Imagining murderous mothers: male spectatorship and the American slasher film.

Author:Genter, Robert
 
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During the production of his independent slasher film, A Nightmare on Elm Street (US, 1984), director Wes Craven was forced to make alterations to his script when real-life events overlapped too much with his tale. A police investigation into accusations of child molestation by teachers at a preschool in South Bay, California, and the nationally publicized trial that followed corresponded too closely with Craven's script concerning a local janitor named Fred Krueger who lures children into his boiler room to molest and kill them. As Robert Englund, the actor who played Krueger in the film, explained, both Craven's film and the events in South Bay involved "child molesters [who] had descended on this unsupervised flotsam of seventies leftover Me-generation American children" (Robb 82). Concerned about possible accusations that his film was exploiting these tragic events, Craven changed Krueger from a child molester to a child murderer and as a result subsequent reviews after the film's release never mentioned or noticed any parallels between the on-screen events and the off-screen tragedy.

But the odd coincidence between art and life that this episode vividly portrayed hints at the submerged nature of the slasher film in general, particularly those films made during the heyday of the genre in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Following the wake of such films as Halloween (US, 1978) and Friday the 13th (US, 1980), Craven's cult classic touched upon themes of child molestation, parental responsibility, and social justice that had captured national attention during the South Bay trial and that his film predecessors had explored as well. In fact, despite the genre's repetitive focus on monstrous killers (Michael Myers, Leatherface, Jason Voorhees, and Freddy Krueger) and sadistic acts of violence, slasher films all contain an underlying discourse concerning the proper nature of child rearing and family dynamics and the devastating consequences of alterations to these normative dimensions. In this essay, I explore the slasher genre's relation to the cultural politics of the nuclear family, focusing in particular on the negative images of mothers that abound in these films. Indeed, as we will see, the endless repetition of negative images of middle-class mothers within the slasher genre testifies to a profound ambivalence, if not downright hostility, in American culture towards the maternal role within the family dynamic.

Moreover, this ambivalence or hostility has given rise to masochistic fantasies as the preferred cinematic spectorial position within the slasher film and helps to explain the success of these films.

Maternal Images and the Lingering Residue of Psycho

Few film scholars would deny the importance of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho as the paradigm for the modern slasher film. The murder of Marion Crane by the psychologically disturbed Norman Bates in the infamous shower scene established both the narrative formula and aesthetic standard for every slasher film since. In fact, most contemporary films in the genre have explicitly acknowledged Psycho as the foundational text: Marion Crane's boyfriend, Sam Loomis, is referenced in Halloween by the psychiatrist Dr. Loomis and again in Scream (US, 1996) by the killer Billy Loomis, and Leatherface's character in Texas Chainsaw Massacre (US, 1974) derived, as did Norman Bates, from the real-life murderer and transvestite Ed Gein. Of course the stylistic similarities in most slasher films also attest to the importance of Hitchcock's film. Wes Craven, in both A Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream, surprisingly has his film stars murdered first in each film, echoing Hitchcock's famous decision to have Norman Bates kill Janet Leigh's character despite the audience's investment in her. Both A Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th (US, 1980) also stage their own shower scenes. More importantly, most contemporary slasher films follow Psycho in relying heavily on psychoanalytic theory to explain the murderous actions of the monstrous killer in each film, and the psychiatrist's speech at the end of Hitchcock's film is referenced in a number of later films including Friday the 13th Part II (US, 1981), Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part II (US, 1986), and Scream, and the character himself is reflected in the psychiatrists in the Halloween series and the Nightmare on Elm Street series.

Consequently, to understand the meaning behind the slasher film we need first to revisit Psycho. But primarily we need to examine the book by Robert Bloch upon which the movie was based because Hitchcock himself admitted that "Psycho all came from Robert Bloch's book" (Higham 99) and his film is littered with psychological baggage from Bloch's novel. Searching for a framework with which to view the disturbed mind of his main character, Bloch turned to the theoretical work of psychoanalyst Edmund Bergler for answers. In the face of traditional Freudian theory, which held onto the Oedipal stage of psychological development as the key transitional moment, Bergler argued that the pre-Oedipal moment had the most lasting psychological effect and was the cause of most neurotic disorders. According to Bergler, the child's struggle to separate himself from his mother in the face of his physical dependence on her produced a "helpless fury, or aggression" toward the "Giantess of the Nursery" (Neurotic 65) who controls feeding times, eating habits, cleaning rituals, and sleeping patterns. Prior to any physical or emotional detachment from the mother, "the baby considers himself the innocent victim of a witch who is capable of starving, devouring, poisoning, choking, chopping to pieces, draining, and castrating him" (46). Anger and aggression towards the mother is only overcome by the presence of a paternal figure whose authority and control dethrones the mother's power and encourages paternal identification. Bergler argued that the origins of sadistic and violent behavior were located in the infant's useless struggle against this "Giantess of the Nursery" and accounted for the hostility and anger directed at mother-images throughout an individual's life. Bloch used Bergler's description of the pre-Oedipal infant feeling "passively 'victimized'" (49) to account for the psychotic actions of Norman Bates.

Thus, Psycho established the narrative framework for the slasher genre by introducing the mother-child relationship as the problematic, if not dangerous, moment within individual development and as the explanatory tool with which to discuss sadistic behavior. But Bloch's book, like the film, only dealt with Norman's mother as an abstraction, limiting any actual information about her personality or her treatment of her son. Identification with Norman Bates in the book and the film is kept at a minimum precisely because Mrs. Bates has committed no actual crime against her son. His projection of what he erroneously believes to have been her demanding, controlling personality testifies to his own individual psychological disturbance. As Bergler makes specifically clear, the battle with the pre-Oedipal mother is "a conflict that faces every child" (Homosexuality 31). The "terror" of Mrs. Bates is a projection of Norman's imagination and a product of his regression to an earlier stage of development. The interpretive problem of the film is that Hitchcock, only interested in maintaining the integrity of the shower scene in the face of film censors, intentionally inserted several risque scenes and lines of perverted dialogue involving a possible incestuous relationship between Mrs. Bates and Norman in the movie to divert the attention of the Production Code Administration, dialogue and scenes absent from Bloch's novel (Rebello 114). Consequently, to many critics it appeared as if Norman's psychological problems stemmed from his failed oedipal development. But the film maintained enough of Bloch's interpretive paradigm to demonstrate that Norman's problems stemmed from an earlier psychological stage of development. In this sense, Mrs. Bates's role in the film had nothing to do with her real-life, historical role as Norman's mother, but strictly in a psychological sense as the figure against whom Norman developed his personality. As Bergler himself argued, "the pre-oedipal mother is unconsciously considered to be 'cruel, malicious, refusing, devouring,' [...] and the reason for that fantastic misconception of the child is, as the English school of analysis correctly pointed out, based on the projection of the child's own aggression onto the mother" (Basic 9).

Of course Psycho was not the first cultural document to make such a claim. Following the work of Barbara Creed and Julia Kristeva, we can note that images of monstrous beings in the Gothic and horror genre have served as symbolic representations of abject forces that threaten the stability of the social order and as markers of what separates human life from nothingness. We can also note, as Creed and Kristeva do, that the maternal figure has historically served as the concrete embodiment of the abject, that is, as the foundational site of non-identity that the child must break from in order to enter the symbolic realm. According to Kristeva, "the feminine body, the maternal body, in its most un-signifiable, un-symbolizable, aspect, shores up, in the individual, the fantasy of the loss in which he is engulfed" (20). Individual identity is marked by the rejection of the maternal bond and acceptance of the law of the father. But the abject is never far removed, always threatening the stability of the subject and the social order as a whole and consequently always in need of ritual expunging. The corpse, according to Kristeva, is the ultimate sign of the abject, the key marker of disruption, disorder, and death. The corpse is "death infecting life," the collapse of the border between the human and the non-human where the "'I' is expelled" (4) and where the...

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