Fearful Fantasy: Figurations of the Oedipus Myth in Scorsese’s Shutter Island (2010)

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The myth of Oedipus and psychoanalysis share a uniquely strong connection in academic work and popular culture, but the myth and its dramatic form in Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrannus have also played a major role in poetics, especially in genre theory. It furnished Aristotle with his prime example of tragedy in the Poetics, and it has become a commonplace to call Oedipus Tyrannus the first piece of detective fiction. In this essay, I argue that the myth of Oedipus embodies that type of dangerous journey from ignorance to knowledge which constitutes the transmedial narrative form of detective fiction. This archetypal narrative works towards the transformation of anxiety into fear and ultimately the containment of fear. Hence, this essay elaborates on the generic relation between the myth of Oedipus and the genre of detective fiction. Rather than focusing on the parricidal and incestuous content of the Oedipus story, I reinterpret it in terms of narrative form as a drama of knowledge, which is structurally similar to the generic form of the detective's story. Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island (2010) does not only evince this form of the detective's story, but is remarkable for the way in which particular anxieties and fears are shown as elements of the constitution and reconstitution of identity by means of investigation. By identifying the investigator with the perpetrator, the film constitutes an example of a (doubly) Oedipal subgenre of detective fiction. Shutter Island, the genre of detective fiction, and the Sophoclean drama are all testament to the power of the mythical narrative form of the journey from ignorance to knowledge to transform anxiety into a fearful fantasy and open the two to an investigative process. © 2015 by Koninklijke Brill nv, Leiden, The Netherlands. All rights reserved.

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This paper examines the history and variety of film adaptations of the Oedipus myth, based on Sophocles' plays Oedipus the King and Oedipus at Colonus, and pays special attention to Freud's concept of the Oedipus complex. The paper discusses films set in antiquity and updated versions. It also deals with related themes such as fate and oracles in the relevant filmic modes (epic, tragedy, comedy) and genres (e.g., Westerns, science fiction, Hitchcock thrillers).