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Pity Poor Flesh

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Pity Poor Flesh
by
Jesse James Stommel
B.A., University of Colorado at Boulder, 1999
M.A., University of Colorado at Boulder, 2002
Ph.D., University of Colorado at Boulder, 2010
A dissertation submitted to the
Faculty of the Graduate School of the
University of Colorado in partial fulfillment
of the requirement for the degree of
Doctor of Philosophy
Department of English
2010
UMI Number: 3403983
All rights reserved
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This dissertation entitled:
Pity Poor Flesh
written by Jesse James Stommel
has been approved for the Department of English
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iii
Stommel, Jesse James (Ph.D., English)
Pity Poor Flesh
Dissertation Directed by Professor Kelly Hurley
This work is about postmodern bodies and disembodiment: mechanical
bodies, dead bodies, undead bodies, bodies in pieces, posthuman bodies, and abject
bodies. It juxtaposes two figures, the automaton and the zombie. The automaton
represents what we are in danger of becoming with our increasing reliance on
technology and virtual worlds. The zombie represents a figurative solution, a
powerful opportunity for revolt, a reclaiming of flesh in the wake of rapid
technological advancement. Quite a bit of critical work has been done on horror;
however, much of it focuses on what is wrong with the genre or on ways the genre is
symptomatic of cultural problems. This work is about re-reading horror, about
exploring its liberatory potential.
The four chapters track the body through several stages of decay and
transformation. Each text analyzed is, on some basic level, about flesh--about the
body and its limits--about our evolving physicality. Chapter 1, “The Not Quite
Living Not Quite Dead,” argues that bodies are becoming vestigial, making way for a
new virtual person with all the mindlessness and intangibility of the automatons in
Fritz Lang’s Metropolis or the familial drones in Don Delillo’s White Noise. Chapter
2, “The Ecstatic Corpse,” explores the pure thingness of flesh, looking closely at
representations of dead bodies in Six Feet Under and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
American culture treats dead bodies in much the way it treats images on a television
screen, dressing up their surface and stripping them of substance, but this work looks
for ways to make the body vital again. Chapter 3, “The Body in Pieces,” considers
why we’re compelled to watch horror--compelled to look at images of the body in
pain. Readings of John Carpenter’s Halloween and Tobe Hooper’s The Texas
Chainsaw Massacre suggest that thoughtful horror has a truly cathartic potential.
Finally, Chapter 4, “The Zombie” examines a multimedia array of zombie texts,
rescuing the zombie from its conventional metaphorical trappings and offering up the
zombie as a postmodern force to be reckoned with, a cultural and philosophical figure
with limitless deconstructive potential.
iv
Pity Poor Flesh
Jesse James Stommel
“To read this book right, you have to read it wrong.”
~ Jack Miles, from the forward to Mark C. Taylor’s Hiding
Introduction
1
Chapter 1: The Not Quite Living Not Quite Dead
20
Part 1: Automata and Monstrous Machines
Part 2: The Walking Dead
Part 3: The Dead Things We Already Are: Pod People, Body Snatching,
and the Horrors of Business as Usual
Chapter 2: The Ecstatic Corpse
21
34
54
69
70
77
Part 1: What Becomes of Dead Things on Film?
Part 2: I’m Not a Dead Body; I Just Play One on TV: Buffy the Vampire Slayer
and the Performativity of the Corpse
Part 3: I Want My Dead TV: Death and its Metonyms in Six Feet Under
91
Part 4: The Rotting Dead and Matter that Teems
112
Chapter 3: The Body in Pieces
Part 1: Something that Festers: the Visual Pleasures of Horror
Part 2: Slasher Movies and the Aesthetics of Violence
Part 3: We Wear Our Monsters Like Skin: Horror that Turns on the Viewer
Part 4: The Traumas of the Interactive Text: A Defense of Violence and Gore
Chapter 4: The Zombie
Part 1: Why Bother Reading the Unreadable?:
The Zombie’s Semantic Instability
Part 2: When We Look, We See Monsters: The Zombie Gaze
in Night of the Living Dead
Part 3: The Mess In Us: The Zombie Fleshophiles of Shivers
Part 4: Monsters that Matter: The Monstrous Birth and Other Things
that Rise in Contemporary Zombie Cinema
Postscript
125
126
138
158
168
182
184
190
203
217
237
Bibliography
240
A digital component of this work is available on the web at www.pitypoorflesh.com.
More info. about the author can be found on the web at www.jessestommel.com.
1
“And now,’ cried Max, ‘let the wild rumpus start!”
~ Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are
Introduction
Are our bodies just meat? There is a production assembly-line that bodies go
through, as culture wreaks havoc on flesh, molding, sloughing, restraining, covering
over and recovering, shredding slowly, tearing it bit by bit. The very shape of our
bodies is a cultural construct. Limbs are only limbs because we have them and are
told we have them. They work because we’ve seen them work--on persons certainly,
but even more memorably in diagrams. Our sex is invented, sometimes on the fly,
but more often through a careful process of social indoctrination. So much of what
happens with and to our bodies is mediated through language. Our eyes “see” only
because we have a word for that. When our brain thinks, we imagine that something
is happening on the inside of our skulls, a bubbling in the soup. But, again, probably
only because we’ve been told that that’s where the bubbling happens. Perhaps I could
trust my appendix better than I can my brain. And yet, I’m told I don’t have one any
more. I say “I’m told” because I had an operation that removed it, but I didn’t watch
it happen. They didn’t let me take the appendix home in a jar when I left the hospital,
so how am I to know, really, that it’s gone or was ever there to be gone in the first
place? It isn’t just the outsides of our bodies that are scripted but the insides as well,
a boundary policed by the almighty skin, which comes pre-sealed, factory packaged.
And yet skin is not really a barrier. Skin is permeable.
2
We are at a point in our evolution as a species where we’ve become not quite
living not quite dead. With the advent of virtual bodies (in video games, chat rooms,
online profiles, etc.), cloning, cyborg technology, and even the cell phone, we are
seeing ourselves become more and more disembodied. This feeling of
disembodiment is why we have become so obsessed in our entertainment media with
bodies, dead and otherwise--with cadavers, crime scenes, bodily mutilation, and
torture--with television shows like Six Feet Under and CSI, films like Hostel (2005)
and Saw (2004), video games like Manhunt 2 (2007) and Resident Evil (2002), and
novels like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2007). We crave, and are nostalgic for, a
truly visceral experience of the body--of bodies torn apart and reassembled, bodies
breathing and being stopped of breath, bodies scrutinized post-mortem, and bodies
(no matter how gruesome) as aesthetically viable objects. The zombie is part and
parcel of this cultural obsession, but it is also the antidote. The zombie threatens to
deconstruct us (to eat us), but in an altogether different way from the machine.
Whereas a machine devours our flesh, turning us all into automata, the zombie just
chews, turning us into zombies, which are the epitome of flesh. Machines take our
flesh away. Zombies proffer it back.
I juxtapose these two figures in my work, the figure of the automaton and the
figure of the zombie. The automaton represents what we are in danger of becoming
with our increasing reliance on technological gadgets in the postmodern age. The
zombie represents a figurative solution, a powerful opportunity for revolt, a
reclaiming of flesh in the wake of rapid technological advancement. The
3
philosophical precursor for the zombie as I am figuring it here is the monster in Mary
Shelley’s Frankenstein. While there are significant differences between her monster
and subsequent incarnations of the walking dead, Shelley’s novel sets up many of the
theoretical and philosophical questions of contemporary zombie cinema: What makes
us human? How have we evolved as a species and how will we continue to evolve?
How are notions of identity being transformed? In our incessant push toward
invention, what sorts of monstrous havoc are we wreaking upon ourselves and the
world around us? And, conversely, what sorts of wonders and miracles do evolution
and invention beget?
Shelley’s Frankenstein is about the capacities of flesh. The opening words
explore many of the central questions I ask in this work: “I am by birth . . .” (29), she
begins the first chapter. These four words raise a question that gets explored
throughout the rest of the novel. Are we, as individuals, made or are we born?
Victor’s opening words suggest that existence is only possible through a natural birth
(that we are only because we are born). Nevertheless, the monster (who is decidedly
made and not born, a literal assemblage of chunks of human flesh) is set in opposition
to Victor and ultimately seems the more lively of the two. And, like Frankenstein’s
monster, we are (as humans) at a moment in our history where we face monstrous
transformation and rebirth with a similar set of moral and ethical consequences. “We
are the walking dead,” George A. Romero says in The American Nightmare (2003)
with exactly the right mixture of resignation and apocalyptic glee, and this sentiment
is echoed in his films and in the recent resurgence of zombie films like Shaun of the
4
Dead (2004), 28 Days Later (2002), and the remake of Romero’s own Dawn of the
Dead (2004). However, I would argue that we’re not zombies, as Romero suggests,
but the antithesis of zombies, for zombies are all body, where we have been stripped
of ours. As our flesh erodes, who we are is reconstituted in the 1s and 0s of our
Facebook profiles and Twitter feeds. Like Shelley’s monster, we are being (re)made
online, as our flesh is reduced to a mere husk, a remainder. My work explores the
ways in which that flesh fights back.
The chapters of “Pity Poor Flesh” track the body through several stages of
decay and transformation. Each of the texts I analyze is, on some basic level, about
flesh, about the body and its limits, about our evolving physicality in the postmodern
era. In chapter 1, “The Not Quite Living Not Quite Dead,” I argue that bodies are
becoming vestigial, making way for a new virtual person with all the mindlessness
and intangibility of the automatons in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) or the familial
drones in Don Delillo’s White Noise (1985). I begin to deconstruct the body in
chapter 2, “The Ecstatic Corpse,” where I explore the pure thingness of flesh, looking
closely at the representation of dead bodies in Alan Ball’s Six Feet Under and Joss
Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Each of these texts examines the aesthetic or
decidedly unaesthetic qualities of dead flesh. American culture treats dead bodies in
much the way it treats images on a television screen, dressing up their surface and
stripping them of substance, but my work looks for ways to make the body vital
again.
5
In chapter 3, “The Body in Pieces,” I consider why we’re compelled to watch
horror, compelled to look at images of the body in pain, and why we so often divorce
ourselves from horror by making a spectacle of it. My readings of John Carpenter’s
Halloween (1978) and Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) suggest
that thoughtful horror has a truly cathartic potential, that the most wretched images
can implicate the viewer, reminding us that we ourselves have bodies capable of both
being violated and doing violence. Finally, in chapter 4, “The Zombie,” I look
closely at Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), David Cronenberg’s Shivers
(1975), and several other contemporary zombie texts. I rescue the zombie from its
conventional metaphorical trappings and offer up the zombie as a postmodern force to
be reckoned with, a cultural and philosophical figure with limitless deconstructive
potential, the perfect embodiment of freeplay and jouissance.
My work tells the story of flesh, a sometimes horrifying, sometimes lurid,
sometimes mundane account of what culture has made (and continues to make) of
bodies. This is a story of pathos with a zombie hero that swoops in seductively at the
end. The first two chapters pose a problem, offering a narrative and theoretical
account of the many traps our flesh has fallen into. The third and fourth chapters
offer solutions, ways to (re)make our flesh into something tangible and visceral,
revolting and lovely. Many of the solutions are metaphorical, but they have real
implications. Hence, I wouldn’t suggest that we should actually get slashed by a
serial killer or eaten by zombies, but we should reconsider our relationship to our own
6
bodies and begin to find ways to interact more dynamically with the world and with
each other.
The structure of my work is modeled upon the primary theoretical concepts it
explores: the death, decay, and rebirth of the human body. While I don’t follow a
strictly chronological structure, I do move from exploring a more modernist aesthetic
in the first chapters to exploring an increasingly postmodern aesthetic in the later
ones. So, I begin with a body that is mostly intact, and things slowly devolve from
there as I explore bodies in progressive states of decay and transformation. In a
similar way, I move from a singular body, and its nostalgia for the boldly modernist
self, to the proliferating, festering body of the zombie, a far more postmodern icon.
These progressions are reflected in the writing style of my work as well. My subject
is bodies, and so the text is itself imagined as a body. An investigation of truly
postmodern subjects requires that I not take those subjects for granted and bring to
them a language that allows for multiplicity and play by flirting itself with
postmodern stylistic conventions. Likewise, analysis of film and other visual media
requires that I be conscious of the visual effects of my work (including typography,
the placement of images, etc.). Here, I take inspiration from Mark C. Taylor’s
Hiding, a thoroughly postmodern book about surfaces and skin that puts its words
into conversation with photographs, superimpositions, transparencies, and other
graphical elements to approximate its theoretical concepts in a visual way. I take
inspiration also from Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography,
7
a more subtle example of how text and image can commingle to create and enhance
meaning.
So much of my work is about viewing; so, like Barthes, I cannot exclude
myself as viewer. Thus, in some places, I privilege my idiosyncratic experience of a
text over a more academically objective one. Barthes’s theory of the punctum in
Camera Lucida offers a model for this kind of reading. For Barthes, the punctum in
an image is subjective, less about the content of the image and more about the
viewer’s interaction with it. This is why he says the punctum can often be seen more
clearly when we look away from an image. It is the thing a specific viewer
remembers, not always what the image is about. My work builds toward a set of
theoretical conclusions, and I carefully track my encounters with the various texts that
lead me to those conclusions. My process is one of discovery, an exercise in critical
parataxis, not predicated on movement toward some predetermined endgame. When
my argument wanders, it does so purposefully, because my subject wanders. When I
move abruptly from one historical era to another, it is because my subject is a
transhistorical one, and because my reading of it follows a thematic trajectory that is
more endoscopic than ethnographic.
My work is not an analysis of film and literature as such, although I do pay
very close attention to the textual details of my primary sources. My work is, first
and foremost, an analysis of culture as it is reflected in film, literature, and other
media. Like the best science fiction, my work isn’t purely speculative; rather, it is
about us . . . now. When I look to horror films and analyze what happens to bodies on
8
screen, I never lose sight of the fact that there are also bodies, fleshy bodies, watching
that screen. I say “fleshy,” because these are literal bodies not just figurative ones.
This approach is in stark contrast to the more common psychoanalytic approaches to
spectatorship that privilege symbolic readings of the film viewer, as in Laura
Mulvey’s seminal work, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” in which the film
gaze is figured as male regardless of whether or not the body watching is also male.
I’m interested in both the viewer as subject position and, in line with the work of
Linda Williams, the viewer as a body in a chair having an ecstatic physical
experience.
While my work is a study of horror, many of the texts I discuss don’t fit neatly
into a conventional definition of the genre. In some ways, it is less useful to think of
horror as a genre and more useful to think of it as a mode, one that authors and
directors move in and out of. Further, I would argue that the locus of horror, like
Julia Kristeva’s notion of the abject, is within a particular viewer or reader. So, the
one thing all of these texts have in common is that they horrify me, and I humbly
hope that my account of them will horrify you. Quite a bit of critical work has been
done on horror, and on the horror film in particular; however, much of it is focused on
what is wrong with the genre or on ways the genre is symptomatic of cultural
problems. My work is about re-reading and reclaiming horror and the horrific, about
exploring their liberatory potential, about seeing them not as symptomatic but as
curative. Horror both takes up the body as one of its central subjects and addresses
itself to our bodies. Horror deconstructs us as readers and viewers in a way that gets
9
to the gut of the matter. Horror can’t do it’s messy work if its viewer is just data.
Whether we want it to or not, horror reminds us that we have bodies, that we are
flesh.
There is a relative dearth of worthwhile critical material on the subject of
corpses and zombies in literature and film,1 so my argument hinges upon various
related topics that have been the subject of a great deal of critical and theoretical
work. The gendered body in the horror film, for example, has received quite a bit of
attention in texts like Carol Clover’s Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the
Modern Horror Film and Barbara Creed’s The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism,
Psychoanalysis. Ultimately, though, my approach is more theoretical than critical, so
the secondary materials I rely on most heavily are works of philosophy and theory,
works that explore how culture constructs and deconstructs our flesh, particularly
Kristeva’s Powers of Horror, Mikhail Bakhtin’s discussion of the grotesque in
Rabelais and His World, Jacques Derrida’s “Structure, Sign, and Play,” Judith
Butler’s Gender Trouble, and Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation. My goal
is not to survey a genre of literature and film but to utilize various works of film and
literature as primary texts in attacking an important theoretical question, about what
has become of the body in the postmodern era. So, rather than just applying theory to
a series of literary texts, I use the literary texts as theory, alongside these other
theoretical works.
1
Critical and theoretical material on the zombie is proliferating wildly even as I write this, following
quickly upon the recent resurgence of the zombie in film and popular fiction. The mass production of
zombie films, literature, and scholarship, though, has yet to consolidate into a recognizable (or entirely
respectable) field of study. Exciting as it is, in most academic circles, the zombie is still a novelty.
10
POSTMODERN / pōst-mŏdern / adj.
Postmodern theorists frequently argue that contemporary society is so
fractured that no coherent understanding of it is possible. In “Toward a Concept of
Postmodernism,” Ihab Hassan writes, “Postmodernism suffers from a certain
semantic instability: that is, no clear consensus about its meaning exists among
scholars” (276). It becomes, then, somewhat futile for me to parse out the word
“postmodern” here. Still, Hassan does map out a working definition of
postmodernism, and I will follow suit. He writes,
Postmodernism veers toward open, playful, optative, provisional,
disjunctive, or indeterminate forms, a discourse of ironies and
fragments, a ‘white ideology’ of absences and fractures, a desire of
diffractions, and invocation of complex, articulate silences.
Postmodernism veers towards all these yet implies a different, if not
antithetical, movement toward pervasive procedures, ubiquitous
interactions, immanent codes, media, languages. (283)
Hassan’s postmodernism is tentative, “veer[ing] toward” a conception of play that is
“provisional,” speaking in “articulate silences,” which make sense even though they
are markedly “complex.” Hassan’s postmodernism is quiet, ordered, unassertive,
unassuming, “optative.” It wants to be loud, rapturous, “indeterminate,” destructive,
fragmenting, explosive even, but (ironically) it is instead a language of thesis and
antithesis, of either/or dichotomies, a “discourse,” an “ideology,” a bureaucratic
“procedure,” dependent upon order and argument for its dissemination. His
postmodernism is always already defused by tropes and allusion, deference and
derivation, structure and meta-hypotheses. I will argue, on the other hand, that the
zombie apocalypse offers an unrelenting postmodernism that doesn’t disarm or
11
equivocate. Put simply, zombies don’t argue, don’t deliberate, don’t have
bureaucracy; their postmodernism is snarled and thorny, pleasing but never pleasant.
Robert Stam offers a rather bleak definition of “postmodernism” in his
introduction to “The Politics of Postmodernism” in Film and Theory: An Anthology:
“The empty sequentiality of the ‘post’ corresponds to a preference for prefixes such as
de or dis--decentering, displacement--which suggest the demystification of
preexisting paradigms. Postmodernism is fond of terms which connote openness,
multiplicity, plurality, heterodoxy, contingency, hybridity” (754). It is quite common
for postmodernism and its objects to be figured as “empty,” something Stam does in
his first sentence here, as though our difficulty in grasping the concept derives from
its fundamental vacuity. However, I would argue that postmodernism, and
specifically the postmodern body, is precisely not empty. Rather, its indeterminacy
derives from its being hypersaturated with meaning. It’s apropos, then, that Stam
removes the grammatically imperative “and” from before the last item of his list in
the second sentence, because this convention is incompatible with postmodernism,
which demands the amorphousness of language, the open (a word Stam and Hassan
both use) and insistent play between one possibility and another, the limitless
potential for alternatives and simultaneity.
The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms defines
“postmodernism” as follows: “Much of postmodernist writing reveals and highlights
the alienation of individuals and the meaninglessness of human existence.
Postmodernists frequently stress that humans desperately (and ultimately
12
unsuccessfully) cling to illusions of security to conceal and forget the void on which
their lives are perched” (460). Even just reading these lines on the page, I feel as
though they should be followed by a musical cue, a distant but menacing “dun dun
DUN.” Much of my work describes what is lost in the postmodern era, as though we
ought only to mourn the state of our bodies and our flesh in contemporary society.
However, the same postmodern “problems” that make our flesh virtually obsolete
also make way for the remainder that rises up in the aftermath of our disintegration.
Likewise, the simulacrum that renders us into hollow copies of one another and of our
ourselves (as our identities multiply with each new online profile) also bares its teeth,
shredding even as it replicates, forcing us to recontextualize the meaning and function
of flesh. So, my work carefully examines the problems even as it looks to solutions.
For example, I refer to the theories of Baudrillard in my discussion of simulacrum in
chapter 1, analyzing the dull copies culture makes us into. Then, in chapter 4, I turn
this figuration on its head, complicating Baudrillard’s conception of the simulacrum
by bringing in the work of Gilles Deleuze, who imagines a different sort of copy with
a sinister life all its own.
QUEER / kwîr / v.
My work aligns itself with post-structuralist accounts of the self, such as those
of Judith Butler in Gender Trouble and Roland Barthes in Mythologies. Echoing the
theories of Butler and Barthes, Annamarie Jagose writes in Queer Theory: An
Introduction, “Within post-structuralism, the very notion of identity as a coherent and
13
abiding sense of self is perceived as a cultural fantasy rather than a demonstrable
fact” (82). The same could be said of the body, that a coherent and abiding sense of it
is a cultural fantasy. This isn’t to say that there is no body whatsoever, just that the
body and our experience of it resists (but is not necessarily immune to) attempts to
delimit or define it. In a very important way, my work queers the body by troubling
and deconstructing it.2 My work (re)reads the body from a materialist perspective,
while simultaneously calling into question the essentialist character of that body. Our
bodies have a material existence, but one that is inextricably woven to the social
codes that help write it into being. Thus, my work (like other queer and postmodern
readings of the body) looks to (and celebrates) flesh as a way of liberating the body
from these social codes.
The body my work describes is a postmodern body, a deconstructed body, a
queer body, a body that resists categorization, a body that can’t be written or framed,
not an empty body, but one that is a glut of matter. It’s an all-too-easy and erroneous
2
“Queer” is more useful as a verb, as I use it here, than as a noun. Nouns describe fixed and
immutable things, whereas verbs imply movement and action. It makes less sense to think about what
“queer” is and more sense to think about what “queer” does. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick writes in
“What’s Queer?,” “A word so fraught as ‘queer’ is--fraught with so many social and personal histories
of exclusion, violence, defiance, excitement--never can only denote; nor even can it only connote” (9).
“Queer” is a contested word, a word with baggage, a word that resists our attempts to fix it with a
definition, a word that is not only subjective but calls into question the very notion of subjectivity. The
word causes dissension that can obscure anything it might attempt to signify. I employ the word
fleetingly here exactly because the body I’m describing is a dissenting body, a body that frustrates
attempts to make an easy signifier of it. Rather, like queer theory, my work tells a story about the body
and the world it inhabits--a story about our evolving physicality (and the erosion of it).
Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner write in “What Does Queer Theory Teach Us about X?,”
“It is not useful to consider queer theory a thing, especially one dignified by capital letters . . . Queer
theory is not the theory of anything in particular, and has no precise bibliographic shape” (343-344). It
is a not-altogether-subtle irony, then, that each of the theoretical terms I discuss in this introduction is
written in all-caps, as though it can be neatly contained by its definition. The form I employ in my
account of “queer” is at odds with the basic tenets of queer theory. The form I employ in much of this
introduction is likewise at odds with the basic tenets of postmodern theory. This is a feature of the
work of many queer and postmodern theorists, who struggle within a very prescriptive academic
discourse (using jargon sometimes to the point of gibberish) to define terms and concepts that resist
their efforts at every turn.
14
simplification to say merely that the postmodern subject is dead or that the
postmodern body is just a figment. This would imply that the obliteration of quaint
identity categories is somehow equivalent to the obliteration of identity altogether. It
isn’t that there is no subject whatsoever in a postmodern world, but rather that the
subject and our notions of it have become pliant and unknowable (at least in the sense
of a knowing that draws an impenetrable border around a thing). Our identity and our
bodies have so much cultural baggage that we fail to register--we fail to signify--in
any singular way. It makes more sense to say that the postmodern subject is
decaying, hovering at the threshold between death and rebirth. And, in that stuttering
instant, when the matter that was transforms into the matter that will be, a moment of
play is unleashed, and we become something more, something relentless.
ABJECT / abjéct / n.
My work is about bodies and the increasing intangibility of bodies in the
postmodern era: dead bodies, undead bodies, queer bodies, bodies in pieces, abject
bodies. I’m interested in the ability of these bodies (and images of them) to elicit a
tangible physical response in us: chills, goosebumps, inarticulate noises, subtle
movements of the face, a grin, a laugh, a scream, and a sort of violence that peels us
from the inside out, exposing the fundamental bits of who we are and how we read,
see, and know. I turn to Kristeva’s theory of the abject and Bakhtin’s theory of the
grotesque to explore the ways that an image on screen or in a book can translate into
this sort of intimately physical experience.
15
In Kristeva’s work, the “abject” is a term used to designate that which upsets,
disturbs, or undermines some established order or stable position. In Powers of
Horror, Kristeva argues that the abject is neither subject nor object, but something
that “disturbs identity, system, and order” (4). It is something that does not respect
limits, positions or rules. The abject is that thing which is simultaneously both Self
and Other. It is neither here nor there, for even as we see it there, we are unable to
recognize it, precisely because it is at all times a (horrifying) extension of ourselves.
Kristeva writes, “there looms, within abjection, one of those violent, dark revolts of
being, directed against a threat that seems to emanate from an exorbitant outside or
inside, ejected beyond the scope of the possible, the tolerable, the thinkable” (1). For
Kristeva, the abject is that which is turning away from, turned away from, the normal,
the sensical, the translatable. Kristeva associates the abject with blood and other
bodily fluids, with death and the corpse, with the intermingling of insides and
outsides, with the grotesque, with the “looming” or apocalyptic, with the
inappropriate and funny, with violence. The abject is a sensation that begins in the pit
of the stomach and works its way toward a half-gag, half-gasp in the back of the
throat. It forces us to turn away in revulsion but simultaneously demands that we
look. For Kristeva the abject is powerful, scary, and uncontrollable, but it is also
sexy, playful, and re-appropriateable. It is unreadable, but that is exactly the reason it
must be read.
16
GROTESQUE / grōtesk / n.
Like the abject, the grotesque describes a visceral response, one that evades
reason or reflection, even as it necessitates both. In its most common usage, the term
is simply a variation of the word “gross,” something disturbing, gory, stomachchurning. In Rabelais and His World, the theorist Mikhail Bakhtin describes the
grotesque as “an extremely fanciful, free, and playful treatment of plant, animal, and
human forms. These forms [seem] to be interwoven as if giving birth to each
other” (32). This intermingling is grotesque, because it challenges our sense of a
neatly ordered world, and yet it is also “fanciful,” implying that the horrifying fantasy
the grotesque evokes is both challenging and wondrous. Bakhtin uses the word
“playful” in a way very similar to Derrida’s sense of “freeplay,” as a movement
between or collapsing of binary oppositions. Both the grotesque and the abject have
this quality of holding us at the threshold of one emotion and another. (Tzvetan
Todorov’s notion of the fantastic is similar in this respect.) The distinction between
the abject and the grotesque is that the abject response moves back and forth just at
the border between terror and awe, whereas the grotesque suspends us just at the edge
of terror and laughter. We’re not talking riotous belly laughs here but the sort of
giggle that explodes guiltily when we see someone take a rather nasty fall. Or the
sort of laughter at extreme gore in movies that has us looking over our shoulder and
thinking, “I can’t believe I’m laughing at this.” Both the grotesque, as defined by
Bakhtin, and the abject, as defined by Kristeva, help explain our compulsion to make
17
an aesthetic spectacle of corpses and zombies, while also helping to explain the often
confusing reaction these spectacles elicit.
POSTHUMAN / pōst-hyōōmen / n.
The posthuman is a figure that demands a reconsideration of what it is to be
human, a figure that (like the grotesque) disrupts binaries, especially the distinction
between man and machine. Posthumanism complicates notions of liberal humanism-complicates the notion that the human is an enlightened, feeling, thinking, unified
subjectivity distinct from its mere body. Theories of the posthuman argue that the
human is evolving into a new species, a new sort of animal liberated from the
ideologic constraints of its body even as it is (re)located, in a visceral way, within that
very same body. In the introduction to Posthuman Bodies, Judith Halberstam and Ira
Livingston write, “We have rehearsed the claim that the posthuman condition is upon
us and that lingering nostalgia for a modernist or humanist philosophy of the self and
other, human and alien, normal and queer is merely the echo of a discursive battle that
has already taken place” (19). For Halberstam and Livingston, the posthuman is not a
conceptual creature; rather, the transformation, from the human to the posthuman, is
already underway.
The prefix “post” in “posthuman” suggests several things: (1) the posthuman
comes after (i.e., later than) the human; (2) the posthuman follows upon the human
(i.e., advances our conception of what it is to be human); and (3) the posthuman
responds to or rejects the human (i.e., troubles our conception of what it is to be
18
human). The posthuman depends (at least etymologically) upon the human; however,
by calling the human so thoroughly into question, the figure of the posthuman implies
that the human is, in fact, the more conceptual creature. In this way, the word
unravels itself; before we were ever human, we were posthuman. Corpses are
posthuman in a very literal sense. They have the material shape of the human but few
of its requisite features. They are an evolution of the human, an annihilation of the
human, a rewriting of what it is to be human. The zombie does similar posthuman
work, beckoning, seizing, and folding our bodies into its monstrous embrace, then
biting, tearing, and perforating the culturally-controlled binary oppositions that (fail
to) (pre)determine us.
- - - - - There is a way in which all of us are already zombies, and not in a
metaphorical sense, but on a base physical level. We are always already in a state of
constant decay and reanimation, reinventing ourselves intellectually, emotionally, and
spiritually, but also repairing physical damage, replacing dead cells with live ones,
and collecting more and more layers of flesh all the while. We grow old, wrinkle, rot,
reek, break little by little, our organs fail, our skin cultures fungi, and our stomachs
house hundreds of bacteria species. We are losing our individuality, our singularity,
more and more as our identities proliferate like screen names in the glow of our
computer screens. And, going against the grain of much of the thinking on the
subject, I argue that none of this is such a bad thing after all, and instead offers us
ever increasing opportunities for mutiny--to rise, not from the dead, but like the dead.
19
Zombification is a reminder that like Mary Shelley’s monster in Frankenstein,
we are exactly made and not born, and yet this allows for a creativity in how we
contextualize and situate our bodies--slaves to culture, perhaps, but with limitless
potential for Derridean freeplay. We are exactly meat. Undifferentiated. Liquifying.
Pungent. Fetid. Oozing. Writhing. Pretty. Meat.
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“It is at work everywhere, functioning smoothly at times, at other times in fits and
starts. It breathes, it heats, it eats. It shits and fucks. What a mistake to have ever
said the id. Everywhere it is machines--real ones, not figurative ones: machines
driving other machines, machines being driven by other machines, with all the
necessary couplings and connections.”
~ Deleuze and Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia
Chapter 1: The Not Quite Living Not Quite Dead
The human is evolving. In their introduction to The Cyborg Handbook, Chris
Hables-Gray, Steven Mentor, and Heidi J. Figueroa-Sarriera write, “The story of
cyborgs is not just a tale told around the glow of the televised fire. There are many
actual cyborgs among us in society. Anyone with an artificial organ, limb or
supplement (like a pacemaker), anyone reprogrammed to resist disease (immunized)
or drugged to think/behave/feel better (psychopharmacology) is technically a cyborg.
The range of these intimate human-machine relationships is mind-boggling” (2). The
authors begin by ironically describing their work as a “story of cyborgs” (my
emphasis), only to cannibalize this first sentence with their second, in which the
cyborg is not at all a fiction. By their account, we are all cyborgs. In 1995, this might
have seemed a stretch, but fifteen years later, our so-called “intimate” relationship
with machines has become a true romance.
For me, the cell phone is the most poignant example. Because of the cell
phone, the human body now has the capacity to ring, to vibrate even. This strikes me
as a rather intimate, even sensual, interaction between man and machine. The cell
phone communicates through a subtle stimulation--a tickle of the skin that can’t be
felt unless the phone is in direct physical contact with the body. And already, the
21
physicality of some of our most profoundly human moments is slipping away (being
replaced by this other sort of mechanical intimacy). I recently watched a woman
sobbing into her cell phone, and I was struck by the fact that we do this--we have our
most private, our most meaningful, our most emotionally wrenching, conversations
with machines (on cell phones, in chat rooms, via IM). I couldn’t hear the content of
the conversation, but I wondered what it was about: the breakdown of a marriage, an
accidental pregnancy, a death--spoken not to a person but into a machine--the
woman’s tears transformed into binary code, shot through the air, and translated by a
receiver on the other end. There is something marvelous about this and also
something vacant and sad.
This human-machine relationship is becoming more and more one-sided.
Thus, I would argue that we are actually turning from cyborgs into automatons. We
once mastered our machines, and now they master us. Here, I mean “master” in
multiple senses of the word, for machines both control us and create us. In this, the
relationship has become less intimate and more violent. The loving caress of the cell
phone has given way to the sweaty palms of the addict and a machine with razorsharp teeth where once there was a power button (now mysteriously absent on many
of our devices).
Part 1: Automata and Monstrous Machines
As we consume, are we also being consumed? As a culture, we are obsessed
with food. We not only eat food, but spend countless hours thinking about it, talking
22
about it, working for it, and shopping for it. We watch endless advertisements for
food stuffs, buy countless products that help us digest it, and spend more time than
necessary thinking about (and accounting for) what happens to food on the other end.
As a culture, we have become a conveyer belt for food. In Fast Food Nation, Eric
Schlosser writes, “The whole experience of buying fast food has become so routine,
so thoroughly unexceptional and mundane, that it is now taken for granted, like
brushing your teeth or stopping for a red light” (5). His book paints a bleak picture of
an American society lacking in volition. It is, alas, our food that is eating us. And we
enter naively into the fray. Schlosser calls his book a “metaphor,” for it isn’t actually
about fast food, but about the consumptive nature of American society. His word
“routine” alludes to the fact that we have become automatons, machines performing a
series of coded instructions, and not only in the way that we eat. In so many ways,
culture (authority, hegemony, ideology) fashions us into drones that blindly do its
bidding. This chapter is about eating, about our desire, our need, to consume, but it is
also about machines, machines that consume, machines (like the cell phone) that
consume us.
In his poem “pity this busy monster,manunkind” (1944), E. E. Cummings
writes, “A world of made/is not a world of born--pity poor flesh” (9-10). The poem is
about the dangers of progress--physical progress, intellectual progress, industrial
progress. He laments the fact that the bodies he sees are made and not born--that
identity in the 20th century is constructed--that bodies simply do rather than are.
Cummings singles out “flesh” as the victim here, as though it is a substance (a
23
medium) that hasn’t been done justice by the buildings and factories and billboards
and suburbias he sees rising up around him. Flesh is ordinarily a substance that is
born and not made. So, in the industrialized “world of made” that Cummings faces,
flesh becomes unnecessary, obsolete, impossible. We construct identities and
characters, but we can’t construct flesh. For Cummings, flesh has substance; the
“world of made” is a facade.
The phrase “pity poor flesh” can be read several ways. The imperative verb
“pity” commands the reader to act (e.g., “pity this busy monster” in the first line).
Here, though, the verb “pity” is reflexive. It is ourselves, our own flesh, that we must
pity. And yet, “flesh” is modified by the word “poor,” offering the possibility that it
is only poor flesh, in particular, that should be pitied. The word “poor” suggests
“something deserving of pity”; however, it might also allude to the economic status of
the flesh, making it the working class that deserves pity. And what a pity it is not to
spend, not to consume, in a capitalist society. “Flesh” is, specifically, the layers of fat
and muscle between the skin and bones, the part of the body that initiates action, the
part that works. It is also the part of something (an animal, a vegetable, a human) that
is eaten. So, “flesh” is pitied because it is “poor” and “busy,” but also because it is
devoured.
Throughout the poem, Cummings plays with the dual nature of things--with
oppositions (“monster”/“man,” “littleness”/“bigness”) and things undone (“unwish,”
“unself”). The dual nature of the word “flesh” is its being both the edible part of
something and the substantial part. Our Flesh is being lost in the industrial age, but it
24
is, first and foremost, a thing to be lost. The word itself evokes this. Where “pity”
and “poor” shoot out of the mouth in a fleeting, alliterative rat-a-tat-tat, the word
“flesh” sounds meaty, forcing the lips to curl around it, as it’s caught between the roof
of the mouth and the tongue, just before the teeth close around it. We eat the tail end
of the word even as we say it, with the front half dangling out of our mouth like a
flopping fish. After the sheer and intentional nonsense of “unwish through curving
wherewhen till unwish/returns on its unself,” the set of lines in question spews from
the poem like a thesis: “A world of made/is not a world of born--pity poor flesh.”
The fact that these lines stand out so clearly makes them, for me, immediately
suspect. The irony of the poem is that flesh is ultimately not pitiable at all. It
proclaims itself, interrupting the line with an abrupt dash. Even in the face of
“progress,” which is the real villain of Cummings’s poem, flesh perseveres.
Perhaps, though, I would identify an even worse culprit here than progress:
comfort. Cummings writes, “Progress is a comfortable disease” (2). The words
“comfortable” and “disease” seem, at first, antithetical, another opposition for
Cummings to toy with. After all, the word “disease” can be broken down into its
constituent parts, suggesting a literal lack of “ease” (or “comfort”). However,
Cummings juxtaposes these two words in order to force the reader to reconsider the
conventional definitions. A disease is often insidious, proceeding in a gradual, subtle
way, but with harmful effects. It might have no clear or discernible origin, and a
disease could be (by and large) comfortable. This is exactly the critique Cummings
levels against the “progress” of industrialization: it feels relatively cozy right up until
25
it kills you. For Cummings, progress is wretched, a movement that doesn’t really
advance anything, an aimless but persistent march toward something with no clear
knowledge of what that something is. For Cummings, progress is compliance.
This is not a peculiarly modernist critique. Almost a hundred years earlier,
Herman Melville offers a similar critique of industrialization in his story “The
Tartarus of Maids.” He describes “blank-looking girls” (69) working in a paper
factory, slaves to a new-fangled machine, their bodies becoming pulp, their ghostly
faces pressed into the white paper: “there, passing in slow procession along the
wheeling cylinders, I seemed to see, glued to the pallid incipience of the pulp, the yet
more pallid faces of all the pallid girls I had eyed that day. Slowly, mournfully,
beseechingly, yet unresistingly, they gleamed along, their agony dimly outlined on the
imperfect paper” (75). Melville’s use of the word “procession” evokes a funeral
procession. The girls, with their “pallid” faces and their lack of speech and even
breath (“Not a syllable was breathed,” 70), have been rendered into ghosts by the
machines they slave over. Their bodies are the raw material the machine, an
“inflexible iron animal” (75), feeds upon. They pass “unresistingly” along the
machine’s conveyer, having resigned themselves almost entirely to their fate, with
their agony only “dimly outlined.”
Elsewhere in the story, Melville writes, “Machinery--that vaunted slave of
humanity--here stood mentally served by human beings, who served mutely and
cringingly as the slave serves the Sultan. The girls did not so much seem accessory
wheels to the general machinery as mere cogs to the wheels” (70). So, for Melville,
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our bodies have become both the fuel and the impetus for industrialization--and not
just our bodies but our minds as well (since machinery is “mentally served”). Like in
Cummings’s poem, bodies and flesh have become mere materials, food for the
industrial and social machines. We are the consumers and the product; as consumers,
we ultimately consume . . . ourselves. I’m reminded of Ouroboros, the mythic
serpent that swallows its own tail, usually figured as a symbol of perfection,
immortality, and cyclicality. I can’t help but also read this figure more pessimistically
as symbolic of futility and self-immolation, and as a warning: consume but not too
much.
Metropolis (1927)
The image of a machine-man that becomes food for the machine gets taken up
by Fritz Lang in Metropolis. The film begins with a blur of images fading into one
another, pistons pumping vigorously, gears cranking, steam churning, a clock ticking,
wheels spinning, whistles bleating, all rhythmically in time with an increasingly
frenetic score. There’s something exciting, almost exuberant, about these images.
Then, “shift change” appears on a title card, and the mood shifts/changes
dramatically. The words “shift” and “change” both suggest something hopeful,
movement, a slow but definitive revolution. But, the words are used ironically, for
there is no real “change” or “shift” underway here.
The shots that follow, of men somberly leaving and returning to work, are
about redundancy and endless repetition--the epitome of the doldrums. Two
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teethlike-gates rise as columns of men enter and leave the film frame. Both sets of
men walk mechanically, their feet marching in unison, and not boldly but in lame
follow-the-leader fashion, one man’s foot sliding forward into the gap made by the
movement of the foot in front of him. The gated opening suggests a toothed mouth,
frowning appropriately, as it conversely devours and regurgitates the workers. Each
of the men looks identical to the rest, dressed in uniform, with bodies of similar shape
and proportions, stripped of individuality or idiosyncrasy. 3 Their cap-covered heads
all drop about 45 degrees, just enough to conceal their eyes and mouths. As the
camera cycles through various angles, we never see a single head turned our way or a
single glance that might reveal a hint of expression.
As the workers board the lift, numbered “219,”4 we see only their backs,
carefully arranged into rows. And, as they lower into the depths of the worker’s city,
we see another shot, in which the figures are no longer human actors but rather drawn
ones, a matte painting literally frozen in the frame, first mechanical (but still human)
and now two-dimensional and fixed. The working class in the film has devolved into
a crowd of cardboard cutouts, mulch for the machines they slave away at, like the
similarly two-dimensional “pallid girls” of Melville’s “The Tartarus of Maids.” Here,
Lang suggests something about what is becoming of the human species following the
3
For me, the punctum of this sequence is a single figure my eye picks out of the crowd, one worker a
head taller than the rest. While Lang’s vision here is a mostly pessimistic one, about our loss of
humanity in the industrial age, this one figure suggests the possibility of individuality, redemption, and
hope, all of which remain only a fading glimmer.
4
The number “219” suggests that this is either elevator 219 or the 219th floor. Either reading hints at
the vastness of the complex Lang has imagined in Metropolis. In the face of this vastness, these
faceless workers become faceless not just in a crowd but in one of at least (but likely more than) 219
crowds.
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industrial revolution. As we become more and more fixated on technological
innovation, we slowly chip away at our own humanity. It begins harmlessly enough
with a captivating awe at the power of machines, even as we unwittingly become
beholden to them. The common cliché is that machines will (or have already begun
to) replace humans, but Lang’s vision is altogether more sinister. As in Melville’s
story, the horror is not that we will be replaced but that we will be devoured. First,
we need the machines, and then machines need (to eat) us.
In a later scene, Freder wanders the bowels of the worker city and witnesses a
scene much like the one the narrator of Melville’s story observes, a scene of workers
devoured by the very machines they serve. I don’t use the word “bowels”
haphazardly here, for that is exactly how this place functions, a sewage plant where
food (the workers) is broken down, drawing out everything meaningful and leaving
nothing but sanitized waste. The scene begins with an iconic shot of Freder watching
as workers toil away at an enormous machine, their bodies flexing and gyrating like
gears, pistons, and cogs. Their hips lurch back and forth as their shoulders torque in
the opposite direction--an utterly inhuman movement, for bodies don’t (or aren’t
supposed to) bend like this. Steam rises up from numerous pipes around the complex,
in enormous puffs like the air and water that jets from a whale’s blowhole, suggesting
ominously that the machine is breathing. One worker struggles at a central console,
but he is at an utter loss, thrashing about futilely, unable to hold the breakdown of the
machine at bay. He arbitrarily presses buttons, pulls at levers, turns dials.
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Looking at these shots, I’m reminded of the expansive consoles in episodes
from the original Star Trek, in Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), or in John Badham’s
WarGames (1983). There is no logic to how the computer consoles in these examples
are arranged, just a sequence of panels, lights, dials, and readouts, a seemingly
random assortment of techno-bling, that elicits a bemused awe even as it attempts to
menace and intimidate. These are visions of the machine as a multi-headed monster
with a CRT screen for a mouth and a thousand blinking eyes. The machine becomes
a chimera with a hand-made aesthetic that both charms and disturbs, a constant
reminder that we made the machine but can’t control it, can’t keep it from unraveling
(or unraveling us).
The situation in Metropolis quickly becomes more dire, and we see the
operator hanging from the console as though clinging for his very life. The
temperature gauge rises rapidly, the music crescendos, the steam intensifies, and the
other workers gyrate more feverishly. Freder observes with mouth and eyes gaping,
arms flailing. And yet, he moves backward, away from the commotion, as though
terrified he might get caught up in it. The death of these workers is, for him, a
spectacle, a caustic but thrilling entertainment. Freder begins to move forward, as if
to offer help, but is repeatedly drawn backward, until finally we see him cowering
against a wall, barely able to drag himself to his feet. He is so caught up in the show
before him that he fails to make any reasonable attempt to stop it. Susan Sontag asks,
in Regarding the Pain of Others, “What does it mean to protest suffering, as distinct
from acknowledging it?” (40). She continues, “the gruesome invites us to be either
30
spectators or cowards, unable to look” (42). In either case, we are entirely passive,
like Freder, who vacillates between being frozen, transfixed, and throwing his arms
up over his head as though to block out the horrors. His expression also vacillates
from one of pain to one that looks curiously like pleasure.
As the scene escalates, steam overwhelms the frame and bodies are flung into
the air in an entirely inhuman way. After slowly masticating the men, chewing off
choice morsels, the machine violently spits out the disagreeable chunks. When I
show this scene in the classes I teach, students often laugh at the way the bodies glide
through the air, as though (because they are in fact) on wires. My students can’t get
past the low-fi, hand-made quality of the special effects. I, on the other hand, find
myself horrified by the alienness of bodies moving in a way they’re just not meant to
move. They fly into the air like gears and springs would, but my eye is drawn to their
flailing limbs. These are bodies in conflict with themselves, mechanical but with a
sudden acknowledgment of their lingering humanity at the moment they’re cast to
their deaths. Flying through the air, the men are like little bits of mechanical
shrapnel, gears and springs that suddenly begin to kick and scream in a struggle for
their lives.
Finally, the allegorical intent of this sequence is made plain when the machine
transforms into a gigantic monster, the word “MOLOCH!”5 appearing ominously on a
title card. The gears of the machine morph into literal teeth, and we see men dragged
up steps like slaves and cast into the monster’s gaping maw. The men are fed to the
5
Moloch is a Hebrew word used to describe a ritual sacrifice by fire. The word shows up in Milton’s
Paradise Lost, Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, and various medieval texts. Moloch is a demon, a baby thief,
and (in Ginsberg’s Howl) a metaphor for the American city.
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beast in two distinct courses. The first course consists of slaves clad in loincloths,
arms tied tightly behind their backs. They are ushered forward by men with whips
and pulled along by others with ropes. The second course consists of the workers,
dressed in their identical uniforms, arranged again in rows, several tight square units.
Again, we see nothing to distinguish the individuals from one another, and they walk
in perfect rhythmic unison, in stark contrast to the shambling resistance of the first
group. Where the slaves struggle, like mad cattle, the workers have been conditioned
to feed themselves, willingly, to the machine. And it isn’t that they want to be eaten;
rather, like before, they simply keep their place in line, putting their feet in the gaps
made by the feet in front of them. The fact that their flesh has been reduced to meat
for the grinding teeth of the machine does not halt their progress up the stairs.
- - - - - Thus far, I’ve used the words “flesh” and “meat” almost interchangeably, but
there is an important difference. The two words might describe the same substance,
the same tissues, but they are distinguished by their function. “Flesh” does work, as
I’ve suggested, whereas “meat” is eaten. “Flesh” sustains; “Meat” is sustenance. It’s
convenient that the word “meat” contains the word “eat,” a direct (however
coincidental) clue to its function. So, what do machines eat? Thus far, I have
suggested that machines eat people. In each of my examples, Cummings’s “pity this
busy monster,” Melville’s “The Tartarus of Maids,” and Lang’s Metropolis, our body,
our flesh, is figured as meat, torn apart (in some cases more graphically than others)
by the behemoths of industrialization. In each, humans (or a certain class of humans,
32
the working poor) are fed like pellets into machines that eat and eat and eat,
indiscriminately and unhaltingly. Machines are never hungry, never full. They eat,
because that’s what they do--what they’re designed to do. We work to eat, whereas
their work is to eat. We create machines so that we can become their fodder, their
food. And they eat, because we tell them to.
As both feeder of and food for machines, we have become automatons. In
Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault calls automatons “political puppets, smallscale models of power,” both “object and target of power.” And this correlates with
the conventional definition of “automaton,” being a self-operating, self-propelled
machine. In Foucault’s conception, the automaton is not a mindless follower but a
habituated one. Jean-Claude Beaune, in “The Classical Age of Automata,” describes
the world of automata as “a world in which the frontiers and the limits between body
and mind, as well as those between nature and culture, and between life and death,
have grown so thick, so enduring and so dense that when we look in the mirror each
day we confront portraits of the living dead” (435). But, I would argue that the figure
of the automaton is different from the figure of the zombie, in its various incarnations,
because the automaton still has individual agency, even if that agency has been put in
the service of some master, be it person, institution, or machine. The automaton is a
sort of walking dead, but it might be more accurately described as the endlessly and
pointlessly walking. Automatons aren’t really dead; they just fail to live in any
meaningful way. (After all, something must be once formerly living to be or ever be
truly dead.)
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Many of my examples, thus far, have been Modernist ones. On the one hand,
I’m tracking a historical progression from the dying we were doing at the turn of 19th
century to the being dead we’re so rabidly engaged in now. But I would argue also
that the automaton represents (or stands in for) a distinctly Modernist problem or fear,
the self that awakens (like the Machine-Man in Lang’s Metropolis) only to willingly
hand over its agency to the state, the government, industry, commerce, etc. (In the
postmodern era, there are no distinct selves to hand over.) In Kafka’s Metamorphosis,
Gregor comes alive, feeling his limbs and body for the first time, organic not
mechanical, only to tuck himself away, because a real idiosyncratic self is not a viable
self--not useful to the workforce. When Gregor transforms, he becomes keenly aware
of himself as a body, a body with limbs, viscera, flesh, rot, sensation, exactly not an
automaton. Kafka’s story is about the ways we, as a society, have come to loathe our
own bodies--the ways we’ve come to put our flesh to bed when it fails as meat. The
automaton is a manifestation of this loathing, a body stripped of its flesh, a humanshaped body with no being, a mechanism rather than an organism, a desiring machine
without the desire part.6
6
In Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Deleuze and Guattari define a machine as “a system
of interruption or breaks” (36). So, the phrase “desiring-machine” suggests that desire is mechanistic,
a real, productive force, rather than an imaginary one responding to a lack, as Freud would characterize
it. They write, “We live today in the age of partial objects, bricks that have been shattered to bits, and
leftovers” (42). Desire, in a sense, puts (or attempts to put) these pieces back together, producing what
they call a “flow,” the series of connections from one desiring-machine to another. The automaton is a
machine that doesn’t produce anything, a machine that goes through the motions of production with
nothing to show for it, a machine that appears connected to other machines but only in a superficial
way. There is connection but not flow, only an empty gesture, a nod or wave, like those scary drinkydrinky birds that bob their heads in and out of a glass as though (but not) drinking the water.
34
Part 2: The Walking Dead
There’s a distinction I’d make between the walking dead and the living dead.
The zombie is the living dead, whereas the automaton is merely a sort
of walking dead. The phrase "walking dead" is a linguistic conundrum, a sequence of
seemingly incompatible words. Dead things don’t (or aren’t supposed to) walk. The
phrase "living dead," on the other hand, is a truly deconstructive utterance, a pairing
of words that appear to be opposites, “living” and “dead,” an upsetting of a distinction
we take for granted, a deep questioning of what it is to die, what it is to be living,
what it is to be human. While none of the zombie films make this distinction
explicitly, it is a useful one for me to make here, a way of distinguishing the sort of
automatons, drones, and not quite dead bodies I am dealing with in this chapter, and
the altogether different (and more voracious) beasts I will turn to in later chapters.
The walking dead, like automatons, also lack agency, but they didn’t cast it aside in
some literal or figurative gesture. The walking dead, a more peculiarly postmodern
animal, were never really alive to begin with.
In this section, I turn to a couple of more recent texts, Don DeLillo’s White
Noise and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, both books that ask questions about what it
is to be human, both books about what has been lost for us in the postmodern era,
both books about our fundamental need, as postmodern humans, to shop. Shopping
in these texts, like eating in my previous examples, is a metaphor for consumption,
our desire (and need) as humans to devour and be devoured by culture. The workers
in Metropolis are devoured by machines; in White Noise and The Road the human
35
characters are devoured by superstores. And it isn’t that we have always, as a species,
been shoppers, not that we climbed out of the muck and into a Target. But it is in our
nature to shop; this is what we have evolved into, what we are born (and bred) into.
Babies are an industry in our culture, and not only because silly adults will buy
anything for their babies, but because silly babies will learn anything from their silly
parents. It is exactly that babies do climb out of the wombs and into a Target. And
this we call “living,” but for all its sparkle and bustle, there is nothing actually lively
about shopping.
White Noise (1985)
DeLillo peppers White Noise with numerous and frequent scenes at the
supermarket, bookending the novel with two particularly poignant examples of the
physical and psychic damage shopping has wrought upon the human race. This first
example illustrates the way that children are inculcated into the divine rite of
shopping:7
Steffie took my hand and we walked past the fruit bins, an area that
extended about forty-five yards along one wall. The bins were arranged
diagonally and backed by mirrors that people accidentally punched when
reaching for fruit in the upper rows . . . Apples and lemons tumbled in
twos and threes to the floor when someone took a fruit from certain places
in the stacked array. There were six kinds of apples, there were exotic
melons in several pastels. Everything seemed to be in season, sprayed,
burnished, bright. People tore filmy bags off racks and tried to figure out
which end opened. I realized the place was awash in noise. The toneless
systems, the jangle and skid of carts, the loudspeaker and coffee-making
machines, the cries of children. And over it all, or under it all, a dull and
7
Except that it is us who have wrought shopping upon ourselves.
36
unlocatable roar, as of some form of swarming life just outside the range
of human apprehension. (36)
This moment begins with the image of Steffie taking her father’s hand, as though
afraid to peruse the produce aisle alone, but also because the supermarket allows for
an intimacy, a reminder of the domestic, the day-to-day goings-on of a family. When
my cat feels safe and loved, she kneads my belly, reminded of her mama, her birth;
the act of milking, even without the milk, has become its own reward for her, a
habituated and self-gratifying act. Steffie grabs her father’s hand for much the same
reason, because in some important way, the supermarket is where she was born,
where their relationship was born, somewhere between the diaper packs and the baby
food, the cheap plastic utensils and the generic food aisle. Together, they don’t shop.
They stand as witnesses, marveling at the curious circus before them. The act of
shopping itself, even without the paper-bagged booty, has become a comfort to them,
to us--its own reward.
White Noise is a book about the complexities of American life, the ways that
basic human interactions are being overpowered by machines, photographs, credit
cards, the nightly news, etc. It isn’t that we’re not having conversations anymore, or
even that our conversations lack substance, but rather that those conversations have
become so overwhelmed by substance--random, haphazard substance--that they fail
to register. We hear words, and we understand what they mean, but we can no longer
put them together in any coherent way. The tone of the book is one of dull and
constant dread, an endless and exhausting drone. It’s rightly described by many
critics as “gothic,” but DeLillo doesn’t scare his reader to death; he bores them to
37
death. Again, this is not because nothing happens, but because too much does. Event
follows upon event, conversation upon conversation, one seeming epiphany after
another, but too much for us to reasonably process, like Chinese water torture, slowly
beating us into submission and indifference. In the novel, the supermarket becomes a
metaphoric place where these themes unfold, the center all of its characters are drawn
to and controlled by.
The supermarket also seems the place in DeLillo’s work where the horror
originates from, a replicating machine, turning its denizens into good little husbands,
good little wives, good little families, good little shoppers. This same thing is
satirized in the final scene of Brian Forbes’s film version of The Stepford Wives
(1975), where we see unveiled in the aisles of the supermarket the transformation of
main character Joanna Eberhart from feisty, feminist photographer to prim, perfectlystyled, shopping-cart-weilding housewife/sex-robot. In the last moment of the film,
Joanna becomes a simulacrum. The film’s narrative suggests she has been replaced
by a robot double, but the moment can also be read as a metaphoric transformation
from a real, flesh-and-blood woman into an empty, mechanical reproduction of what
culture expects a woman to be.
Baudrillard describes the simulacrum as a “machine” (343), a figuration that
recalls Benjamin’s argument in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical
Reproduction.” Copies are made by machines, but ultimately become machines
themselves. The photographer frames reality, the camera produces a photograph, and
the printer reproduces it again and again until eventually the photograph becomes
38
entirely dissociated from the reality which it supposedly resembles. This is when
Benjamin would say that the “aura” is lost. Then, other cameras (and by extension
other photographers, although they are irrelevant at this point) capture the world in a
way that imitates the original photograph, and we attempt to fashion ourselves in a
way that imitates this parade of images. And, voila, a culture of the image is born, or
what Terry Castle calls the insistent “desire for more compelling illusions” (151). All
of this can be traced back not to a specific photographer, not to a specific encounter
with the image, but to a specific camera, a specific printer, a means of dissemination,
a swarm not of people but of images and image-machines. For Baudrillard, this is
cause for dismay. It is, what he calls, “deterrence” (373); now, reality itself is
deterred, for the image fragments reality to the point that reality actually begins to
dissolve under the weight of the simulacrum--rather, the illusion of weight, for the
simulacrum has no actual weight.
This is what I see at work in the final moment of The Stepford Wives and in
the shopping excursions in DeLillo’s novel, the simulacrum at its finest, instilling
awe, fascination, and disappointment. I find myself both amused and disturbed when
DeLillo writes, “The bins were arranged diagonally and backed by mirrors that
people accidentally punched when reaching for fruit in the upper rows.” This is a
situation I can imagine, one I’ve experienced myself, the almost frenzied search for
the perfect lemon, the one just out of reach, always evasive. I’ve seen it in images,
glistening with little round beads of moisture, Crayola yellow, with two green leaves
sprouting gleefully from the top. It glows, shines even, as though I could check my
39
reflection in it. I want this lemon. I’ve seen it in magazine ads. And in meticulously
arranged center-pieces. I’ve watched it cut and peeled in movies and commercials. I
give a lecture in my literature classes about simulacrum, and each year, I talk longer
and longer about a coveted picture I tote around of a lemon from an Absolut ad. My
students stare in bewilderment and giggle at my fond affection for the image. I ask,
“have you ever seen this lemon?” I’ve dug through bin after bin in the produce aisle,
searching for it, only to end up staring aimlessly, dissatisfied with the hundreds of
inferior choices before me. The simulacrum not only stands in for the original, but
replaces it, annihilates it. It’s not that I don’t want other lemons but that all other
lemons fail to be lemons in the face of my fantasy of this one almighty lemon. For
the characters in White Noise, the act of shopping brings an utter skull-crushing, lifenegating apathy, all of human pursuit reduced to one failed supermarket choice.
DeLillo writes of the supermarket,
‘This place recharges us spiritually, it prepares us, it’s a gateway or
pathway. Look how bright. It’s full of psychic data . . . Everything is
concealed in symbolism, hidden by veils of mystery and layers of cultural
material. But it is psychic data, absolutely. The large doors slide open,
they close unbidden. Energy waves, incident radiation. All the letters and
numbers are here, all the colors of the spectrum, all the voices and sounds,
all the code words and ceremonial phrases. It is just a question of
deciphering, rearranging, peeling off the layers of unspeakability. Not that
we would want to, not that any useful purpose would be served.’ (38)
DeLillo presents us with the image of a supermarket that has intrinsic value but no
instrumental value, suggesting that we shop not to buy things but for the sake of
shopping alone. The place DeLillo describes is a breeding ground for simulacra,
simultaneously the place we find ourselves and the place where our humanity goes to
40
die.8 There is a certain aura that draws us there, and specific stores understand better
than others how exactly to create and manipulate their aura. When I walk into a
Target, the first thing I notice is the smell, scented air piped in, a cross between baby
powder, window cleaner, and sugar cookies. I feel the immediate urge to eat, clean,
and procreate, but first I wander aimlessly transfixed by the seemingly random
epiphanies laid out before me, objects I never knew I had to have. The Apple store
feels like heaven when I step inside, white light emanating from every surface and
corner, and the various products displayed on altars like divine little idols. We don’t
shop at the Apple store. We worship. We covet.
DeLillo’s phrase “peeling off the layers of unspeakability” suggests there is
something beyond immediate comprehension about this experience, something about
shopping that requires “deciphering.” The word “peeling” cleverly refers back to the
image of lemons and other produce that began this scene and the fruitless search for
the perfect representative of some ideal fruit. I’m particularly struck by the sudden
interruption of the phrase, a sentence unto itself, “Energy waves, incident radiation.”
This resembles the various lists DeLillo includes throughout the novel, lists of
products, cultural objects, and company names, which interrupt the narrative at
sudden and unexpected moments. My favorite of these moments occurs during a
8
George Ritzer has coined the term “McDonaldization” to describe “the process by which the
principles of the fast-food restaurant are coming to dominate more and more sectors of American
society as well as of the rest of the world . . . McDonaldization has shown every sign of being an
inexorable process, sweeping through seemingly impervious institutions and regions of the world” (5).
As described here, consumerism sounds very much like an infestation or plague. Perhaps this is the
cataclysmic event that destroyed the world in The Road. Ritzer goes on to discuss the “paradoxical
relationship between the life of these islands and the death,” the ways that we isolate ourselves on
these little islands of life (the fast food restaurants themselves, as well as the larger macrocosms that
contain them, the cities, neighborhoods, and suburbias) and end up feeling “alienated,” “confined,” and
“ghettoized” (37).
41
drawn-out conversation between Jack and Babette about which of them will die first.
In the midst of their discussion, DeLillo writes, “The emptiness, the sense of cosmic
darkness,” and then in a paragraph all to itself, “MasterCard, Visa, American
Express” (100). There is the suggestion here that these credit card companies are the
harbingers of “emptiness” and “cosmic darkness,” but that reading seems almost too
sensible--and certainly too metonymic for DeLillo’s novel. He is interested in the
juxtaposition of the profound and the mundane, the abstract and the quotidian;
however, this insertion really does come out of nowhere.
Likewise, the “energy waves” and “incident radiation” of the earlier passage
pervade every moment of the novel; the supermarket just happens to be the place they
insert themselves explicitly. The waves DeLillo describes are the same waves
Frankenstein’s monster casts himself into at the end of Mary Shelley’s novel, the
same waves that Ophelia drowns herself in. The supermarket is, at its most basic
level, a primordial place. And the novel is a surfeit of “incident[s]”, “radiat[ed]” out
from this one locale that all the characters circle around. People shop, in DeLillo’s
work, because it brings them home. I’m reminded of the Mervyn’s commercial from
the late 80s with the woman standing outside the store in the wee hours of the
morning, tapping repeatedly on the glass, muttering the words, “open, open, open.”
There was always something charming about the commercial and something creepy
at the same time about the way the woman presses herself just a little too close to the
glass, hands open just a little too wide, fingertips only barely touching. It’s a feeling
I’ve had on road trips where I’ve driven all the way through the night. There’s
42
something comforting about superstores with their extravagant hours--something
comforting about running across an all-night Walmart in a strange town in the dead of
night. One of the characters in Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1979), remarks that the
zombies return to the mall, because it is “familiar.” And the supposedly-living human
characters in the film do too.
DeLillo concludes White Noise with one final scene at the supermarket, where
even though things have shifted dramatically, they’ve remained fundamentally the
same:
The supermarket shelves have been rearranged. It happened one day
without warning. There is agitation and panic in the aisles, dismay in the
faces of older shoppers. They walk in a fragmented trance, stop and go,
clusters of well-dressed figures frozen in the aisles, trying to figure out the
pattern, discern the underlying logic, trying to remember where they’d
seen the Cream of Wheat . . . There is a sense of wandering now, an
aimless and haunted mood, sweet-tempered people taken to the edge.
They scrutinize the small print on the packages, wary of a second level of
betrayal . . . This is the language of waves and radiation, or how the dead
speak to the living. And this is where we wait together, regardless of age,
our carts stocked with brightly colored goods. (325-326)
DeLillo describes a scene not unlike the ones we get in Romero’s Dawn of the Dead,
Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, or a dozen other zombie films, a scene of people
shopping, digging through jars and cans and boxes and bottles in a zombie-like
“trance.” They “stop and go” in “[agitated] clusters,” searching, as zombies do, for
something to fulfill an ambiguous but constant need. The word “wandering,” in
particular, suggests an “aimless” kind of search but one that is, nevertheless, driven
by “panic” and “dismay.” Here, DeLillo carefully juxtaposes words that might
otherwise be in opposition, suggesting that this place, the supermarket, has gone from
43
a place of order and control to one of chaos and play. The characters “wait,” though,
understanding that order will reassert itself--understanding that chaos will give way to
new “patterns” and “logic.” There is a comfort for us in things that shift and then
aright, things that fall away and are pieced back together. We clutch our Prada bags,
our Dyson vacuums, our iPhones, knowing there is safety in these things we carry.
DeLillo understands, in both a literal and figurative way, the importance of “brightly
colored goods” that belie the real and sometimes unfortunate state of things. To be
consumed is, as I have pointed out, to be eaten, but it is also this: to be mesmerized,
caught up, hypnotized by the phosphorescent glow of consumer products, by the
glitter of our Sony, Nokia, and Apple gadgets.
DeLillo calls this glow “the language of waves and radiation,” alluding back
to the earlier passage I discussed, “or how the dead speak to the living.” Here, he
returns to the phrase “waves and radiation.” The key change is his adding the word
“language,” a change that raises an important question: do the walking dead speak?
And, my immediate gut-shot answer: no, they regurgitate. Both automatons and
walking dead, as I’ve figured them here, are glassy-eyed monsters, capable of
reflecting culture but not, by any means, capable of speaking culture, nor proclaiming
themselves (as I will argue the living dead do). They are, instead, out of touch, both
literally and figuratively, incapable of making intimate or meaningful connection.
In Copying Machines: Taking Notes for the Automaton, Catherine Liu offers
an expansive account of the evolution of the automaton as a literary and cultural
figure. Like me, she is interested in points (and metaphors) of resistance, where
44
humans revolt against their machines. She writes, describing the automaton, “If
detachment can be fascinating, the stupidity of the automaton is also hypnotizing,
literally mesmerizing in its idiotic repetition of anthropomorphizing movement” (xi).9
Liu focuses on oppositions and the ability of the automaton to bridge them--the
ability of the automaton to embody contradictions. Likewise, she questions whether
machines are opposed to or analogous to humans. Ultimately, they are both, but it
becomes more constructive for her to think of man and machine as analogues. And
yet, a certain nuance seems lost in her argument. Automatons are machines, but when
we say that men are automatons, we are not saying that men are machines, or even
that men are like machines. Machines are designed with a set function or purpose.
The human automaton is something altogether different from a machine, exactly
without function or purpose, hence DeLillo’s use of the words “wandering” and
“aimless” in his description of supermarket shoppers and the blank, downward stares
of Fritz Lang’s workers (they move on a set path but lack real direction).
When DeLillo writes of the “dead [speaking] to the living,” I would argue that
he’s being ironic. The dead don’t speak to the living. Supermarket aisles don’t speak.
Tabloids don’t speak. Cream of Wheat doesn’t speak. Shoppers don’t speak. They
regurgitate. In fact, postmodernism, as a mode of discourse and as a literary mode, is
more concerned with regurgitating than speaking, granted in an extremely selfconscious sort of way. DeLillo’s book, in particular, is interested in the conversations
we don’t have even as our mouths flap open and closed uttering one seemingly
9
Here, Liu describes the automaton as “stupid,” which seems apt but also dismissive; elsewhere, she
calls them “curious” and “useless” (x). I find her choice of words problematic; even Liu’s own
argument moves well beyond these crude generalizations.
45
articulate sound after another, repeating words we’ve heard before in arrangements
we’ve heard before. His characters have dialogues that begin in one place, cross over
another before landing right back where they started. None of the characters seem as
though they are even on the same planet; they rarely even register their own words.
The Road (2007)
The conversations in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road often have a similar
quality to the ones in DeLillo’s White Noise. McCarthy’s characters also say very
little of significance, each exchange littered with the word “okay,” repeated over and
over until it becomes the book’s mantra. And it isn’t that each instance of the word
takes on a different shade of meaning as often happens when we hear the same word
repeated. Rather, each “okay” functions in just the opposite way in The Road. I find
myself more and more disturbed by the word as the story proceeds--disturbed by its
utter lack of meaning.10 It is a word we use so often in everyday exchanges: how are
you today? I’m okay. The word functions as a placeholder for all the things we dare
not say, a reminder that there is more left unsaid, and it’s a reminder that language so
often fails to communicate anything of value. The dialogue in McCarthy’s novel is
alienating, so rarely constituting any real exchange. It becomes quite possible, even,
10 At one point, the father says to his son, “Okay means okay” (165), a quite second-order moment for
McCarthy, commenting on the ability of language to communicate anything beyond the trite and
arbitrary, not unlike Gertrude Stein famously writing, “A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.”
46
to read the characters of the father and the son as one person, concocting stories and
memories to populate an otherwise unpopulated world.11
Whereas White Noise approaches its subjects in a quintessentially postmodern
way, The Road immediately seems more modernist in its approach and ambitions.
McCarthy’s style in The Road borders on the Hemingway-esque, 12 and the book riffs
on many of the themes T. S. Eliot raises in “The Waste Land,” such as memory,
nostalgia, communication, relationships, the post-apocalypse, time, cultural collapse,
etc. However, McCarthy’s book is ultimately postmodern in the way it handles these
themes and, particularly, in the way it treats issues of the body. The characters in The
Road essentially have no bodies. We never get physical descriptions of either the
father or the boy. Their existences are measured, like the characters in White Noise,
by the contents of their shopping cart. In place of physical descriptions, we get
references, like this one, to the boy’s dwindling frame: “The boy was so thin. He
watched him while he slept. Taut face and hollow eyes. A strange beauty” (102).13
11
While this reading seems somewhat pointless, making the whole book an elaborate ruse, there is
evidence for it in several places. For example, the boy’s mother says to the father, “A person who had
no one would be well advised to cobble together some passable ghost. Breathe it into being and coax it
along with words of love. Offer it each phantom crumb and shield it from harm with your body” (57).
And this (“shield it from harm”) is exactly what the father does for the boy, his son or, perhaps, just
“some passable ghost.”
12
This may be understatement. Aside from its subject matter, I could quite easily mistake a paragraph
from The Road for a paragraph from Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea (1951). I suspect that
McCarthy is paying homage to Hemingway’s work, even though he ultimately upsets any comparison
we might make. There is no solace in nature for McCarthy’s characters, only a constant reminder of
what they’ve lost.
13
There are constant reminders of beauty throughout the book (such as the reference here to the boy’s
“strange beauty”), both beauty in the small surprises of life that pervade the otherwise desolate world
and beauty in the memories that haunt the father (and provide him sustenance) throughout. Even these,
though, begin to fade, and turn to nostalgia, the desire for something never really lost at all--something
you can’t get back because it was never yours in the first place. So, McCarthy offers brief moments of
the hopefulness many modernists struggle for--the sort of hopefulness that turns the literary work itself
into an antidote to the horrors of modern life. I recognize this impulse in McCarthy, but he doesn’t
allow himself to really indulge it. These moments of real “beauty” (however “strange”) are fleeting
and always give way to more entropic--more fatalist--forces.
47
The reference here is not to the boy’s body but to his lack of one--to his slow but
assured emaciation. Later, McCarthy describes the father and son navigating through
the bodies that litter the landscape: “They picked their way among the mummied
figures. The black skin stretched upon the bones and their faces split and shrunken on
their skulls. Like victims of some ghastly envacuuming” (191).
From the outset of McCarthy’s novel, the text is almost devoid of significant
punctuation, just the usual periods and an occasional apostrophe, although not even
these are used with any consistency. The dialogue lacks quotation marks, commas
show up here and there but mostly only in fragmented lists, much like the ones in
White Noise--to the point of seeming like an homage. And there are no more than a
handful of colons and not a single exclamation mark. So, the world McCarthy
imagines is empty, empty of people, empty of cities, empty of society, empty of hope,
and quite literally empty of grammar--of clear organizing principles for its words.
McCarthy uses textured and beautiful words, like “cloven” (24), “sprawled” (177),
and “torsional” (286); however, so often, the words are lined up in order, one falling
atop another in logical sequence, but with nothing to break them up into manageable
chunks. McCarthy imagines paragraphs as though they’re rockslides, burying the
reader beneath a rubble of vivid but incessant prose.
Likewise, there are no chapter breaks in The Road, making for a flurried but
strange reading experience. Both times I’ve read the book from beginning to end, I
found myself unable to stop, not because I “couldn’t put the book down,” so to speak,
but because the book doesn’t give you any convenient places to stop. One set of
48
events blurs into the next, and, without chapter breaks, McCarthy offers the reader no
relief--no sense of satisfactions at the completion of a reading task, however arbitrary.
Thus, any interruption of the narrative proves to be an awkward one. This isn’t
escapist reading; reality, for McCarthy, doesn’t break. And, this is decidedly not a
story of the fantastic, but rather a parable, a story about the world we already live in, a
mundane world, where people have become anonymous.
The Road takes place after the apocalypse which can just as easily be
imagined as now, a wasteland where a new species of (always already dead) human is
emerging. At one point, the boy asks his father, referring to a set of tracks they’ve
discovered, “Who is it?”; to which, the father replies, “I don’t know. Who is
anybody?” (49). Are we meant to take this question seriously, or is it purely
rhetorical, suggesting almost flippantly that we are all no one? A few details here
lead me to believe the former, that this is, in fact, a serious question for McCarthy.
When referring to a body without a person in it (a corpse or a fetus, for example), we
tend to use the pronoun “it.” This is true even when the personhood of the body is
only in doubt (e.g., a common phrase like, “is it alive?”). The use of the pronoun “it,”
then, and the “who is anybody?” that follows suggest that our personhood is in
question for McCarthy--that we are becoming bodies without who-ness. This is
supported by the lack of proper names throughout the book (of both places and
people), just “the man,” “the boy,” and “the road.”14
14 The one character name we do get, “Ely,” ends up being fake, and the few mentions of geographical
places prove frustrating more than anything, failing to provide clear markers to the location of the
events unfolding.
49
In place of idiosyncratic selves, the characters in The Road are left only with
desires, a fact that differentiates them from the automatons in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis,
who are just drones fully unaware of their own bodies and the needs of them. The
father and the boy don’t live, not in any real sense, but they (mostly) want to. They
eat, not out of habit, but because they’re hungry, talk for companionship, and walk to
get somewhere. But, nevertheless, their conversations are empty, and their journey is
pointless. The somewhere they’re walking to doesn’t really exist, and their dreams of
salvation are simulacra. McCarthy writes, “They went on. Treading the dead world
under like rats on a wheel” (273). In lieu of an actual destination, they walk to defy
death, “treading the dead world under,” but they fail to have any measurable effect on
their fate, or the fate of their world, circling endlessly, “like rats on a wheel.” If we
live in this world McCarthy imagines, we do so only as animals, futilely clinging to
some semblance of the people we once were. 15
The Road is, ostensibly, a zombie novel, except the zombies aren’t the
cannibals, or not just the cannibals; the zombies are everyone, everything. The father
and the boy. The world itself, the trees, the moss, the trout, all dead but not gone,
threatening to rise up--to be reborn from their own ashes. These aren’t the zombies
we’re used to, not the teeth gnashing, intestine chomping sort from Romero’s films,
but rather a new breed, an evolutional monster, reasserting itself and reclaiming its
turf in the aftermath of the apocalypse, an apocalypse that happened without our even
registering it. The boy’s mother says to his father: “What in God’s name are you
15 Early on, the boy uses crayons to paint a “facemask with fangs” (14). Later, the man and boy push
their “way out of their den” (99), as though they have become wild animals.
50
talking about? We’re not survivors. We’re the walking dead in a horror film” (55).
They’re not “survivors,” because there was no cataclysmic event for them to survive.
McCarthy never offers any details or clues as to why the world has become desolate
and empty. Our impulse, as readers, is to assume there was some specific happening,
a nuclear exchange, an asteroid collision, or a super-storm caused by global warming.
However, McCarthy makes a very careful choice to not focus on the calamity, the
impetus for the story, because it’s irrelevant. We don’t need to trace the history of our
becoming (or unbecoming) to acknowledge and recognize what we’ve become (or
what has been undone). In a similar fashion, very few of the classic zombie films,
those contemporary with Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead,
attempt to explain the causes of the zombie infestation.16 This allows for (and even
encourages) an allegorical reading that suggests, as I have, that the world of Romero’s
films and of The Road is our world, menaced but fundamentally unchanged.
The following exchange occurs in Romero’s Dawn of the Dead as the
characters stand on a landing overlooking a zombie throng fumbling its way dumbly
through the mall:
Francine: They’re still here.
Stephen: They’re after us. They know we’re still in here.
Peter: They’re just after the place. They don’t know why, they just
remember. Remember that they want to be in here.
Francine: What the hell are they?
Peter: They’re us, that’s all.
16 Even calling it an “infestation” suggests a possible cause, a disease vector, something Romero’s
films do not do.
51
I particularly like the phrase “that’s all,” and the tone it’s delivered with in the film, a
tone of sheer apathy, as though the recognition is hardly a recognition at all,
something we know already. We want stuff. We’re nothing without it. We
conglomerate with groups of others wanting stuff. The mall, where the stuff is kept,
is our mecca. And we’ll want stuff even after we’re dead. Except we already are.
It’s the stuff that kills us. That’s all.
Ironically, in The Road, it’s also the stuff that keeps us alive, that shelters, that
nourishes, that serves as a beacon. Throughout the novel, the man and the boy cling
to their cart as though it were a lifeline, even though it’s rarely filled with anything
more than random odds and ends. And as the man’s health fades toward the end of
the novel, McCarthy describes him having to “lean on the cart” (273) to hold himself
up, as though it and the stuff in it will literally keep him alive. The stuff in the cart
seems, more than anything else, like garbage. But when it’s lost at various moments,
the characters suffer an immeasurable malaise. On the other hand, when they
discover a well-stocked bunker, a “tiny paradise” (150) of truly useful stuff, the father
is desperate to leave almost immediately, because “it’s dangerous” (148), even though
there’s nothing to indicate the bunker is any more dangerous than the wasteland it
shelters them from.
The real reason they leave the bunker is because it doesn’t actually exist.
“Paradise” never does.17 Paradise is something advertisers entice us with to get us to
buy their products. We live for paradise, but our fixation on a particular brand of
17
Baudrillard writes in America, “Santa Barbara is a paradise; Disneyland is a paradise; the U.S. is a
paradise. Paradise is just paradise. Mournful, monotonous, and superficial though it may be, it is
paradise. There is no other” (98).
52
unattainable paradise is exactly what annihilates us. McCarthy writes, “He held the
boy by the hand and they went along the rows of stenciled cartons. Chile, corn, stew,
soup, spaghetti sauce. The richness of a vanished world. Why is this here? the boy
said. Is it real?” (139). The man spends most of his time in the bunker cataloguing
everything, “[going] meticulously through the stores” (142): “Coffee. Ham.
Biscuits” (144), “soap and sponges” (147), “new sweaters and socks” (148). He’s
shopping, but nothing he finds is real; a “vanished world,” which McCarthy calls this
place, can’t be “rich.” The bunker and everything in it is simulacra and offers little
true fulfillment. The man fills their cart at the bunker, but after they leave, they move
on quickly to the next store, a market they discover in the following scene. They
can’t seem to get enough. The fact that they leave the bunker suggests that it isn’t
actual stuff they value but the idea of stuff, just as we (consumers) so often want
something and then buy it only to discover that it fails to live up to our expectations-fails to complete us as the marketers and advertisers would have us believe.18
This sort of futile capitalism, buying for the sake of buying, is parodied in The
Stuff (1986), a horror film where a blob-like substance bubbles up from the earth and
is marketed as a creamy dessert product. The “Stuffies,” the film’s name for the
soulless consumers that eat The Stuff, end up literally hollowed-out, their bodies a
shell for the goo that controls them from the inside. Halloween 3: Season of the
18 McCarthy writes, “They passed through towns that warned people away with messages scrawled on
billboards. The billboards had been whited out with thin coats of paint in order to write on them and
through the paint could be seen a pale palimpsest of advertisements for goods which no longer
existed” (128). It’s telling here that coat after coat of pain fails to cover the advertisements on these
billboards. These images are so ever-present that they have become burned into our retinas-afterimages, like the jingles and slogans that still haunt me from childhood: “Can’t beat it. The feeling
you get from a Coca-Cola Classic. Can’t beat the feeling. Can’t beat the real thing.”
53
Witch offers a similar though ultimately inferior critique of mass-marketing, big
business, and capitalist culture. In the film, a mad scientist decides (for no apparent
reason, hence the film’s inferiority) to use enchanted Halloween masks and deadly
television commercials to murder America’s children so that he can recreate them as
mindless, obedient robots.19 Both films suggest that humans have become mere
vectors for the transmission of commercial products, the makers, transporters, sellers,
buyers, and consumers of goods.
The characters in The Road are haunted by this former life, even the boy, who
wasn’t alive to experience for himself the world as it was. In scenes that read more
menacing than they otherwise would, the father inculcates the boy into the horrors of
materialism by introducing him to the joys of soda and canned goods. And this is the
so-called “surviving” they do, where eating canned pears (140) and peanut butter on
biscuits (145) have been elevated to the status of peak experiences. Like the zombies
in Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, the people in The Road are consumed by the
afterimage of their former lives. They don’t know why they wander the desolate
landscape aimlessly. They just do. And the hollowest experiences must stand in for
the full weight of what they’ve lost. McCarthy writes, “The world soon to be largely
populated by men who would eat your children in front of your eyes and the cities
themselves held by cores of blackened looters who tunneled among the ruins and
crawled from the rubble white of tooth and eye carrying charred and anonymous tins
19
There are references throughout the film to the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956),
including the setting for the film, Santa Mira, the name of the town where the original body snatchers
film is set. Halloween 3’s bleak ending is also a clear homage; the first half of the villain’s plan
succeeds even though he is defeated, and the main character is left shouting futilely into a phone in an
attempt to warn the world of what is coming.
54
of food in nylon nets like shoppers in the commissaries of hell” (181). In lieu of other
stuff to eat, they eat each other. And, like animals, they “crawl” and “tunnel,” moving
on all fours, digging through “rubble” and “ruins,” searching for the beings they once
were and finding them in “anonymous tins of food” they flaunt like trophies. In The
Road, McCarthy imagines a “[commissary] hell,” where the denizens shop--for cans,
for babies, for limbs, for flesh--all to eat, except it isn’t exactly eating they do,
because they’re never nourished.20 The not quite living not quite dead just munch.
Part 3: The Dead Things We Already Are: Pod People, Body
Snatching, and the Horrors of Business as Usual
Body-snatching is the secret exhumation of bodies from a grave or tomb for
the purpose of dissection or anatomical study. 21 Body-snatching is distinct from
grave-robbery, because body-snatchers leave anything of value behind, aside from the
corpse itself. Body-snatchers have also been called “resurrectionists.” Strangely,
before the Anatomy Act of 1832, body-snatching was only a misdemeanor, whereas
grave-robbery was a felony, suggesting that the dead body was, in fact, less valuable
than its trimmings (or, else, this distinction was just a way of condoning what might
have been considered a “necessary evil”). The title of Jack Finney’s The Body
20 At
one point, the man and the boy come across the remains of “a charred human infant headless and
gutted and blackening on the spit” (198). And, elsewhere, we get descriptions of imprisoned amputees
with cauterized limbs, suggesting gruesomely that people are being kept alive so that their limbs can be
eaten one at a time. It’s an ingenious idea, a perfect way to keep the rest of the meat fresh, and the sort
of moment that makes the book’s appearance on Oprah’s Book Club all the more befuddling.
McCarthy clearly isn’t afraid to muck around with our most sacred taboos.
21 In “Alien Invasions by Body Snatchers and Related Creatures,” David Seed writes, “The phrase
‘body snatcher became current in the 1820s when the trade in stolen corpses to supply the medical
profession became rampant” (154).
55
Snatchers (1955) has been changed in recent editions to Invasion of the Body
Snatchers, likely to ally it with the 1956 and 1978 films;22 however, this change
obfuscates a reading of the title that draws comparison between the pod people of the
story and these 19th-century resurrectionists. Both snatch bodies, leaving everything
of value behind; and, while the bodies the pods snatch may not be literally dead, they
are figuratively dead, perambulating about like lifeless automatons, the dead things
we already are.
Returning to an earlier distinction, Pod people, as seen in the various versions
of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, are walking dead, as opposed to living dead.
There is nothing ecstatic or lively about them. They’re drones, automatons, of the
kind we see in the opening scenes of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis or in the satirical “happy
ending” of Bryan Forbes’s The Stepford Wives, where the heroine gets her eyes
gouged out only to have them implanted in her shiny-happy android double. In one
of the very first shots of Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), we see a
picturesque landscape, the bustle of a small town in front of a beautiful mountainous
backdrop. In voiceover, the main character states ominously, “For me it started last
Thursday. In response to an urgent message from my nurse, I hurried home from a
medical convention I’d been attending. At first glance, everything looked the same.
It wasn’t. Something evil had taken possession of the town.” At first, we see the
gateway to a friendly-looking town, people clustered in conversation, workers
shuttling luggage across the platform, a welcoming sign, lush trees in the background,
22 The 1994 film, Abel Ferrara’s Body Snatchers (1993), returns to the original source material for its
title, whereas the 2007 version, Invasion, distances itself from the source material altogether, perhaps
because it diverges almost entirely from the narrative of Finney’s novel.
56
a clear sky, the crisp white glow of the first building our hero encounters upon
stepping off the train. We see business as usual. Business as usual, in all its kind,
unassuming, mundane, empty, vacuous, dead glory.
The voiceover forces us to re-read the image we are seeing on screen:
“Everything looked the same,” but “something evil had taken possession of the
town.” Now, the white of the train station is too white, simulacrum white, a harsh
glow that overwhelms the rest of the frame. The people clustering form a closed,
conspiratorial circle. The work of the porters seems aimless and mechanical. The
train stretches into the distance, bisecting the frame almost perfectly in half,
separating the sterile world of man (the station) from the lively world of nature (the
mountains and trees). The trunks and suitcases, unloaded in assembly-line fashion,
look just large enough to contain the seed pods we see later in the film, and the train
itself is the perfect conduit (or delivery device) for transmitting the pods across the
country. And the interaction Miles has with the porter is polite and customary, though
not exactly friendly. The locale of Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a “perfect” small
town, horrifyingly idyllic. And our demise, the “big bad” in the world of this film, is
business as usual.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers, in all its iterations, is not really an alien
invasion story. Rather, like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, it is about us, now. For
all their moments of the fantastic, these are, ultimately, rather mundane movies--about
ordinary people engaged in otherwise ordinary lives. These are not arctic explorers
on an expedition that encounter three-eyed, tentacled monsters, as in John W.
57
Campbell’s “Who Goes There?” (1948) and the films based on it, Howard Hawks’s
The Thing from Another World (1951) and John Carpenter’s The Thing (1981). There
are no shambling mounds of flesh-dissolving goo, as in The Blob (1958) or its remake
(1988). And the snatched bodies are not ultimately all that menacing, as are the
murderous alien children in Wolf Rilla’s Village of the Damned (1960) and
Carpenter’s remake (1995). While the basic plot and the McCarthy era politics
remain similar, the body snatchers films are ultimately more complicated in their
politics. Like these other films, they acknowledge and reflect a fundamental fear of
the Other, of change, of things alien and unknown. However, even more distinctly,
the body snatchers films reflect a basic fear of our own capacity to be just ordinary,
not monstrous or Other, but exactly ourselves.
This is illustrated quite succinctly in the way that the body snatchers films
approach their depictions of metamorphosis. In Carpenter’s The Thing, the
transformations are feats of special-effects wizardry, with human flesh dissolving into
twisted and grotesque mockeries of human, animal, and plant biology. David Seed
remarks in “Alien Invasions by Body Snatchers and Related Creatures,” “Singular
Identity becomes questioned by duplication with a resultant paranoid fear that the
appearance of familiar benign figures might be masking an inner malignity” (154).
The monsters in Carpenter’s film become exponentially less and less human,
gradually turning their host body inside out and then stretching it to wildly disfigured
proportions. On the other hand, the transformations in the body snatchers films
follow an exactly opposite trajectory. The pod people begin as indistinct, sticky,
58
tentacled masses and slowly turn into exact replicas of their human original. For
example, Jeffrey, the first double we meet in Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body
Snatchers (1978), is a well-coiffed “monster” in a business suit. “I’m fine. I just
have to go to a meeting,” he says. His perfectly veneered outsides don’t mask any
“inner malignity,” as with the monsters in The Thing. Rather, the bodies in
Kaufman’s film are just that, fine, veneers, empty, masking exactly nothing.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
The final shots of Kaufman’s film show the protagonist, Matthew (Donald
Sutherland), going about his life as though none of the events of the film have
happened. As the audience, we are meant to presume that he is performing, going
through the motions of his day, to avoid discovery by the pod people around him.23
In the lab where he works, the lab-coated workers pose themselves in a bored, I’mgetting-things-done sort of way. They operate machinery, but again, it appears that
the machinery operates them. There is a close-up of Elizabeth (Brooke Adams)
slowly rotating her head toward a simmering beaker, reaching for a dial, turning it,
and watching as a motor inside the beaker spins down. Everything moves in an
expected, robotic way, as though the world makes sense again, too much sense. “Life
23 David Seed takes issue with the Kaufman version, referring to its reliance on “pastiche” and its
“formal introversion,” i.e., it knows it’s a film and that’s bad. Following a logic about remakes
outlined by Frederic Jameson, Seed critiques the 1978 film on the grounds that it is aware of the earlier
version and ultimately too self-referential; the movie, for Seed, devolves into “the familiar game of
spot the allusion” (168). I would argue that Kaufman’s film is self-referential because he understands
that this story has been told before and will be told again. He knows that the familiarity of the story is
exactly what makes it scary. There is humor in the film’s nods to its b-movie origins, a look-at-theslimy-little-critters sort of glee. We laugh, and, in a good horror film like this, our laughter comes back
around to bite us in the ass. Our devolving into pod-people is terrifying because we watch it
happening with our silly little grins and do absolutely nothing. After all, it’s just a movie. That’s not
us on the screens. It couldn’t be. Oh. Um. Ugh.
59
goes on,” Kaufman remarks in the DVD director’s commentary, even after the alien
invasion. The workers in the lab don’t look physically like one another, but there is
nothing to distinguish them in their expressions or gestures. When they walk out of
the building later in the scene, there is a sequence of shots that references the workers
returning home to the worker’s city in Lang’s Metropolis, shots about the mechanical
people we’ve become, the mechanical people many of us already were.
Our social alienation is already in place at the outset of Invasion of the Body
Snatchers; the pods merely make it manifest. “There’s something wrong in the city,”
Kaufman says in the director’s commentary, “but there is something wrong in the
city; there’s something wrong in every city, but we, with our optimism, often tend to
overlook it.” Even before the pods appear, we see a sequence of scenes depicting our
failed interactions, our inability to connect with one another, at work, in relationships,
on the street, etc. So, the scenes we see at the end of the film, after the pods have
done their work, are not all that dissimilar from scenes we already saw at the start.
Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead similarly plays with this idea. There are nearly
identical scenes repeated at the opening and close of the film, suggesting that nothing
has changed, that the zombie invasion is irrelevant. Likewise, Kaufman’s Invasion of
the Body Snatchers suggests that we’ve been “snatched” all along, a fact we’ve
overlooked amidst all the scampering.
The film concludes with an iconic image of Matthew standing before the
capitol in San Francisco, where the film is set. He is shot askew from the lower left,
suggesting that the world itself is askew (and this sort of odd angle recurs as a motif
60
throughout the film). Gnarled and barren trees loom ominously in the frame, echoing
embellishments in the architecture of the capitol building behind him. The colors are
cold and muted, unlike the richly saturated color we see elsewhere in the film. He is
approached by Nancy (Veronica Cartwright), looking markedly different from how
we see her in earlier scenes, a savvy businesswoman in white with her hair bound in a
dozen tight coils. Now she is dressed in a red, bohemian-looking frock with her hair
loose, as though she has recently come alive. Red is used intentionally and sparingly
throughout the film: the red axe Matthew uses to sabotage the pod factory, the various
red outfits Elizabeth wears before running about naked as a pod person, the red VW
Bug the pod police pull someone out of at a road block, the red turtleneck David
(Leonard Nimoy) wears before becoming a pod person, and the red garbage-trucks
that collect the wispy, leftover remains of the copied bodies. For Kaufman, the color
represents the vivaciousness lost in the duplication process, the bustle and liveliness
that is replaced by blandness and conformity once the pods have their way with us.
Nancy’s liveliness is incongruous with the scene around her--incongruous with the
patchy grass, the dead trees, the gray pavement--suggesting that anything even
resembling life has been almost entirely weeded out of the world.
Peculiarly, she looks both ways before crossing the street, suggesting that she
isn’t entirely the non-conformist she appears to be. As she gets closer to Matthew, the
unassuming smile on her face morphs into a look of sheer panic. With very little
extraneous movement, Matthew raises his arm, points at her, tilts his head back, and
widens his mouth into a silent scream, given voice by a non-diegetic symphony of
61
screams heard on the soundtrack. For me, Matthew’s scream is the most disturbing
gesture that occurs in the various body snatchers films, a moment of horror the
subsequent films have all attempted unsuccessfully to duplicate. Nancy’s expression
seems to mimic Matthew’s at first, but her gaping mouth is all tongue, as she thrashes
her head back and forth before clutching it tightly in her hands, keeping the sound out
even as she tries to keep herself in. The film ends with a freeze-frame on Matthew’s
face that zooms in quickly upon his mouth as the cacophony continues. His mouth is
an immense, hollow, black maw. He is filled with exactly nothing. The camera
zooms entirely inside his mouth, and once there, the credits begin to roll. We, the
audience, in a dark theater, are consumed by this blackness, eaten figuratively and
literally by this mouth, forced to acknowledge the nothings we already are. The
spread of the pod people is so swift and efficient in these films, because it’s not all
that hard for the pods to copy big sacs of nothing.
Kaufman remarks in the director’s commentary, “[The film is] a metaphor
about humanity being lost, a certain type of person--a certain type of life--that can
vanish or fade away or disappear or become transformed in some way. To some
degree, I think the film that we’ve made has, while not giving answers, has certainly
raised some questions that are really applicable, perhaps more-so now than ever.”
Kaufman clearly understands that his film functions as an allegory, that it isn’t really
about pods and tendrils and alien invasion. The first pod-people in his film include a
dry-cleaner, a floor-polisher, the passengers on a double-decker bus. These are not
your average supermarket check-out stand alien visitors, not wide-eyed or green or
62
dripping or sharp-toothed. They are just average. They are the exact people we
wouldn’t otherwise notice in our day-to-day lives, “a certain type of person” for
Kaufman in 1978. Today, they are everyone, something illustrated in the most recent
version of the film, where the pods are eliminated altogether, suggesting that the
horror/humdrum rises (more literally now) from directly within us. (Appropriately,
one of the first alien-infected drones is a census-taker.)
The Invasion (2007)
Nicole Kidman plays the protagonist in this version, Oliver Hirschbiegel’s The
Invasion, and it is a peculiar and fascinating casting choice. As the film unfolds, she
struggles to maintain her individuality, fighting for her own life and the life of her
son. One by one, the people around her are infected and transformed from the inside
out into cold, passionless automatons, while she remains the stalwart bastion of the
human race. It’s a bizarre development--bizarre that we are put in this position as an
audience of identifying with Kidman as the paragon of humanness and emotional
depth--given the sort of remarks that have been made about the actress again and
again throughout her career, particularly that she is an “ice queen,” a phrase bandied
about so much by the press that it has nearly become a moniker. But I think both
Kidman and Hirschbiegel are aware of the irony of having her represent the last
vestige of our humanity. It draws our attention, all the more, to just how little
humanity is left.
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Roland Barthes writes in “The Face of Garbo,” “Garbo still belongs to that
moment in cinema when capturing the human face still plunged audiences into the
deepest ecstasy, when one literally lost oneself in a human image as one would in a
philtre, when the face represented a kind of absolute state of the flesh, which could be
neither reached nor renounced” (536). Nicole Kidman belongs to an altogether
different moment in cinema, a moment when the human face has become purely
representative, a signifier with no signified. Kidman (and I mean the celebrity here
not the person) has no flesh, at least not any we can ascertain. Barthes continues, “As
a language, Garbo’s singularity was of the order of the concept, that of Audrey
Hepburn is of the order of the substance. The face of Garbo is an Idea, that of
Hepburn, an event” (538). Kidman’s face, on the other hand, is pure simulacrum,
empty of any substance at all. And this isn’t to denigrate her abilities as an actor; in
fact, she delivers an astounding and nuanced performance in The Invasion, but it is
just that, a performance, a character with no real-world referent. And the film seems
entirely conscious of this fact, given the way she is lit, dressed, and styled throughout;
in almost every scene, her face glows to the point of looking almost ceramic, even
when her character has been run ragged. Her face is impervious, a shimmering shell
harboring a deadness inside. And, when she impersonates the pod-people at various
points in the film, it’s a terrifyingly self-conscious gesture, a layered meditation on
the act of performance itself: the dead passing for the living passing for the dead.
I’ve articulated the villain in the Invasion of the Body Snatchers films as
business as usual. Many critics argue that the films are about the loss of individuality
64
and personal agency or the decline of interpersonal relationships and community.24 In
the 1978 film, the psychiatrist David attempts to convince the other characters that
what they’re facing is the decline of relationships, marriages, and the “family unit.”
But I would say that these are already lost from the outset. The supposed alien
menace doesn’t really do or change anything, but rather highlights what is already
becoming evident. There is no self to be lost at the outset of these films, and the
semblance of community is a simulacrum made up of simulated interactions that
amount to little more than a grating politeness. So, the plot is structured, not around a
series of happenings, but around a recognition, a recognition that our interactions are
rote and our agency is a facade. The horror is not that our lives might become empty,
but that the accomplishment of this emptying is already underway and has went
beneath our notice.
Each film version draws upon different moments from Finney’s The Body
Snatchers, and there is enough in the source material for at least a half-dozen more
remakes. It isn’t a particularly poetic book, not well-written at the level of the
sentence, but Finney manages to pack a very pointed cultural critique into an
otherwise straightforward science fiction tale. The book is about just what I have
been describing in my analyses of the various films, the disintegration of our feeling,
sensing selves in post-industrialized, postmodern America. While the novel has been
read as an allegory about McCarthyism and the Red Scare, Finney himself has balked
24 David Seed remarks, “Although the narratives raise questions about human identity, and the nature
of the body, they also have a crucial political dimension in depicting the individual’s estrangement
from a group which becomes transformed into a mindless production line for the pods” (166).
65
at this interpretation.25 And, while I don’t buy Finney’s claim that the novel is “pure
entertainment,” I am not satisfied with a mere political reading either. Rather, I
would argue The Body Snatchers offers a more complex, philosophical exploration of
what it is to be human--what it is to have a body, to be flesh. About halfway through
the book, Becky asks, “Miles, when did all this happen?” To which Miles responds,
“A little at a time . . . We’re just realizing it now; the town’s dying” (123). Later,
Miles refers to the “town dying on its feet” (125) and how we are each living “in the
same kind of grayness as the filthy stuff that formed [us]” (182), alluding to the idea
of the walking dead that I’ve been exploring here. The town is dying, along with the
people in it. Our interactions with one another are ceasing to be meaningful. And, in
response, we keep walking, wading through the gray and feeling nothing.
There is a brief but fascinating shot in The Invasion, in which Carol (Nicole
Kidman) steps onto an escalator. Just previous, all in a sequence that lasts less than a
minute, we see her jump (in high heels and pencil skirt) from a subway car, run
frantically down the subway tracks and up a flight of stairs, find a gun, and then shoot
an orderly turned pod-person in a locker room. (“I have a family,” he says just before
she pulls the trigger.) Continuity in the film is disrupted for a few moments just after
she fires the gun, jumping back and forth through time in a series of rapid cuts that
end with her panicked and breathless at a doorway. Neither we, nor she, has time to
make sense of what has just happened; she flings the door open, shakes her head
slightly, and her face morphs suddenly and fantastically into an expression of bored
25
David Seed quotes from an interview with Finney: “It is not true that my book, The Bodysnatchers
(sic), was intended as an allegory of any kind. When I wrote this book I was not thinking of McCarthy,
or communism, or fascism, or of anything but writing pure entertainment . . . I don’t write allegories.”
66
stoicism. Now, she walks methodically, her lips pursed, posture stiff. Her breath
comes slowly and regularly with an extra breath every few seconds to remind us, the
audience, that she’s still in there. By the time Carol reaches the escalator seconds
later, she’s entirely composed. Her skin looks pale and perfectly smooth, almost like
plastic. Her eyes are fixed and unblinking, the irises an inhuman shade of blue, a
hyperbolic mimicry of the drones the body snatchers have made us into. She rides the
escalator, unwavering, as though she’s done this a hundred thousand times.
And we have. The escalator is a strange beast, monotony in motion, with its
monstrous teeth threatening to suck us under.26 And people on escalators are even
stranger animals, lining up to climb aboard this terrifying contraption, even when
there’s a perfectly good (and usually empty) set of stairs nearby. I’ve found myself in
these lines, like queues at an amusement park, a hushed anticipation as the crowd
fumbles forward, chomping at the bit for a ride that never lives up to the expectations.
There are two types of riders on escalators: the cattle going to slaughter, clutching the
railing for dear life, and the rest of us, ever frustrated in our vain attempt to push past
the cattle. These are not technological marvels. Escalators are wicked, ugly things.
Like the automatons in Lang’s Metropolis, escalators work, circling endlessly, with
very little to show for it, gobbling us up and expelling us out on the other end. The
stairs are faster and less gobbly. But, even so, the escalator has more disciples.
26
The phrase “monotony in motion” is a reference to a line from Finney’s Invasion of the Body
Snatchers: “There’s a fascination about monotony in motion . . . And I stared down at the street for
minute after minute, watching the shifting patterns that over and over almost, but never quite, repeated
themselves . . . It all looked so ordinary” (157).
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Escalators, elevators, ski-lifts, segways, people-movers. The dead walk better with
automation.
- - - - - We keep returning to this story about pod people, remaking Invasion of the
Body Snatchers again and again, in 1956, in 1978, in 1994, in 2007, because we’re
terrified of the continuing erosion of our physicality in the postmodern era. The
typical outgoing message on a cell phone is telling enough: “This is Jesse I’m not
here right now leave me a message,” said at an inhuman clip, jamming the various
syllable together. And, well, I’ve said it, “This is Jesse,” resigning myself to being a
stir of 1s and 0s. But “I’m not here,” as though the “here” actually refers to a place,
and wherever it is, I’m not there. “Leave me a message,” as though my disembodied
voice is “me” and the receptacle for my voicemail somehow stands in for me in my
absence from I’m not sure where. As humans, we are the not quite living not quite
dead, a figure diametrically opposed to the zombie, which is the utterly, ecstatically
living, the utterly, grotesquely dead. Dead flesh with feelings. On the other hand,
we’ve become virtual bodies wandering about in virtual worlds, while our real bodies
stand numbly, bobbing their heads in iPod-induced machine-like flexion.
This sort of mundane, insensate existence is nauseating. Nevertheless, there is
a compulsion when theorists speak of the mundane to recuperate it--to focus on it as
a pathway to the sublime, the wondrous, and the beautiful. 27 I won’t deny that it is
27
Jennifer Anna Gosetti-Ferencei writes in The Ecstatic Quotidian, “Descriptions of ordinary
quotidian life give rise to a delicate fascination with the most ordinary of things. Rather than
approaching the absolute, the sublime, the form of beauty, modern literature embraces the most
available and least lofty objects as perceived and seeks through them the essence of things” (92).
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possible to make this move, but it might not be prudent, and certainly not necessary.
My work has no interest in recuperating the mundane. I am far more interested in the
ecstatic. Sometimes people standing vacantly on an escalator are just that, people
standing vacantly on an escalator. Sometimes dullness isn’t even remotely sublime.
Sometimes it’s just plain dull, like the people the pods make us into, the people many
of us already are, hollow and insubstantial, simply, mutely, pervasively.
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“April is the cruellest month, breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land.”
~ T. S. Eliot, “The Waste Land”
Chapter 2: The Ecstatic Corpse
In America, we have a fascination with what happens to bodies once they’re
dead. In the previous chapter, I tracked our metaphorical deaths in the technological
age, the loss of our agency to the various gadgets we’ve come under the control of,
and the obsolescence of flesh in the virtual worlds where we’ve come to live. This
chapter explores something altogether more literal, the cold hard fact of the corpse
itself and the reactions it elicits: fear, wonder, awe, horror, disgust, and often many of
these simultaneously. One thing is certain: our cadavers are not us. We have
difficulty talking and thinking about them, though, because they look so much like us.
In Stiff: the Curious Lives of Human Cadavers (2003), Mary Roach writes, “It’s the
reason most of us prefer a pork chop to a slice of whole suckling pig. It’s the reason
we say ‘pork’ and ‘beef’ instead of ‘pig’ and ‘cow.’” (21). We don’t have a word for
“human” that objectifies our flesh, that renders us into meat, in quite the same way.
The word “posthuman” does this work but only abstractly, describing a body that
defies the conventional limits of what it is to be human. “Cadaver” describes a
human corpse used for dissection, but it makes a scientific specimen of the body,
rendering the cadaver’s flesh into mere data. The lack of a less cerebral word to
describe our meat makes it difficult to read the human body without simultaneously
reading the human being. Nevertheless, this is exactly what I will attempt to do in
this chapter.
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The human corpse gets taken up differently in each of the primary texts I
analyze. I begin by looking closely at a Cindy Sherman photograph, considering
what happens to flesh when it’s put on film. I then turn to television, a perfect
medium for the dead to inhabit, given that so many consider the medium itself to be
deadening. Specifically, I analyze “The Body,” from the fifth season of Buffy the
Vampire Slayer, in which the corpse becomes a Rorschach test for the many responses
we have to death; I look also at the first and last episodes of Alan Ball’s Six Feet
Under, which highlight our culture’s evolving relationship to bodies, both living and
dead. I conclude on a happier note (written with dead seriousness and also with
tongue planted firmly in cheek) by considering the eventual and ongoing decay and
rot of human flesh. I’ve chosen mostly to address visual texts in this chapter because
of the camera’s peculiar ability to portray the liveliness of dead flesh, while
simultaneously making all flesh dead.
Part 1: What Becomes of Dead Things on Film?
Cindy Sherman’s “Untitled #153” (1985), from her photographic sequence
“Fairy Tales and Disasters,” depicts Sherman’s own body, posed as dead and staring
off vacantly to one side of the frame. The photograph alludes to John Everett
Millais’s “Ophelia” (1852) with Sherman’s body surrounded by thick green moss,
while also alluding to the death of Marion Crane in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho
(1960), which I will touch on briefly in chapter 3. Sherman’s photograph is about the
ways the corpse performs its own deadness and the ways the viewer reacts (becomes
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absorbed in) that performance. As with much of Sherman’s work, this self-portrait
focuses on her face and its strange malleability, leaving her body almost entirely
cropped from the frame. The angle is haphazard, as though the camera has stumbled
upon her corpse, discovered dead off in the woods. And yet, there is something
conversely staged about the entire thing, the way her head tilts slightly to one side,
the way the moss looks almost AstroTurf green, the way her hair delicately frames her
face, and the way her eyes softly stare with that Tyra Banks “smile with your eyes”
kind of glow. The whole concept is laden with irony, a self-portrait of Sherman’s
own dead body, begging the question, who was left to take the picture? In On
Photography, Susan Sontag argues that “all photographs are memento mori,” and that
is exactly what Sherman aims for with this image--a paradoxical gesture, given that it
is herself that Sherman is remembering dead.
The punctum28 in this image, for me, is the small dark seam where Sherman’s
wig meets her forehead. It is a reminder of the artificiality of the image, the
artificiality of death more generally, and the fact that this specific death has been
staged by Sherman. It is exactly a death, for that is its subject, but not really a death
at all, for the corpse is a costume Sherman wears for the camera. Is Sherman’s
photograph, then, merely a novelty, a shrewd bit of performance art, or is there
something transformative at work in the emulsion itself? The hyper-saturation of the
colors in Sherman’s image seems to suggest the latter, as though the emulsion (and
28 Roland Barthes defines “punctum” in Camera Lucida: “It is this element which rises from the scene,
shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces me . . . A photograph’s punctum is that accident which pricks
me (and also bruises me, is poignant to me)” (26-27). It is usually not the obvious subject of the
photograph, which Barthes calls the “studium,” but the strange oddity or distraction that continually
draws our eye. Later, Barthes writes, “The punctum, then, is a kind of subtle beyond--as if the image
launched desire beyond what it permits us to see” (59).
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not just decay) is the degrading force at work on her body, dissolving her even as she
is recreated on film.29 The photograph mortifies its subject by fixing it in time-murders its subject only to bring her back to life, like the Phoenix--a brutal
annihilation followed by a glorious transformation. The photographic medium is
inherently innovative, destroying the subject and creating another in her place (in her
own image, so to speak). In discussing photographs of actual corpses, Roland
Barthes writes in Camera Lucida, “if the photograph . . . becomes horrible, it is
because it certifies, so to speak, that the corpse is alive, as corpse: it is the living
image of a dead thing. For the photograph’s immobility is somehow the result of a
perverse confusion between . . . the Real and the Live” (78-79). Later, he continues,
“pleasure passes through the image: here is the great mutation” (118). Thus, there is
something perverse, erotic, sexual--something revelatory even--about the
transformative powers at work in photography.
In her introduction to Picturing Ourselves: Photography and Autobiography,
Linda Haverty Rugg writes, “the images of sound film are, like the captioned
photographs, completely mute and motionless; it is the manipulation of the cinematic
apparatus that creates the illusion of motion . . . and voice . . . Photographs in
autobiographies perform a similar trick in their association of the author’s ‘voice’ and
‘body’--one might say that the inclusion of photographs envisions a revitalization of
the corpse of the author, a re-membering of the autobiographical self” (21). Haverty
Rugg uses the word “re-membering” instead of “dis-membering.” She calls attention
29 Even in the case of digital photographs, the image itself is flat, just a visual representation of binary
code, lacking any real or tangible dimension.
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to her word’s polyvalency by adding a hyphen between “re” and “membering.” Thus,
to look at (or take) a photograph is both an act of nostalgia and a bringing-the-deadback-to-life, an act at once glorious and horrible.
This passage reminds me of another from Camera Lucida, in which Barthes
refers to “that rather terrible thing which is there in every photograph: the return of
the dead” (9). And later, he says, “photography has something to do with
resurrection” (82). Both writers are talking about the photographic process by which
the self is made Other--the photographic power of annihilation and recreation. Sontag
calls this a “violation” (14).30 And yet, there is something alluring in this for the
writer approaching his death (Barthes), desperate and thus willing to enter into a
vampiric pact. There is something equally alluring for me, looking back at photos of
myself, fascinated with a me that has ceased to be me. And there is something
alluring for Sherman, who has made a career out of fashioning new (and ever more
grotesque) selves for herself on film. Photography is an act of zombification-murdering the subject only to bring it back to life (reanimated/remembered) in
monstrous form.
Haverty Rugg calls this act a “trick”--transformative magic, if you will. If
that’s what it is, then it seems a particularly nasty trick. The photographic image is,
after all, both cannibalized and cannibalizing--the regurgitated flesh of the
30
Sontag writes, “to photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see
themselves, by having knowledge of them they can never have; it turns people into objects that can by
symbolically possessed” (14). The photograph knows something the subject cannot--sees a side of the
subject that the subject cannot--brings something to bear on the subject, so to speak. Sontag’s use of
the word “possessed” here suggests that something slightly demonic is at work. The photographed
subject is an unholy mime, speaking in tongues, a sentence of careful deconstruction. And the
photographer is the ventriloquist, animating them (or, in the case of dead flesh, reanimating them) but
only in a crudely superficial way.
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photographed subject with a nasty set of teeth all its own. Haverty Rugg also makes
reference to feminist approaches to photography and film, where the female viewer
bears masochistic witness to her own objectification (and mutilation). Like a selfportrait, the zombie is the ultimate human simulacrum. Nevertheless, there is
something captivating--something seductively liberating--about visual images (and,
particularly, visual images of ourselves). For all their incessant groaning, there is
something irresistibly charming about zombies--for all their flesh-eating hideousness,
there is something viciously charming. The parched lips and almost-grin on
Sherman’s face concurs, as does the rosy-red of her cheek, made of lumpy and
peeling scales of skin, flushing at the onset of decay. Each element of Sherman’s
image seems to say in chorus, “I make myself dead for pictures only; I will live
again.”
Sherman seems well aware of the long tradition of posing the dead, both in
narrative film (for the purpose of entertainment) and in more documentary modes (for
the purpose of memorialization). In the early history of the photographic process,
images of dead bodies posed for the camera were quite common. The daguerreotype,
created through an obsolete photographic process invented in the early 19th century,
was frequently used to memorialize the dead, especially dead children. The death
portrait, a genre which was not new to the medium of photography, tried to bring the
semblance of life back to the newly dead and stood as a testimony to the grief of
those in mourning. Strangely, these images ultimately acted as a constant reminder,
not of the person’s life, but of their constant and permanent death. Whereas painted
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death portraits usually depicted the person as though they were still alive, these
daguerreotypes immortalized the body more realistically in its state of being newly
dead. For me, these images rarely seem to capture the soul of the subject as intended,
capturing instead their utter vacuity. There is something almost comical about many
of them--a certain charm in the innocent sweetness that comes over dead flesh when it
is dressed up and cast into the role of a marionette puppet. Like the living, the dead
can’t not pose for photographs.
What are photographs of the dead expected to do? Helga Lutz answers this
question with specific reference to the daguerreotype in “Doubly Dead: The Dead
and their Images”: “It is a miniature of a dead body, the attempt to condense the
reality of death into an intimate pocket format. Why? To convert a phenomenon
which refuses representation and comprehension, which defies us to come to terms
with it, into a visual form with at least superficial pretensions to manageability” (37).
Thus, we photograph the dead, because it allows us some semblance of control.
Something we struggle so hard to comprehend becomes quaint and bite-sized.
However, Sherman’s photograph, “Untitled #153,” is not at all quaint or bite-sized,
nor is it portable. In fact, this particular self-portrait is gigantic, the original print
measuring 49 1/2” x 66 3/4.” At this size, death becomes mesmerizing, a shockingly
grandiose spectacle. But, in its obvious hyperbole, Sherman’s work insists that this is
not, in fact, how we actually die. Real death doesn’t come with artfully caked dirt
and a halo of AstroTurf; real death underwhelms.
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Thomas Lynch writes in The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal
Trade, that “rigor mortis [isn’t] all that special. The dead [are] unremarkable in ways
that [are] hard to imagine. Not so the living” (xv). Lynch’s argument here is that
dead flesh is mundane flesh, dull, desaturated, and altogether less ecstatic than live
flesh. Photographs of dead flesh, then, attempt to bring life back to the dead; they
attempt to recreate, using flesh as a medium, what was once ecstatic. Later, Lynch
continues, “the bodies of the newly dead are not debris nor remnant, nor are they
entirely icon or essence. They are, rather, changelings, incubates, hatchlings of a new
reality that bear our names and dates, our image and likenesses . . .” (22). There is a
certain horror in what Lynch describes here, but also something remarkable, as
though newly dead flesh is a vessel for something as yet unknown. The words
“incubates” and “hatchlings” suggest that what is born of dead flesh will be akin to a
wet, matted, baby bird, covered in goo, fumbling and pecking about in a charming,
but alien way. However, the word “changeling” suggests something more sinister, a
spritely (and also somewhat charming) trickster devil, buzzing about, making
mischief, wreaking havoc. The dead body bears our image but it is not us. It
resembles a human, but it is not one, and thus, not subject to the same morals and
values and ethics. Dead bodies do work, but not our work. They enact us, but only
achieve a “likeness.”
And something happens when a dead body poses for a photograph: the rough
edges of its performance start to show. Something altogether more obscene happens
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when a dead body is put into a box and on screen. When a dead body is televised, it
does different work; it smiles for the camera.
Part 2: I’m Not a Dead Body; I Just Play One on TV: Buffy the
Vampire Slayer and the Performativity of the Corpse
Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a series about the dead, what they do, and what is
done to them. For my purposes here, I’m less interested in the fantastic deaths we see
throughout the series--mostly vampires bursting into a puff of dust as they’re staked-and more interested in the way the series depicts the more realistic deaths of its
human characters. The show isn’t afraid to kill off its favorite characters, and it’s not
afraid to let us see (e.g., Buffy in season 1, Jenny Calendar in season 2, Buffy’s mom
and Buffy again in season 5, Tara in season 6, and Anya in season 7). Death is taken
seriously on the show, and when human characters die, they usually don’t come back
(and, when they do, there are disturbing consequences). Series creator Joss Whedon’s
“The Body” (5x16), an episode that has gotten a good deal of praise from both fans
and critics, offers one of the most significant and complicated of these deaths, turning
the corpse into a Rorschach test for the many and varied responses we have to death.
As depicted in this episode, death is shocking, pivotal to the narrative arc of the show,
and permanent.
Buffy is known for challenging the perceived boundaries of the television
medium, and “The Body” is one of the most overtly challenging episodes of the
series, both stylistically (with its long takes and lack of non-diegetic sound) and
narratively. “The Body” almost entirely forgoes monster mayhem to center around
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the discovery of the body of Buffy’s mother, Joyce Summers, freshly dead from a
sudden brain aneurysm. “The Body” is about how we react to death; more
importantly, it’s about what our bodies (the dead ones and the live ones) do in the face
of death. Over the course of the episode, Joyce’s corpse is carefully unzipped and
undressed, its performative registers stripped away to reveal the fundamentally abject
nature of embodiment.
“What are you doing?,” Buffy asks casually upon coming across the body of
her mother splayed out on the living room couch. What the body does is lie there,
staring vacantly at (or, rather, toward) the ceiling. There is nothing haphazard,
though, about how Joyce is positioned. Her head rests lightly upon the arm of the
sofa, her neck long and twisted gently to one side. Her hair is unmussed and frames
her face perfectly, and one arm hangs gracefully off the edge of the couch. This is not
a position she just fell into. The only indication that she is dead is the paleness of her
lips and a slight redness around her eyes. The rest of the frame is just as meticulously
composed, with the couch cushions lined up perfectly, each at a 45-degree angle to
the room, and a tower of pillows stacked in a tapering pinnacle behind her. As Buffy
tentatively approaches her mother, the camera also moves closer in a POV shot, and
Joyce doesn’t look any more dead. She looks pensive, lost in thought, distressed
maybe, but not dead. Her body is posed as though it were still living. Her death is
signified by the expression that slowly comes across Buffy’s face.
“Mom . . .” The inquisitive cock of Buffy’s head is just barely perceptible,
and she blinks as though attempting to fully register what she sees. “Mom . . .”
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There is disbelief now and a stutter as her lips cringe slightly. She blinks her eyes a
second time, punctuating each utterance. “Mommy . . .” Her eyes don’t blink this
time. The camera is unwavering, holding its gaze upon Buffy for another few
seconds before a sudden and jolting cut to black. This time Buffy’s utterance is
punctuated by the cut, suggesting that the blinking of our eyes has imitated or
replaced hers. The fact that we register the death on Buffy’s face rather than on the
dead body itself alludes to the performative nature of death. Put simply, death needs
an audience.
Judith Butler’s notions of performativity are useful for conceptualizing what
I’m discussing here. Butler works (and works and works) to demonstrate the ways
that identity is fundamentally incoherent. And it isn’t just that Butler perceives
identity as incoherent, she wants it incoherent--to the point of revelry. Summarizing
the main points of her argument in “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution,” she
writes,
Gender is in no way a stable identity or locus of agency from which
various acts proceede; rather, it is an identity tenuously constituted in
time--an identity instituted through a stylized repetition of acts.
Further, gender is instituted through the stylization of the body and,
hence, must be understood as the mundane way in which bodily
gestures, movements, and enactments of various kinds constitute the
illusion of an abiding gendered self. (270)
By “acts,” Butler refers not to free actions but to performance (i.e., the actor who acts
or performs a role). For Butler, there are no entirely free subjects--no unified
subjectivities: “One is not simply a body, but, in some very key sense, one does one’s
body . . . It is, however, clearly unfortunate grammar to claim that there is a ‘we’ or
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an ‘I’ that does its body, as if a disembodied agency preceded and directed an
embodied exterior” (272). The agent is created in the process of performing itself-one’s possibilities for embodiment are not “antecedent to the process of embodying
itself” (272). Thus, identity is incoherent, because it is always transitive and always
acted upon (as opposed to acting upon).
While Butler talks specifically about gender, her work is more generally
concerned with the construction of identity. Gender has been the focus of numerous
analyses of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. 31 The fact that Joyce’s body is performing the
role of woman is not lost on Whedon: the demure positioning of her legs, her
perfectly-coiffed hair, the way her clothes drape neatly across her body, and the
smooth sheen of her stockinged feet in the foreground of the shot. Later in the scene,
we see Buffy adjusting her mother’s dress, pulling it down over her thighs, covering
her up before the paramedics arrive. And, while I will deal more centrally with the
topic of gendered bodies elsewhere in this work, I use Butler here to address the
performativity of the corpse, including but not limited to its gendered performativity.
For Butler, we are agents not subjects, and our actions are culturally-scripted
not self-determined: “The act that one does, the act that one performs, is, in a sense,
31
For example, Christina Kover argues in a paper presented at the 2005 “Bring Your Own Subtext”
conference at the University of Huddersfield, “In performing a role that is culturally considered
masculine with a body that is considered both biologically female and feminine, Buffy’s performance
is more than just a mere reinscription of dominant norms of masculinity and femininity. At the same
time that it repeats existing norms of gender, it also recontextualizes them in a parodistic manner and
can thus be considered a subversive repetition of these norms.”
Also, Susan A. Owen writes in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Vampires, Postmodernity, and
Postfeminism,” “The Series reconfigures some of the relations of power in the body rhetorics of horror
and action by relocating narrative agency from masculine to feminine” (30). While I agree with
Owen’s observations about the action genre, I would take issue with her remark here that narrative
agency in the body rhetorics of horror is “relocated” from masculine to feminine. Narrative agency in
horror, particularly in the films Whedon is referencing in Buffy, has almost always been feminine.
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an act that has been going on before one arrived on the scene. Hence, gender is an act
which has been rehearsed, much as a script survives the particular actors who make
use of it, but which requires individual actors in order to be actualized and reproduced
as reality once again” (277). This raises a bit of a question (or paradox), because it
seems that gender both prohibits individual subjectivity (“going on before one arrived
on the scene”) and requires it (“requires individual actors”). Sadly,32 even if there are
subjects of a sort in Butler’s world, they don’t speak their own scripts. Gender, for
Butler, is always already scripted in advance by normative culture. (Rebellion and
revolution might be deemed anti-norms, but they are nevertheless only possible in
opposition to norms and thus also positions constructed by culture.) Butler’s
insistence upon incoherence and fluidity is refreshing, but the seemingly endless
possibilities are closed down, when it is culture (and not the subject) behind the
wheel, so to speak.
My work looks toward a more dynamic self, a more dynamic body--a self that
knows itself to be a self--a body that is constructed and capable of constructing.
While Buffy may be exactly this kind of self, the dead body of her mother is
decidedly not individuated and self-actualized. Rather, Joyce’s body is a cultural
totem, a stand-in for the social conventions that demand a specific narrative of our
deaths. Throughout “The Body,” characters fumble about in their attempts to deal
with death in the “right way,” and the audience is forced into a similar predicament;
we often watch television in groups, on airplanes, in break rooms, at bars, not exactly
32 And I say “sadly” because Butler’s thoughts on this subject don’t leave much room for optimism--in
fact, the relative absence of free will in her account of performativity borders on nihilism. Still, her
work serves as a brilliant point of departure.
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the ideal places for the very visceral reactions (laughter, tears, disgust) that this
particular episode elicits. I didn’t watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer for the first time
until it was released on DVD, so I’ve always been a little disturbed by the idea of this
episode appearing on broadcast TV, exactly because this would strip it of a certain
artfulness and situate it more directly within the realm of the socially normative.
As noted by numerous reviewers and critics, the episode lacks non-diegetic
sound, something that distinguishes it from most other television shows, which
attempt to assault us with sound.33 In this episode, we hear only the sounds of the
world in which Buffy lives: sirens, traffic noise, children playing, and the tick of a
clock. In Why Buffy Matters: The Art of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Rhonda Wilcox
writes that this episode “is as scoreless as most of life, denied the usual emotional
cues of music” (188). However, as Wilcox also observes, it is not true that there is no
non-diegetic sound whatsoever. Immediately after the jarring cut to black I described
earlier we see the show’s title sequence, including its raucous and often thematically
incongruous theme song and a flash of rapidly intercut moments from various
seasons. (The wild action and heroism of these flashes is also incongruous with the
themes of this episode.) Whenever I watch “The Body” on my own or screen it for a
33 According
to Mary Ann Doane in “The Voice in the Cinema: the Articulation of Body and Space,”
the diegesis is “a virtual space constructed by the film” (367). So, non-diegetic sound would be any
sound that occurs outside of this space, such voice-over, musical score, etc. The lack of non-diegetic
sound, then, suggests a closed world, a world that happens entirely on film, and yet the audience is
brought into that world, nevertheless, by the very universal themes that the episode explores. Doane
continues, “The body reconstituted by technology and practices of the cinema is a phantasmatic
body . . . The addition of sound to the cinema introduces the possibility of representing a fuller (and
organically unified) body” (363-364). The lack of non-diegetic sound ultimately draws attention to the
sounds of the body itself, as when we hear Joyce’s ribs break as Buffy attempts to administer CPR.
The absence of music allows Whedon to focus even more attention on the very real diegetic sounds we
hear throughout the episode, something that brings a stark physicality to an otherwise
“phantasmatic” (2-dimensional, transparent, filmic) body.
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classroom of students, I find myself diving for the remote to skip past the title
sequence. It lets the viewer off the hook by allowing him a moment of escape from
the utter realism of Buffy’s reaction to her mother’s death, a reminder that however
real the look and feel of this particular episode, it is still just a story set within a
fantastic world.
During its original broadcast, the episode also included commercials,
something I find difficult to imagine (or stomach). Whedon, though, is acutely aware
of the artifice of his medium, so he uses the commercials as punctuation, having them
work for not against the emotional impact of the episode. The second, third, and
fourth commercial breaks are each followed immediately by a close-up of Joyce’s
increasingly dead body. It’s a very savvy and brutal move on Whedon’s part: cut
from “don’t squeeze the Charmin” to the corpse being zipped up into a body bag,
from “Mentos the freshmaker” to the torso slowly undressed by gloved hands, from
Mervyns and “open, open, open” to Joyce’s blood-splattered face following her
autopsy. The body is a commodity, and Whedon’s episode is crafted for both artistic
and economic viability; however, just as we find ourselves glazing over before the
parade of consumer goods in the commercials, the show returns, and Whedon knocks
us over the head rather impolitely. Live flesh is polite flesh; dead flesh is tactless.
The rude incongruity between the commercials and the image’s of Joyce’s dead flesh
is obligatory (for the network bean counters) but also artistically intentional (for
Whedon).
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Following the first commercial break, we see Joyce being zipped into a body
bag after failed attempts by Buffy and the paramedics to revive her. Joyce’s body lies
horizontally in the frame, staring toward (not at but through) the camera. Her form
disappears into the darkness inside the bag as it is zipped closed from left to right.
We see only the hands of the coroners, the crumpled black fabric of the bag filling the
rest of the frame. The shot evokes the closing of a curtain, framing death as a
theatrical event. We continue to see close-ups of Joyce even after the closing of this
curtain, which suggests that the fact of the body remains even after the bulk of its
performance is over.
The next time we see Joyce’s body, immediately following the third
commercial, she is being undressed on a shiny, silver surgical table, laid bare so to
speak. Her blouse is unbuttoned, and again we see only the hands doing the
unbuttoning. Another set of hands, wielding a very large scissors, cuts through her
camisole, the sound of the cuts exaggerated to the point of seeming almost deafening.
(The cuts are not, in fact, all that loud, but in the absence of other sound, they feel as
though they are.) In the DVD director’s commentary, Whedon speaks of his desire to
depict an “almost obscene physicality--a little more physicality than we necessarily
want or are used to . . . Because death is a physical thing. There is a body. And apart
from the sense of loss that you inevitably feel, there is the fact of the body . . .”
Belying Butler’s notion of performativity, there is, in fact, a subject (or at least
substance) beneath our acts.
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And yet, there’s still something overdetermined about how Whedon depicts
the physical reality of the dead body in this and other scenes. Joyce’s body is indeed
physical, but it is laid out like a piece of fruit at a fruit stand. Whedon works so hard
to make it look real that it fails to be real, like putting tons of styling gunk into our
hair to appear as though we’ve just rolled out of bed. Joyce’s body is staged, a
simulacrum, a sterile version of death that both epitomizes our fears and distracts us
from them. The corpse is indeed obscene, as Whedon observes, but also somewhat
quaint. Death never looks this real. I don’t think the hyperreal quality of these
moments is lost on Whedon.34 So much of the episode is about dressing and
undressing, the clothes we wear, the clothes we don’t wear, our inability to clothe
ourselves appropriately, the removal of clothes from the dead, etc. Whedon
understands that death is a costume.
The shot of the clothes being cut off Joyce’s body is followed by a long scene
in which Willow agonizes over what outfit she should wear to lend support to Buffy
at the hospital.35 But the clothing becomes just a metaphor for how mourners should
(or should not) behave, a question which is raised explicitly by Anya’s reaction to
Joyce’s death in this same scene. Anya asks, “Am I supposed to be changing my
clothes a lot? Is that the helpful thing to do? . . . I don’t understand how this all
happens--how we go through this.” Anya is mystified by death, as these lines of
34
35
For Jean Baudrillard, the hyperreal is “when simulation feels more real than reality itself” (343).
Virginia Woolf writes in Orlando, “Vain trifles as they seem, clothes have, they say, more important
offices than merely to keep us warm. They change our view of the world and the world’s view of
us . . . It is the clothes that wear us and not we them” (187-189). Woolf’s thoughts are quite similar to
Judith Butler’s notions of performativity, where identity becomes a costume put on and taken off like
articles of clothing.
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dialogue illustrate, but she’s even more mystified by the various reactions from the
people around her and the reactions that are expected (or not expected) from her. Our
culture has a script for how we deal with death, a (mostly) unspoken agreement about
how to act and the lines we ought to speak, a script the ex-demon Anya lacks full
access to.
After the last commercial break, we see another image of Joyce’s body. This
time her clothes have been removed entirely, and she is covered by a soft white sheet
(in stark contrast to the hard black plastic of the body bag we see her zipped into
earlier). A spattering of blood on the left side of her face and a pair of hands
removing bloodied latex gloves clue us in to the fact that the body has been autopsied,
none of which is depicted on screen. Again, she is positioned horizontally, laid out
always from left to right with her head staring upward at frame right. These are
meticulously composed, artful shots. This isn’t death as we would see it in life.
Whedon is framing death, not just depicting it. Joyce looks paler and paler, deader
and deader, each time we see her, but her eyes remain open (still looking even if they
don’t see), reminding us that we are spectators. The shot is spot-lit, continuing the
suggestion of performance and theatricality, reminding us that we’re watching a
television show, and the actress is just playing dead. We aren’t let off the hook,
though, as we are by the title sequence I mentioned earlier, just reminded that death
doesn’t feel real to us anymore unless it’s scripted and televised--doesn’t feel real
unless it’s hyperreal.
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We’re also reminded that death is much more comfortable when the fourth
wall of the screen is firmly intact--and when we are seated at a safe distance from it.
The episode threatens to disturb the fourth wall in shots like the many close-ups of
Joyce’s body, where she looms just a little too large in the frame, forcing proximity
and demanding an uncomfortable intimacy. These are open frames (with the cropped
body allowing the eye to drift off the edge of the screen), suggesting a world beyond
the frame that might leak out like the various fluids of the body. We prefer our dead
bodies in closed frames (contained entirely by the screen) at middle distance and,
even better, embalmed in coffins (a literal enclosure as safeguard for the figurative
one).
The final scene of the episode plays even more recklessly with the fourth wall,
offering a televised world with a more than fleeting physicality. As Dawn sneaks
away at the hospital in search of her mother’s body, the mise en scène changes
suddenly, from the sterile, overlit hospital waiting area to the very dark and sinister
corridors leading to the morgue. Dawn steps from a world of impenetrable austerity
(where grief is carefully controlled) to a world of gross, visceral horror. Earlier in the
sequence we see that these two locations are in the same geographical space (i.e., on
the same set), separated only by a long hallway, suggesting that our reactions to death
and the brute fact of it are concomitant, consecutive. What death means can never be
divorced from the reality of the corpse itself. No matter how many layers of
symbolism we cake on, our flesh remains, somewhere deep beneath the
overdetermined figurations. It’s exactly this flesh that Dawn goes off in search of,
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wanting just a glimpse, however momentary, of the root physicality of death. What
lies behind the facade our social customs erect? Or, more importantly for Dawn, is
she (her mother) still in there?
Once in the room with the body, Dawn leans in, reaching for the sheet
covering her mother’s face, but her hand hesitates, and she draws back. She closes
her eyes, furrows her brow, and swallows, then looks again, her head cocked to one
side, as though she’s attempting to see through the sheet. Whedon remarks on the
director’s commentary, “this is something she needs to do, and other people I know
have expressed this need. I need--I can’t quite--but I need to know what it is. I need
to see it.” This is a moment of the abject, which, according to Julia Kristeva,
“simultaneously beseeches and pulverizes the subject” (5). For Kristeva, the abject is
an “impetus,” a “spasm,” a “leap” that also “condemn[s]” and “repulse[s]” like a
“boomerang” (1). It is a paradoxical movement both toward and away from some
object or happening, instilling simultaneous disgust and awe. The abject is not
contained within the thing, but in our very subjective reaction to it. Dawn reaches for
the body because she can’t not, and she pulls away for the exact same reason. The
abject is meditative and inexorable, exactly not performative. Performativity is
compulsory, creating a false self in lieu of a real one. The abject is autonomic,
confirming the self even as it’s obliterated.36 Both performativity and the abject
36 Rob Cover discusses how Buffy treats performative and abject selves in “(Re)Cognising the Body:
Performativity, Embodiment and Abject Selves in Buffy the Vampire Slayer”: “What the series Buffy
demonstrates, then, is an attitude towards the body and embodiment that actively seeks the gaps in the
production of normativity. By showing how figures of the abject are assumed into the performance of
bodily coherence, the series seeks to find new ways in which corporeal integrity can be
represented” (81). Cover recognizes the power of the abject to muddy the shiny veneer of the
performative self.
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depend on the idea of a self, but while the performative self puts on airs, the abject
self breathes and bleeds and dances. Dawn’s desire to know (to feel) is coupled with
an inability to contain a very physical aversion--her horror is not an act (and neither is
ours). The abject is a hypnotic, nauseated, endless dance: propel, stutter, stop, retreat,
repeat. We get the sense that Dawn would be caught in this room, permanently
transfixed, if one of the bodies on a table behind her didn’t rise up and try to eat her.
The sudden appearance of a vampire in this scene has raised quite a bit of
controversy among Buffy fans and critics alike, some arguing that this moment
interrupts the narrative, as though a vampire just happened to walk on set to disturb
an otherwise straightforward dramatic plot. I would argue, though, that the monster
Buffy and Dawn struggle with in this scene is not really a vampire, at least not by any
logic the show has established. He doesn’t resemble any of the other vampires we see
throughout the series, who are usually witty, well-dressed, and relatively healthylooking. The vampire in “The Body” is a personification (or merely an embodiment,
since there’s no person in there) of the gruesome physicality of death. He’s just
death, stripped of its fancy clothes, witty quips, and overdetermination. Wilcox, who
calls the scene a “key moment of fractal resonance” (176), describes this particular
vampire as “not dashing” but living in “mottled, dead flesh” (188). He is as naked as
Joyce and doesn’t speak as the other vampires in the series do. Buffy slays him, not
with a stake, but by cutting off his head with a bone saw, likely the very same
instrument used on Buffy’s mother during her autopsy. It is one of the grosser
vampire deaths in the series, abject in its drawing attention to the permeability of the
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body, and we feel a sense of relief when the vampire explodes into a cloud of dust,
saving us the horror of seeing the messy aftermath of his death.37 I can’t imagine that
watching a saw cut through flesh and bone is all that exciting or pretty. For Buffy, it’s
certainly not as convenient as a routine staking.
Joyce’s body does not have the luxury of turning into a puff of dust, and since
the sheet covering her has conveniently fallen away during the scuffle, Buffy and
Dawn are forced to confront the gritty (not dusty) details of their mother’s dead flesh.
In the episode’s penultimate shot, we see Joyce’s face in the bottom left of the frame,
still looking vacantly upward, toward but not quite at Dawn’s face in the upper right.
Buffy lies on the floor at frame left, slightly out of focus, looking as though she is
being emitted from her mother’s face (a compositional choice that foreshadows the
role Buffy will soon take as surrogate mother to Dawn). Dawn stares, again
perplexed by the fact of the body, somehow both solid and intangible. “Is she cold?”
Dawn’s eyes don’t blink, not once during the minute-long shot. Neither do her
mother’s. “Where’d she go?” This time Dawn doesn’t hesitate. She reaches out her
hand and moves it slowly toward her mom’s face, a gesture that feels all too familiar.
We’ve all been in this particular place, reaching for something that’s gone away,
wondering about the stuff that remains, curious to see whether our hand will pass
right through. The camera cuts to the final shot, a close-up, Dawn’s now
disembodied arm reaching, Joyce’s eyes still unblinking. The fingers never touch,
because they can’t. This moment always fails to live up to our expectations of it,
37 Susan A. Owen writes, “When the vampires are staked by Buffy and her assistants, they desiccate
into powder, leaving no messy residue or unpleasant trace of death and decay” (27).
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never follows the script exactly as it should. Death doesn’t come with exposition that
wraps it in a neat and tidy bow.
“Just before the fingers can touch,” Wilcox writes, “the picture cuts to black;
the episode is over. That unmitigated cut to black--sharp, sudden, silent--is itself a
representation of death. We do not cross the threshold; the final blackness plunges us
into mystery” (189). We blink one last time (the cut to black once again imitating the
action of our own eyes), but this time our eyes don’t open. The screen stays black.
The final cut stands in for our own death, our own annihilation. This act of reaching
and then the sudden cut to black alludes to Kristeva’s notion of the abject, which
“beseeches” and “pulverizes.” Kristeva writes, “It is the human corpse that occasions
the greatest concentration of abjection and fascination” (149). The corpse confirms
us, our existence, our solidity, but it is a reminder that we too will die. Like the figure
of the automaton, there’s no person in there, and not even the semblance of a person.
The body is just a shell, a casing, a pod, and it doesn’t walk. It just lies there. But, in
this, there is something honest, something intensely real, about the corpse. The
automaton shuffles about as though its solid when, in fact, there’s nothing inside. The
corpse doesn’t have to do nearly as much shuffling to prove it’s solid. It just is. And
what’s inside is exactly what’s on the outside, not a person, just flesh.
Part 3: I Want My Dead TV: Death and its Metonyms in Six Feet
Under
The freshly dead are altogether less icky than the embalmed dead, toward
which I now turn my attention. Newly dead bodies, like the ones I discussed in the
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previous section, pose for cameras but they don’t try to convince us they’re
something they’re not. It’s a performance but not a ridiculous one. A good corpse
knows how to play dead, and the interpretive power of the audience is what makes its
performance viable. If a body falls in the woods and there’s no one around to see it,
does it really fall? Not if it’s dead, for death must be read, and we read the corpse as
a text with both literal and figurative dimensions. The embalmed corpse, though, is a
short-circuited signifier. It cannot be read, only misread.
Our fear of death is one of our greatest motivators, and we conjure up new
faces (first through plastic surgery and then through embalming) for ourselves to
avoid death--enduring faces. The fact that these faces don’t actually endure is utterly
lost on us. We make them anyway and pay big bucks for hermetically sealed coffins
that offer us the pleasure of having our body eat itself, rather quickly, from the inside
out. It turns out that anaerobic bacteria, which come as a sort of gift with purchase
when we’re born, really love hermetically sealed coffins. They gobble our body up
tiny bit by tiny bit, and nothing gets in to stop them. Our flesh and skin, no matter
how chemically saturated, are just meat to them. In fact, our body decays faster and
more grotesquely inside of a sealed coffin than it does in an unsealed one. And
embalming delays, but does not even hope to stop, the process. So, the “memory
picture” of the embalmed cadaver is even more ephemeral than the photographic print
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or negative. While the print might hope to last a hundred years before it begins to
dissolve, the cadaver, embalmed or not, will last only a fraction of that.38
The problem with embalmed bodies is twofold: that they are hollow, with
insides that don’t match their outsides, and that they are simulacra, a shiny copy of
the person they once were. In its front-and-centering of this kind of body, the
television show Six Feet Under is not actually about death. The title of the show is
somewhat a misnomer (or, at least, a purely symbolic conceit), for very few bodies
are ever shown going into the ground (the father’s body in the pilot episode being a
rare exception). Despite being lauded by numerous critics for
its supposed unflinching and unabashed examination of death, the show is actually
about everything but death. It’s not about what happens to dead bodies below ground,
but rather what happens to the living people above it. The show fails to look directly
at the body, fails to see the body, seeing instead only the many and various satellites
that revolve around death, death’s metonyms. This isn’t to say that the show fails
altogether; it just fails to be about what it’s about. And our ravenous consumption of
shows that treat death allegorically (such as Six Feet Under or Pushing Daisies or
even CSI) is symptomatic and expressive of our society's unwillingness to look death
directly in its face. Death is something you can see only if you look at it straight on.
So, we don't see dead people on TV. We see merely flesh--cold, punctured,
vacuumed, chemically-treated, shiny, hollow flesh.
38
To be more exact, an unembalmed body lying on the ground outside will be reduced to a skeleton in
two to four weeks; buried, the same body might hope to survive around ten years; and whether the
body is embalmed or not has relatively little effect on these estimates. In fact, all of the following
factors have a greater influence on the length of time it takes for a body to decay: temperature, insect/
carnivore/rodent access, burial depth, trauma (penetrating/crushing), and humidity. (Iserson 384)
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The opening title sequence of Six Feet Under offers a compact summary of
the show’s relationship to death and the dead body. We immediately notice that there
are few corpses on display throughout this sequence. Instead, we see a series of
metaphorical stand-ins for death, an empty sky, a pair of hands pulled apart, the
glistening floor of a hospital, the wobbly wheels of a gurney, assorted jars and
metallic instruments bathed in an eery but serene white light, wilting flowers shot in
time-lapse, coffins, graves, a black-suited torso opening the rear door of a hearse,
faded photographs just out of focus, and the shuffling claws of a raven. Each of these
images alludes to death but really only to the idea of death and the cultural baggage
that surrounds it.
The several shots of actual bodies that we do see in the title sequence are
equally symbolic. The first is of a pair of feet poking out from the edge of a white
sheet. One of the toes is tagged, although the informative side of the label is turned
away, so all we see is a blank, cream-colored card. The punctum in this shot, for me,
is the neatness of the string, lassoed delicately around the big toe of the cadaver,
suggesting something about our culture’s desire for a neat and tidy death.39 The focus
of the shot is not the cadaver--not the feet themselves--but rather the card and string.
We label and archive death, and not just the bodies, but the very fact of death. Six
39 This opening sequence of Six Feet Under is cluttered with symbolism to the point that our noticing
of any particular element becomes entirely subjective. Barthes concept of the punctum is useful here,
because, he argues that the punctum in an image is often different for each individual viewer. He
writes, “I may know better a photograph I remember than one I am looking at . . . In order to see a
photograph well, it is best to look away or close your eyes” (53). The punctum, then, is often an effect
of memory, sometimes only identified after the fact, an afterimage, like the retinal effect of staring at
an image for a long period of time, except that the punctum replaces the retinal effect with an
emotional one. We’re haunted by the punctum in an image, sucker-punched, such that it becomes
unanalyzable. Further, like the corpse itself, the punctum drives us to read only what is around it.
Thus, Barthes writes, “The punctum has, more or less potentially, a power of expansion. This power is
often metonymic” (45).
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Feet Under is a show about our desire to bring order to what is otherwise unordered-to catalogue and abstract our relationship to human remains.
Later in the credit sequence, we see the head of a corpse turned away from the
camera, looking toward a cleanly-tiled white wall in the background. The focal point
of the shot is the woman’s hair, tucked neatly behind her ear, again suggesting that
death needs tidying up. We see only the outline of the face, the chin jutting out from
the long neck, the woman’s eyelashes, and just the tip of her brow. There is the
suggestion of eyes, but we see only the slight indentation where the ocular cavity
meets the cheekbone. This image is in stark contrast to the images of Joyce’s body in
Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where Joyce looks insistently toward the camera, forcing us
to gaze directly at her, never allowing our eyes to wander the frame. The positioning
of this cadaver from Six Feet Under encourages our eyes to move--encourages us to
look away--to see everything but the body--to get lost instead in the tiled-pattern of
the wall, which dominates the frame. In spite of its reputation for depicting death in
all its matter-of-fact glory, Six Feet Under is about figurative and not literal death.
It’s not about what we see when we look at and confront death head on, but rather all
the many and varied things we see as we try to look away. Death makes meaning
metonymically in Six Feet Under; its henchmen do all the difficult signifying work.
Elisabeth Bronfen writes about death’s strange signification in “The Mortality
of Beauty.”40 Her work offers a lens for understanding Alan Ball’s approach in Six
40
This piece was written for the exhibition catalogue of Six Feet Under: Autopsy of Our Relation to the
Dead, an exhibition at the Kunstmuseum Bern in Switzerland focusing on artistic representations of
corpses and death. The exhibition, which brought together art from different continents and cultures,
ran from November of 2006 to January of 2007.
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Feet Under. It isn’t that Ball is afraid to look directly at death, as though it might
sprout snakes and turn him to stone. Rather, he sees death as refractory, resistant to
its own subjectness--its own aboutness. Bronfen writes,
Apodictically put, we know death indexically. We see the dead body
and the scene in which death occurred, but death itself we cannot see.
It is the one certainty we have, but also the one thing we know for
certain that we can’t know. It is something we can expect, something
that imposes itself upon us, but at the same time it is something we
can’t touch. Indeed, death is the one privileged moment of the
absolutely real, of non-semiotic materiality and facticity, pointing as
indexes do, to the mutability and vulnerability of the material body.
(43)
So, Six Feet Under is exactly about the metonymic, not metaphoric, registers of
death. The show traffics not in elaborate metaphors but in the very mundane ways
that the living collide with the dead. Thus, the Fishers live just above their mortuary,
making it quite easy for death and its various offspring to invade their lives: Claire
Fisher drives a hearse; Ruth Fisher works at a flower shop; Nate Fisher Sr. literally
collides with death when he is hit by a bus; and Federico, the mortuary’s “restorative
artist,” keeps a picture of his young (and still living) son on a refrigeration cabinet in
the embalming room right next to before-and-after shots of cadavers; the shots of his
son and the embalmed cadavers are together a collection of his “finest work.” A
direct understanding of death evades us, and so we and the Fishers rally around
metonyms, interested more in what’s next to death than in what death is.
We fail to decipher death in Six Feet Under and in reality, because death lacks
a referent. Death is an abstraction at odds to comprehension. At the exact moment
we understand death, we cease altogether to understand. So, to look death straight on
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is to face the fact of our own deaths, which is exactly what Buffy and Dawn grapple
with in the last shot of “The Body.” Seeing the body and touching the body are
moments of horror and wonder for them--acknowledgments of their own mortality,
something that gets taken up throughout the rest of the fifth season of Buffy the
Vampire Slayer, a season which appropriately ends with Buffy’s own death. The
characters in Six Feet Under, on the other hand, touch the body (copious bodies, in
fact), but not to measure its deadness. They touch the body for just the opposite
reason, to conceal its deadness--from the mourners, from the viewer, and from
themselves. A character like Six Feet Under’s David Fisher isn’t in denial about the
fact that he’ll die; rather, he’s in denial about the fact that he is, for all intents and
purposes, already dead. And so, his covering up the deadness of the dead reinforces
and legitimizes the elaborate social veneer he’s erected for himself.
Like the embalmed cadaver itself, Six Feet Under offers only a superficial
look at death and what death does to us, hiding the messy, difficult subject that death
actually is behind a pretty, palatable veneer. Certainly, much of this is in the service
of a critique of the death industry for its sanitization of death. So, saying Six Feet
Under isn’t about death is a bit of an oversimplification; Six Feet Under recognizes
and satirizes the fact that, in our culture, death isn’t about death anymore. However,
the show ultimately fails in its satirical project; it pokes fun at the death industry, but
ends up colluding with it by also sanitizing and ignoring the brute fact of death.
Mark Lawson writes in the forward to Reading Six Feet Under: TV to Die
For, “Six Feet Under has the nerve to start with a cadaver every week--and one
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despatched with malicious wit” (xx). Unlike Lawson, I’ve never found these
moments to be all that audacious. The deaths that open each episode are clever and,
at times, revolting, but they fail to register for me on a truly emotional level--they fail
to unnerve.41 I’m not so certain that these moments are even meant to disturb. They
seem more like a sardonic amuse-bouche, a small taste of the wry irreverence the
show ultimately serves up.42 But, also like an amuse-bouche, these deaths are often
trifles, a mere wink at the viewer, creating a context for the episode without giving us
any real substance to chew on.
Lucia Rahilly writes in “Sex, Shocks and Stiffs: Six Feet Under and the
Pornography of the Morbid,” that these “prefatory money shots actively subvert
expectations” and “jar the audience into a state of active viewership” (54). But, when
I first saw the show, I didn’t feel drawn in slowly and deliberately over the course of
several episodes. I felt, instead, as though I had been bludgeoned on the head with an
odd-shaped instrument and dragged about the room for an hour before collapsing in a
heap, utterly bewildered as to what I had just seen. I did feel “jarred,” but not into
“active viewership,” as Rahilly argues. Certainly, the show is masterful at the level of
41
More hyperbolically, Emily Nussbaum calls these deaths “cartoonish” and argues that “Six Feet
Under doesn’t wrestle with the moral issues it purports to raise; it just gropes them for a thrill.” While
I agree with the sentiment of Nussbaum’s remark, I’m also amused by the (hopefully self-reflexive)
way that her writing becomes itself groping and cartoonish, even as she indicts Six Feet Under for the
same literary crimes.
42
The first of these deaths, the death of Nathaniel Sr. in the pilot episode, is indicative of the irreverent
tone toward death the show subsequently takes. There are various jokes throughout the scene, some
subtle, others not, but the most funny, perhaps, is the soundtrack that accompanies the scene, Bing
Crosby’s version of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” to which the soon-to-be-smashed-by-a-bus Nate Sr.
sings along. The conceit here is that he will be home for Christmas, except not as his family expects;
he will arrive, instead, in a body bag, and what the Fishers will have to “plan” is his funeral. The lyrics
for the song conclude, “I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams,” and there is a sudden
poignancy to the moment amidst the dark humor, foreshadowing the dreamlike images many of the
characters see of Nathaniel Sr. throughout the series.
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craft, and so it does reward careful attention. There is a level of artistry and detail in
the performances, cinematography, and music that is lacking in the majority of shows
on television. Still, the show has never encouraged, for me, a deep questioning about
its subjects. It merely skims the surface.
In the first episode of the series (2001), during Nate’s identification of his
father’s body, an over-the-shoulder shot conceals the cadaver, so that we see only the
upper half of the face. As with the corpse in the opening title sequence, the head is
turned away from the camera. The scene is almost excruciating in its utter lack of
genuine pathos. The next shot shows Nate’s blank expression as he looks down at his
father, lips barely parted, eyes bored and unblinking, head falling slightly to frame
left. From this view, the face of the father’s body is in the foreground of the shot, but
it remains shadowed and out of focus. The head tilts downward, managing to look
away from both Nate Jr. and the camera. The father says in voiceover, “Well,
well . . . The prodigal returns,” before the camera cuts to reveal him actually in the
room, looking alive and well, hovering over his own corpse. He continues, “this is
what you’ve been running away from your whole life, buddy boy. Scared the crap
out of you when you were growing up, didn’t it? And you thought you’d escape.
Well, guess what? Oh, nobody escapes.” The irony in this line is that Nate Sr. has
escaped. His ghost is, after all, standing in the room, a plot device that continues
throughout the series. Six Feet Under lets its viewers off the hook, because the dead
on the show never stay dead. There is further irony in that, upon hearing these words,
“nobody escapes,” we do escape almost immediately from the fleeting discomfort of
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the scene. Within seconds of Nate Sr.’s proclamation, the body is zipped into a bag
and the camera coyly cuts away to the rest of the Fishers waiting in the hall.
Back at the mortuary, we see the full body on display, but only in the context
of a scene about the restorative powers of embalming. 43 Scenes like this on Six Feet
Under are seldom about the shock of dead flesh, being instead about the utter lack of
shock the body elicits. All manner of conversations and interactions occur in the
bowels of the Fisher and Sons mortuary, usually with a body or bodies lingering in
the corners of the shot, but few of these conversations center around actual death or
dying. The show shies away from death, fast-forwarding to the act of reconstructing
the body as it was in life. There is no coming to grips with the body, as in Buffy the
Vampire Slayer, only the sterile and indifferent dismissal of it. We also don’t get a
sideways glance at death through the reactions of the still living characters. To the
one, the characters on Six Feet Under are a self-involved lot, too concerned with their
own travails to really notice the body in the room, so to speak. And, because of this,
neither do we. Instead, we look away, prompted to turn our gazes elsewhere in the
frame.
Six Feet Under is a soap opera, albeit an extremely intelligent one, that lays
bare a family continuously engaged in the act of dying--both on the inside and out.
It’s not about death, but about the death industry--not about being dead, but about the
ways we die. I find myself on the verge of saying that the primary characters are
dying “metaphoric deaths,” like the automatons in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis or the
43 There is a brief close-up at the outset of this scene centered on the brutalized face of Nathaniel Sr.’s
body, a shot which quickly pulls back to reveal that he is the subject for a polaroid by the Fisher’s
“restorative artist,” Frederico, a photo for his embalming “wall of fame.”
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various Invasion of the Body Snatchers films, but I think this concept of the
metaphoric death is overused and doesn’t do justice to what I see as one of the most
interesting nuances of Six Feet Under. The central characters, Ruth, Brenda, Claire,
Nate, and David, are dying metaphoric deaths by way of alienation, obsolescence,
and sexual frustration, but even more interesting is the show’s emphasis on their
physical vulnerability, the ongoing erosion of their flesh through drug use, old age,
tumors, mental illness, sexual addiction, etc. These are not just metaphoric deaths
they’re dying, but actual, literal, physical deaths.
Our bodies, it seems, have become palindromes; we live, sometimes in
resemblance only, then die, and are made to live again--but in resemblance only. Put
another way, we work at living, only to succeed at dying, and, by the time we’re
embalmed, our bodies look so alive that it’s a shame to put us in the ground. But
while it might appear live, the embalmed corpse is never really lively. It’s
simulacrum, an outside without insides, a copy that bears no real relationship to the
person that once was. In the end, we become the body snatchers, trying to recreate
the person from what is left of their flesh. Lynch writes in The Undertaking, “We
buried Milo in the ground on Wednesday. The mercy is that what we buried there, in
an oak casket, just under the frost line, had ceased to be Milo. Milo had become the
idea of himself, a permanent fixture of the third person and past tense” (13). Our
embalmed bodies aren’t us and don’t even threaten to be us. The funeral industry
calls them “memory pictures,” and this is exactly right. The bodies put on display in
our coffins are pictures, empty, fixed, vacuous pictures, not because we’re dead, but
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because we’ve been made-up to feign life, not unlike 19th-century daguerreotypes of
the dead. And something like plastic surgery, a variation on embalming performed
while we’re still alive, takes us to an even more gruesome place. And, to all of this,
our flesh is witness and, sometimes, victim.
Jessica Mitford paints a rather grisly portrait of the embalming process in a
famous passage from The American Way of Death. Once the blood has been drained
from the cadaver and replaced by embalming fluid,
The next step is to have at Mr. Jones with a thing called a trocar. This
is a long, hollow needle attached to a tube. It is jabbed into the
abdomen and poked around the entrails and chest cavity, the contents
of which are pumped out and replaced with "cavity fluid." This done,
and the hole in the abdomen having been sewn up, Mr. Jones's face is
heavily creamed (to protect the skin from burns which may be caused
by leakage of chemicals), and he is covered with a sheet and left
unmolested for a while. (47)
Mitford’s language captures only a small portion of the horrors of embalming. Her
use of the word “thing” to describe the instrument that pumps out the internal organs
of the cadaver suggests an alienness to the entire endeavor, an alienness made
graphically sexual through words like “jabbed,” “poked,” and “molested.” We must
wonder, is she describing embalming here or some kind of pornographic alien
abduction? She’s clearly interested in how embalming violates the body in both a
metaphorical way (by turning the corpse into a transacted commodity) and in a rudely
physical one. What her story reveals, beyond all else, is the pointlessness of
embalming, the fact that every aspect of the procedure is gratuitous and unnecessary,
a service that ultimately serves only itself. The grieving family pays for the chemical
fluids used to embalm their loved one, only to pay an additional fee for the creams
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that protect the skin from the harsh fluids, none of which will be of much
consequence once the anaerobic bacteria get at the body and start their gobbling.
Thus, Mitford puzzles over our urge to embalm the dead: “No law requires
embalming, no religious doctrine commends it, nor is it dictated by considerations of
health, sanitation, or even of personal daintiness. In no part of the world but in North
America is it widely used. The purpose of embalming is to make the corpse
presentable for viewing in a suitably costly container” (43). Many people mistakenly
believe that the goal or benefit of embalming is to sanitize the body--to reduce the
risk of infection when the body is handled and viewed. The truth, however, is that a
dead body offers a much less hospitable environment than a living one for bacteria,
germs, diseases, and the like. One of the doctors Mitford interviewed remarks
“cheerfully” (a strange but surprisingly common tone to take toward the subject
matter), “There are several advantages to being dead . . . You don’t excrete, inhale,
exhale, or perspire” (57). So, the chances of a communicable disease being passed
from the dead to the living is considerably less than the chances of transmission from
one live person to another. It is odd, then, that we think of our dead bodies as
somehow more filthy or hazardous than our living ones. For Mitford, this is a myth
propagated by the funeral industry to increase their profits. Death is a thriving (and
recession-proof) commercial enterprise, and embalming has an attractive profit
margin. The “funeral director,” who prefers this moniker to the much less genial
terms “undertaker” or “embalmer,” is selling death to his clients, a tidy, refined, and
dignified death, or so the sales pitch goes.
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Ultimately, what the undertaker’s sales pitch comes down to is a shrewd
manipulation of death’s lexical registers. Death is a linguistically problematic, and
therefore malleable, concept. Mitford offers a rather long discussion in her book
about the various ways language has come to distort our view and experience of
death:
It is in the function of directing the participants through this maze of
gadgetry that the funeral director has assigned to himself his relatively
new role of ‘grief therapist.’ He has relieved the family of every
detail, he has revamped the corpse to look like a living doll, he has
arranged for it to nap for a few days in a slumber room, he has put on a
well-oiled performance in which the concept of death has played no
part whatsoever--unless it was inconsiderately mentioned by the
clergyman who conducted the religious service. He has done
everything in his power to make the funeral a real pleasure for
everybody concerned. He and his team have given their all to score an
upset victory over death” (51).
Mitford goes on to highlight several more words that have been systematically
obliterated from the undertaker’s vocabulary: The word “death” has been altogether
removed; “body” and “corpse” have been replaced by the less indecorous “remains”;
“funeral” is now “service”; the remains are “transferred” not “carried” or “hauled”;
this is done in a “coach” or “service car” rather than a “hearse”; and, finally, the
remains are “interred” not “buried.” And this lexical manipulation continues through
at least several dozen more examples, many of which become almost laughable
through the monotony of Mitford’s dryly satirical account.
These linguistic contortions strip the meaningfulness from death, further
confounding an already fractious concept. The fact that the body has also been
literally hollowed out through the process of embalming makes the tradition of an
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open-casket funeral all the more bewildering. This tradition (a peculiarly American
one, as Mitford points out) is, supposedly, designed to offer those left behind a chance
to make peace with the death by viewing the body--designed to allow us the
opportunity to say goodbye to our recently dead kin. But what exactly is left for us to
say goodbye to? What I remember of the open-casket funerals I’ve attended is
standing over the coffin puzzling over how utterly alien the body appeared. The color
of the skin wasn’t right, the clothes weren’t appropriate, the expression seemed
forced. At the second viewing I attended, the first where a person my own age had
died, I remember thinking how beautiful the girl’s body looked, but I also remember
thinking that it just wasn’t her, something I haven’t been able to reconcile to this day.
Attending an open-casket funeral is weird enough. Seeing one on TV, as in
the pilot of Six Feet Under, adds a whole other layer of weirdness. These bodies
don’t rot, not because they’re embalmed but because they’re on screen and only on
screen. Like the polished, glowing skin of the embalmed dead, the screen is a veneer,
and particularly the television screen with its glossy, reflective finish. Whereas the
film medium is often captivating, creating a world for the viewer to lose herself in,
the medium of television makes this sort of complete immersion into its world more
difficult to achieve. The film screen is matte, but when we look at the glossy screen
of a television, we see both the image it contains and our own selves reflected back.
When we watch a film in a theatre, the room is dark, the screen fills our field of
vision, our attention is rapt; however, when we watch a television, the screen is
smaller, swallowed by the clutter of our lives, and so our attention is unfocused,
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divided. What do these differences suggest about each of these media and their
ability to depict death?
The question is moot, because real death doesn’t come in glossy or matte.
While the undertaker might have us believe otherwise, this is not a choice we actually
get to make. Lucia Rahilly writes in “Sex, Shocks and Stiffs: Six Feet Under and the
Pornography of the Morbid,” “Mesmerizing in its claims to verisimilitude, the image
of the corpse can prove unsettling in its relationship to ‘truth,’ the pinnacle of the
cultural emphasis on the body as semiotic surface” (52). Both the embalmed body
and the film/television screen are simulacra; they are, like the Möbius strip, all
surface with no depth.
In its focus on simulacra, Six Feet Under illustrates one of the more salient
features of the television medium and the feature that has led critics to refer to
television as “the quintessence of postmodern culture.”44 Television is hooked on
images, an incessant deluge of hollow, overdetermined, rapidly juxtaposed, pleading,
violent, sometimes random, often deadening images. Jim Collins writes in
“Television and Postmodernism,”
44
Jim Collins’s argument in “Television and Postmodernism” hinges upon this connection: “The
development of some kind of working relationship between television and postmodernism within the
realm of critical studies is inevitable, almost impossible, and absolutely necessary. Inevitable, because
television is frequently referred to as the quintessence of postmodern culture, and postmodernism is
just as frequently written off as mere ‘television culture.’ Close to impossible, because of the
variability of both television and postmodernism as critical objects, both are currently undergoing
widespread theorization in which there are few, if any, commonly agreed-upon first principles.
Necessary, because that very lack, the absence of inherited critical baggage, places television studies in
a unique position vis-a-vis postmodernism” (758). Of particular note to me is Collins’s mention of the
ways this connection has been used to “write off” both television and postmodernism. It is my view
that the predominance of the image in our culture makes it foolhardy, and at the very least ill-advised,
to write off either television or postmodernism. We are confronted by screens at nearly every turn, and
the situation is all the worse for the fact that what is on these screens is often influencing us on a purely
unconscious level. Whereas I am arguing that the meaning of death is constructed by the viewer,
television’s meaning is often imposed upon the viewer. So, to write off television is to put one even
more at risk to its various trappings.
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One of the key preconditions of the postmodern condition is the
proliferation of signs and their endless circulation, generated by the
technological developments associated with the information
explosion . . . Many critics on both the left and the right insist that
television is likewise instrumental in the devaluation of meaning--the
reduction of all meaningful activity to mere ‘non-sense’, to a limitless
televisual universe that has taken the place of the real. (759-760)45
I would argue, though, that television’s images are “deadening” not because they are
empty of meaning, as many critics like Collins observe, but because they are
hypersaturated with meaning. It’s not that television shows us nothing; rather, it
shows us too much, lulling us into submission before a parade of discordant jumps
from fictional death to news reports of real death to reality shows that simulate death,
all interspersed with ads for products that purport to defy death. Many of these
images blur together, because the news is shot and edited like a series of
commercials, while the commercials are produced to resemble programming.46 And,
increasingly, episodes of many prime-time shows are shot like feature films in an
attempt to distinguish themselves, usually to no avail. Much of Six Feet Under is
shot in just this fashion. In fact, Alan Ball, the show’s creator, was made famous by
his Oscar-winning script for American Beauty, a film which he credits as inspiration
for some of his directorial choices in Six Feet Under’s pilot. Nevertheless, the show
45 Susan Sontag offers a similar thesis in On Photography: “Television is a stream of underselected
images, each of which cancels its predecessor” (18).
46 It’s as though television is simultaneously made by automatons and makes its viewers into
automatons. We make it dead and then it makes us dead. Television shows are often produced in an
assembly-line fashion (as are the TVs on which they’re displayed), and we watch one show after
another, flipping channels in an endless loop that is usually too rapid for normal comprehension. The
medium’s strange collision of images becomes the backdrop of our lives (except, in this case, it’s more
of a frontdrop). Jesus says, “let the dead bury the dead,” and that’s exactly what we do.
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is acutely aware that it’s television,47 aware that its viewers, often engaged in several
things at once, are not necessarily looking at their TVs straight on.48 Thus, Six Feet
Under serves up death obliquely.
In the final episode of Six Feet Under (2005), which I will soon take up more
carefully, Ruth stares blankly at the television. “What’re you watching?” Claire asks,
to which Ruth responds, “I don’t know; it’s always on.” Claire is herself framed by
an opening between the kitchen and living room, reminding us that we are also
watching her on a television. It’s a biting critique of television and a moment of coy
self-referentiality. Alan Ball knows the limits of his medium, and he knows its power.
We watch, because we’re compelled to, because we can’t not, and we come to expect
a certain conformity, a certain consistency in what the television offers. The most
successful American shows, CSI and American Idol, are rigorously formulaic. But
the best shows know exactly how and when to upset these formulas.
After beginning each of its first 62 episodes with a death--sometimes
poignant, mostly kitschy--the 63rd and final episode of Six Feet Under, begins instead
with a birth. The reversal is almost too perfect, too predictable, as though Alan Ball
had planned for this ending from the very first episode. The birth of Brenda’s child,
47
The first episode even includes faux-commercials, missing from subsequent episodes probably
because the show’s writers wouldn’t have been able to sustain the gag over many seasons. These
moments in the pilot draw attention to the relationship between television and death as commercial
enterprises, something the show does continue to explore in subtler ways throughout its episodes. Jim
Collins writes, “If television is defined by its semiotic complexity, its intertextuality, and its
eclecticism, it is also just as surely defined by its all-pervasive appeals to consumerism” (766).
48
Patrice Petro writes in “Mass Culture and the Feminine: The ‘Place’ of Television in Film Studies,”
“As many theorists have pointed out, when viewing a film, the spectator centers attention on the
screen, becoming absorbed in the narrative and with the characters. When watching television,
however, viewing seems to be marked by discontinuous attention, by the spectator’s participation in
several activities at once in which televiewing may not even rank as third in importance” (577-578).
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as with most of the major narrative developments on the show, is fraught with
ridiculously elaborate, soap-operatic melodrama. Of course, the delivery doesn’t go
smoothly. At one point, doctors bustle around as though we’ve suddenly been
transported into a rather daunting episode of ER. “Why isn’t [my baby] crying?,”
Brenda expels between gasps for air, eyes darting about the room frantically, her face
frighteningly pale. Brenda’s breath, which remains quite audible on the soundtrack
throughout the scene, is juxtaposed with the sound of air being artificially pumped
into the impossibly tiny and purple baby. Meanwhile, Ruth, now a grandmother,
clutches her daughter-in-law’s hand tightly, her eyes closing in exhaustion and
despair. Like the opening sequences for the 62 episodes before this one, the scene is
too colorful and over-the-top to be moving on an emotional level (at least for this
viewer). However, it’s not where this episode begins that I’m interested in, but rather
where it ends. One of the taglines for the fifth and final season of Six Feet Under
neatly sums up the series’ trajectory: “everything, everyone, everywhere ends.”
By the time we get to the final episode, the characters are no more
emotionally together than when the show began, with the exception of Claire, whom I
will address shortly. They still bicker incessantly. Ruth still flails about manically in
her grief. Brenda’s family is still seriously dysfunctional. And even Nate’s ghost gets
in on the action, sadistically tormenting Brenda during the final episode. Throughout
its run, the show has been about how we survive death, literal death, figurative death,
the deaths of loved ones, and our own deaths. However, in its final throes, the show
becomes less about how we cope with death--how we look past rather than through
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it--and more about how death becomes us and we become it. Death has crept up from
the Fisher’s basement and taken up residence in their living room. The characters no
longer survive death; they embody it. And, even though most of them find at least
some small redemption over the course of the final 60 minutes, we understand that
nothing really changes for the characters (60 minutes isn’t nearly enough time for
that). It’s us (the viewers) that change, giving up on our hopes and expectations for
these stories, finally knowing that these are holes (graves) that none of them can dig
their way out of. Except Claire.
Claire, the youngest of the Fishers, now a photographer and surrogate for the
director, comes to represent the ways we escape death even as we acknowledge just
what it has made us into. She doesn’t escape death by painting her face, or by
layering on assorted creams and putties, or by having her organs vacuumed out, or by
having chemicals pumped into her veins. She doesn’t escape death by disavowing it,
or sanitizing it, or by forgetting. She drives away, but not away from death. She
escapes by driving toward it. As the family says their goodbyes just before she starts
her journey, their exchange sounds like the sort of exchange we have before someone
dies of a terminal illness: “I have no idea how to do this,” says Claire. “You just say
‘goodbye,’” responds her brother. Then, he adds, with an out-of-character wisdom
and words that don’t sound like his own, “You just say, ‘I love you, I’ll miss you.’”
Later in the scene, Claire pulls out her camera. “Oh, I want to take a picture of
everyone.” Nate’s ghost appears over her shoulder and whispers in her ear, “you
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can’t take a picture of this; it’s already gone,” and these are the last spoken lines of
the series (aside from a few barely heard lines in the flash-forwards that follow).
As Claire drives, we watch a series of death sequences, like the ones that
begin each of the previous episodes, except these ones are not kitschy in the least.
Each character dies in turn with Claire dying last, 102 years old, her eyes
acknowledging the camera, and a smile on her face. Then, there are two shots, before
the show’s final fade (this last one a fade-to-white rather than a fade-to-black): The
young Claire looks directly into the camera, directly at death, a gesture in stark
contrast to the frequent looking away from death I’ve observed throughout the series.
Her face glows a rosy, healthy pink, tiny wrinkles (newly formed on the actress over
the course of the show’s run) line the undersides of her eyes, and there is a light
reflecting in her eye. The light is almost exactly the shape of a television screen, as
though she’s watching what we’ve just seen, a title card in memoriam, like the many
others we’ve seen on Six Feet Under, with clean black letters on a white background:
“Claire Simone Fisher, 1983-2085.” In her acknowledgment of the camera, of the
television screen, she acknowledges what it has made of her. And, like Ophelia in
Hamlet, who steps out of the world of the court and into the world of nature, Claire
looks away, but not in fear or disgust. She makes a choice to accept the fact of her
death, her real death, and to turn away from the manufactured deaths her family has
been selling.
The last shot of the series shows Claire driving away and into a seemingly
barren landscape. The sky is hazy but bright. The camera glides majestically behind
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her, but it can’t keep up. Her shiny blue Prius gets smaller and smaller until, finally,
the camera tilts upward, and the frame is consumed entirely by sky. There are pieces
of Claire’s story that we will never know. She leaves the world of the show and
accepts whatever fate this landscape offers her. Even death has got to end. But that’s
only just the beginning . . .
Part 4: The Rotting Dead and Matter that Teems
I’ve frequently found myself in conversations with my students about what we
want done with our bodies after we die. Some say they want to be cremated and have
charming stories about fancy little urns and the dusty contents that spill from them.
Cremation became extremely popular after the publication of Jessica Mitford’s The
American Way of Death in 1963. The book is an indictment of the funeral industry
and particularly casketed burial; however, cremation gets nearly as bad a rap in the
revised 1998 edition, The American Way of Death Revisited. Honestly, I’ve always
been a little creeped out by the idea of cremation, and not because I’m afraid to be
burned up, but because I feel like I’d be missing out on something. I just want my
body left well enough alone. I’ve been nearly-wooed by some of the recent ecofriendly burial options, such as having my remains fashioned into a concrete-like fish
habitat and dropped into the ocean as a makeshift reef. There’s something just a little
bit too snazzy about an option like this, though. Here’s what I want done (those who
might be in charge of this sort of thing when the time comes should take note): Drop
me into the ground in a biodegradable shroud and put some earth on top of me, a
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giant human compost pile. Truth be told, I want my body to rot. I say make worm’s
meat of me.
After all, there are far less dignified things that could be done. Roach writes
in Stiff,
To a certain extent, of course, dignity is in the packaging. When you
get right down to it, there is no dignified way to go, be it
decomposition, incineration, dissection, tissue digestion, or
composting. They’re all, bottom line, a little disagreeable. It takes the
careful application of a well-considered euphemism--burial, cremation,
anatomical gift-giving, water reduction, ecological funeral--to bring it
to the point of acceptance. (275-276)
Roach’s use of the phrase “dignity is in the packaging” suggests that she allies herself
closely with the position advanced by Jessica Mitford that death has become a
commercial enterprise--that, like products on store shelves, we process and package
our dead before advertising them to the world. The excerpt suggests further that
death is constructed by language. We construct fancy and ever more elaborate
“euphemism[s]” to serve as ideological Saran Wrap to keep death from getting too
rank. But the euphemisms are no better than embalming at preserving our dead.
Part of the point of this chapter is that we ought to just let ourselves rot, rather
than struggling so hard to fight against the inevitable. Maybe our reluctance to be
honest with ourselves about this comes down to a basic fear of change, so we build up
walls of unreality to defend against the one thing we know for certain about ourselves
as human beings. We die. We rot. We eventually do become undifferentiated
gelatinous masses. But rotting flesh is lively flesh, more lively than manufactured
flesh, more lively than automated flesh. In the main, when left to their own devices,
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our cadavers are more lively than we are. They have more personality. They are
more ecstatic, a container for more genuine stuff. The ecosystem of the dead body is
more hospitable and more biodiverse than the live body. While living, the human
body has 100 trillion cells, and 90% of them are not human. Many of these microorganisms flourish when we perish. The dead body expires, and we ought not get in
its way. Bacteria are the real restorative artists.
Kenneth V. Iserson walks through the various stages of the decomposition
process in Death to Dust: What Happens to Dead Bodies?: In short, our blood settles,
our skin droops, our muscles relax and then stiffen (rigor mortis) and then relax
again, and finally, the lovely and beneficent putrefaction, which basically entails
bacteria happily eating us from the inside out. In a rather vivid and revolting passage,
Iserson writes, “By seven days after death, most of the body is discolored and giant
blood-tinged putrid blisters begin to appear. The skin loosens and any pressure
causes the top layer to come off in large sheets” (51). I’m fascinated by how literary
Iserson makes the whole process seem. Throughout the book, he takes a scientific
approach, carefully breaking down each stage of decomposition, but he writes almost
lovingly about rot, bringing a subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) poetry to the
subject. Here, a phrase like “giant blood-tinged putrid blisters begin to appear”
particularly stands out. Sure, he’s likely trying to make his reader wretch, even if
what he achieves is only a slight dry-heaving in the back of the throat. He seems to
get lost in his string of adjectives, which build cumulatively to a sickening crescendo,
each word attempting to outdo the one before. This is lively, excited, not deadening
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prose, a dance of stressed and unstressed syllables flush with alliteration (“blood,”
“blisters,” “begin”) and even off-rhyme (“tinged” and “begin”). There is, for me and
I think for Iserson, something truly beguiling about a word like “putrid,” which when
said aloud causes my lips to touch and then part as my tongue flicks back and forth
against the roof of my mouth. It’s a word you feel in your mouth as you say it, even
if that’s exactly the place you don’t want it.
Compare more explicitly literary accounts of rot and putrefaction. Poppy Z.
Brite’s Exquisite Corpse, a disturbingly graphic novel about two serial killers who
join forces, ends with a beautiful and even romantic account of the decaying flesh of
two of its central characters, Jay (one of the killers) and Tran (his “perfect” victim):
Tran fell out of his binding straps and melted slowly into Jay’s ribcage.
A large, viscous, faintly iridescent stain ate up the concrete floor
around them. Their eyes were black caverns. They gave birth to
worms, generation after generation, until their bodies were covered as
if in a living blanket. Soon they were picked clean, their bones an
ivory sculpture-puzzle shining in the dark, waiting to tell their mute
love story. (240)
Each phrase in this passage is carefully designed to shock and disgust the reader,
although perhaps our greatest shock is to find ourselves also swooning. This final
moment follows an unrelenting series of grotesqueries, one grueling scene after
another, including descriptions of torture, emotional battery, sexual violation,
mutilation, necrophilia, cannibalism, etc.49 Brite, in this and other novels, never holds
back, turning her poetic prose unflinchingly upon all of our most deeply entrenched
fears. In a characteristically abject response, the reader of Brite’s work is pulled back
49 And this “etc.” is by no means customary, for Brite consistently uncovers horrors a reader wouldn’t
have imagined before picking up her work, horrors that resist our ability to put them into words.
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and forth from horror to awe--from grimace-inducing words like “viscous” to the
gape-inducing “iridescent.”
This passage begins with a reference to Tran’s “binding straps,” which he had
in previous scenes struggled to free himself from. Living flesh in Brite’s work is
constantly being bound, tied, held, or restrained. Dead flesh, on the other hand, is
free; it “melts,” “gives birth,” and “tells stories.” Brite moves from the image of the
“binding straps” to the image of a “living blanket”--from an image of hardness,
confinement, and impenetrability to an image of warmth and nurture. Brite
deconstructs the life/death binary by drawing dead flesh as more lively than living
flesh. Her characters don’t begin to really live until after they’re dead--until she’s
made worm’s meat of them--until, like Hamlet, their “too too sullied flesh [melts],
thaws, and resolve[s] itself into a dew” (I.ii.129-30). Brite seems to offer a reading of
Hamlet’s words in the passage from Exquisite Corpse I’m analyzing here--seems
keenly aware of the not just sad but glorious implications of Hamlet’s word “melt.”
To melt, for her, is to become heterogeneous, to be part and parcel with, to absorb and
be absorbed. Tran’s flesh “melts” and pours into Jay’s “ribcage.” They give birth
through assimilation, moving from two to one, from distinct persons confined inside
bodies to an ecstatic heap of worm-infestation. The worms pick their bones “clean,”
suggesting that there is redemption for them both in this moment. There is no longer
a protagonist and antagonist, a sadist and masochist, a killer and victim; there is only
flesh, one mound of rotting and satisfied flesh.
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Earlier in the novel, one of Brite’s narrators, Jay, the killer in my previous
example, muses on the smell of decay: “The smell was sweetly rotten, richly vile . . .
It was an invisible finger, soft and fat, pushing against the back of Jay’s throat.
Instead of gagging, he took a deep breath and let it invade him. He felt the odor of
rotting flesh enter his lungs and seep into his bloodstream He opened his mouth and
let it rest upon his tongue like a sacrament” (142). Smell is, for Brite and other
writers that touch on this subject, a very important sense. When we smell, we take
little particles of a substance into our nose. While we tend to privilege sight over all
of our other senses, smell actually plays a more central role in memory formation.
And the main function of the sense of smell, among humans and most animals, is in
the appraisal of food and prospective mates. None of this seems lost on Brite, who
describes Jay opening his mouth to let the “sweetly rotten, richly vile” smell “rest
upon his tongue,” language that explicitly marries smell to food and sex. The scent
“invade[s] him,” suggesting that he is powerless to his sense of smell. Just like Jay,
we can close our eyes and plug our ears, but we have a much harder time shutting off
our nose, hence the perfumed cream medical examiners put under their noses or the
way certain people will pull their shirt up over their nose to avoid a particularly foul
smell.
The involuntary nature of the sense of smell aligns it with Kristeva’s notion of
the abject, which she describes as almost entirely reflexive, not an engaged response
but a “spasm.” In Powers of Horror, she writes: “Loathing an item of food, a piece of
filth, waste, or dung. The spasms and vomiting that protect me. The repugnance, the
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retching that thrusts me to the side and turns me away from defilement, sewage, and
muck” (2). As in the passage from Brite’s novel, Kristeva describes smell as acting
upon us, “thrust[ing her] to the side,” producing “spasms,” “vomiting,” and
“wretching.” Roach similarly writes, “It is difficult to put words to the smell of
decomposing human. It is dense and cloying, sweet but not flower-sweet. Halfway
between rotting fruit and rotting meat” (70). Like Brite, Roach manages to make the
smell of rotting flesh sound downright appealing, the kind of scent you initially turn
away from but can’t help but turn back to, like sour milk, dirty laundry, or body odor.
And the thing about bodies, whether living or dead, is that they decay continuously.
Our topmost layer of skin is dead. Our hair is dead. Bacteria, fungus, and germs
thrive in just about every nook and cranny they can find. The smell of body odor is,
in fact, the smell of these bacteria feasting on fatty compounds secreted by our sweat
glands. And yet, bodies are sexy, and not in spite of the fact that we are decaying but
exactly, I think, because we are.
Kristeva describes decay as a “privileged place of mingling, of the
contamination of life by death, of begetting and of ending” (149). Decay threatens
contamination, even as it demands a playful “mingling,” bodies expanding, softening,
melting, reeking, reaching, inviting us to be undone. The abject protects us by
compelling us to turn away, but it simultaneously offers a mystery that compels us to
turn toward. She says specifically that the corpse is “the most sickening of
wastes” (3). She later describes our inevitable decay as the “inseparable lining” of
our natures: “A decaying body, lifeless, completely turned into dejection, blurred
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between the inanimate and the inorganic, a transitional swarming, inseparable lining
of a human nature whose life is indistinguishable from the symbolic--the corpse
represents fundamental pollution. A body without soul, a non-body, disquieting
matter, it is to be excluded from God’s territory as it is from his speech” (109). After
comments like these, the corpse might seem irrecuperable for Kristeva. However, the
negative connotations commonly associated with words like “pollution” or
“swarming” distract from a more literal interpretation of Kristeva’s remarks. Bodies
rot, which means literally that we decompose by means of the tireless work of bugs,
bacteria, and fungi. The human body, even while still alive, is teeming with inhuman
cells. Dead bodies call attention to this fact, thus upsetting the status quo--upsetting
our sense of ourselves as whole and distinct. Dead bodies make noxiously present the
fact that humans are at their most basic level just matter.
The abject corpse gets taken up in H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Outsider.” The
titular character in the story is basically a corpse (although it is appropriately unclear
exactly what he is). Waking up in the dark, he climbs up out of a trap door to find
everyone around him running and screaming, terrified of a hideous monster. He sees
the monster through an archway and dares to approach, only to discover that it is his
own image in a mirror. His response is a quintessentially abject one, almost as
though Kristeva was channeling Lovecraft in her discussion of the term. Lovecraft
writes,
I cannot even hint what it was like, for it was a compound of all that is
unclean, uncanny, unwelcome, abnormal, and detestable. It was the
ghoulish shade of decay, antiquity, and desolation; the putrid, dripping
eidolon of unwholesome revelation; the awful baring of that which the
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merciful earth should always hide . . . I was almost paralysed, but not
too much so to make a feeble effort toward flight; a backward stumble
which failed to break the spell in which the nameless, voiceless
monster held me. My eyes, bewitched by the glassy orbs which stared
loathsomely into them, refused to close; though they were mercifully
blurred, and shewed the terrible object but indistinctly after the first
shock. I tried to raise my hand to shut out the sight, yet so stunned
were my nerves that my arm could not fully obey my will” (5).
The monster here is the self or some “shade” of the self. It is exactly that thing which
must be cast off, which must be turned away from, but nevertheless “stuns” and
“paralyses,” like when we cover our eyes during a horror film yet can’t help but peek
through the cracks in our fingers. Lovecraft’s monster sees an image (in the mirror)
that simultaneously captivates and repels, beseeches and frustrates, exactly because it
doesn’t and won’t ever make rational sense. The fact that he can never know further
propels his desire to know, as though there is a rationality somewhere that he doesn’t
quite have access to. In this, the abject has an erotic quality. I see a seduction at
work in this passage from “The Outsider” (the monster is, in turn, “held,”
“bewitched,” “shocked,” and “stunned” by his own image). The abject offers the
opportunity for a visceral abandon.
Later in the same paragraph, Lovecraft describes the monster reaching toward
his own reflection, unaware yet that he’s looking at himself: “My fingers touched the
rotting outstretched paw of the monster beneath the golden arch” (5). Then, once he’s
come to the realization, “I know always that I am an outsider; a stranger in this
century and among those who are still men” (6). In these moments and the earlier
one, the monster is neither man nor animal, neither dead nor alive. His reference to
“those who are still men” suggests that he was once a man. He reaches out with a
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“paw,” but still not quite an animal’s paw, for it has “fingers.” The Outsider isn’t
abject because he’s inhuman but because he defies categorization, because he is both
human and not human, forcing us to question what it is to be human. The fact that he
is “unwholesome” and “drip[s]” forces us to recognize the fact that we are also
unwholesome, the fact that we also drip. We think of our bodies as containers, the
shell we hide inside, but the Outsider shows us where to find the seams and how they
unravel.
Emily Dickinson seems equally fascinated by the grotesque nature of death
and decomposition in her work. So often, readings of Dickinson focus on the
spiritual or philosophical registers of death, at the expense of its more palpable
details. However, when she writes, “I heard a Fly buzz--when I died--,” it’s easy to
get caught up in the fact that she is reflecting on her own death--and that she
miraculously continues to hear even after. It’s easy to overlook the fact that a fly
buzzing around a dead body signifies (and is direct evidence for) the body’s
beginning the process of putrefaction. Flies can detect the smell of the freshly dead
from up to two miles away; they land on the body within a few hours and
immediately begin laying thousands of eggs in the mouth, nose, and ears (Iserson
385). Certainly, this is grotesque, but like the Bakhtinian grotesque, decay is lively
for Dickinson. The fly is a signifier for decay, but her body, still fertile, gives birth to
and feeds the fly (and eventually many more). Flying insects in Dickinson’s work
often signify flight, escape, freedom. So, the grotesqueness of death invites both
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horror and wonder, containment and escape; our stomachs churn even as our eyes
widen at this eager munching of the fly. 50
According to Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, Dickinson writes the
monster, but only to hide it away in her obscure riddles. However, as my previous
reading shows, a reader does not have to dig far to find the monstrous and grotesque
at work in Dickinson’s poetry. Gilbert and Gubar curiously include Dickinson’s “A
Word dropped careless on a Page” (1261) as epigraph to their book. In this poem,
Dickinson writes, “Infection in the sentence breeds,” a line I find endlessly interesting
to the point that I’ve considered tattooing it to my body. However, I’m afraid the line
would be misread on my flesh in the same way I see Gilbert and Gubar misreading
Dickinson. I’m afraid the tendency in reading this line would be to turn in disgust--to
recoil from the messy juxtaposition of the words “infection” and “breeds”--to read
Dickinson’s vision as a morbidly pessimistic one. For me, there is something exultant
here--something glorious in the sticky movement from disease to childbearing.
Interestingly, the line is itself an infected sentence, a failed sentence, one that does not
come to conclusion--one that is aborted just before the expected direct object of the
word “breeds.” Breeds what? I can’t help but think of Ouroboros, the snake that
perpetually eats its own tail, but Dickinson’s image seems less exhausting--less a
50
Gilbert and Gubar trace the monstrous in nineteenth-century women’s literature in their book
Infection in the Sentence: The Woman Writer and the Anxiety of Authorship. While their various theses
are intriguing, Gilbert and Gubar do not even attempt a reclamation of the monstrous. In fact, they
seem almost to recoil from Dickinson and her like, nineteenth-century women who hide monstrosity in
“obscure corners” and “submerged meanings” (1362). Gilbert and Gubar ultimately say that
Dickinson is an author “imprisoned within her own alien and loathsome body. Once again, in other
words, she has become not only a prisoner but a monster” (1372). They associate Dickinson’s
secluded life with the oblique character of her poetry; thus, her social monstrosity is reflected in the
(semantic and syntactic) horrors of her style.
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study in futility--and more about inheritance, about a necessary mystery, about
evasion, about secretion, about breathing. Infection is, for Dickinson, an opportunity
for rebellion and transformation--the body in all its monstrous, ineluctable glory. She
sees bodies, including her own, not as loathsome or alien, but as tangible and
wondrous.
- - - - - Toward the beginning of this chapter I argued that death needs an audience-that death’s meaning is pliable, only making sense as a sort of cultural Rorschach test.
When we look at death, we see ourselves. The rotting body makes immediate and
gross what we all fear: that we don’t just die; we dissolve. So, we hide our dead
bodies away, covering them with stratified layers of make-up, clothing, coffins, dirt,
and linguistic circumlocution. We create “memory pictures” that neither resemble
how we looked in life nor how we will look in death. We deal with death by looking
away from it, distracted by the minutiae of its comings and goings. We dress the
body and even grieve according to carefully written cultural scripts. We’re so
wrapped up in this mutual performance that we fail to fully register it. Cindy
Sherman’s “Untitled #153,” which I analyzed at the outset of this chapter, is about
exactly that--about the fact that death is framed so carefully that all we see anymore is
the frame. And when our minds fail to bend around the concept of death, we push
harder, bend further. We don’t see death until we stop trying to see death--we don’t
see death until we feel it, in our gut.
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Cindy Sherman continues to depict death throughout her series “Fairy Tales
and Disasters.” I will finish here by turning to three more images from that series,
“Untitled #236,” “Untitled #244,” and “Untitled #290.” Each of these makes abstract
what “Untitled #153” makes almost overly self-conscious: death is a medium.
Whereas “Untitled #153” is about death’s performative nature and our inability to see
past the performance, something altogether different and more stomach-churning is at
work in these three later images. The curiosity of “Untitled #153” turns to abject
horror. These images are tangible not allegorical, difficult to look at in their utter lack
of a performative register. The rotting dead aren’t eager subjects for photography like
the freshly dead, which have a long history of posing for cameras. And the audience
for death is much smaller underground and, well, too ravenous to notice the subtleties
of expression and costuming. Our bodies finally stop performing when the bugs
come home to roost.
In removing herself from her self-portraits, Cindy Sherman manages to create
something genuinely unspeakable, something completely devoid of signification,
provocative exactly because these images don’t engage the viewer. They disengage,
begging the viewer not to look, demanding that they cover their eyes and recoil.
These images don’t smile for the camera, aren’t dressed up, don’t wear their fakery
proudly on their sleeves. They purport to be real, and even though they’re not, we
take them to be real, made of possible not fantastic textures. And they are not
mundane, not tidy, not pretty, but messy, painful, gooey, disgusting, inescapable,
beautiful. The what that has become of us. Our bodies as cultural detritus.
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“Someone who is perennially surprised that depravity exists, who continues to feel
disillusioned (even incredulous) when confronted with evidence of what humans are
capable of inflicting in the way of gruesome, hands-on cruelties upon other humans,
has not reached moral or psychological adulthood. No one after a certain age has the
right to this kind of innocence, of superficiality, to this degree of ignorance, or
amnesia.”
~ Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others
Chapter 3: The Body in Pieces
We watch horror, at least in part, because violence has become a spectator
sport. We rally around brutal sporting events, and the news has us riveted with war
footage, photographic accounts of torture, and the meticulous tallying of militaryspending and death tolls. Even when culture doesn’t produce images of horrific
violence, it legitimizes them by making a spectacle of violence, plastering airplane
crashes on the cover of the newspaper, glorifying the carnage even as truly
newsworthy events are pushed to the second page. We often fail to fully devour
images of horror, fail to approach them with any (analytical or critical) voraciousness,
fail even to let them approach us, sitting back instead in passive amusement or
reprobation. We make violence into a spectacle to help cope with the fact that we’ve
become alienated from our bodies, but many of the horrific texts we produce make
even horror into a disembodied experience. And we feel continually compelled to
give horror a backstory to further distance ourselves from it. A tightly-framed story
explains away the horror, making it safe and easy to digest.
My work, though, looks to the horror film as an answer to (and not a symptom
of) the plight of our eroding physicality. Susan Sontag writes in Regarding the Pain
of Others, “To designate a hell is not, of course to tell us anything about how to
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extract people from that hell” (114). Whereas my previous chapters have taken a
close look at the bodies we’ve made for ourselves in the postmodern, technological
era, this chapter begins looking toward possible solutions, something I continue more
fully in the final chapter. Ralph Waldo Emerson writes in “The American Scholar,”
“Books are the best of things if well used; if abused, among the worst” (56). The
same is true of horror films. They can do real work, rebuilding us even as they tear us
down, but only if we let them. Thus, we need to become contemplative as opposed to
passive spectators. We need media that engages us fully and viscerally with what
we’re seeing. Sanitized horror is dangerous horror, because it presents the acts
without their consequences. We need to experience both the acts and their physical
repercussions. We need to recognize that much of what is horrific can not be easily
explained or reconciled. We need to understand that the horrors we’re seeing on
screen are not just stories but are about us and that, in watching and consuming these
stories, we play an active role in them. We have bodies. We are flesh. And the best
horror films know this all too well.
Part 1: Something that Festers: the Visual Pleasures of Horror
We each watch horror films for our own peculiar, sometimes perverse,
reasons. Many of them I’m not sure I want to watch, but I do. And, sometimes, I
promise myself never to watch certain of these films again (like The Texas Chainsaw
Massacre), but usually I do, and several times. Why, as a culture, do we watch horror
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films with such rabidity?51 Why do otherwise seemingly normal people make these
films in the first place? And why have I chosen to make a life for myself out of
writing about them? People generally cock their heads oddly and squint their eyes in
mild disbelief when I tell them that this is what I do--when I tell them that it is
essentially my job to sit around watching these films one after another. In the main, it
is not a subject that bores many people. They either enjoy talking about being scared
by horror films, or they enjoy talking about why they don’t like being scared by
horror films. I enjoy both sorts of conversations.
When I tell people about my work, they almost immediately assume that I
don’t get scared by horror films anymore--that I’ve become immune to their effects,
perhaps because I’ve watched so many or because I’m able to use my knowledge of
the genre to rationalize my fear away. The truth is that neither of these things is true.
I’m, in fact, utterly squeamish when it comes to watching or reading horror. I scream
frequently, and not in a light, non-committal way; my screams are loud and guttural,
emanating from the pit of my stomach and rattling in my throat. For many of the
people that watch horror films with me, my screams are scarier than anything in the
film, as they so often come at unexpected moments. I often find myself
unintentionally clutching the person next to me, and, in a few rare cases, I’ve even
begged out loud to be taken home. I would go so far as to say I do not enjoy being
51 Is the answer to this question different for male and female viewers? Linda Williams describes, in
“Learning to Scream,” “the cringing and ducking women” at an early screening of Hitchcock’s Psycho:
“women resisted assault on their own gaze by refusing to look at the female victims of male
monstrosity” (167). However, Brigid Cherry counters, in “Refusing to Refuse to Look: Female
Viewers of the Horror Film,” “the pleasure that [women] viewers find in images of terror and gore and,
in particular, in the body of the monster belies Linda Williams’ assertion that the female spectator of
the horror film can only refuse to look” (176).
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scared, and I’m even less comfortable with feelings of disgust or repulsion, but I find
these feelings important, even necessary somehow. And so I watch, not as much
because I want to, but because I need to.
Sontag writes in Regarding the Pain of Others, “It seems that the appetite for
pictures showing bodies in pain is as keen, almost, as the desire for ones that show
bodies naked” (41). I’m particularly interested in her use of the word “appetite” here,
which suggests that we hunger for images of horror on some basic biological level,
the same way we hunger for food, water, sex, or sleep. It’s commonly argued that we
are drawn to horror because there is something violent in our nature, and yet it’s an
argument I find dismissive. Many of us do turn to images of horror for a vicarious
thrill that releases pent-up aggression, but I think it’s decidedly more complicated
than just that, and so does Sontag. Certainly, we eat because we’re hungry, but we
also eat because there is pleasure in the act of eating itself, because eating is a social
activity, because we’re told by advertisers that eating their specific food products will
fulfill us on some deeper level. We watch horror films for many of the same reasons.
In A Philosophical Enquiry into the Sublime and Beautiful, Edmund Burke
argues that pleasure in the horrific is dependent upon our distance from it: “I am
convinced we have a degree of delight, and that no small one, in the real misfortunes
and pains of others . . . Terror is a passion which always produces delight when it
does not press too close . . . This is not an unmixed delight, but blended with no
small uneasiness” (92-93). Burke is not suggesting that we delight in terror only
when it is observed from afar. Rather, there is a sweet spot, a certain distance, not too
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near and not too far, at which terror instills pleasure in us. Terror must “press close”
but not “too” close. Pleasure in horror must come pre-mixed with a simultaneous
“uneasiness.” As with the abject, our desire and pleasure in looking is amplified by
our simultaneous urge to look away. Each instance of turning away, though, is
followed by an even more desperate turning toward. There is little drama in the act of
looking at a comforting image; it lulls us into an almost purely passive spectatorial
position. Looking at something horrific, on the other hand, is a far more dynamic
affair, throwing our eyes, heads, and sometimes even our arms about in a much more
engaged sort of dance. Many horror films never achieve this precise mix of pleasure
and uneasiness.
I’ve seen horror films that pressed too close, like The Texas Chainsaw
Massacre, which I will discuss at greater length later in this chapter. The experience
of watching that film is, for me, too upsetting. I want to like it on an intellectual
level, but my body doesn’t allow me to. Other films, like the Saw series, don’t press
close enough. I don’t enjoy the horrors I see on screen in these films, because they
are far too emotionally vacant (i.e., about the abstract mechanics of violence and not
the real effects). They simultaneously show too much and not enough--too much
gore, not enough person.52 I feel visually assaulted but not genuinely disturbed or
unsettled. A film like David Fincher’s Seven (1995), which hides many of its grosser
horrors from view, has more impact, because it engages the viewer both emotionally
52
This is akin to close-up shots of genitals in pornography, which divorce the acts and so-called
“naughty bits” from the people involved. We may get a vicarious charge from these images, but the
narrative thrust that leads to a deeper sense of identification is lost. In Saw and its sequels, many of the
climactic shots are also close-ups--of metal piercing skin, blood oozing, innards being exposed, etc.,
thus the genre being called “torture porn.”
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and physically, drawing us in, but just enough. When we learn that Tracy (Gwyneth
Paltrow) has been decapitated and her head put into a UPS box, we find ourselves
simultaneously wanting to see inside the box and ready to run from the theater if we
do. The film is all the more savvy for not showing us the head, not stooping to the
level of the gratuitous close-up, relying instead on our imagination and the close
relationships we’ve developed with the film’s characters.
In “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess,” Linda Williams discusses at
length the physicality of our engagement with what she calls the “gross” genres
(melodrama, pornography, and horror). She describes “the spectacle of a body caught
in the grip of intense sensation or emotion” (703). For Williams, one of the
exemplary features of a horror film is its ability to force the spectator to imitate the
feelings or physical reactions of the characters onscreen. Hence, in a horror film,
when the characters in the film scream, we scream. She relates this also to the genres
of melodrama and porn. In melodrama, we cry when they cry. In porn, we get
sexually aroused when they get sexually aroused. “The success of these genres,”
Williams writes, “is often measured by the degree to which the audience sensation
mimics what is seen on the screen . . . What seems to bracket these particular genres
from others is an apparent lack of proper esthetic distance, a sense of overinvolvement in sensation and emotion” (704-705). Williams suggests, like Burke,
that there is a certain distance at which the emulation of sensation occurs. There is an
ideal vantage point for horror, not a lack of distance altogether but a lack of “proper
esthetic” distance. To be properly scared, at least in the way that produces
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concomitant pleasure, we must feel safe but not too safe--we must have room to
reflect on what we see, but must not be allowed too much room.
Noel Carroll touches on many of these issues in his essay “Why Horror?”;53
however, his hypotheses are almost diametrically opposed to Williams’s. Whereas
she explores the ways horror engages us viscerally, Carroll is more interested in the
ways horror engages us intellectually: “The disclosure of the existence of the horrific
being and of its properties is the central source of pleasure in the genre . . . It is not
that we crave disgust, but that disgust is a predictable concomitant of disclosing the
unknown” (36-37). Carroll calls this the “curiosity/fascination resolution” (42). He
describes a very academic sort of pleasure, which I have trouble reconciling with my
experiences of the horror genre. His theory doesn’t explain well enough, for me, why
we will often return to the same film (or the same monster) over and over again.
Many fans of horror, myself included, will often watch (and be repeatedly scared by)
the same film dozens of times. I still occasionally scream aloud when I watch
Halloween or Alien even though I’ve probably seen both films at least a few dozen
times. And the horror genre is rife with sequels, remakes, and imitations. A good
monster continues to elude us even after we’ve seen him. In the best films of the
genre, Halloween, The Shining, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Silence of
the Lambs (1991), the unknown is never fully disclosed.
For Barbara Creed, in “Horror and the Monstrous-Feminine,” horror appeals
to us not because it attempts to disclose the unknown but because it attempts to
53 This piece is adapted from a more elaborate account of the subject in his book The Philosophy of
Horror: Or, Paradoxes of the Heart.
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“eject” the unknown: “The horror film brings about a confrontation with the abject
(the corpse, bodily wastes, the monstrous-feminine) in order, finally, to eject the
abject and redraw the boundaries between the human and the nonhuman” (46). These
claims make a certain sense given that she spends a good deal of time analyzing
Ridley Scott’s Alien in her work, where the alien is literally ejected from the
spaceship at the end of the film. And, indeed, I do experience a good deal of catharsis
when watching horror films. I’m not so certain, though, that her claims can be
generalized so easily to the entirety of the horror film genre, or even to the Alien
series as a whole.54 Creed does a fantastic job of bringing the horror film into
conversation with Kristeva’s theories of the abject; however, she often sees the horror
film as a conservative genre. Many of the best horror films, though, are exactly about
disrupting the boundary between the human and the nonhuman, between the
monstrous and the mundane, and they don’t always let the viewer off the hook by
“redraw[ing]” the boundaries they’ve disrupted. Films like Alien, Halloween, The
Silence of the Lambs, Night of the Living Dead, or The Invasion of the Body
Snatchers don’t resolve themselves neatly by the end. Instead, they leave things
messy, often making the way for sequels or remakes that further deconstruct the
human/non-human binary.
Harry M. Benshoff, in “The Monster and the Homosexual,” offers a take on
the question of why horror that seems at first glance to be quite different from
Creed’s: “For spectators of all types, the experience of watching a horror film or
54 After all, by the third and fourth films, the alien is living inside Lt. Ripley, the protagonist of the
series, not ejected but rather introjected.
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monster movie might be understood as similar to that of the Carnival as it has been
theorized by Bakhtin, wherein the conventions of normality are ritualistically
overturned within a prescribed period of time in order to celebrate the lure of the
deviant” (98). The horror film is, thus, about celebrating the deviant rather than
expelling him. Still, by drawing a comparison to Bakhtin’s concept of the
carnivalesque, Benshoff reveals that his position isn’t actually all that different from
Creed’s. The deviant, for Benshoff, is only celebrated “within a prescribed period.”
Once the film is over and the carnival is done, the status quo returns with a
vengeance. For me, both the abject and grotesque are inescapable. They can’t be put
neatly away when we’re done with them. Once they burst forth, they promulgate, and
no matter how hard we try to stop them, they continue to spread, leaving the status
quo scrambled in their wake. If normality does appear to return, it’s an illusion. The
best horror films reveal something to (or about) us, something that changes who we
are on a fundamental level, something that may not be immediately apparent to us,
something that festers.
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The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs works in just this way, violently
forcing us to reconsider who we are and why we watch. 55 There are few acts of
explicit violence shown on screen. In fact, the film never explicitly frames even a
single act of violence. For those that do happen on screen (Hannibal assaulting the
two police officers, for example), the point of violent contact is always just outside of
the frame. Still, the film is about violence, about bodies, about what happens to
bodies when they’re beaten, cut, shot, or brutalized. More specifically, The Silence of
the Lambs is about our desire as an audience to see violence. The film flirts with the
viewer in the opening scenes with camera shots that move quickly across photographs
of murder victims and with provocative descriptions of hideous acts, such as
Hannibal’s famous line about eating a census-taker’s liver with “some fava beans and
a nice chianti.” We very quickly find ourselves wanting to hear more, wanting to see
more. The fact that we don’t see more for most of the film makes the flirtation that
much more effective. And, when we do see glimpses of violence, we feel, like
Clarice herself, “scared at first, then exhilarated.”
The film is filled with shots of characters looking directly into the camera,
directly acknowledging the fact that we are in the audience looking back at them.
55 In “Genre Classifications and Cultural Distinctions in the Mediation of The Silence of the Lambs,”
Marc Jancovich cites numerous articles that clearly resist associating The Silence of the Lambs with the
horror genre, a resistance that primarily seems to extend from a desire to police the boundaries of high
and low cultures. The argument goes: if horror films are considered low culture, then an Oscarwinning film like The Silence of the Lambs must be something other than horror. However, both the
film’s style and content align it most assuredly (and even self-consciously) with the horror genre: a
moody camera, floating about the world as though it might happen upon something horrific at any
moment, explicit scenes of body horror such as Hannibal wearing the skin of a police officer as a
make-shift mask, and a resourceful heroine who hews closely to the conventions of Carol Clover’s
Final Girl, described in Men, Women, and Chainsaws as “abject terror personified” (35).
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Throughout the film, characters look at pictures, at televisions, at bodies, during
flashbacks, during funerals, during autopsies, through glass, through bars, through
bottles, through the windows of a helicopter, down into a well, through night-vision
goggles, etc. The film is about spectatorship, about what happens when we see, about
the dangers of seeing, and especially about why (and what) we want to see. For most
of the film, we see Hannibal the Cannibal through a glass wall that functions much
like the film screen. We can see through it but are seemingly safe from the danger
that lurks on the other side. In addition to being about what we see, the film is also
about what we can’t (or don’t want to) see. In the climax, Clarice is in complete
darkness and must defeat Buffalo Bill while blind. We are, in a sense, blind as well
through much of the film, not privy to the many acts of violence that occur,
continuously subject to a camera that cuts away just as we are about to see something
happen.
On the other hand, we do see copious images throughout the film depicting
the aftermaths of violence. The forensic examination of a cadaver about a third of the
way through the film is a particularly harrowing example. While the scene offers a
fairly graphic look at a murdered body, it is all the more powerful for what it doesn’t
show. Toward the beginning of the scene, there is an extreme close-up of a black
body bag being slowly unzipped. The sound of the zipper is exaggerated and slowed
to the point of being almost excruciating. In the opening moments, we also see both
Clarice and fellow agent Jack Crawford putting menthol gel on their upper lips. Even
though we can’t smell the overpowering odor in the room, the white marks on their
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lips serve as a constant reminder of it, of the smell of decayed flesh. Every time we
see the white marks, we are forced to imagine the smell ourselves. It’s an interesting
irony, because the menthol gel obscures the smell for Clarice and Jack, but its
constant visual presence makes the imagined smell even more salient to us. The
scene is so powerful, more powerful than most of the imitations of it in recent
television and cinema, because it appeals to our senses in these ways. We aren’t just
looking but also hearing and smelling.
The body itself is withheld from view for over two and half minutes of the
scene. And, when we do see the body, we see it in pieces, an edge of skin, a muddy
arm, the side of a torso, five mutilated fingers, a blurry shoulder, the bridge of a nose,
a gaping mouth forced open by gloved hands. The shots are coyly framed, begging
us to wonder what else lies just outside their view. The incessant snap of a Polaroid
camera suggests that these framings are peculiarly photographic. This is what (and
how) a camera sees. It dissects the body, portioning it into explicable bits. This is an
arm. This is a mouth. This is a face. The body as whole and cohesive seems to lie
outside the (or at least this) camera’s purview.
All the while the body is being examined, we get a narrative account of it from
Clarice, who begins by speaking into a tape recorder, then turns to the other
examiners in the room, and finally appears to shift her attention to us, the audience.
Her descriptions are careful and nuanced, but also creative and idiosyncratic,
suggesting that she perceives more than just what her eyes see. For her, there isn’t
just a body on the table; there’s a story and one she seems to almost enjoy telling.
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The fascination in her voice is carefully modulated over the course of the scene,
suggesting that the more she sees, the more she wants to see. The money shot, so to
speak, is delivered nearly five minutes into the scene when the body is turned over.
Finally, we see a medium-shot with the entirety of the body in the frame. The body is
splayed out face down on an examination table, naked, covered in dirt and debris,
with two large triangular pieces of skin removed from the back. The skin is a muted
pink, mottled with large patches of bruising and abrasions. The flesh where the skin
was removed looks puffy, as though curdled or boiled. It’s coloring is splotchy, and
there are streaks of dried blood in the creases surrounding the wounds. There was
certainly a careful attention to detail on the part of the filmmakers in the “dressing” of
this cadaver.
Still, we never see the body unobstructed; Clarice steps into the frame
blocking the wounds, and another examiner hovers over the body at her right,
obscuring our view of the head. The shot lasts just over ten seconds before the
camera tilts, the body falling out of the frame, and then almost immediately cuts to
another scene. Again, we are left wanting more. We want a camera that lingers, one
that doesn’t let go. We want to relish in what we’re seeing, want a camera that
undresses the body, showing us all its curves and crevices. We want a camera that
lets us inside. The Silence of the Lambs invites our desires but frustrates them; this
sequence calls attention to our fascination with violence, even as it fails to truly
excite, cutting away from the money shot just before we’ve had time to fully
appreciate it. Subsequent imitations of this scene in film and television (we see a
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similar scene repeated every week in CSI) have been more willing to show us
mutilated bodies unobstructed, and both their outsides and their insides (as with the
CSI’s frequent reenactments of instruments penetrating bodies). However, in so
unabashedly giving us the goods, a television show like CSI fails to implicate us in
our desire to see those goods. We see the severed head dripping with gore, feel
momentarily upset by it, but don’t pause to consider why we wanted to see the head in
the first place. The Silence of the Lambs hesitates in the moment just before we’ve
gotten our fix and then leaves us there, ashamed and bewildered. 56
Part 2: Slasher Movies and the Aesthetics of Violence
In my introduction, I made the claim that “skin is permeable.” One of the
projects of this next section is to unpack exactly what I mean by that. If my previous
chapter on dead bodies is about what we layer on top of the body (make-up,
euphemism, performance, costuming), I turn now to thinking about what we strip
from it. How can we take a body so loaded with cultural baggage and make it
meaningful again, make it substantial again? The smartest slasher films understand
exactly that bodies have become devices for representing cultural conventions, for
selling fantasies, and for advancing plots (in film but also in reality, which has
56
Our shame is made all the more powerful by the fact that, for much of the film, we are put in the
position of rooting on Hannibal. No matter how grotesque his acts of violence, they are also heroic.
Ridley Scott exaggerates this further in the sequel, Hannibal (2001), where Hannibal becomes the
titular protagonist.
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become just as strictly plotted).57 The slasher film, and film in general, produce
images of the body in pieces, whether cut by a knife or by the film frame and editing
techniques. These films also ask important questions about what it is to put bodies on
screen, what it is to be excited by those bodies, and what it is to be excited by those
bodies being dismantled. So, when I say that skin is permeable, I mean two things:
(1) that the body can be cut into pieces, sexy chunks which are more easily
objectified; and (2) that the body can be deconstructed, its cohesiveness and
singularity thrown into question. In the former, the body is made more manageable,
whereas in the later, the body becomes indiscreet and therefore less manageable. The
least interesting slasher films focus only on the former, putting the body on parade in
moments of pleasure and distress; the best slasher films focus on both but especially
the latter, upsetting our sense of what bodies are, how they work, and what they
mean.
In Stiff, Mary Roach asks the question, “Can the dead be aesthetically
pleasing?” (72). But what, exactly, is pretty about meat? In previous discussions of
the dead, I have focused on the gratuitousness of the embalmed cadaver, whose flesh
becomes a mere surface, pretty but only in its utter superficiality, hence Jessica
Mitford’s description of the funeral industry as a “full-fledged burlesque” (149). The
dead bodies Mitford describes in The American Way of Death are indeed aesthetic,
but not particularly pleasing. The corpses in the texts I turn to now have become
57 For evidence of this, we need look no further than the endless parade of reality shows on televisions
in America (and around the world). In the beginning, shows like The Real World and Survivor
attempted to televise our lives, making an entertainment out of a usually very thinly veiled imitation of
reality. Somewhere along the line, a shift occurred, and now reality shows more often depict fantasy
lives that we can only aspire to. The people on reality shows are no longer failed imitations of us; we
have become failed imitations of them.
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fetish objects, emblems of and mascots for the postmodern body. They’re proven
solid, proven substantial, when pierced or dissected by a slasher’s knife or saw. The
pleasure we take in looking at slashed bodies is often more curious and investigative
than the mystified and passive gaze we take toward the intact but hollow flesh of the
embalmed cadaver. A close-up of a woman’s breasts, sans head, might be pleasing to
one viewer, because it elicits a sexual response, launching a desire to see beyond what
the frame allows. A shot of mangled flesh might be pleasing to another viewer on an
entirely different level, because it disrupts conventions of the body, revealing as
fragmented what we otherwise take to be whole. Both of these images could be
described as aesthetic, depending on their context. It isn’t the content of an image
that qualifies it as aesthetic, but rather how it is presented and how it is read. Many
viewers make the mistake of describing as gratuitous anything that upsets them or
their moral sensibilities. While many slasher films are gratuitous, there are more
aesthetic, more intellectual, pleasures to be found in the genre as well. The best films
of the genre are not merely gratuitous but use their images to comment on our
culture’s objectification of abused (and sexualized) flesh.
Many of the less successful slasher films create too much distance by making
a pure spectacle of violence. We watch the acts of violence from afar, safely tucked
away at home or in theater seats, and don’t have to get our own hands dirty.
However, this alone does not provide enough fuel for a reasonable critique of the
slasher genre as a whole. Susan Sontag writes in Regarding the Pain of Others,
“Images have been reproached for being a way of watching suffering at a distance, as
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if there were some other way of watching” (117). Images by their very nature are
something we observe from a distance. Literally, we don’t get our hands dirty,
because the act of watching is something we do with our eyes, not our hands. So,
extreme horror and violence on screen are not necessarily gratuitous; they are only
gratuitous if otherwise unwarranted or purposeless. Granted, much of the violence in
slasher films could be described as purposeless. However, a film like John
Carpenter’s Halloween forces a contemplative engagement in contrast to the sort of
rude aesthetics at work in many other films of the genre. And, while I have
mentioned the difficulty I have with watching The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, I
appreciate the way the film offers second-order commentary on its own genre.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is, in fact, about rude aesthetics. The film tips
its hand early on, beginning with callous news reports and a matter-of-fact (albeit
somewhat over-excited) description of the methods used in slaughtering cattle. It’s a
truly brutal and unrelenting film; I would not describe watching it as a happy affair by
any means. Halloween, pleasant to watch by comparison, is deeply unsettling
nonetheless, forcing the viewer to rethink how she sees herself and the world. Both
films rarely stoop to the level of pure spectacle in the way that recent so-called
“torture porn” films have done. Sure, we watch The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and,
to a certain degree, Halloween to rile ourselves up, but neither ultimately aims as low
as films like Saw or Hostel. The violence in those films, and most others from the
torture porn genre, is entirely gratuitous, violence for its own sake, violence that fails
to reflect upon itself. The Saw and Hostel films are filled with examples of bodies cut
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up and put on parade. We watch, experience a visceral reaction, and then are quickly
let off the hook once the film is over. We leave the theater commenting on the
audacity of the violent spectacles we’ve witnessed but we don’t pause to consider the
implications of what we’ve seen. Hostel and Saw are violent, but they’re not about
violence in the way that both The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween are.
While the many torture porn films are graphic in their depictions of violence,
they typically pull their punches, cutting up the body but failing to deconstruct it.
They show, details, context, wide-shots, close-ups, clothed bodies, naked bodies,
metal instruments penetrating skin, innards from various clever angles, blood pouring
from the body, blood splattering the walls, blood dripping down the camera lens, but
they fail to engage us on an emotional level. We feel physically sickened, maybe
even exhausted by the end, but the feeling is nothing like what we experience when
we watch Sally’s torture in the final scene of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. In that
scene, there are only two acts of explicit violence: the tip of Sally’s finger is cut with
a small blade, and we see several glancing blows as grandpa unsuccessfully attempts
to bludgeon Sally to death with a hammer. Still, the scene is grueling both physically
and emotionally, with its jittery camera, extreme close-ups, shrill screaming, power
tools in symphony on the soundtrack, and especially in the way that it engages our
imagination. Because we don’t see much, we are forced to wonder what might
happen to Sally. The set-pieces in most of torture porn are so elaborate (and
increasingly so as the genre evolves) that we couldn’t possibly imagine them. We
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wait passively and allow the film to unleash its horrors upon us; much of the horror of
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is something we unleash upon ourselves.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre opens with a series of grisly stills intercut with
the glaring light of a strobe flash. On the soundtrack, we hear digging, bones
breaking, a man’s breath, grunts of exertion, the ruffling of a plastic garbage bag as
meaty chunks are dropped into it, and the sound of a photographic exposure, shrill
and drawn-out as though each of the images we see are burning themselves into our
retina. The flashes and abstractly gory images that follow are fleeting, on screen for
less than a second each before they fade to black, not long enough for us to fully
comprehend their content. Instead, they work their way obscurely into our
imagination where they fester: rotting fingers with pointy chalk-white nails,
liquifying skin and the gummy remains of an eyeball, crooked teeth with a gelatinlike substance where the lips should be. The images come faster and faster as the
grave-diggers work sounds increasingly vigorous. Next we see the curve of a brow
bone with transparent orangish skin and a smattering of hair blurred at the edge of the
frame, followed immediately by the image of a petrified face almost smiling in
profile. Our eyes dart about the screen, attempting to take in the brief and sudden
frames. We feel startled by the sharp sound of the exposure and physically recoil at
the bright flashes, but the images come so fast that we don’t have time to register
disgust or awe.
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Each image is gooey but also mundane, an image of the body as thing, the
body as a subject for photographs but not a particularly captivating subject. The
framings feel accidental, as though the camera fumbles about in the dark, falls into
place, snaps a frame with the flash illuminating whatever happens to be in front of the
lens, then randomly reframes, snaps again, catching muted, indiscriminate bits. Each
still is a haphazard cut, just like the literal cuts through flesh and bone that we hear on
the soundtrack. The body is chopped up out of convenience and necessity. A body in
pieces is both easier to transport in bags and fits better into photographic frames.
There is no intrinsic value--no artistic value--in the camera’s framings, only
instrumental value. The content of the images is less important than what they do to
us. And when we finally see the moving image of the gravedigger’s finished project,
several bodies situated on a post and assembled into an odd totem, there is nothing
aesthetically pleasing about his handiwork or the framing of it. The newscaster,
whose voice we hear on the soundtrack, calls the figure a “grisly work of art,” but his
delivery is dispassionate and monotone. The cobbled-together bodies look gross and
absurd, nothing like “art.” We’re not entertained by the end result or even all that
upset, just mildly bemused.
In fact, the cinematography throughout the film relies on purposefully dull,
desaturated, and often poorly-lit images, in stark contrast to what we see in
Carpenter’s Halloween. While both Carpenter and Hooper make careful choices
about the composition of individual shots, the results are quite different. The Texas
Chainsaw Massacre is revolting to look at, and the film lures its viewer into gazing at
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the various frames with sick fascination. Halloween, on the other hand, is an absolute
marvel to look at with nearly every frame being something you could imagine on a
gallery wall. The colors in Carpenter’s film are rich, the lighting is bold, and the use
of anamorphic format makes the environment of each frame feel truly expansive, as
though there is always more to see in every image.58 By contrast, the frames in The
Texas Chainsaw Massacre feel busy, claustrophobic, and downright ugly at times
(albeit intentionally so). While the two films use very different methods, they both
comment on our desire to look, our fascination with the repugnancy and occasional
beauty of dead flesh and bodies in pain.
58 Sheldon Hall offers an extended discussion of Carpenter’s use of anamorphic format in “Carpenter’s
Widescreen Style.” Hall writes, “The desired audience response, of fear and apprehension leading to
prolonged suspense climaxed by sudden shock, derives precisely from the spectator’s eye being
allowed to wander across the breadth and into the depths of the frame. Areas of shadow and darkness
are purposefully arranged to invite and tease the gaze, rather than to deflect it to a principal point of
interest” (70). Later, Hall refers to Carpenter’s use of “pregnant spaces” and contrasts Carpenter with
Hitchcock, who Hall claims is heavy-handed in his drawing and fixing the audience’s eye on specific
elements of the frame. In Hall’s reading, watching a Hitchcock films becomes a passive paint-bynumbers viewing experience, whereby the viewer’s eye is strictly controlled. Watching a Carpenter
film, on the other hand, is a much more active and engaged viewing experience, in which the viewer’s
eyes dart about the frame searching out important bits.
Once, while teaching Carpenter’s Halloween, I mistakenly showed the 4:3, pan and scan
version of the film. Watching with my students, I discovered very quickly that the experience is
radically altered from the experience of watching the widescreen theatrical version. Many of the
scariest scenes have little effect when the 4:3 ratio crops the frightening elements of the frame. The
most glaring example of this occurs in a scene where Michael Myers emerges from the shadows
directly behind Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis). In the original anamorphic version of the film, we see
Laurie at frame left pressed against a doorway in anguish (immediately after discovering the bodies of
her dead friends). While she is illuminated by a pool of light, the room behind her at frame right is
completely shadowed. The music stirs, a sharp crescendo of synthesized sounds, and Michael’s mask
just barely peeks out of the shadows, a bone-white glimmer in a sea of black. For me, this is easily one
of the most horrifying moments in cinema, speaking to the fact that horror/evil/monsters can emerge
fully formed from anywhere. Watching this scene as a child is likely when I first discovered that
shadows are not our friends.
The same scene is nearly laughable in the pan and scan version of the film, which most people
are probably more familiar with. (The pan and scan technique was widely used in the the early 80s
with the rise of the VCR, and Halloween, like many slasher films, was particularly successful on
video.) The 4:3 frame is cropped so that all we see is a close-up of Laurie’s face with barely a sliver of
shadow at her left. Her anguish seems melodramatic outside the context of the emblematic widescreen
frame. There is nothing epic or Jungian or allegorical or even scary about this version of the scene.
We hear the music cue (commanding us to be scared) as we’re still looking at her face, and the whole
thing just seems silly. Slowly, the camera pans to the right and discovers Michael Myers. The power
of our gaze is taken out of the equation. If we do feel scared, it’s only because the music and cameras
tell us to.
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The differences in how the two films are lit serves as a striking example of
their dissimilar cinematographic strategies. Christian Metz describes two types of
vision in “Identification, Mirror”: “All vision consists of a double movement:
projective (the ‘sweeping’ searchlight) and introjective: consciousness as a sensitive
recording surface (as a screen)” (804).59 In Carpenter’s Halloween, the lighting
approximates (or facilitates) Metz’s introjective gaze, piercing the viewer as it reveals
little pools of horror. We see what we’re only barely conscious of, what we try to
deny but know already to be true. We aren’t surprised to see a looming face in the
shadows, only by when and where it suddenly appears. The lighting invites us to
interrogate the frames and even to impose ourselves upon them. On the other hand,
the lighting in Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre imitates (or facilitates) Metz’s
projective gaze, fumbling around chaotically, framing its horrors by sheer accident.
We see what we randomly happen upon, what our eye glancingly discovers. The film
invites but then frustrates intellectual engagement. The horror in The Texas Chainsaw
Massacre is a blunt sort of trauma, whereas in Halloween it’s a more penetrating one.
The former bruises the skin, whereas the latter gets beneath it. One shocks; the other
bewilders.
59 Metz continues, “There are two cones in the auditorium: one ending on the screen and starting both
in the projection box and in the spectator’s vision insofar as it is projective, and one starting from the
screen and ‘deposited’ in the spectator’s perception insofar as it is introjective (on the retina, a second
screen)” (805). As described here, projective vision feels collaborative, with its images being created
by both the viewer’s brain and the camera/projector apparatus. Projective vision is a more intellectual
sort of seeing. On the other hand, introjective vision, as described here, feels almost violent, with the
word “deposited” suggesting that meaning is forcibly inserted into the viewer, that our intellectual
engagement with an image is undone by its more immediately physical effect. For Metz, every act of
seeing involves both of these processes; however, each viewer and each image might privilege one sort
of vision over the other.
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Early in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, we see shots of cows juxtaposed with
Franklin’s enthusiastic narrative describing the various methods used in the
slaughtering of cattle: “They bash ‘em in the head with a big sledgehammer. It
usually wouldn’t kill them on the first wick. I mean, they’d start squealing and
freaking out and everything, and then they’d have to come up and bash them three or
four times. And, then, sometimes it wouldn’t kill ‘em. I mean they’d skin ‘em
sometimes before they were even dead.” Ultimately, all of the characters are killed as
though they are cattle, either hit on the head with a sledgehammer, cut up with a
chainsaw, or impaled on a meat hook. After one of the victims, Kirk, is struck several
times with a sledgehammer, his legs spasm vigorously, echoing Franklin’s earlier
description of the struggling half-dead cows. Another victim, Pam, is found still
partially alive in a freezer. And, eventually, all of Leatherface’s victims are probably
skinned and used for meat in the human barbecue the characters themselves eat in one
of the film’s first scenes.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre engages us more on a sensory level than on an
intellectual one. We are assaulted by flashes of light, frantic camera movements, and
a cacophony of wild sounds (e.g., the music, which alternates between ear-splitting
screeches and low-pitched drones, Leatherface’s feigned pig-noises, lots of shouting
and screaming, and the incessant buzz of the titular chainsaw). It isn’t necessarily the
content of the images that upsets us but the way they are frenetically cobbled
together. We feel exhausted by the end, unsure of exactly what we’ve just seen. The
film waves its arms, wildly asking us to look, and then wonders why we do. The
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Texas Chainsaw Massacre leaves our ears ringing and our head aching, whereas
Carpenter’s Halloween is calmer and more methodical, leaving us reflective and
quiet. We don’t feel exhausted once Halloween is over; we feel stunned, mesmerized.
Carpenter’s film is less about why we look and more about what it is to look.
Halloween (1978)
Whereas many of the slasher directors who followed him seem to celebrate
gore and mutilation with an almost feverish excitement, John Carpenter is, in
Halloween, more contemplative, meditative even, about the body and its permeability
(by sharp instruments). The corpse in his film is decidedly pretty meat. Carpenter
shows little actual gore during the killings in Halloween, making the deaths in his
film almost cerebral in their execution. It is bodies postmortem, rather, that get the
most screen time. For example, we get an image of a dead woman laid out on a bed,
posed with a tombstone over her head. The stylization of this scene is striking, the
way Nancy’s legs turn demurely to the side, the way her arms are stretched out in a
Christ-like pose, the fact that her shirt has been pulled down carefully over her hips,
and the moon-lit tombstone that she almost seems to gaze up at. For me, though,
Michael Myers’s placement of a pumpkin on the nightstand overlooking the scene, an
on-screen audience member to the spectacle, seals the deal. Here, Michael’s created
an art installation piece here that is absolutely aesthetic, and Laurie’s reaction
supports this; she is first stunned and awed, as though gazing at a marvel, before the
terror sets in, almost as an afterthought.
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Roach offers a long expose on embalming in Stiff, writing cheekily that “it
will make a good-looking corpse of you for your funeral” (82), and I can’t help but
think that Michael Myers is also engaged in a sort of embalming (similarly cheeky
thanks to the grinning pumpkin).60 Like an embalmer, he’s compulsive, tidy even.
Murder for him is a sort of eternal preservation, a permanent fixing of his victim, the
way a photographer fixes her subject. He attempts to refashion the familiar from the
unfamiliar--to mold his victim’s flesh into a sculpture, a still-life of his dead sister.
He seems to identify his sister with her body in the opening scene, killing her after
she has just had sex as she brushes her hair in the nude. Michael has to keep killing
because his recreations of her are never satisfactory, the way the embalmed corpse
never looks quite like the person it attempts to recreate. Roach writes, “Life contains
these things: leakage and wickage and discharge, pus and snot and slime and gleet.
We are biology. We are reminded of this at the beginning and the end, at birth and at
death. In between we do what we can to forget” (84). Embalming is an attempt to
forget the inevitable, but the result never lives up to the hype. The body eventually
decays, losing its shimmer.
An earlier scene in the film explores Michael’s aestheticization of the corpse
even more overtly. Just after Michael stabs Bob in the kitchen with the butcher knife,
we get a quite beautiful and horrifying shot of Bob’s toes. The shot is poetic and
lyrical, especially when taken out of context, which makes it all the more disturbing.
60 Michael Myers is the most reflective of the long line of slasher killers that he spawned. It is fitting
that the events take place on Halloween, as we see him in three different costumes throughout the film.
He is dressed as a clown in the opening scene, as a ghost in another, and in his iconic spray-painted
William Shatner mask elsewhere (aside from one brief and probably agonizing moment when Laurie
reveals his face at the end). So, as he constructs these scenes, he is also self-conscious of his own role
as a performer in them.
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Here, I experience a moment of identification, a moment of the uncanny.61 As the
suspense of the moment subsides, my own toes uncurl, mimicking the action of Bob’s
toes onscreen.62 This is, for me, also an image of the abject. I’m, at once, disgusted
and fascinated by the toes, simultaneously drawn to and repulsed by them.63 There is
something almost alien about toes shot in close-up, something mystifying, something
almost but not quite amusing. As a mode of reading or viewing, the abject makes an
aesthetic of the anti-aesthetic, finds a horrible order in the strange or unexplained.
The shot in Halloween immediately following the one of the toes is even more
indicative of Michael’s project, the ambiguousness of which is what makes him so
terrifying as a slasher villain. There is no Scooby-doo moment in Halloween (or any
of the sequels), where Michael is unveiled and his motivations are made perfectly
clear. For me, though, this is the one shot in the film that truly gets at Michael’s
motivations for killing. After the close-up of the toes, we get a medium-shot of
Michael standing back from his victim. Bob’s body has been pinned to the pantry
61 David Morris writes in “Gothic Sublimity,” “for Freud, the uncanny derives its terror not from
something externally alien or unknown but--on the contrary--from something strangely familiar which
defeats our efforts to separate ourselves from it.” The uncanny is a particularly apt term to describe
our experience of dead bodies. We are terrified by them because they remind us of our own mortality.
With the uncanny, the horror generally comes from a feeling of “I’m not safe, because that could be
me.” The feeling is even greater when the corpse is the body of someone we knew living, due to the
corpse’s terrifying ability to simultaneously resemble and fail to resemble the person in life.
62
Carpenter seems distinctly aware of what Linda Williams argues in her work, that horror films are at
their most powerful when they force the body of the viewer to imitate the actions of the bodies on
screen.
63
While I would generally argue that the critical approach we take to the mediums of literature and
film is more similar than different, with regard to horror and the abject, there are important distinctions
to be made. Film tends to encourage a more visceral, a more immediately physical, reaction in its
audience, while the act of reading tends to engage fewer senses and generally in a more imaginative
way. Horror film, in particular, lends itself to an abject reading, because cinema also demands that we
look, captivating us in the way that the abject also does. It’s easier to put down a book than it is to turn
away from a film (particularly in a theater, where we are made even more captive by the darkened
room, fixed sits, and social conventions of theater-going).
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door by the knife jutting from his stomach. His body is limp but peculiarly upright.
Bob’s body is lit from the side by an unknown light source. The body almost seems
to glow, while Michael is in silhouette. The camera lingers on this frame as Michael
slowly cocks his head from side to side, seemingly in admiration of his handiwork.
He views the body as though it were a work of art hung on a gallery wall. The multipaneled window in the background echoes the film frame and calls attention to the
fact that we are also spectators. The audience, safely concealed by the darkness in the
foreground, is disgusted but transfixed. Many other slasher films have cameras that
zip through the action, giving the viewer just enough time to register their shock
before moving on to the next scene. In these other films, we get our voyeuristic thrill
without really paying for it, so to speak. Carpenter, however, gives us time to admire
his own directorial handiwork, thus forcing us to contemplate the images before us,
forcing us to share in Michael’s aestheticism. In doing so, Carpenter asks us to
question our enjoyment of scenes of violence and death.
This scene is in stark contrast to a moment in Tobe Hooper’s The Texas
Chainsaw Massacre, where Leatherface impales one of his victims on a meat hook.
Her body is decidedly not an aesthetic object. There is none of the meticulousness or
artistry of Michael Myers. Leatherface turns his back on his victim almost
immediately and proceeds to chop up another body on a table in front of her. He
doesn’t even bother to kill her before he impales her on the hook. She dangles from it
still alive; her body literally is just meat, neither beautiful nor ecstatic. It’s solid but
not substantial, like a block of meat, waiting to be carved up and dressed like a
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Thanksgiving turkey.64 The bodies throughout The Texas Chainsaw Massacre are
like refuse, heterogenous chunks of spoiled matter, a reading inspired by the sound of
the ruffling garbage bag at the opening of the film and then later by the bones and
organic debris scattered generously throughout Leatherface’s farmhouse.
The deaths in Carpenter’s Halloween owe more to Hitchcock’s Psycho than
they do to Hooper’s film. Like Carpenter, Hitchcock also plays with the idea of the
dead body as aesthetic object in Psycho. When we first see Marion Crane’s dead
body, the camera draws out very slowly (again, meditatively) from her eye before it
settles on a stark and artfully framed shot of her face pressed against the bathroom
floor. Taken as a whole, the scene is about performance, with Norman Bates in
costume, the theatrical gesture of him drawing back the shower curtain, and the eyelike drain and shower head in the shots just before and after we see Marion’s body on
the floor. (Like Marion’s eye, the drain and shower head are an onscreen audience.)
Marion’s eye, in this shot, is placed in the literal dead-center of the frame,
emphasizing even further that this is a scene about looking and spectatorship. Marion
appears to look even after she’s dead, a subtle reference to the fact that we the
audience might also look even after we are (at least figuratively) dead. Hitchcock’s
film either wakes us up and drives us screaming from our seats or else it stuns us into
silence.
Jean-Louis Baudry describes what he sees as the inherently passive nature of
film spectatorship in “The Apparatus: Metapsychological Approaches to the
64
This is an instance of the grotesque rather than the abject as I’m figuring it here.
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Impression of Reality in Cinema”: “Taking into account the darkness of the movie
theater, the relative passivity of the situation, the forced immobility of the cinesubject, and the effects which result from the projection of images, moving images,
the cinematographic apparatus brings about a state of artificial regression.” (773). In
short, we can’t move or speak (because theater-going conventions demand that we
stay still and quiet), we can see nothing but the screen (because the room is dark and
the chairs are fixed and face forward), and we can’t physically interact with the
images we see in front of us. Thus, Baudry argues that the act of watching a film is,
like the dream-state, passive and compulsory. We can decide whether to watch (or
whether to sleep) but we can’t stop the (film or dream) images once they’ve started.
We could walk out of the theater after the film has started, but we rarely do because
of the same set of conventions that keep us quiet and motionless. While I do find
many of Baudry’s points compelling, the horror film, as a genre, upsets many of the
premises upon which his argument is based. Viewers do frequently walk out of
horror films. (Famously, many viewers did run screaming from the theater when
Hitchcock’s Psycho premiered.) And we do interact with the images on screen in a
horror film, often talking back to them, as though we can somehow affect the
outcome. And many viewers remain neither quiet nor motionless.
Steven Shaviro writes in The Cinematic Body, “Cinema produces real effects
in the viewer, rather than merely presenting phantasmatic reflections to the
viewer” (51). This remark is in sharp contrast to Baudry’s arguments about the
passive film spectator. And I would say that this is even more true of the horror film.
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We are powerless before the assault of images in a film like Halloween. We are
mesmerized by the beauty of Carpenter’s frames but not to the point of their being
compulsory, as Baudry might claim. I’m more interested in the fact that we don’t turn
off the film even though we can. We don’t because film’s images are present to us in
a way that reality often fails to be. Our own lives have become illusory fictions to
such an extent that, ironically, we escape into the world of film for real experiences,
ones that engage our bodies more vigorously than do our cell phones and computer
screens. Shaviro argues that “film renders vision tactile” (53). Given that the
majority of our experiences are now screened, the fourth wall of the film screen is no
longer an impermeable barrier.65 Film is not compulsory anymore; it’s necessary, like
breathing and sunlight and human touch. It presents a world to us that at least
appears more solid than the 1s and 0s of Facebook and MySpace.
Susan Sontag suggests something similar when she says that “Photographs
objectify: they turn an event or person into something that can be possessed. [They
are] a species of alchemy” (81), turning an ephemeral substance (images) into a
tangible one (the churn in our stomachs and slow creep of goosebumps across our
skin). Shaviro takes this even further, saying that “images literally assault the
spectator, leaving him or her no space for reflection” (50). As with Roland Barthes’s
concept of the photograph’s punctum, which “pierces” and “pricks” (59), Shaviro
recognizes that our visual engagement with an image results in real physical, and
often violent, effects. I’ve previously described John Carpenter’s filmmaking as
65
Hitchcock foreshadows this development in the famous shower scene from Psycho, in which the
film screen is so scurrilously slashed to bits by Norman/Mother’s knife.
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cerebral; however, in order to thoroughly mess with our heads, he has to drill his way
in. So, Halloween moves back and forth from moments of quiet meditation and
moments of sensory abuse. Thus, an energetic scene in which Michael slashes
through the doors of a closet only to have Laurie gouge out his eye with a coat hanger
is followed almost immediately by one of the more overtly philosophical sequences in
the film.
Worn out by her struggles with Michael, Laurie leans against a doorway, using
it for support as she rises slowly to her feet.66 Her head is at frame left, hair mussed,
eyes cast downward. The closet, where she just fought with Michael, is at frame
right. Michael’s movement echoes Laurie’s own, his body unfolding inhumanly
behind her as he also rises to his feet. There is an artful symmetry to this shot, as
with many of the shots that depict the two of them together. They are linked and not
just because Laurie resembles Michael’s sister, as Dr. Loomis suggests, but because,
in gestures like this one, the two characters resemble one another. 67 After getting up,
Michael pauses momentarily and then lumbers toward her. This, and several other
framings throughout the film, suggests that the two characters are each halves of a
diptych, either exactly the same or else diametrically opposed. Either we are the
killer, or we are defined by our not being the killer. I would say that Carpenter means
both. There is certainly something of the killer in Laurie, a sort of vicious
66
We’ve seen Laurie in this position before. In fact, she seems attracted to doorways throughout the
film, a liminal character, perched at the threshold of our world and Michael’s--at the threshold of the
ordinary and the extraordinary.
67
In a sequence early on, Laurie sings the lines, “I wish I had you all alone, just the two of us,” a
fictional song improvised by Curtis on set. As she sings, Laurie walks away from the camera at frame
left with a skip in her step, while Michael watches, his shoulder covering nearly half of the shot at
frame right.
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superheroism, a fact that gets played up in one of the later sequels, Halloween H20
(1998), the climax of which features Laurie and Michael squaring off, mano-a-mano.
Even in the first film, Laurie is Michael’s double, a juggernaut in her own right,
leaping up at one point after falling from a second story landing and clearly better at
fashioning makeshift spears from hangers and knitting needles than we could
reasonably expect the average girl scout to be.68
In Halloween, Carpenter achieves an almost perfect cinematic dance, making
his points more powerfully by first unsettling the viewer. Feint, dodge, jab, repeat.
And he’s not afraid to kick us while we’re down. In fact, almost everything in the
film is a careful build-up to the haunting sequence of shots that close the film, which
68
Linda Williams describes this relationship as a specifically gendered one in “When the Woman
Looks” (1983): “In the rare instance when the cinema permits the woman’s look, she not only sees a
monster, she sees a monster that offers a distorted reflection of her own image. The monster is thus a
particularly insidious form of the many mirrors that patriarchal structures of seeing hold up to the
woman” (22). In this early work, Williams doesn’t really give horror films (or monsters, for that
matter) the credit they deserve, seeing them as symptomatic of traditional gender hierarchies. Her later
work challenges these ideas, in much the same way that Carol Clover does in Men, Women, and
Chainsaws.
Critics such as Clover have observed that Laurie Strode is rescued in the first Halloween by
Dr. Loomis. For some, this undermines the possibility of a feminist reading. The implication is that
Laurie isn’t the resourceful final girl she otherwise seems to be. Carol Clover, though, writes in Men,
Women, and Chainsaws, “To focus on just who brings the killer down, the Final Girl or a male rescuer,
is--as the easy alternation between the two patterns would seem to suggest--to miss the point. The last
moment of the Final Girl sequence is finally a footnote to what went before--to the quality of the Final
Girl’s fight” (39). Laurie grapples with Michael Myers in a much more intimately physical way than
Dr. Loomis, stabbing him with her knitting needle and crude coat hanger spear. And, in the final
moments, she wrestles with him, a flurry of limbs, and rips off his mask. The fact that Dr. Loomis
steps in and shoots Michael Myers out a window seems almost an afterthought. Michael is gone from
the ground before Loomis can even make it to the window to look for him.
All in all, the various instruments Laurie impales Michael Myers with seem altogether more
effective than Loomis’s gun, which is probably why Laurie is reluctant to take a gun when he offers
her one in the sequel. Ultimately, the ending of the first film is overwritten by the ending of Halloween
2, where Loomis’s gun proves even more inadequate. Taking another six of Loomis’s bullets in the
chest, Michael is still breathing. Then, Laurie saves herself this time by shooting Michael Myers in the
eyes. While Loomis attempts to kill Michael or to at least stop him from moving, Laurie goes for the
eyes in both films (with a coat hanger in the first and a gun in the second). Even though nothing can
stop Michael, she can at least disable him in a more important way. He keeps moving after having
both eyes shot out in the second film, slashing wildly, but he can’t kill Laurie if he can’t see her.
Laurie seems to implicitly understand that the act of looking is privileged in her world, the world of the
horror film, so first gouging out Michael’s eyes in the first film and then shooting them in the second
turns the gender and power dynamics on their head. She still sees the monster, “a distorted reflection”
as Linda Williams remarks, but it doesn’t see, or thereby control, her.
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take shrewd advantage of the exhaustion we feel after the incessant brutality of the
final scenes.69 First, Dr. Loomis shoots Michael repeatedly, six times to be exact,
forcing him out of a second story window. He walks to the window and stares at the
ground where Michael’s body should be but isn’t; his eyes drift upward as though
he’s come to a realization. Then, in the film’s last 30 seconds, we see the following
sequence of shots: the top of the stairs, where Michael recently attacked Laurie, a
frame bisected through its center by a banister; the living room couch, partly obscured
by dramatic shadows, with one of Michael’s butcher knives still lying at the bottom
edge of the frame; a series of doorways, sharp vertical and horizontal lines forming
almost a dozen frames within the frame; another set of stairs shot at an extreme angle
from the bottom step; the outside of a house with the front door just barely open; the
house across the street, a lit pumpkin grinning at us from the front porch; and, finally,
Michael’s own house, abandoned, with shadows from the leaves of nearby trees
dancing against the upstairs windows.
Each of these is a location where Michael appeared at some point during the
film. As the shots progress, we begin to hear Michael’s breathing in the background,
faint at first and then closer and closer until it sounds as though he’s just behind us,
inhaling and exhaling through his mask and into our ear. He haunts these places,
everyday places with drab furniture and muted paint. These are not just places in
69 As
I’ve made clear elsewhere, I don’t mean to imply that Halloween is gratuitously violent. In fact,
just the opposite is true. Carpenter’s film is all the more brutal for the fact that the violence is not
gratuitous. The scenes of violence aren’t embellished to the point of being cartoon-like. Carpenter
knows exactly where and how many times to hit us. A less sophisticated film might stupidly knock us
out, or shut us down, before we feel its final blows. Halloween knows exactly how many times to kick
us in the stomach, when to let us breathe, and exactly what buttons to press to bring us back to full
attention for another round.
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movies. This could be any house, the house next door, our house. There is no easy
catharsis for the viewer. We’re not safe when the credits roll. The world exudes
Michael Myers. He is always already waiting to pounce from behind our living room
drapes, inside our closets, under our stairs, and even from beneath our own skin. He’s
a fixture of our postmodern landscape, not exactly an invited guest, but an
acknowledged one. So, we don’t even bother to wish he wasn’t here; we just accept
that he is and know that here wouldn’t be here if he weren’t.
Part 3: We Wear Our Monsters Like Skin: Horror that Turns on the
Viewer
News radio reports at the opening of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, along
with narrated text that appears just before the film, create verisimilitude for the
audience, suggesting that the events on screen are real and happen to real people in
real places. The final shots of Halloween have a similar effect, forcing us to imagine
monsters like Michael Myers lurking in even the most ordinary of places. We assume
what we see on screen in these films could just as easily happen to us. The
documentary-style camera used throughout The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the
first-person camera made famous in Halloween make us feel as though we’re
watching the events unfold from amidst the action, as though we ourselves are caught
in the fray. Thus, we are the victims in these films, or the victims do at least stand in
for us, but we are also the perpetrators. We don’t follow Sally as she escapes at the
end of the The Texas Chainsaw Massacre; we (our view and the camera’s view) are
left with Leatherface, who is shown waving about his chainsaw in the final shot. In
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these films, the act of looking makes us complicit with the violence we see on screen.
Each of the texts I’m examining in this chapter make a monster of us by engaging us
vicariously, even sometimes sexually, in acts of extreme violence.
Judith Halberstam writes in Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of
Monsters, “We wear modern monsters like skin, they are us, they are on us and in us.
Monstrosity no longer coagulates into a specific body, a single face, a unique
feature” (163). 70 Our monsters are cultural creations, reflections of what we could
become and, more importantly, who we already are. They don’t have revealing
backstories. No matter how hard we try to explain them away, our monsters remain
pervasive. They come at us from all sides, always pushing, prodding, bending, and
bludgeoning. Halberstam says they are “like skin,” because we dress ourselves up in
them like clothing, using their features to help define and enhance our own. They are
“on us” like a slow-growth, sometimes-symbiotic fungus, a hanger-on. They are “in
us” like an infestation, eating but also feeding us from the inside out. In giving them
backstories, creating narratives about them as though they are distinct from us, we
futilely attempt to cover over their more incriminating details. Monsters don’t
“coagulate,” because they can’t be put neatly into a box. A monster like Michael
Myers is abject; he scares us, because he simultaneously is us and is
incomprehensible to us.
70
Halberstam writes further, “Postmodern horror lies just beneath the surface, it lurks in dark alleys, it
hides behind a rational science, it buries itself in respectable bodies, so the story goes. In one
postmodern horror movie, The Silence of the Lambs by Jonathan Demme, fear no longer assumes a
depth/surface model; after this movie (but perhaps all along) horror resides at the level of skin
itself” (163).
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The problem with Rob Zombie’s recent remakes of Halloween (2007) and
Halloween 2 (2009) is that Zombie tries too hard to explain Michael’s motivations.
In attempting to recast Michael Myers more overtly into the role of hero (or antihero),
the films make him far too intelligible, just another latchkey kid with rotten parents,
not nearly as mean a reflection of who we are or have become as a culture. When
he’s just a deranged psychopath locked-away in an insane asylum, he can’t emanate
from the living room drapes or spring forth from the stairs. Rob Zombie is a clever
(but perhaps too clever) filmmaker with the technical chops for this exercise but not
really the imaginative ones. Zombie, clearly a consummate horror fan, has lots of
great ideas in his Halloween remakes but doesn’t seem to know how to put them all
together. The films suffer, because they don’t understand the deeper philosophical
questions Carpenter poses in the original. Zombie’s remakes go for the jugular but,
like Grandpa in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, only achieve a series of glancing
blows. In trying to map or plot the making of a monster, the films end up being weird
biopics relying on silly clichés and thus fail to deconstruct the broader cultural
problems at work.
Dahmer (2002)
David Jacobson’s Dahmer works in just the opposite way, making its titular
character more (not less) enigmatic, troubling (rather than reenforcing) the cultural
stories we tell about our monsters. While the serial killer as protagonist is hardly a
new trope, it is taken to a rather sadistic level in this film, which draws the reader into
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the head of its main character, forcing us to empathize with (and, dare I say it, even
enjoy) his strange predilections.71 Jacobson’s film is as close to a first-person
narrative as is possible in popular film, allowing us to follow the actual Dahmer
through the course of a few days. Dahmer, though, in making its titular character a
mythic representation rather than a real man, doesn’t bare any resemblance to
conventional biopics. The film seduces its audience, much like Dahmer himself
would, luring us in with its well-crafted charm, only to rake us violently across its
darker leanings. Dahmer critiques our cultural obsession with serial killers--critiques
the way we get caught up in these stories as if they’re dramas unfolding distinct from
us and our lives. The film turns on us by drawing attention to our curiosity, by
revealing that serial killers are exactly a reflection of us, and not us at our worst, but
us at our most basic and fundamental.
Richard Tithecott, in Of Men and Monsters: Jeffrey Dahmer and the
Construction of the Serial Killer, argues that the image of the serial killer “says
everything and nothing, for it is ‘normality’ which stares back at us. The brief
glimpse we allow ourselves is enough to tell us what we want to know, enough to
frighten and delight us. It is ourselves we see. The serial killer is inscribed with the
power of unspeakableness, of meaning suspended, unheeded” (6). Our accounts of
the serial killer (both literary and biographic) regularly depict him as fantastic when,
in fact, he is wholly unremarkable. In Tithecott’s words, the serial killer is “the
71
Dahmer is descended from a long line of literary works that offer first-person accounts from the
perspective of a serial killer, including Poppy Z. Brite’s Exquisite Corpse and Joyce Carol Oates’s
Zombie (1996). Jacobson’s Dahmer seems particularly indebted to this last novel, which focuses on a
Dahmer-like serial killer and also plays with the reader by titillating and, then, indicting him in turn.
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perverse within the mundane” (18), something that undoes our sense of what is
ordinary, what is human, what is good. Like the monster in Mary Shelley’s
Frankenstein, our serial killers force us to reflect upon ourselves and our own
capacities for violence. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen writes in “Monster Culture (Seven
Theses),” “Monsters are our children. They can be pushed to the farthest margins of
geography and discourse, hidden away at the edges of the world and in the forbidden
recesses of our mind, but they always return . . . They bear self-knowledge, human
knowledge . . . They ask us why we have created them” (20). When we create
narratives around a character like Jeffrey Dahmer, giving him demon horns and a
gaping maw of flesh-shredding teeth, we make ourselves into something even
worse.72 We become the cannibals, devouring him and the many fictions we build up
around him and his body, oblivious to the fact that what we are actually engaged in
becomes a sort of auto-cannibalism, a feasting upon our own flesh.
Jeffrey Dahmer is a natural resource, as American as apple pie, except with
less apple and more meat in his pie. Characters like Hannibal Lecter, Leatherface,
and Michael Myers are not peculiar in their strangeness or unfamiliarity, but in their
utter recognizability. And it’s not exactly that we see ourselves in them (the Hannibal
Lecters or the Jeffrey Dahmers); it’s that they are an emblem of our culture, as
familiar (and even comforting) as McDonald’s or Coke, Target or American Idol.
This is what makes serial killers so scary. When Clarice Starling goes head-to-head
with Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, each sizing the other up from their
72 Tithecott writes, “With our condemnation of Dahmer as evil, we say, simply, he happened: there is
no need to explain the crime, to speculate about context, only to deal with him, the criminal” (39).
And, in dealing with him, we fail to deal with ourselves.
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side of the prison glass, we lose track of who’s being kept in and who’s being kept
out; they are the same species. Many readers are rightfully disturbed by the ending of
Hannibal, Thomas Harris’s sequel to The Silence of the Lambs, in which Clarice and
Hannibal walk off into the sunset together, a happy pair of cannibals on the run. 73
However, I understand this to be a logical extension of themes already underway at
the outset of Harris’s story. A very thin line (or plate of glass) separates us from our
monsters. Who we are is determined in opposition to who they are (or who we make
them into). We create our monsters, as Cohen claims, even as they create us.
Jacobson’s Dahmer presents its archetypal version of Dahmer as a Rorschach
inkblot, never holding the hand of the audience, never directly telegraphing its own
interpretation of what or who Dahmer is. Instead, the film draws us into Dahmer’s
world, disgusting us and titillating us with its scenes of overtly eroticized violence.
Male viewers and readers seem particularly targeted. Dahmer is a film about men
looking at men--a film about a man who violates and murders men. Numerous critics
have argued, to varying degrees of success, that the slasher film is geared to a male
audience. Dahmer uses that fact to its advantage, first drawing in its expected
audience and then implicating them in a particularly ruthless way. The male body
becomes something the film is about, specifically the objectification of the male
body, as well as its capacity for unexpected violence and aggression.
Dahmer is also about our capacity (as humans both male and female) to be
aroused by something that otherwise disturbs or distresses us. Jacobson makes the
73 Ridley Scott’s film version of Hannibal leaves off this ending, treating the subject more subtly, but
still deconstructs the human/monster binary, leaving the viewer wondering where the human ends and
the serial-killer cannibal begins.
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point rather viscerally that we don’t always have complete control over our desire.
The film does its cruel work, even if the viewer understands what’s happening on an
intellectual level, luring us into a rather horrifying trap, and then shining a bright
spotlight on us once we’re there. The film doesn’t pull its punches; it gruesomely
inserts them. Jacobson is not afraid to charm and seduce us into a scene only to
violently turn our expectations on their head, titillating us just before he viciously
chastises us for being titillated.74 In short, Dahmer is not a text we read or watch; it’s
a text that happens to us.
In the second to last sequence from Dahmer, we see Jeffrey (Jeremy Renner)
looking down at one of his final victims. He is cast in a red light with dark curtains
behind him. There is a theatricality to the entire scene, remind us that we are
watching a performance: Renner, the actor, playing Dahmer, the person, playing
Dahmer, the killer. The minimalism of the mise en scène suggests a lack of specific
context or locale. We could be anywhere, with anyone, so this moment isn’t just
about Jeffrey Dahmer but about the human animal. Jeffrey’s expression is one of
fascination and curiosity, his eyes scanning slowly up and down while his chest rises
and falls even as the rest of his body remains perfectly still. This is exactly the way
my cat looks just as it’s about to pounce. There’s a mild disinterest masking a barely
contained voraciousness, as though he’s relishing the moment of hesitation just before
he gobbles something up. The shot is brief but excruciating, with Jacobson
withholding the subject of Dahmer’s gaze; we squirm in our seats uncomfortably,
74 To use the words of Roland Barthes, from The Pleasure of the Text, “these terrible texts are all the
same flirtatious texts” (6).
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wanting desperately to see what he sees. The film plays its moments of violence like
flirtations, always luring and beckoning, as though the edge of the frame is a secret
corner for the viewer to peek around. The film implicates us in our desire to look and
in our enjoyment of what we see when we do.
Moments later, Dahmer’s hand plunges downward with a knife (that seems to
materialize out of nowhere). Again, Jacobson toys with the viewer, muting the sound
almost entirely as Jeffrey slides the knife through his victim’s chest and abdomen.
With the sound effects barely audible, hidden in a swirl of ambient drones, the knife
almost seems to slip through the flesh like butter. We strain to hear what little sound
there is, but it’s entirely non-diegetic, not meant to even simulate the sound of an
actual knife cutting through actual flesh. The scene has a dream-like quality, like
something out of a David Lynch movie. Jacobson cuts back to Jeffrey’s face, eyes
peering and mouth agape as his neck cranes to the side for a better view. Then, we
see a shot of what’s become of the body, sliced open from just below the sternum to
the naval. There is surprisingly little blood (none, in fact). The skin looks like a
heavy sheet of rubber, a mere facade. The lack of gore or visible organs beneath the
skin suggests that, like the snatched bodies in Invasion of the Body Snatchers,
Dahmer’s victim is hollow. The flesh (his and ours) is just a costume.
With the camera peering over Jeffrey’s shoulder, we see just the edge of his
hand as he tentatively reaches into the body, as though he’s trying to climb inside his
victim’s skin. The camera cuts methodically from Jeffrey’s reaching hand, to the look
of ecstatic curiosity on his face, to the strangely-serene expression of the recently
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murdered boy, seemingly unfazed by the man rooting around his innards. Jeffrey
inches slowly forward, up to his forearm in flesh, then his elbow. We hear the
muffled sound of his fingers fumbling through the goo. The next frame is halfconcealed by Jeffrey’s back, and this time we crane our necks to see what he finds.
Jeffrey’s face changes from an expression of diligent inquiry, with his teeth gnawing
lightly on his bottom lip, to an expression of shocked discovery, as his jaw drops and
eyes widen. He’s found something, and we clamor forward eagerly, moving to the
edge of our chairs, ready to tear a hole in the screen itself, but the scene shifts before
we catch a glimpse. We’re left haunted by the handsomely ordinary face of Jeffrey
Dahmer--left haunted by our own desire to see what he sees--to know what he
knows--our desire to be him even if only for the briefest second.
So many of us consume these stories of real-life horrors with rabid abandon,
in news stories, biopics, biographies, dramatizations, always looking for answers.
What motivates serial killers? Why do they kill? What happened to JonBenét
Ramsey? Was Michael Jackson murdered? We want these questions resolved so we
can put the story neatly back on the shelf. Like Halloween or The Texas Chainsaw
Massacre, Jacobson’s Dahmer doesn’t answer our questions, doesn’t let us off the
hook so easily. The film does cut Jeffrey open (and the figure of the serial killer more
generally), allowing us to reach inside, but we never get our fist all the way in; we
touch only the edges of skin, only the facade. The innermost flesh eludes us. There
are no easy answers; so, the film finishes, instead, by turning its gaze back upon us,
asking us why we continue to watch, and why we take pleasure in what we see (or fail
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to see). The only way the viewer wins with Dahmer is by turning it off midway
through, but we don’t realize that until after it’s finished, after we’ve already wetted
our lips and dirtied our forearms.
The best horror films don’t keep us safe; they turn their horrors upon the
viewer. Carol Clover writes in Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern
Horror Film, “It is not only the look-at-the-monster that is at issue here, but the lookat-the-movie. The horror movie is somehow more than the sum of its monsters; it is
itself monstrous” (168). So, the important questions become: Why do we subject
ourselves to these films? What damage do they do? What do we learn about
ourselves and our own bodies by watching them? Many critics believe that watching
horror is symptomatic of some fundamental depravity, that these films both reflect
and contribute to a basic cultural problem, an increasing hunger for violence and
violent images. I’ve argued, though, that the best horror films are not symptomatic
but serve to remind us of our physicality--to remind us that violence is not just an
abstraction, that even mere depictions of violence have real physical effects. We
watch horror films, then, to help compensate for our feelings of disembodiment in the
postmodern era, as a mild treatment for our increasing virtuality. I would argue that
the interactive medium of the video game, which I take up in the next section, offers
us an even more rigorous course of treatment.
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Part 4: The Traumas of the Interactive Text: A Defense of Violence
and Gore
Horror becomes us. That is to say, we are most afraid of the things that force
us to look at ourselves in new and uncomfortable ways. In the last section, I built
painstakingly slowly to the final moments, giving my reader every opportunity to
look away. I have no interest in sabotage. The best horror is consensual. As a genre,
the video game turns this on its head to a certain degree. In the virtual world of
interactive video games, we don’t just consent to acts of horror; we enact them.
Rather than simply being implicated in our spectatorial role as we are with filmed
violence, with video games, we implicate ourselves by playing an active role in how
the violence unfolds. Actions we take in the world are directly linked to the actions
of our onscreen character. So, when we see horrible acts of gore in the virtual world
of a video game, we’re implicated as spectators, but we’re also more directly
responsible for the violence that occurs onscreen.
When we swing our arm, real damage is done in the world of the game; but,
when the characters on screen swing at us, the impacts don’t translate into something
substantial in the world outside of the game. Our actions have consequences upon the
game world, but actions within the game world do not have physical consequences
upon us. Andreas Gregersen and Torben Grodal address this aspect of gaming in
“Embodiment and Interface”:
As motion sensing and other technologies increasingly allow body
schematics to be isomorphically mapped to a game space, we take
another step in making embodied interaction fundamentally
asymmetric: dishing out blows, blowing kisses, and petting one’s
virtual dog becomes eminently possible when one opens up this other
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channel of input with regards to the system, but the reciprocity in these
actions is not facilitated by the interface setup: input to the system may
be in the tactile modality, but system output serving as input to the
player may not. (80)
When we play a violent video game, our nerves fire and our muscles contract to
bludgeon a thug or shoot a shambling zombie; however, when the thug hits back or
when the zombie latches its teeth onto our character’s throat, we don’t suffer physical
consequences (except maybe a slight vibration of force-feedback from the controller).
There is a certain degree of safety in knowing that the characters onscreen are
functionally inert, that digital monsters can only ever do digital damage. However,
this brings me back to an important question about how we experience media, digital
or otherwise. I have previously argued that the events of a horror film do have
physical consequences, as well as emotional ones. When we see a body mutilated on
screen, we may not feel the cut of the knife, but we do retch and recoil. The same is
true of video games. When we see (or cause) extreme violence on screen, we may
not feel a powerful physical jolt, but our bodies do react, retching and recoiling all the
same. While video games may not attack us overtly via a “tactile modality,” they do
have the capacity to engage us viscerally, particularly games of the horror genre.
When I play video games, I’m less scared by what might be done to me and
more scared by my own capacity to commit horrible acts via my onscreen character.
Many cultural critics have asked whether watching violent films or playing violent
video games lead us to emulate what we see (or do) on screen. Simon Penny writes
in “Representation, Enaction, and the Ethics of Simulation,” “What separates the first
person shooter from the high-end battle simulator is the location of one in an
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adolescent bedroom and the other in a military base” (76). While Penny’s remarks
might seem extreme, arguments about video games inculcating violent behavior are
not at all uncommon and bear a striking resemblance to the rather conservative way
critics have approached the horror genre as symptomatic of cultural problems rather
than as a genre deserving of study in its own right. Penny continues, “Games and
interactive media in general can be powerful inculcators of behaviors, and these
learned behaviors can be expressed outside the realm of the game” (82). While I
don’t entirely disagree with Penny, I would add that we need to think more carefully
about the relationship between our actions in virtual worlds and our real-world
actions and impulses.
The acts of watching, engaging, and enacting can each be cathartic in their
own way. Interactive video games encourage us to feel responsible for our actions, in
a way that passive spectatorship does not.75 Several critics have made this same point
with reference to Grand Theft Auto (1997) from Rockstar Games, a video game series
that is both one of the most financially successful and one of the most publicly
criticized for its extreme violence and gore.76 The series’ most innovative and most
problematic aspect is its open-world environment. While there are specific objectives
and a rough story line, the Grand Theft Auto games invite the player to explore a
75 As
I’ve observed in my work on the slasher film, I do not believe that film is an inherently passive
medium. Many video games, though, do force an interactivity that film only makes possible.
76
Irene Chien writes in “Moving Violations,” “GTA IV has a remarkable capacity for making players
queasy with emotions rarely touched by videogames--remorse, melancholy, and self-doubt . . . The
violence can feel painful and wretched rather than uninhibited and exhilarating” (80). Benjamin
Hourigan offers a similar thesis in “The Moral Code of Grand Theft Auto IV”: “GTA IV is part of a
wider popular culture that sees violence as a spectacle. Unlike Hollywood action cinema, though,
videogames of this kind give players a measure of responsibility for events. As such, they are valuable
tools for exploring our moral responses to the unpalatable sides of our society and our popular
culture” (22).
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highly-interactive 3D environment and to interact with objects and characters in the
game world as they see fit. This allows the player a degree of creativity and
experimentation not possible in a more linear game--the player is able to interact with
the game world in ways that even the game’s designers couldn’t anticipate.
Appallingly, one of my first actions when I entered the world of Grand Theft Auto
was to knock over an old woman with a walker and beat her to death with a baseball
bat. These actions were not as much about testing the game’s physical limits as they
were about testing its moral limits. I quickly learned exactly what depravity the game
is capable of at its most extreme and what depravity I am capable of at my most
extreme.
I had a similar experience with another game, Lionhead Studio’s Fable
(2004), a medieval fantasy role-playing game where every player action has a role in
determining what sort of moral (or amoral) person the protagonist will become. After
playing the game to its conclusion, performing one good deed after another, my
character was surrounded by a divine aura and had a bright halo hovering above his
head. Once I finished the final quest, I wandered the game world, still invested in the
character I had spent so much time developing but unsure of what else to do with
him. As with Grand Theft Auto, I decided to test the game’s moral limits, curious to
see what a few less praiseworthy actions might have on my character’s moral
standing. The game is built on a system where every action adds or subtracts karma
points, which determine whether your character is good (sporting a halo, as I was),
evil (with horns sprouting from your head), or somewhere in between. During the
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course of the game, I had purchased a home and had gotten married (to another man,
remarkably, since the game isn’t afraid to challenge heterosexist conventions). With
no more official quests to occupy myself with, I wanted to see if there was a single
action that would turn me immediately evil, so I set out to do the most despicable
thing I could think of within the world of the game; I set out to murder my husband,
which didn’t turn out to be all that difficult. After a few mild protestations, followed
by some groveling, and then screams, my husband was dead at my feet.
Within the game worlds of Grand Theft Auto and Fable, I received very little
punishment for my actions. After murdering the old woman in Grand Theft Auto, I
was chased down and killed by the police, resulting in my getting to start the game
over with a clean slate. In Fable, I was shocked to discover that my actions had
basically no effect; even after the sudden and unprovoked murder, my character still
had his halo and was still surrounded by the divine glow. My actions resulted in a
loss of karma points, but the deficit wasn’t great enough to undo the many good deeds
I had done over the course of the game. When murdering my husband left me with
halo still intact, I pushed my experiment even further by murdering all of the
inhabitants of the town where I lived, all to no avail. My onscreen character still
stared back at me, doe-eyed, batting his lashes, the heavenly light of his aura and halo
not even slightly tarnished. However, even if the moral compass of the game was off
in these situations, my own was not. I felt the weight of my actions, experiencing
remorse and disgust as the sound of my husband’s screams turned my onscreen
character’s golden halo into a cruel mockery.
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Many of these games have been criticized for their ability to anesthetize us,
and particularly children, to violence. I would agree that it is certainly possible for us
to be anesthetized by these games, by film, and even by Saturday morning cartoons;
however, this is by no means a foregone conclusion. Susan Sontag asks in Regarding
the Pain of Others,
Does shock have term limits? . . . Shock can become familiar. Shock
can wear off . . . As one can become habituated to horror in real life,
one can become habituated to the horror of certain images. Yet there
are cases where repeated exposure to what shocks, saddens, appalls
does not use up a full-hearted response. Habituation is not automatic,
for images (portable, insertable) obey different rules than real life.
(82)
For Sontag, images and real life habituate us in different ways. Images are “portable,
insertable,” able to move more freely from one context to another. I would add that
the shock we experience with visual images is often increased as we become more
proficient readers of those images (and more proficient readers of our own shock at
those images). Younger generations, then, who have grown up in a culture of images
and have thus become especially savvy readers of those images, are actually less
prone to the sort of habituation that Sontag refers to. For this reason, I’ve been made
uncomfortable by the recent popularity of PG-13 horror. I’m not alarmed at horror
being marketed to younger and younger audiences. (I’ve always thought Saturday
morning cartoons were crueler and more senseless than the average horror film.) I’m
alarmed by the fact that this particular breed of horror, censored in its pursuit of the
PG-13 rating, is being marketed to younger and younger audiences. With censored or
cartoon violence, we are let off the hook, allowed to get off without paying for it, by
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cameras that cut away just before we see the sickening results of the violent acts.
With graphic violence, we are forced to reckon with what we see or enact, forced to
deal more directly with the repercussions of violence. Graphic violence doesn’t just
get our blood racing; it leaves real bodies in its wake. We do violence in looking at
an image, but when the image is censored, it isn’t allowed to do the corresponding
amount of violence to us.
Censorship is exactly the problem with Manhunt 2, also from Rockstar
Games. This game, which is set in and around an asylum, was quite famously
embroiled in a long ratings battle with the Entertainment Software Rating Board
(ESRB). However, I find the game more problematic in its censored version than it
likely was in its original, more graphically violent version. When the game opens,
our onscreen character is revealed in a short, fuzzy video sequence that shows him
strangling a doctor, a bloody syringe dangling from his arm. As the doctor falls to the
ground, clutching her throat, our character howls, looking upward and grabbing at his
head, as though something is trying to get out. The synopsis on the packaging
describes the plight of the game’s protagonist: “Waves of confusion and paranoia
crash over you. You have no idea who you are or how you got here.” The marketing
team’s use of the second-person here suggests that this statement also applies to the
game’s player. Like many of the games of this genre, Manhunt 2 begins in media res,
thrusting us into the action disoriented and with little sense of where we are or what
we are (or should be) motivated by. While escaping the asylum is an immediate
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objective, the ultimate goal of the game isn’t uncovered until well after the killing and
mayhem is underway.
The graphics throughout the game are mostly realistic with some dreamlike
sequences intercut with the action in an attempt to simulate the unstable mental
condition of the protagonist. However, whenever the player initiates an attack, the
graphics become distorted and surreal, a grainy burst of skewed angles, jarring cuts,
and blurred frames. We see flailing limbs, splashes of red, and, if we’re lucky, the
occasional decapitation, a prize the game reserves for the most deftly executed
attacks. Most of these moments come in three variations, not so gory, gory, and extra
gory, the level of which is determined through a sequence of well-timed buttonpresses. When the game was initially being readied for release, it was given an
Adults Only (AO) rating by the ESRB. Since most stores won’t stock AO titles,
Rockstar Games was forced to revise the game from its original version, reducing the
realism of the violence by distorting the graphics during these death sequences. The
result is that the game pulls its punches, allowing us to commit horrendous acts of
violence by swinging about the Wiimote, but then clouding the results of our actions
in a flood of impressionistic flashes.
After our first murder, achieved through a flurry of controller waving and
jabbing, we see our character throw up, a trope repeated sporadically throughout the
game, a signal of disgust at our actions more than remorse. I giggled somewhat
gleefully the first time I saw my character do this, because the game’s violence is
exhilarating more than it is revolting. “What a lovely night for a strangulation,” one
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of the game’s antagonists remarks just before we smash him to death with our fists.
At one point, as I watched another player pick up a table saw within the game, I
remarked, “Ooh, I want to see you kill someone with that,” and this reaction seems
the game’s raison d′être. In Manhunt 2, violence is its own reward. Manhunt 2
would have been more successful, and less contentious, I think, if the ESRB hadn’t
gotten their hands on it. If the game’s violence had been more graphic and realistic,
players would have been put in a position to question the morality of their own
actions. As it stands, when the onscreen character experiences disgust, throwing up
as he does on several occasions, the player doesn’t experience a similar sort of
disgust. When the game blurs the results of our violent actions onscreen, it also blurs
our moral response to those actions.
Another problem with Manhunt 2 is the way the game’s interface engages (or,
rather, doesn’t engage) the player. Here, I will compare it to Mad World (2009) from
Platinum Games, a much more successful and critically acclaimed game. Mad World
takes place in a postapocalyptic near-future where watching people kill each other has
become the new reality TV. The game’s graphics are composed of highly-stylized
black and white line drawings with bright red splashes of blood. While the game
certainly looks more like a cartoon than Manhunt 2 or most of the games of its genre,
Mad World doesn’t feel like a cartoon. The gameplay experience is loud and visceral,
at turns horrifying, upsetting, and delightful. We feel a sense of pleasure and
satisfaction at the ever-increasing level of violence, but the game continually
undercuts our pleasure through ongoing remarks we hear from a pair of commentators
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on the soundtrack. It is a happy game, but also a consistently ironic one, harshly
critiquing our culture’s penchant for making violence into a spectacle.
Both Manhunt 2 and Mad World use the Nintendo Wii’s Wii Remote (or
Wiimote) to map onscreen character actions to player movement. For example, a
quick downward thrust of the Wiimote in Mad World might be echoed onscreen by a
downward thrust of your character’s chainsaw, eviscerating a flailing thug on the
ground below you. The control scheme of Manhunt 2 is far clumsier than the control
scheme of Mad World. In Manhunt 2, the actions of the player via the Wiimote are
not mapped in a one-to-one correlation with the actions of the onscreen character. A
series of punches from the onscreen character is achieved not by a series of punches
from the player but by a frenzied and random swinging of the Wiimote and Nunchuk.
Based on the tutorial before the game, it appears the makers of Manhunt 2 attempted
to make the actions more distinctly mapped to player movement, but this doesn’t pan
out in the execution of actual gameplay.
The actions of the onscreen character in Mad World, on the other hand, do
engage the player in a more directly physical way. While the mapping is somewhat
abstract, it feels natural and intuitive. For example, when you want your character to
twirl around, you twirl your arm around. When you want your character to go into a
rage, slashing about wildly with his chainsaw, you shake your hand. So, the mapping
may not be exactly one-to-one, but it nevertheless feels one-to-one, mapping the sort
of neurological firing that might result in an action without requiring the entire action
to be performed by the player. The more one-to-one the mapping of actions in the
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world to actions in the game, the dirtier the player feels and the more the player is
forced to reckon with the implications of those actions.
Everything I’ve said thus far about interactivity does not apply only to video
games. As Linda Williams makes clear in her work, the filmic text can also be
interactive in the way that it encourages us to mimic the actions of the characters we
see onscreen. We also engage interactively with a film when we close-read it,
pausing on specific frames, running the images forward and back at various speeds,
and translating those images into words on a page. Roland Barthes writes about the
interactivity of written texts in The Pleasure of the Text: “What I enjoy in a narrative
is not directly its content or even its structure, but rather the abrasions I impose upon
the fine surface” (12). His use of the word “abrasions” suggests that there is
something almost violent about the way we interact with a written text. He also
suggests that reading is something we “impose” upon a text and not something a text
imposes upon us. Thus, Barthes talks further about how “applied reading” (12)
disrupts the “integrity of the text” (11). The word “integrity” is italicized (by
Barthes), drawing attention to the fact that applied reading doesn’t just disrupt the
value or moral character of a text; applied reading tears at the text’s cohesive fabric,
punctures its skin, rips its pages and paragraphs, dissects its innards. This is not only
what reading can do, for Barthes, but what it must do. The goal of reading is “not to
devour, to gobble, but to graze, to browse scrupulously, to rediscover” (13). Barthes
uses the word “read” in a sense more akin to the word “play” than to any traditional
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notion of what reading is, so his remarks could easily be applied to a more overtly
interactive text like the video game.
Whether we’re talking about video games or novels or photographs, the best
art is always interactive. While it is true that the newest generation of video games
engages us physically in their narratives, our arms waving about when we play Mad
World or Manhunt 2, the various other textual media have the potential to be equally,
and sometimes even more engaging. Instead of our hands, it’s our eyes and brains
that wave about when we look at a Cindy Sherman photograph or read a Joyce Carol
Oates novel, skimming, dodging, seizing. The way we interact with a narrative is not
predetermined by its medium. Certainly, each medium invites its own specific kind
of interaction, but it does not demand one. The video game controller rumbles, the
film image beckons, the pages of the book curl seductively, but what we do with them
is up to us.
Video game players are often depicted as addicts, attached to game machines
as delivery devices. They mindlessly punch away at buttons as their eyes scan the
screen, hypnotized, frozen, a mere extension of the interface, like the factory workers
in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Their flesh seems irrelevant, a mere vessel.77 However,
the stereotypical images of video game players is reductive and even potentially
dangerous, given just how much of ourselves each of us is handing over to these
virtual worlds. (Even if we don’t play characters in the worlds of Fable or Grand
Theft Auto, most of us have started playing characters in the worlds of Facebook,
77
This is a reference to a line from “The Second Renaissance” (2003), an episode from the Animatrix,
an animated series inspired by The Matrix, about our evolving relationship to machines.
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MySpace, and Twitter.) The best and most engaged video game players are the
antithesis of automatons, more fully awake to the images they see onscreen than most
people are to their daily lives, and the same is true of the most avid readers and film
viewers. When we play games, read books, and watch films, the distinction is made
hazy between our bodies and the bodies we see on screen and on the page. When
those bodies cut, our bodies cut. When those bodies are deconstructed, so are ours.
The body in pieces is an aesthetic object, but it’s also a philosophical one,
upsetting and reconfiguring our sense of who we are as individuals, who we are as
humans. The body in pieces reminds us that we are not just 1s and 0s, not just
appendages to our many machines; we are flesh, lively and ecstatic, solid but not too
solid. Directors like Carpenter, Romero, Cronenberg, or Hitchcock have made
careers for themselves out of deconstructing the perceived integrity of the human
body. Like the makers of video games, the best horror directors understand that
bodies do not always obey the artificial limits imposed upon them by culture. The
best horror directors understand that our bodies are not distinct from the ones we see
on screen. When we’re not cut up on camera, we’re cut up by the camera, and by the
various other narrative apparatuses I’ve touched on here. We’re framed and reframed
by the image, the screen, the word, the page, by the game controller. We’re drawn to
and fascinated by horror because the genre reminds us, more than any other, that we
have both outsides and insides, skin and guts, eyes and gray matter, ideas and
appetites. There are bodies being torn apart on screen, but the wondrous power of
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horror is its ability to remind us that there are also bodies in the audience, bodies in
our living rooms, bodies seeing, bodies playing, bodies reading, bodies screaming.
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“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,”
~ William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming”
“Act so that there is no use in a centre.”
~ Gertrude Stein, Tender Buttons
Chapter 4: The Zombie
Again, I ask, “Are our bodies just meat?,” returning to the question with which
I began this work. I have argued previously that, for us, flesh has become an
anachronism, that we have become, for all intents and purposes, meatless. The
zombie body, on the other hand, is all meat, textured, dangling, hideous meat. The
zombie body is both dead, ecstatic decaying flesh, and in pieces, with missing bits
and outer layers worn away to reveal its viscera. But, while their limbs and organs
may fall away, zombies themselves cling together, like ground beef, moving in packs
and attacking in mobs, as though clustering into groups might slow their ongoing
disintegration. The zombie body is lively, in many ways more lively than our own.
Zombies are the exact antithesis of pod people, the exact antithesis of us. Whereas
pod people are dull and desaturated, zombies are charged and relevant. In The
Cinematic Body, Steven Shaviro refers to “Romero’s pathetic zombies” (61), but I see
nothing “pathetic” about them. And, ultimately, neither does Shaviro, since he
dedicates a later chapter in his book to complicating the various ways zombies have
been read. In Gospel of the Living Dead: George Romero’s Visions of Hell on Earth,
Kim Paffenroth writes, “The food chain, or the circle of life, seems to end or be shortcircuited by their existence. Zombies fulfill the worst potentialities of humans to
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create a hellish kingdom on earth of endless, sterile repetition and boredom” (13). I
would argue, however, that zombies actually fulfill our best potentialities. They
short-circuit our food chain in exactly the right places. Ben Hervey concurs in the
BFI Film Classics edition on Night of the Living Dead: “Night’s pleasures come not
from restoring normality, but from dismembering it” (119-120).
My project is to recuperate zombies--to see them as more than mere objects of
fear and loathing. The humans in zombie films spend much of their time struggling
to avoid becoming zombies themselves, but almost invariably, the zombies triumph in
the end. My work diverges from most of the critical accounts of these films by
suggesting that these are, in fact, happy endings offering a different sort of
apocalypse--one with less menace and more play, less finality and more potential for
rebirth. Peter Dendle writes in The Zombie Movie Encyclopedia (2000), “Zombies
are people reduced to the lowest common denominator. The zombie is simply the
hulk, the rude stuff of generic humanity, the bare canvas; passion, art, and intellect are
by implication reduced to mere ornament. There is an existential component
inherently built into the genre if it’s read with even a minimum of allegory. The
zombie just is” (12). While the overall sentiment of this passage seems in line with
Shaviro and Paffenroth’s suggestions that zombies are “pathetic,” “sterile,” or
“boring,” the zombies are redeemed in Dendle’s last line. The zombie is in a way that
we are not. Like Frankenstein’s monster, the zombie disrupts conventional notions of
how we come into (or out of) being. We find ourselves drawn to zombies and
narratives about them, because they embody a part of us we’ve lost touch with,
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because they represent a physicality that is turning more and more virtual in the
technological age. We want zombies in our lives, because they offer something we
can’t get from representations, avatars, and emoticons. We want zombies in our lives,
because they have matter we can cling to, because they’re after (hungry for) exactly
what we’re afraid we’ve lost, the matter left in us. I don’t pity zombies; I admire
them.
Part 1: Why Bother Reading the Unreadable?: The Zombie’s
Semantic Instability
Zombie films have received a good deal of attention of late; however, there
are still very few critical examinations of them. Books like The Zombie Survival
Guide (2003) or The Undead and Philosophy: Chicken Soup for the Soulless (2006)
offer some fascinating points of departure for serious thought, but there is a lot of odd
miscellanea to wade through in the literary and critical zombie canon. Peter Dendle’s
The Zombie Movie Encyclopedia is one comprehensive text on zombies that I would
deem solidly good, but the theoretical introduction is quite short, and the book offers
only cursory looks at each of the films it discusses. It is a valuable resource,
nonetheless, because Dendle takes a truly critical eye to a nearly exhaustive catalogue
of zombie films. More importantly, he has a reverence--a respect--for his subject that
is lacking in much of the criticism and theory on zombies. Zombie cinema has not
been taken seriously on an artistic level. Meanwhile, the zombie itself has been so
often reduced to something purely metaphorical, and thus hasn’t been taken seriously
on a theoretical level. While I do enjoy a good allegorical reading, it is my claim that
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the zombie is not, in the main, an allegorical beast. It is exactly the opposite, a literal
sack of flesh, meat, and bones. Critics that get caught up in the zombie’s allegorical
register are making what I see to be a fatal error, turning away in the face of
monstrosity, even as it shambles and plods incessantly toward us.
Steven Shaviro addresses this tendency toward allegorical readings of the
zombie in “Contagious Allegories: George Romero,” a chapter from The Cinematic
Body, where he concludes, “The zombies are allegorical and mimetic
figures” (86-87). Shaviro writes, “The living dead don’t have an origin or referent;
they have become unmoored from meaning. They figure a social process that no
longer serves rationalized ends, but has taken on a strange and sinister life of its
own” (84). This resembles what I’ve said elsewhere about the zombie’s “strange”
relationship to language, which allows for an “unmooring” of static meaning and
cultural fixity. And yet, I don’t think Shaviro uses the word “sinister” with quite the
ironic panache I would hope for. Later in the chapter, he backs down somewhat from
the truly liberating possibilities of these initial suggestions: “I enjoy this sordid
spectacle [of zombie gore] only at the price of being mimetically engulfed by it,
uncontrollably, excitedly swept away. I find myself giving in to an insidious, hidden,
deeply shameful passion for abject self-disintegration” (103).78 Here, the abject is
figured as “insidious,” and the visceral abandon the zombie encourages is not gleeful
78 Shaviro’s insistence on reading the zombie as a “mimetic” figure is useful. While “allegory” implies
a distance between what the zombie is and what it means, “mimesis” suggests a pressing close, a direct
physical connection between the zombie as it appears on screen and its significance for us in the
audience. To read the zombie mimetically is to say that its flesh is about flesh. The zombie is quite
literally mimetic in its turning each human it comes into direct contact with into a copy or mimicry of
itself. Thus, when we read the zombie mimetically, we risk becoming zombies ourselves. Shaviro
calls this a “price”; I call it a “reward.”
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or revolutionary but “deeply shameful” and “hidden.” (Granted, it isn’t that he finds
the abandon “shameful” but that culture does.) So, even though the figure of the
zombie is itself “unmoored,” its own potential for unmooring us isn’t fully realized.
So, how do we liberate the zombie from its allegorical trappings? How can
we read the materiality of a strictly literary figure? What constitutes the flesh of a
zombie text? Roland Barthes writes in The Pleasure of the Text, “Text means
Tissue” (64). A book has weight, an odor, a certain texture in our hands. It has pages
that can be turned, torn, written upon, recycled, and burned. When we read, we
engage the physical object of a book in an intimate way, each of us handling books
with our own idiosyncrasies. Some readers will delicately cradle an open book in two
hands, whereas others will forcefully bend the cover back and pinch the book tightly
between the thumb and forefinger of one hand. We metaphorically engage the flesh
of a word when we become absorbed in how a word looks on the page, but we engage
the flesh of a word even more literally when we notice and concern ourselves with
how a word feels as it comes out of our mouths. Each word has a shape, a part of our
mouths, lungs, throat, or gut that it tickles or mobilizes into action. Film emulsion is
also a sort of flesh, a flesh that can degrade or dissolve, and film (especially horror)
has the potential to engage us in a truly visceral way. To analyze a text is to engage
its tissue, its flesh. The best literary criticism engages a text in a sensual, and even
erotic, way. In Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media, Laura U. Marks
calls this “haptic criticism” (ix). When we write about literary texts (especially
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audiovisual media), “the task is to make the dry words retain a trace of the wetness of
the encounter” (x).
The zombie is all text, because it is all tissue. Barthes wonders if “the
sentence is a body” (51), and I have said previously that “the zombie is all body.” So,
the zombie is also a sentence but, even more specifically, an “infected” one (to use
the words of Emily Dickinson). The zombie resists our ability to represent it with
language, but that doesn’t keep it from doing real work in the world. As a text, the
zombie refuses to play nice. In Jennifer’s Body (2009), a film about a girl who
becomes a demon after a botched virgin sacrifice, a mother in shock at the death of
her son is described as a “zombie mannequin robot statue,” the words jammed
together in an unhalting burst of syllables. The moment alludes to the way shock,
awe, and the abject disrupt our ability to use language. Here, it’s the zombie, in
particular, for which the character is unable to find the right word. This explains also
why the word “zombie” is used so infrequently in the genre and not even a single
time in Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Throughout the genre, they are more
often called “things” or “them,” as in “don’t let those things get in here,” “I was bitten
by one of those things,” or as one of the characters in 28 Weeks Later (2007) says,
“it’s just us in here, and them out there.” During the opening credits of Romero’s
Land of the Dead (2005), we hear audio snippets of newscasters as choppy black and
white newsreel footage flashes on screen. In less than one minute, the film’s
monsters are called all manner of things but never “zombies”: “dead,” “recently
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departed,” “unburied human corpses,” “they,” “them,” “it,” “these things,” and “these
creatures.”
The zombie doesn’t have language and isn’t representable by language.
Daniel Waters plays with this idea in the young-adult novel Generation Dead (2008),
a rare example of zombie fiction that does justice to the genre by being both stomachchurning and truly thoughtful about its subject matter. The zombies in Generation
Dead are high school students; in fact, it is only teenagers that are rising from the
dead. And, even though they’re social outcasts, the teenage zombies “live” mostly
ordinary “lives,” attending classes, going on dates, wearing plaid skirts, etc. And yet,
the fact that they’re dead remains a constant source of disgust and bewilderment for
the other students, who debate the nature of being dead and being living. The narrator
remarks, “Zombie was a word you just didn’t say in public anymore” (2). Then, later,
one kid says to another, “We are required to refer to them as the living impaired,
okay? Not dead kid. Not zombie, or worm buffet, or accursed hellspawn, either.
Living impaired. Repeat after me. Living impaired” (22). Throughout the novel, the
zombie comes to represent various disenfranchised persons, the physically
handicapped, the socially outcast, women (the first zombie Waters describes is a
teenage girl in a plaid skirt), and homosexuals. (One of the zombies joins the football
team, and there is much concern about showering with him.) The humor in these
moments derives from the fact that the zombie defies political correctness, defies
being reduced to categorical invisibility. As a metaphor, the zombie can come to
stand for almost anything, but it does not and cannot stand for nothing. Rather, the
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zombie has become hypersaturated with meaning. This is why metaphorical readings
of zombies can be so problematic and even futile. Waters recognizes this and so
crafts a postmodern novel that accounts for and profits upon the zombie’s cultural
omnipresence and its essential unreadability.
It’s not enough to say that the zombie is unreadable; rather, the zombie
disrupts the act of reading itself. The zombie defies representation by short-circuiting
the very structures that govern meaning-making. In this regard, the zombie is a
quintessentially postmodern text, a quintessentially postmodern body, forcing us to
rethink the ways that we (and our bodies) are constructed by language. The zombie is
content to eat our flesh, whether it has a word for “flesh” or not. Roland Barthes
explores the mimetic relationship between language and flesh in The Pleasure of the
Text:
Writing aloud is not expressive; it leaves expression to the pheno-text,
to the regular code of communication; it belongs to the geno-text, to
significance; it is carried not by dramatic inflections, subtle stresses,
sympathetic accents, but by the grain of the voice, which is an erotic
mixture of timbre and language, and can therefore also be, along with
diction, the substance of an art . . . Writing aloud is not phonological
but phonetic; its aim is not the clarity of messages, the theater of
emotions; what it searches for (in a perspective of bliss) are the
pulsional incidents, the language lined with flesh, a text where we can
hear the grain of the throat, the patina of consonants, the
voluptuousness of vowels, a whole carnal stereophony: the articulation
of the body, of the tongue, not that of meaning, of language. (66-67)
For Barthes, words and language have a material quality. However, he takes this a
step further when he describes “writing aloud,” vocalizations that bring character and
not content to words, shifting value almost entirely from the signified to the signifier.
And so, when we say that zombies don't have language, that they only grunt and
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groan, we are both right and wrong. It is true, in a certain sense, that they don't speak.
They don't make phonological sense. They don't shout messages and ideology. They
don't stand on soap boxes. Or carry signs. They don't chant or rally or march in
unison. They don't write novels or epic poems. They don't tell secrets. But they
do utter. They do scream. And howl. And dance. And sing. They speak in mantric
repetition, wearing their flesh on their words, consonants dripping, vowels oozing.
And when they do march, they drag their feet, with a whispered sentence cut short as
their fleet slide lurchingly across the ground. The zombie confounds our ability to
represent it with language even as it defiantly represents itself, speaking with tongues,
proclaiming its own monstrosity with a confused shamble and a (re)intelligible moan.
Part 2: When We Look, We See Monsters: The Zombie Gaze in Night
of the Living Dead
Most critics read Night of the Living Dead as a film about politics and 1960s
America. Much of this critical work seems to use Romero’s film as merely a means
to an end in making larger socio-political arguments about gender, capitalism, war,
etc. Tony Williams argues in The Cinema of George A. Romero that the film
“thematically interrogate(s) the dysfunctional mechanisms of a deeply disturbed
society. It explicitly presented the image of an America in which the old values were
now harmful and obsolete, leading to a chaos very few would survive unless some
drastic personal, political and social change would follow” (32). It’s telling that
Williams uses the past-tense when describing the film here, suggesting that it did (and
no longer does) its political work--that the film is contextually dead to us. However, I
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would argue that, like all the best literary texts, Night speaks to us in the perpetual
present. Thus, my work offers a still-relevant theoretical account of the film and of
the zombie, as opposed to a purely historical or ethnographic one. That work has
been thoroughly (even exhaustively) done. There have been numerous treatments of
the zombie that trace its evolution from its origins in early Caribbean travel literature
to its first appearance on film in Victor Halperin’s White Zombie (1932) to the birth of
the contemporary zombie in Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. As a figure, the
zombie does indeed have cultural significance, but my work here is more interested in
its philosophical significance.
Night of the Living Dead is an invasion narrative, as are most zombie films.
In this regard, the film is heavily influenced by Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963). Like
the titular beasts in Hitchcock’s film, the zombies invade the home, the city, the
culture, but even more importantly in Night, they invade the self, like a disease, an
infection, a transformation that takes root in us and undoes us from the inside out. In
this, the story of the zombie is a story of colonization--reverse-colonization to be
exact, a story where the Other finally has its day. Achille Mbembe asks in On the
Postcolony, “If one is not a human being, what is one?” (174). In the colony, as
Mbembe figures it, there are no individuals. There are only “things.” Thus, he talks
about “the being-a-thing of the colonized” and, while he mostly limits his discussion
of thingification to the colonized, he also describes the colonizer as a “long-fingered
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thing” (239).79 The colony, for Mbembe, is a locale without human subjects--or at
least without live ones. For Mbembe, the human in the colony is always already
fading--always already extinguishing or being extinguished. And being depends, in
Mbembe’s vision, on unbeing.80 My argument in previous chapters has revolved
around an idea that I’m only putting words to just now: in the postmodern era, we
have become colonized by our technology and its cultural infrastructures. Mbembe’s
colonizer literally and figuratively feeds on the colonized, in much the same way that
I’ve described our so-called technological innovations feeding on us, being only in
relation to the annihilation of being. “If one is not a human being, what is one?,”
Mbemebe asks, and I will take a stab at an answer, nervously aware that my fingers
are beginning their dance: “then, one is a human being undone.” It is this figure, the
79
In describing colonial reason, Mbembe draws further attention to the thingness of the colonizer. He
writes, “From the standpoint of so-called objective thought--as from the standpoint of colonial reason-the answer is simple. I have to project myself intentionally outwards and treat what is not myself in a
certain way: in the terms of opposition, by distancing myself from it and, if need be, projecting against
this non-I an inhuman gaze” (191). Here Mbembe puts himself in the position of the colonizer,
offering up a sort of speculative ventriloquism. Mbembe, though does not explicitly identify or
acknowledge his own thingness and the inevitable thingness of theory.
80 Here, I would distinguish between “unbeing” and “nonbeing.” “Nonbeing” is the opposite of being
while “unbeing” is a slow process or movement toward the removal or obliteration of being--not a
simple negation or destruction but a methodical undoing.
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human being undone, and the mode of their undoing that is the subject of On the
Postcolony. And it is this figure that I turn to here.81
About fifteen minutes into Night of the Living Dead, Barbara, the female
protagonist, encounters a corpse on the stairs of the farmhouse, the rare body in the
film that is totally unmoving and assuredly dead. She climbs tentatively, one hand
clutching the railing while the other presses firmly against the wall. Shadows from
the banister criss-cross the frame, indicating the presence of multiple light sources.
Barbara’s own shadow is doubled on the wall behind and in front of her, suggesting
that her identity is beginning to fracture. As Barbara comes upon the corpse, there is
a cut to a close-up of her face in chiaroscuro, a dark shadow concealing all but the
edge of her right eye, mouth, and chin. The shadow tracks slowly across her face as
her eyes widen and her mouth opens into a scream. We hear a non-diegetic scream on
81 This argumentative leap from Mbembe to zombies is not haphazard. In fact, the zombie is a figure
in Mbembe’s work, even if only an implicit one. Mbembe writes, “A sliver of flesh that dribbles
endlessly, the colonizer’s phallus can hardly hold back its spasms, even if alleging concern about tints
and odors. Taut as a bow, it sniffs everywhere, uncovers itself, strikes out, grates, knocks, and moans.
It never wilts until it has left its stream of milk, the ejaculation. To colonize is, then to, accomplish a
sort of sparky clean act of coitus, with the characteristic feature of making horror and pleasure
coincide” (175). After a rather explicit, and even stimulating, comparison of ejaculation and the
colonial project, Mbembe refers to colonization as “a sort of sparky clean act of coitus.” These words
are pure irony and draw attention to the ridiculous, over-the-top quality of the preceding description.
Here, Mbembe throws a punch line on a joke he has spent two pages developing. Colonization is not
“sparky,” is not “clean,” not even “sort of.” It is, as he says in the next line, that place where “horror
and pleasure coincide.” It is a place of the grotesque, a “meta-text . . . about the beast,” and a “site of
the strange and monstrous” (1). It is the crudely mischievous mixing of forms, a reversal, a sickening
feeling that is inappropriately sexy, a horrifying discomfort that barely contains laughter. It is a deathly
undoing. A syncopated rhythm. An orgasm. A zombification.
Mbembe writes, “Colonial language thus advances, deaf to its silent vibrations and endlessly
repeating itself” (178). There is a sense of monotony in this quotation, particularly in the phrase
“endlessly repeating,” also suggested by the “endlessly” dribbling phallus and the repetitive language
in the previous example. The colonizer (with his language and rhetoric in tow) “advances” like the
zombie toward its prey, grasping and biting randomly, “deaf” but hypnotized by the sweet smell of live
flesh. Like the zombie, the colonizer also feeds, for “above all, there is the relationship between death,
body, and meat” (200). However, in Mbembe’s vision, the colonizer’s cannibalism may seem slightly
more epicurean than the zombie’s. The colonizer, after all, has “recipe[s]” (197) and serves up his
meat “on a platter of gold and silver” with “champagne” (201). But Mbembe, nevertheless, makes
plain that “power, in the postcolony, is carnivorous” (201). And, after being devoured, the colonized
become zombies themselves, further perpetuating the project of colonization. Thus, like the vampire,
the zombie, and the ghost, the colonizer also has the power to turn his victims.
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the soundtrack, a short burst, distorted and out of sync with the image, as if the
cinematic apparatus itself screams and not Barbara. I would describe the next cut as a
“shock cut,” even though this designation isn’t technically accurate. We’re still in the
same house, and continuity suggests that the body lies on the floor directly in front of
Barbara, and yet there is something unusual and otherworldly about the image of this
corpse, as though we’ve left the world of the film and are looking at something real,
something altogether more visceral and less fantastic than the cartoon-like zombie
that Barbara has just been chased by.
The flesh hangs; the teeth are jagged and bloody; and the top of the face is
framed by a thick layer of shiny, black goo, what looks to be a mixture of dirt, blood,
and mold that creeps across what’s left of the skin. The black substance fades into the
shadows, an utter darkness that consumes nearly half the frame. The one eye of the
corpse gazes unblinking at Barbara, a single bead of light reflected in its eye. The
shot seems a fairly clear allusion to Hitchcock’s depiction of the body of Marion
Crane in Psycho, another figure who does an inordinate amount of looking even after
she’s dead. Like Marion, this body performs its deadness, aware that there are
cameras about, although this time the performance is a mockery. The teeth gape in an
absurd lipless grin but don’t pose any real danger to Barbara, at least not any physical
danger. This body doesn’t threaten to climb toward her; still, the one eye offers an
invitation, a coy seduction, a suggestion that she might climb toward it. This moment
represents a turning point for Barbara, the moment at which she forgets selfpreservation and begins her descent into catatonia and hysteria. At one level, the shot
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is about the thingness of flesh--about the gross fact of death and the carnage that
resides in us, oozing just beneath a thin layer of skin. There is also something more
figurative at work in this image, a meditation on where death comes from and the
conversations we have (or are sometimes forced to have) with it.
It might be more apropos, then, to describe this sequence as a “shot/reverseshot,” an intimate interaction between Barbara and this disturbing figure she happens
upon. For much of the film, Barbara is essentially a pod person, a mindless slave to
the will of the group. At the outset, her hair is neatly coiffed, her outfit meticulously
put together, and her skin is coated to the point of being nearly reflective. She
verbally spars with her brother in the opening scene, but her familial obedience
suggests that she isn’t exactly willful. (Her brother takes the more rebellious position
in their argument.) After coming across this body in the farmhouse, though, she
begins a downward spiral--becoming more and more disheveled and slowly falling
out of sync with the world (and the people) around her. With its one-eyed ogling,
absurd grin, and dripping putty for skin, the dead face offers Barbara an alternative, a
physicality she has clearly lost touch with. In the shot/reverse-shot sequence, her
impenetrability is set in contrast to the literal and metaphoric porousness of the dead
flesh before her. Whereas Barbara resembles an embalmed cadaver with her
monochromatic skin and sterilely powdered lids, the dead body is markedly uncured,
textured, heterogenous, inviting her (and us all) to become just a bit more frayed
around the edges. Whereas Barbara’s character presents us with a pure stereotype, a
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signifier with just one oversimple signified, the damsel in distress, the corpse is
polyvalent, a signifier with multiple, complex signifieds.
Ben Hervey uses quite vivid language to describe this sequence: “That alien
squall sounds again,” he writes, referring to the sound-effect that stands in for
Barbara’s scream, “and a savagely abrupt zoom pushes our face into a corpse’s.
We’re realising that Night means to confront us with death more starkly than a horror
film should. The face is hideously incomplete, raw and seeping. In this light, it’s
hard to tell: has rot set in, or has someone torn the lips from those grinning teeth,
peeled the lids from those eyes?” (41). Like the victims in The Texas Chainsaw
Massacre or Halloween, this is an image of the body in pieces, a body that is dead but
remains somehow lively. The words Hervey uses call attention to this, particularly
“seeping” and “grinning,” active present participles suggesting that, no matter how
dead, this head still remains animated. The body in pieces moves even when it would
be otherwise implausible, like a lizard’s tail that wags and flops even after it has been
severed from the body. Even the camera itself is jolted into action with its “savagely
abrupt zoom” that “pushes” us violently toward the corpse. As Hervey points out,
Romero brings us face-to-face with death in this shot (and others), and what we see is
not what we expect to see. When we look at death, when Barbara looks at death, it
moves and moves her.
The brief sequence of shots where Barbara encounters the body follows a
scene in which we’ve watched her carefully investigate the house where she’s taken
shelter. Throughout the scene, she seems resourceful even if also somewhat
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maladroit, stumbling in a slowly-creeping panic. She wades through shadows, darts
in and out of a doorway, and then digs through a kitchen drawer to find a butcher
knife that she hugs briefly to her breast like a crying baby. She hesitates as she enters
another room, surprised by a series of random objects strewn about the floor, which
she carefully steps over as though they were land mines. We see more shots of
doorways, a total of 12 doors or doorways altogether in the 3-minute scene (8 open
doorways between rooms, the door Barbara closes upon entering the house, a closed
pantry door, the closed doors of a large cupboard in the kitchen, a closed black door
with a white knob). Barbara nervously peeks through many of these, hesitating at the
threshold, her fingertips scraping the doorframe. Of course, the house is also filled
with windows, thresholds the house’s human denizens spend much of the film
barricading and defending from the zombie onslaught. As she investigates the house,
Barbara pulls back curtains and looks out two different windows, watching the
zombies stumble about outside. She takes an active, investigative gaze throughout
the scene, suggesting that she isn’t the quivering damsel many critics of the film have
made her out to be. While she certainly becomes more passive over the course of the
film, I would argue that she is merely biding her time, waiting for just the right
moment to pounce, like the plethora of taxidermy animals that adorn the walls of the
farmhouse, empty and unmoving shells with a sudden menace when the camera
comes at them from just the right angle.
We see Barbara framed with these taxidermy animals in several shots
throughout the film. Her character also becomes clearly associated with windows and
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doorways (the car window that is smashed in early scenes, the doors and windows
inside the house, and the doorway she is pulled out of at the end). Both of these
associations establish and illustrate the role she plays for much of the film, a liminal
character caught between the world of the living and the world of the dead. She
begins the film as a mourner, paying respect at a cemetery to her dead father and later
mourns the death of her brother, who is killed by a zombie in the first scene. In
America, we are reluctant to let go of our dead--reluctant to let them stay dead, being
caught up instead with a desire to reconstruct and adorn their flesh as though it were
still living. Barbara is also reluctant to let go of the dead, but she discovers another
way to deal with this dilemma, becoming first fascinated by the dead, and then deader
and deader herself as the film progresses.
Barbara attempts to run from the house after her encounter with the body on
the stairs, but her escape is interrupted as Ben, the film’s other main protagonist,
arrives on the scene, not exactly the benevolent rescuer he seems. After being
ushered back into the house by Ben and his threatening tire iron, Barbara is drawn
immediately back to the stairs, seemingly hypnotized by the lurking presence of the
corpse. Its flesh whispers a siren’s call, and she moves back toward it, with eyes
fixed and mouth agape. Ben’s flurry of questions goes unanswered. “Do you live
here?” She doesn’t. She clutches the knife, now pressing the blade toward her chest,
as though she might use it on herself. Ben sees her looking at something, sees the
body himself, and turns away from it instantly. “Jesus,” he exclaims. And, still, it
beckons. Barbara moves forward, seeming almost to forget the body, but she
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hesitates again. Her gaze rakes sharply upward as one hand reaches out, a look of
curiosity and longing coming across her face. She hears a dripping and looks down at
the pool of blood near her feet, eyes still transfixed. There are two more “savagely
abrupt zooms,” the music swells, and several drops of blood hit Barbara’s hands. She
runs from the stairs wiping at her hand vigorously, then brushing it against her coat,
before finally rubbing it against her hair and face, all with a disgust that looks more
like ecstasy.
Later, after Ben kills several zombies in and around the house, Barbara is
captivated by another body, this time a zombie laid flat on the living room rug, the
victim of a recent pummeling from Ben’s tire iron. Hovering again in a doorway,
Barbara moves toward the body on the rug as though she is herself a zombie, slackjawed with halting footsteps and unblinking eyes. The body is, to her, a mystery that
she yearns to unravel, a puzzle, like Henry James’s figure in the carpet.82 Here, there
82 Shot in close-up during this scene, the dying zombie’s face is surrounded by densely woven and
intricately patterned carpet. The pattern looks almost like a topographical map, or like a series of chalk
outlines, drawn one on top of the next, suggesting that more than just this one body has died here--that
our very geography as humans is constituted by layers upon layers of death. And, in Night, this is
exactly the place we find ourselves.
In “The Figure in the Carpet,” James writes in the voice of one of his characters, himself also
an author, “‘There’s an idea in my work without which I wouldn’t have given a straw for the whole
job. It’s the finest fullest intention of the lot, and the application of it has been, I think, a triumph of
patience, of ingenuity. I ought to leave that to somebody else to say; but that nobody does say it is
precisely what we’re talking about. It stretches, this little trick of mine, from book to book, and
everything else, comparatively, plays over the surface of it. The order, the form, the texture of my
books will perhaps some day constitute for the initiated a complete representation of it. So it’s
naturally the thing for the critic to look for. It strikes me,’ my visitor added, smiling, ‘even as the thing
for the critic to find.’” Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and the rest of his Dead films are filled with
just this sort of “trick,” which James describes, moments that pass with barely a notice but reveal
themselves to be intricate and layered on closer inspection. In interviews, Romero is often rather coy
about the social and philosophical significance of his films, insisting that many aspects were entirely
unintentional, realized by him only after the fact. These comments, though, are generally said with a
wry glimmer in his eye and a laugh, suggesting that he is and was more aware of potential
interpretations of his films than he lets on. While it seems a bit of a stretch, I wouldn’t be surprised if
this moment from Night of the Living Dead is a conscious allusion on Romero’s part to James’s short
story, an invitation or challenge to the viewer and critic to find and uncover the “tricks” and “secrets”
hidden within his own film.
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is another shot/reverse-shot sequence between she and the zombie. The zombie’s
eyes move ever so slightly, and a look of acknowledgment comes across Barbara’s
face. Ben shouts at her, “Don’t look at it!” But she continues to follow the body with
her gaze as Ben drags it violently from the room. Hervey writes, “Barbara has seen
too much. It’s not some medusan ugliness that makes looking at these ‘things’
dangerous: it’s because they’re too like us” (47). He calls Barbara’s encounter with
the zombie “dangerous”; however, Steven Shaviro figures it in much more positive
terms: “We cannot in a conventional sense ‘identify’ with the zombies,” because they
have no identity to speak of, “but we are increasingly seduced by them, drawn into
proximity with them” (96-97).83 When Barbara looks, she feels pity but also
attraction and recognition. She sees something of herself in the zombie’s face,
something she already is and something she wants to be.
In “When the Woman Looks,” Linda Williams discusses the connection that is
often drawn in horror films between the woman and the monster. Specifically,
Williams refers to “the often vindictive destruction of the monster in the horror film
and the fact that this destruction generates the frequent sympathy of the women
characters, who seem to sense the extent to which the monster’s death is an exorcism
of the power of their own sexuality” (24). Thus, the monster’s “freakishness” is
revealed to be “similar to [the woman’s] own difference” (21). Williams recognizes
that the woman is allowed to control the gaze in horror films but only through her
83
Tony Williams also offers a relatively positive account of Barbara’s look at the zombie: “This is the
first appearance of a compelling gaze between humans and zombies, which will occur throughout the
trilogy. Despite the barriers separating both species, the looks often exchanged between hunters and
hunted hints at some deep, unconscious connection between the living and the dead” (27).
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look at or toward the monster (a departure from Laura Mulvey’s notion that the gaze
in film is always male). Williams writes, “In the rare instance when the cinema
permits the woman’s look, she not only sees a monster, she sees a monster that offers
a distorted reflection of her own image. The monster is thus a particularly insidious
form of the many mirrors that patriarchal structures of seeing hold up to the
woman” (22). In her work on the monstrous-feminine, Barbara Creed takes this one
step further to say that the woman often is the monster (if not literally than, in many
cases, symbolically). Williams is ultimately quite critical of the roles offered to
women in the horror film, while Creed’s take on horror films is more generous.
Neither, though, fully reclaims the monster as a feminist icon in the way, for example,
that Helene Cixous does in “The Laugh of the Medusa.”84
For Williams, the monstrous body is a distorted body, with a certain (and
demanding) to-be-looked-at-ness, much like the body of the woman as it is figured in
“Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Laura Mulvey’s analysis of the way film
functions within patriarchal culture. In this essay, Mulvey is less interested in
individual films (offering only very cursory analyses) and more interested in the way
the medium of film itself works to undermine female agency. Mulvey writes, “In a
world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/
male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the
female figure which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role
84
Society paints the sexually grotesque she-monster in stark contrast to the well-adjusted normal
woman, but Cixous turns this opposition upside down. She does not fear the Medusa but rather
reclaims her as a post-structuralist icon: the monstrous birth in the throws of postpartum ecstasy--the
embodiment of freeplay and feminine multiplicity (for she has not one mouth but many and they are all
laughing).
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women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for
strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-atness” (33). According to Mulvey’s argument, the woman in film is a bearer of
meaning, not a maker of meaning. She is pure signifier, all dressed-up for maximum
erotic impact. She is spoken but does not speak. She is an object of the gaze but does
not look. Mulvey flirts with the idea of a female spectator in the final paragraph of
the essay, but she never appears.
In “Women and Representation: Can we Enjoy Alternative Pleasure,” Jane
Gaines critiques Mulvey’s failure to allow women a spectatorial position: “The very
questions that Mulvey did not address have become the most compelling: Is the
spectator restricted to viewing the female body on the screen from the male point of
view? Is narrative pleasure always male pleasure?” (84). Thus, Gaines figures the
subject position of film as not invariably masculine, and while women are frequently
objects of the gaze, they are not its only object.85 I will describe (not define) the
feminine gaze, even though my attempt will be inadequate at best, considering the
slipperiness of the term and the diversity among spectators who adopt this gaze: what
the masculine gaze objectifies, penetrates, the feminine drinks, absorbs--but this is not
to say the two are exactly in opposition. The feminine gaze is already in opposition
to itself. It sinks (sharing not hiding its interior), and it transcends. It is erotic but
does not get aroused only by the superficial image. It is associated with but not
85
Gaines’s point here also departs from the work of Mary Ann Doane, who writes in “Film and the
Masquerade,” “the female spectator’s desire can be described only in terms of a kind of
narcissism” (45), a comment suggesting women are always the object of the gaze even if they are also
the possessor of it. In Doane’s account, the female gaze is necessarily turned upon itself.
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titillated by the body or its parts in isolation. It has its own order. It avoids rigid
distinctions, bites but does not eat, devours but does not digest. It accepts but does
not except. The feminine gaze assimilates but does not organize the disjointed image.
It is all these things and none of them. It is outside the structure, resistant to
categorization. It is what it desires (to be). The feminine gaze deconstructs itself,
upsetting the very binary oppositions it is born of. It is not a gaze at all but a look, a
recognition, an acknowledgement of the monster--and of the many figures in the
carpet.
Part 3: The Mess In Us: The Zombie Fleshophiles of Shivers
David Cronenberg’s films are also about upsetting distinctions, about
deconstructing our most firmly-held binaries, the binaries culture polices so
vehemently to maintain itself, such as man/woman, reason/passion, mind/body,
eating/excreting, etc. In the documentary The American Nightmare, Cronenberg says
(about Shivers), “It’s a beautiful thing but a terrifying thing. It’s because it’s
liberating energy and it’s opening up potential to things that have been closed up to
that point . . . I, on a very basic level, am afraid of revolution. I don’t want to have to
experience it, and yet I recognize that there are times that those things are absolutely
necessary because there’s no other way to change things.” The abject nature of the
body has horrific, but also “revolution[ary],” overtones for Cronenberg.
His films are about bodies devouring, about us being devoured, about
parasites that invade our bodies, about bodies mutilated and aroused by car crashes,
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about the intersection between biology and technology, about the limits of sexual
desire (or the lack of limits). His films are about flesh that eats and is eaten
simultaneously--a sexual devouring but more often actual physical devouring as a
metaphor for sex, e.g., The Fly (1986), Videodrome (1983), and Rabid (1977). His
films are about how we construct (or fail to construct) our relationship to our bodies
and our sexuality. Cronenberg continues in The American Nightmare, “You don’t get
society without body, and you don’t get body without society. I guess I insist on
returning to the body, because I feel that so much of human culture is an attempt to
flee the body. That we do want to be disembodied. To not acknowledge it. To not
deal with it. Really to not place it at the center of our reality. But I think that it is.”
In “Monster Culture (Seven Theses),” Jeffrey Jerome Cohen says that “the monster’s
body is a cultural body” (4), suggesting (as Cronenberg does) that our monsters are a
reflection of culture, suggesting that culture itself is a body, capable of infection, of
infecting, of devouring, of being devoured, of being just flesh, of being new flesh.
Cronenberg’s first film Shivers sets the tone for much of his later work. He is
a true auteur in that his vision and the themes he addresses in his films (with very few
exceptions) haven’t changed all that much in 30 years. His ideas have evolved, but
most of them are there and brilliantly laid out in his first film. Shivers is preoccupied
with many of the same themes as Romero’s Night of the living Dead, particularly the
question of what it is to be human in a world where we are becoming increasingly
inhuman. There are numerous shots in Cronenberg’s film that reference Night
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directly.86 Shivers is essentially a zombie film, except the zombies are parasiteinfected residents of a high-rise apartment building that go mad and become sexcrazed. While they do initially retain their ability to speak, even that appears to
devolve over the course of the film. Like the zombies in Romero’s film, they are
fixated on flesh, particularly the flesh of the uninfected.
One of the characters in Shivers tells a story about a sex dream, in which her
partner says “that everything is erotic--that everything is sexual. You know what I
mean? He tells me that even old flesh is erotic flesh. That disease is the love of two
alien kinds of creatures for each other. That even dying is an act of eroticism. That
talking is sexual. That breathing is sexual. That even to physically exist is sexual.
And I believe him. And we make love beautifully.” The sentiment here is similar to
the slogan for Cronenberg’s later film Videodrome: “Long live the new flesh!” While
Videodrome is often considered Cronenberg’s masterpiece, I think he explores many
of the same themes in a more focused way in Shivers. Cronenberg recognizes that
our bodies are, by their very nature, alien--that they are constituted by blood, guts,
organs, and skin but also by germs, bacteria, fungi, viruses, worms, lice, and mites.
Shivers is about coming to terms with the abject and transformative nature of human
flesh. Steven Shaviro says that Cronenberg is “a literalist of the body . . . The flesh
[in his films] is less rigidly determined, more fluid and open to metamorphosis, than
we generally like to think” (129). Shaviro specifically defends Shivers from a critical
86
For example, shots of Roger being pulled into a mass of infected with arms reaching echo shots from
Night, in which Barbara is similarly pulled into a zombie throng. Also, a shot toward the end of
Shivers of infected moving across the grass outside the apartment complex resembles a shot in Night of
zombies marching in unison in the field outside the farmhouse.
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attack leveraged against the film by Robin Wood; Shaviro writes, “It is not
Cronenberg but Wood who responds to the sexual monstrosity in which the film
revels with phobic disgust, and who regards monstrosity as an objection to the life of
the body” (133-134).87
Shivers has been released in several different versions and with various titles.
The original script (also written by Cronenberg) was titled Orgy of the Blood
Parasites. The film was first released in the U.S. as They Came From Within and
internationally as The Parasite Murders. Shivers, though, was the title for the
theatrical release in Canada. In my mind, Shivers is the most interesting and
thoughtful of the many titles and how I’ve heard Cronenberg himself refer to the film.
A “shiver” is an autonomic response, an involuntary muscle spasm, a reaction most
commonly to cold but also to pain and pleasure. The sudden movement has the effect
of keeping us warm by releasing energy stored in our cells, while also preparing the
muscles for action (allowing us to flee from something terrifying or exciting our body
for sex). This title is apropos, because Shivers is a film about the intersection
between pleasure and horror, between sex and violence. It is about how and where
these feelings arise in the body and what they do to the body.
One of the most iconic scenes in Shivers is of a parasite infecting a woman in
her bathtub.88 The scene lays plain the apparatus of infection that transforms the
film’s characters, a detail Romero, and most other zombie film directors, generally
87 Shaviro refers here to Wood’s comments about Cronenberg in “An Introduction to the American
Horror Film.”
88 This scene is parodied to hilarious effect in the recent film Slither (2006), a mash-up homage to
various horror films from the 50s through the 80s, including many that I’ve discussed here, particularly
Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Blob, Night of the Living Dead, and Shivers.
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leave out. In the sequence of shots, as the woman is molested by the parasite, it’s
impossible to distinguish between pleasure and pain, ecstasy and horror.89 First, we
see one of the denizens of the high-rise, Betts (Barbara Steele), preparing a bath. In
an overhead shot, the curves of the tub and the water collecting inside suggest a
womb, with an overlong chain on the drain stopper for an umbilical cord.
Figuratively, this is the site of the parasite’s birth, as it is the first scene where we see
a glamour-shot of the animal--the first time we are allowed to revel in its strange tobe-looked-at-ness. Prior to this scene, we have seen the parasite only in bits and
flashes: the bloody trail left after one finds its way into the plumbing, the gore that
remains on an umbrella after another falls from a balcony, a tail peeking out of a mail
slot as one wriggles into an apartment, and a glancing look at the first attack, where a
parasite leaps out of a washing machine and attaches itself to a woman’s face.
However, in the bathtub scene, we get a series of brightly-lit shots that frame
the parasite as their subject, not just an interloper in the frame but the camera’s raison
d′être. First, in two shots, we see the parasite pop the stopper on the drain and cutely
89 We see this trope throughout the film. Pleasure and pain, sex and violence, are simultaneous in
Shivers. Throughout his oeuvre, Cronenberg sees these acts (or sensations) as necessary bedfellows, at
least on a figurative level. (See Crash (1996), in particular, where this intersection is at its most
extreme.) Shivers opens with a scene depicting a young woman being hunted by a man, a doctor who
ultimately dissects her to remove the parasites she’s incubating. The peculiar thing about the scene is
that Cronenberg puts us in a position to mistake what we’re seeing for something consensual,
something erotic. With it’s generic, brightly-lit set and over-the-top performances, the scene plays like
the opening of a pornographic film. In fact, Shivers was produced for Cinepix, a Canadian soft-core
porn distributor, which had only recently branched into horror and other so-called “exploitation”
genres. The main character in Cronenberg’s subsequent film Rabid is played by Marilyn Chambers, a
porn star crossing over for the first time into mainstream film.
There are several other examples in Shivers of moments that disturb the distinction between
pleasure and pain, including one brief scene where a waiter seduces/accosts a woman (w/ kids in tow)
inside an elevator, and another featuring a parasite-infected husband and his uninfected wife, who
vacillates rapidly back and forth between curiosity, excitement, and horror, unsure of how to respond to
her husband’s advances. Her face appears repeatedly unsure of its expression. Her eyes dart around as
though trying desperately to land on something solid, and her open-mouthed gasp could be pleasure,
surprise, fear, or all of these at once. This is exactly what we see on Betts’s face in the bathtub scene,
an incomprehension, an excitement, a body losing control of its faculties.
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peek its head out, cautiously looking from left to right before crossing the threshold.
Then, we get the money shot, which frames the parasite as it creeps from the drain,
through the water, and between a disembodied pair of female legs. As in Hitchcock’s
Psycho, the drain stands in for a human eye or the camera’s lens. So, we (and the
camera) gawk at the parasite but must also recognize it as a function of vision, and as
created by vision, a voyeuristic horror that arises from the act of seeing itself. The
excitement and fascination we experience at this frame is not incompatible with our
simultaneous feeling of revulsion; in fact, the feelings depend on one another. The
frame exists exactly because we want to see it, and our desire to see is, perhaps, what
terrifies us the most.
The parasite in Shivers has been said to resemble several different things.
Lianne McLarty writes in “‘Beyond the Veil of the Flesh’: Cronenberg and the
Disembodiment of Horror,” “The parasites are both aphrodisiac and venereal disease;
visually, they are both phallic and excremental.” In very few words, McLarty
captures exactly what this frame is about, the intersections between sex and disease,
between horror and pleasure--what we feel and what it costs. Her language, though,
fails to capture the nature of the beast, so to speak. This is a common problem in
horror criticism and theory (even my own), where the intellectual pleasures of our
engagement allow us to forget, and even sanitize, the more visceral pleasures/horrors
of the genre. So, to put it more bluntly, the parasite looks either like a wiggling
disease-infected penis or like a bizarrely animated piece of shit, defiantly coming out
of the plumbing rather than politely disappearing into it. This is, perhaps, our worst
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nightmare, feces that isn’t expelled and, instead, fights its way back into our body, the
horrific Other that won’t be laid nicely to rest.
Rose George points out in The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of
Human Waste that “a gram of feces can contain 10 million viruses, 1 million bacteria,
1,000 parasite cysts, and 100 worm eggs” (2). And, while many of these bacteria are
benign, we don’t see them as such. The words themselves, “bacteria,” “virus,”
“parasite,” “cyst,” and “worm,” don’t sound pleasant. I feel my lips curl as I say
them: “worm,” and I wince as though I’m about to be hit in the face; “parasite,” and it
pops from my mouth but lingers with its tail caught in my teeth; “shit,” and the word
does just that, excretes itself from my mouth with a drawn-out “sh” sound that
touches every corner of my mouth before plopping out into the room with the quick
finality of the “t” at its end. None of these words can be said as fast as we’d like
them to be. And, we are even more averse to having these things in our body than we
are to having the words come out of our mouths. George continues, “Our disgust
with shit seems deep and sure, as potent as the swear words that get their power from
it” (10). And, indeed, the word “shit” feels almost awkward to say, because it is so
bound up in the feelings we associate with it, which run even deeper than mere
“disgust,” a trifling horror that happens both at our surface and in response to the
most superficial aspects of a thing.
What I mean to say is that the “disgust” George describes is only our
immediate reaction to shit, decaying matter, severed limbs, bloody parasites, etc., a
sudden jolt that readies our flight mechanism before we’ve even had a chance to fully
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comprehend what we’ve seen. As I’ve mentioned previously in my discussion of the
abject, this jolt is often followed by a pause, a moment of hesitation, a looking back
into the belly of the beast. For example, in Shivers, the protagonist, Roger (Paul
Hampton), digs through a dumpster in search of one of the parasites. When he finds
the thing, he impales it on the end of a crowbar like a marshmallow and holds it
eagerly up to the light, awed but keeping it safely at arm’s length. The abject
response demands a double-movement, a drawing near and an expulsion. Our
fascination with excrement is short-lived, a glance that lingers even as our hand
moves quickly and instinctively toward the lever that flushes it away. For Julia
Kristeva, it is not just “disgust” that drives this action but “loathing.” She writes,
“Loathing an item of food, a piece of filth, waste, or dung. The spasms and vomiting
that protect me. The repugnance, the retching that thrusts me to the side and turns me
away from defilement, sewage, and muck” (2). The phrasing here mirrors her subject
matter with her spasm-like sentence fragments coming in bursts and building toward
the indecisive (and “mucky”) string of nouns at the end. The abject moves
simultaneously both into and out of the body, like the Bakhtinian grotesque,
disrupting our notion of what constitutes insides and outsides.
The bathtub scene I’ve just discussed is intercut with a scene that takes place
in the medical clinic of the apartment high-rise where the film is set. One doctor
reads from the personal notes of another: “‘Man is an animal that thinks too much, an
over-rational animal that’s lost touch with its body and its instincts.’ How do you like
that? In other words, you know, too much brain and not enough guts.” This seems
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the thesis of Cronenberg’s film. It’s easy to read the monster in a horror film as the
enemy, but I would argue that many of Cronenberg’s films subvert this tendency,
particularly his grosser examples of body horror: Shivers, Rabid, The Brood (1979),
and The Fly. And, when the body is not Cronenberg’s central subject, he is often
interested in the failures (and horrors) of the mind, a monster that he does not so
readily recuperate: Scanners (1981), Dead Ringers (1988), and eXistenZ (1999).90
Cronenberg is fascinated by guts, and like Romero, he reveals and dissects them by
turning bodies inside-out on screen.
Shivers is not just about parasites and plumbing; it’s about humans as
parasites and about the strange nature of our plumbing. The parasites in
Cronenberg’s Shivers embody an idea already at work in us--that we have neither
insides nor outsides--that we are just matter, waste, refuse. The entire apartment
complex, in fact, is figured as a human body: the mad scientist’s research takes place
on the upper levels (in the building’s brain), the infection is spread through the
plumbing (we see trails of gore leading in and out of drains, grates, and vents), the
parasite assaults one of its first victims in the bowels of the building (in the laundry
90
Lianne McLarty discusses the movement in Cronenberg’s films from a focus on horrors that arise
from the “female/body” to horrors that arise from the “male/mind,” citing many of these same films as
examples. She argues that Cronenberg’s later films are more progressive than his earlier ones--that the
progenitor of monstrosity shifts from the woman (in a film like Shivers) to the patriarchal order (in a
film like Dead Ringers). She writes, “While they depict invasive scientific practices that monstrously
transform the human body, these films sometimes imagine transformation as a function of the body
itself, specifically the sexual/feminine body. A critical Cronenberg appears when the text’s focus is on
threatening social practices; a very different, indeed a misogynist, Cronenberg appears when the body,
particularly the female body, is constructed as the site of the monstrous” (232). McLarty’s discussion
of Cronenberg is invaluable, especially her nuanced exploration of the complicated embodiments and
disembodiments at work in his films. However, I think she too neatly organizes his films into these
“critical” and “misogynist” categories when, in fact (and even he would probably admit), every one of
his films is both. I would argue that it is exactly his frank exploration of misogyny (and willingness to
create images that can be so easily read as themselves misogynist) that gives his films their unique
critical perspective. He doesn’t shy away from misogyny, and is thus able to shine an even brighter
spotlight upon it.
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room), and one of the film’s final scenes takes place in the swimming pool, a liminal
space with a glass wall opening to the outside that acts as the point of entry (or site of
transmission) for the zombies. Shivers climaxes with a shot of Roger being dragged
into this pool by the nymphomaniacal zombie mob. He struggles at the center of the
pool before succumbing to a kiss. (The parasite is passed through kissing, among
other things.) The typical fight-back-zombie-invasion plot is overwritten by another
at the end of this film. The sex-crazed zombies become the protagonists and the lead
character is merely the last to recognize the error of his ways and succumb to the
“freedom” the parasite offers.91 It is important, I think, that this scene occurs in (the
primordial waters of) a swimming pool and that the zombies are led in their attack on
Roger by the three main female characters, Betts, Janine, and Nurse Forsythe (who is
never given a first name by the film).
Nurse Forsythe raises her torso out of the water and turns, first her head with a
quick snap and then her body more slowly--toward Roger but also toward the camera.
Her vibrant purple shirt is tied just below her ribs, exposing her midriff. The fabric is
sheer and stretched taut across her skin. Her hair is wet and matted. Roger is pushed
and pulled into the water simultaneously, by an older man with a four-prong walking
cane and by Betts who wraps her arms around his legs from within the pool. As
Roger flails wildly, Forsythe continues her silent turn. She is the disease vector but
also something more sinister, something more wonderful. I recognize the
contradiction as my language struggles to contain her. As with the zombies in Night
91
Cronenberg uses this word “freedom” in his description of the scene in The American Nightmare.
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of the Living Dead, the infected in Shivers resist easy categorization. They can not be
explained conveniently by the police, psychologists, and medical doctors that rush
about the film attempting to do exactly that.
More zombies clamor their way into the pool, the hum of their crazed
mumblings mimicked on the soundtrack by an increasingly agitated harmonic drone.
Forsythe moves forward, toward Roger but also toward us, her lips curling into a
knowing smile as her eyes look directly into the camera, acknowledging its presence
and her power over it. Her to-be-looked-at-ness is not passive in the least. Like the
medusa, she turns the camera’s gaze (and our own) upon itself, forcing us to
recognize the fact of our voyeurism. With a look, we become ourselves infected. It
almost feels as though Cronenberg produced the entire film just so he could create
this one sequence of shots. Each frame is stunning, meticulously lit, and graphically
composed. Each time we see Nurse Forsythe the music swells with a shrill
symphonic bleat. We feel nervous anticipation, but this is not a moment of horror--at
least not a horror we’d run from. Roger continues to thrash about in the pool, his
body pulled under by the increasingly large mob of zombies surrounding him. Nurse
Forsythe’s arms reach toward him as he breaks the surface, gasping for breath. Her
thin hands cut into the frame with webbed fingers and sharp talons for nails. The
animal-like hands are in stark contrast to the civilized cuffs of her silk blouse, which
match Roger’s equally civilized button-down shirt. Roger gasps as the other zombies
push him toward her, his open mouth beckoning as she grits her teeth and moves in
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for the kiss. Now, her fingers clutch his face, and her lips clamber hungrily toward
his gaping maw, as though she intends to climb inside.
The entire shot is in slow-motion, and the speed of the successive frames
crawls almost to a stop as their lips touch. Roger’s body relaxes and his once-flailing
arm reaches around Nurse Forshythe’s back. His transformation is almost
instantaneous as though it has been continuously underway. The speed of the shot
reverts to normal at exactly this moment, almost in reaction to the kiss, suggesting
that the camera (and the viewer by proxy) has also been infected. Our gaze becomes
frenetic, a blur of reaching arms and bobbing heads. We quickly lose track of what is
happening and to whom. The scene simulates an orgasm with its slow build to a
climax, the momentary distortion of time as the film slows, clenching, tightening its
grip on reality before an ecstatic release. As we watch, our gaze doesn’t objectify
what we see but instead gets caught up in the action with a flurry of cuts as our eyes
dance across the screen. The camera’s gaze (our gaze) is not unlike the female gaze
which I described earlier, a gaze that doesn’t fix its object, but rather deconstructs
itself, a gaze that transforms the viewer, drawing him or her into the action onscreen,
a gaze that sets us free even as it simultaneously overwhelms. Thus, we are also
drawn beneath the water during the kiss when a splash of water momentarily covers
the frame.
The portrayal of the monstrous-feminine and the female gaze in Shivers is, for
me, a decidedly optimistic one. Put simply, the uninfected mope around the movie
complaining, arguing, struggling, while the zombies just seem to have more fun. So,
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the monstrous-feminine in this film and in Night of the Living Dead, as well as films
like Ridley Scott’s Alien or Tobe Hooper’s Lifeforce (1985), becomes a liberatory
force. The monsters are either the heroes in these films or a catalyst for
transformation in the hero. While Ripley begins the first Alien film exactly at odds
with the titular monster, she is only able to overcome the alien at the end of that film
and as the series progresses by becoming more and more monstrous herself. In each
film, she fights the alien, but increasingly she is also put in the position of fighting the
alien in herself. Finally, in the fourth film, Alien Resurrection (1997), she evolves by
embracing her own monstrosity and by accepting it as an integral part of her.
Likewise, in Shivers, the characters are better off when they give in to their animal,
parasitic nature--when they stop murdering each other in “self-defense” and allow
themselves to be turned.92
The same is definitely true of the zombies in Romero’s Night of the Living
Dead (and its sequels). The zombies in these films inevitably have more fun. They
excite themselves into a frenzy, enjoy a cornucopia of roasted sweet meats at a
midnight fireside buffet, and moan and groan to their hearts’ content. For them, skin
is permeable, chewable, and just plain unnecessary (with the skin falling off their
bodies as they decay). Meanwhile, the humans barricade themselves inside a house
and spend the entire film arguing with each other and policing the boundaries of the
house and the boundaries of their own skin (perhaps what they perceive as their most
valuable resource). The zombies, in Romero’s films (and in just about every invasion
92 In acts he would likely justify as self-defense, Roger bludgeons one of the infected to death with a
crowbar in one scene and later shoots another in the stomach, and these are by far the most brutal acts
of violence we see in the film.
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narrative) always manage to break through (the walls, the skin), because the
boundaries erected are artificial and ultimately permeable. So, the humans’ struggle
is hubristic, and they eventually die or join the zombie horde. As Cronenberg says,
both in interviews and through his films, humans are bodies, and our failure to
acknowledge that is often our fatal flaw.
Whether or not we’re in them, our bodies are still here, perambulating about.
And what to do with these bodies? There is one shot from Night of the Living Dead
that I’m utterly haunted by, and that’s where I turn to answer this question. Toward
the end of the film, Barbara is at the door to the house that the human characters have
barricaded themselves inside. She is caught by the zombie throng and pulled out of
the house. A casual critic of the film might shout at the screen in frustration and mild
amusement: “don’t be foolish; stay away from the zombie arms reaching into the
house!” A more seasoned critic might point to Barbara’s characterization throughout
the film, seeing a sexist portrayal of a woman resigned to hysteria in the wake of
psychological trauma. While I definitely agree that the portrayal of Barbara in the
film is a stereotypical one (responding very self-consciously to women’s roles in
mid-20th-century America), I would also claim that this allowing herself to be taken
up by the zombie mob is the first real choice that Barbara has made in the film. After
hours of observing the denizens of the house acting in all their I’m-just-anothersocial-type glory, she determines to flee the world of the film, to let herself be
zombified. It is an act not unlike Ophelia’s drowning in Hamlet, an
acknowledgement that this world offers no place for her and the world of madness
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and death and the possibility for rebirth is an entirely better option. In the subsequent
frames, we see her dragged into the fray, arms reaching, eyes leering, heads bobbing,
all in an orgiastic revery. And, on Barbara’s face, a sort of rapture, a passion not
unlike what we see on Roger’s face at the end of Shivers. Long live the new flesh
indeed.
Part 4: Monsters that Matter: The Monstrous Birth and Other
Things that Rise in Contemporary Zombie Cinema
Romero’s Night of the Living Dead anticipated many of the directions the
zombie genre would ultimately go. While he was certainly influenced by the haitian
voodoo zombie, 1950s movie monsters, and Hitchcock’s The Birds, the contemporary
zombie is Romero’s unique creation, having no direct antecedent in literature or film.
In this respect, Romero’s Night of the Living Dead is not unlike Derrida’s monstrous
birth, rising up out of nowhere to proclaim itself, and the many subsequent iterations
of the zombie narrative are its naughty simulacra. I say “naughty,” because the best
zombie films are not mere copies of Night, but rather copies that upset their parent in
important ways. Each director I discuss in this section (including Romero himself)
riffs on some aspect of Night’s original concept, but also diverges from it, evolving
(or devolving) the zombie into a different sort of beast. Night of the Living Dead
captured the zeitgeist of the late 1960s, just as the recent resurgence of zombie films
captures something of who we are now and who we are becoming.
However, each new zombie film that is released also reflects a far more
universal fear, a fear horror films have continually taken up, a fear Shakespeare
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explored 400 hundred years ago in Hamlet, beginning with the ominous words
“Who’s there?,” a fear Mary Shelley explored 200 hundred years later in
Frankenstein, wondering from the first line of the first chapter, what constitutes a
self, of what sort of matter are we made, what is it to be a body, to be human. Her
answer, Shakespeare’s answer, Romero’s answer is that we are not (and can not be)
human (or merely human) any longer. We are (and must be) something else, an
altogether new species. Shelley’s opening phrase “I am by birth” gets overwritten at
the end of Frankenstein, where Shelley describes the monster fleeing from the
confines of the so-called “civilized” world, fleeing from the confines of the narrative
itself: “He sprung from the cabin-window, as he said this, upon the ice-raft which lay
close to the vessel. He was soon borne away by the waves and lost in darkness and
distance” (302). Here, “by birth” becomes “borne away,” and the monster is reborn
into a new world, the same world Ophelia turns to in Hamlet, the same world Barbara
is taken up by in Night, not just death but “muddy death,” an “unintelligible
reversion” to a self that defies easy categorization, an oozing self, a grossly material
self, a plural self, a teeming self.
The final thesis in Cohen’s “Monster Culture (Seven Theses)” proposes that
“the Monster Stands at the Threshold of Becoming” (20). Monsters exist, for Cohen,
not because we want them to but because we need them to, because they not only
reflect who we are but influence who we will become. So, at a moment when the
very fabric (the very flesh) of who we are is being redefined by the machines with
which we have put ourselves in such close, intimate proximity, we turn to monsters.
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In the postmodern, technological age, our bodies have become “bodies-in-process,” in
the words of Judith Halberstam, “virtual bodies: in unvisualizable amniotic
indeterminacy, and unfazed by the hype of their always premature and redundant
annunciation, posthuman bodies thrive in the mutual deformations of totem and
taxonomy” (19). At exactly this moment, when the human gives way to the
posthuman, when the body is made virtual and flesh becomes an anachronism, we
turn (in)to monsters, monsters that plod and reel, monsters that ooze and drip,
monsters that grab and chew, feeding on flesh, feeding us our own flesh, monsters
that are just matter, monsters that matter.
Dawn of the Dead (2004):
At the end of the opening sequence of Zack Snyder’s remake of Dawn of the
Dead, the protagonist, Anna (Sarah Polley), looks at what remains of her
neighborhood: fire, smoke, and debris disturbingly juxtaposed with the perfectlymanicured, unnaturally-green lawns. The suburban horror that this place already was
has been layered over by another horror. While body snatchers make their world
sterile, zombies turn the impossible order of suburbia on its head. Beyond the chaos
of the once idyllic suburban street in the foreground, we see in the distance what has
become of the rest of the city: a fiery explosion, smoldering skyscrapers, and three
circling helicopters. The once picturesque expanse of blue sky is now clouded in
black smoke. Blood on Anna’s shirt and hands is the most vibrant element of the
frame, suggesting that the zombie invasion has brought her back to life. I repeatedly
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find my eye dragged back to this blood, a refreshing alternative to the desaturated,
monochromatic hospital scrubs she wears in the film’s first shots, and a reminder that
this new life offers her something vivid and visceral that her old one did not. (In the
first shots, we get a brief glimpse of her life before the invasion. She does her work
as a nurse, interacts with her neighbors, and has sex with her husband, all with a
bored resignation.)
As she flees the scene, Anna is excited into a flurry of action. She doesn’t
hesitate. She’s not the limping final girl of a slasher film. She’s an altogether
different sort of heroine. She’s resourceful (not forgetting to grab the car keys before
she bolts from the house, where she’s just been attacked by her zombie husband), but
she’s also unhesitating, even a bit callous. As she drives away, a neighbor pounds on
her car door, begging for help, “help, can you help, please?,” to which she responds
with barely a grimace as she drives on, the woman’s hands making a loud squeal as
they slide against the passenger window. She seems suspicious of her neighbors, and
not because they could turn into zombies, but because she recognizes that they might
already be something far worse. She circles almost endlessly, weaving through her
neighborhood’s cul-de-sacs, each house a sterile copy of the one before. Cop cars
speed past her in the opposite direction. She barely manages to navigate her way out,
and help barely manages to navigate its way in. This is a closed space, like a garden
maze, not unlike the one in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Most zombie films have
an extreme cynicism about the living, about what the living have made of their world.
The avarice of our picture-perfect hedges and suburban cul-de-sacs lends a hand in
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our demise. Living in the zombie-world that rises up from this madness becomes the
saner choice.
Dead Set (2008):
In Dead Set, a 5-episode UK television miniseries about zombies invading the
set of the reality television show Big Brother, there is a shot in which a zombie stares
longingly into a television monitor, coveting what he sees on screen (one of the
fictional Big Brother contestants), as though he wants to climb inside the TV and
feast on the image. But, in addition to its obvious hunger, there is also a certain
melancholy in the zombie’s expression, as though it recognizes that in being made an
icon, a celebrity in its own right, it too is losing its brute physicality. Later, we see a
zombie looking at itself in a bathroom mirror, pressing its nose toward the glass,
grunting and shifting from side to side, transfixed by its own reflection. Finally, in
another scene, one of the survivors barricaded inside the Big Brother set presses her
face against a pane of one-way glass, while a zombie watches her from the other side,
tracking her movements, mimicking them with its own. Certainly, this image could
be seen to suggest that the two, a zombie and a reality-show contestant, are
interchangeable--that we have become de facto zombies. However, even more
poignantly, it suggests that the dead want to be televised. But they want to be on both
sides of the camera. In this series, the zombie gaze covets and mimics but, like Big
Brother itself, it aims also to control. The characters within Dead Set are turned by
zombie teeth, whereas we (like Barbara in Night of the Living Dead) are turned by the
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zombie gaze, a theme that also gets taken up by Romero in his most recent zombie
film Diary of the Dead (2007).93
In Diary of the Dead, as in Dead Set, zombies have become almost a red
herring, because these films are not about the zombies. Both fit more definitively into
what I would call the “reality porn” genre, along with films like the very good My
Little Eye (2002) or the so-bad-it’s-good Halloween: Resurrection (2002). One of the
hallmarks of the genre includes characters that feel compelled to offer their own
voice-over narration, offering rarely profound commentary on each and every event
we see on screen. A character recently bitten by a zombie in Diary of the Dead
remarks, “It hurts, the bite. It hurts.” Then, later, another character offers, “See how
many there are. Look how many.” In a world where we find ourselves without
cohesive identities, we feel compelled to film ourselves and narrate our own
experiences, as though a camera could turn vacant 1s and 0s back into meaty flesh. In
fact, the camera does just the opposite in these films, resulting in our flesh being
devoured by our own image. Whereas Diary of the Dead clumsily pounds this idea
into our heads like the pole a character in the film rams through the skull of one of the
zombies, Dead Set treats the theme more subtly, offering us the image of a body that
tries to escape the Big Brother set (or the television set itself) but finds no signs of life
outside its confines.
93
This theme is also explored in Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, in which characters are frequently
seen huddled around a television screen. The TV appears to present a reality more stable than anything
else in the film, providing answers for the characters (and us), but its answers are ultimately irrelevant.
No matter the explanation--no matter what they are or where they came from--the basic facts remain
constant: don’t get bit; if you do, you’ll die; the dead will rise; and shoot them in the head.
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Land of the Dead (2005):
Romero’s Land of the Dead is a far more successful film than his heavyhanded Diary of the Dead. The limits of the body are more thoroughly and
grotesquely breached in Land of the Dead than in any other zombie film. A hand is
seen being ripped in half, a zombie peels someone’s face off (suggesting that our
faces have become vestigial), a zombie attacks with its head dangling from its body
by a thread of neck-flesh, and another pulls out a woman’s innards through her
mouth. The stuff that spews from these bodies is indeed grotesque but also beautiful.
The blood in Romero’s Land of the Dead is a gloriously vivid shade of red, unlike the
gothic chocolate sauce used in Night of the Living Dead or the comically-orange
gelatin used in Dawn of the Dead. In Land of the Dead, Romero suggests that our
insides are decidedly more lively than our outsides--that the artificial boundaries
policed by our skin give way to something altogether more horrible and delightful.
When our flesh is torn asunder, the horrors that rise up from the carnage force us to
reappraise the faceless pod people we’ve become. All of this is encapsulated
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perfectly in a single sequence from Land of the Dead, a sequence that depicts the
monstrous birth in all its disturbing and magnificent glory.94
The sequence begins with a close-up of an eerily calm Ohio River (the film
being set in Pittsburgh). The zombies have crossed the river to hunt the humans on
the other side by walking along the riverbed, urged on by their leader Big Daddy
(Eugene Clark). Big Daddy breaks the surface first with the top of his bald head
covered in a glistening gel, a substance slightly thicker than the water, like amniotic
fluid. The sequence of shots is lit unlike any other in the film, unrealistically, a play
of surreal light across the water and zombie faces. The sequence is about birth, about
the amorphous material of the water transmogrified into solid flesh. The sequence is
about the unreal being made real, about the image becoming manifest. Big Daddy
looks directly into the camera as he rises, acknowledging the camera’s presence and
his relationship to it. He is the real protagonist of the film,95 the character Romero
himself seems to identify with most closely. The shot is frightening but also
94
Zombie films engage the subjects of childhood, pregnancy, and birth in unusual ways. Children (that
aren’t zombies or who don’t turn into zombies) are scarce in the genre. 28 Days Later and the sequel
28 Weeks Later are rare examples of zombie films with children in major roles. Romero’s Night of the
Living Dead includes a famous scene where a little girl eats her father and murders her mother with a
trowel. Cronenberg’s Shivers has several controversial taboo-busting shots where children are depicted
as ravenous sexual subjects, one in which a preteen girl molests a man outside an elevator, and another
in which two infected kids are seen leashed on all fours barking like dogs. Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead
has two nods to Romero’s treatment of children and babies in his films. During the opening sequence,
Anna and her husband fend off the attack of a neighborhood child, a ferocious little girl zombie that
pays homage to the daughter in Romero’s Night. Later in the film, a pregnant zombie gives birth to a
zombie baby, which the main characters quickly euthanize, a nod to the original Dawn of the Dead
(1978), which features an increasingly pregnant female protagonist in Francine (Gaylen Ross). The
treatment of pregnancy and birth in the Dawn of the Dead remake adds a bleak coda to the original
film, suggesting that Francine’s baby will be born infected. The film later overwrites the ending of
Romero’s Day of the Dead (1985) also, when the deserted island the characters escape to ends up being
not all that deserted.
95 Kim Paffenroth writes in Gospel of the Living Dead, “[Land of the Dead is] a movie in which the
audience might actually find itself rooting for the zombies, as they bring about the end of the racist,
capitalist, exploitative, parasitic human society” (116).
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triumphant. Big Daddy wades through the water with a corpus of monstrous copies
behind him; he is the return of flesh, as though Ophelia’s body had risen back up out
of the brook, dripping moss and foliage, a new body demanding a new world.
Shaun of the Dead (2004):
During the opening credits of Shaun of the Dead, we see a series of people,
most of whom show up zombified at some point later in the film, each engaged in one
menial task after another. The first is a man pushing a nested row of empty shopping
carts, a nod to the critique of consumerism we see in many zombie films, especially
Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, 28 Days Later, and the recent Zombieland (2009),
which has several scenes that play on this theme in a market, a gift shop, a
convenience store, and an amusement park kiosk.96 The next shot in the credit
sequence shows a checkout girl, “Mary” (or so says her salmon-colored name tag),
dumbly watching as her hands pass one item after another across the scanner. Her
expression doesn’t change and her eyes never look up. Like the pod people in the
various versions of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, her actions are rote, the
mechanical gesticulations of an automaton. Shaun (Simon Pegg) encounters “Mary”
as a zombie in a later scene, and her expression and the quality of her movement
remains unchanged. She has no identity per se, hence my keeping her name in
quotes; so, when Shaun reads the tag aloud to address her by name, it feels false, a
96 Another
recent film, Splinter (2008), a spinoff of the zombie genre about the husks of human bodies
reanimated by a parasite, takes place almost entirely in a convenience store. The characters barricade
themselves inside as though the place will shelter them from the grotesque monsters outside. The
place offers them little protection. Human bodies (in various horrifically contorted states) become just
another conveniently-packaged product for the beasts (and the viewer) to consume.
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hilarious mockery of the sort of grating and anonymous politeness that often passes
for connectedness in our culture.
A few shots later, the camera pans across a mob of people walking toward us,
their heads bopping in unison to the cheeky b-movie-influenced soundtrack. We see
the title of the film on the pavement at their feet. Two are in hoodies, one carries a
messenger bag, one has a chain wallet and clutches a water bottle, one crosses his
arms, another has a thumb in her pocket, several wear hats or bandanas. Again, none
of them look up, none of them engage the camera, and none of them interact with
each other. They face forward but look down, moving aimlessly in a direction that is
no direction at all, their ecstatic dance reduced to a barely perceptible bounce of the
head that does not reverberate through the rest of their otherwise stiff bodies. In the
background, several more hipsters lounge against a fast-food cart, unfazed by and
indifferent to the scene before them. These people stand in for us, the audience sitting
in a darkened theater, also facing forward, unmoving, ignoring each other, politely
stifling our laughter and screams, barely interacting with what we see on the screen.
Shaun of the Dead pays homage as much to the Invasion of the Body
Snatchers films as it does to Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. I use the word
“homage” here rather than “parody,” the latter word having been used by so many
other reviewers of the film, because I don’t see Shaun of the Dead as a “parody.” The
word “parody” would suggest that the film means to ridicule the zombie genre or that
it exaggerates the conventions of the genre for purely comic effect. As funny as the
film is, though, Shaun of the Dead is not merely a comedy. Rather, the film defies
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easy generic categorization, and it doesn’t ridicule the zombie genre so much as it
uses the conventions of the genre to comment on what it means to be human in the
postmodern era. Unlike Land of the Dead, Shaun of the Dead is not a film about
zombies but rather a film about us. The zombies don’t triumph at the end of the film
and are, instead, tamed and made into characters for reality TV. By all accounts, the
film is sweet, a “romantic comedy with zombies” as the tag line for the film purports,
but it is also cynical. Business as usual rears its ugly head at the end of the film.
Shaun might as well be undead, and his best friend Ed (Nick Frost), who is now a
video-game-playing zombie, has changed so little that he might as well still be
human.
The line between what it is to be human and what it is to be a zombie is
nonexistent and irrelevant in Shaun of the Dead. Thus, it becomes very easy for
humans to pass as zombies during the course of the film, and vice versa. These
scenes play almost identically to similar scenes in the Body Snatchers films, in which
humans pass as pod people. There is a subtle difference, though, which gets to the
heart of my argument about the zombie as a postmodern icon. When Carol (Nicole
Kidman) imitates the pod people in Hirschbiegel’s The Invasion, she does so by
wiping all expression from her face. When Shaun and his crew imitate the zombies in
Shaun of the Dead, they do so by becoming more expressive. In characterizing their
mannerisms, a character describes the zombies as “limp” and “vacant with a hint of
sadness,” but these are not the qualities that come out in their performances. Instead,
what I notice about the zombies is that there movements and expression are larger,
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grander than ours. They walk with limbs akimbo and a wobbly hey-look-I’m-azombie stagger. Their expressions are exaggerated with eyes wide and mouths
stretched in bizarre directions. And they certainly have more personality than the
human mob we see bopping their heads in the opening credits. No matter how easy it
may be to copy their behavior, if zombies are simulacrum, they are a decidedly
perverse sort.
Otto: Or, Up with Dead People (2008):
Bruce LaBruce’s Otto: Or, Up With Dead People, a queer film about a
“zombie with an identity crisis,” begins with images of mushroom clouds from
erupting nuclear bombs. The film, though, is not about a post-apocalyptic world so
much as it is about the need for a violent restructuring of our existing world. The
explosions at the opening of the film are wishful thinking, accompanied by wailing
orchestration both sinister and triumphant, a cry for the sort of “twisted coming” that
Baudrillard describes in Simulacra and Simulation, “a perverse event, an
unintelligible reversion to the logic of reason” (361). Baudrillard describes a very
postmodern brand of paradox, much like the living dead itself, both “unintelligible”
and “[reasonable],” “perverse” and “logical,” a prophetic “coming” and a nostalgic
“reversion.” Later, Baudrillard writes about deterrence and our failure to fulfill the
potentials of postmodern theory: “It isn’t that the direct menace of atomic destruction
paralyzes our lives. It is rather that deterrence leukemizes us” (367). We’re afraid,
“leukemized,” because we’ve started to see postmodernism’s residual effects
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(androids, elective genetic mutation, sexual reassignment surgery, genderfuck in all
its variations), and thus we so often fail to detonate the postmodern text. This is
exactly where Otto begins, with its index finger on the button, so to speak, taunting,
threatening, (a)rousing us to action.
Otto is set in a near-future in which zombies have become common and
“unextraordinary.” Medea (Katharina Klewinghaus), a director making an avantgarde “political zombie porno,” describes the protagonist, Otto (Jey Crisfar), as
“lonely, empty, dead inside . . . [a] numb, phlegmatic, insensate boy, willing to go to
any extreme to feel something, to feel anything. To me, it seemed like the only sane
and logical response to a dead and sterile world.” Later, Otto is called a “hollow
man” and an “empty signifier.” Zombies, in Otto, have become lifeless shells, not
frenzied or voracious, but rather like the zombies we see in Shaun of the Dead,
sapped and insipid. Even when they eat or have sex (acts that are concomitant in the
film just as they are in Cronenberg’s Shivers), the zombies seem merely to be going
through the motions. It’s as if even zombies have become targets for snatching by the
pods from the Invasion of the Body Snatchers films. They are a “gay plague,” as
Medea refers to them, but without any of the accompanying menace the word
“plague” might otherwise provide.
LaBruce presents all of this with his tongue planted firmly in cheek,
hyperbolizing his various allegories to the point of parody, prepared for exactly the
sort of reading I’m offering here. (There is even a silly animated short within the film
that depicts a series of gay-zombie bashings.) Nevertheless, the zombies do rise up at
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the end of the film and with a vengeance, but not to kill. Instead of ending like
Romero’s Night of the Living Dead with an orgy posing as a climactic battle, Otto
ends with an actual orgy that goes much further than the coy titillations we see in
Shivers, showing graphic (and bizarre) homosexual sex with the zombies “fucking
[the rest of us] into immortality.” At the end of the film, Otto remarks in voiceover, “I
really didn’t know what my destination was, but something told me to head north.
The cold doesn’t bother me. In fact, I find it comforting. It preserves my flesh,” and
this is the project of the film, to preserve the flesh, dead flesh, rotting flesh, sick flesh,
sexy flesh.
MONSTROUS BIRTH / mónstres berth / n.
Perhaps something is even now occurring in the conception of structure that
could be called a transition--a movement, out of the text and into the body, of babies,
mothers, monsters. Here I employ the term “transition” in its colloquial usage to
describe the passage from one stage to another, but also to allude to the transition
phase in childbirth, characterized by the intensification of contractions, opening of the
cervix, and general preparation of the body for the exit of the child from the womb.
Transition, as it is both literally and metaphorically considered, is most certainly a
labor--intensely horrifying and painful though often accompanied by an excitement at
the imminent expulsion, a crowning achievement in the shape of the innocent and
shameless child, or so it would seem. That this child shall in fact be monstrous--and
self-begotten--may only be dealt with as an afterthought, the as yet unrealized product
of a society unraveling at the most profound level of language.
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It is this monstrous birth that Jacques Derrida first postulates in the final
paragraph of “Structure, Sign, and Play”:
Here there is a sort of question, call it historical, of which we
are only glimpsing today the conception, formation, the
gestation, the labor. I employ these words, I admit, with a
glance toward the business of childbearing--but also with a
glance toward those who, in a company from which I do not
exclude myself, turn their eyes away in the face of the as yet
unnameable which is proclaiming itself and which can do so,
as is necessary whenever a birth is in the offing, only under the
species of the non-species, in the formless, mute, infant, and
terrifying form of monstrosity. (889)
The birth appears as both “formless” and “the terrifying form of monstrosity,” and
also as the “species of the non-species.” Thus, it is both man and not man--animal
and not animal--one thing and the other. It is the ubergrotesque, Bakhtin’s crudely
mischievous mixing of forms. Bakhtin describes the grotesque forms as “giving birth
to each other.” Similarly, the monstrous birth proclaims its own deformity--gives rise
to its own multiplicity. Like Derrida’s idea of the center, the monstrous birth is both
within the structure and outside it. It is my claim that the monstrous birth represents
the possibility of a new center, one which does not resemble the centers of old, one
which does not maintain binaries but insists upon collapsing them--insists upon the
quintessence of freeplay. This monstrosity is “mute” not because it exists outside of
language but because it undoes language. The monstrous birth is not opposed to the
center; it annihilates the center--it is, to use an appropriately trite idiomatic
construction, the schmenter.
This resembles the degrading power of the grotesque, which Bakhtin defines
as “contact with earth as an element that swallows up and gives birth at the same
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time. To degrade is to bury, to sow, and to kill simultaneously, in order to bring forth
something more and better” (21). The monstrous intermingling of human and animal
forms--of forms and formlessness--is done in the service of bringing about something
better. The degradation is not a destruction--not a negation; rather, it is a breaking
down--a multiplication. The monster kills but only to be reborn like the Phoenix,
which rises from its own ashes. The monstrous birth’s penchant for degradation is
terrifying but only because it cannot be anticipated or controlled. In spite of his own
fear, Derrida imagines the birth of this terrifying form of monstrosity as a revolution;
he imagines that terror and pain will give way to a cathartic epiphany, a decidedly
physical response, a philosophical unfettering, not unlike the visceral reverie
produced by the abject or the grotesque.97
SIMULACRUM / símyeláykrem / n.
Like Derrida’s monstrous birth, the simulacrum also gives birth to itself. It is
“metastable,” second order, “programmatic,” and yet it programs itself (343). It is a
body that mangles and is itself a mangled body. According to Plato, a simulacrum is
the false copy that overshadows our experience of the essential and ideal forms.
Baudrillard takes this one step further to say that it is a copy for which there is no
original. The simulacrum doesn’t just overshadow the real; it annihilates it. It is an
incessant proliferation, like zombies that beget zombies that beget zombies, ad
97
Kristeva hints at this concept of the monstrous birth in her description of the abject in Powers of
Horror: “Abjection is a resurrection that has gone through death (of the ego). It is an alchemy that
transforms death drive into a start of life, of new significance” (15). Likewise, in his work on the
grotesque, Mikhail Bakhtin writes, “One of the fundamental tendencies of the grotesque image of the
body is to show two bodies in one: the one giving birth and dying, the other conceived, generated, and
born” (26).
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infinitum. A copy to end all copies. It is Derrida’s monstrous birth, but in spades.
For Baudrillard, “it is no longer a question of imitation, nor of reduplication, nor even
of parody. It is rather a question of substituting signs of the real for the real itself, that
is an operation to deter every real process by its operational double, a metastable,
programmatic, perfect descriptive machine which provides all the signs of the real
and short-circuits all its vicissitudes” (343). Baudrillard calls the simulacrum
“perfect,” but for him it is perfect in the way that a car crash is perfect--in the way
that death, destruction, and gore are perfect: perfectly horrifying. Awesome, yes, and
abhorrent.
Gilles Deleuze, in his essay “Plato and the Simulacrum,” offers a much more
optimistic reading of simulacrum. For Deleuze, the simulacrum is cause for rejoice
not dismay, excited anticipation not morbidity and melancholy. He writes, “copies
are secondary possessors. They are well-founded pretenders, guaranteed by
resemblance; simulacra are like false pretenders, built upon a dissimilarity, implying
an essential perversion or a deviation” (256). The “perversion” here is of the sort that
Derrida is also fond of, an extended moment of play, or even something akin to
Freud’s beloved polymorphous perversion. Deleuze also uses the word “deviation,”
and so the simulacrum is a breaking off, an emancipation--not “a reversion to the
logic of reason” (as Baudrillard would say) but, rather, a perversion of both logic and
reason. Deleuze continues, “if we say of the simulacrum that it is a copy of a copy,
an infinitely degraded icon, an infinitely loose resemblance, we then miss the
essential, that is, the difference in nature between simulacrum and copy, or the aspect
234
by which they form the two halves of a single division. The copy is an image
endowed with resemblance, the simulacrum is an image without resemblance” (257).
Like Derrida’s monstrous birth, the simulacrum is not subject to authority. It is not
subject to the rules of the system, because it is outside of the system. A copy is so
often held up to an original, as if the original were some sort of authority or basis for
comparison. Copies unfaithful to their originals are dismantled (literally or
figuratively). The simulacrum, on the other hand, is a copy without an original, so
there is no basis for comparison. But it’s not that the simulacrum is its own authority,
but rather that it is free from any authority at all. Deleuze continues, “it does not
express an order opposed to the chaos engulfing it. On the contrary, it is nothing
other than chaos itself, or the power of affirming chaos” (264). The simulacrum is at
odds with the entire concept of authority to the extent that it ultimately has the
capacity to dismantle authority.
Deleuze ends his essay with a proclamation very similar to the one that ends
Derrida’s “Structure, Sign, and Play”:
Artifice and simulacrum are opposed at the heart of modernity, at the
point where modernity settles all of its accounts, as two modes of
destruction: the two nihilisms. For there is a vast difference between
destroying in order to conserve and perpetuate the established order of
representations, models, and copies, and destroying the models and
copies in order to institute the chaos which creates, making the
simulacra function and raising a phantasm--the most innocent of all
destructions, the destruction of Platonism. (265-266)
Deleuze sees monsters too, and (like Derrida) his monsters are of the deconstructive,
revolutionary variety. They are not the sort of monsters that hide in the shadows--not
the sort tucked away in our closets or groaning beneath our beds. Rather, they are the
235
monsters that we see everyday but fail to recognize--the monsters on every street
corner, in every house, the monsters groaning in our beds. They are the grotesque,
the abject, both not us and exactly us. They are not hiding in the darkness for they are
the darkness incarnate. They are copies in the way that images in a funhouse mirror
are copies. Deleuze calls them “innocent.” I call them “instrumental.” Zombies (and
corpses) function as an example, a hyperbole, of this concept of simulacrum, the
monstrous birth, the posthuman, born and born again into a simultaneous anonymity/
ubiquity.
REMAINDER / rɪˈmeɪndəәr / n.
Finally, this brings me back to Mbembe’s question from On the Postcolony,
“if one is not a human being, what is one?” I answered this question provisionally
once before, and now I will take another stab at an answer: “if one is not a human
being, one is a remainder.” Mbembe writes, “So the body is destroyed. It does not
necessarily give way to nothingness; it makes way for the remainder. Then, for this
remainder, there opens a time after death” (205). In the process of being made not
human, the colonized body ultimately becomes the waste product of the
dehumanizing project. This “remainder,” like the zombie, goes on after death, and
assumes its sire’s insatiable lust for flesh. Kristeva also plays with this idea of the
remainder in her work: “Remainders are residues of something but especially of
someone. They pollute on account of incompleteness” (76). For Kristeva, this
“residue” finds its way into all the nooks and crannies of our bodies, slowly turning
236
us in upon ourselves. There is liberation in monstrosity, for Kristeva and Mbembe,
and certainly for Romero, and not of the conventional sort (using the master’s tools to
dismantle the master’s house would be an exercise in futility--i.e., zombies eating
zombies). Instead, the vision of monstrosity here involves a liberation of the self--a
movement from the rhetoric of rape to the rape of rhetoric (not using the master’s
tools to dismantle the master’s house but using the master’s tools to dismantle the
master’s tools). Are we to believe, then, that the monstrous is evolution--that
zombification is evolution? Yes, indeed, a (de)evolution.
237
“These fragments I have shored against my ruins.” ~ T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”
Postscript
The zombie apocalypse is an entropic system, and entropy is a relentless
seduction. It is a turning in, a turning toward, a movement from an improbable state
to a more probable one. Entropy does not, as is commonly thought, measure the pull
of a system toward chaos. Rather, entropy describes the tendency in a system for the
most likely event to occur. While I use the metaphor of a seduction, entropy is not
wanted, not driven, not desired. It just happens necessarily, like gravity. An orange
doesn’t roll down a hill because it wants to. The apple doesn’t want to fall from the
tree; it just does. In chapter 1, I describe the automaton as a desiring machine but
without the desire part. This figuration could also be used to describe entropy, except
that entropy facilitates (even demands) play; and, by “play,” I mean a state wherein
action is feasible, as in the sentence, “The gears felt as though they had a good deal of
play.” The automaton walks, almost begrudgingly, because it can; entropy exerts its
pull on a system because it can’t not, like a machine that gets turned on but can’t turn
itself off. As an agent of the entropic system, the zombie can’t not walk, can’t not
devour, can’t not turn.
Entropy’s movement is unidirectional, always toward the most probable
outcome. In some systems the outcome could be chaos, while in other systems (like
the one that drives crystal formation) the outcome might be order or perfection. As a
product of entropy, the transformation from human to zombie is also unidirectional
(i.e., humans turn into zombies but zombies can’t turn back into humans). So, the
238
system crawls inevitably toward an all-zombie system. It is, perhaps, exactly for this
reason that nearly all zombie movies are apocalyptic and don’t depict a reformed
human civilization when they end. Once the zombies begin their crawl, we either join
the fray or move out of its way.
- - - - - In Fall of 2004 my mother had a brain aneurysm. I found out about it in a
very short e-mail. Here are the first words from that e-mail exactly “Your mom has
suffered a ruptured artery in her brain . . .” At the time, I was teaching a course
focused on representations of the body in Modern and Contemporary Lit. and Film.
We had just finished studying Margaret Edson’s Wit (1993) and the Buffy the Vampire
Slayer episode, “The Body,” in which Buffy discovers her mother’s body after she
dies suddenly of a brain aneurysm. These were my contexts for disease, death, and
dying when I received that e-mail about my mom. People die and when mothers have
arteries in their brains burst, they die and it is sudden. After reading the e-mail (about
5 or 6 times), I remember getting up and barely making it halfway across the room
before I collapsed. For about an hour, my mother was dead, and I grieved. But the
thing is she wasn’t actually dead. Ultimately, she ended up in the Intensive Care Unit
and over the next few months made a miraculous recovery. I had, of all things,
misread the e-mail, which went on to say that she was being rushed to the hospital for
emergency surgery. Nevertheless, I have memories of her having been dead and then
ones of her alive after she was dead. So, she occupies, for me, a liminal space
between the living and the dead.
239
And there is power in that space, a pleasure in the recognition of our own
decay and transformation. In a postmodern world, we wear our flesh with a
difference. The skin breaks with only a few pounds of pressure per square inch. We
are always already in a state of being neither this nor that, on the cusp of an
unraveling, a violent deconstruction, an explosive discharge of disruption and
jouissance, chomping at the bit to revert to an unintelligible sequence of grunts and
groans. Our bodies are rot. And this is cause, not for mourning, but for
celebration . . .
240
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