Classically Inclined

May 3, 2013

Freud, the uncanny and monsters

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 10:34 am
Tags: , ,

I have finally got around to reading Freud’s essay on the uncanny [link to PDF]. I first decided I wanted to read it when I was thinking about monsters for the Harryhausen paper. My thought process then was concerned with trying to work out what anxieties the Clash of the Titans monsters were expressing, particularly those from the 1981 film which seemed to miss the usual flashpoints of the Cold War or Nuclear Winter. I’ve been dwelling on this, because there’s another way of reading monsters, which is as a way of symbolising psychological fears. For instance, every alien film can be seen as expressing fear of the unknown, either in terms of what might come at us from it or what happens if we start exploring it and venturing beyond our natural limits. Slasher films and horror films in general also work well with this sort of model, particularly those which have monstrous female protagonists like Carrie, The Exorcist or The Hunger.

My observations about reading monsters psychologically were formed mainly by Barbara Creed’s excellent book The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis, which identifies seven archetypes of the monstrous feminine found in film: archaic mother, monstrous womb, vampire, witch, possessed body, monstrous mother and castrator. These ideas primarily focus on horror films and their kin, so despite a reference to Medusa symbolising the vagina dentata, there wasn’t much to play with on the Harryhausen front. (I also found the analysis of the films lacked any consideration of the effect of these monsters on the female spectator, but that’s a bugbear I have about a lot of film studies literature.) Creed relies heavily on Kristeva’s idea of the abject, the sense of repressing the horrific and writing out the rejected and abject from our semantic system, but Kristeva built her ideas on Freud’s essay on the uncanny. So I thought I would go back to source and see whether those ideas have anything to offer in terms of explaining classical monsters.

Freud’s basic point unwinds from the semantics of the German word unheimlich, which is translated as ‘uncanny’ but is more literally translated as ‘un-home-like’. The semantic range of heimlich and unheimlich in German intertwines in interesting ways that aren’t easy to replicate in English; the best way to represent the difference is that heimlich represents the familiar or the homely, whereas the unheimlich is the unfamiliar, the strangely-not-familiar, or that which was one familiar but no longer is (or in a strictly Freudian sense, the repressed).

Freud picks out a number of things that are associated with the uncanny: death, dead bodies, zombies, spirits, ghosts, doppelgängers, human simulacra, animism, magic, sorcery, the omnipotence of thoughts (i.e. wish fulfilment), unintended repetition and the castration complex (obviously). Some of these are pretty familiar in the modern world – the zombie movie has now gained mainstream cinema popularity, and the idea of the uncanny valley has become a standard idea in both robotics and film animation (it was argued that one of the reasons the Tintin film didn’t do as well as expected was because it failed the uncanny valley test). So the key thing here is the sense of the familiar combined with the idea of the unfamiliar or the repressed – the zombie is the perfect example of this because it is a creature which escapes the boundaries of the normal system of meaning where death follows life.

Where does this leave classical monsters? Medusa is a good example, because Freud picked up on her, although not in the context of the uncanny. He argued that her head represented castrated female genitals, with the writhing snakes symbolising pubic hair; I think I prefer Breed’s interpretation of Medusa as a physical incarnation of the vagina dentata, but either way, we see the normal or familiar (a human woman) becoming monstrous (with snake hair and a snake’s tail) in a way that embodies the repressed (something related to primal maturation trauma involving sexuality and castration complexes). But in terms of other monsters, I find it hard to see how a psychoanalytical approach gets us much further. The Sphinx arguably continue the trope of the monstrous feminine, but not in a way that fits Breed’s archetypes (unless we want to stretch castrator, I suppose). The Cyclops could be representative of the double entendre one-eyed monster (no laughing at the back, there), but that feels like rather a stretch when there’s a whole community of them, not just the one, and I have no desire to read Odysseus’ encounter with Polyphemus as a Freudian struggle with the fear of the father. Plus there’s just not the kind of issue with death and zombies in Greek or Roman culture that we see turning up in later work – which may reflect the increased medicalization and removal of death from everyday life (and thus also reflects the weakness of Freud’s work being based on observations of a small slice of middle class Viennese society).

I don’t think I’m quite done with this as a potentially useful idea yet, particularly as the idea of the heimlich/unheimlich dichotomy might well be a useful framework for thinking about the appearance of classical monsters in otherwise unremarkable and quotidian landscapes. But it’s going to need a lot of fettling before the uncanny can be a useful tool for interpreting the world of classical monsters – if it ever becomes one.


  1. If following the myth of Medusa where Poseidon rapes her and Athena punishes her with the gorgon look, I’ve always felt that her appearance was a physical manifestation of the shame she would have felt for having been raped in the Ancient Greek culture. Thoughts?

    Comment by Kimberly — May 9, 2013 @ 11:10 pm | Reply

    • Yes, I can certainly see that as an interpretation that would have legs, particularly given the role of Athena in imposing Medusa’s transformation as punishment – it’s a particularly nasty story, and one which modern interpretations often skate over. (I’ve written a bit about this in my Barbies paper on and in my forthcoming piece on monsters in the films of Ray Harryhausen.) It certainly reflects a certain horror about the experience and indeed the impiety of the sexual act – for a parallel, see the punishment for Ajax raping Cassandra in a temple after Troy falls. But as far as the psychoanalysts are concerned, Medusa springs into culture fully formed – they’re not so interested in how she comes to be, which reflects a general lack of interest in the female experience per se in this kind of material.

      Comment by lizgloyn — May 11, 2013 @ 9:36 am | Reply

  2. Off the top of my head, the uncanniest monster (not a classical monster, I know) that pops into mind is the vampire… because you have to invite him into your home. It is therefore something that, by the time you realize you don’t want it near you, is way too near you. In classical mythology… I think the gods running around impersonating each other are more uncanny than the monsters per se.

    Comment by Sarah Imrisek (@heartsoulmight) — December 23, 2014 @ 5:04 pm | Reply

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