Dr. X over at Dr. X’s Free Associations has an interesting post up on recent research into why people enjoy horror films despite the fact that they cause unpleasant affects.

Last week, Laura Freberg offered an interesting discussion of why some people like to watch horror movies. She cited the research done by Eduardo Andrade and Joel Cohen who ask “How can the hedonistic assumption (i.e., people’s willingness to pursue pleasure and avoid pain) be reconciled with people choosing to expose themselves to experiences known to elicit negative feelings?” Although the authors are not clinicians, their research is germane to appreciating that clinical framework management is required if the patient is to go forward with a thorough exploration of highly disturbing unconscious perceptions and meanings of his or her internal experience.

Andrade and Cohen argued that a growing body of evidence indicates that people can experience both positive and negative feelings simultaneously. To lay persons, this might seem like an assumption that should have never been in doubt, but many psychologists, biologists and economists have assumed that positive and negative feelings cannot coexist simultaneously. Moreover, it was long assumed by many that we always seek pleasurable experiences while avoiding painful ones.

To explain behaviors that appear to contradict the hedonistic hypothesis, its defenders often argued that when we accept painful experiences, we do so in a rational manner, deferring present reward for some greater future reward. For example, people might attend a horror movie because they so enjoy the relief subsequent to the fear. With a few exceptions outside of psychoanalysis, the idea that pain and pleasure, fear and exhilaration could simultaneously coexist as part of a more complex inner experience was not widely accepted by experts who assumed we operate as relatively rational hedonists.

In a series of studies involving viewers of horror movies, Andrade and Cohen found strong evidence that negative and positive feelings can be co-activated. They also note that some individuals are attracted to watching horror movies while others consistently avoid them. They argued that the latter group avoids horror movies because they are unable to co-activate positive and negative feelings within the context of viewing these movies.

This is a fascinating post and a topic dear to my own heart as I both enjoy horror films myself and often wonder about the role that monsters and horror play in the social space as cultural artifacts that potential speak to antagonisms haunting the social field. As Unemployed Negativity has recently so beautifully put it in a post on the sudden profusion of zombie films, “each period in history gets the monsters it deserves.” I’m heartened to see empirical research done on this topic. However, I wonder if the researchers aren’t unduly limiting the question by looking at feelings or affects alone. Those of us coming from clinical psychoanalytic background are intimately familiar with the phenomenon of nightmares that simultaneously punish a person for a particular desire while also allowing that person to gratify a particular desire. That is, the nightmare scenario can function as an alibi allowing the person to gratify a forbidden desire. By focusing on the affects that accompany watching a horror film– it’s “material cause” –it seems to me that we risk ignoring the signifying structure of horror films– it’s “formal cause” –and therefore risk missing all sorts of questions pertaining to the mixed variety of identifications at work in the film (the viewer can simultaneously identify with the villains and the protagonists) as well as the desires and antagonisms the film might be striving to navigate. As Lacan puts it in The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, “…what the uconscious does is… show us the gap through which neurosis recreates a harmony with a real– a real that may well not be determined” (22). This is true of symptoms and the various other formations of the unconscious such as jokes, slips of the tongue, dreams, and bungled actions. In all cases these formations can be thought as the work of the symbolic striving to symbolize the real.

Read on

To illustrate this point, I’ll give an example of a dream my partner had years ago when I was writing my dissertation. During this time I was all but lost to the world. Although I had done research for my dissertation for years, when I finally sat down to write it was an intensive process that went on for weeks and months, where I would sleep until four in the afternoon, get up, reread what I had written the night before, write until around seven or eight in the morning, drink a lot of wine and pass out. I was unable to think about anything but what I was writing, nor could I talk about anything but what I was writing. My gaze became distant, falling on nothing in the world about me. I was lost.

The dream:

I am being chased by a faceless man who appears to have cerebral palsy, who wishes to rape me. Finally the man catches up with me and a fight ensues where I break the man’s left hand. At that point I woke up.

What might have been going on in this dream? Why cerebral palsy? Why faceless? Why a broken left hand? Why chasing and rape? Certainly these are all traumatic images. As she associated on that dream she noticed that “palsy” sounds somewhat like “Pauly”, which was a pet name she had for me. “Cerebral” of course, refers to the brain. The condensation of “cerebral palsy” and “cerebral Pauly” suggests that she was combining elements of my intellect, disease, and her pet name for me, suggesting that she experienced my intellect as being a disease. And certainly it was with respect to our relationship. Now, my partner came from a rural German Catholic background where she was taught never to express negative thoughts or aggressive and critical feelings towards others. She understood the importance of finishing the dissertation and, no doubt, felt guilty about whatever anger she experienced at the lack of attention I was showing her. It truly was as if my body was there, but I had somehow been transported away. The thoughts behind being chased by a rapist are obvious enough. Both of these images suggest the experience of being desired, even if only in a negative way. As Lacan liked to quip, “desire is the desire of the Other”. In one formulation this can be taken to signify “desire is the desire to be desired”. She felt she couldn’t ask for attention and regard, so she created a scenario where that was present. This, however, fails to account for the rape dimension of the dream. Why, then, the fight, and the breaking of the left hand? I am left handed. Were my left hand to be broken, then I would no longer be able to write. But the fact that potential of rape was at work could also be taken to provide an alibi for satisfying her aggressive jouissance towards me. In dreams and fantasies like this, we can often treat such horrifying and anxiety provoking scenarios as causal material conditionals. “If x were to happen, then I would be able to do y.” “If my partner were chasing me, trying to rape me, I would be justified in beating the living daylights out of him.” At another level, rape can also be taken with respect to the experience of exploitation. As I said, I was dead to the world at this time. This also entailed that I wasn’t doing much about the apartment but was completely occupied with my work. Moreover, I was a poor graduate student bringing in little money beyond my fellowship, and she was a professional bringing in the vast majority of our income. In both cases, exploitation could be said to be at work. Finally, if the man in the dream must be faceless, though of a particular height and build, then this is because he must be anonymous for her to satisfying her desire with both moral justification and without guilt.

Freud never ceased reminding us that formations of the unconscious are overdetermined. This can be clearly seen in the case of this dream where the dream simultaneously satisfies aggressive impulses, sexual desires, provides a commentary on both social relations (gender exploitation and inequalities) and our personal relations, and so on, while also obeying certain moral commands that inhabited her unconscious pertaining to the legitimacy of expressing discontent, of having sadistic desires, etc. So long as we focus only on the affects or feelings accompanying the dream– the super-ego’s way of exacting its pound of flesh –we miss all this further content and the dream remains unintelligible. I would argue that the same principles are at work in cultural formations. The study described by Dr. X sounds as if it treats horror films as qualitatively equivalent (though I might be mistaken in this). That is, it sounds as if horror films are treated as simply “being scary”. Yet there are vast differences among horror films, and these films are widely heterogeneous as to how social and political relations are organized among the characters. There is a tremendous difference between films such as the recent Australian film Wolf Creek and it’s somewhat equivalent American version Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and films like 28 Days Later or Dawn of the Dead. In the former case, we have an opposition between untamed rural regions and the dangers they contain and urban youth venturing into these areas, where in the latter case we have anxieties at work about technology. There are differences yet again, between films such as this and films such as Jaws or Poltergeist.

When Freud outlined the technique for interpreting dreams, he was quick to point out that the first step after narrating the dream is to break up the manifest content of the dream into its elements and associate on each of those elements in isolation from the others. The manifest content of the dream functions as a disguise, as a series of lures, to ensure proper distance from the desire satisfied by the dream. This suggests something about the interpretation of horror films as well. In a paradoxical way, the manifest content of the horror film, it’s horrifying content, can be seen as a lure drawing us away from the multi-layered and overdetermined collective desires at work in the film. Rather than focusing on what makes the film so horrifying, my suggestion would be to read these films as social commentaries on antagonisms that haunt the various social fields in which we dwell, both allowing us to vicariously satisfy various desires, while also maintaining the status quo of the existing social order. Why is it, for instance, that we find so many apocalyptic films in the theaters? Could this not speak to a profound discontent with our social existence, with or forms of social organization as they are today, but which must not itself be expressed? What enjoyment is at work in a zombie film? When the characters sit on the rooftop shooting various zombies milling about in front of the mall in Dawn of the Dead, what fantasy might that speak to? Is there a significance to the fact that the zombies they choose to shoot are chosen for their resemblance to various celebrities? Should we think of the figure of the zombie as the image of trudging middle class workers who mindlessly go about their business, consuming with the fruit of their labor, and who are in need of brains (the favorite food of zombies)? Zizek loves to repeat Mao’s indictment of certain Marxists who dreamt of “revolution without the revolution”. Perhaps horror is one way in which we have revolution without revolution, maintaining everything in its place just as it is, while enjoying, in the dark recesses of our unconscious, the possibility of another social universe.