The Lacanian Real and horror films: Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook (2014)

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Even if one keeps in mind how his intellectual oeuvre developed over the decades, Lacan’s conceptualisation of the Real serves as the keystone to the whole of his psychoanalytical edifice. Whether interpreted as being subtly present from the earliest phases or seen as but the ultimate focus of his seminars, the Real and its interrelatedness with the symbolic and imaginary registers to a large extent represent the Lacanian legacy. This article focuses on the various conceptualisations of the Real and how this can subsequently be utilised as a productive theoretical tool in order to interpret a film genre usually not held in very high regard: the horror film.

The argument starts off with a superficial discussion of the triad of the Symbolic, the Imaginary and the Real, focusing on the way in which these registers or orders are interrelated. The focus then shifts to the different ways in which Lacan has defined and used the concept of the Real: keeping in mind that its use has changed over the decades (according to some commentators to a large degree), and without pretending that these are the exclusive indicators of the concept, twelve motifs are identified as entry points to understanding what Lacan meant with this register. These are:

1) The Real seen as the ineffable, as impossible to represent

2) The Real as representing the limits to the meaningful experience of the human subject

3) The Real as a specific cadence of the imaginary register

4) The Real as a specific cadence of the symbolic register

5) The Real and/as the objet petit a

6) The Real and the (traumatic) Ding

7) The Real and its relation to fantasy

8) The Real as unchanging

9) The Real as representing/facilitating new opportunities (tuché)

10) The Real as drive

11) The Real as jouissance

12) The Real as sinthome.

The theoretical part of the argument is concluded with a reference to further developments in the theory of the Real, referring mainly to the work of the (self-appointed) current representative of Lacanian theory, Slavoj Žižek. Žižek emphasises the interrelatedness of the Real with the other Lacanian registers to the extent that he also identifies three versions of the Real: the imaginary Real, the symbolic Real and the real Real. In light of these different inflections there seem to be mainly two aspects that present themselves as being useful in describing the generic conventions of the horror film genre: the (experience of the) Real has an alienating effect via its abject and/or its unheimlich nature (concurrent with the experience of the objet petit a). These, but also the other identified motifs are used in the discussion of the film which follows. Horror films seem to be the film genre that most evidently relates to the Real. Although difficult to define as a genre, its sometimes subtle and often crude representation of monsters and monstrosity makes it an obvious choice to demonstrate certain effects of the Real. But the Real as theoretical lens also becomes a very productive entry point in discussing horror.

Many reviewers and fans regard the independent Australian horror film by director Jennifer Kent, The Babadook, as being one of the highlights of 2014. Although a film nominally about the haunting of a mother and a child by the titular Mr Babadook, the film has spawned its fair share of psychoanalytic interpretations, focusing mainly on the monster as being indicative of an unmourned trauma: the dyadic relation between mother and son that forms the centrepiece of the story is the result of the death of Sam’s father and Amelia’s husband on the occasion of Sam’s birth. After a short summary of the plot of The Babadook, a few obvious (psychoanalytical) interpretations of the film are given:

1) The film is about a mother and a son who have not been able to come to terms with the traumatic loss of a husband and father.

2) The film is about the nature of the dynamics of trauma – not a singular event experienced by subjects in isolation, but rather navigated through and by personal relationships.

3) The film is a demonstration of a belated execution of the Oedipus complex.

4) The film presents what Barbara Creed defined as the “monstrous feminine”.

5) The film is an indication of various instances of the abject (by referring to Julia Kristeva’s use of the term).

Although the validity of all these interpretations can be motivated from the visuals and narrative of the film, the claim of this article is that some of these interpretations can be seen as being mutually exclusive. And even if they are not, there does not seem to be an obvious common denominator between them. This is where the crux of the argument presented here comes into play: the (Lacanian) Real can serve as theoretical tool not only to bring these various interpretations together, but also to navigate obvious instances of potential mutual exclusiveness. Using the twelve motifs of the Real discussed in the theoretical part of this essay as points of entry, we interpret The Babadook according to these different ways in which the Real manifests itself. For all practical purposes these are summarised in the tagline of the film: “If it’s in a word, or it’s in a look, you can’t get rid of the Babadook!”

The essay concludes with the suggestion that the Real could therefore be used in a very productive way to interpret films of the horror genre. But having said that, an obvious question presents itself: If the Real can be consciously used in this genre as a way to prompt certain responses of fear or disgust from viewers, does this not mean that the Real becomes nothing more than a codified element of horror films which is subsequently exploited as a genre commodity? And if this is the case, can one still speak of the Real as the Lacanian Real? It is indicated that this question will be tackled in a subsequent article.

Keywords: abject; film theory; horror films; Imaginary; Kent, Jennifer; Lacan, Jacques; objet petit a; psychoanalysis; Real; Symbolic; The BabadookUnheimlichkeit

Lees die volledige artikel in Afrikaans: Die Lacaniaanse Reële en grufilms: Jennifer Kent se The Babadook (2014)

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