Freedom and Determinism: The Uncanny in Psychoanalysis and Existentialism
Freud’s theory of the “uncanny” is a highly influential concept in the analysis of horrific films and literature. But more than helping us to understand the appeal and effect of the horror genre, the uncanny as Freud explains it reveals much about his understanding of human beings as being essentially determined by unconscious processes. In this essay I examine the concept of the uncanny from the perspective of the debate concerning free will and determinism, building on Freud’s original conception based on repression to an understanding (following Slavoj Zizek’s interpretation) of the uncanny as the experience of awareness of the controlling force of the id, a lack of control, a determination. I raise challenges to this theory of the uncanny (and determinism) based on existentialist thinking, specifically Heidegger’s description of the uncanny as the revelation that there is in fact no core to the self, no determining id, but rather openness, possibility and freedom. I also examine Julia Kristeva’s notion of abjection and whether this might be a way to reconcile psychoanalytic and existentialist perspectives in the study of the effects of horror, despite the obvious differences in their approach to philosophical anthropology.
The Uncanny in Psychoanalysis
Freud offers as his most basic definition of the uncanny, “that species of the frightening that goes back to what was once well known and had long been familiar” (1919: 124). This thing which was “once well known” can take the form of either “repressed” or “surmounted” beliefs or desires which are brought up from the unconscious into the conscious mind. This involves a compulsion to repeat: “the uncanny element in the recurrence of the same thing can be derived from infantile psychology….In the unconscious mind we can recognize the dominance of a compulsion to repeat, which proceeds from instinctual impulses. This compulsion probably depends on the essential nature of the drives themselves….” (1919: 145). The drives, originating in the id, are “essential” in Freud’s view (this will become particularly noteworthy in the discussion of “existence over essence” in existentialism). Being essential, and involving a compulsion to repeat (the impulses themselves, as well as the actions of the individual subject to them), the drives (the id) and the unconscious represent the determining feature of the psyche. Any individual is influenced by forces he is not aware of.
Looking at this more closely in terms of the uncanny, we see that for Freud the experience of uncanniness is linked to unconscious desires and beliefs that are repressed or surmounted, and yet through their repetitive nature, and through the prodding of the work of uncanny texts, find their way back into consciousness and produce that discomfort, that aspect of the frightening we term the uncanny. One form the uncanny can take is the return of the repressed:
if psychoanalytic theory is right in asserting that every affect arising from an emotional impulse - of whatever kind - is converted into fear by being repressed, it follows that among those things that are felt to be frightening there must be one group in which it can be shown that the frightening element is something that has been repressed and now returns. This species of the frightening would then constitute the uncanny….this uncanny element is actually nothing new or strange, but something that was long familiar to the psyche and was estranged from it only through being repressed. The link with repression now illuminates Shelling’s definition of the uncanny as ‘something that should have remained hidden that has come into the open’. (1919: 147).
Whenever something is repressed, then, its reappearance is a source of fear - it should have remained hidden but now comes into the open and confronts the conscious mind, creating the uneasy feeling of uncanniness. The compulsion to repeat is a “manifestation of the power of the repressed” (Freud, 1920: 14), illustrating the strength of the influence of the repressed and the unconcsious. Andrew Tudor notes that in studies of the effects and functions of horror, this aspect of the uncanny has often been seen to serve as a “safety valve, where repressed affect threatens to surface and as a figurative reminder of the fearful consequences if the ‘rules’ of sexual behaviour are broken. In a real sense, then, such perspectives see human agents as unaware victims of their cultures” (1997: 448). For Tudor sexual repression is key, though the “safety valve” theory has been applied also to destructive impulses, or Thanatos in Freud’s terminology. Indeed, we see in Tudor’s remarks a mode of thinking similar to Freud’s in Civilization and its Discontents, where the “renunciation of instincts” is crucial to the survival of human culture and civilization. The experience of the uncanny, from Tudor’s perspective, is a way of dealing with cultural restraints on the id and of reinforcing these restraints by associating the emergence of repressed instincts with the uncomfortable feeling of the uncanny.
As an example of the return of the repressed theory in relation to the understanding and interpretation of horror I take the film Psycho, which besides being generally considered one of the best and most effective horror/suspense films ever made, also lends itself to psychoanalytic interpretation for obvious reasons. Norman Bates is a grown man stuck in an Oedipus complex, and in the film we see Norman driven to an act of murder through the jealousy he perceives his mother to experience when he is sexually aroused by another woman. Of course at the end of the film we discover that the mother is actually also Norman, who “becomes” his mother whenever he experiences sexual desire for other women (such as Marion, the woman “mother” murders in the shower), illustrating his inability to resolve the Oedipus complex and achieve a mature sexuality. In her classic study of horror cinema, Barbara Creed claims that “the ideological project of horror films such as Psycho, Carrie, The Brood, and The Hunger, all of which feature the monster as female, appears to be precisely this - constructing monstrosity’s source as the failure of paternal order to ensure the break, the separation of mother and child” (1993: 38). Analysis of this film using the return of the repressed theory would involve the obvious observation that much of what makes Psycho unsettling, or uncanny, is the relationship that Norman has with his mother, and as Creed notes, the absence or failure of a paternal order to ensure resolution of the Oedipus complex, serving as a reminder of the Oedipus complex that we have all experienced, and the repression of the desire for the mother that was necessary to resolve the complex. As we are confronted with this repressed desire, we experience the uncanny.
Along with repression, the uncanny can also come from being confronted with surmounted desires or beliefs. This form of the uncanny comes when “primitive beliefs that have been surmounted appear to be once again confirmed” (1919: 154). For example, at some point children give up the belief that their dolls might someday come to life, yet as adults when confronted with such an event in a horror film the revival of this surmounted belief is experienced as uncanny. In the case of both repressed and surmounted beliefs and desires, we are speaking not of everyday fears, and this is why the uncanny is a particular aspect of the frightening. We are instead dealing with something that was once familiar to the psyche but has become estranged to it, something that has been repressed or surmounted and which now reappears. In the case of repression, the uncanny is a response to being confronted with aspects of the psyche that have been forced into the unconscious; the fear comes in the revelation that these desires and beliefs are not in fact gone, but have been lurking in the unconscious all along. It is this understanding of the uncanny that has been the foundation of most psychoanalytic study and interpretation of the horror genre, its effects, and its appeal. Curtis Bowman offers a description of surmounted beliefs in relation to the uncanny: “surmounted beliefs are outmoded ways of thinking that are reactivated and confirmed in the experience of the uncanny….repressed material is always accompanied by anxiety as it returns to consciousness. Surmounted beliefs do not seem to be subject to repression, and thus their confirmation is not accompanied by anxiety….Perhaps the reemergence of surmounted beliefs signifies a painful loss of intellectual mastery. Such a dynamic - we might call it ‘the confirmation of the disavowed’ - could account for any disturbance that might be found in the case of surmounted beliefs” (2003: 67). This ‘loss of intellectual mastery’ Bowman describes forms the basis of Slavoj Zizek’s understanding of the uncanny.
In a brief passage in The Plague of Fantasies, Slavoj Zizek offers an interpretation of the uncanny which highlights some crucial aspects of Freudian psychoanalysis and philosophical anthropology:
The Freudian point regarding fundamental fantasy would be that each subject, female or male, possesses such a ‘factor’ which regulates his or her desire: ‘a woman, viewed from behind, on her hand and knees’ was the Wolf Man’s factor…There is nothing uplifting about our awareness of this ‘factor’: such awareness can never be subjectivized; it is uncanny - even horrifying - since it somehow ‘depossesses’ the subject, reducing her or him to a puppet-like level ‘beyond dignity and freedom’ (1997: 8).
The implications of this passage are vast in scope. The “factors” Zizek speaks of here are things that awaken sexual desire - in layman terms, such a factor is something that “turns you on”; he gives the example of the sight of a woman viewed from behind on her hands and knees as awakening some deep and primitive desire. The awareness of such a factor is not uplifting, according to Zizek, because it depossesses the subject; that is, this factor exerts a control over the individual by provoking a response, a desire, that has nothing to do with the conscious subject. The subject becomes a “puppet”, mastered by the drives and desires embedded in his unconscious that spring up from the id. The subject is “beyond dignity and freedom” because he is determined by his unconscious, a force that is outside of his control (in Bowman’s terms, the subject experiences a loss of intellectual mastery). This view is in line with Freud’s deterministic model of human nature: the psyche can be boiled down to its essential elements, the drives originating from the unconscious, exerting an influence on a subject who ultimately does not possess what we might term a free will. In this view, the id is the core of the psyche and is a determining force.
For Zizek, then, the uncanny is not brought about by the specific desires or beliefs that are awakened, but more fundamentally the realization that there are desires and beliefs that lie outside the realm of consciousness, buried deep within the id, which nonetheless have control of of depossessed subjects who are like slaves to their own desires. In relation to the horror genre specifically, Jonathan Lake Crane claims that “Horror films are primers for the primitive….Returning to the horrible allows us to keep sight of the fundamental desires that rule the species….Through any particular work, as horror films are nearly all identically constructed, an individual audience member can come to know not only the entire history of horror but also his or her biological/psychic destiny” (1994: 28). Thus, the experience of watching horror is like a reminder of the rule of the id, and the determining influence of unconscious drives. In Psycho, the uncanny in Zizek’s sense might be aroused by the shocking revelation at the end of the film that it is actually Norman who has committed the murders, and has been compelled to do so by an inability to escape the psycho-sexual complexes that have haunted him since his childhood. In a scene leading up to the famous shower scene, Norman has a conversation with his unsuspecting victim in the motel’s parlour where he reveals a desire to flee from his “mother’s” tyrannical grip, but ultimately cannot summon the will to do so. This is Norman’s failure to achieve the self-mastery that Freud claimed psychoanalysis might be able to provide.
This is an understanding of the uncanny that is at a more primitive level than Freud’s analysis, since he was concerned with the details of repression, while this is concerned only with the fact of the unconscious. However, the elements of Zizek’s interpretation of the uncanny can be seen in Freud’s discussion of automata, or the “automatic - mechanical - processes that may lie hidden behind the familiar image of a living person” (1919: 135). Freud is referring explicitly to instances in horrific literature when we are confronted with persons whom we are not certain are living or dead; implicitly, however, we can see Zizek’s version of the uncanny in the notion of automata, or people who are driven by forces outside of their control, not true subjects but slaves determined by their unconscious. Both Freud and Zizek’s theories of the uncanny are based on a deterministic model of human nature that posits a “core” of the self in the form of the id.
The Uncanny in Existentialism
William Barrett offers a Sartrean definition of existentialism in the notion that existence precedes essence: “Man exists and makes himself to be what he is; his individual essence or nature comes to be out of his existence; and in this sense it is proper to say that existence precedes essence. Man does not have a fixed essence that is handed to him ready-made; rather, he makes his own nature out of his freedom and the historical conditions in which he is placed” (1958: 102). This is in direct contrast to Freud’s (and Zizek’s) determinism, which sees humans as being slaves to unconscious drives and processes. The existential view is that there is in fact no “essence” (for Freud, the id), or at least no essence that is prior to existence: what we are comes through our place in space and time and the choices we make, based on the infinite possibility of existence. However, this ultimate freedom carries a price in the form of existential dread or angst, and it is this to which I turn now in relation to the question of how we might apply existentialist thought to an understanding of the uncanny, specifically through Curtis Bowman’s (2003) reading of Heidegger in relation to horror. While Heidegger’s version of existentialism differs in crucial respects from the “existence precedes essence” definition given by Barrett (for Heidegger man does not ‘make himself’ exactly, but rather there is a possibility for man to break from habit and experience moments of authenticity), it retains the principle that we are essentially free to make choices and thus presents a challenge to Freud’s determinism.
In Being and Time Heidegger argues that angst is not the same thing as fear (much like Freud says that the uncanny is not the same thing as fear), but rather it is a mode of insight into Dasein’s nature, which is one of an open possibility of being, an absence of permanence. Uncanniness, like angst, comes with the realization of the possibility of being, and that there is nothing to turn to for guidance, no inner force or core, but only infinitude of choice. In a reading of Heidegger in relation to the uncanny and the study of horror, Curtis Bowman claims that the threat from the uncanny “lies in the fact that Dasein is a scene of possibility that burdens it with responsibility and uncertainty” (2003: 72). When there is nothing determining us, we are responsible for our own choices, whereas some have interpreted Freud as saying that individuals are ultimately not responsible for what they do since they are subject to forces beyond their conscious control. This argument does not recognize that Freud claims we are not all id, but also ego and superego (the id exerts an influence, but doesn’t absolutely determine since it is only one part of the psyche), and that we make unconscious choices, so it is not a hard determinism and we still hold responsibility for our actions.
Bowman’s application of Heidegger’s understanding of the uncanny to horror texts is novel, and though somewhat vague it presents some interesting challenges and options to the Freudian version of the concept and opens a space for dialogue in this area of horror film interpretation. The uncertainty that is Dasein’s burden is key in Bowman’s reading: “Heidegger’s concept of the uncanny essentially relies on the overthrow of our ontology, even if it lasts only for a moment. This loss of intellectual mastery is almost certain to disturb us - hence the uneasiness that we usually feel in uncanny circumstances” (2003: 73). This is “ontological uncanniness”, and it comes about when an established ontology in disrupted. This uncanniness reveals the arbitrary understanding we have of the self, and that there is in fact an infinite possibility of being. Uncanny horror films, then, are aids to self-understanding, thus accounting for their appeal - they reveal to us a truth about ourselves, even if it’s one that might cause anguish, such as the fact that we are burdened with responsibility for our actions.
Again, this is a somewhat vague notion, and the application of the Heideggerian uncanny to horror films is a difficult project beyond the usually unexplained term “existential dread” that film critics often employ in reviews of horror films. What might we say about an ontological disruption in Psycho? In a Freudian reading, the uncanniness is based on repressed desires. From Zizek’s perspective, it would come from Norman’s helplessness against the force of his own unconscious. Finally, in Bowman’s reading of Heidegger, we might have to say that the horror in Psycho stems not from the causes of Norman’s actions, but rather from the fact that they have no cause in the sense of a determining force and are instead the outcome the choices Norman has made to cope with the world he lives in, his loneliness and isolation in the secluded Bates Motel (which often, Norman explains to his unsuspecting victim Marion Crane, has twelve cabins and twelve vacancies). Further, Hitchcock establishes a characterization of Norman throughout the film, and at the end disrupts this ontological foundation through the revelation that Norman and his mother are not who we think they are, and that they in fact inhabit the same body. Finally, Hitchcock skilfully makes use of his own reputation and film history by setting the film up as a typical “Hitchcock film”, with an elaborate set-up involving a woman who has committed a crime on the run from the law, with the audience expecting the story to play out in a certain way based on their experience of previous Hitchcock films. The film takes a major left turn, of course, when the major character for the first forty minutes of the film is suddenly murdered and Norman becomes the main character, and a story of a woman on the run from the law becomes the story of a peculiar young man and his deranged, homicidal mother. The film’s established ontology is disrupted through a sudden act of violence, leaving the viewer disoriented and not knowing what to expect - after the shower scene anything seems possible and narrative formulas must be forgotten. Through this interpretation we see at least that the seeds are there for an existentialist understanding of the uncanny in the horror genre, presenting a challenge to traditional psychoanalytic views. Along with this existentialist critique of the uncanny there also comes a critique of psychoanalytic determinism, positing the individual as being characterized by his existence (for Heidegger, the social and historical conditions of such) rather than by any determining essence (or core of the self) that might be prior to it - nothing is fixed, any ontology can be disrupted.
While a Heideggarian version of the uncanny is not quite as aptly applied to Psycho as Freud’s version, if we look at a very different kind of horror film such as Dario Argento’s Suspiria, we suddenly find the Freudian version of the concept less aptly applied than the existentialist one. Argento as a director is the antithesis of Hitchcock: while the master of suspense guided his films with great precision and with intentions of producing certain effects in the audience (Hitchcock famously boasted of his power to manipulate audiences), the Italian director is noted for his fractures narratives, logical loopholes and inconsistencies that produce a sense of confusion and disorientation, which are Argento’s methods of achieving suspense and a pervasive sense of dread. Suspiria’s narrative is a convoluted mess, involving a coven of witches at a boarding school and a series murders that happen for no apparent reason and to characters who sometimes appear out of nowhere and have little to nothing to do with any kind of plot. The film is essentially a series of elaborate murder set-pieces loosely knitted together by the “plot” involving the witches; still, it is a classic in the genre and for many represents the pinnacle of Italian ‘Giallo’ horror cinema, and is noted for its use of colour and music in creating an eerie atmosphere.
An attempt to apply a Freudian version of the uncanny to Suspiria would be more difficult than applying the Heideggerian version to Psycho - there would seem to be nothing that one could point to as an illustration of the return of the repressed or being confronted with surmounted desires or beliefs. Rather, the randomness of the acts of violence, and the main character’s inability to make sense of her surroundings and the events transpiring, contribute to what might more aptly be described as a sense of existential dread or uncanniness: Suspiria shows us a world where anyone at any time can be the victim of a gruesome murder for no apparent reason. In Psycho the uncanny helps us to explain the mechanisms behind the character’s behaviour and our response to it, while in Suspiria there is little explaining to do, as the horror comes partly from the fact that there is no determining cause to look to for an explanation.
It has been noted by many that the uncanny is not intended to explain all of horror cinema, but this seems to be an excuse for the concept’s shortcomings. It may be that we simply need a more dynamic understanding of the uncanny that incorporates both the psychoanalytic and existentialist perspectives (and thus permits an understanding of human beings as being essentially free but also subject to determining forces). I propose that Kristeva’s notion of abjection provides a way into a middle ground and a more dynamic understanding of the effects of horror.
In Powers of Horror Julia Kristeva offers a theory of the experience of horror based on the concept of abjection, a psychoanalytic alternative to Freud’s uncanny that, like Zizek’s version, focuses on the notion of the subject. She uses the term uncanny in her initial description of the abject: “There looms, within abjection, one of those violent, dark revolts of being… opposed to ‘I’…A massive and sudden emergence of uncanniness, which… now harries me as radically separate, loathsome” (1982: 1-2). While Kristeva does not deal with horror as a genre specifically, the notion of abjection has been taken up by many studying the genre and it has become an influential concept in the field. Jonathan Lake Crane, in applying Kristeva’s ideas to horror film, begins by defining the abject as “those objects…. That desecrate our narcissistic mirage of self by effacing the boundary between myself and that which is not ‘I’. The abject provides proof that our idealized portraits of pristine flesh and whole egos are, unfortunately, nothing more than brittle fantasies” (1994: 30). Kristeva’s analysis of the subject demonstrates that there is no one identifiable subject, no “core” of the subject as there is in Freud, but a fractured subject that experiences the abject when faced with the blurring of the distinction of I and Other.
This blurring of the subject’s boundaries disrupts the integrity of our understanding of self. Abject objects reveal the true constitution of the subject as empty and incomplete - abjection is a means of separating the human from the non-human and the fully-constituted from the partially-formed subject. Like the uncanny, the abject is unconscious, but according to Crane, can return to consciousness in the horror film, where “we are forced to restyle the unsullied self-images we manufacture for ourselves. The screams we let loose in the theater as the horror film plays on do not signify the release of tension or the expulsion of pent-up libidinal energy. They are the shrieks uttered whenever cherished fancies about the self are shattered” (1994: 30). The “fancies about the self” in question are related to the self or subject as a whole, a distinct ‘I’. Horror texts involve a negation, according to Kristeva, which shows us to be empty. Donald Carveth (2004) summarizes Kristeva’s view of the subject: “our experience is pervaded by difference, absence, nothingness, gap and lack.” The cause of abjection is recognition of this lack, or “what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite” (Kristeva, 1982: 4). The revelation of the nature of the subject that abjection brings makes it a kind of narcissistic crisis, as we are horrified when confronted with the notion that we are incomplete, with permeable and shifting boundaries.
Applying the notion of abjection to the study of horror, Crane notes that from Kristeva’s perspective “Whatever blurs the human frame, whatever disturbs the line between human and nonhuman, every unclear delineation between the not-us and the subject with constitutional integrity is horrific” (1994: 35). That is, anything that challenges the borders of “I” as the subject perceives them, anything that reveals an incompleteness or lack in the self, is an object that provokes abjection and is horrifying.
Returning to Psycho, we would have a different perspective on the horrific aspects of the film using Kristeva’s abjection as the basis of analysis. We are horrified at Norman’s inability to detach himself from his mother, but not in the sense of the uncanny as described by Freud and Zizek. The horror in this case lies in the blurring of the lines of the “I”, seen in Norman’s inability to conceive of himself as a subject, a whole, separate from his mother, going to such lengths to preserve the illusion of an ongoing relationship with his mother that he goes beyond preserving her corpse to ultimately wearing her clothes and allowing a space for her within his own psyche. The abject in this film comes through the character of Norman, who represents that which we are horrified to acknowledge: that we are fractured subjects, that the I is an illusion and that we are bound to the Other. Norman “becomes” his mother when he is sexually aroused or when he is faced with a threatening situation (as in the murder of Arbogast, the private investigator who gets a little too close to the truth). The latter illustrates Norman’s longing for the comfort and security the mother offers to her child, and his explicit inability to be independent and escape this link to his mother. Kristeva’s articulation of the maternal element in abjection can be applied directly to Psycho: “The abject confronts us… with our earliest attempts to release the hold of maternal entity even before ex-isting outside of her… It is a violent, clumsy breaking away, with the constant risk of falling back under the sway of power as securing as it is stifling” (Kristeva, 1982: 13). Norman falls back under the sway of his mother’s power, which he finds comforting and, at the same time (as he confesses to Marion in the parlour shortly before murdering her), he strongly desires to escape her domineering and stifling influence but cannot. In terms of abjection this is not exactly a result of an inability to resolve an Oedipus complex, but rather the subject’s (Norman’s) inability to escape an essential incompleteness. In abjection the borders of the subject are broken down, stability is disrupted, and the emptiness of the self is exposed, which is precisely what we see in Norman and is what makes Psycho unsettling (the final scene, where Norman thinks to himself in his mother’s voice while sitting alone in a room in the police station, is particularly creepy, as he has finally and utterly failed to mark a boundary between himself and his mother). In this respect of the essential emptiness and incompleteness of the self, Kristeva may represent a version of psychoanalysis that is more compatible with existentialism, at least in respect to how we understand the uncanny and our experience of horror texts in relation to the question of free will vs. determinism.
Free Will, Determinism, and the Uncanny
We are finally left with the question of whether an existentialist understanding of the uncanny negates the applicability of Freud’s version to film and literature, and particularly the horror genre. This involves the question of free will and determinism, and whether this distinction in fact needs to be reconciled to have a workable theory in either case. Donald Carveth (2004) brings up the point that free will and responsibility (in other words, an existentialist understanding of human nature) are not incompatible with psychoanalytic practice:
“one need not subscribe to a complete causal determinism in mental life to ground the psychoanalytic practice of bringing to light the conscious, preconscious and unconscious connections between mental events—that is, to interpret their multiple meanings or significations. Since to reproach someone for acting in a certain way necessarily implies they could have chosen to act otherwise, a belief in free will and responsibility is necessary for moral judgment to make any rational sense whatsoever. But while such a belief is certainly incompatible with complete psychic determinism, it in no way contradicts the principle of psychic signification and the practice of decoding encoded meanings. In other words, belief in free will and responsibility is in no way incompatible with actual clinical psychoanalytic practice, however much it contradicts the determinism of Freudian metapsychology.”
Carveth argues that free will is not incompatible with psychoanalysis, only with Freud’s metapsychology. This seems to be a valid point, since for Freud the project of psychoanalysis is to help patients achieve self-mastery by helping them deal with things that are happening in their unconscious. If this is the case, free will must be possible. As Carveth notes, “Psychic reality is characterized by both determinism and freedom” (2004). Following this, it would seem that there is not necessarily an absolute tension between psychoanalysis and existentialism regarding how we should understand the experience of the uncanny. It may be that both positions can offer something to the interpretation of horror and the relationship the viewer has with it in terms of its effects and its appeal. It has been admitted already by many that the Freudian uncanny is not intended as a universal explanation of the effects of horror; supplementing this version with the existentialist one might provide the opportunity for a more dynamic approach to the study of horror. Further, Kristeva’s theory of abjection might provide a version of psychoanalysis that is more compatible with existentialism, working as a bridge between what have often been seen as incompatible fields, at least regarding this particular aspect of experience. In any case, it seems clear that an examination of the experience of horror provides a unique entry into the question of determinism, and vice versa, the question of determinism provides a unique entry, and presents interesting challenges, to the concept of the uncanny and the study of horror.
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