Tim Burton: The Monster and the Crowd
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Tim Burton: The Monster and the Crowd

A Post-Jungian Perspective

Helena Bassil-Morozow

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Tim Burton: The Monster and the Crowd

A Post-Jungian Perspective

Helena Bassil-Morozow

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About This Book

Tim Burton's films are well known for being complex and emotionally powerful. In this book, Helena Bassil-Morozow employs Jungian and post-Jungian concepts of unconscious mental processes along with film semiotics, analysis of narrative devices and cinematic history, to explore the reworking of myth and fairytale in Burton's gothic fantasy world.

The book explores the idea that Burton's lonely, rebellious 'monstrous' protagonists roam the earth because they are unable to fit into the normalising tendencies of society and become part of 'the crowd'. Divided into six chapters the book considers the concept of the archetype in various settings focusing on:

  • the child
  • the monster
  • the superhero
  • the genius
  • the maniac
  • the monstrous society.

Tim Burton: The Monster and the Crowd offers an entirely fresh perspective on Tim Burton's works. The book is essential reading for students and scholars of film or Jungian psychology, as well as anyone interested in critical issues in contemporary culture. It will also be of great help to those fans of Tim Burton who have been searching for a profound academic analysis of his works.

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Chapter 1
The child

The child as a hero

It is essential to discuss the theory behind the child archetype before turning to Burton’s films proper. I am going to examine the famed infantilism of the Burtonian protagonist in terms of his rootedness in the cultural and psychological issues of modernity, as well as in terms of his heroic clash with what he perceives as the oppressive environment.
The wonder-infant motif, which is present in so many fairy tales and myths (and which is important for our study of Burton’s films), is, according to Jung, linked to the archetype of the self. The child is a future hero, and many mythological saviours are, in fact, child gods. In the individuation process, the magical infant ‘paves the way for a future change of personality’ and ‘anticipates the figure that comes from the synthesis of conscious and unconscious elements in the personality. It is therefore a symbol which unites the opposites; a mediator, bringer of healing, that is, one who makes whole’ (Jung, 1951, CW9/I: para. 278). The mythological child, as a rule, is born a prodigy who possesses miraculous abilities: he can casually kill a couple of snakes as he lays in his cot (Heracles), survive numerous assassination attempts like Dionysus, or, like Harry Potter, play a magical trick or two on the evil members of his adopted family.
The hero-child’s birth is often a mystery, involving various gods and goddesses, and in most cases his actual parents are ‘invisible’, absent from the scene. This element of the myth is clear: a godlike infant cannot be begotten by ‘normal’ parents; surely his unusual abilities come from a special divine genetic pool. Nevertheless, despite such holy beginnings and all the divine blessings, the child’s life is fraught with danger. He has deadly and powerful enemies: for instance, Hera, who tried to destroy the unborn Dionysus out of jealousy because he was the child of Zeus and a mortal woman, Semele; or King Herod who ordered the murder of all the babies in Bethlehem and the vicinity in the hope that baby Jesus would be among them.
According to Jung, the child motif in myths and fairy tales corresponds to a specific psychological process: the birth of the personality and its development and survival in its surroundings. It represents the ‘infancy’ of the individuation process, its very beginnings. When the child ‘grows out’ of the unconscious, he becomes a hero. The hero-ego, the conscious psyche, ‘emerges’ from the primordial darkness, and proceeds to fight with this darkness, while the self attempts to unite the opposites and bring them closer together (i.e. illuminate any repressed unconscious contents and make them visible to the conscious mind). Jung perceived individuation, and the emergence and development of the hero, as both an ontogenetic (individual) and a phylogenetic (communal, historical) process:
The Hero’s main feat is to overcome the monster of darkness: it is the long-hoped-for and expected triumph of consciousness over the unconscious. [. . .] The coming of consciousness was probably the most tremendous experience of primeval times, for with it a world came into being whose existence no one had suspected before. "And God said: ‘Let there be light!’’’ is the projection of that immemorial separation of the conscious from the unconscious. [. . .] Hence the ‘child’ distinguishes itself by deeds which point to the conquest of the dark.
(CW9/I: para. 284)
In this respect, the dual mother theme is very important because, as Jung argues, it suggests the idea of a dual birth: ‘One of the mothers is real, the other is the symbolical mother; in other words, she is distinguished as being divine, supernatural, or in some way extraordinary. [. . .] He who stems from two mothers is the hero: the first birth makes him a mortal man, the second an immortal half-god’ (Jung, 1912, CW5: paras. 495–496). Psychic life is often marked by this duality – even the most insignificant achievements of human spirit can be translated into ‘superhuman’ stories and regarded as something remarkable. This is because both the emergence of civilisation and the process of personal development are nothing short of a miracle, a heroic deed, an astonishing victory of the individual over the collective, and of rationality and culture over Mother Nature.
The motif of the prodigious child is at the centre of Burton’s work. His oeuvre contains themes of unusual birth, dual sets of parents, abandonment, extraordinary talent expressed early, omnipotent friends and enemies, invincibility, love and hatred of the crowd, etc. Edward Scissorhands is made in a laboratory by a godlike father-figure, and subsequently adopted by a suburban American family. He is a gifted hairdresser, his ability being both the curse and the blessing, as it attracts plenty of negative and positive attention. Batman is left an orphan (an invariant of the abandonment motif ), and makes himself appear ‘invincible’ with the help of technology (the modern miracle). The Penguin is so ugly that his parents chuck him in a sewer, where he is adopted by a sewer-dwelling population of penguins. In spite of his unsightly appearance, he is seen by the inhabitants of Gotham City as a charismatic figure; he is a dark, tyrannical leader. Willy Wonka, Burton’s rather controversial1 allegory of immaturity, is an eternal child whose emotional development was cut short because of his father’s disciplinarian methods.
The abandonment motif is an important part of the child myth because, translated back into the language of personal development, it symbolises personal independence, self-reliance and self-realisation – even when they have been attained through isolation and hardship. Abandonment, Jung writes, is necessary because it kick-starts the personality’s development (CW9/I: para. 285). The child is a future hero, or a future personality, and therefore has to be prepared for any prospective challenges. ‘The "child",’ Jung argues, ‘is all that is abandoned and exposed and at the same time divinely powerful; the insignificant, dubious beginning, and the triumphant end. The "eternal child" in man is an indescribable experience, an incongruity, a handicap, and a divine prerogative; an imponderable that determines the ultimate worth or worthlessness of a personality’ (CW9/I: para. 300).
For his part, the American psychologist James Hillman notes how in myths and fairy tales young heroes often face laming, crippling, bleeding, and sometimes castration. The wound, Hillman argues, ‘seems to identify the puer spirit with heroic destiny’ (Hillman, 1979: 101). Discussing the origins of these wounds, Hillman points at parents: ‘Everyone carries a parental wound and has a wounded parent’ (1979: 101). He then scrutinises examples of such parent-inflicted wounds in ancient mythology:
Pelops is chopped up by his father, Tantalus, who served his son boiled to the gods to eat. [. . .] The boy Ulysses is wounded while he is with his grandfather, and by a "parental" boar. The soft spot in Achilles (and in Baldur) comes from the Mother. Achilles is held by the heel and dipped into the bath to make him invincible – except for where she held him. His fatal wound is precisely where his mother touched him under the guise of protecting him. One wound of Hercules occurs in a battle with a Father and Son (Hippokon and his sons). This father-son conflict wounds Hercules in the hollow of his hand; and in another tale Hercules kills his own children.
(1979: 101)
In a less mythological and more theoretical key, Jung’s disciple Erich Neumann (1973) discusses the child’s future personality as being significantly influenced by what he calls ‘the primal relationship’, which is the first, largely ‘unconscious’ step of the individuation process. In many ways, Neumann’s theorising ploughs the same field as John Bowlby’s concept of attachment, object relations theory, and recent findings in developmental neuroscience. The difference between Neumann and any other developmental theory lies in his inscribing subjective, concrete personal development into the general, ‘objective’ container – the archetypal framework.
In the course of the primal relationship, Neumann theorises, the infant feels as part of its mother, even though its body is already born (Neumann, 2002: 7–11). A normal bond presupposes a secure confidence in the mother’s love (2002: 59). Because the mother is responsible for cushioning the new personality’s entrance into the world of subjective experiences, repeatedly unmitigated pain, unanswered demands or unsoothed feeling of fear have the potential to turn, later in the child’s life, into lifelong injuries, and to impair the person’s ability to relate to other individuals, society and themselves (2002: 74–75). Mythologically speaking, the child is still part of the uroboros, of the unconscious, while the ego – the personality itself – has not yet been born. The ‘abandonment’ and ‘rejection’ which Jung discusses in his mythological analysis of the child archetype on the level of personal development is related to various disturbances in the initial relationship with the mother (Neumann, 2002: 72–73).
The ‘magical omnipotence of the child archetype’, initially observed by Jung, is explained by Neumann as pertaining to the ‘cosmic character of [the baby’s] still unlimited existence’. This empowering feeling, which finds expression in fairy tales and myths in the form of infantile ‘heroism’ and supernatural abilities, ‘is not so much a feeling of omnipotence as one of cosmic all-encompassing excitedness; it is a paradisiacal state of fulfilment without oppression; neither is it centered in an ego nor has it the character of power in the sense of possession’ (Neumann, 2002: 143). Put simply, the archetypal, as well as the actual, child draws its infinite power from the depths of the unconscious.
Tim Burton’s version of the child archetype also involves extraordinary but Gothicised abilities, coming from the maternal unconscious. Sadness, isolation and aversion to society, Neumann theorises, are the result of a lack of love and acceptance on the part of the caregiver (2002: 87). These negative feelings become addictive for Burton’s male characters because of the potential for creative productivity. They cherish and nurture the fact of being abandoned or betrayed because the moment they found themselves left alone, their creativity was born.2 Their loneliness, therefore, is precious as it is a source of anguish that feeds their dark imagination. Batman’s split into two sub-personalities, for instance, occurred after the young Jack Napier murdered his parents, and Will Bloom’s journalistic talent has its roots in his ever absent father’s storytelling habit.
Even the most sociable of them, Edward Bloom from Big Fish, prefers the world of fairy tales to reality – a fact that meddles with his family life and alienates him from his immediate relatives. Bruce Wayne (Batman) chooses to live away from society, and constructs his own universe, which is Gothic, artificial, immature and full of fancy costumes and toys. The list goes on: Vincent Malloy dramatically self-isolates in his room, having rejected his mother’s suggestion to become ‘normal’; Willy Wonka’s world is grotesquely infantile, and again, he comes to confrontation with ‘the crowd’; Ed Wood exists in a kind of creative vacuum, and does not even try to relate his ideas to the tastes of the audience, or the demands of the studios; Sweeney Todd wages a brutal war against the whole of society, murdering the guilty and the innocent, and rejoices in his meaningless killing spree. The link between creativity and ‘early experiences’ will be discussed in more detail in Chapter 4, about the Burtonian child-genius.

Young Frankenstein

The themes of creative infantilism, introversion and the refusal to grow up permeate Burton’s entire universe. As a child, he preferred to watch certain types of films – various ‘monster trash’, movies with Vincent Price and Ray Harryhausen animation – because he could personally relate to the ‘monster mythology’. His interviews reveal (decreasingly, as he gets older) a certain amount of unspent teenage angst. He appears to identify with the cast-off, misunderstood, helpless yet weird-looking creatures who are unable to become ‘like everyone else’ – or at least try to be ‘likeable’. Burton’s perception of fictional freaks and mutants lies as far from the official, mainstream reaction to ‘horrible’ things as it can be; in fact, it dangerously borders on the dramatic, maximalist introversion of a troubled teenage Goth. Monsters are not the scary ‘other’ – on the contrary, they appear to him less alien than ‘normal people’:
I’ve always loved monsters and monster movies. I was never terrified of them, I just loved them from as early as I can remember. My parents said I was never scared, I’d just watch anything. And that kind of stuff has stuck with me. King Kong, Frankenstein, Godzilla, The Creature from the Black Lagoon – they’re all pretty much the same, they just have different rubber suits or make-up. But there was something about that identification. Every kid responds to some image, some fairy-tale image, and I felt most monsters were basically misperceived, they usually had more heartfelt souls than the human characters around them.
(Salisbury, 2006: 2–3)
Burton’s identification with on-screen outcasts and other melodramatic characters was not accidental. As a child, he felt alien in Burbank, a small-town type suburb of Los Angeles, the pastel-coloured parody of which appears in Edward Scissorhands. He did not feel close to his parents, and eventually moved in with his grandmother: ‘My grandmother gave me the sanctuary and she really saved me. She made sure I had food and left me alone’ (Fraga, 2005: 167).
As he explains, he was ‘strangled’ by suburban American culture. It was impossible for him to become a sportsman (the dream of his father, an exbaseball player); neither did he want to become a musician (he played a musical instrument). Suburban religion, meanwhile, seemed a ‘bureaucratic setup’. Drawing and watching television were some of the few available outlets for the boy’s emotions (Fraga, 2005: 166). In his characteristic jumbled manner, Burton recalls his childhood:
As a child I was very introverted. I like to think I didn’t feel like anybody different. I did what any kid likes to do: go to the movies, play, draw. It’s not unusual. What’s more unusual is to keep wanting to do those things as you go on through life. [. . .] I never really fell out with people, but I didn’t really retain friends. I get the feeling people just got this urge to want to leave me alone for some reason, I don’t know why exactly. It was as if I was exuding some sort of aura that said ‘Leave Me the F**k Alone’. [. . .] But punk music was good, that helped me, it was good for me emotionally. I didn’t have a lot of friends, but there’s enough weird movies out there so you can go a long time without friends and see something new every day that kind of speaks to you.
(Salisbury, 2006: 2)
It sounds like watching cinema was for Burton a form of sublimation, a therapeutic interaction with the on-screen characters. Movies today, he explains in Burton on Burton, have taken the place of fairy tales in that they [I translate] became projective–introjective containers of vital archetypal material (which is not, Burton stresses, to be perceived literally):
It’s funny because of the movies I’ve done, a lot of people think that they’re very much about the way they look. People don’t realise that everything I’ve ever done has to mean something; even if it’s not clearcut to anybody else, I have to find some connection, and actually the more absurd the element, the more I have to feel that I understand something behind it. That’s why we’re all fascinated by the movies. They tap into your dreams and your subconscious. I guess it’s different from generation to generation, but movies are truly a form of therapy and work on your subconscious in the way fairy tales are meant to. The Dog Woman and Lizard Man in those Indian tales, they’re not meant to be taken literally.
(Salisbury, 2006: 124)
In his early interviews (Edelstein, 1990; Breskin, 1991) Tim Burton often mentions his own depression in relation to the male protagonists in his films: Beetlejuice, Batman, Edward. In interviews from the 2000s (McKenna, 2001; O’Sullivan, 2001) he tends to speak about the childhood roots of his adult problems, but admits that a troubled childhood can be a positive baggage to have: ‘I wouldn’t change anything, because the more pain you endure when you’re young, the richer your adult life will be. [. . .] Because you’re not popular, you’re not out socially, so you have time to think and to be quietly angry and emotional. And if you’re lucky, you’ll develop a creative outlet to exorcise these feelings’ (Fraga, 2005: 175). His opinion is certainly in tune with Jung’s positive view of psychological complexes, and with the previously discussed heroic modality, characteristic of modernist thinking.
Burton’s films are intensely private in the sense that they communicate his personal interests and are populated with his childhood idols. His love for lapdogs found reflection in Frankenweenie and Mars Attacks! (which starred Burton’s own Poppy the Chihuahua); the childhood inspiration Vincent Price was invited to do a voice-over for Vincent, and then played the Inventor in Edward Scissorhands; Mars Attacks! and Ed Wood gave the opportunity to revive all sorts of old novelties – Dracula, Vampira, Bunny Breckinridge and the big-brained Martians from Topps Cards. Ed Wood’s support for the aged Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau and Johnny Depp) is reminiscent of the relationship between Burton and Price. Big Fish, a film about the death of the father in which the son tries to finally understand and accept him, came two years after the death of Burton’s own father, and the director’s own attempt at reconciliation.
Displaying so much private and biographical material would make anyone vulnerable, let alone a Hollywood director whose films are watched by millions of people. ‘The movie is my baby, and I’m putting it out into the cruel world,’ Burton admits in a 1991 interview with David Breskin, ‘It’s scary, that’s all. Just really scary’ (Fraga, 2005: 85). Unlike Victor Frankenstein, however, Burton treats his creations responsibly, and always takes care of them.

Child's guilt and punishment

When Neumann writes that ‘a central symptom of a disturbed relationship is a primary feeling of guilt’, and that it is ‘characteristic of the psychic disorders of the Western man’, he gives a devastating diagnosis of the whole of post-Enlightenment Western society. The...

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