I recently finished a short article for my horror film analysis course at UAF. I thought I’d share it here for anyone who might find it of interest and to get the party started on this blog page.
The Uncanny in Roman Polanski’s Repulsion
Roman Polanski’s psychological thriller Repulsion uses a variety of scenes, moments, and imagery to evoke a feeling of uncanniness. This is done so with great effect and invites the viewer to experience along-side Carol the withdrawal into her own mind resulting in her killing two men. The film begins and ends through her eyes, fitting as the film is a deep dive into her psyche. Carol is a Belgian girl living in a flat in West London with her sister Helen and a married man, Michael, with whom Helen is having an affair. Carol is a quiet and withdrawn manicurist who is repulsed by men. When her sister Helen and lover Michael leave for a holiday, Carol completely isolates herself boarding up the flat. We experience her dissent into madness through hallucinations of rape, the flat cracking apart, and groping hands reaching through the walls. When her suitor Colin and the sleazy landlord come into the flat they both meet a violent death at the hands of Carol (Butler 78).
In Freud’s seminal 1919 paper, “The Uncanny,” he describes that the uncanny is something that is terrible and evokes a sense of dread or creeping horror (Freud 1). In English, uncanny meant; uncomfortable, uneasy, gloomy, dismal, ghastly, (of a house) haunted, and very interestingly for the purposes of this paper, (of a man) repulsive fellow (Freud 2). For brevity, here it can be summarized that an uncanny feeling is at once both unfamiliar and as very familiar even tracing back to developmental stages of the brain (Freud 9). It also evokes a feeling of helplessness much like that experienced in our dreams (Freud 10).
The Uncanny as Repressed Morbid Anxiety
Freud suggests that in keeping with psychoanalytic theory that emotional effects are transformed by repression into morbid anxiety (Freud 13). A history of sexual abuse is alluded to in the final scene as the camera zooms into a family picture, Carol is a young child staring intently with hate and fear at her father. Carol’s repressed sexual feelings lead to her repulsion of men. Her morbid anxiety peaks when she kills both Colin and the landlord. The nuns can be heard at the convent next door, their vows of chastity a contrast to Carol’s sexual hallucinations.
The Uncanny as Double
Freud refers to Otto Rank’s Der Doppelganger where facing our likeness as a double, creates a feeling of uncanniness (Freud 9). In Repulsion, we see a progression of how Carol views herself in reflections. Early in the film, Carol sees herself in the bathroom mirror while washing her feet. She is disgusted at Michael invading her space with a razor (foreshadowing its future use to kill the landlord) in her wash basin cup. Later, as she detaches from reality withdraws into herself, she is entranced by her distorted reflection in the tea kettle, a parallel to her deteriorating mental state.
The Uncanny as Intellectual Uncertainty
Another way to elicit an uncanny feeling is to not know what is real or imagined (Freud 7). In Repulsion, we are initially uncertain if Carol’s startling vision of a man in the mirror and her rape is real or imagined. We later realize that with more improbable hallucinations such as the wall cracking open that they were indeed hallucinations.
The Uncanny as a Manifestation of Madness
Observing insanity can evoke a sense of the uncanny, because one may interpret behaviors as automatic or mechanical, where the individual is not in control of their own animation (Freud 5). In Repulsion, as Carol withdraws she behaves like she is on autopilot. She is oblivious to the needs of clients at the salon and activity on the street. When she lashes out and kills the two men she does so swiftly like trying to eradicate a threat like killing an insect (Butler 83). As events escalate, Carol listlessly irons Michael’s shirt that she was originally disgusted by with an unplugged iron (Butler 81).
The Uncanny as the Familiar Becomes Unfamiliar
There are many moments throughout the film where the familiar is presented as unfamiliar, becoming disturbing, and therefore uncanny; 1) Innocuous cracks in the side-walk and walls later manifest as hallucinations of the walls cracking apart representing her fractured mind, 2) Camera lens effects are used to distort the sitting room to make it appear larger (Butler 81) and to distort Colin through the peep hole (Butler 84) showing us her distorted view, 3) Objects like the decaying rabbit and the overgrown potato show the passage of time and become grotesque with neglect, 4) the disembodied arms that grope at Carol as she walks down the hallway elude to the castration complex (Freud 14), 4) At the end when Helen and Michael come home to the grisly discovery, Helen’s sobs sound eerily like her cries of sexual pleasure heard earlier through the bedroom walls (Butler 83).
In conclusion, the uncanny as outlined by Freud is utilized in a variety of ways including morbid anxiety, the double, a manifestation of madness, and as the familiar as the unfamiliar. As divided here they do not stand alone but overlap and complement each other resulting in a masterful application by Roman Polanski of the uncanny to explore the psychological state of a girl who descends into the darkest recesses of her mind.
Butler, Ivan. “The Horror Film: Polanski and Repulsion.” Horror Film Reader, edited by Alain Silver and James Ursini. Limelight Editions, 2000, pp. 76-85.
Freud, Sigmund. The “Uncanny”, 1919, pp. 1-21. https://web.mit.edu/allanmc/www/freud1.pdf
Polanski, Roman, director. Roman Polanski's Repulsion. Royal Films International, 1965.