Little Hans – Freudian Case Study

Case Study Summary

  • Little Hans was a 5-year-old boy with a phobia of horses. Like all clinical case studies, the primary aim was to treat the phobia.
  • However, Freud’s therapeutic input in this case was minimal, and a secondary aim was to explore what factors might have led to the phobia in the first place, and what factors led to its remission.
  • From around three years of age, little Hans showed an interest in ‘widdlers’, both his own penis and those of other males, including animals. His mother threatens to cut off his widdler unless he stops playing with it.
  • Hans’s fear of horses worsened, and he was reluctant to go out in case he met a horse. Freud linked this fear to the horse’s large penis. The phobia improved, relating only to horses with black harnesses over their noses. Hans’s father suggested this symbolized his moustache.
  • Freud’s interpretation linked Hans’s fear to the Oedipus complex, the horses (with black harnesses and big penises) unconsciously representing his fear of his father.
  • Freud suggested Hans resolved this conflict as he fantasized himself with a big penis and married to his mother. This allowed Hans to overcome his castration anxiety and identify with his father.


Freud was interested in the role of infant sexuality in child development. He recognised that this approach may have appeared strange to people unfamiliar with his ideas but observed that it was inevitable for a psychoanalyst to see this as important.

The case therefore focused on little Hans’s psychosexual development and it played a key role in the formulation of Freud’s ideas within the Oedipus Conflict, such as the castration complex.

‘Little Hans’ was nearly five when has was seen by Freud (on 30th March 1908) but letters from his father to Freud provide the bulk of the evidence for the case study. These refer retrospectively to when Hans was less than three years old and were supplied to Freud through the period January to May 1908 (by which time little Hans was five years old).

The first reports of Hans were when he was 3 years old when he developed an active interest in his ‘widdler’ (penis), and also those of other people. For example, on one occasion he asked ‘Mummy, have you got a widdler too?

Throughout this time, the main theme of his fantasies and dreams was widdlers and widdling.  When he was about three and a half years old his mother told him not to touch his widdler or else she would call the doctor to come and cut it off.

When Hans was almost 5, Hans’ father wrote to Freud explaining his concerns about Hans. He described the main problem as follows:

He is afraid a horse will bite him in the street, and this fear seems somehow connected with his having been frightened by a large penis’.

The father went on to provide Freud with extensive details of conversations with Hans. Together, Freud and the father tried to understand what the boy was experiencing and undertook to resolve his phobia of horses.

Freud wrote a summary of his treatment of Little Hans, in 1909, in a paper entitled “ Analysis of a Phobia in a Five-year-old Boy.

Case History: Little Hans’ Phobia

Since the family lived opposite a busy coaching inn, that meant that Hans was unhappy about leaving the house because he saw many horses as soon as he went out of the door.

When he was first asked about his fear Hans said that he was frightened that the horses would fall down and make a noise with their feet.  He was most frightened of horses which were drawing heavily laden carts, and, in fact, had seen a horse collapse and die in the street one time when he was out with his nurse.

It was pulling a horse-drawn bus carrying many passengers and when the horse collapsed Hans had been frightened by the sound of its hooves clattering against the cobbles of the road.  He also suffered attacks of more generalized anxiety. Hans’ anxieties and phobia continued and he was afraid to go out of the house because of his phobia of horses.

When Hans was taken to see Freud (on 30th March 1908), he was asked about the horses he had a phobia of. Hans noted that he didn’t like horses with black bits around the mouth.

Freud believed that the horse was a symbol of his father, and the black bits were a mustache.  After the interview, the father recorded an exchange with Hans where the boy said ‘Daddy don’t trot away from me!

Over the next few weeks Hans” phobia gradually began to improve.  Hans said that he was especially afraid of white horses with black around the mouth who were wearing blinkers.  Hans” father interpreted this as a reference to his mustache and spectacles.

The end of Hans” phobia of horses was accompanied by two significant fantasies which he told to his father.
  • In the first, Hans had several imaginary children. When asked who their mother was, Hans replied “Why, mummy, and you”re their Granddaddy”.
  • In the second fantasy, which occurred the next day, Hans imagined that a plumber had come and first removed his bottom and widdler and then gave him another one of each, but larger.

Freud’s Interpretation of Hans’ Phobia

After many letters were exchanged, Freud concluded that the boy was afraid that his father would castrate him for desiring his mother. Freud interpreted that the horses in the phobia were symbolic of the father, and that Hans feared that the horse (father) would bite (castrate) him as punishment for the incestuous desires towards his mother.

Freud saw Hans” phobia as an expression of the Oedipus complex. Horses, particularly horses with black harnesses, symbolized his father. Horses were particularly suitable father symbols because of their large penises.

The fear began as an Oedipal conflict was developing regarding Hans being allowed in his parents” bed (his father objected to Hans getting into bed with them).

Hans told his father of a dream/fantasy which his father summarized as follows:

‘In the night there was a big giraffe in the room and a crumpled one: and the big one called out because I took the crumpled one away from it.  Then it stopped calling out: and I sat down on top of the crumpled one’.

Freud and the father interpreted the dream/fantasy as being a reworking of the morning exchanges in the parental bed.  Hans enjoyed getting into his parent’s bed in the morning but his father often objected (the big giraffe calling out because he had taken the crumpled giraffe – mother – away).

Both Freud and the father believed that the long neck of the giraffe was a symbol for the large adult penis.  However Hans rejected this idea.

The Oedipus Complex

Freud was attempting to demonstrate that the boy’s (Little Hans) fear of horses was related to his Oedipus complex.  Freud thought that, during the phallic stage (approximately between 3 and 6 years old), a boy develops an intense sexual love for his mothers.

Because of this, he sees his father as a rival, and wants to get rid of him.  The father, however, is far bigger and more powerful than the young boy, and so the child develops a fear that, seeing him as a rival, his father will castrate him.

Because it is impossible to live with the continual castration-threat anxiety provided by this conflict, the young boy develops a mechanism for coping with it, using a defense mechanis m known as identification with the aggressor .

He stresses all the ways that he is similar to his father, adopting his father’s attitudes, mannerisms and actions, feeling that if his father sees him as similar, he will not feel hostile towards him.

Freud saw the Oedipus complex resolved as Hans fantasized himself with a big penis like his father’s and married to his mother with his father present in the role of grandfather.

Hans did recover from his phobia after his father (at Freud’s suggestion) assured him that he had no intention of cutting off his penis.

Critical Evaluation

Case studies have both strengths and weaknesses. They allow for detailed examinations of individuals and often are conducted in clinical settings so that the results are applied to helping that particular individual as is the case here.

However, Freud also tries to use this case to support his theories about child development generally and case studies should not be used to make generalizations about larger groups of people.

The problems with case studies are they lack population validity. Because they are often based on one person it is not possible to generalize the results to the wider population.

The case study of Little Hans does appear to provide support for Freud’s (1905) theory of the Oedipus complex.  However, there are difficulties with this type of evidence.

There are several other weaknesses with the way that the data was collected in this study. Freud only met Hans once and all of his information came from Hans father. We have already seen that Hans’ father was an admirer of Freud’s theories and tried to put them into practice with his son.

This means that he would have been biased in the way he interpreted and reported Hans’ behavior to Freud. There
are also examples of leading questions in the way that Hans’ father questioned Hans about his feelings.
It is therefore possible that he supplied Hans with clues that led to his fantasies of marriage to his mother and his new large widdler.

Of course, even if Hans did have a fully-fledged Oedipus complex, this shows that the Oedipus complex exists but not how common it is.  Remember that Freud believed it to be universal.

At age 19 the not-so Little Hans appeared at Freud’s consulting room having read his case history.  Hans confirmed that he had suffered no troubles during adolescence and that he was fit and well.

He could not remember the discussions with his father, and described how when he read his case history it ‘came to him as something unknown’

Finally, there are problems with the conclusions that Freud reaches. He claims that Hans recovered fully
from his phobia when his father sat him down and reassured him that he was not going to castrate him
and one can only wonder about the effects of this conversation on a small child!

More importantly, is Freud right in his conclusions that Hans’ phobia was the result of the Oedipus complex or might there be a more straightforward explanation?

Hans had seen a horse fall down in the street and thought it was dead. This happened very soon after Hans had attended a funeral and was beginning to question his parents about death. A behaviorist explanation would be simply that Hans was frightened by the horse falling over and developed a phobia as a result of this experience.

Gross cites an article by Slap (an American psychoanalyst) who argues that Hans’ phobia may have another explanation. Shortly after the beginning of the phobia (after Hans had seen the horse fall down) Hans had to have his tonsils out.

After this, the phobia worsened and it was then that he specifically identified white horses as the ones he was afraid of. Slap suggests that the masked and gowned surgeon (all in white) may have significantly
contributed to Hans’ fears.

The Freud Archives

In 2004, the Freud Archives released a number of key documents which helped to complete the context of the case of little Hans (whose real name was Herbert Graf).

The released works included the transcript of an interview conducted by Kurt Eissler in 1952 with Max Graf (little Hans’s father) as well as notes from brief interviews with Herbert Graf and his wife i n 1959.

Such documents have provided some key details that may alter the way information from the original case is interpreted. For example, Hans’s mother had been a patient of Freud herself.

Another noteworthy detail was that Freud gave little Hans a rocking horse for his third birthday and was sufficiently well acquainted with the family to carry it up the stairs himself.

It is interesting to question why, in the light of Hans’s horse phobia, details of the presence of the gift were not mentioned in the case study (since it would have been possible to do so without breaking confidentiality for either the family or Freud himself).

Information from the archived documents reveal much conflict within the Graf family. Blum (2007, p. 749) concludes that:

“Trauma, child abuse [of Hans’s little sister], parental strife, and the preoedipal mother-child relationship emerge as important issues that intensified Hans’s pathogenic oedipal conflicts and trauma. With limited, yet remarkable help from his father and Freud, Little Hans nevertheless had the ego strength and resilience to resolve his phobia, resume progressive development, and forge a successful creative career.”

Support for Freud (Brown, 1965)

Brown (1965) examines the case in detail and provides the following support for Freud’s interpretation.

1 . In one instance, Hans said to his father –“ Daddy don”t trot away from me ” as he got up from the table.

Little Hans Case Study (Freud)

2 . Hans particularly feared horses with black around the mouth.  Han’s father had a moustache.

3. Hans feared horses with blinkers on. Freud noted that the father wore spectacles which he took to resemble blinkers to the child.

4 . The father’s skin resembled white horses rather than dark ones.  In fact, Hans said, “Daddy, you are so lovely. You are so white”.

5 . The father and child had often played at “horses” together.  During the game the father would take the role of horse, the son that of the rider.

Little Hans Case Study (Freud)

Ross (2007) reports that the interviews with Max and Herbert Graf provide evidence of the psychological problems experienced by Little Hans’s mother and her mistreatment of her husband and her daughter (who committed suicide as an adult).

Ross suggests that “Reread in this context, the text of “A Phobia in a Five-year-old Boy” provides ample evidence of Frau Graf’s sexual seduction and emotional manipulation of her son, which exacerbated his age-expectable castration and separation anxiety, and her beating of her infant daughter.

The boy’s phobic symptoms can therefore be deconstructed not only as the expression of oedipal fantasy, but as a communication of the traumatic abuse occurring in the home.


Blum, H. P. (2007). Little Hans: A centennial review and reconsideration. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 55 (3), 749-765.

Brown, R. (1965). Social Psychology. Collier Macmillan.

Freud, S. (1905). Three essays on the theory of sexuality. Se, 7.

Freud, S. (1909). Analysis of a phobia of a five year old boy. In The Pelican Freud Library (1977), Vol 8, Case Histories 1, pages 169-306

Graf, H. (1959). Interview by Kurt Eissler. Box R1, Sigmund Freud Papers. Sigmund Freud Collection, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

Graf, M. (1952). Interview by Kurt Eissler. Box 112, Sigmund Freud Papers. Sigmund Freud Collection, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

Ross, J.M. (2007). Trauma and abuse in the case of Little Hans: A contemporary perspective. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 55 (3), 779-797.

Olivia Guy-Evans

BSc (Hons), Psychology, MSc, Psychology of Education

Associate Editor for Simply Psychology

Olivia Guy-Evans is a writer and associate editor for Simply Psychology. She has previously worked in healthcare and educational sectors.

Saul Mcleod, PhD

Educator, Researcher

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education.