Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman
In a caption to a photograph depicting Lon Chaney as Erik in The Phantom of the Opera, Jason Colavito, author of Knowing Fear: Science, Knowledge, and the Development of the Horror Genre, quotes David J. Skall’s observation that the actor’s “portrayal” of the characters is suggestive of a “ruined penis” (207).
This sort of statement might strike one as odd, to say the least, especially if he or she is unfamiliar with psychoanalysis, the invention of Sigmund Freud, which uses mythology, both classical and Freud’s own personal brand, to supposedly analyze human thoughts, feelings, unconscious impulses, and behavior. For those who do know a thing or two about psychoanalysis, including how fanciful it frequently is, such a statement, although perhaps incredible, is not as surprising. Indeed, as Colavito points out, psychoanalysis has been used (some would say misused) to explain (or to explain away) not only literature in general, but also the horror genre in particular:
Indeed, when we think of horror at all, we think of it in the terms of Freudian psychoanalysis, positing a range of explanations for the “true” meaning of horror stories, especially psycho-sexual explanations. This is the most popular school of thought about horror, producing works with titles like Walter Evans’s “Monster Movies: A Sexual Theory” (Monsters reflect “two central features of adolescent sexuality: masturbation and menstruation”), Richard K. Sanderson’s “Glutting the Maw of Death: Suicide and Procreation in Frankenstein” (Viktor reveals his fear of female sexual autonomy and his own ambivalent femininity”), and Joan Coptec’s “Vampires, Breast Feeding, and Anxiety” (“I will argue that the political advocacy of breast-feeding cannot be properly understood unless one sees it for what it is: the precise equivalent of vampire fiction”). There are many, many more than follow such Freudian views of horror (6).
Critics have historically discussed horror films in terms of sex, and specifically Freudian psychoanalytic views of sex, whereby horror’s primary concern is a fear of sex, usually female sexuality. Thus vampires are phallic symbols or fanged vaginas; Frankenstein’s Monster [sic] a parody of birth; the wolfman anxiety over puberty; and any mutilation a playing-out of castration anxieties. But part of this is because many horror filmmakers, even as far back as the 1930s, purposely used Freudian ideas in their scripts during a wave of Freud-mania in that time. “Why should we take psychoanalysis seriously in thinking about Hollywood movies?” asked William Paul, “because Hollywood took psychoanalysis seriously” (201).Although I am also more than a bit skeptical of Freudian claims (and, indeed, of Freudian ideas in general), I have employed psychoanalysis as a tool for exploring, if not explaining, some of the deeper psychosexual and sociosexual implications that appear to be present in The Descent, for the same reason that Colavito and Paul cite: whether credible and scientific or not, Freudian ideas have become a seemingly inescapable part and parcel of Western culture.
To exclude psychoanalytical thought as sound doesn’t mean, of course, to deny that the issues of sex and gender do not rear their heads, as it were, in horror fiction--far from it. The genre is, in fact, permeated with themes involving both sex and gender, the literature of horror just doesn’t necessarily analyze these themes along Freudian lines of thought and, even when it does do so, its analysis often also involves other than Freudian insights, implications, and interpretations.
In this article, I would like to suggest one of my own theories concerning how sex and gender, as they appear in horror fiction, may be interpreted along Christian, rather than Freudian, lines. In this view, sex and gender, as they are depicted and rendered in horror fiction, are perversions of both the natural biological drive to reproduce the species and the divine command that men and women “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen 1:28).
Colavito sees the story of Adam and Eve as “foundational” to the horror genre; it is, he contends, the “cement” that “links. . . [the] forbidden knowledge, sin, and punishment found in horror fiction” (11). In the Bible, the term “knowledge” sometimes refers to carnal knowledge, or the understanding that derives from sexual intercourse. This “knowledge” of sex and gender can become twisted, or perverted, the apostle Paul suggests:
Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and four-footed beasts, and creeping things. Wherefore God also gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonor their own bodies between themselves: Who changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed for ever. Amen. For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature: And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompense of their error which was meet. And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind, to do those things which are not convenient. . .(Romans 1:21-28).Of course, the literature of horror is too extensive to evaluate in this (or any other manner) in as brief space as a blog article (or series of such articles) warrants, so I will undertake a compromise, providing my own Christian-based explanations of the same stories for which Colavito presents the Freudian accounts, supplying the psychoanalytic explanations before offering my Christian alternatives. Whether one regards Christianity itself as true or mythical is inconsequential to my enterprise, just as it is likewise irrelevant whether one accepts Freudian thought as true or mythical. Both Christianity and psychoanalysis exist and have been, and continue to be, used as tools for literary analysis, which is what matters in this situation.
Next: Part 2, “Sex and Horror”