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The horror in dreams
Jon Sutton reports from an Institute of Psychoanalysis event
As a dad to two young boys, I have grown wearily accustomed to their constant nocturnal visits to the parental bedroom. Yet I had no idea that they are checking that Mum and Dad are still alive, and that we have not taken on monstrous characteristics through sexual intercourse. This and other psychoanalytically driven insight into the horror of dreams were on offer during this fascinating event from the Institute of Psychoanalysis, held at the Science Museum's Dana Centre.
The evening took the form of audience discussion around two film clips, led by psychoanalysts Donald Campbell and Rosine Perelberg. The first showing was from a 1990 magical realism film based on actual dreams of the director, Akira Kurosawa, at various stages of his life. We saw a child's curiosity get the better of him, leading to his mother closing the door to her adult world because 'you went and saw something you shouldn't have': a wedding procession of people wearing fox masks. Transgressing this small rule had a terrible consequence: 'You're supposed to kill yourself', said the boy's mother, handing him a sword. 'Unless they forgive you I can't let you in'.
Perelberg explained the centrality of curiosity in Freud's theories: around the arrival of a new sibling, death, or the relationship between parents. Parents can become monster-like at night, as the child does not understand the nature of their relationship. Freudian primal fantasies (of the primal scene, seduction and castration) were all buried within the film, as 'treasure that an analyst may discover'. Perelberg spoke of the rules that govern dreams: displacement (present here in the movement from house to forest, from parent to foxes), condensation (from animal to human, from the known to the unknown), and conditions of representability (e.g. an important person may appear high up in a tower). When we dream we are doing all this work, and the analyst's job is to trace it back in interpretation.
Taking the reins for the second clip, Campbell suggested that Hollywood is the ultimate dream factory, and that the horror film is the most dreamlike of all genres. From the brain bug of Starship Troopers to the oral impregnation of Alien, the monster of horror graphically represents the fusion of distinct and contradictory elements. In Campbell's interpretation, the monster is a convenient vehicle for the sublimation of disgust, which would otherwise deny genital pleasure. At puberty, youngsters become interested in bodily secretions: parts of the self that become 'non-self'. Giving vent to the repressed through 'body horror' allows the individual to strengthen identity with the self.
Campbell's pick was the Swedish adolescent-vampire-romance Let the Right One In. 12-year-old vampire Ellie's need to block out daylight provided a graphic representation of the nightly dream, or the subconscious. A scene where Ellie's friend Oskar beckons her in without a formal invite, with gory consequences in terms of 'seepage', was perhaps symbolic of menstruation and loss of control. Oskar's anxieties about his murderous feelings towards the school bullies were 'projected' onto Ellie. Sexuality, as Laplanche has noted, was a recurring dream-like theme: Oskar had to literally shut his mother out in order to have a relationship with Ellie.
Now when I saw Let the Right One In, I only picked up on a fraction of that subtext. And as Perelberg admitted, 'you have to wonder how conscious some of these themes are on the part of the writers'. 'Is there anything you wouldn't assign meaning to?', asked one brave audience member. 'Oh no,' Perelberg chuckled wryly, 'you'd never catch an analyst saying that.' There's the rub for critics of psychoanalysis, but nobody could deny that it made for an engaging and thought-provoking evening.
For future events, see www.beyondthecouch.org.uk/events
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