Deep Red (Dario Argento, 1976)

This is an excerpt from the Introduction to Freud’s Worst Nightmares, expected to be published by Cambridge University Press as part of their “Studies in Film” Series. For more information, contact William Rothman or Steven Jay Schneider.

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The Myth of Meta-Theory

Over the past thirty years, a plethora of publications have argued in favor of a specific psychoanalytic approach to some dimension or convention of cinematic horror. Included among these are articles and books by such influential scholars as Robin Wood, Carol Clover, Stephen Neale, Linda Williams, Barbara Creed, even Noël Carroll in an earlier incarnation. These efforts have typically taken the form of either interpretive analysis (of a particular film, subgenre, or the genre as a whole) or depth-psychological explanation (of the symbolic/mythic import of horror film monsters; of the horror affect and how it is generated; of the possibly perverse pleasures viewers obtain from being frightened by visible fictions). And despite the often vitriolic criticisms of psychoanalysis coming from both inside and outside the all-too-thin walls of academic film studies, the horror genre has continued to see a steady stream of new psychoanalytic approaches, as well as new variations on existing ones. Thus, locating quality scholars ready and willing to contribute to a collection of essays all of which would apply psychoanalysis (of whatever species) to the horror film didn’t seem like it would pose too difficult an editorial task. But neither did it seem too exciting an idea. More like preaching to the converted.

As originally conceived, Freud’s Worst Nightmares was to be a collection of “meta-theoretical” essays on psychoanalysis and the horror film. Not essays which simply (or not so simply, as the case may be) make creative use of one or more Freudian, Rankian, Jungian, Kleinian, Jonesian, or Lacanian principles in an effort to shed light on an aspect of the horror film. Instead, it was envisaged that contributors to this book would take a step back to discuss-in some cases, to debate-the relative strengths and weaknesses of such psychoanalytic approaches. This was to be a book about psychoanalytic theories of the horror film, rather than a book which merely offered still more new and/or improved (or not) psychoanalytic theories of the horror film.

But of course there is no such neutral space outside, much less “above,” the fray from which to conduct an investigation of this sort. Those who seek, or else just care enough, to defend a psychoanalytic approach to horror cinema inevitably have a pre-existing investment in applied psychoanalysis. After all, how many scholars would actually be willing to expend the time and energy needed to defend psychoanalytic theory as applied to the horror film without having a pet application of their own that they believe is well worth defending? And really, why should they? Similarly, those who see fit to critique psychoanalytic theories of the horror film almost always have an alternative, incompatible (or so it may seem) paradigm in hand, or at least in mind. (1)

Especially since the late 1970s, there has been a tremendous diversity of psychoanalytic approaches to the horror film, as well as substantive disagreements between the advocates of these varying approaches. But the truth remains that a number of objections levied in recent years by critics positioning themselves well outside the circle of Freud and his followers constitute a far more serious threat to the psychoanalytically-inclined horror film theorist than any and all such internal variety and difference. This is because, in general, such objections would be fatal to psychoanalysis if proven correct. Included among these critics are analytic philosophers, film aestheticians, sociologists and cultural theorists, cognitive and feminist film theorists, and empirical psychologists.

Such a heterogeneity of conceptual and methodological backgrounds strongly suggests that what we have here is more than just a genre-specific case of cognitivist/historicist “Post-Theory” doing its thing. Namely, attacking what its advocates hold to be the “ethereal speculations” of a “Grand” psychoanalytic film theory which supposedly sees itself as “an indispensible frame of reference for understanding all filmic phenomena” (Bordwell and Carroll 1996: xiii). Despite the negative claim by its leading practitioners that what unites Post-Theoretical scholarship is simply a lack of reliance “upon the psychoanalytic framework that dominates film academia” (Bordwell and Carroll 1996: xvi), critics of psychoanalysis as applied to the horror genre may well diverge when it comes to questions concerning the in/dispensability of psychoanalytic film theory per se.

To refuse to hear such critics out, to not treat their more powerful objections with all-due seriousness, and to eschew making any effort at responding in turn is more than just irresponsible scholarship. It adds strength to the already potent criticisms that psychoanalytic thought is hermetic and self-confirming, that its film theoretical applications produce “closed, self-justifying systems” (Jancovich 1995: 147). And it effectively undermines the power of those prima facie affinities holding between psychoanalytic concepts and explanations on the one hand, and the manifest content of much horror cinema on the other. After all, it is just those affinities which could presumably be cited as evidence in defense of whichever psychoanalytic theory of the horror film brings them to bear in the first place.

Most psychoanalytic horror film theorists to date have not proven very open to revising their particular accounts as a result of critical engagement with the work of others operating even from within the psychoanalytic paradigm. As Malcolm Turvey details in his contribution to this volume, for instance, a survey of the various explanations offered up by psychoanalytic film theorists concerning the puzzling pleasures of horror film viewing reveals a host of structurally similar but still more or less conflicting positions. While such diversity might be held up as indicative of the fertility of psychoanalysis in this area, “from the point of view of critics of psychoanalytical film theory, there is no genuine disagreement among psychoanalytical theorists of the horror film- simply pluralism.” This is because such theorists typically “do not dialectically engage with each others’ theories by (a) showing why candidates for repressed mental content proposed by other theorists cannot explain the phenomenon they want to explain; or (b) showing why their candidate does explain the phenomenon better than others” (n. 9).

Clearly, the pluralism Turvey has in mind here is not of the productive or “methodologically robust” type advocated by Noël Carroll. According to Carroll, methodologically robust pluralism only occurs when competing theories are held up against one another for the purpose of weeding out the weak ones. Rather, Turvey seems to be thinking of “a situation in which everyone just rattles around in their own paradigm” (Carroll 1992/1996a: 334); only here, the theorists in question are held to be “just rattling around” in the same paradigm, broadly construed as psychoanalysis. (2)

Arguably, one example of this sort of unproductive pluralism centers on the post-structural psychoanalytic claim that at the heart of cinematic horror lies a patriarchal fear of female sexuality. In accordance with this fear, it is held that the genre defines female sexuality “as monstrous, disturbing, and in need of repression” (Jancovich 1992: 10). Such a claim can be considered “post-structural” in that it ultimately locates meaning not within individual films or the work of particular writers or directors, but in the signifying codes of horror cinema itself. Also because it casts itself in political terms, purporting to identify and analyze the ideological effects of a specific visual-narrative structure. (3)

A number of post-structural psychoanalytic horror film theorists, including Barbara Creed and Xavier Mendik (1998), employ Julia Kristeva’s (1982) notion of abjection to argue that women in the genre-mothers especially-are frequently presented as monstrous beings who pose a fatal threat to men. According to Creed,

the horror film attempts to bring about a confrontation with the abject (the corpse, bodily wastes, the monstrous-feminine) in order finally to eject the abject and redraw the boundaries between the human and the non-human. As a form of modern defilement rite, the horror film attempts to separate out the symbolic order from all that threatens its stability, particularly the mother and all that her universe signifies. (1993: 14)

Meanwhile, Stephen Neale and others argue that horror film monsters are predominantly defined as male, with women as their primary victims: “In this respect, it could well be maintained that it is women’s sexuality, that which renders them desirable-but also threatening-to men, which constitutes the real problem that the [sic] horror cinema exists to explore” (1980: 61). If these intuitions were applied to different films within the genre, they would be quite compatible. But unless and until the necessary qualifications are proffered, they stand in evident conflict.

Unfortunately, the trend has been for psychoanalytic horror film theorists to downplay the tensions between their respective positions rather than attempt to resolve or revise them. This has meant that those externally-motivated criticisms which cut across various psychoanalytic theories of the horror film-as many, if not most of them are wont to do-are typically ignored, their implications unacknowledged, precisely because their very scope encourages a passing of the dialectical buck. (4)

The same cannot be said of psychoanalytic film theory in general, which has certainly seen its fair share of internal controversy. One need only consider the objections of neo-Lacanians such as Joan Copjec (1995) and Slavoj Zizek (2001) to earlier claims concerning apparatus theory and the suture effect; Constance Penley’s (1989) critique of screen theory (5); Linda Williams on the problematic (because ambiguous) “terms of perversion used to describe the normal pleasures of film viewing” (1984/1999: 706); and the heated mid-’80s debate in Cinema Journal concerning Stella Dallas and the Mulvey-Metz model of female spectatorship. In fact, the feminist-inflected psychoanalytic theories of horror proposed by Williams (1983/1996), Clover (1987; 1992), and Creed (1986; 1993) can all be understood as revisions, rather than outright rejections, of the original Mulveyan paradigm. According to this paradigm, the threat of castration (absence and lack) posed by images of the female form in Hollywood cinema is contained through a sexualized objectification of that form, whether fetishistic-scopophilic (woman displayed as erotic spectacle, rendered unthreatening by the controlling male look) or sadistic-voyeuristic (woman investigated, demystified, and eventually controlled through punishment) in nature.

As Richard Allen has observed, both Williams and Creed contest aspects of Mulvey’s position by identifying “scenarios of female empowerment in the horror film in which the threat of castration [i]s not contained, but acted out in the narrative” (1999: 140). This acting out takes place either through the figure of the “monstrous-feminine” (Creed), or else through the female character’s sympathetic “look” at the monster- “a potentially subversive recognition of the power and potency of a nonphallic sexuality” (Williams 1983/1996: 24). Clover, meanwhile, argues for a primarily masochistic and empathetic, rather than sadistic-voyeuristic, identification on the part of both male and female spectators with the originally suffering but ultimately empowered “Final Girl” of the slasher movie. But due to the fact that each of these accounts constitutes a revision/refinement of a highly politicized and psychoanalytically-motivated feminist film theory whose implications extend far beyond the boundaries of the horror genre-just recall Mulvey’s sweeping claims, e.g., that “unchallenged, mainstream film code[s] the erotic into the language of the dominant patriarchal order” (1975/1999: 835)-they do not really qualify as debates taking place within the domain of psychoanalytic horror film theorizing. Rather, they are debates taking place within psychoanalytic film theory in general.

Eschewing the bogus idea of “pure” meta-theoretical inquiry conducted by people with no first-order attachment to their arguments and conclusions, Freud’s Worst Nightmares responds to the need for critical dialogue amongst psychoanalytic horror film scholars and those of other theoretical and disciplinary stripes. It also responds to the need for internal debate amongst otherwise (at least potentially) sympathetic psychoanalytic theorists of the horror genre. What all of the essays exhibit is something a great deal more practical than meta-theorization, also a great deal more valuable; namely, self-conscious theorizing. It is hoped that the concerted efforts made by each of the contributors to question their methods and motives (past and present), anticipate and respond to objections (actual and possible), and situate their work (historically and across disciplinary lines) will help pave the way for future scholarship on the horror film-of whatever theoretical persuasion-which expresses a commitment to the notions of dialogue, progress, and conceptual openness.

As employed in the present context, however, these notions should not be taken as indicative of a bias towards positivist or quasi-scientific horror film theorization; for there is certainly room to argue, as Michael Levine does in this volume, that psychoanalytic theories of cinematic horror, or of anything else for that matter, may be true even if unscientific according to a standard of falsifiability modeled on those of the empirical sciences. (6) Rather, the notions in question should here be understood in heuristic terms, as a set of aims shared by the individual essays regardless of their primary discursive/rhetorical mode, whether this mode is historical, analytic, textual, empirical, or (what is most often the case) some combination thereof. (7)

Works Cited

Allen, R. (1999). “Psychoanalytic Film Theory.” A Companion to Film Theory. Miller, T. and R. Stam (eds.). Oxford, Blackwell: 123-45.

Bordwell, D. and N. Carroll (1996). “Introduction.” Post-Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies. Bordwell, D. and N. Carroll (eds.). Madison, University of Wisconsin Press: xiii-xvii.

Carroll, N. (1996a). “Cognitivism, Contemporary Film Theory and Method: A Response to Warren Buckland” (1992). Theorizing the Moving Image. New York, Cambridge University Press: 321-35.

Carroll, N. (1996b). “Prospects for Film Theory: A Personal Assessment.” Post-Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies. Bordwell, D. and N. Carroll (eds.). Madison, University of Wisconsin Press: 37-70.

Clover, C. (1987). “Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film.” Representations 20: 187-228.

Clover, C. (1992). Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. Princeton, Princeton University Press.

Copjec, J. (1995). Read My Desire: Lacan Against the Historicists. Cambridge, MA, MIT Press.

Creed, B. (1986). “Horror and the Monstrous-Feminine: an Imaginary Abjection.” Screen 27.1: 44-70.

Creed, B. (1993). The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis. New York, Routledge.

Creed, B. (1990). “Review Article: Andrew Tudor, Monsters and Mad Scientists: A Cultural History of the Horror Movie.” Screen 31.2: 236-42.

Hills, M. (forthcoming). “Doing Things with Theory: From Freud’s Worst Nightmare to (Disciplinary) Dreams of Horror’s Cultural Value.” Freud’s Worst Nightmares: Psychoanalysis and the Horror Film. Schneider, S. (ed.).

Jancovich, M. (1992). Horror. London, B.T. Batsford, Ltd.

Jancovich, M. (1995). “Screen Theory.” Approaches to popular film. Hollows, J. and M. Jancovich (eds.). Manchester, Manchester University Press: 124-50.

Levine, M. (forthcoming). “A Fun Night Out: Horror and Other Pleasures of the Cinema.” Freud’s Worst Nightmares: Psychoanalysis and the Horror Film. Schneider, S. (ed.).

Mendik, X. (1998). “From the Monstrous Mother to the ‘Third Sex’: Female Abjection in the Films of Dario Argento.” Necronomicon: The Journal of Horror and Erotic Cinema, Book Two. Black, A. (ed.). London, Creation Books: 110-133.

Mulvey, L. (1999). “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (1974). Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings (Fifth Edition). Braudy, L. and M. Cohen (eds.). Oxford, Oxford University Press: 833-44.

Neale, S. (1980). Genre. London, BFI.

Penley, C. (1989). “Feminism, Film Theory, and the Bachelor Machines.” The Future of An Illusion: Film, Feminism, and Psychoanalysis. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press.

Tudor, A. (1997). “Why Horror? The Peculiar Pleasures of a Popular Genre.” Cultural Studies 11.3: 443-63.

Turvey, M. (forthcoming). “Philosophical Problems Concerning the Concept of Pleasure in Psychoanalytic Theories of (the Horror) Film.” Freud’s Worst Nightmares: Psychoanalysis and the Horror Film. Schneider, S. (ed.).

Williams, L. (1999). “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess” (1984). Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings (Fifth Edition). Braudy, L. and M. Cohen (eds.). Oxford, Oxford University Press: 701-715,

Williams, L. (1996). “When the Woman Looks” (1983). The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film. Grant, B.K. (ed.). Austin, University of Texas Press: 15-34.

Zizek, S. (2001). The Fright of Real Tears: Krzysztof Kieslowski Between Theory and Post-Theory. London, BFI.


  1. In the case of the critic, the presence of an alternative theory need not be readily apparent, and finding fault with a particular take on the horror film (psychoanalytic or otherwise) does not require having a substitute ready at hand. In fact, however, close attention to a critic’s own methodological commitments, invocation of authorities, and what Matt Hills in his contribution to this volume identifies as performative theorization-”the cultural work that theory performs as a persuasive, legitimating, affective, and valorizing form”-typically indicates the presence, however emergent, of a possible replacement for the psychoanalytic theory of horror being attacked.
  2. Elsewhere, Carroll labels this “peaceful coexistence pluralism,” which he characterizes/caricatures as follows: “Everyone has his own theory; if you want to conjoin theories, well, that’s a matter of personal taste. You can accept some cognitivist hypotheses, but if you also like some aspects of psychoanalysis (at this point, it is usually said, ‘I find it useful’), you can have that too” (1996: 63). For critical discussion of Carroll’s methodological imperatives, see Zizek 2001: 14-17.
  3. See Jancovich 1992: 9
  4. For an exception to this claim, see the useful exchange between Creed (1990: 242) and Tudor (1997: 449).
  5. “Screen theory” refers to the loose collection of articles published in the British film journal Screen in the 1970s, all of which advocated (in various ways, and to various degrees) a blend of Althusserian Marxism and Lacanian psychoanalysis. For an introduction and critical discussion, see Jancovich 1995.
  6. What implications this has for Hills’s admittedly non-categorical distinction between performative and “constative” (i.e., referential, falsifiable) theories of the horror film is an interesting and open question.
  7. My sincerest thanks to Matt Hills, William Rothman, and Fiona Villella for their constructive comments on earlier versions of this piece.