Psychiatry and Horror – in the Movies!

Horror stories are as old as story telling itself. The author, Fernando Espi Forcen, MD, PhD, and a practicing psychiatrist, narrates how in the Hebrew Bible, David’s harp playing soothed the evil spirits from which Saul suffered; Jesus cast out devils, providing the

Nosferatu Movie Poster

Nosferatu Movie Poster

prototype for exorcisms; and the ancient Greeks had countless demons and monsters – Gorgons and Harpies, the Medusa and the Minotaur, the Hydra and the Sphinx – to challenge the most courageous or foolhardy heroes.

With the emergence of mainstream cinema in the 1920s, a new method of scaring the audience out of its senses was invented. The author’ treatment is comprehensive, including the early silent classics such as Nosferatu and other German expressionist masterpieces such as The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920). Each chapter begins by setting the main movie themes in their historical and social context. For example, the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) resonates with paranoid-like fears propagated by the McCarthy-era “witch hunt” for Communist conspirators in the 1950 in the USA. The body snatchers look just like normal people – so do Communists! The psychiatric issues that often lie just beneath the surface – psychopathic behavior, psychotic symptoms, Freudian conflicts – are called out in a non technical language or when such language is used, it is [mostly] paraphrased in terms accessible to the lay person.

On a personal note, the author, Fernando, relates how he came to be an unapologetic fan of horror films. The movies were a source of shared entertainment and bonding between his father and him and his brothers. The father introduced the brothers to horror movies while both were still of tender age. They would turn out the lights in the house and play a kind of “hide and seek,” which culminated in one of the brothers having to traverse a long, dark hallway from one of the hiding places of which the father would inevitably jump out and give them a thrilling (but seemingly friendly) fright with a surprising “Gotcha!” Even if the context and content could be anxiety inspiring, the form of relatedness was an empathic one. It seems to have worked. It created a bond of affection and affinity between father and son, and made possible the transferring of the father’s appreciation of horror films between them.

Meanwhile, all the classics are here. Fans of the unconscious will thrill in the author’s review of Forbidden Planet (1954) in which the death drive, Thanatos, is embodied as a force real enough to leave footprints in the dust (and which surely anticipates the Force in the Star Wars saga). The author’s accessible and plain spoken but deep reading of the development of horror films envelopes his review of The Exorcist (1973) with references to the real life Father Gassner and the early 18th Century “magnetists,” who performed exorcisms and cathartic sessions, the results of which were amazingly similar to the outcomes of psychotherapy (e.g., p. 84). The intersection with “the rapport” extends from Count Dracula’s hypnotic powers to Rosemary’s Baby.

Our fear of and fascination with “the other” – our marginalized neighbor, the physically deformed (e.g., The Hunchback of Notre Dame), the insane or just unconventional – within the community and within ourselves – causes us to keep coming back compulsively to engage with horror films involving the dead and undead, witches, vampires, psychopaths, and demonic possession. This attempt to master our deepest fears – or at least get a temporary catharsis – seems to help us to survive the everyday disasters to which individuals and communities are exposed.

In addition to mastering the unknown through its depiction, the “pay off” is to confront images of the fragmentation of the self, annihilation of the self, and loss of control of the self’s boundaries. That is perhaps why audiences are strangely attracted to horror films. They give a specific form to our most primitive fears, binding these deep fears to a specific something that can be objectified and can be overcome by the cinematic equivalent of the “cavalry to the rescue” or even by counter magic. It should be noted that people run from the theatre if they believe their lives are really in danger; but the views stay in their seats, having actually paid money to be frightened vicariously by the experience of watching a horror film.

The author gives a taxonomy of a dozen different kinds of horror films (accompanied by many rich examples, includes remakes of classics such as Godzilla), extending from vampires, monsters (Frankenstein), aliens from outer space, witchcraft and the devil (e.g., Suspira), demonic possession (e.g., The Evil Dead), the supernatural (e.g., King Kong, The Birds), ghosts and the paranormal (e.g., Poltergeist), slashers and psychopaths (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Psycho), Zombies (too many to count), body horror (The Fly), and asylums (e.g., One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). While one might split hairs about where to draw the taxonomic boundaries, I found the categorizing to be more than satisfactory in that nothing seems to have escaped the network of distinct kinds of horror.

The author has a charming, dead pan manner of describing the plot of the movies that are analyzed. Whether intentionally or not, some of the narratives are so improbable and contain such fantastic twists and turns that a direct account of the happenings is just plain funny. I laughed out loud more than once at some of the “out there” plots when stated in a plain paraphrase. I speculate that it is precisely such an innocent and honest engagement with the stories that enabled Fernando to review the vast cinematography of horror flicks, the artistic quality of which is often highly variable, in spite of many classic gems, without being personally damaged or traumatized by so much death and destruction of innocence. What some might experience as being a realistic representation and find upsetting or even toxic to the soul lands like a humorous “you must be kidding me” moment in Fernando’s plain redescription.

I found this book to be an entertaining and informative journey through the deep history of horror films. The author has an extensive knowledge of the films themselves and that is as it should be. However, what distinguishes this work and sets it apart from other catalogs and summaries or even learned treatises in film studies that one might find in works by Robert Pippin or Stanley Cavell is the author’s deep engagement as a psychiatrist with the history of human suffering. People have different ways of expressing their suffering. Had we lived in the middle ages or even the beginning of the 19th Century and felt our energy slipping away, we might have described our experience as having our energy sucked out by a demon or devil. It would have been helpful to call a cleric or other spiritually well-connected individual to call forth, engage with, and (if successful) dismiss the malignant spirit. Today such a redescription of experience satisfies criteria for the vegetative symptoms of depression. We might call a psychopharmacologist. Likewise, with the redescription of hysteria with psychotic features as bipolar disorder and the latter as multiple personality (now dissociative identity disorder) if one adds the proper admixture of amnesia. For someone who has never been a big fan or such flicks and did not have the benefit of Fernando’s father’s empathy, the benefit of this work is to provide useful and comprehensive synopses and reviews, delivering the artistic and psychological value, without incurring the risk of an unpleasant movie going experience.

In spite of my admiration for this work and recommendation that readers get the book and be stimulated by it, this is not a “softball review.” Therefore, I have a criticism. Many of the applications of Freudian interpretations, land like external impositions of a cookie-cutter template onto the films to which they are applied. This applies to everything from phobias of spiders in Arachnophobia (1990) to Norman Bates’ (Psycho (1959)) relationship with his mother. While such deep interpretations are accurate enough and motivated by elements in the surface of the narrative, they show up as a caricature of psychoanalysis, true neither to authentic psychoanalysis nor to the film. Not to psychoanalysis which necessarily works from surface to depth in a detailed step-by-step fashion (and which would have made the book twice as long) nor to the film whose screen writer and director ever imagined any such formulation in their wildest dreams.

This work provides a cinematic romp through the vast field of horror films from German Expressionism in the 1920s, including guys obviously dressed up in rubber suits in the 1950s through genuinely disturbing contemporary films such as The Blair Witch Project to David Lynch, Wes Craven, The Shining, and the seemingly ever-contemporary Zombie hype. The author connects the dots between what we see and experience on screen and a wealth of psychiatric, psychoanalytic, and just plain biological symptoms, processes, and outcomes. The plot synopses are not mere summaries (though they are that, too), but become mini (and sometimes extensive) reviews in their own right as the author provides context and background.

As scary as the Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) may be, it is never quite as terrifying once it has emerged from beneath the surface of the lagoon as when it was still the potential and hidden incarnation of the unknown, dwelling beneath the surface or lurking in childhood fantasies under the proverbial bed. Those tempted to take a peek under the bed or in the closet after the lights are out will benefit by taking along this book as a guide to navigating the diverse depictions of cinematic horror.

Book review: Monsters, Demons, and Psychopath: Psychiatry and Horror Film by Fernando Espi Forcen, New York: CRC Press (Taylor and Francis), 228 pp.

(c) Lou Agosta, PhD.

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Categories: empathic interpretation, empathy consulting, historical empathy, Horror Films, Mental illness, psychiatry, schizophrenia, talk therapy

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