Jungian Reflections on Mainstream Cinema

happy to share my academic article, “Jungian Reflections on Mainstream Cinema”. ♥️

“Jungian Reflections on Mainstream Cinema” was written during my undergraduate degree, and i expanded on its conclusions in my undergraduate dissertation. my research interests have shifted since then, and, as i dive deeper into other topics in academia, i want to briefly share some of my past findings – how perfect the form of an academic letter is for that! thank you to AL for gifting me the opportunity to publish open-access and, graciously, free of cost, my swift farewell to Jung, psychoanalysis & to the mystical gaze of cinema. grateful to all i’ve learned about myself while immersed in Jung, grateful for the bridge this individuation journey of mine represented – a transition to my postgraduate studies in philosophy & religion. very much looking forward to sharing complete papers centred on religion & philosophy in the future – if i’m ever done with obsessively editing them, that is! ♥️

end-note: have loved conversing with other Jung enthusiasts since this came out. i thought – oh! so this is the magic of presenting & sharing ideas with those who have similar interests as you do!

https://doi.org/10.20935/AL3814

ACADEMIA Letters
Jungian Reflections on Mainstream Cinema
Téa Nicolae, Lancaster University

Fantastical worlds have been enchanting humans for centuries. From fairy-tales and legends to science-fiction blockbusters, we have been drawn to bewitching stories of heroes, magic and supranatural creatures since the dawn of creation. (Zipes, 2006) Although this subtle desire to encounter mysticism in art has been labelled as ‘escapism’ (Addis and Holbrook, 2010; p.823), I propose that the phantasmal imagery  of mainstream cinema offers valuable insights into the human psyche. 

I am building my assumption on the work of psychoanalyst Carl Jung (1875-1961), who believed that fantastical images of mythology and religion are allegories, cohesively constructed to supply ideas about the psyche. According to Jung, mythology and religion resemble psychology by perfectly creating ‘archetypes’ packed with meaning, which allow humans to dwell upon images of rebirth, transformation and self-realisation. (Jung, 1998) 

The psychoanalyst was unconvinced that our ancestors went to great lengths to interpret the happenings of the natural world through religious iconography because they lacked scientific explanations. Instead, he considered that mystical imagery does not serve as a rationalisation of the physical world, but of the inner one. Thus, such images use the external, chimerical universe to decipher the complex layers of the mind. (Jung, 1998) Therefore, in Jungian thought, images that cross religious and modern myths reveal the nature of the Self, which represents one’s authentic identity. The Self emerges when consciousness and unconsciousness are united; Jung considered this union to be the nucleus of all psychological and spiritual inquiries, as he associated this psychological aspiration with the spiritual yearning for the Divine and believed that the ‘God’ referred to in religion is the Self. To allow the Self to arise, one undergoes psychic processes such as ‘individuation’ and integration, which are reflected in religious iconography within prototypal storylines and quintessential imagery. Hence, Jungians believe that humans have been telling similar stories for centuries: stories that are imbued in our collective unconscious because they are meaningful, soulful, because they guide us to understand our humanity. (Jung, 1998) 

Jung considered that new myths are continuously created in lieu of ancient ones. (Jung, 2002) The concept of modern myths greatly interests me. As cinema has undoubtedly become one of the most accessible and popular artforms, I am inclined to believe that it is a medium where modern myths are crafted. 

Accordingly, as technology allows our unconscious to rapidly absorb images and ideas without properly processing them, Jungian scholars consider that cinema ‘offers both a means and a space to witness the psyche in projection’, thus proving to be an ‘antidote to the modern assault on the unconscious’. (Hauke and Alister, 2001; p.2) I would thereby maintain that, while watching aspects of their humanity and layers of the world unravel on screen, spectators are guided to understand themselves and to find meaning in cinematic tales. 

Indeed, numerous mainstream films encode traditionally religious beliefs that interlace with the Jungian worldview. For example, Star Wars: A New Hope (George Lucas, 1977) is heavily influenced by Hindu thought and is rich with archetypes, whereas George Lucas himself based his work on Jungian conceptions. The Lord of The Rings (Peter Jackson, 2001-2003) embodies Catholic consciousness and constructs a distinct individuation process. Both Interstellar (Christopher Nolan, 2014) and Inception (Christopher Nolan, 2010) include influences from Eastern schools of thoughts and address the concept of the collective unconscious, while Avatar (James Cameron, 2009) mirrors Hindu convictions and illustrates unity of consciousness. These works have been enthusiastically received by audiences and critics alike. 

I suggest that the popularity of these cinematic pieces arises from a collective subconscious yearning for modern myths and self-reflection. The archaic nature of images that appear in the enumerated films allows cinema, even in its mainstream form, to engage the psyche, and to guide spectators to find purposefulness in life and in themselves. A Jungian analysis of mainstream cinema would thus unveil commercial films as psychic expressions of the unconscious that transcend individuality and collectively touch upon the complexities of our humanness, thus resembling religious myths. 

I would therefore reject the dismissal of commercial films as ‘escapist’, embracing scholar Christopher Hauke’s articulation that ‘their very popularity (…) demonstrates a resonance with unconscious needs in the collective psyche to which the cinema frequently responds.’ (Hauke, 2001; p.9) Additionally, I would sustain that ancestral symbols present in film have the capacity to perform healing functions and to ‘indicate a psychic reality to which each person potentially has access’, which ‘transcends bounds of personal history’. (Frederickson, 2001: p.29) In a fast-moving society which allows little space for introspection, cinema makes complex psychological inquiries approachable and attainable: ‘when an intensity of experience is mixed with the less intense, psychological and emotional replenishment and growth may be made bearable and possible’. (Hauke and Alister, 2001; p.2) 

In conclusion, I propose that cinema is becoming a religion of our own: it is a medium where stories of self-understanding and self-realisation are crafted, where our shared humanity reverberates in archaic images that are pregnant with meaning. Films, our modern myths, invite us to embark on inner, earnest journeys which lead to the Self: the nucleus of humanness. 

‘I believe there’s spirituality in films, even if it’s not one which can supplant faith… It’s as if movies answer an ancient quest for common unconscious.’ 

Martin Scorsese (Scorsese and Wilson, 1995)

Corresponding Author: Téa Nicolae
Citation: Nicolae, T. (2021). Jungian Reflections on Mainstream Cinema. Academia Letters, Article 3814.
https://doi.org/10.20935/AL3814.

you can read the bibliography and the filmography of this article visiting the link pasted above.

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