Sunday, March 25, 2018

Mental essays: Rear Window and the Perinatal Unconscious, or A Womb with a View

"A homo-erotic reading of Rear Window is reluctantly invited by the word ‘rear’ in the title ... the window’s position at the rear of the house may even imply a masculinised cervix" – my actual university essay

We've been working through the Hitchcock films recently, and when it got to that bit in Rear Window where Jeffries falls out of the window, I suddenly remembered that I once wrote a ridiculous essay at university making the case that – beyond the obvious analogies of voyeurism and impotence – the film was also clearly influenced by Hitchcock's repressed, traumatic memories of birth (whether he realised it or not).

I found it.

In fairness to my student self, this was a combination of psychoanalytical piss-taking and being too lazy to research a new theory from scratch. I'd come across Stanislav Grof's LSD research in the library some time before, when researching something different that I can't even remember now, and had been desperate to squeeze any work of fiction into its malleable framework as soon as it came up.

I may not have taken the ENGL307 Literature and Film unit very seriously, especially when they kept letting me get away with this stuff. The sketch show Big Train is cited as a reference, that's the level of academic professionalism we're dealing with.

Rear Window and the Perinatal Unconscious

One would be naïve indeed to believe that so great a cataclysm would not leave its mark. Its traces are everywhere; on the skin . . . in all our human folly, in our madness, in our tortures, our prisons, in legends, epics, and our myths. [1]

In the ambitious publication Beyond the Brain, Stanislav Grof identifies connections in the human psyche between anxiety concerning death and a psychological reliving of biological birth. Using Grof’s model of the four stages of perinatal experience, perinatal literally pertaining to ‘events that immediately precede, are associated with, or follow biological birth,’ Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window acts as an allegory for male rebirth, a subconscious, man-manufactured reaction against female empowerment in the first half of the twentieth century. [2] Not to ignore the conventional analysis of Rear Window as a brilliant commentary on the voyeurism of film spectatorship, I suggest that the psychological perinatal reading lies parallel to this, the covert representation of the necessary struggle involved in rebirth.

Michael Derzak Adzema directs the blame for war and social violence towards what he identifies as ‘an emerging perinatal unconscious’ in twentieth-century society. Adzema argues the dangers of repressing birth trauma, arguing, ‘the perinatal unconscious influences us one way or the other,’ and encourages identification of perinatal experiences in artistic expression and dreams. [3] Rear Window strives to be both, Hitchcock having advocated and encouraged audience interpretation of his films as ‘nightmares.’ [4]

Grof’s four Basic Perinatal Matrices (abbreviated as BPM) correspond to four identifiable stages of the birth process. These proposed matrices are intended to reflect the ‘deep and specific’ experiences recorded in his research (Grof, p. 99), invalidating their loose and vague application by psychoanalytic critics to artistic and literary history for its depiction of the struggle of the individual and triumph over adversity. It would be anachronistic to claim conscious influence of Grof’s model on Hitchcock and screenwriter John Michael Hayes, or author Cornell Woolrich who wrote the short story on which the film is based, but Rear Window conforms to Grof’s paradigm with uncanny accuracy. Influenced by the latent homoeroticism of the Woolrich source text, the film’s historical context, explicitly anti-feminist dialogue and its depiction of an intrauterine environment grant credence to interpretation of Rear Window as part of a perinatal unconscious that blames women for the problems of twentieth-century men. Grof’s research began in the same decade that Rear Window was released, suggesting its unconscious participation in a crisis of perinatal regression in post-war, post-depression 1950s America.

To simplify Rear Window to basic metaphorical terms, Jeff’s apartment represents the uterus and Jeff himself the developing foetus, the character healing from an injury sustained to his leg and restricted to movement via a wheelchair. Jeff is dependant on his nurse Stella, a reluctant mother figure who provides him with food, while Jeff’s nemesis Thorwald personifies the aggressive contractions of the birth process, his oppressive hands evoking Middle Ages superstitions of midwives as witches. [5] Jeff’s rebirth by falling from the balcony is announced by Doyle, who addresses ‘he’s alive’ upwards towards the apartment that has housed Jeff during his recuperation. This ultimate moment of allegorical rebirth does not occur until the penultimate scene of the film. [6]

This rebirth is not natural, but self-fashioned and male-oriented. A homo-erotic reading of Rear Window is reluctantly invited by the word ‘rear’ in the title, but the relationship between Jeff and Thorwald, simplified to the dynamic between detective and outlaw, is much more akin to the shared suffering that binds mother and child in the third perinatal stage (Grof, p. 118). Jeff’s rebirth scene is enacted by male characters, and the window’s position at the rear of the house may even imply a masculinised cervix, an idea also identifiable in Woolrich’s description of vaginal windows reminiscent of ‘slits … in a medieval battlement.’ [7] Grof would disagree that such explicitly sexual interpretations are necessary; insisting that ‘perinatal experiences cannot be reduced to a reliving of biological birth.’ Their purpose is also to ‘produce a profound personality transformation…. during which the individual seriously questions the meaning of existence, as well as his or her basic values and life strategies’ (Grof, p. 100). Recovering from an accident, Jeff has time to evaluate his life, but he does not act on the opportunity this offers to make the kind of drastic changes that would benefit his relationship with his girlfriend Lisa. He admits to her that he isn’t ready to change ‘right now,’ and tries to persuade her to ‘keep things status quo.’

Jeff’s reasons for rebirth, the problems faced by twentieth century man up to the 1950s, are expressed only through other characters. The film opens with a radio announcer empathising with men entering middle age and attaining ‘that listless feeling,’ Stella reminds Jeff and the audience of the Great Depression, and Doyle sardonically suggests, ‘we can tell lies about the good old days during the war.’ Doyle also voices bitter disapproval of female empowerment and equality, dismissing Lisa’s concerns as ‘that feminine intuition stuff’ that he claims has cost him ‘many wasted years.’ This rejection of female influence is even more present in Woolrich’s story, in which the only woman character involved in the plot is the murdered Anna Thorwald. The life dramas performed in the other windows offer Jeff a smorgasbord of alternative futures and choices, but these are limited by the constraints of age and his previous life before the accident, the photographic images and wrecked camera displayed in his apartment providing a constant reminder. Doyle warns, ‘that’s a secret, private world you’re looking into out there,’ as Jeff spies on other characters enacting their own lifestyle changes. Some are forced to suffer pain or even death in their respective turbulent perinatal environments.

These themes of entrapment, struggle and freedom can be elucidated by examining perinatal imagery with specific allusion to Grof’s four stages. The claustrophobic feeling of imprisonment, characteristic of BPM stage II, is present throughout the film’s duration, as almost the every shot is filmed from the set of Jeff’s apartment, serving to align the audience with the character’s position. BPM stage I customarily signifies tranquil and undisturbed life, ‘the original symbiotic unity of the f[o]etus with the maternal organism,’ but Jeff can find no peace in his recuperation. He is restless and bored, accustomed to a hectic life travelling the world, and complains about his cast to Stella, ‘I want to get this thing off and get moving.’ The limited view of the world to both Jeff and the audience is comparable to the restricted intrauterine experiences of the foetus, the extrauterine experiences of which are dictated by the mother’s own immediate environment. Jeff has to endure the music and conversations taking place in a nearby studio apartment, and excerpts of Franz Waxman’s original score for the film are reminiscent of air raid sirens. These aural assaults, Jeff’s restlessness, Jeff’s troubled relationship and the heat wave that engulfs the neighbourhood throughout most of the film all represent ‘disturbances of intrauterine life,’ preventing the character from ever achieving the perinatal tranquillity of stage I (Grof, p. 102).

Stage II imagery is far more abundant, as successful drama depends on danger. As Adzema observes of Hollywood films, ‘the plethora of plots depicting serial rapists and killers’ demonstrate audience affinity with stage II and III struggles against violent opposition. [8] The ‘plaster cocoon’ encasing Jeff’s leg restricts him to a life indoors, mirroring the kind of scientific ideas contemporary to the film, noted by Aidan MacFarlane as ‘the idea of the uterus as a fortress … a mausoleum entombing the foetus within it.’ [9] Grof defines BPM II as ‘cosmic engulfment,’ characterised by ‘overwhelming feelings of increasing anxiety and awareness of an imminent vital threat.’ Jeff fits the stage II model in his loss of the sense of linear time and his growing paranoia, paranoia that is eventually proven valid. Jeff believes he will spend just ‘one more week’ confined to the apartment, and although he is ultimately proven wrong, he never exhibits fear that this torment will be endless, uncharacteristic to this stage (Grof, pp. 111-12).

The third BPM stage approximates to the stage of biological birth, as hypothesised by Grof, in which ‘the uterine contractions continue’ and the foetus is forced along the birth canal, subjected to ‘crushing mechanical pressures.’ Grof admits that his findings features discrepancies from the experiential point of view in dealing with stage III symbolism, and although the second and third stages blend somewhat throughout Rear Window, BPM III imagery relates specifically to the character and actions of Thorwald. The red glow of Thorwald’s cigarettes and the electronic light in his apartment serve to instantly associate the character with hellish and volcanic stage III imagery (Grof, p. 116). The suffering and paranoia remain from the second stage, but there are attempts at retaliation and engagement. Jeff defends himself against Thorwald’s oncoming attack by blinding him temporarily with photographic flashbulbs in a further use of stage III imagery, namely sudden illumination and electronic technology. Thorwald begins his assault by strangling Jeff, suffocation being the most common ‘dramatic physiological manifestation’ of this stage in the birth cycle, often likened to an attack by an octopus (Grof, pp. 99, 112). Woolrich’s short story features a comparable image as Jeff awaits Thorwald’s arrival, likening the tense situation to ‘being shut up in the dark with the silence of a gliding, coiling cobra somewhere around you.’ [10]

The fourth stage of Grof’s paradigm corresponds to the moment of birth and its immediate aftermath, ‘fortuitous escape from dangerous situations’ (Grof, p. 104). Thorwald is defeated and taken into custody, but too late to prevent him from forcing Jeff out of the rear window and onto the balcony from which he falls, a typical analogy for birth in perinatal case studies. [11] Jeff’s defiance serves to postpone this moment of rebirth until the police officers below are ready to break his fall, perhaps saving his life but leaving both his legs in casts, as revealed in the epilogue in which Jeff has visibly returned to his apartment in an even more physically dependant state than previously.

This new period of recovery, one that will presumably involve a second extended period of indoor inactivity, does not invalidate the notion of apartment-as-uterus; convenient as it seems to abandon this theme once it no longer serves the argument, Jeff’s perinatal experience has been depicted in full and there is no incentive, as of the close of the film, for a further rebirth. Explaining the connections postulated by Grof between death and rebirth, Adzema explains, ‘people need to get sicker before they can get well.’ [12] Thus, Jeff’s injuries were necessary in setting his recovery in motion, as well as rekindling his passion for Lisa.

Her unflattering male clothes in this final scene, implicitly borrowed from Jeff after spending the night in his apartment, insinuate that the couple’s relationship is still sexually active and enjoyable, for Jeff at the very least. Laura Mulvey, elucidating from John Duchet’s ‘Hitch and His Public,’ explains how Jeff becomes re-interested in his girlfriend only when she crosses to the blocks opposite, detaching herself from their previous, problematic life and demonstrating sexually exciting courage. Exposed to Jeff, the disabled film spectator, their relationship ‘is reborn erotically.’ [13] Lisa’s own feelings remain uncertain and ignored; her attempt to read William O. Douglas’ Beyond the High Himalayas while Jeff is asleep reveals her continued and secretive longing to accompany her partner on his travels, but the film is only concerned in presenting the audience with male satisfaction as a conclusive ending.

Jeff’s demands and desires have now been satisfied, and although sleeping, he is shown to be smiling as Lisa abandons the travel publication for a fashion magazine in a demonstration that they cannot combine their professional lives, conceding to Jeff’s wishes. Hitchcock provides a visual allusion to the stable climate through the thermometer on the wall, which now records a far more tolerable and temperate environment than the heat-wave engulfing the neighbourhood at the beginning of the film, which was sporadically interrupted by rain, all of which was more reminiscent of BPM II than the relaxed stage IV.

Hitchcock expressed his belief that a film, like a short story, should sustain ‘one idea that culminates when the action has reached the highest point of the dramatic curve,’ yet the subconscious birth struggle may be what makes the film so compelling, tapping into the audience’s repressed, traumatic memories of what Thomas Browne called ‘the truest Microcosm, the Womb of our Mother.’ Grof would disagree with this notion of a single universal perinatal experience, and the conclusion of Rear Window leaves the Jeff’s fictional and unknown future open for psychological repercussions of the trauma endured during his mid-life rebirth.


1. Frederick Leboyer, Birth Without Violence: The Book that Revolutionized the Way We Bring Our Children into the World (Glasgow: Fontana, 1977), p. 9.

2. Stanislav Grof, Beyond the Brain: Birth, Death, and Transcendence in Psychotherapy (New York: State University Press, 1985), p. 435. All other references to this text will be given parenthetically.

3. Michael Derzak Adzema, ‘The Emerging Perinatal Unconscious: Consciousness Evolution or Apocalypse?’ (1998), Primal Spirit: The Deeper Wave of the New Age. 24 April 2006.

4. Alfred Hitchcock archive footage, unknown interview. Big Train, series 2, episode 2. Dir. Jonathan Gershfield. Perfs. Simon Pegg, Mark Heap. DVD. BBC, 2004.

5. Aidan MacFarlane, The Psychology of Childbirth (London: Faber, 1977), p. 12.

6. All film references and quotations from Rear Window. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Perfs. James Stewart, Grace Kelly. DVD. Universal, 2001.

7. Cornell Woolrich, ‘It Had to Be Murder.’ 24 April 2006.

8. Adzema. 24 April 2006.

9. MacFarlane, p. 12

10. Woolrich. 24 April 2006.

11. Stanislav Grof, ‘Perinatal Roots of Wars, Totalitarianism, and Revolutions: Observations from LSD Research’ in Journal of Psychohistory, 4:3, Winter 1997, p. 303.

12. Adzema. 24 April 2006.

13. Laura Mulvey, ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ (1975). 25 April 2006.

1 comment:

  1. Unsurprisingly, none of the 2006 links work in 2018. RIP