Analysis of ‘Trilogy of Terror’

Trilogy of Terror is a 1975 made-for-TV horror anthology film directed by Dan Curtis. It features three segments based on unrelated short stories by Richard Matheson; the first two segments were adapted by William F. Nolan, while the third–and by far, the best–was adapted by Matheson himself, based on his 1969 short story, “Prey.”

All three segments star Karen Black in the roles of “Julie,” “Millicent and Therese,” and “Amelia,” which are also the names of the segments, since each story, as I’ll argue below, is really about the inner mental life of each character Black plays here. “Julie” costars Robert Burton, Black’s husband at the time. “Millicent and Therese” costars George Gaynes. “Amelia” is essentially a one-woman-play, with only Black and Walker Edmiston doing the voice of the Zuni doll.

Here is a link to a few quotes from the film.

The essential reason to watch, or own a DVD of, Trilogy of Terror is to watch “Amelia,” the excellent third segment, as the first two are rather mediocre stories. It’s never properly explained how Julie lures Chad Foster (Burton) into a brief sexual relationship before poisoning him: is she a witch, or some kind of succubus? And how come her sister (played by Kathryn Reynolds) never even suspects Julie of any kind of wrongdoing? That Millicent and Therese are two personalities in one woman’s body is pretty easy to predict–we never see the two together in the same scene.

It is, however, worthwhile to examine all three stories in terms of their common themes and elements, in order to grasp a deeper meaning in the superb and genuinely scary “Amelia.” All three stories are psychological studies of their titular characters, emotionally repressed women who are rigid, prudish, or otherwise neurotic on the outside, but who each have a hidden, inner dark side that is finally revealed at the end of each story.

These dark sides, or what Jung called the Shadow, are kept from the titular characters’ conscious minds (until the end of each story) through the use of a number of ego defence mechanisms: repression, projection (including projective identification), splitting, denial, and reaction formation. A merging with this repressed, projected, or split-off Shadow occurs at the conclusion of each story.

The sexual predator in Julie is projected (through projective identification) onto her young and handsome American literature student, Chad; the stereotypically male sexual predator becomes the victim of the erstwhile stereotypically female victim of sexual predation, thus reversing the stereotypes. He as a predator parallels the aggression of the Zuni fetish doll against Amelia.

Therese’s seduction of her father (or was it his seduction of her, as repressed by prudish Millicent?), of Thomas Anmar (played by John Karlen), and attempted seduction of Dr. Chester Ramsey (Gaynes) are all instances of Therese as a sexual predator. The Zuni fetish doll, with its phallic spear, and later, the phallic little knife, is symbolically predatory in a sexual sense.

Julie splits off her Shadow side onto Chad. Millicent splits off her Shadow side onto her “sister,” Therese. Amelia splits off hers onto the Zuni fetish doll, making it into what Wilfred R. Bion would have called a bizarre object, a hallucinatory projection of Amelia’s unconscious matricidal instincts.

All three stories involve some kind of strained family relations, the all-too-typical causes of mental disturbances. Julie’s sister, perpetually kept in the dark about Julie’s private life, just wants to help her, but doesn’t even know the half of the problem.

Was Therese’s incest with her father an expression of the Electra complex, including her killing of her mother; or was it (as I see as a possibility) that her father raped her, causing her to split into two personalities, and did her mother, knowing of the rape, kill herself in heartbreak?

Amelia’s mother places great restrictions on her social life, driving her to move out for the sake of at least some independence. The man she’s dating is named Arthur, which sounds like a pun on father and thus symbolically suggests, through transference, more of the Electra complex (which is further intensified by her plan to kill her mother at the end of the story), thus thematically linking this story to that of “Millicent and Therese.”

Along with this literal expression of the Electra complex in “Millicent and Therese,” and the metaphorical one (as I see it) in “Amelia,” there’s also–in how possibly forty-something Julie could be old enough to be the mother of her handsome young male students–a possible mother/son transference in her relationship with them, suggesting a Jocasta complex in her. We thus can see a thematic link among all three stories.

Amelia attempts to kill the Shadow in herself by stabbing the Zuni fetish doll; Millicent kills Therese (and herself, of course) by pricking a voodoo doll with a pin. Chad drugs Julie’s drink at the drive-in; Julie later poisons his drink.

Julie, in behaving so frigidly and unsociably, is engaging in reaction formation to hide her predatory interest in her handsome young male students. Millicent’s prudery is a similar reaction formation hiding how she, being in the same body as Therese, has the same sexual desires. In being so intimidated by her domineering, clingy mother, Amelia is using reaction formation to hide her wish to kill her mother and thus free herself from her.

Each of Black’s characters, in a symbolic or literal sense, merges with her Shadow at the end of each segment. Julie, in drugging Chad’s drink as he’d drugged hers, has merged with him (through their sexual relationship), her projected Shadow. Millicent pricks the voodoo doll representing Therese (since it’s she who wants to kill Therese, not vice versa), but has done so in Therese’s blonde wig, makeup, and clothes; in other words, both personalities had to have been present at the time of the killing, both of them sharing consciousness, or both “on the spot,” to borrow an expression from Billy Milligan, a merging of them in suicide. Amelia opens the oven in which the Zuni doll is burning, and its spirit enters her body, the resulting demonic possession being a symbolic merging of her with her Shadow.

Let’s now turn the discussion towards sharp teeth. There are the fangs in the vampire movie that Chad takes Julie to see. After he drugs her drink and she falls asleep in his car, he takes her to a motel, where he checks himself and her in as Mr. and Mrs., get this…Jonathan Harker, an allusion to the character in Bram Stoker‘s Dracula; Harker at one point is terrorized by Dracula’s vampiress brides, suggesting already that Chad is being used by Julie, not vice versa.

Then there are the sharp teeth on Amelia’s Zuni fetish doll, teeth that end up in her mouth at the end of the story. As with the drug or poison put in, respectively, Julie’s and Chad’s drinks, the biting teeth are symbols of projective and introjective identification, understood especially in the context of Bion’s notion of container and contained…that is, not the kind that mothers use to soothe their agitated babies, but rather negative containment, which leads to a nameless dread (see Bion, Chapter 28; for more on Bion and other psychoanalytic concepts, go here).

Bion used masculine and feminine symbols to represent, respectively, the contained and the container, suggesting phallic and yonic symbolism. In turn, the sharp teeth, like the spear and little knife the Zuni doll uses, are phallic (also like the vampire’s fangs), and the bite and stab wounds are yonic. In this negative containment, trauma (as opposed to the processing of pain that a mother does for her baby) is projected from the attacker and introjected into the victim.

The pricking of the pin into the voodoo doll representing Therese, as well as Amelia’s stabbing in the Zuni doll’s face as it tries to get out of the suitcase she’s trapped it in, are also symbolic examples of this projection and introjection.

With all these points of thematic comparison and contrast made, we can now focus on the deeper psychoanalytic meaning of the best segment, “Amelia.” As I said above, it’s fitting that these stories are all named after the women Black plays in each of them, because the real theatre of these stories dramatize what’s going on in the heads of these three mentally ill characters. That “Amelia” is more or less a solo performance emphasizes that we’re dealing with a drama happening entirely inside her mind.

I believe the Zuni fetish doll coming to life and attacking her is a hallucination, a projection of her repressed wish to kill her mother, who oppresses her with guilt trips to keep her from living a free life.

She buys the doll knowing about the warning not to remove the chain from it, that its removal will bring it to life. She doesn’t believe such a thing will really happen, of course, but the idea exists in unconscious phantasy for her. She looks at it, saying it’s so ugly that even its mother wouldn’t love it; saying this is a reflection of how the doll is a projection of her own unconscious matricidal urges–no mother, Amelia imagines, would ever love her daughter for having such feelings.

After arguing with her mother on the phone in the living room over whether they can cancel one night together (a regular Friday night get-together she and her mother always have) so Amelia can spend it with her boyfriend on his birthday, she–oppressed with guilt from her mother’s manipulations–brings up the doll, telling her mom of how it will supposedly come to life with the removal of the chain. Her bringing up of this is a wish-fulfillment and an implied warning to her mother, who, significantly, hangs up at just that moment.

Amelia then holds the doll, and she seems to have touched the chain at least a little. She sets it on the table and walks away. As we know, the chain falls off the doll’s waist. Now, consciously, she shouldn’t be concerned about this, since she doesn’t believe there really is a spirit inside the doll; but unconsciously, she has a wish that this spirit will come out, with the possibility of it one day attacking and killing her controlling mother. Therefore, Amelia’s fondling of the doll, leading to the chain falling off, is a parapraxis indicating her unconscious matricidal urges.

After being in the kitchen to slice up some meat (with that little knife) and put it in the oven, she returns to the living room to find the doll no longer standing on her coffee table. She looks around, including under the sofa (the obscurity below being symbolic of the unconscious), but can find only the Zuni doll’s spear, the tip of which pricks her finger. Her inability, at this point, to find the doll is representative of her repression of “He Who Kills.”

The living room lamp suddenly switching off represents further repression. Right when she goes to turn it back on is when the doll attacks her, at her foot. This attack represents the return of the repressed, in which the forbidden, repressed feelings return to consciousness, but in a totally unrecognizable form. In Amelia’s case, her matricidal desires have returned to consciousness in the form of a hallucination: the doll trying to kill her, rather than kill her mother.

So on the surface, conscious level, Amelia is terrified of the doll killing her, of course; on the unconscious level, though, she is afraid of what the doll represents–her matricidal Shadow merging with her, a merging caused by all those projective/introjective cuts and bites, the container wounds and the stabbing and biting of the contained.

Her real fear is her wish to kill her mother.

This fear/desire is what makes this third segment so scary.

So her attempts to stop the doll–wrapping it in a towel and drowning it in the bath water, stabbing it in the face, smashing it against a lamp, shutting doors to keep it out, locking it up in a suitcase, and burning it in the oven–are really attempts to prevent it from merging with her.

Now, there’s her wish to prevent the merging, but there’s also the wish for the merging to happen, hence, as I said above, her ‘accidental’ causing of the chain to come off, then her slipping and falling when running away from the doll–which allows it to get to her again–and, when she tries calling the cops, she oddly can’t remember the address of her apartment and thus can’t help the cops find her. This ‘forgetting’ is another parapraxis serving her unconscious wish to merge with her murderous Shadow as personified in the Zuni fetish doll.

Its unintelligible babbling, combined with her screams, is an expression of Lacan‘s notion of the Real, a realm of non-differentiation, of unverbalized trauma.The doll’s possibly killing her is far less horrifying that its merging with her to commit matricide, which–as the psychiatrist said at the end of Psycho–is the most unbearable crime of all. Amelia’s conflict is of the classic id vs. superego kind, or of gratification vs. morality.

As the doll is using the little knife to cut a hole in the suitcase she’s trapped it in, she tries to grab it by the blade with her fingers, a foolish, futile move that only gives her a bloody cut. Again, though, this act reflects her conflict between wanting to disarm the doll and stop its attacks on the one hand, and her unconscious wish to merge with it (i.e., the cut on her finger, the container, from the knife blade, the contained, as an act of projective and introjective identification).

Similarly, after she’s thrown the doll in the oven to burn it (as Julie burned down Chad’s apartment and him in it after poisoning him), she has to open the oven door…consciously, because she needs to make sure it’s ‘dead,’ but unconsciously because she wants to be merged with its spirit, which of course she does.

Now, just as I believe the doll’s coming to life is a hallucination that we, the viewers, share with her, so do I believe her merging with the doll’s spirit at the end, including her razor-toothed grin, is a hallucination, a delusion we viewers share with her. Her unconscious desire to kill her mother was there from the beginning; her belief that the demon in the doll has possessed her has given her a convenient excuse to kill her mother with a clear conscience. After all, it isn’t Amelia who wants to slice her mother up with that large knife she’s poking on the floor…it’s the ‘Zuni demon’ who wants to.

Similarly, Julie entertains the illusion in her mind that Chad is the sexual aggressor while she pretends to be innocent and frigid (her ‘witchcraft’ on him being a metaphorical projection onto him), and Millicent imagines Therese is a sister rather than a split-off personality bearing what’s actually Millicent’s middle name, another act of projection.

In therapy, one sometimes speaks of doing Shadow work, a confronting of and merging with one’s Shadow. Such a merging is not what’s happening here, with these three women Black is playing. Julie, Millicent/Therese, and Amelia split off, project, and repress their respective Shadows with such vehemence that the inevitable merging comes with a violent force that has tragic consequences.

One must assimilate the Shadow, but it must be the conscious personality that integrates the Shadow, not vice versa. Jekyll integrates Hyde, not the other way around. Julie projects Chad (remember that what we see on the screen is a dramatization of her inner thought processes; it’s not to be taken as literally happening), Millicent splits Therese off from her, and Amelia hallucinates the living spirit in the doll. These acts of projection result in Hyde taking over Jekyll.

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