Jokes and Their Relation to the Uncanny: The comic, the horrific, and pleasure in Audition and Romero’s Dead films

by Stephen LeDrew

December 1, 2006


This paper explores the relationship between Freud's theories of the comic and the horrific, as presented in Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious and The Uncanny. Freudian interpretation of horror films and literature generally involves the notion of the uncanny and the return of the repressed. However, there are striking similarities in the processes that lie behind the production of pleasure in the comic and the horrific as Freud described them, and so we must consider this close relationship in a theory of the effects of horror. Melanie Klein's work on sadism and masochism is used to present a potential explanation of why horror is pleasurable: just as the form of the joke gives us pleasure by overcoming resistance and thus liberating psychic energy, the horror film also produces pleasure by tapping into sadism and masochism, liberating psychic energy that was used for inhibition of instincts.



At a recent screening of Three Extremes (an anthology of short horror films by three Asian directors) at Toronto’s Bloor Cinema, I was somewhat perplexed when, upon discovering that the "secret ingredient" in the dumplings a character was eating to achieve eternal youth was aborted foetuses, the audience erupted in laughter. At a later point in this short (Dumplings, by Chinese director Fruit Chan), we actually see an abortion performed, and later the bloody foetus sitting on a plate before being chopped up by "Aunt Mei" to put in her dumplings, again provoking laughter along with groans of revulsion. The end of this short, featuring the main character munching happily on dumplings containing chopped up bits of her own aborted foetus, brought more laughter and even a round of applause from the audience. How is it that something so horrific, so disgusting, so abject (not to mention so incredibly politically incorrect and, one would assume, offensive to many), provokes such a response?

     The fine line between what is horrific and what is comic has rarely been explored in psychoanalytic approaches to film studies. Horror and laughter, while seemingly on opposite sides of the emotional spectrum, are often brought together in films. The term "black comedy" has been used to refer to this sub-genre, but the comic element is often very subtle. Many film critics (notably Leonard Maltin) have referred to the masterpiece of horror and suspense, Psycho, as a black comedy - even Hitchcock himself described it as such. Similarly, David Lynch’s surrealist nightmare Eraserhead exudes a dark sense of humour, and could be classified as horror or black comedy, depending on who you ask. Camera, a Toronto independent and repertory house, features a weekly "Camera After Midnight" event, screening cult European horror films. Here gasps of shock and horror are often followed by laughter, clapping and cheering; sometimes these responses occur simultaneously.

     Freud’s notion of "the uncanny" is highly influential in horror film interpretation, but little attention has been paid to the fact that his theory of the horrific bears striking resemblances to his theory of the comic in Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious. It is these similarities that I wish to address in a discussion of the effects and appeal of horror films, including those that achieve comic effects intentionally and unintentionally. Understanding the relationship between jokes and the uncanny, and the psychic mechanisms behind them, is key to understanding the effects and appeal of horror. This is because the psychical processes and mechanisms of pleasure are so similar that there is a fine line between what might be experienced as comic and what might be experienced as horrific. These are psychical responses to texts and stimuli that address the unconscious in similar ways. Freud’s work on the subject serves as the basis of this discussion, though I will also refer to Melanie Klein’s work on sadism and masochism as a potential means to enriching our understanding of the relationship between the comic and the horrific.

The Uncanny

Freud offers as his most basic definition of the uncanny, "that species of the frightening that goes back to what was once well known and had long been familiar" (1919: 124). This thing which was "once well known" can take the form of either "repressed" or "surmounted" beliefs or desires which are brought up from the unconscious into the conscious mind. This involves a compulsion to repeat: "the uncanny element in the recurrence of the same thing can be derived from infantile psychology [. . .] In the unconscious mind we can recognize the dominance of a compulsion to repeat, which proceeds from instinctual impulses. This compulsion probably depends on the essential nature of the drives themselves" (1919: 145). The drives, originating in the id, are "essential" in Freud’s view. Being essential, and involving a compulsion to repeat (the impulses themselves, as well as the actions of the individual subject to them), the drives (the id) and the unconscious are the determining aspect of the psyche. Any individual is influenced by forces he is not aware of.

     Looking at this more closely in terms of the uncanny, we see that for Freud the experience of uncanniness is linked to unconscious desires and beliefs that are repressed or surmounted, and yet through their repetitive nature, and through the prodding of the work of uncanny texts, find their way back into consciousness and produce that discomfort, that aspect of the frightening we term the uncanny. One form the uncanny can take is the return of the repressed:

    If psychoanalytic theory is right in asserting that every affect arising from an emotional impulse - of whatever kind - is converted into fear by being repressed, it follows that among those things that are felt to be frightening there must be one group in which it can be shown that the frightening element is something that has been repressed and now returns. This species of the frightening would then constitute the uncanny….this uncanny element is actually nothing new or strange, but something that was long familiar to the psyche and was estranged from it only through being repressed. The link with repression now illuminates Shelling’s definition of the uncanny as ‘something that should have remained hidden that has come into the open’. (1919: 147).

When something is repressed, then, its reappearance is a source of fear—it should have remained hidden but now comes into the open and confronts the conscious mind, creating the uneasy feeling of uncanniness. The compulsion to repeat is a "manifestation of the power of the repressed" (Freud, 1920: 14), illustrating the strength of the influence of the repressed and the unconscious. Andrew Tudor notes that in studies of the effects and functions of horror, this aspect of the uncanny has often been seen to serve as a "safety valve, where repressed affect threatens to surface and as a figurative reminder of the fearful consequences if the ‘rules’ of sexual behaviour are broken. In a real sense, then, such perspectives see human agents as unaware victims of their cultures" (1997: 448). For Tudor sexual repression is key, though the "safety valve" theory has been applied also to destructive impulses, or Thanatos in Freud’s terminology. Indeed, we see in Tudor’s remarks a mode of thinking similar to Freud’s in Civilization and its Discontents, where the "renunciation of instincts" is crucial to the survival of human culture and civilization. The experience of the uncanny, from Tudor’s perspective, is a way of dealing with cultural restraints on the id and of reinforcing these restraints by associating the emergence of repressed instincts with the uncomfortable feeling of the uncanny.

     Along with repression, the uncanny can also come from being confronted with surmounted desires or beliefs. This form of the uncanny comes when "primitive beliefs that have been surmounted appear to be once again confirmed" (1919: 154). For example, at some point children give up the belief that their dolls might someday come to life, yet as adults when confronted with such an event in a horror film the revival of this surmounted belief is experienced as uncanny. In the case of both repressed and surmounted beliefs and desires, we are speaking not of everyday fears, and this is why the uncanny is a particular aspect of the frightening. We are instead dealing with something that was once familiar to the psyche but has become estranged to it, something that has been repressed or surmounted and which now reappears. In the case of repression, the uncanny is a response to being confronted with aspects of the psyche that have been forced into the unconscious; the fear comes in the revelation that these desires and beliefs are not in fact gone, but have been lurking in the unconscious all along. It is this understanding of the uncanny that has been the foundation of most psychoanalytic study and interpretation of the horror genre, its effects, and its appeal. Curtis Bowman offers a description of surmounted beliefs in relation to the uncanny: "surmounted beliefs are outmoded ways of thinking that are reactivated and confirmed in the experience of the uncanny [. . .] repressed material is always accompanied by anxiety as it returns to consciousness. Surmounted beliefs do not seem to be subject to repression, and thus their confirmation is not accompanied by anxiety [. . .] Perhaps the reemergence of surmounted beliefs signifies a painful loss of intellectual mastery. Such a dynamic - we might call it ‘the confirmation of the disavowed’ - could account for any disturbance that might be found in the case of surmounted beliefs" (2003: 67). This ‘loss of intellectual mastery’ Bowman describes forms the basis of Slavoj Zizek’s understanding of the uncanny.

     In a brief passage in The Plague of Fantasies, Slavoj Zizek offers an interpretation of the uncanny which highlights some crucial aspects of Freudian psychoanalysis and philosophical anthropology:

    The Freudian point regarding fundamental fantasy would be that each subject, female or male, possesses such a ‘factor’ which regulates his or her desire: ‘a woman, viewed from behind, on her hand and knees’ was the Wolf Man’s factor [. . .] There is nothing uplifting about our awareness of this ‘factor’: such awareness can never be subjectivized; it is uncanny - even horrifying - since it somehow ‘depossesses’ the subject, reducing her or him to a puppet-like level ‘beyond dignity and freedom’ (1997: 8).

The implications of this passage are vast in scope. The "factors" Zizek speaks of here are things that awaken sexual desire - in layman terms, such a factor is something that "turns you on"; he gives the example of the sight of a woman viewed from behind on her hands and knees as awakening some deep and primitive desire. The awareness of such a factor is not uplifting, according to Zizek, because it depossesses the subject; that is, this factor exerts a control over the individual by provoking a response, a desire, that has nothing to do with the conscious subject. The subject becomes a "puppet", mastered by the drives and desires embedded in his unconscious that spring up from the id. The subject is "beyond dignity and freedom" because he is determined by his unconscious, a force that is outside of his control (in Bowman’s terms, the subject experiences a loss of intellectual mastery).

     For Zizek, then, the uncanny is not brought about by the specific desires or beliefs that are awakened, but more fundamentally the realization that there are desires and beliefs that lie outside the realm of consciousness, buried deep within the id, which nonetheless have control of of depossessed subjects who are like slaves to their own desires. In relation to the horror genre specifically, Jonathan Lake Crane claims that "Horror films are primers for the primitive [. . .] Returning to the horrible allows us to keep sight of the fundamental desires that rule the species [. . .] Through any particular work, as horror films are nearly all identically constructed, an individual audience member can come to know not only the entire history of horror but also his or her biological/psychic destiny" (1994: 28). Thus, the experience of watching horror is like a reminder of the rule of the id, and the determining influence of unconscious drives.

     This is an understanding of the uncanny that is at a more primitive level than Freud’s analysis, since he was concerned with the details of repression, while this is concerned only with the fact of the unconscious. However, the elements of Zizek’s interpretation of the uncanny can be seen in Freud’s discussion of automata, or the "automatic—mechanical—processes that may lie hidden behind the familiar image of a living person" (1919: 135). Freud is referring explicitly to instances in horrific literature when we are confronted with persons whom we are not certain are living or dead; implicitly, however, we can see Zizek’s version of the uncanny in the notion of automata, or people who are driven by forces outside of their control, not true subjects but slaves to their unconscious wishes and impulses.

     A prime example of automata in horror is the zombie genre; no other monstrous apparition in all of horror reflects this aspect of the uncanny as well as zombies, the living dead. The most famous incarnation of the zombie genre is George Romero’s series of "dead" films, including the notorious Night of the Living Dead, a landmark low-budget masterpiece that ushered in a new age of American horror, Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, and the recently-released Land of the Dead. Romero’s zombies are horrific, abject things. They are dead people who have risen and have an appetite for human flesh, mindless automata driven by this sole purpose. Zombies are horrifying because they are an exaggerated representation of the idea that we are all subject to unconscious forces beyond our conscious control. And yet, in Dawn of the Dead, Romero uses the zombies as metaphor, as the basis for a running joke about consumer mentality. Almost all of the film takes place in a mall staked out by four people seeking sanctuary from the outside world, where zombies have run amok all over the country. The mall is filled with zombies who wander about the shops, a reflection of the mindless drive to consume. Romero uses horror as a basis for satire, injecting some lefty politics in a satirical blend of sight gags involving the zombies/consumers, their appetite for flesh never satisfied, just as in consumer society one can never have enough possessions. The sight of zombies in the Dead films manages to bring about a sense of uncanniness, as they blur the boundary between living and dead, though at the same time they are a source of satirical jokes and thus invoke the comic. To better understand how these responses can be present simultaneously, it is necessary to review Freud’s theory of jokes and the pleasure they produce; it is in the production of pleasure that we will see the similarity in the psychical processes that lie behind jokes and the uncanny.

Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious

To understand Freud’s theory of jokes and their effects requires us to think in terms of the language and concepts used in The Interpretation of Dreams, most importantly the notions of wish fulfillment and distortion, for the psychic mechanisms and processes which underlie both jokes and dreams are fundamentally the same. In particular, the dream-work that Freud refers to as the process that allows unconscious wishes to be expressed in dreams is very similar to a "joke-work" that allows for otherwise unacceptable thoughts and wishes access to consciousness and verbal expression. While I do not intend to summarize all of the techniques of jokes that Freud discusses, I will briefly review the theory of the purposes of jokes, and the mechanisms at work in them that produce pleasure, as these reveal a particular relationship to the unconscious that can also be seen in Freud’s theory of the uncanny.

     Freud claims that jokes that are not innocent, or jokes that are not an aim in themselves but have a purpose (Freud labels these "tendentious" jokes; in this essay I use "tendentious" and "purposeful" interchangeably), can have two purposes, either hostility of obscenity: "there are only two purposes that it may serve [. . .] It is either a hostile joke (serving the purpose of aggressiveness, satire, or defence) or an obscene joke (serving the purpose of exposure)" (1905: 97). We can see here the seeds of drive theory, with the emphasis on aggressive and sexual impulses, though it would be some time before Freud would actually formulate it as such. He does, however, move from speaking somewhat vaguely of unconscious wishes (as in Interpretation of Dreams) to speaking of instincts, claiming that jokes "make possible the satisfaction of an instinct (whether lustful of hostile) in the face of an obstacle that stands in its way" (1905: 101). Just as dreams represent the fulfillment of a wish, so too do jokes represent the fulfillment of unconscious wishes, or instincts that find their origin in the unconscious. The "obstacle" Freud refers to here is the censorship that dreams are also subject to, and just as dreams must undergo distortion in order to pass the "censor", so too must the thoughts and instincts at the root of jokes undergo distortion in order to be granted access to consciousness, for in their pure form these hostile and obscene thoughts are deemed unacceptable by the censor.

     In a precursor to the much later Civilization and its Discontents, Freud states that "the repressive activity of civilization brings it about that primary possibilities of enjoyment, which have now, however, been repudiated by the censorship in us, are lost to us" (1905: 101). Further, purposeful jokes are a means of undoing the renunciation of instinct that civilization demands and "retrieving what was lost" (1905: 101). Jokes, then, like dreams, represent a safe way of expressing unconscious instincts and wishes without undoing the fabric of civilization, a theory referred to as the safety-valve theory by Tudor in his discussion of horror (and which, according to this theory, serves essentially the same purpose as jokes and dreams—horror also allows us to "retrieve what was lost"). The purpose of jokes, ultimately, is instinctual satisfaction or a kind of wish fulfillment: "The pleasure in the case of a tendentious joke arises from a purpose being satisfied whose satisfaction would otherwise not have taken place" (1905: 117). It is this understanding of the pleasure derived from jokes that I now turn to in a discussion of the mechanism of pleasure in jokes and horror.

     Freud posits that there is a rule that determines the yield of pleasure that a joke provides. This rule is founded upon the premise that there are thoughts or wishes originating in the unconscious against which there is an internal obstacle to its reaching conscious expression, and thus satisfying the wish. This inhibition requires expenditure of psychic energy, and presumably, the stronger the resistance against the thought, the more psychic energy is required to block it and keep it unconscious. Jokes are a means of overcoming the internal resistance and lifting the inhibition, and so the psychic energy that was used for inhibition is saved. It is this saved energy that is the source of the pleasure, and so the rule is this: "the yield of pleasure corresponds to the psychic energy that is saved" (1905: 118). A joke gives us pleasure, then, because it allows an unconscious thought to bypasses an internal obstacle—but how does it bypass this internal obstacle?

     Jokes are given their form by a process Freud refers to as the "joke-work", which is very similar to the "dream-work" that allows unconscious wishes to be expressed in dreams. We may recall from The Interpretation of Dreams that dreams are unconscious wishes that undergo distortion and thereby are permitted expression in dream form; were these thoughts to remain in their original form they would not be allowed out of the realm of the unconscious. Freud claims that "The task of dream-formation is above all to overcome the inhibition from the censorship," (1905: 165). This is also the task of joke-formation, and the psychical processes involved in the distortion that allows latent dream-thoughts to overcome inhibition are essentially the same as those that allow joke-thoughts to overcome inhibition. Freud’s hypothesis regarding the way jokes are formed is this: "a preconscious thought is given over for a moment to unconscious revision and the outcome of this is at once grasped by conscious perception" (1905: 166). Like the latent dream-thoughts, jokes begin as unconscious thoughts or wishes that are deemed unacceptable by the internal censor, and are pushed back into the unconscious where they undergo revision; this unconscious revision is akin to distortion in the dream-work, and similar to the dream-work involves the processes of condensation and substitution (1905: 19). This revision disguises the dream-thought is such a way that it can momentarily bypass the censor and gain access to conscious perception and is expressed as a joke. The fact that a joke occurs to the teller involuntarily is key; Freud claims that we do not know beforehand what joke we will make and then need to put it into words, but, "We have an indefinable feeling, rather, which I can best compare with an ‘absence’, a sudden release of intellectual tension, and then all at once the joke is there - as a rule ready-clothed in words" (1905: 167). Jokes, then, spring involuntarily from the unconscious. The crucial point to be taken from this is that jokes always refer to something unconscious, and so can be distinguished from the comic more generally based on of this relationship to the unconscious. Similarly, the uncanny is distinguished from the frightening (or horror) more generally because uncanniness is a result of a relationship with the unconscious.

     It is this form of the joke, its being revised in the unconscious in order to let it slip by an inhibition, that produces pleasure. Because the joke has been revised and presented in this particular form, we can take pleasure in the thought that it conveys without the accompanying guilt: "We are inclined to give the thought the benefit of what has pleased us in the form of the joke; and we are no longer inclined to find anything wrong that has given us enjoyment and so to spoil the source of a pleasure" (1905: 132). The form conceals the thought and guards it against criticism from the censor. This is the process at work in the first person (the joke’s creator), and this process is mirrored in the hearer. The joke provokes a psychical process in the hearer that is modelled after the creator’s, and thus the hearer experiences the pleasure of the liberation of psychic energy that was used for inhibition, just as the creator does. In fact, Freud claims that the joke is more pleasurable for the hearer because he does not have to expend psychic energy to overcome resistance (energy used in unconscious revision) like the joke’s creator does, so he gets pleasure from the psychic energy that was saved because the joke overcomes the resistance for him; the energy that is saved in this way is expelled as laughter, which for Freud is a physical expression of a psychic process (the liberation of energy used for inhibition). Freud refers to the liberation of psychic energy through the lifting of an inhibition as an economy in inhibition, and it is this economy that is at the root of the pleasure produced by jokes. The purpose of a tendentious joke is the satisfaction of an unconscious thought, instinct, or wish, and the form of the joke allows for this satisfaction by overcoming an inhibition.

     Zizek’s interpretation of the uncanny provides grounds for a particular instance where the connection between Freud’s theories of jokes and the uncanny is quite apparent. This interpretation is based on the notion of psychical automatism, which I discussed briefly in relation to George Romero’s Dead films. Just as Freud claimed that texts that present automatism to us can invoke the uncanny, so too does he claim that this can be the basis of jokes. Commenting on the notion that things in a living person that make one think of inanimate mechanisms have a comic effect, Freud says that the comic can arise from uncovering modes of thought of the unconscious (1905: 215). We might also assume that the reverse is true, and that anything in a non-living thing that makes one think of a living person has a comic effect. This reminds us of the situation in horror where automata remind us of the unconscious forces that exert an influence on thought and behaviour and in so doing invoke the uncanny.

     The ventriloquist’s dummy serves as an example of automata as both comic and horrific. Ventriloquists are generally thought of as a sort of comedian, with the ventriloquist serving as the straight man and the dummy offering the jokes. The dummy invokes the comic partially because it is a non-living thing that has some of the characteristics of a living human being, blurring the line between the human and non-human. The source of the comic, then, is both the jokes that are told, and the added effect that the jokes come from the dummy. However, the ventriloquist’s dummy has also been a frequent source of terror, especially for children. There is something undeniably uncanny about these dummies, with their wide, roving eyes and often mischievous character. In an episode of Seinfeld when Jerry spends a night in Kramer’s apartment he becomes convinced, while lying in bed, that he hears Kramer’s dummy Mr. Marbles roaming about the apartment outside the bedroom door, and cowers beneath the covers in terror. This scene is based on the assumption that this is a fear many of us have harboured in our childhood, and so represents a surmounted belief from childhood (namely the belief that our dolls and toys can spontaneously come to life). This surmounted belief "returns" to invoke the uncanny. Ventriloquist dummies are uncanny both as automata (since they are not "alive" but possess certain characteristics of the living) and as a trigger for a return of a surmounted belief, and yet at the same time are comic for the very same reasons, and thus are a very good illustration of the very fine line that exists between a text or object being funny or horrifying.

     Surmounted beliefs, a source of the uncanny, are addressed indirectly in Freud’s work on jokes through his comments on the infantile source of pleasure:

    For the infantile is the source of the unconscious, and the unconscious thought-processes are none other than those - the one and only ones - produced in early childhood. The thought which, with the intention of constructing a joke, plunges into the unconscious is merely seeking there for the ancient dwelling-place of its former play with words. Thought is put back for a moment to a stage of childhood so as to once more gain possession of the childish source of pleasure [. . .] unconscious revision is nothing else than the infantile type of thought-activity. (2001: 170)

Here Freud once again stresses the importance of early childhood on later psychical functioning. Just as he claimed that dreams always refer to childhood wishes and phantasies, so too does he claim that jokes, being products of the unconscious, find their roots in childhood (since, as quoted above, the infantile is the source of the unconscious). While we might find fault with Freud’s refusal to let go of his insistence that early childhood pervades all of adult unconscious thinking, I certainly can accept that this is a source of at least some of our unconscious thoughts. The fact that some jokes tap into an infantile mode of thinking, and thus produce an infantile sort of pleasure, is also reflected in the theory of the uncanny, which stresses the return of repressed childhood thoughts as well as a return of surmounted childhood beliefs, and again we see a relationship between jokes and the uncanny in terms of the pleasure they produce. It is this source of pleasure that I turn to now. The connection between Freud’s theories of the comic and the horrific (or more specifically, jokes and the uncanny) is apparent in his discussions of automatism and surmounted beliefs, but we might find a connection more generally between the two in terms of psychic processes and mechanisms of pleasure. This connection, I propose, needs to be understood in terms of sadism and masochism and how these unconscious tendencies are addressed in humour and in horror.

Jokes and Their Relation to the Uncanny

A close look at the psychical processes and mechanisms of pleasure in Freud’s work on jokes reveals many striking similarities to his theory of the effects of the uncanny. We have seen already that tendentious jokes liberate pleasure through an economy in inhibition, and we might ask whether the pleasure in watching and experiencing horror comes from a similar source. The form of tendentious jokes allows for the satisfaction of an instinct—some have posited that the form and presentation of the horror film has a similar effect, as it involves representations of thoughts and wishes that are normally inhibited. Like the return of the repressed that is the basis of the uncanny, jokes bring forward something that was hidden, an element of the unconscious that is able to become conscious because of the form it is expressed in. In this respect, jokes and horror share a common purpose that was demonstrated in Tudor’s discussion of the safety-valve theory of the pleasures of horror: they are both a means of dealing with renunciation of instincts. Just as the joke gives us pleasure by overcoming resistance for us and thus liberating psychic energy; perhaps the horror film also produces pleasure by expressing for us what our internal censor would not allow from our unconscious, and thus again liberates psychic energy that was used for inhibition of instincts.

     The connection between Freud’s theories of the comic and the horrific was noted by Martin Grotjahn (1957), who pointed out that there is a crucial distinction between the two, this being the fact that the unconscious thoughts that become jokes are stirred up by internal forces, while the unconscious thoughts we come to experience as uncanny are a result of external stimuli. The uncanny is experienced passively and without internal effort, forced upon us by an external stimulus (for example, a horror film), while in jokes there is an internal incident that suddenly removes an inhibition.

     I argue against Grotjahn that while the distinction he makes is important, it still doesn’t negate the fact that the source of pleasure is the same in both cases: an economy in inhibition. It is this that makes jokes and the uncanny so similar, and this is the reason why there can be a fine line between what is experienced as comic and what is experienced as horrific. Also, while Grotjahn’s point is relevant for the first person (the joke’s creator), for the third person (the hearer) the situation is quite the same as for the uncanny - the unconscious thought is accessed by an external stimulus (the joke). While the creation of jokes is the result of internal forces, then, the joke gives pleasure to a third person who experiences it as an external stimulus, just as an audience derives pleasure from the external stimulus of the horror film. If, as Freud claims, the psyche of the hearer is modeled after that of the joke’s creator, and that is why the pleasure from the economy in inhibition can be experienced by the third person, we might assume that similar mechanisms of pleasure are present in the psyche of the viewer of the horror film.

     If we are to accept this understanding of the pleasure produced by horror, we need to understand in what respect the horrific things we see on the screen address the unconscious. I posit that this requires us to think of the experience of watching horror and its effects in terms of sadistic and masochistic tendencies in the viewer.

     Freud claims that aggressive tendentious jokes reveal a sadistic component in the creator that is more or less inhibited in real life (1905: 143). The "purpose" of jokes, then, is the acting out of aggressive, sadistic impulses which have no other avenue for expression: without these jokes as an outlet these impulses would be restricted to the unconscious (and might result in pathology or find some other means of expression). The economy in inhibition that is the source of pleasure, then, is really an economy in the inhibition of sadism. We see this in the case of the "comic of situation" (1905: 196-197), where the pleasure (laughter) comes at someone else’s misfortune as a result of a distressing or difficult situation they are in. The pleasure is narcissistic in that we see this person as inferior due to their seeming incompetence in dealing with the situation. There is also a sadistic component to this that Freud does not explicitly acknowledge, as in these sorts of jokes and situations we gain pleasure from someone else’s sufferings. Given the fact that he recognized this sort of pleasure in the comic, it seems odd that he did not make note of it in his discussion of the uncanny. Perhaps we can extend this understanding of the comic to horror, where we also obtain pleasure from another’s suffering; the very fact that we take pleasure in the suffering of another reveals a repressed sadism, or repressed aggressive drive; the "return" of this repressed sadism reminds us of the unconscious forces that we are subject to, and invokes the uncanny (as in Zizek’s understanding of the concept). When, in Day of the Dead, we see the film’s human villain Rhodes literally torn to pieces and eaten alive by zombies, there is an undeniable pleasure to be gained from it; indeed, Romero frames the sequence, the horror equivalent of a pop-shot, so as to produce pleasure in the viewer, as we are led throughout the film to identify with the members of the group who are the victims of Rhodes’ psychotic violent outbursts.

     Rhodes’ extremely gruesome dismemberment gratifies the audiences’ sadism, a wish to punish and inflict harm on another, particularly a figure such as Rhodes who represents repressing, castrating, violent authority. But what kind of sadism are we speaking of here? Melanie Klein’s work on the paranoid-schizoid (PS) position might help us to understand the sort of pleasure that is obtained in sadistic humour and horror. The PS position is dominated by aggression toward an object that is a source of frustration, along with phantasies of the object as attacking in retaliation against the subject’s sadistic phantasies. There are two sources of danger, then: "the subject’s own sadism and the object which is attacked [. . .] The object of the attack becomes a source of danger because the subject fears similar, retaliatory attacks from it" (Klein, 1986: 97). The subject’s own sadism is a source of danger because it leads to aggressive impulses being projected onto the object; however, we might also understand it in relation to Zizek’s "loss of intellectual mastery" version of the uncanny, and see the subject’s own sadism as a source of danger because it reveals to the subject the unconscious forces or "factors" that influence its thought and behaviour. Tendentious jokes and horror films that feature violence and murder done to people tap into the paranoid-schizoid phantasies we all have harboured in our childhood; phantasies which, according to Klein, often involve a violence done to the body (it is important to note that Freud stressed childhood memories and beliefs in his theory of the uncanny, and for Klein early childhood is characterized by paranoid-schizoid phantasies, indicating the importance of sadism and the PS position to an understanding of the uncanny). Our sadistic nature is revealed as we obtain pleasure from these, and thus the uncanny is invoked as we are confronted with unconscious thoughts, wishes, and phantasies that have gained access to consciousness through an economy in inhibition. It is because the pleasures in tendentious jokes and horror are sadistic in nature that there is such a fine line between the two, and why laughter and horror as emotional responses to these texts are much more closely related than we traditionally have thought them to be.

     It is important to note that, for Klein, the paranoid-schizoid and depressive positions are not stages, but instead truly are positions that any individual can move back and forth between. Given this, and given that sadistic and masochistic tendencies can be present simultaneously, we might question whether tendentious jokes and horror address exclusively sadistic thoughts in the unconscious, or whether masochistic satisfactions are taking place. Freud demonstrated the sadistic element in tendentious jokes, but outside of the peculiar case of self-deprecating humour masochism is not so apparent. This is not the case in horror, where we can easily imagine some sort of masochistic gratification in experiencing terror. Horror films usually are a "safe" means of exercising these instincts, since in the end the hero(s) normally triumphs over evil. This is the case in all of Romero’s Dead series, with the exception of Night of the Living Dead, which ends on a decidedly pessimistic note. Perhaps this is why Night remains the most effective film in the series, as it does not allow for an easy escape from the horror. The enjoyment of this film, is this respect, might involve masochistic tendencies more than the others in the series. The question of masochism in the pleasure obtained from watching horror films is a glaring omission in the literature on the subject. In particular, we might question whether we need to make a distinction between the sadistic pleasures of horror, which would be similar to the pleasures obtained from jokes, and the masochistic pleasure or satisfaction, which perhaps we don’t see in jokes (again, with the notable exception of self-deprecating humour).

     Audition, a recent and notorious horror film from Japanese director Takashi Miike, is a good example of how we must consider both sadism and masochism in discussing our relationship to horror films. The premise is simple: Aoyama, a widower and film executive, decides it is time to marry again and holds auditions for a fictitious film project just so that he can "audition" potential wives. He seeks a demure, submissive, young, traditional Japanese woman, and finds her in the quiet and petite Asami. They develop a relationship, Aoyama is pleased with his decision, she meets all of his qualifications. At a certain point in the film, which is for the most part quite straight-forward in its presentation of their relationship, we are invited to question whether what we are seeing is reality or fantasy, as Asami suddenly transforms from a quiet and submissive traditional Japanese woman to a psychopath who tortures, mutilates and murders men who have abused her. The film’s finale is an extended torture sequence that finds Asami drugging Aoyama so that he can’t move (but importantly, can still feel pain), then inserting acupuncture needles into his eyes and sawing his foot off at the ankle with piano wire. The dream-like final half hour of the film leads us to question whether what we are seeing is reality, or a dream or phantasm given birth in Aoyama’s unconscious.

     Interpretations of the film vary considerably, but one plausible approach is that the final act is a representation of Aoyama’s guilt at his mistreatment of women and desire to dominate them. In Kleinian terms, Aoyama develops a paranoid phantasy of an attacking object: because he harbours sadistic thoughts towards women, he develops the PS-induced fear that the object will retaliate. His torture might thus be seen as a paranoid-schizoid phantasy, but is it sadistic or masochistic in nature? That is, is Aoyama’s torture and the portrayal of Asami as a terrifying, castrating figure a result of his sadism (his hostility toward women), or his masochism (the guilt he harbours for this hostility)? Similarly, we might also ask what the viewer’s relationship to the film is: does Audition address sadistic or masochistic tendencies in the viewer? The answer Kleinian psychoanalysis would provide would be both, since both these tendencies are always present to some degree. On the one hand we are led to identify with Asami, a victim of outright abuse (maybe - this revelation might just be a part of Aoyama’s phantasy) and also of a very patriarchal Japanese society. On the other hand, we also identify with Aoyama, and in the quiet, deliberately-paced torture sequence we are invited by Miike to share in Aoyama’s agony. Amidst all of this there is the fact that Miike is a director who makes use of very subtle and dark humour in many of his films (Ichi the Killer in particular is notable for mixing over-the-top ultra-violence with humour that is sometimes subtle, though sometimes campy and even slapstick). Miike seems to be aware of the fine line between the horrific and the comic, and exploits this to the extent that while Aoyama’s torture is extremely distressing, at the same time it is deeply comical: Asami smiles and cheerfully sings "deeper, deeper, deeper" as she inserts acupuncture needles underneath his eyeballs. It is perhaps because this scene straddles the line between the comic and the horrific that it is so effective, and produces a strange sort of pleasure that lies somewhere between that which we experience upon hearing a good joke and that which we experience when confronted with the uncanny. Perhaps this "between" jokes and the uncanny can be understood in terms of sadistic and masochistic phantasies, which can veer in the direction of the comic or the horrific to produce pleasure, and sometimes in both directions at once.



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To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Stephen LeDrew "Jokes and Their Relation to the Uncanny: The comic, the horrific, and pleasure in Audition and Romero’s Dead films". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available June 18, 2024 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: November 11, 2006, Published: December 1, 2006. Copyright © 2006 Stephen LeDrew