Why has going to the Cinema been likened to dreaming?

  In this essay I will argue that both dreaming, and cinema-going is a form of escapism from reality. I aim to explore different theories of psycho-analysis from Freud to Mulvey and how it links to the visual experience of film. I will discuss apparatus theory and how it treats cinema in its purest form of ideology. I can exemplify these points by analyzing certain films and citing specific shots in order to prove this with such films as Strange Days (Bigelow), Santa Sangre (Jodorowsky), and Psycho (Hitchcock).

  The definition of dreaming is “the succession of images, thoughts, or emotions passing through the mind during sleep” (Oxford Dictionary).  It is undeniable that this is a similar experience in cinema-going. As an audience member, we willingly subject ourselves to being put in the dark and escape our own lives to jump into the world of another. In essence I can argue that both are forms of escapism. We watch films in order to feel, to learn, or even to discover something about ourselves. Freud came up with many theories in relation to dreaming which we can link to film theory, for example, Freud’s obsession with the unconscious is very interesting. He hypothesized that the unconscious mind was “a borderless psycho-social realm” (Lear, 2005) in which we can only interrogate through Freudian slips or in dreaming. The world of film and that of psycho-analysis are inextricably linked due to their dual birth at the end of the 19th Century and the visual experiences that Freud theorized about both took from and drew upon film.

  Anthony Storr writes about how Freud theorized that dreams were composed by deep, infantile thoughts deemed unacceptable by society and the emerging dream is a “compromise between censorship and direct expression” (Freud,1920). Freud described the mental process, or ‘dream-work’ (incidentally the name of a film production company) by which the dream was modified and rendered less disturbing. Our censorship from these sub-conscious thoughts is reduced in sleep and so the unconscious thought bleeds through. In the stage of ‘dream-work’ this information is displaced, condensed, and then lastly, represented in visual images. This stage essentially, censors, compromises, and then edits itself to the final product of the dream. Upon realizing this, it is unquestionable that film does the same. As a filmmaker, purpose is found in creating a piece that both aims to relate to the audience member and to make them evoke a deep emotional reaction, whether it be tears, fear, happiness, disgust, anger, or tranquility. (Anthony Storr, 1989).

  Theorist and Psycho-analysist, Jacques Lacan, built on Freudian theory. He explored the concept of the unconscious being structured as a language. The mind was structured by the imaginary, the symbolic, and the real. According to him, humans transcend the first stage of primary narcissism between 6 to 18 months into the ‘Mirror Stage’. This is when “the infant begins to recognize their image in the mirror, and this usually results in pleasure. The child initially confuses its image and tries to control/play with it before recognizing that the image is their own- a reflection of themselves” (Sean Homer, 2005). Ideologies in film debate the cultural significance of film, is it a product of its time? Or is it responsible for shaping the discourse created by the masses? Often in films, we find ourselves in a self-reflexive state, we can watch something that reflect who we are and what we feel, just as the mirror does to the child.

  In Post 70’s psycho-analysis, Jean-Louis Baudry, championed Apparatus Theory in that he maintained that cinema and the central position of the spectator within the perspective of the composition is ideological. He theorizes that the cinema goer is ‘passive’. “Viewers cannot tell the difference between the world of cinema and the real world… they identify with the characters on screen so strongly that they become susceptible to ideological positioning” (Ponsford, 2014).  Baudry goes on to link the cinema going experience to dreaming himself due to the viewer’s inactivity and passivity, they can experience the film as if it were reality itself. 

  Strange Days is a movie directed by Kathryn Bigelow and written by James Cameron in 1995. This Science-Fiction follows the character of Lenny played by Ralph Fiennes. Its set on the verge of the Millennium. Lenny is a black-market dealer of “SQUID” Discs, these are recordings that allow a user to experience the recorder’s memories and physical sensations and essentially their memories. In a sequence 50 minutes into the film, Lenny is given an anonymous disc, he puts the set on and plays it, it cuts to a POV shot of someone sneaking into a woman’s hotel room. They stalk her from the window before breaking and entering, then in the same shot, they hit her and handcuff her to a rail. Lenny who is very disturbed by this, shifts uncomfortably. Cutting again to the POV and this character puts a SQUID set on her head as he starts to rape her so she can watch herself being raped. Lenny panics as he is powerless. The woman is killed as a result of this and Lenny starts to be physically sick after what he has just seen.

  This movie is very metaphysical, in that it is very aware of itself, essentially as a viewer, we are watching characters, watching other characters. In the sequence I have chosen there is a rather blatant exploration of the character’s internal thoughts and feelings being externalized as the Sci-Fi element serves as a pathway through which they can experience each other’s memories in the form of these ‘discs’. Lenny is the spectator, he, like the spectator of cinema, is willingly subjecting himself to the ideological positioning of a passive viewer just like Baudry once theorized about cinema-going. Lenny upon viewing is made to feel something as we would in a film. This experience in Strange Days is like that of dreaming as both are mechanisms of escaping reality.

  The Classical Hollywood horror genre often explored themes of internal thoughts not deemed acceptable in society. Freud referred to these as repressed thoughts. These would manifest with classical monsters like the werewolf symbolizing the male’s aggressive, animalistic tendencies or the Vampire symbolizing unwarranted sexual desire.  Santa Sangre, a film by Alejandro Jodorowsky in 1989, explores a lot of Freudian theory, the plot involves a man in an institution looking back on his scarring days of his Mother losing her arms and having him as a replacement. This Avant-Garde piece explores Freud’s idea of the Oedipus Complex. Within it lies a very metaphorical visualization of the main character’s inner thoughts and feelings being externalized. In a scene that involves him playing the piano for his Mother shows her ultimate control over the movement of his arms and so this is representative of his imprisonment that he feels towards her, and his inability to separate his body outlines his passive, defeatist nature. Often in dreams, states Freud, “after which the dream-work has taken place, we can then study   the resulting dream and denote meaning” (Creed, 1998).  Often in film, as the spectator, we are in a position where we can take our own meaning from a film in that our ideological positioning allows us to be objective by escaping our own reality in order to learn something new be it, a spiritual, cultural, or social lesson.

  It is questionable to ignore significant contributions of psychoanalysis to film without looking at one of the most culturally important films released, Psycho by Alfred Hitchcock, released in 1960. The film is a terrifying observation into the character of Norman Bates and his psychopathic personality. It is again another good example of when a character’s internal becomes external. in the last act, it is revealed that he has created the idea of his Mother as an alternate personality. In the cellar, he is revealed to be wearing his Mother’s clothes and wig, at this point it is clear that he is a true psychopath, now when Norman finds a woman attractive, the jealous, and possessive “Mother” personality kills them. Through a practice of psycho-analysis, we find that it is the deranged jealousy Norman felt towards his deceased Mother that brought these repressed, internal feelings to his external actions of murder. “This conception of repression fixed with the distortion of the dream in relation to repressed, psychical matter, we can gain analysis of what the dream supplies” (Edar, 1920). In dreams it is possible to unlock even the most unthinkable of thoughts from psycho-analysis just as Psycho attains.

  Laura Mulvey theorizes that the cinema-goer is in a place of being active and sadistic. However, there is a strong argument for the opposition to this, in that Baudry argues that the individual is in a place of passivity and able to disassociate from one world to another. Unless it is of a lucid nature, the concept of dreaming creates a coextensive alignment with this. In both instances, dreaming and cinema-going can be mutually paired as functions of escapism and having the ability to make an individual learn something new about oneself. Both experiences ideologically position us to a point where we are reflective, challenged, provoked, and ultimately made to elicit emotion.


  • Creed, B. (1998) ‘Film and psychoanalysis’, in Hill, J. and Church Gibson, P. (eds) The Oxford Guide to Film Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press
  • Freud, S. Eder M.D. (1920) Dream Psychology: Psychoanalysis for Beginners. The Floating Press
  • Homer, S. (2005) Jacques Lacan. London: Routledge
  • Lear, J. (2005) “Freud”. Freud, Sigmund, 1856-1939: Psychoanalysis. Series: Routledge philosophers
  • Metz, C. 1974) Film Language: a semiotics of the cinema. New York: Oxford University Press
  • Mulvey, L. (1989) ‘Visual and other pleasures: Language, discourse, society’. Macmillan; the University of Michigan
  • Mulvey, L. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. Eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford UP, 1999: 833-44
  • Ponsford, N. (2014) “Film Theory and Language”. Media.Edu
  • Storr, A. (1989) Freud. Oxford: Oxford University Press


  • Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960, US)
  • Santa Sangre (Alejandro Jodorowsky, 1989, Mexico)
  • Strange Days (Kathryn Bigelow, 1995, US)