Cape Fear: A Freudian Analysis
by Leesa Sylyski, BBA, CLA
Sigmund Freud was one of the
most influential and controversial psychologists of the 20th
century, and indeed has been referred to as the Father of Psychoanalysis.
His theories center upon the idea that "human behavior is
primarily instinctive and motivated mainly by unconscious mechanisms"
(B.R. Hergenhahn, An Introduction To Theories Of Personality,
2nd ed. (New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1984) at 14 [hereinafter,
In the 1991 film
Cape Fear (Universal/Amblin/Cappa/Tribeca 1991, directed
by Martin Scorsese, [hereinafter, Cape Fear]), Max Cady
seduces his former lawyer, Sam Bowden's, daughter. Fourteen years
previous Sam buried evidence of the past sexual history of a
woman Cady was accused of raping. In doing so, Cady was not afforded
the best possible defense. He was convicted and sentenced to
14 years in prison. The seduction and reaction of Sam's daughter,
Danny, by Cady, will be examined in light of Freudian theories
and thereby demonstrated as believable in its entirety. The relevant
parts of Freud's theories will be set out, and the characters'
actions discussed where they exemplify behavior that is expected
in certain psychosexual stages. Finally, the seduction of Danny
will be explored in further detail.
There are five psychosexual stages of development experienced
by all children, and it is during these stages that adult personality
is determined (Hergenhahn, supra at 27-31). These are the oral,
anal, phallic, latency, and genital stages (Hergenhahn, supra
at 27). If an adult was over or under gratified at a stage as
a child, he/she will fixate at that period in development (Hergenhahn,
supra at 27-31). Fixation is accompanied by regression, as "when
a person regresses, he or she tends to go back to the stage at
which that person had been fixated" (Hergenhahn, supra at
First is the early oral stage that occurs in the child's first
year. It is here that a child derives pleasure from sucking and
swallowing (Hergenhahn, supra at 27). An adult who is fixated
at this stage will overly engage in activities such as "drinking,
smoking, kissing, and eating" or symbolically engage in
these activities by "swallowing" anything that he or
she hears (Hergenhahn, supra at 27). Later, from about 8 months
to a year, pleasure comes from "biting and devouring".
One who is fixated at this stage into adulthood will engage in
biting activities or symbolically equivalent activities such
as sarcasm and ridicule (Hergenhahn, supra at 27). A person who
engages in activities involving biting is said to have an "oral-sadistic
character" (Hergenhahn, supra at 27).
The anal stage is experienced during the second year of life
(Hergenhahn, supra at 27). In the first part of the stage, pleasure
is found in feces expulsion (Hergenhahn, supra at 28). Later,
pleasure is found in feces possession (Hergenhahn, supra at 28).
It is not a particularly important stage for this analysis, as
none of the characters seem to be fixated at this stage.
Next, the three-to-five year old child experiences the phallic
stage, a particularly important stage to the relationships that
Danny has and develops. The main characteristic at this stage
for females is the Electra complex which "involves the child's
unconscious desire to possess the opposite-sexed parent and to
eliminate the same-sexed one (D.B. Stevenson, Freud's Psychosexual
Stages of Development (1996), online: The
Freud Web (date accessed: 11 March 2003) [hereinafter Stevenson])".
It is a highly controversial theory and
[t]he complex has its roots in the little girl's discovery
that she, along with her mother and all other women, lack the
penis which her father and other men posses. Her love for her
father then becomes both erotic and envious, as she yearns for
a penis of her own. She comes to blame her mother for her perceived
castration, and is struck by penis envy (Stevenson).
Then from the ages of about
six to twelve the "latency stage" (Hergenhahn, supra
at 29) is experienced. During this time, "sexual interests
are displaced to substitute activities such as learning [and]
athletics" (Hergenhahn, supra at 29).
In the film, Danny is 15 years old and thus would be at the "genital
stage" (Hergenhahn, supra at 29) of development, where a
child turns to heterosexual interests. If there are unresolved
issues from other stages, a child will fixate on them for the
remainder of his or her life (Hergenhahn, supra at 29). This
is the final stage and the child should "emerge as the as
the adult he/she is destined to become" (Hergenhahn, supra
These are all the relevant areas of Freud's theories and the
seduction of Danny can now be analyzed in more detail. It is
likely that Danny has a fixation at the phallic stage, in part
due to her tumultuous relationship with her mother. In the opening
scenes of the movie, her mother tells the dog that "they
switched babies on me at the hospital, didn't they?" There
is a great deal of repressed anger between Danny and her mother.
The viewer does not see love or even friendship between the two
of them. Instead, the viewer sees resentment and a great deal
of passive-aggressive avoidance in their conversations. Danny
will pose questions, but then walk away and ignore the answer.
Danny continually needles her mother by acting in this manner,
possibly hoping to cause her mother to leave in frustration.
Danny's relationship with her father is also unsatisfactory for
her. Near the beginning of the film, we see the family out having
a snack at a diner after having been to a movie. In a very childish
manner, Danny is eating a dish of ice cream and play-fights with
her father. All is well until she tells Sam that "he should
have 'punched out' that guy with the cigar in the theatre",
the man being Cady. Sam loses his temper and ends up with his
arm too held too tightly around Danny's neck, choking her. Danny
looks startled. This is the first time the viewer sees her love
for her father shunned by a violent act when speaking of Max
Cady. Danny must now find another father figure on which to bestow
her "erotic and envious love" (Stevenson, supra).
Max Cady is a complex character. One of the first scenes in which
viewer is permitted to appraise him in a private moment is a
brutal rape scene of a woman, Lori, with whom Sam is having an
affair. Cady handcuffs her hands behind her back and then bites
a piece out of her cheek. This act is certainly more than symbolically
fixating at an oral stage, it is an outright demonstration of
Freud's oral-sadistic character. Throughout the movie, Max Cady
smokes a large cigar. This is an activity from which he derives
a great deal of pleasure, and another indication of his fixation
at the oral stage.
Cady then becomes a menace to Sam and his family. Danny is made
privy to his identity and thereby the danger he poses. However,
he is able to capitalize on Danny's sexual development in the
genital stage and her fixation at the phallic stage. Cady poses
as her drama teacher and on the phone instructs her to "[u]se
all that negativity. Go with it. The awkwardness you feel when
you're walking down the street and some leering fools make fun
of your sexuality, the turmoil you feel, when you feel extra
bad when that time of the month comes around." Certainly,
any young girl is uncomfortable when she first becomes aware
of herself as a sexual object, or when confronted by changes
in her body. It was thus not difficult for Cady to judge that
these would also be areas of anxiety for Danny. He then talks
about "[t]he anger you feel at your mom and dad. They won't
let you grow up [to] be a woman. Go with it. Put that anger to
work." Certainly Danny has a great deal of anger against
her mother, stemming from, to Freud, her perceived castration
and want to eliminate her mother, as well as from the shunned
love of her father. Cady tells her that "[y]ou can trust
me 'cause I'm a 'do right' man." Perhaps she has found her
substitute father figure.
Cady is able to lure Danny to an isolated theatre in her summer
school the next day. When they meet, the setting is very dark,
and Cady smokes marijuana. At this moment, he has repressed his
need of a large phallic symbol for another item that can be smoked,
and thus satisfy his fixation. This item is not threatening to
Danny, as she has smoked marijuana before, and now smokes with
Cady. However, her mother has reprimanded her for smoking, and
so this act "symbolizes her rebellion and alienation towards
her mother" (Associate Professor A. Acorn, personal communication,
University of Alberta, March 2003). Cady knows this and exploits
the rift between mother and daughter.
Cady begins to discuss books with sexual content. This is a subject
that should be of interest to Danny due to her genital stage
of development. He starts to build trust with her by recounting
the description of an erection from the book "Tropic of
Cancer". Danny says that she had to sneak the book off her
parents' shelf. He then begins to illuminate her hostility towards
her parents, which he has now confirmed she has. He tells her
that "[y]our parents don't want you to reach adult-hood".
He then senses that there is both enough trust of him, and hatred
of her parents, to divulge his real identity. He then reassures
her by saying that "[t]here's no anger between us. Just
the search for truth. Did you judge me? Did you get angry at
me when you caught me smoking the grass? But your parents judged
you." A short while later, he tells Danny "I think
I might have found a companion". This is excellent news
for Danny in her search for a father figure.
Cady then asks to put his arm around her and she consents. She
feels safe. He touches her face and puts his thumb into her mouth.
She sucks on it- twice. This satisfies any regressed need for
oral fixation for both of them. They both passed through this
stage as children and know it well. In a stressful situation
such as that in which Danny found herself, there was a likelihood
of her regressing to this first stage in development. Additionally,
it is satisfying her want of "erotic and envious love"
(Stevenson ,supra) for a father figure and her curiosity of heterosexual
The next scene with Sam and Danny is when he bursts into her
room after learning she has spent time with Cady. Danny is having
a quiet moment alone, listening to music, as she lays on her
bed in her underwear. For Danny, it is a situation in which she
is comfortable and content. However, Sam yells at her to put
some clothes on, as she is "not a little kid anymore".
He has now forever crushed any hope of her seeing him as an outlet
for her love. Danny argues with him and says "[h]e didn't
force himself on me. I know you'd like to think he did. I think
he was just trying to make a connection with me." Sam responds
by yelling at her. He tells her "[n]o! You understand? No.
There will never be a connection between you and Max Cady. Did
he touch you?" Danny laughs and Sam tells her to "[w]ipe
that smile off your face!" He aggressively pushes his hand
over her mouth and pushes her violently into the bed. Danny starts
to cry. In sharp contrast, Max Cady had been so gentle with her,
filling all her unconscious needs and desires. Here her Father,
the man she should be bestowing her love on, is continually shunning
her and acting violently towards her. He violates her child-like
innocence by both telling her she is no longer a child and by
acting in such a hateful manner.
Following this incident, Max Cady is safe in the sense that Danny
feels betrayed by her Father and therefore uses Cady as a substitute
on which to endow her "erotic and envious love" (Stevenson,
supra). Taken in its entirety, the seduction of Danny is believable.
Yet it is also frightening to realize that viewers of the film
are subject to the same unconscious desires, and that the Max
Cadys of the world may be able to gain an advantage in their
psychotic relationships by exploiting unconscious mechanisms.
Posted May 23, 2003