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The Portrayal Of Women In Horror Movies Film Studies Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Film Studies
Wordcount: 5415 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Woman: Whist the term girl can be used for a child or female adolescent, the term Woman would refer to an adult female human.

Horror film: Cinema that is created to disgust and cause fear and distress to

its spectator though themes of a gruesome and paranormal nature.


This dissertation will consider the roles of women in the horror film genre and will deconstruct the way in which the conventions of the horror film prescribe such roles. Despite continued criticism for presenting women in a negative manner, many of the films explored here appear to suggest strong female representation so it will possible to investigate the position of the female from a number of different angles allowing a fluid discussion and counter argument. The passive female roles will be studied from the perspective of the male gaze and abjection, whilst active female roles will be explored from the role of the mother and the outcome of 'The Final Girl'.

As it would be impossible to discuss the entire history of the horror genre and woman's relationship to it within the space available, so three chosen films will support the discussion. In all cases these films are regarded as 'classic' horror films and, importantly, landmark and watershed moments in the horror genre.

Psycho (1960), The Exorcist (1973), and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) all represent meta statements in the history of the genre and provide essential examples of the arguments discussed here. It should also be noted that all three films contain also ambiguous female characters for example; Mrs Bates in Psycho, the 'cross dressing' 'Leatherface' in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and the possessed Regan in The Exorcist who will all be debated.

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Significantly the films were produced and released during periods of change for women's rights, including the beginnings of the women's liberation movement in the early sixties though to the publishing of The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer, and Spare Rib magazine in the seventies. This help to fuel the debate more significantly as the selected films span a time when women in the real world (as opposed to the constructed world of the cinema) had made great steps toward equality through the feminist movement.

Horror films are told as stories of good versus evil. The drama of their narratives tends to derive from the clash between a monster and an innocent,

So I want to understand why so many gratuitous, unjustified acts of violence towards woman could be justified on screen. I will consider the following aspects: male gaze, abjection, family structure, and the outcome of 'the final girl' in the context of horror film genre. These are four common tendencies embedded within the literature of women and horror film and the background to these discussions will be framed within the context of the chosen films.

This writing will deconstruct and examine the structure of those films, the motives behind their structure, and will consider their target audience. It will examine the symbolism that is used to express the plots and sub-plots and, most importantly, consider the roles of the female characters in those films.

I will employ psychoanalytic and feminist theory to explore the female roles and will interpret commentary on Freudian and Lacanian theory, including castration anxiety and the role of the subconscious and apply them to horror film. Semiotic and populist perspective will also be considered to set out this debate.

Much has been written on the subject and over twenty books have been researched to discuss this consideration of women and horror film in detail. Key texts include: Ways of Seeing (1972) by John Berger, Men, Women and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (1992) by Carol J. Clover, The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis (1993) by Barbara Creed and Powers of Horror (1982) by Julia Kristeva. The texts outline the intellectual context into which this dissertation enters.

People assume that horror film exclusively represent women in a reactionary fashion, but further analysis has suggested that female characters are not as weak and vulnerable as they first may appear. For example 'The Final Girl's' last moments have been radically written and rewritten across the remakes and sequels to give new meaning.

Analytical and theoretical analysis has been informed by the writing of Laura Mulvey and in particular her discussions of the male gaze. Mulvey argues in her polemic essay 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema' that cinema was primarily created for the male spectator exploiting women as 'objects of desire'. Julia Kristeva's essay 'The Powers of Horror' provides essential understanding on the position of abjection in the context of horror and mortality. All of the above writers discuss theoretical studies and theories of Dr Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan who are both indirectly referenced throughout this dissertation. Barbara Creed's 'The Monstrous-Feminine' and Carol Clover's book 'Men, Women, and Chainsaws' will inform debate around the matriarchal figures in Psycho and the outcome of 'the final girl' in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

CHAPTER 1 - Gendered Spectatorship

The male gaze is made explicit in the horror genre, and this is inscribed in both the aesthetics of the films and its exhibition context. One of the most important essays about women in cinema is Laura Mulvey's theory on the 'male gaze'. As Mulvey states:

'The cinema offers a number of possible pleasures. One is scopophilia (pleasure in looking). There are circumstances in which looking itself is a source of pleasure' (1989, p16).

(do I reference?) If scopophilia can be defined as 'love of looking' or 'deriving pleasure from looking', then this can be a definition of the cinema experience. Cinema is, after all, a form of visual entertainment. It involves the individual singularly engaging with the screen and its projections as a form of escapism and even relaxation, and can be comfortably achieved alone as it involves very few social skills, since the viewer's only commitment to the process is to look. However, once we question how the film is viewed and who views the film, the relationship becomes more complex.

The purpose of this essay is to question how the female is viewed from the perspective of the spectator; to question how women are portrayed in horror films, and how they are 'looked at'. It will explore the argument that cinematic looking comes from a male perspective and will question what kind of pleasure is obtained from looking at horror films from this perspective. As Mulvey explains: 'The cinema satisfies a primordial wish for pleasurable looking' (1989, p17).

It allows the spectator the opportunity to observe in an entirely passive role while the action takes place. The experience of cinema is a one-sided arrangement between the film itself and its viewer. However, as Mulvey discusses regarding Dr Sigmund Freud, 'it also goes further, developing scopophilia in its narcissistic aspect' (1989, p17).

Scopophilia can also suggest that sexual pleasure can be derived from looking at objects; that how they are interpolated can make them erotic, and - while they are not erotic in their own right - through their relationship with the spectator they can become sexually objectified. The celebrated psychologist Dr Sigmund Freud isolated scopophilia as one of the component instincts of sexuality which exist as drives independently of the erotogenic zones. At this point he associated scopophilia with taking other people as objects, subjecting them to a controlling and curious gaze' (Mulvey,1989, p16).

The history of art emphasises this aspect of scopophilia. Throughout art history, painters have been commissioned to paint female models as objects of desire that have been and still are masquerading as works of art more closely related with pornography than with the great masterpieces.

Moving forward, Clover debates that 'the cinematic gaze, we are told, is male, and just as that gaze "knows" how to fetishize the female form in pornography' it also, she suggests (going on to relate this to cinematography), 'knows' how to follow a female character as she moves through a forbidding house, and scrutinise her face for signs of fear in a way that it does not do with male characters, since:

'a set of conventions we now take for granted simply "sees" males and females differently.' (1992 p50-51).

This suggests that the ownership - in the context of cinema - is the cause of the effect that the viewer, by objectifying the figure on screen, gives it new meaning, a new social place. By simply being viewed, new rules apply. To place this into the context of women within horror, the male can now view the woman and the conditions and events around her in a newly detached manner and freely let the actions against her take place on the screen.

'In psychoanalytic terms, the female figure poses a deeper problem. She also connotes something that the look continually circles around but disavows,' claims Mulvey (1989, p21). This could be suggesting that as the spectator is assumed to be male, the appearance of a female (ie non-male) form creates an anxiety around the potential for castration and an un-penised body '…hence unpleasure.'

Mulvey argues in Lacan: and Post feminism by Elizabeth Wright (2000, p45-46) that 'the look is linked to the discovery of sexual difference', and that the lack of a penis must be filled by multiple images of glamourised women as 'a substitute for the imaginary phallus.'

Mulvey writes that cinema, and in particular horror cinema, is inclined to 'focus attention on the human form' (1989, p17). The human form and the human condition are key aspects in the horror genre, especially the female body. Horror displays visceral and exaggerated versions of our basic desires and a strong and aggressive version of body lust. The horror film in particular relies on the physical human form and hostility towards the body to carry its plots and storylines in the most extreme sense. This is clearly not a natural state of being: to be seated in a darkened room, with a huge rectangular screen in view and surround sound at high volume. But this is the environment of the cinema, where the viewer is asked to focus on exaggerated and extreme events far beyond the realms of 'real' life in the name of entertainment.  Here, not unlike in other places in the media, the female form is prevalent, to be exhibited again for entertainment and it is the female characters in the horror film genre that appear to command most of the attention on the cinema screen. Mulvey suggests that, since the world displays such disparities between the genders, with the masculine nearly always holding the reins of power: Do I reference here as well?

'pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure, which is styled accordingly' (1989, p19).

So since society isn't equal in terms of who holds the power, either sexually or otherwise, women act a certain way because they are aware of how men expect them to be - that is, passive and sexualised. Mulvey states this as a 'symbolic equation, woman = sexuality'. (1989, p35).

John Berger differentiates men from women as he describes 'a man's presence' as being defined by 'what he is capable of doing to you or for you…but the pretence is always towards a power which he exercises on others.' (1972, p39-40) Expand

Mulvey's view is that narrative cinema 'positions its spectators as male, catering only for male fantasies and pleasures' (p39 Feminist Film Theorists). This suggests that women are objectified in film in general (and for the purposes of this argument, substantially in horror films). Mulvey also claims that the spectator/viewer/audience is said to be a man; cinema almost 'expects' its viewers to be male and therefore creates characters and plots to fulfil a man's gaze. So prevalent is this notion that Mulvey claims 'narrative cinema does not offer a place for female spectators'(p40 Feminist Film Theorists); that cinema essentially isolates the female as a serious viewer:

'As the spectator identifies with the main male protagonist, he projects his look onto that of his like, his screen surrogate, so that the power of the male protagonist as he controls events coincides with the active power of the erotic look, both giving a satisfying sense of omnipotence.' (Mulvey, 1989, p20). Shorten

Clearly men can easily identify with the male protagonist but the female audiences have to distance themselves from their femininity in order to participate in the cinematic experience; critics refer to this as 'gender confusion'. Freud would argue that to share these experiences, woman would have to revert back to her 'pre-Oedipal phallic phase.'

It might now be relevant to explore the male gaze specifically functions in the context of the horror genre.

Looking back at the history and evolution of the horror film, the cinemas flourished at a time when there was less available to the public and strong moral codes and rules about relationships were in place. 'The clichéd idea of horror films was being scripted and edited to fulfil the role of the dating couple on a Saturday night'. (pg 61 Horror: The Film Reader - Edited by Mark Jancovich (different authors per chapter)'

The cinema was a place where young couples could escape family life for the few hours of a date. It allowed them space to be alone together at a time, before the sexual revolution, when men were expected to be chivalrous and protect and provide 'support' for their female companion, as Mark Jancovich explains: 'Women cover their eyes or hide behind the shoulders of their dates.' (pg 61 Horror: The Film Reader - Edited by Mark Jancovich (different authors per chapter). This then created an opportunity for the male viewer to comfort his date as she squirmed and shrieked at the on-screen horror. He could become closer and more intimate as she was lured into vulnerability by the action projected in front of her. Mulvey highlights this dominant order:

As an advanced representation system, the cinema poses questions about the ways the unconscious (formed by the dominant order) structures ways of seeing and pleasure in looking.' (1989, p15) Paraphrase or include in text.

Given this climate, the notion of the 'girl as victim' was allowed to evolve. A connection could then be made between the female viewer and her on-screen female counterpart, in that the spectator cannot bear to look on helplessly as her cinematic alter ego - that is, a close representation of herself - suffers the horrors of rape, mutilation and murder.

Mulvey argues that women have had two different functions within cinema: 'as erotic objects for the characters within the screen story, and as erotic objects for the spectator within the auditorium.' (1989, p19)

There is clear evidence of this in Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It follows the story of a group of young Americans as they venture into the countryside and meet their fate in the shape of a disturbed and hostile cannibalistic family whose weapons of choice are butchers' tools and chainsaws.

The three young men meet their deaths quickly, paving the way for the females' more drawn-out and gratuitous torture. While one of the women meets her slow, lingering fate via a meat hook and deep freezer, the other is chased and tortured repeatedly across the final third of the film.

Female characters in horror films are generally young and 'attractive'. They maintain a key role in the film; examples of this would be Laurie in Halloween and Marion in Alfred Hitchcock's infamous Psycho. When Michael Myers' pretty sister meets her fate in the opening scene of Halloween, she is pursued by (and through the eyes of) her killer; indeed, throughout Halloween the story is often seen/told through the eyes of the killer, a technique referred to as the 'POV (point-of-view) shot'. But before the murder takes place, the audience are offered a completely superfluous view of her naked body, seen through the male gaze as she brushes her hair.

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It could be argued that the female characters occupy many on-screen hours and appear to dominate the films, yet on closer inspection the real lead role is saved for the 'star' psychopath, who is almost always male. It could be debated that male spectators are therefore being asked to identify with the killer. With respect to Halloween there are a number of shots explicitly from Myers' physical point-of-view with 'an acoustic close-up' of his monstrous 'heavy breathing (Isabel Pinedo 1997, p52). It cannot be proven that the whole audience identifies with him but they are forced to see through his murderous gaze, which almost compels a form of affinity.

Horror genre is traditionally thought of as 'low culture'. It has a casual tone and audiences have grown to expect violence, nudity and 'cheap' thrills. This position in 'low culture' appears to grant a licence to horror films to get away with more than 'high art' cinema, and horror is rarely studied for meaning or metaphor to the same extent. But because of these lower expectations, the reality can be stretched (not unlike in cartoons), leading to irrational storylines with horror far more extreme than could be expected in real life. Therefore, it could be argued that horror films make explicit the assumption of a male spectator - which is, according to Mulvey, only implicit in all popular cinema. Other films, under the pressure of higher expectation, have to keep such a misogynist perspective more contained, but horror can afford to make it overt.

Clearly all normal rules do not apply. So, once reality is dropped in favour of visual pleasure, why do we ask audiences to witness hostility and brutality against women? Brian De Palma assesses the motives behind this argument. It is, he suggests, not that women are presented for male pleasure but that they provide a greater capacity for terror in the audience:

'If you have a haunted house and you have a woman walking around with a candelabra, you fear more for her than you would for a husky man.' (Clover, 1992, p42).

This provides a greater margin for 'a violent death'. But why is this? Why would a woman be more vulnerable than a man in this age of equality? The answer to this lies far deeper than in the relatively trivial world of the 'slasher movie' or psychological thriller.

This genre is simply a form of entertainment and perhaps not the place for intellectual analysis, as John Carpenter hinted when he was challenged with the notion that he is responsible for the 'tasteless massacre of sexually active women'. He claimed that, although the victims in his (and so many other) horror films are indeed the more sexually active characters, to insist that this is why they die is to miss 'the essential point...They get killed because they are not paying attention'. How do I reference Carpenter?

And it could be argued that academics were reading a little too much into Halloween, since a male character is also murdered straight after sex with his girlfriend. One could even claim that this balances the plot and clears the director of the accusation that he is somehow guilty of misogyny. However …argues that: 'His death is usually only a device to remove protection from the now vulnerable female.' (pg 165 Bitches, Bimbos…). This suggests that the male character is now secondary and his death is insignificant by comparison to the murder of the female.

It could also be argued that Carpenter and other celebrated film makers just want to make entertaining horror and don't intend to make hateful statements against women, or objectify them for the male gaze, but that this is simply what people find exciting and why they fill up cinemas. Irrespective of Carpenter's intentions, the standards of what is considered entertainment tell us a great deal about our views towards women in horror cinema - and perhaps in society as a whole.

CHAPTER 2 - The Abject Feminine

The ultimate figure of abjection is the corpse. As the horror genre is ultimately obsessed with death one could suggest that horror fetishizes the abject. It has been suggested that 'the horror film attempts to bring about confrontation with the abject.' (p4 Horror Film and Psychoanalysis: Freud's Worst Nightmare.)

Creed refers to 'Kristeva's notion of the border':

'When we say such-and-such a horror film "made me sick" or "scared the shit out of me" we are actually foregrounding that specific horror film as a "work of abjection" or "abjection at work" - almost in a literal sense.' (1993, p10)

By the presentation of repulsion one knows what is not repulsive; to understand abjection one must understand boundaries. As we grow up we stop playing in dirt and become more dignified; this is something we learn from society as well as from our mothers teaching us how to be 'clean and proper'. This notion references Lacan's 'concept of the mirror stage,' Kristeva supports:

'It is thus not lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection but what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules.' (1982, p4).

Woman and abjection

The horror genre has a historical tendency to represent the female form as abject. In Kristeva's view, 'woman is specifically related to polluting objects, which fall into two categories: excremental and menstrual. This in turn gives woman a special relationship to the abject.' (1982, p10)

What we are scared of is not the matter that we expel but what it signifies - loss of identity, loss of control, death and the unknown. Nor is it the end of a natural life that contributes to the tension of horror cinema, but an endless list of horrific deaths that we could possibly encounter.

Paul Wells backs this notion with his comments on the forbidden facets of the human body - its propensity to foul secretions and physical corrosion - which are linked to our relentless descent towards death, and which are reflected in images of abjection in the horror film (2000, p16).

IS THIS 2ND PERSON? When we are children our parents encourage us to respect boundaries about cleanliness and behaviour, and we reject the abject. But in the context of the horror film there is perverse pleasure that allows us to explore our curiosity about the abject. The abject confronts the repressed/un-civilized side of the ego and allows us to investigate the 'other'. The horror film makes good use of the abject. Julia Kristeva uses her experience with milk as a child in an attempt to explain the idea of abjection:

'Food loathing is perhaps the most elementary and most archaic form of abjection. When the eyes see or the lips touch that skin on the surface of milk…I experience a gagging sensation and, still farther down, spasms in the stomach, the belly: and all the organs shrivel up the body, provoke tears and bile, increase heartbeat, cause forehead and hands to perspire. Along with sight-clouding dizziness, nausea makes me balk at that milk cream, separates me from the mother and father who proffer it.' (p2&3 Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection by Julia Kristeva). Does this need to be cut?

This could suggest that when a skin forms on top of milk, it is crossing over a 'border' or breaking a rule regarding what is acceptable as 'good food', and so the milk is no longer pure. The milk has perhaps split into two; milk being the acceptable form and its solidified state being the abject. Hence it fulfils a similar role in our imagination as a corpse does over a living, breathing body. We will no longer accept/drink the milk as it has 'turned' bad and represents death, a state beyond living.

The maternal body grows and delivers a living being but it is also 'the sister of the corpse' so it can remind us of life but also death. If we confronted the abject in everyday life we would be constantly aware of our own mortality.

Milk described in the context above provides an effective example of abjection, as it suggests the differential between acceptable breastfeeding as a child and unacceptable breast-feeding as an adult.

The Exorcist was the first of many 'possession' films. Its premise involves an innocent young girl named Regan McNeil who displays abnormal behaviour in the middle class American home she shares with her mother and house keeper. Throughout the film her father appears absent so it is her mother (Chris McNeil) who bears witness to the profound and hostile series of events and paranormal behaviour as the plot unfolds. Creed states that:

'The possessed or invaded being is a figure of abjection in that the boundary between self and other has been transgressed' (1993, p32)

…by the devil himself, who appears to be the only male central figure in the film until the arrival of a psychiatrist and two Roman Catholic Priests. Within the plot of The Exorcist, Regan's character is a vehicle that allows the portrayal of abjection to the mass audience. Had a young boy been cast in a similar role, the horror could have been undermined, but due to our own preconceptions of femininity and youth, the possession portrayed within this young girl only adds to the horrific events. Regan is the most passive of female victims, repeatedly switching from tearful little girl to demonic aggressor. She expels her bodily fluids, blood, vomit and urine; she is 'a playground for bodily wastes' (1993, p40). Creed goes on to point out that the female body is more abject because 'its maternal functions' acknowledge 'its debt to nature' 1993, p11). She also points out that, as Regan cavorts and flaunts herself, we become all too aware of the forbidden fascination of the abject, as well as its horror, inherent in the fact that this young girl has overtly flouted her respectable feminine function, and has;

'put her unsocialized body on display. And to make matters worse, she has done all of this before the shocked eyes of two male clerics.'' (p 198 Post-Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies. edited by Bordwell, D and Carrol, N)

Creed (1993, p37) puts forward:

'In Kristevas view "the abject represents that which "disturbs identity, system, order"'. Regan's possessed soul projects this through levitation and deep spoken foul language. As the film continues, an exorcism takes place in the form of a battle between the Church and the Devil. If religion could be used to explore the abject, no film does it more tellingly than in The Exorcist. Creed puts forward, according to Kristeva:

'Kristeva argues that, historically, it has been the function of religion to purify the abject.' (1993, p14)

As the film comes to an end, Regan is saved by the church and restored to purity. She turns to hug the one person who saved her: a male Priest, or perhaps God himself?


In the 'real' world, when confronted with something genuinely repulsive, we reject that object of repulsion. But in the cinema it is not necessary to 'fully block' what confronts us.

The positioning of the spectator within the cinema experience must be recognized if abjection is going to be fully absorbed. The viewer happily sits as the spectacle of horror unfolds and is projected onto them. Though the viewer has no control over the events projected before them, the unpleasant acts witnessed by the spectator can comfortably be dismissed when the credits roll and the film is over.

Viewing the horror film signifies a desire not only for perverse pleasure where boundaries are crossed, both attracting and repelling (confronting sickening, horrific images/being filled with terror/desire for the undifferentiated) but also a desire, once having been filled with perversity, taking pleasure in perversity, to throw up, throw out, eject the abject (from the safety of the spectator's seat).

CHAPTER 3 - The Absent Mother

'Relationships in the maternal melodrama are almost always between mother and daughter; it is to the horror film we must turn for an exploration of mother-son relationships. The latter are usually represented in terms of repressed Oedipal desire, fear of the castrating mother and psychosis. Given the nature of the horror genre - its preoccupation with monstrosity, abjection and horrific familial scenarios - the issues surrounding the mother-child dyad are generally presented in a more extreme and terrifying manner.' (Creed,1993, p139) Cut down

One area of female representation that is more ambiguous is the figure of the Mother in the horror film genre. No longer could the killer be simply defined by gender. At the beginning of the 1960's audiences were subjected to a new kind of cinematic terror, as … explains in her essay: 'The monster was no longer "out there"; it was "in here". The monster was the human mind.' (Pg 160 Gary, J and Sheila, S (ed) Bitches, Bimbos and Virgins: Women in the Horror Film)

As Hitchcock's psychological thriller Psycho was released The early sixties audience would be led to believe that the 'approachable' Norman Bates (played by Antony Perkins) was simply a victim of his over-zealous mother's bullying. But as the plot unravelled, the film presented a deeply obsessive 'human mind' as the real monster, as Steven Jay Schneider further explains:

'... When used to shed light on horror cinema, psychoanalysis in its various forms has proven to be a frightful and provocative interpretive tool' (Pg 187 Schneider, S. J. Horror Film and Psychoanalysis Freud's Worst Nightmare)

The film follows its self-sufficient central female character, Marion Crane, jaded by her affair with a married man, as she embezzles a large amount of money from her male employer and leaves town in pursuit of a new life. On arrival at the infamous 'Bates Motel' she meets the proprietor, the twitchy but approachable and, more importantly, passive Norman Bates, who is clearly attracted to Crane, something she comfortably takes in her stride, suggesting a non-passive female.

However, on closer inspection, Marion's actions throughout the first section of the film are defined by male characters she comes into contact with: her lover Sam, her male employer and the male client, the highway patrol officer and Norman Bates who all define her destiny with their attitudes towards her.

Robert Kolker supports this theory: 'Psycho: …the mix of pleasure and pain common to all horror viewing, and aligned with a feminine subject position, is negotiated differently by men than by women.' (p193 Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho: A Casebook edited by Robert Kolker)

Throughout the first part of the film Marion is portrayed as feminine, 'attractive' and defying the typical representation of women in horror films; however, from the perspective of the male gaze Bates watches Marion, unbeknown to her, through a hole in the wall as she undresses and prepares to shower.

'Norman's eye is filmed in extreme close-up, drawing attention to the activity of the voyeurism.' (1993, p145). As the camera lingers on her it is this scene that suggests that Hitchcock cannot break away fully from the traditions of the horror genre where the female becomes objectified and is observed from the gaze of the active male. Norman Bates' mother is another female character significant to the plot, not seen but heard off-screen discouraging her son from having any social contact with the newly arrived female and, throughout most of the film, verbally abusing her son. Surrounded by stuffed birds, Bates even states 'a boy's best friend is his mother'. The viewer can assume that he is a loyal and reliable son. However, as Lacan's theorys are refered :


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