Exquisite Ex-timacy: Jacques Lacan vis-a-vis Contemporary Horror

Psychoanalysis and Horror

by Stefan Gullatz Volume 5, Issue 2 / March 2001 24 minutes (5936 words)

“Traditionally, esoterica is meant to survive inside gothic art as a self-censoring secret, as something which survives symbolically, which is available for those who care. So apparently the idea of a mystical tradition of dealing with spiritual issues, surviving encoded in a debased ghettoized genre, survives in something the public at large would regard as one step above porno, roughly the same level as comic books. Something which is looked down upon from a dizzy height as compared to the perceived serious movies, the Ghandis and the English Patients of the world.” Richard Stanley [1]

The Cultural Dimension of the Pleasure Principle

A few brief introductory remarks on the cultural dimension of a subjective economy of pleasure may prove the best avenue to any psychoanalytic reading of the supernatural horror genre. According to Zizek, there are different phases in Freud’s differentiation between the pleasure and reality principles. Freud initially posits an ideal state whereby an individual, shielded from the exigencies of the ‘reality principle’, experiences a pure, undisturbed bliss. At this stage of Freudian theory, the need to accommodate to the reality principle is accomplished via the subordination of the pleasure to the reality principle, so that the direct route to pleasure becomes blocked. By the time of Beyond the Pleasure Principle, [2] the situation looks more complex. Phenomena like the repetition compulsion and the paradoxical recurrence of traumatic dreams lead Freud to the theory of the ‘death drive’ that entailed a different view of the nature of the pleasure principle. Thus, even in the absence of the reality principle the ceaseless drive for pleasure continuously encounters an internal obstacle. Although this hindrance is experienced as a ‘hard kernel’, an empirical object, it only objectifies the ontological impossibility of enjoyment. The role of the reality principle becomes evident when we consider symbolic castration which constitutes the social subject imposing a traumatic loss from the outside. The initially internal conflict is transposed to another level as the differentiation between an inside and an outside occurs. The internal obstacle to satisfaction is externalized, so that the subject re-encounters this object as his ‘objective correlative’ amidst a universe structured by the reality principle. This object, perceived as a meaningless ‘stain’, a distortion in the ‘visual field’ of any culture, is the subject’s ‘ex-timate’ core. [3]

Crucially, the creation of self by language, as a cosmos of meaning based on difference and ‘lack’, is co-extensive with the linguistic facilitation of culture. Lacan conceived the symbolic order as the locus of particular set of social, legal and linguistic conventions underlying society. The ‘big Other’ does not exist as substance but is nonetheless effective as it is continuously posited so that the organization of complex social forms becomes possible. For this fictional realm of structural differences to emerge as a coherent entity, jouissance as the inert substance of enjoyment must be sacrificed. From a Lacanian perspective, jouissance is ‘forbidden to the one who speaks’ as such.

The very possibility of the ‘free movement’ within the sphere of culture and meaning is opened up by this repression, yet that which has been repressed paradoxically functions as the pivot on which a social entity is suspended. Indeed, society is constituted in the continuous act of repression and gains its ontological consistency only through this negativity. The biblical Genesis perhaps functions as the archetype, the zero-degree, of a community structured around the repression of a forbidden substance of enjoyment. The story of Adam and Eve serves as an illustration as to how the purely internal impossibility of enjoyment of the mythic pre-social individual subsequently becomes focalized in a taboo grounding an, albeit tiny, social group. In Genesis this taboo is manifested, of course, by the symbol of the tree of wisdom.

Another example, pointed out by Zizek, is the victimization of Jews in Nazi Germany. The paranoid construction of the ‘Jew’ in Nazi propaganda implied that Jews had access to a life substance prior to symbolic castration, i.e. the enjoyment as substance that had to be sacrificed in the act of the constitution of civilization was thus ascribed to the Jews who, in this deluded vision, were deemed to be conspiring to deprive the Germans of their treasure. [4] Of course, any object with the appearance of suitability in a given historical context could have assumed the empty site of Das Ding in the collective unconscious.

With regard to this sublime object which appears to anchor any community, we discern a mixture of morbid fascination and attraction on the one hand, and a fervent desire to disavow and control on the other hand. The same phenomenon, a fatal attraction to the black hole of Das Ding, the site of a traumatic, vacuous horror, threatening to overflow social structures with a terrible organic vitality and force, appears to be at stake in horror movies. From this perspective, the site of the monsters in horror films and horror fiction in the psychic economy can be defined precisely: it is at a point of intersection between a social and a psychological space.

The Uncanny Realm ‘Between Two Deaths’

Event Horizon (Paul Anderson, 1997), a flawed sci-fi horror endeavor, merits discussion because its particular sublime object is literally a black hole, often used metaphorically for the numinous, forbidden object in Lacanian theory, i.e. the anamorphotic distortion of a part of symbolic reality which can be perceived as the entrance to another, ‘metaphysical’ dimension. The premise of this film is interesting. The captain of a spaceship briefs his crew on an extraordinary task, a rescue mission designed to investigate the disappearance of another craft. The Event Horizon had disappeared without a trace, but suddenly mysteriously re-appears at the edge of the solar system. The rescue crew are haunted by sinister premonitions and nightmares before they even arrive at their destination, and once they enter the doomed spaceship the sequence of events unfolding there unveils a diabolic universe reminiscent of Clive Barker’s Hellraiser (1987). It soon becomes evident that both the initial disappearance and the horrible events on board are associated with the ship’s engine, designed by scientist Sam Neil. He reveals that the Event Horizon can reach any destination instantaneously, not by covering the distance at high speed, but rather by folding four-dimensional space-time. To accomplish this, a black hole, ‘the most powerful object in the universe’ according to a crew member, is generated by the ship’s state-of the-art ‘engine’. Housed in an enormous cathedral-like compartment of the spaceship, the impressive contraption consists of several rotating layers of shining steel evoking a three-dimensional mandala. The heart of this object, which appears to be animated with a life of its own, has an ideal, spherical shape. The first encounter with this ominous device is remarkable. As a crew member enters the engine room to investigate, the device begins to swing into action apparently of its own volition and the spherical core opens up to reveal a strange, glutinous substance. There is a brief delay before the recruit is sucked in by a powerful force. His friends manage to ‘retrieve’ him, but it is evident that a radical metamorphosis has occurred. His eyes, which no longer appear to see, speak of an unspeakable horror, their uncanny, demonic appearance suggests that a human being has changed into a pre-ontological Thing.

Claire Higgins from Hellraiser

According to Zizek it is no coincidence that the site of Das Dingof Lacanian theory, which has its roots equally in Freud’s theory of desire and Kant’s conception of a numinous ‘Thing-in-itself’ outside experience and phenomenal perception, has been compared to physic’s black holes. The Lacanian Thing is the empty site which remains when the process of symbolic signification is complete, i.e. which cannot be signified at all, despite repeated attempts, and thus, in the popular imagination persists only as an inert, meaningless, amorphous mass. There is a constitutive void at the heart of the symbolic order designating its inconsistency. Any object that is elevated to this site becomes associated with a traumatic, excessive enjoyment and will be perceived to be radically at odds with the socio-linguistic universe of flexible meanings and controllable emotions in which ‘normal’ beings can live and breathe.

In the same manner in which time and space as the fundamental coordinates allowing the universe to function collapse within the monstrous singularity of a black hole once the ‘event horizon’ has been crossed, the pivot around which the human universe of meaning is structured is a void. It is an abyss in which determinate meaning comes to an end, and as such associated with an overwhelming force, threatening the stability of the psyche with psychosis, if it is approached too closely.

A Lacanian concept closely related to the real void at the heart of the symbolic order is the uncanny site ‘between two deaths’. This phenomenon of the ‘living death’ holds the key to any psychoanalytic investigation of the supernatural horror genre. Two literary works, Hamlet and Antigone, are used frequently by Lacanian critics to exemplify this phenomenon. Lacan’s own primary example is, of course, the fate of Antigone, whose radical ethical stance in insisting on the burial of her outlawed brother, ultimately leads to the horror of her own life burial. The ethical virtue of her uncompromising commitment to her brother entails, beyond the horrific injustice of her live burial, her banishment from the community to which she belongs and thus a ‘symbolic death’, an annihilation as a subject. According to Lacan, this discrepancy between her real and symbolic deaths lies at the core of her sublime beauty. Lupton notes that Antigone has become ‘a symbol of the un-symbolizable par excellence’ in literary history, a ‘sublime fragment of the real’. [5] It is as if she possesses, apart from her real body, ‘a second body composed of a sublime substance’, i.e. traumatic jouissance prior to symbolic mortification, that is ‘exempt from the natural cycles of generation and decay’ disclosed to us through a symbolic, linguistic network. The liminal, ethereal realm in which Antigone resides as a result of being caught up between two deaths, is that of the Thing, the excess-excrement of the symbolic order. [6]

The return of Hamlet’s murdered father as a ghost is frequently cited as an example for the alternative scenario, real death without its symbolic inscription, unaccompanied by a proper settling of accounts. Hamlet’s father returns as a ghost to demand vengeance from his son, precisely because his sudden, violent death did not allow him to confess his sins and take stock of his life before his creator. Thus a conclusion that entails a proper settling of accounts, a symbolic closure to his life, can be achieved only if his murder is avenged, and Claudius in his turn dies before he has an opportunity to settle his affairs. Until that point, Hamlet’s father, caught between ‘two deaths’, is condemned to the fate of the revenant.

Elevated to the site of Das Ding in the psychic economy, the ‘living dead’ materialize the void, the traumatic abyss at the very heart of the symbolic order. By definition, they are excluded from ordinary, empirical reality, yet they are no arbitrary phantasms. The ‘gaze’ of any work of art that conjures them into a virtual existence encapsulates a truth that goes to the heart of the non-symmetrical relation between the real and symbolic in which every subject is caught up. The ‘undead’, in literature and film, represent the hard, traumatic kernel at the center of socio-symbolic reality which is, paradoxically, identical with the innermost truth of human subjectivity. Their position is not, as Zizek points out, that of some kind of intermediate state between the living and the dead. Rather, precisely as dead, ‘they are more vigorously alive than ordinary mortals subject to symbolic castration’. [7] Their tremendous psychological impact results from their imagined access to a traumatic life force prior to symbolic mortification. Since they only materialize the void at the heart of every subject and every culture, the ‘angle’ of the subjective gaze we cast at them determines their status as idealized or abject figures.

Peter Weir’s classic Australian horror movie Picnic At Hanging Rock (1975) perfectly exemplifies the living death in its guise as a sublime, beautiful object. On Valentine Day 1900, a class of adolescent school girls from an oppressive boarding school in late Victorian Australia embark on a picnic trip to the Hanging Rock, an ancient volcanic crag that appears to embody an alternative, mystical realm. The picnic is held on the grounds at the bottom of the rock, but events take their fateful turn when an elite group of girls asks permission to ascend to the hilltop. All but one of them mysteriously disappear without a trace. Following a string of unsuccessful searches, they are eventually declared dead, and a church service is held. The assumption of their death in the absence of physical evidence, as well as the mysterious circumstances of the disappearance, provoke a sense of the uncanny. The girls, and in particular Miranda, appear as ‘revenants’ in frequent flashbacks subsequent to their disappearance. These flashbacks, rendered in an intense, dream-like quality evocative of French symbolist painting, however, do not merely function as nostalgic, woeful evocations of the past, but clearly manifest the girls ‘presence’ in another, transcendental realm, a site ‘between two deaths’. In these emotive flashbacks, Miranda appears as an ethereal, angelic figure who is sometimes symbolized by a swan. Indeed. the young French teacher who accompanied them on the trip, refers to Miranda, only half in jest, as a ‘Botticelli angel’. Is Miranda on par with Antigone and her ethically radical stance? There is sufficient evidence to suggest that Miranda’s powerful radiance is beyond the merely physical, that her transcendentally sublime beauty is a reflection of an ‘ethical maturity’. A philosophical wisdom beyond her adolescent age is revealed at the very beginning of the film, when Miranda, haunted by vague premonitions of her fate, appears to accept it serenely, even welcome it as a liberation from the narrow confines of the Victorian universe. The strange attitude she exhibits here cannot fail to appear uncanny, even inhuman, prompting an uncomprehending Che vuoi? on part of the viewer. Thus, her ethical maturity and the luminosity of her capture between symbolic and real death are ultimately identical, so that her beauty must be considered ‘traumatic’, it functions not only as the anti-thesis of the claustrophobic world of Victorian propriety, but of cultural moderation in general.

The sublime beauty of Miranda (Anne Lambert, Picnic at Hanging Rock)

Furthermore, there can be no doubt that Miranda’s sublimity and the mystical beauty of the Hanging Rock supplement each other. Critics of a Freudian orientation have always remarked upon the ‘phallic’ protuberances and the ‘vaginal’ caves that riddle the rock representing the girls’ awakening sexuality. From a Lacanian perspective, the Hanging Rock itself constitutes a ‘phallic’ protuberance, a massive, powerful object exerting a mesmerizing force, representing a petrified fragment of the frozen substance of jouissance. According to Lacan, the object elevated to the site of Das Ding can be made visible through an anamorphic distortion of a part of reality. His favorite example are the distorted skull in Holbein’s The Ambassdors and Dali’s soft watches. The Hanging Rock, a dense bulk sticking out from the surrounding countryside, appears to project a mysterious gravitational force. A ‘grimace of the real’ inscribed into symbolic reality, it designates a forbidden, sacred zone reminiscent of the holy places of the Australian aborigines. The effect of the rock as a ‘spatial distortion’ is supplemented with a distortion in time as the girls ascend to the hilltop. This crucial scene, which is bathed in intense sunlight enhancing the ethereal effect, is rendered for the most part in slow motion. As the object elevated to the site of Das Ding does not exist ‘in its own time’, but only materializes a void of non-meaning, an approach to this object in a realistic time frame would ultimately reveal its nothingness. A very slow or precipitous approach, however, facilitates the perception that the object has been missed, and therefore possesses an objective, empirical existence. To further reinforce that deception, the watches of the picnic goers mysteriously stop just as the tragic events begin to unfold suggesting the intervention of a transcendental realm outside time. En route to the Hanging Rock, one of the teachers reacts to the coach driver’s naive reflections on the age of the rock with a meditation on the geological context of the Hanging Rock’s prehistoric formation, its volcanic origin millions of years ago. The reference to this enormous time scale and to the violence of the rock’s creation is evocative of the powerful forces underlying natural evolution. One is reminded of Schopenhauer’s will beyond the illusory veil of phenomena in time and space, or Kantian notions of the sublime in nature. This quality is heightened by the soundtrack of the film, which perfectly coordinates Zamfir’s haunting pan flute music with magnified natural sounds from the rock creating the impression of a strange sound that appears to emanate directly from an archaic, organic universe prior to the emergence of civilization.

The original film version of Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray (Albert Lewin, 1945) likewise evoking the Victorian era perfectly signifies the inherent instability of the uncanny interstices ‘between two deaths’, the perception of which may easily shift from sublime beauty to terrifying monstrosity. While Dorian is embalmed in the ‘beauty’ of his eternal youth, his portrait not only ages but also assumes a diseased, repulsive ugliness which materializes his mortal sins. In the final stages, Dorian’s face in the portrait is overgrown with disgusting boils like a cancerous protuberance, suggestive of jouissance as the pre-ontological, pre-symbolic horror of the substance of enjoyment, which is at the same time forbidden and impossible. This disgusting, ‘material’ protuberance cannot be reduced to the status of metaphor but rather functions as the physical objectification of Dorian’s moral decay. His coldness and cruelty, the hubris inherent in his cult of beauty and youth, his reckless transgressions, and his eventual murder of Basil, signify a ‘symbolic death’ that places him outside contemporary society while at the same time he continues to persist as a physical being. In the same manner in which Miranda’s sublime beauty between two deaths derives from her ethical virtue, Dorian’s living death is, despite his beauty, unbearably repulsive, because it embodies his tragic failure as an ethical being. It would be wrong to view Dorian’s beauty as a mask, a deceptive surface concealing a sinister, underlying truth. Rather, a repulsive ugliness is already inscribed in that unnatural beauty. The genius of Wilde consists in evoking the living death of Dorian’s eternal youth as a ‘negative sublime’ which is encapsulated in the portrait, the alterations of which chronicle Dorian’s decline from subjectivity to the traumatic objectivity of Das Ding. The room in which the portrait is held is perceived as an uncanny, ‘forbidden’ zone set apart from ordinary reality and thus designates the fantasy space covering up the hole at the heart of the symbolic order, much like the forbidden chamber in the Bluebeard (1944, Edgar G. Ulmer). Dorian is finally redeemed by the ethical act of his suicide as he slashes the portrait with a knife. This concludes the film and reinstates the portrait to its original form while transferring its repugnant characteristics to Dorian himself. The moment he dies, he is ‘released’, for his symbolic death is simultaneously supplemented with his real death and purged of connotations of the ‘immoral’. Dorian’s ‘sinful’ nature that deprives him of his soul may be seen in the context of Wilde’s own qualms about his homosexuality that placed him beyond the pale in the perspective of an oppressive Victorian society, indicating that the task the critic has to accomplish lies in pinpointing the relativity of the protagonist’s ‘guilt’ that excludes him from the symbolic order and focusing on the arbitrary, cruel violence inherent in the subjection to the signifier.

John Carpenter’s successful horror thriller The Fog (1980) betrays a structural resemblance to The Picture of Dorian Gray. Antonio Bay, a picturesque coastal town, is haunted by strangely luminous fog banks wafting in from the sea and carrying in their wake a carpet of death and destruction. The murders are perpetrated by a motley crew of the living dead enveloped by the fog. This luminous, amorphous mist can be identified as the materialized substance of excess enjoyment overflowing the ordered world of phenomenal reality. As we learn in the course of the film, Antonio Bay, which is preparing for the 100th anniversary of its foundation, has a sinister past. A colony of leprosy victims that was to be established at the perimeter of the town provoked hostility and fear on part of the residents, as well as a fiendish scheme to lure the ship of outcasts bound for Antonio Bay to its doom. The unacknowledged moral debt from the town’s history infects the current inhabitants whose merry preparations for their anniversary celebrations stand in sharp contrast to this reality indicating a stance of ‘denial’. The ‘fog’ confronts us once more with the concept of a death without a proper settling of accounts and the consequent return of the repressed past in the form of a ‘living death’ imposed by a relentless superego agency (a similar plot and setting informs Mario Bava’s Kill, Baby Kill, 1966). The revenants within the fog represent this traumatic enjoyment, making aggressive incursions into the symbolic universe with a persistence characteristic of the ‘death drive’. The point in the movie when the connection between the return of the dead and the historic guilt is first made explicit is revealing. Impressive scenes of the grim revenants on their mission of revenge are interspersed with scenes of the local priest discovering ancient documents that serve as irrefutable evidence of the dark stain on Antonio Bay’s history. The initially traumatic, ‘meaningless’ attacks are thus provided with a metaphoric surplus determination as a first step to a symbolic re-connection. It is quite evident that the priest performs a role equivalent to the task of the psychoanalyst probing a patient’s unconscious and initiating a healing process by elevating a repressed trauma to consciousness. It is, in the final analysis, his sacrificial assumption of the guilt originally clinging to his grandfather, a figure participating in the abominable conspiracy, which facilitates a process leading to the eventual ‘emancipation’ from the fog. This detective work aimed at signifying and containing the initially incomprehensible, traumatic mass of fog is experienced as pleasurable by the viewer. Given its historic context, the movie should probably also be seen as an oblique reference to the American trauma of the Vietnam war. The construction of a narrative, designed to confront a traumatic past while at the same time trying to keep it at bay, lies of course, at the heart of culture and artistic creativity.

The Fog

Thus, while the pleasure and attraction of horror movies may often be rooted in their emulation of the process of psychoanalysis, this is not always the case. Psychoanalysis only functions when it is faced with a neurosis (hysteria, obsession, etc.) but psychosis is ultimately beyond its therapeutic reach. Clive Barker’s accomplished master piece Hellraiser takes us to the heart of an irredeemably psychotic universe from which there appears to be no escape at all. According to Lacan, psychosis is defined by the dissolution of symbolic reality in the psychic economy, i.e. by a disavowal of the phallic master signifier which integrates the linguistic and cultural universe into a stable and coherent entity, creating the ordinary, rational world of our daily experience. As we pointed out above, the emergence of the symbolic universe as a complex, differentiated realm in which meaning derives from a system of structural differences depends on the repression of jouissance as the substance of enjoyment. While in a non-pathological universe, all objects have a different signification that set them apart from all other objects, the paranoid, deluded subject deprived of a master signifier detects the same meaning behind everything and associates that meaning with jouissance. Thus, perfectly ordinary details of our everyday world are taken as evidence for his conspiracy theories by the paranoid subject, so that fragments from arbitrary radio or television broadcasts, for instance, are taken as signs that society is ruled by evil aliens.

The plot of Hellraiser is set in motion by an escape from hell, in this movie represented by the terrifying surrealistic realm of the Cenobites, unspeakably gruesome figures excelling in the dark arts of cruelty and torture. The escapee manages to re-emerge within the framework of ordinary reality as his body is gradually re-constructed from an ‘animated’ drop of blood, a ‘fragment of the real’ which continues to somehow cling to this figure even after the process is complete making him appear dangerous and uncanny. He has apparently been ‘demonized’ by his stay in hell and thus persists in an uncanny state ‘between-two-deaths’. The Cenobites, intent on recapture, invade ordinary reality so that the boundaries between the two realms become blurred. While the appearance of the Cenobites is in itself horrifying, the crucial point is the unbearable uncertainty on part of the viewer as to the ‘location’ of the action. The fluid and unpredictable movement between dimensions clearly underlies the extraordinary power and dramatic tension of the film. Towards the end, it appears as if the realm of the Cenobites is all-pervasive, that ordinary reality has been ‘swallowed up’ by them. Barker’s ingenious choreography of the film action fosters the paranoid perception that the external appearance of ordinariness is deceptive. This breakdown of boundaries and dissolution of the frame of reality is responsible for the movie’s ‘psychotic effect’. The disintegration is perhaps best captured in the final scene, as we notice that the cosmos in which the action took place is actually only a microcosm held within the ‘Chinese puzzle’. The dark, sinister universe of Hellraiser is thus encapsulated, metaphorically speaking, within the enclosed void we identified at the center of the Event Horizon, provoking a claustrophobic sense of an irreversible confinement, the perception of a catastrophic, final cut-off from the safe universe of the symbolic. In other words, Hellraiser presents us with the frightening scenario of a psychotic break-down of the world, a death of the universe that follows in the wake of the ‘second death’ of the symbolic universe.

The cliche of the ‘safe distance’ which ensures the enjoyment of horror films may be somewhat misplaced here, as the potential psychological impact is too profound. While movies like Hellraiser may be conventionally enjoyable on an artistic or aesthetic level, they are nonetheless subversive, breaking with the common economy of pleasure characterizing those films that are geared towards a final re-establishment of equilibrium. The ‘enjoyment’ at stake here appears to be the horrific, excess enjoyment of a desire that has come too close to its object. The fact that such films, despite their traumatic impact, may nonetheless be mesmerizing may be in part linked to their existential dimension, their ‘revelation’ of the real of our desire underlying the fiction of symbolic reality. One is reminded of the unbearable but nonetheless revelatory encounter with the real at the ‘navel’ of a dream or nightmare, which causes the subject to wake up in order to enable him to ‘continue dreaming’, i.e. to preserve the comforting illusion of a stable social self. Such films can therefore only enjoyed retroactively, from the perspective of a more distanced reflection that facilitates a symbolic re-inscription of the traumatic experience.

The Uncanny and the ‘Fatal Signifier’

As the preceding examples indicate, the effect generated by supernatural horror depends to a large extent on a sensation of the ‘uncanny’. In one of his seminal papers, Freud defined the uncanny as something familiar in the subject’s history that has, however, been de-familiarized by repression so that the encounter with the uncanny object appears to strike a chord in the subject’s unconscious while conscious perception somehow remains uncomprehending, ‘lags behind’. [8] Only the cultural, divided subject is therefore capable of uncanny experience. According to Freud, the fear that is induced by the uncanny object is thus always a fear of castration, the agent of the original repression. Thus, the uncanny ‘sandman’ in E.T.A. Hoffman’s fairy tale, who induces the irrational fear of having one’s eyes gouged is seen to connote an underlying castration anxiety. However, in analyzing the uncanny in horror movies, we shall adopt the Lacanian perspective of symbolic castration as the intervention of the paternal metaphor of the name-of-the-father which subjects the pre-existing orders of the real and the imaginary to a radical revision, instead of Freud’s more literal conception. In this light, the uncanny effect characterizing many horror films may well rest on a retroactive signification of the ‘phenomenal surface’ delineated in a movie. The attention of the viewer is thus captured by some ‘phallic’ detail sticking out that casts a different light on the passage of events up to that point, introducing abyssal double meanings, creating a new meaning which has never been made explicit but depends on repressed desire. The uncanny moment in a horror movie is thus the point at which the ‘naive’ perception of the phenomenal surface is supplemented with desire.

Claude Chabrol’s Alice provides a sublime example of the condensation of an uncanny experience in the final scene of a movie, the signification of which all of a sudden subjects the previous content to a radical revision. The film begins with Alice’s entrance into the secluded space of a luxurious mansion in the countryside surrounded by high walls. The first impression is of an ordinary aristocratic residence but a closer look soon reveals that inexplicably strange characters and events abound in Chabrol’s own version of ‘wonderland’. The surreal imagery is thought-provoking and seems to be indebted to the films of Bunuel as well as surrealistic painting. Significantly, Alice’s repeated attempts at escape all come across a mysterious barrier, for whenever she appears to be close to re-gaining her freedom, she suffers a brief black-out and is soon back within the secluded realm. There is an unexpected turn of events when the concluding shot depicts a wrecked car, a fatally wounded Alice at the wheel, close to the residence in which all of the adventures had been taking place. The previous events thus take on an extremely uncanny, new meaning. They suddenly assume the character of the ‘transcendental’ realm between two deaths in which Alice appears to have been caught up all along. The sight of Alice’s dead body functions as the phallic detail which sticks out and transforms the previously naive, phenomenal perception by supplementing it with a desire which sets the interpretative train in motion: i.e. does the mansion represent hell or is it perhaps a figment of Alice’s comatose delusion? Symbolic castration, in the first instance, implies the assumption of a social, cultural identity and separation from the blissful union with the mother. But it has been frequently interpreted, including by Freud himself, in terms of a progression to an acknowledgement of one’s mortality and finitude substituting for the original polymorphous, perverse stage which is open in all directions. We experience the final scene as so uncanny, precisely because it confronts us with that particular aspect of symbolic castration, sometimes cast as the identification with the ‘fatal signifier’ by Lacan. [9] The knowledge of that ‘fatal signifier’ is preserved in our unconscious, and can be ‘activated’ in the encounter with uncanny, supernatural horror.

Frequently, an object in a horror movie is perceived as uncanny when there is a sense that there is something ‘in the object more than the object itself’. This can be illustrated in terms of a device which is common in Gothic horror movies such as the Hammer films: A old portrait in an historic mansion bears an uncanny resemblance to one of the current inhabitants. This ‘phallic detail’, holding the key to an unexplained mystery, facilitates an interpretation of present events and charges that process of interpretation on part of the viewer with desire. Or consider Richard Stanley’s Dust Devil (1992). The demon in that movie appears to have been vanquished at the end of the film as the heroine walks serenely into the sunset. However, an uncanny detail, the way in which the heroine bends down to place her ear on the asphalt of the road she is walking, evokes the well-known behavioral pattern of the ‘dust devil’, suggesting that he may have possessed her body. The conclusion we may draw here is that a sense of the uncanny in supernatural horror is always associated with some form of dislocation, either in terms of a historic or a spatial dimension that is focalized in a single object, thereby reflecting the dislocation introduced into the subject by the phallic signifier.

Chabrol’s Alice reveals that the uncanny is, in a certain way, associated with the consummation of the symbolic fate of a subject, identified with a ‘fatal signifier’. This aspect is evident as well in the Australian film Harlequin (Simon Wincer, 1980), in which the title hero meets his death in a peculiar way. He is murdered in a kitchen and as he lies dead on the ground bleeding from his stab wounds, it becomes evident that his head occupies the site of his own portrait on the floor, thereby evoking the sublime-uncanny sense that his death at a particular time and place had been fated all along, and that his symbolic destiny is consummated at this point. According to Lacan, “It is a truth of experience for analysis that the subject is presented with the question of existence, not in terms of anxiety that it arouses on the level of the ego, but as an articulated question: ‘What am I there?’” [10]. The key to the uncanny effect in Harlequin lies in the perception that an answer has actually been returned to the subject’s existential question to the big Other.

In summary, we may conclude that the reason for the paradoxical enjoyment of horror movies is complex and cannot be unambiguously determined. The quote from Richard Stanley at the beginning of this paper suggests that horror movies as a ‘debased genre’ may also concern the return of a repressed religious or mystical tradition which has become an ‘illegitimate’ subject in other art forms. From that perspective, the pleasure of viewing horror movies results from their connection to a mystical or occult tradition that has become taboo elsewhere. Moreover, in our relation to horror movies there appears to be a strange tension between an unbearable, traumatic enjoyment on the one hand, and the pleasure of interpretation and signification as the modus operandi of the cultural subject on the other. When no equilibrium is restored at the end and the enjoyment appears predominantly traumatic, pleasure may be generated retroactively as existential insight and aesthetic appeal are factored into account.

The Dust Devil


1. Donato Totaro, “Richard Stanley Interview” http://www.horschamp.qc.ca/9708/offscreen_essays/Stanley.html

2. Sigmund Freud, Collected Works, Vol. XIII, Jenseits des Lustprinzips, Verlag S. Fischer

3. see Slavoj Zizek, Enjoy your Symptom, Ch.2, Routledge 1993

4. Slavoj Zizek, The Sublime Object of Ideology, Verso 1989

5. Lupton/Reinhard, After Oedipus: Shakespeare in Psychoanalysis, Cornell University Press, 1993, p.134

6. Jacques Lacan, Seminar VII

7. see Zizek, op.cit.

8. see Freud, Collected Works, Vol. XII, Das Unheimlich

9 Jacques Lacan, Desire and the Interpretation of Desire in Hamlet

10. Jacques Lacan, Écrits, p. 194

Stefan Gullatz received his PhD from the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, for a thesis entitled A Lacanian Analysis of Selected Novels by Hermann Hesse. He has since published extensively in the area of Lacan oriented film and cultural studies. Gullatz is an External Research Fellow at the Centre for Ideology Critique and Zizek Studies at Cardiff University and teaches Latin at secondary and tertiary level at a number of language schools in Heidelberg, Southern Germany.

Volume 5, Issue 2 / March 2001 Essays   film theory   horror   jacques lacan   people_deleuze   psychoanalysis