Dead of Night
Dir: Alberto Cavalcanti, Charles Crichton, Basil Dearden, Robert Hamer
Gen: Looking at Women
Dead of Night (1945) is a portmanteau horror film that was released immediately after the Second World War, following a period of horror film prohibition by the British film census, who argued that there was a “correlation between the incessant anxiety provoked by the Nazi menace and the anxiety produced by horror films” (Balter 2010, p.754). The cause of this “anxiety” in horror films is not specified, but in sight of the emasculating traumas endured by the male characters in Dead of Night, not to mention the masculine authority of Googie Withers’ new woman character Joan Cortland, it appears that they feared more than the supernatural.
In Horror and the Monstrous Feminine: An Imaginary Abjection, Barbara Creed turns to the feminist theorist Julia Kristeva, from whom the term “abjection” derives, to understand this “anxiety”. Her prognosis: shifting gender roles. Kristeva defines “abjection” as that which does not “respect borders, positions [or] rules” and “disturbs identity, system [and] order”, referring indirectly to its counterpart, the norm or the status quo (Creed 1992, p.8). It is clear from Dead of Night that the status quo in post-war Britain was on turbulent ground; the impact and consequences of the war challenged the idea that the male was the dominant, the physically stronger and the mentally sharper between the sexes.
Consequently, the themes conjured in Dead of Night reflect a change in the times, engendered by issues such as the lack of male work force during the war or the physical disability encountered by many men who had returned, which brings to light a tension between rigid pre-war social structures that had kept women submissive to men and the new found freedoms afforded her by war.
In Dead of Night, this crisis of masculinity is first evoked by Walter Craig (Mervyn Johns) who, in the opening scene, admits that he is struggling to distinguish the sequence from a dream that he has had. His uncertainty is dismissed by the psychiatrist Dr Van Straaten, who acts as a cypher for Freud in the film, attributing Craig’s sense of deja-vu to a rationally explicable “association of ideas”. However, as the film progresses each guest reveals their own supernatural story, each with growing evidence and witness accounts, which eventually lead the doctor to question his own sense of clarity and logic.
This is represented by his glasses, which Craig correctly predicts will break at the apex of the film; the clear vision of the doctor is literally shattered by the dissolution of the boundary between the unfolding horror of Craig’s dream and the ever more fragile sense of reality felt amongst the group. As Creed asserts, the “monstrous [that which makes a horror film a horror film] is produced at the border between…the normal and the supernatural” (Creed 1992, p.11). At this point of rupture in the film, any hope of reconstructing the border between real and imagined is rendered impossible, even for Van Straaten, a psychiatrist who is meant to have mastered the tricks of the human mind. When the doctor’s glasses break even he, the epitome of rational human judgement, loses the ability to see real and imagined apart.
What’s more, Creed adds that the “monstrous is [also] produced at the border which separates those who take up their proper gender roles from those who do not”, which is a theme seen throughout the film (Creed 1992, p.11). In Grainger’s story, the machismo of the racing car driver (an example of the “phallic-oedipal hero”) is momentarily threatened by an accident on the track; in the bride’s story, Peter Cortland’s psychological vulnerability and Joan’s ‘liberated’ new woman character confuse traditional gender roles; and in Eliot Foley’s story the “gentleman” disregards chivalrous codes of conduct to indulge his sexual desire.
As each border is crossed “the uncanny” is summoned, an occurrence described by Freud as “something which ought to have remained hidden but has come to light”; this is most noticeable in the ambiguous gender roles adopted by Joan and Peter Cortland in the bride’s story (Ibid, p.57). Whilst Joan is not supernatural, her spending power, sexual dominance and masculine stature infer that she is just as abject as the supernatural in a society in which women are expected to subjugate themselves to men. These are evoked, in order, by her fashionable costume, suggestive cigarettes and geometric silhouette. It appears that one latent horror expressed in Dead of Night is “man’s fears of woman as castrator”, that being a woman capable of adopting and embodying forms of masculinity that were socially only afforded to men (Ibid, p.7). As Creed states, this is an “image of woman” that Freud (unsurprisingly) “repressed…in his writings about sexual difference” (Freud 1927, p.354).
However, the “imaginary” element of Creed’s article is that these “borders” do not exist, rather they manifest themselves in relationship to the normal, the that-which-appears-natural (Mill 2006). To quote Creed, what matters is how the “the subject take[s] up his or her own proper place in relation to the symbolic”, which is to say how the dominant figure maintains his (or her) authority (Creed 2015, p.40). As a viewer we are not inherently afraid of Joan as we are of the dark, nor are we afraid that Grainger has lost his virility following the crash. Rather, we are afraid that the status quo will be challenged, thus unearthing the potential for a series of unknown events to take place.
This is a crucial tipping point at the heart of a horror film’s success, but, for Kristeva, it is also the point at which the abject is able to realise its own power. For woman, the potential to write herself an identity in which she is constantly becoming in relation to the subject. Beware! You knew her today, but will you know her tomorrow:
"We may call it a border; abjection is above all ambiguity. Because, while releasing a hold, it does not radically cut off the subject from what threatens it-on the contrary, abjection acknowledges it to be in perpetual danger.”
(Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror in Barbara Creed, The Monstrous-Feminine, 8)
Where to watch
Balter, L. (2010) “Dead of Night.” The Psychoanalytic Quarterly 79: 753-784.
Creed, B. (2015) “Horror and The Monstrous Feminine: An Imaginary Abjection” in The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film (ed. Grant, Barry K), Austin: University of Texas Press.
Creed, B. (1992) The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis, London: Routledge.
Freud, S. (1981) “Fetishism” in On Sexuality, Pelican Freud Library, vol. 7, Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Mill, J. S. (2006) On Liberty and The Subjection of Women, London: Penguin Classics.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kathryn is a fourth year student of a joint degree in History of Art and Art Practice at The University of Edinburgh. Her interest in feminist cinema comes from her belief in political, cultural and social equity, a set of values that she says have often felt uncomfortable alongside popular feminist movements such as "fourth wave" or Taylor Swift "girl gang" feminisms. Kathryn has found that by understanding the roots of female "types", consolidated through literature, cinema and art, she has been able to understand how they are constructed and how her own sense of femininity and womanhood differ.
ABOUT NEON EYE
Neon Eye is a film production company based in Edinburgh. As well as offering a platform for these curations and an accompanying video podcast, the company also creates and produces creative films of varying forms, from documentary to drama, and commercial videos for other companies, individuals, and enterprises.