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Phantom Towers: Crypto-towers Haunting Dave McKean’s Cages and Mirrormask

By Matthew Feltman

Enigmatic sphinxes riddling their dreamscape realities, Dave McKean and Neil Gaiman join forces once again, creating MirrorMask, McKean’s feature film directorial debut, scripted by Gaiman. This coming-of-age story revolves around a young girl, Helena Campbell (Stephanie Leonidas), coping with her mother Joanna Campbell’s (Gina McKee) cancer. Her mother’s potential death situates Helena Campbell on a nightmarish dream-path towards melancholic object-identification. Helena finds herself ensnared in a dreamworld where her only means of escape lies in an object she’s never seen. Known mysteriously as the mirrormask within Gaiman’s alternate reality, the particular lost object remains doubly hidden while monumentally shrieking back at her, like a phantom transgenerationally haunting an intrapsychic crypt. Existentially seeking it, Helena gets trapped in a metaphoric cryptic tower, only one not of her own volition. Spectral vestiges of the collaborators’ previous work linger throughout the film, only this time McKean’s own dreamworld collides with Gaiman’s filmic vision. What happens when an existential comic book world invades a cinematic world created by comic book authors?

Jumping from the cage of the comic book frame to the spider-eye of the camera, McKean recapitulates nebulous versions of the existential meanderings he originally began “working through” in Cages. These nascent traces haunt the film, confusing the narrative even more than does the manifest dream content the artists unearth amid their Dark-Crystal-meets-crystal-meth vision. Inhabited by monkeybirds, music box dolls, mask-wearing cats disguised as sphinxes, one-eyed spiders, and an orbiting giant, this world reveals a devastatingly fine line between reality and dream. One might argue that this world merely reproduces a cinematic version of Gaiman’s The Dreaming, The Sandman‘s realm, wherein Helena’s guide Valentine (Jason Barry) represents a rebellious version of Lucien, disrespecting books to catch free rides to the library.

Despite the easily recognizable repetition compulsions from Gaiman’s work, I conclude that McKean’s magnum opus Cages haunts MirrorMask with a more important phantom trace, the emblematic tower, which is magnified under a psychoanalytic lens. Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok’s notions of transgenerational hauntings and intrapsychic crypts shed some light on the shadow of the crypto-tower looming within both texts. Presiding as the phallic heart of Cages via both Angel’s obelisk and the king-and-the-stone tale, the tower resurfaces in MirrorMask as a haunting memory trace, staining it. These towers conceal hidden phantoms, and, if these characters would delve inside said intrapsychic crypts, they could begin “working through” their existential dilemmas, solving their own sphinx-like puzzles. McKean’s crypto-towers, phallic yet protectively entombing lost objects, inject an interesting endocryptic identification with phantom reflections into both of McKean’s texts, but whether these characters incorporate or introject these tower ghosts needs a little clarification. After a brief explication of intrapsychic crypts and transgenerational hauntings, I will explore McKean’s crypto-towers in Cages and MirrorMask.

Exorcism via Introjection: Cryptic Phantoms and Transgenerational Hauntings

In The Shell and the Kernel, Abraham and Torok revisit Sandor Ferenczi’s initial distinction between introjection and incorporation, due to Freud’s definitional reworking of the terms “mourning” and “melancholia” in The Ego and the Id. While Freud initially hitched incorporation to melancholia’s pathological wagon, he unhooked it in his later writing. Freud states:

[Previously,] we did not appreciate the full significance of [incorporation] and did not know how common and how typical it is. Since then we have come to understand that this kind of substitution has a great share in determining the form taken by the ego and that it makes an essential contribution towards building up what is called its “character.” (52)

Freud’s revision turns incorporation into introjection, and Torok suggests that Freud conflates the two terms. Hence, Abraham and Torok redefine “mourning” and “melancholia” as “introjection” and “incorporation,” respectively. They delineate introjection, or expelling a lost object to recathect with another object, as normal, similar to Freud’s assessment of mourning in “Mourning and Melancholia.” Incorporation, on the other hand, the taking-in and entombment of an object within the psyche, is pathological because it refuses to introject loss. Torok writes:

While the introjection of desires puts an end to objectal dependency, incorporation of the object creates or reinforces imaginal ties and hence dependency. Installed in place of the lost object, the incorporated object continues to recall the fact that something else was lost: the desires quelled by repression. Like a commemorative monument, the incorporated object betokens the place, the date, and the circumstances in which desires were banished from introjection: they stand like tombs in the life of the ego. (114)

To uncover these “commemorative monuments,” psychoanalysts dig through empty speech, finding the hidden secret or phantom entombed within the analysand’s psyche.

As Abraham and Torok point out, though, these cryptic phantoms do not always stem from one’s past as Freud initially believed: they can participate in transgenerational hauntings, passing from parents to children. The phantoms desire resurrection, resuscitation, and this will occur even if children must silently incorporate them within their psyches. Torok writes, “In general terms, the ‘phantom’ is a formation in the dynamic unconscious that is found there not because of the subject’s own repression but on account of a direct empathy with the unconscious or the rejected psychic matter of a parental object” (181). In other words, children extract unconscious crypts from their love objects, namely their parents, incorporating them within their own psyches.

Endocryptic identification, then, commences with the desire to protect the incorporated object/word. The child, unconsciously betrothed to this phantom, defends it from all potential danger. Abraham and Torok believe that analysands must exorcise these phantoms from their psyches. They posit that the “‘phantom effect’ progressively fades during its transmission,” but “to stage a word . . . constitutes an attempt at exorcism, an attempt, that is, to relieve the unconscious by placing the effects of the phantom in the social realm” (176). Attempting to exorcise these transgenerational phantoms, psychoanalysts reveal the possibility of introjection or “healthy” object-cathexis, as Freud indicates.

Before moving on to McKean’s texts, I must address the likely argument that the dialectical relationships between healthy/unhealthy and normal/abnormal give rise to the same contentions Lacan spewed at American ego-psychology. I do not wish to suggest here that introjection creates a “healthy” psyche; rather, introjection continues the Hegelian Bacchanalian whirl, catapulting the subject into a new position while concluding the repetition compulsion specific to endocryptic incorporation. As Zizek’s oft-cited mandate “Enjoy your symptom!” suggests, every analysand remains entangled with his/her own knot. Each one uses many transitional phenomena while consistently clutching the symptomatic knot that forms his/her ego. McKean unwaveringly savors his symptoms: the angst-ridden crypt and phallic towers.

Cryptic Exorcisms: Incorporated Phantoms in Cages and MirrorMask

How exactly does one situate Abraham and Torok’s psychoanalytic paradigm within McKean’s texts? Cages offers a readily accessible point of departure if one wishes to distinguish crypts with the title. Cages, a meditation on artistic creation and its aftermath, follows various artists – a painter, an author, a musician and a cook – inhabiting the same apartment building. Cages, enclosures primarily used to ensnare animals, confine each of the main characters, but Jonathan Rush, the corpse of an author living in hiding after writing an anti-religious text, and loosely based on Salman Rushdie, stands out as the apotheosis of Abraham and Torok’s phantom. Leo Sabarsky, the painter and protagonist, enters Jonathan’s cryptic apartment to befriend him. After Leo realizes that he has drawn Jonathan’s picture from a dustjacket photo, he hangs it on Jonathan’s wall, unconsciously re-enacting a psychoanalyst’s attempt to exorcise the unconscious phantom, but by revealing the haunting image rather than staging phantom words. The possibility of Leo’s own endocryptic identification with the painting, though, questions whether giving the painting to Jonathan would actually initiate Leo’s own introjection.

Textually shattering the line between outside/inside, each character in Cages seems to encounter his/her own existential crypt. The hidden secret either grazes the borders of the crypt, like the cook Edie Featherskill’s ratatouille recipe resting on the fire escape, or remains confined within, like the mausoleum of incorporated objects tacked to the star-shaped message board behind Angel’s door. Angel, the black musician, picks up paper scraps and objects that act as haunting phantom traces, or, if you will, as objets a, as that which is inside each character more than themselves: Leo’s sketch, Jonathan’s dedication to his wife, Edie’s missing ratatouille recipe, Jonathan’s torn title page, and a leaf. These objects act as memory traces, and Angel’s act of incorporating them transforms his apartment into an intrapsychic crypt. Before entering it, Angel says, “To enter de room you need de key. C Minor this time. We all needs a change” (400). This prophetically announces Angel’s role of exorcising the phantoms and, in the case of Edie’s missing husband Bill who morphs back into a human after existing in a cat’s body, of re-animating a phantom corpse.

Figure 1. Angel incorporating the objects. From Cages. ©2002 Dave McKean.
Figure 2. Angel incorporates these objects, merging into the “hobelisk.” From Cages. ©2002 Dave McKean.

McKean delves deepest into the intrapsychic crypt metaphor in Chapter Ten, “Fire-Star-Window-Stone.” On page 401, the first two rows of panels reveal Angel’s door, zooming in on the doorknob and keyhole, as if this particular chapter holds the key to the characters’ previously revealed existential dilemmas. The bottom row of panels shows Angel tacking Jonathan’s dedication to the message board before McKean unearths the objects Angel has incorporated inside his crypto-apartment. After turning the page, the reader is surprised to encounter the giant stone obelisk, Angel’s huge monument incorporated into his intrapsychic crypt; Angel knows he must extirpate the phantom stone from his apartment in order to survive. Laying hands on the obelisk, he attempts to spiritually exorcise the phantom. Throughout these four pages, Angel’s monologue states it best. Angel says:

All of de faces. Cracked stone faces. Lines of years, etched onto foreheads, gathering shock waves aroun’ de eye, de corner of the mout’. Worry lines. Why are people like dat? Dey fret an’ worry over every lickle tin’. Hoccupyin’ d’eir space like a great, bleak hobelisk, stickin’ in de eart’. Rock ‘ard. Lookin’ at de stars. I swear, all you need do to shatter dem into dust is ju’ give a lickle push. An maybe dat not a bad t’in’. Maybe anyt’in’ better than life as a hobelisk. Maybe you have to crack de surface, shatter de stone, in order to change . . . in order to live. A small pressure, a gentle stroke of de stone, to find de resonant note, like de rim of de crystal glass . . . Surely, jus’ a lickle push can’t do dat much harm. . . (401-4)

Transferring the incorporated objects onto the obelisk, Angel crumbles the giant stone with a “lickle push,” which transforms Angel into a psychoanalyst exorcising the phantom “hobelisk” from the crypto-apartment.

Abraham and Torok’s intrapsychic crypts also inhabit MirrorMask, the most evident crypt being the dream-crypt of Helena’s mother. In Dave McKean’s The Alchemy of MirrorMask, Neil Gaiman says of the Palace of Shadows, “The outside of the palace is based on Embassy Court in Brighton. The inside of the palace is meant to be reminiscent of the human body, as seen from the inside. Who knows, maybe it really is her mum’s dream” (160). If, indeed, Helena’s dream materializes from her mother’s unconscious, Helena incorporates her mother’s intrapsychic crypt initiated by transgenerational haunting. During the opening sequence, Joanna says to Helena, “You’re going to be the death of me–” and Helena replies, “I wish I was” (Gaiman 28). Helena’s inverted view of herself materializes in Joanna’s unconscious. This phantom corpse, namely anti-Helena, incorporated from her mother’s unconscious, threatens to overtake Helena’s life within the dream-crypt. Trying to dis-identify with her reflected image, Helena obsesses over escaping the labyrinthine dreamscape to reclaim her life. As Jacques Lacan writes in “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the I Function:”

Indeed, for imagos . . . the specular image seems to be the threshold of the visible world, if we take into account the mirrored disposition of the imago of one’s own body in hallucinations and dreams, whether it involves one’s individual features, or even one’s infirmities or object projections; or if we take note of the role of the mirror apparatus in the appearance of doubles, in which psychical realities manifest themselves that are, moreover, heterogeneous. (5)

Through the misrecognition of her own mirrored image, Helena views the phantom hauntingly ensnared in her mother’s intrapsychic crypt and detests her vampiric double’s actions. In order to exorcise this ghost, however, Helena needs the mirrormask, and, to find it, she searches many metaphoric crypts, such as the Palace of Light, the library, the dome in the Dream Park, and the Palace of Shadows. Of all the crypts-within-this-dream-crypt, Valentine’s tower seems most important.

Briefly illuminating McKean’s crypto-metaphors, I attempted to unearth the intersections between Abraham and Torok’s cryptic phantoms and McKean’s work. The phantom’s importance in Cages haunts MirrorMask, where the cryptic metaphors run rampant. I will now turn to the crypto-tower’s importance in McKean’s work.

Crypto-Tower Entombment: Phantom Reflections

Emerging as a space of endocryptic identification, McKean’s crypto-towers inaugurate ego-splitting as his characters identify with the future phantoms of their mirrored reflections. Revealing the importance of the mirror, Gaiman says, “Masks, in all their guises, make up one of the themes that twine through the film (and oddly enough mirrors, and reflections, might well be one of the other themes)” (McKean AM 81). Reflections within these textual towers assume a prominent position – reflections of future selves transformed into the phantom.

Figure 3. “The Little Tower of Babel” also graces McKean’s Vertigo Tarot Tarot card. ©1995 Dave McKean.

McKean’s towers from Cages haunt MirrorMask, mocking the audience like Lacan’s floating sardine can, an anecdotal version of objet petit a. In McKean’s case, though, the tower glares down, perpetuating the abject threat of obliteration evidenced by his “Tower of Destruction” Vertigo Tarot card. As Inna Semetsky writes in “Symbolism of the Tower as Abjection,” this card usually depicts “two human figures apparently being thrown out of a tower struck by lightning. . . The tower stands erect. . . . The two beings on the card have built the tower – and sealed it at the top: there is no entry or exit. They have imprisoned themselves in their own creation” (110-11). These beings entombed themselves within their tower, but do they endocryptically identify with something lurking inside? One usually interprets the tower card as a portent of destroying false concepts and institutions readily perceived as truth. I want to recontextualize this reading in light of McKean’s towers: the lightning initiates a crypto-tower exorcism, in which both the analysand and the corpse/phantom leap into the social realm to escape their entombment.

Figure 4. Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s “The Little Tower of Babel.” © 2002 Dave McKean
Figure 5. Dave McKean incorporates Bruegel’s “The Little Tower of Babel” right on the spine of Cages.

Representative of artistic creation, McKean’s towers assume a central role in Cages. Pieter Bruegel’s The “Little” Tower of Babel painting graces McKean’s Vertigo Tarot tower card. Along the book’s spine, McKean includes a picture merging a shrunken version of the same Bruegel painting with a mask, contrasting the tower with the psyche while simultaneously exposing the tower’s significance. The tower card further elucidates Angel’s destruction of the cryptic incorporated objects, illuminating the deconstructive undertones of McKean’s text foreshadowed by the Prologue’s poststructural creation myth. McKean prominently displays the creation/destruction dialectic in tandem with the tower directly after Angel’s destruction of the obelisk in his crypto-apartment: a Tower of Babel tale passes from a mother to her young daughter after the child picks up a beached stone, a replica of the exorcised “hobelisk.” The girl asks for a story, and her mother conveys a tale about a king intent on building a great cage for art: a tower. She says:

And so the king decided to build an extraordinary place. This place would be an endless tower, reaching into the clouds, and inside he would scatter the greatest sculpture and paintings, exotic gardens and waterfalls, animals and birds and fish. There would be spaces for artists to work and explore their thoughts. There would be rooms for scientists to discuss and discover extraordinary things and there would be all manner of strange and mysterious artifacts for people to see and experience. It would be a monument to the unique abilities of mankind and a fitting gift for his people. (McKean Cages 322)

The king’s tower gets erected, and McKean once again uses a miniature version of Bruegel’s tower. A prophetic window “sensitive to light and temperature and . . . time” shows the king his disastrous future in the rubble of the tower (329). Inextricably linked to his fate, the king fractures the crypto-tower, shattering the ominous window in a futile attempt to harm the phantom – the reflection of his future self, an uncanny phantom similar to anti-Helena in MirrorMask. In Cages, though, the crypto-tower tale verbally passes from mother to daughter. The endocryptic identification occurs within the mother’s story, rather than via the young girl identifying with the phantom lurking inside her mother’s crypt.

Figure 6. The tower graces McKean’s own “Tower of Babel” tale in Cages. © 2002 Dave McKean

The crypto-tower metaphor for endocryptic identification with the phantom/double in Cages haunts Helena in MirrorMask. Juxtaposed with the image of her sock-clad foot, Helena’s first words of the film, “I am queen of everything . . . queen of the towers,” situates the tower as one of the film’s central motifs (Gaiman 18). Roughly ten minutes into the film, McKean’s camera spies Helena’s sketched tower on her mother’s get-well card. Gaiman says in the DVD commentary, “That’s the first time you see the tower, which will become terribly important right at the end.” Gaiman, of course, refers to Helena’s savior, Valentine’s tower. This tower whisks Helena and Valentine away from the Queen of Shadows, and Helena finally uses the mirrormask inside it. Before jumping to the film’s conclusion, I must backtrack and gloss over McKean’s towers staining the rest of the film. Valentine’s mask, virtually taken directly from the spine of Cages, harkens back to the face of the king building his tower. Juxtaposing the tower with the psyche here once again, McKean esoterically foreshadows Valentine’s tower with his mask–as long as the viewer knows McKean’s recurring and symptomatic themes. Also, the key cabinet covered in locks, a tower-like structure within a dome in the Dream Park, reveals the film’s hidden key: the tower’s crucial significance and, more importantly, Valentine’s tower.

Barely recognizable as a tower, Valentine’s “tower” contains the window necessary for Helena’s escape from the shadow-world. Within this crypto-tower, Helena (mis)recognizes her reflection and this endocryptic identification turns into a form of introjection. Using the mirrormask, Helena confronts her phantom reflection entombed in the window, the cryptic crack in the tower wall. Does Helena’s transformation from the tower back into waking life recapitulate another form of incorporation, trapping anti-Helena inside Valentine’s crypto-tower? Lacan states in The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-analysis, “By clinging to the reference point of him who looks at him in the mirror, the subject sees appearing, not his ego ideal, but his ideal ego, that point at which he desires to gratify himself in himself” (257). Helena may merely wish to re-entomb her phantom, anti-Helena, satiating this ideal ego that may or may not stem from her mother’s unconscious.


What initially appears as a form of introjection in Cages, then, melancholically returns in MirrorMask. McKean muddles his cinematic realm with this interminable endocryptic identification, despite the seeming introjection within his comic book world. The crypto-tower vestige from the book haunts the film as though they each become entombed inside the tower on the Tarot card, both metaphorically expelled from it like the two humans. In the Vertigo Tarot, McKean’s tower card does depict a plummeting book. McKean’s rudimentary elaboration of the tower’s importance in MirrorMask, though, creates a melancholic identification with the tower from the comic book world. (Endo)crypto-tower identification yields a haunting reading of MirrorMask, one obfuscated by the unconscious (or conscious) incorporation of Cages into MirrorMask‘s crypt. These bricoleurs, Gaiman and McKean, enthusiastically enjoy their symptoms, though. Interestingly enough, the comic book world trumps the filmic image because of the crypto-tower phantoms haunting it.


Abraham, Nicolas and Maria Torok. The Shell and the Kernel. Ed. and Tr. Nicholas T. Rand. Chicago: U. of Chicago Press, 1994.

Freud, Sigmund. The Ego and the Id. 1923. SE: 1-66.

Lacan, Jacques. Ecrits: A Selection. Tr. Bruce Fink. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2002.

—. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Tr. Alan Sheridan. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1978.

Gaiman, Neil and Dave McKean. MirrorMask: The Illustrated Film Script of the Motion Picture from The Jim Henson Company. New York: HarperCollins, 2005.

McKean, Dave. The Alchemy of MirrorMask. New York: HarperCollins, 2005.

—. Cages. New York: ComicsLit, 2002.

MirrorMask. Dir. Dave McKean. Perf. Stephanie Leonidas, Gina McKee, Jason Barry. The Jim Henson Company. 2004.

Semetsky, Inna. “Symbolism of the Tower as Abjection.” parallax 6.2 (2000): 110-122.

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