Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there, wondering, fearing, doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before.–Edgar Allan Poe
You get your popcorn, soda and maybe even a box of Milk Duds. Settling into your seat just as the lights go down you hear the soft whir as the projector comes to life. You find yourself plunged into a fantasy world of fright as you see the character on the screen who is not that un-like yourself. He or often, she, is being pursued by a monster that we often only experience as a point of view. As if we are seeing the hero/heroine through the eyes of the monster. We seem fascinated with being frightened. We love our horror movies. We love putting on costumes for Halloween parties and trick-or-treating. Does that say something about our psychological structure?
One of the oldest stories in human story telling is the “overcoming the monster” plot. The earliest telling of the story is the Epic of Gilgamesh. An ancient Mesopotamian story of a hero who journeys to the lair of a monster (the Bull of Heaven) and slays the monster. This story, Halloween, and the horror movie all have one thing in common. Facing, and the ultimate triumph over, our fears. In psychoanalytic theory, the fear we face is held in our own unconscious minds. The dark part of ourselves that we often describe with terms like “black hole”, “emptiness”, or even “void”. The melodrama of cinema has become the modern equivalent of the Gilgamesh story. We tell this story over and over. It seems to calm our inner child. The 007 movies are even a slicker, well dressed version of the overcoming the monster story.
In psychoanalysis, we see this practice as a child-like regression that helps us face the “boogeyman”. It is a split-off version of the parts of ourselves that frighten us. The monster represents all the feelings and fantasies in our own conscious and unconscious minds that frighten us and make us feel that we are “bad”. For children, it is a way of dealing with Oedipal wishes and longings. The Oedipal wishes being unconscious wishes held by three to four-year-old children to have the primary caregiver all to themselves. It was observed by Freud as an unconscious wish in small children which manifests in the belief that the child can “take care of mommy” or “take care of daddy” and they don’t need that other parent. Freud considered that it was a wish that got suppressed and was analyzable in adults when he was examining adult anxiety. For adults, it can represent a fanciful way of acting out a melodrama of unconscious wishes. Anger rage and aggression are concealed behind our masks and make-up. Playfully acted out in ways that remove the stinger before the bee flies free.
We watch our movie and scream and get scared. The movie ends, the lights come up and we throw away our empty popcorn box, soda bottle and box of Milk Duds. We leave the theater and the bad monster behind as we leave the theater and return to the world that knows us as civilized; people we want them all to see. But secretly, we all know, the monster is still there. Happy Halloween everyone.
– Stephen M. Taylor, M. D.