Summary of Discussion on Dead of Night

Dead of Night proved to be suitably spooky pre-Christmas fare, and prompted much discussion on its unusual structure, its gothic and uncanny elements, as well as its lasting influence.

craig-and-foleyIt is first worth noting that the version of the film we watched was that which was originally released in the UK (102 mins, October 1945), and not the edited US edition (77 mins, released June 1946). Both included at least some of the wraparound narrative of the architect Walter Craig (Mervyn Johns) visit to Eliot Foley’s (Ronald Culver) house, its consequences, and the restarting of the tale. There were significant cuts in the US however. According to contemporaneous sources, the US version excluded the second (The Christmas Party) and the fourth (The Golfing Story) sequences, keeping the first (The Hearse), the third (The Haunted Mirror) and the fifth (The Ventriloquist’s Dummy) (New Movies: the National Board of Review Magazine, August –September 1946, pp. 6-7).

We particularly commented on the Englishness of the two tales cut from the US release. In the Christmas Party sequence the large house was occupied by upper class characters, with cut-glass accents, enjoying games of sardines and blind man’s bluff. This was reminiscent of Charles Dickens’ narrative of Scrooge’s previously happy the-lady-vanishesChristmases in A Christmas Carol (1843). Meanwhile, the golfing buddies are played by Basil Radford (George) and Naunton Wayne (Larry). The comic duo were especially familiar to UK audiences, not just as Charters and Caldicott in The Lady Vanishes (1938, Alfred Hitchcock) but other films whose release was more limited to the UK – including Crook’s Tour (1941, John Baxter) and Millions Like Us (1943, Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder).

As well as the specific Englishness of these sequences perhaps making them unsuitable for US audiences, the decision may have also be related to the time of year of the releases: the Christmas Party sequence seems more appropriate to Autumn than Summer. We found the horror anthology nature of the film reminiscent of M.R. James whose tales of ghosts have become a Christmas staple. Notably it was not just the Christmas ghost tale removed from the US release, but also the only other tale with ghosts.

We turned to more detailed discussion of the sections, noting that each of these contained an uncanny element. In the first, The Hearse sequence,  it was commented on that the immobility of the doctor’s (Robert Wyndham) left arm, while well disguised, became a point of focus for some.

The Cavalcanti-directed Christmas Party sequence was especially gothic. The shadowy shots of the large space, especially the stairs, are effective. This combined with the appearance to Sally (Sally Ann Howes) of a suitably creepy ghost child summoned up gothic associations. This child names himself as Francis Kent. Other characters assertsally-and-francis that his older sister Constance was his killer. This refers to the real-life case of 1860 in which a sixteen year old had murdered her four year old brother.  It gained much publicity five years later, and again in 2008 with the publication of Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher. The bringing in of such a notorious case serves to blur the boundary between fiction and reality, adding to the sense of unease.

haunted-mirrorThe woman-in-peril aspect of the gothic was especially seen in the third narrative – the Haunted Mirror. In this, the teller of the tale, Joan (Googie Withers) is in great danger from her new husband Peter (Ralph Michael). He has seemingly been possessed by the spirit of a bed-bound, violent and jealous husband of a century before. This is caused by Joan’s present of an antique mirror in which the husband sees a different background reflected. Joan is only saved when she literally breaks the mirror whilst being strangled by her husband with a scarf.

While the previous Christmas Party sequence seems firmly anchored in the past by its referencing of the Kent case and its Dickensian overtones, the Haunted Mirror had a more modern feel to it. While it too looked back at the past, we found it more striking in terms of the comment it makes on post-war masculinity.  Peter seems passive – especially in his lack of interest in getting married, and searching for a house, while Joan drives things forward. She sets off the entire narrative by purchasing the mirror. Joan’s active nature is also seen as she is pictured sitting on Peter’s double bed, in his presence, before they are married.  The last action of the sequence – Joan’s mirror-breaking during her husband’s only attempt to take charge –  comments further on this.strangling Another odd aspect we commented on was the other main character of the sequence- the antiques shop owner (Esme Percy). His strange manner, especially his lengthy clutching of Joan’s hands when she returns to the store, seems to make the possibility of a supernatural, rather than a psychological, cause even more likely.

triangleOur main thoughts about the golfing sequence involved its comic value – perhaps providing a breather for the audience. One of the key moments, when Larry walks into the water and drowns after having lost the round of golf, and therefore the girl, Mary (Peggy Bruce), who figures as the ‘prize’ – is not very funny though. Nor did we find it scary – life in the narrative simply goes on without him. The ambivalence is furthered when it is implied that after the disappearance of the newly married George and the presence, though invisible, of Larry, the latter will simply take the former’s place (maybe a further reason for the fact this section is not seen in the US release).

dummy-switchWe found the final sequence (the Ventriloquist’s Dummy) the most disturbing of the individual narratives. There are unsettling moments throughout, including the dummy Hugo seeming to move from one place to another without help. The switching of the ventriloquist Maxwell Frere (Michael Redgrave) and Hugo’s voices at the end of the sequence was particularly striking – visually and aurally.

The ways in which the sequences can be compared, as well as the wraparound narrative, were also discussed. The relation of the tellers to their narratives is interesting. The first 3 play significant parts in the flashback sequences – though notably only the wife and not her passive husband is present at the house to tell of the tale of the Haunted Mirror. Given the proximity of the tellers to these spooky tales, they remain surprisingly unruffled by these earlier experiences – all only proffering their narratives once prompted by Craig.

Noticeably the Golfing story sequence is more tangential to its teller Foley, the owner of the house and gatherer of the guests. It is understandable that neither of the golfing buddies can tell the tale- one has managed to disappear while the other in invisible. In addition to the teller being somewhat disconnected from the story, since he is a bystander, the ambivalence towards death referred to earlier, blurs the boundary between life and death.

drThe final sequence also involves its teller – the psychiatrist Dr Van Straaten (Frederick Valk)– to a lesser degree. The reason for the lack of Maxwell Frere at the house is more sinister than previous one – he has gone insane. It is also significant that by telling the tale, the doctor is afforded, and indeed lends, an authority to it – and indeed to his assertions throughout that there is an explicable, psychological reason for Craig’s sense of déjà vu. It is presumably that it is just this which inspires Craig to strangle him.

All the narratives satisfyingly come together at the end. The characters are still presentending in Foley’s house, but there is splicing of various spaces we know cannot be geographically related – for example the separate spaces of the Christmas Party house and the prison. This adds to the sense of terror. We agreed that the most terrifying moment was when the dummy ‘walks’. The circularity of the narrative was also deemed especially effective as there was not just a wraparound story, but the restarting of the film’s beginning with Walter Craig again visiting Foley’s house, once more with a feeling of déjà vu.

We concluded with comments about the influence of the film. While the production of horror films had been banned in the UK during the war the genre exploded following the film’s release. More specific influence has also been attributed to the scene in which Frere switches his voice to that of his dummy. It is echoed at the end of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960).  Jez Conolly and David O. Bates comment on this, as well as the reading of the tussle between the two ventriloquists over the male dummy as a love triangle (Dead of Night, Columbia University Press, 2015). More recently, the presence of the character the Ventriloquist in Batman films is perhaps a nod to this horror classic.

As ever, do log in to comment, or email me on to add your thoughts.

I hope you all have a peaceful Christmas and New Year.

Melodrama Screening and Discussion, 4th of April, 5-7pm, Jarman 7

After a brief break for the Festival of Projections Passages of Gothic installation, we return to the previously advertised screening schedule. All  are very welcome to join us for the last of this term’s Screening and Discussion sessions, which will take place on Monday the 4th of April, 5-7pm, in Jarman 7.

We will be showing Frances’ choice The Duke of Burgundy (2014, Peter Strickland, 105 mins). Frances has very kindly provided the following introduction:



Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy (2014) is a film not easily classified. Upon its release, critics contextualised the work within European art cinema traditions, with comparisons to Luis Buñuel and Ingmar Bergman, as well as noting the influences of 1960s and 70s sexploitation films (Collin, 2015; Foundas, 2014). Strickland, himself, concurs with this broad range of inspiration, noting how, amongst others, he was inspired by films such as A Virgin among the Living Dead (1973) and Belle de Jour (1967) (Strickland, 2015). I propose that another way to interpret this challenging and compelling film is to think about it within the traditions of the Gothic. If we reflect upon the Gothic tropes and motifs discussed over the course of the term, it becomes clear how Burgundy may be analysed in this fashion. The film is set in an undisclosed place at an unknown time and – as indicated by the film’s opening scene – the narrative focuses upon the action taking place in and around the house. The film begins with Evelyn sitting alone in a woodland and the title sequence takes place as we follow Evelyn as she journeys from this peaceful area towards the large, dominating house. Upon arrival the non-diegetic whimsical music abruptly stops and the sounds of Spring audible elsewhere on the soundtrack – such as birds singing – suddenly convey a different, more menacing tone. Evelyn rings the doorbell and waits anxiously as the footsteps within take some time to finally arrive. When they do Evelyn is faced with a stern-looking Cynthia at the door who coarsely reprimands her: ‘You’re late’. Silently Evelyn walks through the door towards the dark gloom of the house within.

The emphasis upon the house and the interactions of the heroine within it, is only one way Burgundy draws upon the traditions of the Gothic. There are other motifs which we have seen in the Gothic films screened previously appearing here: the importance of a key; the idea of secrets to be uncovered and hidden places; the imperilled woman who, in this case, appears to be oppressed and abused; and the heroine’s exploration of the domestic space within darkness. Indeed, Burgundy features a memorable moment when Evelyn gets out of bed in the middle of the night– whilst significantly dressed in a white nightie – and ventures into the dark cellar, lighting her way with a candelabra. This iconic image of the investigative heroine is one we have seen numerous times in the other Gothic films watched, as reflected by the several examples we included in our Passages of Gothic installation two weeks ago. In this way, Burgundy appears to be another return to the Gothic which is evident elsewhere within contemporary cinema: the year after Burgundy sees the release of Ex Machina and Crimson Peak (both 2015). These films echo the Gothic in comparable ways as Ex Machina evokes the BluebeardDOB_2 tale in its translation of the Gothic heroine into an android in a science-fiction story, whilst Crimson Peak mirrors the familiar tale of a woman marrying a man she hardly knows in manner evocative of Rebecca (1940), albeit with events now taking place in a period setting.

Ex Machina and Crimson Peak are reminders of the Gothic’s roots, particularly in respect to the centrality of relationships between men and women within the narrative’s trajectory. It is here that Burgundy differs. Evelyn and Cynthia are a lesbian couple and the story focuses on the dynamics of their sadomasochistic roleplaying in which Evelyn is the willing submissive. More broadly, Burgundy explores the relationships between various women within the film, with these interactions being alternately sexual, romantic, friendships, business transactions or scientific discussions. In Burgundy’s world, there are no men at all; indeed, even the mannequins which are part of the audience for the Lepidoptera lectures are female. The absence of a male figure may signal an alternative interpretation of the Gothic mode but this should not be read as a DOB_1new, radical opposition to the Gothic ‘norm’ (if such a concept exists). In fact, it can be said that Burgundy harkens back to past themes and representations which can be analysed through the theories of queer Gothic.

Queer theory and the Gothic have shared tendencies insofar as both emphasise contrary readings and the importance of subtext. George Haggerty pushes this idea further, arguing that the Gothic ‘offers a historical model of queer theory and politics: transgressive, sexually coded and resistant to dominant ideology’ (Haggerty, 2006, 2). Brian Robinson traces a similar historical connection, noting that ‘[t]he queer is inscribed in the DNA of Gothic fiction’ (Robinson, 2013, 143). This genealogy is one which the cinema inherits and capitalises upon because, as Robinson continues, it ‘was on film that the tropes of the Queer Gothic would find their full flowering’ (143). The queer readings possible – or, arguably, inevitable – of The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945) and the numerous adaptations of Dracula (1897), along with cinema’s continued fascination with vampires, strongly supports this assertion. The female Gothic can also be contextualised within this lineage: the importance of the Gothic heroine’s relationship with the archetypal ‘other woman’ begins to illuminate how such films can be interpreted through queer readings. A key example of this is the new Mrs de Winter’s discovery of the obsessive behaviour of Mrs Danvers towards her previous mistress in Rebecca (1940).

Burgundy brings to the fore the implied interpretations and queer subversions which have a historical precedent within cinema’s Gothic. In this way, the film becomes an embodiment of the uncanny: the return of the repressed which is, as Freud writes, unheimliche because this element ‘is actually nothing new or strange, but something that was long familiar to the psyche and was estranged from it only through being repressed’ (Freud, 1919, 148). Mair Rigby explores how the Gothic is queer – and how queer theory is Gothic – through the dialectics of the uncanny. Rigby argues:

When I say that queer scholarship’s encounter with the Gothic is ‘uncanny’, I mean that it appears to be based on a sense of a ‘secret encounter’ in which the texts bring to light something that ought to be repressed, something that feels particularly pertinent to people whose identities, bodies, and desires have been culturally designated ‘queer’. (Rigby, 2009, 48)

Burgundy presents this ‘bringing to light’ quite overtly through the portrayal of a world without men and in the detailing of alternative sexual practices which form an integral part of pivotal scenes between Evelyn and Cynthia. The fact that the most explicit forms of these acts remain off-screen only emphasises further their unheimliche nature: they are both familiar and normalised – we meet The Carpenter who specialises in building sadomasochist contraptions – and strange and marginal, as reflected by the way these practices are pushed to the periphery of the frame. Most importantly for Burgundy, however, is how the uncanniness of the story draws attention to the dynamics of the relationship between Evelyn and Cynthia, which is fraught with difficulties. By presenting us with two Gothic heroines, the film returns us to the central questions which orbit the archetypal female protagonist within this mode of storytelling: is the house a safe space or a danger? Within the romantic relationship, who holds the knowledge and the power? Whose secret is to be uncovered? What forms of oppression must the female protagonist(s) struggle against? Burgundy therefore revisits the ‘queerness’ of the Gothic and the significance of the Gothic heroine, although the film offers some surprising answers to the questions above: just like the ‘repressed’ returning to the light through the processes of the uncanny, so too does Burgundy remind us how what we initially think of as familiar or unusual, may quickly become conversely strange and homely.




Collin, R. (2015). The Duke of Burgundy: ‘Sexy and Strange’. [Online]. The Telegraph. Available from: [Accessed 30 March 2016].

Foundas, S. (2014). Film Review: The Duke of Burgundy. [Online]. Variety. Available from: [Accessed 30 March 2016].

Freud, S. (1919). The Uncanny. In: Freud, S. (2003). The Uncanny. London: Penguin Books Ltd.

Haggerty, G. (2006) Queer Gothic. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2006.

Rigby, M. (2009). Uncanny Recognition: Queer Theory’s Debt to the Gothic. Gothic Studies, Volume. 11 Issue 1.

Robinson, B. (2013). Queer Gothic. In: Bell, J (Ed). Gothic: The Dark Heart of Film. Witham: Colt Press.

Strickland, P. (2015). Peter Strickland: Six Films that Fed into The Duke of Burgundy [Online]. BFI. Available from: [Accessed 30 March 2016].

Thanks very much for the introduction Frances! Do join us, if you can, for what sounds like a fascinating Gothic film many of us will have been intrigued by whilst watching the Passages of Gothic installation.

Melodrama Screening and Discussion, 30th of March, 5-7pm, Jarman 7

All are very welcome to join us for the last screening and discussion session of this term, which will take place on the 30th of March, 5-7pm, in Jarman 7.

We will be showing Frances’ suggestion: The Student of Prague (1913, Stellan Rye, 85mins).

Student of Prague

Frances has very kindly provided the following introduction:

The Student of Prague (1913) tells the story of Balduin – the student in question – who is a popular and skilled fencer but feels unhappy and unfulfilled in life. He becomes interested in a countess after rescuing her from a fall in a lake, although she is already betrothed to be married to her cousin. Balduin hopes he can change this, and better his life, by making a deal with a strange man named Scapinelli. Scapinelli promises Balduin great riches and, in exchange, Scapinelli can take whatever he wishes from the student’s apartment. Balduin signs a contract agreeing to these terms and Scapinelli then makes his choice: he touches the full-length mirror in the room and Balduin’s reflection suddenly emerges. This double – now a distinct figure, unattached to its original form and freed from the constraints of the mirror – walks out of the room. Balduin attempts to suppress his amazement and worry over this incident as he soon concentrates on wooing the countess. However Balduin’s doppelganger re-emerges and begins to haunt his former owner…

The Student of Prague is a silent, German film starring Paul Wegener as the titular character. The film has had a few remakes (and re-cuts), including ones in 1926 and 1935, and different versions of the original have subsequently been released. One 2004 DVD release, for example, has a running time of approximately 50 minutes. As will be explained by the opening of the version screened today, details gathered from press releases and exhibitions notes reveal that the film should be over 80 minutes long. Today’s film has been restored by Filmmuseum München and is a more complete version of the film. This cut of the film thus contains expanded scenes which allow for the development of some of the supporting characters, and in particular that of the ‘wandering girl’.

Like many of the other films screened in the season, the double figure in The Student of Prague is an evil, trouble-making doppelganger. Balduin’s reflection stalks his original owner and sabotages his efforts to seduce the countess. As we have discussed previously in relation to this theme, it seems impossible for the double and the original figure to co-exist in these stories. The narrative of The Student of Prague explores the intolerability of this situation but with an additional twist: by removing Balduin’s reflection, Scapinelli effectively removes an aspect of Balduin directly – his soul. This aspect is confirmed by the film’s melodramatic ending which is reminiscent of Simon’s efforts to deal with an unwanted doppelganger in The Double (2013) screened a few weeks ago.

The link between the double and the soul is one of the avenues explored by Otto Rank in his investigation into this uncanny phenomenon in his work The Double, written in 1914. In this work Rank is interested in psychoanalytical investigations and, like his contemporary Freud, is inspired by the recurring themes present in German literature, one of which is the double. Rank, like Freud, calls the double uncanny: for the protagonists in the stories analysed by Rank, the experience of viewing one’s own doppelganger is an unnerving and eerie experience, which usually results in injury or death. Rank wants to understand the attraction of including a doppelganger character in a story and so he adopts an anthropological approach – albeit framed by psychoanalytical interpretations – and explores the history of the doppelganger in various cultures. One aspect he discovers is how traditionally one’s own reflection or shadow was thought of as a double. In this respect, the doppelganger is intimately related to the original figure and completely inseparable. It is for these reasons that the double, he argues, is closely related to death and the soul. Ranks writes: “Folklorists are in agreement in emphasizing that the shadow is coequivalent with the human soul.” (Rank, 1914, 75)

The Student of Prague appears to engage with this type of doppelganger, as Balduin’s double is not a sibling or coincidental lookalike but a ‘part’ of him; his reflection. The link between The Student of Prague and Rank’s research also runs deeper as the film was a big inspiration for the writer. Indeed, Rank begins his book with a detailed summary and analysis of the film as the plot and imagery of The Student of Prague provides several avenues for Rank to explore the figure of the doppelganger. Rank describes the experience of watching the film and its subject matter as uncanny, as he writes: “An obscure but unavoidable feeling takes hold of the spectator and seems to betray that deep human problems are being dealt with here [in The Student of Prague].  The uniqueness of cinematography in visibly portraying psychological events calls our attention, with exaggerated clarity, to the fact that the interesting and meaningful problems of man’s relation to himself – and the fateful disturbance of this relation – finds here an imaginative representation.” (Rank, 7)

What is significant is that Rank’s musings on The Student of Prague extend to think about the medium of cinema itself. Cinema, itself a form of doubling, is compared by Rank to “dream-work”. He is particularly fascinated by how this technology – which was still relatively in its infancy at the time of Rank’s writing – has the ability to both represent the physical presence of the doppelganger and evoke the larger themes of melodrama inherent in such stories. These themes include: a crisis of the individual; thwarted romance; love rivals; and the dissolution of family units. Rank observes:

It may perhaps turn out that cinematography, which in numerous ways reminds us of the dream-work, can also express certain psychological facts and relationships – which the writer often is unable to describe with verbal clarity – in such clear and conspicuous imagery that it facilitates our understanding of them. (Rank, 4)

The filmic representation of the double is a topic we can discuss after the screening. Do join us to watch an early example of the doppelganger theme on-screen, and see why The Student of Prague proved so influential for Rank’s work.

I hope to see you there!


Rank, O. [1914] 1971. The Double: A Psychoanalytic Study. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.

Summary of Discussion on Black Swan

Posted by Sarah

Ann-Marie has very kindly provided the following:

We had a varied and detailed discussion about Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky, 2010). Please find our discussion under theme/subject:



Black Swan mother and childEach member found the relationship between mother and daughter disturbing. Firstly, we were unsure whether the mother was a villain or whether we see her through Nina’s interpretation. The film is not always explicit in its depiction of reality (part of its power) but this also leaves for questionable gaps in its reading. A question was raised if ​we should cast blame on the mother? It seems like a “chicken and egg” scenario and is open to either interpretation. Option A: Mother is to blame, showing the danger of the matriarch. Option B: Nina’s illness has caused an over-protective mother, showing the responsibility placed on the role of matriarch.

The mother’s lack of career did not escape us, particularly because she was supposedly destined to the life that Nina has gained.  Two things are suggested here: the mother as self-sacrificing (she gave up her career to have Nina) for the advancement of future women. Or, the continuous replacement of younger women in the entertainment industry. Nina informs us that her mother was already 28, thus past her expiry date. The mother viewed in this sense is a tragic character because she lacks a career, (because of age and children) and is also losing her daughter to the strain of an industry, one that she is acutely aware of.

Another odd occurrence: the moment of Nina’s first sexual experience. Did she imagine her mother in the room during masturbation, or was the mother by her bedside?  If the first interpretation is correct then what does this mean? One option could be part of a guilt complex, but should we be more psychoanalytic?

Yet another confusing mother moment occurs when Nina’s mother attempts to throw away the celebration cake. What are we to make of this over-blown reaction? It was noted that Nina is a ballerina and thus most likely on a strict diet so cake would be out-of-bounds, and Nina suggests this very idea to her mother.

Let’s break this down:

  • ​​Mother buys a giant cake, but knows Nina will not be able to eat much of it. Is the mother masochistic?
  • ​​Nina refuses, as we would expect, so the mother attempts to throw the cake away.
  • ​​Nina pleads her to stop, agreeing to eat the cake. The mother is victorious, firmly establishing the power boundaries.

In this scene we can see a guilt complex working in favour of the mother, and if we then connect this to the masturbation scene we could surmise: the mother keeps her in a virginal room made for a young girl, complete with the habitual tucking into bed and brushing of the hair. Nina moves away from the mother’s “ideal” (good little girl) and is struck by an imaginative view of her mother, caused by an inherent guilt complex. These are merely speculations, but what is important to note is how the power boundaries change and evolve. 

 Female performers/ All About Eve syndrome 

Black Swan fragmentA possible fear that is shown through Nina’s character is the dissolution of self. Nina’s submersion into the two roles that she plays begs the question: is a personality lost when one becomes a performer, and if one can lose the self in a part then what is the self, is it something we continually construct? If this Is the case it is no wonder that Nina would fear others, but more importantly the particular danger of other performers. Alternately, we could also consider Nina (or indeed any performer) as an example of the role picked for us and the person we are. 

The performer is presented to us as a fragmented person (Nina, Erica, Beth). The best example of this can be found in:

  • ​​Nina – Throughout, often by the use of shots, particularly as she dances. Nina is also is often viewed through another object, such as the window on the subway.
  • ​Beth – First caught in a glimpse through a door, and later becomes both Nina and Beth in the process of self-mutilation.
  • ​Erica (the mother) – her drawings are sharp and disjointed, representing an element of her psyche.
  • ​The obscured view of Nina during the dance sequence in the club could also be noted as the completion of this fragmented self because it is from this that she accepts her duality.

We also noted similar connections to this film and The Red Shoes (Powell and Pressburger, UK, 1948). The film shows a performer that lives her role to such an extent that it becomes her literal destruction.

 The uncanny and the double 

Black Swan mirrorThe use of the double was the reason for the initial interest in the film. In many melodramas we have seen the clear distinctions between good and bad (The Wicked Lady, Leslie Arliss, UK, 1945) and the nature of disguise/hiding true self (Gaslight, Thorold Dickinson, UK, 1940 and George Cukor, US, 1945). Black Swan is no exception, in fact, its use of double and its cause for female stress is explicit. Here are just some of the ways the film shows us that the duality of self is at its core:​

  • ​​Half man/ half bird statue
  • ​The use of black and white throughout the film, particularly in décor. Note: the shift between pink/pastel sheets to white and black on Nina’s bed. 
  • ​Costume, particularly Nina’s in contrast to Lily.
  • ​The plot mimics the ballet.
  • ​Use of mirrors and reflections, we view Nina/ Nina’s double/and see other characters.
  • ​Nina replaces a random woman, Beth, Lily, and she also appears in places we least expect, such as the bathtub.
  • Shadow manifestation at the end of the Black Swan’s sequence. Note: there are two shadows.
  • The performance styles, particularly the sexual prowess and make-up of the Black Swan in contrast with the pastel colours and timid, girl-like performance of Nina.

These are just a few examples, but the message is clear: duality is inherent, and it’s everywhere. Interestingly, the duality causes fear and paranoia at first and then destruction by its acceptance.

Sexuality and gender roles

Black Swan Nina and ThomasPurity is seen as a form of weakness. Thomas tells Nina at various intervals to stop being weak and that she seems too reserved, thus, has an inability to lose herself in a good performance. Perhaps most fascinating is Thomas’ mention of Beth. He tells Nina that it is the dark impulses of Beth that makes her perfect, albeit destructive. It seems that the film suggests that a woman finds perfection in accepting her inherent dichotomy. Often the stereotyped woman is the virgin or the whore, and this film challenges those preconceptions as well as challenging the idea of a defined sexuality. Nina experiments with men and has fantasises about women, thus showing the possibility of both a fluid Black Swan Nina and Lilysexuality as well as a rejection of gender roles. However, the “perfection” that Nina feels she achieves by the end of her performance suggests that it is still not possible for a woman to reach the “ideal fluidity,” instead these women will be destroyed by the pressures put upon them.

Another comment in regards to women and sexuality was the intriguing fact that women fear each other.  This fear seems to derive from the opposing woman’s bodily power. The fear results in jealousy and paranoia, reminding the group  of hysteria as a woman’s problem. Note that Thomas finds the notion of another woman trying to steal Nina’s part as ridiculous and he is almost unaware of the pain and stress caused by the decline of Beth’s career.

 Please comment further to continue the discussion on this interesting film.

 You can log in to do so, or email me on

Many thanks to Ann-Marie for choosing such a  thought-provoking film, providing an interesting introduction and the above excellent summary of our discussion.

Summary of Discussion on The Awakening

Posted by Sarah

Frances has very kindly provided the following summary of our discussion on The Awakening (2011):

the awakening


Warning! The following discussion contains spoilers for those who have not seen the film yet…

On Wednesday 19th February we watched and discussed The Awakening. I did not want to say too much about the film in my opening remarks and so most of the group present were experiencing the film for the first time and without much previous knowledge. This was an important component for our discussion after the film as quite a lot of time was spent discussing the film’s ending and its twist (or twists). We agreed that the film remained ambiguous about whether Florence is alive or not at the end. We mentioned that, logically, it is probably likely that she survived (the manner in which she interacts with other characters and is about to leave the house points to this) but it is interesting that the film still works to evoke the question of her mortality and does not complete resolve the ambiguity. Costume and performance are important parts to this uncertainty. Florence’s costume has changed and so this suggests she has survived. However we awakening endingnoted how the white coat she wears could make Florence seem ghostly and this is an interpretation reinforced by the way her presence is ignored by the school’s headmaster. In either case, we felt the possibility for different interpretations was a fitting ending to a ghost story where frequently our expectations are continually subverted.

The group commented how, in many ways, The Awakening is a conventional story of a haunted house where the spirits interact with the living in order to resolve unfinished business. The music contributes considerably in establishing this uneasy mood and the film contains some good, unexpected scares. A comparison was made between The Awakening and Turn of the Screw and the relationship between the ghost story in cinema and that in literature. But that is not to say that the film does not contain some very striking moments which we agreed worked especially well. We talked about how the uncanny is evoked by the film, especially in the scene where Florence keeps returning to the same room depicting her mother’s death, despite her attempts to run away. The rabbit toy is also particularly uncanny and signals a rare instance of the use of vivid colour in the film. We discussed how it is possible to extend the Freudian reading of the film further, as the dollhouse functions as another double: it is the double of the house but also metaphorically represents Florence’s mind (it is her ‘mind palace’). Florence’s interaction with the dollhouse – which moves from confusion to trepidation and fear – parallels our protagonist’s the awakening doll's houseincreasing understanding of the haunting. The dollhouse allows Florence to observe the whole house, at once, and yet she is still unable to ‘see’ the larger picture for the majority of the film. This radically changes of course when Florence remembers her traumatic childhood and the memories of those disturbing events are ‘re-lived’ before her eyes.

In this respect the film can be interpretedthe awakening rabbit as a representation of the psychoanalytical process, as a kind of ‘talking cure’. Florence’s experience of the haunted house in the film functions to provide a series of shocks for the heroine so that she may remember the traumatic truth of her childhood. Tom’s presence in the film represents a form of the return of the repressed. The rabbit toy also functions as an important marker and another double. The song which the toy sings remarks that all the children ‘are gone except one’. This creates another double because at first the viewer believes this to be the ghost child (revealed later to be Tom) but this ‘child’ is also Florence herself, as she survived her father’s brutal attack. Only by remembering – or rediscovering – her true ‘self’ can Florence come to terms with this true identity. We discussed how it is interesting that this journey of self-discovery is framed by Florence’s movement from spiritual sceptic to dedicated believer in ghosts. This somewhat undermines Florence’s characterisation at the beginning of the film as an independent, successful author and career woman in the early 20th Century, and so the ultimate ‘message’ of the film is obtuse.

We also discussed the film’s setting and agreed that the post-WWI era is particularly suited to this type of horror story. We said how the film thus taps into a British cultural memory in addition to performing as a conventional ghostly tale. It was commented that The Awakening also correlates to the wider tradition of British horror which emphasises the paganism and spiritualism of the countryside against the supposed rational and sceptical urban city. Additionally, the manor house setting in The Awakening brings in the question of class, particularly through the character of Maud, and how the haunting of the house is caused – in part The Skeleton key– by the oppression of the aristocracy. We commented how this trait in horror extends beyond British films albeit in a slightly different guise: The Skeleton Key is a good comparison point with the manor house now replaced by a plantation house.

Many thanks to Frances for choosing the film, introducing it and providing the above excellent summary of our discussion.

Do, as ever, log in to comment or email me on to add your thoughts.

Melodrama Screening and Discussion, 19th of February, Keynes Seminar Room 6, 4-7pm

Posted by Sarah

All are welcome to attend the fourth of this term’s screening and discussion sessions which will take place on the 19th of February in Keynes Seminar Room 6, from 4pm to 7pm.

We will be screening The Awakening (2011, Nick Murphy, 107 mins).

TA 4


Frances has very kindly provided the following introduction:

Following on from Kat’s screening of Black Christmas last week, this week’s film The Awakening is another example of the intersection between horror and melodrama in the
Gothic tradition. The Awakening picks up many of the Gothic tropes present in Black Christmas, such as the woman-in-peril and dark house motifs, but uses these elements for a very different effect.

The Awakening TA 1is a 2011 British horror film starring Rebecca Hall, Dominic West and Imelda Staunton and directed by Nick Murphy. In many ways the film contributes to the popularity of the haunted house and ghost story narratives which have been featured and revived in many recent horror films, such as the Paranormal Activity series (2009-present) and, in particular, The Woman in Black (2012 and another British horror film). The Awakening also shares many similarities with The Orphanage (2007), as it seeks to combine a classic chilling story of a house haunted by a supernatural presence with the aftermath of traumatic historic events: in The Awakening’s case, Britain in 1921 after World War One. The Awakening tells the story of writer Florence Cathcart who has made her name as a paranormal sceptic and now helps the police in exposing and arresting charlatans who host spiritualism meetings and séances which promise to reunite paying customers with family members and the soldiers who did not return from the war. A war veteran and teacher, Robert Mallory, meets Florence and requests she return with him to his boarding school in the countryside, where he believes a real ghost of a former schoolboy is haunting the premises. Although initially reluctant at first, Florence agrees to return with Robert and prove the ghost a fraud, and thereby restore order to the school and the boys who believe the recent death of their school friend to be caused by a malicious spirit. With the help of her scientific equipment, Florence quickly believes the mystery to be solved and the ‘ghost’ exposed as a childish prank, until further paranormal occurrences begin to take place and Florence is forced to question her beliefs…

TA 5The film incorporates many of the major themes and tropes of the Gothic, as   established by the Gothic literature of the 18th century and the Bluebeard tale, which in turn inspired the Gothic cycle of films in Hollywood in the 1940s beginning with Rebecca (1940). Florence is the Gothic heroine of the film who is compelled to investigate the mystery of an old, dark house: in this case, the boarding school. In unlocking the secrets of the house, Florence becomes the woman-in-jeopardy conventionally at the heart of these stories: Florence is imperilled by the supernatural presence in the house; by the threats posed by the shady groundskeeper Edward Judd; and by her own stubbornness to question her rationalist convictions. In keeping with the traditions of the Gothic, the film’s narrative hinges on the revelation of a hidden secret which comes to light through Florence’s investigation. In The Awakening this secret is not contained within a single secret, locked room (as conventionally seen in such Bluebeard-inspired tales) but rather the house itself is the mystery to Florence, which must be discovered and understood in order to reveal the building’s – and her own – troubled past. As such we explore the house and experience the supernatural sightings with Florence and this identification with the female protagonist shows the film’s correlation to the conventions of horror established by films like Black Christmas, as discussed last week. The film adheres to other horror generic conventions, particularly in respect to low key lighting and the threat conveyed through effective editing and camera movement, but The Awakening is not just concerned with shocks and jumps. In his 2011 review of the film, Guardian critic Peter Bradshaw describes the film as a ‘supernatural melodrama’ and this description becomes very apt. The film’s horror elements work to illuminate andTA 3 frame the personal (and often private) melodramas which affect each character. The teachers of the school fail to conceal these tragedies as these secrets are also revealed within the course of Florence’s investigation. Central topics include shell-shock, child abuse and death.

The film extends the Gothic trope of the house revealing secrets to include Florence herself, as The Awakening ultimately performs an in-depth analysis of the heroine and her psyche as well. This commingling of the paranormal or the mysterious with scientific and rational reasoning is a TA6reoccurring trend in the narrative and becomes key to unlocking the secret of Florence and her past. This is evident from the film’s very first frames, when we see a quotation from Florence’s popular book about the debunking of spirits informing us of the high death rate in Britain recently and concluding: ‘This is a time for ghosts’. This sentiment is supported by the opening scene which sees Florence attend a séance. Yet this first ghostly encounter is quickly revealed to be a fraud by Florence, who has the proponents of the meeting arrested. Florence maintains her sceptical, rationalist ideals through the use of advanced technological devices to prove the boarding school’s sightings of ghosts to be a hoax, only to have this same scientific equipment ‘prove’ the opposite is true. The narrative’s vacillation between incredulity and belief highlights the importance of the film’s setting in post-war Britain. The years following the First World War – a conflict which would radically re-define modern warfare and the devastating impact of technology – saw an increase in the popularity of spiritualism and belief in the paranormal. It is important to note that Freud’s essay on the uncanny was also published at this time, in 1919. The uncanny has a long history, which is interwoven with the Gothic tradition and literature of the 18th century, but the fact that Freud should choose to publish his work on the uncanny at this time is significant. Just as the world was recovering from the shock and trauma of the ‘modern’ – in this case, modern warfare – Freud muses upon the affect a displacement from the world, like an experience of the uncanny, has upon the mind. Like Florence, Freud hopes to offer a scientific explanation for these occurrences although, by his own admission, he ultimately fails. It is therefore important to view the film in terms of the uncanny as well, because the concept helps contextualise the historical setting for the film and The Awakening effectively incorporates many of the motifs which Freud identifies as ripe for an uncanny experience. These include representations of the double; the slippage between what is known to be alive or dead; and the unheimlich or the unhomely nature of the house. In testament to Freud’s work, The Awakening reveals that the secret behind the melodrama, the cause of the horror and ‘the uncanny is that species of the frightening that goes back to what was once well known and has long been familiar.’

When watching the film we can think about:

–          How The Awakening fits into this Gothic tradition

–          Why the film has this historical setting

–          Florence’s characterisation

–          The ending: what does it all mean?

Do join us if you can for this chilling screening!