Trauma and Narration in David Cronenberg's Spider

by Claudia Liebrand

August 19, 2011


Trauma points to the Real, to that which – for instance, in the shape of an overwhelming situation capable of flooding its victim with pain and panic – fractures the integrity of reason and of the psychic shell. It quite literally wounds the order of the Symbolic. This wounding of the Symbolic, however, is productive, insofar as it leads to repeatedly generating narratives and representations which try to make this ›gap‹ that withstands the possibility of full representation disappear. However, the screen memories fail to achieve this, they always remain false memories. Trauma, then, through which the ‘real’ breaches into the net of the symbolic, also functions as a machine unceasingly at work to produce fictions. The real, which promises a way out of the forest of fictions, leads – in a remarkably ironic turn – into an even more dense forest of fictions. That will be shown with regards to Cronenberg’s SPIDER (2002).


Claudia Liebrand: Trauma and Narration in David Cronenberg’s Spider


Trauma, so the theory goes, points to the Real, to that which – for instance, in the shape of an overwhelming situation flooding its victim with pain and panic – fractures the integrity of reason and the psychic shell. It quite literally wounds the order of the Symbolic. This wounding of the Symbolic, however, is a productive one, in as much as it leads to constantly generating narratives and representations which attempt to make this ›gap‹ that withstands the possibility of complete representation disappear. But the screen memories, ultimately, fail to achieve this, they always remain false memories. Trauma, then, is that through which the ›real‹ breeches into the matrix of the symbolic, but also that which functions as a machine unceasingly at work to produce fictions. The Real with its implicit promise of a way out of the forest of fictions leads – in a rather remarkably ironic turn – into an even more dense forest of fictions. In the following, I will shed some light on this phenomenon with regards to David Cronenberg’s dark psychological study Spider, an English-Canadian film released in 2002.


The narrative of the film follows the attempts of Dennis Cleg, a middle-aged man recently released from a psychiatric hospital, to piece together the puzzle that has become his life. At the beginning of the film, we see a train entering a railway station in a shot which references one of the most famous examples of early cinema: the single-shot-production L’Arrivé d’un train en gare de la Ciotat (English title: Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat)[1]  by the famous Lumière brothers Auguste and Louis from the year 1896. The single shot depicts for the duration of fifty seconds the arrival of a locomotive at a train station, focusing on the passengers leaving the train. Legend has it, that the first audience to see this early silent film was so alien to the concept of the new film medium that it felt threatened by the moving images of an oncoming train and took flight to safety. More recent scholarly work, however, has shown that this story, which is used to illustrate the traumatic potential of the cinema and its moving images, belongs to the realm of fairy tales.[2] 

In Cronenberg’s Spider, the protagonist is shown leaving the train in a confused, unbearably slow, almost catatonic and bent-forward manner, nearly overcome by the situation. Later on, the protagonist is seen on his way to the halfway house he had been assigned to, a refuge for released mental patients somewhere between assisted living and an open prison. The establishment, which houses several men, most of whom are older gentlemen, is governed by Mrs. Wilkinson, a determined, not unfriendly older lady, who has an attentive eye on her »guests«. The halfway house is located in a bleak working-class neighborhood – the same one Cleg grew up in. On his walks through the area the protagonist seeks out the places which meant something to him during his childhood – for example, the house of his parents and the shed in the allotment garden. In front of his eyes and those of the film audience, individual episodes begin to take place, enlivening Cleg’s memories with moving images. Hence the protagonist is able to look through a window and see his younger self and his mother (who is unaware of him as an adult observer) sitting at the kitchen table. Time and again, in Spider, the past re-emerges through flashbacks, chronologically detailing the story of Dennis as a child, while the adult Dennis Cleg is present in every one of these episodes as a spectator (and we as spectators of the second order observe him during his observation).

A family drama unfolds. The little boy Dennis has a close relationship to his mother, a pretty brunette played by Miranda Richardson, who affectionately calls him »Spider«. Over and over again, she tells him how impressed she was as a young girl in Essex by the beauty of spider webs. Sometimes, Mrs. Cleg sends her son to the pub to ask her husband, and Dennis’ father, to return home for dinner. At the pub, Dennis meets a woman who soon also catches the eye of his father: Yvonne Wilkinson, a so-called »fat tart« – a blonde bombshell. Mr. Cleg subsequently enters into an affair with Yvonne. Later, during a romp, the couple is surprised by Mrs. Cleg who then is killed by her husband with a spade and buried in the allotment garden. Yvonne takes the place of the victim and moves into the family home. One evening, when she is seen arriving home drunk, Dennis triggers a meticulously designed contraption while sitting in his room. By tying together strings and leading them through loops down to the kitchen, he is able to open the gas tap in the kitchen from the safety of his room. His “stepmother”, who falls asleep in a sitting position, dies. Deeply distraught, Dennis’ father carries her out on his arms. When she is lying on the ground and the camera moves in on the face of the body, the film spectator sees, while watching the adult Dennis Cleg observing the action, that the woman carried out of the house by Mr. Cleg is none other than the dark-haired Mrs. Cleg. Spider has killed his mother.

This scene is cut together with a scene showing an attempt of the adult Dennis Cleg to kill his landlady Mrs. Wilkinson, the manager of the halfway house. In Cleg’s perception, Mrs. Wilkinson had transformed herself into the »fat tart«, which is a transformation the film spectator is able to grasp, for, initially, Mrs. Wilkinson is portrayed by Lynn Redgrave and later by Miranda Richardson, who not only plays the role of Mrs. Cleg, but also that of Yvonne. Cleg enters her bedroom at night to beat her to death with a hammer. But he does not follow through with his plan. Waking up to discover her assailant, Mrs. Wilkinson, who now is again played by Lynn Redgrave, asks her house guest twice with a stunned look on her face: »What have you done?« Cleg is then driven back to the »asylum« in a limousine by his former warden who greets him warmly as »old son«. In the film’s last sequence we see the camera pulling in on Cleg sitting in the back of the limousine, then cutting to Cleg’s housemate watching him from a window and returning again to an almost identical shot, in which no longer the adult Cleg, but little Dennis is sitting in the car.

At the end of the film, as reviewers have been keen to point out,[3] the traumatic core of the mental patient, of the schizophrenic seems to be disclosed. The pieces of memory appear to have stitched themselves up to a coherent story, proving themselves as screen memories, as false memories which Spider created to hide his matricide. Only at the very end of Cronenberg’s cinematic study of the psyche the truth about past events seems to prevail, the unreliable narrator Dennis appears to be revealed.[4] While this reading of the film seems reasonable, it also creates a couple of problems. If the protagonist of Spider could really be defined as an unreliable narrator, then why is it that only the last turn of the narrative can be trusted and taken for truth? Over and over again, the film suggests that the action taking place in front of the mental patient is imagined by him, that it could not be a reliable reconstruction of the past. Cleg even »remembers« episodes he could not have witnessed himself as a child. Some of the remembered events also defy plausibility: For instance, that Bill Cleg grabs a spade to kill his wife within seconds following her discovery of him having sex with Yvonne in the shed of the allotment garden, does not fit with the earlier, rather calm demeanor of the adulterer. It is even doubtful, that there ever was an Yvonne Wilkinson present in this nuclear family. For does not Yvonne share – not coincidentally – her last name with the landlady of the halfway house, into which Dennis is admitted following his release from the mental hospital? The completely made-up character of the past in Spider is also emphasized particularly by the implication that the »film« in the head of the psychotic takes place on a highly stylized stage or film set.

That every reconstruction of the past is a construction is one of the key assumptions of scholarly writings on memoria. Recollections are fluid. Our memories are not organized like an archive. Memories will change in the act of recollection; information is then assembled from various sources; that, which we have read, seen and heard is put together to form our very own story. In the case of Spider, however, we are dealing with a process of reconstruction whose references back to reality are almost impossible to verify. Was Dennis Cleg sent to the psychiatry because he killed his mother? Or do the inner images of the protagonist stage a phantasm? Do they provide images for a murderous wish, which is so disturbing, even as a wish, to threaten his mental health? Does the housing situation of Cleg in the halfway house (which in a way is a paradisal one, re-imagining an – incomplete – family: the older lady Mrs. Wilkinson »rules« over her »sons«, who all seem to follow her directions in spite of their very advanced age) conjure up – however displaced – memories from his childhood? Or does Dennis contradict present events with his imaginations, in which the »nature« of the »female« and of the »maternal« is distorted to recognition: in the contradictory roles of the angel of the house and the »fat tart«? Does Spider even imagine configurations which reflect his particular biography or does his imagined story only rewrite that mythical story, exploited theoretically by psychoanalysis, of the great mother who is at once caring and promiscuous, productive and destructive and who thus belongs to the most influential figures of the western representational system?


The answers are difficult to get by; any attempt at detection loses itself in the web of fictions spun by the film and by its protagonist. Dennis presents himself as an »investigator« tracing his own past. He carefully tends to a notebook which is densely inscribed with unreadable notes on his pieces of memory. He mumbles parts of the dialogue from the childhood scenes he remembers before the characters are seen speaking the lines, or he repeats certain words they say. Does this mean, that he recapitulates the screenplay he has written down in his book? The detective Dennis Cleg, who is concerned with clarifying his past – and clarification in this case means also solving the riddle of femininity (the protagonist stands in the tradition of the private eye of the Film Noir who is also burdened with this directive) –, also belongs to the line-up of female characters whose mystery he fails to solve und whom he fears so much because of it. As Spider – and this would make him less of a Spider-Man and more of a Spider-Woman – he »spins« threads and »weaves« them together – literally (with real strings) and metaphorically (by producing fictional threads). In his room in the halfway house, Cleg – as one, who stands in the tradition of the Fates who are able to both create and destroy by manipulating the metaphorical threads of life – creates, in contemporary London, a web of strings that recalls an installation. The schizophrenic becomes productive here as a pictorial artist in the same way he is productive as a narrator in his flashbacks.


That Spider is not quite »human« is made abundantly clear during a small episode early on in the film. An irritated Mrs. Wilkinson asks Spider, why he has to wear so many layers of clothes on top of each other – his neck, after all, is burdened with four shirt collars! Spider’s housemate Terrence tries to explain this phenomenon to the slow-witted landlady with a modified Shakespeare-citation[5]: »Clothes maketh the man; and the less there is of the man, the more the need of the clothes.« Terrence, of whom Mrs. Wilkinson warns Spider by saying: “this is Terrence, but, I’m afraid, we’re not to be trusted«, may sense already that Cleg is not quite a man because of his feminine – and his »animalistic« – identification. This is probably why he addresses the protagonist on their initial encounter with: »You’re familiar with the scorpion, I take it?« The sting of some species of scorpions can be deadly for humans. The scorpion stories Terrence tells Cleg take place, of all places, in Africa: »Africa. Now, there’s a dark continent for you.« With this trivia he not only references the motifs of spiders and death, but also Freud’s dictum about that dark unknown continent which allegorizes the mystery of femininity in need of exploration.[6] As a psychotic, Spider as well metaphorizes such a »dark« continent for the film spectator.

It is certainly conceivable, that the »traumatic core« is not to be found in the matricide, but in Cleg’s first »remembered« scene, in which the mother, who came up with the nickname Spider for her son in the first place, tells him the story of the spider. Doing so, she opens up the matrix of identification into which her son inserts himself. It is a story from the animal kingdom which initiates that insane production machine the protagonist of Cronenberg’s film finds himself at the mercy of. His attempts at detection, at putting together his life puzzle are doomed to fail, given the bewildering dynamic of the fiction generator. While trying to assemble the puzzle of a flying bird, an activity which stages Cleg’s attempts to piece together his life from his pieces of memory, the protagonist loses his patience, destroys the puzzle work done up to that point and throws the pieces to the floor. A reconstruction of an image from the pieces he has been given is impossible to him, his strategy instead consists of imagining the pieces of life he needs for his very own narrative. Cronenberg’s schizophrenic – a character the director soon developed an emphatic bond to, stating in an interview that »Spider – c’est moi«[7] – is also a prototype of the artist, of every artist. His string configurations »echo a string installation by Marcel Duchamp from the art exhibition ›First Papers of Surrealism‹ from 1942«[8] and could be viewed as visual art objects, referring back to one of the oldest topics for narration – for every text is a textum, a fabric, sometimes even an unconventional one like the three-dimensional webs of Spider.

Not just the protagonist, the film spectator as well threatens to get caught in the fictional threads spun by director David Cronenberg: The cocoon of »screen memories« that are presented in Spider is so dense that the traumatic wound, the injury, which initiated that production machine of the fictional in the first place, cannot be discerned despite all of our attempts at retrospective diagnosis. Cronenberg’s film entangles us in the imaginary worlds of the fictional. The »Real« he refuses to divulge, it remains beyond our grasp.

[1]     L’Arrivé d’un train en gare de la Ciotat, F 1896, D: Auguste and Louis Lumière.

[2]     See Martin Loiperdinger: »Lumières Ankunft des Zugs. Gründungsmythos eines neuen Mediums«, in: Frank Kessler, Sabine Lenk und Martin Loiperdinger (ed.): KINtop – Jahrbuch zur Erforschung des frühen Films, Bd. 5: Aufführungsgeschichten, Basel and Frankfurt aM: Stroemfeld und Roter Stern 1996, pp. 37-70.

[3]     See Manfred Riepe: Bildgeschwüre. Körper und Fremdkörper im Kino David Cronenbergs. Psychoanalytische Filmlektüren nach Freud und Lacan, Bielefeld: Transcript 2002, pp. 191-206.

[4]     See ibid., p. 204 cont.

[5]     In William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 3 Polonius says: »Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy, / But not expressed in fancy; rich not gaudy; / For the apparel oft proclaims the man, / And they in France of the best rank and station / Are of all most select and generous chief in that.« See William Shakespeare: »Hamlet«, in: Stanley Wells / Gary Taylor (ed.): The Complete Oxford Shakespeare. III: Tragedies, London: Guild 1987, p. 1128 [Emphasis mine].

[6]     See Sigmund Freud: »Die Frage der Laienanalyse (1926)«, in: Alexander Mitscherlich / (ed.): Sigmund Freud. Studienausgabe, Ergänzungsband. Schriften zur Behandlungstechnik, Frankfurt a.M.: Fischer 1982, pp. 275–349.

[7]     See William Beard: The Artist as Monster. The Cinema of David Cronenberg, Toronto/ Toronto UP 2001, p. 471.

[8]     Tom Holert: Film und Psyche, werdet eins! (10.06.04), URL: 06/10/a0182 (26.08.10). [Translation: Asokan Nirmalarajah]

To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Claudia Liebrand "Trauma and Narration in David Cronenberg's Spider". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available June 18, 2024 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: August 19, 2011, Published: August 19, 2011. Copyright © 2011 Claudia Liebrand