341 Week 9 #1

December 13, 2010

Robin Wood’s theory of repression from “An Introduction to the American Horror Film” seems to be rooted in Freudian ideas of psychoanalysis. Freud believed that Western society had too much surplus repression and because of this it was beginning to self-destruct and cause problems. He warned that this repression was becoming mass scale and would cause society to rip apart at the seams unless it was dealt with. Repression is internalized to learn to act a certain way to appease the forces of society and will inevitably wind up being channeled in different ways. Wood says that anything that can no longer be repressed ends up being projected in some other way and become oppressed.
The principle of surplus repression deals with sexuality. There are four aspects of sexuality that get repressed: sexuality in general, bisexuality, homosexuality, and child sexuality. These things get repressed in society because they pose a challenge to the social structure of a patriarchy. Patriarchal ideology would argue that the only purpose of sex is to procreate and the only acceptable method for procreation is monogamy. Freud said the libido is a form of energy, a force that is essentially creating all the surplus repression. This energy is channeled into other more productive things for life to run smoothly in Western culture. It was understood that the most productive way to channel your excess energy was to work. This is one reason why Western culture places so much value on work. This gives some insight as to why people Western society are workaholics: there are probably other issues that are beneath the surface causing these people to drown there repressions in work related gratificaiton. Western society dictates that the ideal person under a social system is a person who can channel sexually based energy into activities that produce a social good. The libido is usually creative so this type work is more creative than anything else. Bisexuality refutes the idea of only having sex for the purpose of procreation; it refutes the idea of the soulmate. If it was acceptable in society to sleep with anyone anytime, it would goes contradict what society says is moral. Homosexuality often involves oppression by a homosexually repressed society because these individuals are actively discriminated against. With homosexuality, sex is obviously not for procreation but for personal gratification shared between two people. Feminine sexuality gets repressed and as a result so do feminine creativity and independence. This type of sexuality is seen as most threatening in Western culture, as evidenced in the female gender roles portrayed in film noir. The women who is sexual and assertive gets punished in a very overly determined way. Feminine sexuality is repressed to ensure that women won’t challenge the patriarchal social structure of the Western world. Child sexuality is repressed because children are supposed to be innocent. However, Freud augments this by saying: children become aware of sexuality when they are about five, and people have never been able to accept that idea because of their firm belief that children are supposed to be innocent. These ideas about sexuality are all associated with surplus repression because how they are represented has nothing to do with life or death, but instead with how society is organized according to Western cultural values. Wood believes that Horror films are not really about life and death or violence but about the repression of these aspects of sexuality. They are almost always about gender and sexuality on some level.
Repression can’t make things go away, it can only make them highly unconscious. As Freud said, they have to be released projected in some way. Because the libido is creative they are projected in cultural products through symbols. These cultural products, such as horror films, contain suppressed issues that our collective society cannot deal and these issues are projected outward in a symbolic form. This is what is called the “other”. The other provides a way for society to release all the problems that it can’t deal with. Wood agrees with Freud that the other is inseparable from the concept of repression. Sexual problems are projected on other people, specific people, people who represent something other than ourselves. Wood uses the example of the Puritans to illustrate repression in Western society. Puritans have a rigidly structured society that is extremely egalitarian but also patriarchal. They don’t believe in sexuality in any form, including singing and dancing, or any kind of pleasure. The Native Americans the they encountered were a more sexually liberated people, who were free to sing and dance and wear revealing tribal regalia in hot weather. Puritans can’t deal with there own issues so they are dressed head to toe in heavy clothing. Instead of trying to get along with the Native Americans and understand them, they condemned them as savages, children, or of the devil, and persecuted them because of their fear of what they themselves repressed. Every problem that they had, they projected onto the Native American. They defended their beliefs with the ethnocentric rational that god had sent the Native Americans to test the puritans, and since they had failed the test, the only way to pass the test was to shoot and kill them off. In this example the Native American take on the role of the other. In a way the Puritans saw them as the first horror film subjects, the first horrific character. Killing that group was a way to get rid of their own problems. Repression creates the other and sees the other as an expression of their own problems. There is almost always a sexual component to that. The puritans saw the NA as an extension of themselves, as if they only existed in the perception of a puritan mind. Concurrently, Native Americans are argued to be the first monster of American literature. In horror films the repression is redirected toward the other and other is a monster or a killer. The monster is the return of the repressed in symbolic form. That which people can’t deal with inevitably returns as a symbol, and that’s what Wood says the monster is. Typically, the monster has some relation to the society but usually has some foreign elements. There are 8 primary others in horror films: 1. Anyone who is foreign to us: so in the context of American society, for example, the other might be represented symbolically as communists like in The invasion of the body snatchers. This is really a science fiction film but it has horrific elements that are metaphorically communist. 2. Women: in a patriarchal society men project onto women their own insecurities and anxiety, especially their own fears about masculinity. This might explain why in so many horror films, the sexually empowered female who is not a virgin has to die. Woods talk about the idea of “the final female”, which is the last female standing at the end of the horror film. She represents female strength and independence that is not supposed to be feared but supposed to be embraced by society 3. Poor people: If a society is predominately controlled by the elite who have wealth and power, that society will suppress the people in the lower classes to keep them from subverting the status quo. There are class elements represented symbolically in the Texas Chainsaw Masacre by portraying lower class people, who lost their jobs, killing people with chainsaws. That’s why in a lot of horror films it turns out that the slasher is the janitor. 4. Other cultures or foreigners 5. Ethnic groups within a culture. 6. Alternative ideologies. 7. Sexual deviance: homophobia is always an example of a clash with ‘otherness’. The people who are most homophobic are the ones who might be homophobic are the ones who can’t handle it in themselves. They project it on other people. Horror films are about what we are afraid of as a society and what we can’t collectively deal with. The monster is a symbol of the repressed, or the other. Wood famously states that, “The true subject of the horror film is the struggle for recognition of all that our civilization represses or oppresses. It’s reemergence dramatized, as in nightmares, as an object of horror, a matter of terror”
Wood says that the other is an extension of the self, of the society, it is not something that comes from outside. What we can see is that horror films, which had been accused of scaring people into accepting things the way they are should really be validated for trying to criticize society. When viewing horror film the audience must take into account what is supposed to be normal in society, what is the monster depicted in the film. Only then can the audience analyze what the relationship is between what’s considered normal and what’s considered monstrous in society.
Wood examines the recurring themes of 1960s 1970s horror. The first theme he notes is how the monster is depicted as a human psychotic, like Normal Bates in Psycho, or Mike Myers in Halloween. The next theme involves the revenge of nature. Satanism or the devil child was another popular theme, as seen in The Exorcist. Cannibalism was a popular theme tackled by zombie films like Night of the Living Dead. In these recurring themes there is a common thread which is usually the threat to the family. The family is sacred and good. The other is the accidental importation of a foreign element into a good American family. The Omen is good example of this. The film seems to be about the end of the world because it’s about the antichrist but it’s about the end of the patriarchal family. The Omen is what Wood would call a conservative horror film because the things that are threatened are the institutions of society, including the state the government, the family, and the church. Most horror films are very ambivalent. They can be critical of society or they can be in support of society, but they always see things as falling apart on some level, just like Freud did when he wrote about surplus repression. The Omen might be about the threat to these values but the viewer gets a sense of vicarious pleasure from ambivalently watching them get destroyed. Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Night of the Living Dead are what Wood would classify as liberal progressive horror films because they question the foundation of society and portray society as disintegrating under the weight of surplus repression. Horror films can be the most critical about problems in society and most effective in pointing out the problems with the way society is structured.

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