cinematic construction of the female serial killer Abstract Rachel Cohen



Psychoanalysis in Our Time Conference 2014


Investments in Cinematic Constructions of the Female Serial Killer: Re-Conceptualising Spectatorial “Identification”


This paper is based upon my doctoral research, which explored the ways in which film viewers engage with and respond to cinematic constructions of the female serial killer, focusing closely upon the story of Aileen Wuornos, who was executed in 2002 for the murders of seven men. Three key film texts – Monster (Patty Jenkins, 2003), Aileen: The Selling of a Serial Killer (Nick Broomfield, 1992) and Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer (Nick Broomfield, 2003) – were used as the basis for this study. Arguing that the psychodynamic complexities of the film-viewing encounter remain inadequately theorised, I offer a critique of and a challenge to existing Screen theory and cultural studies’ accounts of spectatorial “identification”, by reconceptualising the process as one of psychosocial investment (Hollway and Jefferson 2000a), which operates at both conscious and unconscious levels. Extracts will be used from interview data gathered using a series of in-depth free-association narrative [FANI]/biographical interpretive [BNIM] interviews (ibid.,2000a, Wengraf 2001, 2013)

As I will show in my presentation, the mobilisation in this context of theoretical frameworks drawn from object-relations psychoanalysis (and Kleinian theory, in particular) facilitates an exploration of the unconscious anxieties, conflicts and phantasies that bear significantly upon participants’ filmic investments. Moreover, findings from my research indicate that these investments are made meaningful in relation to dominant cultural ideologies and “norms”, but that they are also powerfully motivated by participants’ own biographical experiences. In my discussion, I will argue that cinematic investments of this kind can usefully be understood in terms of self-primacy, since viewers seem to read the films (differently) through their own selves. This phenomenon will be theorised using the concept of narcissism – conceptualised as being both psychologically and socio-culturally significant – and in relation to the psychoanalytic notions of projection and phantasy.



Short Biography

Dr. Rachel Cohen (Cardiff University/Birkbeck, University of London)

Dr. Rachel Cohen currently works as an Associate Lecturer at Cardiff University’s School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies, and as a postdoctoral research assistant on a Leverhulme Trust funded project based in the Department of Psychosocial Studies department at Birkbeck, University of London. Her academic background includes a BA (Hons) in Film Studies and an MA (Distinction) in Forensic Linguistics. Rachel’s first paper – based on her PhD thesis – was recently published in Issue 64 of  Free Associations Journal, and a number of additional articles are currently undergoing peer review elsewhere. Her research interests include “psychocultural” approaches to audience engagements with film, and with popular music. She is also working towards a longer-term postdoctoral research project, which seeks to encourage closer collaboration between the fields of media audience studies, criminology and forensic psychotherapy.