Id Was Them: Psychoanalyzing HEAVENLY CREATURES

19 May 2013

Popularized in the 1970s, psychoanalytic readings of cinema significantly expanded film theory, offering a new lens to critically interpret this particular form of visual media.  Psychoanalytic readings of film depend heavily on the work of psychoanalysis’ founder, Sigmund Freud, but also rely on Lacan’s continued work in psychoanalysis and even more contemporary advancements in this field.  While every genre of film has been psychoanalyzed by this point in time, one that epitomizes psychoanalytic concepts is the horror genre.  In a horror movie the human psyche takes center stage, with fear, sexuality, and violence as pivotal, driving forces.  These forces make horror films a rich subcategory of cinema for psychoanalytic investigation.  And, Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures (1994) is a prime example of how horror films—in this case, fantasy-horror—are screaming for a psychoanalytic reading (pun intended).

Heavenly Creatures is a New Zealand film inspired by the infamous Parker-Hulme murder case of 1954; Honora Rieper/Parker (Sarah Pierse) was premeditatedly bludgeoned to death by her teenage daughter, Pauline Parker (Melanie Lynskey), and her daughter’s friend, Juliet Hulme (Kate Winslet).  The film is bookended with the murder; however, most the film is a fantasized flashback, told (inconsistently) from Pauline’s point of view, of how Pauline and Juliet met, and how their relationship rapidly developed into one of extreme dependence.  When the girls’ parents threaten to separate them, Pauline and Juliet resort to a murderous act of extreme, conscienceless desperation.

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The film personifies key concepts of psychoanalysis, and, furthermore, these concepts help characterize the protagonists, which, subsequently, elicit more fear from the audience.  Put another way, analyzing the film with psychoanalytic theory rationalizes the girls’ actions, which strengths Pauline and Juliet’s three-dimensional characterization.  In a typical horror film, the murderer/monster is a static character who dies, unchanged, in the film’s conclusion. Reading it psychoanalytically, the murderesses in Heavenly Creatures are more frightening because they are not static characters and do not die in the end; Pauline and Juliet are everyday people, shaped by situations beyond they control in the world around them.  Perhaps a more frightening thought that the average horror movie fanatic was planning to encounter.

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According to Freud, early childhood trauma plays a formative role in a person’s development.  At the start of Heavenly Creatures, both Pauline and Juliet reveal severe illnesses in childhood: Pauline’s infected leg, which put her in hospital for months and left her with an unsightly scare, and Juliet’s weak lungs, which put her in hospital as well, and also forced a traumatic separation between her and her parents.  According to Freud’s theory, both girls’ painful childhoods impacted their development; therefore, reading the respective backstories of each girl on a psychoanalytic slant reasons out how these girls could be capable of such a crime. Moreover, if dynamic characters are the ones that have internal change within the story, these two girls are made dynamic by the inclusion of these backstories; these backstories mark a significant moment of change in each girls’ life.  From a psychoanalytic perspective, these girls were made into murderesses by repressed childhood traumas they were unable to handle.

In addition, the id, which is a part of the psyche, is another psychoanalytic concept easily analyzable in Heavenly Creatures.   According to the structural theory of psychoanalysis, the psyche is broken up into three parts: id, ego, and super-ego.  The id is the only part present at birth; this is the instinctive part of one’s psyche.  The ego develops as one grows; the ego attempts to balance the impulsive desire for satisfaction that comes from the id with the rules of the outside world.  Lastly, the super-ego, which is a part of the ego, develops as one’s reflective, self-critic.  In Heavenly Creatures, egos and super-egos are absent from the teenagers; Pauline and Juliet are ids, and without a harnessing ego, ids that run lose, as these two girls do, are diabolically dangerous.

From this Freudian lens, Heavenly Creatures makes it obvious Pauline and Juliet are ids without ego and super-egos by using a motif: horses. Freud once analogized that horses are to the id as horse riders are to the ego, meaning horses are untamable, forceful beasts, like the id, and horse riders are tasked with controlling the these wild beasts, as the ego does with the id.  There are numerous references to horses in the film.   Some prominent examples are the horses Pauline is drawing when she first meets Juliet, the clay sculptures of horses Pauline immediately notices the first time she visits Juliet’s home, and the horses included in one of the film’s shots when Pauline and Juliet stand outside Juliet’s home.  When considering Freud’s analogy, this motif of horses becomes a psychoanalytic symbolic.  Horses, which are only ever around Pauline and Juliet, represent the girls, and, more pointedly, represent the girls as primitive, untamed ids, like the horses in Freud’s analogy.  Yet, the girls never ride the horses; there are absolutely no horse riders in Heavenly Creatures, and, therefore, no egos.

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Looking at Pauline and Juliet as ids, or psyches without egos or superego, rationalizes the girls’ behavior.  Pauline and Juliet are driven by unconscious desires; they are impulsive, seek instantaneous gratification, and are strongly motivated by sexual and aggressive impulses.  Both Pauline and Juliet are sexually experimental, particularly, but not exclusively, with one another, and prone to bouts of rage.  Egos would restrict the girls’ desires and improve their functionality in the outside world, but neither girl, perhaps as a result of the aforementioned childhood trauma, develops an ego.  This heightens the horror.  If psychoanalytic theory is correct, every person has the potential to become Pauline or Juliet.  As suggested by a psychoanalytic reading of the film, monsters are not born; monsters are created.  Heavenly Creatures offers the assumption that one may not develop an ego, and, if that development does not happen, an uncontrollable id-filled individual will emerge, much like the murderous duo depicted in the horror film.

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Although this is only a fraction of the psychoanalytic reading one could do on Heavenly Creatures, looking exclusively at how Freud’s theory of early childhood trauma impedes development, and then looking at how a lack of ego, perhaps caused by the early childhood trauma, causes complete bedlam, highlights how these psychoanalytic principles enhances the fright factor of Jackson’s film.  If monsters are made by circumstances beyond one’s control, an suggested on a psychoanalytic slant, then every person has the potential for becoming a monster as unrestrained as Pauline and Juliet.  Put another way, it is not simply that these two young women are frightening and commit a terrifying act of violence; the true horror in Heavenly Creatures comes in the idea that the state these two young women find themselves in, and the act they are capable of committing in this state, could happen to anyone.

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~ by Kate Bellmore on 19/05/2013.

2 Responses to “Id Was Them: Psychoanalyzing HEAVENLY CREATURES”

  1. […] This blog provides a very interesting psychoanalytic reading of Heavenly Creatures, though I don’t think I would agree with the horror label she puts on it. This one could have easily fit our “weird” movie theme, too. The fantasy world the girls imagine for themselves is very strange, and the treatment in the film allows you to really get into their heads. It was amazing to see this film again after 20 years. It holds up well. […]

  2. Wow that was odd. I just wrote an incredibly long comment but after I
    clicked submit my comment didn’t show up. Grrrr… well I’m not writing all that
    over again. Anyhow, just wanted to say fantastic blog!

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