Psychoanalytic Approach to Horror


Horror genre can be named as one of the cornerstones of the American culture. It is no accident that many people associate it with the corresponding image that emerged over the years in the United States. However, throughout the history of the American cinema, horror developed in collaboration with the traditions of other genres. Evolving in close connection with the peculiarities of national identity, the American model of genre in question borrowed a lot from the dramatic structures and traditions of the world’s art, as well as other tradition. Thus, over the time, the American horror, which was formed as a closed, detached notion, based on a few commonplace stories and dozens of dramatic techniques, has grown into a complex, polyphonic system. Nowadays, it is practically impossible to scare modern viewers with werewolves or demons. Today, more realistic and close to life horror should be used. In the current essay, two horror films called Psycho and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre are analyzed with the use of psychoanalysis. Both analyzed movies are based on real events. It is considered that the prototype of both maniacs, Norman from Psycho and “Leatherface” from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, became a real serial killer from Wisconsin called Edward Gein. He was arrested for committing two murders. A little later, the investigation found that hundreds of women were dug out of their graves; all of those women reminded him of his mother. Then, the maniac made a woman suit from their bodies to be similar to his mother. In general, a psychoanalytic perspective oversees the art of horror as a symbol that could be interpreted as nightmares; this symbol is associated with infantile sexual experiences. He ended his life in a mental hospital. The paper aims to discuss the studies of horror films and usefulness of psychoanalytic approach to horror.

Type of assignment
Writing level
Number of pages
Total price: $ 00.00

Academic Studies of Horror

Horror is one of the genres that is extremely popular among film scholars and researchers. It is widely examined and analyzed by many academics as well. There are different approaches to studying horror. One of the most famous and influential researchers is an American critic Robin Wood. He tried to analyze the film genre in question from the standpoint of vulgar Freudian Marxism and primarily through the interpretation of Freudianism by Herbert Marcuse. Wood believed that the monster in horror symbolizes the figure that has been superseded by the society for the reason of the otherness of sexuality. The appearance of certain characters in horror films indicates that society is afraid of its sexuality. Every shape the monster takes represent certain kind of sexuality, displaced by the norms of the society.

A clearly defined orientation of horror on understanding the common cultural archetypes confirmed the above-described genre as a kind of psychoanalytic mechanism to explore the most painful for the American nation issues and problems. Each monster invented in the «Universal» studio clearly demonstrated the embodiment of threat of the Great Depression. Later on, horror cinema made such link even more apparent, as America experienced an attack of paranoia during the “Cold War” and “witch-hunt”. The plots of popular movies of that time became a testing ground for the allegorical incarnation of the process. To cope with the phobia of the whole nation-state, a similar countrywide psychoanalysis was needed; and cinema played the role of the psychoanalyst, uniting the genres of science fiction and horror in one, showing new and new films that exploited the philistine fear of the unknown future. An example of the accuracy, with which the genre can work as a part of a fantastic story to reflect the atmosphere of his time, is the first film adaptation of the famous story of Jack Finney, the movie of Don Siegel—Invasion of the Body Snatchers. A separate chapter in the history of American horror became the so-called “ghost stories” (such as The Innocents by Jack Clayton and The Haunting Robert Wise), in which the paranormal sphere is viewed in the context of the illusory nature of the boundaries between reality and illusion, normality and insanity.

Psychoanalytic Approach to Studying Horror

The psychoanalytic approach to studying horror movies provides a great interest to the researchers of this genre. What unites all the researchers, who adhere to the psychoanalytic view of what is happening in a person and with a person? Psychoanalysis is used for explaining the human behavior with the help of mental reasons in a person that he or she is not aware of. The approach was introduced in a psychological and cultural usage by Sigmund Freud. By psychoanalytic approach, many people regard the method designed by Sigmund Freud. Today, however, quite a large number of authoritative experts with different theoretical concepts identify themselves as members of psychoanalytic stream. Most often, Freud’s psychoanalysis is called classical psychoanalysis, or Freudianism.

According to Freud, horror is something hidden, habitual, something that underwent displacement and returned again. The horrific fantasy can be viewed as the transformation of a dream about life in a womb, not frightening at first, but caused by some burning desire. The person that is afraid of himself, of monsters, lurking in the depths of his own soul is the main object of study of horror. Thanks to the films of Alfred Hitchcock, Freudianism becomes popular: a cocktail of ideas of the founder of psychoanalysis, which gives the movie a kind of symbolist and even surreal quality. Accordingly, the psychoanalyst ranks among the mandatory heroes of the genre.


Psycho is a film by Alfred Hitchcock, traditionally ranked to the height of creativity of Hitchcock and of the genre as a whole. The movie is particularly catching in terms of psychoanalysis. It is a freestyle adaptation of the eponymous novel by Robert Bloch. The old artistic codes of the American Gothic are transformed into a new genre, interesting from the point of view on psychoanalysis. A philosopher and psychoanalyst Slavoj Zizek, studying film Psycho from the psychoanalytic point, noted that its plot is based on the story of the boy, who kills young women for the sake of pathological love for his dead mother. As a rule, the absence of a father in the family is compensated by a painfully swollen maternal superego.

Speaking about a psychoanalytic viewpoint on this film, it is worth mentioning the motif of birds that can be seen through the whole movie. During its opening scenes, the city is shown from a bird’s-eye view, then the camera stops on the weather vane in the shape of a bird, and the name of the city pops up – Phoenix. The name of the main character is Crane; Norman compares her (as well as his mother) with a bird. The room of Bates Motel is filled with the stuffed birds and their images. Moreover, a murder in the bathroom is accompanied by shrill sounds similar to the cries of the disturbed birds and reminds a kite attack on a defenseless victim. According to Slavoj Zizek, a Slovenian psychoanalytic philosopher, in Psycho, the birds embody a predatory maternal superego, seeking to acquire a son. In such regard, he cites the observation of the psychologist Christopher Lasch, who claims that the unconscious impressions of a mother are so bloated, so drenched with aggressive impulses, and the intensity of her concerns does not meet the child’s needs to such an extent, that in his imagination, mother often appears in the form of a bird of prey. Francois Truffaut’s interview with Hitchcock remarked that the narrative line of Psycho is built in such a way that it shows that crimes become more serious with the course of events. After an innocent adultery, a double murder occurs, and mental disorder of the main character is the cause of it.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

Horror is not only an opportunity to speak about the forbidden, but the objectification of original fear of life and the future. Tobe Hooper, the director of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, on the question of the psychological and social subtext of his movie, replied that first of all, he made a movie about his childhood fears. As stated by him, by showing them on the screen, he sought to get rid of them. Consequently, the horror resembles psychotherapy. Cinema skillfully raises our fears, hidden in the unconscious, even if it is the usual children’s fear of the darkness and rustling under the bed. Exploiting them, a movie becomes a nightmare, from which a person cannot wake up. The experienced fear breaks the psychological barrier and appears bare right in front of the audience. Texas Chain Saw Massacre is understanding of own personality through fears and desires. Evil, embodied on the screen, is always a part of a person, and horror is necessary to overcome and reconcile with this evil. The absurdity of what is happening in a horror film and the irony of the fatalism of human existence allow the viewers to accept the darkness in themselves, to accept life and death philosophically. As a result, the horror genre will remain forever in the history of cinema, it combines social mythology and intimate experiences of the individual more than any other genre. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre also shows the explicit fear of society before the retired, but still practicing workers of slaughterhouse, symbolizes the fear before proletarians.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is full of blood and violence, with chainsaw, tortures, and torn body parts containing something extremely terrible; and only psychoanalysis has the explanation of it: this terrifying fantasy is nothing else than childhood fears and collective nightmares. The analogy, often drawn between horror films and nightmares, usually affect personal experience of the audience. The audience sits in the dark, and the cinema piece inevitably involves a certain shutdown of consciousness; the personality is lost in the fantasy experience. Nightmares are the embodiment of repressed desires, conflicts, fears that disturb the consciousness. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, as well as other popular horror movies, can be interpreted as a personal vision of its creator, and, at the same time, as a collective vision of the audience – a mixture that became possible because of the same structures of common ideology. It is possible to offer a simple definition of a horror movie: it is people’s collective nightmares. The conditions, under which a certain vision becomes a nightmare, suggest that, from the point of view of consciousness, a repressed desire is so terrible, that it should be abandoned as so outrageous, strong, and powerful, that poses a serious threat Bernard. It is a primary reason why horror movies do not need to be taken seriously.

In terms of the psychological impact of the film, the very process of killing in the movie under review is not the main lever of influence on the viewer. Killings occur very quickly, casually, similar to the process of murdering cattle in slaughterhouses. Such measured and realistic killing process scares the most. Maniac, as if a mechanical chopper, relentlessly grinds his victims, seeing them as cattle. Behind his mask, sewn from scraps of victims’ skin, the real evil from the nightmares is hiding. Embrace of the terrible face of the maniac in a mask was widely exploited in the cult of horror movies. It is a yet another mechanism to generate fear from the screen, allowing the viewer to imagine the ugly face of the killer. Tension and suspense of the upcoming horror create a bizarre atmosphere. The movie takes place in a very twitchy rhythm. Suspense skillfully emphasizes the ambient sound, focusing attention on the terrifying things of the world. Yellow and brown tones are predominant colors in the film; they give it a repulsive orientation, once again emphasizing the unbearable savagery and abomination of everything that happens on the screen.


For many decades, the horror genre has been and remains one of the most popular with the public. The demand for other traditionally popular genres vary from decade to decade, and only the need of horror films remains the same as before; it is a significant part of contemporary film distribution. In addition, throughout the history of its evolution, horror instantly assimilated the newest author’s concepts, techniques, dramatic design, and principles. In terms of film studies, horror got a lot of special attention. It ceased to be meant only for teenage boys or marginal fans. Through the efforts of several bright representatives, it became an independent research field with psychoanalysis as a tool. A psychoanalytic approach to studying horror films is particularly useful for understanding the reason why people are fond of watching such art pieces. Since its inception, horror cinema fulfilled psychoanalytic function, in which more or less pressing issues and dilemmas of his audience were conceptualized. According to psychoanalysts, people, who prefer horror movies, in such a way respond to the unconscious level of prenatal traumas. After all, without the possibility of release, this trauma leads to all-out anxiety and unmotivated panic. The true subject of the horror genre is a struggle for the recognition of all that our civilization displaces or inhibits; horror is a demonstration of the revival of all this in human’s nightmares.

Need an essay?
We can easily write it for you
Place an order

Related essays