Figure i. Suspiria (Argento 1977)
While psychoanalysis is directly mentioned in Suspiria (1977), the relationship between the film and psychoanalysis is more profound than the textual. The psychoanalytic theoretical framework can provide us with a further and more in-depth understanding of the aesthetic, narrative, and esoteric themes in Suspiria.
Defying the usual narrative sensibilities of film, Suspiria (1977), is often compared to a dream or a nightmare. The lush but unusual visuals, the intercutting of the scenes reminiscent of dream logic, and the abrupt ending all point to more similarities with the dream state than the waking. The study of dreams is inextricably linked to psychoanalysis. One of the most important theories on dreaming was proposed by Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, who proposed that ‘the interpretation of dreams is the royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious activities of the mind’ (Freud 1900 cited in Nagera 2014).
The idea that dreams can express a deeper meaning that our conscious minds are not immediately able to access is relevant to Suspiria if we approach the film in the same way we would approach a dream. Most psychoanalytic evaluations of film fit this paradigm, where film is assessed and evaluated as an unconscious expression of the subconscious mind (Carvalho 2009). This is all the more relevant for Suspiria, as the film is so reminiscent of a dream. If the similarities were not already obvious, the character of The Directoress further emphasises them. The Directoress is the head of the Tanz Dance Academy. We later find that she is the source of the malevolent presence in the academy, the notable witch Helena Markos. She is mostly presented in the diegesis of the film as sleeping, identifiable through her trademark snores. Through psychoanalytic analysis, Suspiria can be experienced as Markos’ dream, and then again as Suzy’s nightmare.
As well as a dream, Suspiria also has been compared to a fairy tale. In fact, film critic Martyn Conterio described the film as ‘A narrative of fairy-tale simplicity is violently disrupted by dream logic, gory interludes and eardrum-shattering blasts of music.’ (Conterio 2018). Fairy tales were undoubtedly an inspiration for Argento, who referenced the technicolor aesthetics of Snow White as an inspiration for the vivid cinematography of Suspiria (Williams 2010). There are other fairy tales referenced throughout the film, such as Bluebeard and Alice in Wonderland (Heller-Nicholas 2015).
Like dreams, fairy tales have been referenced explicitly as an expression of the unconscious mind, with latent content that is not immediately accessible to the conscious mind, most notably explored by Angela Carter in The Bloody Chamber (Sheets 1991). The idea of the latent content of fairy tales again is not new, especially when considering that many fairy tales came from more violent origins than the sanitised versions we are more familiar with would have us believe.
The witch has been a powerful, evil figure throughout fairytales, one that has been explicitly constructed as feminine. In The Monstrous Feminine, a mediation on film, psychoanalysis and feminism, Barbara Creed (1993) argued that “There is one incontestably monstrous role in the horror film that belongs to woman – that of the witch”. In reference to her conceptualization of the abject mother, Creed specifically cites Suspiria and Inferno (1980), the second film in Argento’s The Three Mothers trilogy, as examples of her concept of the abject mother, noting that the figure of the witch, Mother Suspiriorum specifically is presented in the diegesis of Suspiria as “a grotesque, monstrous and completely hideous figure” (Creed 1993).
Creed cites Joseph Campbell’s theory that women are associated with witchcraft and magic due to their ability to create new life, casting them as the other in the phallocentric male order (Campbell cited in Creed 1993). Indeed, in the climax of Suspiria, the body of Suzy’s friend Sara is reanimated by the witches and is used to attack Suzy. In line with the witch as the abject mother, the corrupted reanimation of the body is an abject version of the new life women can create.
This one of the many thematic allusions to the witches of the Tanz Academy as the abject mother. The world of the Tanz Academy is matriarchal – totally ruled by women, with the men reduced to supporting roles such as cooks and pianists. The power lies entirely with the women, but it is corrupt. Whereas the creation of new life is traditionally associated with the figure of the mother, the abject reanimation performed by the witches in Suspiria is a perversion of this, representing Creed’s figure of the abject mother.
The way the academy takes Suzy in and provides food and shelter in an attempt to disempower and harm her is reminiscent of the way witches often appear in fairy tales as evil mother figures, most notably as the stepmother. In fact, in Snow White, which as previously discussed Argento cites as an inspiration for Suspiria, the evil witch is also Snow White’s stepmother. Again, this points to a corruption of the maternal. The witch in Snow White offers the titular character a poisoned apple. Suzy is taken care of by the witches, but it is demonstrated to ultimately be bad for her, as she realises that the food they are providing is making her ill. Whereas mothers feed their children milk for nourishment and nurture, Suzy is fed a viscous wine, reminiscent of blood which she eventually rejects, pouring it down the drain. The witches are again a depraved construction of motherhood.
Furthermore, much of the imagery utilised in Suspiria can be said to be associated with the mother. There is an abundance of blood or allusions to blood, such as the water lit red, splashing over the taxi as Suzy makes her way to the Tanz Academy, the wine she pours down the sink that is thick like blood, or the blood of Patricia, the witches first victim in the film. Blood undoubtedly has associations with the maternal, reproductive and female, through menstruation and birth. Blood can be associated with life, but the use of blood in Suspiria is associated with death or decay. The blood like wine fed to Suzy is making her ill, Patricia’s blood is associated with her death, and the red, blood-like water over the taxi is one of our first clues that something unusual is occurring in the film. This further casts the witches as the abject mother figure, corrupting life in favour of death and decay.
As for Suzy, we can certainly compare her with such young girls in fairy tales as Alice in Alice in Wonderland. Both are thrust into an unreal world that they must make sense of, lest they face the consequences doled out by more powerful women. A crucial moment of Suspiria directly references Alice in Wonderland; when Suzy uses the clues left by her missing friend to solve the central mystery, she must enter a door to pass through into the unknown realm, similarly to Alice. The door is adorned with irises, specifically pointed to in the dialogue, which bear a striking similarity to flowers in the animated Disney take on Alice in Wonderland (1951).
However, what does the idea of the witches as corrupted depictions of motherhood and Suzy as an innocent young girl suggest in terms of latent, subconscious content? Perhaps the answer can again be found in fairy tales. It could be argued that the witches are using the youth and virility of the young girls for their own benefit. Perhaps this could be read as a cautionary tale about what happens to women in society as they age. This reading of Suspiria is further emphasised by Argento’s casting of former starlets as the witches (Heller-Nicholas 2015). Like Snow White, it could be said that the latent, subconscious content in Suspiria is an exploration of what happens to women’s place in society as they age. The witches attempting to destroy the youth and virility of the girls in the academy could be read as an abject construction of motherhood, in contrast with the traditional maternal values of nurture and nourishment.
However, as Suspiria is such a sensory experience, many different readings can be applied to the film. For example, it has been said the witches are a mediation of the evils of Germany in World War Two (Balmain 2004) standing in for the Nazi party as a corrupt, evil power that ultimately destroys all in its wake. From a psychoanalytic perspective, the power in Suspiria lies in its nature as an expression of the subconscious, allowing the audience to divine meaning. Suspiria is a film that continues to give to the audience, as it enables them to draw from their subconscious subjectivity to elucidate meaning.
Argento, D. (1980) Inferno. [film] Italy: Produzioni Intersound
Argento, D. (1977) Suspiria. [film] Italy: Seda Spettacoli
Balmain, C. J. (2004) Genre, Gender, Giallo: The Disturbed Dreams of Dario Argento. [online] Doctor of Philosophy thesis or dissertation: University of Greenwich
Carvalho, J. (2009) ‘Thinking, the Unconscious and Film’. Contemporary Aesthetics 7
Conterio, M. (13 November 2018) The Curious Case of the Suspiria Smile [online] available from <https://lwlies.com/articles/the-curious-case-of-the-suspiria-smile/> [31 March 2019]
Geronimi, C., Jackson, W., and Luske, H. (1951) Alice in Wonderland. [film] United States: Walt Disney Productions
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Sheets, R. A. (1991) ‘Pornography, Fairy Tales, and Feminism: Angela Carter’s “the Bloody Chamber”‘. Journal of the History of Sexuality 1 (4), 633-657
Willams, D.E., (2010) Terror in Technicolor. American Cinematographer, 68-76