Toward A Psychoanalytic Postmodern Horror Theory

Han-yu Huang
Han-yu Huang

In their often-cited studies of the horror genre in film, Jonathan Lake Crane and Andrew Tudor argue that conventional genre criticism tends to fossilize genres as immutable codes; it is thus susceptible to the “fallacy of generic concreteness” and fails to take into account the viewers’ actual cinematic experiences. Drawing on a sociological and cognitive approach, these authors denounce psychoanalytically-informed readings of the horror film for their ensnarement by “universal and ahistorical deep structures” and their neglect of “the variability of audience responses in the name of spurious generality.”

In fact, both Jonathan Lake Crane and Andrew Tudor themselves share in the blindness of those critics who claim to be sociological, indulge in positivism, and cognitive, and thus are bewilderingly hostile toward psychoanalysis in their stance. First of all, endeavouring to exorcise these “fallacies” they fall back on another “spurious generality,” for they too see the cinema audience as a collective body of individual viewers. In a similar vein, feminist critics like Laura Mulvey, Gaylyn Studlar, Elizabeth Cowie, and Cynthia A. Freeland unknowingly over-generalize the horror film as a genre that reinforces the audience’s identification with the male gaze, and its submission to that dominant patriarchal ideology which condones acts of patriarchal violence against women. Even though critics like Barbara Creed strive to explore the audience’s ambivalent cinematic experiences and the transgressive potential of female monsters ― in Barbara Creed’s terms, “the monstrous-feminine” ― that gaze back at and provoke the castration anxiety of male viewers, they usually end up by somehow subsuming the various forms of ambivalence, ambiguity, and anxiety within “patriarchy.” For Barbara Creed, the horror film is a kind of defilement rite that aims to purify the object and “separate out the symbolic order from all that threatens its stability, particularly the mother and all that her universe signifies.” The horror film in this sense turns out to be nothing but an instrument of patriarchal ideology and oppression.

Here Mark Jancovich’s concise clarification may be useful: Genres cannot simply be defined by the expectations of “the audience,” because the audience is not a coherent body with a consistent set of expectations. Different sections of the audience can have violently opposed expectations. Not only can the generic status of an individual film change over time, it can also be the object of intense struggles at a particular moment.

I would also like to conceptualize “genre” not as any fixed class of texts that appeal to (or interpellate) a definite body of individual viewers, but rather as an ongoing series of contestations regarding cultural values and legitimacy. To retain “genre” as a concept and classificatory category, in other words, we simply cannot dispense with a certain degree of abstraction and universalization. But I would also question the claim that psychoanalytic theory is too “universalizing.” In Slavoj Žižekian terms, “universality” does not designate a static, immutable, fully present entity; in cultural, political realms, it functions as an empty Master signifier that allows for the ceaseless contestation of particular contents. Thus, while each audience member may have his or her own idiosyncratic response to the phobic objects in a horror film, it does not follow that a universal psychical form or fantasmatic framework loses its function.

What makes psychoanalysis subject to critique, denunciation, or even prejudice is exactly the very breadth and depth of its theoretical universality and, therefore, space it opens up for critical confrontations and interventions. Moreover, in anti-psychoanalytical criticism the mode of identification tends to be limited to the (Lacanian) Imaginary, and the gaze reduced to the biological activity of looking. I would argue, on the other hand, that a theoretically sophisticated ideological critique of the horror film needs to focus on the categories of enjoyment, fantasy, and the real, a focus clearly lacking in sociological and cognitive-psychological approaches.

Here, then, I do not wish to restrict postmodern horror within a predefined generic (and literary) boundary. The term “postmodern horror” does not apply merely to an increase (as compared with the conventional “Gothic” genre) in the number of cinematic images of fragmented body parts and other forms of graphic cinematic violence; it also pertains to the monstrous excess or excessive monstrosity in contemporary postmodern society itself. Rosi Braidotti claims that in our “postmodern Gothic” culture, monstrous or teratological others (freaks, the geeks, androgynes, hermaphrodites) appear as mere commodities, objects of mass consumption or fetish objects, and metamorphosis has been raised to the status of a cultural icon.

Indeed, global capitalism cannot function without its circular, vampiric logic of commodification that sucks in almost all kinds of Otherness; it is no longer a hyperbolic figure of speech to call this “a spectral economy of the eternal return,” which, as in the recurring horror film theme of eternally-returning revenants (“monsters-always-coming-back”), never ceases to haunt consumers with the burden of their own or ― given their over-proximity to it ― their neighbors’ enjoyment, and capture them in the “ghastly/ghostly economy of postmodern vampiric consumption.” Monstrosity, spectre, horror, Gothicism, and vampirism do not invade and contaminate postmodernity from the outside but rather from inside. This contamination from within, from the perspective of Lacanian psychoanalysis, manifests the pleasurable fantasy which always circles the object just beyond the subject’s grasp, thus becoming “something in it more than itself,” the “Thing” that has been excluded, “something strange to me, although it is at the heart of me.”

The boundaries between self and Other, inside and outside, subjective and objective have thus become blurred, engendering what Jacques Lacan calls “extimacy” (“external intimacy”). This term reminds us in turn of Sigmund Freud’s concept of the uncanny (unheimlich), developed from his reading of Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann’s story ‘The Sandman’ (1817) and his clinical observations of neurotic patients. The unheimlich is both “at home” and “not at home,” familiar and unfamiliar to us, since it has much to do with the unexpected return of our repressed childhood memories: it thus describes any terrifyingly familiar person, place or experience and is associated with the obsessive-neurotic compulsion to repeat, or the death drive. Mladen Dolar makes explicit the “extimate” nature of the uncanny: for him, this “points neither to the interior nor to the exterior, but is located there were the most intimate interiority coincides with the exterior.” This uncanny extimacy provokes anxiety, a sense that one has already come too close to the monstrous, traumatic Thing that derails the subject’s desire and sense of reality.

Do horrendous, virtually “unthinkable” cases like the Heaven’s Gate massacre (March 26th, 1997) not confront us with such a sense of derailment? Here technological rationality and efficiency have inverted themselves to become the most primitive, irrational sort of violence and “evil;” yet clearly our late-capitalist, high-tech, fully-computerized obsessions already potentially possess this violence and this “evil force.” (Thus so many recent sci-fiction horror films have asked: “What could be more terrible, monstrous and evil than man-becoming-machine — a more extreme playing out of the death drive — which is precisely what we now see happening?”) Perhaps we could say that in contemporary society of mass consumption, our popular culture and cyberculture, our drive toward “virtuality” — virtualization of body, gender, class, ethnicity, and so on — is combined with “a passion for the Real,” in Slavoj Žižek’s term, a demand for immediate and excessive satisfaction, the sudden eruption of bodily horror and violence. But here a fundamental ethical problem arises: does this culture of enjoyment, in fact, bring us more satisfaction, even more, freedom, than we had before? Perhaps it even brings us less? Or is it this very “lack” that now gives us a perverse enjoyment?

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