Horror Film and Psychoanalysis: Freud's Worst Nightmare

By Martin, Nina K. | Journal of Film and Video, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

Horror Film and Psychoanalysis: Freud's Worst Nightmare


Martin, Nina K., Journal of Film and Video


HORROR FILM AND PSYCHOANALYSIS: FREUD'S WORST NIGHTMARE Steven Jay Schneider, ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004, 318 pp.

As a feminist film scholar who began studying film in the mid-icSos, I am fairly invested in psychoanalytic film analysis as it has been applied to the study of gender over the last thirty years. As a horror film fan and genre scholar, I have read and enjoyed a variety of texts that analyze gender and horror through a psychoanalytic lens: Carol Clover's Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film and Barbara Creed's The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis immediately come to mind, as does Barry Keith Grant's wonderful anthology The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film. Although I sometimes wondered if particular arguments were as clear, coherent, and well-structured as they might be, I rarely doubted the usefulness of psychoanalysis or its relevance to film studies; yet I knew that there were plenty of scholars who not only disagreed with psychoanalysis as a tool for film analysis, but actively denounced it. Nevertheless, I believed that the two factions-psychoanalytic film theorists and cognitive-formalist theorists-had agreed to disagree quite some time ago. Alas, Horror RIm and Psychoanalysis: Freud's Worst Nightmare picks the scab of what I mistakenly presumed was a healed wound.

Steven Jay Schneider's impressive anthology Is not so much an application of psychoanalytic methods onto film texts as a serious questioning of the uses (and abuses) of psychoanalysis in analyzing the horror film genre. As Robin Wood points out in the foreword, "Part of the problem lies in that distressingly common tendency either to totally accept or reject [psychoanalysis], as opposed to the principle of examining [it] critically" (xv). In this light, Schneider's book embarks on a metatheoretical journey to attack and defend psychoanalytic studies of the horror film, though largely in a gentle, agreeable manner. The book intends to create a dialogue between theoretical positions long thought of as mutually exclusive. To its credit, the anthology is unfailingly fair, giving equal time to those who are propsychoanalysis-Linda Badley, Barbara Creed, Harvey R. Greenberg, to name a few-and to the heaviest hitters of the antipsychoanalysis camp -Noël Carroll, Andrew Tudor, and Stephen Prince, for instance. The book is also well-organized, grouping its essays in four sections: i) understanding horror-pleasure, or why, and in what ways, audiences enjoy horror films; 2) theorizing the uncanny through the embracing of, or dissatisfaction with, Freud's 1919 essay "The Uncanny"; 3) representing psychoanalysis in theory and in particular films, such as Jacques Tourneurs Cat People (1942); and 4) charting new directions for theoretical studies of horror films, both psychoanalytic and psychophysiological.

In this dense anthology, for every standard criticism of psychoanalysis there is an equally compelling argument for its use in analyzing horror films. For example, Cynthia Freeland, in analyzing the use of doubling in Krzysztof Kieslowski's The Double Life of Veronique (1991), explains her discomfort with the psychoanalytic assumption that some infantile desires and drives are universal, and turns instead to neuropsychiatry and cognitivism to explain the doppelganger phenomenon in the film. She takes Freud to task for not looking closely at the aesthetic response that artworks produce and believes that the problem with many of Freud's theories is that they have not been proven true with scientific rigor. At the same time, she astutely agrees that cognitive theories tend to universalize the mind, but she believes that it is possible and necessary to look at gender issues through a cognitive lens. Likewise, before Freeland's article, Steven jay Schneider looks at the literary double in modern horror cinema and explains that the "return of the repressed formula" (attributed mostly to Robin Wood) is "only one class of the psychoanalytic uncanny. …

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