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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Peering Through the Hole into “Bates Motel”

BatesMotelTVPremiering in 2013, the longest running scripted drama in the history of the Arts and Entertainment (A&E) channel is Universal Television’s Bates Motel starring Freddie Highmore, Vera Farmiga, Max Thieriot, Nestor Carbonell, and Olivia Cooke. Based on the iconic film Psycho (1960), directed by the master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock with story by Robert Bloch, Bates Motel takes us back to Norman’s early days when he was just a teenager–who was anything but normal. If you have kept up with the series, it is at a huge turning point in the character development of Norman and it just keeps getting better and better. Often shows as dark and heavy as Bates Motel do not have staying power or begin to wane after 2-3 seasons. Not this one. Just like Hitchcock’s masterpiece Psycho continues to impress, terrify, and influence even today’s suspense/horror movies, Bates Motel provides audiences with a glimpse into how Norman came to be while concurrently focussing on others who are directly and indirectly connected to the development of the most infamous psychopath in all cinema history. From visual and verbal nods even in today’s horror films to inspiring theme park attractions to television shows, the drama at Bates Motel continues to beckon audiences and intrigue those who find the characters fascinating.

Hitch_HouseSadly, executive producer Carlton Cuse confirmed that the show’s next season is slated to be the last, and will adapt the events of the series’ namesake. Although I wish the show could go on, it is clear that we are approaching the events that started it all. That being said, this upcoming season is sure to be exciting as we get to witness the gap between where we are and where Marion Crane checks into the infamous motel begin to narrow and close. Whether we are going to end the series at the point Marion walks in or recreate the diegesis from Hitchcock’s film leaves to be seen. One of the reasons that a series like this one can even be produced is that it has prolific material from which to pull and interpret–the fact that the character of Norman Bates has been studied for years, much in the same way the film itself has been explored–provides writers and producers ample opportunity for inspiration.

Norman and NormanSince we are given little information about Norman in the movie–note: that does nothing to mitigate the experience or effectiveness of the plot–his childhood to adolescent years and transition into adulthood is open for interpretation. For many years, film scholars like myself and others have often hypothesized what psychological and emotional experiences plagued Norman and affected his development. It would be all too easy and even a copout to state that he simply suffers a psychological disorder that was present when he was born. What I appreciate about the show’s portrayal of Norman is taking the cognitive and emotional atypical condition he was likely born with and throwing other experiences into the mix. It’s nature v nurture on a whole new level. Through the storytelling of Bates Motel, we have witnessed how his upbringing has had a profound impact on his development into the single most famous psychopath in cinema and now television history.

Emma_DylanThe show is not limited to the development and history of Norman, but also includes influential people in his life. Of course there’s Mother (Norma), but we also have grown to love his estranged brother Dylan, close friend Emma, and frienemy Sheriff Romero. Obviously Norman is obviously interesting to watch, but the writers and producers of the show make sure that each of the principle and reoccurring characters are fascinating as well. Dylan represents the only male figure in Norman’s life who consistently tries to help him, even though Norman often cannot see the love in his brother’s actions. Much like Norman, Dylan has also encountered much negativity and abandonment issues as a kid. Unlike Norman though, he found ways to deal with it and build a life for himself. In recent times, Norman keeps pushing the one positive male role model in his life away to further isolate himself. His close friend and coworker Emma is a very interesting female figure in his life. Unlike Mother or other females we have encountered over the series, he loves Emma and has done nothing to bring about permanent harm to her–at least so far. Emma is the only person who really gets to see the Norman hidden behind all his bizarre actions and obsession with Mother. Like Norman and Dylan, Emma had her own struggles with cystic fibrosis. Each of the characters is dealing with their own respective psychological or physical problems.

Romero_AlexLastly, prior to analyzing Norma, Sheriff Romero has played a key role in the life of Norman. Like Dylan he too is a consistent male figure in his life, but Norman has grown to resent Romero for his relationship with Norma. Romero has worked through his involvement in the drug trade and has grown as a result of it. Again, we have an individual with their own personal conflicts amidst the consistent conflict of Norman. The only other character, besides Dylan, who really knows what Norman is capable of. Romero is constantly trying to protect Norma from what he dreads Norman is truly capable of.

NormaBates1“Mother, what have you done?!?” Norma Bates is probably the most fascinating character after Norman. She is the closest to him and has been directly and indirectly responsible for his atypical development from his time as a child into an adult. Although she all but denies Norman’s psycho-social and emotional problems, she truly does recognize they exist. Unfortunately, she is so incredibly attached to him, having been abused and abandoned herself in the past, that she cannot truly provide the help he needs. Fortunately, she finally got him the help he needed–and should’ve received years prior–at the Pine View facility as we have seen in this season. It’s too little help too late. For the longest time, she felt that mother knew best and that no one could help Norman the way she could. Oh the irony. The attachment she was so fond of is regrettably the very thing that would bring about her undoing. Despite her best intentions, she really was the most instrumental in creating a monster. Her fits of rage and jealousy transferred into the mind of Norman and intensified the predisposition to sociopathic behaviors already present. Had she taken him to get help as a child, it is entirely possible that he may not have turned out to be the “psycho” after all. But, mother will always be with Norman; and no woman is allowed to take the place of her in his life.

bates_motelWell, here we are! At the crossroads between seasons four and five. This upcoming season is sure to terrify and excite as we buildup to the single most famous scene in all of cinema history. The reason the shower scene is the single most famous scene can be recognized by analyzing the length, actions, and sounds included in those few seconds. You can learn more about that scene by reading my article The “Attraction” of  Horror: a “Psycho”analysis. After more than 50 years, the Bates Motel and Norman still haunt our dreams and provide direction and inspiration for today’s cinematic storytellers. An interesting thought on the direction of these immortal characters and setting is the potential for a live theatrical production. There is certainly enough dialog driven material that Psycho and Bates Motel can easily be translated into a live theatre experience. It takes rich material to be able to be so versatile. Here’s to the final season of A&E and Universal Television’s five year homage to the infamous and macabre happenings at the Bates Motel. Thank you Hitchcock for truly being the master of suspense.

The “Attraction” of Horror: a ‘Psycho’analysis (part 1 of 2)

HitchcockAttractionJust as audiences are fascinated by horror movies and seek to watch that which would be repulsive in real-life, they are equally fascinated in immersing themselves into the experience by way of a theme park attraction. This phenomenon is not limited to horror movies, because rides like Jurassic Park the Ride (Jurassic Park River Adventure in Florida), Revenge of the Mummy, and Pirates of the Caribbean beckon millions of guests a year. In addition to attractions based on the movies, movie studio executives and theme park engineers created attractions that embody what Carl Leammle first envisioned, by taking the audience behind the magic of the movies. This is the case with the (now closed) Backlot Tour at Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Hitchcock: The Art of Making Movies at Universal Studios Florida (Murdy, 2002). The relationship between the cinema and theme parks is a strong one and creates an energetic synergy that entertains millions of people each year by eliciting laugher, screams, tears, and smiles.

BatesMotelFloridaThe most admired and revered part on the famous studio tour at Universal Studios Hollywood is the Bates House and Motel. As the tram passes the iconic motel and house that set the bar against which all other slasher films would be judged, an actor portraying Norman Bates charges toward the tram wielding the famous butcher’s knife (Murdy, 2002). Even though the audience knows this is a tour behind the scenes of the most utilized backlot and studio in the world (Milman, 2001), there is something uniquely special about this chance encounter on the tour. And, that something is what the designers of the guest experience on the studio tour use to bring about the successful convergence combining both the original movie and the live experience. In order to successfully complete the transposition from the movie to the live experience, the attraction designers tapped into the uncanny or unheimlich (Freud, 1919) of Psycho and utilized the elements of terror and shock to facilitate the aura of horror that exists just by looking upon the timeless motel and house.

Psycho_SoundstageCentral to Psycho and the single most famous scene in cinema history (Cosgrove, 2013) is the groundbreaking shower scene. And, it is the highlighted element at the former Universal Studios Florida attraction Hitchcock: The Art of Making Movies. One of the opening day attractions located in the former Production Central area of the park (Singer, 2013), this attraction took park guests into the world of suspense and horror as meticulously crafted and defined by Alfred Hitchcock (ThePsychoMovies.com). Although it was replaced with a less critically important and pivotal movie themed attraction in 2002 (mostly to attract younger audiences), it is an excellent example of the fusion of horror cinema and themed entertainment attractions. In addition to the Art of Making Movies attraction, there was a recreation of the infamous motel and house in the park built for the filming of Psycho IV: The Beginning in 1989-90 (MovieMassacre.com, 2014). For those who have seen Psycho, the very sight of the motel and house is enough to strike fear into the mind and bloodstream. It is representative of the very best that horror cinema is able to offer society. In no attraction, based off a work of horror, is there a better example of the very essence of horror films than in the synergistic experience of beholding the four-fold elemental process of the Hitchcock: The Art of Making Movies attraction (Singer, 2013).

PsychoShowerClensePrior to ‘psycho’analyzing  the attraction of horror, it is imperative to understand why the shower scene is the single most famous scene in all cinema. The shower scene is a roller-coaster of emotions; and, in many ways, this scene in and of itself follows the basic structure of a story (introduction, rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement). The scene begins with Marion closing the shower curtain as we get a closeup shot of her face as the shower turns on.  Given this closeup, the facial expressions are easily denoted on her face. The flows of emotions on her face resemble the face of someone who is being cleansed from or baptized for their transgressions. This emotional transition is made more clear when comparing this scene to the earlier one with Marion and Norman in the office when she suddenly feels as if she “stepped into a private trap” and wants to see if she “can step back out of it” (Psycho, 1960). In addition to the metaphoric sin cleansing affect of the shower, Marion is also physically and emotionally exposed and vulnerable. And, what about that showerhead? Throughout the movie, there are eyes on Marion (real estate buyer, boss, police officer, mother’s eye, etc…). The frequent cuts to the showerhead essentially imply the showerhead as yet another eye watching Marion. Furthermore, the frequent cuts to the showerhead also help to create the sensation that something is not right.

Following the symbolic cleansing in the shower, the audience witnesses the shadowy figure emerging from the bathroom door and walking up to the infamous shower. Due to Hitchcock’s use of the cinematic rule of thirds, we are already expecting the entrance of someone before the door ever opens. Through the eyes of the camera, we see Marion’s private space is violated by this shadowy figure. The camera slowly zooms in to the figure through the opaque curtain until the moment when the shadow throws open the curtain and there is a closeup of Marion’s face exhibiting total terror as the knife is raised against her.

PsychoShowerScreamImmediately after the shots of Marion’s iconic scream and the knife, the speed of the cuts increases exponentially. Aside from having to creatively cut the film in such a way that neither Marion’s naked body nor a knife officially penetrating her body is seen, the speed was necessary to enhance the disorientation and violence of the relatively short montage. Through both objective and subjective shots, we are both mother and Marion within hundredths of seconds of one another. The precise cuts in the film give the illusion that Marion is being stabbed multiples times; however, there is only one shot that captures the knife barely penetrating Marion’s vulnerable and exposed flesh. The terrifying key to this scene is the fact that very little violence is actually seen; most of what is shock-inducing is what is not seen and implied through the artful use of music, cuts, and angles. Hitchcock once said, “there’s nothing more frightening than an unopened door.” This implies that there is a greater fear of what in unseen than that which is visible in the diegesis on the screen.

MarionCraneEyeIt is nearly impossible to closely read this scene without acknowledging the most famous orchestral screeches in cinema history. Those famous screeches greatly enhance the disorientation and terror of the scene. Coming out of nowhere, the terrifying sounds from the orchestra create the sound design for the knife penetrating Marion and slashing her to death. One could cut to black and allow the music to be heard throughout this iconic scene, and the audience would still feel anxious, macabre feelings and shock. Interestingly, this same action would also reveal how short the shower scene really is. Regarding the sound design, there is much more of the water heard than the sounds of murder. Following the murder, the score greatly slows down and deepens. This musical movement allows the audience to reflect upon what has just occurred and begin to contemplate the various consequences of mother’s actions.  Lastly, the camera slowly spirals out from Marion’s eyes symbolizing that everything Marion planned has just gone down the drain through this seemingly random act of violence, and then there is a cut to the drain of the bathtub itself cementing this metaphoric notion. Keeping with the reoccurring theme of eyes, this also reinforces the fact that the eye is the window to the soul and someone is always watching.

CONTINUED NEXT WEEK. Check back next Monday 🙂

BatesMotelAETVDon’t forget to watch Bates Motel on A&E tonight! It’s the season finale and it’s going to be intense!