WHY HORROR? (Preface)

My book exploring why we love horror so much is taking longer than I originally projected, but I thought I would share the preface with you. If you like the preface, then you’ll want to purchase the book when it releases! At the time of this posting, I am on Chapter 12.


“What’s your favorite scary movie?” (Ghost Face, Scream). There is something to be said about the measurable energy of an auditorium at the cinema when a crowd is energized for opening night of the latest horror film. Moreover, the same can be said about your own living rooms when gathered with friends to watch a horror movie on-demand or through a streaming service. We turn into quasi participants because of the strong physiological and emotional responses to the stimuli on screen. Best enjoyed in a group setting, these movies are the stuff of nightmares and fond memories!

The American horror film brings so many people of all ages together from a bevy of ethnic, cultural, religious, and socio-economic backgrounds unlike any other single film genre. Spawning conventions, theme park events, inspiring indie and pop artists, the fandom of horror is incredibly diverse and stratified. While the science-fiction/fantasy fandom is large and vocal, it does not often display the level and degree of diversity that horror does both presently, in our culture, and has for more than a century. From the dawn of cinema, horror has been a staple for big studios and small production companies alike.

By analyzing horror films, we can learn a lot about our past, our present, and even our future. While film is largely a reflection of life, horror is the best cinematic mirror of all because it forces us to face our fears. The monster in a horror film, may just be the manifestation of a force or idea in the real world delivered to us through a terrifying cautionary tale.

Even when a bad horror movie gets released in theatres, the auditoriums are usually full on opening night–even through the weekend–before the numbers fall off, and that title is available on-demand in a few weeks. The influence of horror on our society is witnessed throughout the decades. A great example of this is seeing fans from across four decades all gathering in one place to watch 2018’s Halloween.

Unlike other critical and box office successes in recent years, this particular franchise boasted a 40 year old legacy that brought fans and spectators of all ages together. I remember sitting there in my seat, simply in awe at the sea of people and feeling a kinetic energy surge through my mind and body, especially when the Halloween theme music began to play. What other genre generates this?!?

In order to best explore why horror brings so many people together, we need to first look what the formula is for the American horror film and then at why we are attracted to it. From there, we can travel through the decades to learn how and why the horror film developed in the manner that it did.

Understanding what comprises the American horror film will support our exploration because it will create a theoretical framework through which we can analyze the popularity and fandom of horror. When I lecture on horror to my film studies and screenwriting students at the University of Tampa, where I’ve taught since 2016, I describe the makeup of the American horror film this way:

(Art movements of) German Expressionism + French Surrealism = horror’s aesthetic

(Writings of) Sigmund Freud + Edgar Allan Poe = horror’s content

At its root, all genre horror films can be traced back to these aforementioned elements and formulas. This chapter will focus on horror’s aesthetic, while the next chapter will focus on its content. 

Ask anyone, and the single most famous scene in all of cinema is the famous shower scene from Hitchcock’s Psycho, widely regarded as the most pivotal horror film in all cinema history. The aforementioned scene gains a greater eerie feel upon the close of the movie when the audience realizes that Norman has little to no control over his mind and actions.

The studio responsible for solidifying the horror film as a popular genre, and you could say is the parent of the American horror film is Universal Pictures. Not only is horror the most bankable genre of film, generally speaking, it is also one of the most fascinating to analyze because many horror films written in the classical sense are social metaphors.

Throughout this book, you’ll learn about the current events that preceded a particular movement in horror, and how those fears and anxieties were explored through characters and plots. For example, it was the space race of the mid 20th century that inspired many of the alien movies of the 1950s. And with the space race, came a fear of what lies beyond our atmosphere.

Although the “modern” horror film began with Psycho, horror was an influential genre and box office draw from the dawn of cinema. In fact, many of the characters you enjoy watching today in horror films has their first appearance in the early 1900s.

“Oh no, don’t go into that house!” “Watch out! He’s right behind you.” Some of the most memorable movies of all time are the horror films. They draw our eye’s attention to that which would otherwise repulse us in real life. At the same time, our own eyes are being threatened with disturbing or bizarre imagery.

But why does that which would repulse us in real life and that which is terrifying to behold, bring us together? That is what we are here to explore together! So join me as I lead you on a journey to dive deep into why horror brings us together.

From Nosferatu to (my favorite icon) Freddy Krueger and beyond, the American horror film continues to leave a huge footprint in our collective zeitgeist.

Ryan teaches Film Studies and Screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with him.

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“Office Killer” Throwback Thursday movie review

Ever see one of those indie horror-comedies that was panned by the critics when it came out a couple decades ago just to realize that if it was released today that it would be the talk of the horror community? Well, that is 1997’s Office Killer starring Carol Kane (When a Stranger Calls), Molly Ringwald, and directed by famed photographer Cindy Sherman. Kane delivers an outstandingly bananas performance that is a combination of Norman Bates and Patrick Bateman. Sherman certainly displays her adoration for the cinematography of Hitchcock’s films in many of the scenes in how the shots are framed and blocked. You’re hard-pressed to find many reviews of this horror-comedy even on LetterBoxd. It’s baffling to me why this movie hasn’t received more attention from the horror community on Twitter, blogs, and podcasts. Perhaps it’s because it is no incredibly obscure that you have a hard time even finding it on DVD, let alone streaming. A friend of mine had to order his copy of the movie from Spain. That is how difficult it is to find this movie. Even the few reviews I found were not flattering–except a couple that write about what I witness in this movie. The title works in two ways (1) it’s a description of how even in the 90s there was a fear that computers would kill the traditional office environment and (2) the literal description of a slasher in the office. Furthermore, there are plenty of moments and kills that serve as a freudian commentary on the American workplace. So I suppose it’s up to me to direct attention to this horror gem!

From the beginning, I had a feeling that I was in store for a highly artistic indie darling of a movie as soon as I saw the fantastically creative opening credits accompanied by a creepy score. Following the opening credits, there was a very Hitchcock shot that intrigued me and tipped its hat to Sherman channeling her award-winning photography into the moving images on the screen. Typically, horror movies don’t have narration but we begin with a narration. Not knowing anything about this movie, I was completely unsure of what to expect. Even the first kill didn’t tell me that I was about to watch a slasher. But as I learned more about Dorine (Kane), the more I was sucked into her world and completely intrigued by her choices and lack of social awareness. Playing opposite Kane is the indelible Molly Ringwald as the bitchy, judgy coworker Kim. Her performance is great! Not great in that it’s a phenomenal performance, but great in that she showed that she can play a character that is in stark contrast to most of the characters she has played throughout her longstanding career. Most of the performances are caricatures of various people found in a typical office. In fact, I’m curious if The Office ever parodied Office Killer because it seems like a missed opportunity if not. If you are aware of an episode that pays homage to Office Killer, let me know!

Perhaps the strength of this movie is not the acting (albeit, Kane is fantastic), but the strength is in the production design, costuming, plot, and Freudian themes. On the plot. Yes, the plot. You may be scratching your head because most reviews have slammed the plot. But I feel that 1997 critics and even those who come across this film today largely missed the point of the plot. It’s not supposed to be a compelling story with thought provoking imagery and characters, it’s supposed to be a 70/80s horror movie that is darkly funny! It’s just happens to be taking place in the mid 1990s. Perhaps this movie came out too close to the 70s/80s and thus felt old and cheesy. I posit that if this movie came out today, that it would be praised for its embrace of what we love about 70s/80s slasher movies! We don’t watch and rewatch these movies because they have incredible plots. We watch them because they are lots of fun! And Office Killer is incredibly fun to watch. While we may not know precisely why Dorine’s switch flipped and she went full–what I’ll call–Norman Bateman, we are given indicators of her unstable psyche through her flashbacks to her sexually abusive father and complacent mother, and of course the present story of most of her coworkers bullying her. Those three elements, plus the opportunity, work together to set her up to be a total psycho. Her actual kills may not be creative–that is, the method by which she kills–but the creativity comes into play afterwards with the corpses piling up in her house. She talks to them, plays with them, articulates them in such a manner that they become her action figures so to speak. It’s incredibly creepy but in a comedic way.

Now for those Freudian elements. This is what I find most fascinating about the movie; and what should provoke conversations amongst cinephiles and horror enthusiasts. One of the earliest shots in the movie is an extreme closeup (or ECU) of a staff member’s mouth as she is on the phone. Her red lipstick accentuates her mouth and points to the Freudian oral fixation. The scenes that follow depict female office staff members in a variety of different capacities and situations. It appears as though Sherman was painting a portrait of the male gaze over the female body. Moreover, what this movie appears to comment on and depict is Freud’s study on Fetishism. According to Freud’s study, and not to over simplify, fetishism is a fixation on an object or physiological practice of a substitution for intercourse following a sexual desire awakening in the body and mind. In more contemporary terms, the definition of fetish has evolved beyond just sexuality, but is generally still associated with sexual practices. Since likely paternal sexual abuse happened to and her mother turned her head to the allegations, in an effort to deal with the trauma, Dorine substituted what she wanted to do to her parents and others who abuse or bully her by engaging in slasher-style killings.

Each of the kills is a warped poetic justice based upon what Dorine saw as wrong with the victim. A great example of this is the attempted strangling of Kim. Since Kim ran her mouth constantly, Dorine sought to silence her voice. This same idea can be applied to the other kills too, and even in how the corpses are treated in Dorine’s basement. There is a playful nature in Dorine’s approach to the kills and even more so with her interactions with them afterwards. The depths of her psychosis are revealed one layer at a time. Even when you think that Dorine is about to get caught, she gets away with it; she alludes her would-be captors by searching the want ads and heading for another job in an office–perhaps your office! With each kill, Dorine integrated an element of that victim into her own life. She goes from mousy, frumpy to stylish and seductive. Her office underwent a transition and so did she. Dorine killed her former self to become the self that she wants to be. There is so much to enjoy about this horror comedy, and it baffles me that more horror fans and cinephiles have not talked about this movie. If you can somehow get ahold of a copy, then I highly recommend it if you enjoy slasher movies with a tough of style and laughter.


You can catch Ryan most weeks at Studio Movie Grill Tampa, so if you’re in the area, let him know and you can join him at the cinema.

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter!

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Twitter: RLTerry1

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Sinister Summer: Kubrick’s “The Shining” film review

“Here’s Johnny!” Arguably one of the most quoted lines in, not only the horror genre, but in all of cinema! Widely considered one of the greatest horror films of all time, it stands as a testament to what an innovative, pioneering director can do with the genre. Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining based upon the best-selling novel by Stephen King is a cinematic masterpiece that continues to be studied and terrify audiences today. You’ll find TV shows and even movies paying homage to it through clever references to famous scenes in the film. The Shining is an incredible source of inspiration for visual storytelling and the horror genre. Much like Hitchcock radically altered the landscape of suspense and horror, Kubrick is regarded as a director who also dramatically changed filmmaking and broke ground for directing, cinematography, editing, and more! He took the medium of film to new levels that are still studied today. He is infamous for his acute perfectionism that often required dozens of retakes for the same scene, which made him a terror to work with. He was giving his best, so he demanded that you give your best in turn. It’s this approach that has made his films withstand the test of time. Beyond the silver screen, last year Universal Studios Halloween Horror Nights made it possible for you to check into the infamous Overlook to face your fears as you meander the corridors lined with the famous carpet that leads to bloody elevators, terrifying twins, and Jack Torrance wielding his fire axe (although it’s supposed to be a croquet mallet). As part of my Sinister Summer series, this article explores just what makes The Shining such a timeless horror film and example of excellence in the art and science of motion pictures.

With the recent news regarding the casting and upcoming production of the sequel to The Shining titled Doctor Sleep, I thought that an analysis of this iconic film was appropriate! Although the 1997 3-part mini-series was a closer screen interpretation of the novel and took place in the very hotel (The Stanley in Estes Park, CO) that inspired Kubrick to write the terrifying tale, it’s the Kubrick film that continues to be the favorite among cinephiles and horror fans. Furthermore, it’s the film that is a testament to the power of visual storytelling and ability to evoke strong emotion, and is simply more memorable because of the depth and complexity of the film that begs for analysis. As a member of the audience, you are forcibly pulled into the story; you can feel the trauma, tension, and emotion of the characters. While Kubrick’s The Shining is one of the greatest horror films of all time, it is not and should not be thought of one of the scariest movies of all time. For one, Kubrick never stated that The Shining was a scary movie nor did he, through his control of the public relations and marketing material, imply that it was a scary movie. However, he did imply that it was more of a conventional horror film in order to capitalize on the popularity of the genre; but initial responses to the film were not overly positive because some interpreted the publicity as a bait’n switch. It does a lot of things, but “scaring” the audience is not one of them.

As I’ve written before, horror films are not synonymous with scary movies. Are many, if not most, horror films also scary? Yes. But some of the best ones focus more on the drama, themes, and subtext. That focus gives the film depth. And through the drama and cinematography, tension is built, suspense is drawn out, and strategically placed glimpses of visceral horror, nightmare-inducing imagery, and uncanny moments are revealed that generate terror in the mind that evokes a physiological response to the motion picture. Beyond the physiological realm, The Shining also taps into the psychology of the audience as the events unfold through the various traumas on screen. In retrospect, The Shining is a dark, traumatic family drama disguised as a horror film. The action sequences in the film certainly lend themselves to the horror genre, but the family drama paired with the brilliant cinematography and editing is what gives the film critical value. On the surface, it is very much a horror film, but beneath beats the heart of a dark melodrama with terrifying glimpses into psychotic breakdowns and schizophrenic delusions.

The Shining is one of those films that has been and continues to be analyzed to discern the meaning behind the images and writing. In addition to directing, Kubrick also co-wrote the screenplay with Diane Johnson. As one of the writers, he was often asked about the meaning of the various sequences or moment in the film, and in mysterious fashion, he was reluctant to clarify the meaning. Instead, he preferred to leave it up to the individual audience members to decide. If you’ve read the novel, you’ll note that there are many differences between the Kubrick film and book. Most notably the weapon of choice for Jack. A axe in the movie and a croquet mallet in the novel. There are also character traits that were lost in translation. In the book, Wendy is a strong female whereas in the film she is incredibly mousey. And the hotel itself. The hotel described in the novel is clearly The Stanley in Estes Park, CO but it was the Timberline Lodge in Oregon that was used for the exterior shots. Why would Kubrick make these obvious changes? Not limited to The Shining, Kubrick often–in Kubrick fashion–adapted novels to screenplays in a manner that it made them more cinematic and less literary. The film certainly has a literary quality about it, but the changes implemented were in an effort–and successfully so–to make the story more cinematic. One visual way Kubrick adapted the novel in order to make the film memorable was to invert colors from the novel (i.e. yellow VW bug instead of the red one from the novel). Furthermore, he looked at the meaning behind the hotel’s design in the novel, and interpreted the meaning for the screen, not the objects themselves. It’s this cinematic quality that contributes to the masterpiece status of the film.

More than a ghost story in an isolated location, more than haunted magnificent hotel with a sordid, tragic past, The Shining derives its brand of horror through the twisted, dark family drama with a touch of the supernatural. I love how Kubrick uses what may appear to be beautiful imagery and juxtapose it against the macabre. Often there are innocent or majestic images used in the film that are undercut by dark subtext, uncomfortable music, or superimposed on that which removes any positive potential from the sequence. It keeps you from being too comfortable or perhaps it pains your mind. While one may expect a haunted hotel to appear in a more conventional or traditional fashion (gothic, rundown, tired, antiquated), this hotel is brightly lit, well-kept, and modern. But through Kubrick’s brilliant direction, despite the hotel’s outward appearance, it also feels evil from the onset. Frame by frame, Kubrick paints an entire portrait, writes an entire story. Each scene is as though it is a word in a larger paragraph. Much like the scenes in Barry Lyndon are ostensibly taken directly from an oil painting, the shapes, colors, and frames of The Shining communicate through extensively showing that which would have lost critical value if it was told. Show don’t tell (I say to my students all the time). Visually, the film builds tension throughout every moment from the beginning to the end. Because Kubrick exerted extreme perfectionism in direction, cinematography, and editing, one could remove all the dialogue from the film, and it would still play out just as powerfully. But of course, we would lose that famous line as Jack comes crashing through the apartment door.

Some of what Kubrick left out of the novel was due to logistical reasons. Visual FX that would allow for increased ectoplasmic apparitions, menacing hedge animals, and more was still limited. At least, limited to the extent that they did not meet the demands of Kubrick. He exchanged the more traditional horror imagery for something with far more intrinsic value–and thankfully so. Let’s concentrate on the three principle characters for a moment. Just like the Overlook Hotel is one location, one building with many spaces or rooms, we can apply that illustration to the Torrance family. Imagine the Torrance family as one unit, one unit with three different spaces. Perhaps this is a bit of an abstract thought, but the film’s content supports the focus on the central three as abstract spaces within the larger whole more so than the haunts around them. When analyzing the family in such a manner, the viewer can then see how elements of the hotel are extensions of the individual family members. You can read the family like you read the hotel. I also liken The Shining to Edgar Allan Pot’s The Fall of the House of Usher because the Overlook is a direct representation of the psyche of Jack, just like the house in Poe’s story. On one hand, the hotel is exquisite and expansive but on the other, it’s a claustrophobic prison, a grave. It exists on a serene landscape of beautiful snow-capped mountains but it also exists in a state of hell. It’s that identify crisis that mirrors Jack’s duality of mind and behavior. The famous carpet pattern, arrangement of corridors, impossible windows, lonely hallways with skeletons in the closets–or bathtub in this case–are all representative of the bizarre, bewildering mazes of Jacks mind that slowly drive him insane.

Kubrick also plays around with the idea of time, repressed memories, the uncanny through the revealing of that which should have remained hidden or buried. In my article The Psychology of Horror: An Exploration of Freud’s Uncanny through Psycho, I explain that the uncanny is The word uncanny comes from the German word unheimlich, which is literally translated as something unfamiliar. However, that which is unfamiliar is not necessarily uncanny. By the same toke, that which is uncanny is not necessarily completely unfamiliar either. In particular, he was interested in the return of the repressed. And, in this return of the repressed, “other” scenes, to which we do not have direct access, would reveal themselves. It is this revelation that is what Freud terms the uncanny. According to Freud, “unheimlich is the name for everything that ought to have remained…secret and hidden, but has come into the light.” The famous bathroom scene with the ghoulish bathing beauty, the bloody elevator (which Universal achieved so brilliantly at last year’s Halloween Horror Nights), and the twins that beg Danny to play with them forever, these are all repressed memories of the hotel’s past that have come into the present to disrupt the natural order of time, space, and dimension. It’s this disorder that directly impacts the ability for the family to function normally. And therefore contributes to the psychological breakdown of Jack, Wendy, and even Danny. These images and experiences distort reality, causing those of weak minds (Jack) to question everything around them, to behave hostilely in the face of an inability to discern reality from imagination.

Many critics and fans have written that the chief theme of The Shining is an exploration of America and her troubled, violent past. Mainly the massacre and displacement of the natives but can be applied to slavery, the Civil War, and where I’m choosing to go: socioeconomic class. I find that this is an important theme to discuss and may provide further insight into the meanings of the film because we learn that Jack is unemployed but finds himself in the grandest of hotels. Evidence of socioeconomic class can be seen through Jack’s words and behavior. Although he’s issued the title caretaker, he quickly asserts himself as a writer during his interview. How many of us have modified our profession or self image to impress more. It’s out defensive pretense to make ourself appear more successful or more intellectual than we actually are, for fear of what others may think. We are our own caretakers and public relations professionals.

Jack quickly associates the hotel with luxury, but is reminded of his lowly status during the course of his interview. He can temporarily live like the elite, but knows that he is still a working class schlub. Seeing this position at The Overlook as a way to gain prestige, he takes the position. I imagine he took the position so he could say to his friends that he spent the winter at the Overlook in order to write on his novel. During the tour, Wendy often remarks that they’ve never been anywhere like this before, drawing attention to the family’s provincial status. Several times during the film, Wendy urges Jack to resign as caretaker and return to Boulder. He refuses, stating that if he went back, he would be reduced to working menial jobs. The irony is that he is already working a menial job as a caretaker at a shuttered hotel. He exists in a perpetual state of cognitive dissonance, demonstrated an inability to reconcile what his role actually is. Again, we witness the film displaying someone who cannot discern reality from imagination.

And on the topic of the real versus imagined, another theme I’d like to highlight in the film is madness versus possession. We may never truly now if Jack was simply mad or was truly possessed by the spirits in the hotel. In the TV version, it is far easier to surmise that Jack IS possessed by the hotel, not so much in the more artistic film. We know that Jack has a violent history of alcoholism that led to Danny’s arm breaking and that he resents Wendy for refusing to forgive him for the accident. Furthermore, Jack demonstrates anger and resentment for Wendy not fully supporting his aspirations for a writing career. The presence of ghosts and other evils lends support to the possible possession of Jack. He certainly does change during his short tenure as the caretaker. Perhaps it’s a combination. Danny’s ability to shine and Jack’s sensitivity to objects and people who shine creates quite the conundrum. It’s entirely possible that Danny insisting that Jack is possessed drives him mad. There is evidence in the film that Jack may be legitimately schizophrenic because of his visions of Lloyd, the Gold Room bartender and the New Years party guests. But because Wendy eventually sees these same ghosts, that supports the hypothesis that Jack is possessed by the hotel. Does Jack have free will or is he fated to a pre-determined destiny? You be the judge.

That’s what makes the writing and visuals of this film so great! There are many interpretations, and I feel strongly that is what Kubrick wanted. This film causes us to think and discuss. So, I am glad it doesn’t just have one metaphor or meaning. Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is a masterpiece of a film that deserves all the accolades that it has ever received. The supporting evidence outlined in this article merely touch the surface of the depth and breadth of discussions that can be had about this film. The bar set by the atmosphere of dread in this film is incredibly high, and few films even encroach upon the level of cinematic excellence.

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The Psychology of Horror: An Exploration of Freud’s ‘Uncanny’ through “Psycho”

“Oh no, don’t go in that house!” “Watch out! He’s right behind you.” Some of the most memorable movies of all time are horror films, of which, some of the best and most revolutionary were made in the 1930s and 40s by the original production house of horror Universal Studios. The early horror films set the foundation upon which all other horror films would be judged. Ask anyone, and the single most famous scene in all of cinema is the famous shower scene from Hitchcock’s Psycho, widely regarded as the most pivotal horror film in all cinema history. The aforementioned scene gains a greater eerie feel upon the close of the movie when the audience realizes that Norman has little to no control over his mind and actions. There is something about horror films that beckons the audiences to find enjoyment in that which in real life would not be enjoyable—and not only see it once but repeat it over and over again. And furthermore, find the unfamiliar and grotesque fascinating to behold as what should remain hidden comes to light. The return of the repressed.

Throughout history, from the fights in the Roman Coliseum to Michael Myers’ slaying of people in Halloween, audiences have been both entertained and repeatedly drawn to stories and shows that highlight horrific acts of violence or feelings of terror and anxiety. Perhaps there is a deep seeded reason as to why millions of people find entertainment value in horror films. This question has been tackled by many psychiatrists and psychologists, each has come up with a different explanation as to “why horror?” Most notably, famed psychiatrist, Sigmund Freud provided great insight into an explanation of why people find horror films fascinating in his essay on the Uncanny.

Although many of the conclusions drawn by Freud have been challenged over the years, he spent a great deal of time on the uncanny; and his analysis on such has helped a great deal in understanding the psychology behind horror. The word uncanny comes from the German word unheimlich, which is literally translated as something unfamiliar. However, that which is unfamiliar is not necessarily uncanny. In particular, he was interested in the return of the repressed. And, in this return of the repressed, “other” scenes, to which we do not have direct access, would reveal themselves. It is this revelation that is what Freud terms the uncanny. This theory is an explicitly aesthetic inquiry regarding what in art (or life) produces sensations of dread and horror, repulsion, and a return to such unpleasurable sensations. There are many elements or groups of elements that Freud deemed as uncanny. Each one is burdened to exceed intellectual uncertainty in order to fit the definition of uncanny as laid out by Freud.

In order to fully understand unheimlich, it is necessary to understand the antithesis of the aforementioned which is heimlich. The word Heimlich means something that belongs to the familiar, something not strange, and is friendly. Diving into a deeper reading of the word Heimlich, it can also mean something that is concealed from the conscious—not accessible by our conscious mind. Freud even goes as far as to suggest that this refers to something that is kept from sight so that others do not get to know about it. Knowing the definition of Heimlich, it is easier to understand how and why Freud chooses to use it in his evaluation of art (in which, we have literature, theatre, and cinema). According to Freud, “unheimlich is the name for everything that ought to have remained…secret and hidden, but has come into the light.” In his study on the uncanny, Freud takes on the literary imagination (this same literary analysis can and is used to analyze film) by dividing his theory up into three sections. He first defines the concept of the uncanny, then performs an examination of the context required for understanding the experience of the uncanny, and finally explores the effects of the uncanny on the psyche through literature and fiction. Some of the running themes throughout his essay are loss of eyes, castration, the double-ego, and self-reflexivity. Through the framework laid out by Freud, scholars and film critics can explore the themes in horror film as it relates to the human subconscious.

Freud explains the realm of the uncanny as the place at which aesthetics and psychoanalysis merge because it deals with a particular feeling or sensation combined with emotional impulses. The substances or manifestations of the uncanny are elements that are fearful and frightening. Proceeding with Freud’s definition of the uncanny being a class of frightening elements, plaguing the psyche, ushering an individual back to what is familiar (heimlich) and known (as opposed to what is unknown). Freud refers to the uncanny as that “which should have remained secret and hidden, but has come to the light.” Furthermore, he goes on to further describe the uncanny as the “mark of the return of the repressed.” The concept of the uncanny is a type of unwilling or mistaken exposure to something surprising, unexpected, or horrific.

Freud claims that the source of the uncanny in literature is the recurrence of something long forgotten and repressed. However, not everything that returns from the psychic depths of repression is uncanny. The mere return of repressed feelings and experiences is not sufficient for the uncanny to occur. It requires something repressed having returned but represented by an unexpected and outside the realm of reality. This is easily accomplished in literature (and by extension, movies, and plays) because fantasy is different from reality. Just because something works as uncanny in a work of literature doesn’t mean it can work in real-life as well. Within literature, if the author makes a pretense to realism, then he or she opens the door to supplying the story with the uncanny. Often times, the uncanny in literature and film is the projection of the psyche of the central character on another object or person combined with a warped view of the objective and subjective of a given situation. It’s like something within the fictional world creeps into the real world. And, this is definitely manifested within the character of Norman Bates in Psycho.

Within the horror genre, there are many different stories or narratives that exist. And, each type of horror film tells its story in different ways; however, they are all concerned with getting the same emotional response from the “people out there in the dark,” as famously stated by Norma Desmond in the timeless film noir classic Sunset Boulevard. Sometimes the audience will go on a journey into the crazed mind of a psychopathic serial killer or they may witness a supernatural monster terrorizing a small Bavarian village. In either case, Freud believes that the writers of horror are concerned with exposing the audience to “other” scenes. And, these “other” scenes are rooted in the subconscious. Freud’s psychoanalytic theory is a perfect lens through which to evaluate horror films and the effects of them.

The character of Norman Bates became a revolutionary breakthrough in cinema and entertainment as Freud’s psychoanalytic theory gained prominence in a major motion picture. Not only using it as a character archetype but using the motion picture’s exposition, via the psychiatrist at the end of the film, as a way to explore the subconscious of Norman. Keeping inline with the pace and substantive matter of the film, Hitchcock meticulously and skillfully used the characters and dialog to frame and reveal Norman’s feelings, subconscious thoughts, and conscious behaviors despite the aforementioned being very pleasant. Although the feelings and behaviors were unpleasant, subconsciously Norman enjoyed them. And, Freud touches on this too. He refers to it as the pleasurable unpleasureable. Despite Freud’s revelations of the subconscious mind, the subconscious is not something anyone has access to or can, much less, exhibit control over its goals. Therefore, as Norman was unable to exhibit control over the actions and tendencies of his subconscious mind, he did not realize he subconsciously allowed his mother to take control over his body and turn this “normal” guy into a serial killer.

Understanding Freud’s theory of the uncanny can best be fully grasped and comprehended by applying it to a particular scene(s) in a work of horror. In this case, the actions leading up to, and including, the infamous shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece Psycho will be used. Before the screeches of the violins, before the more than fifty cuts (edits) to the film, and before the audience slowly spins away from the lifeless eye of Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) shows signs of being intrigued with generating erotic feelings of arousal in his mind and body. Prior to removing the portrait of the bird from the wall of his office, Norman exhibited mostly homosexual-ish signs. He did not appear to be sexually attracted to Marion and behaved more like a new girlfriend than a potential sexual partner. However, this is all about to change.

To quickly navigate the scene prior to applying Freud’s theory of the uncanny to it, Norman bids farewell to Marion after a good dinner turns to the creepy side. Marion begins to disrobe and prepare to take a relaxing shower. Unbeknownst to her, Norman has removed a portrait of a bird from his wall and is using a peephole to gaze into her room. After spending some time on an extreme closeup of Norman’s eye, Marion puts on a robe and sits down at the desk. Norman replaces the picture on the wall and heads back to his house. Marion does some math (pertaining to the $40 thousand she stole) and then gets in the shower. Not long into the relaxing hot water, Marion is attacked by a shadowy figure resembling an old woman. She is stabbed repeatedly and left to die. We slowly spin out from Marion’s lifeless eye to close out the scene.

There is a great juxtaposition in the Norman before his peeping-tom voyeuristic actions and during (and after) his choice to peep into the bedroom on the unsuspecting Marion. It is as though there was something repressed–hidden down deep inside–Norman that unexpectedly returned to the surface of the conscious. This return then prompted him to go from exhibiting homosexual (or perhaps asexual) behaviors to clear hormone-driven heterosexual male behaviors.  Although on the juvenile side, Norman clearly shows that he not only wants to be friends with Marion but to experience sexual relations with her. And, he gets his rocks off by watching her disrobe. Interestingly, the fact he is behaving similarly to a 14 or 15-year-old male plays directly to the notion that these heterosexual emotions were repressed since he was young.

But, Norman does not continue indefinitely gazing into the room of Marion; he eventually replaces the picture and heads to his house and sits. Perhaps he is in contemplation of what he wants and what he knows he cannot have. He clearly wrestles with this uncanny appearance of these feelings he is not used to experiencing. An important aspect to the uncanny is that the individual has no control over when this return of repressed unfamiliar feelings emerges. So, this isn’t something that he, in all likelihood knows how to control. So, instead of controlling it, these repressed feelings begin to take over his conscious by using pathways in the unconscious (the home of that which is uncanny).

Back in the bathroom of Marion’s room, Marion steps into the shower and is soon attacked by a dark shadowy old-woman-like shadow. This shadow is Norman dressed as his mother. Since the uncanny lives in the unconscious, over which we can exhibit no control, it develops its own mechanisms of dealing with this return of the repressed. By killing the object that aroused these unconscious feelings, the unconscious is able to then return to a balance. Of course, this isn’t truly a balance because it is directly linked to socio-pathological behaviors that rely on violence to purge the emotions and drive them back to the unconscious where they belong.

Norman’s initial response, following the iconic brutal murder of Marion, was denial and projected blame onto Mother. From the time the audience is first introduced to Norman, they are presented with an individual who is timid, shy, and nervous. But, when Mother breaks through his cognitive defense mechanisms, he becomes aggressive, destructive, and volatile. As a result of this cognitive struggle between the conscious and subconscious, the presence of Mother causes pain, anguish, and both internal and external conflicts within the mind of Norman. As the psychiatrist Dr. Fred Richmond, in the movie, stated, “At times he could be both personalities, carry on conversations. At other times, the mother half took over completely. Now he was never all Norman, but he was often only mother. And because he was so pathologically jealous of her, he assumed that she was jealous of him. Therefore, if he felt a strong attraction to any other woman, the mother side of him would go wild.”

Through the psychiatrist’s psychoanalysis, rooted in Freud’s theories, the audience learns that Mother was a permanent part of his mind. After watching the movie, the audience is only ever faced with a brief moment of the pathological side of Norman. However, this brief moment is enough for the psychiatrist to conduct a preliminary evaluation of Norman’s psyche. Playing to the unheimlich of the film, umheimlich referring to what’s “uncanny” about the film (or more literally translated as unfamiliar), despite the mere glimpse into the crazy side of Norman, the audience begins to allow fear and terror to take over and imagine what he is truly like. Oddly enough, even though the audience is terrified of Norman, they also sympathize with him because of the trauma exercised on Norman from his domineering mother, thus debilitating Norman for the rest of his life.

Using Freud’s model and theory of The Uncanny to evaluate these famous scenes from Psycho, it is clear that Freud was ahead of his time and was able to explain what would drive someone to behave in such a horrific manner. By breaking it down this way, Freud actually makes Norman seem like someone that could exist in real life, and that is perhaps the most terrifying aspect to the movie. The fact that Norman could be your next-door neighbor, is enough to spark fear and horror into the lives of those who watch this masterpiece.

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Ryan is a screenwriting professor at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog!

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“Annihilation” film review

Outstanding craftsmanship that provides a trippy, surrealist experience! It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a horror science-fiction film like this one–one that harkens back to the manner in which Stanley Kubrick terrified audiences with his cinematic masterpieces. The brilliance of this film is the visually disturbing storytelling that’s built upon metaphysical and philosophical queries as well as Freud’s uncanny. Written and directed by Alex Garland (Ex Machina) and based upon the Southern Reach book series by Jeff VanderMeer, Annihilation boasts an all-female lead cast that takes the audience on a gripping, nail-biting adventure into the unknown that is frocked with wonder and tragedy. Falling in line with extraterrestrial films, this one exists somewhere between Alien and Arrival with influences from Kubrick and even Salvador Dali. Don’t wait for it to be released on Netflix internationally to avoid watching it at your local cinema; this IS a film best viewed, experienced, and enjoyed on the BIG screen–and not the 65in in your living room. For those who look for and appreciate science-fiction and/or horror films that explore psycho-social and institutional themes, then this is truly a film for you. Cognitively engaging and physiologically disturbing, Annihilation is a turbulent, horrific adventure.

After a mysterious meteor-like object strikes a lighthouse in Area X (most likely the swamplands of northwestern Florida), an increasingly growing membrane-like phenomenon is slowly swallowing up the land around it. When several paramilitary and scientific expeditions do not return from exploring the anomaly, biology professor Lena Kane (Natalie Portman) is aggressively recruited to work on the next team of scientists to track, report, analyze and potentially rescue former teams from what’s being called “the shimmer.” Professor Kane and her team have no idea that they will be facing their worst nightmares inside the shimmer as they explore this unknown world filled with dangerous opposition from the creatures that live within and the psychosis-like tension between the team members themselves.

Definitely not a film for the general masses. And you know what??? That is perfectly fine. In fact, that’s why this film works so incredibly well as an avant-garde-like science-fiction horror film. Had it directed for the masses, the film would not be nearly as stimulating psychologically and physiologically. Much like Garland did with the Oscar-winning Ex Machina, he crafts a world based on the best-selling series that takes the audience on a disturbing journey into the macabre, which juxtaposes the physical and metaphysical dimensions. Garland’s Annihilation is a masterful cinematic work that combines excellent writing with exceptional imagery and stunning practical effects. If Dali were alive today, this is the kind of film that he would have wanted to work on because there is such a heavy surrealist approach to the production design and visual effects. But this film is so much more than just the cinematic beauty of the motion picture. There are philosophical questions that one may ask oneself that create an added dimension of engagement that further immerses the audience into the world of the film.

Much like with Ex Machina, Garland shows an obsession with the need to see and see through when observing an unknown entity that may or may not be sentient. Paralleling how he set up the glass wall between Caleb and Ava (the AI) in the compound/lab designed by Nathan (Oscar Isaac, who is also in Annihilation), Garland sets up the interrogation room in which we are first introduced to Lena while she is being interviewed by the team in hazmat suits. I love the play on perspectives, vantage points if you will in both movies. That fluctuation between a filtered and unfiltered view of the phenomenon under observation offers much depth to the storytelling. In Annihilation, we are initially introduced to the shimmer, and world within, through sensors, readouts, and other “filters” but then we are thrust into the horrifying flora, fauna, and animal life without any type of protective boundary. Freud refers to the revealing of that which should remain hidden or the return of the repressed (which we literally get to witness in this film) as that which is uncanny (click for article). Just as our characters are constantly searching for clarity, you will find yourself paying close attention to the unknown to gain an unhindered understanding of what you are witnessing.

Not your average science-fiction horror film, this one will truly get under your skin–much like The Shimmer invades the bodies of those who choose to enter the dark twisted, refracted world of that which lies beyond our senses. Truly terrifying, this film is one for those who love a sci-fi horror that will prompt you to contemplate the themes and subtext of the movie. One of the quandaries that face the characters, and by extension, the audience is the idea of self-destruction versus suicide–the physiological versus the psychological components. For those who may worry that the film is “too intellectual,” the story is told in such a way that it not only appeals to film critics, academics, or horror aficionados but can be enjoyed by those who like a good, disturbing scare. The fact that there is the “intellectual” dimension to the film adds to the experience for those who appreciate that element in visual storytelling.