Monday, 30 May 2011

Essay on Psychological Terror - Year 1

From ghoulies and ghosties
And long-leggedy beasties
And things that go bump in the night,
Good Lord, deliver us!

- Scottish saying


In my essay on psychological horror I will examine what makes a film fall into this category and the main themes contained in the genre.  Comparing the films that we have watched as part of this unit on an individual basis with both those definitions and my own reactions to them.

Ghosties and Ghoulies and Things that go Bump in the Night

We like to be frightened, it heightens our perceptions and makes us feel very alive, being frightened in a safe way such as watching a film gives us the thrill of this experience and the pleasure of relief in knowing it was not real.  Carlos Clarens in his foreword to ‘An Illustrated History of Horror and Science Fiction Films’ touches upon this need;

‘The landscape of the mind does not always correspond to external circumstance.  Rather there seems to be inside us a constant ever present yearning for the fantastic, for the darkly mysterious, for the choked terror in the dark.’ (Clarens p.xvii) 

The genre of Psychological horror in a film is one that is related to the mind, they are mental rather than physical, quite often lead characters are quiet, neat and self contained – such as Hannibal Lecter in the Silence of the Lambs or Eleanor in The Haunting - normally the characters must resolve conflicts within their own minds in an effort to understand something that has happened to them, often battling for a return to normality.     

Suspense can be created from two or more characters preying upon one another's minds, either by playing deceptive games with the other or by trying to demolish the other's mental state.

There are often repeated themes within this genre, the uppermost being reality. 

  • Reality - often in the story of the film the character and the audience have to determine what is real and what is not, this is not made easy as the characters often do not know what is real themselves.   
  • Mind -  another main theme, often as a source of conflict with suppression of memory by the subconscious and a loss of identity – who am I? 
  • Death – closely associated with horror the characters either fear or have a fascination with death.
The rise of the horror movie is closely associated with theories of the mind and particularily psychological horror.  Alan Jones in ‘The Rough Guide to Horror Movies’ explains this link:

‘It is no accident that the birth of the horror movie in Paris in 1896 coincided with the public acceptance of psychoanalytical theory (and especially the teachings of Freud), which for the first time openly discussed the ambivalence of human desire – horror is a direct conduit to unconscious fears and thoughts of love, pain and loss.’ (Jones:p.ix)

Alfred Hitchock an acknowledged master of suspense often applied Freudian concepts to his thrillers such as Psycho and Rear Window and the idea of a damaged mind or split personality has proved fertile ground ever since the publication of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde in 1886.

The Machinist - Brad Anderson (2004)


Figure 1.

This is a film starring Christian Bale as Trevor Reznik a man who has not slept in a year and begins to suffer paranoia and hallucinations brought on by this and his extreme weight loss. He seems disfunctional in his relationships with his only close ties being to a waitress and a prostitute.

The Machinist is a jewel in the crown of psychological horror and in the art of story telling. The film opens on Reznik trying to dispose of a body rolled in a carpet and at the point of him being discovered jumps back in time to the beginning of the tale. There are so many elements that inspire me in this film that I will deal with them one by one.
The physicality of the film immediately puts you on edge, it is apparent that there is something very wrong with Reznik and his appearance is painful to see. I admire the dedication that led Christian Bale to systematically starve himself for this role and the pain of it is alive on the film, he is utterly believable as a tormented soul. His effect on the characters in the story, uneasiness among his co-workers and pity from the women are also totally understandable immersing you completely. He looks hauntingly like victims of the holocaust or an animated corpse.
Figure 2.

The lighting is very cold with a prolification of blues and greens giving a feeling of night closing in, you are never completely sure if it is night or day, he seems to exist in a perpetual twilight which gives you some idea of how the Reznik himself must feel. This all adds to the claustrophobia and sense of impending threat created by the darkly lit machine shop in which he works.
The character himself seems diametrically opposed, he acts kindly showing sympathy, affection and remorse leaving large tips for both the waitress and the prostitute he visits, yet his actions speak of something else, obsessive hand washing, frantic cleaning as if Macbeth like he is trying to wash away the spots of guilt with bleach.
There are clever clues built into the film that snowball as the story unfolds, every time he meets the waitress the time is 1.30 no matter where he is, the mysterious Ivan who causes the rapid deterioration in the mental state of Reznik drives a car with the reverse number plate of Rezniks own, phrases are repeated out of context both verbally and visually such as the theme of the split path, the road to salvation or perdition. These clues allow you to piece together the mystery of what is happening to Trevor Reznik as he himself discovers them, you travel with him through paranoia and doubt and final revelation but never too soon, there is no easy route in the twists of the story.
This is also a moralistic tale of guilt manifest, eating away at the fabric of your being, denying you any rest until you put right the wrong and then, only then, can you rest. A powerful modern morality play with Ivan as the Super-Ego, emaciated Reznik as the Ego and healthy Reznik as the Id. However after all is revealed I am only left with a feeling of pity, for his torment was caused by his inability to deny his conscience and relief that he has finally managed to sleep.

Rear Window - Alfred Hitchcock (1954)  

Figure 3

James Stewart plays Jeff Jeffries a freelance writer who has been injured in a car race and has to rest in his flat for six weeks with a broken leg in the middle of a heat wave. His girlfriend Lisa Fremont is played by Grace Kelly a socialite who would love to make their relationship permanent. Almost the entire film is seen through the eyes of Jeffries as through frustration and boredom he begins to watch his neighbours and concludes that a murder has been committed.

This film is a timeless classic and one I have enjoyed watching a few times - but never in the role of analyst! The beauty of the story is the time that it takes to set the scene, long pans of the set take in every detail of the courtyard and the residents behind their windows. We are teased into being interested in the lives of the neighbours with glimpses into their private lives as the heat wave causes all the neighbours to leave their blinds and windows open. Hitchcock allows us to be both prudish about Jeffries spying and voyeuristic in our eagerness to find out more, the movie taps into our secret desires to spy and gossip. The sound in the movie comes from the everyday noises that are made such as arguments, piano playing, records playing and conversations these all serve to immerse the viewer into the world outside the window.
The film makes great use of the Male Gaze, we see only the subjects that Jeffries is interested in and his reactions to them. He first views them dispassionately almost as specimens in a jar, giving each a label and diagnosis, the attitude is arrogant and detached. He enjoys the power of seeing without being seen. This attitude is reflected in his relationship with Lisa as he tries to dispassionately analyse the reasons why their relationship must end. Initially she is often seen flouncing in a wonderful dress, pure eye candy, a person with no substance who can be dismissed and forgotten, it is only as she is also drawn into the conspiracy that her personality, reasoning and bravery are fleshed out.
As the film continues Jeffries becomes less detached, as his interest in their daily activities grows he begins to grow suspicious when the invalid wife of the travelling salesman disappears and he is seen taking large cases on trips late at night and cleaning a large knife and a handsaw. As the audience you are not sure at this point if the heat and inactivity of his situation have caused him to become paranoid and indeed this view is shared initially by both his nurse and his friend Tom Doyle a detective whom Jeffries asks to check his suspicions, this is reinforced by Doyle finding nothing amiss.
Soon after, a neighbor's dog is found by a woman dead from a broken neck, her screams draw everyone to their windows to see what has happened, all except for Thorwald. This convinces Jeffries that he is guilty and has killed the dog because it was digging up evidence. Having exhausted his friend the detective's patience Jeff asks Lisa to help him discover the truth.
He puts her in increasing danger, first to slip an accusatory note under Thorwald's door so Jeff can watch his reaction when he reads it. Then, digging up the flowers to find out why the dog was killed and finally breaking into Thorwalds flat. It is almost like they are playing a game of dare, Jeff acting as though it was a murder mystery and not real life and Lisa not quite believing it is real for different reasons because she thinks Jeff is paranoid. It is only when Thorwald returns and grabs Lisa; Jeff calls the police who arrive in time to save her; that he seems aware of how much she means to him.
The film reaches a crescendo when with the Police present at Thorwalds flat, Jeff sees Lisa with her hands behind her back, wiggling her finger with Mrs. Thorwald's wedding ring on it. The wedding ring means that she is definately dead and puts all thoughts of paranoid delusions out of the audiences mind. Thorwald seeing this, realizes that she is signaling to someone, and finally notices Jeff across the courtyard.
Jeff phones Doyle, now convinced that Thorwald is guilty of something, and Stella heads for the police station to post bail for Lisa, leaving Jeff alone.
He soon realizes that Thorwald is coming to his apartment and with this realisation comes the fact that he cannot escape due to his broken leg. When Thorwald enters the apartment and approaches him, Jeff repeatedly sets off his camera flashbulbs, temporarily blinding Thorwald. Thorwald grabs Jeff and pushes him toward the open window as Jeff yells for help. Jeff falls to the ground just as some police officers enter the apartment and others run to catch him. Thorwald confesses the murder of his wife and the police arrest him.
This is a clever, suspense building, incredibly detailed film that keeps you thinking until the final twist unravels.

The Tenant - Roman Polanski (1976)

Figure 4

"The unpredictable Polish director Roman Polanski once remarked that he would like to make a movie that has only one character. 'The Tenant' the story he is now filming in Paris is not quite that - the cast includes Shelley Winters, Melvyn Douglas, and Isabelle Adjani, who won acclaim in Truffaut's 'The Story of Adele.H' - but the hero, a man in the grip of a particuarily distressing, untimely fatal paranoia, is in almost every scene. And that hero is played by Polanski himself who, as well as directing, also collaborated on the script."
Polanski in Paris by A. Alvarez

In Paris, the shy bureaucrat Trelkovsky rents an old apartment without bathroom where the previous tenant, the Egyptologist Simone Choule, committed suicide by jumping out of the window. The unfriendly concierge and the tough landlord Mr. Zy establish stringent rules of behavior and Trekovsky feels persecuted by his neighbors. Meanwhile he visits Simone in the hospital and befriends her girlfriend Stella. After the death of Simone, Trekovsky becomes obsessed with her and begins to suspect his landlord and neighbors are trying to subtly change him into the last tenant so that he too will kill himself.

This movie was the equivalent of having my teeth pulled out while listening to an untuned violin. The indulgence of directing and acting in the movie seem to have allowed Roman Polanski to became overindulgent and overdone in the film - to the point of tipping the feel from thriller to comedy.

The long shots of all his neighbours seemingly mesmerised in the toilet, the characatures of good neighbour bad neighbour played out by Trelkovsky and his boorish friends, the mummification of Choule (an egyptologist) while in the hospital and the worst cafe bar owner in the world; refusing to serve what the customers want all combine to create an almost pythonesque humour - I am reminded of Fawlty Towers. However these are only a warm up to the laugh aloud climax of Trelkovsky throwing himself not once but twice out of the window.

On the plus side the sets were masterful, grubby, dingy, shabby chic and unmistakeably French. The narrow rooms that he lived in enforced the feeling of claustrophobia that the character was experiencing and the almost feverish scenes while he is asleep (reaching for a bottle of water that is not there, it is shown but he is unable to clasp it) and when he is witnessed attacking thin air by the concierge are cleverly depicted. This nightmare quality and the growing feeling of tension between him and his neighbours are highlights in an otherwise unbelievable story.

We are not given any clues as to why his mental health deteriorates, surely moving into an apartment with prior knowledge of the occupant would not be enough to cause it. His visits to Simone are prompted by morbid curiousity but again why would this cause concern, her screaming can give him no reason to doubt the other tenants. His neighbours are indeed irritating and would make anyone paranoid about noise but the connection to the cross dressing and the eventual suicide is one I am not able to make.

Similarily I cannot fathom why Simone’s friend Stella would have wanted anything to do with such a miserable man as Trelkovsky. He is a monosyllibic conversationalist, pathetic lover and violent houseguest the only conclusion I can draw is that she is too unintelligent herself to realise all this.

In summary, overly long, indulgent shots of exteriors and incomprehensable relationships are lifted by fantastic lighting, superb sets and accidental humour.

The Shining - Stanley Kubric (1980)

Figure 5

The film is based on the novel of the same name, by Stephen King, about a writer with a wife and young son who accepts the job of off-season caretaker at an isolated hotel. He is a recovering alcoholic who stopped drinking because he hurt his son Danny. The hotel is built on an Indian burial ground and becomes isolated during winter. The manager warns him that a previous caretaker got cabin fever and killed his family and himself. The son, who possesses psychic abilities, is able to see things in the future or past, such as the ghosts in the hotel. Soon after moving in, and after a paralyzing winter storm that leaves the family snowbound, the father becomes influenced by the supernatural presence in the haunted hotel; he descends into madness and attempts to kill his wife and son.

This adaptation of a Stephen King novel is one I find genuinely disturbing. Having watched it when I was younger (late teens) and again as part of this project (early fourties) the film has not lessened its effect. In fact now I am a mother it has become worse - I am actually sitting at my computer as I write this, scared of the dark outside the door!!!!

The film deals with the subject of abuse and betrayal as well as the supernatural. Jack Torrences deterioration into madness only magnifies his personality (much as alcohol would do) by turning off his inhibitions. He has already hurt his son in a drunken episode, alluded to by his wife Wendy and when Danny shows up injured and visibly traumatized after going into room 237 Wendy's first thought is that Jack has been abusing Danny. It is clearly a habit of his to take out his frustrations at failing in life on someone else rather than face the fact he is to blame. The ghostly encounters he has at the hotel only reinforce these beliefs and the isolation ensures he can act on them.

His wife Wendy is portrayed as paradoxically very capable and at the same time very hysterical. She is obviously self sufficient in doing all the tasks at the hotel and entertaining both herself and her son but seems incapable of following her instincts and removing her son from danger when he starts to suffer from terrifying visions. Like wise when she is being attacked by her husband although she manages to fight him off on both instances it is preceeded with much screaming and ineffectual waving of weapons.

Neither parent is overly concerned their small child is roaming the kitchens, corridors and rooms of an extremely large hotel unsupervised. Indeed it is through the camera lens of Danny that most of the atmosphere is built. The long low shots of him riding his bike through corridors that telescope away into the distance are masterful, as your anxiety of what could happen to him builds, and his visions of the blood and gore connected with the hotel occur more and more frequently as his fathers sanity unravels. He is obviously not only a gifted child, both intellectually in outwitting his father and psychically, but a disturbed one and his mantra like utterances as the third party 'Tony' are both pitiful and frightening.

It is ultimately the musical score that best documents the deterioration. It jars your senses like nails on a blackboard and does not let you rest. Crescendos are mixed with whispers and the silent moments only serve to shred your nerves further as they wait for what will happen next.  It is this mastery of discomfort that defines a Stanley Kubric film.

The film does not make it clear if Jack is going mad or if there are ghostly presence's until he is released from the food store by the ghost of the previous caretaker. However I do not feel it is the supernatural element or the gory flashes of Danny's visions that make The Shining so powerful, it is the ultimate horror of the betrayal of trust a child has in its parents and the unnatural desire to kill your own that is the true horror.

Carlos Clarens agrees completely in his book ‘An Illustrated History of Horror and Science Fiction Films’ and expands further:

‘The ultimate Horror in Science Fiction is neither death nor distruction but dehuminization, a state in which emotional life is suspended, in which the individual is deprived of individual feelings, free will and moral judgement.’ (Clarens: p.134) 

The Haunting – Robert Wise (1963)

Figure 6

The Haunting was prompted by a renewed interest in Extra Sensory Perception in the 1960’s and follows a small team of psychic investigators led by Dr Markway as they investigate a house born bad. 

The maker of the house Mr Crain deliberately avoided any right angles when he made the house (unfortunately the film lost me there – surely it would fall down!) and all the wrong angles add up to a massive distortion allowing the spirit to find a home.  His wife never lived in the house as her carriage crashed in the grounds killing her immediately and the house has since been the centre of many deaths both suicide and accident. 

Where Polanski’s the Tenant left you bewildered as for reasons why this film is the direct opposite, irritating in its over explanation of the plot and hand holding of the audience.   The repeated ominous warnings by the staff about noone will hear you scream ooo arrr let me say it again noooo one will hear you scream are more Rocky Horror than Psychological Horror.

As irritating as this is it pales into insignificance against the annoyance of the main character Eleanor, a neurotic virgin haunted by the trauma of being less than perfect when nursing her dying mother, who just wants someone to love her, and who ends up falling in love with the house.  She spends most of her time screaming, sulking and wafting about in a slightly deranged ethereal manner.

There are some fantastic touches hidden among the plot however, the menace of the house is never seen but manifests itself as banging rage against the walls of the rooms and palpitating doors, a menace that is allowed to grow in your imagination.  Alas it is the only thing that is and it is a mercy when finally Eleanor is killed driving her car on the exact same spot that the wife was killed all those years before.

Supposedly Stanley Kubrick was hugely influenced by this film in the making of The Shining.  Kim Newman in his book ‘Nightmare Movies A Critical Guide to Contemporary Horror Films’ draws parallels between both:

‘Kubrick draws heavily from previous screen hauntings, particularily that of Eleanor (Julie Harris), who finds in Hill House the home she has never had, but has to die to stay there.  The Shining becomes a love story between Jack and the Overlook Hotel and like Eleanor he has to die to take up residence.’



All of the films that I have watched as part of the unit and reviewed above have key elements of the themes present in a psychological horror, the loss of reality, obsession with death and damaged personalities.  The only one that does not sit squarely is Rear Window by Alfred Hitchcock which despite its masterful build of suspense and attention to detail is less psychological horror and more Thriller.  This genre is one that does not require you to be a believer, you do not need a faith in God or the Devil or to suspend your disbelief to be fully immersed in the story.  Charles Willeford sums this up nicely in his chapter ‘When Company Drops In’ from the book ‘Reign of Fear The Fiction and Film of Stephen King (1982-1989)’:

‘He proves that the horror of reality is much worse than anything that smacks of mysticism and the undead.’ (Herron:p.55)      

Newman, Kim: Nightmare Movies A Critical Guide to Contemporary Horror Films (1988) Harmony Books, New York

Herron, Don: Reign of Fear The Fiction and Film of Stephen King (1982-1988) (1991) Pan Books Ltd, London

Jones, Alan: The Rough Guide to Horror Movies (2005) Rough Guides Ltd, London

Clarens, Carlos: An Illustrated History of Horror and Science Fiction Film (1997) Da Capo Press, New York


Figure 1 -,r:12,s:0&biw=1280&bih=632

Figure 2 -

Figure 4 -,r:2,s:0&tx=58&ty=88&biw=1280&bih=632

Figure 6 -

No comments:

Post a Comment