Whereas the Western and the crime film were the dominant genres of the late sixties and early seventies, horror and science fiction are the reigning popular forms of the late seventies and early eighties. Launched by blockbusters like ‘The Exorcist’ and ‘Jaws,’ the cycle has flourished steadily; it seems as unstoppable as some of the demons it has spawned. The present cycle, like the horror cycle of the thirties and the science fiction cycle of the fifties, comes at a particular kind of moment in American history-one where feelings of paralysis, helplessness, and vulnerability (hallmarks of the nightmare) prevail. If the Western and the crime film worked well as open forums for the debate about our values and our history during the years of the Vietnam war, the horror and science fiction film poignantly expresses the sense of powerlessness and anxiety that correlates with times of Whereas the Western and recession, Cold War strife, galloping inflation, and national confusion.
The purpose of this article is to examine the underlying structures and themes of these modern genres by extending some of the points made in Ernest Jones’ ‘On the Nightmare.’ Ernest Jones used his analysis of the nightmare to unravel the symbolic meaning and structure of such figures of medieval superstition as the incubus, vampire, werewolf, devil, and witch. Similarly, I will consider the manner in which the imagery of the horror and science fiction film is constructed in ways that correspond to the construction of nightmare imagery. My unique, though not exclusive, focus will be on the articulation of the imagery horrific creatures, on what I call their symbolic biologies. A less pretentious subtitle for this essay might have been “How to make a monster” depression, recession, Cold War strife, galloping inflation, and national confusion.
Before beginning this “unholy” task, some qualifications are necessary. Throughout this article and forthcoming ones, I will slip freely between examples drawn from horror films and science fiction films. Like many connoisseurs of science fiction literature, I think that, historically, movie science fiction has evolved as a subclass of the horror film. That is, in the main, science fiction films are monster films, rather than explorations of grand themes like alternate societies or alternate technologies.
Secondly, I am approaching the horror science fiction film regarding a psychoanalytic framework, though I do not believe that psychoanalysis is a hermeneutic method that can be applied unproblematically to any kind of film or work of art. Consequently, the adoption of psychoanalysis as an interpretive tool in a given case should be accompanied by a justification for its use regarding that case. Moreover, in this light, I would argue that it is appropriate to use psychoanalysis concerning the horror film because within our culture the horror genre is explicitly acknowledged as a vehicle for expressing psychoanalytically significant themes such as repressed sexuality, oral sadism, necrophilia, etc. Indeed, in recent films, such as Jean Michel Rollin Roth Le Gentil’s ‘Le Frisson des Vampires and La Vampire Nue,’ all concealment of the psychosexual subtext of the vampire myth is discarded. We have all learned to treat the creatures of the night-like werewolves as creatures of the id, whether we are spectators or filmmakers. As a matter of social tradition, psychoanalysis is more or less the “lingua franca” of the horror film and thus the privileged critical tool for discussing the genre. In fact, horror films often seem to be little more than bowdlerized, pop psychoanalysis, so enmeshed is Freudian psychology within the genre.
Nor is the coincidence of psychoanalytic themes and those of the horror genre only a contemporary phenomenon. Horror has been tied to nightmare and dream since the inception of the modern tradition. Over a century before the birth of psychoanalysis Horatio Walpole wrote of the ‘Castle of Otranto.’
The assertion that a given horror story originated as a dream or nightmare often occurs enough that one begins to suspect that it is something akin to invoking a muse (or an incubus or succubus, as the case may be). Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s ’Frankenstein,’ Abraham Stoker’s ‘Dracula,’ and Henry James’ ‘The Jolly Corner’ are all attributed to fitful sleep as is much of Robert Louis Balfour Stevenson’s output-notably ‘Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.1’ In what sense these tales were caused by nightmares or modeled on dreams is less important than the fact that the nightmare is a culturally established framework for presenting and understanding the horror genre. Moreover, this makes the resort to psychoanalysis unavoidable.
A central concept in Ernest Jones’ treatment of the imagery of nightmare is conflict. The products of the dreamwork are often simultaneously attractive and repellent insofar as they function to enunciate both a wish and its inhibition. Ernest Jones writes, “The reason why the object seen in a Nightmare is frightful or hideous is simply that the representation of the underlying wish is not permitted in its naked form so that the dream is a compromise of the wish on the one hand and on the other of the intense fear belonging to the inhibition.2” The notion of the conflict between attraction and repulsion is particularly useful in considering the horror film, as a corrective to alternate ways of treating the genre. Too often, writing about this genre only emphasizes one side of the imagery. Many journalists will single-mindedly underscore only the repellent aspects of a horror film-rejecting it as disgusting, indecent, and foul. This tack fails to offer an account of why people are interested in seeing such exercises.
On the other hand, defenders of the genre or a specific example of the genre will often indulge in allegorical readings that render their subjects wholly appealing and that do not acknowledge their repellent aspects. Thus, we are told that ‘Frankenstein’ is indeed an existential parable about man thrown-into-the-world, an “isolated sufferer.3” But if ‘Frankenstein’ is part Nausea, it is also nauseating. Where in the allegorical formulation can we find an explanation for the purpose of the unsettling effect of the charnel-house imagery? The dangers of this allegorizing and valorizing tendency can be seen in some of the work of Robin Wood, the most vigorous champion of the contemporary horror film. Sisters, he writes, “analyzes the ways in which women are oppressed within patriarchal society on two levels which one can define as professional (Grace) and the psychosexual.4”
One wants to say “perhaps but […].” Specifically, what about the unnerving, gory murders and the brackish, faecal bond that links the Siamese twins? Horror films cannot be construed as completely repelling or completely appealing. Either outlook denies something essential to the form. Jones’ use of the concept of conflict in the nightmare to illuminate the symbolic portent of the monsters of superstition, therefore, suggests a direction of research into the study of the horror film which accords with the genre’s unique combination of repulsion and delight.
To conclude my qualifying remarks, I must note that as a hardline Freudian, Jones suffers from one important liability; he over-emphasizes the degree to which incestuous desires shape the conflicts in the nightmare (and, by extension, in the formation of fantastic beings) and he claims that nightmares always relate to the sexual act5. As John Mack has argued, this perspective is too narrow; “the analysis of nightmares regularly leads us to the earliest, most profound, and inescapable anxieties and conflicts to which human beings are subject: those involving destructive aggression, castration, separation and abandonment, devouring and being devoured, and fear regarding loss of identity and fusion with the mother.6” Thus, modifying Jones, we will study the nightmare conflicts embodied in the horror film as having broader reference than simply sexuality.