The Uncanny – Steven Schneider (2nd Part)

 

Monsters as (Uncanny) Metaphors: Freud, Lakoff, and the Representation of Monstrosity in Cinematic Horror 

 (2nd Part)

 

Steven Schneider

 

LAKOFF

(3) Horror film monsters are conceptual, not merely cinematographic, metaphors.

It is one thing for metaphors to appear in a literary work; is it another thing (or perhaps no thing) for metaphors to appear in a cinematic work? Although not all theorists agree that the "metaphorical transformation of ideas exists in film," [56] Trevor Whittock, in an influential study, concludes that metaphor can come from the "role [of an image] in the thematic or narrative development of the film,…its place in social beliefs or customs, even its cultural and historical setting." [57] If horror film monsters really are metaphorical embodiments of paradigmatic uncanny narratives, and their role really is to reconfirm previously surmounted beliefs by their very presence, then what we need now is a theory of metaphor which can support and help to explicate this phenomenon.

George Lakoff has provided copious and convincing evidence for the view that "the locus of metaphors is not in language at all," [58] but in thought. According to Lakoff, metaphors function by facilitating an understanding of one conceptual domain in terms of another, usually more concrete conceptual domain. Take the familiar LOVE IS A JOURNEY metaphor: here, entities from the "target domain" of love (e.g. lovers, their common goals, the love relationship) are understood in terms of entities from the "source domain" of traveling (travelers, destinations, the vehicle used to get there). This explains the ease with which we traffic in such metaphorical expressions as "their relationship is going nowhere," "they’re stuck in the slow lane," and "she’s got control of the wheel." The ontological correspondences constituting the LOVE IS A JOURNEY metaphor, and thousands of others, are tightly structured, insofar as target domain entities typically preserve the logical features of (and relations between) source domain entities. They are conventional, in that they function as relatively fixed parts of a culture’s shared conceptual system. And they exist in a hierarchical organization, whereby "lower" mappings inherit correspondence features from "higher" mappings. To illustrate this last point, note that the understanding of, for instance, difficulties in terms of impediments to travel occurs not only in the PURPOSEFUL LIFE IS A JOURNEY metaphor (e.g. "From now on, it’s going to be smooth sailing"), but also in the "lower-level" LOVE IS A JOURNEY metaphor (e.g. "Their relationship is rocky"), as well as in the "lower-level" CAREER IS A JOURNEY metaphor (e.g. "His rise to the top has hit a snag").

Three features of Lakoff’s theory make it appealing in the present context. First, his emphasis on the conceptual, rather than linguistic, basis of metaphor satisfies our need for a theory which readily accommodates (or at least does not discriminate against) cinematic representations of monstrosity. Lakoff repeatedly stresses that, in his theory, "the language is secondary. The mapping is primary." [59] This is crucial, considering that in our theory, those narratives serving to reconfirm surmounted beliefs are "embodied" not in language, but by horror film monsters. In other words, the medium of our metaphor is primarily visual, not verbal.

Second, the conventional nature of conceptual metaphors goes a long way towards accounting for the seemingly ubiquitous presence of horror film monsters in our culture. Just as the LOVE IS A JOURNEY metaphor has become so much a feature of our unreflective thought and speech that we often fail to recognize particular instances of it as metaphor, fascination with—one might say affection for—the monsters of horror cinema has become so widespread that most of us have no need to stop and figure out just which uncanny narratives they metaphorically embody. Dracula, Freddy, Jason, and company are referred to in songs, star in cartoons, appear on postage stamps… some even have breakfast cereals named after them! For better or worse, the metaphorical nature of horror film monsters has facilitated their entrance into our collective consciousness.

Third, the systematic and hierarchical organization of conceptual metaphors helps to account for the intuitive plausibility of a "surmounted belief" horror film monster typology. The utility of arranging what looks at first to be a seemingly incommensurable mass of monsters in a system that is both theoretically acceptable and aesthetically satisfying has recently been remarked upon by Gregory Waller. In his introduction to a collection of essays on the modern American horror film, Waller writes that "a fully developed typology of monsters would offer a valuable means of delineating the paradigmatic possibilities open to this genre and the sort of fears that will suitably trouble its audience." [60] Ironically, the reverse turns out to be the case. Starting with "the paradigmatic possibilities open to this genre and the sort of fears that will suitably trouble its audience," we discover a valuable means of delineating "a fully developed typology of monsters." In turn, however, this typology can serve to motivate additional insights into the means and ends of horror cinema. According to Lakoff, metaphorical mappings do not occur in isolation from one another. [61] Neither, as we shall see, do horror film monsters.

In light of our earlier discussion, and considering the three features of Lakoff’s theory just mentioned, there is ample grounds for hypothesizing the existence of a SURMOUNTED BELIEFS ARE HORROR FILM MONSTERS conceptual metaphor, according to which entities from the relatively abstract source domain of surmounted beliefs are understood in terms of entities from the far more concrete target domain of horror film monsters. The former domain is "relatively abstract" because surmounted beliefs are propositional states with content that can only achieve literal reconfirmation narratologically: the surmounted belief that the dead are capable of returning to life (as opposed to, say, the belief that I am hungry) requires a whole series of events to take place before its truth can be (re-)confirmed. Freud would seem to concur: "apparent death and the return of the dead have been represented as uncanny themes." [62]

The latter domain, in contrast, is "far more concrete" for the obvious reason that horror film monsters are visual representations intended to engender a sense of horror/uncanniness in viewers by their very presence. The claim here is that, as symbolic correlates of surmounted beliefs, horror film monsters can achieve (metaphorical) reconfirmation pictorially—and therefore, all at once. Given the requisite conflict of judgment (by no means an easy condition to satisfy), the very act of watching a horror film monster onscreen reconfirms for viewers whichever previously surmounted beliefs are associated with the paradigmatic narratives that monster embodies.

In keeping with Freud, we can effect an initial breakdown of the SURMOUNTED BELIEFS ARE HORROR FILM MONSTERS conceptual metaphor along the following lines: [63]

        I.                                    SURMOUNTED BELIEFS THAT THE DEAD CAN RETURN TO LIFE ARE REINCARNATED MONSTERS

     II.                                    SURMOUNTED BELIEFS IN THE OMNIPOTENCE OF THOUGHT ARE PSYCHIC MONSTERS

   III.                                    SURMOUNTED BELIEFS IN THE EXISTENCE OF A DOUBLE ARE DYADIC MONSTERS

Each of these levels has at least one sub-level, whereby "lower" monsters inherit correspondence features from "higher" monsters. So, for example, beneath the SURMOUNTED BELIEFS THAT THE DEAD CAN RETURN TO LIFE ARE REINCARNATED MONSTERS level, we find the SURMOUNTED BELIEFS THAT DEAD BODIES CAN RETURN TO LIFE ARE ZOMBIES level (monsters here include The Mummy, Frankenstein’s monster, the innumerable victims of Romero’s Living Dead Trilogy, and Jason Vorhees), as well as the SURMOUNTED BELIEFS THAT DEAD SOULS CAN RETURN TO LIFE ARE SPIRITS level (monsters here include ghosts, haunted houses, and the possessed). In turn, each of these levels has at least one sub-level of its own. Table I, below, is an attempt at elucidating the hierarchical organization of this metaphor (note that the terminological choices are, to some extent, arbitrary, and that a number of more particularistic taxonomies may very well be compatible with this one). Perhaps as should have been expected, many of horror cinema’s most enduring monsters turn out to be "mixed" metaphors (recall our earlier discussion of Damien), insofar as their presence reconfirms more than one surmounted belief.

CONCLUSION: THE REPRESENTATION OF MONSTROSITY IN CINEMATIC HORROR 

(4) Although the metaphorical nature of horror film monsters is psychologically necessary, their surface heterogeneity is historically and culturally contingent.

Among the advantages of aligning our psychoanalytic explanation of horror film monsters with Lakoff’s conceptual theory of metaphor is that we now have the resources to explain away the apparent incompatibility between universalizing and particularistic accounts of monstrosity. On the one hand, we know that the basic types of horror film monsters—reincarnated monsters, psychic monsters, and dyadic monsters—are psychologically necessary, in that the uncanny narratives they metaphorically embody correspond to a specific, and limited, set of infantile beliefs (namely, those which have been surmounted). What all horror film monsters have in common, besides the fact that they are not real, is that they all fall under the SURMOUNTED BELIEFS ARE HORROR FILM MONSTERS conceptual metaphor. On the other hand, due to the need for a conflict of judgment regarding the possibility of reconfirmation in a depicted world, particular tokens of horror film monsters (i.e. those at lower levels of the inheritance hierarchy) are historically and culturally contingent. All horror film monsters metaphorically embody surmounted beliefs, but not all of them manage to reconfirm those beliefs by their very presence; that is why not all of them manage to fulfill their primary (that is, their horrifying) purpose.



Table I:
The SURMOUNTED BELIEFS ARE HORROR FILM MONSTERS conceptual metaphor

  IV.                                    SURMOUNTED BELIEFS THAT THE DEAD CAN RETURN TO LIFE ARE REINCARNATED MONSTERS

A.    SURMOUNTED BELIEFS THAT DEAD BODIES CAN RETURN TO LIFE ARE ZOMBIES

1.                              NON-NATURAL ZOMBIES: Dracula, The Mummy, The Golem, Jason, Night of the Living Dead

2.                              MEDICO-SCIENTIFIC ZOMBIES: Frankenstein’s monster, The Crazies, Shivers, Rabid

B.    SURMOUNTED BELIEFS THAT DEAD SOULS CAN RETURN TO LIFE ARE SPIRITS

1.                              DISEMBODIED SOULS: ghosts, haunted houses (The Haunting, Poltergeist, Amityville Horror)

2.                              EMBODIED SOULS: demonic possessions (The Exorcist, Fallen), Candyman, Chuckie

     V.                                    SURMOUNTED BELIEFS IN THE OMNIPOTENCE OF THOUGHT ARE PSYCHIC MONSTERS

 .        SURMOUNTED BELIEFS IN THE PROMPT FULFILLMENT OF WISHES ARE TELEKENETICS: Carrie, Freddy

A.    SURMOUNTED BELIEFS IN MENTALTRANSPARENCY ARE TELEPATHICS: Patrick, Scanners, (vampires)

  VI.                                    SURMOUNTED BELIEFS IN THE EXISTENCE OF A DOUBLE ARE DYADIC MONSTERS

 .        SURMOUNTED BELIEFS IN THE EXISTENCE OF PHYSICAL DOUBLES ARE REPLICAS

1.                              SURMOUNTED BELIEFS IN THE EXISTENCE OF NATURAL REPLICAS ARE DOPPLEGANGERS

a.     TWINS: Sisters, Dead Ringers, Raising Cain

b.    CLONES: Invasion of the Body Snatchers

c.     CHAMELEONS: Carpenter’s The Thing, Phantoms

2.                              SURMOUNTED BELIEFS IN THE EXISTENCE OF NON-NATURAL REPLICAS ARE REPLICANTS

 .       ROBOTS: The Stepford Wives, Westworld

a.     CYBORGS: Bladerunner, Terminator

A.   SURMOUNTED BELIEFS IN THE EXISTENCE OF MENTAL DOUBLE ARE PSYCHOS

1.                              SCHIZOS [same body, different consciousness]: Norman Bates, Dressed To Kill, (Sisters)

2.                              SHAPE-SHIFTERS [same body, physical transformation]: Jekyll-Hyde, werewolves, vampires

3.                              PROJECTIONS [different body]: The Brood, (Frankenstein’s monster)

4.                              SERIAL KILLERS [same body, same consciousness [64]]: Henry, Lechter, Peeping Tom


In order to instill a conflict of judgment in viewers, the manner in which horror film monsters metaphorically embody surmounted beliefs must be periodically updated; investing monsters with cultural relevance serves to "keep us in the dark about the precise nature of the presuppositions on which the world [depicted in the film] is based." [65] And how else could we willingly suspend our disbelief? The distinction being made here, between (universal) monster types and (particular) monster tokens, is theoretically explicable in terms of Lakoff’s distinction between (general) superordinate level mappings and (specific) basic level mappings:

It should come as no surprise that the generalization is at the superordinate level, while the special cases are at the basic level. After all, the basic level is at the level of rich mental images and rich knowledge structure… A mapping at the superordinate level maximizes the possibilities for mapping rich conceptual structures in the source domain onto the target domain, since it permits many basic level instances, each of which is information rich. [66]

We might say: mappings at the superordinate level of monster types maximize the possibilities for satisfying Freud’s conflict of judgment condition on the depicted uncanny, since it permits many basic level instances of monster tokens, each of which is (potentially) culturally relevant.

Considering that analyses of the horror genre informed by psychoanalytic theory are typically assumed to be universalizing in nature, it may come as something of a surprise to find that Wood’s "return of the repressed" argument comes in handy at just this point. One finds in Wood an invocation of the post-Freudian distinction between basic repression, which is universal, necessary, and inescapable, and surplus repression, which is culture-specific and contingent, varying in both degree and kind with respect to different societies. [67] And when Wood talks about horror film monsters in terms of a "return of the repressed," what he really has in mind is a "return of the surplus repressed": "in a society built on monogamy and family there will be an enormous surplus of repressed sexual energy, and…what is repressed must always strive to return." [68]

The problem with Wood’s account is that, by not sticking to the fundamental suppositions of Freud’s theory of the uncanny, he fails to explain why horror film monsters are capable of horrifying us. We may mistrust, despise, even fear the objects of surplus repression in our society, but it is not at all obvious that we are horrified by them. Indeed, Wood suggests the possibility of extending his theory to genres other than horror: "substitute for ‘Monster’ the term ‘Indian’, for example, and one has a formula for a large number of classical Westerns; substitute ‘transgressive woman’ and the formula encompasses numerous melodramas…" [69] But if we can so easily extend this "return of the repressed" argument, why should we believe that it captures anything distinctive about the cinematic representation of monstrosity?

Wood concedes that, as opposed to the Indian (and the transgressive woman), "the monster is, of course, much more Protean, changing from period to period as society’s basic fears clothe themselves in fashionable or immediately accessible garments." [70] In order to characterize these "basic fears," however, we must turn to the SURMOUNTED BELIEFS ARE HORROR FILM MONSTERS conceptual metaphor; it is only at the particularistic level of "fashionable or immediately accessible garments" that we may wish to invoke (with Wood) the objects of surplus repression. [71] Alternatively, this is just the point at which we might fruitfully employ/extend one or more of the wholly non-psychoanalytic particularistic accounts of monstrosity provided by Carroll, Cohen, Halberstam, et. al. [72] Following Lakoff, cultural updates of traditional/canonical horror film monsters can be understood as novel extensions of the SURMOUNTED BELIEFS ARE HORROR FILM MONSTERS metaphor. Due to the fact that this metaphor is a fixed part of our conceptual system, new and imaginative mappings are capable of being understood immediately: our integration of the novel extension is "a consequence of the preexisting ontological correspondences of the metaphor." [73]

An example will serve to illustrate this point: Abel Ferrara’s The Addiction (1996) is a horror film that updates the vampire mythos in order to explore and comment on a number of contemporary social issues. Although the bleakness and philosophical pretensions of this movie guaranteed that it would not draw all that well at the box office, a number of critics had great things to say about it: "this is the vampire movie we’ve been waiting for: a reactionary, urban-horror flick that truly has the ailing pulse of the time. AIDS and drug addiction are points of reference, but they’re symptoms, not the cause." [74] In Freudian-Lakoffian terms, the vampire/blood-addicts in this film can be viewed as novel extensions (i.e. cultural updates) of the SURMOUNTED BELIEFS THAT THE DEAD CAN RETURN TO LIFE ARE REINCARNATED MONSTERS sub-level metaphor; as such, they are able to produce in many viewers that conflict of judgment necessary for a feeling of uncanniness.[75]

To sum up. One (empirical) problem facing any universalizing account of horror film monsters is how to account for the fact that such monsters often fail to horrify viewers, and so fail to fulfill their primary purpose. This is where particularistic accounts come in. But particularistic accounts have their own (conceptual) problem, namely, that of accounting for what it is that makes horror film monsters horrifying by their very nature. Call back the universalizing accounts. So it appears that these two kinds of account must somehow be rendered compatible, in order for a complete story to emerge. This paper is a first attempt at rendering just such a compatibility, by filtering certain key aspects of Freud’s theory of the uncanny through the lenses of Lakoff’s conceptual theory of metaphor.

Some final considerations. In answer to the question, "Why do we have the conventional metaphors that we have?", Lakoff postulates that a great number of them are grounded in real life: "correspondences in real experience form the basis for correspondences in the metaphorical cases, which go beyond real experience."[76] So if the account of horror film monsters presented here is correct, then the paradigmatic horror narratives such monsters metaphorically embody are likely to have a basis in reality. To make matters even worse, conceptual metaphors have the capacity to impose themselves on real life "through the creation of new correspondences in experience."[77] Now that’s a horrifying thought.[78]

 

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