U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Horror! Hitchcock through Zizek

[This is the second post in the USIH Blog’s participation in For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon III. See Ben’s fantastic first contribution here. This year’s blogathon, which runs through Friday, May 18, focuses on Alfred Hitchcock. Money is being raised for the National Film Preservation Foundation’s The White Shadow Project, which will record Michael Mortilla’s score to this 1924 silent that Hitchcock wrote and on which he worked as an Assistant Director, and will make the movie available for free streaming online. Those interested in donating can click this link or the thumbnail announcing the blogathon over in the right margin.  For the Love of Film III is being cohosted by Farran Nehme of The Self-Styled Siren, Marilyn Ferdinand of Ferdy on Films, and Rod Heath of This Island Rod.]

What do horror films do? What makes them persistently popular? I came of age in the 80s with Freddy Krueger, the undead, knives-as-finger-nails antagonist in Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street film series. These films pivoted from the tried-and-true horror flick formula. Teenagers who behaved badly, those who imbibed in drugs and sex, died the first horrific deaths at the “hands” of Freddy, who worked as a sort of demonic guarantor of a traditional symbolic order–an order that was dying an equally horrific death. But even more, Freddy was the return of the repressed for the parents, who had long ago violated Biblical commandments in their futile efforts to protect the old order. So Freddy is a ghoulish representation of the corruption of both old and new orders. There’s no going back to the old, which was sustained by an undercurrent of repression. But the new, the libertine, the transgressive, the antinomian, is nothing to celebrate. Freddy as such is the quintessential postmodern specter.

But even if A Nightmare on Elm Street and other horror films of the 80s nicely illustrate the conundrum of post-sixties culture, they cannot compare to the understated brilliance of the Hitchcock horror film. I also, in a way, came of age with Hitchcock. My father loved Hitchcock and introduced me to all of his films on VHS in the 80s. I was so taken with these movies, for reasons I only faintly grasped at the time. Hitchcock uses horror as a backdrop for the human struggle to come to terms with the symbolic order. Horror goes where we consciously cannot go. At least, this is Slavoj Zizek’s interpretation of Hitchcock’s 1963 film The Birds–elaborated in Zizek’s lovely little film, The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema. Here’s a clip where Zizek explains his interpretation of Hitchcock:

In deconstructing the famous blue pill/red pill scene from The Matrix, a take, of course, on Plato’s Cave, Zizek argues that the choice offered Neo between fiction and reality is a false one. The two are mutually reinforcing. “Fictions structure our reality. If you take away from our reality the symbolic fictions that regulate it, you lose reality itself.” Zizek wants a “third pill,” one that allows us to see the reality in fiction, or to see how fiction makes reality more real. This is how he wants us to interpret Hitchcock. Zizek claims that the key to understanding horror films is to imagine the same story without the elements of horror.

There are non-horror elements that disturb reality in The Birds, such as the intrusion of a strange, seductive woman into the Oedipal relationship between Mitch and the mother he lives with. But these intrusions can be digested or incorporated into the symbolic order. The birds, then, represent an intrusion into the reality that disintegrates it, that upends the symbolic order, that lays bare a more primal  human condition. The Birds do what Mitch’s mother wishes she could but cannot due to the symbolic order that structures her reality. Horror does what our unconscious wishes we could do but cannot.

Given that I’m more an expert on Zizek and contemporary critical theory than I am on Hitchcock and film history, I will conclude with a question for our readers, many of whom might be cinephiles, newly drawn to the USIH blog this week thanks to the For the Love of Film blogathon. Is Zizek’s a standard interpretation of Hitchcock? Or is it new to you?

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Fun post Andrew- I had to watch the Zizek film twice because I was laughing so much the first time. It should be called the “Freud in a Boat” review.

  2. In relation to whether Zizek on Hitchcock is “standard”: this is a can of worms!

    Zizek’s status in film studies is, as I understand it, extremely controversial. David Bordwell, in many ways the dean of US film studies, has publicly voiced his extreme antipathy for Zizek as a scholar and human being for many years. The ZIzek/Bordwell wars stand as an allegory of a wider rift within film and media studies regarding the salience of psychoanalytic theory, and the powerful domestic reaction against the structuralist/Lacanian tendencies of 1970s-era film studies and the journal Screen.

    Thus, while I can’t speak specifically to how Hitchcock is studied these days, I would be very surprised if Zizek’s reading was even close to standard, outside of philosophy lectures.

    I am a Zizek fan, but I understand why film scholars, especially those oriented towards film history and political economy, find his approach maddening. I have also found Bordwell’s anti-Zizek screeds to be very entertaining (if much more hostile to the value of speculative theory than makes sense to me). I encourage interested readers to seek them out online.

  3. Alas, I can’t view videos with my internet speed, and I’m not familiar with Zizek. I AM familiar with film history, however, and with reality and fiction. I wouldn’t say that the interpretation you seem to describe is standard, but one of Hitchcock’s joys is that (perhaps because of his subject matter) he invites multiple interpretations. So let’s welcome Mr. Zizek to the conversation….

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