Psychoanalysis is developed by Sigmund Freud beginning in the 1890s as a method of treating patients with psychological problems. Although contemporary psychology has largely rejected Freudian methods as unscientific (just ask Dr. Bailey), psychoanalysis gained new life in the middle part of the 20th century as a tool for cultural criticism.

Repression and Monsters

This makes sense for a number of reasons. Much of the criticism of Freud comes from his evidence. He builds his theories based on analytic sessions with patients, but also from mythology, religious ritual, art, drama, literature and history (Freud, 1961 [1930]; Gay, 1989). He builds a theory of the mind based on cultural evidence. Perhaps his theories are better suited to the fields from which he draws evidence. Perhaps he is a keen observer of cultural process. His foundational text in establishing psychoanalysis is his mammoth The Interpretation of Dreams (1965 [1901]). His central thesis is that dreams are the fulfillment of wishes. This makes sense for good dreams. But in explaining how bad dreams can also be things we wish for, he outlines the process central to all psychoanalysis, and in so doing, he gives us a glimpse as to how and why we should use his ideas for popular culture analysis:

We may therefore suppose that dreams are given their shape in individual human beings by the operation of two psychical forces . . . and that one of these forces constructs the wish which is expressed by the dream, while the other exercises a censorship upon this dream-wish and, by the use of that censorship, forcible brings about a distortion in the expression of the wish. (p. 177)

structural-iceberg.png (280×339)We don’t experience our wishes simply, because parts of our minds get in the way. This is exactly the experience of entertainment. There are things we wish for (happy endings), horrible things we wouldn’t want but we seem to like watching on the screen (the Saw movies, for example), and a variety of strange things that are hard to explain.

For Freud, we are creatures of desire, a part of us he calls the id. But the id wants animalistic things like food, sex, violence and various pleasures. And we all grow up in a society that teaches us morality which forbids some of that. This becomes the superego, the voice of the moral order. That superego tries to repress those “sinful” desires. The other part of our self is the ego, or the rational seat of our self concept. It must decide actions based on weighing desire versus morality and make other judgments about things like what is feasible, affordable or what we can get away with. As a result of all of these processes, various desires we have are repressed into the unconscious, or the “place” where all of the memories and ideas we have that we are not currently aware of exist. (

aiww07So, moving back to dreams, where unconscious processes can take place, given that our willful consciousness is asleep, sinful desires that we wish for are transformed into symbols in order to get by the superego. This way we can wish for things that we “shouldn’t” wish for. And in the midst of “good” wishes, the repressed will rise up as, perhaps, a monster. As to the other process, the monster, what Robin Wood (1984) calls “the return of the repressed” (p. 173), comes out in the collective nightmares of horror movies and scary moments in other films. For Carol Clover (1992), the monsters in horror films represent all sorts of fears and issues, from gender identity to religious doubt to existential angst. In Jancovich’s (1996) study of 1950s monster movies, fears of nuclear war transmuted into giant radioactive lizards and insects. The unspeakable can only become speakable when it transforms. Hippies (The Last House on the Left) and babies (It’s Alive) kill us in the 1970s, family kills us in the 1980s (The Stepfather), etc.

Whether or not any of this happens in “real” dreams and people, both processes seem to happen in popular culture. And what is popular culture other than a theater of our dreams?

This cover image of a horror comic shows some of the importance of these ideas. First, horror filmmakers and directors like Hitchcock incorporated a variety of different psychoanalytic concepts into their films on the 1930s and 1940s very explicitly, so at a very simple level, the influence of this cannot be simply ignored. At a deeper level, there are many emotive genres of storytelling where questions of the repressed and the emergence of those repressed desires are key. Hitchcock’s Spellbound and Psycho and Vertigo and Marnie articulate this rather pedantically.

Many horror tales have monsters which are a version of repressed desire coming to the surface:

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Most horror monsters, in fact, are this kind of energized repressed figure finally loosed upon the world. The monster could be all about sex, the vampires usually are:

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In fact, here is the protagonist of 1973’s The Female Vampire:


She is immortal and lonely. But whenever she finally has sex with someone, she can’t stop herself from killing them, which almost happened to Edward in Breaking Dawn.

Here is what happens to Simone Simon’s character in Cat People when she feels romantic:


It’s not always this simple, though (didn’t you just know I was going to say that?)


In a horror movie the repressed bursts, uncontrolled, because the fictional world allows for it. This is not always the case. In dreams or popular culture where there is still an operative morality that would prevent it, the repressed returns in a different, more hidden form. This symbolic slippage where desires show up in other forms, which Freud (1965 [1901]) calls displacement, shows up in a variety of ways. Most commonly we end up looking for representations of sexuality or violence that are hidden or obscured. These are fetishes, or objects that stand in for something which our superegos repress. In a Hollywood and television system filled with censorship, we can see this happen rather deliberately, but it happens unconsciously on the part of producers, as well.

Here’s some oral fixation moments from To Have and Have Not::



And then there’s this from North by Northwest:


In this case, the cigarette stands in for sex. There are plenty of other ways sex is displaced onto other forms. The prevalence of the phallic symbol in censored media when characters are not allowed to act on their desires is common.

Here’s North by Northwest again:


And others:

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The phallic symbol as not just as a sexual symbol but as related to the dominance and power that can be associated with traditional male sexuality is also common. Just as Slim Pickens’ character as he rides the nuke in Doctor Strangelove:


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Wonder Woman, particularly, has to deal with this waaay more that Superman:

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That power is often translated into violence. When women are killed in horror films, almost always by a penetrating knife, the sounds they make are more akin to the sounds of desire in a porno flick than actual screams of pain and horror. And in many porno flicks, the sex is violent and dehumanizing and not entirely about sexual pleasure as much as it is about power and violence. This slippage is possible because both are repressed into the cauldron of the unconscious. It is also possible because of the working of the primal scene, which, for Freud, is the moment of seeing someone (often your parents) having sex for the first time. It is confusing, often glimpsed or heard with barriers to perception (through a keyhole, heard from across the house, etc.). It is often not possible in those stressful moments to know what is happening. And if sex is a new concept, perhaps the only way to first make sense of it is with notions of violence (“They are wrestling” and “I didn’t want him to hurt my mom” are two experiences students have shared in my classes).

In a film like Alien, the monster rapes people’s faces, emerges in a monstrous pregnancy, grows into a giant phallic-headed demon, where it stabs you with its extra erection:

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But it comes from a particular set of special effects design, from H.R. Giger, which is already a huge mix of sex and violence. Here are some of the few that are not outright pornographic:

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Although not every sword is a phallic symbol, some clearly are, as when Joffrey asks Sansa to kiss his sword:

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Given this, the fear of loss of power or penis, Freud’s castration anxiety, is prominent as well. Here’s Ice Pirates and The Big Lebowski: 1308327317-lebowski-cut-off-your-johnson-scissors-germans-libido-sex-drive-impotence-killer


And then, of course, we have The Empire Strikes Back, where Luke loses his sword/hand under the punishment of his father (He did kiss what we’ll later find out is his sister earlier in the film. The superego, voice of the now dark father, must rule on such things): lukenohandsma

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After this, Han, Luke’s rival for Leia, after telling his beloved “I know” in response to “I love you” (rudeness is sexy, right?) is encased in carbonite, becoming a permanent erection just as Luke loses his (Later to become a space monk in black, while Han can only be thawed/softened by the embrace of his woman):


The vagina is represented more complexly. Freud writes of patients who feared the vagina dentate, a toothed vagina that would bite off penises. We have recent literal exploration of that fear:

We also have a history of toothed orifices that eat people, usually men, which may or may not bleed without dying (as the terrible menstruation joke goes):


In Predator, a monster that lives in the bush and bleeds but doesn’t die, in a film with three different jokes about vagina size (really!?), the hero finally demasks the creature, which, in Predator 2, Danny Glover’s character calls “pussyface”:

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Often, these vagina denata are associated with other anti-female thematics, as in the male-voiced, life-destroying obsession in Little Shop of Horrors, Audrey 2:


Or, in both versions of Return of the Jedi, the Sarlacc pit consumes men, where they are “slowly digested over a thousand years.” Can you hear the bad jokes about marriage now?

Further difficulties with the primal scene arise, though. Violence against women is so often portrayed as sexual. The knife quivers with excitement before it stabs Drew Barrymore in Scream. And the iconography that links sex and violence is prominent. This is not BDSM and 50 Shades of Grey, either. This is something more, something, perhaps, worse:

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When depressed Buffy gives in to her passions for the literally soulless but somehow still cool Spike in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, their coupling takes place in a house they destroy. Fighting merges with sex and they both collapse through floors, either character potentially at risk of death:

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In North by Northwest, we have the following dialogue between the romantic leads:

Eve Kendall: How do I know you aren't a murderer?

Roger Thornhill: You don't.

Eve Kendall: Maybe you're planning to murder me right here, tonight.

Roger Thornhill: Shall I?

Eve Kendall: Please do.


How about Punch-Drunk Love?


There is more Freudian sexual awkwardness to explore, like the Oedipal complex, if you take COMM 373, but for now, let’s move on to . . .

The Uncanny

Freud’s idea of the uncanny is the idea that some repressed fear, something which we experience as unfamiliar, is both secretly familiar and seemingly old and primitive (Hutchings, 2004; Wells, 2000). For Freud it almost seems as if this is a special sort of feeling that comes from some degree of self-knowledge that the repressed is emerging, and it feels like a long lost and very ancient and horrible thing. This is the way memory works in texts like The Shining and many ghost movies. It also seems to be a part of the idea of mental breakdown as a result of horror, as in Lovecraft’s cthulu stories and the old gothic novels.

Hutchings (2004) connects this with “old” mythological monsters like mummies and vampires. Something just doesn’t seem right about things when you feel this, and Wells (2000) connects this with the figure of the doppelganger, or the double, a dark figure of yourself that appears in films like The Dark Half or in Poe’s story “William Wilson.” That figure may be a kind of quasi-conscious figure of the unconscious.


It is as if the uncanny is a kind of shivering awareness of the repressed returning. It’s you, but it’s also not. That divide is kind of like the divide between the imagined world, the world or fears and hopes, and the “real” world of daily life. Surrealist painters played on this feeling, as with De Chirico Mystery and Melancholy of a Street and Dali’s My Wife, Nude, Contemplating her own Flesh Becoming Stairs, Three Vertebrae of a Column, Sky and Architecture:

Sometimes the uncanny seems like things that scare us because they are both familiar and not. So perhaps this is why we are afraid of clowns, dolls, marionettes, etc:

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There is the innocence we are supposed to see on the surface and what may or may not be lurking underneath. Films like The Ring or The Grudge, where something as simply as a video cassette or a cell phone can curse you are examples. The film where this is explored most fully is in Poltergeist, where a simple suburban home has evil lurking underneath, where things like your toys, televisions, trees and plates of leftover chicken legs can all be conduits of evil:


At a simple level, this idea is in popular discourse as the “uncanny valley” of digitally animated humans. It is the same question of how the familiar and unfamiliar cue each other. We are reminded of the structures of repression and displacement. And it disquiets us. It is as if we don’t really know ourselves or what we are capable of. It’s why most gothic era ghosts stories ended, not in death, but in insanity.

The Abject

Julia Kristeva’s (1982) idea of the “abject” is a furthering of this. If the uncanny is a process that reminds of us the frailty of our sense of self, if it reminds us that the illusion of your “self” as a whole person is an illusion, the abject is a sometimes parallel crisis of the body.

The abject is a visceral rejection and disgust of things that emphasize the body and the borders, edges and chaos possible for the body. For Kristeva, we develop our self, which is kind of an illusion, by gathering forces of “non-self” and expunging them. Gore, zombies, and films like The Fly, where Jeff Goldblum is merged with an insect in a scientific accident, emphasize this. Of course, these things are still often desired, just as the uncanny are desired in clown horror movies. We want and need these kids of monsters. Perhaps popular culture helps us work through anxieties we already have. Perhaps desire for this stuff is some kind of displacement. But we seem to want it:

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Or, at least, we want to watch other people go through it. Birth is just as bad as death or dismemberment, according to Knocked Up:


We are haunted by our deaths. We are repelled and fascinated by it:

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And as with the uncanny, we have a particular set of tales about the cost of looking, for the character:


and for the reader/viewer:


There is a fascination on the Internet with images and videos of gore and death, of pornography beyond erotica to the just gross. And we make movies to explores that:


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The key things to take away from psychoanalysis are the mechanisms of repression and displacement and the thematics of sex, violence, death and fear. Any and all of these anxieties and desires can commingle, especially in genres, like horror, where the difference between anxiety and pleasure is, as perhaps in dreams, not always clear.

By Steven S. Vrooman, Revised March 2013



Clover, C. J. (1992). Men, women and chainsaws. Princeton: Princeton UP.

Freud, S. (1961). Civilization and its discontents. New York: Norton.

Freud, S. (1965 [1901]). The interpretation of dreams. New York: Avon.

Gay, P. (1989). Sigmund Freud: a brief life. In J. Strachey (Ed.), Beyond the pleasure principle (pp. ix-xxiv). New York: Norton

Hutchings, P. (2004). The horror film. Harlow, UK: Pearson.

Jancovich, M. (1996). Rational fears: American horror in the 1950s. Manchester: Manchester UP.

Wells, P. (2000). The horror genre. London: Wallflower.

Wood, R. (1984). An introduction to the American horror film. In B. K. Grant (Ed.), Planks of reason. (pp. 164-200). Latham, MD: Scarecrow.