On Psychoanalysis and Horror

On Psychoanalysis and Horror

Richard Reinhardt

Staff Clinician, Depth Counseling
Candidate Analyst, Lacanian School of Psychoanalysis

Early in an analysis and, at different points throughout an analysis, the unconscious often mobilizes a dream in a form we sometimes call a “nightmare.” In his own dream—the dream of Irma’s injection—Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, and, really, of all forms of talk therapy, asked his patient Irma to open her mouth, and he says that he saw “a big white patch; at another place I saw whitish grey scabs upon some remarkably curly structures which were evidently modelled on the turbinal bones of the nose.” This specific moment in the dream was horrifying.

In interpreting his own dream, Freud wrote of this moment as connected to the “navel of the dream.” He wrote, “[t]here is at least one part of every dream at which it is unplumable – a navel, as it were, that is its point of contact with the unknown.” Scholar and psychoanalyst Tracy McNulty wrote of Freud’s dream that “[w]hen Irma opens her mouth properly, what emerges is not a word or a discourse, something she might tell him, but terrifying, anxiety-inducing forms that lead to anguishing thoughts of illness and death.”

On Psychoanalysis & Horror
Detail of “El sueño de la razón produce monstruos,” Francisco Goya, c. 1799, public domain

In my own clinical formation and in teaching clinicians-in-training, I often try to remember and to help my students to appreciate the courage of the analyst and (i.e. the patient) in taking a risk to say that which they have never said to anyone before, that which they might be horrified of saying or even of dreaming. Along with theory and clinical scholarship, I teach with a lot of horror films, because I think that, as an art form, the best horror films can help us come into contact with truths we might rather avoid, which is also one of the main points of the psychoanalytic clinic. With time, horror becomes a place of psychoanalytic work, working-in and working-through that which horrifies us so that, in time, we might learn to welcome it and to live with it as the best part of being a human being.

My colleague, Leah Gipson, and I recently co-authored an article called “Against Diagnosing the Spirit: A Note on the Clinic of Spirit Possession” where we talk about psychoanalysis, spirit possession, and the horror films Suspiria and His House in a special issue of the psychoanalytic journal Penumbr(a). We argue that psychoanalysis is radical in its unique insistence that some of our most difficult and horrifying experiences can be welcomed in the clinic, even if they are not welcomed in our day-to-day social life. It’s worth remembering that psychoanalysis gives an important place for death, difficulty, and that which seems to interrupt “business as usual,” as a space not for censorship, rejection, and suppression, but for exploration and growth. In this way, horror is connected to the best part of the human, which the analysand might, with time, come to welcome as beautiful.

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