Who’s going to believe a talking head?

Curator's Note

The close rapport between horror and comedy seems to us evident from the beginning of life to the end. Lacantells us that when an infant looks in the mirror and recognizes him or herself for the first time, the response is one of jubilation, if not laugher. This joy is founded in the act of identifying oneself with a unified image. No longer is one’s infant body a fragmented mass, with limbs disjointed and orientation skewed. In doing so, perspective is gained at the expense of being alienated from what one actually is. Our merriment, such as it is, is short-lived. Just as the image presented to us in the mirror can confer order upon an otherwise messy body, so that veil can just as easily be removed, provoking not laughter, but horror. Anxiety is one such situation that hovers between horror and comedy, between the farcical and the visceral, and for this reason often plays a key role in the horror genre.

Consider Stuart Gordon’s masterful 1985 adaption of H.P. Lovecraft’s tale, “Herbert West-Reanimator.” The story concerns a prodigious student, Herbert West, and his experiments in reanimating dead life with a neon green slime. Many of these experiments end badly, producing malformed semi-living beings. Part of the comic-horror inherent in the film stems from the slapstick bodies produced in West’s trials. The reanimated bodies become grotesque exaggerations of their previous incarnation, now with renewed strength or heighted libido. Bulging eyes and decapitated heads are recurring motifs, as West murmurs to himself: “Parts…I’ve never [reanimated] parts.” In a key scene in the film, the severed head of one character sits in a metal tray while his body twitches on the ground. As West interrogates the head, the remaining body approaches from behind to attack him. These scenes of the body becoming inverted, with the torso now carrying the head, play upon the primal anxiety that the parts of our corporeality are ultimately contigent. The nightmare is already known to John Locke: "Cut off a hand…and it is then no longer a part of the body which is himself, any more than the remotest part of matter." Lovecraft’s grotesque vision of Herbert West confronts us not only with a slapstick depiction of the disassembled body but also with a horrifying realization that the body was never unified to begin with.  

Comments

Michael Frazer's picture

Fragmented Self

Interesting discussion, Dylan. This reminds me very much of texts like Frankenstein and Patchwork Girl in which the parts do not equal a truly unified totality, where the sum of the parts composes only a simulated whole. Similarly, Locke’s demonstration is amplified in an episode of Adventure Time that plays upon similar anxieties: Ice King makes himself a wife out of his favorite princesses’ parts, and the result is a woman asking, “What am I?” At the end, she returns the parts to their original owners, and she (or her absence rather), returns as a cloak she was wearing to Ice King’s lair before dissipating into nothingness. I find these instances related to your premise: there is some notion of a Self, but it is decentered and perhaps arbitrary/constructed. Any thoughts on where the Self is (dis)located? Are there any traces of the Self in, say, the body that carries the head in Re-Animator?

Dewey Musante's picture

Slapstick, Horror, and Gore

You bring up some great points Dylan. I’m particularly interested in and agree with your supposition that Re-animator draws on slapstick comedy in interesting ways. The fight scene earlier in the film between West, Cain and the bulky re-animated corpse and the climactic fight with West and his needles also seems (in the vain of some of Sam Raimi’s best work) to drift between horror and comedy fluidly. The body and its ability to “come apart” does seem at the core of this undulation between camp and horror and I think Lacan’s notion at the jubilation of unified self-recognition is tied up in there too. The question I would ask, then, (echoing Michael’s) is does this notion apply to other splatter gore films? How can the dismemberment gore of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre be unnerving while that of Evil Dead II or Dead Alive be remarkably funny? There seems to be something more nuanced than tone at the core of this mutability of body gore, but I’m not sure what it is.

Dylan Trigg's picture

Identity & Body Parts

Thanks for your comments, Michael and Dewey. Regarding your point, Michael, concerning the traces of self: it’s helpful to think of the classical problem of personal identity as expressed in the Ship of Theseus paradox. If a decaying ship has all of its planks removed and replaced in order to restore it, is it the same ship? There’s a number of points here. First, can we locate a precise point in space and time in which a ship ceases to be identical with itself? Second, if not, then how does a thing preserve its identity? Obviously, we can ask the question in relation to the body: at which point does “my” body ceases to be me? I would favor a phenomenological reading of this question: the preservation of identity is less dependent on the physical and objective preservation of things themselves, and more reliant on the relation we have with those things. To put it another way, maintaining that I am I requires as much the retention of memory as it does the work of imagination.

On the topic of other films, Dewey, it’s an interesting point. To my mind, David Cronenberg’s “The Fly” is the exemplary exploration of these themes, which is notable given it’s a film almost entirely devoid of any comedic elements. In fact, it takes the monstrous transformation of a man into a fly in terms of an existential melodrama. On the splatter genre, my sense is that there’s always something of philosophical merit to be taken in how bodies are treated in these films, even if the director disavows any intellectualist reading. The merit, though, would come about as a “symptom” – as an indirect expression of how bodies are treated in this genre, irrespective of the director’s conscious intentions. “Re-Animator” is an example of this, as it uses the body as “schlock” material to horrify/amuse the audience, but reveals a certain philosophical insight in the process (i.e., the amusing prospect of an anti-Cartesianism, insomuch as limbs reveal themselves as having minds of their own). Eric Red’s 1991 film, “Body Parts” is also worth noting in this respect.

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