The Horror genre of cinema has always been connected to psychology. This is because Horror is tied so closely to fear, and what we fear and why is a matter that psychology concerns itself with. A particularly strong fear is the fear of that which is unknown, but unknown because it has been repressed- the “uncanny.” One of the most uncanny situations possible is an encounter with the something resembling the Id in the outside world. Here, I will compare two Horror films in terms of confrontations with the Id by the protagonist and the differences that arise when the protagonist is male or female: Alien and King Kong.
In Freudian psychology, the Id is the source of our “libido”- that is, the “drive,” typically sexual, to do things. The Id is fully unconscious, operating on primary processes- namely, the “pleasure principle.” The Ego and Super-ego are usually at odds with the instincts of the Id, and its pressures are frequently countered and repressed by the Ego and Super-ego. In a society, the Id cannot very well achieve full satisfaction. The tragedy of Oedipus- a story where a man is put in a position to kill his father, gain power, and marry his mother- can be considered as an example of the social misery caused by Id gratification.
Ostensibly a tale of adventure to a dangerous, uncharted island to film a natural marvel- a gigantic monkey that terrorizes natives and dinosaurs- King Kong can also be read as a highly uncanny showdown between the Ego/protagonist (Jack Driscoll) and the monster/Id (Kong). Harvey Greenberg, in his essay King Kong: The Beast in the Boudoir- or, “You Can’t Marry That Girl, You’re a Gorilla!,” notes the possible psychical connection of Kong and Driscoll: “at another level Driscoll and his simian adversary are also two sides of the same adolescent ego. For Kong may be read as Driscoll’s naked ape, Driscoll’s unconscious pubescent lust (345).”
An ape as an Id works perfectly in the psychical analysis of this film. If the Id is “primal” in Freud’s psychology, the inflated monkey can be easily identified as a symbol for it. Going back to a time before society, before Ego and Super-ego developed in our evolution, the ape is almost a proto-human. He acts entirely on instinct- what Freud called libido. His seizure of Anne and subsequent attempt to horde her away is not something terribly practical or useful to him in any rational, long-term way, as exemplified by his confusion and awkward pawing of her in their brief moment alone sans dinosaur interlopers. Irrational, insatiable, uncompromising, and even “passionate,” Kong is the receptacle for the desires forbidden Driscoll. It is, after all, only after Driscoll enters into a confusing new relationship with Anne that Kong is let loose upon her.
This psychoanalytical reading is made all the easier by the fact that Driscoll lends himself so very well to being read as adolescent. The typical clumsy adolescent male, before he has introduced himself he has already accidentally hit Anne in the face. Apparently in the ‘latency-stage,” i.e. the stage where women are ignored or disliked by the socializing young man, Driscoll’s apologies and follow-up statements resemble unsocialized teenage conversation (Greenberg 342): “(women) are a nuisance. You’re alright, but women can’t help being a bother, just made that way.”
Submitting to the order of the latency-stage camaraderie in word, Driscoll offers a “you think I’m to fall for anyone?” to Denham- the alpha pup apparent on the hunt for Kong- in response to Denham’s expression of anxiety over Driscoll’s recognition of Anne. Denham’s misogyny is very characteristic of the stage in a young man’s life when he has decided to suppress all erotic designs on his mother and focus entirely on his relationships with his same-sex buddies. Driscoll, however, seems to have unconsciously entered a new phase in his development by secretly caring for Anne. Hinting at the feelings he harbors for Anne secretly, Driscoll’s “I wish you would have stayed on board” declarations to Anne while on the island lack the chauvinistic quality of his earlier statements, the aims of which seemed to be to push Anne away because she could simply never be interesting to a boy like him.
Driscoll’s round-about declaration of love further suggests the timid, unsocialized confusion of adolescent sexuality: “I’m scared for you- I’m sort of scared of you too. Anne, I… uh, I guess I love you!” Anne’s “I thought you hated women” is followed up, after all, not by a thoroughly mature acknowledgement of the absurdity of hating and fearing what he had not yet come to understand, but something far more ambivalent: “I know. But you aren’t women.” If he were so far past the adolescent stage of development, he would long ago have created some kind of compromise about women, even if terribly conflicted.
The counter to Driscoll’s burgeoning complex, socialized adult consciousness is Kong- a wild beast of singular, if irrational or confused, intent. Whereas Driscoll develops his feelings for Anne in quiet and over time, Kong walks up, takes Anne in hand and carries her away regardless of her response. If Driscoll was the socializing adolescent, Kong is the ever unsocialized, ever irrational primate at his primary level. He is the voice of the instinct to take the girl, who he has for the first recognized as an object of interest, and explore his unreasoned designs with her outside the symbolic order.
The ultimate victory over Kong, with whom the viewer has learned to identify to some degree, is not only the typical death of the tragic hero. It remarkably resembles repression. Having temporarily lost his love interest, Driscoll/Ego ruminates briefly on the conflict of interests with the monster/Id before calling in the mechanized forces of the state/Super-ego to simply kill Kong (Greenberg 340). The airplanes of the Super-ego having shot Kong to death, Driscoll is right there to reclaim Anne in a more tepid but more welcomed embrace.
Ultra-masculine Id/doppelgängers can be found rampaging across all kinds of uncanny landscapes from Hollywood to the literature section of the library. This should not come as a surprise, seeing as the repression of the Id’s libidinal designs is a crucial matter for men the world over. There is, however, a dearth of expression of the female experience of the Id. King Kong and its Oedipal ilk are highly idealized Id/Ego epics, their stylized chivalric “damsel in distress” scenarios leaving few earnest identification points for self-aware female viewers. Fortunately, there is Alien.
Alien renovates the time honored Horror landscape in its setting- i.e. empty space- in a way that connects it to traditional Horror journey tales like King Kong, yet signals to the viewer that what is being dealt with is new and uncharted. The symbolic interchangeability of space and sea is recognized in our everyday language- we call space voyagers by a modified version of sailor, “astronaut.” This is because they both serve the same uncanny purpose of evoking existential nausea when confronted by something infinitely larger than like minded, equally impotent mortals encountered in everyday society. The sea and space have both also been identified as symbols for the unconscious mind. Unconscious, uncanny- it is the perfect setting for a battle between the Id and Ego.
What makes the conflict all the more interesting is the strange gender situation on the ship. Ripley has an undeniably masculine side to her. More intensely rational than any person on the ship, she is immediately identifiable as the masculine-female, often called “final girl,” very familiar to Horror cinema. Sitting around the table in the first scene of crew interaction, she is more associated with the “guys” of the crew, laughing and drinking as the other woman at the table complains “I’m cold.” A bit later, at she easily withstands the harassment of two male crew mates, hurling highly aggressive language at them in her curt “oh, just **** off.”
By far the most logical of the crew members, Ripley is the one to say “no” to the away team when they request readmittance to the ship after one of the crew was attacked by a “thing” that is still attached to him. When her request for a clear definition of “thing” is ignored, she refers the explorers to the quarantine rules, adding “it could infect the whole ship.” Her authority is over-rode in what turns out to be an abject-mother carelessness for her and her crew mates’ lives. Nonetheless, she has demonstrated that she can be the rational, unemotional woman.
In this masculine environment, Ripley is the may have her position of dominance in rationality and intelligence, but she is still confined to a small world of “parrots,” people seeking only to “do what the hell they’re told!” as Ash puts it. Thus is Ripley’s Id born. The emergence of the alien comes at a time when Ripley is recognizing how she is trapped in an unfulfilling situation.
The alien is recognizable as the Id from its first willful emergence: having ripped through a man’s chest, it’s cold, calculating gaze seems to ignore the humanity of those present as it sizes them up just before darting away to grow to full size in hiding. Beyond “reasoning” in its primal, bestial state, it is singular in its destructive aims. What differentiates this monster most from the likes of Kong is the ambiguous gender and hidden libidinal designs. As Ripley eludes gendering in her assertive, somewhat masculinized way of being a woman, the alien remains ungenderable. In its androgynous nature, its libidinal drives must be more of the “aspirational,” will-to-power variety.
The alien is further identified as the Id by Ash’s monologue to the disgruntle crew, wherein he expresses his admiration for the “purity” of the alien: “it is unclouded… by consciousness.” After learning the “mother’s” true will- and her willingness to sacrifice her symbolic children- Ripley is all the more uncomfortable in her constrained environment. This could perhaps shed some light on the nature of the alien/Id’s will: killing all of the superfluous “parrots” and robots of the ship would enable the alien to be free from their oppressive order. The alien’s will, like Ripley’s will, is to escape them and the cruelty of the “mother.”
The achievement of the alien/Id’s goal is actually isolation. Alienated in her previous position as intelligent, free-thinking woman on a dominantly masculine vessel, the murder of everyone on board frees Ripley and the alien from this alienation in a way that leaves them with nothing gained and alone in the middle of space. Where before she attempted to run from, contain, and avoid the alien for fear of it, the only thing left to do when everyone else is dead for Ripley is to kill/repress the alien/Id herself.
The answer to the hyper-masculine Id of Driscoll was normative, non-sadistic sexual relations with women. The answer to the ambiguous Id of Ripley then must be the embrace of the femininity of maternity. The first step in killing the alien and leaving the ship, interestingly, is finding and carrying away her cat. The symbolic maternity of this protective instinct is an embrace of femininity in a way that Ripley was not permitted while trying to make her way in the masculine environment of the ship’s society. Cradling the cat in the wake of the “mother’s” destruction, Ripley is ready to repress the Id entirely with her new femininity.
Before she finally kills the monster and successfully represses the Id, Ripley must be her feminine self. To achieve this, she takes the clothes that identified herself as one of the gang in the ship’s male camaraderie order. The actual killing of the alien falls into the psychological framework almost too well: the alien is pushed out into space by means of the technology of her very own mini-spaceship. Space- that is, the unconscious- is the proper place for the alien/Id to be.
In conclusion, our heroes/Egos achieve their victory over the Ids gone wild by repression. The fact that Alien lacks the Super-ego power of King Kong only makes it fit more neatly into the Freudian mold: women supposedly have weaker Super-ego’s in Freud’s theory. The ambiguous Super-ego situation is made all the more Freudian by the bizarre “mother” relationship, whereas Driscoll’s Super-ego is the normal male size with all of its paternal/state state-of-the-art fire-power.The Horror of these films, therefor, is not the threat of aliens and monkeys over-running our world: it is the threat of our libidinal drives to subvert our society as we know it.