PSYCHOLOGICAL HORROR IN THE FILMS OF DAVID LYNCH
"Making films is a subconscious thing. Words get in the way.
Rational thinking gets in the way. It can really stop you cold. But when it comes out in a
pure sort of stream, from some other place, film has a great way of giving shape to the
subconscious. It's just a great language for that."
David Lynch is one of the world's greatest and "weirdest" film makers according to the general opinion in the world of film criticism. Michael Atkinson says in BFI Modern Classics; Blue velvet that Lynch is the "only reputable 'art' film director in Hollywood" (Atkinson 1997, p.8). I fell in love with Lynch's work a number of years ago after seeing the first episode of the murder mystery, cult television series Twin Peaks (1990). One thing that struck me the most was his ability to create horror out of normal and familiar everyday events in this small town. Finally, I have the opportunity to do some research on David Lynch and the links between human psychology and the horrific imagery, breathtaking tension and suspense that we see and feel in his films.
Now, psychological horror can be seen as a sub-genre of horror films, even though the definition is arguably misleading. Psychological horror is often missing in most of the conventions associated with horror cinema: monsters and bloody, "gore" imagery. In my arguments I shall refer to these conventional horror films as "shock-horror". Horror itself is a difficult word to define. This is due to its multiple usage and to the fact that it is used synonymously with the word terror, a more violent notion. "An explicit representation of threat includes horror, whereas terror depends on obscurity... Terror is an affair of the mind, of the imagination; where the threat takes a concrete shape, it includes horror or disgust." (Miles 2001, p.41).
This paper aims to investigate the links between psychology, as presented by Sigmund Freud in his essay The 'Uncanny' (1919) and Carl G. Jung in his book Man and His Symbols (1979), and the imagery and tension created by David Lynch in his films. It has to be noted here that Freud and Jung are not the same kind of psychoanalytical theorists. Their theories differ a great deal, and furthermore, they were written and published in a different era. Carl G. Jung's theories are much less psychoanalytical and can be more easily adapted into a film, whereas Freud's theories are very psychoanalytical, strict, and therefore more difficult to be applied to film in comparison to Jung. They have a different intellectual response, if you like. Bearing that in mind, though, their theories do link together on various issues to some extent. For instance, the issue of dreams is a valid starting point. Another equally important issue that I shall deal with in this paper is the question of recurrent themes within selected films by David Lynch. He is undoubtedly an auteur, but as this is not an auteur study, I will concentrate on the thematics of his films.
I chose three films, Blue Velvet (1986), Twin Peaks; Fire Walk With Me (1992) and Mulholland Drive (2001) to implicitly show the consistency and the uniqueness of style in these films. The consistency is remarkable even though the films were made over a period of fifteen years. Lynch does not present horror in a way that we are used to associate the word horror with. Instead of using horrifically monstrous characters such as Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) in Nightmare on Elm Street (Wes Craven, US, 1984) or arguably Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) in The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, US, 1991) Lynch introduces objects, atmospheres and characters that could appear in real life.
I have divided my arguments concerning the use of these uncanny metaphors into three groups; firstly, the doppelgänger; secondly, dreams as uncanny metaphors and thirdly, everyday objects as uncanny metaphors. Each of these arguments will be discussed in separate chapters. I will use examples from two of the films mentioned above on each argument. The theme of dreams or dreamlike states such as neurosis will remain the focus point throughout these chapters. As Jung suggests "Commonplace objects or ideas can assume such powerful psychic significance in a dream that we may awake seriously disturbed, in spite of having dreamed of nothing worse than a locked room or a missed train" (Jung, published 1979, p.43). In the films of David Lynch, this ideology reaches the unconscious level of the viewer and creates an experience of uncanny feelings. This is done by using everyday objects and events in subversive ways to trigger uncertainty and fear.
Chapter 1. "Doppelgänger"
Sigmund Freud's The 'Uncanny' ("Unheimlich" 1919) deals with uncanny feelings that arise from intellectual uncertainty towards the opposition of the unfamiliar to the familiar ("Heimlich"). The term uncanny is based on the German word "unheimlich" which is almost impossible to translate into English. Freud argues that "(uncanny) themes are all concerned with the phenomenon of the "double", which appears in every shape and in every degree of development" (Freud in The Uncanny 1990, p.356). Also Carl G. Jung's ideas on dream language and imagery can be used to develop these arguments. Simply put, "the double" can be interpreted as possession of knowledge, feelings, patterns of behaviour and experiences in common with the other. This may also be a physical alikeness, in which a double might look identical to its real counterpart. The idea of the double has had a dominant role in the films of David Lynch. In Mulholland Drive Diane and Betty are played by the same actress (Naomi Watts) and Rita and Camilla are both played by Laura Elena Harring. In Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (Later referred to as FWWM) the same issue of "doppelgänger" is addressed by a transformation, or a metamorphosis, in which the character of Leland Palmer is transformed into his evil, soul-seeking sidekick, killer Bob in order to kill his daughter Laura, and posses her soul.
The idea of the double has been thoroughly treated by Otto Rank (1914) who, according to Freud, argues that the double was originally an insurance against the destruction of the ego. It is, therefore, an energetic denial of the power of death. It is developed from unbounded self-love and primary narcissism, which dominates the mind of a child and that of the primitive man. "But when this stage has been surmounted, the 'double' reverses its aspect. From having been an assurance of immortality, it becomes the uncanny harbinger of death" (Freud in The Uncanny 1990, p.357). I argue that three quarters of Mulholland Drive are constructed of a dreamlike, neurotic state of one of the leading characters, Diane. All the characters introduced to us in this "dream" are creations of her imagination. Therefore all of them are doppelgängers of their real life counterparts, including the double of the dreamer herself. I argue that this neurotic, dreamlike state of Diane's is a result of her selfishness. She has hired a hit-man to kill her mistress Camilla, because Camilla is arguably (intentionally not clear in the film) going to marry a successful film director and leave Diane on her own. "The double does not necessarily disappear with the passing of primary narcissism, for it can receive fresh meaning from the later stages of the ego's development." (Freud in The Uncanny 1990, p.357). Diane helplessly struggles with her conscience and ultimately in the end, runs through her apartment followed by two doppelgängers (possibly her mother and father) into her bedroom, takes a gun from the drawer of the bedside table and takes her own life. She is unable to face the horrific outcome of her actions.
Prior to this (the first quarter of the film) she has imagined Camilla's doppelgänger Rita escaping death. Rita loses her memory and the events lead to her attempted assassination. Diane's doppelgänger Betty accidentally meets Rita and they fall in love as they attempt to uncover Rita's true identity. In the last quarter of the film, we see the events leading to Diane's decision to hire a hit-man to kill Camilla. We are introduced to all of the characters in Diane's imagination but this time they are real and not doppelgängers. We see all of them as guests at a party held by the successful film director that Camilla is going to marry. Diane sees some of these characters for the first time, but they still appear in her dreamlike visions as doppelgänger-characters in the first three quarters of the film. Jung suggests that, "As a general rule, the unconscious aspect of any event is revealed to us in dreams, where it appears not as a rational thought but as a symbolic image." (Jung, published 1979, p.23). In the beginning of this scene we see blurred, distorted images gradually regaining focus and creating an establishment shot of the party. Everything that is said and every character that is shown at the party is connected to Diane's dream visions. Their relation to Diane's doppelgänger Betty is completely rearranged.
In dreams, as we know, the unconscious mind reinvents relationships and surroundings to serve a certain purpose in that particular dream. In Mulholland Drive the dream sequences can be read, not as rational thoughts, but as an exploration of the ability of one's unconscious mind to rearrange story lines and images from our everyday life in order to create uncanny feelings. Most of us have experienced this, but the film takes the idea even further. Diane's mental state has reached the point of neurosis and she is facing a choice between consciously fighting the guilt and moving on or retreating into her subconscious and letting go. I argue that she lets go and her unconscious mind takes over the conscious mind and eventually forces her to commit suicide.
In FWWM the notion of doppelgänger is also evident. An eighteen-year-old homecoming queen Laura Palmer is found floating in the river, brutally murdered in the small town of Twin Peaks. FWWM tells the tale of the events during the seven days prior to her death. During night-time Laura lives dangerously working as a prostitute for drug dealers. During the day Laura goes to high school with her friends and works for "meals on wheels", a food delivery service for old people. She lives a troubled double live. In the ending scene of the film, Laura's father, possessed by an evil spirit Bob, his doppelgänger, ruthlessly kills Laura and wraps her in plastic. Just before her death she sees a reflection of herself in a mirror, the reflection changes into an image of Bob, the evil spirit. She has gradually - over the period of six years - transformed from her conscious, beautiful, innocent self into an evil, demon-like character: A doppelgänger -type of vessel for Bob. Freud states that Otto Rank "has gone into connections which the 'double' has with reflections in mirrors, with shadows, with guardian spirits, with the belief in the soul and with the fear of death." (Freud, The Uncanny 1990, p.356).
Laura and another drug dealers' favourite girl, Ronette, are held in an abandoned train car in the middle of the woods. Just before Laura dies a guardian angel appears in the train car, floating in the air, Ronette is miraculously untied and manages to escape. Laura shakes out of the fear of dying. Bob has tried to possess Laura for a number of years, ever since she was just a little girl. Now he finally succeeds as Laura puts the ring - featured in her dream - on. The film introduces doubles as objects and characters. Laura and her double-life is an indication of what is going to happen to her. Halfway through the film we get a glimpse of Laura's future transformation when she is visiting Harold. Laura's body and mind are controlled by Bob. The colour on her face changes into blue and she trembles as she grabs Harold and viciously says the film's catch phrase with a deep, demonic, whispering voice "Fire Walk With Me".
Chapter 2. "Dreams as Uncanny Metaphors"
Dream interpretation is a very difficult area of study in psychology and psychoanalytical research. Due to their unconscious origin, these visualised metaphors are almost impossible for the observer (anybody other than dreamer himself) to define. In this chapter my arguments are based on two different methods of dream interpretation. Firstly, Sigmund Freud's observations of the topic, and secondly, Carl G. Jung's method of dream interpretation.
Dreams are undoubtedly a consistent theme in the films of David Lynch. The dream sequences in FWWM are constructed out of a series of dreams experienced by the film's leading protagonist, Laura Palmer. In these dreams, the evil souls that inhabit another dimension - in the television series referred to as the Black Lodge - are trying to help Laura to avoid her death in the end of the film. The dream sequences are linked with the television series Twin Peaks. David Lynch says in The Complete Lynch (Hughes 2001, p.183) that "It was supposed to be a 'stand-alone' -film, but it was also supposed to be the last week of Laura Palmer's life". Bearing that in mind, these dreams and their symbolic gestures can also be interpreted in relation to the television series as well as to the film FWWM. Laura dreams of a ring that represents a membership in the Black Lodge, where free evil spirits (doppelgängers) live. The dream has two separate sequences in which Laura receives advice from special agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) not to take the ring. In the second part of the dream Laura wakes up in her room holding the ring in the palm of her hand. The uncanny feeling within Laura, created by the knowledge that this ring looks identical to the one worn by Teresa Banks (The film opens with the killing of Teresa Banks, character played by Pamela Gidley) before her death, makes Laura scream. We as an audience do not know the full meaning of the ring until the end of the film. The meaning or the function of the ring is deliberately not revealed, making the dream even more uncanny.
The film Blue Velvet can also be interpreted as a dream, but a structured one. White picket fences, red roses and fire trucks shown in slow motion in the beginning of the film, set the mood for the film. These images are there to represent the American dream. A college student Jeffrey Beaumont returns to his home town, Lumberton, in order to take care of his father's hardware store while his father is recovering from a stroke. Jeffrey's mother is an old woman who does not interfere with the story, nor with Jeffrey's life for that matter. Jeffrey's real parents are therefore very distant to their son. On his way back from the hospital, Jeffrey finds a human ear in the field close to his house. The ear launches a police investigation, but Jeffrey wants to seek for an answer himself. All the clues lead him to the apartment of Dorothy Vallens, a middle-aged singer whose husband and son have been kidnapped by a dangerous man called Frank. Jeffrey imagines Dorothy and Frank as his exalted parents after witnessing their sadomasochistic sex, like a child, from the closet in Dorothy Vallens' living room. Sigmund Freud suggests in his essay Family romances (written in late 1908) that even in later years of their puberty, people imagine or dream of replacing their parents with superior ones. "If the Emperor and Empress appear in dreams, those exalted personages stand for their dreamer's father and mother." (Gay 1995, p.300). This reveals the other, darker side of the American dream; the twisted family unit, dreamed by a neglected young adult.
Even though this film works just as well when viewed not as a dream but as a flip side to the calmness and kindness of the town of Lumberton, the film is filled with dialogue and imagery that invite you to interpret the narrative with psychological means such as dream interpretation. The film has a circular narrative. The symbolic images of the American dream in the beginning as well as in the end of the film suggest that everything is fine before and after the story takes place. The story itself creates problems and conflicts but fails to give resolutions and definite answers, and thus leaves the characters somewhat hollow, much like in our dreams. This results in uncertainty and fear in the dreamer and indeed in the viewer of Blue Velvet. David Lynch says in Lynch on Lynch (Rodley 1997, p.138) that Blue Velvet is "a dream of strange desires wrapped inside a mystery story". The ending sequence, in which Jeffrey hides in Dorothy's apartment again and Frank comes to look for him in disguise, is a reconstruction of Lynch's own dream. This self-reflexivity is a key to unlocking the mystery of the dream in the film. The audience has to mirror the imagery and the mood to their personal experiences in dreams. If this ideology is not understood, the film might seem to be an example of sick imagery, surrounded by a weak mystery story.
Everybody dreams, and thus we are able to relate to these kinds of films of the unconscious. But as dreams often create uncertainty and fear in the dreamer, it is only some in the audience who willingly let themselves to be exposed to uncanny feelings, which makes them just as masochistic as the character of Dorothy Vallens. So, enjoying and seeking uncanny feelings in films makes the audience masochistic in a way. Bearing that in mind, we realise that a lot of Lynch's leading characters, such as Laura in FWWM, Jeffrey in Blue Velvet and Diane in Mulholland Drive willingly put themselves through scary and uncanny experiences. This is not to say that all that happens in the dream sequences is uncanny or scary but that the development of the narrative and the characters is unfamiliar, when compared to contemporary Hollywood cinema, therefore (in the case of Blue Velvet) the whole film with its narrative becomes an uncanny metaphor for conventional narrative structure and character development. "Dreams are important to the emotional (as well as the narrative) feel of the film, providing a link between the characters and their actions." (Le Blanc & Odell, 2003, p.79). Dream sequences are also widely used in "shock-horror". The difference is in the mood. Shock-horror presents monstrous images and characters in dreams, whereas psychological horror concentrates on building tension and uncertainty in the viewer.
Chapter 3. "Objects as Uncanny Metaphors"
Lynch's films are filled with symbolic gestures, from the ear found by Jeffrey in Blue Velvet to the mysterious, blue, square-shaped box discovered by Diane's doppelgänger Betty in Mulholland Drive. The fact that these objects and their meaning/function is deliberately not explained in the films, seems to require further analysis and interpretation. Carl G. Jung argues that, "there are innumerable things beyond the range of human understanding, we constantly use symbolic terms to represent concepts that we cannot define or fully understand." (Jung, published 1964, p.21). Particularly favourable condition for awakening uncanny feelings is created when there is intellectual uncertainty towards whether a familiar object carries other, possibly unknown connotations. These connotations trigger uncanny feelings, because we are unable to re-define already existing definitions for these objects. All of the symbolic objects, featured in the dream sequences of the films discussed here, are indeed familiar, everyday objects, but are presented as uncanny metaphors due to their unknown connotations.
Sigmund Freud rejects the method of dream interpretation based on assigning particular and fixed meanings for specific dream images. He calls this the "decoding" method, which "treats dreams as a kind of cryptography in which each sign can be translated into another sign having a known meaning, in accordance with a fixed key." (Ferguson 1996, p.77). Nevertheless, he does acknowledge a number of common examples of fixed symbolic meanings in dreams, most of which are associated with sexuality in general and representations of male and female sexual organs in particular.
Now, using this "fixed symbolism" to interpret symbolic metaphors in dream sequences in films seems appropriate because, according to Harvie Ferguson, these images and symbols "have become popularly identified as the typically 'Freudian' method of dream interpretation." (Ferguson 1996, p.77). Thus, in Blue Velvet Dorothy Vallens apartment's lift is out of order and anybody (including Jeffrey and Frank) who wants to enter her apartment upstairs needs to take the stairs. When the film is interpreted as a dream, interesting symbolic gestures arise. Freud argues that walking up or down staircases can be read as a representation of the sexual act. Both, Jeffrey and Frank enter Dorothy's apartment after climbing up the staircase and indeed end up in sexual act with her. In FWWM a staircase leading to Laura Palmers upstairs bedroom has a fan above it. Whenever this fan is on, it is a sign for the audience to prepare themselves for a dream sequence or the presence of evil spirits. The hovering sound of the fan scares Laura as much as it creates uncanny feelings in the viewer of FWWM. When Laura meets an old woman and her grandson in the car park outside double R -diner, the grandson says "He is under the fan now", referring to Laura's father, Leland, whose body is taken over by an evil spirit Bob. The fan as an object can be interpreted as a kind of a link between the real world and the other dimension (the Black Lodge). The inhabitants of the other dimension are able to travel from one dimension to another through these link-objects that we as an audience perceive as uncanny. The ring that represents the "membership" of the Black Lodge works in an identical way to the fan. When Laura puts the ring on, we realise its meaning in an instant, the uncanny feeling we had about the ring realises itself. The bearer of the ring has to die and his/her soul will be removed from real life. Laura's doppelgänger takes over her body in the Black Lodge and her conscious self dies.
Dismembered parts of the body are generally seen as uncanny. When Jeffrey finds a human ear in the beginning of Blue Velvet we are introduced to the idea of a gateway to the brain, to the unconscious. In the end of the film we come out of an ear (this time its Jeffrey's ear) that marks the ending point of the dream. Frank carries a sort of a gas mask with him where ever he goes. Frank uses the mask to gasp air through it. When this occurs, it is an indication of his transformation into a complete lunatic. In Frank's first scene after using the mask he violently rapes Dorothy. Later when we see Frank gasping air through the mask, we experience an uncanny moment of realisation. Frank is about to lose the little control he has over himself, again. In Mulholland Drive, Betty discovers a blue cube-shaped box in her bag. The box can only be opened with a triangle-shaped blue key. When Rita opens the box, Betty disappears. We move inside the box and once again the box is a link between the conscious and the unconscious mind. We end up in the conscious mind of Diane. We are no longer in a dream. Graham Fuller argues that shifts in and out of the dream sequences have occurred in other Lynch works as well. "These stabs of consciousness puncture the dream-protected sleep of the dreamer. In Blue Velvet Jeffrey, bruised and bloody after his beating by Frank, wakes up on a vacant lot, though he still has another dream to get through." (Fuller 2001, p.3).
When everyday objects like the ones discussed above are introduced and their possible multiple connotations are not explained, they turn into little pieces of the puzzle that creates the mystery of these films. The viewer is left to create the uncanny connotations. Ron Garcia, the director of photography on FWWM says in an interview that the camera angles carry a lot of meaning in the film as well. In the film, we have a consistent high camera angle. "The high-angled shots reflect an angelic presence that continues throughout the film, with an unseen angel looking down on the evil events below." (Garcia 1992, p.60). This idea of the angelic presence is also hinted through a painting on Laura's wall. The angel disappears from the painting and leaves Laura uncertain of her destiny. Laura is given another painting by an old lady and her grandson. It is a painting of an empty room with an opened door in the corner. In her dream that night, Laura enters this room in the painting. She walks through the opened door and ends up in the Black Lodge, where she is given the warning not to take the ring. The significance of these paintings seems to suggest to look at the film as coded language, constructed of painting-like still images. Every object is another piece in this puzzle. This is not the first moment in the film that asks you to interpret a coded language. In the opening quarter of the film the special agents investigating the murder of Teresa Banks are introduced to their coded clues of the mission (the woman in a red dress) by David Lynch's cameo appearance as agent chief Gordon Cole.
Whilst conventional shock -horror keeps inventing new monsters to star in films, I think it's safe to say that psychological horror has reached the point where it does not have to reinvent itself. The uncanny feeling is a subconscious act of the mind and it does not have to involve horrific imagery to make the viewer terrified. However, this tension building and carefully constructed story lines are very difficult to master. The writer and the director must be aware of human psychology in order to hold the tension and story together. There is always a theory behind a story, whether the theory is academically valid is another thing. With psychology-related narrative structures, this is crucial, because psychology is a sort of a reference guide to human behaviour and if this is presented incorrectly it wont have the desired impact in the viewer simply because it does not feel right. Ron Garcia argues that "David (Lynch) creates an emotion in everybody by tapping into the subconscious. From a Jungian perspective, the subconscious is real: you're there until you wake up, and some people don't wake up from those nightmares." (Garcia 1992, p.62).
Reading Freud and Jung's texts makes these ideologies and theories prove themselves right by the means of the cinematic language in Lynch's films. They are not just stories told with a captured moment, they are also a possibility for the viewer to experience or mirror their past experiences with their own subconscious mind and its way of presenting itself. It cannot be stressed enough how individual these experiences might be, but on the level of psychological horror, the effect these films have on one is similar to all audiences in western culture. Objects as uncanny metaphors are difficult to define, because certain objects are received differently by different people and because objects carry different connotations for different people, but generally intellectual uncertainty leads to uncanny feelings. Thus, any object can carry uncanny and possibly unknown connotations regardless of its multiple connotations in real life.
Psychological horror, especially in Lynch's work can also be a learning experience. Lynch has created his own style of psychologically coded cinematic language, which has become a convention in psychological horror. This convention is used again and again in various forms, making the viewing experience of psychological horror work on multiple levels. Combining the understanding of the unconscious perception and the known conventions of cinematic language is one of the most powerful ways of enjoying psychological horror cinema. The usage of these conventions in a film is also an identifiable proof that psychological horror should not be synonymous with shock-horror cinema.
text: © Valtteri Kokko
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