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Freudian and Post-Freudian Themes in Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound

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image Freudian and Post-Freudian Themes in Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound

Freudian and Post-Freudian Themes in Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound

Dr Fatmir Terziu 




Freudian theory of psychoanalysis has been the main source for many directors and producers who created films in the thriller genre since the 1940s. They used this theory as a plot device in many films to fulfil the need of the audience for such films during the period. Among other films shot within this theory is Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound(1945), nominated for six Academy Awards. ‘Psychoanalytic theory is central’ in this film (Sterritt, 1993:88). Spellboundfocuses on the use of many experiences in highlighting the identity of one of the main characters, Ballantine (Gregory Peck), who suffers from amnesia. In the forefront of these experiences is Dr Constance Peterson (Ingrid Bergman). As Gilligan rightly revealed “Freudian analysis helped Bergman … to uncover Gregory Peck’s past” (Gilligan, 2003:379). This essay intends to analyse Hitchcock’s film Spellboundby the use of Freudian and post-Freudian theory. It is not intended to discuss character analysis as such, although so much of the theory of psychoanalysis is based upon the character’s relationships. Secondly, the analysis of the use of symbolism, as a form of representation, is also a prospect of this paper. 

2. Phantasy and Reality

2.1 Guilt complex

Spellbounduse of ideas that are drawn from Freud’s discoveries, of concepts like repressed memories, includes the main theme of “how it is that in our normal state we are able to distinguish between phantasy and reality” (Freud, 1991:225). For Boyd “phantasy itself … is Oedipal in nature” and it leads to “Freudian depths of incestuous desire and patricidal guilt (Boyd, 2000: For example the ideas of guilt complex identifiable throughout the film are used to determine the main plot. It is this guilt complex, triggered by the accidental killing of his brother in his childhood that has caused Ballantine’s amnesia and made him believe that he is the one who killed Dr Edwards. From this point Spellboundcontrasts Ballantine with the other patient in the film who suffers from guilt complex, and believes that he has killed his father, using this as a conjunction to highlight similarities with Oedipal themes, but in function to the fabula. For Žižek these ‘repeated motifs’ linked with Freud’s ‘compulsion to repeat’ are in function of both the story and the visual complex in the film (Žižek, 1992:126). Similarly Greenberg sees it as “appreciated only in repeated viewings; with its subtle insistence of the influence of childhood conflict upon adult destiny” (Greenberg, 1993:138). Also, Spellbound explores the distinctive ideas of the new replacing the old, such as when Dr Edwards was to replace Dr Murchison as the head of the Green Manors mental asylum. 

2.2 The paternal function; politicised experience

The notion of politics used in the psychoanalysis of Spellboundtakes for granted the existence of power relations that are linked with basic social structures and that are involved in the construction of each individual. For Silverman, Spellboundspeaks “to the failure of the paternal function” (Silverman, 1992:52). For instance, the “individual task” that Constance undertakes “in order to begin to escape from the spaces, roles, and gestures that [she has] been assigned and taught by the society of men” is among other facts contributes to the “experience to be politicised” (Irigaray, 1977:164). Obviously all this ‘experience’ is under question because it has not taken “into consideration the specific exploitation of woman” (1977:165). As for Mulvey it is a ‘political weapon’ of the patriarchal system (Mulvey, 1975:6). The fact that Constance’s picture was in front of the newspapers when she abandoned Green Manors to find Ballantine clarifies that she has been ‘prescribed by the patriarchal system’, but the presence of the two investigators, face to face with Constance and Ballantine in Dr Brulov’s house, brings the conclusion that the “patriarchal system” is not functioning properly. For Irigaray, “politics has … questioned its own relation to phallocratic power” (1977:165). However, Constance instantly contributes to this as “the unattractive ‘woman’ who knows too much” (Žižek 1992:125). “She finds the signifier of her own desire in the body of the one” who is Ballantine “to whom she addresses her demand for love” (Irigaray, 1977:62). Irigaray’s theory highlights this concept as: “dialectic of relations that are sexualised by the phallic function” (1977:62). Elizabeth Grosz’s response to Irigaray’s ‘plallocentrism’ concludes that, “the patriarchal symbolic order leaves no space or form of representation for women’s autonomy” (Grosz, 1990:174). For Grosz “the relations each sex has to the phallus”, leads to the fact that this relation “defines the structure of romantic relations between them” (1990:116). 

2.3 Relations and mother-figure

Thus, according to Freud, individuals’ relations enhance the narrative that shifts in the importance of these event relations. Freud says, “in dreams we go through many experiences” which leads to the fact that “our experiences take the form of visual images” (Freud, 1922:78).As Foucault’s statement argues, “relations” consist of “relations between statements and groups of statements, and events of quite different kinds” the film borrows from these definitions to enhance its plot and fabula (Foucault, 1972:29). These relations are more evaluated experiences on sequences when the police investigation goes on for the murderer of Dr Edwards, and when Constance decides to cure Ballantine and go through with it until the end. Furthermore, the Freudian theory works clearly throughout Spellbound, “perhaps most insistently in the references to Constance as a mother-figure”, first by Dr Fleurot, a psychiatrist who is interested in starting a relationship with Dr Peterson, and claims to "detect the outcroppings of a mother instinct toward Dr Edwards," and later by Brulov, who sternly warns her, "You are not his mama" (Boyd, 2000:

3. The Mirror Stage

3.1 TheScreen, Mirror andCastration

Jacques Lacan’s ‘mirror stage’ can also be read in Ballantine’s world in the screen. Ballantine does not believe in himself and he does not know who is. For Mulvey ‘forgetting the world as the ego’ can be related to ‘the extraneous similarities between screen and mirror’ (Mulvey, 1975:10). For example when he shaves himself at Dr Brulov’s house in front of the mirror, he is enthralled. Furthermore the visual parallel lines in the mirror create confusion in him. This climaxes in the train station when Ballantine collapses after he sees the parallel iron bars. On the other hand it can be seen that Ballantine’s negative behaviour and outbursts when Constance is trying to help him show Freud’s idea that: “when one speaks hopefully to them or expresses satisfaction with the progress of the treatment, they show signs of discontent and their condition invariably becomes worse” (Freud, 1984:390). For Mulvey, Constance is related to this mission because ‘she can exist only in relation to castration’ (1975:7). Freud, of course, discussed this situation in function to male fears of castration. In his theory he explores that probably ‘no male human being is spared the right of castration’ (Freud 354). Because the film was made after the Second World War when Ballantine was a soldier and escaped from a plane crash, for Samuels it is a problem of ‘a man who has been castrated by the war’ (Samuels, 1998:41). But, Freud does not adequately explain why the castration in its masculine construct should be subject to frustration and unconscious, so Ballantine’s behaviour looks unacceptable. 

3.2 Oedipal desire; imaginary signifier

Metz’s crucial work to film theory states that film could be analysed with reference to unconscious and ‘the screen image as a resuscitation of the earlier experience of the mirror’ (Metz cited in Aaron, 2007:12). For instance Ballantine’s appearance on screen with ‘designated lure of the ego’ produces a ‘imaginary signifier’ of all happenings as a result of the ‘other mirror, the cinema screen’ (Metz, 1975:15). Freud’s theory of ‘creative fantasy’, in fact, helps to clarify this ‘imaginary signifier’ (Freud, 1922:145). The dream sequence, which is used by Dr Constance to unlock the mystery, is a perfect example of this. It starts with a gambling house, which has no walls, but is surrounded by curtains with a lot of eyes. A man was walking around cutting all the drapers of hair. The eye symbol and the man’s presence with scissors in his hand cutting eyelashes is a complete analogy of the dream theory that is related to the fear of going blind and is perfectly created to fulfil the meaning that surrounds Ballantine’s behaviour in the sequence. In Creed’s argument within Freud’s theory of ‘linked eye and the male genitals’ is ‘a sign of Oedipal desire for the mother ... the phallic mother’ (Creed, 1990:132). The image of the eye slashed by the man and other disembodied eyes watch the chaotic action from their position on top of plant stalks, as a “visual superego” creates depictions of the subconscious in the sequence (1922:147).In the political context ghostly eyes are launching the fact that the state is not able to highlight the crime. 

3.3 Characters responsibility: signs, actions and suspense

Characters in the film often are unaware, consciously, of many things that seem to have influenced their actions in different sequences. For instance, Constance’s country-walk and the wind dishevelling her hair are drawn in contrast to her naturalness; Constance is seen as ‘image’ and Ballantine as ‘Bearer of the look’ (Mulvey, 1975:11). Wood explores this fact as ‘restoration of Constance’s persona’ as before she is presented as ‘masculinised and desexualised’ (Wood, 1989:320). Another example is what would look like Ballantine’s ever present fear of blades. When Constance uses the knife to open envelopes the fear comes promptly. Also when the doctors are operating on a patient, his fear of knifes surfaces again and he collapse. Then, when he is about to shave himself in Dr Brulov’s house, and when he notices the knife that Constance is using to cut the stake when she eats in the train journey, his expression changes to a murderous one; and the camera and a change in light, focus the blade. To viewers this fear of the knives may seem like a way of Ballantine hiding his vicious feelings. However in the film’s context it creates suspense. 

4. Symbols and Semiotic; reality and illusion

Hitchcock also used devices based on symbols represented in dreams throughout the film, such as the opening of the doors when Constance and Ballantine who is posing as Dr Edwards, first kiss. This, according to Freudian theory, represents trust, giving and opening. At this point the film has some more interesting conflicts related within symbolic representation in the semiotic context overall, as images and language do not fit together in many parts. As the language of images completes the meaning, a dialogue between Dr Peterson and Ballantine, when they first go for a walk together, is vague. In contrast to that, the music and sound effects complete this emptiness. For instance, the music in the dream sequence shifts the boundaries between images effectively portrayed by Ballantine and its unknown nature of subconscious mind. In continuous situations the message interferes the continuity by changing from the known, represented by words, to the unknown of the characters’ thoughts by “shifting relationship between reality and illusion” produced in the sequence (Sterritt, 1993:1). 

5. The Problems

5.1 Self-referential presence; Moral panic and Phallic panic

The anarchy created after Ballantine’s disappearance was used as ‘moral panic’ and becomes defined as a threat to social values and interests (Cohen, 1980:9). All combinations of guilt complexes and the trauma of childhood used in Spellboundare in fact in the role of the questions raised about moral panic. Lurking beneath, the story complicates these combinations and transforms them into ‘moment of phallic panic’ (Bruzzi, 1997:158). The characters’ behaviour offers sympathy and further analysis are in serve to answering naturally that question. Related to the theory of psychoanalysis Maltby responds: “Hitchcock movies bear … a self-referential presence” (Maltby, 1995:437).Behind all this is a main theme; a female psychiatrist falls in love with her new male boss only to discover that he is an impostor who believes he is a murderer. From the feminist point of view, Spellboundand many films, “dramatize the temporary collapse of the mechanisms through which the female subject is “normally” obliged to assume male lack” (Silverman, 1990:114). The fact that Constance walks into Ballantine’s room in the middle of the night, for Silverman it shows that “[Ballantine] is unable to align himself with the phallus” (1990:114). 

5.1 Repressed memory

These problems become more complicated when we consider the findings of Sigmund Freud; in particular, that unconscious motives apparently influence the behaviour of the characters. For Freud “the dreams command of childhood material … falls through the gaps in our conscious power of recollection” (Freud, 1999:16). For instance Ballantine’s past, and the event that has caused his amnesia, are causing him to break down every time he sees parallel lines, as his brain is trying to remind him of his past, but he is trying to shut it out. This happens when Constance draws the fork lines in the table cloth; when he sees the lines in her dress, the lines in the bed covers and the dark sledge tracks in the snow. To Ballantine, these all symbolise the skiing tracks when Dr Edwards died. Ballantine’s neurotic outbursts and breakdowns appear to be sufficiently accounted for by the films overt Freudian explanation of repressed memories of childhood trauma. 

5.3 Character’s behaviour and social feelings

The film constitutes to integrate its aim through characters’ behaviour. Constance is as cold socially as she is passionate about her profession. She represents in many parts the figure that within the theme of the film can be difficult to recognise in that situation. As a doctor she needs to be careful in dealing with patients, their problems and their behaviour. But Constance gets more and more closer to her amnesiac lover, risking her reputation and even her life. The Freudian reading of a guilt complex as the reification of some disturbance in sexual relationships seems to work also in this case where Constance’s personal sacrifice is devoted to the profession. Boyd’s analysis highlighting these complex devices states that “fantasy evinces itself not only in the relationship between the film’s Oedipal protagonist, his mother figure, and his three father figures, but in multitude of images” that producing social feelings (Boyd, 2000: According to Freud “the social feelings arise in the individual as a superstructure built upon impulses of jealous rivalry” (Freud, 1984:377). Dr Murchison scared that Dr Edwards will replace him as head of Green Manors, shoots him dead, in front of Ballantine, and is only found out when Constance uncovers the mystery. Murchison as a professional psychiatric knew that the event would trigger Ballantine’s amnesia, and knowing about guilt complex, he knew that he could shift the blame to Ballantine. Furthermore, Murchison manipulates his other colleagues; in the shot when all the staff of Green Manors are sat around a table, the only two empty chairs belong to Constance and Ballantine, and Murchison capitalising on Constance’s love for Ballantine, makes sure that she is blamed too, so that this woman devoted to the profession will not be replacing him as head of the institution either. So Murchison is strengthening his hold and is making himself irreplaceable for the job.

5.4 Freudianfetish

The imaginary world that links dream status and viewing the dream as a part of psychoanalysis is another point that would be considered as Freud’s concept in Spellbound. The girl, which appears in the Ballantine’s dream, is one of these examples. In this example of what appears to be a case of the Freudian fetish, Ballantine’s fascination with girl’s short skirt is less provoked than the rest of continuity in the sequence. Žižek’s rightly explains, “the unconscious desire, which animates the dream is not merely the dream’s latent thought, which is translated into its explicit content, but another unconscious wish” (Žižek, She is beautiful, short dressed and physically selected. For Žižek “it is through this distortion that another, much more fundamental desire encodes itself in the dream, and this desire is unconscious and sexual” ( The girl’s presence fulfils partly the dream’s meaning but is more of wishful thinking by Ballantine. As Freud’s analysis stated, wishful impulses in the subconscious require “a dream-wish (a wish-fulfilling phantasy)” (Freud, 1991:234). For Maltby, who refers to Freud’s theory, in his Analysis on Psychoanalysis and Cinemaessay explains that, “the analogy between dream and viewing was crucial to the application of psychoanalysis to cinema” (Maltby, 1995:437). 

5.5 Superego,Conflicts And Contradictions

Finally, another reference to Freud’s theory is Hitchcock’s style of representation of conflicts and contradictions, often carried to the character’s situation. Sterritt concludes that, “a brutalising past event has frozen John Ballantine not physically but in his psychological trajectory” (Sterritt, 1993:18). For him guilt may be transferred within a single human psyche as when he becomes the victim of its own overactive superegos because of death for which he is physically, but not morally responsible. The flashback that took place in the mountain scene and reveals the accident that brought about his brothers death, cures Ballantine and solves the problem, revealing his innocence. From this fact it is obvious that “the Oedipal scenario supports the entire dynamic of the narrative” (Bellour, 1990:204). Then the film continuity confirms that Constance proves Ballantine’s innocence by analysing his dreams, and the asylum’s previous director is revealed as the murderer. 

6. Conclusion

In summary, Freud’s achievement in the theory of psychoanalysis has been followed by visual representation of Hollywood films. This essay has been apprehensive to this theory, with which the main object has been to supply a straightforward account of psychoanalysis in Hitchcock’s Spellbound. My purpose has been to present the evidence of Freudian and post-Freudian psychoanalytic theory, not as simple theory, but rather from an impartially distinct point. Among the main features of this standpoint is the feeling that, in the past, psychology has tended to concentrate too much on isolated problems, such as the sexual difference, and not enough on the nature of political context of the theory. In the particular paragraphs that are devoted to psychoanalysis in SpellboundI have dwelt primarily on the theories of Freud. Foucault’s postulate of “relations” has been used in support to this theory. In particular I have mentioned Luce Irigaray and Elisabeth Grosz who have drawn on psychoanalysis to represent it from a feminist point of view. Bellour, Žižek, Mulvey, Metz, Boyd, Gilligan, Silverman, Sterritt, and many others, have also made their contribution to the film psychoanalysis and Freud’s theory. The inevitable deduction made from psychoanalytic theory is that images and characters’ thoughts are in juxtaposition with the phallocratic system. The outcome to Freud’s theory in Spellboundis that message boundaries have been breached and experienced in a very political way. The aim is, perhaps, to discover what has emerged, to shift these boundaries in order to retake interest of such classic films.


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Spellbound(Alfred Hitchcock, 1945, USA)

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