Bright Lights Film Journal

“Pity Poor Flesh” Terrible Bodies in the Films of Carpenter, Cronenberg, and Romero

“We are always already in a state of being on the cusp of an unraveling, a violent deconstruction, an explosive discharge of disruption and freeplay …”

Are our bodies just meat? There is a sort of 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 sort of bubbling in the soup. But, again, probably only because we’ve been told that that’s where the bubbling happens. I would much prefer if it were my liver or my spleen that did the thinking. I bet I could trust my spleen better than I can my brain. Or even my appendix. 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, and yet I never saw it happen. They didn’t let me take the appendix home in a jar when I left the hospital, so how do I really know it’s gone or 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 all-mighty skin, which comes pre-sealed, factory packaged. And yet skin is not really a barrier. Skin is permeable. And this allows for a creativity in how we contextualize and situate our bodies — slaves to culture, perhaps, but with the potential for revolt. We are exactly meat. Undifferentiated. Liquefying. Pungent. Fetid. Oozing. Writhing. Pretty. Meat.

We have a fascination in America with what happens to bodies after death. In her book Stiff, Mary Roach asks the question, “Can the dead be aesthetically pleasing?” (72). And so I ask what is pretty about meat? Where many of the slasher directors that followed him seem to celebrate gore and mutilation with an almost frenzied abandon, John Carpenter is, in Halloween, more contemplative, meditative even, about the body and its permeability (by sharp instruments). The corpse in his film becomes a fetish object, the emblem of and mascot for the postmodern body. For him, the body 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 certainly the perfectly moon-lit tombstone that she almost seems to gaze up at. For me, though, Michael Myers’ placement of a pumpkin on the nightstand overlooking the scene, which almost seems an onscreen audience to the whole spectacle, seals the deal. He’s created a sort of art installation piece here. It 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.

Roach offers a long exposé on embalming in her book, 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 here (similarly cheeky thanks to the grinning pumpkin). 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. He has to keep killing because his recreations of her are never quite satisfactory, the way the embalmed corpse never quite looks 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 results never quite live up to the hype. The body eventually decays, losing its shimmer. And so Michael has to keep killing.

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. Like other shots in the film, I find this one poetic and lyrical, especially when taken out of context, which makes it all the more disturbing. Here, I feel a moment of identification, an experience of the uncanny. As the suspense of the moment subsides, my own toes uncurl, mimicking the action of Bob’s toes onscreen. This is, for me, also an image of the abject. I’m at once disgusted and fascinated by it. There is something almost alien about toes shot in close-up, something mystifying, something almost but not quite amusing. For Julia Kristeva, the abject is neither here nor there, for even as we see it, we are unable to recognize it, precisely because it is at all times a (horrifying) extension of ourselves. It 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. And yet it is also entirely personal, so the abject is not intrinsic to a thing but contained in the experience of it. The toes are abject for me, but they might not be for another viewer. As a mode of reading or viewing, then, the abject is available only when you open yourself up to a truly emotional, visceral experience of a work. It makes an aesthetic of the anti-aesthetic, finds a sort of horrible order in the random 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, for me, so terrifying as a slasher villain. There seems a rationality in what he does, a symmetry to it, but it isn’t something the viewer or characters in the world of the film ever have access to (except maybe Laurie when she returns for the last few installments). There is no Scooby-Doo moment in Halloween (or any of the sequels, for that matter), 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 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 multi-paneled window in the background echoes the film frame itself and calls attention to the fact that we are also spectators. The audience, safely concealed by the darkness in the foreground, is disgusted and yet transfixed. Many of the subsequent slashers 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, forces his viewers to contemplate the images before them, gives the viewers time to admire his own directorial handiwork, and ultimately makes them question their enjoyment of scenes such as this one.

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 about to be carved up like a Thanksgiving turkey. Hitchcock, though, like Carpenter, also plays with the idea of the dead body as aesthetic object in Psycho. When we first see Marion Crane’s 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 up against the bathroom floor. The scene as a whole is extremely evocative of performance with Norman Bates in costume, the theatrical gesture of him drawing back the shower curtain, and the shots of the eye-like drain and shower-head (again, a sort of onscreen audience) in the shots just before and after the shot of her body on the floor. 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.

This leads me to my next major question. What is sexy about bodies, about flesh, about meat? Mary Roach 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). Roach manages to make the smell of rotting flesh sound downright appealing, the sort of scent you initially turn away from but can’t help but turn back to. And the thing about bodies is that they are always already in a state of decay. 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. And, yet, bodies are sexy, and not in spite of the fact that we are decaying but exactly, I think, because we are. The abject nature of the body has decidedly sexual overtones in the films of David Cronenberg.

His first film Shivers sets the tone for much of the work that follows. Cronenberg 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 in many ways, but most of them are there and brilliantly laid out in his first film. Shivers is basically a zombie film, except that the zombies are parasite-infected residents of a high-rise apartment building that go mad and become sex-crazed. One of the characters in the film tells another about a sex dream she has where her partner says “that everything is erotic — that everything is sexual … 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.” The sentiment here is similar to the slogan from 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.

One of the most iconic sequences in Shivers is of a parasite infecting a woman in her bathtub (this scene is parodied to hilarious effect in the recent film Slither). In the scene, it is impossible to distinguish between pleasure and pain, ecstasy and horror. Cronenberg’s films are about upsetting these sorts of distinctions, about bodies devouring, about being devoured, about parasites that invade our bodies, about bodies mutilated and aroused by car crashes, about the intersection between biology and technology, about the limits of sexual desire (or the lack of limits). About flesh that eats and is eaten simultaneously — a sexual devouring but more often actual physical devouring as a metaphor for sex (in his films The Fly, Videodrome, Rabid, etc.). His films are about how we construct (or fail to construct) our relationship to our bodies and our sexuality. In Adam Simon’s 2003 documentary The American Nightmare, Cronenberg says, “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 his essay, “Monster Culture (Seven Theses),” Jeffrey Jerome Cohen says that “the monster’s body is a cultural body” (4), suggesting also 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.

Shivers ends with a shot of the lead character, Roger, being dragged into a pool and surrounded by a nymphomaniacal zombie throng. He struggles at the center of the pool before succumbing to a kiss (the parasite is passed through kissing). 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 (a word Cronenberg uses to describe the scene in The American Nightmare). It is important, I think, that this scene occurs in (the primordial waters of) a swimming pool and that the zombies in the film are headed up by the two main female characters. In “When the Woman Looks,” Linda Williams discusses the connection that is often drawn between the woman and the monster. In the horror film, Williams argues the woman is allowed to control the gaze but only through her look at or toward the monster (unlike Laura Mulvey’s notion that the gaze is always male). 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 then, in many cases, symbolically). Williams is ultimately quite critical of the roles offered to woman in the horror film, while Creed’s take on horror films is more generous. Neither fully reclaims the monster as a feminist icon in the way, for example, that Helene Cixous does in “The Laugh of the Medusa.” The portrayal of the monstrous-feminine in Shivers is, for me, a decidedly optimistic one. Simply put, the uninfected mope around the movie complaining, arguing, struggling, while the zombies just seem to have more fun. So, the monstrous-feminine in this film (and even in a film like Ridley Scott’s Alien or Tobe Hooper’s Lifeforce) becomes a libratory force. The monsters are either the heroes in these films or a catalyst for some sort of change or evolution in the hero (Riply in the Alien saga, for example).

The same is definitely true of the zombies in George 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 (the skin begins to fall 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 the Romero films (and in just about every invasion 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, humans are bodies, and our failure to acknowledge that is often our fatal flaw.

Finally, what is lively about meat and how does the corpse become vital again? Well, George Romero hypothetically answers this simply enough, “it is reborn.” Always already. “We are the living dead,” Romero says in The American Nightmare with just 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 Dead, 28 Days Later, and the remake of his own Dawn of the Dead. In Shaun of the Dead, for example, the zombies become nearly indistinguishable from the living to the point that they are able to “pass” for one another at various points in the film. We are at a point in our evolution as a species where we aren’t quite living and aren’t quite dead. With the advent of virtual bodies (via video games, chat rooms, online profiles, etc.), cloning, cyborg technology, and even something as simple as the cell phone, we are seeing ourselves become more and more disembodied. Not zombies but the antithesis of zombies, for zombies are all body, where we have been stripped of ours.

Think Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, where the androids have become more human than the humans that hunt them down or the satirical “happy ending” of Bryan Forbes’ film version of The Stepford Wives (and, to a lesser degree, the ending of Ira Levin’s novel), where the heroine gets her eyes gouged out only to have them implanted in her shiny-happy android double. 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. 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.

And yet our bodies are still here, perambulating about, whether or not we’re in them. 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’ll turn to answer this question and to end this paper. Toward the end of the film, Barbara is at the door to the house that the human characters have barricaded themselves up inside. She is caught by the zombie throng and pulled out of the house. The casual critic of the film shouts in frustration and mild amusement, “don’t be so stupid, there are arms reaching into the house, stay away from them!” The more seasoned critic points to Barbara’s characterization throughout the film, “this is a very 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, I would argue, 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-another-social-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 acknowledgment that this world offers no place for her and the world of madness 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.

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 and an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “The Body,” where Buffy discovers her mother’s dead 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 mother’s 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 thing, misread the rest of the e-mail. Nevertheless, I have a memory 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.

And there is a sort of power in that space. A sort of pleasure in the recognition of our own decay and transformation. 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 freeplay, chomping at the bit to revert to an unintelligible sequence of grunts and groans. Our bodies are rot.

Bibliography

Cixous, Helene. “The Laugh of the Medusa.” The Critical Tradition; Classis Texts and Contemporary Trends. Ed. David H. Richter. Boston: St. Martin’s Press, 1998. 1454-1466.

Creed, Barbara. The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Pscyhoanalysis. New York: Routledge, 1993.

Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982.

Roach, Mary. Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers.New York: Norton, 2003.

Williams, Linda. “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess.” Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. Eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

“When the Woman Looks.” The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film. Ed. Barry Keith Grant. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996.