Monsters Within and Repression and the Family in Horror Cinema – Sociology Essay

Monsters Within and Repression and the Family in Horror Cinema – Sociology Essay
The horror genre, and in particular horror cinema, is greatly maligned. To many critics it is purely an exploitative, sexist, gratuitously sadistic form of puerile entertainment. Regardless of what one thinks of horror as a spectacle, the genre is of interest in academic terms at least, for the ways

in which it reflects – either self-consciously or unconsciously – trends within society. Of particular significance is horror’s portrayal of the institution of the family and the family’s position in maintaining dominant social and cultural norms, namely those of patriarchy and capitalism. Though certainly not the only cinematic genre to critique the family, horror – given its marginalised status – is well equipped to articulate such concerns. Robin Wood’s structuralist adoption of the psychoanalytic-political theory of repression, outlined in An Introduction to the American Horror Film will provide us with our interpretive framework. Focusing on two films by recognised horror auteurs Wes Craven and David Cronenberg, I will discuss how these films, and horror as a genre confronts the problem of the family, and more specifically the notion of repression.

It is important to first define our terms and frame of reference. As I am focusing on the family in horror, it is appropriate to discuss the contested nature of “family”. The family is by no means a universal, static, or tangible grouping; it exists as a complex network of relationships. It is the social institution entrusted with the reproductive process – reproduction of the species, along with reproduction of cultural, social and psychic norms. Though “the family” is frequently conceptualised as a universal, fixed unit (i.e. the nuclear family), this is an essentially ideological construction, conflicting with the reality of its diverse and changing nature. It is probably more correct to talk of “families”, as “the family” in a unitary sense doesn’t really exist. However, family is a useful concept for the way in which it informs and provides meaning to discursive and cultural formations. Family creates and articulates roles for individuals within society; roles that stem from post-Enlightenment Western thought, whereby the home and workplace are designated as “separate spheres”. The inherently Western nature of the family in this sense, and its function within capitalist superstructures requires us to view developments and themes in the horror genre with a degree of cultural specificity. As a result, I will be focusing on the American horror film, although I extend my analysis to cover Canadian director Cronenberg’s The Brood (1979).

Repression and Capitalist Patriarchy

Before looking at the history of horror cinema in the United States and representations of the family therein, I must outline our analytical framework. Central to Wood’s theory is the Freudian concept of repression. Civilisation and social existence is fundamentally based upon repression. Without the repression of basic instincts and urges, humans would be unable to function in society – self-control, consideration of others and the postponement of gratification are thus necessarily repressive acts that construct humanity, in opposition to the “natural” state of individualist anarchy. This “basic” repression, which is a prerequisite in all human cultures, can be distinguished from what is termed “surplus” repression. Surplus repression is culturally specific, and involves the predetermination of individuals’ social roles from birth. Closely related to this is the concept of oppression, where obvious manifestations of difference are quashed in an overt sense, which differs from the internalised nature of repression.

In Western culture, surplus repression is used to shape individuals into “monogamous heterosexual bourgeois capitalists”. Thus, the notion of repression is intrinsically linked to economic as well as social structures. Capitalism requires a constant supply of labour, and that labour must be able to work efficiently and effectively. The nuclear family then, “resolves” what can be seen as a contradiction – to work efficiently, labour must not be distracted by the process of child-rearing, which in turn is essential to expanding the labour force. By ascribing (primarily gender-based) roles – Mother as submissive domestic labourer, child-raiser, nurturer; Father as dominant worker, breadwinner – capitalism reinscribes older patriarchal power structures. In order to maintain such a “stable”, logical system however, surplus repression must be constantly in action. The family can therefore be seen as the reason for, as well as the key instrument of, surplus repression under capitalist patriarchy.

What, then, is being repressed in Western society? Wood points to sexual energy in general – as the source of creativity – in that “creativity” that is not sufficiently fulfilled in the monogamous heterosexual relationships necessary to perpetuate the family construct or through individuals’ labour practices, represents a threat to the myth of contentment under capitalist patriarchy. The family acts as the vehicle for this type of repression, by advocating, for example, parental monogamy. The sexuality of children is similarly denied and repressed by the family; cultural norms require parents to repress sexual behaviour (masturbation, for example) in their offspring. Following on from psychoanalytic theory’s conception of human bisexuality as “normal”, the bisexual-homosexual impulse is also repressed. This impulse is a direct affront to the norm of monogamous heterosexuality, as well as the ascribed gender roles of masculinity and femininity. From these gender roles, we can see that female sexuality in particular is severely repressed by the family, as the woman’s desire for sex (and thus her creativity) is seen as masculine, and as a result runs counter to the feminine ideal of passive subordination. Women, then, are frequently denied their sexuality under patriarchal capitalism.

Given the primal or primordial nature of these repressed sexual impulses, society (bourgeois capitalist patriarchy) is presented with a difficult problem. The act of repression, as it stems from ideology, instils a hatred or fear of what is being repressed (it must be evil if society expects us to repress it) but nonetheless it still remains within, giving rise to neurosis. One of the key ways in which this is dealt with, is through the process of othering. In this way, what is repressed and hated within is projected onto an other, in a way displacing the neurosis and legitimising one’s own repressive culture (“it’s not us, it’s them!”) The creation of the other in one’s own inverse image, where “we” (bourgeois, white, civilised, heterosexual, repressed) are everything “they” (proletarian, dark, wild, bisexual, sexually overt) are not, is fundamental to the horror film. According to Wood’s basic formulation of horror, normality is threatened by the monster. Frequently the monster in horror is a wild, sexual being, representing the very impulses that are repressed within normal Western society.

The Hills Have Eyes

Wes Craven’s 1977 cult classic The Hills Have Eyes is a prime example of self-conscious problematicisation of the family in contemporary horror. Craven is a keen social observer of the processes of familial repression, as noted in a 1979 interview with Tony Williams – indeed, early in The Hills one of the characters (Bobby) makes an obvious reference to Freud. The film’s plot revolves around two apparently opposed families; the Carters – suburban middle class Christians, lost on their way to Los Angeles in a military testing site – and their “shadow” family – a group of scavenging, cannibalistic guerrillas that stalk the Carters, who have “invaded” their territory. As different as they appear, the families are constantly parallelled throughout the film, and eventually are impossible to tell apart.

When their station wagon crashes in the desert, the members of the Carter family –Big Bob (the father), Ethel (the mother), teen siblings Brenda and Bobby, eldest daughter Lynne, Lynne’s husband Doug and the couple’s infant daughter Katy – begin to show their “true colours”, as they play out their ideologically determined roles. Big Bob, portrayed as a racist, violent, crude patriarch blames his wife for the car crash, which she accepts submissively. Ethel attempts to balance the crudity of the former policeman (his occupation represents another institution of patriarchal dominance) with politeness and weak religious sentiments. The children, in particular Bobby and Brenda are also under the control of Big Bob – the patriarch – and when Bob leaves to find help, Bobby attempts (jokingly and unsuccessfully) to appropriate the role of male authoritarian controller.

The Carters, in playing their role of the “ideal” family under patriarchal capitalism highlight the extent – and problems – of surplus repression. Bobby’s repression of unpleasant knowledge (the killing of the dog, Beauty) results indirectly in the deaths of Lynne and Ethel. Ethel herself is clearly in a state of denial; for example, on hearing heavy breathing over the radio she dismisses the sound as animal noise – even when Lynne points out that animals can’t use radios Ethel manages to ignore the sinister reality. Furthermore, when viewing her husband’s burning carcass she maintains the denial: “that’s not my Bob!” Lynne is also guilty of repression, as she tries to hide the fact that she found a tarantula in the caravan from her sister Brenda. The entire family is so busy repressing, trying to “protect” each other from the horrendous reality that they become increasingly fearful (neurotic) and are thus unprepared to deal with their shadow opposites.

The “dark” family is at first more obviously dysfunctional. We learn that Grandfather Freddy attempted to kill his mutant son Jupiter, resenting him for causing his wife’s death in childbirth, and seeking any excuse to “expel” him from the family. When Jupiter survived, kidnapped a whore and reared his own family who now terrorise the desert, Freddy simply describes him as a “devil child” who grew into a “devil man”, rather than face his own guilt and complicity. The family (perhaps standing in for various oppressed minorities) manages to eke out a squalid existence by using discarded army surplus tools and weapons for the purpose of committing petty thievery. Their cannibalism and violence, while horrific, is almost understandable, given the circumstances in which they find themselves. When two of Jupiter’s sons raid the Carters’ trailer, they rape Brenda and murder Lynne and Ethel. The desire of rape, as a particularly horrific, antisocial, uncivilised act represents one of the ultimate sexual expressions that must be repressed in civilised society. The dark family can in many ways be seen as the representative manifestation of a process of othering.

Stripped of all pretensions, desperate for survival, the remaining members of the Carter family finally find within themselves the courage, wrath and craftiness to kill off their enemies. However, the internal resources they find come at the expense of the repression that differentiated them from Jupiter’s family in the first place. The film closes with a powerful red-filtered freeze-frame of Doug in full fury, set to stab Jupiter’s son Mars in the chest though Mars is surely already dead. The ultimate return of the repression of violence in the Carter family (which was initially alluded to through the aggression of Big Bob, as well as the fond recollection of a story where Beast killed a poodle) presents a striking social statement about the nature of the “civilised” family.

Ruby, though not particularly prominent, is a key character in the film. She sits precariously between the initially polar opposites of civilisation and wildness. Though she is part of the dark family, she wishes to leave with Freddy and enter civilisation. Freddy ridicules her: “you think you could pass for regular folks? … You stink like a hog!” The final third of the film further highlights the convergence of the two families, as Ruby is able to transfer easily from one family to the other – the differentiation between civilisation and chaos has been completely deconstructed. The Hills Have Eyes astutely locates the monster within capitalist patriarchal society, and specifically the family itself, and in doing so articulates progressive politics that can be construed as promoting social change.

The Brood

David Cronenberg is not particularly well known for producing “family” horror films. Though his previous films – Rabid (1977) and Shivers (1975) – are centred on the repression of sexuality, particularly female sexuality, the family (as the primary institution of repression) is not central to the texts. The Brood, however, is a classical family horror film in that it posits patriarchy and the family institution as responsible for the creation of monsters. In the film, Psychologist Dr. Raglan, director of the controversial Psychoplasmic Institute encourages his patients, including Nola – a neurotic recent divorcee – to outwardly manifest their anger and fear; particularly rage that stems from family problems. In the film’s opening scene, a patient is taunted and humiliated by Raglan, who plays the role of the dominant father, persuading him that he would have been better off as a girl – his weakness would then be more “acceptable”. In this way Cronenberg is describing tensions that form within the family as a result of repression of bisexuality. The traditional family is further shown to be problematic through the characters of Nola herself, as well as her mother. We learn that Nola’s mother abused her as a child (which itself runs counter to the social norm of the mother as carer, nurturer, protector of children), and that her father failed to stop this abuse (positing him as emasculated, disempowered, feminised). This redefinition of social roles continues with Nola, who it seems is continuing this family trend of abusive behaviour against her own daughter, and by the end of the film has fully appropriated the male role of active aggressor. The monster in this film also emanates from within the family – the brood; a monstrous horde of sexless children form the physical manifestation of Nola’s rage under Raglan’s treatment (Raglan himself acts as a surrogate father).

The Brood’s representation of the problems of the family differs substantially with that of The Hills Have Eyes. Though both films show their respective monsters as originating from the family and point to problems surrounding surplus repression, Cronenberg ultimately places the blame for the monster not on society, patriarchal capitalism, or the family institution, but on Nola’s abusive mother. Furthermore, the final solution to the creation of the brood is for Nola to be killed – there is no perceived need to challenge the social circumstances and familial repressions that led to the problem in the first place.


Robin Wood’s “return of the repressed” theory provides a convincing basis with which to understand the role of the family in Western (American) horror. The family, as the primary institution that maintains patriarchal capitalist ideology, is increasingly represented as problematic in horror. The surplus repression of (primarily sexual) impulses, though ostensibly allowing capitalist patriarchy to run smoothly, is problematic due to the inability of repression to completely annihilate these primordial impulses. The essence of family horror is the creation of a monstrous other that represents the outwardly projected repressed sexuality and violence that threatens bourgeois capitalist civilisation. The realisation that good and evil are not binary oppositions, that evil in fact comes from within us, shows that the act of repression itself is problematic; for what is repressed “returns in condensed and displaced form to threaten and challenge and disrupt that which would deny it presence” . As shown in The Hills Have Eyes and The Brood, the problems of repression within the family are portrayed variously in horror. Craven’s film can be seen as progressive, providing a critique of familial repression and oppression, suggesting that one must come to terms with these repressed impulses as they are a natural part of us. Cronenberg’s The Brood has been read in different ways, but not as a progressive text. The disgust with which Cronenberg views female sexuality brings with it the assumption that this sexuality is something that should be repressed; indeed the viewer feels relief when Nola is killed – repression has won out over familial female pathology; the institution that generated her condition is not subjected to critique. Though there are reactionary and progressive representations of the problems associated with family, it is clear that cinematic horror in the West is founded upon the ideas of repression and oppression that stem from the social construction of the family.


Harwood, Sarah (1997) Family Fictions: Representations of the Family in 1980s Hollywood Cinema. London: Macmillan

Sobchack, Vivian. (1987) “Bringing it All back Home: Family Economy and Generic Exchange” in Gregory Waller (ed.) American Horrors: Essays on the Modern American Horror Film. Chicago: University of Illinois press, p. 177

Williams, Tony (1980) “Wes Craven: an interview.” Journal of Popular Film & Television 8, no. 3

Williams, Tony (1996) “Chain Saw Massacres: The Apocalyptic Dimension” Hearths of Darkness: Family in the American Horror Film. London: Associated Universities press, ch. 8

Williams, Tony (1996) “Far From Vietnam: The Family at War” Hearths of Darkness: Family in the American Horror Film. London: Associated Universities press, ch. 4

Wood, Robin (1979) “An Introduction to the American Horror Film”. The American Nightmare. Toronto: Festival of Festivals


Shivers David Cronenberg, 1975
The Brood David Cronenberg, 1977
The Hills Have Eyes Wes Craven, 1977