Understanding Role and Appeal of Horror in Popular Culture Using Psychoanalysis

This essay sample was donated by a student to help the academic community. Papers provided by EduBirdie writers usually outdo students' samples.

Cite this essay cite-image

Humanity has always sought to capture certain moments and feelings and that way give it immortality. Hence film, bearing the features of an art form operating within the narration of time and space seemed to be a perfect medium. The world of film seems to support the illusion of immortal and immutable reality in the likeness of artificial sleep and rule the subconscious instincts of the viewer. Sleep, consciousness and subconsciousness are the first intuitively found psychoanalytical threads in cinema, from which cinematography drew and still draws. At the end of the 19th century, many revolutions were taking place, not only in the field of cinematography. In the field of psychology and psychiatry, the Viennese doctor Sigmund Freud came to a new a perception of the functioning of the human mind. In 1895 two new disciplines were born. The Lumiere brothers invented the film projector marking the beginning of cinematography, while Freud and Breuer published ‘Studies on Hysteria’, which marks the emergence of a new set of theories regarding human nature and behavior called psychoanalysis. Since then, film and psychoanalysis have remained inextricably linked, which seems to be perfectly illustrated by Glen Gabbard, an American psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who recalled the words of a famous French director Claude Chabrol, while Chabrol used the psychoanalyst's consultations when writing the screenplay for ‘La Ceremonie’ (1995): “It is very difficult to think about characters without considering Freudian perspective. This perspective is made up of meanings that also apply to cinema” (Winer and Anderson, 2001).

Horror is a film genre that reaches back to the most hidden human fears and dark desires. It represents the repressed elements of culture that cannot be easily explained and showed directly, and what constantly controls our emotions and actions. Horror was born in the era of silent cinema, Paul Leni by many is considered as the precursor of the genre, the director of such films as ‘Waxworks’ (1924) and ‘The Man Who Laughs’ (1928). The birth of the genre was also influenced by German film expressionism, e.g., the movie ‘Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’ (1918). Inspirations for the artistic means of horror also largely come from Romantic literature, especially the Gothic novel, e.g., the works of Horace Walpole. The flourishing of horror happened at the turn of the 1950s and 1960s. During this period, many kitschy, bloody images were shot, with the British label Hammer, e.g., ‘The Revenge of Frankenstein’ (1958), taking the lead. On the other hand, adaptations of the works of Allan Edgar Poe and horrors expressing fear of madness, such as ‘Psycho’ (1960) by Alfred Hitchcock or ‘Repulsion’ (1965) by Roman Polanski, were also considered as outstanding achievements in the field of cinematography. Psychoanalysis focused on the demons of the human subconsciousness also had a great impact on the creation of this genre. One of the tasks of various film theories is to explain first of all what happens to the viewer during a screening. Where is the beginning of the fascination with 'moving pictures' and how do psychoanalytical threads in horror relate to this.

Save your time!
We can take care of your essay
  • Proper editing and formatting
  • Free revision, title page, and bibliography
  • Flexible prices and money-back guarantee
Place an order

Psychoanalytical threads in cinema had developed not only through the filmmaking itself, but were also shaped through mutual rejection and then understanding, to finally cooperation, as both cinematography and psychoanalysis developed. The creators of the first recording and screening device, brothers August and Louis Lumiere seem short-sighted in retrospect. They thought that their invention is and will forever be only a gadget that could potently find its use in science. They did not agree with the role played by cinema at that time, i.e., the source of entertainment for the masses, the role in which cinema is at its best today and where it shaped the experiences of generations of people who now quote film dialogues, hang posters on the walls and wear T-shirts with favorite movie stars. On the other hand, it was for this reason that attempts to recognize the film as an art form were suppressed. The same problems had previously applied to photography, which was compared to painting, or rather defined as its less impressive version, which did not require an 'inspired hand of the artist' (Newhall and Rosenblum, 2000). Today, the division into artistic cinema (mainly Europe) and entertainment cinema (Hollywood) is observed, and the number of trends defining the ways of experiencing film has undeniably increased. To better understand the nature of the relationship between a viewer and film from the perspective of film studies theory, including from the perspective of psychoanalysis one has to move away from the intuitive and empathic approach to film. From a formalistic approach the most important function was played by the screen frame: “its borders give shape to the images appearing on it” (Newhall and Rosenblum, 2000). From a realistic point of view, the screen was a window on the world: a window from which the view satisfies the eternal human desire to stop the passage of time and mummifies past experiences. An interesting look at the function and development of cinema, film and the role of the viewer and the process of shaping film material was proposed by one of the fields of psychology, psychoanalytic theory.

The basis of psychoanalytic theory in the first wave was the concept of Jacques Lacan and its reinterpretation undertaken by Christian Metz in the second half 70s of the last century. Lacanian theory pointed to the illusion of identifying the viewer with the image. He emphasized the subject's longing for completeness (child - mother, viewer - unconscious desires) that the film can offer through false identification. According to Jacques Lacan, language (symbolic order) deprives the subject of his autonomy, expropriates him from himself. In Lacan's theory, language performs the function of the unconscious, Symbolic Other, which on the one hand prevents an individual from expressing themselves truly, offering them only a string of cultural signifiers known to him, and on the other hand constitutes a necessary stage of acculturation. The French psychoanalyst states that in scientific civilization we are dealing with the deepest alienation of the subject - the subject does not speak, but is spoken about. A different view was proposed by Laura Mulvey, who mainly dealt with the attention of the male audience through fetishization of the female body. The second wave of psychoanalytic film criticism in the 1980s and 1990s was related to the work of Jacqyeline Rose, who drew attention to the search for the missing object of desire from the viewer. Psychoanalytic point of view suggests a fundamental change and shift of accents: the white screen on which the streaks of light are projected is no longer a window or a frame - it becomes a mirror. Therefore, the subject, although not specific as to the experience, thoughts and emotions, but rather being a construct of a person, is the focal point of most trends in psychoanalytical theories and the key subject of film studies in many respects. The basic premise of psychoanalysis is the existence of the unconsciousness. A large part of our mind is never and will never become conscious. Conscious experiences can also be forgotten, or denied and repressed, and yet remain active and affect the content and quality of life. Psychoanalysis as a method of examination and treatment assumes that the way personality forms, apart from innate and hereditary factors, is influenced by relationships with parents, as well as important experiences; birth, sexuality, love and hate, loss and death, which we experience from the very beginning, and which are often the source internal conflicts (Davis and Santos, 2010). These experiences and fantasies about them create patterns that remain unconscious and define relationships we have with ourselves and other people later in life. Psychoanalysis allows for people to learn about their conscious and subconscious mechanisms and conflicts and to better understand their lives and actions. Psychoanalysts use various techniques in their work, including free association analysis, dream analysis, resistance analysis and transference analysis. And although Freudian psychoanalysis is not known today in its pure form, theories about the Oedipus complex, narcissism, castration, unconsciousness and hysteria are still used as means of expression and as subjects of horror films, as well as elements of film analysis.

At the beginning, psychoanalysis was used in the cinema directly as a method that allowed us to look into the human mind and project it on the screen by adopting a certain narrative that through hidden symbolism and objects would reflect the psychological experience and state of the characters or the general theme of the film. This approach that was often used by the creator of the surreal movement, Andre Breton. He treated cinematography as a tool to look into the subconsciousness. He created motion pictures reminiscent of dreams or visions using the method of superimposition (overlapping images). He used slow motion, drew inspiration from the works of expressionist artists and dance choreographies. His approach was so different from romantic concepts because they refer to the psychical, not metaphysical sphere of human nature. What is real and what seems to be an illusion blurs perfectly in the film ‘Jacob's Ladder’ (1990) directed by Adrian Lyne. The main character, a veteran of the Vietnam War, has nightmares. Due to traumatic experiences, lack of sleep and a series of unfortunate events, he begins to lose his mind and can no longer recognize the difference between reality and dreams. The title ladder is part of biblical mythology. Is a road connecting two worlds, the world of the living and the dead. The audience may question the hero's visions and the unbelievable monsters he encounters. However, at some point one may realize that this is a story in which we participate every day, and thanks to which one can recognize the value of life, reconcile with loss or with the inability to overcome the fear of death. This film leaves the viewer with the following message: when the right moment comes, let go of the pain.

Stephen Neale, a British philosopher and specialist in the philosophy of language, recognizes that the pleasure associated with watching a narrative of a film unfold are caused by the fact that film images reflect human impulses and desires as well as deviations. Neale devotes considerable part of his work ‘Genre and Hollywood’ to the horror genre in particular. To explain the popularity of this genre he uses the theory of fetishism as an analogy. Every horror film introduces the viewer to a monster, in some horror films the monster is a literal beast and in other cases it is more of a metaphorical being. Neale says the diligence with which the monster is being created and later slowly introduced to the audience and how much attention is paid to its birth and death means that the monster is a fetish. He calls it a fetishist desire to know everything about cinema and film especially horror as its subliminal messages and themes speak to the human desire to have a clear vision of the beginning and the end as well as the desire to see the good overcome the evil (Neale, 2000). ‘North by Northwest’ (1959) directed by Alfred Hitchcock contains some excellent examples of fetishes. At the very beginning of the film, we are being introduced to a lifestyle typical to large busy city. It has its own rhythm and conventions, everyone there seems to be focused on working and making money. The main protagonist is used to that lifestyle and leads a successful life. When he gets kidnapped, he does not lose his temper and does not cease to provoke the fate and his smooth talking and cleverness helps him avoid death. This portrayal fetishizes men who by the majority of society are expected to always find a way out of a situation and never lose control. Man wants to act ‘manly’ and the protagonist is someone they can look up to and fetishize. That’s when both the audience and the main protagonist are introduced to yet another fetish, fetish of female adoration. The woman he meets is a cold and unscrupulous. She seduces him causes his downfall. In the end it doesn't bother him at all. They are a good match. They team up, overcome the last obstacles and move towards a happy-end, the fetishized ‘they lived happily ever after’ (Neale, 2000). Many men would like to find themselves in the hero's place, where their fantasy finally comes true. A strong and independent mother who mocks her son’s lifestyle, addictions and numerous divorces and does not want to believe nor help him is quickly replaced by a new strong but equally inaccessible woman, whom the hero meets on the train. She, however, seduces him and treats him like a hero, the dream of most men, that’s been portrayed on film for decades. At the end our protagonist is the one who saves the woman. The romantic plotline in Hitchcock's movie highlights that his actions and behavior got rewarded (Mulvey, 1975).

Concept of the monster is similar to the concept of the Other. Robin Wood in his ‘The American Nightmare: Essays on the Horror Film’ argues that horror films repress desire within the self and disavow it by projecting it outward as a monstrous Other. Thus, the monster usually may be understood as a ‘return of the repressed’, representing the re-emergence of that which we’ve sought to deny in disguised horrific form. “American horror adopted exploitation as its new manner of presenting the Other, leading to a popular following of distinct social groups rather than mainstream audiences” (Wood, 1986). Horror always takes the side of a conservative vision of the world. What is different (e.g., forms of sexuality) must be punished and alienated. At the same time, however, evil is never defeated in an absolute way, but remains hidden. Sigmund Freud used the story of the mythical Sandman to determine the unconscious mechanisms operating in this form of horror. It's about the 'disturbing weirdness' (Dawson, 2012), that makes known things strange or strange things more familiar. And sometimes both of these realities occur simultaneously. Sandman embodies these unexplained and often unaware recesses of the human soul. Based on the story of Sandman, Freud shapes the concept of horror and eeriness, the concept of uncanny. He starts with the linguistic analysis of this concept. In this way he first states that this is the extreme opposite of what is intimate and familiar. He also realizes that the word refers to something hidden or secret and at the same time to the word 'home'. “The uncanny is something that seems familiar, but its familiarity is unsettling, troubling, and frightening. The German word for uncanny, ‘unheimlich’, means ‘un-home-y’. As Freud notes, the English term ‘canny’ also denotes coziness (home/familiar), and a second (supernatural) sense” (Horden, 1985). Freud states that in the phenomenon of eeriness is a mechanism by which something familiar becomes strange. This happens, for example, when someone dies. Earlier it was someone close, and now it is a corpse, which is in a state incomprehensible to us. Hence the sinister demons and ghosts appearing ‘from the underworld’. In the story of Sandman, the main character is afraid of losing his eyes. Freud associates this with the fear of mutilation associated with the castration complex. He also discovers a clear convergence between the concept of repression and the matter of eerie. The latter would be an expression of repression, repressed repression that is coming to light. He concludes, therefore, that threatening takeover is a condition that leads to anguish resulting from the children's castration complex.

To conclude, horror is a genre that attracts people as it very often is a conscious attempt by the author to establish a dialogue with the viewer. Dialogue which is based on shocking unparalleled and brutal breaking of fundamental cultural taboos, human desires and fears. I dare to say that nowadays there is a tendency where the film shapes reality, while the nature of the broadly understood film art and film language have developed to the point where they explore the depth of the human psyche and use it as both an inspiration and a message. When referring to Freud's legacy, certain hypotheses explaining horror often seem very clichéd and tailor-made. In this context, the simplest, fairly banal explanation would be the hypothesis of the subconscious pursuit of sublimation of drives suppressed by superego identified with culture. According to this interpretation, the abomination and disgust are nothing more than Id trying hard to break free from the shackles of a repressive culture suppressing original tendencies. In this spirit, the interpretation of the need to experience a specific catharsis also remains, which is ensured by communing with content that goes far beyond what shapes the Western culture on a daily basis.


  1. Clover, C., 1996. Men, Women, and Chainsaws. London, Eng.: British Film Institute.
  2. Davis, L. and Santos, C., 2010. The Monster Imagined. Oxford: Inter-Disciplinary.
  3. Dawson, T., 2012. Enchantment, Possession and the Uncanny in E.T.A. Hoffmann's ‘The Sandman’. International Journal of Jungian Studies, pp.41-54.
  4. Freud, S., 1919. The Uncanny.
  5. Hoffmann, E. T. A. The Sandman Tales. Trans. L. J. Kent and E. C. Knight. NY: Contiuum, 1982. p.277-308.
  6. Horden, P., 1985. Freud and the Humanities. London: Duckworth.
  7. Jancovich, M., 2002. Horror, The Film Reader. London: Routledge.
  8. Mulvey, L., 1975. Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. Methuen & Co. Ltd Routledge, p.57-60.
  9. Neale, S., 2000. Genre and Hollywood. London: Routledge.
  10. Newhall, B. and Rosenblum, N., 2000. History of Photography. [online] Encyclopedia Britannica. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/technology/photography
  11. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2011. Psychoanalytic Feminism. Available at: plato.stanford.edu/entries/feminism-psychoanalysis
  12. Stevenson, B., 2019. Us, Pet Sematary, and the Horror of the Uncanny. The Oxford Student. Available at: www.oxfordstudent.com/2019/05/28/8780
  13. Winer, J. and Anderson, J., 2001. Sigmund Freud and His Impact on the Modern World. Hillsdale, NJ: Analytic Press, p.72.
  14. Wood, R., 1986. Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan. New York: Columbia University Press.
Make sure you submit a unique essay

Our writers will provide you with an essay sample written from scratch: any topic, any deadline, any instructions.

Cite this paper

Understanding Role and Appeal of Horror in Popular Culture Using Psychoanalysis. (2023, January 31). Edubirdie. Retrieved July 16, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/understanding-role-and-appeal-of-horror-in-popular-culture-using-psychoanalysis/
“Understanding Role and Appeal of Horror in Popular Culture Using Psychoanalysis.” Edubirdie, 31 Jan. 2023, edubirdie.com/examples/understanding-role-and-appeal-of-horror-in-popular-culture-using-psychoanalysis/
Understanding Role and Appeal of Horror in Popular Culture Using Psychoanalysis. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/understanding-role-and-appeal-of-horror-in-popular-culture-using-psychoanalysis/> [Accessed 16 Jul. 2024].
Understanding Role and Appeal of Horror in Popular Culture Using Psychoanalysis [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2023 Jan 31 [cited 2024 Jul 16]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/understanding-role-and-appeal-of-horror-in-popular-culture-using-psychoanalysis/

Join our 150k of happy users

  • Get original paper written according to your instructions
  • Save time for what matters most
Place an order

Fair Use Policy

EduBirdie considers academic integrity to be the essential part of the learning process and does not support any violation of the academic standards. Should you have any questions regarding our Fair Use Policy or become aware of any violations, please do not hesitate to contact us via support@edubirdie.com.

Check it out!
search Stuck on your essay?

We are here 24/7 to write your paper in as fast as 3 hours.