Peeking at Sexuality: The Emotional Impacts of the Gaze in Psycho and Midsommar, by Daria Catalina Ghenghea

Peeking at Sexuality: The Emotional Impacts of the Gaze in Psycho and Midsommar, by Daria Catalina Ghenghea

About Daria Catalina Ghenghea: I am currently a second-semester student in the Law, Society and Justice profile. I wrote this essay last semester for the horror Reflections class, as horror is my favourite cinematic genre. I would like to study either law or criminology in university to become a lawyer or a customs officer. I have always been passionate about literature, as reading is one of my favourite activities. This essay will discuss the sentiments of guilt and shame felt by the viewer as a result of the female characters in Psycho and Midsommar, two iconic horror films.


    Described as how an audience interacts with media, the gaze, closely linked to perspective, is essential in the audience’s perception of a text. Whether it is written or visual, the gaze’s eyes often resemble “that of a vulture” (Poe 1), following the viewer no matter how much they may attempt to avoid it. Yet, as Carol J. Clover, a critic who discusses women’s place within film, reveals, “cinema, it is claimed, owes its particular success in the sensational genres to its unprecedented ability to manipulate point of view” (Clover 69). The horror genre is then a mastermind of forcing direct participation, almost as if placing viewers in a chokehold. No matter how painful this may be, the relishing for voyeurism pushes on. Such is the case in the infamous mystery and macabre author Edgar Allan Poe’s Tell-Tale Heart, a short story recounting the descent into madness of its narrator, who commits homicide due to the victim’s blind gaze, in order to “thrust their head” (Poe 1) into the door of the Eye as a consequence of unquenched desire. These biases slowly indoctrinate then coordinate with the audience’s thoughts, causing them to sometimes condemn violence, and other times cheer for more. The gaze within Psycho (1960), the first slasher film, is mortifying, yet remains iconic. Its perspective on the male gaze reflects its society’s views, depicting female sexuality as inherently shameful. However, films such as Midsommar (2019) inverse this gaze’s control, creating an exciting dynamic between lack of and total control over sexuality. No matter their differences, these two films end similarly. So, the comparison between them brings about an intriguing study on how differing cinematic gazes surround sexual desire—explored within Clover’s Her Body Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film—manipulate a watcher’s feelings of guilt and shame through the following female characters: Marion and “Mother” alongside Dani and the Harga.

     Beginning with Psycho, the dynamics between female sexuality and the ignominy surrounding it due to the male gaze create the feeling of guilt through complicity when observing  Marion and, later on, “Mother.” From the start, the viewer is placed as a voyeur, overstepping all boundaries by looking through a hotel room’s barely open window (Psycho 00:03:21). The first image seen is of Marion, the female protagonist, with her secret lover Sam, getting ready after a passionate night. Rapidly the viewer comprehends the woman’s thoughts on sexuality: she embraces it yet is ashamed. This prepares the viewer for what will come next because, as Clover mentions, these scenes “exist solely to horrify and stimulate” (Clover 69). The viewer is then abashed by their participation in sexualizing Marion without processing her as an actual human, capable of emotion.

   This is further pressed through the constant switch of perspective as the gaze jumps from one man to another, repeatedly dehumanizing Marion. This evolution begins with Sam, who mixes his lust with love, making the viewer slightly uncomfortable. However, it takes a new turn with the boss and client, who are placed as male figures of authority (00:08:30). This point of view, intensified by the lowered camera angle, forces the audience to see Marion as a sexual object meant to be below, pushing the boundaries of our morality on women’s bodies. While we like to believe that we are entirely like Marion, “the Other is also finally another part of ourselves, the projection of our infantile fears and desires” (Clover 71). This is merely representing the reality of our society. Regardless of gender, people sexualize others, but due to the film’s bluntness, guilt is inescapable, further aggravated by the police officer that follows Marion around and makes her uneasy.

      As Marion meets Norman, the perspective radically shifts: he observes her as prey, watching her intently through a hole in the wall, akin to a stalking hunter. Norman and the viewer have then stolen Marion’s sexual autonomy. However, a line has been crossed, and, as one might foreshadow, punishment is inevitable. “Mother,” the other half of Norman, who personifies his dead relative, comes to annihilate the jewel of desire. Marion’s death (00:47:47-00:49:47), while not gory, was “filmed at closer range, in more graphic detail, and at a greater length” (Clover 82) than Arbogast’s, the male victim who also saw “Mother,” bringing attention to the viewer’s implicit desire to watch Marion die. So, the viewer is yet again confronted with being complicit in violence solely based on sexual shame by remaining a passive albeit pleased observer. However, Marion’s dead eye propels this guilt and shame: it stares directly at the audience, reprimanding them for their inaction, and her extended arm almost seems to be trying to reach them. This “active, investigating gaze” (Clover 93) follows the viewer hauntingly, never letting the viewer forget that they are being watched by her and “Mother,” who has escaped once again.

    In contrast to the previous film discussed, the mere collapse of this shame and the Harga’s conquering of the male gaze, by fully controlling sexual activity, explains the drastic evolution of Dani’s sexuality and her willingness to ignore violence, creating shame within viewers. At the beginning of Midsommar, Dani is portrayed as the complete opposite of Marion through her lack of sexuality. Through the camera’s portrayal of her mental state and the way she forgives her boyfriend Christian’s behavior, she is depicted as fragile and insecure (Midsommar 00:15:44). This sentiment is reinforced by how she stands, leaning inwards and twiddling her fingers, when she speaks to him. Although she is standing and her partner is sitting, giving her the power physically, she relinquishes it for fear of abandonment. While the viewer is still positioned as a voyeur, there is no active sexual desire. Rather, they feel pity for Dani’s lack of emotional support through familial tragedies, and anger towards Christian and his friends, who seem preoccupied with sex, setting the motive for violence to be anticipated. However, it is important to note that, while Christian is unlikable, he does provide minimal support to his girlfriend, but her overwhelming needs overshadow his. Only when the viewer observes Christian omitting the trip to Sweden does guilt begin to settle, as Dani is only invited by obligation. The audience is again complicit to another woman being trapped  in societal conventions, which “encourages impulses towards victimization in females” (Clover 89), similar to with Marion.

     However, the story takes a twisting turn through the introduction of the Harga. Unlike Norman and “Mother,” the Harga do not wish to repress sexual desire; better yet, they fully control it, picking their mates and taking pride in their androgynous forms to, as the priests explain, be closer to deities (00:38:01). The women in this community also wholeheartedly embrace desire and even project it onto men, as Maja does with her love spells. While there is satisfaction in overturning the male gaze, a sense of dread permeates the film as the audience can no longer hide behind it. This is showcased through the suicide scene (00:57:52-01:02:18) as the audience is placed to watch from high, middle, and low points, forcing complete clarity on a terrible event. It also momentarily switches to a lower point of view where a Harga member looks at the camera directly and smirks, inciting the viewer to acknowledge their complicity in these deaths and the presence of an escaping truth, similar to Marion’s dead eye. However, this sentiment does not linger as Dani becomes the May Queen, a symbol of femininity. As the audience watches her integrate with the Harga, everything seems to point towards a happy ending for her. Meanwhile, that similar feeling of shame and guilt due to complicity returns, inversely, as each man who has detrimentally affected Dani dies “not because they are boys but because they make mistakes” (Clover 81), a similar fate to the one Norman faced for his desires. However, these mistakes border on the scale of justifiability and leave the viewer guilty for knowing the entire story and keeping silent while Dani never will.

    This matter is further reinforced by Christian’s demise (01:58:19-02:09:57). The viewer knows he was coerced into having sex with Maja and was seen merely as an object for insemination, subverting the male gaze onto a man. However, as the viewer is positioned as a Harga member, it becomes easy to forget how horrible the scene is through the delicate, loving nature of the women, lulling the viewer into a false sense of security. They also act as mother figures by yelling at Dani’s heartbreak, and the rest act as “Mother” to now punish Christian for her. The guilt of being unable to tell Dani fuels the audience’s shame of being passively silent about this abuse of power. Lastly, it is only  as Christian discovers all the bodies “does one apprehend the full extent of the cinematic double standards in such matters [raw expressions of abject horror]” (Clover 96). The feeling of dread is directly brought to the viewer’s attention to recognize their compliance to ignore beautiful violence.

  Nevertheless, as different as they may be in conquering the concept of the gaze, both films end in a chilling scene where the survivor is smiling at the viewer. While all killers get away with their actions, the background and the choice of placing “Mother” and Dani alone in the shot produce different degrees of shame and guilt in the viewer. When observing “Mother” (Psycho 01:47:50-01:49:04), the jail room conveys sentiments of cold justice. The guilt however, comes from the horrifying reality that she will escape with no punishment, even if she sacrificed her child for survival and committed many murders. Only then does the audience realize that Norman is just as much a victim of the gaze as Marion. As “Mother” smiles at the viewer from an upward stare, the shame of accepting the male gaze’s success in repressing sexual desire reveals her as the ultimate gaze that has been watching the viewer since the beginning and punishing sexuality.

     Contrastingly, in Dani’s case (Midsommar 02:22:10-02:23:00), the brightness of the shot aims to convince the viewer to buy into the same fantasy that Dani has and repress morality. Inversely to “Mother,” who dupes the authorities with “sadness,” Dani is in despair, yet as she watches the fire burn away the remnants of her pain, she accepts violence as the only way to reclaim her sexuality. She sides with her new “family” rather than reason. Her smile forces guilt out of the audience, since they wish to help her see reality while letting her retain her sexuality but simply cannot. In both instances, the idea of justifiability is challenged. While murder was committed, both were merely trying to protect their identities, a natural human reaction. However, due to manipulated perspectives, we empathize more with Dani as we closely follow her and witness her as a victim, distorting our judgment.

    So, comparing the two films lets the viewer understand how easily one can be manipulated into guilt and shame by perpetuating and destroying the gazes we are accustomed to feeling. It is difficult to comprehend a world where the male gaze is not controlling desire, yet it might be even scarier to think of a reality where the gaze fully disintegrates. However, one thought remains. Clover mentions that “killers are superhuman” (Clover 77), and while one cannot argue with her claim, there is room to reflect on how close anyone is to becoming Dani or acting as “Mother,” especially regarding sexual desire. Through this lens of false sympathy, our true nature becomes just as terrifying, and the boundary between sanity and insanity blurs.


Works Cited

Clover, Carol J. “Her Body Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film.” Men, Women and  

Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. Princeton University Press, 1992, pp.66-113.

Midsommar. Directed by Ari Aster. A24 Productions, 2019.

Poe, Edgar Allan. Tell-Tale Heart. Gothic Digital Press UFSC, 1884. The_Tell-Tale_Heart_(Edgar_Allan_Poe_1843).pdf (

Psycho. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Shamley Productions, 1960.

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