Henry W. Lawton: Independent Scholar and Psychohistorian of Repressed Violence

For 25 years he has been active as an independent scholar in psychohistory. Lawton has served psychohistory in various administrative capacities, including Secretary since 1984 and President since 2000 of the International Psychohistorical Association (IPA), and Founder and Director, Group for the Psychohistorical Study of Film since 1989.  He is author of The Psychohistorian’s Handbook (1988); “Milhous Rising,” Journal of Psychohistory, 6#4 (Spring 1979), pp. 519-542; and “The Myth of Altruism: A Psychohistory of Public Agency Social Work,” Journal of Psychohistory, 9#3 (Winter 1982), pp. 265-308; and editor of the Special Film Issue, Journal of Psychohistory, 20#1 (Summer 1992).

[On his special interest in film that lead to his creating the Group for the Psychohistorical Study of Film and having that special glow on his face when he discusses horror films:] Horror [films have] long had a special place in my heart. Wondering why this was so had a lot to do with my starting to think about film psychohistorically. Horror is certainly not light entertainment, so why did I have such a fascination with what it seemed to communicate? Certainly it can be a great way to vicariously express rage and anger, of which I have both: for much of my youth my mother was essentially a functional alcoholic, and my father also had issues with drinking as well as with being a compulsive philanderer.

I always liked the intensity of horror and its in-your-face quality. I realized very early on that much horror is also implicitly sexual.  In early horror films, for example, the original Dracula (1931), it was there but largely implied; in modern horror films, for example, Halloween (1978), it is much more explicit.  I tend to prefer explicitness but find pornography to ultimately be boring.

The underlying content of many horror films tends to be quite sick emotionally. Horror films often deal with violent feelings and magnify sexual feelings, out of all proportion. Yet they offer a theater for many to vicariously work through powerful feelings that might be otherwise forbidden to express in normal society. In watching these films there has certainly been an element of guilty pleasure for me in the sense that one should not have too much interest in such issues.  They were also reassuring, in that most of them reflected the same basic formula: the monster threatens normality, the monster is overcome/killed, the status quo is restored, and the world is again a safe place.  I liked the sameness, because then, maybe, despite appearances to the contrary, the world was not quite so out of control and dysfunction could be dealt with after all. This all changed with John Carpenter’s Halloween. It was the first film where the monster was not conclusively killed off at the end.  As such, it was very unsettling. Yes, there were sequels to Frankenstein (1931) and Dracula, but it was not the same because in each film there was always the impression the monsters were killed off. When Halloween broke the mold, it was more unsettling that the world was out of control and dysfunction could not be dealt with.

Since I have been in analysis for a number of years, I find that I do not like horror as much as I used to.  Maybe I am getting better emotionally.  I still enjoy films as something to submerge myself into for a while, and I am increasingly fascinated with trying to understand what they actually attempt to communicate to the audience.

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