The Freud Museum

Events Archive

18 March 1995

Adolescent Phantasies and the Horror Film Genre

Conference Report

In 1995 The National Film Theatre played host to the Freud Museum conference Adolescent Phantasies and the Horror Film Genre. Following hot on the heels of Humour and Psychoanalysis, the conference was inspired by another of Freud's forays into literary theory - his essay 'The Uncanny' published in 1919. Freud also owned a copy of Fuseli's picture The Nightmare , which he hung on the waiting room wall. The genesis of this essay, inspired as it was by a short story in Strand magazine, demonstrates Freud's willingness to take popular culture seriously, and a similar attitude motivated the conference.

Freud's essay, of course, was the starting point for many of the papers presented at the conference. In his lucid introduction, David Punter, Professor of English at Stirling University and author of The Literature of Terror (1980), introduced some of the enduring horror themes with which we are familiar in film and literature. He traced the stock images and themes of modern horror back to the tradition of the Gothic novel - the haunted castle, the Frankenstein monster, the premature burial and so on - as metaphors replete with psychological significance. Michael Grant, who has made a special study of horror film, used part of his considerable video library to illustrate the history of 20th century film horror. He looked not only at the themes of the films, but the way they are made - the forms of identification and point of view involved in their construction. Thus the viewer may occupy the place of the hero, the monster or the victim while watching the films, and these roles, we might add, mirror the play of internal objects which might be vying for pre-eminence within.

After the morning break Don Campbell prefaced his talk with perhaps the most gruesome of the video clips. They were from the Japanese film Tetsuo: Iron Man, a film depicting a man's attempt to transform himself into a machine when faced with the awakening of sexual desire, fear of the opposite sex and rivalry with others of the same sex. Thus the film represents a transformation of the body and relationships which to some extent mirrors the real transformation which adolescents are undergoing. Don argued that the horror story illustrates a process to be gone through, which involves an element of disgust. It is terror of a specific kind which the protagonists (and the viewer) are required to overcome in the process of 'discovering, explaining and confronting the monster'.

In the afternoon Peter Wilson, the Director of Young Minds, reminded us of the essential vulnerability of the adolescent. In this he was following Freud, who saw the factor of infantile helplessness as one of the situations which are evoked in horror stories and help to account for their impact. The adolescent is vulnerable not only in relation to the changes that are occuring within, but in relation to the demands of the social world and the intensity of his or her relationships. The adolescent may feel caught within conflicting demands such that they hardly know where they stand, or where to turn any more. Peter illustrated his thesis with reference to the first Nightmare on Elm Street , which depicts this vulnerability to a fine degree and in which the distinction between the dream world and the real world is effaced with horrifying consequences.
The day ended with a lively plenary discussion chaired by James Ferman, the head of the British Board of Film Classification. It is gratifying to learn that Mr Ferman has subsequently consulted one of the speakers about his work, while a number of teachers in the audience have been following up issues with other speakers. We would also like to thank Martin Harvey and his staff at the NFT for their help and hospitality.

Ivan Ward's paper 'Adolescent Phantasies and the Horror Film' has been published in the British Journal of Psychotherapy Vol13 N2 1996

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