Monday, March 14, 2011

Elements of the Uncanny: THE EXORCIST

"It was always very strange for me when I was young and would meet someone who geniunely seemed to be afraid of me. They couldn't separate me from the monster I became in a movie. You wouldn't believe how often people ask me to make my head spin around." - Linda Blair (Regan)

It has been a little over a week since I have put my big girl panties on and watched The Exorcist, and I have to say that I am still quite fascinated over it. The more that I have thought about it, and the more in depth we have gotten in analytic critiques in class, the more mad I get at myself for not watching this film sooner because there is SO much to discuss and dissect on a psychoanalytical level... and frankly, I just need to go there with you folks.
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A few years ago, I read Freud's The Uncanny as well as The New Uncanny (which is a book of short stories written in response to Freud's original piece) and this semester I am revisiting it again in my Literary Criticism class.  Now maybe it is the natural weirdo in me (or the perv?) but I am truly fascinated by the uncanny, and by Freud, and have actually been doing a lot of reading on the topic of psychoanalysis in my spare time to get a better grasp on how to apply it to past and modern day horror.  So on that note, I want to go over some elements of the uncanny that we discussed in class last Thursday, as well as some of my own discoveries that I have been deviously pondering.
  • NOTE: for those of you that aren't familiar with the terminology, the Uncanny (das Unheimliche -- literally, "un-home-ly") is a Freudian concept of an instance where something can be familiar, yet foreign at the same time, resulting in a feeling of it being uncomfortably strange.
So of the main elements that are discussed when talking about the uncanny are: the double, the eye, a sense of being buried alive, dismemberment, the idea of an all controlling genius, a confusion between reality and imagination, repetition (repetition), reanimation and or mechanical movements (such as seizures or trances, or the dead coming back to life) and finally, my personal favorite, dolls/dummies.  Now what is so cool about the uncanny, is that when I first read a list like this, my mind went in a million directions thinking of different plots and characters in horror/thriller/science fiction movies that apply to scenarios like the above, but what my teacher, Mike Arnzen keeps stressing is that the uncanny is not always evil or related to the horror world.  For instance, Déjà vu is certainly an uncanny concept but people can have it without being previously chased by a monster, or being killed in a past life.  Personally, that's all the more creepy to me, because it means that the uncanny is everywhere!


But back to The Exorcist:
Our class came up with a list of uncanny elements that I want to share with you, because I think we did a pretty job and pin-pointing areas within the film that evoke uneasiness within the audience, and within the characters as well:  the idea of an all-controlling genius, possessed body parts, seizures and mechanical body parts such as when her head spins, the idea of the satanic double, repetitions of aging women, the notion of being buried alive, insanity, reoccurring numbers, supernatural uncertainty of whether Regan in is reality or in her imagination, the reanimation of Father Karras's mother within Regan, animated objects (bed, dresser, etc), the eye, throwing of voices (ventriloquism), and the castration/Oedipal complex.

  • Some of these are pretty obvious to the viewer, but some are done a tad more subtlety such as: being buried alive, the reanimation of Father Karras's mother with Regan, the throwing of voices, and the castration/Oedipal complex.  
The concept of being buried alive is a favorite of mine because it deals with the horrors of a woman's body (well in my opinion anyways).  When the movie first begins, we see the elder priest reach into a deep hole, which Freud would interpret as his desire to re-enter the womb.  While this is a little stretched at times, because I don't think that every time someone reaches within something that they are begging to be a part of their mother again, I think it works well within this story based on the relationship between Regan and her mother. Regan is an only child, living in a broken family. From the scenes where the mother is cursing at the father on the phone, it is obvious to the viewer that their divorce was, and still is, on hostile grounds. Because of this, I think that Regan is constantly reaching out to her mother, who plays both the matriarchal and patriarchal role in their family as she has a steady (and successful) career as an actress. Because of this, Regan is mostly brought up by the nanny/maid, and it's obvious that she wants her mother to herself when she kills Burke in her possessed state - the man that her mother was currently romantically involved with.  That idea reverts to a form of the Oedipal Complex, where Regan wants her mother only for herself.  But, if we took a step away from the mother/daughter relationship, the obvious symbol of being buried alive would be the fact that Regan was buried within herself, thus the demon taking over.  We see that she is trapped inside when she writes help me on her stomach.

I thought that the reanimation of Father Karras's mother was (damn) scary because it tormented him on such as psychologically level, and he was already torturing himself over the decision he made by putting her in the mental/hospice facility. Personally, when Regan spoke out to him in his mother's voice, my body went cold. What a way to attack someone by reanimating their guilt or their fear -- this reminded me of Stephen King's Pet Semetary when we see Gage reanimated, but more so the vision of his mother's sister who was deformed and deathly ill, all the while blaming her sister for her death. I think this goes  back to the idea of the familiar becoming unfamiliar in that what we one felt safe with is now eliciting fear/panic from us. Also, note the fact that Regan throwing her voice portrays the ventriloquism element of the uncanny. Voice changes are always creepy no matter what because it's almost always linked to possession, whether in inanimate or animate forms.

Last, but not least, my personal favorite, the castration complex. We distinctly see this in two scenes during the movie, both involving Regan. In the early stages of her possession, when her mother is still seeking a medical explanation for her actions, she had consulted a psychologist/hypnotist to come and examine her daughter.  In the beginning of the process, it appeared to viewers that it was working because Regan admitted to being afraid of something inside of her, yet when the doctor began to speak to the demon, it violently responded with grabbing his crotch and twisting his groin.This not only symbolized a physical (literal) castration but a metaphorical one as well, as he was denied the knowledge of what was going on within the child.  The next example, would be when Regan was left alone in her room, with the cross.  She stood up on her bed, and penetrated her vaginal area with the cross, over and over again, shouting obscenities and vulgarities as she did so.  This action could represent the castration of Regan from the church.

The Exorcist is such a terrifying movie because it plays on so many aspects of our fears, hence the subtleties of the uncanny.  The actual notion of Regan's possession because obvious very early on, and thus plays backseat to the other areas of horror within the film and book (although I haven't read it, yet).