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Psychoanalytic Theory And Reading Of Cultural Products Film Studies Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Film Studies
Wordcount: 3940 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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The main concept of this essay is to point out how psychoanalytic theory could be used as a method of understanding and analyzing cultural products. The most valid approach for this is to observe how the cinema integrates psychoanalytical theories into specific film concepts. For this reason a Hitchcock film is used as an example, for it a common fact that there are many Freudian aspects in his movies. Specifically, Psycho is regarded by many film theorists and historians as the first "psychoanalytic thriller" (Kaganski as cited in Boulton, 2010). As implied by the title of the film, it is a movie whose plot is based on the Freudian Oedipus complex theory.

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First of all, it is noteworthy how the cinema developed a strong connection to psychoanalytic theories over the years. What is also interesting is the way in which a movie could be interpreted as a desire or a dreaming process. Moreover, in the second part of the essay, the correlation which Psycho has with psychoanalytical procedure is explored, in an effort to discover its kind and if it is actually the first psychoanalytic movie.

Following a short presentation of the main plot, it is necessary to examine the nature of the Oedipus complex and how it is applied to the movie. Despite the fact that it remains the central psychoanalytic idea in the film, is not the only Freudian reference; the movie could also be interpreted through "ego, superego and id" psychoanalytic aspect. Finally, it is imperative to "dissect" the two protagonist characters and the famous murder scenes under the psychoanalytic perspective.


Cinema is considered to be among the most important institutions of the post modern society, one which serves numerous sociological purposes, through the use of art. The sociological perspective of cinema is but one side of the coin; the other side represents a more personal, more intimate psychoanalytical procedure. It is true that Freudian psychoanalysis is not a process concerned only with psychological models and consciousness. In modern society, psychoanalysis also constitutes a means of understanding works of great artistic and cultural values, such as cinematic films (Mertz, 1976).

A movie could be experienced through the psychoanalytical lens in variety of diverse ways, such as the Freudian dream interpretation or as an object of our fantasy-desire (Lacan) or even as our identification through voyeurism (ibid). Freud characterizes the dream as the expression of a wish fulfilled; a movie could, conceivably, be seen as a dream, because on the screen we witness some of our desires being visualized. 'Spellbound' and 'Marnie' are two of Hitchcock's films that could be approached through the method of dream interpretation (Sandis, 2009).

The history of the relation between psychoanalysis and cinema is divided into three periods. During the '30s, psychoanalysis became a familiar point of interest for the movie industry, although it was still somewhat superficial and had little to do with actual human behavior. After the Second World War, the references to psychoanalysis became even more apparent, because of the appearance of psychological problems. The War's cinematic demonstration followed this optimistic evolution (Gale Dictionary of Psychoanalysis). Hitchcock's movies had a great impact in this certain period, mainly due to their deep connection with psychoanalytic concepts. 'Psycho' (1960), 'North by Northwest' (1959) or 'The birds' (1963) are cultural works with oedipal themes in them. More recently psychoanalysis has been integrated in certain cinematic aspects as an objective cognitive method or even ridiculed method (for example in Woody Allen's movie characters) (Gale Dictionary of Psychoanalysis).


The movie is directed by Alfred Hitchcock and scripted by Joseph Stefano, who adapted the screenplay from the homonymous novel written by Robert Bloch. Bloch's 1959 novel was based on the true story of a notorious psychotic serial killer, named Edward Gein. His murderous character has inspired many other serial killers such as Jame Gumb ("Buffalo Bill") in the Silence of the Lambs (1991) (Dirks).

The movie had a great impact in the 60s and since then Hitchcock is considered as the original creator of suspense. Psycho is so multilayered and complex a movie, that it reveals more and more of its essence with each viewing. This explains why there is such a controversy about what genre of movie it is. The main theme is mystery and Hitchcock promotes it with his unique direction technique. When the film was aired in theaters, he insisted that no one would have a seat after the film had started. Thus, the audiences speculated that something terrible was happening in the first few minutes (Dirks).

Psycho is considered a 'film noir' because it shares some common characteristics with those films but, at the same time, remains very peculiar. Through the perspective that a film noir conjures a universe where human desire fails to be fulfilled, Psycho could be regarded as one of those films (Palmer, 1986). Lacan's 'object petite a' theory is referred to an unattainable desire, such as Norman's desire for Marion (Laplanche, Pontalis, 1986).

There is also another theory which makes Psycho the first psychoanalytical movie (Kaganski as cited in Boulton). Specifically, it starts as a whodunit, then it is transformed into a horror film and then into a suspense film with elements of very dark, black comedy. However, if one digs deeper, it inevitably becomes apparent that the film is undoubtedly psychological with specific Freudian interpretations. Francois Truffaut has said: "If Psycho had been intended as a serious picture, it would have been shown as a clinical case with no mystery or suspense. The material would have been used as a documentation of a case history" (Truffaut as cited in Sandis, 2009:69). In addition to this aspect, Hitchcock has mentioned "Probably the real Psycho story wouldn't have been emotional at all; it would've been terribly clinical" (Hitchcock as cited in Sandis, 2009:70). He was referring to the real incident of mother obsessed Ed Gein, who used to dress up like his dead mother and had murdered about a dozen women (Sandis, 2009).

The psychoanalytical view of the movie is illustrated as a parallel between Lila Crane's exploration of the gothic 'mother's' house and the exploration of Bate's divided mind. The Freudian element, which explains the construction of Norman's personality, defines the concept of the story. First of all, there is a traumatic incident (matricide) causing a transfer of guilt (translated on this occasion into the Oedipus complex). This, in turn, causes a partial loss of "the self" and a deep identification with the victim (ibid). The story unfolds from this Freudian perspective. Thus, it is evident that 'Psycho' is structured according to the psychoanalytic procedure.


Marion Crane is a Phoenix office worker, whose life falls short of her expectations. She can't get married with her boyfriend, Sam because he has to provide most of his money in alimony. One Friday her employer confided to her to deposit $40,000. Thinking that this is a good opportunity to take the money and start a new life, Marion leaves town, headed towards Sam's store in California. A heavy rainstorm forces her to spend the night at Bates' motel. The motel is managed by Norman Bates, a young man who has a very domineering mother. During the night Marion decides to return the money the next morning. Unfortunately, while she is taking a shower, an anonymous figure enters and stabs her to death. After extensive research, it is revealed that Norman has kept his mother to life through his split personality. Dominated by his mother's personality, Norman kills anyone he feels attracted to. In the final scene, we find Norman in prison, haunted by his mother's persona, thinking of how to prove her/his innocence.


Oedipus was the son of Laius and Jocasta, who was exiled from his homeland by his father because of a prophecy. The prophecy foretold that Oedipus would murder his own father. After many years Oedipus decided to discover his origins and returned to Thebes, where he met his father and, unwittingly fulfilling the prophecy, killed him. Then he was made king of the Thebans and was rewarded with the hand of Jocasta, who was his mother. When Oedipus realized that he had fulfilled the prophecy by killing his own father and having children with his mother, he blinded himself (Willner, 1982).

Oedipus Rex is a famous Sophocles' ancient Greek tragedy, which has been interpreted by Freud as nothing more or less than a wish fulfillment- the fulfillment of the wish of our childhood (Freud as cited in Willner, 1982). Specifically, Freud believes that boys are all destined to direct their first sexual impulse toward their mothers and their violent impulses toward their father. Under the, so called, positive form the complex is appeared as Oedipus story: death wish for the opponent who is the person of the same sex, the father and sexual desire for the person of the opposite sex, the mother. The Oedipus complex is experienced from 3 to 5 years old and is revived during the adolescent period. The liberation from this complex has to do with the healthy structuring of the personality (Laplanche, Pontalis, 1986). If the boy does not repress his sexual desire toward the Mother and does not identify himself with the Father, he cannot develop a normal personality.

It is considered that the Oedipus complex is the main psychoanalytic idea of the movie and Norman Bates is its modern atypical version (Boulton, 2010). According to the film's ending psychiatric speech:

"Now he was already dangerously disturbed, had been ever since his father died. His mother was a clinging, demanding woman, and for years the two of them lived as if there was no one else in the world. Then she met a man…and it seemed to Norman that she 'threw him over'. Now that pushed him over the line and he killed them both" (Boulton, 2010).

Norman Bates did not manage to overcome his unconscious sexual desire toward his mother and acted out his also unconscious drive of killing the Father. That explains why "the mother half of Norman's mind" has won (Boulton, 2010: 2). Psychiatrist Dr. Richmond illustrates that Norman has sexual desires for an attractive woman as normal men have, but his split personality does not allow him to develop a normal sexual intercourse. He explains to Lila (Marion's sister) that "When he (Norman) met your sister, he was touched by her…aroused by her. He wanted her. That set off the 'jealous mother' and 'mother killed the girl'! Now after the murder, Norman returned as if from a deep sleep. And like a dutiful son, covered up all traces of the crime he was convinced his mother had committed!" (ibid: 2)

Norman, driven by envy, killed his mother and her lover. In other words, he committed the crime of matricide, which is considered the most heinous and unpardonable crime and is especially unbearable for the son who commits it (Dirks). Trying to erase the crime in his own mind, he developed a split personality. As a result, he created an illusion that his mother was still alive. To make this illusion a physical reality, he stole her dead body and preserved it, using his taxidermist skills. In his delusional mind he played-acted and imagined that he was his mother and that she was as pathologically jealous of him as he was of her (ibid). In this way, he was acting as his mother and committed murders due to her jealousy. It is evident that he chose this horrific way to redeem himself from the matricide.


Freud divided the human mind into three conflicting parts: the ego, the superego and the id. The ego rests between the id and the superego and provides us with a sense of self. It has to build a balanced relationship of dependency between the demands of the id and the imperatives of the superego (Laplanche, Pontalis, 1986). The id is comprised of innate biological drives, emotional impulses, instincts and dispositions. On the contrary, the ego is made up of those mental phenomena related to whatever environmental considerations constrain the id (Freud calls these the reality principle). For example, the basic id drive is hunger and it is constrained by ego beliefs about what food is available where (Sandis, 2009). Finally, the superego plays a role similar to that of a judge. Freud considers the moral consciousness, self-observation and the development of moral values and ideals as expressions of the superego. The superego is defined as the heir of the Oedipus complex in terms of parental demands and prohibitions (Laplanche, Pontalis, 1986).

Observing Norman Bates' character through this theory, it is evident that he does not develop a strong enough ego in order to keep under control the powerful urges of both the id and the superego. Subsequently, the id and the superego manifest themselves as completely different personalities (Boulton, 2010). His sexual desire for Marion represents his id and her murder (murder of the sexual desire for Marion) represents an extreme expression of his superego.

Norman Bates never detached himself from his mother and identified himself with the Father. Therefore he "did not assimilate into what Lacan terms the 'symbolic order', the interconnected system of signs that every society constructs meaning and order around" (Zizek as cited in Boulton 2010:2). Norman's symbolic level is psychotic, so the superego acts in different ways. As Zizek (cited in Boulton, 2010:2) emphasized, it is the 'maternal superego' that acts and dominates his mind. At times he can become both personalities. But most of the times the mother half put his mind under control.

Freud compared the human mind to an iceberg. The tiny part of the iceberg, which appears above the water surface possibly, represents human perception. Below the surface lies a much darker, larger part of the iceberg representing the unconscious. There is no evidence if Hitchcock has ever come across the iceberg metaphor but he would have found it inspiring. Like Freud Hitchcock present us a certain familiar and ordinary picture that we are prepared to see (like the pick of the iceberg- conscious) but whose precise shape is always novel (the other part of the iceberg-unconscious). He also chose for his movies, ladies that appear cold as ice in order to reveal their oppressed thoughts and desires (Sandis, 2009). It is charming in terms of cinema suspense, for secret or repressed thoughts to rise to the surface.

(Sandis, 2009)

Furthermore, Slavoj Zizek (2005) compares the old, gothic house to the segmented personality of Norman Bates. The ground floor represents the ego and there he behaves as a normal son. The first flour represents the superego, where Norman is governed by the moral constrains of his mother. Finally the basement represents the id, the reservoir of the illicit drives of the psyche that's why his mother's skeleton is transferred there. The transfer of his mother's dead body from the first flour to the basement illustrates the deep connection of the id and the superego in Norman's split personality.

The exploration of the house is like a psychoanalytic process. Lila entered Norman's bedroom and observed his personal items, which were a combination of children's (boy's and girl's items) and adult's things (signifying his disturbed personality) (Dirks).


Marion symbolizes the repressed woman of the modern America of the 60s, who tries to be emancipated. Judging from her sexual intercourses with her lover during lunch times in secret hotel rooms, one could say that she appears as an independent woman. On the other hand, she gets the money and leaves town, which means that she wants a different life, maybe more conventional, having a successful marriage.

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Norman's character is the "mirror-negative" of Marion. "She operates in 'the Name of the Father'; Norman on the other hand, has not submitted to this 'paternal law' and is entrapped in 'the desire of the mother'" (Zizek as cited in Boulton, 2010). This theory is supported in terms of direction. As they stand together on the porch, the camera photographs the scene as if they were the two sides of the same coin, but Norman is also reflected in the glass window behind him (symbolizes his split personality) (Dirks).

Norman Bates could be considered as a good looking, boyishly version of Sam (Marion's boyfriend). As their encounter develops, however, this possibility is eradicated because it becomes obvious that he is not capable of adult sexuality, being held in sexual bondage with his mother (Palmer, 1986). As he mentions:

-Norman: Do you know what I think? I think that we're all in our private traps. Clamped in them. And none of us can ever get out. We scratch and claw, but only at the air, only at each other. And for all of it we never budge an inch.

-Marion: Sometimes we deliberately step into those traps.

(Psycho, 1960)

Each of them gives different meaning to the word 'trap'. Trap for Marion is the theft of the money or maybe her relationship with Sam. For a moment Norman seems that he speaks frankly, being conscious of his fragmented psyche. Unfortunately, after the discourse only Marion is capable of being subject to moral self-examination, deciding to return the money next morning.


The shower murder scene is among the most famous in the history of cinema. The major film star-Marion- is stabbed to death after the first 47 minutes of the movie's start. Even if someone has not seen the movie, he has undoubtedly seen this specific scene. It took a fully week to complete, using 70 cameras, fast cut editing of 78 film pieces and a naked stand in model (Marli Renfo) (Dirks). Despite the fact that it is one of the most jargonistic and violent scenes there is only implied violence because at no time does the knife penetrate into her body. In only instant one the knife touches her belly (ibid). However, it is the scene that made females, including Janet Leigh (Marion) not being able to take a shower for a very long time (Sullivan, 2006).

Murdering Marion while she was taking a shower with a knife is not a coincidental choice. On the contrary it has a deeper meaning in terms of direction and psychoanalysis. Until that moment, Marion was the main protagonist of the film and the epicenter of the plot was her feeling guilty for thieving the money. Taking a shower, the water washes away her guilt and rejuvenates her (Dirks). There is an irony here, at the moment she was relieved someone entered and took her life violently.

Moreover, the knife in Freudian terms is a phallic symbol. In this weird and abnormal way, Norman satisfied both his desires: the jealousy of his mother and his own desire, penetrating into the female body, using his knife. Marion's dead body is standing on the cold floor, mixed with ejaculatory spurts of blood dripping down her legs from various gashes, which symbolizes a violent and deadly rape (ibid).

Zizek with his documentary "The Pervert's Guide to Cinema" (2005) underlines that after Marion's murder the spectator identifies with Norman Bates persona. Suddenly the spectator is anxious of cleaning up Marion's blood from the bathroom and of getting rid of her car in the swamp, "relating to our satisfaction with 'a job well done'. Suspense is generated when, whilst Norman Bates is disposing of Marion's car (containing her body) in a nearby swamp, the car momentarily stops sinking, an anxiety arises in the viewer" (Zizek as cited in Boulton, 2010). The suspense here deals with the spectator's unconscious identification with Bates.

This identification has to do with Hitchcock's use of gaze, the Hippolytus's gaze. This gaze is not a seen gaze, but a gaze visualized by the Self in the field of the Other's idiosyncrasy. Everything is not observed just through the other's eyes but through the other's personal feelings. "The gaze is not the Other's glance as such, but the way this glance 'concerns me', the way the subject sees him/herself affected by it as to his/her desire" (Zizek,1992:214).

The second murder scene, the murder of detective Arbogast is more predictable. The fascination of the first murder diverts our attention from the second murder. Everything that happens before the murder act seems to announce it. When Arbogast enters the 'mother's' house and stands at the staircase, the audience immediately feel that something terrible is going to happen. However, the suspense here has to do again with this weird 'immoral' identification of the audience with Norman. The spectator desires Arbogast to be killed (Zizek as cited in Boulton, 2010).

There is a noticeable aesthetic differentiation between the two murders, which is related to the symbolic split of the movie's narrative (ibid). Marion's murder still being in the "Name-of-the father" symbolic realm, it takes place in a motel room, which highlights the aesthetic of an anonymous modern America. On the other hand, Arbogast's death takes place in 'mother's' house which represents American tradition, in "the desire of the mother" symbolic space (ibid).


It is evident that psychoanalytic theory is strongly related to the cinema. Specifically, in Hitchcock's films the Freudian theoretical models are considered as a main pattern of his movies' structure. Hitchcock himself has admitted when he was interviewed by Francois Truffaut:

"-F.T.: I saw Spellbound again recently and I must admit that I didn't care very much for the scenario.

-A.H.: Well, it's just another manhunt story wrapped up in pseudo-psychoanalysis…"

(Sandis, 2009:65)

He might not have taken the subconscious too seriously and in his personal life he avoided doctors of the mind, as he had admitted, however, it is known that the famous director was not unfamiliar with psychoanalytic Freudian theories (Sandis, 2009).

Nowadays the use of psychoanalytic theoretical models in cinema is the norm. It is not just a specialized knowledge that concerns a particular audience anymore; it is also used as a method of creating artistic, cultural products. On the other hand, not only cinema uses psychoanalytical procedure as a tool of creativity, but also cinema could be used through psychoanalytical process as a method of manipulation and control (Tania, 1968). There is a strong interaction between cinema and psychoanalysis. Members of the Frankfurt School believe that cinema is used through psychoanalysis in order to create various forms of easy, false pleasure as a way to keep the audience unaware of the real major social existing problems (ibid). This argument has some truth to a limited extent but there are also many examples which underline that cinema, using the psychoanalytical process, emphasizes serious sociological problems. However, whatever the purpose of using the psychoanalysis, the point is that psychoanalytical theories have a strong connection with the creation of literary or cinematic products.


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