peeping tom

‘He Has His Father’s Eyes’:

the Spectre of Freud in

Peeping Tom

The mild-mannered serial killer who is obsessed with his parents is such a prevalent horror trope it's easy to overlook how it came into being. Here, Hollie Starling looks at the origin myth of Peeping Tom's gentle voyeur Mark Lewis and, naturally, find him looking back...

‘Whatever I photograph, I always lose’ muses doomed scopophile Mark Lewis in Michael Powell’s lurid and indelible Peeping Tom (1960). For a film set in the sleazy backstreets of underworld London, its subject remains strikingly childlike; Mark talks about this loss in the way a kid might a prized and misplaced toy. The mysteries of psychology, particularly child psychology, became a peculiar preoccupation in British thrillers of the mid-century. A periphery science before the wars, by the 1960s the mainstream familiarity with Freudian tropes could be assumed and predicated upon by screenwriters. Peeping Tom, a tightly-woven meditation on filmmaking and murder, was one of the trailblazers, and perhaps the first to explicitly apportion the blame for adult moral degeneracy on inadequate nurture during childhood. And it did so in a way that was much better informed than its many imitators.

   The film follows the descent of a serial killer, played in chilling delectation by Carl Boehm, who murders women using a portable film camera to record their dying expressions of terror. Mounting a mirror upon the tripod allows the women, often sex workers chosen for their vulnerability, to witness their own final moments. Though now considered a masterpiece of British filmmaking, on release Peeping Tom made Powell box office poison and curtailed his career for many years. The press furore was infamous. Amongst the obvious accusations of general moral degeneracy, the object of the criticisms were various and often hypocritical. A New Statesman critic rolled his eyes at Mark Lewis’s job as a pornographic photographer (‘exceedingly prim’) while at the same time disclosing a connoisseurs’ appreciation of the killer’s equipment (‘marvellous camera…the envy of any cine-club’), but reserves most of his sneering for the film’s supposed ‘psychology’:

   ‘Peeping Tom is ‘psychology.’ Why does the murderer with the cinematic itch and the skewering tripod do as he does? Because his father was a famous psychologist who specialised in Fear and kept a cinematic record of his son’s fear as he reacted to bright light at night, a lizard dropping on the bed, and lovers embracing on a seat. Mama’s death-bed provides him with a real family album shot.’

   Peeping Tom does not shy away from its embrace of psychoanalysis. Screenwriter Leo Marks had more than a passing understanding of psychoanalytic principles as foundational to human behaviour. Marks grew up expecting to inherit the family bookshop and spent his childhood amongst his father’s coded filing system. Notably from a young age he also observed the comings and goings of grimy Charing Cross; sex worker Dora (Brenda Bruce), who is killed in the opening scene, was based on a regular Marks & Co. patron. ‘An interest in Freud was almost instinctive,’ he recalled, ‘in an only child destined to run a bookshop, hooked on codes. The greatest code of all was the unconscious, and Freud appears to have deciphered it.’ The war derailed his destiny yet it led fortuitously to his becoming head of codes and cyphers for Special Operations Executive. It was Marks’s responsibility to ensure that personal codes and security checks could not be extracted by torture, prepping each agent by attempting to tune in to their unconscious: ‘Now, all I had to do during those exercises was to watch them, unobtrusively; to ‘photograph’ them when they were coding…I became convinced that all cryptographers are basically voyeurs!’ Mark Lewis was the offspring of this marriage between the cryptographic mind and the photographic eye, and cypher for the film’s greater labyrinth of meaning.

   Aptly then much is made of the visual motifs of spying and eyes. The startling symmetry of the Archers title-card (the production company owned by Powell with collaborator Emeric Pressburger) and a non-sequitur first appearance of a human eye cue up the importance of vision even before the opening scene. We see the as-yet anonymous killer place a camera in his coat as he solicits Dora’s services. The camera is placed at hip-level, whereas when we see the woman in the crosshairs of the viewfinder she appears at eye level. This, then, is Powell’s camera; it is from this position that we see the murder enacted. Mark is then seen watching the replayed footage on a screen and the film’s titles are overlaid on this image. We are at this point the audience of Mark’s documentary, signalling the beginning of the many films-within-films and the elision of filmic enterprises that will recur throughout the narrative.

peeping tom
The Archers title-card
peeping tom
The eye
peeping tom
Camera at hip level
peeping tom
Viewfinder at eye level

   As further emphasis, Powell’s name appears across the projector as a visual metaphor; directors become projectors, conduits to the dubious pleasures of scopophilic engagement so prized by Mark. The implication is that cinema too is inevitably composed of the sadistic and voyeuristic gaze.

   Indeed director Powell is unusually present in this film. Mark shows his neighbour Helen Stephens (Anna Massey) a montage of home movies that were shot at Powell’s house in which Powell plays the father and his own son plays the young Mark. We witness all the uncomfortable imagery the New Statesman critic found so cumbersome but this signalling of subconscious symbols is important when we learn that Mark’s father was a behavioural psychologist, a man who chose to study only outward reactions. Freud equated childhood voyeurism with sexual curiosity and as Mark watches Helen watching his young self watching the couple in the park his eyes widen in magnified excitement.

   We watch the screen as Mark’s father tries to scare him using various abusive techniques. A close-up of the lizard deposited in Mark’s bed enlarges the creature to the monstrous dimensions of childhood memory. We see this Freudian melodrama play out in what film theorist Laura Mulvey terms a ‘cruel enactment of the castration complex forced by the father himself.’

   This scenario reaches its apex when young Mark is shown filmed at his mother’s death-bed, mourning the loss of the original love object denied symbolically by the father which here finds its literal staging. His father soon substitutes in his own object of desire, a stepmother whom Mark calls his mother’s ‘successor’ and who bears a strong resemblance to the prostitute Dora in the opening scene. Tellingly Mark says ‘my father married her six weeks after the previous sequence’; that is, his mother’s death. Not only does this suggest a root for his fixation towards similar-looking women it also posits the idea that reality exists to Mark only as a series of filmed sequences. It is fitting then that his father’s conciliatory gift to Mark is a camera. The ‘castration’ of the lost mother and the anxiety-causing fear experiments is finally reattached with the camera’s viscerally phallic symbolism, quickly becoming, as Helen later says, ‘an extra limb’; a fetish object with an unblinking eye.

peeping tom
The monster-sized lizard

   This paternal legacy becomes for Mark a talisman for the process of introjection. Freud posits in Instincts and their Vicissitudes (1915) that introjection arises when a subject discovers a pleasure-giving object and transposes this object and its qualities from the ‘external’ into the ‘internal’ realm of selfhood, wherein a mechanism of self-definition configuring around the object is enacted. To Mark, this is his camera. But Mark’s symptoms spill out into other instances of object fascination. After bestowing Helen the dubious birthday present of his home movies he gives her the more befitting gift of a dragonfly brooch. Another eroticised replacement object, the insect design recalls the lizard skulking around in Mark’s bed. As she adjusts its position Mark touches the corresponding part of his own body. The promise of the brooch’s pin piercing Helen’s bodily boundary is exactly what Mark repeatedly satisfies with his deadly tripod. It’s hard to ignore the imbalance here of active masculinity and passive femininity. Mark is a product of a world, in seedy sixties Soho, where the only hope for a facially-disfigured woman is to pose naked for money while downstairs a gentleman voyeur can buy his girly magazines without recrimination.

   A kaleidoscope of mothers and fathers proliferate in the narrative as if to fill the void in Mark’s wounded psyche. Mark’s studio director boss Arthur Baden (portrayed by near-blind actor Esmond Knight) combines with the omnipresent director to form Baden-Powell, a name that loomed large as a figure of authority to many young boys. The studio-employed psychiatrist – which, as Mary Ann Doane notes, was not unheard of on post-war British film sets – is another incapacitated father, failing in diagnosing and rehabilitating Mark in his eleventh hour and focussing instead on the exterior, musing ironically ‘He has his father’s eyes.’

   As part of his work for SOE, Leo Marks compiled a report entitled ‘Cyphers, Signals and Sex’ which attempted to explain why otherwise brilliant cryptographers sometimes made rudimentary mistakes: ‘I believed that some agents had an unconscious will to self-destruct, and an unconscious will to fail.’ Peeping Tom ends with what for Mark could be the only resolution for his documentary: his suicide. The terrified faces of his victims were a pale substitute for the fear on his own face; when he stabs himself in front of a mirror it is the masochistic culmination of his father’s project. There is no fang-bearing Christopher Lee, no ‘evil personified’; here the danger is entirely psychologically and socially constructed, the perfect incubator for a superlative British horror.


William Whitebait, “Hold the Nose,” New Statesman, 9 Apr. 1960

Leo Marks, introduction Peeping Tom playscript (London: Faber and Faber, 1998)

Laura Mulvey, “The Light that Fails,” in The Cinema of Michael Powell eds. Ian Christie and Andrew Moor, (London: BFI, 2005)

Elena del Río, “The Body of Voyeurism,” Camera Obscura, vol.15, no.3 (2000)

Sigmund Freud, The Essentials of Psycho-Analysis, (London: Random House, 2008)

Mary Ann Doane, The Desire to Desire (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1987)

Donald Winnicott, Home is Where We Start From: Essays by a Psychoanalyst (London: Penguin, 1990)

Picture of Hollie Starling

Hollie Starling

Hollie Starling is a London-based writer and folklorist who can be found posting at Folk Horror Magpie ( @folkhorrormagpie ) on Twitter and Instagram.

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