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-Sujaan Mukherjee

Why read Poe using Freud and in conjunction with Hitchcock? As an answer to that, and by way of introducing what I hope to work out in this paper, let me clarify a few things. I claim to be no expert either in the field of Romanticism or on American Literature or in psychoanalysis – although I do intend to analyze Psycho. I will be looking primarily at Edgar Allan Poe’s 1839 short story, “The Fall of the House of Usher” in order to raise questions regarding the nature of the aesthetics of the “uncanny”. For this I will be using Freud’s essay written in 1919 titled “The Uncanny”. In Reading Poe, Reading Freud Clive Bloom says that, “psychoanalysis’ fascination with Poe is that Poe conceives of a world which is a mirror image of Freud’s own”, and goes on to suggest that while Freud secularizes occult or “rejected” knowledge, “Poe makes such secularized knowledge part of the “hidden” or occult in his stories.” As I have been warned by Professor Santanu Biswas, I will not venture rashly to comment on, let alone examine the tenets of psychoanalysis itself, because that according to him is risky business unless one is a clinical analyst. The paper will only look at the contact points between art and what we receive as psychoanalysis.

So where does Hitchcock come in? A Hollywood version of “The Fall of the House of Usher” was released in 1960, in which the narrator has a customary love-affair with Madeline Usher, and his objective is to slip with her past the anxious authority of Roderick Usher. In the same year Hitchcock’s Psycho came out, and for me, it captures and develops far more successfully the essentials of Poe’s “uncanny”. Similarities have been noted between the two Raven men time and again and Gene Adair has claimed that one of Hitchcock’s first published pieces was heavily influenced by Poe, “one of Alfred’s favorite writers.” Francois Truffaut classified Hitchcock, “among such artists of anxiety as Kafka, Dostoyevsky, and Poe.”

That said, it is important also to bear in mind what Poe said in the “Preface” to Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque in defense of allegations against him of being too heavily influenced by E.T.A. Hoffman and other Continental Gothic fiction writers: “If in many of my productions terror has been the thesis, I maintain that terror is not of Germany, but of the soul – that I have deduced this terror only from its legitimate sources, and have urged it only to its legitimate results.” Hitchcock too, I feel, deals with terror of the soul, not of direct influence. Yet it is profitable to try to understand why two minds reached similar conclusions about what inspires terror, separated as they were by almost a century. Before I begin, I must also thank Professor Supriya Chaudhuri who had included Poe’s short story as part of an optional course and pointed us in the direction of Freud’s essay.

Freud points out a remarkable and apparent contradiction or confusion in the meaning of the word “unheimlich” or that which is not familiar: that is, it refers at the same time to that peculiar kind of unfamiliar dread that “leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar.” We may recollect how Coleridge’s sacred river, Alph went down to a sunless sea, only to be flung up momently later, before it went back into the caverns measureless to man. As the anonymous narrator in Poe enters the House of Usher he observes, “While the objects around me…were but matters to which, or to such as which, I had been accustomed from my infancy – while I hesitated not to acknowledge how familiar was all this – I still wondered to find how unfamiliar were the fancies which ordinary images were stirring up.” To get done with the tedious task of drawing parallels between theory and text, in order to establish that one can be read in the light of the other, let’s look at a couple of a shots from Psycho. The one above is the hotel in which Marion Crane has her illicit affair. Observe the horizontal pattern. Below is the motel in which she dies – and Truffaut, in conversation with Hitchcock notes “the architectural contrast between the vertical house and the horizontal motel.” Apart from the architecture, the horizontal stripes also appear, for instance, on the curtains of the Mote. The familiar horizontals, now turned fatal.

The dead in Edgar Allan Poe are loath to stay in their designated place. Often, as in “Some Words with a Mummy”, the ridiculous overcomes the “uncanny”. But as Freud points out, “to many people the idea of being buried alive while appearing to be dead is the most uncanny thing of all.” Note that he uses the word “uncanny”, not merely “frightening”. The idea of being buried alive is “uncanny” perhaps because it takes us back to some originary experience – is this what Joyce gestures towards when he says in Ulysses, “Oomb, allwombing tomb”? The brother and sister – Roderick and Madeline – are fated to die together. Only after Madeline has died does the narrator for the first time note the “striking similitude between the brother and the sister… Usher, divining, perhaps, my thoughts, murmured out some few words from which I learned that the deceased and himself had been twins.” They enter the tomb as they had left the womb. William Wilson is scared by the sight of his double asleep because it replicates the experience of conscious death.

While in “The House of Usher” it is definitely a case of doubling, Psycho leaves us uncertain as to whether we should regard the mother as Norman’s double or his half. In both Psycho and “The Fall of the House of Usher” the dead are eventually hidden in a floor beneath the houses. Both buildings are two-storeyed, one with a basement fruit-cellar, the other with a family vault. In this connection, let us also recall one of the deciding arguments between Freud and Jung. Jung writes in Memories, Dreams, Reflections of a dream he had: “This was the dream. I was in a house I did not know, which had two stories. It was ‘my house.’” He works his way to the ground floor. “I came upon a heavy door, and opened it. Beyond it, I discovered a stone stairway that led down into the cellar.” So he keeps descending till, “I discovered two human skulls, obviously very old and half disintegrated.” Freud believed that Jung had a death-wish towards his wife. Jung disagreed. What arrests our interest is that the building, in the works we are dealing with and in Jung’s dream, seems to take on the allegorical burden of the human tri-partite mind (as it was seen at that time), with the basement storing the dangers of the unnamed and horrendous. I am tempted to call this the Real but my understanding of it is so vague, that I would dare not.

To further the point about doubling as “uncanny”, we may consider a couple of passages from “The House of Usher.” To begin with there are the twins. “The House of Usher”, we are told, is an appellation that seemed to include “both the family and the mansion.” The building cracks down the centre as the siblings die. The House, then, is a double of the last in the family line. But even beyond this, it seems to me, that both the family and the mansion in its entirety are doubled by the tarn, which stretches in front of it. The narrator, scared by the sight of the house, looks into the tarn and sees “the remodeled and inverted images of the gray sedge” so on and forth. As the House disappears into the tarn, so too did Norman’s mother’s crimes disappear into the pond nearby.

Finally, we come to Freud’s point (made originally by Jentsch) about the “uncanny” being about “intellectual uncertainty whether an object is alive or not, and when an inanimate object becomes too much like an animate one.” I would argue that Poe tempts us to think of the House of Usher as animate. When the narrator approaches, he sees “the vacant eye-like windows.” Again, a little later, reflected in the tarn he observes “the ghastly tree stems, and the vacant and eye-like windows.” Once inside we are told that “The windows were long, narrow and pointed, and at so vast a distance from the black oaken floor as to be altogether inaccessible from within.” Not only are the windows eye-like and as such carrying animate properties, they also serve only the building, being inaccessible to human beings within. It is the House which sees through them. The song included in the story begins at a time when “Wanderers in that happy valley / Through two luminous windows saw / Spirits moving musically”, that is, a time when the building wasn’t as overbearing and one could see life within from the outside through the windows. If the house is indeed to be seen as a double, it is worth considering Freud’s theory that the double is a creation of the insecure ego, which, continuing to exist after a certain maturity, begins to threaten.

Let’s take a look at a couple of shots from Pyscho before I put you out of misery.

You can hardly ever see through the windows from the inside and they stare at the viewer perpetually. Hitchcock’s choice of locale may have been influenced by Edward Hopper’s House by the Railroad. This passage is from Algernon Blackwood’s “The Empty House” (1906): “Certain houses, like certain persons, manage somehow to proclaim at once their character of evil…they went first into the big dining room…Bare walls, ugly mantelpieces and empty grates stared at them. Everything, they felt, resented their intrusion, watching them, as it were with veiled eyes.” If indeed the fear of losing one’s eyes is associated with a fear of castration as Freud suggests, perhaps the notion of a machine or an inanimate object possessing eyes it is not usually supposed to, is perceived as somehow threatening. As Philip K. Dick said in an interview with Erik Davis in 2003, “The ultimate in paranoia is not when everyone is against you but when everything is against you. Instead of ‘My boss is plotting against me,’ it would be ‘My boss’s phone is plotting against me.’”

Along with the “uncanny” gaze of the building, the stuffed inanimate birds of the sado-masochistic Norman, (the focus is on the owl) keep their stone eyes peeled all night, watching his every move. The unnerving gaze is extra-diegetic too. Hitchcock himself has noted how the viewer shares Norman’s gaze and anxiety as the car pauses for a moment while sinking, and we are afraid, with him, that his crime will be discovered. Later in the famous shower scene, the knife hits out from somewhere between the viewer’s realm and the diegetic, making us complicit. “The viewer’s emotions are not exactly wholesome,” says Truffaut. Arbogast’s murder sequence uses three shots: one from the detective’s p.o.v.; the second from the top, displaying the floor plan; the third and final, from the p.o.v. of mother/Norman. The Thing is unknown to us, as Zizek notes, it “does not subjectivize itself, does not ‘open up’, does not ‘reveal its depth.’” (Note, that it did open itself when we could see life through it in the happy days of the House of Usher – as in the song mentioned earlier.) This absence of the subjectivity of the subject whose gaze we share is, I would argue, similar to the outward looking windows in “The House of Usher” that are inaccessible from within. And in the final scene in Psycho, we are left face-to-face with mother/Norman as we hear the mother’s voice utter the last words. Try as we might, we have shared his gaze, and cannot hide at the final moment behind a “defense against the Real of desire.” Again, a phrase I use very tentatively, and I would be happy if someone could explain to me if this is so or not, and why.

In the final analysis, I would like to suggest that while in Poe the “uncanny” is in the realm of the diegetic, in Psycho it is more in the cinematic elements. Which is why, in my opinion, its engagement with the uncanny is more faithful to Poe than the Hollywood version’s, which succeeds only in translating some of the content. As Zizek says, “the diegetic content functions as an allegory of its process of enunciation.” I have tried to trace themes and aesthetics that took their roots in Poe’s, what Morse Peckham calls, “negative Romanticism”, and have been brought to “uncanny” conclusions even beyond the diegetic by Alfred Hitchcock.


There is also a spectacular film version of “The Fall of the House of Usher” by James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber (1928), co-written by one e e cummings. The film is available online. 1928 saw another film adaptation, Jean Epstein’s La Chute de la maison Usher. (I realize now that one of several short-comings of this paper may be the fact that I have not taken into account Robert Bloch’s story on which Hitchcock based his film.) Months after my paper was presented, my friend Avik Mondal (god knows why he had kept quiet then) introduced me to another wonderful adaptation of “Usher”. This is Nikita Koshkin’s “Usher Waltz” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z-wd3NimhbM); but being incompetent in music theory, I will not attempt a commentary on the same.

On the theme of doubling and the dual response to one’s twin one may also read (suggested to me by Upasana Dutta) Satyajit Ray’s short story “Ratan babu aar shei lok-ta”, or “Ratan babu and that Man”, translated by Ray.


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