Abjection and Pleasure: The Enjoyment of Horror in Lars von Trier’s Antichrist
There is an ongoing curiosity in understanding why audiences enjoy horror films. Lars von Trier’s Antichrist is a darkly psychological view into this genre. In this essay I will compare the opposing cognitive and psychoanalytic explanations to why people enjoy watching horror films. From this I choose to expand upon Freudian psychoanalytic theory, evaluating the traumatic event in the film as linked to Jacque Lacan’s mirror stage. Finally, I will assess how Julia Kristeva’s notion of the abject is connected to catharsis.
In this essay I will compare two approaches to analysing the experience of watching horror films, favouring a psychoanalytic approach. I have chosen this approach as it takes into consideration the individual psychological experiences of the viewer. In contrast, a cognitive approach relies more firmly upon the director’s intent to impose a narrative, as explained by film theorist Noel Carroll. Carroll hypothesises that emotional responses to film are pre-focused by the director. Through universal knowledge of the genre, in this case the genre of horror, the audience is guided through what are anticipated and expected events in the film. While Carroll acknowledges that there is an emotional response in the viewer derived from the story line, he argues that a director predetermines these emotions through the construction of a well-known narrative.
Carroll goes further by stating that this engagement can only occur when an audience uses cognitive processes to analyse the narrative, thus arguing that it is the cognitive experience of the narrative that audiences enjoy (2006). However, I would argue that Carroll’s position is limited because the narrative is so familiar. While there are arguably some very sophisticated storylines in horror films, there are plenty of films such as slasher film The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) which have a cult following but have limited storylines. Although this limited narrative is important to provide context, thus enabling the viewer to identify with the characters, it is so repetitious that the viewer does not need to put in effort to understand it. Therefore, there needs to be something more than the narrative for the film to maintain viewer interest. I would argue that although there is contextual value in the narrative, it is not what the viewer seeks. You don’t go to see a horror film for the story, you go to see the gore and the sensation which provides a physical and emotional experience that’s not found ordinarily. This could be paralleled to people seeking out and actively enjoying negative emotions in other areas of life that do not require a cognitive process, rather it is the experience of these strong and unpleasant emotions that are sort out. Activities where people willingly experience fear and horror include sadomasochistic behaviours and even extreme sports. In these situations it appears that it is the rush or release that follows from surviving these experiences that is desired. For the purpose of this essay we will identify this experience as what is defined later as catharsis.
Conversely, the second approach for analysing the experience of enjoyment in horror is the psychoanalytic. In the early 20th century Sigmund Freud established a psychoanalytic theory of repressed or unconscious impulses, anxieties and internal conflicts. Freud’s research included theories of personality, where he developed the ideas of the id, ego and super ego as divisions of the psyche. As psychiatrist Anthony Storr explains, the id is present at birth; it contains everything that is inherited. The id is characterised as instinctual, illogical and impulsive. It is the unconscious foundation from which the other two parts of the mind are derived. The ego represents the conscious; it is characterised as reason and common sense, the ego is able to delay impulsive responses to stimuli and acts as a mediator between the Id, the external world and the super ego. The super ego evolves through childhood parental input of criticism and judgement. As an adult the super ego continues to communicate those parental inhibitions as a way to negotiate the external world. The id, ego and super ego balance internal unconscious drives with functioning in an external world (1989 page 60). Through these theories we may discover why people actively seek out violent, unsettling or even disturbing experiences, which are conjured by the id. Seeking gratification of these disturbing experiences through art and film is a vicarious act, which is accepted by the super-ego as a way of meeting the need without contradicting those learnt parental prohibitions. While there is merit with both cognitive and psychoanalytic approaches, I would argue that the value placed upon narrative in the cognitive approach to horror is too superficial. Instead, there is a deeper connection to the negative events in the genre of horror that allows for individual enjoyment through the latter approach. The generic and repetitive narrative of the genre is not enough to keep audiences returning to this type of film time and again: there must be more going on within these films to maintain audience desire. I would argue that there is a more innate connection to negative pleasure that is more accurately described through the psychoanalytic approach to horror. For example, Antichrist (2009) tells the story of a man and a woman with a focus on the woman’s grief of the loss of their child. Antichrist can be categorised as a horror film for its combination of supernatural themes and format. Thematically the film references evil and magic, connecting nature to the devil and pagan rituals. The format is a familiar one in horror, as the protagonists travel to a remote cabin in the woods. However, this cabin is called Eden and is therefore representative of the biblical space of original sin, as well as the psychological space “most feared” by the protagonists. Therefore this is a more complex space than a mere “cabin in the woods.” Antichrist can be seen as a horror film that engages the generic narrative of the genre while going to a deeper, darker psychological level.
In Antichrist, the vicarious experience of trauma can be witnessed in the initial scene. Here, the trauma of watching the film is paralleled to the trauma of the characters in the narrative. The prologue focuses on a scene where the couple are engaged in a sexual act while the child takes steps toward its own death. The emotional experience of the viewer is heightened through the use of classical music and slow motion visuals. There is no dialogue but the action takes place with a series of close ups of genitalia in the motion of sex and the child slowly moving from the safety of its cot to the window where he eventually falls to his death. This opening scene can be linked to French psychoanalyst, Jacque Lacan’s mirror stage. This stage describes a point in human development where a child first recognises the self as a separate identity to the mother. Lacan states that at an early age somewhere between six and eighteen months old the child sees itself in a mirror and is able to understand that it is not part of the same entity as the mother (Philos dic page 202). This moment in Antichrist when the mother and child are separated could be seen to stand in for this traumatic event. Cultural critic, Lisa Saltzman defines the literal meaning of trauma to be the wound, which was first used in medicine and later in psychiatry and psychoanalysis to mean a psychic injury. (2006, page 2) She questions what it means for a visual object “to mediate the relation between traumatic history to which the object in some sense bears witness but for which it can only account imperfectly.” (page 2) I would argue that because the horror narrative is an imperfect account of a traumatic event the viewer is never completely satisfied. Therefore, there is not a full sense of relief, purging or catharsis in viewing horror. Catharsis was a term first coined by Aristotle in describing a cleansing of pity or fear by “feeling them in an aesthetic context, such as the theatre.” (philos dic page 56) However psychological catharsis here can be directly linked to Freud’s colleague Joseph Breuer’s hypnotic therapies for hysteria. Freud’s collaboration led to Freud postulating ‘ that an active process of repression needed confronting and disarming’ (philos dic page 143). The cathartic experience in this context can be defined more generally as a revisiting of past trauma in order to relieve symptoms of difficult events from the past that were never addressed and therefore continue to haunt the subject. While there is relief in the experience of viewing this trauma in film, it is not a complete purging and motivates viewers to return. Antichrist uses the most base level traumatic experience of separation of mother and child to create an event that is both horrific and gratifying.
As trauma has been defined as a psychic wound, the uterus could be seen as a visual manifestation of the unseen trauma. The opening scene gives the audience a vicarious psychic injury that then leads them through abjection and into catharsis. As described by Kristeva, this mirror stage is the first experience of trauma that occurs which creates a sense of loss and is linked to the abject. An example of abjection is the corpse. It signifies death and decay and yet is part of the human body, as are vomit, fecial matter, blood and flesh. In her iconic The Power of Horrors (1982), Kristeva describes the abject as that which is of the body yet cast aside.
“The abject is that which is thrusted aside so that the I might live, yet at the same time removes meaning of the object for the ego. It is those things that are a part of the human body that disgust, revolt and repeal us towards life.” (Kristeva, J, )
She further describes a female-specific Chora. The platonic term Chora describes a matrix like space or interval between being and non-being (Barrett, E page 160). Kristeva elaborates on this idea by talking about the Chora being a pre-symbolic space before language, which occurs between the ages of 0 and 6 months old. It is the space between the mother’s womb and recognition of self. According to Kristeva the Chora is a space where embodied experience is absorbed without boundaries. This chora space could be seen to visually manifest as the uterus. As the child grows it moves from the space of the chora and the womb to a process of identification of self. Which can be described as the Lacanian mirror stage. Kristeva links the Lacanian mirror stage to the first abjection: the rejection of the maternal for the self. By experiencing the mirror stage, we remove ourselves from the uterus, the placenta, and experience abjection of the mother as a way to socially reject incest and sexual depravation. (Barrett, E page 95) In Antichrist a deer appears in the forest at Eden with a stillborn foal hanging out of its uterus. This scene could be interpreted as the first abjection as described by Kristeva. The expulsion of the stillborn foal from the uterus of the deer could be interpreted as a purging and release of the trauma of the death of the child. The image of the still born is easily associated by the viewer with the death of the human child, reinforcing the context of the protaganists’ experience of Eden being a process of re-experiencing the trauma in order to purge the emotion to the point of catharsis.
In Antichrist, Lars von Trier was able to recreate the traumatic event of separation of mother and child in its opening scene. However, as this traumatic event is naturally one of repression as it happens when you are young, the process of watching horror is cathartic experience.
Antichrist, 2009, dvd, Brokemper B, Denmark.
Barrett, E, 2011, Kristeva Reframed, I. B. Tauris & Co. Ltd, London; New York.
Blackburn, S, 2005, Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, Second Edn, Oxford University Press, New York.
Carroll, N, 2006, ‘Film, Emotion and Genre’, Carrol, N & Choi, J (ed.) Philosophy of film and Motion Pictures, Blackwell Publishing, Malden; Oxford; Carlton, 213-233.
Kristeva, J, 1982, Powers of Horror, Columbia University Press, New York.
Saltzman, L, & Rosenberg, E 2006, 'Introduction', Trauma & Visuality In Modernity, p. 3, Art & Architecture Complete, EBSCOhost, viewed 9 December 2012.
Storr, A, 1989, FREUD A very short introduction, Oxford University Press, New York.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, 1974, dvd, Hooper, T, USA.