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by Robert M. Young

I have changed my title away from the original formulation of my enquiry — for a reason which is central to my argument. It was ‘Representations of Mental Illness in the Cinema’, which I have since decided is not very interesting, or at least doesn’t take me where I want to go. Where I want to go is to illustrate a theme in my recent psychoanalytic enquiries: the ubiquity — and therefore, in a sense, the normality — of psychotic processes (Young, 1994, 1995). I now want to call my paper ‘Representations of Madness in the Cinema’; ‘Representations of Primitive Processes...’; perhaps ‘Psychotic Processes...’ might be even better. If we confine ourselves to representations of mental illness, we restrict the enquiry to psychiatry and clinical psychopathology — interesting, but not what I have in mind.

The reason I embarked on this essay is that when I asked myself how I came to hold the views on mental illness which were in my mind before I ever heard of Freud or studied psychiatry or psychoanalysis, the answers are quite simple. First, there was a woman up the block who was strange. I still don’t know in what way, but we were told in no uncertain terms to avoid her, and my sister was sent far away to university for the sole purpose of stopping her dating this young woman’s brother. There ‘was insanity in the family’, which was presumed to be hereditary and perhaps even catching. (We were very frightened of her, rather as the children in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ were of the brain damaged Bo Radley, played by Robert Duvall.) Second, one heard mentioned the nearby mental hospital, ‘Terrell’, and the way it was spoken about conjured up something dreadful, like the Bogey Man. I recall driving by the asylum once and seeing the porches screened all the way to the ceiling, presumably to keep the lunatics in. Heaven knows what they would have done if they had got out, but it was scary even being near the place. Third, my mother was depressed and went for a few weeks to a mental hospital in Galveston where she had electroshock treatment and where my father and I visited her on one memorable occasion.

Aside from those local and personal experiences — which I have no wish to minimise but suggest that they were almost impossible for me to think about — I am sure that the bulk of my taken-for-granted and apparently common sense knowledge about these things came from the movies, which I attended every Saturday from an early age and almost nightly for several years as a high school student. So I searched my memory and came up with the list which I imagine anyone of my generation would: ‘Spellbound’ and ‘The Snake Pit’. If I add later films, the classics are, of course, ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ and ‘Silence of the Lambs’. If we remove the requirement for psychiatry (as opposed to madness) to be explicitly in the plot, up pops ‘Psycho’, and then I found that there was nowhere to draw a line. For example, ’The Boston Strangler’ comes immediately to mind. If you look in the filmography of Krin and Glen Gabbard’s Psychiatry and the Cinema, there are about three hundred titles up to 1987, and their list is recurrently revised upwards. An Italian study list about ninety films in that language involving psychiatry between 1921 and 1993.

Certain features of films fitting a more narrow definition are striking. Practically none are about the texture — the actual labour process — of psychiatry, psychoanalysis or psychotherapy. Some are, of course. In ’Ordinary People’ we see Judd Hirsch conduct a successful course of psychotherapy with Timothy Hutton, and in ’Freud: The Secret Passion’, we follow Montgomery Clift discovering psychoanalysis. A portrayal of the texture of therapy is also given in ’Sybil’, a case of multiple personality treated by Joanne Woodward. It is usually the case, however, that treatment seeks and finds a unique traumatic event, and discovery of it cures, presumably by catharsis and the belief that ’Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free’. Think of ’Marnie’, traumatised by a fight between a prostitute’s lover and her mother in which the child struck and killed the attacker. The texture of the analytic process is usually conveniently truncated for reasons of dramatic economy. It can even be reduced to a single image as in the last moment of ‘Citizen Kane’, where the incineration of his sled with ‘Rosebud’ painted on it provides the explanation of his dying utterance and evokes nostalgia for a lost, Edenic childhood, swept away by inheritance of vast wealth which led to his manic and megalomaniac life which ended in empty splendour. The details of psychopathology are sometimes spelled out in a sophisticated way, as in the film of ‘Compulsion’, in which two wealthy homosexual Jewish college students in Chicago killed a young boy as an expression of their sadomasochistic relationship and folie a deux, involving considering themselves members of a superman caste. Their defence by Clarence Darrow was the first case in which psychoanalytic insights were extensively used in a court case. Similar psychoanalytic insight is given by the interaction between the stable boy Firth and the psychiatrist Richard Burton in ‘Equus’.

In ’The Snake Pit’ we are given a distressing, important and detailed look into the conditions in the worst custodial institutions. It was based on a best-selling novel by Mary Jane Ward which was itself an exposé of conditions in American mental institutions. As Michael Shortland has shown, the film had a huge impact on psychiatric reform, as revealed in contemporary press cuttings (Shortland, 1987, pp. 424-31). However, the hero, Dr Kik (in one of Leo Genn’s two roles as a humane psychiatrist), is really no more or less than a kind counsellor. Olivia DeHavilland’s odyssey is a modern day Pilgrim’s Progress up and down the ranked wards and against the institutional odds. In other films where we are shown the inside of mental hospitals, oppressive conditions are usually the point. More recently, in Jane Campion’s ‘Angel at My Table’ we get another sympathetic account of what mental hospitals can do to sensitive spirits.

If we look at the other famous representations of these matters, mental illness per se is soon seen to fade into the background and becomes a plot device. It is nothing more than that in ‘Asylum’, a Hammer-style horror movie in which each inmate tells a gruesome tale. ’The Cobweb’ is a version of the plot of Grand Hotel, but in this case the setting is a private mental hospital based on the Austin Riggs Center in Massachusetts, whose psychoanalyst director, Richard Widmark, is having an affair with the Occupational Therapist, Lauren Bacall. Even ’Spellbound’, however much we may wish Ingrid Bergman was our analyst, is really a murder mystery, with the essential clue hidden in a dream sequence supplied by Salvador Dali. The patient, Gregory Peck, is a psychiatrist colleague who becomes the lover of Bergman. She, like many movie psychiatrists, has terrible boundaries and is unprofessionally giving him analytic consultations as they are falling in love. It turns out that the murderer is also a psychiatrist and colleague, Leo Carroll.

Even the most picaresque patient of all, Randle McMurphy, in ‘One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest’, was a vehicle for Ken Kesey’s anarchist rant against the oppressive conformism imposed by society’s institutions, immortalised in Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.. Big Nurse Ratched represents all arbitrary and anti-hedonic authority, and Randle is a loveable rogue who claims that there is nothing wrong with the inmates of the cuckoo’s nest which isn’t wrong with people on the outside. Psychiatry is uniformly in the service of regimentation and leads to the suicide of the mother’s boy, Brad Dourif’s Billy, and the treatment given to the irrepressibly insubordinate McMurphy is destruction of his humanity, so much so, that when a fellow patient, the Indian Chief, smothers him to death, it is clearly a mercy killing, followed by the big Indian literally crashing out of the place. ’Clockwork Orange’ also offers a pretty unattractive notion of psychiatric treatment, more like the behaviourist brainwashing in ’The Manchurian Candidate’.

Similar mind-destroying treatment was also a plot device in ‘Suddenly Last Summer’, menacing Elizabeth Taylor, because she knew the truth about Katherine Hepburn’s summer trips with her son, where she served as procuress for his homosexual lovers. The son, Sebastian, was eventually killed and partly eaten by the North African boys he’d preyed upon, and the mother would go to any lengths to deny and suppress the truth about her son, her relationship with him and how he died. Fortunately, the psychiatrist, Montgomery Clift, believed Liz, saw the Oedipal tangle and did not subject her to electroshock, lobotomy or some other method of robbing her memory of the truth.

Psychiatry and psychiatrists do not get a good press at the movies, and, as I have said, they seldom keep to clinical professional boundaries. Dudley Moore falls in love with his patient, Elizabeth McGovern, in ‘Lovesick’. Warren Beatty is an incompetent trainee who falls in love with Jean Seberg in ’Lilith’. Barbra Streisand falls for her patient’s brother, Nick Nolte, in ‘Prince of Tides’ and seeks to unblock his traumatic memories. In ‘The Butcher’s Wife’, Jeff Daniels falls in love with Demi Moore, a neighbour with whom he also has a professional relationship. Jason Robards Jr. marries his patient in ‘Tender Is the Night’ and slides into the desuetude of a bought retainer of the rich. James Coburn isn’t up to it as ‘The President’s Analyst’. In ‘What about Bob?’ the phobic patient, Bill Murray, moves in with the psychiatrist’s family and drives his pompous doctor, Richard Dreyfuss, crazy. Maximillan Schell kills his long-term patient in ‘St. Ives’. In ‘Dressed to Kill’, a New York analyst dresses up in women’s clothing and murders defenceless women. In ’The Silence of the Lambs’ the brilliant psychiatrist, Hannibal Lecter, eats people (in two versions of Thomas Harris’ novels about him, the other being ’Manhunter’, drawn from Red Dragon). You’ll recall his parting remark to Jodie Foster as he gazes in anticipation across the road at the psychiatrist who had tormented him in prison: ‘I’m having an old friend for dinner’. Many therapists, by contrast, are merely figures of gentle irony, as In Woody Allen films or a useful way of being expository, as in ’Leaving Las Vegas’.

I’m not saying that there are no positive representations of mental institutions. Tom Cruise comes to see that his brother, Raymond, is better off in one in ’Rain Man’, for example. They are more often represented as places to stay away from or abscond from. Think of Peter Boyle in ’Steelyard Blues’ or the charming loony in television’s ’The A Team’ or getting temporarily caught up in one in ’Bronco Billy’. I certainly would not fancy being at the asylum at Charenton, in ‘Marat/Sade’, performing the murder of Marat at the hands of Glenda Jackson under the direction of the Marquis de Sade for the amusement of an audience made up of voyeurists of the Parisian nobility.

Of course, many lunatics are merely loveable and provide vehicles for sentiment or comedy. Edmund Gwenn&127;&127; really is Santa Claus (not merely a true paranoid) to Natalie Wood in ’Miracle on 34th Street’ (twice re-made), and Raymond Massey and Peter Lorre are charming homicidal maniacs in ’Arsenic and Old Lace’, just as James Stewart is loveable with his six foot three inch rabbit companion, ’Harvey’. On the other side, madness can be a vehicle for pure terror as Jack Nicholson shows in ’The Shining’ and Dennis Hopper does as the sadistic, paranoid racist husband in ‘Paris Trout’. You could say that Hopper has made a career out of playing crazy people, mostly borderlines see Young, 1994). The killers in both Hannibal Lecter films are representations of unmitigated murderousness. The one in ’Silence of the Lambs’ is called Buffalo Bill, because, as we are told a policeman put it, ’This one likes to skin his humps’ (first he humps them and then he skins them), in the meantime keeping them in a cloacal hole in the ground.

We see symptoms of soul-destroying depravity of other kinds in ‘The Lost Weekend’, with its dreadful portrayal of delirium tremens. ’Ironweed’, shows how low alcoholics sink before perishing. ‘The Man with a Golden Arm’ and ’A Hatful of Rain’ spare no details of the degradations of the junkie subculture. All of these elicit fine performances. ‘Wired’, by contrast, was a failed attempt to show the manic self-destruction of John Belushi with drugs and drink.

I could go on at some length about representations of psychiatry, psychiatric illness and psychiatric treatment, but I don’t think that’s where the interesting insights are to be found. I think they are instead in the broad sweep of the history of cinema, where you might not expect to find them. For me they are most evocatively found in horror movies, in particular the classic series about ’Frankenstein’, ’The Wolf Man’, Dracula’ and ’The Invisible Man’. For a later generation there were the Hammer Horror Classics and for a still later one the series of ’Halloween’ and ’Nightmare on Elm Street’ films in the mainstream and ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ and ‘Night of the Living Dead’ in the B-movie world. Think of children being engulfed, disappearing with the covers down a hole in the middle of the bed with a concluding belch of blood splattered onto the ceiling. What these films have in common is the deliberately shocking portrayal of terror, nameless dread, psychotic anxieties. They are portrayed in horrific individuals in the films I have listed, but if we widen the brief to look at non-human representations of part-objects which menace and evoke abject terror, we can find ’Piraña’ fish, Tryffids, huge worms burrowing through the earth.

Returning to the classic horror films for a moment, the connection between their plots and creatures, on the one hand, and the most primitive unconscious processes, on the other, is not far to seek. The link is nightmares, by which I mean the dreams which Freud told us are ‘the royal road to the unconscious’. This connection is not only an analytical or interpretive one. In a recent television series on horror films, it was pointed out that books which inspired the classic ones - Frankenstein, Dracula and Dr Jeckyl and Mr Hyde — quite literally had their origins in nightmares of Mary Shelly, Bram Stoker and Robert Louis Stevenson.

In my opinion, the quintessential portrayal of primitive horror by devouring creatures is the ‘Alien’ trilogy which reduces eggs, mothering, slime, penises and vaginas dentata to perfect destructive creatures which invade and violently erupt from apparently unaffected individuals. They are quite precisely ’embodiments’ of primitive psychotic processes. In one manifestation the alien is like a vagina with a penis protruding from it which has sharp teeth with slime dripping all over the place. In another it is a devouring mother making endless copies of the creature, each of which is polymorphous. Another feature of this series is the locations inside bodies, which the space ship crew explores on behalf of the baby selves in all of us. We first encounter the aliens inside a huge body, crafted, like the others in the first film, by the Swiss misogynist artist H. R. Giger, infamous for his revolting renditions of female sexual anatomy. We find ourselves inside, exploring, but the sense of menace is - justifiably, it turns out — eerily palpable. We have a similar experience in the denouement of the second film, while the third takes us to a hell exquisitely depicted in the colours from the right hand panel - ’Hell’ - of Hieronomous Bosch’s ‘Garden of Earthly Delights’, with reddish browns which convey a sense of being inside the large intestines amid fecal matter. The atmosphere could not be more primitive or more nightmarish. The characters in the film are prisoners, banished to a derelict planet, perpetrators of the most heinous crimes. They move around in abandoned mine tunnels and are picked off, one at a time. The alien, it turns out, is gestating in the body of the heroine, who has to sacrifice herself to save humankind, since the big investors want the creature as a weapon and have sent a crew to rescue it and not the humans, who are expendable. The whole conception of the series, as several commentators have noted (Gabbard & Gabbard, 1987, ch. 10; Hering, 1994; Young, 1994a) is one of menacing part-object, regressed nightmares. They are illustrated and animated textbooks of Kleinian thought. The power and primitiveness of projective and introjective processes are literally and frighteningly graphically portrayed. In my opinion, no other films since the shower and mother scenes in ‘Psycho’ have had the power to terrify as immediately as those in the three Alien movies. It is as if the screenwriters and designers had taken as their text the following passage from Melanie Klein’s discussion of projective identification.

She concludes seven pages on the fine texture of early paranoid and schizoid mechanisms as follows: 'So far, in dealing with persecutory fear, I have singled out the oral element. However, while the oral libido still has the lead, libidinal and aggressive impulses and phantasies from other sources come to the fore and lead to a confluence of oral, urethral and anal desires, both libidinal and aggressive. Also the attacks on the mother's breast develop into attacks of a similar nature on her body, which comes to be felt as it were as an extension of the breast, even before the mother is conceived of as a complete person. The phantasied onslaughts on the mother follow two main lines: one is the predominantly oral impulse to suck dry, bite up, scoop out and rob the mother's body of its good contents... The other line of attack derives from the anal and urethral impulses and implies expelling dangerous substances (excrements) out of the self and into the mother. Together with these harmful excrements, expelled in hatred, split-off parts of the ego are also projected onto the mother or, as I would rather call it, into the mother. These excrements and bad parts of the self are meant not only to injure but also to control and to take possession of the object. In so far as the mother comes to contain the bad parts of the self, she is not felt to be a separate individual but is felt to be the bad self.

'Much of the hatred against parts of the self is now directed towards the mother. This leads to a particular form of identification which establishes the prototype of an aggressive object-relation' (Klein, 1946, pp. 7-8). Note carefully that we have here the model — the template, the fundamental experience — of all of the aggressive features of human relations. Six years later Klein adds the following sentence: 'I suggest for these processes the term "projective identification"' (ibid.). I have argued in Mental Space (Young, 1994b) that projective identification is a fundamental mechanism in human experience. I am suggesting here that these projective processes hook into our own need to disown and/or entrust parts of ourselves, and the loop of cinema viewing and enjoyment is based on this primitive unconscious mechanism. It is the Kleinian equivalent of the classical Aristotelian theory of catharsis which is used to explain the experience of tragedy, but I believe it goes deeper and could, in principle, explain all cinematic engagement.

If we look even more broadly at the history of cinema we find horror, inhumanity, nameless dread and unmitigated cruelty in all sorts of Others: Indians who rape, kill, burn and pillage, Martians and other aliens who suck out the innards of people and control humans in other ways, blacks (e.g., in Tarzan movies) who cannibalise and kill, German and Japanese soldiers who torture and commit genocide, zombies (the living dead, whether they be zombies in the West Indies or among ’The Stepford Wives’), pirates, serial killers, psychopathic killers. Think of Apaches, Mescaleros, East Indians who ‘Kill for the love of Kali! James Cagney in ’White Heat’, Mad Dog Earl in ’High Sierra’ and his even madder psychopathic reincarnation by Mickey Rourke in the remake, ‘The Desperate Hours’. In ’Angel Heart’ Mickey Rourke is a sleepwalking serial killer, unaware that the murderer he seeks is himself, patiently awaited by the Devil, played by DeNiro. Serial killers are a recent manifestation of the sheer randomness of the unsafeness of reality. The killer in ’Seven’ does his work with exquisite knowledge of the depths of the deadly sins of the human heart, saving to the last the playing of games with the sanity of the detectives, able craftily to elicit the worst sins from them, while destroying their sanity in a brilliant, startling and horrifying denouement. Characters in David Lynch movies also represent pure depravity — Dennis Hopper’s crazed drug-head (complete with inhaler) in ’Blue Velvet’; William Dafoe in ’Wild in at Heart’, whom we see blast his own head into the air with a shotgun. ’Goodfellas’, ’Reservoir Dogs’ ’Pulp Fiction’, ‘The Usual Suspects’, ‘Shallow Grave’ and ‘Crash’ set new standards for gratuitous, perverse, gory splatter. My own candidate for the nadir of human dignity and the celebration of perversity is ‘Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer’, in which nothing mitigates the reportage of pointless, unchecked and unsolved murders.

Gangster films, swashbucklers and westerns are full of cruel psychopathic villains, played again and again by the likes of Lee Marvin, Richard Widmark, Harvey Keitel, Lawrence Tierney, Richard Boone, Alan Rickman. Even the psychopaths who routinely fail are menacing and have a mad look in their eyes and evil in their maniacally soft voices, for example, Peter Lorre and Elisha Cook, Jr. More recent examples of terrible perpetrators come to mind, for example, Andrew Morrison as Scorpio, the amoral serial killer in ‘Dirty Harry’. ’Make my day’ Clint dispatches the psychopath Ringerman in ‘Coogan’s Bluff’ as he does Scorpio and deals with platoons of them in the spaghetti westerns, the Dirty Harry series and the films which he directs as well as stars in which begins with ‘The Outlaw — Josey Wales’ and culminates with ‘Unforgiven’. Evil is ruthless and implacable; so is his brand of justice. It is a simple, clear, Old Testament, paranoid-schizoid polarisation, a comfort in times when public life is full of disgrace and ambiguity and sleaze extending from Watergate to the present governments here, in the Unites States and elsewhere.

All of this killing and maiming and torture and dicing with death is the stuff of nightmares. The Frankenstein monster kills an innocent child and a gentle blind man. ’The Mummy’ pursues those who disturb the dead. ’Dracula’, ’The Wolf Man’, various other werewolves and Dr Jekyll are one half of creatures with cohabitees who emerges in the darkness to kill indiscriminately, while the other half is bewildered and tormented, like the patients described by Michael Sinason and Joscelyn Richards in their theory of human nature as dual, involving two selves in all of us. In ‘Cat Ballou’ the two parts are represented as twins, both played by Lee Marvin, one an implacable killer with a silver nose, the other an amiable drunk. In werewolf movies we actually see the transformation from the ordinary person to the hairy monster in the light of the full moon. The horrified look on Lon Chaney Jr’s face as his hands grow hairy says it all. Ugly, animal, out of control, surprising blameless people, sucking or ripping out their life’s blood and organs to provide sustenance for alien creatures or the living dead. The destructive agents are often polymorphous, as in ’Predator’ and ’Terminator Two: Judgement Day’, while the hero is often importantly a mixture of flesh and mechanism, a cyborg, as in the both the Terminator and Robocop films. In ‘Aliens’, ‘Alien3’ and ‘Blade Runner’ the criteria for being human are explored in the plots and in the characters of androids.

The Promethian creators of monsters are themselves mad, as we see in Baron Frankenstein’s eyes: ‘It’s alive! It’s Alive!’ or in the megalomania of Captain Nemo or Dr Moreau.

Terrors and sadistic cruelty are, as I have indicated, not confined to horror movies Western bandits are not just bad: they are exquisitely cruel and sadistic, as we see in a scene (which I thought was from ’Shane’, but I cannot locate it) where Jack Palance (I think it was he, but it may have been Jack Elam) makes a bloodcurdingly cruel game of shooting up the dirt around a toddling baby in full view of its horrified parents. There is similar menace and depravity in ‘Cape Fear’ and pure paranoia in the attempt by Charles Boyer to drive his wife mad in ‘Gaslight’. Here we see the lengths people go to in the grip of obsessive hatred and greed.

The gratuitously horrid view of humankind being propagated in such movies is quintessentially represented in the opening sequence of Peckinpah’s ‘The Wild Bunch’, a film which Jake Ebert has called ‘one of the great defining moments of modern movies’. While the tension is building up for the turkey shoot of William Holden’s gang by trashy killers hired by the railroad, the action is repeatedly intercut with shots of a group of children toying with scorpions they have dropped into mortal combat with red ants. The children eventually cover the whole seething mass with straw which they set alight, creating an inferno for the creatures. The shots of this scene of children’s barbaric cruelty are edited in exquisite counterpoint with the countdown to the merciless ambush Robert Ryan has set up for the unsuspecting robbers, who are his former comrades. As if the moral about depravity was not already being drawn crudely enough, yet another set of concurrent images involves a Christian Temperance League revival meeting. The inspired, hymn-singing believers, complete with marching band, walk between the killers and robbers and are massacred in the excessively bloody crossfire, aesthetically and balletically rendered in slow motion, a feature for which Peckinpah’s has been both admired and criticised. This scene is mirrored at the end when the self-sacrificing Wild Bunch decimate a band of depraved Mexican renegade soldiers and die in the carnage. The moral thread is only just possible to follow through the plot, broken and knotted as it I by all the betrayals and all the ways in which nominally legitimate authority is corrupt, while comradeship among outlaws provides the only relatively unmitigated good. There are six groups: the bad/good Wild Bunch; the good/bad railroad authorities and bounty hunters; the bad/bad Mexican soldiers under Mapache; the sanctimoniously good Temperance Unionists; the supposedly good but actually cruel children; the stealthy and stoical Mexican and Indian peasants. The Wild Bunch are ageing outlaws in a corrupt and increasingly technological world with only an unsteady comradeship to provide a moral framework. In the end they die avenging a comrade, Angel, the only Mexican in the gang. In the final slaughter the leader, William Holden, is shot first by a prostitute for whom he’d shown some sympathy and then by a small boy — which takes us back to the gratuitously cruel children who were tormenting insects in the opening shot.

Psychotic processes and extreme splits are not confined to exotic settings. The argument of Donald Meltzer’s The Claustrum is amply illustrated in endless films about corporate power and greed — the executive who absolutely has to win at all costs. who, lives at the anal end of the psychic digestive tract and will do anything to avoid expulsion which would result in a psychotic breakdown. In ‘A Shock to the System’ Michael Caine ingeniously murders all his rivals and successfully becomes the boss. Aptly named Gordon Gecco (a species of reptile) temporarily does the same in ’Wall Street’, while Raymond Massey in ’The Fountainhead’ cares only for power and Patricia Neal, and Sydney Greenstreet will kill anyone who comes between him and ‘The Maltese Falcon’. The same motivations operate in Mafia movies, to the point where brother kills brother in ’The Godfather’, in which murdering is described as ‘nothing personal, strictly business’. Western range movies have their utterly greedy land-grabbers such as Lee J. Cobb in ‘Lawman’, men who dominate towns like Robert Ryan in ’Bad Day at Black Rock’ or claim jump on a huge scale, for example, John McIntyre in ’The Far Country’, where he has James Stewart’s sidekick Ben killed for the gold in his saddlebags. Sam Waterston seeks to control the range and hires a hundred vigilantes to kill off in cold blood the European immigrants in ‘Heaven’s Gate’. Richard Widmark sends otherwise healthy people into irreversible comas so he can hold world-wide auctions of their carefully tissue-typed bodies as spare parts for transplant surgery. In ‘Prime Cut’ orphaned children are hand-reared and sold as sex slaves to rich and perverted tycoons.

Think of the amount of killing and soul-destroying that goes on in the movies. Then think of the films with ghostly qualities and the playing around with the boundary between life and death, whether amusingly, as in ‘Ghostbusters’ and ‘Death Becomes Her’, touchingly, as in ‘ET’, ‘Close Encounters...’ and ‘Cocoon’ or frighteningly, as in ’Carrie’, where a glance from Sissy Spacek devastates a nasty, teasing high school girl, and Carrie’s telekinetic powers are unleashed in revenge against those who have mocked and outgrouped her. Similarly, the horrid wife of the newspaper proprietor in ‘The Witches of Eastwick’ gets all sorts of comeuppance for thinking ill of the girls’ rampant sexuality. Don Ameche and Warren Beatty hover between life and death in versions of ‘Heaven Can Wait’, as does David Niven in ’Stairway to Heaven’ (’A Matter of Life and Death’).

All of this illustrates fascination with primitive, perverse, psychotic, paranoid-schizoid, part-object relations. It could be argued that part of the identification and catharsis associated with this, the most popular of the extramural mass media, is the capacity of cinema to relieve us, however temporarily, of some of our most distressing primitive anxieties by means of projection and identification. This way of thinking about the matter depends on the view which I take that psychotic processes are part of the warp and woof of everyday unconscious thought processes, just as Joan Riviere argues in ‘On the Genesis of Psychical Conflict in Early Infancy’ (1952), where she stresses the life-long role of distortion to the point of hallucination of the most ordinary experiences (cf. Young, 1994b, pp. 79-84).

Riviere appeals to Freud's hypothesis that the psyche is always interpreting the reality of its experiences — 'or rather, misinterpreting them — in a subjective manner that increases its pleasure and preserves it from pain' (Riviere, 1952, p. 41). Freud calls this process 'hallucination; and it forms the foundation of what we mean by phantasy-life. The phantasy-life of the individual is thus the form in which the real internal and external sensations and perceptions are interpreted and represented to himself in his mind under the influence of the pleasure-pain principle'. Riviere adds that 'this primitive and elementary function of his psyche — to misinterpret his perceptions for his own satisfaction — still retains the upper hand in the minds of the great majority of even civilised adults' (p. 41).

I suggest — and this lies at the heart of my overall argument — that this point about misinterpreting the reality of the psyche’s experience as normal and basic and hallucinatory is the essential point — the ur-fact — about human nature and a key insight for understanding cinema and all of culture. The counterpoint between this extreme distortion in the very having of experience, on the one hand, and the various means by which we learn and achieve containment, on the other, is the essential dialectic of culture.

Why do we go to the movies? The imaginary world of my childhood from about eight until I left home was importantly occupied with images from Realart Pictures, and I literally expected to encounter the Mummy (pun intended), the Frankenstein monster and/or Dracula (several had come together in ‘Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein’, so I knew they sometimes travelled in a bunch) if my wardrobe door was ajar, if I went onto the back porch or into the back yard, as I delivered newspapers in the dark early mornings, or if I ventured beyond the heavy chain into the thickly wooded valley of the Driverdale estate near my home. I suppose it suited me to have these forms of menace out there rather than in here, just as it did to have evil in film noire, pirate movies and westerns rather than in the dynamics of my family, my neighbourhood (which had its share of properly sadistic bullies) and the McCarthyism supported by my parents’ ultraconservative Texan friends and colleagues. My experience was, in its way, rather like that of the child in ‘Spirit of the Beehive’, where resonances between the Frankenstein story and the menace of Franco Spain are explored.

In all of those movies, the crucifix, the stake through the heart, the burning castle with the monster inside (though we never saw it die), Charlie Chan, Basil Rathbone, Tom Mix, Gene Autry (who sang as well), John Wayne, James Stewart, Burt Lancaster, Kevin Cosner and lesser heroes destroyed the menace, the Other. The triumph of heroism over dark forces and sinister embodiments occurred every Saturday; we could count on it. Walter Slezak, Akim Tamiroff, Boris Karloff, Vincent Price, Peter Cushing and Richard Boone were always outwitted or vanquished in an endless repetition of the triumph of idealisation over denigration, of decency and civilization over greed and enslavement or the encroachment of savages, of Popeye’s spinach over Dracula’s preferred tipple. Like Joe Don Baker’s Buford Pusser, they were all ‘Walking Tall’ in the face of evil and corruption.

In every weekly instalment of the endless series of serials (one after school on Monday afternoon, another on Saturday) the hero or heroine was at death’s door, sometimes literally cliff-hanging, and at the beginning of each new episode rescue was at hand. It is the cultural expansion of Freud’s fort-da game — lost and found, menaced or abandoned then rescued, uncontained and contained — in an endless, fascinating and gripping oscillation, larger than life in the semi-darkness of a familiar transitional space called The Village Theater.

I am waxing rhapsodic about these people in order to make a point about the other end of the splits represented by evil and menace in the paranoid-schizoid position. Our relations with the heroes were just as mad, just as unwilling to grasp the mixture that real life is, as were the Others and the aliens. There is no Warrant Officer Ripley to sacrifice herself to save us from the Alien, any more than there is a fleshy, zipping polymorphous and slimy Alien, no Lux Luthor or Joker, any more than there are Superman or Batman, as Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder and Val Kilmer have recently and sadly shown us. (in case you are not a film buff, Reeve has broken his neck, Kidder was found wandering depressed and derelict in Hollywood, and Kilmer has ruined the remake of ’The Island of Dr Moreau’ by being a silly, narcissistic prat.) Come to that, the most decorated soldier of World War II, Audie Murphy, became a B movie western star and ended up a drunken bankrupt bar room brawler who was found dead in a garage.

Crossing the boundary between the character and the actor is dangerous; only the audience is supposed to play like that, as we learn in ‘The Purple Rose of Cairo’ when Jeff Baxter steps out of the screen and into Mia Farrow’s life. It is distressing and confusing and ultimately not allowed. The interplay between screen and reality has long-since got out of hand, for example, the Reagan presidency, Reeve at the Democratic convention, the Kennedys and Marilyn Monroe, George Raft as a sidekick to real gangsters, ditto Sinatra. Clint Eastwood even became Mayor of Carmel, California. Perhaps the most sinister crossover was when the evil of Roman Polanski’s ‘Rosemary’s Baby’, in which Sharon Tate gives birth to the Devil’s child, intersected with the madness of Charles Manson’s psychopathic Helter Skelter ’family’, leading to the murder of Sharon Tate, who was the wife of the director who relished screen violence and perversity, and who was pregnant with his child (Bugliosi,1974). Polanski — who was and remains exceedingly fond of very young girls — went on to direct ‘Chinatown’, in which the labyrinthine plot leads finally to father-daughter incest between John Huston and Faye Dunaway and ends with the killing the mother over who got their daughter. Polanski plays a bit part in which he cuts open Jack Nicholson’s nose for putting it too far into the murky conspiracy of the polymorphously perverse patriarch (called Noah in the film) who sought to gain control the basic resource of life-giving water for the Los Angeles area (this is based on a true story, as is ‘Heaven’s Gate’). All of this is very primitive, indeed — and excellent cinema. It was nominated for eleven Oscars and Robert Towne got the one for his screenplay.

We pay to see these themes re-enacted again and again and love to see them speeded up and caricatured in Merrie Melodies and Looney Tunes. It is mad in that it is a recurring exaggeration of our most primitive splits and regressions, just as opera and other sorts of melodrama are. That’s the definition of melodrama — the exaggeration of the difference between good and evil and their embodiment in highly stylised simplistic plots which delight the child in us who longs to hear bedtime stories over and over again. In melodrama, good always triumphs over evil. But in none of the overdrawn plots I have been mentioning does the depressive position triumph over the paranoid-schizoid one. It does in some movies but rarely, since the front office almost always makes the happy ending too happy and the triumph of good over evil too absolute — until the next time, when evil must once again be vanquished.

It has been suggested by Camilla Paglia in a recent collection on Screen Violence (ed. Karl French, 1996) that this theme is an endlessly recurring eruption of a buried paganism that Christianity has never defeated. I suggest that Christianity has never even sought to do so, as is evident from the crucifixion and the eating of the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist, a practice which enjoined his disciples to repeat ‘in remembrance of me’. If we compare the colossal incidence of profoundly regressed, part-object relations and murder in film, thrillers and television, with what we actually experience in our daily lives, we must be engaged in some sort of massive externalization, projecting into fiction that which we incompletely sublimate in our efforts to convert our destructive impulses into socially acceptable activities. Surely this is clear from the argument of Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents. In this, the most important an heartfelt work of his last years, he said that the space within which civilization occurs is bounded by the great opposition between love and destructiveness. Freud writes, 'Civilization is a process in the service of Eros, whose purpose is to combine single human individuals, and after that families, then races, peoples and nations, into one great unity, the unity of mankind... But man's aggressive instinct, the hostility of each against all and all against each, opposes this programme of civilization' (p. 122). The aggressive instinct is derivative of the death instinct. 'The history of civilization is the struggle between Eros and Death. It is what all life essentially consists of' (Ibid.).

This is a dour doctrine: life consists of - is - a struggle between love and destructiveness. Civilization consists of renunciation. He says elsewhere that 'love and necessity are the parents of civilization' (p. 101). We live our lives in a space between the two great meta-instincts, and the main forces at work are rapacious sexual and destructive instincts, guilt, renunciation and sublimation. Those who thought Klein's renderings of the Death Instinct more pessimistic than Freud did not read their Civilization and Its Discontents. She says that the interaction of the life and death instincts governs all of life (Klein, 1958, p. 245). This is amply illustrated in Kleinian analysis of children, adolescents and adults. Two important points emerge. The first is that destructiveness is ubiquitous. The impulses emanating from the death instinct or Thanatos must find an outlet. Second, the mode of feeling associated with paranoid-schizoid thinking involves massive splits, which express themselves in the cinema as white hats versus black hats, involving ever-more inventive expressions and manifestations of evil and destructiveness, offset at the other extreme of the split with ever more heroic protectors of the innocent — champions of the good. As civilization itself is under greater threats of urban violence and civil wars, it is no wonder that comic book plots with caricatured extremes of baddies and goodies are more and more with us.

I began by saying that psychiatry itself was not, on reflection, what I wanted to talk about. I have been arguing that the real point of the representation of madness or psychotic processes is their ubiquity in the sorts of films we see all the time. The presence of psychiatrists, psychoanalysts, psychotherapists and people explicitly identified as patients is hardly the point. Indeed, when we see them, I submit in conclusion, they are more often than not merely ways of dramatising the deeper and more primitive processes which movies, in my opinion, explore more creatively than any other part of culture.


 This is the text of a paper prepared for the Third International Conference on ‘Psychosis: Containing the Inner and Outer Worlds’, University of Essex, Colchester, 20-22 September 1996. It was considerably revised and given in a series on ’Art and Psychoanalysis’ at Arnolfini, Bristol 24 February 1997.




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Freud, Sigmund 1930) Civilization and Its Discontents, in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, 24 vols. Hogarth, 1953-73, vol. 21, pp. 59-145.

Gabbard, Krin and Glen O. (1987) Psychiatry and the Cinema. University of Chicago Press.

Klein, Melanie (1946) 'Notes on Some Schizoid Mechanisms', reprinted in The Writings of Melanie Klein, 4 vols. Hogarth, 1975, Vol. III Envy and Gratitude and Other Works; 1946-1963; reprinted Virago, 1988, pp. 1-24.

Richards, Joscelyn (1993) ‘Cohabitation and the Negative Therapeutic Reaction’, Psychoanal. Psychother. 7: 223-39.

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Riviere, Joan (1952), ’On the Genesis of Psychical Conflict in Earliest Infancy, in Klein et al., Developments in Psycho-Analysis. Hogarth, pp. 37-66.

Shortland, Michael (1987) ‘Screen Memories: Towards a History of Psychiatry and Psychoanalysis in the Movies’, Brit. J. Hist. Sci. 20: 421-52.

Young, Robert M. (1994) ’Across the Borderline’, keynote address to Second International Conference on ‘Psychosis: Treatment of Choice?’, University of Essex.

______ (1994a) ‘Alien3’, Free Associations (no. 31) 4: 447-53.

______ (1994b) Mental Space. Process Press.

______ (1995) ‘The Ubiquity of Psychotic Anxieties’, in Jane Ellwood, ed., Psychosis: Understanding and Treatment. Jessica Kingsley, pp. 34-53

I would like to acknowledge the support of Dr Michael Clark, curator of film archives at the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine, in gathering information used in preparing this essay.

Copyright: The Author

Address for Correspondence: 26 Freegrove Road, London, N7 9RQ


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