ACIDEMIC Journal of Film and Media

Mecha-Medusa and the Otherless Child
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Erich Kuersten

"...the most powerful medium of education and information has become a surrogate of Linus's blanket... A ghastly glass teat!"
- Harlan Ellison (The Glass Teat, November 1968)

In his essay “The Apparatus,” Jean-Louis Baudry expounds upon Lewin’s concept of the dream screen as "a representation of the mother's breast on which the child used to fall asleep after nursing," and which recreates a pre-Oedipal state in which "the body did not have limits of its own, but was undifferentiated from the breast." (217) Just as an infant is dependent on the mother for warmth, nourishment and attention, but has no control over her availability (she just walks off whenever she wants, despite our tantrums!), so too the viewer needs a coping mechanism for his or her lack of control over events in dreams or onscreen (the resulting suspense being the “masochistic” payoff). Taking Gaylyn Studlar’s theory of a masochistic gaze as a defense against these primal fears (i.e. separation, abandonment, and oral frustration) we have the complete opposite of the sadistic male gaze of ownership and control put forth by Laura Mulvey. I wish to posit the remake of The Ring (2002) as encompassing both gazes, setting them against each other in its tale of a mother protecting her young son by searching for the origins of a strange VHS tape that kills viewers seven days after watching it. The tape itself becomes the threat, the dream screen becomes, in the film, a permeable membrane through which the needy cinematic child can crawl forward into our 'reality.'

Expanding on the masochistic/ pre-Oedipal theory of cinema put forth by writers like Studlar, Baudry, and Steven Shaviro, I would add that, in many cases especially where misogynist sexual violence is concerned, the viewer may identify with the victim of events onscreen, but does not identify him or herself as the imagined viewer of the film; rather, he or she sees the “other viewer” as a threat. Someone else in the theater is watching, and “getting off” on the sadistic spectacle. This theory would seem to indict Mulvey as a paranoiac, always imagining herself endangered by a perverted old man behind her in the audience, relishing the debauchment of the onscreen heroine and the female spectator’s discomfort. While I am sure there are sociopaths who go to the movies, to suggest that cinema viewing is founded on this sort of mono-identification strikes me as outmoded. Would Mulvey consider a baby to be objectifying its mother, since it is basically siphoning life energy from her breast? The position of Mulvey would indicate the child's feeding is haunted by the feeling that out of the corner of the infant's eye can be seen the jealous, hungry, resentful stare of the father, whose "ownership" of his wife's breast has been usurped.

The unconscious "taking in" of the milk of celluloid kindness precedes the mirror stage (if anything, a character similar to oneself onscreen is a threat, as they can steal the dream screen away, like the sudden, unwelcome arrival of a baby brother). There is, at this regressive/infantile stage, only abundance and/or lack of the maternal presence: dream or nightmare. But just as the infant must learn to not cry when mom is unavailable, so too does the time at the breast come with the sinking feeling that the sensory fulfillment she provides is transitory. Beyond the dream screen breast is an abyss of raw terror that comes with the powerlessness of pre-identification, not unlike the sinking feeling of being stuck in a rollercoaster car traveling slowly up a steep incline, unable to see the plunge over the horizon, but sensing it is there in the tingling at the base of the spine: Vertigo! And if you try to escape you will only look ridiculous to your date and spill someone's popcorn as you fumble for the aisle.

The story of The Ring begins and ends suddenly, with none of the usual trappings by which prepare us for a traditional horror tale. Mirroring the story’s mysterious videotape, The narrative is bracketed in such a way as to imply it carries a curse. If you watch it, you die. Your eyes lead you into a snare set by the heroine of the story. The trick ending of the film carries the implication that The Ring is not just a movie about watching a fatal video, but is a fatal video in itself.

Don’t all movies end with this sort of sacrifice? the happily ever after past the credits is shattered when the lights go up and you are pushed out towards that hideous Exit sign. You move out of the dream screen world of the infant and into the cold light of the social order. The movie and the TV screen stay always ready to accept one back again, for a little rest from the burdens of symbolic castration, but one can’t simply stay there. Can one?


Within this context, The Ring might be said to operate as a rupture, a hyper-trap of horror that locates its terror in a pre-Oedipal viewer response. With pretty photography and Naomi Watts' homespun beauty lulling the viewer into a contented pre-Oedipal state, the imaginary "mediated" reality--what Baudrillard calls the simulacrum--proves far more than a glass teat, for at its center is a slavering vagina dentata. The darting spermatazoic gaze that has wandered freely through the pleasing images on the glowing embryonic screen suddenly beholds the eyes of Medusa and is turned to stone. Like the male preying mantis who loses his head to the female during copulation, or the sacrificial boy whose blood is spilled over the crops to ensure a good harvest in the matriarchal agrarian societies of yore, so The Ring prepares the male gaze to be sacrificed so that the image (the mother in the film and her son) may thrive.

But, how much of this male gaze is ours as viewers, and how much is the Other, watching over our shoulder? Are theorists like Mulvey watching horror films from the perspective of controlling male sadists, or merely assuming that the others in the theater, behind her, breathing heavily, are doing so? The Ring ends not just as a scary zinger for the viewer, but as a Mulveyan revenge scenario. Rachel reflects the killing/objectifying gaze back at the audience, Mulvey may duck, but the creepy guy in the raincoat behind her catches the beam full bore.

The ability of horror cinema to actually terrify viewers seems to have diminished since the dawn of home video. Now such films can be paused, re-watched, commented on, but from Psycho (1960) through to Halloween (1980), these films were only available at the theater or the drive-in (or heavily edited on TV). The only way to experience these films in raw gory fullness was in the communal space of the theater, with strangers whose reactions to the onscreen violence (sneering and catcalling, for example) can be read as misogynistic and evil. The home video revolution, wherein one may watch a film like Last House on the Left in broad daylight at home, with phone calls regularly interrupting, diminishes the power by removing the sense of this gaze of the Other in the theater. The feeling someone could be behind you with a knife up against your neck, barely touching, is gone. Using the post modern effect of having people crawling through TV screens helps to restore this element, adding an 'other' viewer inside the film itself, who at any moment might come crawling out to get you, just as some maniac in the back row of a midnight pre-Disney Times Square grindhouse.

Baudrillard's theory of "telemorphisis" can also work to explain the dwindling of horror's power to awaken primordial terror. Media is pervasive enough to be considered harmless, and so early 21st century films like Day of the Dead, Saw, Devil's Rejects, Hostel, and Wolf Creek show up at the suburban mall multiplex with R-ratings and are seen at matinees by elderly couples and children. Yet these films are actually more violent and disturbing than 1970s Adults-only horrors like Suspiria and Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Where once media was accorded a serious power, now it is assumed harmless because of its all-pervasiveness. In order to penetrate this media cocoon in which we snugly bury ourselves, horror films have had to either name check the genuinely scary horror films of the past (as in the Kevin Williamson-scripted Scream films) for frisson, or else offer a viewing experience that lies completely outside the expected classical narrative (as in The Blair Witch Project's "found" home video). The Ring's success as a horror film mixes and matches these post-modern strategies. Like The Matrix (1999) it operates as a "wake up" call to its own artificiality, hipping viewers to the hallucinatory nature of the hyper-reality, but whereas The Matrix tried to rouse the viewer to arms against the dream apparatus while reveling in the boyish thrill of blowing things up, The Ring puts the viewer in the state of the passive, masochistic spectator who watches as the male gaze as other is invoked and devoured.

Sherlock Jr. (1927)

If a character in the film can crawl through a movie screen within the movie, surely it is a small step for the same characters to crawl out of the movie screen that contains the movie and into our very laps. Though perhaps meant merely as a “gotcha” twist ending (ala the old 1950’s gimmickry of William Castle), this breeching of the dream screen nonetheless taps into a very real fear connected with our regressive dependency on the image. In films like The Ring, Videodrome, Sherlock Jr, and Rear Window we experience the reverse of the psychoanalytic "lack" associated with the symbolic order: we are returned to the pre-Oedipal dream screen breast, but are now faced with the terror of being uprooted from the illusory constancy of the symbolic. The dream screen goddess takes us back into her body and our hunger becomes momentarily satisfied, but with her return comes the terrible chaos of primordial change, the constant fluctuation of death and life,  presence and absence, the masochistic handlebars are gone, and we're terrified she'll leave us.

To escape one's egoic disintegration at the hands of this blood goddess, one needs to offer a sacrifice in one's place. The symbolic sacrifice of the other becomes the only way to appease Her (the gender reversal of throwing the virgin into the volcano: throwing the male gaze into the dream screen).

The masochistic “pre-male” gaze is the position of one who is hiding, or waiting, regressing as a means of temporary escape from the symbolic castration required for initiation into the social order (the way we see murderers hide out at the movies in crime films, ducking low as the cops search the rows with flashlights). This avenue of escape has led to arrested development with social implications felt at all levels of modern society: the loss of the dependable male authority figure, the inability of young fathers to "stick around" and the collapse of the social sphere. What we are left with is a sea of ghost children watching from the darkness of the void beyond the two dimensional reality known as the dream screen, hoping against hope to be adopted by that giant lovely woman up on the screen looking down into our darkened hearse baby carriages, cheering when the “other” viewer is sacrificed, for we know that his death stays our own execution by one more day.

C. 2013 - Acidemic Journal of Film and Media - BFG LCS: 489042340244