Phallic Panic

Barbara Creed,
Phallic Panic.
Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2005.
ISBN:0 52285 172 X
Au$34.95 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by Melbourne University Press)

In his essay on the uncanny, Freud describes this phenomenon as an experience of terror or dread. He argues that all such experiences originate with the figure of the paternal castrator, who represents the threat of dismemberment and death. Freud’s assertions serve to reify patriarchal power, overlooking its fragility and affirming the myth of its ubiquity and supremacy. Barbara Creed’s feminist psychoanalytic study of the male monster in the horror film, Phallic Panic, confronts the phallocentrism inherent in Freud’s essay and provides alternative ways of viewing the uncanny.

Phallic Panic eloquently builds on Creed’s earlier work The Monstrous Feminine (1993) which argues that in the horror film, the symbolic order of the father is threatened by the repressed semiotic order of the mother. Thus, often the ‘other’ of the horror film is representative of the abject female reproductive body. Creed claims that “virtually all horror texts represent the monstrous feminine” (p. 13) and that the threat of castration originates with the mother, challenging assumptions about the role of the father in the child’s entry into the symbolic order. With Phallic Panic, Creed turns her attention to the male monster in the horror film, arguing that what makes him terrifying is his alignment with what Creed calls the ‘primal uncanny’, a counter-term which refers to the same fears discussed by Freud, but attributes their origin to the threat presented by woman, the animal and death to undermine patriarchal power and control.

Creed holds that the ever-changing abject female reproductive body is closely aligned with that which most threatens the ‘myth of civilisation’: nature, the animal and death. Turning her attention to the male monster in Phallic Panic, Creed identifies ways that the monstrous feminine persists even within various incarnations of the male monster in horror films. She contends that there is a mimetic link between the male monster and the abject female body insomuch as the male monster replicates, or is aligned with, the female reproductive body. Consequently, the male monster’s transgressive body signals the return of the repressed, threatening to undermine the symbolic order.

The five chapters that investigate various manifestations of the uncanny male monster including mad scientists whose laboratories function as man-made wombs, vampires and werewolves whose transformations and need for blood are consistent with imagery concerning menstrual cycles, and haunted houses that symbolise man’s first home in the womb. In her chapter on ghosts, Creed convincingly contends that the gender transgressing phantom slasher Freddy Krueger is a womb monster who stores the souls of children within his abject body. The final chapter on Jack the Ripper, despite its eloquence, sits uneasily against the other case studies. Whereas Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolf Man and Freddy perversely attempt to emulate female reproductive functions, the Ripper, despite his uncanny facelessness “wants to destroy woman through her body” (p. 185) and is thus more representative of a vengeful symbolic order at war against prostitution and non-procreative sex. Having said this, the Ripper does present a fitting character for a final chapter on a book concerned with male hysteria about the female form.

Phallic Panic reads very much like a companion piece to The Monstrous Feminine. This is evident certainly in Creed’s references to her previous work but specifically it is her re-reading of Freud’s ‘Wolf Man’ case that evokes her previous work. In The Monstrous Feminine Creed provides a welcome feminist reading of the ‘Little Hans’ case study, observing the inherent gender biases in Freud’s interpretative analysis, and offering an alternative appraisal. Creed uses the case study to support her assertion that the mother is the source of castration anxieties. Likewise in Phallic Panic, Creed devotes a lengthy chapter to re-reading the case study of Sergei Pankejeff, or the ‘Wolf Man’. Creed positions her case study before her chapter on werewolves in film, yet unlike the ‘Little Hans’ case study, it is only scantly referred to in her discussion of werewolves. Whilst her analysis is interesting, it is built almost entirely on speculation and conjecture, and the chapter is not integrated with the rest of the book.

Creed very clearly establishes and defends the crux of her argument within the first two chapters of her book. The case studies that constitute the majority of the text continually reinforce and restate Creed’s argument, although the level of repetition suggests that Phallic Panic would have been equally effective as a shorter work. The accessibility and straightforwardness of Creed’s writing make Phallic Panic an ideal introduction for students interested in an example of a feminist psychoanalytic interpretation of the horror film. This book can be read on its own, although readers not acquainted with The Monstrous Feminine or Julie Kristeva’s work on abjection may struggle at times.

Craig Martin,
La Trobe University.

Created on: Thursday, 11 September 2008

About the Author

Craig Martin

About the Author

Craig Martin

Craig Martin is a doctoral candidate at the University of Melbourne where he is researching the impact of Hitler Youth on the monster child film. He holds a Masters degree from La Trobe University and serves on the editorial board of Red Feather: An International Journal of Children in Popular Culture. He has published numerous journal articles and book chapters, the most recent of which is an essay looking at adoption in the monster child film that has been included for publication in the upcoming book, Misfit Children: An Enquiry Into Childhood Belongings.View all posts by Craig Martin →