Kinoeye: New perspectives on European film

Vol 2
 Issue 12 
24 June

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Dario Argento's Phenomena (1985) HORROR
Visions of deformity
Dario Argento's Phenomena (1985)

Phenomena is an example of body-horror in Italian cinema which specifically targets adolescent anxieties about newly-awakened sexual desires and the shame that stems from physical deformity. Donald Campbell, President of the British Psychoanalytical Society, looks at the film in detail.[*]

The monster in body-horror films

The horror film subgenre most relevant to my focus on those adolescent anxieties associated with the change of the childhood body into an adult one is "body-horror." The monster in the body-horror film is not a creature external to us, but a human being with a body much like our own. The Wolf Man was a human bitten by a werewolf who subsequently transforms into a feral creature at every full moon. After Dr Jekyll took his drug in order to separate good and evil in man's personality, he became Mr Hyde. Vampires were originally human beings who were bitten by vampires and given their blood to drink before expiring. Monsters who emerged from normal human beings were the progenitors of what is now regarded as body-horror.

The body-horror subgenre plays on the fear, disgust, shame and apprehension associated with one's own appearance and bodily functions (usually internal ones), their mystery and our inability to control them. Some adolescents experience their body as undergoing a metamorphosis during puberty, with accompanying anxieties about the loss of what was familiar, narcissistic wounds, and what to do with the new body, as represented in, for example, David Cronenberg's The Fly (1986). Brian De Palma's Carrie (1976) depicts female adolescents' fears about menstruation and male reactions of disgust.

An example of body-horror in European cinema is Dario Agrento's Phenomena (1985; titled Creepers in the cut version made available for distribution in the US). Limitations of space prevent my giving a complete synopsis of the film, but I will briefly highlight certain aspects of the monster in Phenomena in order, firstly, to illustrate a developmental conflict centring on the adolescent body, and secondly, to discuss a psychological solution to this conflict that is derived from a very early period of development.


The film begins with a sweeping high crane shot across a green mountainous countryside as two adults herd a group of adolescent tourists onto a bus. As the vehicle drives off we see a young girl who has been left behind, forgotten by her peers and the supervising adults, running after the bus and calling for it to stop—to no avail. We hear the wind begin to howl. The girl has been left alone in a landscape empty but for a chalet, devoid of any signs of life, at the end of a road. We are watching a classic horror film beginning.

We enter the house from the girl's perspective as she calls out, "Is anyone home? I'm a foreigner and I'm lost." We hear and see two chains being wrenched from a wall. Suddenly the chains are thrown over her head and tightened around her neck. The girl shrieks in terror, manages to break free; her hand is stabbed with a pair of scissors into the doorframe, but she runs out of the house into the woods. We now watch her flight through the eyes of her pursuer. She is cornered, stabbed in the chest with the scissors, Dario Argento's Phenomena (1985)and her head breaks through a pane of glass behind her. Her decapitated head is thrown into a raging river. We never see the murderer. The wind still howls.

We also feel on familiar adolescent horror film ground. The child is lost, a stranger in the foreign territory of adolescence, abandoned by peers and forgotten by her substitute parents. Murderous impulses cannot be restrained. The phallus is deadly and cannot be escaped.

Put simply, every film can be understood as the depiction of a problem. In Phenomena, typical adolescent anxieties about sexuality, body image and madness are played out as the narrative progresses. Similarly, every film can be viewed as representing the director's solution to the problem in question. As we can see in the opening sequence, the problem facing the girl is one of survival in the face of abandonment and isolation. Argento demonstrates from the very beginning that murderous sexuality is the primary problem. Can union with a partner in intercourse serve as the medium through which the adolescent overcomes feelings of loss and alienation? In fact, Argento retreats from sexual intercourse as a solution to loss and alienation to something far more primitive and mysterious.

Dario Argento's Phenomena (1985)In the next scene, a trained monkey—our primitive ancestor—is viewed almost as a human child, called "my nurse and friend" by Dr MacGregor (Donald Pleasence), a kindly, wheelchair-bound etymologist, and admonished as a "naughty girl" for carrying a knife. Argento has introduced a who-done-it.

Eight and half months later, Jennifer Corvino (Jennifer Connelly), another foreign adolescent girl, arrives in the Swiss Transylvania from the New World (America). As she is being driven to a female boarding school, a bee flies into the car and frightens the accompanying teacher. "Don't kill it," exclaims Jennifer. The insect calms and settles gently on the girl, who reveals that Dario Argento's Phenomena (1985)"Insects never hurt me. I love them. I love all insects." It is clear that she has a special telepathic relationship with insects.

Jennifer's father, an idealised film star adored by other teenage girls, is away for a year and "can't even be reached by phone." Jennifer's mother is never mentioned, and her roommate's mother has left her with baby food. Early in the film, then, it is made apparent that parents have abandoned and infantilised their adolescent daughters.

After being admonished by a strict teacher to behave, Jennifer's roommate leaves the school to meet her boyfriend, is chased and impaled through the mouth by the same weapon we saw in the first murder scene. Meanwhile, Inge, the monkey, rescues Jennifer from two amorous teenage boys. Inge, whom Jennifer calls her "saviour," takes her to the home of the renowned insect scientist. He notices that she sexually excites the insects: "He likes you. The sound you hear, that's its mating call. You're exciting it. He is secreting a gland to attract a mate. He's doing his best to excite you." "We just met," replies Jennifer. "It isn't the mating season. I've never seen anything like it," gushes Dr MacGregor.

Later, he remarks that insects and the human soul are linked by the multifarious mystery of them both. "I was alone, in the dark, needed help. It was as though the firefly heard me and answered my call," says Jennifer. Dr MacGregor replies, "the things I've discovered my fellow scientists consider absurd. Extrasensory perception. Paranormal powers. Some species can communicate over vast distances by telepathy. It's perfectly normal for insects to be slightly telepathic." "Normal for insects, but am I normal?" asks Jennifer. She sees this power as part of her split personality. The staff at the school and her peers think she is mad, or else possessed. The school doctor tells her there is a new personality inside her trying to emerge. It could be the first step to schizophrenia. The madness of the adolescent is linked to difference and special sensitivity.

In a later scene, a detective who has been investigating the murders inquires about a woman who currently works at the school, but who had previously worked in a mental hospital. He is told at the hospital that "the further down you go the more monstrous the patients." We learn that his suspect has a small son who doesn't want to see his reflection. "He stays in his room," his mother says, "with his crazy thoughts. He changed my life. Drives me mad." The link between adolescent anxieties about body image, sexuality and madness is confirmed when we learn that the mother had worked in the mental hospital 15 years ago where a psychotic inmate sexually assaulted her. Heterosexual intercourse is presented as violent, the father is insane and the fruit of the coupling is an adolescent son with "crazy thoughts" who drives his mother mad.

Dario Argento's Phenomena (1985)Jennifer tries to escape from the room the bad mother has locked her in by crawling down a long hole into a dungeon beneath the house. There she discovers the detective tortured and chained to the wall. She falls into a large vat of primordial soup in which bones and skulls float by in various stages of decomposition: a graphic representation of an anal universe[1] where all differences are abolished. This universe of faeces, in which all particles are the same and interchangeable, has replaced the genital universe. "The abolition of differences prevents psychic suffering at all levels: feelings of inadequacy, castration, loss, absence and death no longer exist."[2] This is a prelude to the introduction of the monster.

The detective attacks the madwoman and the girl escapes. She follows the sound of a child crying until she sees its back as it faces the corner of a room. The camera is tracking from the girl's perspective. We share the girl's sympathy for this vulnerable, frightened little creature who says, "Go away. You scare me. I don't want you here." Jennifer replies, "don't worry about the mirrors anymore. It's all over." Then she sees a hideously deformed face, screams in terror and runs away pursued by a monstrous adolescent.

Dario Argento's Phenomena (1985)In the middle of a lake insects again swarm to Jennifer's rescue and attack the monster's face. He claws at the bugs, falls into the water and the boat explodes. He is trapped in a circle of fire and perishes. Jennifer arises, in white, out of the water. The father figure finally arrives. As he rushes down to her, however, he is suddenly decapitated. We then see that the mother of the monstrous boy is the perpetrator as she turns to kill the girl. "He was diseased, but he was my son…and you have... why didn't I kill you before? I killed the Inspector and your Professor friend to protect him." Just as she is about to murder Jennifer, the monster's mother is repeatedly slashed across the face and killed by Inge. The film ends with the girl stroking and nuzzling her monkey protector.

The monster

The world Argento creates is dominated by the depiction of familiar, uncanny anxieties aroused by puberty and the adolescent phase of development. It is not uncommon for teens to feel estranged, isolated and lost in the world around them. Returning to the beginning of the film, an adolescent is abandoned by her peers and responsible adults. Speaking for many of her peers she calls out for help, "I'm a foreigner and I'm lost." It is not uncommon for adolescents to view sexuality as bad, dirty and violent. Jennifer's roommate is killed after an illicit meeting with her boyfriend, effectively confirming some teenagers' worst fears that sexuality will be punished by murder.

Dario Argento's Phenomena (1985)The monster in Phenomena targets young adolescent girls. The revival of infantile erotic fantasies and incestuous wishes within the new context of a sexually active and potent body leaves some adolescents feeling they are mad—a child in an adult's body. In Argento's film, the characters descend into a psychotic nightmare. A single-parent family replaces the absent parents of the heroine with a pathological bond between mother and son. The mother who had kept her son chained and infantilised kills the men who attempt to rescue Jennifer. Heterosexual intercourse is presented as violent and damaging to the foetus. Compassion, sympathy and the wish to help are overcome by horror and disgust. The momentarily triumphant world of the mother and her monster son is presented as an anal universe. The Inspector who represents law and order is chained helplessly to a wall watching a vat of decomposing bodies where age and gender are indistinguishable.

The most horrific scene in the film, for me, was not one of the violent murders or the vat of bones and skulls, but a narcissistically vulnerable moment. It was preceded by shots of covered mirrors. We are being prepared for something that is too horrific to look at. Most importantly, the monstrous adolescent is protected from seeing its own image. The mother's shame in her son is here made evident. Shame is a psychically annihilating event. It is not uncommon when we feel shame to reflexively cover our face with our hand, or wish the earth would open beneath our feet and swallow us up. Erikson (1977) views these reactions of shame as expressions of rage turned against the self. "He who is ashamed would like to force the world not to look at him, not to notice his exposure. He would like to destroy the eyes of the world. Instead he must wish for his own invisibility."[3] However, when the "shame shield"[4] is breached, invisibility is not an option and relief is sought by resorting to actions, which project the confusion, passivity, disgust and annihilation into others.

Dario Argento's Phenomena (1985)As the camera follows Jennifer into a bare room, we see the back of a small creature that hides its face and does not want to be seen by her. He tells her to go away. She feels pity for a small frightened creature. Argento has built up a psychological profile of a monster; its background and internal world of desperate isolation. Jennifer's shock and horror is in seeing a deformed face.

We are known first by our face; that highly cathected part of our body that is the most visible and vulnerable medium of our narcissism whatever our age. However, the face becomes a focus of acute attention during adolescence. It is not uncommon for an adolescent to displace anxieties about their body onto their face. Hours will be spent in front of the mirror fretting, studying and primping to make the face acceptable. A deformed face is a narcissistic catastrophe, a source of shame and disgust. Jennifer and the audience recoil from the deformed face of the adolescent monster in Phenomena; an uncanny image that revives our worst fears about being an ugly, disgusting, shameful object. Unwittingly, she has breached the shame shield and the shameful monster can no longer hide. The annihilating experience of being seen triggers the monster's aggression now no longer directed at himself cowering in shame, but launched at the intruder—Jennifer...

Donald Campbell

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Also of interest
About the author

On 20 September 1999, Donald Campbell took office as the 20th President of the British Psychoanalytical Society. He came to London from the United States in 1969 to train as a child psychotherapist at the Anna Freud Centre and later qualified as an adult, child and adolescent psychoanalyst at the Institute of Psychoanalysis. Campbell is a Training Analyst and former Chairman of the Regional Training Committee. He works in private practice and in the NHS at the Portman Clinic where he served as Chairman. He has published numerous papers on such subjects as violence, suicide, child sexual abuse and adolescence.

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*. This is an excerpt from a longer paper, entitled "A psychoanalytic perspective on the horror film genre and adolescent development," read as part of the "Psychoanalysis and Euro-Horror" panel at the 1st European Psychoanalytic Film Festival (held in London, 1-4 November 2001). This Festival was sponsored by the British Psychoanalytical Society and the Institute of Psychoanalysis, and Dr Campbell's excerpt is published here with kind permission of the author and the EPFF.return to text

1. Janine Chassequet-Smirgel, Creativity and Perversion. London: Free Association Books, 1985.return to text

2. Ibid, p 6.return to text

3. Erik Erikson, Childhood and Society, 2nd edition. St Albans: Triad/Paladin, 1977, 227.return to text

4. Donald Campbell, "Breaching the shame shield: thoughts on the assessment of adolescent child sexual abusers." Association of Child Psychotherapists 20.3, 1994: 309-326.return to text

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