The Highly Sensitive Person

In previous posts, I’ve discussed how I suffered emotional abuse at the hands of a family whose members have had, in varying degrees, narcissistic traits of at least significant, if not pathological, levels. Because of my trauma, I as a child acquired a number of dysfunctional habits, including maladaptive daydreaming.

Instead of feeling empathy for me, and using such empathy to direct and motivate her towards getting to the root cause of my problems, my mother–the head narc of the family–claimed that psychiatrists who’d examined me diagnosed me with autism. Now, she’d described this “autism” in such extreme language that I find totally implausible. She claimed that the psychiatrists who’d examined me as a little kid had said I was, apart from being autistic, mentally retarded and that I should be locked up in an asylum, throwing away the key!…and by a “miracle from God,” I grew out of this extreme mental condition!

Combining the above with observations made by two psychiatrists I saw a few decades later, each of them concluding after examining me over a period of months that there were no signs of autism in me, and with far-too-low scores I got on the “Autism Quotient” test, I can say that my mother’s version of events were, to say the least, totally unreliable. To say the most, she was outright lying to me.

That she was lying to me I find to be the only logical explanation for her claims; the purpose of the lies was, as I see it, not only to project her own narcissism onto me (she tended to go by an old definition of autism as meaning ‘excessively self-absorbed,’ like narcissism), but also to avoid taking responsibility for the effects of the childhood bullying I’d suffered, at its core, from my elder siblings, against whom I, as a little boy, was helpless in a power imbalance.

In other words, the autism label was meant to indicate that I was ‘born that way,’ rather than correctly describing my maladaptive childhood habits (self-isolation, talking to myself, etc.) as trauma responses, as attempts to self-soothe and ease my anxieties. In point of fact, my real mental condition is C-PTSD, brought on by all that emotional abuse, bullying, belittling, and gaslighting.

Now, as true and valid as all of the above is, it doesn’t mean that I can’t locate any source of these dysfunctional behaviours as my having been ‘born that way.’ I’m convinced that there’s a particular, innate psychological condition that I have that’s contributed to these problems of mine in a significant way.

I am a highly-sensitive person (HSP).

I consistently get high scores on HSP tests. HSPs react more intensely to external stimuli, including discomfort and pain, than the average person. We’re also more empathic that most people (though being an empath and an HSP aren’t necessarily the same thing); we tend to internalize what’s around us more, including criticisms. Bullies can smell such traits in HSP children, and they’re quick to take advantage of our disadvantage.

Narcissistic mothers tend to make their sons and daughters play roles: the golden child (my elder sister, J.), the lost child (arguably, my elder brothers, R. and F.), and the scapegoat, or identified patientme. The narc mom chooses her golden children and other flying monkeys (all three of my sibs) based on how well they’ve learned to please her, or to give her narcissistic supply. She chooses her scapegoat based on how much narcissistic injury and rage the kid(s) cause(s) her.

Very often, that narcissistic injury and rage are caused not so much by how blunt or sassy the child is to her, but rather by that child’s display of qualities the narc mother knows she can only fake: sensitivity, empathy, and a sincere wish to confront and do away with wrongdoing, which includes phony displays of virtue…a narc’s special talent.

You see, the thing about the scapegoat, or identified patient, or black sheep–whatever you want to call the unfavoured family member–is that this person is the one who can see through all the family bullshit. He or she has the sensitivity to be able to tell the difference between real and fake love. For if the charade of love that is performed before our eyes is real, then why do we scapegoats get so short-changed?

It’s not as though we have a monopoly on human fault: the golden and lost children have plenty of faults of their own; but a double standard is clearly at play here–the flying monkeys’ faults are usually swept under the rug, as are the narcissistic parent’s faults, while those of the scapegoat are put under a magnifying glass. Not exactly fair, is it?

I’m not denying that I have faults; I have a whole slew of them (just ask my wife). The problem is that the family treated my faults as if they were the essence of who I am, rather than something that I have, just a few facets of the totality that I am, among other facets raging from neutral to quite good. And when you focus on the negative in somebody, you bring out that negativity all the more.

The scar to the narcissist’s ego, at the sight of the empathy and sensitivity of the target of his or her rage, comes from envy. The narcissist can’t bear to see another with virtues that he or she can only pretend to have, and narcissists are known for envying others, while imagining that others envy them (i.e., this envy is projected onto others). Hence, the narcissist feels a consuming need to destroy those virtues in the target, to create the illusion among everybody that the sensitive person’s empathy doesn’t exist.

Remember that in the narcissist’s world, appearance and reality are confused, swapped, even. So if the narc can make him- or herself look kind, generous, thoughtful, and altruistic to the public, while making the HSP seem self-centered and indifferent to the suffering of others, then he or she has come as close to reality as needed. One of the crucial manipulative tactics that the narc uses is projective identification, which goes beyond usual projection’s mere imagining that one’s own traits are in others, but which manipulates others into manifesting those projected traits, creating the illusion that the others really have those traits while the narc never had them at all.

I believe that my mother, with her flying monkeys’ help, did this kind of projecting onto me…and she did it with remarkable success! Any inclination in me to want to help others, or to connect with others, was crushed in me, suppressed, denied, and discouraged. To allow me to demonstrate such inclinations would make me step out of my assigned role as family scapegoat; I’d no longer seem “autistic,” and Mom couldn’t tolerate that!

When someone believes that he or she has this or that kind of personality, he or she will behave accordingly. To ensure that I behaved in a self-centered or uncaring way, Mom had to drill into my head the belief that I have such vices. So instead of telling me that I needed to change from my selfish ways, she just said that I am selfish…as if the vice were an absolute, unchanging trait in me, never to be corrected.

If I tried to do good, the family would twist things around so it would look as if I meant to do wrong. I’ll give a few examples, stories I’ve discussed before (links above), but I’m repeating them here to illustrate this point.

Over thirty years ago, it was my mother’s birthday, and I was having difficulty finding a suitable gift to buy for her, so I was late with it. My good intentions would have been clear to her and my sister, J. (I’d spoken to them of how I’d searched all over the city, with no luck), but J. decided to act as though I’d made no such efforts. After all, only the physical appearance of a gift matters, not the thought behind it. And besides, J. had to demonstrate as the golden child that, by having given Mom a gift on time, unlike me, the scapegoat, she was a better daughter than I was a son.

I gave Mom a birthday card, which she received warmly. I was anxious to buy her a gift as soon as possible, so as to avoid being late with it (it was her birthday that very day!). J., however, decided to interpret my intentions as me just wanting to get the buying over with, so I could enjoy the rest of Mom’s birthday as a “me-day,” to use J’s words (actually, since J. had already given Mom a gift, she was now free to get together for a dinner date with a woman-friend, to have a “me-day” of her own!).

I went to J. and joked about the card I bought Mom as a kind of “down payment” on her gift, since Mom warmly said she didn’t mind the gift being a little late. But J. got all snooty with me for being late with it, and this provoked me into getting into a fight with her. In response to J.’s ‘Thou shalt not be late for Mom’s birthday’ attitude, I inadvisably said, in all sarcasm, “…and a birthday is this god we have to worship!”

I meant this remark not out of disrespect to Mom, but to point out how needless J.’s insistence on standing on ceremony was. Nonetheless, Mom, overhearing what I’d said, took my words as disrespectful, and she blew up, shouting a barrage of four-letter verbal abuse at me. I immediately realized my verbal faux pas, and fell over myself trying to apologize, saying I never meant to hurt her…to no avail, of course.

Looking back on what happened, I have the creepiest suspicion that both Mom and J. had set me up to be the scapegoat for a forgetting of the birthday that, in fact, Dad and my brother, F., had actually forgotten. You see, J. had known that I was trying to find a suitable gift, since I’d asked her a night or two before Mom’s birthday what I should buy. J. knew I’d never forgotten, but she acted as if she thought I had.

And how could Mom have gone from a whisper to a scream like that, from so warm to so psychotic–so quickly? I suspect that Mom, in a private conversation with J. prior to the incident, lied to her about me ‘forgetting’ along with Dad and F.; and J., like a good flying monkey, just went along with the charade, because Mom wanted her to do so.

Another occasion when my good intentions were twisted into bad ones was when–again, about thirty to thirty-five years ago–all the staff of my parents’ restaurant, Smitty’s Pancake House, closed it up on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon (Mom and Dad were on vacation at the time) because some fumes…or something, I don’t quite remember now…were making the cooks too sick to work. F. came home that day and asked me why Smitty’s was closed. I simply explained what happened, matter-of-factly.

Apparently, I should have answered his question with all manner of histrionics, for F. told me that the way I’d answered his question sounded as if I didn’t care about the sick staff. His claiming that I don’t care about anyone but myself had been his favourite excuse to bully and harangue me at that time (i.e., over those past several years), and the fact that it was much more of an excuse to attack me than a legitimate complaint of my faults was made nakedly clear (not that he’d have ever noticed, let alone admitted to, it) in this choosing to hear my reaction as ‘uncaring,’ as opposed to my simply answering a question.

Since when did my answer even need to be ‘caring,’ anyway? Was my ‘caring’ going to help the staff recover faster, or something? F.’s constant bullying of me when I was a little kid, with virtually never any defence of me from the rest of the family (with only a few ever-so-rare exceptions from my parents), indicates that the family rarely cared about me in any meaningful way beyond the bare minimum (i.e., feeding me, clothing me, giving me shelter). Such a lack of caring is called childhood emotional neglect; this, combined with the emotional abuse I was suffering from all five of them, taught me that the world is an unsafe place, that hell is other people (I’m misusing Sartre‘s dictum on purpose here, though his original meaning applies to my situation, too), and that self-isolation was the only way I could feel safe.

…and if I was uncared for, then the family shouldn’t have been surprised to see me return that uncaring attitude to them.

Even still, I tried at times to be caring to them, even when they’d continued to hurt me. After J. made it clear to me that she didn’t approve of my marrying the truly caring person who is now my wife (indeed, Judy is the best thing that ever happened to me), I’d been loath to forgive J. for not keeping her disapproval to herself. Nonetheless, when I heard that J.’s husband was terminally ill with cancer, I allowed my ability to feel empathy and compassion to overrule my anger.

I offered to make a flight back to southern Ontario (I’ve lived in East Asia since the summer of 1996) to see J. and her husband one last time. Had I done it, paying for the trip would have broken the bank for me, but I was still willing to do it. This was in the mid-2000s.

The family should have been encouraging of me to do this selfless act…if selflessness is really what they wanted of me. Instead, Mom e-mailed me, telling me not to come, out of fear that my “tactless and insensitive” nature would have resulted in me putting my foot in my mouth in front of J.’s then-emotionally-vulnerable husband, agitating him.

I was furious at this rejection; yet, instead of simply admitting that she’d made a bad call, Mom continued to rationalize her arrogant position with the usual references to “my autism” (or Asperger syndrome, as she now liked to call it), all to make me feel further alienated from the family. Note how neither she nor the rest of the family ever considered, let alone took any responsibility for, causing the very alienation that has made me so cold to them ever since.

And since, as I explained above, the autism story had to have been a lie, Mom’s basis for rejecting my attempt to show solidarity with the family was also built on a lie. Another thing we must remember about narcissists and their relationship with the HSP as family scapegoat: since narcs are pathological liars, they will be paranoid of anyone exposing them as such. HSPs abominate liars, so narcs know that, in order to protect themselves, they must do a kind of preemptive discrediting of the HSP.

I’m convinced that my mother did exactly this to me behind my back, and that this discrediting, in the form of smear campaigns, triangulation, and divide and conquer, is the real reason that I, as the family scapegoat, never got along with Mom’s flying monkeys, my three elder siblings.

Her constant bad-mouthing of her youngest nephew, my cousin G., is what makes me believe she did the same to me. One time, during a phone call I had with her about a dozen years ago, when she was giving me a flurry of G-bashing, she raised her voice in an angry crescendo and claimed that G. must have had Asperger syndrome…exactly what she insisted I have. This disorder was meant to explain how G. is so ‘unlikeable’ (he’s a bit awkward, to be sure, but he’s nowhere near as bad as Mom characterized him). It’s not a leap of logic to assume that she was using “my autism” to tell the family that I’m similarly unlikeable.

As her health was deteriorating in the mid-2010s, she pulled more of her malignant, manipulative crap on me, in revenge–it’s safe to assume–on me for not ever wanting to communicate with her during the first half of that decade. (The above links give the full story, if you’re interested, Dear Reader.) I’ll try to make this brief.

In a series of emails and one phone call, Mom made a number of assertions that ranged from “Why should I believe a word of this?” to “That is most unlikely,” to “That couldn’t possibly have happened,” making all of it dubious in the extreme. And this was after I’d already established an understanding of her as a habitual liar, and not just about the “autism” story.

I told her so, most bluntly in an email explaining why I didn’t want to fly over to Canada to visit her. Predictably, she pretended not to know what I was talking about when I’d accused her of “Lies, lies, and more lies” in my email. Predictably, she made me out to be the villain and herself out to be the innocent victim when discussing my email to the family, who–predictably–believed her every word without question.

Well, of course the family believed her every word without question: they’d been conditioned to for years…decades!…to discredit any observation I made about anything that didn’t jive with their preconceptions about the world. Mom had preemptively discredited me, so my accusation of her lying wouldn’t be given a millisecond of consideration by them. Mom may have been dying, but her reputation was safe.

With her death, in the spring of 2016, the hope of a confession from her similarly died. Her last words to me, spoken on her death bed over the phone to me, were all about how my accusation “hurt” her (translation: caused her narcissistic injury–note how she was permitted to refuse a visit from me, but I wasn’t permitted to refuse visiting her), none about how the truth and validity of what I accused her of had hurt me. She didn’t even try to be fair, and acknowledge that there were many times in my life that she’d hurt me, and that she was sorry for that; instead, I got a pity party about how much of a bad son I was, and to add insult to injury, she congratulated herself on what a ‘good mother’ she’d been, apparently having given me “the most love,” of my siblings and me…during those very years (just before and around my pre-teen years) when she’d contrived the autism lie!

In short, she dumped a huge guilt trip on me while pretending she’d never done me any wrong–classic narcissism. Here’s the thing: if I’m so ‘uncaring’ of other people, why dump all this grief on me? It would make no difference to me–I’d just shrug it off, easily, wouldn’t I? The fact is, the family all know that I internalize all the abuse they ram down my throat–they know I feel the pain. The whole purpose of dumping that guilt on me is to manipulate me into doing what they want me to do, to control me…or at least to try to control me.

I feel so hollow now, so empty, the shell of what I once was, or could have been. Such is what narcissistic abuse does to victims: the vice of narcissism is projected onto the victim, who is fully misunderstood. We are made to live a lie of the narcissist’s making. It’s a terrible feeling, knowing your family doesn’t truly love you, that their ‘love’ was all an act, to make themselves look good publicly, or just family obligation.

Still, I can’t go on just feeling sorry for myself. The damage has been done, but there’s no one out there to do the repairing for me, so I’ll have to do it all myself (I don’t have the money for therapy.). I’ll have to find that sweet, sensitive little boy inside me, buried deep down under all of this pain.

Since I follow the Freudian (actually, post-Freudian) school of psychoanalysis, I don’t usually go in for Jung‘s ideas, but there is one of his that I’ve recently been interested in: his notion of the Shadow. As a result, I’ve been looking into what’s called Shadow work as a form of therapy to confront all this repressed trauma and self-hate, and therefore to heal me.

Since I assume, Dear Reader, that you’re reading this blog post as part of an exploration of the problem of narcissism to heal your own emotional wounds, then I hope that what I have to say here about Shadow work will help you find resources in your own healing journey.

There are so many different ways to describe what Shadow work is, and how to do it, that space doesn’t permit me to go over it all in encyclopedic fashion, but I can give you a basic idea of what it’s about, if you aren’t yet familiar with the concept.

According to Jung, we all have a Shadow aspect to our personalities, a dark, unpleasant side that we try to hide because it includes shameful and traumatic elements. We try to repress it, but we mustn’t; for after all, what is repressed returns to consciousness, though in an unrecognizable form…and this return of the repressed can come in quite nasty, regrettable ways. This repressed, ego-dystonic material must be confronted if we are to heal–Shadow work is this confrontation.

There are many ways to do Shadow work. The most common ways include journalling every day, putting our trauma into words. Other ways can include expressing your pain through art or music. Meditation is also helpful, including EMDR therapy…and there are lots of YouTube videos on these subjects. One of the websites I added a link to above recommend having a ‘dialogue’ with one’s Shadow: asking it questions and listening for answers in a contemplative silence. What’s most important is feeling that pain again (though not overwhelmingly so, of course!), as scary as that sounds, for the only way to heal is to process the trauma properly.

If you don’t feel that pain, you’ll try to repress it or project it, as my family did onto me. I’ve already explained the catastrophic results of that.

‘The Targeter,’ a Surreal Novel, Chapter Fourteen

I see a tiny, glowing white dot in the middle of the endless black all around me. I’m floating toward that dot of light, which is getting bigger.

Now that I’m close enough to it, I can see that the dot of white light is actually an exit from this void of infinite darkness. I’m approaching it, and instead of glowing light, I see those waves of the endless, universal sea.

I’ve re-entered that sea, and I’m swimming in it, breathing the water as if I had gills instead of nostrils. I feel a soothing peace vibrating all around me and in me.

I’m coming to understand the full extent of how all is one. Everything within and outside of me is one. Everywhere is an eternal here. I am connected to all around me.

All of time is one. The past, the present, and the future are merged in endless cycles. Only now is real: the past and future are just human constructs.

Everything that happens is unified. Opposites flow into and out of each other in dialectical waves. All people, and all of their actions, are a yin and yang mixture of good and evil, wisdom and folly, beauty and ugliness. My own nature and behaviour are equally such mixtures.

With this understanding of oneness also comes an understanding of the universal, eternal fluidity of everything within and without. This is why I see the waves of an ocean everywhere, undulating without end.

I can feel the feelings of other people flowing into me, and my feelings are flowing out to all of them, like water, to be felt by all the other people. As we all share each other’s feelings, I sense my alert, conscious awareness of every second, every wave flowing up and down all around me, soothing me, massaging my skin.

The dialectical relationship between all opposites, their essential unity, feels not only like the up-and-down movement of waves, but also like a continuum coiled into a circle, the extreme opposites meeting and flowing into each other.

I see a large serpent in the water; it’s coiled in a circle, biting its tail. Darker and lighter shades of green are moving along the body of the serpent, either darkening its scales or making them sparkle. These tints and shades of green are moving from the bitten tail, along the length of its coiled body, around to its biting head, then through to the bitten tail again. Those moving tints and shades are all the opposites of the world, eternally flowing into each other.

Seeing these flowing movements instills in my mind the truth that all things shift from good to bad, to good and to bad, and back to good again, around and around in cycles, forever and ever. This is why I should be patient when the bad times come, but I should also keep from being too attached to the evanescent good times.

So the world, just like all the people in it, including myself, should be seen in a middling way: neither too exciting, nor too rejecting. We must see everything and everyone as they truly are, not as we conceive of them in our fantasies and nightmares. We must refrain from exaggerating, seeing all as either too good or too bad.

Pain is healed by feeling it, by confronting it, as I did in that black hole. Pain must also be expressed, in the spoken or written word, in order to heal it. Another way to heal pain is to consider it not only through the Unity of Space, which includes the unity of Self and Other, but also through the Unity of Action, which reveals, through the dialectical relationship between opposites that I saw in that serpent biting its tail, how going overboard with extremes of pain, we can go past the extremes and achieve soothing. By contemplating not only our own suffering, but adding to it the suffering of others, others felt as ourselves, we achieve compassion and empathy, growing thus into better people.

In this way, by listening to others instead of just preaching to them, we self-soothe as well as soothe others. We self-soothe by contemplating not only our own ups and downs, but also those of other people; and in seeing the unity between up and down, good and bad, we know that the bad is never permanent.

In contemplating the Unity of Time, knowing that now is the only real time, and that endless cycles bring good and bad back again and again, we focus on the present instead of worrying about the future and ruminating over past failures. The endless cycles of good and bad phasing in and out of each other mean neither is permanent: don’t be attached to the good, and patiently wait for the bad to drift away.

Wait! Am I melting? Yes! My body is being absorbed into the infinite ocean! Atman is fusing with Brahman. My body is becoming one with the waters I’ve been swimming in! Oh, bliss! Oh, sweet nirvana! I have attained enlightenment, and as soon as my watery form concentrates, bringing me back to human form, I’ll be ready to teach the Way to any with ears to hear. Those five followers will come back, for sure!

Of course, this melting feeling of mine could just be part of my ketamine high.

‘The Targeter,’ a Surreal Novel, Chapter Thirteen

I look up above my head and see the overhanging leaves of a tree. I look down and see I’m sitting on a bench; yes, those five people must have put me in the same place where that meditating man was.

Maybe they left me here, not out of disappointment in my potential, but rather because of that potential. By leaving me in the seat of the meditating wise man, they’re trying to inspire me to emulate him, to search for enlightenment as he had. Yes, that’s it!

I won’t disappoint those five people! I won’t move from here until I’ve attained enlightenment! (Actually, because of my ketamine high, I can’t move at all, but anyway…)

Ooh! Sudden gunfire from further off. A few explosions, flashes of light. That startled me.

Anyway, let’s see: to be a wise leader who will bring liberation, justice, and an end to the war, I must acquire knowledge of the true nature of the world. I must close my eyes, focus, and go beyond the limitations of my ego. I must also transcend feelings of desire and hate…

Beyond all the surface differences, there is oneness, but the differences must also be acknowledged–in the form of wavelike movements from one state to its opposite, and back and forth, and back and forth, over and over again…

I feel myself vibrating all over. My ketamine high has erased my sense of the boundary between me and not-me. Meditation is heightening my sense of unity with my surroundings…

Everything inside and outside feels…oceanic, all waves flowing into me, within me, and flowing out of me. The whole world, the whole universe, feels like an ocean with no boundaries or shores anywhere out there–just water. It’s a peaceful, soothing experience.

I’m making progress.

Along with this unity of all within and without, the unity of crests and troughs flowing into and out of each other, I feel my sense of relationships with others becoming more unified, too. As well as everything becoming more unified, everything feels more real, too.

Up until now, my perception of other people has been, on the one hand, an idealizing of others, a lusting and yearning for perfection in others, imaginary others; on the other hand, though, there’s been a perception of others as lowly and contemptible, a hating and rejecting of others, these also being imaginary people. I’ve felt my perception of others as being split in two, a hallucinatory halving into black and white.

Now, however, everyone seems more realistic, a grey in between the black and white, a sense that all people are a mix of good and bad. I feel I’m understanding humanity as it actually is, not as figments of my imagination.

As I watch the slowly-moving waves of that universal ocean, flowing gently before my mind’s eye, I also see a black hole growing there. First, it appeared as a tiny black dot, then it began growing and growing until now, it’s big enough for me to be sucked into it.

I’m scared.

Still, I know that I must confront this huge void. Its shape has changed from that of a large circle into that of a human silhouette about my size. I should talk to it. Will it answer my questions?

“Hello,” I say out loud.

I feel, instead of hear, its answer. Hello.

“Who are you?” I ask.

I’m every pain you have ever felt, I feel it say.

“What are those pains?”

You know what they are. You just don’t want to face them.

“Very well: how do I face them?”

Come inside me, it says, then it changes back into the giant hole, welcoming me in.

I float forward and enter the hole. Instead of seeing dark oceanic waves, I now see endless black.

“OK, I’m inside,” I say with impatience and fear. “Now what am I supposed to do?”

Talk to me, the voice says in my imagination. Talk.

“Talk about what?”

About any and every pain you’ve ever had in your whole life.

“Very well. I’ll start at the very beginning. Mother?”

Emerging from the centre of the void is an older woman in regal, Oriental clothes. I can’t quite make out her face. She must be my long-lost mother, the queen who died about a week after I was born.

I never knew her, but I saw plenty of pictures of her, so I’ll recognize her face when she comes close enough to me.

“Mother? Is that you? It’s your son, Sidney. Please come here and let me see you. Come and talk to me.”

She is coming closer, but I still can’t see her face clearly.

I grow anxious and impatient as she continues approaching.

Finally, she’s close enough for me to see her face.

“Queen Maya! My mother!” I shout in sobs.

I see her face, but she isn’t smiling, as my mother did in her pictures. This queen is scowling a familiar scowl.

My stepmother?

No, my mother!

There never was a stepmother.

There never was an ideal mother from which my stepmother represented a sad decline.

There never was an ideal world, a garden where she gave birth to me, an Eden from which our present world was a sad decline.

There are no ideal people, contrasted with contemptible people. There are only real people, a grey in between the imagined black and white. My ‘stepmother’ wasn’t all bad; my actual mother was far from all-good.

There is no heaven, no hell. Just life here on Earth, a mix of good and bad.

It hurts to know there’s no paradise to aspire to, yet it’s good to know the truth, not to be deceived by illusions. Knowing the truth is like an abrasion on the skin, but one can rub the hurt surface and soothe oneself.

I hear some more gunfire and explosions from further off, but they aren’t as loud or startling, so I can bear them better.

I’m making progress.

Analysis of ‘Trilogy of Terror’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her real fear is her wish to kill her mother.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Analysis of ‘Inception’

I: Introduction

Inception is a 2010 science fiction action film written and directed by Christopher Nolan, who also produced it with his wife, Emma Thomas. The film stars Leonardo DiCaprio, with an ensemble cast including Ken Watanabe, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard, Elliot Page, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, Dileep Rao, Tom Berenger, and Michael Caine.

Nolan had been working on a story about “dream stealers” for nine to ten years, originally conceiving of it as a horror film before making it a kind of heist film. He was influenced by such movies as The Matrix, Dark City, The Thirteenth Floor, and even his own Memento, to an extent. He postponed making Inception until he’d got enough experience making large-scale films like the first two of his Dark Knight trilogy.

Inception was the fourth-highest-grossing film of 2010; it is considered one of the best films of the 2010s, and it won four Oscars (Best Cinematography, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, and Best Visual Effects). It was also nominated for Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, Best Art Direction, and Best Original Score.

Here is a link to quotes from the film, and here is a link to the script.

II: Unconscious vs. Subconscious

What is, for me, especially intriguing about Inception is the intersection of several themes: the unconscious (here infelicitously called the “subconscious“–more on that soon), manipulation, capitalism, trauma, strained family relationships, the blurred distinction between fantasy and reality, and perhaps most importantly, what shared, lucid dreaming can be seen to represent–the viewing of a movie in a theatre with other people.

Let’s now look at each of these themes one by one.

“Subconscious” is a popular term in psychology to refer to what psychoanalysis calls the unconscious. While I’m sure Nolan never intended to adhere to Freudian thinking to any significant extent (beyond, perhaps, the estranged, bitter feelings that Robert Fischer [Murphy] has for his dying father, Maurice [played by Pete Postlethwaite]), a bitterness that could be at least partly Oedipal), I must favor the term unconscious over subconscious, and here’s why.

Subconscious, as Freud explained, is an unclear way of expressing what that part of the mind is, what is ‘outside’ of conscious thinking. Is it topographical, i.e., existing underneath consciousness, as is almost literally indicated in the movie? Is it qualitative, indicating another, subterranean consciousness, again, as Inception seems to imply?

The unconscious, on the other hand, is not concerned with some kind of mental ‘place.’ Rather, it’s properly concerned with what we do not know. Unconscious impulses, for example, don’t ‘hide underneath’: the repressed, on the contrary, returns to consciousness, though in a new, unrecognizable form. It isn’t ‘underground’; it hides in plain sight.

Significantly, Dominick ‘Dom’ Cobb (DiCaprio) and his team of thought-thieves are fully aware of what’s going on in the “subconscious” world of their shared, lucid dreams. There’s something unmistakably topographic and subterranean in these dreams-within-dreams. So however psychoanalysts may cringe at the use of the word “subconscious,” we must go along with Nolan’s word choices and imagery, going down an elevator with Ariadne (Page) to lower and lower levels of this subterranean land to see what this “subconscious” actually symbolizes.

III: Fantasy vs. Reality

Here we come to one of the intersections of theme. The dreams-within-dreams of the “subconscious” represent further and further removes from reality, deeper and deeper forays into fantasy. That the dreams generally look as if they could be events occurring in reality (Ariadne’s alterations of the Parisian cityscape, among other exceptions, notwithstanding) shows how blurred is the distinction between fantasy and reality in the film.

Small wonder the dream-thieves have to carry around totems (e.g., the spinning top, or Arthur’s die) to test if they’re dreaming or in the real world. Small wonder that Mal (Cotillard) kept killing herself to wake up, only to do so again for the last time in the real world, her still being obsessively deluded (thanks to Dom’s planting of an inception in her mind) that she was always in dreams-within-dreams. Incidentally, the inability to distinguish between fantasy and reality is indicative of psychosis, which is what I suspect Inception is really all about.

IV: Capitalism and Manipulation

The implanting of false beliefs into the minds of the marks of the dream-thieves–be this implanting inception (putting the beginning of an idea into one’s mind) or extraction (stealing a company’s secrets as the goal of corporate espionage) through conning the mark into trusting the dream-thieves into opening up completely and thus making oneself vulnerable to them–is manipulation in the service of one set of capitalists trying to defeat their competition. As Marx once said, “One capitalist always strikes down many others.” (Marx, page 929) Here we see the intersection of the themes of manipulation and capitalism, in the realm of the unconscious, in deeper and deeper layers of fantasy that get confused with reality.

Indeed, the company that Dom Cobb works for, Cobol Engineering (not only on which his surname is a pun [i.e., Cobb is a microcosm of the company], but also on which cobalt–extracted from the earth, like company secrets, by poor Congolese children for use in our cellphones–seems a pun), is a kind of mafia organization in the field of corporate espionage, in which failure can endanger an employee’s life. As I’ve argued many times in other blog posts, the mafia (criminal businesses) is a fitting metaphor for capitalists: note the expensive suits we see on Dom, the dominant, leading member of the dream-thieves.

Those of us on the political left are acutely aware of how capitalism results in alienation, which in turn leads to such problems as strained family relationships (i.e., Fischer and his dying father, as well as Cobb’s inability to return to the US and be with his kids) and emotional trauma (the hurt Fischer feels from the contempt Maurice has always had for him; Cobb’s guilt over how his inception for Mal drove her to suicide).

V: Dream Theatre?

A number of commentators on Inception have interpreted its use of shared, lucid dreaming as symbolic of people in a darkened movie theatre watching a film together. Getting caught up in the movie’s story is hypnotic, dreamlike. We can see more thematic intersection here in how not only the marketing of movies is a part of capitalism, but also how films are used to manipulate their viewers emotionally. The CIA is often consulted by moviemakers, who are required to portray the organization–known for ruthlessly helping in the overthrow of many governments opposed to US imperialist interests–as benign. Accordingly, films like Top Gun: Maverick and the Marvel superhero movies are blatant American military propaganda.

Now, this notion of shared, lucid dreaming as symbolic of people watching a movie together can be extended, I believe, to the idea of people watching TV together–TV shows and commercials–listening to the radio, being hooked on the internet, etc. In other words, the fantasy world of dreams can be a metaphor for the hypnotizing effect of the media.

Note the dream-like quality of many of our recent TV commercials. Instead of focusing on the products, as the commercials of the past did, these ads focus on images of a happy, carefree life. The commercials are fantasies, removals from reality, just like the shared dreams in Inception. An escape from the world…all in the service of capitalism, while pretending that the profit motive of capitalism isn’t at all present. The urge to buy what’s being sold sneaks into the unconscious by association with the fantasy presented, the inception of the desire for the product, our imaginary appetites…all while extracting our cash.

We might want to remember how Edward Bernays–whose double uncle was Freud, incidentally–used psychoanalytic concepts to help advertisers and political power structures to colonize the unconscious and manipulate people into buying this or that product, and to manufacture consent. (Bernays, by the way, was involved in the 1954 Guatemalan coup d’état for the sake of the United Fruit Company.)

VI: Putting All the Themes Together

So these are all the ways that the unconscious, manipulation, capitalism, trauma, strained family relationships, the hazy line between fantasy and reality, and dreams as a metaphor for film (and the media in general) intersect in Inception. Though inception means beginning, or the establishment of an institution or activity, I see in the word a pun on deception, or the planting of a deceptive idea into someone’s unconscious.

So the film can be seen to be about how the capitalist/imperialist-run media manipulates the mind, and how our attempts to escape the horrors of the capitalist world, in order to enter a haven of fantasy, can backfire and lead to psychosis.

VII: Inception of Inception

The film begins with Cobb washed up on a shore, then taken by Japanese guards to see an extremely aged Mr. Saito (Watanabe), the businessman who wants Cobb’s team of dream-thieves to plant the inception of an idea into young Fischer’s head, to break up his dying father’s corporation so that of Saito–Fischer’s competition–can reign supreme. We eventually learn that this washing-up on the Japanese shore isn’t the beginning, but the near-end, of the story.

After this, we go back to the beginning of the story, when Cobb’s team is attempting an extraction of company secrets from the unconscious of dreaming, younger Saito while on a train going in the direction of Kyoto. We see the same big house as in the previous, deep-fantasy scene of aged Saito.

We soon learn, after the dangerous meddling of Mal (actually, Cobb’s projection of her, or as I see her, his internal object of her), that this scene in Saito’s house is really a dream within a dream, this ‘outer’ dream, as it were, being that of Nash (played by Lukas Haas), Cobb’s dream architect before the team employs Ariadne.

A couple of interesting points should be made about Nash and his dream, which make me question his motives. His dream includes a huge mob of insurrectionary rioters out in the streets, all about to force their way into the building where Cobb, Saito, and Arthur (Gordon-Levitt) are having the dream within the dream, in Saito’s house. Note that, according to Freud, a dream is the fulfillment of a wish. Later, Nash betrays the rest of Cobb’s team. Is Nash a man with unconscious leftist sympathies (i.e., with revolutionaries in his wish-fulfillment-dream) making a failed attempt at undermining capitalist Cobol, and is his botching of the carpet a Freudian slip, reflecting his conflicted commitment to the team?

VIII: What Cobb Will Do to Get Back Home

Cobb wants so badly to be reunited with his son and daughter back in the US that he’s willing to take Saito’s offer to clear his name there of Mal’s death, in exchange for planting an inception in Robert Fischer’s mind, an undertaking Cobb knows is extremely dangerous and difficult to do. After all, he did it to Mal, and what happened? Still, he can’t bear to be separated from his kids.

To assemble his new team, he first goes to Paris, where his father-in-law, Professor Stephen Miles (Caine), who taught him about navigating the unconscious mind, recommends he hire Ariadne. Her name, an obvious reference to the woman in Greek myth who helped Theseus navigate the Labyrinth so he could get out after killing the Minotaur, is fitting. She proves her skills as a potential dream-architect by quickly improvising mazes complex enough to convince Cobb she’s up for the job. Just as the mythical Ariadne helped Theseus get out of the infernal Labyrinth, so does Inception‘s Ariadne help Cobb find the strength to confront his trauma over Mal’s suicide, to let go of his attachment to his internal object of her, and thus to be able to navigate his way back up to the top, to escape the hell of endless dreams-within-dreams.

Next, Cobb has to go to Mombassa, Kenya–a city crawling with Cobol agents looking to catch and kill him for his failed mission in Japan–to find Eames (Hardy), a forger able to impersonate people in dreams. The agents chasing Cobb through the streets of Mombassa is the one instance of an ‘action movie’ scene in Inception that happens in the real, non-dreaming world…or is this the real, non-dreaming world? (More on that later.)

Eames recommends Yusuf (Rao), a chemist who will provide a sedative to keep the team under as they navigate the different layers of the “subconscious,” dream-with-dream worlds, while also allowing the team to hear a recording of Edith Piaf singing “Non, je ne regrette rien” (“I regret nothing”), their synchronized cue, or “kick,” to wake them at the right time.

IX: Drugs

Though we’re not meant to think of Yusuf as some kind of drug dealer, that scene of him with all those people taking his sedative in the dark basement of his place of work…it sure makes one think of, say, an opium den. These users of the sedative dream for four hours each day because, as one of them tells Cobb, “The dream has become their reality.”

Even if Yusuf is not to be understood to be an actual drug dealer, what he’s doing in this basement is surely symbolic of what a drug dealer would do, at the very least. Such an understanding is crucial when we consider the theme of the unsure distinction between fantasy and reality as presented in Inception. After all, as I noted above, psychosis is characterized by an inability to tell the difference between fantasy and reality, and drugs (with their hallucinogenic effects) can induce psychosis, including sedatives.

Furthermore, in the alienating, cutthroat world of capitalism, emotional trauma often leads to substance abuse as an attempt to escape that pain. An escape into fantasy relieves, however temporarily, one of the pain of facing reality, and drugs obviously help with that feeling of escape. Drugs can cause mental illness, just as the stress of living under capitalism has been observed to cause mental illness. In these connections, it’s easy to see why Dom and Mal went so deep into the dream world, into so many layers under layers of dreams-within-dreams; in searching for the Garden of Eden, they ended up in the ninth circle of Hell.

X: Splitting

Mal’s suicide, as I’ve said, is a pain that Dom finds unbearable, especially since his planting of the inception in her mind–that her world was unreal–means he’s guilty of causing her death. He cannot let her go, so he keeps her internal object as a kind of ghost haunting his mind. She’s there, but the trauma of her suicide is also there; so he tries to protect himself from that pain, however unsuccessfully, through the defence mechanisms of projection and splitting.

Dom thus experiences what Melanie Klein called the paranoid-schizoid positionparanoid because of the persecutory anxiety he feels whenever her projection interferes, often violently, with his team’s attempts at extraction; and schizoid because of the splitting of Mal into absolute good and bad versions of herself.

Dom, in his unconscious attempts to preserve the good Mal, can’t help but be forced to confront the bad Mal–hence her apt name as a pun on the French word for bad. Only when he goes the farthest down all the layers of his “subconscious,” down all those dreams-within-dreams, to return to the paradise/hell that he constructed with her, back before she died, only then do we see the good Mal, when he tells her he has to let her go.

His trauma is one example of how capitalist alienation harms relationships, including family ones. Another example is that of Robert and Maurice Fischer. The dying father, founder and owner of a great, powerful corporation, is annoyed that he has to pass on the control of the family business to a son he regards as inadequate for such a great responsibility. Some of this father/son hostility could be Oedipal, as I mentioned above; on the father’s end, it could be a Laius complex, or a fear of the son supplanting the father.

XI: Sympathy for the Dominant

One thing that is, or at least should be, striking about this story is how we, the audience, are all lulled into sympathizing with these characters. We’re dealing here with dishonest, lying, manipulating, gaslighting people who are all out for themselves, all working within a capitalist context. Manipulating young Fischer into ending his father’s business is meant to allow their competition, Saito’s company, to thrive. It is the insidious nature of neoliberal capitalist ideology–“there is no alternative“–that tricks the audience into sympathizing with a bunch of con men.

Dom is seen on several occasions, just after waking up, to be spinning a top to make sure he isn’t still dreaming. As we understand, if it stops spinning, he’s relieved to know he’s in the real world…or is he? One’s totem–like Arthur’s die–is supposed to be known only by its owner: its look, feel, weight, etc. Dom, however, has come into the habit of using a top originally owned by Mal. So even if it stops spinning, is his reassurance of no longer dreaming valid?

XII: In Dreamland

Back to the story. The team is assembled and ready. On a flight to the US, Fischer is put to sleep to share a dream with Dom, Arthur, Eames, Ariadne, Saito, and Yusuf. This first shared dream, Yusuf’s, is set on the streets of a city in teeming rain.

Fischer, trying to take a cab, is kidnapped. Arthur, whose job was to research Fischer thoroughly, has failed to learn that the team’s mark has unconscious security to fight off extractors like them. Dom is furious with Arthur for his oversights.

This unconscious security, in the form of men shooting at Cobb et al and therefore putting them all in danger–if shot and killed in the dream–of being trapped in Limbo (an inescapable labyrinth of the unconscious, like being in a coma) because of Yusuf’s powerful sedative, is a personification of Fischer’s ego defence mechanisms, these ones being unconscious.

As the Ego Psychologists understood unconscious ego defence, here’s an explanation: “the ego also 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…, 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)

XIII: Wake Up Dead?

One fascinating idea in this film is the paradoxical notion that if you are killed in a dream, you wake up. It’s the reverse of what Hamlet said: “To die, to sleep–/No more” (III, i, 60). Now, with Yusuf’s sedative, dying in the dream makes matters much more complicated: “To die, to sleep;/To sleep, perchance to dream. Ay, there’s the rub;/For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,/When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,/Must give us pause.” (III, I, 64-68)

Another complicating factor in Fischer’s troubled family life is his “Uncle Peter” Browning (Berenger), his godfather and fellow executive of his father’s company. Browning acts as a kind of surrogate father for Fischer, being there for him in ways that his father never wanted to be. Cobb’s team will manipulate this relationship through Eames’s impersonation of Browning, to introduce the idea of Maurice having an alternate will to dissolve the company.

Inception, as Eames has previously pointed out, is “a very subtle art.” Fischer’s first introduction to the idea of the alternate will is to be a negative one, a plausible further instance of his father’s contempt for him; further down in the dreams, the dissolving of the company is meant to be a positive exhortation of him to do his own thing, giving him a catharsis.

XIV: Dreams-within-dreams

Anyway, everyone on the team except Yusuf–who is driving around on the first dream level, since it’s his dream–is sedated into going down to the second dream level, Arthur’s dream, which is set in a hotel. Here, Dom convinces Robert that his ‘security’ is really working against him, as part of the ruse to go deeper into his “subconscious.” Here we have Dom gaslighting Robert into distrusting his own unconscious ego defence mechanisms.

To get to the layer of Fischer’s “subconscious” where he will receive the inception of the idea to end his father’s business to start something of his own, the team must be sedated further, into a dream set around an alpine fortress. Several problems occur: Mal interferes again and shoots Robert before he can receive the inception; also, Yusuf sets up the Edith Piaf kick too early.

Arthur and Eames therefore must improvise a new set of kicks to be synchronized with them hitting the water in Yusuf’s truck in the first dream, with Arthur rigging a hotel elevator with all the floating dreamers tied up, and with the alpine fortress being set up with explosives. Saito having been shot as well as Robert means both of them are in Limbo, forcing Dom and Ariadne to go further down another level to rescue them…in Dom’s constructed dream-world with Mal.

Here is where Dom must confront his trauma with Mal. He must let go of his attachment to his internal object of the good Mal, and he must do it quickly, for getting Robert and Saito back is of paramount importance. Indeed, Ariadne importunes Dom to hurry…but can one be cured of one’s trauma in such a short time? (Indeed, Ariadne shoots Mal to speed things up.)

It seems that he has managed to do so, for he leaves Mal, and they get Robert and Saito back–the rescue of the latter through, essentially, a repeat of that opening scene with Dom washing ashore on the beach and being taken to Saito’s big house by his Japanese guards. Neither Dom nor Saito wants to die a lonely old man, filled with regret, hence the choice of Piaf’s “Non, je ne regrette rien” as the kick to wake everyone up with.

XV: Maladaptive Dreaming

No rationally thinking person wants to waste away in a fantasy world, only years later to snap out of it and be full of regret for such a wasted life. Yet the alienating world of capitalism makes such a retreat into fantasy so tempting. Small wonder so many of us out there escape reality through drugs, online video games, porn, movies, TV, consumerism, internet addiction, etc.

Robert returns to the alpine fortress dream and receives the inception. Everyone, including Dom, manages to get back up using all the synchronized kicks in time. I’d say it’s all a little too good to be true.

Dom wakes up on the airplane with all the others, who smile at him, glad to see him back. Saito makes the necessary phone call to clear Dom of the charge of murdering Mal, so he can go through customs without a hitch. Recall above how I mentioned that, according to Freud, dreams are wish-fulfillments. Dom’s wishes are all being fulfilled, aren’t they?

The action and excitement of the dreams, fighting off Robert’s unconscious security, is an instance of how these shared, lucid dreams parallel the entertainment of watching a movie in a theatre. We’re back in the ‘real world’ now, in the airport; but Dom had an ‘action movie’ moment in Mombassa, too. Has his ‘waking’ world been real, or has it been dream, too?

XVI: Conclusion–Nothing But a Dreamer

Here’s an interesting thought: we’ve been assuming that Mal killed herself, mistakenly thinking she was trying to wake herself from a dream, but…what if she was right? Could Dom have lost count of all the dream layers, thinking his time with her on the building ledges was real, when it was actually another dream? She’d been assessed by three different psychiatrists to be sane, so is he the one with a psychotic inability to distinguish fantasy from reality?

When he claims that she didn’t want to go back to the real world, is he projecting onto her his wish to stay in the world of dreams? Is this what calling Mal his “projection” really means?

At the end, when he spins the top and walks away to see his kids, he doesn’t care if it stops spinning or not. Or maybe he’s afraid to see it keep spinning. In any case, the top was Mal’s totem originally, so if its slight wobble at the very end indicates that it will stop spinning, this hardly assures us that he’s in the real world now.

Some think the real plan, masterminded by Miles (who, recall, recommended Ariadne to be the architect), was to pull Cobb out of the dream world. If so, I don’t think it worked. Cobb prefers fantasy to reality, like so many of us with our drugs, movies, TV, etc. I think Mal is still waiting for him in the waking world; but like those TV commercials that show people enjoying quality time with family, or like all those action movies we enjoy in the theatre, Cobb would rather escape from, than have to continue living in, the stresses of the capitalist world.

His Hell is his Eden…even without Mal.

Analysis of ‘Insomnia’

Insomnia is a 2002 psychological thriller film directed by Christopher Nolan and written by Hillary Seitz, a remake of the 1997 Norwegian film of the same name that was directed by Erik Skjoldbjærg (his film debut) and written by him and Nikolaj Frobenius. The 2002 film stars Al Pacino, Robin Williams, and Hilary Swank, with Maura Tierney, Martin Donovan, Nicky Katt, and Paul Dooley; the Scandinavian equivalent of Pacino’s character, the insomniac, was played by Stellan Skarsgård.

The 2002 film is the only Nolan film that he didn’t write or cowrite; it was also part of his transition from independent filmmaking to studio, mainstream Hollywood movies. It was praised, with a 92% rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 200 reviews; Pacino’s and Williams’s performances were given especial praise, the latter’s being a noted departure, as with his performance in One Hour Photo, from his more usual zany, comic acting, to portraying a dangerously disturbed character.

Here is a link to quotes from the 2002 film, and here is a link to the complete 1997 film…but with French subtitles.

The Norwegian film begins with the murder of a 17-year-old girl, Tanja (played by Maria Mathiesen), during the credits; whereas Nolan’s film shows the murder of its equivalent, 17-year-old Kay Connell (played by Crystal Lowe) in split-second flashbacks. The 1997 film shows a shot of an airplane going over clouds obscuring the sun as it takes police officers Jonas Engström (Skarsgård) and Erik Vik (played by Sverre Anker Ousdal) to a Norwegian town above the Arctic Circle, the land of the midnight sun. This obscuring of light will be a recurring theme, symbolic and literal, in both movies.

In the 2002 film, the American equivalents of Engström and Vik, respectively LA Detectives Will Dormer (Pacino) and Hap Eckhart (Donovan) are in a small plane flying to Nightmute, Alaska to investigate the equivalent crime there.

While the dominant theme of both films is, of course, guilt, another can be seen: the blurred distinction between opposites, as blurred as the vision of each film’s insomniac cop. These unclearly defined opposites include insomnia itself (one is sleepless, but sleepy), day and night (in the Arctic region, the summer sun is shining at night), and right and wrong (our cops catch killers, but the former aren’t exactly innocent themselves: Dormer’s planting of questionable evidence; Engström’s sexual misconduct).

Both Dormer and Engström have reputations as excellent cops; in fact, young local Nightmute Detective Ellie Burr (Swank) admires Dormer for his investigative work. Still, these good reputations of the American and Swedish cops are thin disguises of their not-so-laudable true selves, dark sides that are coming to light just as surely as the midnight sun that keeps poking through the two men’s hotel room windows as they try to sleep.

How are their dark sides coming to light? Dormer has internal affairs wanting to reopen a child rapist/murderer case in which he planted evidence to ensure conviction; Eckhart is going to testify against him, naturally causing resentment in Dormer. Engström eavesdrops on Vik gossiping about an “intimate conversation” between Engström and a female witness from a former case back in Sweden. As we can see, there’s a blurry boundary between good reputations and bad character, too.

One point to be emphasized about the cops’ bad characters being obscured by their good reputations–like those clouds obscuring the sun, or like the cops’ attempts to block out the sunlight coming through their hotel windows–is that these two cops aren’t all that much better than the men they’re trying to charge with murder. As we all should know by now, cops–as protectors of the interests of the bourgeoisie–are often as guilty of crimes (murder, bribery, etc.) as those they arrest, while often getting far better protection from punishment than the criminals can get.

Connected to this protection is the guilt many cops must feel over their own wrongdoings. And how does anyone deal with feelings of guilt or anxiety? Through the use of defence mechanisms, which in the case of Insomnia include denial, rationalization, suppression, splitting, and most importantly of all, projection…including projective identification.

Dormer would naturally deny his deliberate falsifying of evidence to convict the child rapist/murderer, including when he, on the phone to the one in LA who’s in charge of internal affairs, curses him out, acting as if he’s the victim of a kind of witch hunt. Dormer also rationalizes his planting of false evidence and his resistance to the reopening of his cases, speaking not of the stain on his reputation, but rather the danger of letting criminals back out on the street.

He and Engström try to suppress their guilt over…accidentally?…shooting and killing their partners (recall that Walter Finch [Williams] and Jon Holt [played by Bjørn Floberg] also claim that their murders were accidents) by never confessing to them. The cops suppress, but cannot repress, their guilt, hence their sleeplessness.

When Hap confesses to Dormer that he has to cut a deal with internal affairs to stop them from digging up any dirt on him (a rationalization of Hap’s own guilt over betraying his partner), Dormer makes no secret of his anger over this betrayal. He engages in splitting Hap into a ‘bad Hap’ (the betrayer) and a ‘good Hap’ (his still-reliable partner). Dormer’s experience of the paranoid-schizoid position (‘paranoid’ because of his feelings of betrayal, and fear that the ‘bad Hap’ internal object will plague him with guilt after killing Hap; ‘schizoid’ from the splitting of Hap into absolute good and bad versions of him) will turn into the depressive position after he kills Hap and feels guilty about it, his hallucinations of Hap (his ‘ghost,’ as it were) being his projected internal object of Hap.

Similarly, Engström’s resentment after overhearing Vik gossip about the former’s sexual indiscretion with the female witness–which seems intensified by VIk’s recollection of being in their hotel before, having taken a room that a man and woman claimed was theirs rather than Vik’s and his wife’s (and given aging Vik’s failing memory, this incident seems to be a garbled memory of Vik and his fellow cops, “armed to the teeth,” coming to a room and finding Engström with that woman in that “intimate conversation”)–seems to have caused him to split Vik into good and bad Viks. This splitting may have facilitated Engström’s shooting of Vik as a Freudian slip rather than as an innocent mistake, as is the case with Dormer shooting Hap. That obscuring fog was most convenient for our protagonists.

The most important defence mechanism against guilt and anxiety, as far as Insomnia is concerned, is projection, as well as projective identification. In the case of Engström and Holt, the boundary between the two is especially blurred: both are guilty of sexual misconduct (i.e., Holt’s sexual advances on Tanja before killing her, as well as Engström’s on Ane, the girl at the front desk of his hotel [played by Maria Bonnevie], and Engström’s putting his hand up the skirt of Freya [played by Marianne O. Ulrichsen], Tanja’s teen classmate, who’s quickly replaced her for the affections of Eilert [played by Bjørn Moan], her abusive boyfriend) and of an ‘accidental’ killing they wish to conceal. Engström would love to project his guilt onto Holt, but he can’t.

Dormer would love to project his perfidious nature (i.e., his betrayal of justice in his planting of false evidence) onto Hap (for betraying Dormer by cooperating with internal affairs), and onto the people in internal affairs (for, as Dormer sees it, betraying the people by reopening his cases and freeing criminals), but he ultimately can’t project his guilt onto them any more than Engström can.

Dormer projects his own guilt onto the criminals he goes after: in his own words, he says that he “assign[s] guilt” by tampering with evidence to ensure the conviction of criminals whose guilt he is convinced of (if lacking in sufficient proof). The conviction of such criminals, however, is not his job; that’s for the prosecution. He also likes to taunt Finch and Randy Stetz (Kay’s abusive boyfriend, played by Jonathan Jackson) by talking about their brutality to Kay; again, talking about the guilt of others offers temporary relief from Dormer’s own guilt.

Similarly, Engström provokes Eilert by insinuating that the boy’s sexual inadequacies are his motive for having beaten Tanja. Again, a focus on Eilert’s guilt diverts attention from that of Engström.

Now, projective identification takes projection a step further by manipulating the object of one’s projections into manifesting proof of the projected traits. We can see this, in a symbolic sense, in Dormer’s/Engström’s falsifying of evidence, which includes Engström’s planting of Holt’s gun in Eilert’s room so he’ll be charged with murdering Vik and Tanja.

In both films, there are a number of scenes that have…well, hidden ways downward. I’m thinking of, for example, the hidden passageway under the shed that allows Finch/Holt to escape when the cops try to catch him with Kay’s/Tanja’s bag as a lure. Similarly, there’s when Dormer chases Finch over the logs floating on the water, and Dormer slips and falls in, allowing Finch to get away again. And finally, there’s when Holt dies at the pier by falling through rotten floorboards and into the water, hitting his head; and when Fiinch, at his lake house, is shot and falls into the water below.

These ‘hidden ways downward,’ for lack of a better way to describe them, are symbolic of the unconscious mind, that hidden place where unknown ideas are thought, and unknown desires are felt and given expression in unrecognizable ways. After finding and rushing through the passageway under the shed, Dormer/Engström comes out into the fog, also symbolic of the unconscious, and shoots Eckhart/Vik, with that fog hiding the guilty cop’s unconsciously murderous intent behind an ‘accident,’ a kind of Freudian slip.

Before Eckhart dies, he tells Dormer he believes he’s shot him on purpose, to stop him from cooperating with internal affairs. Vik simply ran the wrong way, having gone right instead of left as planned. Neither Dormer nor Engström, however, can assuage their guilt by imagining they have made a mere mistake. Hap’s death is no mishap.

What’s more, chasing and not being able to catch Finch/Holt can be seen to represent how Dormer/Engström can’t bring themselves to assign guilt to a man they know they’re no better than. Dormer shoots Finch, but only after Finch has already shot Dormer, rather like when Hamlet kills Claudius only after he knows he himself is about to die from a poisoned wound. The unconscious has a way of making sure the ‘correct’ mistakes are made.

Now, the light of truth will never stop bothering Dormer/Engström. The insomniac cops want to hide in the darkness of their projections, denials, and rationalizations, but the sunlight keeps poking through their windows, no matter how much they try to block it out.

Wilfred R. Bion had insights on the relationship between projection, sleeplessness, and hallucinations that are useful for understanding the psychological state of Dormer/Engström. The irritating light of the midnight sun that keeps coming through their hotel windows is an example of what Bion called beta elements, unprocessed, raw sensory data that need to be detoxified (through alpha function) to be turned into alpha elements, processed, detoxified, and usable for thoughts and dreams.

If these beta elements are too painful to be processed in one’s mind, one cannot soothe oneself, as is the case with Dormer/Engström. Our sleepless cops keep trying to project the light outward, the light of truth that symbolizes the reality of their sins. The blocking-out of the light thus represents what Bion called a beta screen, which is an accumulation of projected beta elements one hasn’t processed or detoxified.

If one doesn’t detoxify these agitating raw sensory data–which in the case of these films represents the cops’ guilt–one cannot create thoughts for dreams and therefore one cannot sleep (Bion, page 7). If this sleeplessness goes on long enough, one will begin to hallucinate, as Dormer/Engström do. Their hallucinations, visions of Hap/Vik, are projections of the internal objects of their dead partners, split-off, hallucinatory projections that Bion called bizarre objects. (Go here for more on Bion and other psychoanalytic concepts.)

Just as Hap’s name is a pun on how, by sheer hap…or was it sheer hap?…he got shot and killed, so is Will Dormer’s name a pair of puns. With a will, Will finds a way not only to ensure conviction of the child rapist/murderer who otherwise would have been acquitted through a reasonable doubt, he also finds a way to falsify evidence so it seems that Hap was shot with a gun other than Will’s. Ainsi, Dormer ne peut pas dormir.

Our teen killers, Finch/Holt, cannot sleep either, of course, and being doubles of their respective cops, they have their own defence mechanisms for wrestling with their inner demons. They rationalize and minimize their murders, claiming they were accidents, that things simply got out of hand, slipped and snowballed from a few slaps to a beating-to-death of their victims.

Finch speaks of how “scared shitless” he is as he keeps hitting Kay, first to stop her from laughing at him for his sexual advances, then to stop her screaming. The slippery slope of escalation has led to his beating Kay to death; then, his fear suddenly switches to calm, yet another blurry distinction between opposites.

When Finch/Holt cleans the body, washing the hair and clipping the fingernails in order to remove all physical traces linking Kay/Tanja to their killers, this cleaning is a symbolic denial of the men’s guilt.

Confession is good for the soul, so when Finch tells Dormer, over the phone, how he came to kill Kay, how her laughter provoked him, and how his violence escalated, he says he’ll be able to sleep better. Similarly, Dormer must feel at least some relief after telling Rachel (Tierney) at the hotel about his tampering with the evidence that convicted the child rapist/murderer.

An interesting contrast between the Norwegian and American versions of the film is in how their respective villains die. In the former, Holt dies from a mere accidental fall, as ‘accidental’ a death as his murder of Tanja, or Engström’s shooting of Vik (Was Holt’s death a suicidal Freudian slip?). In the 2002 film, we have the typical American climactic fight between the good guy and the bad guy, them both shooting and killing each other. The more artistically-inclined European film is more of a psychological study of guilt than a thriller, more morally ambiguous.

Accordingly, Dormer dies of his gunshot wound having redeemed himself by telling Burr–who’s found out about his falsifying of the cause of Hap’s death–not to throw the incriminating evidence into the lake. When Engström, however, is presented with the incriminating evidence by Burr’s equivalent in the 1997 film, Hilde Hagen (played by Gisken Armand), she just puts it on a table in front of him and leaves him without getting him in trouble.

Engström is thus able to leave town with bodily freedom, but no clear conscience. The police privilege of protection from prosecution won’t protect him from his guilt. While Dormer is finally able “to die, to sleep, no more,” Engström, however bodily safe, will never sleep, for he “does murder sleep,” as the 1997 film’s last shot of his eyes glowing in the dark are eyes that will never close.

Analysis of ’28 Days Later’

28 Days Later is a 2002 post-apocalyptic horror film directed by Danny Boyle and written by Alex Garland. It stars Cillian Murphy, with Naomie Harris, Christopher Eccleston, Brendan Gleeson, and Megan Burns.

Inspired by such George A. Romero films as Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, as well as John Wyndham‘s Day of the Triffids, Garland replaces zombies with the great majority of the UK population being infected with “Rage,” a highly contagious virus that induces aggression and replaces speech with mindless growling; the result is civilizational collapse.

The film was released to both critical acclaim and commercial success, reinvigorating the zombie genre. It has been featured in several “best of” film lists; Time Out magazine ranked it #97 on its list of the 100 Best British Films ever.

A sequel, 28 Weeks Later, came out in 2007, and in the same year, talk of a third film, 28 Months Later, came about with Boyle and Garland being among those interested, with Murphy showing interest in reprising his role in 2021.

28 Days Later has maintained a following, with the COVID-19 pandemic giving the film an especial relevance in recent years.

Here is a link to quotes from the film.

The film begins with shots of chimpanzees, all infected with Rage, kept in cages and made to do such things as watch footage of riots and protests on TV screens; this is happening in a laboratory in Cambridge, where a group of overzealous animal rights activists have broken in, with the intent to free the chimps.

The combination of our learning that the virus is called “Rage” by the doctor who tries to stop the activists (in a “Rage” of their own) from so rashly freeing the chimps, that there’s footage of angry rioters and protestors, and that the infecting of everyone in the UK will result in civilizational collapse, all leads us to an understanding of what Rage symbolizes.

28 Days Later isn’t a direct critique of capitalism, but when we see that the prescient film presents the aftermath of civilizational collapse (a collapse we in the 2020s are in danger of experiencing, due to the global financial meltdown exacerbated by–and, as some of us suspect, masked by–COVID-19 and the fall in value of the petrodollar caused by the sanctions on Russia), we can see in the film an indirect critique of a mode of production that Marx predicted, in Capital, vol. 3, would one day collapse from its own contradictions.

Rage, in this context, represents the collective trauma we’ll all feel under such a collapse of society. This trauma has already been felt in all the mass shootings that keep happening in the US. We can only expect more of it in the near future. The plague of wars brought on by US/NATO imperialism, having begun its worst phase–perhaps fittingly–around the year of the release of the film, has manifested “Rage” all the more vividly.

The thing about trauma and extreme stress is that they activate the most primitive and animalistic parts of the human brain (e.g., the amygdala), causing one to lash out in fight-or-flight mode. Seeing a Rage-infected chimp attack and infect one of the animal rights activists when it’s been freed is thus also symbolically fitting. Rage reduces us all to animal instinct.

Related to this idea that Rage reduces humanity from the rational, thinking, cerebral cortex level to the instinctual, animal, amygdala level is the loss among the infected of the ability to use language. Lacan‘s notion of the Symbolic Order is our healthiest mental state, for it brings us, via language and its signifiers, into the world of culture, custom, and society–what we need to live together and function in harmony with each other.

The infected have forever lost the ability to communicate verbally, having replaced it with the pre-verbal form of communication (as WR Bion conceived it) coined by Melanie Klein as projective identification. Instead of saying words, the infected either growl unintelligibly, bite their victims, or spit their infected blood on them, causing the victims to be infected almost immediately afterwards.

By biting or spitting their blood, the infected project their pathology onto their victims (as Romero’s zombies do), who are then forced to contain an intolerable pathology. When Bion wrote of projective identification, he usually referred to a mother receiving her baby’s projections of agitation from irritating outside sensory data; the mother would, through what Bion called ‘maternal reverie,’ contain her baby’s agitations, detoxifying them by soothing it, then return the detoxified feelings to her baby in a form acceptable to it. As a therapist, Bion would play the role of the mother and similarly contain the agitations of his psychotic patients, his ‘babies,’ as it were. (Read here for more on Bion and other psychoanalytic concepts.)

With the infected, however, it is impossible to do such containing and detoxifying of their Rage. So instead, one is forced to confront a negative form of containment (Bion, chapter 28), wherein Rage is never soothed, but rather turned into a nameless dread. To fuse Bion with Lacan, therefore, in this nameless dread, we see a shift away from the healthy, sociable state of the Symbolic, whose signifiers allow for mental clarity and differentiation of all things, to the traumatizing, undifferentiated state of the Real.

For the infected, there is no socializing, planning for the future, intellectualizing, or any of the normal human functioning that is conducive to survival. There is only undifferentiated, traumatic, meaningless Rage–the Real.

Rage, as a contagious virus, is thus a metaphor for the mindless destructiveness of a people overcome with, and overwhelmed by, the alienation that results from the contradictions of capitalism. People in this mental state don’t try to replace their oppression with a building of socialism; they just destroy, destroy, destroy…

After the incident with the chimp in the laboratory, we jump ahead…twenty-eight days later. I can’t help but wonder: why was the chosen number twenty-eight, of all possible numbers? It’s the exact equivalent of four weeks, but what is the significance of that?

Twenty-eight days is also the number of days of the shortest month–February. It’s too warm in the year for the movie to take place anywhere near that month, but could that time period indicate a symbolic February, with the time before it a symbolic January, and the time after a symbolic March? Please indulge me, Dear Reader, as I explore this possibility.

Since January is derived from Janus, the god with two faces, one looking back to the past year and the other looking ahead to the future of the new year, we can see the time preceding the twenty-eight days as the time when people could still envision a past and a future. Since March is derived from Mars, the god of war, we can see the time after the twenty-eight days as a time of war between the infected and the non-infected.

In this symbolic schema, the twenty-eight days–between the laboratory incident and Jim (Murphy) waking up from his coma–are therefore the symbolic month of the Februa, when such festivals of the purification of Rome as Amburbium and Lupercalia were observed. In the case of this film, ‘purification’ can be seen as either dialectical irony, a failed attempt at purification, or…here’s a thought…maybe it’s the infection itself that is purifying the world of the sickness known as the human race.

In any case, Jim wakes up from his coma in a London hospital after he, a bicycle courier, was hit by a car. Like so many of us, he has ‘woken up’ far too late, after all the damage has already been done to society, the damage resulting in the trauma, social alienation, and civilizational collapse that Rage symbolizes. He is shocked to find not only the entire hospital deserted, but also the streets of London.

He goes about the streets shouting “Hello!” over and over again in all futility. He wants to connect with people in a world where human connection is all but completely annihilated.

The link, however indirect, with capitalism is evident when we see all the billboard ads and the uncollected trash on the streets, including unused commodities and money, this latter being picked up by Jim and put in his white plastic bag (in which he has also put such commodities as soda pop cans he’s taken from their vending machine in the hospital), him imagining he’s actually going to have a use for it. He sees “EVACUATION” on a newspaper headline.

He finds a church and enters it, where graffiti on a wall says, “Repent, The End Is Extremely Fucking Nigh.” No, not even religion will save us from Rage. He says another of his pointless “Hellos,” only to get the attention of the infected in the church, including a priest.

They chase him out of the church and back onto the streets, where he meets and is saved by Selena (Harris) and Mark (played by Noah Huntley), the first people be’s been able to communicate with in a long time. They hide in a grocery store, where his new comrades explain how the virus spread.

Significantly, Selena begins the explanation by saying, “It started as rioting.” Just as with that TV footage of riots and protesters that a chimp in the laboratory was watching, we can conceive, through Selena’s opening words, that the virus should be understood as a metaphor for an epidemic of civil unrest resulting from capitalism’s growing oppression of the people, causing their despair and wild acting out in a world where no effective organizing is possible. One is reminded of the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.: “a riot is the language of the unheard.”

Mark, when Jim has later found his dead parents, gives his own story about the beginnings of infection in which he and his family are trying to escape. They find themselves on a hill of people lying on the ground, a mix of infected and non-infected. Having climbed up this mound of people and on top of a kiosk, Mark looks down on the people, unable to see the difference between the infected and non-infected. Again, this origin story shows how the virus should be understood as a metaphor for the general breakdown of society.

In such a breakdown, the pain of the loss of family is especially keen, of course, so Jim is anxious to find his parents, though Selena and Mark assure him that they must be either infected or dead by now. When it’s safe to go out, the three find his parents’ house, where the two are found dead in bed, having killed themselves by overdosing on pills. Indeed, when society collapses so extremely, despair can be too overwhelming for one to want to rebuild.

Jim’s mom’s choice of words in her suicide note is apt. She says that she and his father have left him sleeping. Now, his mom and dad are sleeping with him, and he must never wake up.

In such a hopeless situation, the comparison of death to sleep reminds us of the soliloquy of despairing Hamlet: “To die, to sleep,/No more, and by a sleep to say we end/The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks/That flesh is heir to: ’tis a consummation/Devoutly to be wished, to die, to sleep…” (III, I, 60-64)

To prevent this kind of despair is why it’s so important to organize the people and be ready when the inevitable societal collapse comes, a collapse symbolized in the film by the Rage virus, and soon to come in our world as a result of the following problems. First, there was the economic meltdown of the 2020s; next, its exacerbation due to the response to the pandemic; third, inflation brought on by the backfiring sanctions on Russia. Added to these problems are the increasing gap between the rich and the poor, and all the billions spent on the military rather than on the struggling American people. Such reckless spending is creating a ticking time bomb of a deficit which, when it finally blows up in our faces, will be made all the more painful by the decline in value of the petrodollar.

To get back to the film: some of the infected attack Jim’s parents’ house, and though Selena, Mark, and Jim manage to kill the infected, Mark is bitten in the arm by one of them. Selena doesn’t hesitate to hack her screaming comrade to bloody pieces with her machete. In a tense situation where solidarity is so crucial, it is especially difficult to have to eliminate a comrade on the mere suspicion that he’ll turn against you, becoming a traitor, a wrecker of the organization, an agent provocateur, or someone bringing in a gang mentality–these being the kind of problems that bitten Mark can be said to represent. Selena’s killing of him seems rash, but it is necessary.

She, Mark, and Jim have had to eat the junk food of places like the grocery store, obviously because it’s the only food to be consumed quickly and the only kind that won’t go bad. Its consumption is also representative of how the survivors are still dependent on the kind of commodities–now merely use-values, rather than exchange-values, because money has become useless–once produced by capitalists. Like capitalism, junk food is bad for you, but it’s all they’ve got. It ironically won’t yield a profit for the companies that made it, but the survivors are limited to eating it. This fact is another indirect link from the movie to a critique of capitalism.

Selena and Jim see, far off in the distance in the cityscape, an apartment building in which one of the higher-up apartments has Christmas lights flashing in its windows. This means of attracting survivors is a double for the one to come later, when the army men try to lure women into a trap of sexual slavery and forced impregnation.

This first lure, however, happens to be a benevolent one. Here, Selena and Jim meet Frank (Gleeson) and his teenage daughter Hannah (Burns). The sight of Christmas lights, contrasted with the army’s later promise of “Salvation,” makes for a chilling juxtaposition.

Frank and Hannah offer protection and hospitality to Jim and Selena, again, in a way that compares ironically with the protection and hospitality of the army men, when one considers the honest motives of the former against the predatory motives of the latter group.

Soon enough, though, all four of them hear the army’s radio broadcast from Manchester, and after a brief argument over whether it’s wise to go and find people who might be dead by now, for all they know, they decide to go. On the way there, we see shots of beautiful green grass, wind turbines, and at one point when the four briefly stop, even a group of horses running about. These are all reminders to the survivors that there’s still some good in the world.

The sound of religious music is heard during this drive to Manchester, too: Ave Maria, and “In Paradisum” (from Fauré‘s Requiem in D Minor). It is during this time that the four see, from a distance, all of Manchester in flames, a chilling omen that they aren’t about to enter paradise, but hell. Just as with Jim’s first encounter of the infected having been in a church, of all places, face to face with an infected priest, the four are about to confront their ‘salvation’ as a kind of damnation.

They arrive at the army men’s blockade, surrounding a mansion, but at first they see no one there. Frank is disappointed and goes off alone for a moment, sitting where a nearby crow is cawing and bothering him. A drop of infected blood from above hits him in the eye. Hannah comes over at that moment.

This is a touching, heartbreaking scene. Frank knows he’s about to change, and he has to repel her…out of love. While he can still speak, he tells her he loves her very much, but then angrily demands that she stay away, even pushing her away. The Rage virus represents our mutual alienation, an alienation so severe that it estranges even loving family members from each other.

Selena and Jim know that Frank must be killed, but do they have the heart to kill him…in front of his daughter? The soldiers can do it, of course, and they shoot him as soon as they finally appear.

At first, the soldiers, especially Major Henry West (Eccleston), are cordial in their welcoming of the surviving three. Pretty soon, though, Jim is made aware of the unsavory things that West is capable of doing. West shows Jim an infected soldier, Mailer, as a chained captive in a small yard outside the blockaded mansion. West wants to use his captive to learn about the infected, concluding that they have no future. Eventually, his captive will starve to death, as will all the other infected.

At dinner, West reveals a bit more of his unsavory character in a philosophical disagreement he has with Sergeant Farrell (played by Stuart McQuarrie). Farrell speaks of the normalcy of the vast majority of world history, before the beginning of humanity, and of how the Rage virus’s wiping out of humanity can be seen as a return to normalcy (recall, in this connection, my interpretation above of the twenty-eight days as a metaphorical February, purifying the world of man).

West contrasts Farrell’s analysis of the situation with one of his own, saying that infection is just “people killing people,” which had already been going on throughout human history, and would doubtless continue after the virus is (presumably) annihilated, making killing perfectly normal.

Now, as ugly as West’s analysis is, it’s correct as far as 28 Days Later is concerned, since as I’ve said above, the Rage virus is a metaphor for how alienated and fragmented we all are, and have increasingly become, in a world that oppresses the great majority of the population for the sake of maximizing profit and exporting capital outside the Western empire and into the Third World.

What eventually becomes clear to a horrified Jim, then to Selena and Hannah after the soldiers have fought off an attack of infected who penetrated the blockade, is that West and his men have offered “salvation” as a ruse to lure in women to be raped and impregnated to repopulate the UK. Their pretense of protection against a threatening outside world, only to be revealed as a repressive and oppressive life inside that sphere of ‘protection,’ is thus symbolic of fascism (one is reminded of the forced prostitution in the Nazi concentration camps), which arises whenever the capitalist system is in crisis or under threat, as it is in a time of societal collapse, as we see in this film.

The fascist mentality of far too many soldiers, who dehumanize those they kill, is made clear when Corporal Mitchell (played by Ricci Harnett) laughs and says of one of his kills, “He bounced!” The dehumanizing continues when Mitchell and the other troops return from the shooting of the infected, finding Selena and Hannah. Mitchell takes away Selena’s machete, symbol of the phallic woman, thus taking away her power while chauvinistically promising to give her his protection, as well as childishly playing with it as if it were an extension of his cock.

This juxtaposition of the promise of protection with chauvinistic dehumanizing is inherently fascistic, both in this scene with the girls as with the previous one with the infected kill who “bounced.” Now, seeing this mentality among individual troops is one thing, but seeing it justified by their commanding officer, with his chilling line, “I promised them women,” is something else entirely.

One of the greatest dangers of societal breakdown is the emergence of fascism as an attempt to restore order. Since we are seeing signs of such an imminent breakdown in the US, combined with so many Americans having right-wing views and espousing open carry, the emergence of fascism there when the breakdown comes is not some fanciful, paranoid fear.

West’s rationalization for keeping Selena and Hannah, making them forced mothers, is that “women mean a future.” Recall above when I described pre-infection UK as a symbolic January, with Janus’s faces looking to the past and to the future; while the UK after the twenty-eight days exists in a symbolic March, the month of the war god, in which–because of the endless fighting off of the infected–there is no Janus-face looking into the future. One can understand West’s predicament, not wanting his boys to kill themselves over a future with no meaning in life beyond just fighting off the infected, a future with no wives or future families to raise. But those wives, of course, must be willing wives.

Since neither Jim nor Farrell is willing to cooperate with West and his would-be rapists, the two are to be taken out and shot. Farrell laments over how the island of Great Britain has been quarantined and left in the lurch while the rest of the world carries on normally (Earlier, Selena mentioned reports of cases of infection in Paris and New York, though we don’t know any more of how that has developed.). During societal crises of this magnitude, abandoning a huge section of the world’s population is conveniently easy.

Jim manages to escape being executed by Mitchell and Private Jones (played by Leo Bill), their least effectual soldier and hopelessly incapable cook. Jim returns, though, meaning to rescue Selena and Hannah, whom Selena has made high as a kite on Valium so she “won’t care” when the men rape her. Jim releases Mailer, the chained-up, infected soldier, who goes on a rampage throughout the mansion, infecting a few of the other soldiers. Since the hitherto-non-infected soldiers, as potential rapists, are hardly any more civilized than the infected, then what difference does it make if they, too, become infected?

Mitchell tries to escape, forcing Selena to come with him, so Jim (who by now has already begun a sexual relationship with her) has to kill him. Jim does so in a particularly brutal way: by stuffing his thumbs deep into the eye sockets of screaming Mitchell. Covered in blood, Jim looks to her as if he’s infected–is he? Again, we see that, in terms of being prone to violence, the line separating the infected from the non-infected isn’t so clear or well-defined.

Jim, Selena, and Hannah are about to escape the blockade in a car, but West, the sole survivor of his band of brothers, has been hiding in the back seat of the car, and surprising Jim, shoots him to avenge his troops. Since West has been a father figure to his now-dead troops, saying to Jim, “You killed all my boys” before pulling the trigger, it’s useful to note the reproduction of Laocoön and His Sons in the hallway of the mansion (which our three protagonists have just run by in their escape attempt). Just as Laocoön and his sons are attacked by sea serpents, so have West and his “boys” been attacked by the infected.

Indeed, Hannah saves the day by backing up the car so infected Mailer can grab West from behind, pull him out the back window, and infect him. Since Jim is going to die from his gunshot wound if he isn’t given medical treatment as soon as possible, Hannah has to ram the car through the blockade gate.

Another twenty-eight days go by…another symbolic February, by my interpretation.

[Now, all three alternative endings, as given on the DVD, show Jim having died–one from his gunshot wound, this being the one that was filmed. Another version shows the outbreak to have been a dream (including shots of him as a bicycle courier up to the car hitting him), and another version, given in storyboards, shows Frank being given a blood transfusion, an exchange of his with Jim’s, instead of the soldiers shooting Frank, after he gets infected.]

The more optimistic, official ending, with Jim surviving and recovering in a cottage in Cumbria, shows the infected lying on the roads, emaciated and dying of starvation. Shots of hills of beautiful green grass remind us of the good there still is in the world. This second symbolic February, as it were, is showing a world being purified of infection. It’s as though our symbolic months have gone backwards in time, ending with a second symbolic January, with Janus’s faces looking backwards and forwards again, with a past and a possible future.

There is hope for renewed communication when Selena has knitted up a huge cloth banner saying “HELLO,” to be laid on the grass so jets flying over their location may see it. If the pilot of the Finnish fighter jet has spotted them, the three can be rescued.

The cure to Rage, and to societal collapse, is communication.

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 ‘One Hour Photo’

One Hour Photo is a 2002 psychological thriller written and directed by Mark Romanek. It stars Robin Williams, Connie Nielsen, and Michael Vartan, with Gary Cole, Eriq La Salle, Clark Gregg, Erin Daniels, and Dylan Smith.

One Hour Photo was both a commercial and a critical success. Williams’s performance earned him a Saturn Award for Best Actor.

Indeed, it was gratifying to see him in a dramatic role for a change, finally going against his usual typecasting as a zany character in such superficial, feel-good films as Patch Adams and Bicentennial Man. In playing a mentally-ill man in One Hour Photo, Williams demonstrated the range of his acting talent; if only he’d done roles like Seymour “Sy” Parrish more often.

Here is a link to quotes from the film.

Sy is a lonely photo technician in a one-hour photo in a big box store called Sav-Mart. He has no family, friends, or partner. He values his job above and beyond anything else in his life, believing he’s providing a “vital service” to his customers in developing quality photographs. This job gives his life meaning in the absence of loving human company.

Photos are of extreme importance to him for reasons to be discovered in full by the end of the film. At the beginning of the story, he idealizes photography, insisting that one takes pictures only of the happy moments in life, never the sad ones. By the end of the film, though, we discover that this idealizing of taking pictures is a reaction formation against the fact that, as a child, photos were taken of him in extremely unhappy, traumatizing circumstances.

He also points out that no one takes pictures of the banal, mundane, “little things” that we don’t normally pay attention to…yet at the end of the film, after he’s revealed to Detective James Van Der Zee (La Salle) the source of his trauma, we see his recently-taken pictures of such banal things as the objects and furnishings of a hotel room. It seems that, with these pictures, he’s sublating the thesis of happy photos with the antithesis of traumatizing ones.

The trauma he suffered as a child was to have been exploited as a participant in child pornography photography, exploited by his own parents. This trauma explains his loneliness: his parents betrayed his trust at such a tender age, and so he has distanced himself from them. Since one’s primary caregivers are, as internal objects, those blueprints, so to speak, for all subsequent relationships in life, this alienation from one’s parents tragically leads to social alienation in general.

Still, Sy must try to pull himself together, to rebuild some sense of psychological structure, since with such extreme trauma as he’s suffered, the threat of psychological fragmentation is never far away. Heinz Kohut‘s model of the bipolar self is useful for understanding Sy’s personality. One pole is that of the grandiose self, which we see in the pride Sy takes in his photo developing. The other pole is that of the idealized parental imago, which he can’t get from his own parents, of course, so he has to do a transference of them onto the Yorkin family.

Nina (Nielsen) and Will Yorkin (Vartan) are Sy’s idealized mother and father transferences, and their son, Jake (Smith), represents the kind of happy boy Sy wishes he had been when he was a kid. His idealizing of the Yorkin family comes from all the ‘happy’ photos he has developed for them over the years…while keeping a copy of each one for himself to put up on a wall in his apartment, too.

This wall of Yorkin family photos is Sy’s altar, so to speak, where he can worship his idealized conception of the family he wishes he had. The photos, as idealizations, are collectively a metaphorical mirror reflecting his love of them back to himself. This ties back to his job as a mirror of his grandiose self.

Recall the scene of him in front of the bathroom mirror in SavMart, where he looks at himself, and words on the glass remind him and all other staff to “check [their] smile” at work. He internalizes this capitalist ideal for the worker, and so it becomes his Lacanian ideal-I. This ideal-I is extended to photographs in how he takes Nina’s camera and, not wanting to waste a shot, takes a picture of himself for the Yorkins to add to the family photo collection. His ‘selfie,’ as it were, is a metaphorical mirror adding himself, “Uncle Sy,” to the Yorkin family.

These images, frozen in time, of the Yorkins on Sy’s apartment wall are thus, as a collective metaphorical mirror, Sy’s reconstruction of the Imaginary, his need for narcissistic acknowledgement and recognition. “Man’s desire is the desire of the Other,” Lacan once said, a desire to be desired by other people, for recognition from other people. This is what Sy needs from his idealized conception of the Yorkins, and this is why he obsesses over them.

His idealization of them is, of course, an illusion based on wish-fulfillment, for the Imaginary Order, established by the infant when seeing itself in front of a mirror for the first time, gives form to an illusory ego. As a narcissistic psychological state, the Imaginary’s setting up of the illusory ego, the ideal-I one strives one’s whole life to live up to but ultimately never succeeds at, is seen in an extreme form in Sy’s idealizing of his job as a “vital service.” His job is his narcissistic False Self.

Another part of his False Self, a defence against fragmentation, is his persona of mild-mannered innocence (a defence against the molestation he suffered as a child), given physical, symbolic expression in the predominantly white and light grey colours we see him wearing. This whitish innocence is extended to his light blond hair (we can see how dark-haired Williams most obviously dyed his hair, to the point that it seems as if Sy dyed his, too) and the whites and light greys of his apartment and car, as well as the predominant whites and light greys of SavMart, his idealized place of work.

When he leaves SavMart to go home one night, though, we see a greenish-yellow light (colours of envy and jaundice) as he goes to his car, the windshield glass of which is smashed. This reflects the bitter reality of his life, which hides behind his idealized fantasy world.

Like Lacan, Buddhists understand that the self is an illusion, for the world is too fluid, transitory, and impermanent to include the existence of permanent souls or egos. Sy’s False Self is just such an illusory ego, and those frozen moments in time, his photos of the Yorkins, are also such illusions, making us forget about the eternal flux of life.

He’s nowhere near as good at his job as he imagines himself to be, not by his boss’s standards, or by any reasonable standards. The photos he gives Nina early on in the film are larger than what she wants, and the SavMart manager, Bill Owens (Cole, who here plays a kind of serious version of Office Space‘s Bill Lumbergh), is full of complaints about Sy.

In Sy’s obsession with the Yorkins, his collection of copies of their photos means he’s printed far more photos than have been ordered and paid for, a discrepancy that Bill cannot tolerate. Sy has also spaced out on the job, taken ninety-minute lunch breaks, given Jake a free disposable camera for his birthday, and had a loud altercation with the repairman for the photo developing machine, an altercation heard by the customers all over SavMart.

While some of Bill’s complaints reflect real faults of Sy’s work performance, others reflect the kind of conflict between boss and employee typical of what Marx described in his theory of alienation. Sy’s job is practically a religion for him. It gives his life meaning, it’s part of his species-essence; whereas for Bill, Sy’s mundane job is just one among many to be overseen in SavMart; Sy should just do it right and not make waves. Bill’s pragmatic attitude to Sy’s job-as-mission thus alienates Sy from his species-essence, which only adds to Sy’s alienation in general.

Bill fires Sy, which devastates him because not only can’t he do the Yorkins’ pictures anymore, he’s also lost one of the two poles of his self that give him psychological structure–he’s lost his grandiose self, that False Self of the photo developer performing a “vital service” to customers like his idealized Yorkins.

Sy has been a victim of capitalism through his conflict with Bill as described above, and he was a victim of it as a child when exploited and commodified by his parents through kiddie porn photography. The commodification of photos links both experiences for him in how photos are fetishized commodities. The customer sees the finished product and pays for it, but he or she doesn’t see the process the workers went through to produce the commodity.

In the case of kiddie porn photography, the drooling pervert masturbating to the disgusting pictures sees only the fantasy that’s presented in them; he doesn’t take note of the pain and fear in the naked children’s eyes as they’re forced into doing the shameful things they do in front of the camera. Similarly, and in reverse fashion, though Sy is the seller, not the buyer, he sees only the happiness of the Yorkins in their photos; but he knows nothing of the very real problems in their far-from-ideal family. Of course, he’ll learn of those problems soon enough.

When Maya Burson (Daniels) shows up at SavMart and gives Sy her photos to be developed, he recognizes her from somewhere (actually, in one of the photos in his Yorkin ‘altar’). He later flips through them and discovers some of her with Will Yorkin, having an affair. His whole image of the ideal Yorkin family has been shattered. The other pole of his self has been compromised. He’s now in danger of fragmentation.

Because of the extreme abuse he suffered as a child, Sy would have engaged in the defence mechanism of splitting from right back in those early years. This means that, instead of regarding his parents in the normal way, as a complex combination of good and bad traits, he’d have seen them as just the bad father and bad mother. No grey or white, only black.

Sy nonetheless needs to believe in the idea of the good father and good mother, for the paranoid-schizoid position that he feels himself permanently trapped in demands a white, or at least light grey, area to counterbalance the black area that he cannot deny.

This counterbalancing is what the Yorkin parents are meant to personify in Sy’s fragile inner mental life. Other ways in which he tries to achieve this white counterbalance include the old black-and-white photo of the pretty woman he buys; significantly, he later shows it to Nina, of all people (the good mother of his transferred idealized parental imago), telling her that this woman is his mother. This would be the good mother meant to offset his emotionally neglectful bad mother, who allowed Sy’s bad father to take those obscene photos of him as a child.

His notion that photos are always of happy occasions, never of things we want to forget, is his white counterbalancing of those black photos taken of things that he most intensely wishes he could forget. All of this black vs white opposition is a reflection of his psychological splitting, the paranoid-schizoid position, as Melanie Klein called it. “Schizoid” refers to the splitting into absolute good and bad, or black vs white; “paranoid” refers to the fear that the rejected, bad internal objects will return to persecute Sy again.

Since Will has proven to Sy that he isn’t the good father Sy needs him to be, in his paranoid-schizoid mental state, Sy can regard Will as only the bad father. Of course, we the audience have known of Will’s faults almost from the beginning: we saw his argument with Nina about his emotional neglect of her and Jake. Since he rationalizes his preoccupation with his work at their expense (and there’s some truth to this, though he can carry this excuse only so far), we see again how capitalism contributes to the problem of alienation (i.e., he has to work to pay for everything to make his family’s life more comfortable).

His mistress, Maya, however, cannot be included in his excuses for not being as emotionally available to his family as he should be; hence, Sy deems him a bad father, and he scratches Will’s face off of all the photos on his ‘altar.’ Not only has Will become the bad father, though: photography for Sy has changed from being a white source of happiness to a black form of predation.

Indeed, Sy discusses the origin of the term “snapshot,” which he says wasn’t at first associated with photography, but with hunting–that is, quickly firing a snap shot from a rifle at an animal without taking the time for careful, preparatory aim. Sy’s camera has become his weapon, his gun…just as his parents’ camera was a weapon used on him as a child.

Now that Sy can no longer hide behind his False Self as the white-and-grey-clad, mild-mannered photo developer doing a “vital service” for customers he can no longer work for, and now that his system of white idealizations has been sullied by Will’s black adultery, Sy must face his own darkness, all that blackness inside himself that he’s been repressing, splitting off and projecting outwards.

First, he gets a little revenge on his former boss by taking predatory photos of Bill’s daughter. This taking of photos of her–though she’s fully dressed, playing innocently with her dolls, and is insouciant of any voyeuristic danger–nonetheless anticipates the revelation of, and cruel meaning behind, the photography of Sy when he himself was little and defenceless.

Since Sy can no longer use his grandiose self and idealized parental imago to shield himself from his childhood traumas, he must find a way to release and eject the emotional tension he feels from that trauma. A common way to do that is through projection, and projective identification, which ensures that those who receive the projections internalize and embody them.

So Sy steals a large knife from SavMart, a phallic symbol representative of the rapes he suffered as a child. He tracks Will and Maya down to a hotel where they’ve planned to have a sexual encounter, and there he’ll use his camera on them the way his parents used their camera on him: to shame the adulterer and his mistress by capturing their sexual encounter in a set of pornographic photos.

Sy not only forces Will and Maya to pose nude and simulate sexual acts; he’s also verbally abusive in the orders he gives them, behaviour diametrically opposed to his usual, mild-mannered False Self. This verbal abusiveness, it is safe to assume, is derived from the verbal abusiveness he as a child must have received from his photographer father. Sy must release all this pent-up pain by taking it all out on Will and Maya, by projecting it onto them.

After taking the photos, he leaves his traumatized victims and goes into a neighbouring hotel room he’s booked for himself. There, he lies on his back on the bed and looks up at the ceiling; he seems temporarily relieved, having gotten so much of that tension and pain off his chest.

He’s also taken photos of such banal things as a closeup of the rings on the curtain rod on his room’s shower curtain, as well as closeups of taps on the bathtub and bathroom sink. After all the good photos of the Yorkin family, then the bad photos of Will and Maya, he needs to take these neutral photos, to sublate the good vs bad dichotomy. This sublation is part of his healing shift from the black-and-white duality of the paranoid-schizoid position to the grey neutrality of the depressive position.

Switching from paranoid anxiety to depressive anxiety–the fear and sadness coming from losing our internal objects–is crucial for Sy’s healing process, and it’s related to the grey sublation of the black vs white mentioned above. The depressive position involves acknowledging how our caregivers are actually a complex combination of good and bad, and we must accept both the good and the bad in them. One must also mourn the abusive parents who failed us as children, our lack of good parents, as when we see Sy break down and cry when revealing to Detective Van Der Zee how he as a child was sexually abused.

Sy cannot see any good in his parents to counterbalance the bad, nor can he see any good in Will Yorkin. He can, however, still see Nina and Jake as good people (even though he’s frustrated to see her not showing anger at Will after seeing the photos of his affair with Maya). He also feels convinced that Van Der Zee must be a good husband and father. So these conclusions are enough for Sy to reconcile the good and bad in parents in general.

Now we can end the film with him looking at his banal photos of closeups of bathroom objects, their banality being his resolving of ideal vs shameful pictures.

Though called a psychological thriller, One Hour Photo actually has a rather sad tone, for though we would never condone what Sy does, we can’t help feeling empathy for him and the troubled life he’s lead. This kind of empathy, even for those who do ‘creepy’ things, is important for us to be able to heal collectively from all of our own traumas, for we all need to help each other process our grief. (Recall how Williams suffered from depression and committed suicide.)

Analysis of ‘Anastasia’

Anastasia is a 1956 film directed by Anatole Litvak and written by Arthur Laurents, based on the 1952 play by Marcelle Maurette and Guy Bolton. It stars Ingrid Bergman (in the title role), Yul Brynner, and Helen Hayes.

The story is inspired by that of Anna Anderson, the best known of the Anastasia imposters who emerged after the execution of the Romanov family by Bolshevik revolutionaries in 1918.

Bergman won her second Best Actress Oscar for her performance in this film (her first being for Gaslight). Anastasia was also nominated for an Oscar for Best Music Score of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture for Alfred Newman. Bergman also won a David di Donatello Award (Best Foreign Actress), as well as a New York Film Critics Circle Award (Best Actress) and Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in a Motion Picture–Drama (Hayes was nominated for this last one, too). Brynner won Best Actor for the National Board of Review Awards, which also ranked Anastasia in eighth place for its Top Ten Films.

A link to quotes from the film can be found here. Here is the complete script.

The film begins with narrative text about the execution of the Russian Imperial family in 1918. In the ten years following the executions, rumours that some of the family survived floated about, rumours fuelled in part by Soviet cover-ups of the killings. There is no conclusive evidence that Lenin gave the order to kill the family, though he certainly had nothing but disgust for them. There is also no doubt that claims of survivors are all false.

A few things need to be taken into consideration regarding the making of this film, and how much sympathy should be felt for the Romanov family. First of all, the play and the film were produced in the 1950s, when Cold War propagandistic vilifying of “commies” was at its height. A film generating sympathy for the Tsar’s family would have been of immense appeal to the Western ruling classes, especially in the US, “the only country left with a proper respect for wealth,” as is observed among the con men in the film.

Second, sympathy for the Russian Imperial family hardly deserves validation, given all the suffering of the poor Russian working class and peasants, all while under the thumb of the wealthy, privileged, and incompetent Tsar, who was hugely unpopular. As biased against the Soviets as Orwell‘s polemical allegory, Animal Farm, is, his representation of Nicholas II in the mean, insensitive, and alcoholic farmer Mr. Jones, is at least reasonably accurate.

Third, given the tensions of the Russian Civil War, it’s easy to see how many among the Soviets, if not all of them, would have considered the Romanov family too dangerous to be left alive. Had the White Army been successful, with the aid of other countries in their attempt to force bourgeois/semi-feudal rule back on Russia, the Romanovs could have had their rule restored, the Bolsheviks and other left revolutionaries would have all been executed in a bloodbath, and the vast majority of the Russian people would have been relegated to poverty and despair.

The bourgeoisie can always find room in their hearts to pity the suffering of a few of their fellow rich, even when those sufferers are of the feudal world the capitalists have supplanted; but they feel minute compassion, at best, for the impoverished and starving millions of the world. It is in the above historical context that we should understand Anastasia, a bourgeois film with all the relevant symbolism.

The film begins during Easter celebrations in Paris in 1928, ten years after the executions, and right when Stalin has established himself as Lenin’s successor and is about to begin building socialism in the USSR…not that Anastasia wants to deal with any of that, of course.

Anna Koreff (Bergman) has been found by some associates of General Sergei Pavlovich Bounine (Brynner) near a church among the exiled Russian community in Paris, where participants of the Orthodox Church are celebrating Easter. Such a juxtaposition of elements–the supposed survivor of the Tsar’s family, the Russian Orthodox Church, and Easter–is symbolically significant when one considers the film’s class agenda.

The Tsar and the Orthodox Church worked hand in hand to maintain power and authority over the Russian people. The Tsar was said to have been appointed by God, and he gave the Church financial rewards for spreading such propaganda among the poor peasants, who were led to believe that Russia, God’s land, was intended to be just as the peasants found it. So, since the peasants were piss poor, they were supposed to be content with their lot, and neither to complain about it nor wish for more.

If Anna really is the Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna, then if she’s reinstated, she can gain followers who might help her oust the communists and restore the tsarist autocracy. That she’s been found on Easter symbolically suggests a resurrection, the brining back to life of the executed duchess, making “Anastasia” a kind of Christ figure. Notions of an evil empire–like that of the Rome that crucified Christ, as well as the imperialism that the communists strove to defeat–can thus be projected onto the USSR.

Such bourgeois propaganda is as perfect as a dream for a ruling class so threatened by Marxism-Leninism.

Now, Anna is a deeply troubled, destitute, and traumatized woman. She suffers from amnesia…to what extent we don’t know for sure…and she is frightened of everyone. She has been from asylum to asylum; we don’t know who she really is for sure–not even she knows. We do know, however, that in her last asylum, she told a nun there that she is Anastasia. She presumably said it in a fit of madness; but “she has certain surprising features,” as Bounine says, that strongly suggest she could really be Anastasia, or that at least can be used to con people into believing she is the duchess, so that the con men can get at a large sum of money.

…and this is where Bounine and his associates, Boris Andreivich Chernov (played by Akim Tamiroff) and Piotr Ivanovich Petrovin (played by Sacha Pitoëff) come in. That Chernov is a banker, Petrovin is a former student of the theological seminary, and Bounine was a general in the White Army who fought in the Russian Civil War is all significant, since these three are the con men itching to get their filthy hands on that money. They all represent different facets of the ruling class (banker, theologian, and military man) working to deceive the public, promote tsarism, and get wealthy.

…and who is this Anna woman, really?

The ambiguity in the film, as to whether or not she really is Anastasia, reflects the conflict between the reality that she couldn’t possibly be her, or that it’s at least extremely unlikely that she is the Grand Duchess, and the microscopic hope that she is her, which is bourgeois wish-fulfillment.

Her seeming to know personal details of Anastasia’s life could be the result of a fixation on her, motivating her to study these details from various biographers in, say, newspaper articles. Putting these details in her mind, when she can’t possibly have known them, is in all likelihood part of that wish-fulfillment in the film’s producers.

The real Anna Koreff, though, is a woman whose tragic life has been so full of “disappointment, anger, dismissal; out in the street, failure, fake, nobody!” that she has been on the verge of falling apart, of experiencing a psychotic break from reality, of experiencing psychological fragmentation. Narcissism, as has been observed by Otto Kernberg, can be used as a defence against said fragmentation; and Anna’s claim to be Anastasia–to the nun in the asylum–could have been such a delusion of grandeur, however brief, meant to protect her from totally falling to pieces at the time.

After she runs away from Bounine at the church, she walks by two homeless men (seen with bottles of alcohol, in order, no doubt, to minimize any sympathy for such ‘dissolute louts’). the placing of her near them, if she really is Anastasia, is meant to intensify our sympathy for her, this female Lear who has gone from riches to rags (though, she shows no pity for the derelicts, as Lear does to the “poor, naked wretches…” when he has “ta’en/Too little care of this!” Act III, scene iv). The bourgeoisie will pity her as a royal wretch, for they like to see themselves and their ilk as victims, as I’ve observed elsewhere.

If she really is, however, as destitute by birth as those two winos, then the capitalist class won’t care at all about her. We, however, should care, in such a case, for then she would be one of the true wretched of the Earth, not of those victimized by nothing more than their own bad karma.

Before her attempt to drown herself in the Seine is stopped by Bounine, she looks at her reflection in the water. Is she seeing the Grand Duchess as an ideal-I she can no longer live up to, causing her a narcissistic injury that only suicide can cure? Or, rather than contemplating the narcissistic metaphorical mirror of Lacan‘s Imaginary, is she seeing the dark, formless waves of the traumatic, undifferentiated Real? Or is it both the Imaginary and the Real, phasing back and forth with each up-and-down movement of the waves?

She doesn’t know at all who she is: the trauma of her whole life has placed her at the borderline between a hazy sense of a lack of self (the Real) and narcissistic delusions of grandeur, Anastasia as False Self (Imaginary), an ego-defence against psychotic breakdowns. The bourgeois wish-fulfillment that she is Anastasia is their sharing of those delusions of grandeur, a collective narcissism one can easily associate with the capitalist class.

So when she says, with a laugh, that she’s “the Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna” to Bounine, and that maniacal laugh switches to hysterical bawling, we see a manifestation of that cusp between Imaginary and Real, or between the dialectically paradoxical extreme merriment and traumatic despair of the laugh of the Joker.

Her switch from laughing to bawling, as interpreted by the bourgeoisie in their wish-fulfillment and narcissistic identification with her, would be because of her modest doubts of her royal lineage switching to a confrontation of her traumatic experience in the cellar, watching her family get killed before her miraculous escape. A more realistic interpretation, however, would be that she laughs at how absurdly untrue it is that she’s Anastasia, switching to crying over how, deep down, she wants to believe she is the Grand Duchess, knowing also that that way, madness lies.

In any case, had Anastasia survived, she would have been 26 going on 27 as of Easter of 1928; whereas in the film, she is being played by an actress who was 40-41 years old at the time. Thus, the age difference between Anna and Anastasia already causes us to doubt that she’s the Grand Duchess.

Who she is is an empty void, the kind of emptiness a narcissist might fill up with a false, grandiose self. The emptiness, in her case, is the result of amnesia. This amnesia seems to have been caused by an injury to the head, “a narrow depression, extending almost to the forehead,” as Bounine points out to Chernov and Petrovin.

When the three men ask her where she got her scars on her hands and head, she says they are “a gift from an unknown admirer.” Where? She doesn’t remember. It’s easy to imagine this admirer to have been one of Lenin’s men, as the bourgeois hearers of her story would like to believe. For all we know, though, this “unknown admirer” could have been a rapist beating her into submission, and her amnesia may not be from a physical injury so much as from repressed traumas returning to consciousness in the disguised form of an Anastasia fixation.

In any case, Bounine finds her amnesia “most convenient,” so he can exploit her to get at that £10 million belonging to Anastasia held by an English bank. It is fitting that he is also the owner of a nightclub in which Russian performances are enjoyed by his bourgeois clientele, where he’ll make Anna another of his cigarette girls if she doesn’t cooperate with his Anastasia scheme. Bounine, as general of the White Army, businessman, and swindler, is the consummate capitalist exploiter of labour.

Bounine has only eight days to get “Anastasia” ready to be presented before stockholders and convince the world that she is the Grand Duchess, so she is put to work immediately, being taught to memorize various details of Anastasia’s life, to dance, to play the piano, and to walk with a book on her head. Just like those musicians and dancers who are employees in Bounine’s nightclub, she is being made to put on a performance. She is just another of his exploited workers.

Though he has introduced himself, Chernov, and Petrovin as her “friends,” they are actually hard taskmasters who are overworking her and bossing her around. She shows a defiant individualism that annoys Bounine and brings out his stern, authoritarian, and paternalistic nature; but over time, he begins to have feelings for her…and she for him.

Now, a combination of her beauty with a budding sense of compassion for her, and how she has suffered, can easily explain why Bounine would start to fall for her; but why would she come to love such a peremptory, domineering man as he? His playing the guitar and humming to her is charming, but not enough in itself, nor is his dancing the waltz with her that she likes so much. Could his very strictness be the decisive factor in her loving him?

In bed one night, she has a nightmare and wakes up screaming with, in Newman’s film-score, tense, descending arpeggios in the high register of the piano. Bounine finds her in their apartment in a state of hysteria, her crying of how she wishes to be the real her, and not some faker of nobility. (This wish of hers, incidentally, could be seen to symbolize the worker’s alienation from his or her species-essence.)

When he can’t calm her down, Bounine shouts at her to “go to bed at once!” This reminds her of her “very strict” father (recall earlier when he ordered her to eat the borscht she doesn’t like), which she tells him with an almost Oedipal smile. Her growing love for him, therefore, could be the result of a father transference; it could also be trauma-related, that “unknown admirer” rapist I speculated of above. She may feel compelled thus to love dominant men, for it seems that Bounine is her new “ringmaster in a circus,” a scam circus he’s running in an attempt to get his hands on that £10 million.

Now, she is beginning to have feelings for him, but only beginning to. She also hates being exploited and bossed around by him, and in her frequent moments of defiance, she tells him so.

There is a paradox in his using her and telling her what to do, while at the same time entertaining in her mind the idea that she is of a social rank far higher than he. He is indulging her grandiose self, being a mirror of it for her, and she reacts accordingly by, for example, scolding Chernov for smoking in her presence without her permission, a sudden outburst that impresses the otherwise skeptical, gout-afflicted Chamberlain (played by Felix Aylmer).

The essence of Anna’s pathology can be traced to her lack of a stable psychological structure, described by Heinz Kohut as the bipolar self, the two poles of which are grounded in, on the one side, the mirroring of the grandiose self, as Bounine is providing for her, and on the other side, an idealized parental imago, which will be provided for her if her trip to Copenhagen with Bounine is successful.

What she needs is to have her identity and existence validated. Desire is the desire of the Other, as Lacan observed, and Anna’s desire is the empress’s desire, to be given recognition from her, she who deep down desires to have her long-lost family back. As much as Bounine tells the public she is Anastasia, it will never be good enough for her, since so many people doubt her authenticity as the Grand Duchess…devastatingly for her, Bounine himself doesn’t believe in it. They know, however, that there is one person by whom, if she accepts this troubled woman as her granddaughter, the whole world will have to accept her as Anastasia Nikolaevna.

The old woman in question is the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna (Hayes), and she lives a bitter life in Copenhagen, presented over and over again with fake family members. She has been shown two Tatianas, an Alexei, a Maria, and an Anastasia; she is so jaded with frustrated hopes of seeing long-dead family members that she must use an icy exterior to shield herself emotionally from further disappointment. For Anna to get validation from “Grandmama” will be a formidable enterprise, indeed.

Still, Anna must do it, for the Dowager Empress, being genuine Russo-Danish royalty, is just that idealized parental imago, transferred from parent to grandparent. Anna’s meeting of the empress, cutting her way through all that thick ice, will be so frightening for her that she will express her fear in an idiosyncratic manner that we viewers of the film have by now found familiar–through coughing.

This nervous reaction of hers represents her wish to eject painful parts of herself: bad memories, traumas, and bad internal objects. Ironically, and what seems a most fortuitous windfall, the Dowager Empress recalls Anastasia having coughed whenever frightened, and this memory convinces her that this young woman really must be her granddaughter.

In holding weeping Anna close, “Grandmama” is doing what Bion called a containment of the troubled girl’s agitations, detoxifying them for her and thus healing her. Old and young women here have healed each other. “Anastasia” has rebuilt her bipolar self, and finally has stable psychological structure.

In all well-written stories, we observe that the main characters go through growth, development, personal changes. We’ve seen how this happens to Anna, who begins as a traumatized, suicidal amnesiac with fantasies of what Freud called the “family romance” (i.e., her fantasy of having been born into nobility, which actually disguises a traumatic disappointment in her real parents); and through the rebuilding of her bipolar self with the mirroring of Bounine and the idealizing of the empress, she’s found stability and thus no longer needs such fantasies to keep her from psychologically falling apart.

Anna, however, isn’t the only character to have undergone important changes. Apart from the obvious thawing of the icy heart of the empress, Bounine has finally seen, though the hurt he’s caused the woman he’s exploiting and falling in love with, the error of his money-loving ways. Another source of the opening of his eyes is Prince Paul von Haraldberg (a fictional character played by Ivan Desny), another fortune-hunter who’s trying to win the charms of “Anastasia” and who is therefore enflaming Bounine’s jealousy, since the prince is to be engaged to her.

Prince Paul’s gold-digging is assuredly a mirror being held up to Bounine’s face, and therefore piquing his conscience, since his growing love for Anna is in large part due to his compassion for her suffering. Not only does Bounine want her for himself, but he also realizes that he cannot go on exploiting her for that money.

Now, Anna no longer needs the royal fantasies to help her hold herself together, but this doesn’t mean she no longer gets pleasure from indulging in such fantasies. Jealous Bounine points this out to her before the empress is to make her announcement that this young woman is Anastasia.

He no longer cares about the money…as amazing as such a development is. He hates how she has changed: her pain aroused his compassion. Now that she’s comfortable with who she is, in what feels like a phoney persona, she no longer inspires his compassion, but his contempt. Still, he wants to love the troubled woman he treated precisely with the therapy of that persona–he wants her back.

With this therapy, if you will, that he gave her, he has also treated his own faults. For in helping her establish an identity and social acceptance, he has learned the value of human relationships over money. This is why, at the end of the movie, he runs away with her, she doesn’t get engaged with Prince Paul, and neither she nor Bounine bother with the £10 million.

The empress, though wary of Bounine’s schemes, is so content in her belief that she has really been reunited with her granddaughter that she will let him run off with her. For the empress, too, appreciates the value of human relationships, and she’d rather see ‘her granddaughter’ happy with Bounine than in an emotionally sterile relationship with the prince.

Thus, there is, on at least some level, a shared understanding among all three of them that the Romanovs are “dead and buried and should be.” What we’re seeing at the end of the film is, of course, far from an advocacy of a triumph of communism (hence, the blacklisting of Laurents, Anastasia‘s screenwriter, was totally unjustified Cold War paranoia at the time), but rather a bourgeois liberal concession, a consigning of tsarism to the cobwebs of history.

Indeed, it is painful for the empress to let her granddaughter (as she still believes Anna to be, despite the allegations of Mikhail Vlados [played by Karel Stepánek]) go free and be happy with Bounine, who loves her for her, rather than be with the prince, who wants that money. This ability to make selfless sacrifices for the happiness of others can be seen, despite the film’s ruling class agenda, as the beginning of a series of steps from aristocracy and oligarchy to bourgeois liberal democracy, then–one hopes–finally to a classless, stateless society.

When I first watched Anastasia as a teenager (at the height of my crush on Ingrid Bergman), I was impressed at the graceful display of etiquette that the characters usually show each other. There are also, of course, brusque moments of ill temper here and there. The contrast between the two emphasizes the phoniness of the former and the blunt honesty of the latter. That we call the former ‘high class’ behaviour and the latter ‘low class’ behaviour is instructive.

To be ‘high class’ is to put on a performance of a supposed superiority worthy of wealth. Anna’s presenting of herself as the Grand Duchess is such a performance. We need to end such performances and help the wretched of the Earth to be just who they are, as she ends up doing. Then, we can see the empress smile and say, “The play is over. Go home.”