Jokes and Their Relation to the Uncanny: The Comic, the Horrific, and Pleasure in Audition and Romero's Dead Films

By LeDrew, Stephen | PSYART, January 1, 2006 | Go to article overview

Jokes and Their Relation to the Uncanny: The Comic, the Horrific, and Pleasure in Audition and Romero's Dead Films


LeDrew, Stephen, PSYART


This paper explores the relationship between Freud's theories of the comic and the horrific, as presented in Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious and The Uncanny. Freudian interpretation of horror films and literature generally involves the notion of the uncanny and the return of the repressed. However, there are striking similarities in the processes that lie behind the production of pleasure in the comic and the horrific as Freud described them, and so we must consider this close relationship in a theory of the effects of horror. Melanie Klein's work on sadism and masochism is used to present a potential explanation of why horror is pleasurable: just as the form of the joke gives us pleasure by overcoming resistance and thus liberating psychic energy, the horror film also produces pleasure by tapping into sadism and masochism, liberating psychic energy that was used for inhibition of instincts.

keywords: Freud, jokes, uncanny, horror, Romero, Miike, Klein

url: http://www.clas.ufl.edu/ipsa/journal/2006_ledrew01.shtml

At a recent screening of Three Extremes (an anthology of short horror films by three Asian directors) at Toronto's Bloor Cinema, I was somewhat perplexed when, upon discovering that the "secret ingredient" in the dumplings a character was eating to achieve eternal youth was aborted foetuses, the audience erupted in laughter. At a later point in this short (Dumplings, by Chinese director Fruit Chan), we actually see an abortion performed, and later the bloody foetus sitting on a plate before being chopped up by "Aunt Mei" to put in her dumplings, again provoking laughter along with groans of revulsion. The end of this short, featuring the main character munching happily on dumplings containing chopped up bits of her own aborted foetus, brought more laughter and even a round of applause from the audience. How is it that something so horrific, so disgusting, so abject (not to mention so incredibly politically incorrect and, one would assume, offensive to many), provokes such a response?

The fine line between what is horrific and what is comic has rarely been explored in psychoanalytic approaches to film studies. Horror and laughter, while seemingly on opposite sides of the emotional spectrum, are often brought together in films. The term "black comedy" has been used to refer to this sub-genre, but the comic element is often very subtle. Many film critics (notably Leonard Maltin) have referred to the masterpiece of horror and suspense, Psycho, as a black comedy - even Hitchcock himself described it as such. Similarly, David Lynch's surrealist nightmare Eraserhead exudes a dark sense of humour, and could be classified as horror or black comedy, depending on who you ask. Camera, a Toronto independent and repertory house, features a weekly "Camera After Midnight" event, screening cult European horror films. Here gasps of shock and horror are often followed by laughter, clapping and cheering; sometimes these responses occur simultaneously.

Freud's notion of "the uncanny" is highly influential in horror film interpretation, but little attention has been paid to the fact that his theory of the horrific bears striking resemblances to his theory of the comic in Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious. It is these similarities that I wish to address in a discussion of the effects and appeal of horror films, including those that achieve comic effects intentionally and unintentionally. Understanding the relationship between jokes and the uncanny, and the psychic mechanisms behind them, is key to understanding the effects and appeal of horror. This is because the psychical processes and mechanisms of pleasure are so similar that there is a fine line between what might be experienced as comic and what might be experienced as horrific. These are psychical responses to texts and stimuli that address the unconscious in similar ways. Freud's work on the subject serves as the basis of this discussion, though I will also refer to Melanie Klein's work on sadism and masochism as a potential means to enriching our understanding of the relationship between the comic and the horrific.

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