What’s Eating You?: Food and Horror on Screen (Bloomsbury, 2017)

In “Ten Horror Movie Food Scenes That Will Make You Shudder,” Lisa Bramen celebrates the horrors of consumption in Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist (1982) in the company of classics such as Nosferatu (1922) and Psycho (1960), thanks to its use of food as a source of not only pleasure, but disgust. The film’s grotesque depiction of a piece of raw steak that crawls across a kitchen counter and vomits up its insides demonstrates, Bramen observes, that “movie directors know that the quickest way to the audiences’ gag reflex is through its stomach.” [1] The steak scene from Poltergeist is, in her view, among “the most notable food scenes in the history of the horror genre,” but it also highlights the joined concepts of food, eating, and nourishment as the pivot point between the normative and monstrous American family. [2]

Bramen’s consideration of this diverse gathering of horror films, from German Expressionism to Anglo-American gothic to Hollywood cult classic supports, albeit inadvertently, the argument that attempts to define the horror genre as that which “either exceeds everyday use of the term ‘horror’ or excludes films that are widely recognized as such.” [3] The list’s focus on food — and the intersection of the edible and the incredible — underscores this challenge to the conventions of genre studies and the limitations of “defining the appropriate intertexts” for films’ interpretations. [4] Bramen suggests that the concept of food, rather than the subtleties of genre analysis, illuminates the sociopolitical and economic conditions of the modern family horror film cycle (1960–1982), precisely because it is an inappropriate topic of discussion. [5] Following Bramen’s lead, this essay, then, focuses on horror movies that abide by the everyday principle that you are what you eat.

More specifically, Poltergeist, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), and Psycho focus on the concept of food as a critique of the family and the dominant ideology of bourgeois patriarchal society. Not unlike the steak that terrorizes the Freeling family in Poltergeist, the monstrous families in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Psycho are theoretically defined by the failure of industrial food and animal production to maintain a standard of living that is commensurate with the values of consumer society and cultural commodification. [6] Ultimately, the concept of food as Other in the above-mentioned films acts as a critical intervention that focuses on the monstrous family and their opposition to the terrorizing force of the status quo epitomized in the gated community of Cuesta Verde in Poltergeist. [7]

In addition, each of these films’ representation of the connection between the killer and victim establishes food as a pictorial trope that underscores the crisis and disintegration of bourgeois consciousness and the nuclear family. Both Hooper’s reactionary horror film and the more progressive Texas Chainsaw Massacre expand upon a concept that I refer to as the free-range stalk-and-slash narrative popularized in Psycho. As a result, the distinction between the progressive and reactionary — as well as the classic and modern — horror film is complicated and improved upon by the shocking representation of food and the collapse of the farm-to-table ethos, which imagines a renewed embrace of the land as a source of nourishment and well-being that overlooks the problems of economic hardship and social inequality.

As Tony Williams has noted, the image of the American family as “a positive icon of ‘normal’ human society . . . underwent severe assault” in horror films in the 1970s. [8] The superstitions and mid-European folk memory of 1930s horror films (Dracula [1931], Frankenstein [1931]) were gone, replaced by the monstrous children depicted in Night of the Living Dead (1968), Rosemary’s Baby (1968), and The Exorcist (1973), who represented the collapse of the nuclear family and the dominant values of bourgeois society (security, fidelity, prosperity, and sobriety). The monstrous child and childish monster, Williams argues, represent the encounter between the typical American family and its monstrous counterparts in films like The Last House on the Left (1972), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and The Hills Have Eyes (1977). The modern horror film’s disruption of the ideological norms of the family thus introduced a new way of thinking about the postwar American Dream portrayed in television series such as Father Knows Best (1954–1960) and The Donna Reed Show (1958–1966).

In particular, Williams presents Psycho as a key text in the transition between the classic and modern phases of the horror film, and a cinematic gateway to the realm of family horror. According to Williams, the figures of the castrating mother and violent, castrated son in Psycho “enact the Oedipal trajectory’s socially sanctioned psychic violence,” paving the way for “later grotesque representations” and “spectacular bloodbaths” in films like Halloween (1978), Friday the 13th (1980), and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). [9] The connection between Psycho and the modern American horror film is thus rooted in the stalk-and-slash narrative, in which teenage protagonists are murdered, one after another, by a psychopathic killer whose point of view is represented as the dominant perspective of the camera and focal point for spectator identification. [10]

In this essay, I complicate the origin story of the slasher movie by considering the family horror film in relation to the concept of food. Specifically, I argue that the reactionary politics or “Reaganite entertainment” associated with Poltergeist is prefigured by the morally ambiguous killer in Psycho, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), who is framed by a monstrous family history that is situated in precisely the same locale that the farm-to-table ethos associates with the nourishment and well-being of the body politic. The free-range stalk-and-slash narrative in Psycho, in other words, is characterized by a killer who hides away from the victims that he encounters. Rather than pursuing his quarry with unrelenting purpose, Norman, like Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) in Texas Chainsaw Massacre, is a reclusive figure who is intruded upon by the victim.

Furthermore, Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Psycho represent the countryside of America — like the planned community of Cuesta Verde in Poltergeist — as imperiled by industrialization and the concomitant threats of economic hardship and social inequality. Indeed, all of the films in this essay represent these processes as greater threats than the monsters that plot against the suburban and rural communities that function as sites of unfettered simplicity and ideological stability. Ultimately, the Freeling family in Poltergeist epitomize the victim as a force of destruction that imperils the livelihood of the killer and the land upon which they have claimed as their own.


Poltergeist (Tobe Hooper, 1982)

Midway through Poltergeist, Dr. Marty Casey (Martin Casella), a parapsychologist from the University of California — Irvine, enters the Freeling family’s kitchen for a late-night snack. Unlike his associates Dr. Lesh (Beatrice Straight) and Ryan (Richard Lawson), Casey is essentially oblivious to the fantastic events that have transpired in the Freeling home and the planned community of Cuesta Verde. Hearing that the Freelings’ youngest daughter Carol Ann (Heather O’Rourke) has been spirited away by a malevolent force, he is at first dubious and suspects an elaborate hoax. However, Casey’s sense of disbelief changes to panic when he enters the Freeling kitchen for a bite to eat. He finds the refrigerator well stocked with chicken, steak, and other fare. The Freelings may be terrorized by the spirit world, but their kitchen is brimming over with everything that a famished parapsychologist — or the dominant ideology of bourgeois patriarchal society — desires.

Unfortunately, for Casey, his banquet is interrupted by an unexpected development. Staring at the kitchen counter with a drumstick held between his teeth in mid-bite, he is shocked and disgusted by the sight of a raw piece of steak crawling across the counter by itself and erupting into a grotesque and sickening lump. Dropping the drumstick from his mouth, Casey looks down at his once-mouthwatering late-night snack and finds that it is covered in maggots. His panic is reinforced as he stumbles into the adjoining utility room and stares in horror at the mirror as the flesh melts from his face in blood-soaked chunks that resemble the insides of the steak on the nearby kitchen counter. Then, just as quickly as his world decomposed around him, a sudden flash of light reveals that it was merely a figment of his imagination.

Dr. Marty Casey‘s late-night snack.

Feelings of pleasure and disgust at the sight of food are conflated, in this scene, with the decomposition of the human body and, by extension, the subversion of the kitchen as a privileged location within the suburban American home. The intersection of the edible and the incredible underscores the opposition between the normative American family and its monstrous counterpart. Indeed, throughout the film, the Freeling kitchen is represented as the focal point of the nuclear family’s activities, as well as a symbol of suburban prosperity and ideological certainty. Not surprisingly, it is in the kitchen that Diane Freeling (JoBeth Williams) first discovers the presence of paranormal activity. Poltergeist cuts directly from its most famous scene — five-year-old Carol Ann announcing the poltergeist or thing-without-a-name (“They’re heeeere!”) — to the Freelings enjoying a hearty American breakfast. This scene, especially, uses the concept of food as a critique of the family — danger may be lurking around every corner, but there is always time for a heaping portion of bacon and eggs. Even the family dog shares in the feast, being fed a waffle doused in syrup under the table while the children playfully fling bits of cereal at each other and Diane offers up second helpings.

More specifically, the juxtaposition of the two scenes frames the nuclear family as threatened by the poltergeist via the concept of food as Other. The impending chaos that will envelop the Freelings is foreshadowed, at the conclusion of breakfast, when eight-year-old Robbie’s (Oliver Robins) oversized cup of milk shatters over his older sister Dana’s (Dominique Dunne) school books and clothes. Later, at the table by himself, Robbie is puzzled by his bent fork and equally damaged spoon. The idea of domestic instability, and the concomitant need to reassert the dominant ideology, is reinforced by the crisis of the nuclear family and the fact that the first sign of paranormal activity (a stack of chairs on the kitchen table) appears in the room where the Freelings, and the normative American family, feel most at home.

Furthermore, the representation of food in Poltergeist points to a certain naïveté — to the inability of reason to fully comprehend the supernatural. Compared to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Psycho, Poltergeist is figuratively built upon the refusal to consider a reality, or cultural context, that exists outside the dominant ideology of patriarchal capitalism. Cuesta Verde is built upon a tribal burial ground, and further evidence that the American Dream is rapacious and gluttonous abounds. The Freeling’s porcine neighbor Ben Tuthill (Michael McManus), for example, epitomizes the narcoleptic suburban dweller, mindlessly gobbling a plate of baked beans as the Freelings appeal to him for assistance. Cuesta Verde may be teetering upon the brink of catastrophe, but those baked beans are yummy! In other words, the concept of food in Poltergeist, if only for a moment, underscores the fearful proposition that the pleasure of eating is a reversible dichotomy — the joy of consumption is not easily distinguished from the horror of being consumed.

Indeed, the most disturbing moments in Poltergeist arise when characters are consumed by the suburban home itself. Robbie, for example, is eaten by the tree outside his bedroom window, and Carol Ann is swallowed up by her closet, which functions as the portal into the spirit world. By the end of the film, however, the horrifying possibility that the Freelings will be eaten alive by their suburban home, not to mention the American Dream, is replaced by the rebirth and resurrection of the dominant patriarchal order. The concept of food in Poltergeist reinforces this ideological renewal, especially when Diane saves Carol Ann at the end of the film and is reborn from the depths of her unconscious fears of inadequacy as the All-American Mom. The film treats this “rebirth” as more than a metaphor. After Diane boldly ventures into Carol Ann’s closet, mother and daughter emerge from the ceiling of the Freeling’s living room, covered in a substance that resembles ectoplasm or amniotic fluid. Steven, cleansing his daughter in the bathtub, welcomes her (back) to the world. The return of Carol Ann, absent for the majority of film, is thus conflated with Diane’s act of sacrifice and her return to the position of housewife under the watchful eye of the male order. [11]

The portrayal of the nuclear family in Poltergeist, to borrow from Andrew Britton, is ultimately complicit with “a general movement of reaction and conservative reassurance in the contemporary Hollywood cinema.” [12] Compared to the characters in films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Psycho, the Freelings are represented as a family unit that reinforces the dominant ideology of prosperity and the patriarchal order. Successful realtor Steven (Craig T. Nelson) and housewife Diane are happily married, and their children reflect stereotypical developmental stages of childhood and adolescence. Robbie is a fan of Star Wars, older sister Dana is preoccupied with talking on the phone late at night, and young Carol Ann is the embodiment of childlike innocence. The “structure, narrative movement, pattern of character relationships, and ideological tendency” of Poltergeist are, in short, concerned with “staging the purification and resurrection of capitalism” and the male order, rather than calling them into question. [13]

This point is vital to the distinction between the progressive and reactionary horror film during the 1960s and 80s. As Robin Wood notes, the progressive horror film is imbued with a sense of social and political activism, specifically opposition to patriarchal capitalism. Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left, Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978) are all, for Wood, examples of this trend. The reactionary horror films of the 1980s, on the other hand, reinforce the dominant ideology, representing monsters as simply evil and unsympathetic, depicting Christianity as a positive presence, and confusing the repression of sexuality with sexuality itself. [14] Examples cited by Wood include Craven’s Swamp Thing (1982), Romero’s Creepshow (1982), and — most importantly for this essay — Poltergeist. [15]

The representation of the suburban home and nuclear family in Poltergeist, to borrow from Fredric Jameson, “seems by its structure the fittest to express the secret truths” of Reaganite entertainment and the cultural function of the concept of food. [16] Jameson’s description of the modern, capitalist age as a period in which “the deep underlying materiality of all things has finally risen dripping and convulsive into the light of day” points to the scene in Poltergeist when the flooded cavity of the Freeling’s unfinished pool opens up, not unlike the steak that crawls across the kitchen counter, to reveal an army of mud-encrusted skeletons. Rising from the earth to avenge themselves upon the residents of Cuesta Verda — whose homes are built atop their desecrated graves — the skeletons also lay siege to the suburbanites’ disregard for the secret truths of the American Dream, particularly the problems of economic hardship and social inequality that it masks. Hence the concept of food as Other in Poltergeist acts as a critical intervention that focuses on the terrorizing force of the status quo epitomized in the gated community of Cuesta Verde. [17]

Ultimately, the cultural function of the concept of food in Poltergeist raises a deceptively unassuming question: what exactly does the normative American family hunger for? The nuclear family in Poltergeist is defined by the apparent success of industrial food production in maintaining a standard of living that is commensurate with the values of consumer society and cultural commodification. Yet the family is also banished from the planned community of Cuesta Verda as punishment for their complicity in the expansion of bourgeois capitalist society. Though horrified by the secret truths of Cuesta Verda, the closest that Steven comes to making a political statement is wagging his finger at his employer Mr. Teague (James Karen) before leaving town. That is to say, the representation of the bourgeois American Dream in Poltergeist rests on monstrous injustices. Those who partake of it choose to be oblivious to those injustices, and make no attempt to mitigate their effects. In that respect, the Freelings are as predatory as Leatherface or Norman Bates.


The opening narration of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) evokes, oddly, the spirit of Alexander Payne’s comedy-drama film Sideways (2004), in which a group of middle-aged bohemians frolic through the wine country of California in search of friendship, good food, and the perfect bottle of Pinot noir. In both Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Sideways, the American landscape is bathed in sunlight and the idealism of youth. That “idyllic summer afternoon,” as narrator John Larroquette describes it, promises to disclose the American Dream of heteronormative bliss for Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns) and her boyfriend Jerry (Allen Danziger). Sally, however, ends up spending more time with her disabled brother Franklin (Paul Partain) than with Jerry. The trio’s road trip with their friends Kirk (Will Vail) and Pam (Teri McMinn), moreover, takes them not through the Santa Barbara wine country but through the countryside of rural Texas, where a monstrous family is making a mad, macabre attempt to reclaim a fabled golden age of American agricultural and industrial prosperity.

The horrors of the American Dream in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, like those in Poltergeist, are buried within a seemingly harmless and familiar locale that beckons to the unsuspecting victim. The opening image of Texas Chainsaw, however, is far more shocking than Poltergeist’s television that disrupts the boundaries between this world and the next. Working in a more progressive vein than he would in Poltergeist, Hooper begins Texas Chainsaw Massacre with a sustained critique of the dominant ideology of bourgeois society. The opening moments of the film show the desecration of a burial ground, accompanied by the flash of a camera documenting the event. The camera belongs to Nubbins Sawyer (Edwin Neal), whose proclivity for documenting his graveyard desecration — along with the ghoulish barbecue recipe of his older brother Drayton Sawyer (Jim Siedow) — points to the moral ambiguity of the monstrous family. Unlike Marty’s melted face in Poltergeist, the newly unearthed, decomposed body in Texas Chainsaw is very much a diegetic reality that “feeds” into the horrors of consumption via the practice of cannibalism and the secret truths of the farm-to-table ethos.

The scene particularly illuminates the concept of food and the transition from reactionary to progressive horror film. In his portrayal of the nuclear family in Poltergeist, especially, it is clear that Hooper has backed away from the progressive outlook of Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Compared to the images of the football game and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood that flicker across the Freeling television, the camera flash in the opening moments of Texas Chainsaw Massacre — along with radio broadcasts that describe acts of murder and body-snatching — underscores the connection between the decomposition of the human body and the disintegration of bourgeois consciousness and the nuclear family.

Road kill, or food which is not fit for consumption.

Even before introducing the five protagonists, Hooper communicates his morbidly delightful sense of humor by juxtaposing Nubbins’ graveyard desecration with an image of a dead armadillo, creating an allusion to the concept of road kill that foreshadows the film’s themes of cannibalism and food which is not fit for consumption. The point is reinforced when Sally and the others, after visiting the defiled cemetery, drive past a slaughterhouse and are disgusted by the smell in the air. Cutting between the cemetery and the abattoir, Hooper establishes that, in Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the concepts of food and nourishment exist within a landscape where only death and decomposition are available for consumption. Images of cattle waiting to be slaughtered similarly highlight a disturbing renunciation of the sanctity of life and the significance of beef in American foodways — a point that is also made in Poltergeist through Casey’s grotesque steak.

Contrary to Poltergeist, however, the more progressive Texas Chainsaw Massacre uses the concept of food as a critical intervention that ultimately focuses on the terrorizing force of the status quo embodied by the teenagers who intrude upon the monstrous family and Leatherface in particular. For example, Hooper first films the slaughterhouse from the point-of-view of the teenagers as they drive by in their green Ford Club Wagon, then reverses the camera’s position, so that the teenagers and the wagon are framed from the point of view of the slaughterhouse. He thus alludes to the imminent death of the teenagers in a fashion resembling the fate of the cattle and associated with the stench of death that the teens cannot tolerate. More specifically, the slaughter of the teenagers in Texas Chainsaw represents the connection between the free-range stalk-and-slash narrative and the horrors of the farm-to-table ethos.

Hooper’s politically progressive interrogation first of the slaughterhouse and then of the monstrous family’s abandoned farm in Texas Chainsaw Massacre prefigures his critique of the homogeneity of Cuesta Verde in Poltergeist. His interrogation of the normative American family is more pronounced in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, however, focusing on the childish monster Leatherface and framing him as an inversion of Diane Freeling and the figure of the All-American Mom. As the film progresses it becomes abundantly clear that Leatherface is a homemaker, as well as homicidal maniac. Leatherface’s role in the kitchen, especially, represents a monstrous inversion of the cultural role of the kitchen in Poltergeist, a point made particularly clear by Leatherface’s decision to dress up for dinner later that evening, complete with make-up and wig.

The home economics of the monstrous family in Texas Chainsaw Massacre points to the question of adaptation to economic hardship and social inequality. Over the course of the film Hooper reveals that the monstrous family were once employed at the slaughterhouse, but lost their jobs due to modernization and the replacement of the sledgehammer with the captive bolt pistol as a means of killing cattle. As a result, they have resorted to extreme measures, including murder and cannibalism, to provide for themselves. This is a dilemma that is reflected in their living quarters — a remote farmhouse decorated with the remains of animals and humans that have no doubt been served up as barbeque at Drayton’s nearby gas station.

Taking the same line of argument further, the representation of the monster as Other in Texas Chainsaw is more complex than that in Poltergeist, particularly with respect to Leatherface as a sympathetic figure. Clearly it is not heroic for Leatherface — in an act suffused with the concept of slaughter and food manufacture — to murder Kirk with a sledgehammer and dismember him with a chainsaw. Nevertheless, after Leatherface captures Pam and places her on a meathook he begins to pace throughout the house, looking nervously through the window and sitting down with his head in his hands. Leatherface, in other words, is a sympathetic character inasmuch as he finds himself in the midst of a home invasion, becoming — in his paranoia about the outside world and its bewildering contingencies — a horrifying inversion of the All-American Mom and beleaguered housewife. Trying to put food on the table, Leatherface looks out through his parlor window, festooned with animal and human remains, and wonders what to do next in the face of this onslaught of teenagers who are curious about his piece of the American Dream.

Leatherface: homicidal maniac or beleaguered housewife?

In the case of Leatherface and Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the turn to cannibalism is a countercultural rejection of the status quo and the dominant ideology of bourgeois patriarchal society. The farm-to-table ethos, as practiced by the film’s monstrous family, embodies a notion of cooperation and effective social organization that harkens to the community building potential of the human body and the interdependence of the stages and specializations of food manufacture. The loss of community resulting from the modernization of the slaughterhouse forces Leatherface and his kin to attempt, albeit haphazardly, to replicate the social organization they once knew by preying upon the random travelers that cross their path.

Texas Chainsaw Massacre is also indebted, however, to the free-range stalk-and-slash narrative in Psycho and to the figure of the killer who hides away from the victims that he encounters. Rather than pursuing his quarry with unrelenting purpose, Leatherface is a reclusive figure who is, himself, intruded upon by the figure of the victim. The promised land of rural Texas — a site of unfettered simplicity and ideological stability not unlike the planned community of Cuesta Verde in Poltergeist — is imperiled by “progress” and the concomitant threats of economic hardship and social inequality, rather than by a supernatural embodiment of the return of the repressed. Hence the distinction between the progressive and reactionary — as well as the classic and modern — horror film is complicated and improved upon by the shocking representation of food and the collapse of the farm-to-table ethos.


In Psycho, Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) is sentenced to death long before the viewer is properly introduced to her. Not unlike the female victim heroes in Poltergeist (Carol Ann Freeling) and Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Sally Hardesty), Marion’s fate is sealed by the joined concepts of food, eating, and nourishment as the pivot point between the normal and pathological American family. At the start of Psycho in particular, director Alfred Hitchcock uses the concept of food to objectify Marion as oversexed and emotionally unsatisfied within the dominant patriarchal order. The first line of the film (“You never did eat your lunch, did you?”), spoken by Marion’s working-class lover Sam Loomis (John Gavin), does not refer only to Marion and Sam’s “extended lunch” or romantic rendezvous. It is also a signifier of their failed pursuit of middle class respectability — particularly Sam’s financial hardship and their postponement of marriage. Long before she is stabbed to death by Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), midway through Psycho, Marion is sentenced to death by a sandwich — and matrimonial bond — that she is unable to consum(mat)e.

Eating the Other: Marion Crane as the object of desire.

The opening of Psycho indicates, in hindsight, that the deferral of Marion’s lunchtime is a sign of moral ambiguity and imminent death. Marion’s extended lunch hour and afternoon tryst with Sam is represented by Hitchcock as a balancing act between respectability and infamy that underscores the collapse of the nuclear family and the dominant values of bourgeois society. Her failed pursuit of middle class respectability is conflated with her failure to eat her lunch and thus claim the happiness and sense of well-being that others flaunt — notably oil-lease man Tom Cassidy (Frank Albertson), who is buying a house for his daughter with the help of Marion’s employer. Later, as she drives away with Cassidy’s $40,000 that her boss has entrusted to her, it comes as no surprise that Marion’s flagging moral fiber is indicated by her failed vision and growing hunger late at night on the road. Next stop: Bates Motel. Indeed, more so than any of the characters in this article, it is Norman who is most adept at using food as a signifier of death and destruction. As a diversion and lure for his unsuspecting victims, food in Psycho is as effective, and perhaps more frightening, a killing machine as the ubiquitous kitchen knife.

Further emphasizing the importance of the concept of food as a signifier of moral ambiguity, untimely death, and the place of the female victim within the dominant ideology of bourgeois patriarchal society, Norman gamely offers to whip up a plate of sandwiches and a glass of milk. Moreover, food is both a contributing factor in Marion’s decision to stop at the Bates Motel and a trigger for Norman’s repressed memories, sexuality, and murderous instincts. It is the topic of discussion that opens Psycho, and the means of introducing the viewer to Norman’s mother Norma, who refuses to allow her son to have supper with Marion “by candlelight . . . in the cheap erotic fashion of young men with cheap erotic minds.”

Norma’s scolding of Norman contributes to Marion’s already noticeable feelings of guilt and shame by characterizing food, and by extension Marion, as morally reprehensible. “She’ll not be appeasing her ugly appetite with my food, or my son!” Norma(n) shouts. At every turn, Marion’s pursuit of happiness and satisfaction is thwarted. By extension, food represents the most basic conceptualization of Marion’s frustrated desires and precarious standing in relation to the monstrous Bates family.

Nowhere is this dramatic tension more evident than in the conversation between Norman and Marion in the parlor of the Bates Motel. Norman uses food to manipulate Marion, steering her away from her room to the motel office before “changing his mind” and deciding to eat in the parlor. Slowly but surely, Marion is lured into the hunting grounds that Norman prefers, as evidenced by the birds mounted throughout the parlor.

Inevitably, the topic of conversation turns to the expression “eats like a bird.” Norman’s observation that the expression is a falsity is complimented by shots of Marion looking suspiciously at Norman’s handiwork, almost aware of the fact that she is being fattened up for the kill. More specifically, Norman explains why he prefers to stuff birds because they are passive to begin with, a notion that Hitchcock would thoroughly disprove with his film The Birds in 1963. Hence birds and Marion are compared to one another in terms of Marion’s appetite and her passivity or, to borrow from Laura Mulvey, the process by which figure of the woman is represented as the object of desire and the male gaze. [18]

Ultimately, Marion’s last meal in Norman’s parlor underscores how the consumption of food is a distraction from the inevitability of death, as well as a false promise of shelter from the patriarchal symbolic order. It is only a matter of time before Marion begins to sense that the food she has been offered is the bait, after listening to Norman declare that “we’re all in our private traps. Clamped in them. And none of us can ever get out. We scratch and claw, but only at the air, only at each other. And for all of it, we never budge an inch.” To emphasize this point, Marion stares down at her sandwich and comments, “sometimes we deliberately step into those traps.” Not unlike the unconsumed sandwich at the beginning of Psycho, Marion is objectified and prosectuted by the Law of the Father during her conversation with Norman. Conversely, Norman, not unlike Sam Loomis, uses the concept of food as a reason to pass over details that would obviously alarm Marion and himself, for example his decision to murder his mother and her boyfriend. “I guess it’s nothing to talk about while you’re eating,” Norman says with a smile.

Food plays an active role in coding the monstrous family and the relationship between Norman and his mother, both in life and in death. Norma is hidden in the fruit cellar by Norman. Norma accuses Norman of thinking that she’s “fruity,” underscoring the ambiguous relationship between mother and son and Norman’s sexuality and manhood in particular. Norman’s masculinity is regularly questioned by Norma. Thus Norman’s decision to hide his crime and his mother’s body in the fruit cellar is a plea to “cure” the act that he has committed. As his mother’s corpse ripens into a repressed memory, Norman becomes his mother, especially in moments of duress and sexual excitement. In the end, criminality, masculinity, and the figure of the mother are entwined with the concept of food. This is especially germane to the free-range stalk-and-slash narrative that is introduced in Psycho and later extrapolated upon in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Ultimately, Norman, like Leatherface, attempts to maintain the creature comforts of home by complicating the difference between the concept of food and the human body.


As Lisa Bramen points out, food has a way of capturing the imagination. By extension, one thing that the male characters in Poltergeist, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Psycho share in common is the figure of the radical environmentalist. If there is a tension between the production of food and environmental conservation in the films in this article, then the figures of Steven Freeling, Leatherface, and Norman Bates work to police the boundaries between industrialization and the heartland of America. Freeling’s disgust with the planned community of Cuesta Verde at the end of Poltergeist is matched by the intensity with which Leatherface responds to intruders and trespassers on his plot of Texas countryside. The same can be said for Norman Bates, who lives quite peacefully in his gothic home on a road forgotten by the California freeway system. Those who intrude upon his quaint motel are executed with extreme prejudice. In short, the concept of food in each of the three films is entwined with a sense of frontier justice directed toward the preservation of the American countryside and a way of life that is coded as imperiled by the encroachment of industrial development, housing, and the freeway system. Contrary to the phrase “let them eat cake,” the figure of the radical environmentalist illuminates the cultural function of the concept of food, the struggle for social equality, and the sociopolitical and economic conditions of the modern family horror film cycle. [19]


Hans Staats received his Ph.D. in compatative literature and cultural studies at Stony Brook University (May 2016). The title of his dissertation is “Don’t Look Now: The Child in Horror Film and Media.” Excerpts from his dissertation have appeared in Offscreen, the Irish Journal of Gothic and Horror Studies, Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, and the recent anthology War Gothic in Literature and Culture (Eds., Steffen Hantke and Agnieszka Soltysik Monnet; Routledge, 2016). Forthcoming publications include a chapter on the media interface between the golden age of American horror comics, television news, and the early slasher film cycle, to be included in the anthology The Representation of Cruel Children in Popular Texts (Eds. Monica Flegel and Christopher Parkes; Palgrave, 2017).


[1] Bramen, Lisa. “Ten Horror Movie Food Scenes.”

[2] Ibid.

[3] According to Richard Nowell, scholars like Robin Wood (1979) and Noël Carroll (1990) attempt “to pin down the horror film’s unique formal, structural, or thematic characteristics,” a pursuit that is flawed due to the imposition of “a trans-cultural, trans-historical ideal on to a discursive phenomenon that is subject to levels of contestation and flux that make this endeavor unviable or impossible: horror, like other genres, simply means too many things to be distilled into a universal essence.” See Nowell, “There’s Gold in Them There Chills,” 2.

[4] Jancovich, Horror, 14.

[5] Examples of the modern family horror film during the 1960s and 70s include: Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Night of the Living Dead (1968), The Exorcist (1973), It’s Alive (1974), and The Omen (1976).

[6] According to bell hooks, the commodification of Otherness, or “eating the other,” is partially defined by the repression of social change via “those ‘nasty’ unconscious fantasies and longings about contact with the Other embedded in the secret (not so secret) deep structure of white supremacy.” See hooks, “Eating the Other,” 21–22.

[7] hooks, “Eating the Other,” 22.

[8] Williams, Hearths of Darkness, 11.

[9] Ibid., 72.

[10] A noteworthy rebuttal to the hypothesis that Psycho is a proto-slasher film is proposed by Richard Nowell, who argues that commerce, rather than artistic vision, prompted the emergence of the slasher film with Black Christmas (1974). See Nowell, Blood Money, 8, 58–62.

[11] In a moment of anticlimax, ideologically speaking, Diane’s final challenge in Poltergeist, after saving Carol Ann and being “reborn” as the figure of the All-American Mom, is to once again protect Robbie and Carol Ann from the gaping maw of the closet which ceaselessly hungers for the life force of the Freeling children. From the excremental cavity of the unfinished swimming pool — itself a symbol of the unfinished project of the nuclear family — to the pustular esophagus of her children’s closet, Diane battles against the Beast of Cuesta Verde. Marking the return of the repressed, the Freeling home figuratively regurgitates the outraged corpses of the Native American burial ground upon which the dominant ideology of patriarchal capitalism is erected.

[12] Britton, “Blissing Out,” 97.

[13] Ibid., 99.

[14] While the representation of monstrosity and sexuality is nonexistent in Poltergeist, and of minor importance in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, it is a crucial detail in Psycho regarding the connection between Norman and his mother.

[15] Wood, “Introduction to the American Horror Film,” 23–24.

[16] Jameson, Postmodernism, 67.

[17] The crisis and disintegration of bourgeois consciousness and the nuclear family that takes place in Poltergeist is foreshadowed, in the film’s opening moments, by the Freelings’ subordination to the “master medium” represented by their television set. Indeed, the beginning of Poltergeist portrays the normative American family as asleep to the realities of the Reagan era: fear of evil-non-Americans, the liberated woman, and the fear that democratic capitalism may not be cleanly separable from Fascism. The film opens with a black screen, accompanied by the sound of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” played at midnight as the station to which the set is tuned prepares to cease broadcasting for the day. Images of national monuments in extreme close-up flicker on the screen. The television signal stops and the camera is placed behind Steven Freeling as he slumbers in his La-Z-Boy recliner. The family dog sneaks up and eats from Steven’s plate: a further use of the concept of food to critique the dominant ideology of bourgeois society and its expression in the patriarchal family. See Wood, Hollywood from Vietnam To Reagan, 150.

[18] See Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.”

[19] The French phrase “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche,” commonly misattributed to Marie Antoinette (1755–1793), appears in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions (1782).


Bramen, Lisa. “Ten Horror Movie Food Scenes That Will Make You Shudder.” Smithsonian.com. October 28, 2011. Accessed March 7, 2016.

Britton, Andrew. “Blissing Out: The Politics of Reaganite Entertainment.” 1986. In Britton on Film: The Complete Criticism of Andrew Britton, edited by Barry Keith Grant. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2009.

Carroll, Noël. The Philosophy of Horror, or Paradoxes of the Heart. London: Routledge, 1990.

hooks, bell. “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance.” In Black Looks: Race and Representation.

Boston, MA: South End Press, 1992: 21–39.

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press, 1991.

Jancovich, Mark. “General Introduction.” In Horror, The Film Reader, 1–20. London: Routledge, 2001.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” In Screen 16:3 (Autumn 1975).

Nowell, Richard. “There’s Gold in Them There Chills.” In Merchants of Menace: The Business of Horror Cinema, edited by Richard Nowell. New York: Bloomsbury, 2014.

— -. Blood Money: A History of the First Teen Slasher Film Cycle. New York: Continuum, 2011.

Williams, Tony. Hearths of Darkness: The Family in the American Horror Film. 1996. Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2014.

Wood, Robin. “An Introduction to the American Horror Film.” In The American Nightmare: Essays on the Horror Film, edited by Robin Wood and Richard Lippe. Toronto: Festival of Festivals, 1979.

— -. Hollywood from Vietnam To Reagan. 1986. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.

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