Night Out: Horror and Other Pleasures of the Cinema (2001) - Michael Levine

Psychoanalytic theories of film, and of horror film in particular, have been subject to attack from various quarters. This essay addresses these criticisms—defending a psychoanalytic approach to horror cinema from objections raised by theorists such as Stephen Prince, Andrew Tudor, Jonathan Crane, Noël Carroll, and Berys Gaut. Some of these objections do little more than wheel out the well-worn objection—a common one even in Freud's time—that psychoanalysis is "unscientific." But even if is true that psychoanalysis is unscientific (by some often objectionable standard), this does not ipso facto show that it is false. Adolf Grünbaum's critique of Freud's so-called "Tally Argument" (see below) is an example of one such "objectionable standard." This critique is basically a gussied-up version of the claim that psychoanalysis is not falsifiable. However, the falsifiability (in principle), of a scientific theory, has to be interpreted in way suitable to the theory in question. It is clear that psychoanalysis is not going to be falsifiable (in principle) in the way that the physical or biological sciences are— that is, by producing an experiment that can conclusively falsify it. Nevertheless, as I point out below, aspects of psychoanalysis certainly are falsifiable, and indeed have been falsified. --http://www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/01/15/horror_fun.html

Introduction - Psychoanalysis in/and/of the Horror Film (2001) - Steven Jay Schneider

Over the past thirty years, a plethora of publications have argued in favor of a specific psychoanalytic approach to some dimension or convention of cinematic horror. Included among these are articles and books by such influential scholars as Robin Wood, Carol Clover, Stephen Neale, Linda Williams, Barbara Creed, even Noël Carroll in an earlier incarnation. These efforts have typically taken the form of either interpretive analysis (of a particular film, subgenre, or the genre as a whole) or depth-psychological explanation (of the symbolic/mythic import of horror film monsters; of the horror affect and how it is generated; of the possibly perverse pleasures viewers obtain from being frightened by visible fictions). And despite the often vitriolic criticisms of psychoanalysis coming from both inside and outside the all-too-thin walls of academic film studies, the horror genre has continued to see a steady stream of new psychoanalytic approaches, as well as new variations on existing ones. Thus, locating quality scholars ready and willing to contribute to a collection of essays all of which would apply psychoanalysis (of whatever species) to the horror film didn't seem like it would pose too difficult an editorial task. But neither did it seem too exciting an idea. More like preaching to the converted. --Steven Jay Schneider, http://www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/01/15/horror_psych.html [May 2004]

Adolescent phantasies and the horror film genre

In 1995 The National Film Theatre played host to the Freud Museum conference Adolescent Phantasies and the Horror Film Genre . Following hot on the heels of Humour and Psychoanalysis , the conference was inspired by another of Freud's forays into literary theory - his essay 'The Uncanny' published in 1919. Freud also owned a copy of Fuseli's picture The Nightmare , which he hung on the waiting room wall. The genesis of this essay, inspired as it was by a short story in Strand magazine, demonstrates Freud's willingness to take popular culture seriously, and a similar attitude motivated the conference.

Freud's essay, of course, was the starting point for many of the papers presented at the conference. In his lucid introduction, David Punter, Professor of English at Stirling University and author of The Literature of Terror (1980), introduced some of the enduring horror themes with which we are familiar in film and literature. He traced the stock images and themes of modern horror back to the tradition of the Gothic novel - the haunted castle, the Frankenstein monster, the premature burial and so on - as metaphors replete with psychological significance. Michael Grant, who has made a special study of horror film, used part of his considerable video library to illustrate the history of 20th century film horror. He looked not only at the themes of the films, but the way they are made - the forms of identification and point of view involved in their construction. Thus the viewer may occupy the place of the hero, the monster or the victim while watching the films, and these roles, we might add, mirror the play of internal objects which might be vying for pre-eminence within.

After the morning break Don Campbell prefaced his talk with perhaps the most gruesome of the video clips. They were from the Japanese film Tetsuo: Iron Man , a film depicting a man's attempt to transform himself into a machine when faced with the awakening of sexual desire, fear of the opposite sex and rivalry with others of the same sex. Thus the film represents a transformation of the body and relationships which to some extent mirrors the real transformation which adolescents are undergoing. Don argued that the horror story illustrates a process to be gone through, which involves an element of disgust. It is terror of a specific kind which the protagonists (and the viewer) are required to overcome in the process of 'discovering, explaining and confronting the monster'.

In the afternoon Peter Wilson, the Director of Young Minds , reminded us of the essential vulnerability of the adolescent. In this he was following Freud, who saw the factor of infantile helplessness as one of the situations which are evoked in horror stories and help to account for their impact. The adolescent is vulnerable not only in relation to the changes that are occuring within, but in relation to the demands of the social world and the intensity of his or her relationships. The adolescent may feel caught within conflicting demands such that they hardly know where they stand, or where to turn any more. Peter illustrated his thesis with reference to the first Nightmare on Elm Street , which depicts this vulnerability to a fine degree and in which the distinction between the dream world and the real world is effaced with horrifying consequences.
The day ended with a lively plenary discussion chaired by James Ferman, the head of the British Board of Film Classification . It is gratifying to learn that Mr Ferman has subsequently consulted one of the speakers about his work, while a number of teachers in the audience have been following up issues with other speakers. We would also like to thank Martin Harvey and his staff at the NFT for their help and hospitality.

Ivan Ward's paper 'Adolescent Phantasies and the Horror Film' has been published in the British Journal of Psychotherapy Vol13 N2 1996 --http://www.freud.org.uk/Horror.htm [Sept 2004]


  1. The Horror Film and Psychoanalysis: Freud's Worst Nightmares - Steven Jay Schneider (Editor) [Amazon.com]
    In recent years, psychoanalytic theory has been the subject of attacks from philosophers, cultural critics, and scientists who have questioned the cogency of its reasoning as well as the soundness of its premises. Nevertheless, when used to shed light on horror cinema, psychoanalysis in its various forms has proven to be a fruitful and provocative interpretative tool. This volume seeks to find the proper place of psychoanalytic thought in critical discussion of cinema in a series of essays that debate its legitimacy, utility, and validity as applied to the horror genre. It distinguishes itself from previous work in this area through the self-consciousness with which psychoanalytic concepts are employed and the theorization that coexists with interpretations of particular horror films and subgenres.

    This is an excerpt from the Introduction to Freud's Worst Nightmares, expected to be published by Cambridge University Press as part of their "Studies in Film" Series. For more information, contact William Rothman or Steven Jay Schneider. --http://www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/01/15/horror_psych.html

your Amazon recommendations - Jahsonic - early adopter products

Managed Hosting by NG Communications