Tim BurtonÂ’s Edward Scissorhands as a Psychological Allegory
by Cory Sampson
Edward Scissorhands was the first film directed by Tim Burton where he was also the story-writer. For the story of Edward Scissorhands, he worked with Caroline Thompson; this was their first film together, though the pair collaborated on several other projects after Edward Scissorhands. Tim BurtonÂ’s reputation as a film-maker has achieved something of a cult status; the dark and sometimes disturbing imagery employed in many of his films can either alienate or elevate a person, depending on their preference; Edward Scissorhands is also something of a cult film. His unique and recognizable visual art and tendency to sympathize with the outsider has led some to see Burton as an auteur. The singularity of his movies may have less to do with Burton as auteur, and more to do with the people commonly involved in his films; musician Danny Elfman, costume designer Colleen Atwood, and actress Winona Ryder are a few examples of some Burton collaborators involved with Burton projects aside from Edward Scissorhands. Nevertheless, this film seems to aptly support the notion of Burton as an auteur, as the allegorical structure of the film is supported by its cinematography, and its message is in keeping with the common theme of disability and the well-meaning outsider often explored by Burton in both films and books; here, it seems as though Burton has, either accidentally or intentionally, constructed a near-perfect allegory of a man afflicted with the autistic spectrum disorder known as AspergerÂ’s Syndrome.
AspergerÂ’s Syndrome has recently been the center of much attention; the disorder was reported in 1944 by physician Hans Asperger, at around the same time autism was being discovered. It was not until 1994 however, that AspergerÂ’s Syndrome was added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), in its fourth edition. Before then, many individuals with the syndrome went undiagnosed, or were misdiagnosed with either Attention Deficit Disorder, or other similar disorders (Kirby). The disorder is characterized by severe impairment in social faculties, particularly in recognition of social or emotional cues (empathy), and in social or emotional reciprocity. Often, individuals with AspergerÂ’s Syndrome desire social interaction, but are unable to perform socially due to this deficit in interpreting subtle and unwritten social rules. Often individuals with AspergerÂ’s Syndrome will excel in one particular intellectual subject, which they pursue with abnormal intensity and focus. In adults with the disorder, a lifetime of social retardation can lead to withdrawal from social situations, focussing on their work.
The character of Edward Scissorhands seems to fit the profile of an individual with the disorder. At the beginning of the film, he is isolated and withdrawn in a highly ornate mansion overlooking a bright pastel-coloured suburban neighbourhood. He works intensely on his lawn sculptures, which are fashioned down to intricate detail. He is taken into the neighbourhood by Peg Boggs, his real social awakening. The transition is confusing, and he has trouble adjusting, yet he desires to be loved and to socialize (his first words to Peg are Â“donÂ’t go,Â” suggesting a desire for social contact in lieu of isolation). He is admired for his talent as gardener and hairdresser (which his scissor hands make exceptionally easy), and yet his manner is disaffected or sometimes inappropriate (as in the scene where Joyce Monroe unsuccessfully tries to seduce him). He is eventually coerced into breaking into a house, under the suggestion of Kim Boggs. When he is arrested, he is examined by a psychiatrist who says that he will be alright out in the world. After the community turns against him, and he again runs afoul of the law, he returns to the mansion again to live in isolation from the world.
These details, when symbolism is applied with a psychoanalytical approach to the character of Edward Scissorhands, reveals the allegorical nature of this film. The most obvious symbol is the set of scissors Edward has for hands. These represent his social faculties, and the difficulties they present to him. Throughout the film, Edward is shown to be greatly impaired when it comes to everyday activities, such as dressing, using eating utensils, or turning a doorknob. While this could be taken simply as allegory for physical disability, there are a few other instances which suggest social impairment as it occurs with AspergerÂ’s Syndrome. Edward is constantly cutting and scarring his own face accidentally; this scarring could represent the emotional scarring of failed social attempts caused by inability to subtly manipulate social situations.
While driving home with Peg, he reaches across with his hand to point at something, causing Peg to yell with distress. He is embarrassed afterward with his behaviour, once it is apparent he has done something wrong. His scissors actively impair him from becoming close to a person romantically; Kim Boggs asks Edward to hold him, to which he replies, Â“I canÂ’t.Â” This is also a desire but an inability to reciprocate emotionally. This is perhaps mitigated by the editing, where in the next scene, we cut back in time to a memory of EdwardÂ’s inventor dying before being able to give him the hands he needs to manipulate (or, in this allegorical reading, function socially). The ice sculptures are perhaps an attempt to show affection in an indirect and demonstrative way; he makes a statue of Kim as an angel, and she dances about in the Â“snowÂ” that flies from it as he sculpts. Though he cannot connect with an individual on a reciprocative and empathetic level, he can still make affection known through an outward display of it. Though he cannot touch Kim directly without hurting her, he can Â“touchÂ” her through the snow that falls upon her. Here, the scissors represent an AS individualÂ’s attempt to compensate for social deficit with other more advanced mental faculties.