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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“13 Reasons Why” television review

A fascinating approach to the exploration of the butterfly effect in terms of how that theory plays out in interpersonal relationships. Or, the most comprehensive anti-bullying PSA out there. Unless you have been off the social media grid, there is little doubt that you are unaware of the impact and following of the Netflix original show 13 Reasons Why. Although it took a few weeks for the show to really catch on, once it became a topic of memes, Tweets, and other social media posts, the popularity of the show spread quicker than a viral meme. Responses to the show have been quite polarizing. There is the camp that feels strongly that the show provided an organic unfiltered approach to the gradual mitigation of one’s psycho-social health upon constant negative encounters with peers and bullying; likewise, there is the camp that feels equally strongly that the show glamorizes the ultimate pay-back effect of making peers and authority figures feel responsible for an individual’s decision to commit suicide, and therefore plants the idea that you can exert the pinnacle of revenge by telling your story after the fact. At the end of the day, one’s response to the show will depend on how one interprets the rather meta narrative. Beyond the contentious diegetic components of the show, the production value and editing are superior to other YA shows and even movies.

It’s been quite a while since I reviewed a television show, so I though that this one would be quite interesting to delve into. I’ll be up front and state that I belong to the camp that feels the show is a mirror to bullying and those who suffer psycho-socially moreso than the camp that feels the show supports the belief that it’s perfectly acceptable to blame others for how one feels. Not that I do not see evidence of the latter–I do–but I think the danger in that camp is throwing out the important anti-bullying messages too. Again, it comes down to how YOU interpreted the show’s narrative. The beauty of shows like this one–like this one, in that there is much left up to interpretation–is the simple fact that it gets people talking about a taboo topic or topics that are seen as difficult to talk about. Doesn’t matter the camp to which you may belong; this show accomplished what I believe it set out to do: get people talking about bullying, relationships, and sexual assault in an organic way. Whether you feel that Hannah (Katherine Langford) was justified in her decision, was selfishly seeking attention and desired revenge, or the one that best describes me: disagree with her decision to commit suicide but understand how she got to that point, 13 Reasons Why provides audiences (mostly those in their 20-30s) with ample material to explore the narrative itself and the impact it has had upon the present cultural climate.

Much like in the same vein as the prologue in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in which we are prevued, through dramatic irony, to the unalterable fact that “two star-cross’d lovers” take their lives and [the audience] will spend the next two hours watching events unfold upon the stage thus learning how and why, Netflix’ 13 Reasons Why begins with the unalterable fact that a young lady has taken her life, and you’ll spend the next 13 episodes learning just why. While the show in question may not completely align with a Shakespearean tragedy, there are many similar components in the story. Moreover, had the show been shot in grayscale and set in the 1950s, it could have easily been a film noir. As it were, it can be classified as a neo noir show. But what keeps audiences engaged with each and every episode is the anxiety that builds up in regards to just why is Clay (Minnette) on those tapes, because everything the audience sees is the nicest guy next door that you could ever meet. There is also a ticking time bomb plot device mildly used because there are only six double-sides tapes and one single (13 sides in total); so the closer we get to the end, the more tension builds. As I cannot comment on the best-selling novel by Jay Asher because I have not read it, the writing of the television adaptation is absolutely brilliant–it’s designed to be addictive and succeeds in keeping eyes glued to “whatever device you are using” to watch the show. Interestingly, just like Clay cannot put the tapes down, neither can many out here put the show down.

Throughout the story, we encounter significant peers and authority figures in Hannah’s life that either directly or indirectly contributed to her decision to end her life and leave the tapes. Yes, I am aware that ultimately she made the decision–that is not what I am arguing for or against here. My point is, we encounter different people who each possess unique character attributes, flaws, and personality traits that impacted Hannah’s psyche. Exploring each character could be entire reviews in and of themselves, so I will be brief. You have characters ranging from disclosing secrets for the sake of showcasing art to not being brave enough to stop something horrible, from stalking those who you feel are more popular than you to something as simple as abandoning your friends at “FML” coffee sessions, and even a character who is so blinded by friendship that they cannot see and return the love of another, finally there is a character who cannot hear cries for help, for those cries are falling upon deaf ears. Each character represents a different character archetype. Along the lines of films and shows that personify the seven deadly sins, this show personified character traits that should be avoided in order to not contribute to someone’s overwhelming negative outlook on life. In short, do not be a dick. Treat one another with respect and love.

(This paragraph contains some mild spoilers) Although one of the characters has two tapes, each tape focuses on a particular person and the thing he or she did to add one more marble to the scale, slowly tipping it. For those who have dealt with perpetual taunting, teasing, or bullying or experienced it while going through K-12 school and living with the emotional scares as an adult, the show does an excellent job of not shying away from the little things, as well as the big, that each break you down a little at a time. Furthermore, the show also provided audiences with brief glimpses into what drives a potential school mass shooter to begin plotting his or her revenge and that one student’s suicide can prompt another because of the hurt someone else may be facing that feels unbearable–or brought on by the guilt of having contributed to the former’s decision to kill herself (Hannah). I think what hurts the full potential of the show’s ability to call for positive change is never taking a stance on Hannah’s suicide–never does a character state that what Hannah did was wrong, or that it deeply hurt those who DID love and respect her. Of course, the moral implications are topics best saved for another day and another forum.

Upon reading the news of a sequel, I cannot escape the fact that this story does not need a sequel–it IS a complete story; however, there could be “13 reasons” why the attempted suicide in the show during the final episode happened or why another character began to plot for a school mass shooting. Those are potential spin-offs that take place within the same universe and with the same characters. In terms of the show’s production value and editing, I was impressed with the subtle nuances of the present day versus the flashbacks. As a rule of thumb, I do not usually care for flashbacks. I mean, if you spend most of your time in a flashback(s), then let THAT be your main story. That being said, 13 Reasons Why successfully integrates the flashback into the diegesis because it makes the present story just as interesting to watch as the past stories. I also loved the color temperature changes from the present to the past. The stylistic editing techniques employed enable the audience to know when they are watching a flashback versus present day. In addition to the editing, there are also wardrobe, makeup, and costuming differences as well. Over all, this show is definitely one to watch in order to fully grasp just how much the little negative interactions or experience with one another can add up to leave someone feeling like there is no way out or whether or not they have the strength to go on.

Reimagining Halloween in the Parks this Year: the Mind of Horror v. the Eye of Terror

After taking break from posting last week, as it was a holiday, I am happy to provide you with another stimulating article once again on the themed entertainment industry! All week long, I have been thinking about what to write this week. I’ve covered some of the recently opened or previews of attractions and theme parks opening soon; but, I thought that I would take a slightly different approach this week. Over the last year, the United States and other countries have been experiencing a rise in violence. Whether that violence has (1) always been there, but because of the great mediation of society (a proliferation of media capturing devices and distribution outlets), we simply see it more often or (2) if there truly is a signifiant rise in mass violence compared to past decades, is not what I am here to discuss. I would, however, like to discuss the upcoming Halloween events in the parks this year, and specifically, how they might have to adapt or change as a result of the recent mass shootings.

HHN2016Already, Universal Orlando has alluded to the fact that it may be revisiting some of its offerings for this year’s Halloween Horror Nights (HHN), and it would not surprise me if Busch Gardens Tampa Bay makes a similar decision with Howl-O-Scream (HOS), as both parks primarily draw from the Central Florida area and of course tourists still flock to the parks for the annual celebration of the macabre. The recent massacre at the Pulse Night Club will undoubtedly have an affect upon the planning and logistics of primarily HHN followed by HOS to a lesser extent. Since the horror film, and by extension the haunted house attraction (or scare zone) are both grounded in the same anthropological (inclusive of sociology) and psychological theories, there is definitely an opportunity to explore this area of themed entertainment. As Disney’s Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party and SeaWorld’s Spook-tacular do not include glorified violence or death, I will not spend time analyzing how those events may change, because they are mostly benign. Suffice it to say, there will likely be some changes coming to HHN and HOS this year. What are those changes? Well, I am not prevued to those decisions; but can extrapolate from logic and theory what may happen in light of recent events in Orlando and beyond. It is important to note that both Universal Orlando and Busch Gardens Tampa Bay mostly likely have to revisit some of the scare zones or houses this year but not implement changes that may have a negative affect upon drawing from guests outside the Central Florida area. Striking a balance between curtailing some of the violence in respect to those who died and still satisfying those who were not emotionally or psychologically impacted is the key.

HOS2016The events certainly still have to feel like Halloween but perhaps reimagining some of the offerings will aid in finding that delicate balance. It is entirely possible that many who have enjoyed going to HHN and HOS in the past may back off this year in an effort not to come face-to-face with violence as it has greatly impacted many people. Here’s an interesting question: does horror have to be violent? Yes and no. Some of the greatest horror movies of all time are not terribly violent at all, but the eye witnessing violent acts certainly creates terror in the minds and bodies of the audience (or park guest). Alfred Hitchcock once said, “there is no greater threat than an unopened door.” This is indicative of the master of suspense’s ability to generate the fear of something or someone that may not even be a threat. There is another Hitchcock quote (or, at least I believe it’s Hitch) to the effect of “greater is the fear that’s in the mind than on the screen” (if you know of this exact quote, please let me know). That being said, likewise, seeing Freddy, Jason, Leatherface, or Michael is equally terrifying because of the trademark violence they have displayed on the screen over the years. It is important to year-round or seasonally operating Halloween-themed attractions to include both the physical and psychological/emotional aspects of horror in order for the guests to have a dynamic and full experience facing that which terrifies them and from which guests would otherwise run away.

unheimlichThroughout 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.  In his study on the uncanny, Freud takes on the literary imagination (this same literary analysis can and is used to analyze film and themed entertainment) 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 affects 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; and for purposes of our discussion, the horror attraction.

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, theme park attractions, 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. During times of tragedy felt by an entire group of people or nation, the same concepts which work in literature and film may not work as well, for a period of time anyway, in themed entertainment. 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. 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 Blvd. 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, and by extension themed entertainment designers, are concerned with exposing the audience to “other” scenes. And, these “other” scenes are rooted in the subconscious.

eyeofhorrorMoreover, Carol Clover also provides insight into the fascination with the horror theme park attraction. After all, horror films and theme park attractions are mostly concerned with what you actually see. Horror attractions, much like their movie counterparts, are visual stories that are translated into experiential narratives. The Halloween themed attractions in the parks have to include different eyes. The three principle types of eyes used in horror attractions are the assaultive gaze (active, penetrating), reactive gaze (passive, penetrated, the most common in horror storytelling), and repeated gaze (masochism for characters and spectators alike). This is one reason why extreme closeups (ECU) of the eye are popular in horror films turned attractions. The eye is extremely symbolic in narratives driven by fear. The design of horror attractions and films is extremely fascinating because of the convergence of visual storytelling and engineering. It’s more than blood, gore, screams, and knives; there is almost a poetry behind it. A brilliantly insightful quote from Clover is, “Inasmuch as the vision of the subjective camera calls attention to what it cannot see–to dark corners and recesses of its vision … and what might be … just off-frame–it gives rise to the sense not of mastery but of vulnerability.” At the end of the day, both HHN and HOS highlight our vulnerability and prey on our fears of that which assaults the eye and should remain hidden.

corridorBut what about HHN and HOS this year? Looking to the past, and how Universal Orlando handled mass violence in society that had a profound impact on a group or whole culture of people may help shed light on what might be expected this year. During HHN XI (2001), Universal Creative pulled Eddie, the chainsaw wielding maniac with a complex and fascinating backstory, from the lineup after the attacks on 9/11/2001. It was decided that the mood of the United States was such that it would have been in poor taste to include such a violent icon in the theming. In addition to the removal of the HHN icon, most signs of blood, gore, and the glorification of violence were removed–even names of characters and zones were modified. Because of the recent deaths of nearly 50 people (some of whom were connected to the parks as employees, bloggers, or past performers), we might witness a similar reimagination of events at Halloween Horror Nights and Howl-O-Scream this season. Hopefully, I have been able to open a discussion on how things could be reimagined at the annual Halloween events this year. An attraction can be equally terrifying even if there is no violence to be seen. However, the inclusion of cliche horror film violence is an integral part of the modern Halloween attraction experience. Even Carol Clover explores the importance of men, women, and chainsaws in horror storytelling. Perhaps the creative engineers and designers at the parks will look beyond what has typically been a staple of these events and embrace other avenues of terror that will still prompt screams. In all likelihood, we will probably see the dial turned back on the knives and guns during HHN and HOS but that certainly does not mean that the attractions will be any less terrifying. It’s entirely possible that the mind of horror will outweigh the eye of terror in the theming, planning, and design of HHN and HOS this year.

The Man Vanishes

ShrinkingManEvery once in a while, I make observations of trends in entertainment and media that I like to explore in hopes of encouraging further discussion; this is one of those topics: The portrayal of white heterosexual men in media has definitely changed since the days of Father Knows Best, Silver SpoonsAndy Griffith, and Leave it to Beaver. Just so we are clear, I am neither condemning nor condoning this changing portrayal in television and advertising. I am merely highlighting an element of the media based on both empirical and anecdotal evidences that, if for no other reason, is simply interesting to think about. Media should aim to be fair to all races, ethnicities, sexual orientations, religious beliefs, and genders in terms of their respective narrative portrayals. Of course, there is nothing wrong with stereotyping for comedic or dramatic effect; but, it should not become the norm or the status quo. But I digress; you could call the white heterosexual male in media the vanishing man because of how he has been treated over the years, especially in the last 20. The title I selected for this article is a play on of one of Hitchcock’s earliest film titles The Lady Vanishes.

Lucille Ball in her most famous roles in the series, except the Freezer episode.

Lucille Ball in some of her most famous roles in the series.

During the early days of entertainment media (both radio and television, and to some extent movies), the traditional male stereotype was one of strength, intelligence, rationale, and leadership; whereas the stereotype of women was unfairly characterized as ditzy, homebodies, less intelligent, overly emotional and mainly concerned with house chores and child rearing. Note: Lucille Ball’s character in I Love Lucy definitely doesn’t fit the aforementioned stereotype–and thankfully so–she did so much for the portrayal of women in media and gave us one of the most iconic characters that became such a part of Americana. Perhaps that’s why the show is still relevant today. On a side note, I watch it every morning at Planet Fitness while I use the elliptical. Anyway, over time, the stereotypes of men and women (and for the most part, unless otherwise stated, this article is referring to white heterosexual men and women) have shifted greatly. In recent decades, the past traditional female stereotypes have been rightly criticized for being unfair to women.

Cast of "Married with Children"

Cast of “Married with Children”

But, in an effort to be more fair to women, have men been dealt an unfair blow? In the past 10-20 years–mostly concentrated in, but not limited to, sitcoms–men are now almost regularly portrayed as unintelligent, irrational, disconnected, bumbling, and child-like; however, women are now shown as the grownups, leaders, intelligent, rational, and practical. This new type of man is seen in shows like The SimpsonsMarried with Children, Home Improvement, and most any Disney Channel or Nickelodeon show. When men are now shown in traditional roles, they are often portrayed as buffoons, clueless, and in need of guidance, often times by a woman or their kids. On the other hand, female characters in the media, like Progressive’s Flo, have evolved over time to be highly intelligent and superior to any male in the commercial. [Please note that I absolutely adore Flo, and find her commercials to be as entertaining as a typical television show.]

Throughout the media, we are seeing a greater diversity of players and representations of various groups such as gay men, in popular entertainment media; we are also seeing different roles for straight men. Mixed race couples can be seen, single parents are no longer regularly shown to be helpless, and non-traditional and extended family units can be found regularly. But in this effort to do good, the scales may have tipped in the opposite direction too much. Among other attributes mentioned earlier, the role of the father in the home is often devalued if existent at all; and men/partners/husbands are often seen as ineffectual and incompetant. A recent example of this can be seen in the Gogurt commercials where the father is preparing his kid’s lunch and the wife “busts his balls,” so to speak, for not packing a well-balenced lunch, which, for purposes of the commercial, means a Gugurt. Another example is the Allstate commercial where the couple is sitting in a cafe and the female driver receives the safe driving bonus check where as her husband or boyfriend does not. That is a common theme in many Allstate commercials. Interestingly enough, this vanishing man dilemma appears to be mostly limited to white men, while black men are usually portrayed as strong, masculine, and leaders in the house. However, in movies, black men are still more often portrayed as the villain and the white guy as the hero–a discussion for another time.

The cast of "Will and Grace." From left: Will, Jack, Karen, Grace

The cast of “Will and Grace.” From left: Will, Jack, Karen, Grace

Switching gears for a moment, the portrayal of gay males (mostly white) in the media has also changed over the last decade. Traditionally when portrayed, if portrayed at all, they were portrayed as silly, goofy, socially awkward, and the side-kick. But a lot has happened since the days of Will and Grace, which is arguably the launchpad of positive portrayal of a principle gay cast in a popular show. Generally speaking, gay [mostly white] males are now shown in a very positive light with characteristics from the silly to the serious in ads, television, and movies. A good example of this would be ABC’s Modern Family or the cancelled NBC show The New Normal, SmashProject Runway, and Glee are also examples of recent shows that feature prominent gay characters in a very positive/normal light, as opposed to the exaggerated characters of gay males in past shows.

Critically examining the media, it becomes clear that white heterosexual men are being systematically stereotyped as week, stupid, immature; and, it appears as though they are the only demographic group being portrayed that way on a regular basis. The desire not to offend gay men and heterosexual women has caused heterosexual men to be on the short end of the stick. In an effort to balance the scale of the representation of white men versus all other demographic groups/minorities, the media has tipped the scale in favor of the minority groups and not thought of how the portrayal is affecting men over the long run. In real life, there are gay, straight, black, white men of all personality types from the serious and responsible to the silly and ill-driven. So when we see only one side of that picture, the media just isn’t portraying a realistic portrait of men as they are today. In both television and movies, it appears as though women are being appealed to by making fun of men and showing them as ineffectual lovers and incompetent. This is increasingly witnessed in sitcoms because dramas have to be more serious and realistic, and not as regularly portrayed in works of cinema.

Not only in narrative television do you find this depiction of men, but you can increasingly find it in advertising as well. Advertisers have always known they need to write the commercials for the one in the family (or household) who does the shopping. Since a growing number of women are the keepers of the purse strings, it makes since for advertisers to gear advertisements toward women because it increases the probability that the product will be purchased. In the past, advertisements showed women how they could please their men by purchasing the right products and services. But now, we see advertising appealing to women by making fun of men. And, this is often combined with the topics that often come up during a girls night out. So, you will often see commercials highlight the incompetent father. In recent studies, research shows that 2/3 of younger men (teens, 20s, and 30s) enjoy shopping. Furthermore, with the numbers of married or partnered couples dwindling and young professionals staying single much longer than in the last generation, it will become necessary for advertisers of household items to appeal to both men and women. And if they are to sell to men, advertisers will need to ease up on how men have been portrayed in household item commercials. Again, this is a generalization because obviously there are commercials that are either neutral or appeal to the men of the house.

By making fun of men in order to appeal to women, are producers and advertisers accomplishing their goal? And, does this actually affect women’s attitudes toward produces, services, and entertainment? Perhaps this is a backlash to being looked down upon for such a long time. Many may see it that way. But, it still does not make it right or fair. Whatever the case, societal norms are changing and men and women are finding themselves in new roles. And, the American idea of masculinity is evolving rapidly as there is a wide range of stereotypes of male in the media ranging from the abusive to the grotesque and from the serious to the silly. In these roles, men are portrayed from only being able to solve problems through brut force to the gay male who relies upon sensitivity and creativity to the metrosexual (straight/effeminate) male. And in that realm of confusion, that may explain why we see these more negative representations of heterosexual males.

Striking a balance in the portrayal of genders in the media is a game

Striking a balance in the portrayal of genders in the media is a game

Hopefully, highlighting this issue will open the door for communication and discussion in terms of gender roles in todays’ society and how various groups of people are represented in the media. Perhaps, maybe this will help producers and advertisers to show all types of people in a more realistic light and not stereotype one group more negatively than another. Due to children being probably more porous than ever, and shaping their world view of men by how they view males in the media, perhaps this will encourage the creators of content not to paint men in such a negative way because there are plenty of examples of wonderful fathers, husbands, and boyfriends out in the world. Research shows that kids’ perceptions of men on television are not positive. And this is a dangerous slope. Many children see men on television as stupid and inept and women are portrayed as effective and intelligent. However, more recent commercials and shows have made an effort to show men in a more favorable light, and we could be seeing the pendulum swing back to a more neutral position.

One thing is for sure, it is up to the parent(s) to guide children as to what is real and not real. And, that males and females in television may not always exhibit characteristics that are desirable in the real world. It is important to stress that stereotypes do not represent reality, but merely a creative twist or embellishment on reality. At the end of the day, characters are created to sell a show. But, it is important to recognize that men may be being dealt a bad hand by the media, and creators should step back to see that the very thing that happened to women and gay males in the past is effecting the portrayal of heterosexual men today.

 

References

  • Abernathy, M., Professor of Communication Studies, Indiana University
  • Lucas, S., Professor of Sociology and Anthropology, Lake Tahoe Community College
  • Gender Ads Project, Accessed from http://www.genderads.com
  • Basow, S.A., Stereotypes and Roles, Thomson/Brooks Cole, 1992
  • Reeves, B., Children’s Perceptions of TV Characters, Human Communication Research, Vol 3, Issue 2