The Representation of Monstrosity in Cinematic Horror

Steven Schneider

Steven Schneider

What, if anything, do the monsters of horror cinema have in common, besides the fact that they are not real? They may be human — just think of Norman Bates, Leatherface, or Hannibal Lecter — but they are not real, in the sense of experientially real. They may even be non-fictional — just think of ‘Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer’ (1990), a film about real-life mass murderer Henry Lee Lucas — but that still does not make them real (the Henry Lee Lucas of the film is just an actor, Michael Rooker, pretending to be the serial killer).

So the monsters of horror cinema are depictions of monsters, representations of monsters. But what else are they, as a group? Perhaps nothing: after all, Dracula, Jaws, the Thing (both versions), Carrie, Chucky, Freddy Krueger, and the rest are a fairly diverse lot, to say the least.

According to horror film expert Mark Jancovich, “Different groups will represent the monstrous in different ways, and representations will develop historically.” In her book ‘Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters,’ Jack Halberstam makes almost exactly the same claim: “The body that scares and appals changes over time, as do the individual characteristics that add up to monstrosity, as do the preferred interpretations of monstrosity.”

Can not we say of them this much at least, that their primary purpose is to horrify viewers? Sure, they do not always succeed — lots of times they fail — but is not it the fact that they try that makes them horror film monsters? The dinosaurs of Jurassic Park may or may not be depictions of monsters, but Jurassic Park is not a horror movie, and the dinosaurs are not intended to horrify us.

We may feel terror at the sight of a Tyrannosaurus Rex tearing some fellow apart, but, to quote Stanley Louis Cavell, “terror is of violence, of the violence, I might do, or that might be done me. I can be terrified of thunder, but not horrified by it.”

This is all, of course, to highlight the question, “What is horror?” And that is a very big question indeed. In 1919, Sigmund Freud published a paper in which he characterises the “uncanny” as that which “arouses dread and horror […] certain things which lie within the class of what is frightening.”

Now defining uncanniness regarding horror obviously precludes us from defining horror regarding uncanniness, on pain of circularity. Nor would our intuitions support any claim to the effect that these terms are synonymous (most dictionaries define “uncanny” somewhere along the lines of “eerie,” “mysterious,” or “seemingly supernatural”). But if we can at least find some independent reasons for thinking that psychoanalysis has the tools to explain the timeless appeal and efficacy of horror fiction, this will justify our use of Sigmund Freud’s theory of the uncanny to shed light on the nature of horror films, and, by extension, the nature of horror film monsters. Such “independent reasons” are readily available.

Though sneered at by the highbrow, largely ignored by mainstream academics, and censured by society’s self-proclaimed moral guardians, it can hardly be denied that horror fiction (including cinema) serves a variety of psychological functions in society.

The briefest review will suffice to make the point. Like tragedy, horror promotes emotional catharsis in audiences; like fantasy, it offers viewers an escape from the tedium of everyday life; like comedy, it provides a relatively safe (because relatively disguised/distorted) forum for the expression of socio-cultural fears.

All of this is borne out by the fact that psychoanalysis has produced, by far, the most common and influential analyses of the horror film to date.

Sigmund Freud’s hypothesis, that a sufficient condition of uncanny experiences is the return to consciousness of repressed infantile complexes, has been famously, albeit rather loosely, adopted/adapted by film theorist Robin Wood: “One might say that the true subject of the horror genre is all that our civilization represses or oppresses.” And note too, that the relationship between psychoanalysis and the horror film is mutually supportive.

As Andrew Tudor points out, “the [horror] genre itself invokes psychoanalytic considerations, at times borrowing its imagery from the symbolic apparatus of dream interpretation as well as allowing fictional characters to advance pseudo-Freudian accounts of their own and others’ motivations.”

As we shall see, not everyone is convinced that psychoanalysis has the resources to provide a satisfactory account of the horror genre. Besides which, it is possible to invoke psychoanalytic concepts in this context without focusing on Sigmund Freud, much less his (admittedly sketchy) theory of the uncanny.

To make matters even more complicated, partly as a result of its sketchiness Sigmund Freud’s theory of the uncanny can be applied to the horror genre in some different ways. But this multitude of alternatives need not intimidate us, at least not until they are all shown to be mutually exclusive.

To the extent that the account of horror film monsters presented here is plausible (however one wishes to cash out the notion of “plausibility”), to that extent will the means used to arrive at this account be justified.

The article to be defended here, in four parts, is as follows:

(1) paradigmatic horror narratives work by reconfirming for audiences infantile beliefs that were abandoned long ago, such as the belief in the ability of the dead to return to life;

(2) horror film monsters are best understood as metaphorical embodiments of such narratives. As such, they are capable of reconfirming surmounted beliefs by their very presence;

(3) these metaphorical embodiments are conceptual, not merely cinematographic, which is to say that they exist in the mind, not just on the screen; and

(4) although the metaphorical nature of horror film monsters is psychologically necessary, their surface heterogeneity is historically and culturally contingent.

Not only is it the case that “the monster is the reification, the embodiment in a symbol, of an unconscious content in the mind”; it is also the case that “the monster […] is an embodiment of a certain cultural moment — of a time, a feeling, and a place.”

What makes horror film monsters at least potentially horrifying (what makes them monsters, to begin with) is the fact that they metaphorically embody surmounted beliefs; to the extent that they succeed in horrifying viewers, however, it is because the manner in which they embody surmounted beliefs is invested with cultural relevance.

James Iaccino, submitting the horror genre to what he calls (following Jung) “archetypal analysis,” arrives at a similar conclusion: “As civilization progresses to higher stages of consciousness, newer interpretations of those age-old [horror] myths become necessary so that the links with humankind’s archaic past can be appropriately maintained.”

James Iaccino thinks it “quite appropriate to refer to the new archetypes as techno-myths, reflecting the technological advances that our society has attained”; our “cultural relevance” condition, in contrast, encompasses not merely the technological, but also the political, racial, religious, and sexual dimensions of society. And here, what gets reflected is often anything but an “advance.”

This same bias towards the present can be detected in an otherwise innocuous comment made by Barbara Creed: “The horror film is populated by female monsters, many of which seem to have evolved from images that haunted the dreams, myths and artistic practices of our forebears many centuries ago.”

Point well taken, but why speak of changes in the face of the (here, female) monster in evolutionary terms? At the very least it is misleading to suggest that representations of monstrosity from ages past can be understood as “primitive” in comparison with those of today (cf. James Iaccino’s talk of civilisation progressing to “higher stages of consciousness”).

One might put the point as follows: although the face of the monstrous varies from time to time, and from place to place, there is no reason to believe that in doing so it becomes any more horrific.

Placing a value-neutral “cultural relevance” condition on the efficacy of horror film monsters respects the fact that change does not always imply advancement. A number of post-1960 horror films (e.g. ‘Targets’ [1967], ‘Martin’ [1978], ‘The Funhouse’ [1981], ‘The Howling’ [1981], ‘Frightmare’ [1982], and ‘Popcorn’ [1991]) have thematized the impotence of classic monsters when confronting today’s supposedly more “sophisticated” audiences, but it is hard to believe that Freddy, Jason, Michael, and their contemporaries would have been more horrifying to pre-1960 audiences than were Dracula, The Wolfman, Frankenstein’s Monster, and the Mummy.

What follows is an attempt to show how a psychoanalytic explanation of monstrosity regarding uncanniness may be compatible with a postmodernist interpretation of monstrosity in terms of socio-historical conditioning.

Jack Halberstam is mistaken when he claims that “monstrosity (and the fear it gives rise to) is historically conditioned rather than a psychological universal”; when it comes to horror film monsters, the domains of history and psychology are not mutually exclusive.

By presenting (in broad outline, it must be admitted) a “two-tiered” theory of monstrosity, the goal is to blur — if not collapse — the sharp distinction that is usually made between universalizing accounts of the horror genre, those assuming “a social ontology wherein human agents are pre-constituted in key respects,” and particularistic accounts, those assuming a social ontology “centered on active social agents who […] use cultural artifacts as resources in rendering coherent their everyday lives.”

Among the advantages of aligning our psychoanalytic explanation of horror film monsters with George P. Lakoff’s conceptual theory of metaphor is that we now have the resources to explain away the apparent incompatibility between universalising and particularistic accounts of monstrosity.

On the one hand, we know that the primary types of horror film monsters — reincarnated monsters, psychic monsters, and dyadic monsters — are psychologically necessary, in that the uncanny narratives they metaphorically embody correspond to a specific, and limited, set of infantile beliefs (namely, those which have been surmounted).

What all horror film monsters have in common, besides the fact that they are not real, is that they all fall under the “surmounted beliefs are horror film monsters” conceptual metaphor.

On the other hand, due to the need for a conflict of judgment regarding the possibility of reconfirmation in a depicted world, particular tokens of horror film monsters (i.e. those at lower levels of the inheritance hierarchy) are historically and culturally contingent.

All horror film monsters metaphorically embody surmounted beliefs, but not all of them manage to reconfirm those opinions by their very presence; that is why not all of them manage to fulfil their primary (that is, their horrifying) purpose.

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