August 1, 2008

Week 1 – Freud, Psychology and Vertigo

Filed under: CMM4106 Psycho & Cinema,ECU MInT — steve @ 2:08 pm

Week 1′s reading: Breuer & Freud – “On the Physical Mechanism of Hysterical Phenomena: Preliminary Communication”

Week 1′s movie: Alfred Hitchock – “Vertigo”


Hysteria, as a pathological phenomenon, is often caused by a precipitating traumatic event that the patient often dislikes discussing or more probably is unable to recollect (Breuer & Freud, 1893/1986, p. 53). Symptoms may include “neuralgias, anaesthesias, contractures, hysterical attacks and epileptoid convulsions” (Breuer & Freud, 1893/1986, p. 54) [italics added].

The WordNet database (Princeton University, 2006) defines the following terms:
neuralgias : “Acute spasmodic pain along the course of one or more nerves”
anaesthesias : “Loss of bodily sensation with or without loss of consciousness”
contractures : “An abnormal and usually permanent contraction of a muscle”

In a traumatic event “If the reaction is suppressed, the affect remains attached to the memory”. Whereas, if there is adequate reaction to the trauma, such as revenge, then that may serve as a cathartic experience. Abreaction ["discharging bad feelings or tensions through verbalization" (Princeton University, 2006)] is almost as effective. In some cases speaking about the event whether as a lamentation or as a confession to a secret may be an adequate reflex. “If there is no such reaction, whether in deeds or words, or in the mildest cases in tears, any recollection of the event retains its affective tone to begin with” (Breuer & Freud, 1893/1986, p. 59).

There are “at least two sets of conditions under which the reaction to the trauma fails to occur” (Breuer & Freud, 1893/1986, pp. 60-61):

The first “are those cases in which the patients have not reacted to a physical trauma because the nature of the trauma excluded a reaction”. Examples of these cases may be: the death of a loved one; social circumstances that make a reaction impossible; or, the fact that the patient simply wishes to forget (Breuer & Freud, 1893/1986, p. 61).

The second “are determined , not by the content of the memories but by the psychical states in which the patient received the experiences in question”. These states may be caused by “severely paralysing effects, such as fright or during positively abnormal psychical states, such as the semi-hypnotic twilight state of day-dreaming, auto-hypnoses, and so on” (Breuer & Freud, 1893/1986, p. 61).

Charcot described that “four phases can be distinguished in a complete attack: (1) the epileptoid phase, (2) the phase of large movements, (3) the phase of ‘attitudes passionelles‘ (the hallucinatory phase), and (4) the phase of terminal delirium” (Breuer & Freud, 1893/1986, p. 64).

Breuer & Freud (1893/1986) explain that the cause of an hysterical attack:

…takes its start from the third of these phases, that of ‘attitudes passionelles‘. Where this is present in a well-marked form, it exhibits the hallucinatory reproduction of a memory which was of importance in bringing about the onset of hysteria – the memory either of a single major trauma (which we find par excellence in what is called traumatic hysteria) or a series of interconnected part-traumas (such as underline common hysteria). Or, lastly, the attack may revive the events which have become emphasized owing to their coinciding with a moment of special disposition to trauma. (p. 65)

Breuer & Freud (1893/1986) also describe attacks that “appear to consist exclusively of motor phenomena and in which the phase of attitudes passionelles is absent”. These attacks may take the form of “clonic  spasms or cataleptic  rigidity” (p. 65) [italics added].

The WordNet database (Princeton University, 2006) defines the following terms:
clonic : “Of or relating to abnormal neuromuscular activity characterized by rapidly alternating muscle contraction and relaxation”
catalepsy : “A trancelike state with loss of voluntary motion and failure to react to stimuli”

Vertigo – scene 1:

In the opening scene of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” (1958) the character ‘Scottie’ [played by James Stewart] suffers an extremely traumatic experience when he slips from a very steep tiled roof while chasing what one assumes to be a criminal along the roof tops of San Francisco. As he slides down the roof top he manages to hang onto the roof’s guttering which then proceeds to break away. Scottie looks down at the distant ground some 4 stories or so below which appears to recede and advance toward him [using a camera zoom and dolly effect]. A fellow officer of the law, who was chasing the criminal with Scottie and who managed to jump on and over the roof top prior to Scottie’s attempt, gives up his chase of the criminal to return and save Scottie, however in his efforts he slips and falls to his death. Scottie, still hanging precariously from the gutter, looks down to see the body of the police officer on the pavement below. Scottie’s dilemma is obvious as is the frightened and anguished expression on his face – he does not cry out or attempt to lift himself up to safety as the scene closes with the audience left viewing Scottie hanging on for precious life in what would appear to be hopeless situation.

Initial Psychoanalysis:

Scottie’s situation, hanging from the roof top’s gutter, is what would be described as the “precipitating traumatic event” (Breuer & Freud, 1893/1986, p. 54). The fact that we do not hear Scottie cry out or abreact in any way would suggest that he is suppressing his emotions to the situation thus relating to Breuer & Freud’s statement: “If the reaction is suppressed, the affect remains attached to the memory” (1893/1986, p. 59). The reason Scottie does not react in any way may be inferred by him being in the second of “at least two sets of conditions under which the reaction to the trauma fails to occur” (Breuer & Freud, 1893/1986, pp. 60-61), that being a physical state that had “severely paralysing effects, such as fright” (Breuer & Freud, 1893/1986, p. 61).

It is this precipitating moment that is so dramatically enacted in scene 1 that becomes the modus operandi  for Hitchcock to so convincingly weave Scottie’s phobia of heights into becoming an unsuspecting pawn in an intrically planned murder mystery:

Vertigo – Scene 2:

In this scene we see Scottie situated in a studio apartment with his long time friend ‘Midge’ [played by Barbara Bel Geddes - we do not know how Scottie came to be rescued from his predicament at the end of scene 1]. Scottie is now convinced, due to what he has been told by ‘the doctors’, that he suffers from acrophobia and this caused the traumatic experience of him slipping on the roof top in the scene earlier. Even so, Scottie seems a little perplexed – perhaps surprised – to have to find out about his ‘phobia’ at such a critical moment [we can only assume that Scottie, as a Police Detective, had been in positions of heights before].

However, if we are to read Breuer and Freud into this narrative, Scottie has been misdiagnosed – he did not slip as a result of acrophobia but rather his acrophobia is now a pathological result of the extremely traumatic experience he underwent when he slipped on the roof top and hung on to the gutter for dear life. This trauma was compounded by the fact that the police officer, who tried to help him, did indeed slip and fall to his death validating the dire, terminal situation that Scottie found himself in. Furthermore, Scottie exhibits symptoms of a “cataleptic state” (Breuer & Freud, 1893/1986, p. 65). when he attempts to ‘cure himself’ of his fear of heights by stepping up to the top of a foot-stool that Midge has offered him – only to have a relapse when he looks out the window and consequently falls, in a trance like state, into Midge’s waiting arms.

Vertigo – Scene 16[?]:

Fast forward now to the scene at the old Spanish mission: Scottie, who has since fallen in love with ‘Madeleine’ who is really ‘Judy’ [played by Kim Novak] pretending to Madeleine – the wife of Scottie’s old college friend ‘Gavin Elster’ who has hired Scottie to follow ‘Madeleine’ on the pretext she is losing her mind – now finds himself in a position where, after declaring their love, Judy as ‘Madeleine’ runs away and enters a nearby church. Scottie runs after her and notices that ‘Madeleine’ has run up the rickety wooden stairway to the church’s bell tower. On his way up Scottie starts to experience a relapse from his precipitating episode – he finds it difficult to proceed higher up the stairs, but struggles valiantly to do so in his desire to stop ‘Madeleine’ from, what he assumes will be, an attempt to jump off the bell tower and ending her [pretended] schizophrenic life. However, Scottie is too late as he hears a scream and sees a body through a window, one that he presumes to be ‘Madeleine’, falling to her death… Distressed and distraught we see Scottie running away from the scene…

It is this scene where Scottie’s acrophobia is played upon by his ‘old friend’ Gavin Elster – Elster, having knowledge of Scottie’s trauma on the roof top in the first scene, has taken advantage of Scottie’s ‘phobia’ and, as we are to find out later, used Scottie as a ‘credible witness’ to the apparent suicide of ‘Madeleine’ [portrayed by 'Judy'] which, in fact, is actually the staged murder of the real Madeleine, Elster’s wife.

Vertigo – Scene 18[?]:

After an inquest into ‘Madeleine’s’ apparent suicide in the previous scene we find that Scottie, as a former police detective, was indeed found to be a ‘credible witness’ [although not held accountable for 'Madeleine's' death, Scottie was admonished by the judge for his lack of action in preventing 'Madeleine's suicide', as well as his 'history' in the death of his fellow police officer and the fact that he fled the scene from the church]. Scottie, never the less and perhaps as a result of the court enquiry, is now found to be in a very troubled way as he stares at the grave of the deceased Madeleine – the ‘Madeleine’ that he thought he was in love with.

At this point Scottie experiences the third of Charcot’s described phases, that of ”‘attitudes passionelles’ (the hallucinatory phase)” (Breuer & Freud, 1893/1986, p. 64). In description of this third stage, Breuer and Freud comment: “Where this is present in a well-marked form, it exhibits the hallucinatory reproduction of a memory” (1893/1986, p. 65). [This is portrayed in the film as an animated sequence with photographic overlays of James Stewart depicting a spiralling descent into psychotic 'madness'.]

Vertigo – Scene 19[?]:

In this scene we find Scottie, as visited by Midge, to be in a total cataleptic state. He does not respond to Midge’s questions or reassurances, nor does he respond to the Mozart she plays on the turntable that is supposedly prescribed to ‘heal’ Scottie of his woes. It is in this state that Scottie displays the affects of his initial suppressed trauma “…which was of importance in bringing about the onset of hysteria – the memory …. of a single major trauma (which we find par excellence in what is called traumatic hysteria)” (Breuer & Freud, 1893/1986, p. 65).

More to come – once I get to see the film again and catch the ending this time…

Reference List:

Breuer, J. & Freud, S. (1893/1986) Studies on Hysteria. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin.
Hitchcock, A. (Director). (1958). Vertigo [Motion picture]. United States: Paramount Pictures.
WordNet database [Computer software]. (2006) Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University.


  1. Interesting stuff. It makes me want to read more Freud – particularly how he interpreted the longer term affects of suppression because, lord knows, we all do it. But of course, we’re not conscious of it. This new screensaver “discharging bad feelings or tensions through” visualization, rather than verbalization. Perhaps seeing this visual abreaction (http://www.soundspectrum.com/whitecap/) might unlock some poor soul out there.

    Comment by objectman — August 1, 2008 @ 6:19 pm

  2. Hmmm, interesting, Ed, very interesting…

    Perhaps if you download this reader:

    then you could watch your whitecap sound spectrum software while listening to Freud talk to you in a voice not unlike that of Stephen Hawking!

    However, I am reasonably certain that is not what Freud meant by abreaction when he and Breuer stated: “…physical traumas which have not been disposed of by reaction cannot be disposed of either by being worked over by association” (Breuer & Freud, 1893/1986, p. 62).

    Breuer, J. & Freud, S. (1893/1986) Studies on Hysteria. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin.

    Comment by steve — August 1, 2008 @ 7:29 pm

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