“Once Upon a Screen”: Screen Traumas and Cinephilic Hauntings

Introduction by Ariel Avissar and Evelyn Kreutzer

“In its most primordial and brutal condition cinema sustains a terror, or a vague fear, tying our whole childhood to one film or another […] exclusively, scene after scene digging out a sort of childhood unconscious.”

—Jean-Louis Schefer.[1]

The video essay collection published in this issue of The Cine-Files emerged from a spontaneous idea: what if we put our academic preoccupations aside for a moment and used videographic practices to confront the most personal, intimidating, and visceral encounters with film during our childhoods? Both of us had vivid memories of watching scenes that had shocked us so profoundly and were stored so deeply in our bodies and minds that we have come to think of them as “screen traumas”—memories that seem so contrary to our current intellectualized and professionalized spectatorial approaches and yet might have contributed to our investments in film studies in the first place. We wondered whether a videographic form of exposure therapy, placing the source of our trauma “under the scalpel” of the editing software, might reverse the ghostly power that these haunting sounds and images imposed on us, specifically by countering memories of passive subjection with the active control over filmic motion and temporality that we presume to hold as video essayists. Inspired by previous videographic dealings with childhood cinematic memories (such as Catherine Grant and Christian Keathley’s discussion of childhood cinephilia[2]) and with traumatic cinematic experiences (such as Chloé Galibert-Laîné’s exploration of film memories[3]), we decided to start this project as a playful assignment between the two of us and then extended the invitation to others. The video essays presented in this collection are the result of that experiment.  

The videos are arranged in chronological order by the release years of the films with which they engage. They present a variety of formal approaches and come from academic scholars as well as media practitioners. Some of us reflect upon our own encounters with violence through our memories of cruelty on screen. We further consider how the spaces, the screens (small, silver or digital), and the isolated and/or social circumstances in which we encountered screen trauma influenced our experiences and associations. Some outline a psychoanalytical, self-therapeutic journey of discovery towards our filmic as well as personal impressions and repressions. The fragmented, dreamlike (or nightmarish) quality of filmic and personal memories blend together with the images of our surrogate characters running, hiding, gazing, and opening or closing their eyes. We combat the horrors by separating sound and image, by freezing or repeating a terrifying image, and we attempt to explain, to understand, perhaps to take control of our traumas with voice-over narrations, as if to engage in a dialogue with our younger selves. 

In their video, previously published as part of their ongoing series for de Filmkrant, “The Thinking Machine,” Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian Martin discuss Martin’s formative childhood experience of watching the mesmerizing fantastical visions of Henry Levin’s Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959), a film that came out the same year Martin was born. Evelyn Kreutzer examines two traumatizing scenes she watched as a young “voyeur,” hiding in the hallway while gazing at the forbidden images on the television screen: one from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1959), the other from Nicolas Roeg’s The Witches (1990). Jonathan Wysocki’s award-winning short A Doll’s Eyes (2016), which was not produced specifically for this collection but fits in perfectly nonetheless, explores his complicated relationship with Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975), a film that has haunted him since childhood. Though not defined or intended as a “video essay” in the conventional sense, this personal, performative, documentary short certainly inhabits the essayistic tradition, and we are grateful to Jonathan for having agreed to make it freely available for the readers and viewers of this issue of The Cine-Files. Cormac Donnelly investigates Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), a film that had traumatized him as a child, even though he had never seen it—that is, until he sat down to make this video essay. Kevin B. Lee, adopting a more documentary rather than strictly “videographic” approach, takes us on a figurative and literal journey to the site of his own childhood screen trauma, one brought about by a viewing of Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986). Ariel Avissar recounts his reaction to viewing Harry Hook’s Lord of the Flies (1990) at a young age, a film which for him was both a first encounter with a realistic and mundane form of evil and a reflection of real-life school-age cruelty. Victoria Wegner methodically interrogates her disturbed reaction to James Cameron’s Titanic (1997) and tackles the experience from a variety of angles, deconstructing the film into its component parts (narrative, subject-matter, audio and imagery) in order to locate the origin of her terror. Julia Schönheit’s video on Vincenzo Natali’s Cube (1997), a film she watched alone at home, touches on the film’s depiction of senseless violence and on her own spectatorial complicity. Finally, Jessie McGoff’s video reenacts her adolescent response to David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001), offering a suggestive parallel between her reaction to (and reading of) the film and her experience of discovering online culture and her own place in it as a teenage girl.

We would like to thank all the contributors to “Once Upon a Screen,” as well as Tracy Cox-Stanton and Allison de Fren for their invitation to guest-edit this video dossier. We are especially grateful to Christian Keathley for his thoughtful written response to the collection. We further extend our thanks to the participants of “Videographic Criticism: Aesthetics and Methods of the Video Essay,” a symposium in Berlin organized by Kathleen Loock and the Freie Universität Berlin in the summer of 2019, during which our conversations about this project started. We are delighted that so many of our colleagues took up our invitation and contributed such inspiring videos, and we hope that this collection might inspire further videomakers to reflect on their own cinephilic hauntings.

Ariel Avissar is a lecturer at (and graduate of) the Steve Tisch School of Film and Television at Tel Aviv University; his main areas of scholarly interest are American popular culture, contemporary American television in particular, and videographic criticism. He was co-editor of Sight & Sound’s “Best Video Essays of 2019” poll, which also featured several of his own videos. His work can be found here: https://vimeo.com/arielavissar.

Evelyn Kreutzer is a media historian based in Berlin and Chicago. She holds a PhD in Screen Cultures from Northwestern University and primarily works in the realms of videographic criticism; sound studies and media musicology; as well as historical discourse on cultural taste. Her written and videographic work has been published or is set to appear in journals such as [in]transitionNECSUS European Journal of Media StudiesResearch in Film & History, and Music, Sound, and the Moving Image. Some of her work can be found here:  https://vimeo.com/evelynkreutzer.

[1] Jean Louis Schefer, “Cinema,” in The Enigmatic Body: Essays on the Arts, ed. and trans. Paul Smith (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 126.

[2] Catherine Grant and Christian Keathley, “The Use of an Illusion: Childhood Cinephilia, Object Relations, and Videographic Film Studies,” Photogénie, June 19, 2014, https://cinea.be/the-use-an-illusion-childhood-cinephilia-object-relations-and-videographic-film-studies/.

[3] Chloé Galibert-Laîné, “A Portrait of the Spectator as a Cannibal: A Written and Audiovisual Exploration of What Film Memories Are Made of and What They Are For,” accessed June 16, 2020, https://www.chloegalibertlaine.com/cannibal-anglais.