Dark Humour for Darker Secrets: An Exploration of Humour in Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy
Illustrated by Nicole Evstakhov
One unfortunately cannot live their life without being told at least once the cliché that “laughter is the best medicine.” But when people’s lives are at stake, and one inhabits a town with an accumulating body count, and mental illness plagues the minds of many, and one’s entire life has turned into cinematic metaphoric manifestations of Freudian theories––in a situation like that, humour can be downright disturbing.
The situations in Alfred Hitchcock’s films are often very humourless—and yet he includes many comedic one-liners and punchline-filled dialogue that make us laugh uncomfortably. Why does Hitchock include this humour in his horror films, and why does the audience laugh throughout films that largely revolve around some of the world’s darkest subject matters? Hitchcock’s humour is appreciated as a sort of relief from the dark content of his films, even as it tinges the audience with a sense of discomfort and unsettledness. With the stakes being so serious, the humour in Hitchcock films comes across as a glitch: something that sticks out and seems out of place; an irregularity that could expose something deeper.
This discomfort is especially apparent in Hitchcock’s Frenzy, a film with humour almost as dark as the plot line, which includes jokes coming from characters who definitely don’t care about political correctness, finding humour in an emotionless relationship, and laughing at dead people as well as their murderers. The comedy could be used as a somewhat socially acceptable method of letting out some of the thoughts they usually keep bottled up in their psyche by saying unacceptable or offensive things under the guise of being “edgy” and “funny”. Unfiltered humour allows for people to relax their usual psychological censorship and let their guard down.
Hitchcock’s comedy can also be seen as a defence mechanism that can increase repression, defence mechanisms being the ways that the brain tries to protect oneself from anxiety or mental conflicts. Regardless of one’s take on it, jokes— and, really, comedy in general— have the power to carry as much weight as the character arcs and plot points of a story.
Humour can be analyzed as being a very complex behaviour of the psyche, and the humour in Frenzy specifically appears as a glitch in the usual censorship of the psyche. Sigmund Freud’s analogy of the unconscious as an entrance hall allows for a deeper explanation of this: he describes a large hallway with a door separating two rooms. The initial room is where mental impulses reside, the second room is where the preconscious is and where impulses have the potential to become conscious, and between the two there is a door and a watchman that act as the censors. The mental impulses from the initial room that are turned down for entry into the second room are considered repressed, which is characterized by the unconscious part of the brain being forbidden entry into the conscious because of the censorship. The impulses that the watchman actually allows into the second room are not yet conscious because they must first catch the “eye” of consciousness in the corner of the room (366).
In Frenzy, there is a scene where two men are discussing the murders happening in their town and are informed that the murderer rapes the women before killing them, to which one of the men replies, “Oh, well, I suppose it’s nice to know that every cloud has a silver-lining.” If one was to view offensive jokes — such as the aforementioned joke from Frenzy— as a single mental impulse that begins in the initial unconscious mental room of the teller of the joke, its journey would be quite different than that of the rest of the mental impulses. The content of the joke and the meaning that can be explicitly derived from it are things that would normally be repressed, because society attempts to socialize people into avoiding offensiveness. However, there is a glitch in this concept which has become increasingly prominent in recent years: humour provides a normalized outlet for people to be offensive under the guise of being “edgy”, which is seen as somewhat trendy in culture nowadays. Shocking people is seen as desirable and the most efficient way to shock people is by letting out something that humankind has been taught to repress.
Therefore the journey of the mental impulse of an offensive joke would be as such: it would begin in the unconscious of the initial room, then it would approach the watchman at the door and the watchman would deny it access into the preconscious. However, the impulse would reveal that it is a joke, not just a regular and average thought, to which the watchman would sigh out of relief and graciously open the door for the mental impulse to pass through. Once arrived in the preconscious of the second room, the joke would immediately catch the eye of the conscious because the content of the mental impulse is something that would not be available in the preconscious under “normal” circumstances, and then the joke would reach the conscious and be shared to the public. The man who tells the “silver-lining” joke is met only with a rather impressed scoff from the barmaid because the disturbing meaning of the joke is forgiven by the fact that it was shared in a format that people have been conditioned to laugh at and to not take seriously. If the man were to have said “I think that rape is a good thing,” which is what his joke infers, then he would most likely have offended many people, been met with looks of disgust, and possibly been slapped in the face. Humour— specifically “edgy” offensive humour— provides a normalized platform for usually repressed and frowned-upon thoughts to be socially accepted.
It has already been established that the style of the humour in Frenzy is a glitch in censorship. To further elaborate, in The Introductory Lectures on Psycho-analysis, Freud states that “the anxiety is a sign that the repressed wish has shown itself stronger than the censorship, that it has put through, or is on the point of putting through, its wish-fulfilment in spite of the censorship” (269). Here, Freud is discussing unconscious content coming to consciousness in dreams specifically ; however it can also be applied to Hitchcock’s humour without relating in any way to dreams. Telling a joke can induce mild anxiety because the teller wants people to laugh at it ; however the entire construction of jokes is based on surprising people with something unexpected and a foolproof way to surprise people is by bringing up something that would normally remain repressed. Alfred Hitchcock is an expert at this, having built a career out of turning incest and murder into art. Over-sharing and letting down the guard of censorship for the sake of a joke will usually be a hit-or-miss with an audience, thus creating the anxiety whilst telling it. Exposing one’s repressed thoughts to somebody makes one quite vulnerable because the norm is censoring, and one would be straying from the norm by sharing the most hidden part of the psyche, creating anxiety in the seconds leading up to the reaction of the people receiving the joke. The worst case scenario that harvests the anxiety is one in which the audience doesn’t understand the joke, doesn’t enjoy it, or is offended by it. This means that one would have allowed their censorship to experience a glitch without a possibly rewarding consequence; instead, their repressed thoughts are exposed to the public for all to view and criticize. This shows that humour constantly has the potential to be self-destructive.
On the other hand, as much as humour can be the result of repressed anxiety escaping, it can also reinforce the repression of that anxiety. Humour can be used to defend oneself from anxiety by using it to laugh and make light of one’s own darker personal experiences and behaviour. The clearest example of this in Frenzy is in multiple similar scenes where there is a husband and wife at home. The wife is always serving the husband creative and unappetizing cooking concoctions and the husband is always finding ways to avoid eating anything. The scenario is repeated twice throughout the film and thus gives the impression of a running gag on a situational comedy about a family and relationships. However, things are never quite as lighthearted as they seem because it can easily mask something darker. The humour in this case is hiding their unhappiness with their marriage: the wife is so bored with it that she has resorted to cooking experimentally as her main hobby and the husband deals with what he has on his current plate no matter how much he may want something better because the familiarity of his current situation is simultaneously comforting and displeasing to him. They repeat the same formula in every scene together because it protects them from having to face the truth which would be much more difficult, and the humour of the situation is allowing them to comfortably repress that truth.
The text Psychoanalytic Diagnosis: Understanding Personality Construction in the Clinical Process states that “[a] sense of humour, especially a capacity to laugh at one’s own idiosyncrasies, has long been considered a core element of mental health” (148). It does suffice as a cheaper, do-it-yourself version of therapy, which may be exactly what the bored married couple were aiming for in Frenzy: a coping mechanism that allowed them to both avoid facing their problems head-on. Lots of people do the same, resorting to making light of their own psychological situation rather than seeking professional help and solutions that would force them to unbury the repressed. It allows people to cower away from their truest, uninhibited Self, but it is also an understandable and cathartic method of handling anxiety and fears.
Freud, Sigmund. Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis. Translated by James Strachey. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1989.
Frenzy. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, Universal Studios, 2001.
McWilliams, Nancy. Psychoanalytic Diagnosis: Understanding Personality Structure in the Clinical Process. The Guilford Press, 2011.
“Repression.” Encyclopaedia Britannica. 2009.