New publication in PsyArt Journal


Sookie and Symptom, Vampire and Void: Irruption of the Real in True Blood

February 18, 2016 ·


Sookie Stackhouse, the protagonist of HBO’s True Blood, is a telepath who has grown up knowing what people “really” think. From the first episode, however, moments suggest we view her character symptomatically—after all, she hears voices in her head. The series then becomes an illustration of Lacanian concepts of subjectivity and the Real. Sookie is a sexually-repressed 24-year-old virgin, molested by her great uncle and left in the care of her grandmother, with whom she still lives after losing both parents. The extimate sexualized voices in her head can be read as a mechanism constructed to cope with traumatic loss and abuse, and to justify her repression. The introduction of vampire Bill Compton signals the irruption of the Real in the Symbolic order. His unreadable mind presents a void upon which to project her fantasies, but their relationship, mirroring that of analyst and analysand, provides a way for Sookie to work through her symptoms.

View the full article here:

The Irruption of the Real in the CW’s The Flash


Something that’s been zooming around my head these days is the current television series, The Flash. I read the comic as a kid and the new series fascinates me. The whole series is constructed around Barry’s childhood trauma and is, therefore, ripe for symptomatic reading.

“To understand what I’m about to tell you, you need to do something first. You need to believe in the impossible. Can you do that? Good.”

Right from the first voiceover, in his invoking narration at the beginning of the very first episode, he’s openly asking us to believe in the impossible.

His powers are impossible. That’s the irruption of the Real in the series. His powers signify nothing possible. They are the symptomatic, the return of the Real.

That Real is based in trauma, the traumatic murder of his mother.


Yes, Barry has serious mommy issues. His mother was murdered and his father is in prison for the crime. That’s Barry’s self-stated desire: finding who killed his mother, to clear his father’s name and have him released from prison. The murder of his mother is a repetition of the original separation from his mother that occurred in the development of his subjectivity earlier in childhood. This is the original lack at his core, setting his desire in motion.


Barry also has daddy issues. His real dad is in prison, an absentee father but one with whom Barry still communicates. He was raised by Detective Joe West. Barry also works as a forensic scientist with Joe at the Central City Police Department. Joe was the physically-present father, but still doesn’t believe Barry’s memories of what happened the night of his mother’s murder. Dr. Harrison Wells, too, serves as a father figure for Barry until he is revealed to be the Reverse Flash, Eobard Thawne, whose desire is to return to the future, at any cost.


The overdetermined father figures in his life can’t make up for his lacking mother, however. His real desire is to become fast enough to race back in time and change the past; not to find his mother’s killer, but to save his mother’s life. In this way, he seeks to fill that original lack at his core, the desire to be the phallus for the mother, to be her object of desire.


Barry has further familial issues. He is in love with his foster-sister, Iris. His, at first unknown and then unrequited, desire for her is, again, symptomatic of the lack he feels at his core.


As Barry grows into his role of The Flash, he hears voices in his head. Through the audio transmitter in his mask, we typically hear the voice of Dr. Harrison Wells (Eobard Thawne), Cisco Ramon, or Dr. Caitlyn Snow instructing Barry on what to do or where to go. There are moments where Barry leaves behind the comm system or it goes out, but for the most part, he is guided not by his own conscious motivations, but by voices in his head.


The series is fruitful for a psychoanalytic reading.

Sookie and Symptom, Vampire and Void: Irruption of the Real in True Blood

If you have 21 minutes of your time that you don’t mind you’ll never get back, check out the presentation I delivered at The Real and the Intermedial conference last month at Sapientia University in Cluj-Napoca, Romania. It’s an “interimplication” of Lacanian psychoanalytic theory and HBO’s seven-season-long series, True Blood.

Abstract: Sookie Stackhouse, the protagonist of HBO’s True Blood and Charlaine Harris’ Southern Vampire Mysteries book series from which it was adapted, is presented as a telepath who has grown up knowing what people “really” think. From the first episode, however, moments suggest we view the narrative and its characters symptomatically – after all, she literally hears voices in her head. In so doing, True Blood becomes an illustration of Lacanian concepts of subjectivity and the Real. We first meet Sookie as a hyper-sexually-repressed 24-year-old virgin, molested by her uncle and left in the care of her grandmother, with whom she still lives after losing both parents as a child. The extimate judgmental and sexualized voices in her head can be read as a mechanism constructed to cope with traumatic loss and abuse, and to justify her repression. The introduction of vampire Bill Compton signals the irruption of the Real into Sookie’s Imaginary and Symbolic orders. His unreadable mind presents a void upon which to project her fantasies. The immediate attraction she feels for Bill, manifestation of both Eros and Thanatos and a man “between two deaths,” is pure jouissance. Sookie’s real desire, though, is to have a real desire.

Scooby-Dooing Lacan

Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! If you think about it, and I do, the whole concept of the series is driven by desire.

The formula is the same. The Mystery, Inc. gang happen upon a paranormal experience that is interrupting the usual goings on of some sort of establishment. Through a series of mostly illogical events, the dastardly ghoul very nearly gets away with it, too, if it hadn’t been for those “meddlin'” kids.

Note that we’re talking about a corporation here, Mystery, Inc. Who gave these minors a business license, anyway? And just what is their business? Putting businesses back in business after a paranormal hoax interrupts operations. It must be a lucrative business, as none of them seem to have day jobs, and they are generally well-kept in Scooby Snacks.

Anyway, the gang wraps up this mystery within a single episode, and all, the audience included, experience some brief pleasure at the unmasking of the menace at the end. But, then there is another mystery to be solved in the next episode. For some brief pleasure at the revelation of the hoax. But, then there is another mystery to be solved…

No more mysteries? No more Scooby-Doo. But, there’s ALWAYS another mystery. Another object of desire. Desire, for Lacan, is a continuous grasping to fill that lack you’ll forever seek to fill. Desire is always for that thing just out of reach–  the thing you can never unmask.

It’s addiction, desire. Always after the next better thing. There is no best, no superlative thing, only an endless series of objet petit a, b, c… with each objet more or less objeter than the last. Nonetheless, we are always striving to find the always already unavailable objetest. That is what Freud referred to as the Triebe, the Drive, or to use Lacan’s preferred translation, the “drift.”

The plot, too, is a kind of chain of desire, say Shoshana Felman and Peter Brooks, at least in terms of literature. But I suspect the same may be said for other forms of popular culture, Scooby-Doo, for instance. We drift from scene to scene through the plot, desiring both to reach it’s inevitable conclusion and to enjoy the delays and setbacks of that conclusion. Plots operate on the reader’s desire, and no plots play upon that desire like mysteries. Just ask Hitchcock. Or Daphne.

I am driven, in some way, to binge watch an entire season of Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! in one sitting. These are episodes I’ve seen dozens of times in re-runs as a kid. Still, I desired to watch the whole season, and I did it. Now I want to do the same with the next season. My scopophilia knows no bounds when it comes to that meddlin’ mutt, those hippie teens, and all their gettings-up-to.

It matters not a bit that I already know the terrible Black Knight is really Mr. Wickers. I still live for that unmasking at the end. There is something so satisfying when the mask of the supernatural is stripped away to reveal someone so very mundane. That’s catharsis, the established order is returned and business at the Hotel or Candy Manufacturing Plant goes back to normal.

The Black Knight, and other Doo villains of his ilk, though, signify irruptions of the Real in the Symbolic order and interruptions of the working of ideology. The stripping away of their masks actually places them firmly in the Symbolic order, as their actual roles in the story world are revealed. It was the dog trainer, after all! What are we left with? The image of a sad, grown man, wearing a rubber suit, being carted off to jail.

This image we can assimilate into our established Symbolic order. We can explain away the menace.  So these villains, themselves aren’t the Real. The Real can’t be comfortably accommodated by what we know. That’s when we feel the sensation Freud called unheimliche, the uncanny. There’s nothing uncanny about Scooby-Doo. All becomes assimilable by the end of an episode.

Everything is explainable in language. Until another episode starts.

So, how do these villains signify the irruption of the Real?

What if, when Fred rips the villain’s mask off, there’s nothing there. Literally nothing. What’s there is mundane enough to be insignificant. To not signify. To signify nothing.

If you rip the Velma mask off, strip the ego who thinks herself  to be “Velma,” there’s a void at the center. That’s not just because she’s a snarky know-it-all.

Now this isn’t as nihilistic as it all sounds. The void to be found there is the unconscious.

The unconscious is the thing we can’t think about ourselves. It’s the thing from whence the thought to think about oneself has sprung. The unconscious thinks you into being. It shapes your patterns of behavior, of speech, of being. It’s the origin of Shaggy’s insatiable drive toward overdosing on Scooby-Snacks. It drives Buck Masters to kidnap the competition. It drives Bluestone the Great to search for the Vasquez treasure. It drives C.L. Magnus to dress as Redbeard and raid his own cargo ships to save his dying business. And it drives Fred to drive the Mystery Machine.

It writes the mysteries you don’t even know you’re acting in. It hides things from you. It’s this unthinkable, yet thinking, thing.

As Freud put it, “The ego is not master in its own house.” We’re not what we think we are. We’re what thinks what we are.

And that thing that thinks us desires more Scooby-Doo.

Apparently, there’s a current incarnation of the show called  Be Cool, Scooby-Doo! airing on Cartoon Network, though I haven’t seen it yet. The mysteries just do not stop. That’s desire, folks.

The Uncanny -cont.-

It Follows

“I can stay over tonight if it makes you feel better.”

The horror of It Follows, like The Babadook, is also constructed from a network of nightmare associations, conventions of the horror genre with which we are familiar. However, It Follows, employs these conventions differently. Rather than conflating them to build the monster, the film uses them to construct its form. A series of recognizable shots, scenes, and sequences are the units from which the screen time is built.  Examples of these conventions are the college-kid milieu, the present absence of parents, the student seeing the monster while in class, haunting electronic music ala John Carpenter, a television that seems perpetually tuned to horror films, the heroine trapped in her hospital bed, and so on.

This playing with form, using a semiotic code of shots and scenes, not just narrative situations, is the territory of David Lynch in his Mulholland Drive (2001), which he constructs primarily from a code derived from noir conventions. We might identify the code being emphasized in film form of this kind as the “gnomic” flavor of Barthes’ Cultural (REF.) code. This should not be taken to mean that It Follows is only a series of horror movie clichés; there are certainly images and narrative turns we haven’t seen before. I only hope to indicate that the conventions are used predominately at the level of form, which, in a sense subverts them. At the same time, the conventions knit us firmly into the genre as we watch the film, and help to facilitate identification with the ostensible protagonist, Jay.

The story seems to be Jay’s, but the camera does not follow her entirely. In fact, the beginning of the film introduces us to Annie, whose frantic high heels clicking on concrete is another of the gnomic units I’m talking about. The camera does stick with Jay long enough and prominently enough for me to feel sutured to her perspective, though. Familiar cinematic techniques, like the snorricam attached to her when Hugh has tied her into the wheelchair and use of subjective camera in that same scene, help to create this suture. But, the identification we are asked to create with Jay is a calculated distraction from what really follows.

What truly haunts the film, what follows throughout, is Paul’s desire: his lingering looks on Jay, his listening presence, his hanging on. Before we are even introduced to Jay, before we first see her getting into the pool in her backyard, the mobile camera introduces us to Paul, knocking repeatedly, unheard, at her front door. Paul, and the inescapable childhood memory of Jay being his first kiss, is what sticks. What won’t go away. It follows.

Paul’s desire signals the uncanny for me in the film. The narrative, for the most part, is explicable in terms of psychosexual symptoms and repressions: rape, incest, loss of innocence. I can comfortably assimilate these into the Symbolic order, come to terms with them. What I can’t explain away is the feeling that the horror of It Follows persists in the fact that Paul and Jay are coupled by the end of the film. I just can’t shake the feeling that the blurry figure following them in the penultimate shot of the film, as Paul and Jay hold hands and walk down the sidewalk facing the camera, might just also be Paul.

It Follows on IMDb

The uncanny is precipitated by an encounter with the Real, an irruption of the Real into our Symbolic and Imaginary orders. An encounter with the Real is always horrific, so we must guard against overvaluing the horror film context through which so much literature on the uncanny has been generated. A central convention of the horror genre has always been an attempt to represent the horrific unrepresentable, that which is Real. However, an encounter with the Real can occur in any context. The Real is that irresoluble void, an open wound in our recognizable reality– unrepresentable, un-signifiable, but experienceable. It is that which extrudes, in excess of reality, something awry with what we believe to be true, and real. The Real is a point of opposition to, and within the real. Noticing this point, recognizing its quality of derealization, is what precipitates the uncanny. The uncanny feeling reflects our inability to reconcile the experience of the Real with reality. Since the Real can never be symbolized, never be explained away, never be successfully integrated with the Symbolic order, the uncanny is evoked and sustained. It sticks with us. It follows.

My initial investigation of the uncanny from a Lacanian perspective only prompts more questions: Is it caused by a sudden rupture, or a slow leak of the Real into the Imaginary and Symbolic orders?  Does it involve a sudden recognition, or a slow realization over time? What’s the rate of falloff between the Real and Symbolic? Since the Real is unrepresentable, in relation to film studies, what we see on the screen and hear on the speaker can never be Real, so does the Real “accompany” screen representations? Is it a quality of them? Are there certain traumas, certain conditions, for the experience with the Real to produce an uncanny effect? Or, does the unrepresentable nature of the Real, its irreducible definition as that which defies symbolization, thus defy taxonomy?

The Uncanny

The screening and discussion at the last meeting of the Association for Psychoanalytical Thought (APT) prompted a debate between a professor of Greek philosophy and a psychoanalytic literary theorist, the central question of which, distilled, was:

Is the uncanny a cathartic moment, a recognition and release, or

Does the uncanny defy release, stick with you?

This APT meeting involved a screening of an Indian horror film released in 1984, Purana Mandir (“The Old Temple,” dir. The Ramsay Brothers), which prompted laughs and groans from the group of psychotherapists, psychiatrists, academes, clinicians, and theoreticians gathered there. A Ph.D. student in South Asian Religions delivered a paper drawing an analogy between the narrative of the film and the historico-political context of Indira Gandhi’s government. This was followed by insights by the professor of Greek philosophy on Freud’s oft-quoted essay from 1919, “Das Unheimliche” (“The Uncanny”), and then discussion ensued.

In order to help me come to terms with Lacanian ideas of subjectivity and the Real, to satisfy my own egoistic drive, I have recast the question as: What is the relation of the uncanny to the Real? And, what can an understanding of this relation add to the debate?

If, as according to Žižek via Lacan, the irreducible definition of the Real is that which resists symbolization, and if the uncanny is a result of our encounter with the wound of the Real opening up in the Imaginary and Symbolic orders, perhaps the uncanny reflects the feeling of our inability to explain what we have just experienced. Our attempts to negotiate the experience, to explain away to ourselves in thought and language that which prompted the uncanny feeling are all met with failure. The Real is irresoluble, and so when we try to cope with what prompted the uncanny feeling, we can only find that nothing explains it. Nothing can knit it comfortably into our Imaginary and Symbolic orders, our known reality. It remains unabsorbed in our psyche, extrudes, sticks.

The Babadook
“I am the parent and you are the child, so take the pill.”

The film starts in kid-as-monster territory, from Amelia’s narrative perspective. The camera primarily follows her.

We know from the beginning that it’s her story, her shifting constellation of relationships: with Sam, with her sister, with her neighbor, with her dead husband. So, it should come as no surprise that the monster emerges not from Sam’s psyche, but from his mother’s.

The film’s eponymous, standard-return-of-repressed monster, is a condensation of nightmare associations that someone in her subjective position might have formed– conventions absorbed from films of the horror genre we might assume belong to her generation and social class. These include elongated, blade-talons ala Freddy Kruger and a tall tophat like that of Dr. Caligari and so many evil heads to follow. We are visually reminded of other horror movie conventions by the shots and clips popping up repeatedly on the television in the family house.

Amelia’s narration becomes exponentially unreliable, and the audience becomes increasingly detached from her perspective. The film then movies-on deep into mother-as-psychological-monster territory.  While the film never fully mirrors Sam’s subjective position, it comes closest when he employs his own probable heroic associations to contain his mother: Home Alone and Jonathan Swift. Yet, I don’t think the film ever strays too far from Amelia’s narration. Indeed, if the film’s diegesis is tied to her narrative position, then the film’s varying narrative reliability is correlative of the character’s psychological state. This variation is presented so overtly in the movie that the reliability of the entire narration is called into question.

My inability to identify too closely with Amelia, tied to narrative unreliability, puts me at bay as a spectator on the story world and holds me there, prevents me from suturing myself to her perspective, and keeps me from going away from The Babadook with any feeling of the uncanny.  The suspension of disbelief I have negotiated with the movie is strong enough to allow me entertainment, but not the uncanny.

The Babadook on IMDb

NEXT: It Follows.