Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture Copyright © 1995 Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture
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ISSN 1070-8286


Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture, 3(3) (1995) 60-73


Father Knows Beast: Patriarchal Rage and the Horror of Personality Film

by

Francis Shor
Associate Professor
Wayne State University
Interdisciplinary Studies Program

Scholars in the developing field of men's studies have noted the changing definitions of and perspectives on masculinity and fatherhood (Brod, 1987; Clatterbaugh, 1990; Franklin, 1984; Hearn, 1992; Osherson, 1986; Seidler, 1988; Yablonsky, 1990). In contending with the shape-shifting of fatherhood, popular culture and the media have become important sites for ideological reconstitution of patriarchal relations (Doty, 1993, pp. 41-69; Easthope, 1986; Shor, 1993). Nowhere has this effort at reconstructing patriarchal relations been more evident than Hollywood. A recent survey of American films of the 1980's tallied more than 150 titles that fell under the category of "father/son" pictures (Rattigan & McManus, p. 15). As Elizabeth Traube has contended, Hollywood has reconstructed the image of the father to navigate through the turbulent waters of gender relations and patriarchal crisis (Traube, 1992, pp. 123-69). Traube's approach to the reconfigured gender relations found in contemporary Hollywood cinema takes account of the shifting and contested terrain of patriarchy. She notes that "Patriarchy... is not a monolithic system. It is a set of practices of domination that vary along lines of class, race, and ethnicity; and while patriarchal fictions are centrally produced in the culture industries, they are received by diverse social audiences" (p. 167).

Hollywood's pecuniary interest in pandering to the dreams of diverse social audiences is one reason that patriarchy is played out in easily resolved family melodramas. However, below the surface of these harmless films is the beast of a wounded patriarchy, a beast whose corporeal image is embodied in the horror film. According to film historian and critic Vivian Sobchack (1991), "As the culture changes, as patriarchy is challenged, as more and more 'families' no longer conform in structure, membership, and behavior to the standards set by bourgeois mythology, the horror [End page 60] film plays out the rage of a paternity denied the economic and political benefits of patriarchal power" (p.10) . As another recent study of the horror genre suggests, "Paternal authority is rarely a solution to forms of domination within contemporary horror, but more usually the problem itself" (Jancovich, 1992, p. 85).

In focusing on the contemporary American horror film, specifically The Shining (1980) and Raising Cain (1992), I want to explore how the representation of patriarchal rage in Hollywood cinema may subvert the cultural construction of patriarchal relations while reenforcing the longing for a reharmonized patriarchal order. In other words, given the critical approach of these two aforementioned films to patriarchy as a repressive gender privileging, what can the deconstruction of these films say about the limitations of the filmmakers and the contradictions of the historical moment in which these films were produced? Finally, what does the representation of patriarchal rage in popular culture say about the level of violence that continues to plague American society and what are the implications for efforts to reconstitute patriarchal relations?

It is evident to many interpreters of the horror film genre that the problem of patriarchy is central to the thematics of such films. As one commentator on the horror film has noted (MacKinnon, 1990), "The longevity of the horror genre may testify to the injustice and illness of 'patriarchal' society and its individual psyches" (p. 105). Another student of the horror film (Derry, 1987) has identified "an authoritarian, often crippling parental figure" (p. 164) as a key generic component of the horror film. In both The Shining and Raising Cain, horror films that frame an era (1980-1992) of right-wing politics, an authoritarian parental figure emerges as the beast within the troubled father protagonist. Before investigating the sociological and psychological meanings of the troubled father protagonists in each film, I want to discuss the sub-genre category of horror that these films represent.

According to a number of interpreters of the horror film (Derry, 1987, pp.163-68; and Prawer, 1980, p. 16), the "horror of personality" has been a major sub-genre. The "horror of personality" film, seminally represented in Hitchcock's Psycho (1960), explores the social and psychological conditions of madness and [End page 61] regressive behavior. In effect, such horror of personality films touch upon our own sense of insecurity and self-worth as exposed by the cultural and social determinants in society. Labelling this condition post-modern paranoia, Mark Jancovich (1992) traces the interrelationship between contemporary horror of personality, the over-regulated society, and the diminished sense of self (p. 83) . Robin Wood (1986, pp. 70-73), following the theories of Herbert Marcuse, sees such horror films as part of the working out of surplus repression in society.

The psychological dimension of these cultural and social determinants inheres in the electric connection (a kind of cathexis from a Freudian perspective) between reality and the vulnerable self. The shock effect comes with "the full terror of the experience of the world as liable at any moment to crash in and obliterate all identity" (Laing, 1970, p. 45). This effect, designated as implosion by the psychologist R. D. Laing, is a representative form of the divided self. Laing's insights on schizophrenia and the shattering of a coherent personality are not only relevant to the modern horror film, but also, more specifically, to the "horror of personality" sub-genre represented by The Shining and Raising Cain.

While The Shining involves a repressed patriarchal doppleganger as the beast within the schizophrenic protagonist father, Raising Cain explores the multiple personalities created by an authoritarian father. Both films raise questions about the social and cultural determinants motivating the horror of personality of the protagonists. In addition, both films reflect and refract the particular perspectives of their respective directors, Stanley Kubrick and Brian De Palma, and their own working out of the social imaginary that informs their visions. Finally, both directors provide specific cinematic configurations of the problematics of patriarchy in America and of the ideological meanings of the contemporary horror of personality film.

The father protagonist of Kubrick's The Shining is Jack Torrance, an unemployed teacher and erstwhile writer. Torrance (played with malevolent eyebrow-arching perfection by Jack Nicholson) brings his family (his wife, Wendy, and psychic son, Danny) to a posh and isolated summer resort where he assumes the responsibilities of winter caretaker while working on his writing projects. Haunted by the ghost of his own and the hotel's patriarchal past, Torrance slips into [End page 62] madness and regression. This madness and regression releases a monstrous schizophrenic masculine other that stalks both his wife and child until his physical demise in the snowbound maze outside the hotel.

On a sociological level, Torrance himself is stalked by the cultural demons of success and status that highlight his own marginalized social existence as a failure. His denial of impending failure and blaming of wife and child not only reflect the dynamics of the contemporary patriarchal crisis, but also become the basis for the projections and fantasies which conjure up cinematic images of supernatural and invidious forces conspiring against him. "The occult motif" argue Ryan and Kellner (1988), "brings together a number of social themes - male rage against wife and child resulting from economic failure, the emergence of violence from past guilt, and the more conservative idea of the inefficacy of civil institutions in the face of the evil in human nature" (p. 173).

Kubrick's cinematic construction of the occult motif allows for embedding a social imaginary that repeats a fixed-idea present in his other films from 2001, A Clockwork Orange, and Barry Lyndon: primitive and aggressive human beings cannot be contained by the decorous civility of society (Ryan and Kellner, p.174). More specific to The Shining is Kubrick's effort to use the horror story to show, in his own words, "the archetypes of the unconscious" (Nelson, 1982, p. 197). In effect, the "narrative structure of The Shining involves a journey from an ordered and forward-moving world of time into the disorders of self and regression of memory" (Nelson, 1982, p. 210).

On a psychological level, the subtle hints we are given about Jack's repressed violence provide a basis for his "descent into the maelstrom" of madness. The storm signals become increasingly evident as Torrance dives further into his own isolation, separating himself from his wife and child and losing his sense of connectedness and ontological security in the process. Torrance demands that his own space (the magnificent lobby of the hotel) be considered inviolate in a scene where he violently upbraids his wife for her intrusion into his work room. Torrance's resentful protection of this inner sanctum is a reflection of the desire for patriarchal control and Kubrick's cinematic construction of the mazelike self-enclosure that Torrance oversees throughout the film (Nelson, 1982, pp. 205-7). In a scene which becomes the turning point [End page 63] for the schizophrenic shattering of Jack's mind, his wife Wendy attempts to comfort Jack after he awakes from a howling ni.htmlare. Confessing in slobbery fashion that he has dreamed that he killed her and their son Danny, Jack no longer can prevent the return of the repressed that marks both contemporary horror and patriarchal rage. When Danny appears a short time later with a mark on his neck, Wendy accuses Jack of deliberately hurting him, recalling a time several years before when a drunken Jack dislocated Danny's arm.

With Wendy fleeing with her traumatized son, Jack retreats into the hotel's ghostly past and his own regressive impulses at the bar of the magnificent Gold Room. Looking first directly into the camera and then at the bartender Lloyd, Torrance entreats the viewer and Lloyd to sympathize with his desire to return to a "masculine freedom and violence, one in which [he] no longer represses either the sexist urge to demean Wendy... or his selfish resentment toward the moral demands of fatherhood" (Nelson, 1982, p. 223). Calling on the bartender to "set 'em up, and I'll knock 'em down," Torrance resentfully recalls the incidents of his past that previously weighed down his guilty consciousness. Free to explore what he has repressed and to give vent to monstrous patriarchal urges, Jack vehemently describes to Lloyd what happened when he injured Danny years before: "The little fucker had thrown all my papers on the floor. All I tried to do was pull him up." Although claiming to "love the little son-of-a bitch," Jack's violent denial of any deliberate wrong-doing belies the malevolent intentions he harbors towards his son and wife.

When Wendy next tries to enlist Jack in helping find what has traumatized Danny, he flies off the handle and accuses her of undermining his masculine prerogatives. ("I've let you fuck up my life so far, but I'm not going to let you fuck this up.") Returning to the Gold Room, Jack encounters Delbert Grady, a butler whose caretaker double, Charles Grady, killed his two daughters and wife in the Overlook Hotel years before. When Grady accidently spills the yellow liqueur Advocaat on Jack, they retire to the red adorned bathroom where Grady reveals his own anal and punitive patriarchal past. Warning Jack against the unholy trinity of the "nigger cook" (Danny's outside psychic connection), his "willful son," and "interfering" wife, Grady recounts how he "corrected" both his wife and daughters when they tried "to prevent me from doing my duty." [End page 64]

Fortified by the unleashing of the repressed monstrous male, Jack once again confronts Wendy in the massive hotel lobby. She has just finished looking through his typed manuscript of page after page of the single sentence: "All work and no play make Jack a dull boy." At this point, skillfully punctuated by atonal music, we understand that Jack has literally gone mad. Jack's fall into madness, a symptom of the "discontinuity in the temporal self" (Laing, 1970, p. 109), is a consequence of the implosion of his personality from more unreal spaces like the Gold Room to the claustrophobic contractions in the pantry and the final rampage in his family's bedroom and bathroom.

Before this final implosion, Jack explodes upon finding Wendy reading his manuscript and stalks her saying that he does not intend to hurt her, only to "bash in [her] fucking brains." Wendy manages to prevent the leering and charging monstrous male that Jack has become from grabbing her with the use of a phallic and culturally significant baseball bat. After knocking him out and dragging him into the pantry, Wendy takes one of the large kitchen knives and returns to Danny and the sanctuary of their family room. Jack is eventually released by a taunting Grady who inquires whether he has the "belly" for dealing "with the matter in the harshest possible way." This reactionary drive for sadistic discipline and punishment underscores the patriarchal rage in the film and the politics of the right-wing of the post-Vietnam period (Ryan and Kellner, 1988, pp. 177-8). When Jack takes up an ax to wreck revenge on his wife and son, he is attempting to redeem through violence his paternal privileges (Sobchack, 1991, p. 10).

The revenge that Jack attempts to wreck on his wife and son is psychologically more complicated and less Freudian than either Kubrick or some of the critics of the film project. The explosion of repressed anger and aggression manifested by Jack is certainly exacerbated by sexual frustration and oedipal guilt. However, the rage that Jack exhibits is as much a form of psychotic assertiveness and regressive transformation that the psychologist Heinz Kohut (1977) sees not "as a primary given - an 'original sin,' requiring expiation, a bestial drive that has to be 'tamed' - but as a specific regressive phenomenon - a psychological fragment isolated by the breakup of a more comprehensive psychological configuration and thus dehumanized and corrupted" (p. 124). Jack's troubled fatherhood is thus not only the return of the repressed, but also a situational psychopathology that [End page 65] defines the egocentric and paranoid father in competitive, post-modern America (Yablonsky, 1990, pp. 81-82; and Jancovich, 1992, pp. 83-86).

The final engulfment and implosion that overcome Jack during his murderous assault against Wendy and Danny reveal the extent to which the horror of personality interfaces with a patriarchal rage. While some evil spirit may be invading Jack's body in the form of the repressed patriarchal past, the comic transcoding of that domestic past ("Wendy, I'm home!" and "Here's Johnny!" sequences) suggests that it is not possible to go home again without some implausible gothic regression (whether that home is in the 1950's setting of the tv sitcom, Father Knows Best, or the 1920's to which Kubrick's Jack Torrance spiritually escapes). The tragic elements of Jack's hysterical rampage are the ultimate consequences of a narcissistic wounding and ontological despair confronting masculinity in America. While the murderous pursuit of his wife and son reminds us of the ubiquitous aggression which Kubrick after Freud seems to suggest in this and earlier films, there is also the intimation that the reciprocal relationships, which human beings must engage in and which engender empathy, require a sense of equality, respect, and openness foreign to patriarchy. The difficulty of achieving these qualities in either parental or conjugal relationships underscores our own potential "horror of personality." Jack's final chase through the snow-bound maze of hedges results in both literal and figurative petrification. The ultimate outcome of Jack's anxieties and psychological disintegration is pinpointed by R.D. Laing (1970) in his analysis of the consequences of engulfment and implosion: "being turned from a man with subjectivity to a thing, a mechanism, a stone, an it, being petrified" (p. 75).

If The Shining demonstrates that a monstrous repressed patriarchal rage is just below the surface of the more traditional male chauvinist character like Jack Torrance, then Raising Cain suggests that even a more liberated and nurturing father, Carter Nix, can regress to a murderous male. However, unlike the doubled Jack Torrance whose absent father is replaced by the ghostly punitive patriarch Grady, Carter Nix is deliberately split into multiple personalities by a real controlling and authoritarian father whose re- appearance after a twenty year absence sends Carter into a schizophrenic episode that results in assault, murder, and child-kidnapping, the very messy stuff of patriarchal rage and its popular culture [End page 66] representations.

Raising Cain clearly critiques the obsession with patriarchal control, especially as it relates to paternal prerogatives. The villainous character of Dr. Nix (performed as part of a multiple-role tour-de-force by John Lithgow) is condemned as a rather crazed scientist who deliberately subjected his own child to various traumas in order to induce multiple personalities. Compounding his heinous crime against his own son, Dr. Nix is once more (returning to America and his son after a 20 year exile and assumed death in Norway) engaged in a scheme to kidnap children for his child development experiments. Clearly, on one level, the character of Dr. Nix is reminiscent of the mad male scientists, or, perhaps the less-crazed Skinnerian behaviorists, who are (or were) able to hide behind their abstractions and fetishizing of reason as a way to establish a patriarchal hegemony. As one critic of De Palma's films contends, "the true fathers in his world are the abstract forces of masculine technocracy" (Graham, 1987, p. 142).

Although the character of Carter Nix does not exhibit the same level of male chauvinism or masculine arrogance as his father, he, nonetheless, continues the tradition of surveillance and control of his child, albeit with more of a new age sensibility. In fact, the film opens with a shot of a television monitor showing Carter Nix in bed comforting his young daughter. Furthermore, Carter is shown in an opening sequence arguing with a women friend (whose child he is about to kidnap) that controlling early child development is essential to creating a wholesome personality. Carter's own compulsiveness with his daughter Amy (commented on later in the film by his wife) belie his ostensible nurturing concerns, suggesting a disturbed personality.

The disturbed, schizophrenic, and multiple personality is at the center of the narrative structure of Raising Cain and integral to De Palma's style and message in this and numerous earlier films. We first meet what we understand to be Carter's evil twin Cain as Carter is prepared to chloroform a woman friend and steal her son away for his father's experiment. Every time Cain appears and is seen by Carter, he is shot at the kind of camera angle made popular in the film noir style. It is only later in the film that we understand Cain to be one of Carter's multiple personalities. In fact, Cain is a representation of the monstrous and horrific return of the repressed. When we see Cain in [End page 67] a sequence with Dr. Nix, Cain claims that even though Dr. Nix made him what he is, no "cages" could hold him. Like the explosion of the repressed id in the character of Jack Torrance in The Shining, Cain Nix represents the murderous patriarchal past re-emerging to wreck vengeance on women and children.

Cain's appearances in Raising Cain are triggered when Carter is confronted with repressed fears and fantasies, not unlike the psychiatrist in De Palma's earlier and controversial film Dressed to Kill. Although Raising Cain also shares with Dressed to Kill (and Psycho) a voyeuristic link between sex and death, the female and maternal character of Jenny does not die as a consequence of her sexual transgression, even though she suffers guilt about the affair and dreams of being lanced through her heart by a statue of a knight in shining armor! When Carter sees his wife in the throes of passion with her former boyfriend, Cain emerges to take over the diabolical plot to frame the boyfriend for a murder he is planning to commit. However, in a confounding of the murder of Jenny and the narrative structure of the film, Jenny returns from the marsh where she was presumed drowned. (The sequence where the car containing Jenny and the other woman is pushed into a marsh by Cain/Carter recalls Norman Bates effort to get rid of Marian Crane's car in Psycho. Although both cars eventually sink, the agonizingly slow descent into the marsh and the alarming awakening of Jenny in the sinking car in Raising Cain showcases De Palma's baroque cross-cutting thriller style.) First re-appearing on the tv monitor in Amy's bedroom after Carter/Cain watches the news confirming her murder and disappearance, Jenny successfully and suspensefully attacks Carter/Cain, slashing his wrist and holding him down until the detectives arrive.

Although Jenny exhibits certain independence and strength not found in earlier De Palma films (e.g., Dressed to Kill), she is not able to rescue her child by herself or even to be free of Carter's alter ego. In an amazing narrative switch that ironically transcodes the transvestite role of the woman victimizer in Dressed to Kill, the maternal protector of Carter's multiple personalities, Margo, emerges in a session with a wig-headed former psychologist colleague of Dr. Nix. Stealing her wig, Carter/Margo returns to the motel where Dr. Nix is staying followed first by Jenny and then later by the detectives and Jenny's boyfriend Jack, all of whom will figure in the multilayered slow-motion brilliant cinematic climax of [End page 68] Raising Cain. In a scene that recalls any number of previous De Palma and Hitchcock films, the knife wielding Margo kills Dr. Nix. As he slumps over, he drops Amy, who he had been cradling in his arms, from the third floor of the motel into the arms of the new surrogate paternal figure Jack. Jack's rescue of Amy from the fall is aided by an errant gunshot from the dying Dr. Nix when the shot sheers off a spear that was about to impale Jack.

With all of the obvious phallic symbols, including the phallicized and castrating female figure of Margo, it might be easy to interpret Margo as a reprise of the transsexual in Dressed to Kill (MacKinnon, 1990, pp.150-55). However, Margo as the maternal id or (m)other of Carter's multiple personality is not an essential transsexual or even the castrating female id of an earlier De Palma film, Sisters (Creed, 1993, pp.131-38). In fact, Margo is the alter ego of Carter. In order for Carter to free himself of his father's tyranny and rescue his own childhood, as well as become the instrument in rescuing his daughter, he must become the maternal (m)other. Moreover, although there are elements of the castrating female hero, as evident in Wendy in The Shining and in other horror films (Creed, 1993, pp. 158-63), there is some ambiguity about the final triumphant personality of Carter, especially in the coda in Raising Cain (a stylistic staple of De Palma horror films, i.e. Carrie, Dressed to Kill, etc.) where Carter appears fully crossed-dressed. Whether Margo is ultimately malevolent or benevolent is part of the open style of De Palma's horror films.

While Raising Cain certainly opens up the possibility of a post-patriarchal future, it remains submerged in the patriarchal rage to which it so brilliantly calls attention. On one level, Raising Cain fulfills the insight of Vivian Sobchack (1991) about the lack of "narrative resolution for patriarchy in the horror film - except the denial or death of the father, finally impotent and subject to the present power of his own horrific past" (p. 27). On another level, De Palma is doomed to be caught between his own critique of patriarchy and his inability either stylistically or ideologically to embrace a post-patriarchal future. As Allison Graham (1987) points out: "[De Palma's] horror... becomes self perpetuating: in an atrophied inner world, only monstrosities can grow, but only the release of these monstrosities can destroy the forces that engendered them.... De Palma's films, in fact, reveal a [End page 69] consciousness politically stranded at the crossroads of critique and ideology, terrified by the power of a deadly consensus reality, yet equally mortified by the prospect of violent change, and the horror they reflect becomes a documentary vision of our historical moment" (p. 141).

In Raising Cain De Palma constructs a cinematic vision of the horror of personality which clearly recognizes the historical moment in which post-Vietnam America and its patriarchal crisis is ensnared. It seems obvious that the diabolical Dr. Nix of Raising Cain is a cinematic analogue to the nefarious Richard Nixon. Like Dr. Nix, Nixon traumatized a generation of young people in his perpetuation of the war in Southeast Asia and the attendant repression at home against political dissidents. Moreover, Nixon's resignation after the disgrace of Watergate, like Dr. Nix's exile after being charged with kidnapping children, represents not only the failure of certain arrogant men, but an indictment of the patriarchal order that used its sons as sacrificial lambs to the gods of their own mad designs. The reappearance of Dr. Nix and the right-wing repressive patriarchal politics represented by Nixon in the figures of Reagan/Bush suggest for De Palma a need to expose the patriarchal past. Yet, as a number of critics contend (Rattigan & McManus, 1992; Ryan & Kellner, 1988; and Traube, 1992), Hollywood's efforts to restore or reconfigure a benevolent patriarchy is compromised by the unresolved contradictions of the past. Moreover, as a final commentary on the horror of personality integral to the films discussed and to the patriarchal crisis of the historical moment, Lynda Boose (1993) convincingly writes: "For America's post-Vietnam narrative is stamped with the intensity of a generation stuck in its own boyhood and now playing out, with increasing violence, an unconscious cultural myth that attempts to recover the father.... The quest for the father - which might seem to be a reparative ideal - is dangerously regressive and invariably futile because what was required at the time of transition to adulthood cannot, by very definition, be incorporated twenty years later" (pp. 602 & 604).

That De Palma and Kubrick are able to reveal the danger in the regressive quest to restore the patriarchal past is a testament to the power of their cinematic visions and the horror of personality genre. Nonetheless, identifying the beast as merely the return of the repressed neglects the on-going divided self that plagues both America and American men. If we can [End page 70] admit that father no longer knows best, especially when promoting an outmoded patriarchal order, then perhaps we can escape from the ni.htmlares that populate both the American horror of personality film and America itself.

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