The Legacy of Robin Wood

Whilst pouring over the latest issue of Sight & Sound I came across an article commemorating the life and work of film scholar Robin Wood, who sadly passed away in December, 2009. Wood had a profound influence over critical readings of films - particularly horror movies, (and in particular again - slasher films), with his groundbreaking work focusing on the concept of the ‘Return of the Repressed.’
Wood stated ‘The release of sexuality in the horror film is always presented as perverted, monstrous and excessive; both the perversion and the excess being the logical outcome of repression.’

These ideas were fleshed out in the three part essay ‘An Introduction to the American Horror Film’ (Part I: Repression, The Other, The Monster; Part II: Return of the Repressed; Part III; The Reactionary Wing). This essay was published in The American Nightmare: Essays on the Horror Film, which was edited by Wood and his partner Richard Lippe. Wood was one of the first critics to note the overtly conservative nature lurking within the subtext of slasher movies. As a student of film studies, Wood’s enthusiastic writings really captured my imagination, bolstered my love for the critical analysis of horror cinema and fed my passion for film - particularly with the essay mentioned above. For me, An Introduction to the American Horror Film opened up a whole new way in which to view horror films.

After graduating from Cambridge in the early Sixties, Wood became a teacher and began writing articles on film. When he contributed an essay on Hitchcock's Psycho to the highly reputable Cahiers du cinema, Wood began to contribute to film journal Movie. In 1965, after a spell of teaching in England, France and Sweden, Wood published his first book, Hitchcock's Films. This was actually the first book to be published about the filmmaker in English. In the early Seventies he lectured in film in Canada. In 1973, he returned to England and lectured at Warwick University as part of a groundbreaking project set up with the British Film Institute to introduce the concept of film studies to the UK university curriculum. During this time Wood and his wife, teacher Aline Macdonald, divorced. Returning to Canada in 1977 he met Richard Lippe, with whom he fell in love, and became professor of film studies at York University, Toronto where he taught until his retirement in the early 1990s. During his time here, Wood helped form a critical collective involving students and colleagues and published their work in CineACTION!.

Wood would often draw on the critical theories of Freud and Marx and he was particularly interested in exploring the psychology behind the motivation of various film characters – especially those in Hitchcock’s films. As an openly gay man in the 70s, Wood’s writings were also frequently political, and much of this stemmed from his essay The Responsibilities of a Gay Film Critic. In 2005, Wood said one of his main motives for writing about film was: “To contribute, in however modest a way, to the possibility of social revolution, along lines suggested by radical feminism, Marxism and gay liberation.” His other works focused on filmmakers such as Ingmar Bergman, Claude Chabrol, Michael Antonioni and Arthur Penn. Various other titles include Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan, Sexual Politics and Narrative Film: Hollywood and Beyond and Rio Bravo (BFI Publishing).

Wood died of leukaemia at the age of 78 and leaves behind his partner Richard Lippe, ex-wife Aline MacDonald, children Carin, Fiona and Simon, and five grandchildren.

He had a profound influence on the study of cinema.

'Why should we take Hitchcock seriously? It is a pity the question has to be raised. If the cinema were truly regarded as an autonomous art, not as a mere adjunct of the novel or the drama – if we were able yet to see films instead of mentally reducing them to literature – it would be unnecessary.' Robin Wood. 23 February 1931 – 18 December 2009


WriterME said…
Good post, as always. I have to admit that I tend to have little patience with the psychoanalytic approach. I am a firm supporter of some of the ideas of Freud, but there is always a risk of things becoming a bit... excessive. One of the major names in the psychoanalytic approach, James Twitchell, builds his entire theory around the idea that all horror narratives somehow deal with incest, and although Carol Clover puts forward interesting points, some of them seem too far removed from the intentions of directors and screenwriters. To side with Daniel Shaw: "Sometimes a big cigar is just a smoke, and the conscious and more obvious goal is what motivates our actions." (
Pax Romano said…
Sad to say, I was not aware of the late Mr. Wood or his essays. Thank you for this, I am now going to look up his works!
B-Movie Becky said…
How sad. I remember referring to Robin Wood's material in many'a essays back in film school.
That was a thoughtful and considered piece on the great Robin Wood. He pretty much single-handedly made the horror film academically acceptable in the 1970's, and his writings were of personal use to me in both my BA and MA dissertations. I think also he was one of the most readable writers I have come across in the academic study of cinema. His decision to champion and include his own personal responses to the films he watched was a major break from the dry and arid stuff one generally has to put up with.
Anonymous said…
Great post James, I'll also be checking up on some of his late works.
James Gracey said…
Thanks for your comments folks.

Madelon whilst I don't always agree with the psychoanalytical approach, I do find it fascinating and usually quite provocative. I'm not really familiar with James Twitchell - his idea that all horror narratives somehow deal with incest sounds, erm, interesting! One of the cases when I don't agree with the psychoanalytic approach! Still, I'm sure it inspires healthy debate - which is good.
By the way - I finally read your piece on the joy of Haunted Attractions - great stuff! Hope your studies are going well.

Pax I hope you enjoy reading some of Wood's works - glad I was able to point you in his direction.

Shaun I completely agree - Wood made the horror film academically acceptable in the 1970's. For that, we will all be eternally grateful!
WriterME said…
Hey James,

Twitchell has been influential but... interesting, as you put it. Another one of his main ideas includes a description of a typical horror audience and states that 1) women are not supposed to be interested in horror at all, and 2) men are only allowed to enjoy horror for pleasure up to 20 years of age, or thereabouts. After that age, the interest should turn to an academic one; otherwise the man turns into what Twitchell calls a 'rogue male' (a dirty old man, if you will). In the book he literally equates these men to Lolita's Humbert Humbert.

I think that a lot of these approaches to horror, and their usefulness, very much depends on how and what you look at the genre. For my studies, Wood and Clover or Heller and Todorov, who are mainly concerned with literature and the act of reading, are less interesting than Freud and Carroll.

Good to hear you liked the paper! Studies are going well, thanks. I'm preparing for a chapter that deals with (horror) magic(k) and have submitted my piece on The Wizard of Gore to Christine. With a bit of luck, you'll see that appearing soon.
James Gracey said…
Sheesh! This guy sounds more interesting (and fucked up) the more I hear about him. Must try and check out some of his feverish-sounding scribblings, lest I be considered a 'dirty old man!' You always give me food for thought, Madelon. Looking forward to reading your piece on Wizard of Gore in Paracinema. ;o)
WriterME said…
Twitchell has produced various writings on horror/literature, but the one you need is Dreadful Pleasures from 1985.

I first read the work some time ago, and did not remember it fondly. Upon rereading, it was still bad. ;)

Then again, opinions on horror fans, even in academia, tend to be rather... odd. Berys Gaut has described the pleasure taken from negative emotions as atypical, thus branding horror fanatics as atypical people. A recent piece by Oliver and Sanders lists a lover of the genre as a male who enjoys thrills/adrenaline rushes, is somewhat rebellious and aggressive, and not particularly empathetic or concerned about the welfare of others.

I think I'd take the dirty old man, if I were you ;)
James Gracey said…
I see what you mean! Yup. Think I'd much rather just be atypical. This is a whole side of academia I'm not really familiar with - the study of horror fans. Sounds fascinating though! A couple of my former tutors from uni have published papers on fandom - but only in connection with the likes of The Lord of the Rings and fantasy based stuff. Now THOSE fans are just scary... ;o)
Gary McCallum said…
Robin Wood wrote fiction as well as criticism. If you would like furher information, please consult GM

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