By Paul Anthony Jonze.
Science fiction film is habitually associated with themes of the uncanny, the abject and the monstrous, all of which are often subsequently related to the subject of body horror. Freud conveys the uncanny as something that is “frightening precisely because it is not known and familiar” (1919: 2), which film theorist Barbara Creed applies to her work on body trauma, arguing that, “Of all the bodily organs, Freud sees the uterus, or womb, as particularly uncanny. This is because the womb is the most heimlich or unheimlich place of all. It is our first home, the memory of which haunts our unconscious, sometimes rising to the consciousness in particularly uncanny moments” (2005: 46-48). She continues by stating that
Freud placed special emphasis on the uncanniness of the female body, of woman’s genital organs and womb, ‘the former Heim [home] of all human beings’. Freud stated that the ‘uncanny is that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar’. This suggests that the notion common to all aspects of the uncanny is that or origins. This ‘uncanny is in reality nothing new or alien, but something which is familiar and old-established in the mind and which has become alienated from it if only through the process of repression’.
(Creed, 2005: 17)
Creed takes Freud’s argument and applies it to film, arguing that the uncanny consists of three main categories:
(i) – those things which relate to the notion of the double: a cyborg; twin; doppelganger; a multiplied object; a ghost or spirit; an involuntary repetition of an act.
(ii) – castration anxieties expressed as a fear of the female genitals or of dismembered limbs, a severed head or hand, loss of the eyes, fear of going blind.
(iii) – a feeling associated with a familiar/unfamiliar place, losing one’s way, womb phantasies, a haunted house.
(Creed, 1993: 53)
In addition to theories of the uncanny, Creed’s The Monstrous Feminine (1993) takes Julia Kristeva’s model of the abject and applies it to film, specifically the horror and science fiction genres, relating abjection to maternality. Creed argues that Kristeva’s work can be applied to represent “woman as monstrous” (1993: 8), and that abjection is specifically relatable to the female body. Creed’s theory of the monstrous feminine argues that the female reproductive organs are an area of monstrosity, and uses films such as Carrie (Brian De Palma), Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979) and The Brood (David Cronenberg, 1979) to exemplify her argument of the female body as monstrous. However, in the ‘metamorphosis cinema’ of the 1980s, an era described by film theorist and critic Alexander Kirschenbaum as “an exploration of the nature of the body and the flesh as self-actualizing entities” (2011), the male body becomes the subject of transitional revulsion surrounding the horrific and the abject. This essay will look at how the abject, the uncanny, and Creed’s theory surrounding the monstrous feminine can be applied to the male body, using David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986) and Robocop (Paul Verhoeven, 1987) as case studies.
The Fly is a film in which the uncanny, the abject and the monstrous are not only evident, but are related in particular to the male body. The storyline follows scientist Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) and his transformation from human to monster following a teleportation experiment. Unlike the original 1950s B-movie The Fly (Kurt Neumann, 1958), which features a scientist whose “failed experiments leave him stuck with a gigantic fly’s head on top of his still-human body”, Cronenberg’s remake “streamlines this basic horror-movie conceit almost to the point of abstraction” (Rafferty, 1986: 31). In terms of birth and reproduction, the monstrous is represented in the womb-like iconography teleportation pods, the morality of rebirth, the phallic implications in the mise-en-scène, and the cancerous abject flesh that quickly threatens Seth’s identity. Theorist Helen Robbins argues that
Phallic technology inexorably reveals the womb envy that motivates it in Cronenberg’s updated version of The Fly. In Kurt Neumann’s original (1958) sci-fi classic, the scientist who accidentally splices himself with an insect is married and has a son, who after his father’s death declares that he will become an ‘explorer, like him’. One of Cronenberg’s modifications, centering the story on an unstable sexual triangle between unmarried participants, pointedly denies the consolation of unbroken paternal legacy that the original film promises. Close to the surfaces of the new Fly’s narrative are old anxieties about paternity that modern reproductive technology and especially the social and sexual liberation of woman have exacerbated. In Cronenberg’s The Fly, Veronica (‘Ronnie’) Quaife, played by Geena Davis, is the sexually liberated heroine who has rejected a former lover and taken on another. Her behaviour motivates the male characters’ excessive disturbance at the site of reproductive certitude, exposing their failure to accept the biological reality of the brief, merely speculative role of the male individual in procreation.
(Robbins, 1992: 136-137)
In The Fly, the female reproductive system, specifically the womb, is a space of monstrosity and anxiety, and is represented as a place dominated by the male. Brundle’s teleportation pods are overtly uterine in shape, a construct of the male scientist, and become the metaphoric archaic mother, which both destroys and creates life. Creed argues that “[i]n his attempt to create new life, the male womb monster of the horror film re-creates an intra-uterine mise en scene, a maternal landscape, which is symbolically his womb, his birth-giving place. He gives physical form to an unconscious memory of his first home. He wants to live in the uncanny moment and in an uncanny space. (2005: 43). Later, in a horrific dream sequence in which Seth’s girlfriend Ronnie (Geena Davis) is seen birthing a large maggot, the male doctor (played by Cronenberg) is seen pulling the creature from between her legs, furthering the film’s male dominance during birthing scenarios, and the implications of anxiety surrounding childbirth.
When the spectator is introduced to Seth in the film’s opening scene, he is presented as a geeky, socially awkward person, whose masculinity is overshadowed by his dedication to his work. However, upon taking Ronnie back to his apartment on the outskirts of town, his heterosexuality and masculinity is confirmed when he convinces her to take off a stocking to use as an example of the teleportation pods, in which the audience is witness to an objective view of her legs, underlining theories of the ‘male gaze’ and scopophilic fetishism (Mulvey, 1975). Later in the film, the audience sees Seth and Ronnie making love, which in terms of gender and allusions towards monstrosity is an important scene for several reasons. Firstly, it reconfirms Seth’s role as masculine, and momentarily removes his image of mad scientist. Secondly, the scene alludes to Seth’s physical manifestation later in the film. As the scene opens with the camera focusing on the skylight in Seth’s warehouse apartment, the moonlight shines through, giving the frame and shadows a web-like impression across the ceiling. As the camera tilts downwards towards the couple in bed, directly under the skylight, the notion of Seth as a fly trapped in a spider’s web (which one could also associate this with the final scene of the 1950s film, where the fly-with-the-human-head is seen caught in a web) is suggested. Lastly, as the couple finish making love, Seth rolls over, and in doing so a piece of electronic equipment gets lodged in his back, momentarily positioning him as cyborg, foreseeing his final demise as ‘Brundlefly’ who becomes fused with the telepod.
Shortly after, Seth’s masculinity is exaggerated when he becomes increasingly jealous of Ronnie and her boss Stathis Borans’ (John Getz) relationship, which fuels him to transport himself, a move that theorist Lianne McLarty examines:
Seth’s monstrousness is, if anything, a function of his violent expression of aggression and his will to control; his monstrous transformation is associated with an increase in traditional masculinity. Significantly, he teleports himself in a jealous rage at Ronnie’s absence – she has gone to deal with the “residue of another life” over which Seth has no control. In his descriptions of the teleportation process, Seth connects it with both power […] and patriarchy […] The hairs that begin to grow on his back are specifically connected to a sense of masculinity underscored by Seth’s protests when Ronnie clips them (“Not my hairs!”) and by his conviction that they make him more manly.
(McLarty, 2006: 242-243)
McLarty continues by arguing, “The monstrous is not so much located in the female body as in the male mind, which is alienated from and which attempts to transcend/control that body” (2006: 247), which leads to conclusions that not only is Seth physically transforming into something other than human, but also his state of mind is becoming altered due to the experimentation. With the mental transition appearing in the film prior to that of the physical, this implies that the abject is an internal manifestation breaking from the borders of the body, the skin.
Seth’s rebirth is signified in several ways. Essentially, the film is machinery dominated, with the womb-like teleportation pods being the instruments of scientific significance. Tubes trail across the floor connecting the pods, bearing an uncanny resemblance to the umbilical chord. Immediately post-rebirth, Seth’s body is reconstructed as a phallic symbolisation of masculinised stature. As Seth steps from the pod, the low angle of the camera emphasises his masculine dominance. His taut, muscled chest and arms are highlighted by use of close-ups and wide shots showing his half naked body, and in opposition to the previous male gaze that was once cast at Ronnie’s legs and stockings, Seth now becomes the object of the female look, as Ronnie (and the audience in subjective point of view) watches as he performs astonishing aerobatic acts in his apartment, his hard body “underlining the phallic character of his abilities” (McLarty, 2006: 243). The scene acts as a metaphor of Seth’s transition from ‘newborn’ to ‘teenage’ years, as his body grows and develops almost superhuman talent at an accelerated rate. But this also indicates the radical changes his body is going through, as his temperament also quickly becomes erratic, as illustrated when he and Ronnie share a coffee in a city café. Seth puts endless spoonfuls of sugar into his drink, and appears short fused at having to wait for a waiter, hitting the table and becoming quickly agitated.
Seth’s unbalanced temperament and physical state quickly develop from superhuman ability to the manifestation of decay and the abject. His character is one of almost near solitude, and his out of town laboratory apartment suggests his “relative isolation […] that he exists primarily in his head. (McLarty, 2006: 242). Geographically, Seth’s position in society is that of abjected physicality, his apartment-come-laboratory sitting on the outskirts of the city, or rather the border, apparently miles from the bustling metropolis where Ronnie works and lives. This discernible affiliation with geographical abject manifests into that relating to the body physical, not long after his teleportation and rebirth, Seth soon starts to develop legions on his face, indicating a disease that appears to be crudely breaking through his skin. As author Alan Stanbrook argues, “[m]any, in fact, saw The Fly as a metaphor for AIDS – the progressive disintegration of the body under the onslaught of an irreversible disease. (1988: 56). Rafferty furthers this argument by stating:
Brundle becomes a monster in a much more alarming way than the 50’s fly-man did: human and insect characteristics are all mixed up in him, every cell genetically altered, so that he is never fully one thing or the other. His transformation isn’t a sideshow stunt, it’s a horrible, wasting disease, and Brundle’s body never really looks like a fly’s – just a riot of grotesquely mutating flesh. (The suggestions of cancer and AIDS are obviously intended.)
(Rafferty, 1986: 31-32)
This is an argument Cronenberg himself denied was part of Seth’s physical deterioration:
If you think of The Fly as an AIDS movie, then you have to think that Geena Davis gave it to him, because he’s a guy who’s never been fucked before. Then, is she going to die? That’s why I don’t want it to be AIDS, truly. If you go all the way with that, and you look at it that way, you have the answer to some fairly gloomy questions, which don’t work with the movie. That’s why I resist it. People forget that syphilis was at the turn of the century; how terrifying it was, what a scourge and a plague on people who went with prostitutes it was. How many well-known people had their noses and ears fall off. It wasn’t as deadly as AIDS, but it took thirty of so years to manifest itself. If AIDS hadn’t been around, I still would have made The Fly, and I did make Shivers and Rabid.
(Cronenberg in Rodley, 1997: 127)
Cronenberg continues by arguing, “Why not look at the processes of aging and dying, for example, as a transformation? This is what I did in The Fly […] You look at it and it’s ugly, it’s nasty, it’s not pretty. It’s very hard to alter our aesthetic sense to accommodate ageing, never mind disease” (Cronenberg in Rodley, 1997: 82).
Seth’s metamorphosis is grotesque, and is shown often in close-up to make prominent the trauma of his cancerous flesh. As his body begins to decay, an allusion to ageing, Seth’s mutation becomes increasingly bizarre and repugnant, and the abject appears more prominent.
These losses of substance reactivate the trauma of individualization from the mother and activate womb envy. In The Fly, shortly after Seth Brundle has fused with the housefly but is still unaware of his condition, he stands before the bathroom mirror examining his strangely blemished face and biting a fingernail. Unexpectedly, the entire nail sloughs off against his teeth. When, in his horrified fascination, Seth examines, probes and finally squeezes the naked pad of his finger, it disgorges a thick whitish fluid against the mirror. The image is overloaded with visual double entendre, suggesting simultaneously the two furtive adolescent rites of masturbation (the finger’s phallic shape) and pimple squeezing (the plat of goo that Brundle wipes off the mirror with a tissue).
If the scene depicting a crouching naked Seth in the teleportation pods in a foetal position and emerging in a newborn state represent infantilization and rebirth respectively, then the scene showing Seth staring at his changing reflection in the bathroom mirror could be concluded to represent Seth’s metaphoric teenage years. One could argue his blemished skin is a representation of puberty (as well as his changing voice that the computer later cannot identify as his own), and the phallic connotations of the finger and the white fluid could be deduced as a teenager’s exploration of sexuality and masturbation.
The cancerous transformation is shown in a display of repugnance, which Cronenberg discusses:
We’ve not devised an aesthetic for the inside of the body any more than we have developed an aesthetic of disease. Most people are disgusted – like when they watch an insect transform itself. But if you develop and aesthetic for it, it ceases to be ugly […] I’m interested in the way we have taken our own evolution into our hands. Darwin’s theory of evolution by mutation had a serious flaw, because it never considered the possibility of evolution by disease – the idea that some diseases might amount to a superior strain of the species. In my films there is an attempt by some of the characters to see their diseases as metamorphosis.
(Cronenberg in Stanbrook, 1988: 56)
As the decaying parts of Seth’s appendages detach from his body, he stores them in his bathroom cabinet, which he affectionately names The Brundle Museum of Natural History. As the camera pans across the shelf, the audience sees numbers rotten parts of his body, including his penis, instantly castrating and feminizing him through mutilation.
Towards the film’s final scenes, Seth has lost almost all signs of humanness. Fly-like mannerisms are shown in grotesque displays of abjection and monstrousness, including vomiting, an act that seems first nature to him by this point. By the film’s conclusion, Seth has fully transformed into Brundlefly, and all physical signs of humanness are abandoned, as his body literally falls apart in Ronnie’s hand, rotting flesh falls to the floor, and from underneath, the insect that he has become is displayed in full, the abject flesh’s final act of threatening all of Seth’s sense of identity. In a final act of attempted survival, Brundlefly tries to fuse himself, Ronnie and their unborn baby in the telepods, however in doing so, he fuses combines himself with one of the pods, manifesting into his physical form, cyborg, as flesh and metal unite to give display to a final monstrous being.
Another film to emerge from ‘metamorphosis cinema’ canon is RoboCop, whose protagonist is a hybrid fusion of man and metal, police officer Alex Murphy (Peter Weller) and the RoboCop machine. In her analysis of RoboCop, film theorist Ayish Wood examines the cyborg’s existence in the ultra-violent dystopian city of Detroit, stating that the cyborg is a “cybernetic organism, which is understood to be a hybrid being, a figure constructed from both organic and inorganic components. Within fictions of technoscience, the cyborg is often a hybrid being, derived from human organic material as well as inorganic material” (Wood, 2002: 162).
Like Seth Brundle in The Fly, Murphy is transformed into another incarnation of himself, a being that is neither human nor ‘other’.
Murphy’s murder in the disintegrating hulk of a derelict steel mill and his subsequent reanimation as a cyborg inside a high-tech laboratory is a similar kind of transition [as the demolishing of Detroit City into Delta City]. The old Murphy is almost entirely demolished, and the remains are reconfigured into a bright new titanium-covered object. The transition is displayed in the scenes that link Murphy’s murder and his subsequent reanimation. The death of the fully human Murphy is shown in a sequence of cuts from a close-up of Murphy’s face showing his unresponsive pupils to an apparently subjective view of the medics working over him.
(Wood, 2002: 163)
The journey of Murphy’s transformation into RoboCop is shown entirely from a subjective point of view. Immediately following his brutal murder at the hands of the gang leader Kurtwood Smith (Clarence J. Boddicker), the spectator is witness to Murphy’s chaotic revival through his perspective:
The reanimation of Murphy as RoboCop is visualised when the blank screen of Murphy’s death is broken by white noise, white noise that is followed by a tuning-in effect as RoboCop’s visual functions come on-line and are focused. The images on the screen are the point of view of a technologically enhanced being is evident in the use of a visual grid device placed over the field of vision. However, the physical nature of this technologically enhanced being in initially withheld.
(Wood, 2002: 164)
The subjective shots are shown from a low angle, which suggests that RoboCop is on a bed or operating table. As the scientists stand over him, they discuss the success of their creation with the assumption that he cannot understand their conversation. RoboCop’s vision intermittently cuts in and out, suggesting significant time ellipses during his creation, and at one point the scientists display bouts of excitement in his apparently turning his head to look at them. This, along with the scene showing RoboCop’s first steps (again from a subjective point of view), and the fact that RoboCop seems to be fuelled by a baby food-like substance, suggests his infantilized state, a signifier of his rebirth, much like Seth Brundle’s emergence from the teleportation pod. Upon seeing RoboCop’s full physical shape as cyborg police officer, Murphy is now almost unrecognizable compared to his previous physical appearance:
The only portions of Murphy that remain are his face, usually hidden behind a helmet, and his spinal chord and brain, a point that remains opaque throughout Robocop, and revealed only in the sequel Robocop 2. What appears to be at stake in these films is a redefinition of humanness, a redefinition which is inevitable as the boundaries of the human body are blurred as the technologies encroach and become an inseparable part of the functioning hybrid being.
(Wood, 2002: 162)
Later in the film, RoboCop removes his helmet, revealing his full face. The camera is placed in an over-the-shoulder shot, and the audience watches as he stares at his reflection in a piece of broken glass (underlining Creed’s notion of the uncanny doppelganger), the joins where flesh meets metal is emphasised in the close-up as a crude fusion of human tissue and machine. While RoboCop’s hard-bodied exterior represents the masculine man-machine, the human face, with the hard eyes and grotesque joins where organism bonds with robot, underlines the monstrous hybrid creation he has become, humanity and technology becoming ambiguous. Donna Haraway argues
Contemporary science fiction is full of cyborgs – creatures simultaneously animal and machine, who populate worlds ambiguously natural and crafted. Modern medicine is also full of cyborgs, of couplings between organisms and machine, each conceived as coded devices, in an intimacy and with a power that was not generated in the history of sexuality.
(Haraway, 1991: 149-150)
Both The Fly and RoboCop feature male protagonists who, at the hands of science and man’s own creation, become grotesque, pale reflections of their former selves. While Creed argues that Kristeva’s theories of the abject are relatable to the maternal body and the female monster, it is also evident that abjection can be considered relatable to the male by the transgressive physicality of their state of being, as exemplified in both The Fly and RoboCop. Therein, Creed’s theory of the monstrous feminine can be applied to the male body, through both Seth and Murphy’s immoral rebirths into the ‘other’, their former selves either symbolically (Seth) or physically (Murphy) deceased.
The corpse, seen without God and outside of science, is the utmost of abjection. It is death infecting life. Abject. It is something rejected from which one does not part, from which one does not protect oneself as from an object. Imaginary uncanniness and real threat, it beckons to us and ends up engulfing us.
(Kristeva, 1982: 4)
Creed further applies Kristeva’s theory:
The horror film would appear to be […] an illustration of the work of abjection. First, the horror film abounds in images of abjection, foremost of which is the corpse, whole and mutilated, followed by an array of bodily wastes such as blood, vomit, saliva, sweat, tears and putrefying flesh […] Second, the concept of the border is central to the construction of the monstrous in the horror film: that which crosses the ‘border’ into the abject. Although the specific nature of the border changes from film to film, the function of the monstrous remains the same – to bring about an encounter between the symbolic order and that which threatens its stability. In some horror films, the monstrous is produced at the border between human and inhuman.
(Creed, 1993: 10-11)
Evidence of Creed’s argument is apparent within both the aesthetics and the narratology of The Fly and RoboCop. It is in the sickening visceral image of Seth vomiting on his food, the mutilated flesh that rots from Brundlefly’s body, and the uncanny dual identity of Murphy, reassigning the role of the monstrous feminine to the identity of the monstrous masculine.
© Paul Anthony Jonze, 2012
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Alien, 1979. [Film] Directed by Ridley Scott. USA: 20th Century Fox
Carrie, 1967. [Film] Directed by Brian De Palma. USA: United Artists
The Brood, 1979. [Film] Directed by David Cronenberg. Canada: New World-Mutual
The Fly, 1958. [Film] Directed by Kurt Neumann. United States: 20th Century Fox
The Fly, 1986. [Film] Directed by David Cronenberg. United States: 20th Century Fox
RoboCop, 1987. [Film] Directed by Paul Verhoeven. United States: Orion Pictures