Analysis of ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’

A Nightmare on Elm Street is a 1984 horror movie written and directed by Wes Craven. It stars Heather Langenkamp, John Saxon, Ronee Blakley, Robert Englund, and Johnny Depp in his film debut.

The film got rave reviews and is considered one of the best horror films ever made, spawning a franchise with six sequels, a TV series, the crossover film Freddy vs. Jason, and a remake of the same name. It shares many tropes of the horror films of the 70s and 80s, such as Halloween: these include the killing of sexually promiscuous teenagers (an implied moral judgement on them), and the final girl trope.

Here is a link to quotes from the film.

A striking feature of A Nightmare on Elm Street is the blurred distinction between dream and reality. These two can be seen to correspond respectively with the unconscious and conscious minds, for as Freud once said, “the interpretation of dreams is the royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious activities of the mind.”

That dream and reality overlap to such a great extent in this movie, implying a corresponding overlap between the unconscious and conscious minds, helps us understand the true relations between these two mental states. Hence, the psychoanalyst‘s preference of the term unconscious over “subconscious”: the hidden world expressed in such things as the symbolism of dreams is not ‘beneath’ consciousness, it isn’t in another realm relative to consciousness; rather, it hides in plain sight, right in the conscious realm of reality. We see and hear that hidden world all around us in waking life–we just don’t recognize it as such. It isn’t known to us…it’s unconscious.

This is why Freddy Krueger (Englund) manifests his presence in both the dream and the waking worlds. He’s there in conscious life, but what he represents remains unknown to the conscious minds of the teens he terrorizes: he personifies what Melanie Klein called the bad father.

Krueger attacks teenagers, who are full of conflict over their love/hate relationships with their parents. They love and need their parents, but they’re also sick and tired of being told what to do by them. This love/hate relationship is personified in the image of the teen’s parents as good mother/father vs. bad mother/father, a result of the defence mechanism known as splitting, what Klein called the paranoid-schizoid position (PS). ‘Schizoid’ refers to the splitting into absolute good and bad; ‘paranoid’ refers to the paranoid fear of being persecuted by the bad internal objects of the parents, as represented by Krueger.

An important insight of ego psychology is the fact that, since much of the ego is unconscious and preconscious, much of the defence of the ego is also unconscious. The ego “…contains complex unconscious defensive arrangements that have evolved to satisfy the demands of neurotic compromise, ways of thinking that keep repressed impulses out of conscious awareness in an ongoing way. Unlike unconscious id impulses that respond with enthusiasm to the prospect of liberation in making their presence felt in the analytic hour, unconscious ego defenses gain nothing from being exposed. Their unobtrusive, seamless presence in the patient’s psychic life is perfectly acceptable (ego syntonic) to the patient; they often function as a central feature of the patient’s larger personality organization…The ego, charged with the daunting task of keeping the peace between warring internal parties and ensuring socially acceptable functioning, works more effectively if it works undercover.” (Mitchell and Black, page 26)

What the teens in this film are really terrified of isn’t Freddy, but rather the return of repressed bad objects, which WRD Fairbairn compared to demons who emerge and possess their victims (PDF, page 6). Freddy is a child murderer who was hunted down and burned to death by such parents in the Elm Street community as Marge Thompson (Blakley), mother of Nancy (Langenkamp); he’s come back, however, as a demon to continue his terrorizing of the young–the return of repressed bad objects. His immolation, thus, represents a temporary victory of the good parent internal objects over the bad ones.

So the movie is really about teenage rebellion (e.g., the lovemaking of Tina [played by Amanda Wyss] and Rod [played by Nick Corri] in her parents’ bed) vs. the wrath of their authoritarian parents (symbolized in Tina’s being killed immediately after that lovemaking).

The film begins with Freddy assembling his glove, attaching the blades to its fingertips. These phallic razors represent what Klein would have called the bad penis. In the original script, Freddy was supposed to be a child molester; though this aspect was excised from the movie, a kind of repression in itself, it can be seen to be hovering in the background, an implied dark sexuality to Freddy’s violence. In this way, he as bad father can be linked to the precursor of Freud’s notion of the Oedipus complex, the seduction theory.

Tina is terrorized by Freddy in a dream. Her mother comes to her room to see if she’s OK, and she says it was just a dream, though she’s still visibly shaken. Her father comes by and shows affection to her mother, the kind of thing that can provoke unconscious jealousies in parents’ children, as well as such night terrors as the contemplation of the primal scene.

Tina grabs the crucifix from the wall above her bed; but what does the crucifix indicate? God the Father sending God the Son–who said, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”–to an excruciating death. Since, as Freud noted, belief in God represents a need to continue to have one’s father’s protection, the crucifix indicates again the frustrations of the parent/child relationship, so it won’t save Tina, and she knows it. “Five, six, grab your crucifix,” from the rope-jumping little girls’ chant right after this scene, is a meaningless warning to her.

Indeed, the next night, when she has her friends sleep over with her so she won’t be alone, that is the night when Freddy kills her. He appears in her nightmare, stretching out elongated, phallic arms, suggesting the sexual undertones of his terrorizing of youth, as well as reinforcing the phallic symbolism of those finger-blades.

Tina calls out, “Please, God!”, to which he replies, “This…is God,” referring to those finger-blades. God the Father here is the bad father, the phallic, seductive father who destroys teens with, symbolically, the same sexual defilement that he judges them guilty of (i.e., Tina’s and Rod’s moment in her parents’ bed) and punishes them for.

At one point during the chase, he uses the blade-glove to slice off a few fingers on his other hand. This dismemberment is a symbolic castration, which in turn symbolizes the lack that gives rise to desire–in Freddy’s case, a desire to merge the libido of Eros with Thanatos, the drive to kill, but to do so in a sexually symbolic way. Furthermore, this self-injury, meant to terrorize Tina all the more, merges Freddy’s sadism with masochism. Recall Freud’s words: “A sadist is always at the same time a masochist.”

Freddy typically attacks his victims in an old boiler room where he, when alive, killed his child victims. This place, dark and fiery hot, symbolizes the dark passions of the unconscious, also the realm of the repressed, bad internal objects of these teens who are so conflicted in their attitudes to their parents.

Freddy’s killing of Tina, the use of his phallic finger-blades to tear up her guts, is a symbolic rape, a hint back to Craven’s original intention to make Freddy a child molester. With her death comes the introduction of Nancy’s overprotective, domineering father, Lt. Thompson (Saxon, who also played a cop in Black Christmas, a film about a serial killer who sexually terrorizes young women, and which warps Christian meaning into something obscene and violent).

Though little children are in awe of parental authority, imagining Mom and Dad to be faultless fountains of knowledge and wisdom, when these kids become teens, the flaws of their parents become harder and harder to ignore, and so that naïve awe wears off. Their disappointment in their so-imperfect parents, combined with their having grown weary of Mom’s and Dad’s dos and don’ts, causes them to want to rebel. Thus comes the return of the splitting of their parents into absolute good (the vestiges of that original, awesome authority) and absolute bad (the disappointingly human, all-too-human parents, exaggerated into something much worse in the unconscious mind).

With this schizoid splitting into absolute good and bad comes the paranoid anxiety that the bad aspects will come after, punish, and persecute the rebellious teens. This splitting, as a defence mechanism, tends to be unconscious: hence, Freddy as the bad father appears in the teens’ dreams.

The disappointing faults we see in the parents include not only Nancy’s father’s annoying overprotection, but also that of the father of Glen (Depp), who imagines that Nancy’s ‘craziness’ is a potential danger to his son; hence, he wishes to have Glen no longer see Nancy. Another flaw is seen in Nancy’s mother, an alcoholic.

Parental transferences are made in other authoritarian figures for the teens to scorn: teachers, student hall monitors, and policemen, regardless of whether they’re authoritarian or merely perceived to be so.

After Tina’s death, Nancy is in English class, nodding off at her desk from not having slept well recently, for obvious reasons. Her teacher is discussing Hamlet, a play dealing with much parent/child conflict, as between the Danish prince, his mother the queen, and his uncle, the usurping king, who married her after killing his father, the ghost of whom wanting him to get revenge by killing his uncle. (Freddy, the bad father, is also seeking revenge for his murder.)

The teacher mentions Hamlet’s “mother’s lies,” and has a student read a passage from Act One, scene 1, lines 112-126, spoken by Horatio after he and two of the castle guards, Marcellus and Bernardo, have seen the ghost of Hamlet’s father. The passage is full of spooky imagery, full of omens presaging the assassination of Julius Caesar; the eeriness of what Horatio is describing is meant to be compared with that of his having just seen Old Hamlet’s ghost for the first time, a possible omen for the downfall of the kingdom of Denmark by Fortinbras.

This creepy speech is also an ill omen for nodding Nancy, who now hears her classmate recite lines occurring much later in the play, when Hamlet says to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, “O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.” (2, ii, 253-255)

And indeed, Nancy beings to have a bad dream of her own.

She sees Tina’s bloody ghost, wrapped in a body bag in a way suggesting the veil of the Virgin Mary, a juxtaposing of extreme good and evil imagery suggestive of splitting. Nancy follows her, soon to be stopped by a nerdy female hall monitor nagging her about a hall pass. Nancy’s defiance against this annoyance, from a transference of her domineering parents onto the hall monitor, brings about the unconscious splitting of her parents into all good vs. all bad, the paranoid-schizoid position (PS).

With the splitting of the schizoid aspect of PS also comes the paranoid aspect; hence, the hall monitor is seen to resemble Freddy more and more, first with his red and green striped sweater, then with his bladed glove. Soon after, Freddy himself is chasing her in that boiler room.

Her method of escape is significant: to wake herself up, she–cornered by Freddy–burns her arm on a hot pipe to her left. Such self-injury, to get her away from the violence of the bad father, is symbolic of an unconscious ego defence mechanism, turning round upon the subject’s own self.

If a little child is being abused by his or her mother or father, contemplating that the parent is a bad person is far too terrifying for the helpless child to bear; so turning the badness round upon him- or herself, though painful in its inducing of wrongful guilt, nonetheless saves the child from the far more unthinkable realization that the parent he or she depends on has evil intentions. If it’s the child who is bad, then at least Mommy and Daddy aren’t bad; splitting is thus overcome.

Nancy wakes up screaming in terror and is sent home. Since she has spoken to Rod in prison–who in spite of the charge of Tina’s murder on him, insists he’s innocent–and she has learned that he, just like Tina, has dreamt of Freddy, too, she realizes these are more than just nightmares.

Nancy is taking a bath that night, and she’s nodding off, her head almost going underwater. Her mother, just outside the bathroom, warns her about the danger of falling asleep in the water and drowning. Nancy is annoyed with her oversolicitous mother, especially when she says she’ll give Nancy some warm milk, which seems infantilizing and associative of breastfeeding.

Just before her mother’s warning, Nancy dozes off briefly, and in an iconic scene we see Freddy’s bladed glove rise out from the water between her legs, just below the crotch. With the phallic symbolism of the glove, this image is suggestive of Klein’s notion of the terrifying combined parent figure, Nancy’s internalized phallic mother, a reaction to her mom’s nagging, overprotective attitude. Freddy’s near drowning of her in the bathwater only reinforces her terror of the unconscious bad mother internal object, a terror ended by her mother’s intervening, a re-establishment in Nancy’s mind of her whole mother, both good and bad.

Later that night in her bedroom, The Evil Dead is playing on her small TV, Ash‘s climactic confrontation with the demons in the cabin in the woods. It’s interesting that this, of all movies, would be the one she’s watching, for as I explained in my analysis of that film, the demons also represent repressed bad internal objects.

Her boyfriend Glen, who lives across from her home on Elm Street, goes over to see her not by knocking on her front door to ask her parents if he can see her, but by climbing a trellis to her second floor bedroom. This clandestine meeting of teen lovers, in defiance of their parents, reminds us of another Shakespearean play, Romeo and Juliet, which also involves parent/child conflict (i.e., Old Capulet‘s fury when Juliet refuses to marry Paris). Indeed, Glen climbing that trellis to Nancy’s bedroom suggests the famous balcony scene in Act Two, Scene ii of the play.

She wants Glen to watch her while she sleeps, to wake her if he sees her having a nightmare. She dreams of bloody Tina wrapped in the body bag, but with a centipede crawling out of her mouth, then a pile of snakes slithering on the ground where Tina’s feet should be. This juxtaposition of hateful images with that of Nancy’s beloved friend, in that veiled Marian look, again suggests unconscious splitting into absolute good and bad.

Nancy also sees Freddy about to kill Rod in his sleep in his prison cell. She needs Glen to wake her fast so they can go to the police station and get to Rod before Freddy does. They’re too late, of course: it looks as though Rod has hanged himself, though of course we know that Freddy killed him. To understand this film from a psychoanalytic perspective, however, if we see Freddy as the personification of a repressed bad father internal object, we can understand Rod’s nightmare of Freddy (as well as Nancy’s nightmare) as the two teens’ having projected Rod’s suicide onto Freddy.

Rod has every reason in the world to want to kill himself. A criminal type already from the start of the film, he’s had trouble with the law through his involvement with drugs and violence. Seeing the gory killing of his girlfriend is beyond traumatizing, and to pour salt on his psychological wounds, he is blamed for killing the last person in the world that he’d ever want to kill, with no way of proving his innocence. (Or has he, in spite of his love for Tina, killed her in a brief fit of psychosis [we know he’d had a fight with her, and that he was “crazy jealous”], and he’s now unconsciously projecting his violence onto Freddy?)

As a criminal, Rod despises authority figures like Nancy’s father, people who no doubt are transferences of his own parents, with whom he must have a troubled relationship. Projecting his hanging onto a bad father figure thus makes his suicide easier to commit, since in his despair there is nonetheless another part of him that still wants to live, and he is thus conflicted about whether to be or not to be.

Nancy is getting increasingly traumatized, and therefore unwilling to sleep. Her rejection of what Freddy represents, the bad aspects of her parents that have been split off from the good aspects and projected outward, has resulted in her being terrorized by that projected representation of the bad father. Since there’s a blurred distinction between dream and reality in this film, it’s legitimate to doubt the physical, objective reality of any of the supernatural phenomena seen in the film.

So much of what we see, if not all of it, could be collective teen hallucinations based on their neurotic, conflicted feelings about their parents and other authority figures. Wilfred Bion observed in his psychotic patients an inability, or unwillingness, to process the raw sensory data of emotional experiences for use in such things as dreams; if his patients didn’t dream, they didn’t sleep [Bion, page 7], as is the case with Nancy, who it would seem is having a psychotic break with reality. (See here for more on Bion’s concepts, as well as other psychoanalytic terms.)

Bion wrote of a particular kind of hallucination he called a bizarre object, which is actually something projected from the psychotic onto the outside world. This is how we can interpret the teens’ experience of Freddy, particularly Nancy’s experience of him, she who is resisting sleep to avoid dreaming.

After Rod’s funeral, Nancy’s mother drives her to see a doctor who will examine her while she sleeps. She’s still too afraid to dream, but Dr. King (played by Charles Fleischer) tells her that if she doesn’t dream, she’ll go (he points to his head, implying that she’ll go crazy, like Bion’s psychotics). She has a nightmare from which she awakens and her bed seems to produce Freddy’s hat; I interpret this as a hallucination that she imagines others have shared with her.

Back at home, she and her mother argue about whether her experiences with Freddy are real or not. Nancy learns his name from reading “Fred Krueger” on his fedora. Her frustration with her mother’s denials provoke her to make an impertinent remark about Marge’s alcoholism, making her slap Nancy.

In this moment, we can see an example of the root cause of Nancy’s psychopathology: her traumatic disappointment in realizing that her mother, like everyone else, has faults. The idealizing child in Nancy can’t accept these faults, so in her unconscious she uses the defence mechanism of splitting to keep her mom’s good side pure.

The problem is that the bad side turns into Freddy.

Later, Glen tells Nancy about how the Balinese deal with nightmares, something called “dream skills.” They wake up and write down the dream content, using it in their art and poetry. This sounds like the defence mechanism known as sublimation, taking unacceptable unconscious feelings and turning them into art. Glen also says the Balinese will turn their backs on whatever scares them in their dreams, taking away the evil spirits’ energy and thus defeating them. This turning one’s back on the anxiety-producing elements of the unconscious sounds like denial.

Nancy returns home to find bars on all the doors and windows. Infuriated at this latest manifestation of authoritarian parental repression, she confronts her mother. Marge takes Nancy into their basement, a symbol of the unconscious. There, Marge tells her about Freddy when he was alive, when he preyed on children and killed at least twenty of them. Though arrested, he was let go on a technicality, so the parents of the Elm Street community hunted him down and burned him to death in his boiler room.

Marge takes his bladed glove from the furnace to reassure Nancy that he’s dead and gone; symbolically this killing of Freddy is an attempt by the good in parents overcoming the bad, yet another attempt at splitting. Still, Nancy of course will not be convinced of any of Marge’s assertions; she’s convinced that Freddy is an avenging demon; he’s a projection of her unconscious persecutory anxiety brought on by the bad father she’s internalized and tried to project into the outside world.

Nancy would have Glen help her catch Freddy once she’s summoned him in her next dream, but Glen has an overprotective father of his own who, seeing craziness in Nancy, doesn’t want his son around her anymore; so when she calls Glen on the telephone, telling his parents she urgently needs to speak to him, his father hangs up on her and leaves the receiver off the hook. She can’t contact Glen at all now, but Freddy can terrorize her by making her phone ring and speaking to her on it…after she’s yanked the cord out of the wall. His claiming to be her new boyfriend not only implies the killing of Glen, but also suggests the bad father of Freud’s seduction theory.

I discussed in my analysis of Black Christmas (link above) not only sexually charged phone conversations, but also how the use of the telephone can be symbolic of alienation, in that we communicate with it, but don’t see the person we’re chatting with face to face (rather like the alienation felt today when communicating with others through social media–we’re still far away from them). Nancy can’t connect with her boyfriend on the phone, thanks to his grumpy, authoritarian father; but she can get unwanted communication with her projected bad father object.

Speaking of alienation, media, and meddling parents, Glen is in bed with headphones on and a small TV nearby. His mother comes in his room to nag him to go to sleep, but he wants to watch Miss Nude America, not caring what she has to say, just fetishizing her body.

Given what’s just happened with Glen’s officious parents, it’s interesting to note specifically how he dies once he’s fallen asleep. Freddy’s blade-gloved arm comes up from a hole formed in the bed, and he pulls Glen in, his victim screaming for his mom.

Freddy, as a representation of the bad aspects of either parent, is usually shown as the bad father, with that phallic bladed glove. We saw the symbolism of Klein’s combined parent figure, the phallic mother, in the bathtub scene with the bladed glove between Nancy’s legs. Now, Freddy’s phallic glove emerges from a yonic hole in Glen’s bed. He and his TV get sucked in the hole, the mother’s baby killed by bringing him back, ironically, to his uncanny place of birth.

Blood sprays up from the hole to the bedroom ceiling, in a geyser of red. Since the hole has yonic, maternal symbolism, the blood can be seen as symbolic either of menstrual blood or of the blood coming from the emasculated phallus. Menstruation indicates that a woman isn’t pregnant, hence, no baby, no life. Emasculation means a man can’t get a woman pregnant–no baby, no life. The parent who fails to be a parent can be seen as a kind of bad parent, flawed, infertile; or bad in the sense that he or she wishes the child had never been born, hence Glen’s return to the womb, so to speak.

Nancy screams in hysterics over Glen’s death. Her father goes to Glen’s house with the coroner, paramedics, and other police; she now has only her father to help her catch Freddy. To deal with the bad father, she needs help from the good father. We hear the love of the good father in Lt. Thompson when he, full of concern for his daughter, tells her to get some sleep, shows his eagerness to catch the killer, calls her “sweetheart,” and tells her he loves her.

This goodness in her father contrasts with the bossy, bad-tempered father we saw before. In this new side of him that we see, the bad and good are seen as one. The splitting that resulted in Freddy is being overcome, and in this union of good and bad, we can see a way to defeat Freddy.

Before confronting Freddy, Nancy spends a moment with her mother, who’s drunk in bed. Instead of feeling anger toward her, Nancy is reviving feelings of affection for her, just as she has with her father; again, this will be part of how she’ll stop Freddy, as I’ll explain further below.

After this moment with her mother, she begins booby-trapping her home using instructions from a book she showed to Glen when he told her about Balinese “dream skills.” (If one didn’t know better, one might think of her booby-trapping as anticipating the Home Alone movies.).

She goes to sleep and provokes an attack from Freddy, getting him to run into the booby-traps, and even lighting him on fire, which triggers his own traumatic memory of when the Elm Street parents burned him to death. This violence that she inflicts on him, as a desperate act of self-defence, represents the defence mechanism–introduced by Sándor Ferenczi and developed by Freud’s daughter Anna–known as identification with the aggressor: on one level, her violence identifies her with him; on another level, it identifies her with those parents, including her own, who burned him the first time. Since Freddy represents these parents’ bad aspects as neurotically experienced by the teens, both levels can be seen as essentially the same thing.

She screams through the window for the police across the street at Glen’s home to get her father, but the policeman who answers doesn’t cooperate as she so desperately needs him to, so she reverts to defying authority by calling him an “asshole” and demanding he get her father.

At one point in the chase, Freddy significantly tells her he’ll “split [her] in two.” Well, naturally: as I’ve been arguing all along here, the terror of this film is based on psychological splitting.

Nancy’s father finally arrives, and the two of them are in her parents’ bedroom. Freddy kills her mother there; she is sucked into the bed, similar to how Glen was. Since her affection for her parents is being revived, the thought of Nancy losing her mother is causing her to feel what Klein called depressive anxiety, which overshadows the persecutory anxiety of the paranoid-schizoid position (PS); and so her splitting can be cured. Nancy is now experiencing the depressive position (D); she wants her mother (and friends) back.

Since her splitting is dissolving, Freddy doesn’t seem so real to her, so she isn’t afraid of him anymore. Now she can apply those Balinese dream skills: she turns her back to Freddy as he’s emerging from her parents’ bed, and she tells him that she’s taking back all the energy she gave him.

Without her fear, Freddy no longer has power over her. In denying that he’s anything other than a dream, she’s using the defence mechanism of denial. When he tries to pounce on her, he vanishes.

The next and final scene seems too good to be true. Not only do we see a beautiful sunny morning outside the front door of Nancy’s house on Elm Street, but she and her (resurrected!) mother seem a little too blissful.

All of a sudden, Marge just ‘doesn’t feel like drinking anymore’; what alcoholic is able to do that? It would seem that in Freddy’s defeat, he’s given back Nancy’s mother and her three friends, who are in a car ready to take her to school with them…a car with a red and green striped convertible roof. Nancy gets in, and the teens are about to drive away.

Since Tina, Rod, Glen, and Marge have all come back to life, it would seem that their deaths were all hallucinatory fantasies. Freddy has returned, though, in the form of that car, which locks the screaming teens in and drives them away without the control of Glen, who’s in the driver’s seat. Marge, at the door, is grabbed and pulled inside through the door window by Freddy’s gloved hand.

She hasn’t responded to her daughter’s cries for help: her idealized, good mother state has had the bad parent state, personified in Freddy, split off from her. We see the little girls’ jump-roping and chanting of the creepy Freddy Krueger rhyme from the beginning of the film, with “five, six, grab your crucifix.” In this, we see again the blurred line between dream and reality. Are our protagonists being killed again for real, or is it just a terrorizing of the mind?

One doesn’t move from PS to D once and for all; these two positions–splitting vs. integration–oscillate back and forth throughout one’s life, especially during the turbulent years of adolescence. Bion, a Kleinian psychoanalyst who developed her theories to a great extent, expressed this oscillating relationship graphically, like this: PS <–> D. (Bion, pages 34-35)

Will Nancy and her friends switch back to the integrated peace of the depressive position, or will they stay trapped in the psychotic splitting of the paranoid-schizoid position? I suppose the sequels, outside the scope of this analysis, will answer that question.

In any case, the very title of the film suggests psychological splitting, with the street’s name suggestive of the stately trees lining the sides of the street to give a sense of the peaceful opposite of nightmare. To offset the extremes of nightmares, one must be willing to lessen the peacefulness of those elm trees. That’s how we get rid of Freddy for good.

Analysis of ‘The Fly’

I: Introduction

The Fly is a 1958 horror/science fiction film produced and directed by Kurt Neumann. It stars Vincent Price, Patricia Owens, David Hedison, and Herbert Marshall. The screenplay was written by James Clavell, based on the 1957 George Langelaan short story of the same name.

The Fly had a mixed-to-positive critical reception on release, and it was a commercial success, boosting Price into a major star of horror films. Now, criticism of the movie is more uniformly positive. Two black-and-white sequels followed: Return of the Fly (1959), and Curse of the Fly (1965). A superb remake, starring Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis, was directed by David Cronenberg in 1986, with its own sequel in 1989.

Here is a link to quotes from the 1958 film, here’s a link to the complete script, and here is a link to the short story.

II: My Radical Reinterpretation

What ought to be emphasized about the story isn’t the notion of scientist André Delambre (Hedison) bring transformed into a fly-human hybrid, the result of a freak accident in his attempt to teleport himself (and, without his knowing, a housefly that got into his “disintegration-reintegration” machine), but rather what such a notion could be seen to symbolize.

What is far more apparent in the short story, if its contents are not naïvely taken at face value, is that its narration–by André’s brother François (played by Price in the film) in the outer frame, then in the middle by André’s wife Hélène (played by Owens in the film) as she tells it in a handwritten manuscript–is given by traumatized people whose reliability is in question.

The film relates the story in a manner implying that everything happened just as told, though, by the end, no proof survives of the more fantastic elements of the story. Still, there are subtle indicators, in the behaviour of François and Hélène, that suggest that affairs aren’t as they look on the screen, implying that the narrative unreliability of the short story has been translated to the cinematic medium.

In the film, François admits to having romantic feelings for beautiful Hélène; though she denies ever having paramours (or André having had them) to Inspector Charas (Marshall), we can easily regard her words as dishonest. Could there have been an affair between her and François, a result of workaholic André’s neglect of his family? Claims of a husband and wife being perfectly happy together can easily be dismissed as a façade.

III: Unconscious Guilt

It is insisted throughout the story that Hélène could have killed André only out of madness. Where could such a madness have originated? Guilt feelings over an affair? Families in France (where the short story is set), or in Montréal (where the film is set), in the 1950s would have been Roman Catholic ones, in which adultery would have been regarded as a serious sin (a sin compounded by a man betraying his brother and, as her son’s uncle, committing incest of a Hamlet-like sort). The mind tries to repress guilt as best it can, but the repressed returns to consciousness in unrecognizable forms.

In the case of this story, the return of the repressed has come in the form of imagining André as having his head and arm traded with the head and leg of a housefly. Such a hybrid symbolizes the bestial side of human nature. His experiments are done in the basement, symbol of the unconscious. In contrast, the ground floor of the house, the upstairs, and outside can be seen to correspond to the conscious mind and the world of superficiality, appearance, what only seems to be true.

IV: Appearance vs Reality

There is much to note in the contrast between the illusory surface and hidden reality in The Fly. The marriage of the Delambres only seems perfectly happy. Similarly, André seems to be the kind, gentle husband who’d never hurt an animal. Yet his workaholic obsession with his basement experiments means neglecting his wife and son, Henri in the short story, or Philippe (played by Charles Herbert) in the film. Furthermore, this supposed animal lover overconfidently and recklessly puts the family cat, Dandelo, in the teleportation machine and disintegrates it.

Hélène, after killing her husband, confesses to the killing with perfect calmness, though François and Charas conclude that she must be mad; indeed, in the short story, she even kills herself in despair. And when François answers the phone at the beginning of the film to learn that she has just killed his brother, he’s quite calm; whereas at the beginning of the short story, he speaks of being “uneasy” from telephones, having to restrain his agitation when answering them.

In fact, in Cronenberg’s remake, this theme of appearance versus reality is revisited in how Seth Brundle (Goldblum), upon emerging from the teleportation machine as “Brundle-fly”–far from being the shocking monstrosity André is with his fly’s head and leg for an arm–looks exactly the same as before on the outside–in fact, he’s also physically superior. It’s only later that we realize that Seth is a monster hiding inside, that inside showing itself more and more to the end of the remake.

V: Implausible Science

Now, this difference between the 1958 and 1986 movies brings me to a point that I hope will help explain the particular angle at which I’m interpreting the original movie and the short story. I don’t believe André has actually had his head and arm swapped with the head and leg of a housefly–I believe this transformation really is a fabrication of his wife’s mad imagination, just as Charas does. The reason for my disbelief should be obvious: the science behind the transformation is preposterous. Hardly anyone apart from Hélène even believes it!

How do a fly’s head and leg grow to the comparable sizes of a man’s head and arm, while the latter two shrink to the sizes of a fly’s equivalent body parts? How is the man’s intelligence maintained in the giant fly’s head, even if only temporarily? And how is there a comparable intelligence, enough to squeak “Help me!” because of an approaching spider, in the miniature head of the fly caught in the web?

Small wonder that in the 1986 remake, the writers wisely spread the fly’s DNA equally throughout Brundle’s body. Surely even Langelaan and Clavell realized that the swapping of heads and limbs, as given in their respective versions of the story, is unbelievable scientifically. Hence my contention that Hélène is genuinely insane, an insanity brought on by the trauma of her husband’s violent death, a suicide with her assistance (as she describes it). François is similarly addled by this trauma. I believe his confession of love for her provides the vital clue to the reason for their narratives’ unreliability, something easily maintained in prose writing, but not so easily translated onto the big screen, since we, the watchers of the movie, tend to have credulous eyes.

VI: Unreliable Narration, in the Text, and Onscreen

Though his confession of love for Hélène isn’t found in the short story, I believe there are plenty of subtle hints of an affair between him and her in Langelaan’s words, however carefully the two guilty ones try to tiptoe around any mention of their guilt. Such tiptoeing is also evident in the film, in their innocent conversations throughout.

I see the visuals of the film as representing their unreliable narrations, and since the film is largely faithful to the short story (except for such–mostly minor–changes as the setting, Henri’s name becoming Philippe, which of André’s arms is switched with the fly’s leg, his head being revealed as all housefly or as a mix of fly and the cat, whether or not Hélène kills herself, and whether it’s François or Charas who kills the fly in the spider web), I feel it isn’t too far out of place to assume that François is (unreliably) telling the outer frame of the story through visuals, and her telling of the inner narration, instead of writing it in a manuscript, is unreliable.

VII: The Telephone

I’ll come to those subtle hints of an affair later, as they arrive in the sequence of the plot. For now, I’ll start with François’s answering of the phone. In the film, he’s calm enough, though in the short story, this calmness disguises a terrible agitation from hearing the phone ring, especially in the middle of the night, as happens at the beginning.

The reason for his unease comes from a feeling that the caller is coming into the room, intruding on his private space, breaking into his home to talk right into his ear. It seems odd that the short story should begin this way, yet if one compares this transmission of a voice–instantaneously from one place, far away, to another–to the teleportation of whatever (or whoever) is in André’s “disintegration-reintegration” machine, such a beginning of the story, along with François’s agitation, becomes explicable. The one instantaneous transmission is associated in his mind with the other.

Recall that I don’t take the human/fly hybrid story literally; also, François is beginning a narration–one after the events of Hélène’s story have been made known to him–with a discussion of the, if you will, ‘teleportation’ of the human voice. This aural teleportation feels like a frightening intruder to him, like the intrusive fly in André’s machine, and like the human/fly monster he becomes, which is an intrusion into the lives of François and Hélène.

VIII: Nothingness

The pertinent thing about teleportation, like the instant movement of the human voice from here to far away, or vice versa, is the sense of no intermediate area for teleportation to move through. The displaced entity–be it a voice on the phone, or a plate, a newspaper, a cat, a guinea pig, or a man (mixed with a fly)–disappears, vanishes in the place of origin and reappears in the destination. That lack of an in-between route to travel through, that gap, feels uncanny, a land of nothingness. This gap, I believe, is what frightens François so much.

Similarly, when André’s body is discovered in the Delambre brothers’ factory, his head and arm crushed under the steam hammer, it isn’t so much the blood that is horrifying, but how the head and arm are so thoroughly flattened as to have been reduced to nothing. The hammer’s impact has been set at zero, a setting the drop is never given. François notes in the film that zero “means level with the bed”; such a setting “would squeeze the metal to nothing,” as has been done to André’s head and arm.

The purpose of this extreme setting is ostensibly to annihilate even the slightest hint of a fly’s head and leg, instead of André’s head and arm; I’d say, though, that it’s that very nothingness, revealed when the hammer is raised, in “the ghastly mess bared by the hammer,” that causes François (in the short story) to be “violently sick.”

IX: Resistance

When Charas questions Hélène about the killing of André, she is fully cooperative about explaining what she did, and in detail (except for her odd forgetting about having dropped the steam hammer twice, to crush his fly-leg/arm). She adamantly refuses, however, to explain why she killed him.

In the short story, François describes Charas as being “more than just an intelligent police official. He was a keen psychologist and had an amazing way of smelling out a fib or an erroneous statement even before it was uttered.” So his questioning of her puts him in the role of psychoanalyst, and her in the role of analysand. Her insistence that she cannot explain why she killed André can be seen as a form of resistance.

Of course, she eventually does explain why, but in the form of a bizarre monster story that hardly anyone can believe; certainly the science behind the story is so ludicrous that even Langelaan and Clavell must have had their own doubts about it, as I’ve explained above. This fly-human hybrid story must be a case of the return of the repressed in an unrecognizable form…but what could the fly-hybrid monster symbolize for mad Hélène? I’ll come to this soon enough.

X: The Gap In-between

It is insisted that her marriage with André was a perfectly happy one…but we are suddenly ‘teleported,’ if you will, from perfect marital bliss to her killing of him, and with the refusal of a proper explanation, except for this bizarre fly-monster story. Just as there’s a gap between the caller’s voice at one end of a phone call, and his voice heard by the receiver on the other end; and just as there’s the gap of the disintegration of what’s teleported at one end, and its reintegration at the other end; so is there a gap between the couple’s marital bliss and the killing…that dreaded, uncanny nothingness in the middle.

Above, I wrote of André’s basement laboratory as symbolic of the unconscious, where the “disintegration/reintegration” machine causes that in-between gap of nothingness. In the short story, the laboratory isn’t in his basement, but in a separate building right by the factory with the steam hammer. Now, the laboratory doesn’t have to be underground to represent the unconscious…or the “subconscious,” where Charas imagines the fly to have meaning for Hélène. Psychoanalysts don’t speak of the repressed as being ‘beneath’ consciousness, but as being unknown to consciousness, for the repressed comes right back to the surface and hides in plain sight, as it were. A fly is buzzing around, in the air, much of the time in the movie.

XI: The Lacanian Unconscious, and the Gap as Lack

In The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, Lacan speaks of how “the Freudian unconscious is situated at that point, where, between cause and that which it affects, there is always something wrong…what the unconscious does is to show us the gap through which neurosis recreates a harmony with a real–a real that may well not be determined…and what does [Freud] find in the hole, the split, in the gap so characteristic of cause? Something of the order of the non-realized.” (Lacan, page 22)

This gap is between cause and effect, like the gap between disintegration and reintegration, the empty space replacing a path on which something, otherwise not disintegrated and reintegrated, would travel, rather than be teleported, from A to B. This gap is also the Lacanian lack that gives rise to desire, and discovering what the desire is in this story is key to understanding the symbolic meaning of the fly.

XII: Freudian Slips

We must fill in this gap to determine what is being repressed, what is not being said or shown in the short story or the film, but what is rather hinted at through the occasional Freudian slip, or symbolic interpretation of whatever in the story is described as something otherwise mundane or in a matter-of-fact physical way.

One such a slip, as I see it, occurs when Henri/Philippe is not regarded by Hélène as her son. In the short story, François in his narration calls the six-year-old boy, his nephew, “the very image of his father”; but as I’ve said above, this narration is unreliable. Because of André’s death and Hélène’s declared madness, François has been made the boy’s guardian, in effect, his new father; yet any suggestion that he really is the boy’s father will be guiltily denied.

In the film, François even says to Charas, “She acts as if the boy were mine and not hers.” Charas speculates that Hélène is trying to protect her son, or that perhaps she fears or hates him, something François dismisses as an insane idea, and it is at this point in the film that Charas asks if François is in love with her, to which he immediately replies, “Yes.”

Why would a scriptwriter of Clavell’s obvious ability add this element to the story without developing it, if it didn’t serve much of any purpose? Note that François’s declaration of love comes immediately after a claim that Philippe is supposedly his son and not hers. Could he be her love-child by François in a love affair, one she feels so guilty about that, in her mad guilt, she denies her own maternity? The way the film ends–with François, in effect, as the boy’s new father, and Hélène having not committed suicide but being, also in effect, his new wife–looks suspiciously like wish-fulfillment. Such wish-fulfillment reinforces the visual presentation of the film as really being François’s unreliable narration.

XIII: Forbidden Desires and the Fly

Naturally, François rules out even the possibility of an affair with her by saying, “I don’t think she ever noticed me,” though a close look at Charles Herbert, the child actor chosen to play Philippe, looks more like he could be a son of Vincent Price than of David Hedison. Finally, during the scene when Philippe has caught the fly with the white head, and he sees his mother with his uncle, he is annoyed to be told by her to let the fly go; but as he is going outside and closing the front door, he looks back at her and his uncle with a split-second look of suspicion in his eyes, as if he sees the two adults acting a little too familiar at that particular moment.

That this suspicious moment happens on the very day when the heads and limbs of André and the fly are switched is significant. Here we come to the very symbolism of the fly. Male houseflies, during their short lives, have a voracious sexual appetite and are constantly on the lookout for females to mate with. In this we can see a symbolic link with my suspicions of a guilty sexual tryst between François and Hélène.

This guilt results in feelings of shame, disgust, and worthlessness, which can all be associated with houseflies. André’s constant preoccupation with his work, even to the point of writing out a new formula for teleportation on the program pamphlet to a ballet he’s supposed to be watching with his wife, means he’s emotionally neglecting her, which not only can drive her into the arms of his brother (who we already know is amorously infatuated with her), but which also makes André as worthless to her as a fly. So the exchanging of his head and arm with the head and leg of a fly is symbolic of this depreciation of his worth to her.

XIV: The Buzzing

With the guilt and shame that an adulteress feels, especially as one who, according to the short story, “had ever been a true Catholic, who believed in God and another, better life hereafter,” Hélène would have been desperately afraid of anyone finding out about her extramarital affair. Hence, her agitation whenever hearing the buzzing of a nearby fly.

Let’s recall the multiple meanings of the word buzz. Apart from the insect noise, buzz has been used to refer to the sound of telephones (remember in this connection the irritation François feels at the sound of a phone ringing), and also to refer to rumours. These additional meanings had existed long before the writing of the short story and the making of the movie. So her agitation at the sound of buzzing symbolically suggests her fear of gossip, or rumours from people knowing about her affair.

XV: Obsessions with Flies

Also, her nervous breakdown at the asylum after seeing a nurse swatting flies can be attributed to a triggering of her guilt over an affair that, in betraying André, reduced him to the worth of a fly, and so killing flies feels like a killing of him again. She also speaks of wanting François to destroy the white-headed fly if she tells him why she killed André; this contradiction suggests an emotional conflict in her–killing it kills evidence of her guilty affair, yet it also represents killing André again.

Now, she is not the only one to raise her eyebrows at the idea of houseflies. François, after hearing about her obsession with them, is curious to hear Henri/Philippe bring up the fly with the white head during lunch with the boy. Previously, Charas brought up her fly obsession immediately before he and François discuss her denial that the boy is her son, and François’s admitting he loves her. So we see here a significant juxtaposition of houseflies with the boy’s parentage and François’s love for Hélène: I don’t think this juxtaposition is coincidental.

XVI: Love Triangles, and the Remake

My speculation of a hidden, repressed love triangle between André, Hélène, and François can be seen overtly in the equivalent three main characters in the 1986 remake–respectively, Seth Brundle, Veronica “Ronnie” Quaife (played by Davis), and Stathis Borans (played by John Getz). Brundle, knowing Ronnie has had a relationship with Stathis prior to her current relationship with him, gets jealous when he suspects that her reason for leaving him early to meet Stathis, when she’s supposed to be celebrating the recent success of his teleportation pods, is to get back together with Stathis. (Actually, she’s meeting Stathis to confront him over a veiled threat he’s made out of a jealousy of his own, over her new relationship with Brundle.)

And right when all of this jealousy is building, Brundle gets drunk, a fly is buzzing around, and both of them go into one of the pods to be teleported…and fused. Again, we have the juxtaposition of a buzzing fly with a love triangle; it’s as if the scriptwriting of the remake subliminally picked up on the veiled rivalry between the Delambre brothers and Hélène.

Another theme picked up from the 1958 movie and put into the remake is the relationship between external, illusory appearance and inner, hidden reality. When Brundle first comes out of the second pod, we of course don’t see a fly’s head and leg replacing his head and arm, but he looks as perfectly human as before. It’s only later, as his body parts start corrupting and falling off, leading climactically to the outer human shell all coming off and he’s revealed to be a giant bug, that we see he isn’t human anymore.

When Hélène begins telling François and Charas her story, in the film we see a scene of what appears to be the perfectly happy family. André is seen tickling Philippe, playing like a loving father, and all seems well. The shot is so ideal that it looks a bit too perfect. A hint already as to how things are actually not so good is in how André tells the boy he can’t play with him at the moment. It will become increasingly apparent that he is so obsessed with his work that he’s spending more time in that basement laboratory than with his family.

Yet another element shared between the 1958 and 1986 movies is the narcissistic grandiosity the inventor feels on seeing the amazing success of his teleporting machine. André boasts of having made the greatest invention since the wheel; he imagines that his “disintegration-reintegration” machine will allow food to be sent anywhere immediately, at minimal cost, thus ending world hunger.

Brundle’s narcissism is a bit different. On having unwittingly fused himself with the fly, he mistakenly imagines his pods have given him superhuman abilities: increased strength, agility, stamina, and sexual potency (recall what I said above about the sexual symbolism of the eager-to-mate housefly). Yet both André and Brundle are about to see their pride fall and crash.

With André, this fall is immediate upon his reintegration: we see no intermediate, transitional process–only the gap in between is understood to be there. With Brundle, however, the transitional process is slowly, agonizingly shown to us, inch by inch. We see his physical fragmentation, as well as his corresponding psychological fragmentation (against which he had only his initial narcissism as a defence), a fragmentation that’s a direct result of jealousy–a result I also see in André.

XVII: Fall of Pride

Now, André’s fall of pride upon reintegration as a fly/human hybrid should be seen as symbolic of his pride as an obsessive scientist and neglectful husband/father, which has led to Hélène’s affair with François (the shame of which, being too intense to bear, causes it to be erased from memory, repressed, and therefore never shown on screen or in the pages of the short story), and which has in turn led to André (as I imagine it) finding out about the affair, making him feel humiliated, cuckolded, and reduced to feeling the worthlessness of a fly. He kills himself.

Recall my association of Hélène’s incestuous affair with her brother-in-law with that of Hamlet’s mother and uncle. The notion of a fly’s worthlessness can also be associated with Hamlet in how the Danish prince derisively refers to foppish, buffoonish Osric as a “water-fly” (V, ii, 83).

The trading of André’s head and arm with the head and leg of a housefly reinforces this sense of worthlessness in how the head houses the brain, and either of the hands (the switched arms, remember, are different from short story to film) represents the skillful manipulation of scientific instruments and equipment with the hands, thus making his wife’s devaluation of him based on her dislike of his obsessive work, which has left her feeling so neglected.

XVIII: Nothingness and the Real

The nothingness of the gap between disintegration and reintegration represents more than just the repression of the unconscious. That void also represents Lacan’s Real Order, a traumatic realm where experience cannot be symbolized or expressed in language, because the differentials of the Symbolic Order (the realm of language, society, culture, etc.) no longer exist. Lacan called the Realimpossible,” just as Hélène calls André’s disintegration and reintegration “impossible.” Disintegration leads to a world of undifferentiated atoms, the Real (as experienced psychologically), Bion‘s O, Milton‘s “void and formless infinite,” or the Brahman of the Hindus. It’s nothing, yet everything; it’s heaven and hell, nirvana and samsara… ineffable.

XIX: Monstrosity

The hellish aspect of the gap manifests itself especially for André, in the short story, when he goes through the teleportation device again and reappears not only with the fly’s head, but with a mix of fly and the head of their cat, Dandelo! He’s now more bestial than ever, an aggravating of monstrosity that is paralleled in the 1986 remake when Brundle reappears as part man, part fly, and part teleportation pod.

This sense of the fly as representing self-hating monstrosity and worthlessness is intensified in Brundle’s “Insect Politics” speech, as well as in André’s sense of his brain deteriorating towards the end of the story. Ultimately, André’s self-hate, as symbolized in his monstrous transformation, drives him to commit suicide–as I reimagine it, by putting a pistol to his head and blowing his brains out, right in front of Hélène who, his laboratory being near the factory in the short story, has only to move the body a short distance to the steam hammer.

XX: Destroying Evidence of Suicide

As I see it, she needs to crush his head and arm (i.e., with the pistol in his hand, in order to destroy it, too) to destroy all evidence of a suicide that, if investigated, will lead to a revelation of her affair with François. Since her guilt has driven her mad, her faulty reasoning will lead her to believe that it’s better to be thought mad from delusions of a human/fly monster than to be known an adulteress with her husband’s brother (adultery and incest), driving André to suicide.

Her needing to use the steam hammer twice, because she forgot to put the arm (in my interpretation, holding the pistol) under with André’s head, represents her psychological conflict: part of her wants to be punished for her guilt in the affair by being found out, while the other part of her wants still to conceal that guilt. Later, she forgets the second use of the steam hammer out of a Freudian parapraxis, again, an expression of her conflict between wanting to be found out and wanting to conceal the guilt.

François’s own guilt over the same sin would have driven him over the edge, too, to the point of entertaining her fly delusion as true, to assuage his guilt. In this connection, it’s important to consider the ending of the story, especially in terms of how Clavell changed it from Langelaan’s short story. (Ironically, in the film François and Charas rationalize a conclusion to the case as, indeed, André’s suicide, freeing Hélène from guilt or commitment to an insane asylum. The reason for the suicide remains a mystery; she and François, thus, can privately entertain the fly-human hybrid story to help them forget the guilt of their affair.)

XXI: The Ending

The fly that is understood to be the one that got André’s head and arm is referred to as a fly with a white head. By “white head,” it’s assumed to be André’s head, though it’s never explicitly called such. In the film, we see a fly with a white spot on its head, and only in the scene with the spider’s web do we see a tiny human head and arm poking out of the web trapping the fly’s body, with the hybrid’s faint squeals for help.

Part of the reason for these differences, of course, is the limitations of the technology of the time; but I believe something else is going on. First, when François is sitting on the bench by the spider’s web, he doesn’t notice the squeals of the fly-human, begging anyone nearby to save it. They should be audible enough: after all, Charas later can hear them. François thus seems to be willingly deaf to its cries, part of his wish, symbolically speaking, to avoid responsibility for the consequences of his affair (in my speculation), and how it’s led to his brother’s suicide.

Later, when he and Charas see the fly about to be eaten by the spider, François can’t pretend it isn’t there. As a symbol of his guilt, the fly is something he cannot bear.

Now, an important distinction must be made: in the short story, it’s François who kills the fly, not Charas. As I’ve said above, I consider François’s narration to be as unreliable as Hélène’s, and that the film is their narration given in visuals. Having Charas kill the fly is thus, in my interpretation, François projecting his guilt onto Charas. Clavell’s changes to the presentation of the story are to give us an ambiguous way of thinking about it: is it an unreliable narration, or did the fly-human hybrid story really happen?

I believe François has hallucinated the fly with his brother’s head and arm, due to the stress of his guilt and what his beloved Hélène has gone through (and in his unreliable narration in movie visuals, Charas has shared his hallucination). Philippe/Henri, in this interpretation, has really only found a fly with a white head and leg, an ‘albino-like’ one, if you will, which his mother’s and uncle’s imaginations have turned into a fly/André hybrid.

Clavell’s changes to the short story included removing François’s opening narrative frame (and his dislike of ringing telephones); such an omission doesn’t prove he hasn’t been narrating, but only that we don’t see explicit proof of him telling the story. I believe that having Charas see the fly/André hybrid, thus opening up the possibility that outsiders have seen the proof of Hélène’s story–that what she has narrated is reliable after all–was Clavell’s way of making the story more intriguing: could this otherwise scientifically implausible story have happened, and should the audience just willingly suspend their disbelief?

I don’t think we should, or need to. The ending of the film, with François as Philippe’s new guardian, and with living Hélène present, comes off as wish-fulfillment for François. As with Claudius vis-à-vis King Hamlet and Gertrude, he got his brother’s wife, he can directly be a father to Philippe, and in his and her shared delusion, their folie-à-deux of the disastrous teleportation/fusion of André and the housefly, François can tell the boy that the lesson to be learned from his father’s death is how dangerous scientific experimentation, coupled with overweening pride, can be, rather than how dangerous incestuous adultery can be.

Analysis of ‘Carnival of Souls’

Carnival of Souls is a 1962 independent horror film produced and directed by Herk Harvey, from a story by him and John Clifford, the latter having written the screenplay. It stars Candace Hilligoss, with Frances Feist, Sidney Berger, Art Ellison, and Harvey as the main ghoul who torments Hilligoss’s character throughout the film.

Carnival of Souls was shot on a low budget, using guerrilla filmmaking techniques, in Lawrence, Kansas, and Salt Lake City. It was Harvey’s only feature film. It has a unique film score, played solely on a church organ and composed by African American composer Gene Moore.

Though the film went largely unnoticed upon release, it has since become a cult classic, influencing such filmmakers as David Lynch and George A. Romero. Many movie lists include it among the greatest horror movies ever made. It is in the public domain.

Here is a link to quotes from the film. You can watch the whole film here.

The ending of Carnival of Souls seems to indicate that Mary Henry (Hilligoss) didn’t survive the car accident on the bridge at the film’s beginning, and that her nightmarish existence throughout the middle of the film has been her soul’s unwillingness to let go of her physical existence, comparable to the hell Jacob Singer (played by Tim Robbins) goes through in Jacob’s Ladder. I, however, will interpret the car accident and her survival/’death’ metaphorically.

Racing as representative of the pressures of competition in society.

The film starts with her and some girlfriends in a car; they meet some young men about their age in another car, and these boys want the girls to race them. They reach a bridge where their cars are going neck-and-neck, crowding each other on the bridge, and the girls’ car falls off and into the river. Only Mary (so it seems) has survived the car crash; she emerges from the water not remembering how she’s survived.

One thing that is immediately apparent about Mary is that she’s unsociable. She has apparently always been this way, since the organ factory worker says, “She’s always kept pretty much to herself.” She drives out of town without wanting to stop to see her parents; in fact, when asked if she wants to see them, she reacts to the idea with considerable agitation. Right from the beginning of the race, Mary never smiles–her face shows only anxiety, and I don’t think this is just because of the potential danger of the race.

I consider the car accident to be symbolic of a deep-seated trauma, or many traumas, stemming from her relationship with her parents, especially her father (more on this later). A troubled relationship with her parents would explain how distant she is from other people, for our object relations with our parents, the first major people to come into our lives, are blueprints, so to speak, for our relationships with people in later life. If we don’t enjoy our parents’ company, we’re far less likely to enjoy the company of anybody.

This car race, with her bunched together with the other two girls, feels claustrophobic, especially with those boys’ car trying to ram past them. The sense of competition with others can be most distressing to someone as sensitive as Mary. So a near-death experience in such a social context can be seen as symbolic of trauma causing social anxiety.

Mary is a lonely, lost soul.

The water that Mary has fallen into is symbolic of the unconscious mind. The two dead girls in the car with her, engulfed in the water, just like the ghouls emerging from water later in the film, represent so many of Mary’s internalized bad objects. So the car accident represents the repression and the return of bad objects that WRD Fairbairn wrote about.

It’s fitting that these repressed bad objects that come back into Mary’s consciousness should do so in the form of ghouls, or evil spirits; for Fairbairn likens these returning bad objects to evil spirits that possess the suffering psychiatric patient (see page 6 [or 67, from the copied book] of the above-linked pdf, Part 5–‘The Dynamics of the Influence of Bad Objects’).

Another symbolism for this water that kills, and from which ghouls emerge, is Lacan‘s notion of the Real, an undifferentiated mental state that cannot be symbolized (i.e., put into words–Mary can tell Dr. Samuels [played by Stan Levitt] about the main ghoul, but she cannot conceive of whom he symbolizes; could he be her father, or a minister, who may have sexually abused her when a child?), and thus is traumatic.

Her driving out of Kansas to start a job so far away, in Salt Lake City, represents her wish to get away from her trauma. She tells the organ factory boss that she’s never coming back to Kansas. She can try to run away from her problems, though, but she’ll never succeed, because her problems aren’t outside of her…they’re inside.

Mary the organist.

Another fitting thing about this films is its organ soundtrack music, which apart from occasional diegetic music makes up the vast majority of the music heard in the film. Its eerie dissonance provides so many of the atmospheric chills in the movie, and of course Mary is an organist. It’s as if she’s the one playing the soundtrack to her own story. The creepiness of the organ music, especially in the later scene when she’s in a trance, playing dissonant, “profane” music in the Utah church and she gets fired, represents her fear. It is thus a reminder that her problems stem from within (i.e., past trauma), not from without (i.e. literal spooks).

During her long drive to Salt Lake City, she looks at her reflection in the passenger window to her right. She looks there again, but sees the main ghoul, who looks middle-aged, old enough to be either her father or a minister of the church who may have molested her as a child. (Since this film was made in 1962, when the Hays Code was still censoring movies, indications of sexual abuse would have had to have been made most indirectly, subtly.) Seeing his face instead of her own in the reflection makes him a symbol of an internal bad object; seeing him again in front of her as her car is approaching him is her projection of him outside. The shock of seeing him makes her drive off the road and into a ditch, a traumatic reaction that parallels the other car falling off the bridge at the beginning.

She drives by a large pavilion near Salt Lake City that she is immediately fascinated with. What could this building mean to her? I suspect it represents in her mind a church, a cathedral she’d attended as a child. Its draw on her represents a wish in her to revisit her place of childhood trauma, to process those painful feelings and therefore cure herself of them. The place is on the shores of the Great Salt Lake–water, the symbol of her unconscious, where her bad internal objects lie, the Real, the centre of her trauma, which must be confronted.

The pavilion.

After Mary finds lodgings, she takes a bath there one night while waiting for the proprietress, Mrs. Thomas (Feist), to bring a sandwich and coffee up to her room. It’s interesting how, when she’s been in water again, a knock on her door reveals not Mrs. Thomas but the only other lodger, the lecherous John Linden (Berger), whom she’s embarrassed to meet with only a towel to cover her nakedness. Shortly after repelling Linden’s “neighbourly” ways, his thinly-disguised sexual advances, Mary goes out into the hall and is terrified to see the main ghoul looking up at her from the ground floor.

This juxtaposition of Linden, who ogles her through the door crack while she’s replacing her towel with a bathrobe, with the appearance of the lewdly smirking ghoul–a figment of her imagination and an internal object of hers–contributes to my theory that the ghoul represents someone who once sexually abused her. She is frightened of Linden’s lecherous designs, which have triggered the traumatic memory of another man’s lecherous designs.

Later that night, she can’t sleep, so she gets out of bed and looks out the window to see the pavilion so far off. Her fear of the main ghoul makes her want human company, so Linden’s appearance at her door again the next morning is welcome. He’s surprised to learn, as is her boss the minister (Ellison), that her work as church organist is purely professional, with no spiritual interest in it whatsoever.

Since Western society, especially American, was much more religious in the early 60s than it is today, we must wonder why not only is Mary not interested in meeting the congregation of the church she’s playing organ for, but isn’t interested in the religious meaning of the music she’s playing (small wonder some think her playing lacks “soul”). Such disparities reinforce my speculation that she feels somehow betrayed by the church, making her lose faith in it, while nonetheless staying near it as a professional organist–a nearness that suggests the traumatic bonding of one who was molested as a child by her minister.

Seeing the main ghoul.

She feels relatively safe in the daylight, during the waking hours when the conscious mind is dominant, but frightened at night, during the darkness of which the unconscious is given free reign. As she tells Linden, “It’s funny… the world is so different in the daylight. In the dark, your fantasies get so out of hand. But in the daylight everything falls back into place again.” During the day, she can repress her fears; but at night, the repressed returns, in forms she fears, because she can’t recognize their true meaning.

She isn’t, however, necessarily free in the daytime, either. After getting rid of Linden, she goes shopping and tries on a black dress. When changing back in the fitting room, though, we see what looks like a rippling of water before her eyes (water, symbol of her repressed unconscious, is bringing her repressed trauma back to consciousness for her); after this, she temporarily experiences a kind of derealization. She cannot hear anything, especially people’s voices, and these people don’t acknowledge her presence–she seems invisible to them.

The sense of disconnect from other people is a symptom common in sufferers of C-PTSD, caused not by one, but by many traumas. Since Mary is experiencing such a disconnect, I suspect her car accident is really a symbolic abbreviation of many traumas she suffered in childhood.

The many traumas that result in C-PTSD make the sufferer feel as though he or she is completely, irreconcilably different from everyone else, and this in turn results in the sufferer’s withdrawal from society and into isolation, since he or she feels safe only without others around. Hence, C-PTSD can be an accurate diagnosis for Mary, who feels so different from others that, on this and again towards the end of the film, she can neither hear others nor be acknowledged by them.

Mary in the department store.

Terrified by her temporary deafness and invisibility, Mary leaves the department store and ends up in a park. Standing under a tree, she hears the chirping of a bird, symbol of freedom, and so she’s back to normal…by her standards, at least.

She goes to a fountain for a drink of water, and she hallucinates that the ghoul is standing before her. She goes into hysterics and runs into Dr. Samuels, who offers to help her. She goes with him to his nearby office…him with his hands creepily around her.

He isn’t a psychiatrist, but he seems to have dabbled in psychoanalysis, for he hints at some insights as to who the ghoul may be–Mary’s father, or some kind of guilt (i.e., shame associated with having been raped) she has buried deep down in her mind. Her vehement denial of these interpretations should, if anything, help convince us of their correctness, for her denial, calling such ideas “ridiculous,” is a typical example of the patient’s resistance to insights that uncover a deeper pain.

She has her resistances and denials, but also a conflicting desire to cure herself, and her fascination with the pavilion is part of that desire. So she runs out of Samuels’s office and goes straight there.

Now, facing one’s trauma is crucial to curing oneself of it, but one should be guided by a therapist. She thinks she’ll rid herself of the stalking ghoul by entering the pavilion and exploring it; but there’s still that part of her that doesn’t want to face the darkest of her pain, so when she looks around the place, it’s a generally peaceful experience.

Mary looking around the pavilion.

The main ghoul is sleeping in the water, symbolizing how her trauma is still there, however hidden it may be. At one point during her walking around, she sees a mattress gliding down a slide. There’s no reason for it to be there, much less slide down by itself, so it must symbolize something in her unconscious–perhaps a mattress on which she was once sexually abused.

The association of her trauma with water is again reinforced when she passes a sign saying, “Salt Water Bathing,” shortly after having seen the mattress on the slide. Maybe as a child, part of her seduction by her father, or by a minister of the church (maybe her father was the minister), involved bathing her, then bedding her.

My point in all of this is that the whole film could be seen as an extended dream, chock-full of symbols related to her trauma, but presented in a distorted manner that makes them unrecognizable to her conscious mind. The root of the trauma is still buried, like the ghoul sleeping under the water.

She goes back to her rooming house and agrees to a date after work with Linden because she doesn’t want to be alone at night. When practicing the organ at church, she goes into a trance, for night has fallen, and the ghouls are seen coming out of the water of the Great Salt Lake.

Recall that all these ghouls represent the bad internal objects hiding in Mary’s unconscious (i.e., sleeping in the water) during the day, but coming out at night, when the unconscious mind is freer. These internal objects would be not only her molester (the main ghoul we always see), but also family and community members who either turned a blind eye to the abuse she suffered, or perhaps even participated in it. Their dancing, in this connection, is symbolic of sex, pairs of men and women holding each other and moving around to a rhythm.

They only come out at night.

This reliving of her trauma makes her play creepy dissonances on the organ (which she cannot hear, as with her temporary deafness in the department store scene) that her employer, the minister (whose hands grab hers, making her stop playing, and happening immediately after she, in her vision, has seen the main ghoul approach her, his hands out to grab her), regards as “profane, sacrilege,” so he dismisses her. She leaves the church and goes with Linden to a bar for drinks.

He’s drinking while she just sits there, still practically in a trance. He’s annoyed at her unsociability: she won’t drink, talk, or dance. After having just had a vision of the ghouls dancing in the dark pavilion, how could she dance? Young men and young women dancing in a pub aren’t necessarily planning to be sexual, but in the context of dating, they are exploring sexual possibilities. Such possibilities are scary enough for Mary.

They go back to the rooming house and into her room. Linden’s hopes of getting some with Mary are dashed when he realizes how “off her rocker” she is. She looks in the mirror and sees the main ghoul again, who, recall, is a projection from her own mind onto the external world. Such hallucinatory projections are what Wilfred Bion called bizarre objects.

After Linden leaves in frustration, she tries to use the furniture of her room to block all entrances, in a futile attempt to keep the ghoul outside. Of course, she cannot succeed at this, because the ghoul is in her head; no matter how hard she tries to project him outside, he’ll always return, for he is a bizarre object she’s created.

Try as she might, Mary cannot run away from him.

The next day, she packs her things and leaves the rooming house. She’d leave Salt Lake City, too, imagining that leaving the city, just as she’s left Kansas and isn’t going back, will rid her of her trauma. Of course, that will never happen, because her trauma is within, not without.

She drives her car to a mechanic, staying in her car as it’s raised up; she nods off a bit. She then experiences the following set of terrors. First, she imagines someone, the ghoul, presumably, entering the mechanic’s garage and lowering her car back down to the ground. After running out of the garage and into a bus station, we see those waves on the screen again, as in the department store fitting room: she goes deaf again, unacknowledged by others, until hearing the chirping bird in the park; she also sees the ghouls in a bus she hopes to take to escape from the city.

Next, she is in Samuels’s office, but sees the main ghoul instead of the doctor in his chair. It’s interesting how the ghoul tends to stand for men who are at least a potential threat to her: either middle-aged men in authority positions, or father-figures, like Samuels or the minister; or lecherous men like Linden. She screams and runs away.

She wakes up, though we’re not sure if she really went to sleep at first, or just put her head back and closed her eyes for a few seconds. If this moment was a nightmare, could the rest of the film be a long nightmare, too? Could this moment have been a dream within a dream?

She must confront him.

There’s nothing left for Mary to do now but to go back to the pavilion and face her demons. She drives over there just as the clouds are obscuring the evening sky. The inside of the building, accordingly, is much darker than the last time she was there.

Because night is about to fall, all those ghouls sleeping in the water of the Great Salt Lake are waking up and emerging; that is, all the internal objects of her unconscious are returning to her conscious thoughts. As I’ve said above, these aren’t just representatives of the molester(s) of her childhood and/or adolescence; they also represent her family, neighbours, and members of her congregation who, out of a wish to avoid scandal, would never sympathize with Mary or hear her cries for help.

She stands there in the shadows, frowning in her attempt to confront her tormentors. That eerie organ music is playing alongside what sounds like a calliope, or steam organ (what would be heard in a circus or carnival), implying the link between her organ playing, as traumatic bonding, with the abusive church of her childhood that the carnival symbolizes.

Again, we see pairs of male and female ghouls dancing to the calliope music. Since, as I said above, their dancing is symbolic of sex (remember that the film censorship of the time meant that sexual deviancy could only be implied, expressed symbolically), all of them dancing symbolizes the deviancy of an orgy. People with authoritarian, fundamentalist religious beliefs, in their prudery and repression, tend paradoxically to let their sexuality out in the most perverse ways, such as pedophilia, ephebophilia, and hebephilia.

Ghoul-Mary.

Finally, Mary sees, among the ghouls, herself as a ghoul dancing with the main one! Ghoul-Mary has a sad, dazed look in her eyes, the kind of look a victim of sexual abuse might have, a look of helpless resignation. Meanwhile, the smirk on the main ghoul’s face seems one of lewd satisfaction. He dips ghoul-Mary, like a lover, and she is grinning ear to ear, as if tricked into thinking she’s enjoying satisfying his lust.

Mary has thus confronted her trauma. She has remembered what was repressed for so many years, and the horror of it makes her scream and run away. As we all know by now, though, running from her trauma won’t save her; it’s always in her mind, so the ghouls all chase her outside.

Wherever she tries to hide, a ghoul’s face pops up in front of hers. Finally, she runs out and falls on the sand, screaming. The ghouls crowd around her and get down close, as if to gang rape her. To confront trauma, we can’t do it alone. Mary should be facing this with a therapist.

The film ends with Samuels, the minister, and a cop following her footprints in the sand where they unaccountably end. These men, as father figures, would seem to want to help her, but they can’t. After all, weren’t the church community represented in the ghouls just trying ‘to help’ her?

The discovery of Mary’s body in the car represents how trauma kills us all psychologically, for after enduring its horrors, we can never be the same as we were.

Analysis of ‘The Little Shop of Horrors’

The Little Shop of Horrors is a black-and-white 1960 horror/comedy film directed by Roger Corman and written by Charles B. Griffith. The story may have been inspired by “Green Thoughts,” a 1932 story by John Collier; it may have been influenced by “The Reluctant Orchid,” a 1956 sci-fi story by Arthur C. Clarke, which in turn was inspired by “The Flowering of the Strange Orchid,” a 1905 HG Wells story.

The film stars Jonathan Haze, Jackie Joseph, Mel Welles, and Dick Miller, all of whom had worked with Corman on previous films. The Little Shop of Horrors uses a whimsical, idiosyncratic sense of humour, combining black comedy, farce, Jewish humour, and bits of spoof. It was shot on a budget of $28,000 ($240,000 in 2019), with interiors shot in two days.

It gained a cult following after being distributed as a B-movie in a double feature with Mario Bava‘s Black Sunday. A small, early role for Jack Nicholson retrospectively helped the film’s popularity when promoted on home video releases. It became the basis for an off-Broadway musical, which in turn was made into a film adaptation in 1986, starring Rick Moranis, Steve Martin, and Ellen Greene.

A link to quotes from the film can be found here. Since Corman never bothered to copyright the film (thinking it had little in financial prospects), it has entered the public domain. A link to the entire film can be found here.

Seymour Krelboined (Haze) is a clumsy, socially awkward florist’s assistant working on skid row in California. His boss is Gravis Mushnick (Welles), a bad-tempered, penny-pinching stereotype of Jewish humour who speaks ungrammatical English, laden with malapropisms, in a thick Yiddish accent. Seymour will be fired for his ineptitude unless he can impress Mushnick with his new plant.

Seymour, Mushnick, and Audrey admiring Audrey Jr.

All the characters in this film are comically idiosyncratic in one form or another: Seymour’s love interest, Audrey Fulquard (Joseph), the sweet–if rather ditzy (her dialogue, too, abounds in malapropisms)–girl next door; Burson Fouch (Miller), an eccentric eater of flowers who gives Mushnick the idea to save Seymour’s job by using his unusual new plant to attract customers; Seymour’s hypochondriac mother Winifred (played by Myrtle Vail), who considers medication synonymous with food; ever-mourning Mrs. Shiva (aptly surnamed), who always needs flowers for funerals (hoping for cut-rate prices) for the latest death in the family; Sergeant Joe Fink, the narrator, and Officer Frank Stoolie, two Dragnet-style detectives; Dr. Phoebus Farb, a fittingly sadistic dentist; and Wilbur Force (Nicholson), a masochist who loves going to the dentist.

It’s interesting how Fouch, an eater of flowers, encourages the public display of a plant that, as it turns out, eats human flesh. Flowers are the commodity sold in Mushnick’s shop, of course, and Fouch is a consumer (in more ways than one) of them. The addition of ‘Audrey Jr.’, the giant man-eating variant of a Venus flytrap, to the store will cause business to boom in a way all storeowners dream of, but not even Mushnick will want to pay the gory price that Audrey Jr. demands.

The rapid growth of Audrey Jr., coupled with its appetite for human flesh, can be seen to symbolize the predatory nature of capitalism, which must continue growing, being fed on profits (i.e., the improved business of Mushnick’s flower shop), with no regard for the needs of human life.

So, consumption–in its various meanings–is the dominant theme of the movie: the plant’s consumption of human flesh, Fouch’s consumption of flowers, Mushnick’s customers’ consumption (buying) of his flowers, little Audrey Jr.’s consumption (using up) of Seymour’s blood, his mother’s consumption of medicines as if they were food, and the public’s consumption (i.e., reception of information/entertainment) of the display of Audrey Jr. in the flower shop.

Since the setting of the film is skid row, a part of town where the poor try to escape their troubles in such forms as alcohol and drugs, Winifred’s consumption of medicines can easily be seen as symbolic of drug addiction, especially since the tonic Seymour buys for her is 98% alcohol. She has a few sips and is already tipsy by the time he leaves their house with his then-little plant.

Winifred Krelboined

The symbolic relationship between Fouch’s eating of flowers and Audrey Jr.’s eating of people should be seen as a karmic one. Fouch’s eating of flowers symbolizes man’s destruction of nature by commodifying it; the plant’s man-eating is thus nature’s revenge on man, the destruction of the environment being also our destruction, our collective suicide.

Commodification, the making of exchange-values to generate profits, is the basis of capitalism; small wonder Marx began Capital, vol 1 with a discussion of the commodity. Flowers are Mushnick’s commodities, so Seymour’s plant and its growth represent how the profit made from commodities result in another kind of growth: the accumulation of capital. Audrey Jr.’s bloodlust represents the pain and suffering that inevitably result from all this capital accumulation.

Seymour’s social awkwardness reflects the aggravated kind of alienation one would encounter in the poverty of skid row. He loves raising plants, but he is only of any worth to Mushnick if he can nurse Audrey Jr. to health and present it appealingly to his boss’s customers, getting them to want to buy flowers in the shop. Once the plant’s health has revived, and it has grown thanks to its drinking of drops of Seymour’s blood, his boss no longer loathes him, and even starts calling him ‘Son.’

Two pretty girls, who enter the shop out of curiosity about Audrey Jr., and who wish to decorate a float with flowers, treat Seymour like a pop star upon learning that it is his horticultural skills that have brought the plant to life. After Mushnick, dreaming of wealth and moving his flower shop to Beverly Hills, gives ever-grieving Mrs. Shiva flowers for free, he notices Audrey Jr. sick again, regrets his generosity to her, and instantly reverts to his contempt for Seymour. The boy’s alienation arises from only being of value if he can help his boss make money.

His alienation grows worse when he realizes that the only way he can keep Audrey Jr. alive is by murdering people and feeding it the corpses. Since murder is repellant to his nature, his bloody work is now alienating him from what Marx called one’s species-essence.

Seymour Krelboined

One is alienated from one’s work, from oneself, and of course from other people. Seymour alienates himself from others, though he “didn’t mean it,” but he isn’t the only one. Dr. Farb, the dentist who loves drilling holes in people’s teeth, also alienates people with his sadism. There are the teeth that hack up a man, and there’s a man who hacks up teeth, another reversal comparable to that of Fouch vs Audrey Jr.

There’s karmic retribution in Audrey Jr. eating human flesh, in response to what Fouch’s flower-eating represents (destruction of the environment). Then there’s karmic retribution in Seymour’s killing of Dr. Farb, in response to the dentist’s gleeful torturing of his patients; recall how, in the 1986 film musical, Steve Martin’s dentist sings of people paying him “to be inhumane.” Many high-paid professionals–doctors, lawyers, politicians–do awful things on a scale comparable to those of the greedy capitalist.

The suffering of the poor in such places as skid row, people ever held down under the boot of the capitalist, often leads to varying forms of mental illness, as in Winifred’s hypochondria and the sexual masochism disorder of Wilber Force (Nicholson). While most masochists in the BDSM community engage in their kink in a way that doesn’t cause them psychosocial difficulties, Force’s eager willingness to have (imagined dentist) Seymour pull out several–it is safe to presume–perfectly healthy teeth is clearly an impairment of Force’s functioning in social situations.

Added to all of this, the farcical humour we see in Seymour’s clumsiness, the eccentricities of his mother and Fouch, Farb’s sadism, Force’s masochism, etc., should be seen as representative of the absurdist futility of their existence in an alienating, capitalist society that keeps them in poverty and misery. Even Fink and Stoolie, the police investigating the disappearances of Farb and the railroad detective (whom Seymour accidentally hit with a large rock and made fall on the tracks to be run over by a train), react to the death of Stoolie’s son–who was playing with matches–by nonchalantly saying, “Those are the breaks.”

Audrey Jr.’s chewing of human bodies into pieces, Dr. Farb’s drilling and pulling of teeth, and Force’s delight at getting his teeth drilled and pulled, all represent the psychological fragmentation that results from an alienating capitalist society that privileges the few and impoverishes most of the rest of humanity. Even the budding relationship between Seymour and Audrey doesn’t last long; predictably, the talking plant’s incessant demand, “Feed me!”, is what gets in the way of their love. The growing monster of capitalism eats up everything.

Audrey Fulquard

The two girls who want to feature Audrey Jr. on their float fittingly say that their spectators will “eat it up.” The literal or figurative consumption of commodities leads to the consumers being karmically consumed by their own materialism and commodity fetishism. People see only the growing plant; they know nothing of what it is actually fed to make it grow.

The reversals of Fouch’s flower-eating vs a man-eating plant, and of teeth that mutilate vs Farb’s mutilating of teeth, are a fusion of dialectical contradiction with karma.

Though Mushnick is horrified to find out that Seymour is feeding the plant human flesh, he is conflicted about whether to inform the authorities or to keep quiet and enjoy the new success of his business. It is common for business owners to be conflicted over the need to maximize profit vs the need to be humane towards their employees, to care about the environment, etc. We’ll notice however that, no matter how strongly…and sincerely…the capitalist feels about humanitarian concerns, the profit motive will take priority, because the capitalist is compelled to prioritize profit. Hence, Mushnick’s procrastination with telling the police.

Mrs. Hortense Feuchtwanger, a lady from the “Society of Silent Flower Observers of Southern California,” enters the flower shop and is fascinated with Audrey Jr. If the plant’s buds open on the evening she returns to the shop, and if she likes what she sees, she’ll give Seymour a trophy for his plant.

This trophy would represent the kind of recognition that Seymour, a misfit and ‘loser’ that no one has ever appreciated or liked, so desperately craves. Only recently have any women (Audrey, the two girls with the float, Mrs. Feuchtwanger) ever shown him any liking, and if there’s one thing we all desire, it’s that of the Other, to be desired of the Other, to get the Other’s recognition.

As with his romance with Audrey, though, Seymour’s appreciation from Mrs. Feuchtwanger will be short-lived, too. The lady returns to the flower shop to see the budding, and she is horrified–as are Audrey, Mushnick, Fouch, Winifred, and Fink and Stoolie, who are also there at the time–to see the faces of all those eaten by the plant in its opened flowers.

Oddly, the two girls with the float still like Audrey Jr., looking gleefully at the faces in the budded flowers. They represent the extreme of commodity fetishism: so entranced are they by the plant as a finished product that they show no regard for the victims that helped it grow.

Gravis Mushnick

Recall, also, that as horrified as Mushnick is at Audrey Jr., especially to learn that it is a talking plant, he, too, is willing to have it eat up someone–in this case, an armed robber (played by scriptwriter Griffith, who also did the voice of the plant). Guarding his money is more important to capitalist Mushnick than preventing yet another victim of Audrey Jr.

The robber isn’t the only member of the Lumpenproletariat to be fed to the plant: so is an aggressive prostitute who tries to get Seymour to be her next client. For indeed, with Audrey Jr. as symbolic of the ever-growing, ever-devouring monster that is capitalism, such Lumpenproletariat as criminals and streetwalkers are every bit as much victims of the bourgeoisie as are the strata of the working class just above them.

Capital seems to develop a mind of its own, in how it subjugates us all to the will of the profit motive, even when we try to resist it on moral grounds, as Mushnick and Seymour try to do. This ‘mind of its own’ would seem to explain, in symbolic terms, why the plant can talk, and why it can hypnotize Seymour into doing its will, right when he tries so vehemently to defy it.

So many of us on the left try to defy the system around us that we hate so much, but through the mesmerizing bourgeois media (part of the system’s superstructure), now including Facebook, the narcissistic exhibitionism of Instagram, etc., we all get pulled back into complying. Hence, Seymour wanders the streets of skid row, in such a trance as to ignore the charms of the streetwalker, and takes her back and feeds her to Audrey Jr.

When Fink and Stoolie learn that Seymour is responsible for all the killings, they and Mushnick chase him on the streets of skid row in the night. The two cops represent the feeble attempts that an otherwise bourgeois state makes to curb the excesses of capitalism. That feeble effort is demonstrated in their failure to apprehend ineffectual, spastic Seymour, who should be easy to catch.

Wilbur Force

They chase him into some bizarre, even surreal-looking, parts of town, but they are places nonetheless indicative of the capitalist preoccupation with commodities–rather unclean ones, actually. Seymour is chased into the private property of a tire and rubber company, when he runs and hides in a labyrinth of giant tires. One of the few times he doesn’t trip is over resting Mushnick’s leg, though Fink and Stoolie do trip over it!

Then Seymour hides in, of all things, a toilet among a maze of bathroom fixtures (sinks, bathtubs, etc). Mushnick tells the cops that they won’t find Seymour there, though he is most obviously there. In all of this not only do we see the symbolism of a bourgeois government failing to punish the excesses of capitalism, but we also see a capitalist helping in achieving that failure.

Seymour returns to the flower shop a broken man. Racked with guilt over his murders, he’s lost the woman he loves, he’s a wanted man, and it’s all because of that bloody, gluttonous plant that has repaid his services by ruining his life. In despair, he decides to sate Audrey Jr.’s hunger one last time with his own body…and a knife to kill it with.

A karmic reversal has finally happened to the plant, instead of it being an agent of karma; for such is the reality of the dialectical crests and troughs of theses phasing into negations and sublations that become new theses to be negated and sublated. Now Seymour’s face appears in the latest budding flower, to add to all the other faces. The plant dies, too, and just as capitalism kills, so will it destroy itself in the end.

Analysis of ‘Misery’

Misery is a 1987 psychological horror novel written by Stephen King. It was adapted into a movie in 1990, directed by Rob Reiner and starring James Caan and Kathy Bates, with Lauren Bacall and Richard Farnsworth. Bates won a Best Actress Oscar for her performance as Annie Wilkes. A theatrical production in 2015 starred Bruce Willis and Laurie Metcalf.

Misery grew out of King’s wish to break free of the horror fiction genre (i.e., his 1984 fantasy novel, The Eyes of the Dragon), yet many of his fans wanted him to stick to horror. He was also struggling with alcohol and drugs at the time, of which the fictional drug, Novril, is a symbol. Since Novril can be seen as a pun on novel, and King once said, “Annie was my drug problem,” we can see how Novril symbolizes both his addictions and his troubled relationship with his fans.

Links to quotes from the novel and the film can be found here.

So, the struggle that Paul Sheldon (Caan) goes through with Annie is the same struggle any artist goes through in wanting to grow and be free to express him- or herself without restrictions…yet the Annies of the world keep imposing those restrictions. Give the fans what they want. We have to please the fans. Make art to make money. Produce a commodity that will sell…or die.

Sheldon no longer wants to write his hit romance novel series, the Misery books, about the female protagonist, Misery Chastain. He’s never meant those books to be his whole life. He wants to write something new, in a bid for artistic respectability. So he has killed off Chastain in what’s meant to be the final book of the romance series, Misery’s Child; and he has just finished writing a totally new and different novel, Fast Cars (the new book is untitled in the movie).

The film begins with him having just finished typing the manuscript and smoking a cigarette; then he drives out of his Colorado hotel during the opening credits in the soon-to-be snowstorm (while we hear “Shotgun,” by Jr. Walker and the All-Stars…in the novel, he listens to a cassette of Bo Diddley–page 21) and gets into the accident that breaks his legs.

The novel, however, begins when the accident has already happened, and his legs are in agonizing pain. The pain comes and goes in cycles (page 4), which are compared to those of the rising and falling tide.

Sheldon remembers a childhood experience of being with his parents on Revere Beach. The boy saw a broken-off piling jutting up from the sand; to him, it looked like a monster’s fang. He found the sight disturbing, but as the tide came in and covered up more and more of the piling, he felt better. Once the entire piling was submerged in water, he was at peace.

But then, the tide started going out, and he could see more and more of the piling again.

Now, his broken legs feel like two broken pilings (page 7), and Annie’s pain-killing drug, Novril, is the tide that will submerge those pilings (page 10)…until it wears off, and the pilings reappear from under the water. She controls the tide, so she is the Moon-goddess, “the lunar presence” (page 10).

He finds her body solid, all too solid (page 9), like a pagan idol (pages 9 and 10). How apt for a moon-goddess. It’s important to see Annie as symbolic of a goddess, especially the Moon-goddess. For, just as the goddess that Robert Graves wrote about inspired his poetry (as Graves said, “My thesis is that the language of poetic myth anciently current in the Mediterranean and Northern Europe was a magical language bound up with popular religious ceremonies in honour of the Moon-goddess, or Muse…and that this remains the language of true poetry” pages 9-10), Annie, in her own perverse way, will inspire Sheldon to write.

Of course, her inspiration is a bad one, right from when she finds him injured in his car. Recall that inspire is derived from the Latin inspīrāre, “to breathe upon or into.” Recall how Annie breathes her halitosis into Sheldon’s mouth, which he experiences as a kind of rape. (pages 5, 6, and 7)

He is “raped back into life” (page 7), which perfectly expresses the dual nature of his relationship with her: she saves his life, yet she abuses him as well. She takes care of him, yet she tortures him. Like that lunar-influenced tide that goes up and down, she both relieves and causes his suffering.

This duality is inherent to Annie’s personality: she presents a False Self of wholesome, Christian goodness to the world, but underneath, her True Self is narcissistic, sociopathic, and emotionally dysregulated. We typically hear her use ridiculously childish euphemisms (“cock-a-doodie,” etc.), but occasionally, actual swear-words come out of her mouth, too. It has been suspected that she has bipolar disorder, her manic ups and depressive downs being symbolized by the crests and troughs of her lunar influence on the tide.

Just as Annie presents a false version of herself to the world, so does she love reading fiction that presents a false, fantasy version of the world: romance novels, Sheldon’s in particular, of course. And when he presents her with his down-to-earth, realistic view of the world in Fast Cars (or the untitled manuscript of the movie), with the coarse language of slum kids, she hates it. She hates the reality, the truth, that his new book expresses.

And this lunatic woman controls whether he feels pain or comfort. “She kept the capsules. The capsules in her hand were the tide. She was the moon, and she had brought the tide which would cover the pilings.” (page 24) Recall that the rising tide that covers up the pilings doesn’t make then non-existent–it just makes them invisible. Just as her escape from reality in reading his books doesn’t erase her pain, the dope she gives him doesn’t heal his legs–it just make their fragmentation seem unnoticeable. His novels make her forget her pain; her Novril makes him forget his.

Just as she’s breathed life into Sheldon…as God did to Adam, and he “became a living soul” (Genesis 2:7)…so does Sheldon “breathe life into her [Misery Chastain, with whom Annie identifies and sympathizes].” (page 26) Annie, the Moon-goddess, inspires him, and he inspires her with his Misery books.

Annie and Sheldon are the two characters who, in her lonely house in snowy Colorado, make up the great majority of the story. All the other characters are mere details who only briefly have their appearances. The whole novel is about the dyadic, one-on-one relationship between Annie and Sheldon.

This is a relationship cut off from the rest of society, what Lacan would have called the Imaginary. Annie and Sheldon look at each other’s faces as if looking into a metaphorical mirror. Being Sheldon’s “number one fan,” Annie idealizes him as this brilliant, god-like author (recall how he can “breathe life into [Misery]”). She is the Moon-goddess to him, and he is her god. The idealizing is mirror-like in its mutuality.

We must be careful to qualify this mutual idealizing, though. She idealizes him, but he, of course, far from willingly idealizes her, for this Moon-goddess, as we know, is an evil one. He is merely dependent on her, as a baby is on his mother. His ‘religious devotion’ to her is based on fear and need, not love. She’s his ideal only in the sense that she relieves his pain, and is the only one who will do it.

This idealization must be understood in a dialectical sense, for the shadow of hate always accompanies the light of love. Just as a baby loves what Melanie Klein called the good mother and the good breast for nourishing him, and he hates the bad mother and bad breast for failing to nourish him and for frustrating his desires, so is Sheldon split in his feelings about Annie when she feeds and cares for him, and when she neglects and abuses him.

She experiences similar splitting in her attitude towards him when he succeeds at living up to her expectations as his ideal, or fails to do so. This splitting, or black-and-white thinking, is a common trait in people with borderline personality disorder, a comorbidity presumed to be part of Annie’s personality.

Splitting is also a manifestation of the duality theme in this novel: when the tide is up, and the pilings are submerged thanks to the Novril, Annie is the good mother; when the tide is down, and Sheldon is in agonizing, piling pain because she neglects to give him his dope, she’s the bad mother. The same ups and downs can be seen whenever he pleases or displeases her. Dialectical opposites.

A number of references are made to Annie as a kind of mother figure to Sheldon, all in the split, love/hate attitude, “with that same mixture of sternness and maternal love” (page 31) we expect to see in her.

In chapter 17 of Part I, when she’s about to make him burn the Fast Cars manuscript, he calls her “the devil,” that is, she’s the bad mother. Annie retorts with “Oh yes! Yes! That’s what a child thinks when mommy comes into the kitchen and sees him playing with the cleaning fluid from under the sink. He doesn’t say it that way, of course, because he doesn’t have your education. He just says, ‘Mommy, you’re mean!'” (page 57)

Earlier, when she has finished reading Misery’s Child and realizes Sheldon has killed off her beloved heroine, she goes through a similar flip-flop of splitting by saying, “I thought you were good, but you are not good. You are just a lying old dirty birdie.” (page 46) In the film, her temper tantrum over his killing off of Misery is fittingly preceded by a shot of the full moon just outside her house.

Just as she is the Moon-goddess for him, sometimes good (feeding him, nursing him back to health, giving him Novril), and sometimes bad (obviously), so is he “God” for her, sometimes good (in his Creation of the world of Misery that she loves), and sometimes bad (in killing off Chastain). As she says to him, “God takes us when He thinks it’s time and a writer is God to the people in a story, he made them up just like God made us up and no one can get hold of God to make him explain, all right, okay, but as far as Misery goes I’ll tell you one thing you dirty bird, I’ll tell you that God just happens to have a couple of broken legs and God just happens to be in MY house eating MY food…” (page 46).

In this world, the pagan Moon-goddess is more powerful than God, for Sheldon, in his helpless convalescence, needs her as a baby needs his mother. And nobody knows this better than Sheldon himself, to his “Misery Chastain[-like]…chagrin” (page 73, my emphasis). He may be “Paul Sheldon, the literary Zeus from whose brow sprang Misery Chastain,” but Annie is the Moon-goddess on whom he depends, she whose self-control and kindness waxes and wanes.

This lunar…and lunatic…waxing and waning of goodness in Annie is typical of the cyclical nature of the abusive relationship. The provocations and tension rise between the abuser and the victim until an explosion occurs, then a fake apology is given, then there’s a ‘honeymoon‘ (interesting word-choice) of brief kindness to the victim, then the abuse begins again, creeping in insidiously with small, growing provocations. The effect this cyclical abuse has on the victim is to establish traumatic bonding: one hates and fears the abuser, but one cannot live without him or her.

Another crucial aspect of this emotional abuse is Annie’s use of projection and gaslighting, the former symbolized early on in the novel through her breathing in Sheldon’s mouth to resuscitate him. Her bad breath going into his mouth feels like a kind of oral rape, as described above: in this act, she is symbolically projecting her badness into him.

As for the gaslighting, since this exhaled projection has been accomplished, she can easily blame the victim for her temper tantrums over the profanity in Fast Cars (“Look what you made me do!” page 29, when her agitated outburst makes her spill a bowl of beef soup on Sheldon’s bedspread, then throw the bowl into the corner of the room, breaking it and splashing soup on the wall.)

She continues to blame him for the mess she’s made in the following chapter on page 30. She tortures him by not giving him his medication until she’s finished cleaning up the mess. It’s safe to assume she’s calmed down by now, but her sadism is at its height, given the agonizing pain he’s in. “The tide went out. The pilings were back.” (page 30) “He began to cry soundlessly. The tide had never gone out so far” (page 31).

And when she finally gives him his three capsules of Novril, she makes him drink them down with the dirty water from the bucket she’s used to clean up the mess: “…he saw her lifting the yellow plastic floor-bucket toward him. It filled his field of vision like a falling moon.” (page 32)

After promising never to make her mad again (“Anger the moon which brought the tide? What an idea! What a bad idea!” –page 33), she kisses him on the cheek and tells him she loves him. Nasty waxes back into ‘nice.’

While Annie is associated with the moon, she also represents all of his fans, who want him to keep churning out Misery novels. Recall that fan is short for fanatic, an overzealous religious extremist, for example. Annie, who is worshipped as a lunar deity, is also a lunatic worshipper of Sheldon’s deity. That she’s his “number one fan” just makes her all the more fanatical…just like those other women readers of Sheldon’s work, each of whom also claims to be his number one fan (page 36), protesting whenever he takes a break from Misery to write something else.

Here we come against the tension between the wish for artistic freedom vs. the unending demand to satisfy the customer to make more money. This problem is fuelled by the profit motive. The author writes not to fulfill his or her urge to be artistically expressive, but merely to make money to survive.

That Annie bullies him into resurrecting Misery Chastain with the writing of Misery’s Return is symbolic of this capitalist coercion. Sheldon is Scheherazade, desperately fighting to keep himself alive by telling stories. The capitalist commodification of labour forces all workers to sell their labour, to sell themselves, rather like prostitutes, to have money to stay alive. There’s no voluntary choice being made, in spite of the nonsense we hear from right-wing libertarians and ‘anarcho’-capitalists: we workers provide a commodity or service, or we get thrown out in the street, starve, and die.

So we see this two-way, mutual idolizing going on. Annie worships the god in Sheldon as his number one fan, and he worships her lunar, tide-controlling deity to relieve his suffering. But she, as a pagan goddess, requires sacrifices from her devotees; and the sacrifice he’ll have to make is his manuscript of Fast Cars. (pages 54-55) “So he burned his book” (page 60).

This is the first part of her stifling of his artistic freedom; the second part, of course, is reviving Misery. He has to go back to churning out product like an assembly-line worker.

She gives him a Royal electric typewriter (page 76). Just looking at the thing is giving him bad feelings. “The Royal grinned at him, promising trouble.” (page 78) The banked semicircle of keys seem like teeth in an eerie grin. What’s more, he notices “a missing n.” (page 77) The missing n, in the context of the typewriter keys’ smile, looks like a grin with a missing tooth.

The “missing tooth” might remind us of that of Trelkovsky in The Tenant, which I interpreted in my analysis of that film as symbolic of castration, a symbol in itself of any bodily mutilation, or of any lack, which gives rise to desire. Sheldon has experienced the lack of his burned manuscript, and the missing n, one of the most commonly used letters, is symbolic of his lack of freedom to write as he wishes, a restriction of his artistic expression. Annie’s abuse is symbolically a castration of him.

This symbolic castration is carried further when she hobbles him as ‘punishment’ for secretly leaving his room. Recall that in the film, she uses that huge sledgehammer to break his feet at the ankles; but in the novel, she hacks off his left foot with an axe (page 279), and cuts off his thumb with an electric knife.

That the loss of the typewriter’s “teeth” (in the novel, not just the n of the film, but also the e [page 292] and the t [page 285]) and the hacking off of his foot and thumb are symbolic of castration is not just some indulgence on my part. King himself makes such associations in the narrative by juxtaposing them all.

“Sitting here in front of this typewriter with its increasingly bad teeth…he supposed he had been his own Scheherazade, just as he was his own dream-woman when he grabbed hold of himself and jacked off to the feverish beat of his fantasies. He didn’t need a psychiatrist to point out that writing had its autoerotic side–you just beat a typewriter instead of your meat” (pages 302-303).

A little later, Sheldon muses about “…the loss of his thumb. It was horrible, but…think how much worse it could have been.” (page 303)

“It could have been his penis, for instance…he began to laugh wildly…in front of the hateful Royal with its gaptoothed grin. He laughed until his gut and stump both ached.” (page 304)

The hobbling is related to restrictions on his artistic freedom (symbolized by the freedom to move around–to think of ideas to write, Sheldon used to take walks!…pages 153, 154, 155), capitalist restrictions on freedom (i.e, wage slavery). Recall when Annie mentions how the British at the Kimberly diamond mines hobbled native workers (which is historically apocryphal) so they’d continue working without being able to steal diamonds or run away. (pages 276-277)

She restricts his freedom to write anything other than her philistine Misery books, yet she so fails to see the production of such books as a business that she imagines “the talent God gave [him]” to write such books as the opposite of a business (page 94). It’s offensive to her to think of his writing as a business.

One interesting aspect of the story, developed far more in the novel–of course–than in the movie, is how we see the writing process in operation. Sections of the novel give us scenes from Misery’s Return presented with a type font different from that of the Sheldon/Annie narrative, with the missing ns (and later, the missing ts and es) filled in. All of these letters are among the most commonly used, so again, their lack–with the need to write them in–symbolizes Sheldon’s decreasing ability to express himself freely.

Things degenerate to the point where, his writing hand swollen and painful (page 380), some of the final pages of Misery’s Return must be hastily hand-written (pages 363-364) to finish it before the increasingly inquisitive police catch up with what Annie has been doing and arrest her (She’s planned a murder/suicide for herself and Sheldon to escape the shame of the arrest).

The ironic thing about her coercing of him to write a novel he doesn’t want to write is that he eventually comes to regard this new novel as his best work…at least, of the Misery novels (page 253). Her pushing him to rewrite how it is that Misery Chastain survives the death she’s supposed to have suffered in Misery’s Child, to make it more believable, is a case in point. In this sense, Annie is being Robert Graves’s Moon-goddess after all, inspiring Sheldon to write better.

All of this good inspiration must be qualified, however. Perhaps Misery’s Return is Sheldon’s best writing yet…from a technical standpoint. It’s ‘the best’ in the sense that it is a hugely entertaining story that will delight his fans (after all, unlike in the film, in which he burns the manuscript to spite Annie, in the novel, he hides it, burning only a decoy of it, and takes it out of her house to publish it later).

Still, as commercially successful as Misery’s Return will undoubtedly be, it’s still the same philistine schlock that he finds so artistically unsatisfying. Sheldon’s regarding it as his best work is, I suspect, more of Annie’s gaslighting, traumatizing influence on him.

Now, Sheldon has his book, and Annie has hers–her scrapbook, in which she keeps newspaper clippings of all the events in her life that she deems significant. Apart from such mundane things as the announcement of her birth, her graduation from nursing school, and her being made the new head maternity ward nurse in a hospital, a disturbing theme runs throughout these clippings: death.

“FIVE DIE IN APARTMENT HOUSE FIRE” (page 229); “two copies of [Annie’s] father’s obituary” (page 231); USC STUDENT DIES IN FREAK FALL” (page 231); and so many others like these. Sheldon, as he’s flipping through the scrapbook and surmising that she has killed all these people, muses: “This is Annie’s Book of the Dead, isn’t it?” (page 235)

Just as Annie’s maternalism is a cover for her sadism, the white of the moon and its dark side, her “maternal love and tenderness” and “the total solid blackness underlying it” (page 194), so is her nursing career a cover for the serial killer she really is, her true and false selves. As with her Christian posturing, her work as a nurse is just reaction formation, a professed concern for preserving life masking a contempt for it. “Keeping up appearances is very, very important.” (page 117)

Annie, like Dr. Herbert West in Re-Animator, pretends to care about preserving and reviving life, but is really an example of what Erich Fromm called the necrophilous character, one excessively preoccupied with death. “Necrophilia in the characterological sense can be described as the passionate attraction to all that is dead, decayed, putrid, sickly; it is the passion to transform that which is alive into something unalive; to destroy for the sake of destruction; the exclusive interest in all that is purely mechanical. It is the passion to tear apart living structures. (Fromm, page 369, his emphasis)

Now Sheldon knows he’s Scheherazade, telling his Misery story to stay alive. He hates having to continue with this philistine fiction because, like Annie, he has his own narcissistic tendencies. He wants to write serious literature and be admired by the critics (pages 357-358); being a bestselling author of popular fiction–something most struggling writers (myself included) would dream of being–simply isn’t good enough for him. Both he and Annie, when looking at each other’s faces, are looking into narcissistic mirrors.

Yet he’s as addicted to writing the novel as he’s addicted to taking the Novril; writing is as much a pain-relieving, therapeutic activity as taking the pain-killing dope is.

Unlike in the film, in which the local sheriff, Buster (Farnsworth)–prompted by Sheldon’s agent, Marcia Sindell (Bacall), who in the novel is barely mentioned, except to be named Bryce (page 37)–is seen early on investigating Sheldon’s disappearance, it isn’t until late in the novel that police appear (page 316), disturbing Annie’s dyadic, one-on-one, mother/son-like relationship with Sheldon.

In his state of traumatic bonding and learned helplessness, Sheldon at first can’t scream to the cop for help (pages 320-321). When he finally does yell (pages 322-323), Annie kills the cop, then projects her guilt onto Sheldon (page 332): “You killed him. If you had kept your mouth shut, I would have sent him on his way.”

Narcissists typically defend their fragile egos from criticism by projecting and repressing the shameful parts of themselves. Annie knows the police will be back, so she hides Sheldon in her basement (page 337), a terrifying, dark place where the rats are. “Spiders down there, he thought. Mice down there. Rats down there.” (page 336) The basement represents her unconscious, where all of her ugliest, most repressed thoughts lie. “He had never been as close to her as he was then, as she carried him piggy-back down the steep stairs.” (page 337) He finds himself left in the dark realm of her madness. The police, who represent her superego, must never find him in that ugly place.

Her gaslighting of him is working. Sheldon may try to fight it off as best he can, but her projected guilt does get into him. “Did he believe that [he was responsible for the cop’s murder]? No, of course not. But there was still that strong, hurtful moment of guilt–like a quick stab-wound…The guilt stabbed quickly again and was gone.” (page 367)

Two more cops arrive, also representative of Annie’s superego. Sheldon, not knowing their names yet, calls them David and Goliath because of their relative sizes (page 366). Sheldon is out of the basement now, back in his room, so he can see the cops out from his window. He dares not yell; her control of him is absolute. His room is symbolically the preconscious, meaning he’s able to bring the truth to consciousness, to the public, but he won’t, because he’s being suppressed by her.

All these visitors, be they the cops, the taxman (“not a cop but someone IN AUTHORITY”–page 185), or “those brats” (page 376–the TV news, actually), represent the Other of society who are invading Annie’s dyadic, one-on-one world with Sheldon. All three of these groups of people are authorities of one kind or another–the news media are understood to be an ‘authority,’ of sorts, on what is happening in the world.

Such authorities are symbolically associated with Lacan’s notion of the nom, or Non! du père, the father who, as a third party, forcibly ends the dyadic mother/son relationship (the other) and brings his son out of the Oedipus complex and into the larger society (the Other). But in the mother/son role-play we see in Annie and Sheldon, it is she–not he–who doesn’t want to be pulled out of the dyadic relationship.

So instead of Sheldon having a transference of Oedipal feelings for Annie (he loathes and dreads her too much for that, of course), she, in her ‘love’ for him, is having a transference of the Jocasta complex. She won’t let go of her narcissistic monopoly on his life, the way a child who Oedipally desires one of his or her parents doesn’t want to give up hogging that parent all to him- or herself.

Annie is certainly childish enough in her narcissistic hogging of Sheldon, and in her temper tantrums and violence when she complains about the taxman, brutally kills the cop (projecting her guilt onto Sheldon), and projects her childishness onto “those [TV news] brats.” In her petulance, Annie is the Bourka Bee-Goddess, with her needle syringe stinger (pages 256-257).

This bad-tempered Bourka Bee-Goddess, with her sting, reminds us of wasp-like Katherina, who warns Petruchio to beware her sting. Of course, the only way Sheldon can tame his shrew is by killing her.

The trauma she has put him through, though, means he’s stuck with the memory of her in his head. He hasn’t been traumatized once, but many times, and in a predicament from which he’s felt he can’t escape. This is the essence of complex post-traumatic stress disorder.

After he’s been rescued by “David and Goliath,” and has been brought back into society–with a prosthetic foot (page 411)–Sheldon still can’t get Annie out of his head. At the end of the film, in a restaurant with Sindell, he has a brief hallucination that the approaching waitress is Annie. In the book, he imagines her leaping up from behind his sofa in his apartment. (pages 414-415)

This reliving of his trauma, an inability to differentiate between fantasy and reality, and the inability to put his trauma into words, is the essence of what Lacan called the Real. Because of this intense pain, Sheldon feels he can no longer write.

Eventually, though, he does get his writing Muse back. We see the beginnings of a new story typed in that different font (pages 419-420), but with no letters missing, because this is Sheldon writing for Sheldon, not Scheherazade writing for Annie.

He can express himself through language again, so he has escaped both the terror of the Real and the narcissism of the Imaginary, and reentered the expressive, healthy social world of the Symbolic.

His misery is over.

Stephen King, Misery, New York, Pocket Books, 1987

Analysis of ‘Re-Animator’

Re-Animator is a 1985 horror-comedy film directed by Stuart Gordon and written by Dennis Paoli, William J. Norris, and Gordon; the film is loosely based on parts of the HP Lovecraft 1922 horror serial novelette, “Herbert West–Reanimator.” The film stars Jeffrey Combs, Bruce Abbott, and Barbara Crampton; it costars David Gale and Robert Sampson.

Apart from the basic premise of Lovecraft’s story–namely, a serum that brings the dead back to life, created by the narcissistic young scientist Herbert West (Combs)–not much is taken from the tale and put directly into the film. Dr. Alan Halsey (Sampson), dean of the fictional Miskatonic University medical school, refuses to let West and the narrator (Dan Cain in the film–played by Abbott) do the reanimating experiments on corpses on the campus. The dean himself dies and is reanimated, making him a wild, cannibalistic, zombie-like monster and forcing him to be committed in an asylum.

The above plot elements are from the first two episodes of Lovecraft’s story, while also being updated (by Norris) to the 1980s and expanded to include Halsey’s pretty daughter, Dan Cain’s girlfriend, Megan (Crampton). Another doctor, the middle-aged Carl Hill (Gale), who is decapitated and reanimated by West, seems to be derived from the last two episodes (as is the plot of the first sequel–link in the next paragraph), from a WWI surgeon who is also decapitated and reanimated; and who, as in the story, commands an army, as it were, of reanimated corpses at the climax.

The film spawned a few sequels, 1990’s Bride of Re-Animator and 2003’s Beyond Re-Animator. While the sequels weren’t well-received, the first film was, and it is now considered a cult classic.

A link to quotes from the film can be found here.

During the film’s opening credits, we hear a soundtrack (composed by Richard Band) that is a blatant and intentional rip-off of the opening theme of Psycho. Only a few minor differences and variations are heard, with an original wind melody (bass clarinet?) played over the strings and a drum beat in the background. The film’s obvious campiness–a kind of black comedy whose over-the-top, even humorous violence may remind us of that of Titus Andronicus–inspired Band to make a similarly obvious, campy, and tongue-in-cheek reference to Psycho‘s stereotypical horror film music. Apart from this joke-reason, can we find others to justify the link between Re-Animator and Psycho?

I believe we can find other such reasons. With similar musical themes, we can also find similar motivic themes. Indeed, a careful analysis and comparison of the themes, symbolism, and motifs of both films shows striking similarities. Does all of this justify ripping off Bernard Herrmann‘s music, beyond it being a musical joke? I’ll let you decide, Dear Reader.

In Psycho, after Norman Bates has murdered his mother, in order to rid himself of the unbearable guilt of his crime, he tries to ‘reanimate’ her, in a way–not literally, of course, but in his mind. He uses a number of elaborate methods to convince himself of his delusion that she’s still alive. He robs her corpse and uses taxidermy on it to stave off decomposition as best he can. He dresses in her clothes, including a cheap wig he’s bought, and speaks in her voice. He gives over half of his life to bring her back from the dead.

Similarly, Herbert West deludes himself that his serum will restore life, when all it does is it turns the corpses it’s used on into savage killers…rather like Bates’s mother personality.

Another thematic similarity between the two films is that of invasion of privacy, intrusion, penetration. (See my Psycho analysis to see how I explain these themes in that film.) West intrudes on the world of Dan Cain and Megan, just after they’ve made love, and says he wishes to rent the basement of his house; he meets Dan at the front door of the house when Dan has only a sheet to cover his nakedness.

Later, the couple’s cat, Rufus, dies–did West kill it for use in his macabre experiments? West has the cat’s body in a small refrigerator, the sight of which naturally upsets Dan and Megan, the latter of whom has, in fact, invaded West’s privacy by going into his room without his permission, because she has been looking for her missing cat. Still, West will have to explain why he’s using their dead cat, without their consent, for his experiments.

The injecting of West’s vaccine-like [!] serum into the cat’s corpse, and later into corpses at the university morgue in defiance of Dean Halsey’s express forbidding of it, is further intrusion and unwelcome penetration. Indeed, it’s as if the violent reactions of the revived corpses are a reflection of how they hate the penetrative intrusion of West’s syringe jabs.

The stabbing of West’s needle into the corpses, like the stabbing of Bates’s knife into showering Marion Crane and Detective Arbogast (if in only a symbolic sense), is a projection of West’s psychopathy into the dead, making them as violent to the living as he is to the dead, by making them take on their stabber’s violent traits. Recall that narcissistic West doesn’t actually care about helping humanity with his reanimating; he just wants to play God, amazing all his science colleagues with his brilliance.

He has no respect or empathy for the feelings and rights of others, living or dead. This is why he has no qualms about insulting Dr. Carl Hill to his face, or using pets and human corpses without anyone’s consent in his experiments. West is thought of as a rather weird fellow, but the point is that he’s cold and calculating. Like Bates, West feels no human, emotional connection with others; all that matters to him is the reviving of the dead, as Bates wants a relationship with only his ‘reanimated’ mother.

West, like Bates the ghoul who stole his mother’s corpse, is an example of what Erich Fromm called the necrophilous character in his book, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness. Fromm wasn’t necessarily, or even primarily, referring to a sexual attraction to dead bodies; he was referring to people who have a morbid fascination with death and destructiveness.

West’s wish to bring the dead back to life mustn’t be confused with Fromm’s notion of biophilia, a love of life; rather, West’s claim to want to give people life is a reaction formation. West is fascinated with death for its own sake. The human body is a soulless machine to him; death just means that the body has broken down, malfunctioned, and reanimation is a repairing of the human machine, which, being soulless in his eyes, is already as dead as a machine, anyway.

Fromm explains: “Necrophilia in the characterological sense can be described as the passionate attraction to all that is dead, decayed, putrid, sickly; it is the passion to transform that which is alive into something unalive; to destroy for the sake of destruction; the exclusive interest in all that is purely mechanical. It is the passion to tear apart living structures. (Fromm, page 369, his emphasis)

West isn’t reviving the dead out of a wish to generate the biophilic joy of living; he is just fascinated in the technique of repairing biological machinery, as he sees it. In describing the necrophilous character, Fromm was referring “…to those individuals whose interest in artifacts has replaced their interest in what is alive and who deal with technical matters in a pedantic and unalive way.” (Fromm, page 382, his emphasis)

To return to a discussion of the intrusion/penetration/invasion-of-privacy theme, the equally narcissistic Dr. Hill enjoys stealing other doctors’ research (hence, West’s contempt for him), and when he tries to steal West’s work, West kills him with a blow to the head with a shovel (reminding us of the ending, a kind of second matricide, of Psycho II, a film made just two years before Re-Animator).

Hill also intrudes on reanimated Halsey’s personal space by lobotomizing him, with the intention of controlling him through telepathy after brain surgery. The ultimate invasion of privacy, however, is when decapitated, reanimated Hill uses zombie-Halsey to abduct his daughter Megan, has Halsey take her while she’s unconscious to the university morgue, has Halsey strip her naked, and ties her to a table so the lecherous doctor can enjoy her.

Hill’s sexual assault on her can be paralleled with the shower scene in Psycho, in which naked Marion is, figuratively speaking, raped by Bates’s penetrating, phallic knife. Hill’s voyeuristic lusting after naked Megan parallels Bates’s lusting after Marion, watching her undress through his peep-hole in the wall.

Yet another point of comparison between Re-Animator and Psycho is, to be put in general terms, the conflict between the older and younger generations, usually understood in a psychoanalytical sense as the Oedipal love-hate relationship a son or daughter has with his or her parents. Bates Oedipally loves…and hates…his emotionally abusive, domineering mother, and her bringing a lover into his house pushes him over the line, making him kill them both with strychnine, which causes them to convulse violently and painfully before they die. West’s serum causes a similarly violent, toxic reaction in those reanimated by it.

Instead of domineering mothers, in Re-Animator we have a domineering father, Megan’s father, the dean, who angrily forbids Dan and West (he is a symbolic father to them) to do their experiments in the university morgue, to the point of threatening to kick them out. The two young scientists’ defiance of Halsey infuriates him, causing an argument between him and Megan in the hospital near the morgue, in which he tells her she’s his daughter and she’ll do as she’s told…just before he’s killed by a reanimated corpse there.

When Bates’s mother-personality forbids him to give Marion any food from their house, he defies ‘her’ by making Marion a sandwich. Since Hill is old enough to be the father of West, Dan, and Megan, and since Hill as a professor of medicine is as much an authority figure over West and Dan as Dean Halsey is, Hill can be seen as another symbolic father (i.e., through transference) to the two young scientists, and maybe even to Megan, too.

When West makes Hill lose face during his medical lesson, West is defying what could easily be a father-transference. West’s breaking of pencils, and later decapitating of Hill with the shovel he’s hit him with, are symbolic castrations, reminding one of Cronus‘ castration and dethroning of his father, Ouranos, and then, according to the interpretations of Freud (page 469), Robert Graves, and John Tzetzes, Zeus’ castration and dethroning of his father, Cronus. West would similarly dethrone Dr. Hill as god of medicine. (Just before the reanimated corpse kills Halsey, it bites off two of his fingers, another symbolic castration.)

Normally, we think of the son being afraid of being castrated by his father, but West symbolically reverses this. West should be afraid of the symbolic father’s wish for revenge, though, especially since West has reanimated him. Bates similarly should fear the revenge of the mother he’s killed and ‘reanimated,’ for by giving her half of his life with the mother-personality, he is being possessed by her internal object, what WRD Fairbairn called the return of repressed bad objects (Fairbairn, page 67). She avenges her murder, as it were, by possessing him as an evil spirit would, dominating him even in death.

Reanimated Hill attempts a similar revenge in death by controlling the lobotomized, reanimated Halsey (who as Megan’s father and Dan’s once-hoped-to-be father-in-law, is thus a double of Hill), and by using the serum and research he’s stolen from West to reanimate all the corpses in the morgue, sicking them all on West, Dan, and the Megan who rejected his advances.

Now, while West’s interest in reanimation is of a necrophilous nature (recall that he shows not even the slightest sexual interest in the sight of the lovely and naked Megan), Dan’s interest in West’s obsession is of a biophilous sort. Dan has a genuine wish to save lives, as seen at the beginning and at the end of the film. First, there’s a dying woman he tries feverishly to save, but his superior, Dr. Harrod (played by Carolyn Purdy-Gordon), tells him to face reality: the woman is dead, and he must give up trying to save her.

At the end of the film, the far more devastating death of a woman is a fear of Dan’s that’s come true. Hill and his army of reanimated zombies have been mostly defeated, but not before one of them has strangled Megan to death. Dan’s attempt to revive her has failed just as it had with the woman at the beginning of the film. Dan does have West’s serum, though, and with her having just freshly died, surely her reanimation will give him her whole personality intact…won’t it?

Her scream, just before the ending credits, raises our doubts.

Analysis of ‘The Babadook’

The Babadook is a 2014 Australian psychological horror film written and directed by Jennifer Kent, her directorial debut. It developed from her short film, Monster. The Babadook stars Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman, with Daniel HenshallHayley McElhinney, Barbara West, and Ben Winspear.

The film received recognition and acclaim in the US and Europe. It wasn’t initially a commercial success in Australia, but it’s now on a number of lists of the scariest movies of all time.

Here are some quotes:

“Ba-ba-ba… dook! Dook! DOOOOOKH!” –the Babadook

“I have moved on. I don’t mention him. I don’t talk about him.” –Amelia, to Claire, about Oskar

“It wasn’t me, Mum! The Babadook did it!” –Samuel

Amelia: [about the Babadook] Well, I’m not scared.
Samuel: You will be when it eats your insides!

Amelia: [after Sam has snooped around in his father’s crawlspace] All your father’s things are down there!
Samuel: He’s my FATHER! You don’t own him!

“DON’T LET IT IN!” –Samuel

“Why don’t you go eat shit?” –Amelia, to hungry Samuel

Amelia: [Samuel comes out from hiding and Amelia shrieks like a banshee. Amelia starts approaching Samuel, but he starts wetting himself.] You little pig. Six years old and you’re still wetting yourself. You don’t know how many times I wished it was you, not him, that died.
Samuel: I just wanted you to be happy.
Amelia: [mocking Samuel] I just want you to be happy. Sometimes I just want to smash your head against the brick wall until your fucking brains pop out.
Samuel: [softly] You’re not my mother.
Amelia: What did you say?
Samuel: I said you’re not my mother!
Amelia: I AM YOUR MOTHER!

Amelia: I’m sick, Sam. I need help. I just spoke with Mrs. Roach. We’re gonna stay there tonight. You want that? I wanna make it up for you, Sam. I want you to meet your dad. It’s beautiful there. You’ll be happy.
Samuel: [Sam stabs her] Sorry, Mommy!

“You can bring me the boy.” –the Babadook, pretending to be Oskar

“You can’t get rid of the Babadook.” –Samuel, to Amelia

“You are nothing. You’re nothing! This is my house! You are trespassing in my house! If you touch my son again, I’ll fucking kill you!” –Amelia, to the Babadook

“Happy Birthday, sweetheart.” –Amelia, to Samuel (last line)

Amelia Vanek (Davis) is a widow and mother of her almost seven-year-old son, Samuel (Wiseman); his father, Oskar (Winspear), was killed in a car accident taking her, in labour, to the hospital. The story, therefore, deals with her having to come to terms with her grief, and with Samuel dealing with the trauma of being fatherless.

The boy has constant fears and nightmares of some kind of monster attacking him. She tries to soothe his anxieties as best she can: checking under his bed and in his closet for the bogeyman, reading him stories, letting him sleep with her instead of alone in his bedroom, etc.

Though Wilfred Bion‘s notions of containment (helping others–especially babies–cope with painful experiences), detoxifying of beta elements (raw sensory impressions, typically irritating ones, received from the outside world), and maternal reverie are normally reserved for a mother’s soothing of her baby, in this film they apply fittingly to six-going-on-seven Samuel, because the trauma of not having a father has overwhelmed him so much that, without his mother’s help, he can’t use alpha function (which transforms beta elements into tolerable alpha elements) to ease his anxieties about the agitating outside world. His mother must still be the container of his tension. (See here for more on Bion and other psychoanalytic concepts.)

Though Oskar, of course, didn’t mean to abandon Amelia and Sam in his untimely death, his absence in the boy’s life can feel like an abandonment in his only-developing mind. Thus, the absent father becomes what Melanie Klein would have called the bad father, the same way she called the breast that isn’t available to feed the baby the bad breast.

Sam’s anger and frustration at the absent, bad father is projected outward, to be contained and detoxified–as he’d hope–by his mother; but since his father–in both his good and bad aspects–exists in his mind as an internal object (like a demon possessing him), the boy’s use of projection can never get rid of the bad father permanently. Repressed, bad Oskar will always return…in the demonic form of Mister Babadook.

Though Kent, when deciding on the name of her story, surely wasn’t thinking about the Mandarin Chinese version of papa, I can’t help noting the interesting coincidence between bàba and the first two syllables of Babadook, the last syllable of which seems like an onomatopoeic imitation of the knocking on a door (“Ba-ba-ba-dook-dook-dook“). So Babadook seems to mean “Papa’s knocking (on the door),” the agitating beta elements of the bad father, which both Sam and his mother would rather leave outside.

Indeed, she doesn’t want to face up to her grief any more than Sam wants to confront his trauma. She hardly sleeps at night, and during her day working as a nurse and going about elsewhere, she does so with half-closed eyes. Apart from being constantly woken up by Sam, she cannot sleep because the agitating beta elements she refuses to process need to be detoxified and made into alpha elements, which are useful for thoughts and dreaming. Without alpha elements, one doesn’t sleep.

Bion explained the situation thus: “If the patient cannot transform his emotional experience into alpha-elements, he cannot dream. Alpha-function transforms sense impressions into alpha-elements which resemble, and may in fact be identical with, the visual images with which we are familiar in dreams, namely, the elements that Freud regards as yielding their latent content when the analyst has interpreted them. Freud showed that one of the functions of a dream is to preserve sleep. Failure of alpha-function means the patient cannot dream and therefore cannot sleep. As alpha-function makes the sense impressions of the emotional experience available for conscious and dream-thought the patient who cannot dream cannot go to sleep and cannot wake up. Hence the peculiar condition seen clinically when the psychotic patient behaves as if he were in precisely this state.” (Bion, page 7)

Using alpha function to detoxify beta elements and turn them into alpha elements (done either by our more mature selves, or by our mothers when we’re infants, or by psychoanalysts for their psychotic patients) is just Bion’s idiosyncratic terminology for describing the psychological processing of trauma, pain, or any other form of externally-derived discomfort. And processing trauma and grief is what The Babadook is all about.

A crucial part of processing this pain is putting it into words. What’s so traumatic about what Lacan called The Real is how, in a mental realm without differentiation, experiences cannot be symbolized and verbalized, and therefore cannot be processed and healed. The Symbolic is the mental realm of healthy existence, since this is where language is housed. Amelia’s and Sam’s trauma must be verbalized in order to be healed…and this is where the book, Mister Babadook, comes in.

Healing isn’t easy, though. In fact, it’s terrifying, and that’s why Amelia and Sam try to rid themselves of both Babadook and book (putting it out of Samuel’s reach, tearing up the pages, burning it). Reading the words of the story is terrifying, because to verbalize the trauma and grief is to face their pain head on.

“You can’t get rid of the Babadook.” That hurts. “The more you deny, the stronger I get.” That hurts even more. Sam’s invention of weapons with which to slay the Babadook is largely futile and self-defeating, especially since his aggression only alienates people from him, and the healthy world of the Symbolic, communicated verbally, is the world of society, culture, and customs–the world of other people. Her ripping up and burning of the book is also futile, and for the same reasons.

Amelia has been trying to contain Sam’s agitations, but she cannot even contain her own. This is why, instead of soothing Sam as he needs to be soothed, she makes him feel what Bion would have deemed negative containment; instead of detoxifying his anxieties, she allows them to grow into a nameless dread, or rather a dread going by the name of the Babadook. (See Bion, pages 97-99.)

Bion’s containment theory is based on Klein’s idea of projective identification, which goes a step beyond a mere imagining that another embodies one’s projections, but involves actually manipulating the other into embodying those projections, making him manifest the projected traits. For Bion, projective identification between baby and mother is a primitive, preverbal form of communication.

Sam projects the terror of the Babadook onto his mother, hoping she’ll contain it, detoxify it, and send it back to him in a safe, purified form. She cannot do this, of course, because she has to process her own grief over the loss of Oskar, and she so far isn’t willing to face that pain. As a result, what she projects back to Sam is non-detoxified poison.

In containment theory, the contained (Sam’s fear) is given–via projective identification–to the container (Amelia) to be processed. [Incidentally, the contained is given a masculine, phallic symbolism, and the container is given a feminine, yonic symbolism.] In the film, the container is symbolized by such things as bowls of soup (which contain shards of glass–i.e., negative containment), a bathtub of warm water to contain both her and Sam (something she’d foolishly have them do in their clothes, implying an only foolishly illusory efficacy), and the bowl of worms and dirt (which are an example of the contained) given to the Babadook to feed on at the end of the film.

What Sam projects is the bad father, in the form of the Babadook; but there is a good father, too, with whom Sam would like to identify. Amelia naturally wants to reunite with this good man, too, hence all the things of his that she has in the basement to remind her of him: a photo of her and him, his violin, a hat and coat of his (put up against a wall in a way that vaguely yet eerily reminds us of the hat and coat of the Babadook–i.e., her hallucination in the police station), etc.

Oskar was a musician; Sam is a magician. The boy’s way of identifying with the good father he’s never known is to become, in a verbal sense, at least, as close an approximation to him as he can. After all, music is magic, if performed well.

Sam’s watching of DVDs of a magician gives him a kind of substitute good father to identify with. The boy enjoys mimicking the magician’s words in his act of identification with him. Note, however, how the magic can be “wondrous,” but also “very treacherous”: these good and bad sides of the magic suggests a linking of the good and bad father that Sam isn’t yet ready to accept.

Similarly, Amelia, in her increasing mental breakdown, is trying to revive feelings of the good Oskar. She has their photo…though the Babadook blotches his face in the picture, and she tries to blame the marring of it on Sam. Elsewhere, she takes Oskar’s violin with her to bed, holding it as if it were a teddy bear (in her stress and inability to accept the loss of Oskar, her holding of the violin is thus a regression to a less stressful, childlike state); Sam wants to climb in bed with her for a cuddle, but he gets too close to the violin, and she barks at him: “Leave it!”

On another occasion, she imagines going into the basement (symbol of the unconscious) and finding Oskar there. They embrace and kiss: this is an obvious case of dream as wish fulfillment. But then, he tells her that they can all be together only if she brings him (i.e., kills) “the boy,” a substitution for Sam’s name that she hates. In this request, she sees the horrific combination of good and bad Oskar that she must accept as urgently as Sam must.

The horrific contemplation of killing Sam, as a would-be sacrifice to bring Oskar back to her, is actually an unconscious wish of hers. Deep down, though it’s terrifying to contemplate, is a wish she’s had that it was unborn Sam who died in that car crash instead of Oskar. The obvious guilt, shame, and anxiety that such a wish would give her has forced her to repress it.

Whatever is repressed, however, always returns to consciousness, though in an unrecognizable form…in this case, in the form of the Babadook. It may be tempting to judge Amelia as a bad mother for having these awful feelings about Samuel, but we mustn’t judge her, for a mother is as human and fallible as anyone else. The loss of Oskar has been too heartbreaking for her to bear. Nonetheless, she must confront these dark feelings if she’s to heal.

Naturally, she tries to resist such a confrontation. Her blanket pulled over her head when trying to sleep, with the Babadook on the ceiling, symbolizes what Bion would have called a beta screen, an accumulation of unprocessed beta elements that walls up any entrance into the unconscious mind. Her locking of the doors and windows of her house can also symbolize this beta screen.

She can try to stop the Babadook from getting inside her skin, but of course she fails; it goes right in her mouth, and here begins her real descent into madness…and her abuse of little Samuel.

Since the Babadook represents the bad father and bad Oskar who–in her and Samuel’s minds–abandoned them by dying, his bad internal object entering her has turned her into Klein’s terrifying combined parent figure, the phallic mother who waves a phallic knife at the boy and hallucinates having stabbed him to death with it…another ghoulish wish-fulfillment for a frustrated mother.

She barks abuse at him, telling him to “eat shit” when he’s hungry: this represents a wish to project her own bad attributes (the contained) into him and make him a container of them (the stabbing hallucination also symbolizes such a wish to make the boy contain her rage, i.e., the knife is the phallic contained, and his bloody belly is the yonic container), so more negative containment.

When he, terrified at how vicious and psychotic she’s being, pees on the floor, it symbolizes another attempt to rid himself of bad internal objects, to project them outwards in the hopes that she’ll contain them for him; but, of course, she won’t, as her continued verbal abuse of him demonstrates. She even explicitly tells him she wishes it was he who died instead of Oskar. Now Samuel must try to eject the bad mother, which Amelia has become in her being possessed by the Babadook. He says she isn’t his mother, to which she growls insistently that she is.

In spite of her abusive rage, she is right to say she’s still his mother; for just as Samuel has split his father into good and bad internal objects, so is he splitting her into good and bad. She, too, has split Oskar into good and bad versions, the bad one being constantly projected and split-off, thrown into the external world.

Such splitting is the essence of what Klein called the paranoid-schizoid position (PS), where persecutory anxiety results from a refusal to accept the split-off bad half. In order to heal, she and Samuel must go through the depressive position (D, whose depressive anxiety involves a saddening fear that one may have destroyed one’s good internal objects in the act of ejecting the bad ones), and reintegrate the good and bad parts of Oskar, realizing they’re two aspects of the same man. There must be reparation.

Since they, up to this point, still won’t accept such a reunification, they continue to reject the split-off parts of their internal object of Oskar, and those projected parts have become what Bion called bizarre objects, hallucinatory projections of the Oskar-parts of Amelia’s and Samuel’s inner selves.

Agitating beta elements, symbolized by bugs–found on her shoulder, in a wall in her house, and crawling on her lap when she’s driving–are brushed away, kept from being processed and detoxified (recall her beta screen, a kind of wall of accumulated beta elements–symbolized by the blanket over her head and her locking of her doors and windows).

With half-closed eyes, sleepless Amelia watches TV, seeing images of such things as ants (as symbolic of beta elements as are the bugs in her house and car), a cartoon of a wolf in sheep’s clothing (like the Babadook inside her), and a scene from ‘The Drop of Water,’ from Bava‘s Black Sabbath. [If you read my analysis of that film, you’ll note my…admittedly eccentric…interpretation of the meaning of the female protagonist’s theft of the dead old woman’s ring as a symbolic lesbian rape, for which the old woman’s ghost is getting revenge. As far as I’m concerned, this is the closest to there being anything homosexual going on in The Babadook, as opposed to the Tumblr joke that the Babadook is gay.] Just as the ghost of the old woman terrorizes the young thief of the ring, so does the ghost of bad Oskar terrorize Amelia for not dealing with her grief.

Though Samuel has been splitting his parents into good and bad internal objects (PS), he comes to realize the need to integrate the good and bad (D), and to conceptualize of Amelia and Oskar each as a mixture of good and bad. Amelia is still at the height of her madness, though, being possessed of the Babadook (symbolically having introjected Samuel’s feared bad father), and so the boy must get her to release the bad introjection.

She gets into the basement, and he knocks her unconscious and ties her up, holding her against the floor. Teeming with rage when he’s on top of her, she reaches up and tries to strangle him. Now that she has (unsuccessfully) been containing the Babadook, Samuel himself must be the container of her rage, the contained. He caresses her cheek, thus soothing her and allowing her to vomit out the blackness of the Babadook. Her rage has been contained and detoxified.

Now that she no longer poses a danger to him, she can be untied. Still, she hasn’t fully confronted her grief. Samuel quotes the book: “You can’t get rid of the Babadook.” The demon pulls him up the stairs and into Amelia’s bedroom; now, instead of wishing death on the boy, she wants to save him.

She goes up there to confront the Babadook. She sees Oskar again, the good version of the man of whom the Babadook represents the bad. These two must be reintegrated for her as they have been for Samuel, a shift from the paranoid-schizoid (PS) to the depressive (D) position. She must confront her loss in order to make this shift.

She sees Oskar’s head sliced in two, a representation of his death in the car accident. She must confront this pain; she must feel it to heal it.

Now she must vent out her rage. Screaming threats that she’ll kill the trespassing Babadook if it ever tries to hurt her son, Amelia forces the demon to be the container of her rage. In making it do so, she finally makes it back off and collapse. It then goes into the basement.

After this ordeal, things start to settle down for Amelia and Samuel. They can finally start to live a reasonably healthy life, for they are now facing their demons. The pain doesn’t all go away in one fell swoop, though; in fact, it never completely goes away…but now at least it is bearable, manageable. The management of pain is an ongoing, lifelong process, an oscillation back and forth between the paranoid splitting and melancholy reintegration that Bion expressed as PS << >> D.

This bearability of trauma and grief is the result of what is sometimes called doing one’s Shadow work. It’s painful facing one’s trauma, but it’s indispensable if one wants to heal…and as I said above, this facing of trauma and grief is what The Babadook is all about.

When Amelia goes into the basement (symbol of the unconscious, recall) to feed the bowl of worms and dirt to the Babadook, it frightens her with its furious growling, making her almost fall back. She is able to contain it, though, with her soothing words, “It’s alright…shh.” The fear and terror never disappear altogether, but they can be managed…contained, detoxified, and sent back, transformed from beta into alpha elements.

Now that she and Samuel have learned how to manage their pain, they have the power needed to cope with life, and she can finally give him a birthday party, for he has turned seven. He does a new magic trick for her, she is delighted and wide-eyed, and she can wish him a happy birthday with all the fullness of a mother’s love.

Analysis of ‘Black Christmas’

Black Christmas is a 1974 Canadian horror film produced and directed by Bob Clark and written by A. Roy Moore. It was inspired by the urban legend “the babysitter and the man upstairs” and a series of murders that took place in the Westmount neighbourhood of MontrealQuebec. The film stars Olivia Hussey, Keir Dullea, Margot Kidder, Andrea Martin, and John Saxon, with Doug McGrath, Marian Waldman, Art Hindle, Lynne Griffin, and Nick Mancuso (and Clark) providing the voice(s) of Billy (with cameraman Bert Dunk providing Billy’s POV).

Black Christmas is considered an early example of a slasher film, having established most, if not all, of the genre’s tropes (murderer’s POV, holiday setting, final girl), as well as being a major influence on such films as John Carpenter‘s Halloween. While it initially got a mixed critical reception, the film’s reputation has improved over the years, and it is now considered by many to be one of the best horror films ever made. Two markedly inferior remakes were done in 2006 and 2019.

Here are some quotes:

“You’re a real gold-plated whore, Mother, you know that?” –Barb, on the phone

“Let me lick ya, you pretty piggy cunt!” –Billy, on the phone

Clare: [about the obscene phone call] Could that really be just one person?
Barb: No, Clare, it’s the Mormon Tabernacle Choir making their annual obscene phone call.

“Why don’t you go find a wall socket and stick your tongue in it, that will give you a charge?” –Barb, to Billy on the phone

“I’ll stick my tongue up your pretty pussy!” –Billy, to Barb on the phone

“You fucking creep!” –Barb, to Billy on the phone

“I’m going to kill you.” –Billy, to Barb on the phone

[after the mysterious caller hangs up] Clare: I really don’t think you should provoke somebody like that, Barb.
Barb: Oh listen, this guy is minor league. In the city, I get two of those a day.
Clare: Well, maybe. But you know that town girl was raped a couple of weeks ago.
Barb: Darling, you can’t rape a townie.

“Speaking of professional virgins, here we have the Queen of Vaudeville circa 1891.” –Barb, upon seeing that Mrs. Mac is coming inside the house

“Well, thank you, girls. It’s lovely, really…” [muttering] “Got about as much use for this as I do a chastity belt.” –Mrs. Mac, on her nightgown gift

“Little baby bunting/Daddy’s went a-hunting/Gonna fetch a rabbit skin to wrap his baby Agnes in.” –Billy, softly singing after having killed Clare

“I didn’t send my daughter here to be drinking and picking up boys.” –Mr. Harrison, of Clare

“These broads would hump the Leaning Tower of Pisa if they could get up there!” –Mrs. Mac, of her sorority girls

“Oh goddammit, Claude, you little prick!” –Mrs. Mac, of her cat

“You know, for a public servant I think your attitude really sucks!” –Barb, to Sergeant Nash

Sergeant Nash: Excuse me? Could you give me the number at the sorority house? Please?
Barb: Yeah, sure. It’s, ah… Fellatio 20880. Fellatio. It’s a new exchange, FE.
Sergeant Nash: That’s a new one on me. How do you spell it?
Barb: Capital F, E, little L, L-A, T-I-O.
Sergeant Nash: Thanks.
Barb: Don’t mention it.

“Nash, you stupid son of a bitch! You’ve got a big goddamn mouth!” –Chris

“Filthy Billy, I know what you did, nasty Billy!” –Billy

Barb: Did you know, this is a very little known fact, but… did you know that there’s a certain species of turtle that… there’s a certain species of turtle that can screw for three days without stopping. You don’t believe me, do you? Well, I-I mean, how could I make something like that up?
Mrs. Mac: Ah, Barb, dear, ah, I-I-I-ah…
Barb: No, really! They just… three days, 24 hours a day, wha-voom! Wha-voom! Wha-voom! Can you believe that, three days? I’m lucky if I get three minutes! Do you know how I know this? Because I went down to the zoo and I watched them. It was very boring. Well actually, um, I, uh, didn’t stay for the whole three days, I went over and I watched the zebras, because they only take thirty seconds! Premature ejaculation!

“Alligators come through the gate, but goodbye leg if ya get away late! Lollies love to pop!” –Mrs. Mac, singing as she packs her suitcase

“Nash, I don’t think you could pick your nose without written instructions.” –Lt. Fuller

Billy: [referring to her potential abortion] Just like having a wart removed.
Jess: Oh, my God!

Sergeant Nash: [after Sergeant Nash calls the sorority house] Who is this?
Jess: It’s Jess.
Sergeant Nash: Ah, Ms. Bradford, eh, this is Sergeant Nash. Are you the only one in the house?
Jess: No. Phyl and Barb are upstairs asleep. Why?
Sergeant Nash: All right. Now, I want you to do exactly what I tell you without asking any questions, okay? [Jess tries to ask something] No, no, no… no questions. Now, just put the phone back on the hook, walk to the front door and leave the house.
Jess: What’s wrong?
Sergeant Nash: Please, Ms. Bradford, please just do as I tell you.
Jess: Okay. I’ll get Phyl and Barb.
Sergeant Nash: No, no, no! Don’t do that, Jess… Jess, the caller is in the house. The calls are coming from the house!

While Christmas is supposed to be a time of love and togetherness, in this film, feelings of alienation permeate the story from beginning to end. The alienation felt by Billy, the killer, is just the tip of the iceberg on these cold December nights.

At the Pi Kappa Sigma sorority house on 6 Belmont Street, the sorority sisters are having a Christmas party. Jessica Bradford (Hussey–in Lee Hays’s 1976 novelization, Jess’s surname is Bradley) answers the phone; the mother of Barbara Coard (Kidder–Barbara Pollard in the novelization) wants to talk to her. At the end of the phone conversation, Barb is frowning (she’s so mad at her mom, she calls her “a gold-plated whore”); she’s been drinking, as usual, and she hopes that Jess, Phyllis Carlson (Martin–Phyllis Thompson in the novelization), and Clare Harrison (Griffin) will go skiing with her, in compensation for what Barb knows will be a minimal family get-together this Christmas. Her drinking, as is that of Mrs. MacHenry (Waldman), the sorority mother, is a manic defence against facing her unhappiness.

Phyll’s boyfriend, Patrick (played by Michael Rapport), will be annoyed that she won’t be available for him if she goes skiing with Barb. He’ll have to dress up as Santa for a charity gift-giving for poor kids, whom he calls “little bastards.” Already we have a sense of alienation at a time when alienation should be the last thing on people’s minds.

Speaking of swearing Santas, Billy is an evil Santa Claus of sorts, when we consider how he gets into the house by climbing up a trellis along the side of the house and entering the attic, which parallels Santa’s going down the chimney–as much a surprise breaking-and-entering of a house, when you come to think about it, as Billy’s is. He will proceed to go down from the attic to hide in the shadows of the second floor (little kids never see Santa coming, either), to make obscene phone calls to the girls, and then–instead of giving gifts–he’ll take lives.

Indeed, obscenity permeates this film as much as alienation does. We hear a consistently recurring array of four-letter words throughout the film, especially during the first of Billy’s phone calls, during which he tells of his wish to perform cunnilingus on and receive fellatio from the girls. They listen to his grunting voice with fear…and fascination–this latter feeling especially being Barb’s.

Indeed, tipsy Barb trivializes the words of the “pervert,” saying “he’s expanded his act,” which is “not bad,” and he’s “the fastest tongue in the West.” When sweet, virginal Clare warns bad-girl Barb not to provoke the man Jess calls “the Moaner,” telling of a recent rape in the town, Barb shows Clare a similar contempt. (Actually, Barb is getting back at Clare for not going skiing with her.)

This preoccupation with obscenity during the holiday season, presumed to be a time of innocent pleasures, is symbolic of the moral obscenity that Christmas in the modern world has become. Largely no longer a religious holiday celebrating the birth of Christ (which in turn was a Christianizing of the pagan Winter Solstice, a celebration of the rebirth of the sun god), Christmas has become a consumerist excuse to go shopping and spend a lot of money so capitalists can make big profits. And with capitalism comes alienation.

We see the problem of Christmas consumerism dramatized in Mrs. Mac’s entry into the sorority house lugging all those gifts. As it says in the novelization, “Shopping! Last minute shopping. Serves me right for waiting. Oh, my God, the people who are buyers for these shops must take tacky lessons. I’ve never seen such garbage in all my life. And the prices . . .” What’s more, she is a middle-aged version of Barb: she’s a foul-mouthed alcoholic the source of whose emotional problems, I suspect (as I also do of Barb), is a lack of sexual fulfillment.

The constant use of sexual language–especially by a middle-aged woman who presumably was raised never to use dirty words, back in the years when the prudish Production Code didn’t allow their use in movies–suggests repressed sexual frustration that resurfaces in the conscious mind in the substitutive form of obscene language. Mrs. Mac, I’m guessing, has been a widow for many years, and her lax attitude towards the carefree sex life of the sorority sisters is a projection of her own wish to be sexual.

In the alienated modern world, the physical contact of promiscuous sex (or at least the wish for it) is a perverse compensation for the kind of close human connection (physical or not) that should exist between people, especially at Christmastime. For lonely, alienated people like Barb and Mrs. Mac, drinking and indulgence in obscene language are substitutes for that needed contact: drinking can be linked to an oral fixation connected with a wish to give or receive oral sex (recall Barb’s fascination with Billy’s obscene phone call, as well as her telling dim-witted Sergeant Nash [McGrath] that the “new exchange” includes the word fellatio).

Note in this connection what WRD Fairbairn had to say about pleasure-seeking (e.g. drinking, sex) as a poor substitute for the nurturing of loving relationships with other people, what he called ‘object-relationships.’ Fairbairn elaborates: “…from the point of view of object-relationship psychology, explicit pleasure-seeking represents a deterioration of behaviour…Explicit pleasure-seeking has as its essential aim the relieving of the tension of libidinal need for the mere sake of relieving this tension. Such a process does, of course, occur commonly enough; but, since libidinal need is object-need, simple tension-relieving implies some failure of object-relationships.” (Fairbairn, p. 139-140)

Furthermore, while Christmas is the time of the Virgin Birth, the perverse world of Black Christmas doesn’t have holy virgins, but bitter, potty-mouthed ones. If they aren’t literal virgins, they are at least symbolic ones in the form of sexually frustrated women and Billy, a presumed incel. On the other side of the coin, Jess, pregnant with the child of her pianist boyfriend, Peter Smythe (Dullea), would rather have an abortion than give birth…during the time of the celebration of the Holy Birth.

So what we have in Black Christmas is a dialectical clash of tradition with modernity: sorority sisters who used to be all virgins are now in sexual relationships with young men, much to the chagrin of Clare’s conservative father, Mr. Harrison (played by James Edmond); families that used to be close are torn apart; only a year after Roe vs. Wade, when huge masses of people still regarded abortion as murder, Jess wants to terminate her pregnancy; people frequently curse when before they only sparingly did, which was not so long before the 1970s; and finally, men’s dominance over women is beginning to weaken.

Indeed, just as Barb and Mrs. Mac are female doubles, so are Billy and Peter male doubles. Apart from the suspicion that Peter is the murderer, both young men are a kind of inadequate male who tries to compensate for his weaknesses by controlling women–Billy by terrorizing and murdering them, and Peter by posturing as a patriarch whose ‘proposal’ of marriage to Jess is essentially a command.

Jess bravely refuses to be imprisoned in marriage and motherhood, a sacrificing of her own dreams of a career. Peter claims she can still do anything she wants while married and having the baby, but we all know how disingenuous such a claim is: motherhood and career are on a collision course, and she would far likelier acquiesce to the domestic duties than Peter would become a househusband.

As I said above, Billy’s way of compensating for his inadequacies, that is, his way of dominating women, is to terrorize and kill them. When Barb refuses to be intimidated by his obscene phone call, the insecure male resorts to threatening to kill her, which of course he does later on. But first, he goes after Clare, Mrs. Mac, and a school girl whose body is found in a park during a community search of the area one cold night.

The way Clare and Mrs. Mac are killed suggests a grisly parody of Christmas decorations: Clare’s head is wrapped up in plastic, like a gift Billy has given himself; and Mrs. Mac has a hook in her neck, making her head into a kind of ball ornament hung on a Christmas tree.

The murder weapon used on sleeping Barb is an interesting one: the horn of a unicorn statuette is stabbed into her gut. The choice of the unicorn reinforces my theory that she is, if not a virgin, at least scarcely sexually experienced, “lucky if [she can] get three minutes” of sex. We all know of the association of unicorns with women’s virginity, which in this film lacks its traditional association with maidenly virtue, but rather is something to be embarrassed about in our modern-day world.

The symbolism of the unicorn, as used in this movie, goes beyond its mere association with a maiden’s virginity, though. Recall that Black Christmas, as opposed to the traditional, sweet and innocent white Christmas, subverts and perverts the wholesome ideas associated with the holiday. Such is the way the unicorn symbolism is used here; but to understand this subversion, we must first explore the old traditions about unicorns, virgins, and the Christian faith.

There’s an old medieval tradition about entrapping a unicorn by using a naked virgin. The unicorn lies in her lap, and hunters catch it, kill it, and use its horn and body for their medicinal properties. Here, the unicorn represents Christ by lying with its horn in the lap of the virgin, which in turn represents the womb of the blessed Virgin Mary; and the hunters who kill it represent, on the one hand, the Romans who crucified Christ, and on the other hand the Church in which one takes Communion (i.e., using the unicorn’s medicinal properties).

In our Black Christmas perversion of this tradition, however, the unicorn isn’t the Saviour, but rather the murder weapon. Here, Jesus doesn’t save; He kills. The unicorn’s horn doesn’t lie in the virgin’s lap; it’s stabbed into her gut. The virgin isn’t Holy Mary, the Mother of God, but sexually frustrated, dirty-minded drinker Barb, who’d have drunk all the wine Christ made from water at the wedding at Cana. And the hunters are neither the Romans nor the Holy Church, but rather they are represented in deeply disturbed Billy.

It’s interesting in this connection to note how Billy, our Satanic Santa, says, “Agnes, it’s me, Billy” while holding the unicorn statuette that otherwise would represent Christ. Apart from the fact that Agnes is a Christian saint, the name sounds like a pun on agnus, as in Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. In this film’s perversion of Christian traditions, the only thing Billy is taking away are human lives from the world…and in this scene, he’s taking away sinner Barb’s life while a chorus of children are singing “O Come, All Ye Faithful” (“O come, let us adore Him, Christ the Lord.”) on the front porch of the sorority house.

…and who is Agnes, and what are all those voices Billy is using in his creepy phone calls? On one level, one could imagine him to be possessed of demons, this Satan Santa, as contrasted with the spirit of St. Nicholas. (In the novelization, Billy frequently says he wishes someone could stop him from killing, as if devils are forcing him to do it.) On another level, he seems to be impersonating the voices of his parents and little sister, Agnes, as if repeatedly reliving a childhood trauma.

Now, does this idea that Billy could be demonically possessed contradict the idea that he is reliving a childhood trauma by mimicking the voices of his family members? I don’t think so…not if one sees possession as symbolic of his family members as internal objects haunting his thoughts every day and night.

In his paper on the repression and return of bad objects, Fairbairn makes an interesting comparison of them to demons possessing someone. “At this point it is worth considering whence bad objects derive their power over the individual. If the child’s objects are bad, how does he ever come to internalize them?…However much he may want to reject them, he cannot get away from them. They force themselves upon him; and he cannot resist them because they have power over him. He is accordingly compelled to internalize them in an effort to control them. But, in attempting to control them in this way, he is internalizing objects which have wielded power over him in the external world; and these objects retain their prestige for power over him in the inner world. In a word, he is ‘possessed’ by them, as if by evil spirits. This is not all, however. The child not only internalizes his bad objects because they force themselves upon him and he seeks to control them, but also, and above all, because he needs them. If a child’s parents are bad objects, he cannot reject them, even if they do not force themselves upon him; for he cannot do without them. Even if they neglect him, he cannot reject them; for, if they neglect him, his need for them is increased.” (Fairbairn, page 67)

Did Billy, as an already dangerously disturbed little boy, sexually abuse his sister Agnes? Did he kill her? Is the former crime what he’s alluding to by saying, “Don’t tell them what we did,” and “pretty Agnes”? Is he tormented with guilt for what he did, yet–having his family’s object relations as his social blueprint, as it were, for all subsequent relationships–compelled to repeat the same violence with all other females, they being, in his mind, recurring versions of Agnes?

To ease his guilt and torment, he uses regression to a childish state as a defence mechanism, hence the babyish voice he often uses. Since Christmas is a time especially appealing to children, and a time we all nostalgically look back on to remember our own happy childhoods, Black Christmas uses Billy’s childish regression as yet another perverse parody of such childlike feelings.

Peter, as a double of Billy, is also showing signs of mental instability. The very thought of Jess aborting their baby is enough to shake him up so badly that he completely blows it at his piano performance in front of his stony-faced judges. Does he hit pretty much every key wrong, or is he playing an atonal piece, like one of those of Schoenberg, yet he and the judges know the piece so well that they can hear the difference between the exact pitches of the expected dissonant notes and tone clusters and Peter’s many mistakes? Either way, those discords–combined with Peter’s later smashing of the piano and the bansheelike, scraping, creepy piano effects of the soundtrack, heard whenever the killer is near–reinforce not only the doubling of Peter and Billy, but also the fear that Peter could indeed be the killer.

Though Peter is obviously no virgin, his fear of Jess getting an abortion means the danger, in his mind, of him failing to be a procreator. In traditional, patriarchal societies, it is considered as shameful for a man as it is for a woman to be childless. Since Peter has failed to create music, his failure to create a child will be emotionally disastrous for him. Such a failure will be tantamount to him remaining a virgin.

I suspect Sergeant Nash is a virgin, too. His slow-wittedness and insensitivity to people’s urgent needs will make him totally unappealing to women…and even the average virgin knows what fellatio means! His assumption that missing Clare is shacked up with a boyfriend–so offensive to Chris (Hindle), her actual boyfriend, who doesn’t want her conservative father to think of him as the kind of man who wants to corrupt her–is a projection of his own wish to get laid once in a while.

Mrs. Mac, as I’ve noted above, is at least symbolically a virgin. The nightgown her sorority sisters buy her, in its hideousness, is as useful to her “as…a chastity belt,” that is, it’s of no use to her at all. She doesn’t need a chastity belt; she already isn’t getting any, and as with Barb, her dirty mouth is a reaction formation against her never doing anything dirty in bed.

Now, this lack of, or far too scanted, sexual connection is symbolic of a scanted human connection, a lack of connection that’s particularly conspicuous during the holiday season, when human connection is supposed to be at its height…or so society would condition us to think. This symbolism brings us back to the theme of alienation I brought up at the beginning of this analysis.

Telephone calls are a perfect symbol of how mutually alienated people try to connect. One talks with someone from far away. Communicating face-to-face is far better. As Jess says in the novelization, telephone calls are “so damned impersonal”…and what is Billy’s choice method of communication?

This sense of social distancing vitiates the holiday spirit, but in Black Christmas, togetherness is also subverted and made perverse. Billy’s imitating of the voices of his family members is a perverse parody of the notion of family togetherness, when we know he’s up there all alone in the attic. If those voices are meant to indicate demonic possession, we have in that a perversion of the notion of the Christmas spirit; just as Barb’s and Mrs. Mac’s alcoholism can be seen as such a perversion, for as Ian Anderson once sang, “That Christmas spirit is not what you drink.”

This perverse sublation of togetherness and alienation is at its height when we consider how those obscene phone calls are coming from the house. So close, yet so far away. Nash’s blunt telling Jess what we, the audience, have known from the beginning, is considered one of the scariest moments in horror movie history. It’s so scary because we empathize with Jess’s shock at learning not only the proximity of the killer, but also presuming that her boyfriend–in the house at the time of a previous call, which supposedly has eliminated him as a suspect–is in fact the killer.

We the audience feel this empathy for her in a film in which all the characters generally show far too little empathy for each other during a season that’s supposed to inspire a maximum of love. Phyll tearfully empathizes with Mr. Harrison over his fears of what’s happened to Clare; Chris empathizes, too. Even Nash shows some sympathy for Jess when he clumsily tells her not to go upstairs to see if Phyll and Barb are OK (they’re dead). But none of this empathy is anywhere near enough.

We never properly see Billy’s face: we see only a shadowy silhouette, Seventies hair, and his piercing eyes (when he raises the unicorn to stab Barb, and when his one eye is seen through the door crack). The moviemakers wanted us to know as little about Billy as possible, to make him scarier. This lack of knowing who he is reinforces the sense of alienation; yet the innovative use of POV shots, making us see the world through the killer’s eyes, perversely makes us…almost…sympathize with him. Again, in this presentation of Billy, we see the perverse sublation of empathy for and alienation from him.

Such a sublation is indicative of our own alienated world: we aren’t connected to each other, so we don’t know each other as we should. We’d prefer to know each other perversely, though, ‘in the Biblical sense,’ as Barb and Mrs. Mac do. (Is Mrs. Mac’s affected charm on Mr. Harrison, apart from her wish not to get into trouble for her laxity with the sorority girls, used out of a hope that he’ll pursue her, while her giving him the finger is from her frustration with his conservative prudery and lack of interest in her, his unwillingness to respond to her ‘come hither’ signals and cues?)

Billy chases Jess into the basement, the dialectical opposite of the attic. She’ll be the killer of an innocent this time (Peter may be a sexist jerk, but he isn’t Billy), with that phallic poker in her hands. Indeed, as an early example of a final girl in an early slasher film, Jess is quite a prototypical movie feminist. She not only bravely confronts (and vanquishes he whom she believes to be) the killer, she has earlier defied Peter in refusing to back down from getting an abortion, as well as refusing to give up her career dreams just to be a mother.

So, in being Jess’s antifeminist adversary, Peter is in this additional way a double of misogynist Billy. Yet, in being in the basement and killing Peter, rather than Billy descending from the attic and killing girls, Jess is dialectically playing the killer’s role.

We can understand the dialectical relationship between the attic and the basement when we consider what they, as well as the ground and second floors, represent psychoanalytically in terms of Fairbairn’s endo-psychic personality structure. The ground and second floor of the sorority sisters’ house, being where, of course, the vast majority of the socializing happens, represents Fairbairn’s notion of the Central Ego (roughly equivalent to Freud‘s ego), linked to the Ideal Object (“ideal” because people seeking relationships with real people in the real world, as opposed to the loved and hated objects of one’s imagination, is the desired…and therefore healthy…form of object-seeking).

In contrast, the attic represents Fairbairn’s Libidinal Ego (roughly equivalent to Freud’s id), linked to the Exciting Object (e.g., movie stars, sports heroes, rock and pop stars, porn stars, etc.). Billy’s pathological libido targets sorority girls with obscene phone calls, then after killing Clare and Mrs. Mac, he brings their bodies (his Exciting Objects) up into the attic. He kills them because he wishes to possess them. Were the police not to intervene, Billy would bring the bodies of Barb and Phyll up into the attic, too…as I imagine he’ll do with Jess, assuming he really kills her in the end.

The basement represents Fairbairn’s Anti-libidinal Ego (vaguely comparable to Freud’s harshly judgemental superego), linked to the Rejecting Object, or Internal Saboteur. Jess, assuming Peter to be the killer, not only rejects his advances towards her in the basement, but also bashes his brains in with the poker.

Though opposites (i.e., the top and bottom of the house), the attic and basement share a dialectical unity in terms of their symbolism as unhealthy, dysfunctional relationships between the self and other, or the subject and object. One isn’t supposed to relate to others in a fantasy world of imagination, be they such desirable objects as, say, pornographic models and actors/actresses–Libidinal Ego/Exciting Object–or the hated people of one’s imagination–Anti-libidinal Ego/Rejecting Object or Internal Saboteur. We’re supposed to relate to real people in the real world–Central Ego/Ideal Object.

Though most of the action of the film takes place on the ground and second floors, crucial plot points occur in the attic and basement: Billy’s entry into the house through the attic window, his hiding up there, his ‘decorating’ of the attic with Clare’s and Mrs. Mac’s corpses, his temper tantrum up there as a vivid indication of how disturbed he truly is, and Jess’s climactic confrontation with Peter in the basement. These crucial scenes thus direct the plot and character development of the film.

The secondary importance of the scenes on the ground and second floors, as much as they make up the majority of the film, symbolize how much lesser is the functioning of the Central Ego and Ideal Object, which is indicative of the extent to which alienation pervades the story. Indeed, we see a lot of alienation even on those two floors.

And this brings us to the final scenes of the film. The police arrive at the house, and a doctor sedates Jess. Since it’s assumed that Peter is the killer, the police see no need to search anywhere else in the house. Phyll’s and Barb’s bodies are taken away, and Lt. Fuller (Saxon) leaves with most of the other police to talk to news reporters at the police station, leaving only one policeman to stand guard outside, on the front porch of the house.

Now that he knows that a murderer has killed a few sorority girls, Mr. Harrison so fears the worst for Clare that he goes into shock. The doctor and Chris have to take him out of the house, Chris trying to reassure him that there’s hope that his daughter may still be alive.

This leaves sleeping, sedated Jess all alone on the second floor of the house. The camera slowly moves over to Clare’s room, then up to the attic, where Billy still is, and where his first two victims’ bodies remain as ghoulish ‘Christmas decorations’ to be seen through the window.

Whatever Jess’s fate ends up being, her being left alone in the house with the still-undiscovered killer, who ends the film with that ominous telephone ringing, perfectly sums up the alienation that the film so unflinchingly expresses. This black Christmas is one that’s dialectically opposed to the white Christmas that’s supposed to be what the holiday’s all about: estrangement instead of togetherness, frustrated lust instead of fulfilled love, fear and terror instead of “peace on earth, goodwill to men,” modern despair instead of the familiar comforts of tradition, and death instead of birth. Such alienation and loneliness add a chilling depth to the horror of the film.

Silent night, evil night.

Analysis of ‘The Birds’

The Birds is a 1963 natural horror film produced and directed by Alfred Hitchcock and written by Evan Hunter, based on the horror short story by Daphne du Maurier. The film stars Tippi Hedren and Rod Taylor, and costars Jessica Tandy, Veronica Cartwright, and Suzanne Pleshette.

The film is so completely different from the short story that the only two things they have in common are the title and the premise of birds violently attacking people, the attacks being interrupted by pauses, rests of several hours each. Everything else–the setting, characters, and the incidents–is completely reworked to the point of the film being an utterly different story from du Maurier’s version.

In 2016, The Birds was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the United States Library of Congress, and selected for preservation in its National Film Registry.

Here are some quotes:

Melanie: Have you ever seen so many seagulls? What do you suppose it is?
Mrs. MacGruder: Well, there must be a storm at sea. That can drive them inland, you know.

Mitch[deliberately mistaking Melanie for a sales clerk] I wonder if you could help me?
Melanie: Just what is it you’re looking for, sir?
Mitch: Lovebirds.
Melanie: Lovebirds, sir?
Mitch: Yes, I understand there are different varieties. Is that true?
Melanie: Oh yes, there are.
Mitch: Well, these are for my sister, for her birthday, see, and uh, as she’s only going to be eleven, I, I wouldn’t want a pair of birds that were too demonstrative.
Melanie: I understand completely.
Mitch: At the same time, I wouldn’t want them to be too aloof either.
Melanie: No, of course not.
Mitch: Do you happen to have a pair of birds that are just friendly?

Mitch: Doesn’t this make you feel awful… having all these poor little innocent creatures caged up like this?
Melanie: Well, we can’t just let them fly around the shop, you know.

Mitch: We met in court… I’ll rephrase it. I saw you in court… Don’t you remember one of your practical jokes that resulted in the smashing of a plate-glass window?
Melanie: I didn’t break that window. What are you, a policeman?
Mitch: No, but your little prank did. The judge should have put you behind bars. I merely believe in the law, Miss Daniels… I just thought you might like to know what it’s like to be on the other end of a gag. What do ya think of that?
Melanie: I think you’re a louse.
Mitch: I am.

Mitch: Well, small world…How do you know Annie?
Melanie: We went to school together – college…
Mitch: So you came up to see Annie, huh?
Melanie: Yes.
Mitch: I think you came up to see me.
Melanie: Now why would I want to see you of all people?
Mitch: I don’t know. You must have gone to a lot of trouble to find out who I was and where I lived.
Melanie: No, it was no trouble at all. I simply called my father’s newspaper. Besides, I was coming up anyway. I’ve already told you that.
Mitch: You really like me, huh?
Melanie: I loathe you. You have no manners, you’re arrogant, and conceited, and I wrote you a letter about it, in fact. But I tore it up.

“I’m neither poor nor innocent.” –Melanie

Annie[after birds attack the children at a party] That makes three times.
Melanie: Mitch, this isn’t usual, is it? The gull when I was in the boat yesterday. The one at Annie’s last night, and now…
Mitch: Last night? What do you mean?
Melanie: A gull smashed into Annie’s front door. Mitch – what’s happening?

“I wish I were a stronger person. I lost my husband four years ago, you know. It’s terrible how you, you depend on someone else for strength and then suddenly all the strength is gone and you’re alone. I’d love to be able to relax sometime.” –Lydia

“Oh Daddy, there were hundreds of them… Just now, not fifteen minutes ago… at the school… the birds didn’t attack until the children were outside the school… crows, I think… Oh, I don’t know, Daddy, is there a difference between crows and blackbirds?… I think these were crows, hundreds of them… Yes, they attacked the children. Attacked them!” –Melanie, on the phone

“Birds have been on this planet, Miss Daniels, since Archaeopteryx, a hundred and forty million years ago. Doesn’t it seem odd that they’d wait all that time to start a…a war against humanity.” –Mrs. Bundy

“It’s the end of the world.” –drunk

“I think we’re in real trouble. I don’t know how this started or why, but I know it’s here and we’d be crazy to ignore it… The bird war, the bird attack, plague – call it what you like. They’re amassing out there someplace and they’ll be back. You can count on it.” –Mitch

“Look at the gas, that man’s lighting a cigar!” –Melanie, as she sees a man lighting his cigar as gasoline is leaking around him

“Why are they doing this? Why are they doing this? They said when you got here, the whole thing started. Who are you? What are you? Where did you come from? I think you’re the cause of all this. I think you’re evil. EVIL!” –mother in diner, to Melanie

Cathy: Mitch, can I bring the lovebirds in here?
Lydia: No!
Cathy: But Mom, they’re in a cage!
Lydia: They’re birds, aren’t they?
Mitch: Let’s leave them in the kitchen, huh, honey?

Cathy: Mitch, why are they doing this, the birds?
Mitch: We don’t know, honey.
Cathy: Why are they trying to kill people?
Mitch: I wish I could say.
Cathy: I-I’m sick, Melanie.

There is no apparent reason for birds of all kinds to be suddenly swooping down on and attacking people, pecking and clawing at them. I find the best way to find meaning in these attacks is to see them as symbolic of something else…a different attacker from the skies.

To determine what, or who, this other attacker could be, I recommend a reading of du Maurier’s short story. Hints can be found in such things as the different setting. In her story, the bird attacks occur not in California, but in England; they also occur not in the early 1960s, but just after WWII.

When one considers the destruction Nazi Germany’s bombings of England caused, as well as the trauma they caused the survivors, we can see how du Maurier’s The Birds can be seen as a near pun on the Blitz, and therefore also be symbolic of it.

So the birds, in her story and–by extension–Hitchcock’s film, can be seen to symbolize bomber planes. Nat Hocken, the farmer and protagonist of the short story, believes it’s the colder weather that’s making the birds so aggressive. Later on in the story, a farmer claims it’s “the Russians” who have somehow incited the birds to attack by poisoning them (page 9 from the above link). Mrs. Trigg, the wife of his boss, wonders if the cold weather is coming from Russia (page 4).

Given that du Maurier’s story takes place shortly after the end of the Second World War, and therefore at the beginning of the Cold War, we can now see what the colder weather and reference to Russians are hinting at: the attacking birds represent a paranoid fear of a Soviet invasion.

A few bird attacks on Nat, a WWII veteran, would trigger PTSD responses in him, making him fantasize about bird attacks happening all over England, symbolic of airstrikes. Since the story is essentially–though not exclusively–from his point of view (even though it isn’t a first-person narration), we can easily view the story as a hallucinatory fantasy in his mind.

With these insights from the short story, we can gain an understanding of what’s going on in the film. Hitchcock spoke of how the birds are getting revenge on man for taking nature for granted; instead of birds being caged, they force people to cage themselves in houses, restaurants, telephone booths, etc.

The changing of the setting to California (in the coastal town of Bodega Bay, about an hour-and-25-minute drive from San Francisco) is instructive in this regard of birds’ revenge on man. If their attacks symbolize aerial bombardments (kamikaze-like in the short story, with birds dying upon hitting the ground), we could see this revenge as symbolizing that of those countries the US had so far bombed: Japan and North Korea; also, there was the US-supported coup in Guatemala in 1954, which included air bombings of Guatemala City and the threat of a US invasion. The birds’ attacks thus can be said to symbolize a fear of other nations bombing the US in revenge for having been bombed.

This theme of revenge first appears right at about the beginning of the movie, when Mitch Brenner (Taylor) enters a pet store where birds are sold on the second floor, and pretends that he thinks Melanie Daniels (Hedren)–who has played a practical joke leading to a broken window and a legal case that he, a lawyer, knows of–works in the store. He plays this trick on her in retaliation for her practical joke, which caused such annoyance to those affected by it.

He asks her about buying a pair of lovebirds as a gift for his younger sister, eleven-year-old Cathy Brenner (Cartwright). Annoyed at the comeuppance she’s received, yet also finding him attractive, Melanie wants to spite Mitch by, on the one hand, delivering a pair of green lovebirds to his home personally, and on the other, writing a note to him that she hopes the birds would “help [his] personality”…though she tears up the letter.

It’s interesting in this connection to note that, for pretty much the remainder of the film, she is dressed in a distinctive green outfit. A green ‘bird’ is giving Mitch green birds. This ‘bird’ also played a practical joke resulting in a broken window, just like the many broken windows caused by the bird attacks, which have begun since her arrival, in that green outfit, in Bodega Bay. Indeed, a hysterical mother in a diner blames Melanie for bringing the bird attacks to the town.

So we shift from lovebirds to violent ones, suggesting a dialectical relationship between love and hostility. This dialectical tension is sublated in how Mitch and Melanie are themselves two lovebirds who, in spite of how annoyed they are with each other at first, are attracted to each other.

Film critic and historian Andrew Sarris noted how complacent and self-absorbed the main characters are: Mitch, Melanie, Annie, and Lydia. Such self-absorption and egotism suggest the effects of alienation in a capitalist society, one about to be attacked in symbolic revenge for the attacks of imperialism on other countries. One manifestation of contradiction in dialectics is that of attack vs. counterattack, or revenge; another such manifestation is action vs. passivity, or resting. In the short story, Nat speculates that the birds attack at high tide (thesis), and at low tide (antithesis), the birds rest (page 12 of the above link).

The first major bird attack and the climactic last one are on Melanie (the bird nips at Mitch’s fingers and ankle at the very end are so brief as not to count for much). This is her karma–birds attacking a bird, the dialectic of attack vs. counterattack.

Another thing to remember about Melanie is that she is a bourgeois. Her father owns a newspaper, and she drives into Bodega Bay wearing a luxurious fur coat over that green outfit. So as the deliverer of the green lovebirds to Mitch and Cathy, Melanie–as an embodiment of capitalism and a personification of the birds–is symbolically bringing the avian aerial bombardment on the town. This linking of capitalism with aerial bombing is brought to you courtesy of imperialism. The hysterical mother in the diner is right to blame Melanie for all the mayhem.

The US bombed Japan and North Korea. Due to racist immigration policies, only limited numbers of Asians had been allowed to live in California by the time of the filming of The Birds. Melanie tells Mitch her family is sponsoring a Korean boy, but her charity won’t come near to compensating for the imperialist destruction she personifies, or the racism of the government that supports her class interests: those bird attacks are symbolic of, in part, an Asian, avian revenge.

This 1963 film came out at the height of the Cold War, just a year after the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the world came inches close to nuclear war. During the previous decade, there had been the McCarthyist Red Scare, the fear of which I dealt with in my analysis of The Manchurian Candidate.

The bird attacks can thus be seen to represent a repressed fear of a communist invasion, a revenge bombing for all the American imperialist bombings and coups that went on between the end of WWII and the early 60s. Now, what is repressed will return to consciousness, though in a new, unrecognizable form: thus, bomber planes resurface in the conscious mind in the form of birds.

This is the fear of a socialist revenge on capitalism, a repressed fear, since bourgeois Hitchcock would never have seen it as such in his own film; he’d instead speak of caged birds getting revenge on man, their cagers and polluters of the air. Recall the amateur orinthologist, Mrs. Bundy (played by Ethel Griffies), speaking of how peaceful birds usually are, and that it’s man who makes life unliveable for all. Those who have a historical materialist understanding of the world can easily translate “man” as ‘the capitalist.’

Now, just as capitalism (personified here in rich bitch Melanie Daniels) destroys everything around it (symbolized in her arrival in Bodega Bay with the lovebirds, followed soon after by the bird attacks), so will capitalism ultimately crumble under its own contradictions, as Marx predicted in Capital, Vol. 3, in his discussion of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall (in the film, symbolized by the birds attacking Melanie, ‘the bird,’ at the end, almost killing her).

Another issue capitalism raises is alienation, shown symbolically in the film through the love/hate relationship of not only Mitch and Melanie, but also that of him and his mother (Tandy), who sabotaged his relationship with Annie Hayworth (Pleshette), his previous girlfriend. On top of this is Melanie’s estrangement from her mother, who ran off with another man.

To get back to Lydia, who disapproves also of her son’s budding relationship with Melanie and tries to sabotage it by telling him of a scandal involving Melanie falling naked into a fountain, his mother fears his commitment to a woman will result in him abandoning his mother. Mitch’s father died several years before the beginning of the film, so Lydia is afraid of having to carry on life alone.

This fear of loneliness, coupled with difficulties forming healthy relationships, is often a consequence of alienation under capitalism. Dialectically speaking, this clinging love of Lydia’s, which spoils Mitch’s love life, is another sublation of the film’s theme of the love/hate opposition, which is symbolized by the green lovebirds and Melanie in her green outfit on the one hand, and the attacking birds on the other.

One interesting contrast between the short story and the film is how, in the former, the first of the bird attacks happens on page two of the link provided above, but in the latter, we must wait about fifty minutes until a group of birds attacks children at Cathy’s birthday party. Prior to that attack, there’s only the one gull that hits Melanie on the head, the one that crashes into Annie’s front door, and the ominous hovering and resting of birds on several occasions throughout the film.

Because all that matters to imperialists is the controlling of other countries, the ruling class gives not a second of thought to how their bombs not only kill people, but also traumatize and disrupt the lives of the survivors. The lengthy process of developing the main characters, prior to the birds’ first major attacks, humanizes them for us in a way that the East Asian or, more recently, Middle Eastern victims of bombings are never humanized.

We see the traumatized reaction of Lydia when she sees her neighbour’s eyeless corpse, and we sympathize with her. We rarely contemplate the trauma of the surviving Japanese after the nuking of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We imagine North Koreans to be neurotically servile to the ruling Kim family; we never consider how the North Koreans’ collective trauma, after the US bombed their whole country, drove them to look up to the strength of the Kims to ensure that such a bombing will never happen again.

We see the terror of the children attacked by the birds at Cathy’s party, then later as they run from their school. We seldom consider, for example, the Yemeni children killed in a school bus after being hit by an airstrike. The only way many of us in the West can contemplate such horrors is if they’re inflicted on us, but with the bombs replaced with birds. Recall how, in the diner scene, the bird attacks are sometimes referred to as a “war” being waged against man.

Speaking of the diner scene, a tense discussion of the bird attacks there brings up responses as varied as the denials of Mrs. Bundy, the hysterics of the mother of two children, and a drunk Irishman proclaiming doomsday. His insistence on it being “the end of the world” makes me think of Biblical allusions other than his to Ezekiel, though.

Recall how this all more or less started not only with Melanie’s buying a pair of lovebirds, but also, just before her entrance into the pet store, hearing a boy on the sidewalk whistling at her, all while we hear the cawing of a huge flock of black birds in the sky; the boy’s and birds’ sounds are similar enough to suggest that the whistling may not have been from him, but may have actually been one of the birds screeching. It’s as if the birds were the ones making the pass at her.

These associations symbolically suggest the sons of God in Genesis 6:1-4, who are sometimes identified as angels (i.e., winged ones!), looking down from heaven onto the daughters of men (e.g., Melanie) and wishing to mate with them. This unnatural love union led to the sinfulness of the world that led, in turn, to the Great Flood, another ending of the world. Here again we see the birds’ dialectical linking of love and violence. (Recall also how Nat, from the short story, theorized that the birds’ attacks coincided with the high tide, a rising of water that can be associated with the Flood.)

Another way the bird attacks suggest “the end of the world” is how they symbolize avenging angels, coming down to earth with Christ’s return and bringing about Armageddon (Matthew 16:27).

To return to the airstrike symbolism, a closer linking of the birds with bomber planes is suggested when–after a bird attacks a man at a gas station and causes him to drop the fuel dispenser of a gas pump, spilling gasoline all over the ground–a man parks his car by the spillage and, unaware of the gas, lights a cigar. His dropping of a match causes an explosion, killing him and causing a huge fire in the area. Bird-bombers, as it were, have caused explosions and a fire, however indirectly.

The disruption of people’s lives continues when we learn that Annie, Mitch’s original flame, has been killed by the birds, her corpse lying out by the stairs in front of her porch and traumatizing poor Cathy, who looks on from inside Annie’s house. We rarely think, however, of how bombings cause the same kind of suffering in those countries victimized by imperialism.

The self-absorption and narcissism we have seen in the main characters, especially in Melanie, have abated now that the terror of the birds has forced everyone to work together, help each other, and sympathize with each other. Since bourgeois Melanie–bringer of the lovebirds and, symbolically, the bird attacks–represents capitalism, her subsequent helpfulness should be seen to represent how capitalism sometimes tries to make accommodations to appease the working class, as was seen in the welfare state from 1945-1973. Nonetheless, accommodations to the labour aristocracy of the First World are never good enough to compensate for the wrongs done to the Third World.

Holed up in the Brenners’ house, Mitch, Melanie, Lydia, and Cathy are safe for the moment. Cathy would like to bring her lovebirds into the living room, but Lydia won’t tolerate even those birds, as harmless as they are in their cage. These two birds are the dialectical opposite of the violent ones, though, so there’s no need to fear them.

No one knows why the birds are trying to kill people; neither, I imagine, do many of the poor people in the humble, provincial villages of the Third World understand why drones fly over them and kill innocent civilians there. Especially ignorant of the reasons for this violence against them are their children…just like Cathy.

More bird attacks come, even after Mitch’s efforts to board up the windows. Melanie goes up to the attic, and she experiences the climactic bird attack. Just as she’s learned “what it’s like to be on the other end of a gag,” now she learns what it’s like to experience an extreme, life-threatening bird attack, just as eyeless Dan, Lydia’s neighbour, and Annie have. Luckily, though, she barely survives.

Imperialists sometimes treat their bombing atrocities as if they were as trivial as practical jokes, the way Hillary Clinton cackled at the brutal murder of Muammar Gaddafi. Sooner or later, though, all empires fall, as the American one is expected to do within the next ten to fifteen years or so. Just as birds attack Melanie, so will the ‘practical joker’ US/NATO one day get their comeuppance, perhaps in the form of a bombing.

If and when that happens, it truly will be the end of the world…the world of capitalism, that is, since many have speculated that the latest economic collapse could very well be the self-destruction of capitalism that Marx predicted, symbolized in the film by the near-fatal attack of birds on the green-suited bird.

After the attack on her, the birds are at rest. Now would be a good chance to get Melanie to a hospital in San Francisco; Mitch and the others would be putting themselves at great risk of being exposed in their car to another bird attack, but Melanie’s injuries are so severe that her life depends on getting her to a doctor.

As Mitch gets the car ready for Melanie, Lydia, and Cathy, he hears a radio newscast mentioning the possibility of involving the military. Naturally: the bird attacks symbolize a foreign aerial invasion. Indeed, as Melanie, Lydia, and Cathy get into the car, we see the tense enveloping of the area with resting birds. The sight of so many birds suggests the occupation of a foreign army…or air force. In this symbolic sense, Americans can get an inkling of what other countries must feel when they have US military bases in them.

So the ending of the film is an ambiguous one: how much longer will the bird attacks continue? The short story’s ending seems more pessimistic, as we find Nat smoking a cigarette–like a man condemned to a firing squad–as he awaits the next bird attack. He seems resigned to his fate. Many victims of US imperialism must feel the same resignation when confronted with endless air strikes.

The hope that Mitch et al must feel, as they drive Melanie to a San Francisco hospital, would symbolically reflect the Western hope of reviving from a vulnerability that other countries have felt, courtesy of the US/NATO alliance. As we witness the geopolitical shift from a unipolar world to a multipolar one, Westerners may find their hopes dwindling.

Analysis of ‘King Kong’

King Kong is a monster movie of which three versions have been made, in 1933, 1976, and 2005, the three that I’ll be focusing on. I’ll also make a brief reference or two to the giant ape’s other appearances in the franchise.

The 1933 film stars Robert Armstrong, Fay Wray, and Bruce Cabot, and was produced and directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack. The 1976 remake stars Jeff Bridges, Jessica Lange (in her first movie role), and Charles Grodin; it was produced by Dino De Laurentiis and directed by John Guillermin. The 2005 remake stars Jack Black, Naomi Watts, Adrien Brody, and Andy Serkis (as Kong in motion capture, and as a cook on the ship); it was co-written, produced, and directed by Peter Jackson.

The 1976 version is considered the weakest of the three, but it offers a few interesting variations on the plot, including an oil company instead of a moviemaking crew searching for Skull Island, and Kong takes the blonde beauty (Dwan, played by Lange, instead of Ann Darrow, played by Wray and Watts) up to the top of the World Trade Center instead of the Empire State Building. What’s interesting about these changes is how they develop the central theme of the story: exploitation, which I’ll elaborate on below.

Here are some quotes from all three films:

1933

And the Prophet said, “And lo, the beast looked upon the face of beauty. And it stayed its hand from killing. And from that day, it was as one dead.” –Old Arabian Proverb in the opening scenes of the film.

“It’s money and adventure and fame. It’s the thrill of a lifetime and a long sea voyage that starts at six o’clock tomorrow morning.” –Denham, to Darrow

“You won’t find that island on any chart. That was made by the skipper of a Norwegian barque…A canoe full of natives from this island was blown out to sea. When the barque picked them up, there was only one alive. He died before they reached port, but not before the skipper had pieced together a description of the island and got a fairly good idea of where it lies.” –Denham, on Skull Island

“I think Denham’s off his nut taking you ashore today…Denham’s such a fool for risks, there’s no telling what he might ask you to do for this picture….He’s crazy enough to try anything. When I think what might have happened today. If anything had happened to you…I’m scared for you. I’m sort of, well I’m scared of you too. Ann, uh, I, uh, uh, say, I guess I love you…Say, Ann, I don’t suppose, uh, I mean, well you don’t feel anything like that about me, do you?” –Jack Driscoll, to Ann

Denham: Wait a minute. What about Kong?
Driscoll: Well, what about him?
Denham: We came here to get a moving picture, and we’ve found something worth more than all the movies in the world.
Captain: What?!
Denham: We’ve got those gas bombs. If we can capture him alive.
Driscoll: Why, you’re crazy! Besides that, he’s on a cliff where a whole army couldn’t get at him.
Denham: Yeah, if he stays there. But we’ve got something he wants [looking at Ann].
Driscoll: Yep, something he won’t get again.

Denham: Well, the whole world will pay to see this.
Captain: No chains will ever hold that.
Denham: We’ll give him more than chains. He’s always been King of his world. But we’ll teach him fear! We’re millionaires, boys, I’ll share it with all of you. Why, in a few months, it’ll be up in lights on Broadway: ‘Kong — the Eighth Wonder of the World!’

“Ladies and gentlemen, I’m here tonight to tell you a very strange story — a story so strange that no one will believe it — but, ladies and gentlemen, seeing is believing. And we — my partners and I — have brought back the living proof of our adventure, an adventure in which twelve of our party met horrible deaths. And now, ladies and gentlemen, before I tell you any more, I’m going to show you the greatest thing your eyes have ever beheld. He was a king and a god in the world he knew, but now he comes to civilization merely a captive — a show to gratify your curiosity. Ladies and gentlemen, look at Kong, the Eighth Wonder of the World.” –Denham, to New York audience

“Don’t be alarmed, ladies and gentlemen. Those chains are made of chrome steel.” –Denham

Police Lieutenant: Well, Denham, the airplanes got him.
Denham: Oh no, it wasn’t the airplanes. It was beauty killed the beast.

1976

“I’m Dwan. D-W-A-N, Dwan. That’s my name. You know, like Dawn, except that I switched two letters to make it more memorable.” –Dwan

“You know I had my horoscope done before I flew out to Hong Kong. And it said that I was going to cross over water and meet the biggest person in my life.” –Dwan

Fred Wilson[As the “Petrox Explorer” comes in sight of Skull Island] Did you ever wonder how Hernando Cortez felt when he discovered the Lost Treasure of the Incas?
Jack Prescott: That wasn’t Cortez; it was Pizarro. And he died flat broke.

“You Goddamn chauvinist pig ape!” –Dwan

Dwan: How can I become a star because of… because of someone who was stolen off that gorgeous island and locked up in that lousy oil tank?
Fred Wilson: It’s not someone! It’s an animal, a beast who tried to rape you.
Dwan: That’s not true. He risked his life to save me.
Fred Wilson: He tried to rape you, honey. And before you cry a lot, you should ask the natives on that island what they thought loosing Kong.
Jack Prescott: Actually, they’ll miss him a lot.
Fred Wilson: Like leprosy.
Jack Prescott: No, you’re dead wrong. He was the terror, the mystery of their lives, and the magic. A year from now that will be an island full of burnt-out drunks. When we took Kong we kidnapped their god.

“Lights! Camera! Kong!” –Wilson

Jack Prescott: Even an environmental rapist like you wouldn’t be asshole enough to destroy a unique new species of animal.
Fred Wilson: Bet me.

2005

“What are they going to do, sue me? They can get in line! I’m not gonna let ’em kill my film!” –Denham

“Goddammit, Preston, all you had to do was look her in the eye and lie!” –Denham

“Defeat is always momentary.” –Denham

Carl Denham: Ann, I’m telling you. You’re perfect. Look at you, you’re the saddest girl I’ve ever met. You’re gonna make ’em weep, Ann. You’re gonna break their hearts.
Ann Darrow: See, that’s where you’re wrong, Mr. Denham. I make people laugh, that’s what I do. Good luck with your picture.

“Actors. They travel the world, but all they ever see is a mirror.” –Jack Driscoll

Jimmy[Referring to Heart of DarknessWhy does Marlow keep going up the river? Why doesn’t he turn back?
Hayes: There’s a part of him that wants to, Jimmy. A part deep inside himself that sounds a warning. But there’s another part that needs to know. To defeat the thing which makes him afraid. “We could not understand because we were too far and could not remember because we were traveling in the night of first ages of those ages that are gone leaving hardly a sign, and no memories. We are accustomed to look upon the shackled form of a conquered monster, but there, there you could look at a thing monstrous and free.”
Jimmy: It’s not an adventure story, is it, Mr. Hayes?
Hayes: No, Jimmy. It’s not.

“There’s only one creature capable of leaving a footprint that size… the Abominable Snowman.” –Lumpy (Serkis)

[recognizing Jimmy, he confiscates the gun] Hayes: Jesus, Jimmy!
Jimmy: Hey, I need that!
Hayes: I’m not giving you a gun!
Jimmy: You were younger than me when they gave you one!
Hayes: I was in the army. I was trained. I had a drill sergeant!
Jimmy: I wanna help bring her back.
Hayes[haltingly giving him the gun] Don’t make me regret it.

Jack Driscoll: I always knew you were nothing like the tough guy on the screen. I just never figured you for a coward.
Bruce Baxter: Hey, pal. Hey, wake up. Heroes don’t look like me, not in the real world. In the real world they got bad teeth, a bald spot and a beer gut. I’m just an actor with a gun, who’s lost his motivation. Be seein’ ya.

“That’s all there is. There isn’t any more.” –Ann Darrow, to Kong

Preston: He was right. About there still being some mystery left in this world… and we can all have a piece of it… for the price of an admission ticket.
Jack Driscoll: That’s the thing you come to learn about Carl. His unfailing ability to destroy the things he loves.

A lot of what is, or at least seems, implied in the 1933 film is made explicit in the 2005 remake. The film is set in what was the present, that is, the early 1930s, and therefore in the grip of the Great Depression. We are introduced to poor Ann Darrow (Wray), who is so hungry, she attempts to steal an apple; she’s also in old, rather shabby-looking clothes.

Moviemaker Carl Denham (Armstrong) doesn’t come off as overtly exploitative, since as one of the main characters, he’s more sympathetic; added to this, since people back in the 1930s were, on average, far less sensitive to the plight of animals in captivity, they were far less likely to judge Denham for wanting to capture Kong and put the giant ape on display for human entertainment. Nonetheless, he is an exploiter, even if the audience doesn’t think of him as much of one.

In the 2005 film, also set in the 1930s, the plight of the poor during the Great Depression is shoved in our faces right from the beginning. Darrow (Watts) is struggling as an out-of-work vaudeville performer, and Denham (Black) is a certified snake ready to take advantage of her desperation.

The 2005 remake also makes shrewd use of the old Al Jolson recording of “I’m Sitting On Top of the World,” which in the context of the film is an obvious reference to Kong on top of the Empire State Building, at the time the tallest building in the world. Because we hear the song during shots of the poor in New York City, its gaiety comes off as bittersweet, especially with the line, “Just like Humpty Dumpty, I’m going to fall.” Similarly, though Kong is regarded as a king on Skull Island, he’s a brutally exploited and ultimately victimized animal in the ‘civilized’ world, killed for being in a place he should never have been brought to.

Armstrong’s 1933 Denham is criticized only for being “reckless” and “crazy,” but he should be seen as every bit as exploitative as Black’s Denham of the 2005 version. He lures poor Ann onto the boat, knowing full well what potential danger he’s bringing her into, all just to give his audience what they want: a pretty girl as the love interest in his new movie.

Though he promises her “no funny business,” he also promises her “money and adventure and fame…the thrill of a lifetime,” with a big smile on his face, as if he were the director of a pornographic movie tricking a pretty young woman into participating in it by pretending he’s going to make her a Hollywood movie star. Even if the more innocent audiences of the 1930s couldn’t see it at the time, Denham, I insist, is an exploiter.

The Denham of the 2005 film is even more overtly exploitative, even tricking his screenwriter, Jack Driscoll (Brody, as opposed to the sailor in the 1933 film who is played by Cabot), into staying on the boat–with a promise to pay him–until it sets sail and he’s stuck for the ride to Skull Island.

When they get there, they discover a tribe of natives getting ready to sacrifice a girl to Kong. Here we see the natives exploiting one of their own to appease their giant simian god; but then they see Ann, with her golden hair, and decide they’d rather exploit her, since Kong will surely like her better.

Ann, back on the boat with the crew, is abducted by the natives and given to Kong. It’s interesting here to compare the different Kongs of the three movies, and even with those of the others of the franchise. He is usually a giant ape with humanoid characteristics, that is, standing more or less upright and with some of the features of human understanding–greater intelligence, as well as his love of, and willingness to risk his life to protect, Ann; the exception to this is the 2005 Kong, who is more or less just a gigantic silverback gorilla with no anthropomorphic features. So, his capture and exploitation by Denham can be seen to represent that of animals, as in a zoo, or it can symbolize the exploitation of primitive man, as seen in human zoos.

The encroachment of Denham and the crew onto Skull Island–first to exploit it in order to make, as he originally hopes, a hit movie, and then to capture Kong and get rich using the giant gorilla as an entertaining spectacle–is easily seen as symbolic of the capitalist exploitation of the Third World. The 1976 remake–with the Petrox Oil Company hoping initially to secure vast untapped deposits of oil on Skull Island, then when realizing there’s minimal commercial oil there, Fred Wilson (Grodin), the remake’s equivalent of Denham, decides to capture and capitalize on Kong instead–is all the more a comment on capitalist exploitation.

The wall separating the tribe from the jungle represents that last remaining vestige of civilization, as against the wild, chaotic, vicious world of might makes right and everyone for himself. Such desperate circumstances are what the Third World is left with after having been so over-exploited by the imperialist First World, so we see Kong surrounded by hostility, always having to hate, and always having to fight.

Kong’s encountering of Ann/Dwan, her beauty symbolic of her gentleness, makes him see for the first time that kindness and love can exist. He is touched by her. The 2005 Ann does her vaudeville routine to entertain him, and instead of scowling, the big ape actually laughs. She looks out at the sunset/sunrise with him, and says, “Beautiful,” to teach him how to appreciate it.

In the 1976 film, Dwan–an anagram of Dawn–is the dawn of an understanding for Kong that love and beauty do exist. Her calling him a “chauvinist pig ape,” saying “eat me” gets him to empathize with her vulnerability. Kong in all three films represents the stereotypical brutish male, and Ann/Dwan is the stereotypical woman as civilizing influence on the male. Beauty truly kills the beast.

A parallel situation can be found in the 1933 film, in the relationship between first mate Jack Driscoll and Ann. At first, he speaks contemptuously of women, regarding them as a nuisance; but her beauty and sweetness tame the cool macho man in him, so that by the time they reach Skull Island, he’s in love with her. After he rescues her and they return to New York, they’re engaged.

To return to Kong, though, he still has to contend with the hostile world around him. In the 1933 film (and the 2005 remake), we see him fight off a Tyrannosaur (or T-rex-like predatory dinosaurs) and a pterodactyl (or giant bats) in his efforts to defend Ann and himself; and in the 1976 film, Kong fights with a giant–and fake-looking–giant snake.

It’s interesting in this connection to discuss Toho‘s King Kong vs. Godzilla, with Kong fighting another dinosaur-like monster. Since Godzilla, or Gojira, is a kaiju-sized reptile woken and empowered by nuclear radiation, he is symbolic of the horrors and destructiveness of nuclear war.

Kong (as representative of the people of the Third World) fighting Godzilla thus can be seen to symbolize the people of oppressed nations fighting off the imperialist threat of aerial bombardments, nuclear or non-nuclear. For not only did Japan suffer a thorough American bombing from both nuclear and non-nuclear bombs, but so did North Korea, though only with non-nuclear bombs, prompting the DPRK to create a nuclear weapons program to ensure that such a bombing will never happen again.

Kong takes Ann up to a cliff where they will be safe from attack, at least for the moment. In his sexual curiosity, Kong can’t resist the temptation to see how beautiful Ann’s/Dwan’s body is without her clothes on, so he tries to peel some of them off. When the prudish Production Code was established a year after the 1933 film was made, scenes like this one, as well as many of the other violent scenes (Kong’s victims in his mouth, stomped on, or dropped to their deaths) were censored and removed later in the 1930s.

Some have accused King Kong of reinforcing racist attitudes, by suggesting that Kong represents the ‘brutish, uncivilized’ black male stereotype. This scene of him peeling off her clothes would thus seem to imply the ‘dangers’ of race-mixing. Now, the film’s creators insisted that they intended no allegorical meaning, let alone a racist one; I, however, would see Kong’s voyeuristic curiosity about Ann’s body as symbolic of how those in poor countries must wonder about the wealth of the West.

The scene of Kong fighting off the pterodactyl/giant bats on that cliff, as Driscoll rescues Ann, parallels the final scene of Kong fighting off airplanes on the top of the Empire State Building. Just as he literally dies at the end of the film, he metaphorically dies when Ann is taken away from him. This metaphorical death is emphasized in the 2005 remake, when we see Kong chained up on display in New York, with that despondent look on his face from having lost her.

This capturing of Kong, without the slightest regard for the ape’s feelings, this turning of a living being into a mere commodity so Denham can get rich, is the essence of capitalist exploitation. New markets have to be opened (displaying Kong) when others fail (Denham’s movie project; Petrox not finding any oil on Skull Island), in order to offset the tendency of the rate of profit to fall.

This spectacle, symbolic of human zoos (for recall Kong’s anthropomorphism and superior intelligence by gorilla standards, as seen in all King Kong films other than Jackson’s), shows the one valid way we can compare him with black people: not as a racist caricature meant to promote xenophobia or to discourage interracial marriage, but as a pitiable victim of Western imperialism.

Here we can see an irony in naming the giant ape King Kong (in the 1976 film, he is even wearing a giant crown): as Denham says in his introduction to his New York audience: “He was a king and a god in the world he knew, but now he comes to civilization merely a captive — a show to gratify your curiosity.” As a symbol of the conquered and oppressed people of the Third World, Kong has been degraded, lowered from his rightful place as ruler of his own destiny, to a merely entertaining spectacle for the white bourgeoisie.

While some might do a racist interpretation of Kong’s size, strength, and aggressiveness by seeing them as representative of the traits of blacks, something terrifying to white supremacists, I see something far more fundamentally threatening in these attributes of Kong. These can be attributed to the global proletariat, provided they all come together in solidarity and rise up against the ruling class. Together, we’re as big and as strong as Kong; but separate and alone, we’re small and weak.

Indeed, when Kong sees Ann again–by the stage in the 1933 film, and when he sees a tied-up lookalike of her in the 2005 remake–he is reminded of what he lacks, which gives rise to his desire to have her again. This drives him to break free from his chains and get her, an act symbolic of that proletarian revolution, since her beauty represents all the First World luxury the global poor lack.

Kong breaks out of the theatre and rampages through the streets of New York City, the centre of global capitalism. Indeed, when imperialism goes too far in oppressing the Third World, sometimes the oppressed fight back…and that’s what we see symbolized in Kong’s rampage.

The bourgeois producers of the 1933 film are scarcely sympathetic to Kong, so he is portrayed as bestial and terrifying; but much more sympathy is shown to him in the 1976 and 2005 remakes, so we see Dwan and Watts’s Ann in tears when the men in their flying machines shoot at the ape. Such growing compassion reflects the changing values of Western society towards a more loving and sensitive attitude to animals…and to the poor, of whom I see Kong as symbolic.

The World Trade Center had replaced the Empire State Building as the tallest in the world, hence the change in the 1976 remake. Kong’s ascent to the top of this pair of buildings with Dwan, especially when seen in light of my interpretation of him as representative of the people of the oppressed Third World (e.g., the Middle East), makes it irresistible for me to make associations of it with the 9/11 terrorist attacks (including when Kong makes a helicopter crash into the side of one of the buildings).

Now, I don’t mean to suggest that the 1976 remake is in any way prophetic of 9/11, as many conspiracy theorists have imagined with other examples of pop culture, including this fanciful one of Supertramp‘s Breakfast in America album cover. I only mean, through my associating, that Kong’s ascent, and subsequent battle with the fighter helicopters (as with his ascending of the Empire State Building with Ann, and subsequent confrontation with the fighter planes), symbolizes the kind of struggle the global proletariat has always had with US imperialism, the 9/11 attacks being the anti-imperialists’ greatest counterattack in recent memory.

So, Kong is “sitting on top of the world,” and “like Humpty Dumpty,” he is “going to fall.” If we see his rampage through downtown New York City as symbolic of a retaliation of the oppressed poor of the world, and Kong’s ascent to the top of the Empire State Building/World Trade Center as symbolic of a proletarian victory, this victory is a short-lived one, like those of the Paris Commune or the Spanish Revolution of 1936.

Those airplanes/helicopters shooting at Kong and killing him are thus symbolic of the forces of reaction, who fight to restore the original status quo of class and imperialist oppression. The raining of bullets that bloody Kong’s body represent such reactionary violence as the executions of 20,000 Communards, Franco‘s fascist repression of the Spanish revolutionaries, the IDF shooting at unarmed Palestinian protestors, the napalming of Vietnam (recall the flamethrowers used against Kong in the 1976 remake), and the imperialist invasions of such places as Afghanistan and Iraq, all in the name of the ‘War on Terror.’

Kong’s fall and death can be seen to represent the fall and destruction of so many states and societies that have dared to defy imperialism. Denham declares that “It was beauty killed the beast,” but we don’t see him punished for the mayhem he is responsible for having provoked. Similarly, far too few of the soldiers of imperialism have ever been adequately punished for their war crimes. Bush has even been rehabilitated by the public…for being seen as not as bad as Trump!

As people mourn the almost 3,000 deaths from 9/11, they should also condemn the imperialism that provoked it. Similarly, those whose loved ones have been killed by Kong should demand justice from reckless, exploitative Denham. At least his equivalent in the 1976 film, Fred Wilson, is crushed under Kong’s foot. That’s some justice, at least.

If my imperialist allegorizing of King Kong seems far-fetched to you, Dear Reader, consider the explanation of the original film’s meaning, as given by one of its producers/directors. Cooper said that his movie represented how primitive societies were doomed under modern civilization. My allegory is only a slight variation on that comment: the Third World has been, and continues to be, doomed by the First…unless something can be done about it.