Seeing Cinema in a New Light: Criticism, Essays and Observations about Classic Cinema

1990s Movies, Classic Movies, Film Criticism and Analysis, Mind Bender

The Psychology Behind Fight Club (1999), Explained

The Narrator and Marla

The Narrator and Marla

Sigmund Freud

Sigmund_Freud_LIFEMany pioneers helped shape psychological theory, but none contributed as much as Sigmund Freud, the Austrian analyst whose theories pretty much laid the groundwork for modern psychology.

One of the major tenets of Freudian theory is the idea that everyone’s personality is made up of three distinct parts:

  • The Id
    This is the part of ourselves that contains our deepest, darkest and most primitive impulses. To use an analogy, it’s the uninhibited neanderthal that still lives inside of all of us.
  • The Ego
    This is the part of ourselves that polices the id out of fear of the social and real-world consequences that would happen if we acted on its impulses. Consider it like a parole officer or school principal. For example, if you ever became so angry that you had the impulse to throw a rock through someone’s window but didn’t because a part of you said, “I shouldn’t; I could be arrested,” that was your ego stepping in.
  • The Super Ego
    This is the part of ourselves that polices the id for the sake of morality. In other words, it’s the part of our personality that contains our conscience. Using our rock through the window example again, if you decided not to vandalize your neighbor’s property because you thought to yourself, “That would just be shameful,” or “I’d probably hate myself in the morning,” it was because of your super ego.
The Subconscious

Another important concept in psychology is the “subconscious.” The subconscious is the part of our psyche where all of our deepest and darkest emotions, memories and desires are buried. It’s called the subconscious because it lies beneath our conscious or, in other words, our everyday awareness.

A large part of therapy involves trying to explore the issues buried deep in someone’s subconscious, because those issues are usually the driving force behind a neurosis, or a mental disorder.

For example, in the movie, Marnie (1964), the main character becomes emotionally scarred by a horrible childhood event. She then suppresses the memory of what happened, forcing it to be buried deep in her subconscious. However, the subconscious being what it is doesn’t let Marnie off that easy, and without understanding how or why, she eventually develops several neuroses. (She becomes a kleptomaniac and develops an irrational fear of the color red and sex). It’s not until she finally recalls the event and comes to grips with her emotions that she is able to cure her kleptomania and multiple phobias.

Tippi Hedren and Sean Connery in Marnie (1964)

Tippi Hedren and Sean Connery in Marnie (1964)

Defense Mechanism

Another concept in psychology is the “defense mechanism.” When people are threatened by something emotionally or mentally, they will resort to all sorts of mental tricks or behaviors to shield themselves from feeling that threat. For example, if you’re being bullied by your boss at work, you may then decide to direct your anger at your spouse instead because you know confronting him would get you fired. This would be the defense mechanism known as displacement, in which you direct the anger you have towards one thing or person towards something else.

There’s a belief that defense mechanisms are negative ways of coping with stress and anxiety. However, not all of them are negative. For example, many creatives throughout history have produced beautiful and meaningful pieces of art, music and literature using the defense mechanism known as sublimation, which is to take a negative emotion and channel it into something positive.

The Alter Ego

The alter ego is not really a psychological concept. Nevertheless, understanding what one is will be helpful in understanding Fight Club.

So, what is an alter ego? It’s an alternative identity people adopt that acts and thinks in a way that is very different from who they really are. In the world of fiction, two well-known examples are Dr. Hyde from the novel, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and Clark Kent of Superman fame. When Dr. Jekyll drinks a potion he’s concocted to separate his evil side from his good side, he becomes “Mr. Hyde,” an evil sociopath who goes on murderous rampages at night. To hide his identity as Superman, the handsome, young superhero pretends to be Clark Kent, a nerdy, effete reporter working at the Daily Planet.

In the real world, alter egos can often be seen in the world of music or comedy, in which a singer or comic will perform as someone other than themselves. For example, Ziggy Stardust was the alter ego of David Bowie, Tony Clifton the alter ego of Andy Kaufman and Chris Gaines the alter ego of Garth Brooks.

One of the most famous alter egos in movie history was Buddy Love from the classic Jerry Lewis comedy, The Nutty Professor (1963). In it, Professor Julius Kelp, who is helplessly nerdy, wishes he was cool, sexy and a chick magnet. To achieve his dream, he creates a potion that turns him into Buddy Love, an attractive, well-dressed and suave nightclub singer.


Have you got all of this? Good. Let’s deconstruct Fight Club and try to figure out what precisely it was exploring in terms of human psychology.

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