There are as many ways to interpret dreams as there are schools of psychology. One approach is to view everyone and everything in the dream as a representation of the dreamer. If you find your self running from a ghost you are both the ghost and the runner. No one system or approach is definitive. In therapy recounting a dream is a useful way to allow a subject to freely associate and interpret imagery without having to be logical. It eliminates obstacles like explanations or rationalizations and provides a free and open avenue for expression.
If we apply this approach to the Wizard of Oz we would see the Scarecrow, Tin-man, and Lion as different aspects of Dorothy. They each represent facets of her personality. The most important facet is represented in the antagonist. The Witch is Dorothy as well. The Witch represents all of the thoughts and behaviors that Dorothy disowns and denies. Children are taught that certain emotions are distasteful or bad. Anger is bad, fear is weak, sexual urges are dirty and so on. In the Wizard of Oz these emotions coalesce into a frightening anti-Dorothy that threatens to destroy her. This whole dynamic plays out literally in movies like Forbidden Planet as well as Inside Out.
Typically these narratives share one lesson or goal which is the integration of all the personalities to make a fully functioning whole. The Wizard of Oz chose banishment of the unwanted facet in place of integration. Banishment is more satisfying, especially for children, but as they get older they can see that banishment doesn’t work. Luke cannot kill Darth Vader he must reconcile with him.
Sukkubus — den Teufel im Leib was made in 1989 by Swedish director Georg Tressler. “Den Teufel im Leib” translates into English as “the devil in the body.” In light of the dream analysis approach this sentence can be seen as a play on words. In the film three men cobble together a scarecrow of a woman and end up bringing it to life through their lust. “The devil in the body” can refer literally to the devil that possesses the mannequin bringing her to life, or the devil that invades the Men’s minds and drives them to sin through their lust. Either interpretation keeps the devil separate from the subject. A foreign force that must not only be resisted but labeled as alien to our person, our psyche.
No one knows where or when the folk legend of the succubus began. There are analogous figures in many cultures. Succubus is a latin word that stems from succubare meaning lying underneath. This refers to the succubus’ dominant position as she rapes men in their sleep.
Any culture where there is fear about sex and sin, which would be all of them, there is the potential for a succubus like figure. A sexual force that overwhelms the victim and causes them to transgress deeply held beliefs. It is obviously a Christian fear, but it is also a romantic fear. The fear of emotions that are so intense they will be our undoing.
A vector where all of these issues coalesce is the 19th century idea of hysteria. 1000’s of women were mutilated or killed during operations to cure their hysterical condition. Hsyteria comes from the Greek word root hystera meaning womb. The belief was that if women seemed agitated, argumentative, or difficult to handle they could be suffering from hysteria. Hysteria was thought to be a condition where women wombs had detached from their proper location and begun wandering around inside the patients body. There were two widely accepted cures. One was “manipulation” of the womb by a doctors inserting his fingers into the vagina and wiggling them around until the woman found “relief.” Eventually vibrating “medical devices” were invented to aid in this procedure. Unfortunately the second cure was not so benign. If the doctor saw fit he could “cure” hysteria by performing a hysterectomy. Cutting the subject open and removing her womb was believed to be a cure.
All of the elements are present in this belief system. A fear of sex. A fear of sexuality, particularly female sexuality. The pitting of a male oriented application of reason and science in order to control the chaotic emotionality of women. Women were associated with temptation and were held responsible for maintaining the calm wellbeing of men by suppressing their feminine wiles. A contemporary example of this can be seen in many Islamic countries where the onus is placed on women to cover themselves so the men can maintain their piety. Similarly, in orthodox Judaism women are not allowed to touch men unless the man is their husband. Women are treated as if they are dangerous. Its as if they carry a deadly contagion that must be feared and therefore controlled.
The succubus is the incarnation of this anxiety and fear. She comes in the night to pounce on top of men and destroy their resolve, exhausting their mind and body. Once raped a man is doomed to slowly degenerate until the succubus either murders him or drains the life from his body by riding him to death.
In Sukkubus the film, there are only four characters. There is the succubus and the three herdsmen. The men live in isolation high up in The Swiss Alps. They are huddled together in a dark and ragged, wooden cabin on the side of an enormous mountain. They have a small herd of cows, all female except for one bull.
Senn is the oldest and seems to be in his forties. A little younger than him is Hirt. The audience learn about these two men as they are contrasted against each other. Senn is stern, religious, and serious. Hirt is a creepy, venal, oaf. Lastly there is the young boy named Handrbub. He must be 14 or 15. The two older men are so grizzled and filthy you can almost smell them. The boy is rough as well but has a much more innocent and youthful appearance.
Applying the dream analysis rubric the three of them represent facets of one mind, or person. We could also include the stoic, unforgiving mountains as a fourth feature and definitely the cows as a fifth, and with the succubus that makes six. Six elements each representing a unique inner voice.
Senn is the superego, the conscience, but his moralism is rigid and restrictive. It only breeds resentment and frustration. There is no reward for following his lead, but there are punishments for transgressions. Senn often resorts to violence. He is willing to get physical with either of other two men in order to get his point across. Senn often recites prayers and each night he takes a wooden cone and bellows about god and the Shepard’s oath into the gaping emptiness of snow and rock. The mountains are formidable, unmoving, unresponsive and unrelenting. They are a part of the self that is solid and decided. Most likely something simple that comes from when the dreamer was young and saw the world in absolute terms. Perhaps they represent his right to exist.
Hirt is a filthy miserable force. He is what drags an alcoholic back to the booze against his will. In the film he is polymorphous perverse. He tries to have sex with the boy, with the bedding, with a cow. He is not the id. The id is pure, and amoral, its just urges. Hirt is a self-destructive voice that defies our better judgement.
Handrbub is the audience’s entry point. He is the most relatable of the six. He has big innocent eyes that take in everything. He does not have a strong sense of self and can be swayed by the other forces. He can be sensual and sexual. He can be conscientious and remove himself from questionable situations. He has a more reasonable, morality than Senn and is far less hedonist than Hirt. He is very curious but also fearful.
The Succubus is lustful, angry, and vengeful. Its as if she resents her own existence. She is not the id either. She too has standards and morals. She passes judgement on those she encounters. She is not simply a force of nature she has an individual mind. This is how many of us experience sexuality. Its as if it has a mind of its own. The succubus was never meant to have a mind of her own. She was made by the herdsman as a sex doll, an object. The story of the succubus is that she is brought to life by the sinful lust of her creators, but it fits equally well that she is brought to life by their sexual guilt as you might find in an Edgar Allen Poe story.
This tension between object-hood and self-hood, between animate and inanimate can be seen as a metaphor for male puberty. The placid member hanging between a young boys legs wakes up from it lifeless sleep and begins asserting its own voice. It is part of the young man’s body and yet it comes to life without his willing it. It comes to life despite his wanting it to be silent.
This is akin to the conflict between each of the internal voices that battle inside the human mind. The strictness of Senn aggravates Hirt who fights back by releasing the succubus. When she appears she terrifies Handrbub who is too innocent to understand what is happening. His lack of awareness, his lack of integration makes him easy prey fro his own conflicted desires. When she appears Handrbub is racked with conflicted emotions expressed as fear.
Lastly there are the cows, the cows and their milk. The cows represent the conflicted and confusing love for the mother. The film overflows with cow imagery. The camera often pulls in tight to show udders, milk, big lapping sensuous tongues, and the cows’ warm round bodies. When the Succubus comes to stalk Handrbub she appears inside the cow herd. Handrbub stoops down trying to find her. She crawls as she hides from him and her naked limbs blend with the cow’s legs. Her hanging breasts appear along side the pendulous udders peeking out like weapons. It is uncanny how Tressler turns a beautiful woman’s body into a thing of terror.
Handrbub guided by the succubus squirts milk into her mouth. He experiences the full confusion of puberty, sex and his changing relationship to his mother. The milk is wholesome and nourishing, the symbol of motherhood, but it has become semen, the symbol of sex and depravity. Bestiality, motherhood and puberty become a torrid trauma. Soon after, we find one of the cows dead at the bottom of the cliff. Expelled from Eden, a victim of his guilt, or a byproduct of his journey left behind as the boy becomes a man.
While Senn and Hirt graphically skin and butcher the cow the boy looks on wide eyed. When he bends a twig in to a circle and holds it up to better examine it we see Christ’s thorny crown. Handrbub’s innocence has been sacrificed. Men are encouraged to sacrifice their feminine side. The difference between the genders is not strong enough for most cultures and must be intensified through behaviors and appearance. Men must reject their mother as they reject all things female in order to become men.
Dream analysis is only one possible lens through which to interpret the film. There are certainly more gender issues to be unpacked. Historically there is a lot of context and history to be considered. Formally there are some interesting uses of the subjective camera. The film is rich with layered content.
The use of dream analysis is not meant to nail down The way to understand the film, it is just a tool for exploration. The idea that villains represent unintegrated aspects of ourselves can enrich our understanding of our fears, and of our motivations for constructing the other. In The Sukkubus the young man is the only one to survive. The only one left to tell the story. He emerges from the dream having wrestled with his fears of puberty. In the end it isn’t really clear if he has resolved these feelings but his survival implies some amount of success or optimism.
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[…] It’s meant to be some kind of deep parable about good and evil and the redemptive power of love, but it’s just a romance movie that happens to be in a made-up language. If you want to see an interesting film about an incubus, try the female version depicted in the 1989 film Sukkubus — den Teufel im Leib. […]