Spellbound In Relation To Sigmund Freud


02 Nov 2017

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Alfred Hitchcock’s 1945 psychological thriller Spellbound explored the very difficult and untouched subject of psychoanalytical practices. The film gave society its first glimpse into the mystery surrounding mental studies and the fragile relationship that exists between material and psychical reality. Hitchcock’s films gave way to much criticism from feminists, as the majority of his films depicted passive secondary females alongside an active male hero lead; this was typical of the era in which his films were made. Spellbound was the first of which that this changed, depicting a strong, independent heroine coming to the aid of a slightly less dominant male lead. Using feminist Adrienne Rich’s theories, this essay aims to examine the ways in which stereotype and oppression were still conveyed whilst analysing how the films themes can be directly linked to Sigmund Freud’s own theories of psychoanalysis.

The film introduces us to Green Manors, a mental asylum, in which the central female psychoanalyst Dr Constance Peterson meets the new head Dr Edwards, who slowly turns out to be not all that he seems. Spellbound proved to be different in comparison to Hitchcock’s usual appraisal of women as passive and weak. Constance represented a whole new type of woman, being strong and independent as well as arguably having a stereotypical male profession.

Adrienne Rich explores the oppressive nature of patriarchal society on women and encourages her reader to ‘examine heterosexuality as a political institution which disempowers women’. [1] Rich questions whether heterosexual desire and identity are the causes of such female oppression and discusses the segregation of females in a Capitalist society, commenting that ‘Central and intrinsic to the economic realities of women’s lives is the requirement that women will "market" sexual attractiveness to men, who tend to hold the economic power and position to enforce their predilections’ (p.1597). This can be applied to Constance at Green Manor, where it is obvious that she has a far inferior position to the men that occupy the workplace. Men almost expect Constance to ‘market’ herself in a sexual and feminine way; certain characters seem to be troubled by her cold and callous outer appearance, Fleurot especially comments on her lack of emotion, ‘I'm trying to convince you that your lack of emotional experience is bad for you as a doctor and fatal for you as a woman.’ [2] She is fundamentally doing the same job as the other men in her line of profession but the other men receive no such criticism. She receives the same critical analysis from one of her female patients, Mary Carmichael, who refers to Constance as ‘Miss Frozen Puss’, reflecting the idea that even women had a stereotypical image of what other women should portray and Constance did not fit that mould. Constance is constantly surrounded by men; it is arguably the reason why she has such a masculine outer appearance, both in her clothes and emotions.

Rich examines the ways in which lesbians are disempowered in the workplace and though this is not applicable to Constance, Rich draws on how ‘Her job depends on her pretending to be not merely heterosexual, but a heterosexual woman in terms of dressing and playing the feminine, deferential role required of "real" women.’ (p.1597) This is significant in the sense that even though Constance is a heterosexual woman, she is only displaying it to herself on the inside. To be seen as a "real" heterosexual woman, she needs to dress and play the feminine part which she does not; this is why she is susceptible to criticism. Looks and emotions do not constitute an individual’s sexuality, this stereotype is one that the male characters in the film expect her to live out and the fact that she is unlike other women means that she is portrayed as wrong, cold and unfeminine.

The profession of a psychoanalyst is one arguably unnatural for a woman of that time, seen through the sheer dislike of her patients for her unattached, medical persona. This can be traced back to how men like to feel motherly love from women and the fact that she is superior to her male patients and asexual in the workplace, is unsettling for the men in the manor. John Ballantine seemingly dislikes her when she is treating him as a patient, telling her, ‘If there’s anything I hate, it’s a smug woman’. Men do not expect women to study them because it puts women in a superior position to them, so the fact that Ballantine is in an inferior position mentally to Constance gets on his nerves.

Rich draws up examples from Mackinnon who notes that, ‘the woman who too decisively resists sexual overtures in the workplace is accused for being "dried up" and sexless, or lesbian.’ (p. 1597) This is evident through the sleaziness shown by Fleurot, flirting with her endlessly, ‘You’re a sweet, pulsing woman underneath’. He does not hold back on making flirtatious and sexual advances, even forcefully kissing her, but when she ultimately resists he claims that she is lacking in emotional experience and that it’s like ‘embracing a textbook’. Constance has no choice or consent in the matter, Fleurot just expects that she will succumb to his charms and unwittingly allow him to carry on flirting and making sexual advances towards her.

As the film progresses Constance begins to become more like the stereotypical female shown in Hitchcock’s other films, proving Adrienne Rich’s theory that heterosexual relationships and desires are fundamental to oppression. Her slow oppression is shown through her more ‘childish’ actions, as she slowly acts more dazed and silly through her love for Ballantine. She conforms to Rich’s idea that men want women to ‘market’ sexual attractiveness as she tells Ballantine:

I've always loved very feminine clothes but never quite dared to wear them. But I'm going to after this. I want to wear exactly the things that please me, and you. Even very funny hats. You know the kind that makes you look a little drunk.

She is changing into a subjective female that does everything to make the man happy, wanting to ‘please him’. Hitchcock was portraying that women were oppressed by love and could not function, highlighted by Dr Brulov when he says, ‘We both know that the mind of a woman in love is operating on the lowest level of the intellect’. Women are made out to be silly and ‘patients’ to analyse when they are in love, ‘Women make the best psychoanalysts until they fall in love. After that they make the best patients.’ This is perhaps why Ballantine seduced her so that he could reverse their roles so that he was back to being superior. Heterosexuality fundamentally ensures the power of men over women as the ending of the film proves, as marriage is heavily hinted towards and Constance fundamentally becomes secondary to a now dominant male lead.

Looking closely at the themes explored in Spellbound, it is clear that they heavily relate to that of Freud’s theories explored in ‘The Interpretation of Dreams’ and ‘The Uncanny’. One that Hitchcock examines thoroughly during the film is that of the ‘Oedipus Complex’, Freud introduces this theory stating that ‘the chief part in the mental lives of all children who later become pyschoneurotics is played by their parents.’ [3] The theory is loosely based around the mythical Greek King Oedipus, who fulfilled a prophecy that he would inevitably kill his father and marry his mother. Freud examines this Greek myth in detail, relating it to every person’s subconscious desire.

It is the fate of all of us, perhaps, to direct our first sexual impulse towards our mother and our first hatred and our first murderous wish against our father. Our dreams convince us that that is so. King Oedipus, who slew his father Laius and married his mother Jocasta, merely shows us the fulfilment of our own childhood wishes. (p.816)

Spellbound successfully portrays this complex through the use of the male lead Dr Edwards, who we later discover is actually John Ballantine. Hitchcock explores the idea that a child develops a sexual attraction towards his mother and jealousy towards the father but he does so in a subtle, repressed manor. Although John Ballantine’s parents are never mentioned or shown, it is actually through Constance and the strong male characters in the film that Hitchcock presents the subtly implied mother and father figures.

The Oedipus Complex is explored first through the character of Garmes, a patient of Green Manor, who claims ‘my guilt is very real. I know Dr Edwards that I killed my father’. Garmes’ confession can be explained by a guilt complex in which he believes that he has killed his father, this can be directly compared to Freud’s claim that it is the fate of all of us to direct ‘our first hatred and our first murderous wish against our father’. It is suggested that Garmes’ father has passed away and it is guilt over his subconscious thoughts of hatred and murder for his father that have made him acquire a guilt complex. Constance replies by telling him that,

People often feel guilty over something they never did. It usually goes back to their childhood. A child often wishes something terrible would happen to someone and if something does happen to that person the child believes he has caused it. And he grows up with a guilt complex over a sin that was only a child's bad dream.

Although it is subtly implied, the ‘terrible’ thing that the child wishes would happen is consequently directed towards the mother and father. The Oedipal Complex is explored through the relationship between material reality, what actually happens, and psychical reality, what our conscious allows us to believe happens. This relates back to how Freud believed that parents played the central role in children who were later to become pyschoneurotics. Traumatic memories from childhood are repressed from our conscious mind, serving as a defence mechanism to keep us from harms way. Freud’s analysis in his theory ‘The Uncanny’ is also featured throughout the film. ‘The Uncanny’ is defined as something which ‘ought to have remained hidden but has come to light’. [4] Ballantine’s mental state can be seen as mirroring this definition perfectly as a repressed memory has resurfaced after being hidden all these years, brought on by something similar, ‘The secret of who you are and what has made you run away from yourself, all these secrets are buried in your brain but you don't want to look at them.’ The film explores the ways in which an individual can be cured from this through dream analysis and confronting repressed memories.

Ballantine’s Oedipal Complex is shown through the course of the film as the audience witness him struggling over the loss of Dr Edwards, his father-figure, and falling for Constance who can be seen as becoming more of a maternal figure as the film continues. She explains to Ballantine that ‘People fall in love […] because they respond to certain hair colouring or vocal tones or mannerisms that remind them of their parents.’ Constance is portrayed as Ballantine’s 'mother' figure, heavily implied by many characters throughout the course of the film including Fleurot who ‘detect[s] the outcroppings of a mother instinct toward[s] Dr Edwards’ The idea of Constance as a maternal figure is further emphasised by minor characters sat in the room talking amongst themselves in a private discussion surrounding Lieutenant Cooley’s mother saying, ‘He made some crack about me being a mama’s boy.’ Hitchcock makes subtle hints towards the idea of Constance being a mother throughout the film as she is repeatedly told by Brulov, ‘You're not his mama, you're an analyst, leave him alone. He will come out of this by himself.’ It is heavily repeated, imprinting the idea of Constance as a mother into our minds.

Many of the male characters can be seen as different aspects of a 'father' figure as Dr Edwards symbolises the dead father that Ballantine thinks he has killed, Murchison reflects the bad father who serves as a threat to Ballantine’s life and Brulov serves as the good father who helps Ballantine, ‘I'm going to be your father image. You must look on me as your father.’ The idea of Brulov asking Ballantine to look at him as a father figure represents all psychoanalysts as a fatherly role model. Garmes, Mary Carmichael and Ballantine himself all express dislike towards the psychoanalysts perhaps for this reason, that their doctors have a fatherly presence. This also suggests why Constance is presented as so cold and manly at the beginning, she is disliked because she also represents a ‘father figure’ instead of the maternal figure that she should symbolize. Freud’s theory reflects the idea that he made it to represent male complexes and completely disregarded females; this is copied in Spellbound in which Constance is the only lead female but regarded as unemotional and unfeminine. There is a climactic scene in which it is implied that Ballantine intends to murder Brulov. Comparing this to the Oedipal Complex, this could be seen as showing Ballantine’s lust to get rid of his rival 'father' to gain possession of his 'mothers' undying affection.

Ballantine uses Freud’s ‘displacement’ theory, displacing his guilt over the repressed trauma of accidentally killing his brother in his childhood and transferring it onto the death of Dr Edwards, making himself believe he has killed him. His dead brother is something that he repressed right until the very end, ‘something in my childhood […] I killed my brother.’ The death of the real Edwards brought back old memories of a long-standing guilt complex.

Freud discusses Oedipus in ‘The Uncanny’ stating that, ‘A study of dreams, phantasies and myths has taught us that anxiety about one’s eyes’ (p.831). We can see this reflected in the character of Ballantine as he dreams of ‘curtains with eyes painted on them. A man was walking around with a large pair of scissors, cutting all the drapes in half.’ The imagery of the man cutting the drape in half, right through the middle of the eye is substituting Ballantine’s unconscious ‘dread of being castrated.’ Freud explains that Oedipus ‘was simply a mitigating form of the punishment of castration.’ (p.831)

John Ballantine's progression throughout the film can be exactly taken from the Oedipal Complex as the audience witness the character expressing guilt at the death of a father figure and lust towards a mother figure. Looking at Hitchcock’s other films, it is clear that the ‘Oedipus Complex’ and similar Freudian theories play a vital part in his plot schemes. Norman Bates, the male lead of the renowned film Psycho is perhaps Hitchcock’s greatest example of the ‘Oedipus Complex’ shown through his claim that, ‘A boy’s best friend is his mother’ [5] as the character dresses as his mother and develops her personality. The murder of Marion Crane can be seen as his ‘mother’ complex wanting to get rid of the competition, so that she can have her son to herself. It is as if the men surrounding all of Hitchcock’s female characters are looking for a maternal figure, as Rich claims that, ‘Maternal affection is used to establish male right of sexual access," (p.1602) It is as if men groom women for them to become more like their mothers, because all men have an underlying desire to be with their own mother sexually. It is possible that Hitchcock’s own deep feelings and experiences of his mother are shown through the use of his films, heightened in a quote once said by Hitchcock himself that ‘the way to get rid of my fears is to make films about them’. His films act as a projection of his own neuroses, reflecting perhaps his own subconscious complexes over his family and women.

Word Count: 2624


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