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27th March  Powers of Horror  - Lisa Thatcher

Based on an essay in abjection by Julia Kristeva


“Loathing an item of food, a piece of filth, waste or dung. The spasms and vomiting that protect me. The repugnance, the retching that thrusts me to the side and turns me away from defilement, sewage and muck. The shame of compromise, of being in the middle of treachery. The fascinated start that leads me toward and separates me from them.”


Tonight we will take a look at Horror, or as Kristeva prefers to call it, Abjection, in an attempt to understand something of human existence and free will. Although my talk is primarily about Kristeva’s book, I am also framing it around some ideas that I got from an essay I read by Stephen LeDrew, who I want to name specifically as a source.


Tonight we’ll take a brief look at the roots of our current theories on horror as described by Freud, then move into a modern philosopher named Slavoj Zizek because he gives a slight variation on the Freudian model that will prove useful later. After that I want to highlight the distinct clash between psychoanalytical theory on this subject and the existential position which posits free will, and existence preceding essence.


This will give us a strong groundwork to place Julia Kristeva and her theories on abjection right in the middle, acting as a possible bridge between the two theories.


But before we get into that, I want to quote Kristeva again.


When asked to translate l’ abjection into English  Kristeva came up with the following:


“It may be impossible. “L’abjection is something that disgusts you, for example, you see something rotting and you want to vomit – it is an extremely strong feeling that is at once somatic and symbolic, which is above all a revolt against an external menace from which one wants to distance oneself, but of which one has the impression that it may menace us from the inside.”


As mysterious as that seems, it lays the perfect groundwork for us to get into the idea of horror. Hold the idea and we’ll come back to it later, with a little more clarity hopefully.

 Horror in Psychoanalysis 

Freud offers this most basic definition of the uncanny, or horror as “That species of the frightening that goes back to what was once well known and had long been familiar.” This thing which was “once well known” can take the form of either “repressed” or “surmounted” beliefs or desires which are brought up from the unconscious into the conscious mind. For Freud we have the experience of horror when something we have been trying to repress, or something we thought we had surmounted, comes back either on a film or in a book or presented to us in some sort of image. This uncanny element is actually nothing new or strange, but something that was long familiar to the psyche and was estranged from it only through being repressed.


Another interpretation is ‘something that should have remained hidden that has come into the open.’


Whenever something is repressed then, it is a source of fear. It should have remained hidden but now comes into the open and confronts the conscious mind, creating the uneasy feeling of horror. Freud argues that the manifestation is due to the remarkable power of the thing repressed and the power of the unconscious drive to propel that which has been repressed.


This theory then, sees human agents as unaware victims of their own culture. The Id releases long repressed instincts – mostly primal – as a kind of safety valve idea, releasing the Id from the pressure of repression by the ego and the superego – the forces which reinforce culture and conscious thought. When we are reminded of these instinctual forces, we experience intense horror.


Stephen LeDrew uses the horror film Psycho to illustrate these points, and I am going to take his example because it lays the theories out nicely for us. This film is an excellent example of horror, in once of the mediums we’re most familiar with. Film. Also it lends itself obviously to the psychoanalytic discourse.


Norman Bates is a grown man stuck in an Oedipus complex, and in the film we see Norman driven to an act of murder through the jealousy he perceives his mother to experience when he is sexually aroused by another woman. Of course at the end of the film we discover that the mother is actually also Norman, who “becomes” his mother whenever he experiences sexual desire for other women, illustrating his inability to resolve the Oedipus complex and achieve mature sexuality.


Obviously what makes Psycho so unsettling and horrific is the relationship between Norman and his mother and the absence of the paternal order to ensure resolution of the Oedipus complex. This serves as a reminder of the Oedipus complex that we have all experienced, and the repression of the desire for the mother that was necessary to resolve the complex. As we are confronted with this repressed desire, we experience horror.


Another example is when children give up the idea that their dolls might some day come to life, yet as adults when confronted in a horror film with the revival of this surmounted belief, we experience horror.


We are not talking here of everyday fears. We are talking about those deep revulsions we experience as horror. We have a healthy respect for snakes, for example out of self preservation, but we don’t experience the same revulsion or horror as when offered the idea that snakes can band together maliciously and form a united attack on mankind. That is when respectful fear is turned to horror. That is, when a sublimated idea resurfaces to throw us off psychic balance.

 Slavoj Zizek 

Another philosopher who speaks of this is Slavoj Zizek who I will add in briefly because he adds a dimension to the Freudian idea.


Zizek talks about a drive that comes up from deep within that can be trigged by an image. He uses an example of a woman on her hands and knees and the sexual trigger that may cause. He says there is nothing uplifting about this awareness, it is debasing to the human who experiences it reducing him to a puppet. A victim of his own cultural upbringing, “beyond dignity and freedom”.


This style of sexual desire can produce a revulsion for oneself and definitely for the object that desire has been placed upon. Zizek sees horror emerging in the same way.


 For Freud this is an example of the Id as the determining force.


But where Freud thinks the horror film calls forth a repressed desire or experience, Zizek argues that horror calls forth a reminder of what lies inside each of us. A dark primitive urge that reminds us that the Id is in control, or at least that it will exert its control at moments of its choosing.


This idea is played out in our example, Psycho, by the fact that at the end of the film, it is actually Norman bates himself that has committed the murders, and he is compelled to do so by an inability to escape the psycho-sexual complexes that have haunted him since his childhood. In a conversation with his future victim, Norman reveals a desire to flee from his mothers tyrannical grip, but ultimately he can’t summon the will to do so. This is Norman’s failure to achieve self mastery that Freud claimed can be attained through psychoanalysis.


Zizek’s notion is more primitive than Freud’s because Freud deals with repression where Zizek just deals with the fact of the unconscious. Zizek argues that the person giving into their Id drives is a slave determined by the unconscious.

 Horror in Existentialism 

A Sartrean definition of existentialism is the notion that existence precedes essence: “Man exists and makes himself what he is; his individual essence or nature  comes to be out of his existence; and in this sense it is proper to say that existence precedes essence. Man does not have a fixed essence that is handed to him ready made; rather he makes his own nature out of his freedom and the historical conditions in which he is placed.” This is in direct conflict with Freud and Zizek’s determinism which sees human beings as slaves to unconscious drives and processes.


For the existentialist there is no essence (or Freud’s Id) prior to existence. What we are comes through our place in space and time and the choices we make, based on the infinite possibility of existence. However this possibility comes with a certain dread or angst and it is at this point we will look at the existentialist take on horror through a reading of Heidegger. Heidegger’s version of existentialism differs in crucial respect from the existence precedes essence model (for Heidegger man does not ‘make himself’ exactly but rather there is a possibility for man to break from habit and experience moments of authenticity) it retains the principle that we are essentially free  to make choices and this challenges Freud’s determinism model.


In ‘Being and Time’ Heidegger argues that angst is not the same thing as fear. Horror, like angst, comes with the realization of the possibility of being, and that there is nothing to turn to for guidance, no inner force or core, but only infinitude of choice.  An interpretation of it can be read like this:


“Heidegger’s concept of “horror “(the uncanny) essentially relies on the overthrow of our ontology, even if it lasts only for a moment. This loss of intellectual mastery is almost certain to disturb us – hence the unease we feel in horrific circumstances.” (Bowman)


So to clarify this, how can we apply it to our horror film Psycho?


In a Freudian interpretation, the horror is based on repressed desires. In a Zizek interpretation it comes from Normans helplessness against the force of his own unconscious. Finally, in this particular reading of Heidegger, we might say that the horror in Psycho stems not from the causes of Norman’s actions, but rather from the fact that they have no cause in the sense of a determining force and are instead the outcomes  of the choices that Norman has made to cope with the world he lives in, his loneliness and isolation in the secluded Bates motel.


In ‘Powers of Horror’ Julia Kristeva offers a theory of the experience of horror based on the concept of abjection, that differs from Freud’s in that it focuses on the notion of the subject. That is, the notion of myself identified as ‘I’. This is a little in line with what Zizek was saying in relation to who we are as subject. The abject provides proof that our idealized portraits of pristine flesh and whole egos are, unfortunately, nothing more than brittle fantasies. Kristeva’s analysis of the subject demonstrates that there is no one identifiable subject, no “core” of the subject as there is in Freud, but a fractured subject that experiences the abject when faced with the blurring of the distinction of I and Other.


This blurring of the subjects boundaries disrupts the integrity of our understanding of self. The abject is unconscious, but can return to consciousness in the horror film, for example, where we are forced to re style the unsullied self images we manufacture for ourselves.


Kristeva’s view of the subject can be summarized “our experience is pervaded by difference, absence, nothingness, gap and lack.” (Donald Carveth) The cause of abjection is recognition of this lack, or “what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite.”


So to clarify this, lets take our example of Psycho again. We are horrified by Norman’s inability to detach himself from his mother, but not in the sense of the uncanny as described by Freud and Zizek. The horror in this case lies in the blurring of the lines of the “I” seen in Norman’s inability to detach himself from his mother, going to such lengths as to make a position for her in his psyche even after her death. The abject in this film comes through the character of Norman who represents that which we are horrified to acknowledge: that we are fractured subjects, that the “I” is an illusion and that we are bound to the Other.


Norman reverts to his mother when he is sexually aroused or when he is threatened. The latter highlights Normans longing for the comfort and security the mother offers to her child, and his explicit inability to be independent and escape this link to his mother. This highlights very well Kristeva’s correlation between abjection and the desire for the mother.  She says:


“The Abject confronts us… with our earliest attempts to release the hold of maternal entity even before ex-isting outside of her…. It is a violent, clumsy breaking away, with the constant risk of falling back under the sway of power as securing as it is stifling.”


 Norman falls back under the sway of his mothers power, which he finds comforting, and at the same time he strongly desires to escape her domineering and stifling influence but cannot. In terms of abjection, or horror, this is not a desire to resolve a repressed Oedipus complex but rather Norman’s inability to escape an essential incompleteness. In abjection the emptiness of the self is revealed through the disruption of stability.


In this respect of the essential emptiness and incompleteness of the self, Kristeva may represent a version of psychoanalysis that is more compatible with existentialism, at least in how we understand horror in relation to the question of free will versus determinism.


I don’t mean to imply here tonight that one can’t have free will and psychoanalysis co exist. Freud himself said the purpose of psychoanalysis is to help the subject better master and understand the subconscious, so that implies a kind of free will.


But as we’ve seen tonight there does not have to be an absolute tension between psychoanalysis and existentialism in their relation to horror. In any case, it seems clear that an examination of the experience of horror provides a unique entry into the question of determinism and vice versa.

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