5–24 Mummy Knows Best:
Knowledge and the
Unknowable in Turn of the
Century Mummy Fiction
25–47 Drakula halála (1921): The
Cinema’s First Dracula
49–71 Strange Botany in Werewolf
of London
73–88 ‘Evil against Evil’:
The Parabolic Structure and
Thematics of William Friedkin’s
The Exorcist
89–110 Of Submarines and Sharks:
Musical Settings of a Silent
111–128 ‘Uncontrollably Herself’:
Deleuze’s Becoming-woman
in the Horror Films of Michael
129–141 The Monstrous Masculine:
Abjection and Todd Solondz’s
143–160 Dark Looks: An Interview With
Valerie Steele
HOST_1.1_FM_001–002.indd Sec1:1 1/2/10 11:52:39 AM
HOST_1.1_FM_001–002.indd Sec1:2 1/2/10 11:52:39 AM
HOST 1 (1) p. 3 Intellect Limited 2010
Horror Studies
Volume 1 Number 1
© 2010 Intellect Ltd Editorial. English language. doi: 10.1386/host.1.1.3/2
Horror Studies is a biannually published journal committed to the show-
casing of high-quality research on all cultural manifestations of horror, from
the more familiar forms it assumes in literature and film, through to such less-
er-known modes of expression as fashion, dance, fine art, music and technol-
ogy. Firmly interdisciplinary in its orientations, Horror Studies aims to extend
both the formal study and the informal appreciation of horror into hitherto
overlooked critical terrains, seeking in the process to appeal not only to the
international academic community, but also to enthusiasts of the horror mode
more generally. Bound neither by particular generic concerns nor by forms of
horror as they might be confined to a particular cultural or historical locale,
the journal strives for a certain inclusiveness. The breadth of our interests, we
hope, is reflected in this, our inaugural issue.
The Advisory Board of Horror Studies is composed of internationally rec-
ognised experts in the field, and each contribution to the journal has been
subjected to a rigorous process of anonymous peer-review. As our Notes for
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torical needs of any particular piece determine its length than prescribing an
ideal word-count for all submissions. We aim to give as equal a press to new
and upcoming scholars as we do to more established researchers in the field.
It is anticipated that future volumes of Horror Studies will include a stimu-
lating mix of scholarly articles and reviews of books, DVDs, computer games
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critical review, including academic monographs, books and DVDs of interest,
will be distributed to suitably qualified readers; queries and ideas concerning
the publication of longer review articles on appropriate material should be
addressed to the Managing Editor.
The Editors
HOST 1.1 Editorial_03-04.indd 3 1/2/10 11:54:37 AM
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HOST 1.1 Editorial_03-04.indd 4 1/5/10 8:54:29 AM
HOST 1 (1) pp. 5–24 Intellect Limited 2010
Horror Studies
Volume 1 Number 1
© 2010 Intellect Ltd Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/host.1.1.5/1
(British) in literature
the-century fiction/
gothic/horror fiction
Mount St. Vincent University
Mummy Knows Best:
Knowledge and the
Unknowable in Turn
of the Century Mummy
This article argues that the figure of the reanimated mummy, which appeared
with increasing frequency in imperialist adventure fiction as the nineteenth cen-
tury drew to a close, is the quintessential monster of imperial gothic. The sudden
interest in a figure that some would describe as a fundamentally flawed mon-
ster (perhaps because it is simply too unambiguously dead) at this moment of
turn-of-the-century fears of dissolution, degeneration and loss of control signals,
I argue here, a profound anxiety about the epistemological underpinnings of the
imperial project. In these stories, reanimated mummies move easily out of their
stable positions as artefacts or relics and enter into the Western symbolic order as
acting subjects (however conditionally) and as terrifying rivals for epistemological
HOST 1.1_art_Macfarlane_05-024.indd 5 1/2/10 12:07:56 PM
Karen E. Macfarlane
1. Glover, Daly, Pearce,
and Deane have each
provided comprehensive
histories of mummy
fiction in their illuminating
work on mummies in the
nineteenth century. The
reanimated mummy first
appears in Jane (Webb)
Loudon’s The Mummy!:
A Tale of the Twenty-
Second Century (1827)
and then disappears
until its resurrection in
Poe’s 1845 ‘Some
Words with a Mummy’.
It wasn’t fully revivified,
as Daly notes, until
the turn of the century,
when ‘more than a
dozen mummy narratives
appear [between
1880 and 1914]’
(Daly 1999: 85). Daly
and Deane argue
persuasively that these
early stories are focused
on commodification
and desire. Most
feature female mummies
with whom/which
the protagonist falls
hopelessly in love. Only
later in the period does
the mummy take on
‘the form that has since
become so familiar’
(Deane 2008: 406),
that of male competitor.
While my focus will be
on many of the latter
texts, I argue here that
the preoccupation with
knowledge pervades all
of the mummy fictions,
whether cast as a gothic
romance or as horror
2. Thomas Richards
explores this concept
in his influential The
Imperial Archive.
3. Susan Pearce and
Nicholas Daly have
provided provocative
and in-depth discussions
of mummies in Victorian
and Edwardian culture.
In Edgar Allan Poe’s 1845 short story, ‘Some Words With a Mummy’, a group
of eminent scientists gathers for the unrolling of an ‘unransacked’ mummy.
As the evening progresses they decide to experiment with galvanism and
reanimate the object of their inquiries. Rising from the dining-room table on
which he has been placed, the mummy berates the assembled gentlemen ‘in
very capital Egyptian’ (Poe 1977 [1845]: 159) for their ‘deplorable condition of
ignorance’ (Poe 1977 [1845]: 163) of all things scientific, mechanical, meta-
physical and Egyptological. The mummy dismisses all of the ‘advancements’
of the modern age. He assures his audience that every miracle of modern
science – from the galvanism that reanimated him to the steam engine – had,
in fact, not only been invented and used in pharaonic Egypt, but had been
superseded by a better technology. This early representation
of an encounter
between a reanimated mummy and men of science focuses the horror of the
mummy on the dueling epistemologies of the East and West, past and present,
the known and the unknowable. The horrific blending of powerful intellect
and pure corporeality in representations of fin de siècle mummies (most of
whom are priests or scientists or the daughters/lovers of priests and scientists)
is what makes them, I would argue, the quintessential monster of imperial
gothic. Positioned at the intersection of interrelated discourses of imperialism,
with its ideological dependence on science and the acquisition of knowledge,
its relation to conflicted desire for the Other, power and commodification, and
its obsession with history and imperial genealogies, the mummy embodies
fantasies of imperial immortality and anxieties about the extent of imperial
control. The mummy’s presence draws attention to a disturbing gap in the
turn-of-the-century knowledge systems that sustained the imperial project.

In this sense, I will argue here that the mummy’s monstrosity is located as
much in its physical deviance from the natural order of death and decay as it
is in the fact that its very presence illuminates the absences in the systems of
comprehensive knowledge upon which the imperial project depended.
Monsters figure prominently in imperial gothic fiction. From Haggard’s
erotically monstrous Ayesha in She: A History of Adventure (1887), to Kipling’s
nightmarishly transformed Fleete in ‘The Mark of the Beast’ (1890), to Richard
Marsh’s insect/human hybrid in The Beetle (1897), the monstrous body is a
signifier of anxieties of imperial destabilization. Critical discussions that have
addressed the mummy in this context
have focused on its complex, lay-
ered relation to desire: as commodity, as erotic love object and as the sym-
bol of a desire for conquest. But these arguments have tended to downplay
its function as a monster. In his discussion of mummies as objects of erotic
desire, Bradley Deane notes that until the turn-of-the-century, most reani-
mated mummies were women and asks ‘why mummy fiction should make
its potentially monstrous women so marriageable, why the unfulfilled prom-
ise of union should so persistently drive the Victorian fantasies of Egypt?’
(Deane 2008: 387). He notes a recurring tendency to ‘blur together archeo-
logical scholarship and romantic passion’ (Deane 2008: 387) in these stories
and argues that the desire for the mummy is located in the emerging dis-
course of Egyptology and the political context that represented the occupation
of Egypt in terms of sexual conquest. I would add that the refusal to represent
these women as truly monstrous is tied up in a larger impulse that locates the
source of anxiety in a horror of ‘subjugated knowledges’ (Foucault 1980b: 81),
that is, in scholarship and the intellect. The mummies of desirable women
in these stories are almost all connected with lost and powerful knowledge:
they are priestesses, sorceresses, and witch-queens. Their power is intimately
HOST 1.1_art_Macfarlane_05-024.indd 6 12/30/09 8:39:06 AM
Mummy Knows Best
4. See Deane and Glover.
5. While there are certainly
mummies and tombs
in She: A History of
Adventure, and the
novel is sometimes
read as mummy fiction
(something that the
recent Broadview edition
encourages), Ayesha
herself ‘is not literally a
mummy, but she certainly
dresses like one’ (Deane
2008: 393).
6. Like Tera, Doyle’s Sosra,
Boothby’s Pharos and
Pratt’s Ptahmes are all
high priests trained ‘in
all those mystic arts
spoken of in your Bible’
(Fleiler 1979: 213).
Tera’s access to arcane
knowledge gives her
the ability to act against
the Egyptologists who
are studying her, even
before her reanimation.
connected with their access to types of knowledge that challenge the power
of the masculine authorities who attempt to define and categorize them. In
this sense, what the eminent Victorian Egyptologists fear and desire is not the
reanimated mummy herself, but their relation to the gaps that she reveals in
their own systems of knowledge.
In mummy fiction, women (whether reanimated mummies or the daugh-
ters of Egyptologists) are the objects of masculine desire, not the agents of
intellectual inquiry. The desire to possess the mummy in these cases is artic-
ulated through a ‘desire to possess the mummy itself in another way – by
means of romance,’ a process through which ‘objects begin to behave as sex-
objects’ (Daly 1999: 105). The female mummy is located comfortably as object
through the multiple virtues of her sex, her race and her commodification.
Both Théophile Gautier’s and H.D Everett’s protagonists, for instance, pur-
chase the mummies with whom they will eventually fall in love and, in every
case, the women’s bodies are described in lingering, erotic terms before their
reanimation, that is, while they are still the ‘possession’ (Gautier 1910: 4) of
the collector.
Only Bram Stoker’s Queen Tera is represented in terms that
are potentially monstrous. Like H. Rider Haggard’s Ayesha
, she possesses
knowledge of which the scholars in these texts are ‘profoundly ignorant’
(Stoker 1975: 180), and this serves to construct her as a threat to both England
and the empire. Queen Tera is a sorceress who is ‘skilled in the science of her
time’ (Stoker 1975: 179). Even in death, she is described as an ‘active intel-
ligence’ (Stoker 1975: 181) that revenges the theft of her hand from her tomb
by killing all, except Trelawny, who came into contact with it. Her ability to
threaten the authority of the western episteme and to act outside of the laws
of natural science is justified in the novel because ‘she claimed all the privi-
leges of kingship and masculinity. In one place [in her tomb] she is pictured
in a man’s dress, and wearing the White and Red Crowns’ (Stoker 1975: 140).
Coded as ‘masculine’ because of her power and her formidable knowledge,
Queen Tera’s threat to the British imperial order is represented in much the
same terms as those of the male mummies who appear in other fin de siècle
mummy stories:
she is an adversary.
In spite of the insistence on her beauty, Tera’s knowledge constructs her as
rival. Indeed, mummy fiction is structured around rivalry. Even when the focus
in the story is not on the mummy itself as contesting the Egyptologist’s power,
but on a romance between a European man and the mummy of a woman,
romantic encounters lead inevitably to confrontations with powerful masculine
figures: H.D Everett’s Iras is pursued and claimed by her destructive ancient
Egyptian lover; the father of Gautier’s Princess challenges the suit of the story’s
protagonist for his daughter; and Grant Allen’s narrator must prove himself to
the ghost of Thothmes in order to win the hand of his princess. The mummy
is thus a rival in the standard sense of a romantic contest in which two male
figures fight over a woman, but more fundamentally, the mummy disturbs the
certainties of imperial fictions of racial and cultural ascendance.
The rivalry encoded in the standard romance plot is expanded and ren-
dered in terms of equally conflicted contestation when the mummies begin to
challenge the very epistemologies on which the empire depends. Its physical
intrusions into European spaces and its intellectual intrusions into western
scientific discourses are articulated in equally horrific terms as fundamentally
monstrous and as a sign of the instability of imperialist systems of knowledge.
Anxieties about knowledge, and, more importantly, the unknowable, that the
mummy embodies can be traced through virtually all of these texts; from the
HOST 1.1_art_Macfarlane_05-024.indd 7 12/30/09 8:39:06 AM
Karen E. Macfarlane
first novel to feature a reanimated mummy, Jane Loudon’s The Mummy!: A
Tale of the Twenty-Second Century (1827) to the beginning of the Great War.
Loudon’s mummy is more revived aristocrat then shambling monster, but his
presence in the technologically advanced twenty-second century foregrounds
the text’s preoccupation with the role of knowledge in the relation between
the past and the future. As in fin de siècle works like those by Haggard, Gautier
and Everett, the reanimation of the mummy in Loudon’s novel is constructed
in terms that presuppose its position as object that can be ‘compelled’, like any
object under scientific scrutiny, to reveal its secrets. As they plan to travel to
Egypt, Loudon’s protagonists vow that they will ‘revive their mummies, and
force them to reveal the secrets of their prison-house. It was Cheops raised
the pyramids from the dust by science, and Cheops, by the force of science,
will be compelled to disclose their origin’ (Loudon 1994 [1827]: 18). But in
spite of the certainty of the scientists in these works, mummies are not objects
like other objects. They contain secrets and knowledge in a way that other
‘things’ do not. Poe’s Allamistakeo may begin as the meticulously catalogued
object of a scientific gathering in Doctor Ponnonner’s study, but his reani-
mation exposes the limits of their ability to definitively know him. Similarly,
in Boothby’s Pharos the Egyptian (1898), the title character taunts the pro-
tagonist, ‘How slight is your knowledge of me!’ (Boothby 1898: 20). Pharos
acknowledges Forrester’s ability to understand Egyptian art and architecture
but insists on the limits of modern scholarly knowledge: they may know about
him, but they cannot know what he knows. In this sense, the mummy is
unlike other objects, because there is no access to its knowledge. While its
body may be owned, placed on display or dissected, it is ultimately the uncan-
niest of objects: familiar and alien, natural and supremely unnatural.
Susan Pearce has argued that there is a ‘powerful complex of dislocating
emotions’ (Pearce 2002: 54) associated with the mummy and it is that sense of
dislocation that makes the mummy uncanny. Freud’s conception of the term
(‘unheimlich’ – literally ‘un-homely’) posits that the canny and the uncanny
contain within them their opposites: ‘canny’ means ‘familiar and agreeable’
and ‘endowed with occult or magical powers’ or ‘what is concealed and kept
out of sight’ (Freud 2001: 224–5) in both English and German. The canny is
therefore not significantly distanced from the uncanny: it is, in some ways, its
double: its corollary. As Freud notes, the
uncanny is in reality nothing new or alien, but something which is
familiar and old-established in the mind and which has become alien-
ated from it through the process of repression … Many people expe-
rience the feeling in the highest degree in relation to death and dead
bodies, to the return of the dead, and to spirits and ghosts.
(Freud 2001: 241)
The fascination with the mummy as object, then, lies in the familiarity that
overlays its inherently alien nature: it is recognizably human but its preserva-
tion makes it unnatural. The reanimated mummy is the ‘return of the dead’,
most often, with vengeance.
Reanimating the mummy demonstrates both a profound knowledge and
signals a desire to acquire more. In Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘Lot No. 249’ (1892)
Edward Bellingham ‘knows more about [the East] than any man in England’
(Fleiler 1979: 82) and his attempts to reanimate a mummy in his rooms at
Oxford are, he says ‘a wonderful thing’ because he can ‘command the powers
HOST 1.1_art_Macfarlane_05-024.indd 8 12/30/09 8:39:06 AM
Mummy Knows Best
7. The European fascination
with mummies can be
traced as far back as
ancient Greek texts
and continued through
its early scientific and
medicinal relation
(mummy was often
ground up for medicine
from as early as the
twelfth century and for
artists’ pigment into the
nineteenth) and continues
into the twenty-first
8. See Hampikian for an
in-depth discussion of
9. The French occupation
evacuated in 1801.
10. This work has been
fully digitized and is
available at http://
of good and of evil’ (Fleiler 1979: 87). Loudon’s protagonists begin their quest
for Cheops with a similar ‘racking desire […] to explore [the] mysteries’ of the
‘ancient inhabitants [who] possessed knowledge and science far beyond even
the boasted improvements of modern times’ (Loudon 1994 [1827]: 41–2). The
Mummy!: A Tale of the Twenty-Second Century concludes with a scene that
affirms that the mummy’s knowledge is always inaccessible. As Cheops neces-
sarily returns to death (a permanent one this time), he admonishes his audience
to ‘seek not to pry into mysteries designed to be concealed from man; and enjoy
the comforts within your reach – for know, that knowledge, above the sphere
of man’s capacity, produces only wretchedness’ (Loudon 1994: 298). Loudon’s
novel is more of a moral fable than a horror story, but her mummy’s warning
is replicated in almost all of the later mummy stories. Cheops’s insistence on
the dangers inherent in the ‘racking desire’ for knowledge signals the preoc-
cupations with the ‘natural’ limits of knowledge that will form the basis of the
representation of the figure of the mummy in fin de siècle mummy fiction.
As Loudon’s novel demonstrates, then, the relation between European col-
lectors and Egyptian antiquities – especially mummies – in English fiction was
part of an elaborate spectacle of possession and epistemic control from the
As relics and representatives of an earlier imperial power, mummies held
a particular fascination in popular culture and in fiction. Indeed, from their earli-
est representations in western culture, mummies were understood to be ‘rep-
resentatives of arcane wisdom and semi-magical medicine’ (Pearce 2002: 56)
and the discourse of Egyptology represented ancient Egypt as an example of an
imperial power that complemented that of Britain. The excitement generated
by Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798 created a craze for all things Egyptian
that continued in Europe throughout the nineteenth century and resulted in
a new iconography and Egyptian aesthetic.
Significantly, this early gesture
of modern imperial control over the Orient was in almost equal parts military
and scientific. Napoleon’s ultimately doomed
invasion involved both the usual
number of soldiers required for such an expedition and an army of 2,000 artists,
botanists, linguists and historians, all of whom set out to document, collect and
know this place that had been coded as mysterious and unknowable. The result
was the twenty volume Description de l’Égypte (1809–1828),
a monumental
work that contained 837 copper plate engravings and over 3,000 drawings of
Egyptian antiquities, geography and culture, as well as detailed descriptions and
classifications of the country and its history. By mid-century, tourists were flock-
ing to Egypt to explore the tombs for themselves and to take away bits of the
experience. Mummies, as Heather Pringle puts it, became ‘the most Egyptian
and most desirable of souvenirs’ (Pringle 2001: 9). Even when the Egyptian
government made the export of ancient artefacts illegal in 1835, the trade and
collecting continued. Indeed, it became fashionable for tourists to smuggle
mummies, or parts of mummies, out of Egypt and into their homes. Gustave
Flaubert, for example, is credited with returning to France with a human foot
that he obtained during an expedition to a mummy grotto in 1851. The foot
reputedly sat on his desk at Croisset until he died (Flaubert 1996: 206).
The fascination with mummies in popular culture was fuelled by ‘mummy
unrollings’ which, from the 1830s until the late 1850s, were conducted in pri-
vate homes and sometimes included as entertainment at social events. The invi-
tation for one such unrolling shows a stylized mummy case and reads ‘Lord
Londesborough At Home Monday 10
June, 1850, 144 Piccadilly, A Mummy
from Thebes to be unrolled at half-past Two’ (Wisseman 2003: 2). Toward the
middle part of the century, unrollings were increasingly conducted as public
HOST 1.1_art_Macfarlane_05-024.indd 9 12/30/09 8:39:06 AM
Karen E. Macfarlane
11. The New York Times
published an account
of ‘A Mummy Unrolled’
in front of ‘a large and
distinguished company
of Englishmen in …
the botanical theatre
of University College,
London’ on December
18, 1889, and the
popular Gentlemen’s
Magazine published
a number of reports
of public unrollings as
part of its project to
‘record with diligence
and fidelity’ the ‘stream
of knowledge …
[that] every day give
opportunities of new
observations’ (Urban
1844: v).
12. The use of physiognomy
and phrenology read
the body’s surfaces
to determine signs
of everything from
intelligence to criminal
tendencies to moral
degeneracy. These
practices were widely
used to reinforce racial
hierarchies, which,
in term, could justify
imperial interventions.
13. Laura Otis’s reading
of popular imperialist
fiction’s preoccupation
with the threat to the
‘national body’ caused
by physical weakness,
degeneration and
contamination (Otis
1999: 100) is useful as
an additional layer to my
readings of the body in
mummy fiction.
spectacles and used to generate interest and support for archaeological projects
and exhibitions. Accounts of these events routinely appeared in newspa-
pers and magazines so that an awareness of the process was disseminated far
beyond the audiences who were present. Thomas Pettigrew became famous
for his public unrollings which, he says in an account of one event, were con-
ducted ‘in the presence of the members [of the Royal College of Surgeons] and
a large assemblage of distinguished literary and scientific characters, who did
me the honour to attend upon the occasion’ (Pettigrew 1884: xix).
Gautier’s description of an unrolling in 1857 infuses the scientific demonstra-
tion with a gothic sensibility. As the mummy is unrolled, ‘it so happened that a
sudden storm … was lashing the windows with heavy drops of rain that rattled
like hail; pale lightnings illumined on the shelves of the cupboards the old yel-
lowed skulls and the grimacing death’s-heads of the Anthropological Museum’
(Gautier 1901: 302). His macabre description of the audience’s ‘feverish’ curios-
ity, and the increasing speed with which the scientists turn the mummy, trans-
forms the unrolling into a bizarre dance, the ‘waltz of Nes Khons, the daughter
of Horus and Rouaa, as she pirouetted in the impatient hands of those who
were unwrapping her’ (Gautier 1901: 302). Conventions usually associated
with gothic fiction mix with popular journalism and scientific inquiry here, and
in other reports of unrollings, to position the mummy in the precarious space
between these discourses. The slippage between fictional and documentary
accounts opens a space for the entry of the mummy into the popular imagina-
tion as a signifier of the unsettled relation between scientific inquiry and the
imagination. Popular interest in mummy unrollings, and the increasing public
familiarity with mummified bodies that they generated, thus effectively trans-
planted the mummy from the obscurity of its tomb into the ‘midst of … all the
machinery of our modern civilization’ (Gautier 1901: 307).
In an age that was preoccupied with bodies as spectacles that signified
everything from criminal behaviour, psychological disorder, moral standing
and racial categorizations
the body of the mummy functions as a signifier
that mediates between imperial fantasies of control and immortality and fin
de siècle fears of regression, invasion, atavism and dissolution (Brantlinger
1990: 230). In imperial gothic fiction these fears appear as a series of com-
plex explorations of the ways in which the gap between the known and the
unknown can be charted on and through the body. It is the monstrous body
in these texts that signals the instability of the points of intersection between
the knowable and the unknowable, between science and magic.
Monsters are ‘a tacit admission that all knowledge is neither comprehen-
sive in scope nor logical in form’ (Richards 1993: 53). Their staggering and
horrific instability signals a profound anxiety about gaps in systems of clas-
sification and knowledge production and about contamination
and degen-
eration (physical, cultural, spiritual and epistemic). For Rosi Briadotti ‘more
than on object, [the monstrous body] is a shifter, a vehicle that constructs
a web of interconnected and yet potentially contradictory discourses about
his or her embodied self’ (Briadotti 1999: 300). Discussing a different set of
cultural inscriptions and intersecting systems, Judith Butler argues that bodies
‘are synechdochal for the social system per se … [and] any kind of unregu-
lated permeability constitutes a site of pollution and endangerment’ (Butler
1999: 168). Monstrous bodies have a similar discursive function: they expose
and enact limits. They are ‘best understood as an embodiment of difference,
a breaker of category, a resistant Other known only through process and
movement, never through dissection table analysis’ (Cohen 1996: x). For both
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Butler and Cohen, the body (and in Cohen’s case the monstrous body) is a
strategically shifting, re-active signifier not in culture, but of culture. That is
to say, they resonate beyond the confines of a single meaning within culture
itself to embody a simultaneous series of projections of multiple, layered pre-
occupations that haunt and define culture. As figures that embody culture,
fictional representations of monstrous bodies explore the limits of modern
science’s claims to definitively categorize, map and control physical and epis-
temic spaces in the name of empire.
The simultaneous fascination with and fear of boundaries and construc-
tions of alterity that inform imperial gothic stories is played out through
moments of epistemic fracture and loss of control around and through
the body of the mummy. The monstrosity of the mummy is articulated on
a number of interconnected levels. It is a monster not simply because it is
manifestly not dead (which is perhaps monstrous enough), but because, as
in Poe’s story, its reanimation shifts the power away from the men of science
whose proper object it is. It is a both a physical threat and an intellectual rival.
More significantly, perhaps, its existence as speaking, acting subject threat-
ens the basis of western epistemologies. Mummies are the subject of curios-
ity and scholarly study but these figures repeatedly challenge their status as
object when they turn their all-too critical gazes on the men who are study-
ing them. Allamistakeo rises from his unrolling to denounce the gathering of
learned men, Boothby’s Forrester is repeated called a ‘fool’ by Pharos and the
appearance of Loudon’s Cheops is often preceded by bursts ‘of terrific laughs
of derision’ (Loudon 1994: 107). The reanimated mummy’s mocking laughter
challenges these fictional scientists’ desire for ‘comprehensive erudition which
brings all that belongs to the [scholar’s] inquiry at once within the circle of
light’ (Urban 1844: iii). The mummy’s monstrosity, then, is located here: in its
breaking of the categories upon which the fantasy of comprehensive knowl-
edge depends. The mummy’s ability to simultaneously occupy the ostensibly
oppositional positions of subject/object, living/dead, artefact/scholar creates
a space for exploring anxieties about the imperial project’s almost fetishistic
preoccupation with archives of knowledge.
As the mummies of Stoker’s Queen Tera and Poe’s Count Allamistakeo
assert, the exhumation of what Michel Foucault calls ‘subjugated knowledges’
(Foucault 1980b: 81) signals not so much a glorious resurrection and potential
combination of the forces of ancient and modern empires as it does an insur-
rection (to continue in Foucault’s terms) that threatens the basis of European
imperial power. Foucault argues that power and knowledge are inextricably
connected. He notes that ‘between techniques of knowledge and strategies of
power, there is no exteriority, even if they have specific roles that are linked
together on the basis of their difference’ (Foucault 1980a: 98). For Foucault,
the terms ‘power’ and ‘knowledge’ are so intimately connected that he uses
a hyphen to signal that ‘they are not static forms of distribution, they are
“matrices of transformations”’ (Foucault 1980a: 99). In the context of nine-
teenth century imperialism, these matrices are manifest in what Thomas
Richards has called ‘the imperial archive’ which was impelled by a fantasy
of control that ‘hinges on a British monopoly over knowledge’ (Richards
1993: 7). Creating the archive is ‘a practice that causes a multiplicity of state-
ments to emerge as so many regular events, as so many things to be dealt
with and manipulated … the archive is first the law of what can be said,
the system that governs the appearance of statements’ (Foucault 1972: 146).
It ‘defines at the outset the system of the enunciability of [the statement]’
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14. Elleke Boehmer has
argued that the British
empire was inherently
textual, that ‘the Empire
in its heyday was
conceived and
maintained by way of
text – political treatises,
diaries, acts and
edicts, administrative
records and gazetteers,
missionaries’ reports,
notebooks … the triple
decker novel and the
best-selling adventure
tale’ (Boehmer
2005: 14).
15. Pharaonic Egypt’s
‘extraordinary scientific
proficiency’ (Hurley
1993: 196) encouraged
a kind of imaginative
connection between
empires. But as with
Leo Vincey’s elaborately
constructed genealogy
in Haggard’s She, this
necessitated creative,
often contradictory
reconfiguration of
Egyptian history in racial
terms; a project that
Robert Young has called
‘the whitening of Egypt’
(Young 1995: 126).
16. Imagined genealogies
of empire tended to
focus on connections
with the more recent,
and more clearly
European, empires like
those of Greece and
Rome. In spite of this,
though, connections
with pharaonic Egypt
proved to be a potent
referent to imperial
power in this discourse.
As Kelly Hurley notes,
‘present day Egypt is a
reminder of the west’s
prehistory’ (Hurley:
1993: 196) and
David Glover suggests
that ‘Egypt tended to
hold a tantalizingly
indeterminate position
within the complex of
European Orientalisms,
an empire that had
failed, yet one whose
achievements continued
to baffle and provoke
the scholars and
administrators of a later
and increasingly insecure
imperial age’ (Glover
1996: 4).
(Foucault 1972: 145–146). Within the context of empire, as Richards suggests,
British explorers, botanists and cartographers (among others) collected infor-
mation and produced seemingly endless texts about their ever-expanding
empire. The accumulation and manipulation of the resulting data sustained,
and was sustained by, a belief in ‘comprehensive knowledge’, a ‘sense that
knowledge was singular and not plural, complete and not partial, global and
not local, that all knowledges would ultimately turn out to be concordant in
one great system of knowledge’ (Richards 1993: 7). This archive, then, defined
and controlled the relation between knowledges; it determined ‘what can be
said’ about imperial holdings and the science that sustained them, and regu-
lated the terms through which the knowledge gleaned from these spaces could
be disseminated and articulated. Any threat to this regulation of knowledge
and enunciability, such as Allamistakeo’s derisive observations, undermines
the imagined authority of the archive and of the empire that it represents.
The imperial archive was perpetuated through elaborate networks of
accumulated knowledge and ‘built around knowledge-producing institu-
tions like the British Museum and the Royal Geographical Society, the India
Survey, and the universities: [the facts about empire] were thought of as raw
knowledge, knowledge awaiting ordering’ (Richards 1993: 4). Richards’s
implicit connection between raw material and raw knowledge here is signifi-
cant, because the archive is not simply a repository for knowledge; rather, it
manufactures it in its own terms. Like a nineteenth-century factory in which
raw materials from the imperial margins were transformed into European
commodities, information about empire was drawn into the archive where it
was classified and defined in European terms: transformed from a potentially
threatening alien episteme to a domestic system of knowledge. The project
of assembling the imperial archive assumed that all of the ‘alien’ knowledges
that it collected could be easily assimilated into existing, ‘universal’ (that is,
European) epistemological categories. Local knowledge would thus be made
to reinforce beliefs about the metropolis. Assimilated into the ‘circle of light’
(Urban 1844: iii) they could be made to reinforce, rather than threaten, the
authority of imperial epistemic rule.
In spite of the epistemic and political stability that the archive represented,
the imperial project’s movement into ‘new’ spaces opened up the disruptive
possibility for the ‘insurrection of subjugated knowledges [which are] … the
historical contents that have been buried and disguised in a functionalist
coherence or formal systemization … but they are also a whole set of knowl-
edges that have been disqualified as inadequate to their task or insufficiently
elaborated: naïve knowledges, located low down on the hierarchy, beneath
the required level of cognition or scientificity’ (Foucault 1980b: 81–82). The
contradictions between the enunciation of singularity and the awareness of
multiplicity – knowing, paradoxically, all that there is not to know – is, I would
suggest, embodied most effectively in the figure of the mummy: the gothic
Other who both contains and is knowledge, ‘buried and disguised’.
The elaborate textual machinery
generated by the archive produced
a coherent imperial identity that was, at least in part, predicated on a care-
fully constructed genealogy
that connected the modern Empire with that
of pharaonic Egypt,
specifically its science and knowledge. Egypt’s glorious
imperial past provided a model for both the importance of scientific advance-
ments in the creation of empire and the potential for a catastrophic loss of
imperial control. In the mid-century, mummies were simply another object
to be plundered. Pulled from their context, they were easily and justifiably
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17. See Pearce 2002: 62.
18. This will be addressed at
greater length later in this
19. Baudrillard uses this
term to denote the
stabilizing effect when
an otherwise unstable
object enters knowledge-
producing institutions.
They become, he says,
‘frozen, cryogenized,
sterilized, protected
to death’ (Baudrillard
1996: 8).
appropriated as a source of modern scientific knowledge.
Mummy fiction of
the fin de siècle, though, returned the mummy to its context: a context of mys-
terious power and unknowable science. In these works, the mummy does not
only represent an uncanny ‘defiance of the normal natural laws’ (Pearce 2002:
58), but also signifies its imperial and epistemological origins.
The mummy’s recurring appearance at this moment of military and ideo-
logical rule and domination is the nightmarish embodiment of a discursive
desire for an empire that will never die. Unlike the Roman or Greek empires,
which conquered, ruled and then died naturally, passing along their texts
to their ‘rightful’ heirs and leaving behind properly material monuments
that attest to their passing, the remnants of pharaonic Egypt are startlingly
human. Julia Kristeva argues that monuments signify death, but the corpse
is death (Kristeva 1982: 3). For Kristeva, the corpse insists that we acknowl-
edge the body, that we recognize the certainty of decay. The corpse defers the
monumental, which is an immutable or sanitized signification. The mummy,
though, is both corpse and immutable monument and as such it is messy and
unstable: monstrous.
Whether the mummy is properly a corpse or an artefact/monument is a
question that recurs throughout these stories. In H.D Everett’s Iras: A Mystery
(1896), the protagonist’s landlady is horrified to discover a mummy case in
the protagonist’s rooms: ‘Are you meaning to tell me, sir, as to how there is a
body inside of it?’ she asks, and protests that Lavenham is ‘turning her respect-
able lodgings into a charnel and dead-house for disreputable heathen corpses’
(Everett 1896: 70, original emphasis). But Lavenham insists that ‘what was a
body three thousand years ago. … [is] not much in human likeness at time
present’ (Everett 1896: 70). Later, after he reads a priest’s curse on the tablet that
was buried with Iras’s body, he worries that ‘the sarcophagus held no mummy
after all, but the body, or what had been the body of a girl who has met [a] hor-
rible fate’ (Everett 1896: 81). This potential confusion of the distinction between
a mummy and a corpse is only one of a series of anxieties about the study and
ownership of the mummified dead that enters into these stories.
In every
case, the ambiguity that this confusion signals reminds us that the mummy,
as Lavenham’s landlady has pointed out, is not only a body, but a dead body.
The landlady does not distinguish between a corpse and a mummy, but for
Lavenham there is a clear distinction. The mummy is the object of scientific
inquiry, and he reiterates that he plans to subject it to ‘various analyses of the
embalming process’ (Everett 1896: 75). In this context, then, the ‘museumified’

mummy is an object, while a ‘body’ or corpse signifies death, corruption and an
awareness of the humanity of the individual that it was.
The anxiety that these stories demonstrate about the potential blurring
of the lines between death, deterioration, artefact and corpse reflects the
mummy’s symbolic position in imperial discourse; its importance in the ico-
nography of possession and accumulation upon which the current empire
is predicated and its connection to its imperial history. It is this latter point
(the notion that the mummy symbolizes its imperial history) that makes it so
uncanny as a symbol of imperial control. Instead of dying, the empire that the
mummy signifies is in a slow, artificial, endless suspension: a decay that is not
decay. When the mummy, that embodiment of history, is not properly dead,
then the past of pharaonic Egypt similarly refuses to die and its heir – in this
case the British empire – is merely a usurper. The mummy, then, represents
an empire with a horrific longevity that negates its fully fleshed out heroic
past and replaces it with a sinewy, monstrous shadow of its former self. In
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20. Kristeva’s notion of the
abject is useful in making
this distinction: the
dismembered body of
the mummy is, like the
corpse, ‘seen without
God and outside of
science, is the utmost
of abjection … it is
something rejected from
which one does not part’
(Kristeva 1982: 4).
these fictions, the mummy evokes less a return of the repressed than a spectre
of imperial demise – or the potential horror of unnatural imperial longevity.
The monstrosity of the mummies, in these terms, is a complex fabric of
anxieties about knowledge, history, and the possibility of degenerating bodies
and of degenerating empires. The mummy’s presence in a modern symbolic
order (rather than, as Baudrillard asserts, when they were safely, secretly bur-
ied) whether as pure object, object of desire, as commodity, or as disturb-
ingly mobile subject, signifies the cultural abjection
of what went before:
‘our culture dreams, behind this defunct power that it tries to annex, of an
order that would have had nothing to do with it, and it dreams of it because it
exterminated it by exhuming it as its own past’ (Baudrillard 1996: 10, emphasis
added). If pharaonic Egypt ‘represented greatness so permanent, so exempt
from the usual standards of historical development, that it could … properly
be regarded with a feeling of awe’ (Deane 2008: 395), then taking it on as a
model for modern imperial greatness also means taking on the potential for
its monstrous suspended animation. When they encounter the kings of the
Egyptian empires, the protagonists in Théophile Gautier’s, Grant Allen’s and
Haggard’s stories are confronted with figures who deride them in these terms:
for their physical inadequacies, for the frailty of both their bodies and of their
cultures. The King in Gautier’s ‘The Mummy’s Foot’ (1910) insists that ‘we
must give our daughters husbands who will last well’ (Gautier 1910: 10) and
compares the narrator’s corruptibility unfavourably with his own vigour and
strength (Gautier 1910: 11). Gautier’s Egyptian court is made up of ghosts,
but the assemblage into which Allen’s protagonist stumbles when he is lost
in a pyramid is unquestionably corporeal: they are mummies who ‘once every
thousand years … wake up for twenty-four hours, recover [their] flesh and
blood, and banquet once more upon the mummied dishes and other good
things laid by for [them] in the Pyramid’ (Allen 1880: 7). Their physical lon-
gevity, we are told, is not the result of magic, but of science. This connection
with science and the emphasis on the physical reanimation of these figures
foregrounds their corporeality and the potential for monstrous longevity.
The monster is pure corporeality and when that monster is over 4,000
years old, the emphasis on the body takes on another layer of uncanny signi-
fication: one that ‘leads back to what is known of old and long familiar’ (Freud
2001: 220). Butler articulates a provocative connection between history, cul-
ture and the body when she notes that ‘history [is] a relentless writing instru-
ment and the body [is] the medium that must be destroyed and transfigured
in order for culture to emerge’ (Butler 1999: 166). While Butler is addressing
Foucault’s need to ‘maintain the body prior to its cultural inscription’ (Butler
1999: 166), that is, suggesting that the body exists outside of or before being
invested with cultural meaning, the body is cultural inscription in mummy fic-
tion. That is, the body of the mummy enacts the process through which culture
inscribes meaning on bodies: its instability and inherent textuality (as object
to be read and interpreted) both consolidates and resists the terms through
which the body signifies in culture. Through its unstable corporeality and
textuality it exposes the contradictions that riddle narratives that sustain an
increasingly insecure empire. But it also draws attention to the tensions and
gaps the empire’s claims of, and desire for, comprehensive knowledge.
In the case of the mummy, the body that is history that Butler theorizes is
not only or simply a text, it represents a body that is testimony; a testimony
that potentially destabilizes the authority of the modern historian and disrupts
the mummy’s position as object. In this sense, reanimated mummies in works
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21. The figures that appear
in museums are not
always reanimated
mummies: they are also
ghosts (Haggard ‘Smith’)
and nearly immortal
scientists (Doyle ‘Ring’).
22. Boothby’s Pharos
repeatedly refers to his
genealogy and gives
an extended account
of his history in ancient
Egypt (Boothby 1898:
75–6) and almost all of
the mummies in these
stories (with the notable
exception of the mummy
in ‘Lot No. 249’) are
described with at least
a truncated list of their
ancestors and their
such as Conan Doyle’s ‘Lot No. 249’, Guy Boothby’s Pharos the Egyptian and
Ambrose Pratt’s The Living Mummy (1910), embody a relation to the past that
unambiguously threatens both the ways in which the imperial narrative of own-
ership and authority works and the scientific discourses on which it depends.
As Jean Baudrillard has argued, ‘Ramses does not signify anything for us, only
the mummy is of an inestimable worth’ (Baudrillard 1996: 9–10). That is, its
value lies in its position as an object or a text that can be read and interpreted
in Eurocentric terms, not in its own terms or in the subject that it was. In ‘Lot
No. 249’ the mummy cannot signify, at least initially, outside of the codes of
‘museumified’ classification; the mummy in Bellingham’s rooms is nameless:
‘the outer sarcophagus with the inscription is missing. Lot 249 is all the title he
has now. You see it printed on his case. That was his number in the auction at
which I picked him up’ (Fleiler 1979: 85). Baudrillard argues that the mummy
dies not when the physical body finally deteriorates, the victim of ‘both science
and worms’ (Baudrillard 1996: 10), but rather when it is ‘transplanted from a
slow order of the symbolic, [where it was] master over putrefaction and death,
to an order of history, science and museums, our order’ (Baudrillard 1996: 10).
For Baudrillard, ‘our order’ is that of the late twentieth century ‘which no longer
masters anything’ (Baudrillard 1996: 10) but at the fin de siècle, the imperial
project still struggled to attain mastery over everything.
The tension between the need to configure cultural meaning in the mum-
my’s indeterminate body and the desire to destroy it is played out in these
fictions through the physical and scientific competition between the protag-
onists and the reanimated mummies. Whether ghosts conjured by the pos-
session of stray body parts or reanimated mummies (or both), these works
insist that the physical and the scientific are inseparable. The man of action
is, inevitably, also a man of science just as the monster is equal parts unnatu-
ral body and formidable intellect. The mummy signifies the anxiety about the
potential failure of that attempt at mastery. It signals the haunting: an all
too physical presence of the unknowable and indecipherable at the heart of
Europe’s repositories of knowledge. The British Museum, Oxford University,
and the Cairo Museum, among other institutions that sustained the imperial
archive, appear frequently and prominently in these stories. Contests between
modern Egyptologists and (re)animated
ancient Egyptians, especially those
that reinforce the inadequacy of European knowledge, most often take place
in museums or in assemblies of learned men. The heroes are inevitably ‘in
the very first rank of scientific observers’ (Fleiler 1979: 202) and possess ‘rare
knowledge’ (Stoker 1975: 88). The European characters’ credentials are the
scientific corollary of the genealogies that are inscribed on the tombs of the
Pharaohs that they unearth.
In The Jewel of the Seven Stars, for example, a
stranger bursts into the Trelawny house and introduces himself:
My name is Eugene Corbeck. I am a Master of Arts and Doctor of
Laws and Master of Surgery of Cambridge; Doctor of Letters of Oxford;
Doctor of Science and Doctor of Languages of London University;
Doctor of Philosophy of Berlin; Doctor of Oriental Languages of Paris. I
have some other degrees, honorary and otherwise, but I need not trou-
ble you with them.
(Stoker 1975: 88)
Corbeck’s seemingly all-encompassing intellectual genealogy here is echoed
in that of Queen Tera, the powerful sorceress who Trelawny will eventually
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23. The code of
hieroglyphics and
other ancient Egyptian
symbolic systems were
first deciphered in
1822, but Stoker makes
a point of stating that
this is a newly acquired
reanimate. Tera is introduced as having an all-encompassing relation to sys-
tems of authority and power: ‘Tera, Queen of the Egypts, daughter of Antef,
Monarch of the North and South. Daughter of the Sun, Queen of the Diadems’
(Stoker 1975: 137).
The connection between power and knowledge is reinforced here through
the facility with which the Egyptologists in these stories read the inscriptions
on the tombs, stelae and sarcophagi that they encounter. This ability is a sym-
bol of their recently acquired
knowledge and presumed mastery of ancient
texts. Corbeck notes that
the signs which had baffled Van Huyn [an earlier explorer] and those
of his time – and later, were no secrets to us. The host of scholars who
have given their brains and their lives to this work, had wrested open the
mysterious prison-house of Egyptian language. On the hewn face of the
rocky cliff we, who had learned the secrets, could read what the Theban
priesthood had had there inscribed nearly fifty centuries before.
(Stoker 1975: 135)
Stoker’s terms here foreground the importance of the Egyptologists’ ‘new’
knowledge that allows them to conquer the secrets of the ancient empire.
This, Corbeck insists, is also physical work; ‘wresting open’ mysteries and giv-
ing one’s ‘brain’ is described in terms that equate with giving one’s life. The
conquest of the epistemic blank spaces of empire is no less brutal than the
physical one. In ‘The Ring of Thoth’, though, Vansittart Smith’s ‘contempt-
ible’ knowledge of pharaonic Egypt is revealed to him in the Louvre as Sosra,
an immortal priest from the Pharaoh’s court, overturns assumptions about
the importance of the kind of inscriptions that Stoker’s Corbeck is so proud of
defeating: ‘The whole keystone of our old life in Egypt was not the inscriptions
or monuments of which you make so much, but was our hermetic philosophy
and mystic knowledge of which you say little or nothing’ (Doyle 1890: 211).
Sosra’s decisive dismissal of the value of the information inscribed on ancient
monuments in favour of the more intangible ‘mystic knowledge’ and philoso-
phy that the Egyptians themselves knew, and that the modern scholars do not,
suggests that access to a comprehensive knowledge of pharaonic Egypt con-
tinues to be inaccessible: locked in the ‘prison-house’ of the mummies’ con-
sciousnesses. Egyptian epistemologies are thus available only in fragments,
reconstructed – incorrectly as Sosra points out – within the alien context of
modern knowledge-producing institutions.
The fragmentary, elusive nature of the modern scientist’s access to ancient
knowledge is reflected in the indecipherability of that other, often fragmented,
text: the body of the mummy. The inherent textuality of the mummy and the
instability of that textuality is a central concern in mummy fiction. As Sosra
notes, the modern Egyptologist has only incomplete access to the knowledge
that the mummy and its artefacts represent. In mummy stories, this partial
knowledge is often reflected through an emphasis on fragmented texts and
dismembered bodies; the unexpected appearance of hands and feet that litter
these stories ‘disturb[s] identity, system [and] order’ (Kristeva 1982: 4). Taken
from their context – the body – these body parts are abject, ambiguous and
indeterminate artefacts which symbolize the decontextualization and aliena-
tion of the ‘museumified’ mummy. While mummies are inevitably recognized
and named through the texts that surround them, they are most often encoun-
tered in these stories through the textuality of their dismembered bodies.
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24. Twain’s claim is a comic
gesture. Mummy has
been used in many
things, from painter’s
pigment to paper (at
least the linens), but there
is no evidence they were
ever used as fuel.
In H. Rider Haggard’s ‘Smith and the Pharaohs’ (1912–1913), for example, eve-
rything associated with Queen Ma-Mee is fragmented. Smith’s first encounter
is with a plaster cast of the head of her statue in the British Museum. He is
informed that ‘nobody knows’ who she is but that ‘perhaps one day the rest of
the statue may be found, and then we shall learn – that is, if it is inscribed …
Probably she was a queen … you can see her rank for yourself from the bro-
ken urœus’ (Haggard 1989: 140). When he goes to Egypt and finds her unfin-
ished tomb, Smith stumbles upon a mummified hand amid ‘other objects that
had been torn from the body of the queen’ (Haggard 1989: 150). The collec-
tion of objects is also ‘incomplete. For instance, there was but one of the great
gold ceremonial earrings … and the most beautiful of the necklaces had been
torn in two – half of it was missing’ (Haggard 1989: 150). The texts, artefacts,
treasures and even the tomb of Haggard’s Queen are in pieces: torn apart by
time, violence or ancient crime. But Smith, like other Egyptologists in these
stories, sets out to reassemble the fragmented histories that are written along
with or on the dismembered bodies that he encounters.
The consistent representation of mummies as fragmented and dismem-
bered allows for a narrative displacement of the potential for the mummy’s
subjectivity by insisting on their position as objects. The description of the
mummied foot of the Princess Hermonthis for sale in a Paris bric-a-brac shop
in Théophile Gautier’s ‘The Mummy’s Foot’ (1910) mediates provocatively
between artistic appreciation for an object and erotic desire for a body:
I caught sight of a charming foot, which I at first took for a fragment of
some antique Venus. It had those beautiful ruddy and tawny tints that
lend to Florentine bronze that warm living look so much preferable to
the gray-green aspect of the common bronzes … satiny gleams played
over its rounded forms, doubtless polished by the amorous kisses of
twenty centuries.
(Gautier 1910: 3–4)
Gautier’s protagonist congratulates himself that he ‘possesses a piece of the
Princess Hermonthis, daughter of Pharaoh’ (Gautier 1910: 3) and, as with
Smith, his discovery leads him to an assignation with the ghost of the Princess
herself. Haggard and Gautier’s emphasis on ghostly encounters defers any
clear connection between the fragmented objects at the centre of their stories
and the corporeality of the mummy: the hands and feet signify objects to be
bartered and possessed, not the horror of disinterred, dismembered bodies.
The cavalier attitude towards the integrity of the mummified body appears
in an exaggerated form in Haggard’s She, in which Holly figures as another
keen collector. When he is shown ‘a beautifully shaped and almost white
woman’s foot, looking as fresh and firm as though it had been placed [in the
tomb] yesterday’ (Haggard 1989: 112), he looks at it ‘with feelings which [he]
cannot describe’ and promptly ‘hide[s] it way in [his] traveling bag’ (Haggard
1989: 113). But Holly’s potentially horrific appropriation of the mummy’s
foot is quickly overshadowed by the Amahaggar’s use of mummified arms as
torches and of full bodies as lamps. This transformation of the mummy from
object or artefact to a sort of horrific fossil fuel replicates Mark Twain’s 1869
description of the Egyptian railway which, he says, is ‘like any other railway
[except] that the fuel they use for the locomotive is composed of mummies
three thousand years old, purchased by the ton or by the graveyard for that
purpose’ (Twain 1954: 337).

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Karen E. Macfarlane
The use and/or abuse of the bodies of the mummified dead in these
works articulates one of the central anxieties about their abjection and intro-
duces another parallel narrative of more complex anxieties about the science
of archaeology and its gothic double, grave robbery. In Haggard’s ‘Smith and
the Pharaohs’ a young Egyptian ghost brings the matter of the ‘violation of our
sepulchres’ (Haggard 2001: 168) before the assembly of Kings. He argues that
the mortal bodies of many who are gathered here tonight lie in this
place to be stared at and mocked by the curious. I myself am one of
them, jawless, broken, hideous to behold … The ornaments that were
ours are stole away and sold to the greedy; our sacred writings and our
symbols are their jest. Soon there will not be one holy grave in Egypt
that remains undefiled.
(Haggard 2001: 169)
Similarly, in The Jewel of the Seven Stars Trelawny describes his party of excava-
tors as ‘grave robbers’ (Stoke 1975: 146) and the plot of Boothby’s Pharos the
Egyptian is structured around a nightmare of retribution for a similar crime.
The mysterious Pharos, who is ultimately revealed to be a magician from the
Pharaoh’s court, tracks down his sarcophagus in the rooms of the protagonist
and confronts him:
‘Thy father, was it, wretched man’, he cried, shaking his skeleton fist at
me, while his body trembled like a leaf under the whirlwind of his passion,
‘Who stole this body from its resting place? Thy father, was it, who broke
the seals the gods had placed upon the tombs of those who were their serv-
ants? If that be so, then may the punishment decreed against those guilty of
the sin of sacrilege be visited on thee and for thine evermore.’ Then turning
to the mummy, he continued, ‘Oh, mighty Egypt! Hast thou fallen so far
from thy high estate that even the bodies of thy kings and priests may … be
ravished from thee to be gaped at in alien lands?’
(Boothby 1898: 56)
Pharos’s accusations strategically evoke anxieties about the exhumation and
study of the ancient dead. By conflating the titillation of public display with the
crimes of sacrilege and grave robbing, Pharos here articulates the complexity
of the threat that is posed by the disinterred mummy in mummy stories. He
insists that the mummy is ‘a body’ stolen from a grave, not an artefact to be
collected and studied. His testimony – the voice of the mummy itself – draws
together western religious discourses of sin and an ancient curse to be ‘visited
upon thee and thine’. Accusations of theft, dismemberment, and spectacle
become tropes in these texts and combine to make the tensions generated
through the rivalry between the two symbolic orders all the more horrific.
The mummy’s forced removal from the ‘slow symbolic order’ of burial and
history into the modern order of scientific inquiry effectively challenges any
easy opposition between western science and the ‘barbarism’, criminality and
superstition of past civilizations.
The focus on scientific examination and collection in these stories positions
the mummy unambiguously as artefact and text in the imperial archive. While
more conventional texts, like papyri and hieroglyphics, figure prominently in
these stories, it is the less conventional text – the body of the mummy – that
is the point at which the horror is introduced; even when that body is ‘not
HOST 1.1_art_Macfarlane_05-024.indd 18 12/30/09 8:39:06 AM
Mummy Knows Best
25. Stoker’s Trelawny and
Corbeck meticulously
catalogue and itemize
the ‘drawings and
writings on the walls,
ceiling and floor’ (Stoker
1975: 142) of Queen
Tera’s tomb. The plot of
Conan Doyle’s ‘Lot No.
249’ is dependent on
a roll of papyrus that
Bellingham protects so
like death at all’ (Stoker 1975: 245) but life-like and (generally) beautiful, it
represents the absences and instability of western epistemologies. The collec-
tor’s desire to catalogue, define and control the mummy’s body is a scientific
gesture that focuses on the process of adding to the layers of texts that already
bolster and enclose the mummified body. Egyptian tombs are famously tex-
tual: sarcophagi and mummy cases are covered with inscriptions and hiero-
glyphics; books, papyri, stelae, engraved pottery and other forms of textual
material are buried with and around the mummified corpse; and the walls
of burial chambers are covered with histories of the dead and invocations for
their souls. This proliferation of textual material in mummy stories
sizes the importance of gaining access to knowledge of the ‘true’ nature of the
mummy and mirrors the British empire’s own obsession with textuality.
Everett’s Iras: A Mystery is perhaps the work that is the most obsessed with
texts, documents and the importance of documentation. While the mummy
in ‘Lot No. 249’ is a nameless commodity and his story (presumably written
on the papyrus) is never revealed, Iras is represented through layers of texts
that should consolidate her position in Lavenham’s story. She appears first
in Jack Skipton’s letters and telegrams from Alexandria which document the
discovery and transportation of her decorated mummy case. Later, Lavenham
unwraps her mummy and reveals inscriptions at every level and the tablet he
finds in the cartonage ‘would make the eyes of an Egyptologist glisten’ (Everett
1896: 79). In spite of these layers of texts, Iras’s body functions as a funda-
mentally unstable signifier for the desire to know and control the Other.
Unlike other mummy stories, Everett’s novel constantly draws the reality
of Iras’s reanimation into question. Lavenham has been physically and men-
tally incapacitated by his work in Egypt. He was ‘laid aside with sunstroke
and fever’ while working ‘with hands as well as the brain, uncovering temple
sites, opening tombs, deciphering hieroglyphics, driving fellaheen, and build-
ing theories like the rest’ (Everett 1896: 3). After his return to England, he
sees the figure of a tall Egyptian that other characters assume is a hallucina-
tion. Later, when trying to piece together evidence to prove that Iras had been
awakened and lived, he laments that ‘they would have me believe it was all a
fever-vision; that there were no sweet words and looks and vows – no wife,
nothing but delusion and a corpse’ (Everett 1896: 100). To substantiate his
account of reanimation, love and loss, Lavenham produces documents – legal
papers, testimonials, hotel registers, tablets and ancient inscriptions – all of
which he uses in an attempt to position Iras as a stable text and to locate her
in an authoritative narrative.
The texts that surround Iras in Britain are, like the texts that surrounded
her in her tomb (Everett 1896: 69), lost, fragmented or inconclusive. Ultimately,
Iras disappears – both textually and physically – in spite of this endless inscrip-
tion. On their declaration of marriage, for example, Lavenham’s ‘signature
and those of the witnesses remained plain to read in all the ordinary black-
ness of ink [but], that of Iras was faded so as to be barely legible’ (Everett
1896: 272). Only Lavenham insists that Iras was ever more than the ‘dried
up corpse’ (Everett 1896: 235) that his friends find him with at the end of the
story. Whether Iras did live or whether she was a ‘persistent hallucination’
(Everett 1896: 218) is never resolved but Lavenham asserts textual authority as
the novel concludes: his will stipulates that he be buried next to Iras’s interred
mummy in a Scottish graveyard and that ‘a white cross [be set up] over us,
writing upon it, plain for all to read, the names of Ralph Lavenham and Iras
Lavenham, his wife’ (Everett 1896: 280).
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Karen E. Macfarlane
While not all are as tantalizingly unstable as Iras, the mummies in these
works consistently refuse to act as stable texts. They are indeterminate ‘shad-
ows’ (Haggard 2001: 160), and ‘dark, crouching figures … [only] dimly visible’
(Fleiler 1979: 103) that even the scientific certainty of the protagonists find dif-
ficult to categorize. The ways in which the mummy can undermine the certainty
of modern scientific texts are played out in the contrast between the indeter-
minate figure of the mummy and comprehensive knowledge. The image of the
body and/as text appears provocatively in ‘Lot No. 249’. Early in the story, an
anatomy textbook represents the human body in decidedly imperialistic terms.
The book is ‘adorned with great, colored maps of that strange, internal king-
dom of which we are at once the hapless and helpless monarchs’ (Fleiler 1979:
79). The human body is the object of inquiry and ownership: entirely knowable,
mapped out like the empire so that there are no ‘empty spaces’. It is ‘plundered’
for its riches by the medical students in the story and used to further the archive
of the individual student’s knowledge. Conan Doyle’s protagonist declares that
he is an expert on human anatomy and fellow students come to his rooms to
borrow specimens like a skull and the ‘little bones of the ear’ (Fleiler 1979: 78).
The trade in anatomical and archaeological specimens in this story effectively
articulates parallels between the commodification of objects and the pursuit of
knowledge. Yet the certainty of the anatomical maps with which Conan Doyle
grounds this story is decisively undercut by the unknown, uncharted anatomy
of a reanimated mummy. Stretched out on Bellingham’s table, the mummy
is described as a grotesque conflation of patient, document and artefact: ‘The
gaunt ribs, with their parchment-like covering, were exposed, and the sunken,
leaden-hued abdomen, with the long slit where the embalmer had left his
mark; but the lower limbs were wrapped round with coarse, yellow bandages’
(Doyle 1892: 84). Parchment, incisions, bandages, Smith’s ‘expert eye’ all cre-
ate the connection between text, patient and mummy. The story ends with the
destruction of the mummy; this is described as a nightmarish inversion of the
medical discussions that surround it in the story: in a ‘brutish’ combination of
dismemberment and dissection (Doyle 1892: 111).
The significance of texts as the source of both medical and magical knowl-
edge in these stories grants the mummies’ ‘subjugated knowledges’ and, at
least temporarily, the same status as the prodigious knowledge of the pro-
tagonists. Insisting that ‘there is nothing of mystery or magic in the matter’
of the mummy’s knowledge and that both immortality and reanimation were
‘simply a chemical discovery, which may well be made again’ (Fleiler 1979:
214), is both reassuring and nightmarish. Discoveries that can be ‘made again’
suggest both a familiar empirical basis for the mummy’s revival as well as an
unsettling sense of the absences that riddle the British imperial archive.
When the texts in these stories are read accurately and the mummies rean-
imated to reveal their secrets, both the body and the knowledge contained in
the texts with which they are associated are treated as equally horrific and
monstrous: both are ‘unnatural’ in the terms of imperialist comprehensive
knowledge. In almost every case, the character that is able to ‘[wrest] open the
mysterious prison-house of Egyptian language’ (Stoker 1975: 135) becomes
obsessed with the power that his knowledge has granted him. In Pratt’s The
Living Mummy, Dr. Belleville exults that ‘a power has been placed at my dis-
posal which puts me on a level with the immortal gods of ancient Greece’
(Pratt 1910: 236). It becomes the role of the hero, in these cases, to restore
a more natural order, (represented as a stable, unified body of knowledge)
by destroying the ancient texts, the mummy, or both. The mummy of Pratt’s
HOST 1.1_art_Macfarlane_05-024.indd 20 12/30/09 8:39:06 AM
Mummy Knows Best
Ptahmes promises to help Pinsent defeat Belleville if he agrees ‘to destroy
certain papyri and an ivory stele … and to burn [his] mummified remains’
(Pratt 1910: 242). These texts are powerful: they hold the key to Ptahmes’s
reanimation and Belleville was using them to compel the mummy to murder
his adversaries. In ‘Lot No. 249’ the mummy is similarly used to attack and
terrorize characters that threaten Bellingham’s experiments. Its rampage is
ultimately resolved when Smith forces Bellingham to destroy the mummy and
all of his papers. Significantly, it is the papers that Bellingham fights for: ‘You
don’t know what you do’ he cries ‘[That roll of papyrus] is unique, it contains
wisdom which is nowhere else to be found … I’ll share the knowledge with
you. I’ll teach you all that is in it’ (Fleiler 1979: 111). Smith refuses because
‘you’ll find that your filthy Egyptian tricks won’t answer in England’ (Fleiler
1979: 102) and both the mummy and the papyrus are consigned to the fire.
As Cheops warns in Loudon’s novel, the ‘racking desire’ for knowledge that
drives these characters opens a space for the disruptive insurrection of subju-
gated knowledges that corrupts the integrity of the western episteme.
The presence of this Other archive introduces the possibility that it, like the
mummies that wander through these stories, will somehow refuse to stay in its
place and that the result will be a monstrous science, a hybrid ‘which joins what
nature has severed and severs what nature has joined, making unlawful matches
and divorces of things’ (Rajan 1999: 148), a kind of epistemic miscegenation
that threatens the integrity of the imperial body/archive. The monster with
which the protagonists in these stories grapple, then, is not always or simply the
reanimated mummy. The contest is not a physical one but an intellectual one:
a contest between epistemologies that cannot be resolved through compromise
or combination. In the few cases that attempt to blend the competing systems,
they are doomed to catastrophic failure. In The Jewel of the Seven Stars, Trelawny
attempts to reconcile ancient and modern sciences by drawing ‘light rays and
radium’ into his assertion that ‘we may find that Astrology [has] a scientific
basis’ of which ‘we are profoundly ignorant’ (Stoker 1975: 180). Delving into the
realms of Egyptian knowledge through his investigation of Queen Tera’s body
and possessions, he ultimately describes his ‘grand experiment’, as an event
that will bring two scientific systems together:
For good or ill we must here stand by our chances, and abide by results.
If we are successful we shall be able to let in on the world of modern
science such a flood of light from the Old World as will change every
condition of thought and experiment and practice. If we fail, then even
the knowledge of our attempt will die with us.
(Stoker 1975: 206)
The apparent ascendancy of subjugated knowledge that the reanimation sig-
nals is consistently undercut by the frequent intrusion of explanations sup-
plied by western science:
the mummy, when laid on the raised portion … of the sarcophagus …
would lie head to the West, and feet to the East, thus receiving the nat-
ural earth currents. I gather [Trelawny says] that the force to be used
has something to do with magnetism or electricity, or both. It may be, of
course, that some other force, such … as that emanating from radium,
is to be employed.
(Stoker 1975: 226)
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Karen E. Macfarlane
26. I think that it’s important
to note that even
if Queen Tera did
somehow blend with
Margaret Trelawny, her
knowledge and power
did not. She has been
assimilated into idealized
Victorian womanhood:
her formidable power,
her extensive knowledge
and her masculinity have
all been removed and
replaced by Margaret’s
‘dreamy’ and ‘loving’
Ultimately, Trelawny’s explanations prove to be inadequate. Whether an
attempt at a conjuring trick or epistemological blending, the resulting hybrid
knowledge is doomed: in the first edition of the novel (1903) Queen Tera is
reanimated at the cost of everyone’s, but Ross’s, lives. The second edition
(1912) ends on a more optimistic, if ambiguous, note. Queen Tera’s body may
have disintegrated into ‘a ridge of impalpable dust’ (Stoker 1975: 253) and her
spirit may have migrated into Margaret Trelawny’s body. If that is the case,
then Tera has been decisively divested of her scientific power and has become
an idealized wife who ‘may have found the happiness she sought.’ (Stoker
1975: 254) Indeed, Margaret transforms Tera’s desire for power into a desire
for love and ‘womanly’ happiness. As Stoker’s two versions of his conclusion
illustrate, the contest between western and eastern epistemologies that are
played out in these encounters with the mummy result in death for one or the
because the alternative – a hybrid epistemology – is too monstrous to
The paradoxical position of the mummy, as Baudrillard suggests, is that
its entry into the western symbolic order begins the process of its inevitable
destruction. But in mummy fiction, the fear of the mummy is located in those
tantalizingly horrific moments when it seems as if they will not be destroyed.
The tension between the desire for the body of the mummy and the fear of
what the mummy knows shapes the ways in which this figure circulates as
monstrous in fin de siècle imperialist fiction. Reanimated mummies move
easily out of their stable positions as artefacts or relics and enter into the west-
ern symbolic order as acting subjects (however conditionally) and as terrifying
rivals. As Dana Nelson notes, western ‘science depends on the silence of the
mummy, it should [therefore] not surprise us that when the mummy speaks,
it speaks to refute, indeed to devastate, the anticipated pleasures of science’s
rational vantage’ (Nelson 1997: 530). The mummy may be firmly under glass,
decisively categorized, meticulously studied and under firm control, but it is
fundamentally unknown and unknowable. It is a constant reminder of the
blank spaces in the imperial archive; the fact that the objects of British impe-
rial knowledge are, terrifyingly, possessed of their own knowledge which
demonstrates, as Brantlinger points out, ‘that Western rationality may be sub-
verted by the very superstitions it rejects’ (Brantlinger 1990: 227).
Allen, Grant (2004), ‘My New Year’s Eve Among the Mummies’ (1880) http://
gaslight.mtroyal.ca/newmummy.htm. Accessed 11 November 2004.
Anon. (1889), ‘A Mummy Unrolled. Detaels [sic] of an Interesting Exhibition
in London’, New York Times, 30 December.
Baudrillard, Jean (1996), Simulacra and Simulation (trans. Sheila Faria Glaser),
Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Boehmer, Elleke (2005), Colonial and Postcolonial Literature, second edition,
New York: Oxford University Press.
Boothby, Guy (1898), Pharos the Egyptian, The Windsor Magazine, June –
Briadotti, Rosi (1999), ‘Signs of Wonder and Traces of Doubt: On Teratology
and Embodied Differences’, in Jane Price and Margaret Sheldrick (eds),
Feminist Theory and the Body: A Reader, New York: Routledge, pp. 290–301.
Butler, Judith (1999), Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity,
New York: Routledge.
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Brantlinger, Patrick (1990), Rule of Darkness: British Literature and Imperialism,
1830–1914, Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome (1996), ‘Preface: In a Time of Monsters’, in Jeffrey
Jerome Cohen (ed.), Monster Theory: Reading Culture, Minneapolis:
Minnesota University Press, pp. vii–xiii.
Conan Doyle, Arthur (1892), ‘Lot No. 249,’ in E.F. Fleiler (ed.) (1979), The Best
Supernatural Tales of Arthur Conan Doyle, Toronto: Dover, pp. 74–112.
Conan Doyle, Arthur (1890), ‘The Ring of Thoth’, in E.F. Fleiler (ed.) (1979),
The Best Supernatural Tales of Arthur Conan Doyle, Toronto: Dover, pp.
Daly, Nicholas (1999), Modernism, Romance and the Fin de Siècle, Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press.
Deane, Bradley (2008), ‘Mummy Fiction and the Occupation of Egypt: Imperial
Striptease’, English Literature in Transition, 1880–1920, 51:4, pp. 381–410.
Everett, H. D. (Douglas, Theo) (1896), Iras: A Mystery, Edinburgh: William
Blackwood and Sons.
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New York: Penguin Classics.
Fleiler, E. F. (1979)(ed.), The Best Supernatural Tales of Arthur Conan Doyle,
Toronto: Dover.
Foucault, Michel (1972), The Archaeology of Knowledge (trans. A.M. Sheridan
Smith), New York: Routledge.
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(trans. Robert Hurley), New York: Vintage Books.
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Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972–1977, New York:
Pantheon Books, pp. 78–108.
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Works (trans. James Strachey), London: Vintage, pp. 219–256.
Gautier, Théophile (1901), ‘The Unwrapping of a Mummy’, Works of Théophile
Gautier, Volume 5 (trans. F. C. deSumichrast), New York: Athenaeum
Society, pp. 299–307.
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short-stories/UBooks/MummFoot.shtml. Accessed 11 November 2004.
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Politics of Popular Fiction, Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
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University Press.
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(ed.), Into the Mummy’s Tomb, New York: Berkley Trade, pp. 137–178.
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de l’Égypte’, in Irene A. Bierman (ed.), Napoleon in Egypt, Ithaca: Ithaca
University Press, pp. 63–76.
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Gothic Female Sexuality, and Oriental Barbarism,’ in Lloyd Davis (ed.),
Virginal Sexuality and Textuality in Victorian Literature, New York: SUNY,
pp. 193–213.
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(ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction, Cambridge: Cambridge
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Columbia University Press.
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Karen E. Macfarlane
Loudon, Jane (Webb) (1994), The Mummy!: A Tale of the Twenty-Second
Century, introduction by Alan Rauch, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan
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Ritual, and Polygenesis,’ American Literature, 69:3, pp. 515–546.
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Literature, Science, and Politics, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University
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Everlasting Dead, New York: Penguin.
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Case’, Science Fiction Studies, 90.2, pp. 217–223.
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Nichols and Son, pp. iii–iv.
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Unknowable in Turn of the Century Mummy Fiction’, Horror Studies 1: 1,
pp. 5–24, doi: 10.1386/host.1.1.5/1
Karen Macfarlane is an Associate Professor in the Department of English
at Mount St. Vincent University. She has published on various aspects of
Canadian and postcolonial writing and theory. Her two current projects focus
on monstrosity in imperialist fiction, and theorizing the figure of the “fag hag”
in contemporary popular culture.
E-mail: karen.macfarlane@msvu.ca
HOST 1.1_art_Macfarlane_05-024.indd 24 12/30/09 8:39:07 AM
HOST 1 (1) pp. 25–47 Intellect Limited 2010
Horror Studies
Volume 1 Number 1
© 2010 Intellect Ltd Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/host.1.1.25/1
Drakula halála
Károly Lajthay
Paul Askonas
Lajos Pánczél
vampire cinema
silent horror films
lost films
The Queen’s University Belfast
Drakula halála (1921):
The Cinema’s First
This essay covers the history of Károly Lajthay’s Hungarian film Drakula halála
(1921), the cinema’s first adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula. The essay
attempts to construct a production history of the film, as well as to create an accurate
list of cast members and key filming locations. As Drakula halála is lost, the essay
also features the very first English translation of an extremely rare 1924 Hungarian
novella based on the film, which offers much insight into its narrative.
In recent years, a number of film historians discovered that F. W. Murnau’s
Nosferatu (1922) was not, as long believed, the first time that Bram Stoker’s
Dracula was adapted for the screen (Farkas 1997: 34–37).
Instead – even
though it was hardly faithful to the novel – Hungarian director Károly
Lajthay’s Drakula halála marked the character’s earliest film appearance,
incorporating Stoker’s vampire character into a tale that also drew heavily
on Robert Wiene’s Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (1920). Despite the growing
awareness of Drakula halála, however, little is known of the film’s production
or its storyline, particularly in English-language texts.
1. I would note that all
modern researches seem
to have been greatly
assisted by the hard
work and research of
Gyöngyi Balogh at the
Hungarian Film Institute
in Budapest.
HOST 1.1_art_ Rhodes_025-048.indd 25 1/2/10 12:10:49 PM
Gary D. Rhodes
Announcing that the film was being produced, the Hungarian trade pub-
lication Képes Mozivilág wrote in 1921:
About twenty years ago, H. G. Wells’ novel Drakula, one of his most
interesting and exciting stories, was published as a serial in the Budapesti
Hírlap, and then later published here as a book. The novel was highly
acclaimed at the time, because the reader was fully absorbed into its
exciting plot that featured so many unexpected turns.
(Képes Mozivilág 1921: 21)
Though the publication mistakenly named Wells as the author rather than
Stoker, it did indicate that Lajthay intended to translate the ‘basic ideas’ of
Stoker’s Dracula onto the screen. Even if it would not become a direct adap-
tation of the novel, Drakula halála would rely heavily upon it for story ideas;
its Drakula was not based on Vlad the Impaler or some new character: Bram
Stoker’s Dracula would become Károly Lajthay’s Drakula.
Born in Marosvásárhely, Károly Lajthay (1885–1945) became an important
figure in the Hungarian film industry during the 1910s. At times he was a
writer (for Átok vára in 1918 and Júlia kisasszony in 1919), and on at least
one occasion before Drakula halála he was a producer (for Tláni in 1920). But
the bulk of Lajthay’s credits were as director (of at least eight films prior to
Drakula halála) and as actor (in at least fourteen films prior Drakula halála);
for example, Lajthay appeared in Mihály Kertész’s A Magyar föld (1917) and
A senki fia (1917), as well as Alfred Deésy’s Nászdal (1917), which co-starred
Bela Lugosi.
According to censorship records, the Lapa Film Studio produced Lajthay’s
Drakula halála.
In late 1920, Lajthay visited Budapest in order to rent space at
the Corvin Film Studio for a film that bore the working title Drakula. By that
time, the theatre magazine Színházi Élet noted that Lajthay was one of several
leading Hungarians who had left the Budapest film industry for Vienna. In an
interview with the same publication, Lajthay said:
Film production in Vienna is virtually under Hungarian control, because
Hungarian directors dominate the industry there. [Sándor] Korda and
[Mihály] Kertész are extremely successful there. … Now I am directing
my film entitled Drakula [for a Vienna-based company.]
(Hungarian Film Directors in Vienna 1920)
Lajthay had co-written the Drakula script with Mihály Kertész, who had
already been a prominent film director in Budapest, having worked at Phönix
with Bela Lugosi on such films as 99 (1918). By the time of Drakula halála (as
the film became known at some point during its production), Kertész was
making films in Austria; years later, using the name Michael Curtiz, he would
direct such Hollywood movies as Dr. X (1932), Mystery of the Wax Museum
(1933), and Casablanca (1943).
As for his crew, Lajthay employed Eduard Hoesch, whom he called the
‘best cameraman in Vienna’ (Hungarian Film Directors in Vienna 1920).
Hoesch would shoot Drakula’s interiors, though later credits suggest he
was only one of two cinematographers who worked on the film. The other
was Lajos Gasser, who had previously shot Júlia kisasszony (Hungarian Film
Directors in Vienna 1920). Unfortunately, no surviving records indicate the
names of other crewmembers.
2. I am very grateful to
Gyöngyi Balogh for this
HOST 1.1_art_ Rhodes_025-048.indd 26 12/30/09 8:42:19 AM
Drakula halála (1921): The Cinema’s First Dracula
For the role of Drakula, Lajthay cast Paul Askonas (1872–1935), a member
of the Deutsches Volkstheatre in Vienna. Among other films, Askonas had
previously appeared as Svengali in Jacob and Luise Fleck’s Trilby (1912). In
the years following his work as Drakula, Askonas would portray Dr. Mirakel
in Max Neufeld’s Hoffmanns Erzählungen (1923) and Diener in Robert Wiene’s
Orlacs Hände (1924). As for the other two key roles in Drakula halála, Lajthay
cast Deszö Kertész (Mihály’s brother) as the young male lead George, and
Margit Lux as the heroine Mary Land.
Lux previously played a supporting role
in Mihály Kertész’s Az ördög (1918), after which she starred in his Varázskering
(1919) and Lu, a kokott (1919); she had also appeared in Ödön Fritz’s Alraune
(1919, for which Kertész sometimes receives credit as co-director) and Pál
Fejös’ Lidércynomás (1920).
Margit Lux’s appearance in Drakula halála has been the matter of a
minor controversy, as the January 1921 issue of Képes Mozivilág claimed
that Lene Myl (who was in fact a Serbian named Miléne Pavlovic) would
play ‘the role of the heroine’; they remarked on her ‘impressive appearance,’
and went so far as to say that she would ‘ensure the success’ of Drakula
halála (Képes Mozivilág 1921: 21). Though she was essentially unknown,
Myl had appeared in small film roles at studios in Rome and Berlin. Lajthay
presumably spotted her in the Austrian film Königin Draga (1920), in which
she had a supporting role alongside Askonas. Every other publication dur-
ing 1921–1923 claimed, however, that Lux played Mary Land, not Myl.

Moreover, it is definitely Lux who appears with Askonas in a Drakula halála
publicity still published in Szinház és Mozi in 1921; its caption specifically
credits Lux as portraying Mary.
3. Deszö Kertész had
previously appeared in
numerous films, including
Márton Garas’s Anna
Karenina (1918),
in which he played
4. It should also be noted
that Képes Mozivilág
never actually said
that Myl would portray
Mary Land. Rather, the
publication claims she
would play the ‘heroine’.
Figure 1: Paul Askonas and Margit Lux in Drakula halála.
HOST 1.1_art_ Rhodes_025-048.indd 27 12/30/09 8:42:19 AM
Gary D. Rhodes
Perhaps some cast changes occurred during pre-production, but it is
equally, if not more possible that Képes Mozivilág – the same publication that
had incorrectly claimed that H.G. Wells wrote the novel Dracula – simply
made an error. It seems highly probable that Lux portrayed Mary Land, and
that Myl portrayed some other, lesser role. For example, in 1921, Lajthay
actually said, ‘The major parts are played by Margit Lux, Lene Myl, and
Askonas’; a cast list published circa 1924 by Lajos Pánczél also listed Lux
as Mary Land, crediting Lene Myl with a small, unnamed role (I Attended a
Wedding 1921: 26–27).
Given Drakula halála’s storyline, Myl likely appeared
either as a nurse or – more likely, if an extant publicity photograph of her
for the film accurately reflects her on-screen costume – as one of Drakula’s
With Askonas, Kertész and (apparently) Lux in the lead roles, Lajthay cast
Lajos Réthey – who had co-starred with Bela Lugosi in 99 (1918) – as the ‘Fake
surgeon,’ and Karl Götz – aka Carl Goetz, who would later appear as Schigolch
in Pandora’s Box (1929) – as the ‘Funny Man’.
Other on-screen talent included
Elemér Thury, who had acted in Hungarian films since at least 1912, and Aladár
Ihász, who appeared in a small number of films from 1913–1944.

Script in hand and cast and crew in place, Lajthay shot some of the film’s
exteriors in and around Vienna, including in the village of Melk, in December
1920 (I Attended a Wedding 1921: 26–27).
The following month, beginning
on 2 January 1921, he shot the interior scenes at the Corvin Film Studio in
Budapest, which he believed was ‘better equipped than any studio in Vienna’
(I Attended a Wedding 1921: 27). Afterwards, he returned to Vienna to shoot
additional exteriors in the nearby Wachau Valley (Hungarian Film Directors in
Vienna 1920: unpaginated).
During the Corvin shoot, a journalist from the publication Szinház és Mozi
visited the set and wrote a story about the film’s production, the most in-
depth that was published:
It was not one of our famous prima donnas’ weddings, nor one of our
celebrated actors, or for that matter one of our successful writers, poets,
sculptors, or painters; however, I nonetheless must insist that I attended
a wedding. Firstly, because I de facto did; secondly, because it was the
most unusual and extraordinary wedding ever witnessed by anyone.
I attended a wedding – at the Corvin Film Studio. The bridegroom – an
actor – was none other than Asconas [sic], the most celebrated actor in
Vienna, and the bride – an actress, of course – is Margit Lux, the nice,
talented film actress who has been so highly acclaimed for crying so
realistically on the screen.
Asconas [sic], Drakula in persona – a phantastic creature, some kind of
modern bluebeard – brings a new woman into his amazing castle, this
new woman being played by Margit Lux. He stops at nothing in order
to possess the woman: he summons demons and spirits and strange
creatures to gain control over her, but then a cross around her neck
comes into view … and Drakula, this wonderful, and at the same time
mysterious creature, is dispelled by it.
That’s how Drakula’s wedding took place – in the Corvin studio,
namely. Since I might not be able to give away anything by admitting
now that Drakula is a film, I will say that it is a film destined to become
5. Drakula halála seems to
have been Myl’s only
Hungarian film.
6. Anna Marie Hegener
and Sonja Magda might
well have portrayed
Drakula’s other brides;
both are named in
‘Hungarian Film Directors
in Vienna’. Actress Paula
Kende also appeared in
Drakula halála and could
well have been another
of Drakula’s brides.
7. Réthey had earlier
appeared in Mihály
Kertész’s Az ezüst kecske
(1916), Zoárd mester
(1917), Halálcsengö
(1917), A kuruzsló
(1917), and A szentjóbi
erdö titka (1917). Götz
also appeared in at
least one other silent
Hungarian film, Lajos
Lázár’s Taifun (1918).
8. Elemér Thury had earlier
appeared in Mihály
Kertész’s Rablélek
(1913). Aladár Ihász
had also worked with
Mihály Kertész as well,
having played the lead
role in his A kölcsönkért
csecsemök (1915); he
had also appeared in
Lajthay’s Lobogó vér
(1919) and Sundal
9. In this publication,
Lajthay notes that he
‘completed external
shots last month’,
meaning December
1920, ‘near Vienna’.
The article ‘Hungarian
Film Directors in Vienna’
was more specific,
quoting Lajthay as
mentioning he had
shot in Melk. However,
in ‘Drakula – Károly
Lajthay’s Latest Film’,
Képes Mozivilág
reported that – following
the interiors at the
Corvin Film Studio –
Lajthay would ‘resume
the external shots in the
Wachau near Vienna’
(1920: 21).
HOST 1.1_art_ Rhodes_025-048.indd 28 12/30/09 8:42:20 AM
Drakula halála (1921): The Cinema’s First Dracula
sensational, the plot of which must not be told due to the extraordinary
excitement it conveys and the fact it will depend upon suspense when it
appears on the screen.
Drakula’s wedding gives a taste of the film’s energies. There is an
immense hall, dressed in marble, with a very, very long and dark cor-
ridor in the middle. That is where Drakula lives his mysterious life.
It is night. The flutter and shrieks of a multitude of beasts can be
heard, and the door in the middle of the hall opens. Beautiful women
parade through it, all dressed in dreamlike costumes, all of them
being Drakula’s wives. But now Drakula awaits his new woman, the
most beautiful and desirable of all. She will be welcomed with a rain
of flowers.
How beautiful it will appear on the screen, I thought to myself while
watching Drakula being shot at Corvin. Károly Lajthay, the great film
director, worked all day without interruption to have Drakula welcome
his new bride; when the film is finished, this scene will constitute just
a small section of a four-act film. On the screen, this scene will not last
more than five minutes, whereas it takes a full day’s work to produce.
The viewer, sitting in the theatre, will have no idea what extraordinary
talent was required from the director to rehearse, shoot, and edit the
sequences one by one.
(I Attended a Wedding 1921: 26–27)
Színház és Mozi then quoted Lajthay as claiming the film would be a ‘super
production’, which were coincidentally the same words that Universal Studios
used a decade later to describe their Dracula (1931).
But then the press information seems to stop. Drakula halála allegedly pre-
miered in Vienna in February 1921, though no data has yet surfaced in Austrian
trade publications or Vienna newspapers. If such a premiere occurred, the film
would likely have born a German title, and even then it might not have been
a direct translation; the name ‘Drakula’ could have been removed and an
altogether new title used. More primary research in Austria will be critical to
understanding Drakula halála’s distribution.
Why the film did not premiere in Budapest in 1921 is unknown. Perhaps
there were legal problems or troubles with censors, but no record exists of
either. At any rate – according to a ‘Calendar of Events’ listing in the April
1923 issue of Mozi és Film – distributor Jenö Tuchten presented Drakula
halála to Hungarian audiences for the first time on 14 April 1923 (Calendar
of Events 1923: 23). At that time, the film ran 1,448 meters in length. In the
same issue of Mozi és Film, an advertisement promoted yet another screen-
ing in Budapest:
Drakula is coming
but he continues his triumph in full health, and appears again on May
12 or 19 at the Royal-Apollo!
Due to what promises to be an enormous demand, film exhibitors are
advised to immediately book available dates!
(Advertisement 1923: 4)
HOST 1.1_art_ Rhodes_025-048.indd 29 12/30/09 8:42:20 AM
Gary D. Rhodes
But the enormous demand seems not to have occurred. For reasons unknown,
the film quickly disappeared from theatre screens in Hungary and Austria. No
evidence has yet surfaced that Drakula halála was ever re-released in either
country, or that it was screened in any other country. The film seems to have
vanished after the spring of 1923.
That disappearance includes film prints of Drakula halála, none of which
survive. However, four publicity photographs have surfaced in Hungary in
recent years. Two of them are portraits: one of Lene Myl, and the other of
Askonas as Drakula, clad in black, his eyes glaring, his eyebrows accentu-
ated by make-up, and his dark hair forming a widow’s peak on his fore-
head. What is fascinating is that Lajthay apparently deviated from Stoker’s
description of Dracula, which included a ‘long white moustache’. The clean-
shaven Askonas thus appears none-too-different than would Raymond
Huntley in the London stage version of Dracula in 1927 or Bela Lugosi
in the Broadway version that same year, as well as in the 1931 Universal
Studios film.
Though it is difficult to discern much information from the two surviving
scene stills –and it is certainly dangerous to generalize too much based upon
them – they tantalizingly suggest the film bore the influence of Expressionism,
which may not be entirely surprising given the apparent influence that Das
Cabinet des Dr. Caligari had on the film’s script. One of them shows Drakula
and Mary Land with his brides; the other shows Drakula peering through a
window (or open door, perhaps) at Mary. Both include some evocative shad-
ows, and the latter depicts an artistically painted flat depicting a building and
dreary sky in the distance. Though certainly not as stylized or exaggerated as
Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari, the image evokes an eerie and unreal landscape.
Figure 2: Paul Askonas (left) appears in this scene still from Drakula halála, which likely depicts
the wedding between Drakula and Mary Land.
HOST 1.1_art_ Rhodes_025-048.indd 30 12/30/09 8:42:20 AM
Drakula halála (1921): The Cinema’s First Dracula
Only one other artefact survives that can help us understand the screen’s
first Dracula: a short novella that acted as a kind of ‘book-of-the-film’.
Apparently written by Lajos Pánczél (who had been a friend of Bela Lugosi’s
before Lugosi left Budapest in 1918), the novella Drakula halála was copy-
righted and published in Temesvár in 1924, though there is the possibility an
earlier edition appeared in either 1921 or 1923. How closely Pánczél’s novella
adapted the film’s storyline is unknown, but it was evidently intended to be
quite faithful, as it was promoted as ‘Number 6 in a Series of Film Books’.
Moreover, Pánczél begins the book by discussing the film and offering a list
of its cast members.
The full text of Pánczél’s novella is published herein for the first time in the
modern age, as well as for the first time anywhere in the English language.
With regard to my research on both the film and the novella of Drakula
halála, I offer great thanks to my dear friend Gyöngyi Balogh of the Hungarian
Film Institute in Budapest, who is certainly the leading expert on Hungarian
silent cinema. Moreover, I also wish to thank my colleagues János Szántai in
Timisoara, Olaf Brill at Cinegraph in Bremen, and Brigitte Mayr at Synema,
the Society for Film and Media in Vienna. With regard to the translation of
the text from Hungarian to English, I offer my deepest appreciation to Péter
Litván, whose kindness, patience, and assistance was invaluable.
The Death of Drakula:
A Novella of the Phantasy Film
by Lajos Pánczél
[Translated by Péter Litván and Gary D. Rhodes]
This mystical story ushers us into the bizarre realm of unrestrained human
fantasy. Entering into this stormy night of dreams and magic, we are faced
with an ominous tale of frightening black shadows, of the dying, and of the
living dead ....
In the midst of this piteous ensemble, there grows a budding, young girl.
She is like an oasis in a barren desert wasteland, but unbridled madness sav-
agely threatens her fragile existence. The weak little soul is a helpless cap-
tive of fate, which unmercifully forces her into life’s raging waters, down its
cascades towards impending doom, until – after much suffering – the golden
gate opens, and the heroine reaches the shore of a bright and happy future.
This is brief summary of Drakula’s enthralling plot, the film version of
which is a product of the great Hungarian cinema industry. Written and
directed by Károly Lajthay, the film is enacted by the following cast:
Drakula Paul Askonas
Märy Margit Lux
George Dezsö Kertész
The Chief Surgeon Elemér Thury
The Fake Surgeon Lajos Réthey
His Assistant Aladár Ihász
Funny Man Karl Götz
HOST 1.1_art_ Rhodes_025-048.indd 31 12/30/09 8:42:21 AM
Gary D. Rhodes
Also featuring Lajos Szalkay, Károly Hatvani, Oszkár Perczel, Béla Timár,
Paula Kende and Lene Myl.
In the midst of some giant mountains covered with everlasting snow could be
found a little Alpine village. Here, in majestic silence, far from the bustle of
the world, lived little Mary Land, a poor seamstress. Each day in the life of this
little lady passed sadly. Mary tried to overcome her loneliness and her heart’s
endless sorrow by devoting herself to work. She toiled unceasingly, day and
night, in order to earn a meagre salary, which she used to support her sick
father who was kept in a mental asylum at the nearby capital city.
In the poor little house where Mary lived, the sewing machine was forever
buzzing; her soft, fragile little fingers were always moving.
Outside of Mary’s home, the wintry landscape seemed to gleam with
power. Surrounded by snowy mountains, the little village lived its own
dream-like life like a tiny island surrounded by the sea’s endless waters. A
deep calm enshrouded the village, its peaceful citizens taking a rest from the
year’s hardships.
Mary’s tiny house, where she had been born 16 years earlier, had once
been home to great happiness. Her parents were wealthy; their house was
free of sorrow, filled instead with laughter and joy. However, during a recent
spring, Mary’s mother fell ill, and not too long afterwards, Death delivered the
poor woman from her misery.
Mary’s heart bled for her deceased mother, and old Mr Land’s grief was
indescribable. The tragedy had such a terrible impact on him that he eventu-
ally lost his mind, causing Mary to follow the doctors’ advice and have him
committed to a mental asylum.
From that time onward, Mary lived a lonely existence in her home at the
end of the village. She worked without rest in order to earn a living and pay
for her father’s care. After two sad years, though she was worn down by hard
work, Mary’s will power had not weakened. She would have sacrificed her
own life to help her father. But regrettably, two years of care in the asylum
did not improve old Mr Land’s condition. He lingered inside the asylum like
a living corpse. The doctors eventually came to the conclusion that his mental
state was beyond repair, that he had mere days to live, and that a quick death
would be an act of mercy for such a broken, suffering old man.
Mary visited her father every week, causing Mr Land’s confused eyes to
light up, beaming with renewed energy. When he would see his daughter,
the old man nearly broke into euphoria: he hugged, kissed, and caressed his
only child, because in secret he knew that the end was near and that he would
soon have to bid his treasured daughter farewell. For her part, Mary tried to
comfort her father, and, even when she was reduced to tears, she tried to
remain silent. She bravely endured the painful goodbyes, and neither of them
openly admitted that their world would never be the same … They beguiled
one another … Their tearful glances were lies, promising a happy future and
the hope of a new life, but deep inside they both heard the sorrowful sound
of ‘Fare-thee-well’.
Both of them spent their time yearning for their next encounter, but when
they parted, they did so with the terrible feeling in their hearts of those who
know, who feel, that death is at hand, and that they might see each other
never more ….
HOST 1.1_art_ Rhodes_025-048.indd 32 12/30/09 8:42:21 AM
Drakula halála (1921): The Cinema’s First Dracula
During those sad, wearisome days, Mary’s only comfort was George Marlup,
who eventually became her fiancé. He loved her, and his heart brimmed with
affection for the blossoming young girl. Though George worked as a woodcut-
ter in the neighbouring village, he still called to see Mary every day. Those
became her few happy hours … It was only then that Mary’s heart was freed
from sorrow. It was only then that she could forget about her pain and imagine
a happy future, one that would make up for all the agony she had suffered.
George devoted himself to Mary with tender love and attention. He also
tried to spare his little bride-to-be from exhaustion, warning her that she was
too obsessed with work and that it was too much of a burden for her sensitive
nature. But Mary would not yield; she would not stop working. When George
visited her on the holy day of Christmas, he could not believe that she was
still working, working as hard as ever.
‘Again you have been awake, working all night, my little Mary! Why don’t
you take better care of yourself? After all, today is a holiday, the holy day of
Christmas, and I brought you this little tree. When I come back this evening,
we will decorate it together.’
‘My destiny is labour and self-denial,’ Mary answered in a solemn voice.
‘But I am not complaining … I have had to deal with my situation in my own
way … I must keep carrying life’s heavy burden.’
Then a tear welled in Mary’s sad eyes … The young man put the little fir
tree on the table, bestowed a kiss on her lips, and departed.
‘God be with you, my sweetheart!’ George said, turning back to look at
her before leaving. ‘Goodbye!’
That same night, George returned to his bride-to-be, and together they
decorated the fir tree, a beautiful symbol of peace and love … Then they
prayed to the Lord in Heaven with their hearts full of gratitude, and as they
prayed, they heard the chapel bells in the little village begin to chime, sum-
moning the pious to midnight Mass.
They had already decorated the little fir tree with many glittering orna-
ments and candles, which cast a silvery light onto the two lovers. It seemed to
create a halo around Mary’s golden hair …
At that minute, they heard someone mysteriously knocking on the door.
George answered it to greet the unexpected visitor, who turned out to be the
town’s postman, delivering a registered letter for Mary.
The maiden hastily opened the envelope:
To Miss Mary Land,
We regret to inform you that your father’s condition has worsened. You
should attempt to visit him as soon as possible.
Yours sincerely,
Municipal Mental Asylum
Dr Faigner, Director and Head Surgeon
Mary’s eyes, which had been gleaming with joy, ran wet with tears …
Although she was well aware and prepared for the fact that her father had
limited time, she was still taken aback by the news and tearfully placed her
head on George’s shoulder.
HOST 1.1_art_ Rhodes_025-048.indd 33 12/30/09 8:42:21 AM
Gary D. Rhodes
Then she quickly raised her head and said: ‘We must not miss the mid-
night Mass. Let us hurry, George!’
Without saying a word, the young man took his fiancée by the arm. The
little chapel’s bell was still ringing throughout the village, and its devout citi-
zens were busily making their way to the worship service ….
Neither Mary nor George would have missed the midnight Mass. The
maiden and her fiancé looked to Almighty God, praying from the depth of
their hearts that He might prolong old Mr Land’s days ….
When the service was over, Mary nervously said to her fiancé: ‘My dear, won-
derful father! Who knows whether he will still be alive when I reach the asylum?
The next train leaves in the morning … I’m scared that I might be too late.’
George understood Mary’s fears and tried to comfort her: ‘Not a minute
must be lost, Mary! Let me harness the horses, and then we will set out! Dawn
will see us arrive at the asylum!’
Quick as it was thought, it was done. George readied the horses and a
sleigh, and within a few minutes he was outside Mary’s house, ready for
departure. With great care, the young man seated the sad maiden in the
sleigh, her own thoughts consumed by worry and fear.
The horses raced along with the lovers in full gallop. The little sleigh boldly
glided down the frozen, snowy path, and the fairylike chime of its silver bells
echoed throughout the darkness of the night …
For hours, heavy, thick snowflakes floated down from the skies … It was long
after midnight. Worn out by grief, Mary lay down in the sleigh in order to sleep.
The rising sun was already casting its golden rays when the lovers
approached the city. With a few minutes, they reached the gates of the mental
asylum. It was morning … a crisp, fresh, winter morning. But soon the light of
the sun struggled to beam through an increasingly dismal, cloudy sky …
Frowning gloomily down at the young couple was an immense, sad, deso-
late building: the madhouse.
Mary shuddered, ‘Oh!’
George embraced her tightly and sheltered the fainting maiden in his
arms: ‘What happened, my dear? What is wrong?’
‘Every time I arrive at this place, I am nearly overcome. I am reminded that
my poor, father must live here, his life empty and his mind hardly conscious.
Oh, George, what a terrible fate! This house is the realm of the living dead;
the most unhappy of men dwell here, and among them is my father! I could
never forget the way he was. His wonderful face, his tender look, and the
great devotion he had towards me. He raised me with so much love, and yet
he’s ended up here! Is this the end of his journey?’
George tried to comfort his fiancée, softly explaining: ‘Be calm, dear. We
cannot know the ways of providence, and we must live with God’s will, how-
ever painful it is. Now be brave. I am confident that your father is still alive.’
George’s words calmed Mary, and soon the couple reached the door of
the madhouse.
Before entering, Mary said: ‘Thank you, George, for bringing me here. I
will return home on the evening train. Goodbye, my sweetheart!’
The lovers parted with a gentle kiss.
‘Please do not be late, Mary,’ George said. ‘God be with you. Goodbye!’
Then the girl entered the house of sorrow. As she nervously walked
through its archway, her heart filled with grief and her spirits sank. She was
shaking with fear over her father’s fate.
HOST 1.1_art_ Rhodes_025-048.indd 34 12/30/09 8:42:21 AM
Drakula halála (1921): The Cinema’s First Dracula
Mary anxiously asked the first man that crossed her path: ‘Could I speak
to Doctor Tillner, please?’
As soon as she asked for him, Doctor Tillner appeared. One of the most
important doctors at the asylum, Tillner was wearing a white coat, preparing
for his morning rounds. By that time, Mary knew Tillner quite well, because
her father was a member of his ward.
With her eyes wide open, Mary questioned the doctor: ‘How is my father?
Is he alive? Please doctor, tell me everything!’
Tillner remained silent for a moment, and then he tried to calm down his
desperate visitor by saying: ‘Take comfort, Miss! Death will be salvation for
your poor father. Come along and have a look at my patients. What a pitiful
life these poor wretches must live!’
With an air of curiosity, Mary followed him. Doctor Tillner ushered her into
the garden of the hospital, where so many of the inmates were gathered. They
instinctively wanted to be outside on such a bright winter morning, which had
a calming effect on their dead nerves and paralyzed spirits.
With scared and troubled eyes, a host of inmates stared at Mary, the
unknown and unexpected interloper, as if they were all part of some pictur-
esque panopticon. She kept close to the doctor, because – even though she did
recognize a few of the patients from her previous visits – she was scared by the
bizarre appearance of them gathered together. Her fear heightened when some
of them moved towards her. Their eyes radiated with madness, and their slow
steps dragged frail, wrecked bodies towards her as if she was their enemy.
Growing aware of the danger, Doctor Tillner motioned for the patients
to withdraw. They moved away, but their gaze revealed a hateful, murderous
‘Do not be afraid, my dear child,’ Tillner said, trying to reassure Mary.
‘They are all innocent people who wouldn’t hurt a fly. It is only their appear-
ance that is threatening. They are cowards, who would shrink back at the
mere rustle of a leaf.’
Mary remained fearful of the poor, death-bound pariahs, and so the doc-
tor continued to speak to her as he approached one of the inmates: ‘This man
here,’ he said, ‘was once a famous scientist, and now has the belief that his
foot is made of glass and prone to break if he steps on it.’
Doctor Tillner then pointed out the fact that his feet were wrapped in thick
scarves: ‘Now he also believes that he is the Minister of Finance. He con-
stantly doles out cheques worth billions to his friends.’
Mary observed the thin, haggard man dressed in bizarre clothes; he mani-
cally wrote in his notebook and then tore out pages from it, giving them to
other inmates who passed his way. Each time he did, his pale face lit up with
joy and happiness.
Then she became aware of a tall, gaunt man with bushy hair and a face
that resembled Beelzebub. Turning to the doctor, she asked, ‘Who is this for-
midable man? He is staring at me as if I am his prey. He virtually swallows me
with his eyes, which are ablaze with all the terrible colours of hell.’
‘He used to be an excellent composer,’ Tillner replied. ‘Now he believes him-
self to be a ruler. He wouldn’t part from his royal cloak even to go to sleep.’
‘He resembles the organ player who taught me how to sing some years
ago,’ Mary said.
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Gary D. Rhodes
‘If you are not afraid, you are certainly welcome to speak to him,’ the doc-
tor said. ‘I ask him questions in vain. He will not reply.’
Encouraged by the doctor, Mary slowly approached the man dressed in the
cloak, who gazed upon her with a terrifying smile. Growing more confident
among the patients, she asked him: ‘How are you, master? … Don’t you
remember me? My name is Mary Land … Five years ago in the school …’
Figure 3: Paul Askonas as Drakula.
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Drakula halála (1921): The Cinema’s First Dracula
‘I don’t remember,’ the horrible man replied. ‘I do not remember any-
thing. I am Drakula … the immortal!’
A wild fire then flared inside the man’s heart. In a commanding voice, he
exclaimed once again: ‘Yes! I am Drakula … the immortal!’
Mary Land shuddered at the sight of the awful man. She quickly regret-
ted having spoken to him, but continued the conversation: ‘Try to remem-
ber, master … I was in the second row … I sang soprano, and you often
stroked my hair as a token of affection … a long time has passed, but I can
still remember everything.’
The madman shuddered: ‘I have been alive for a thousand years, and I will
live forever … Mine is immortality … Immortality! I possess eternal life …
People will die, the world will be destroyed, but I shall keep living!’
Deeply shaken, Mary shrank away from Drakula, who continued speak-
ing: ‘My life is a life eternal! Death will never come for me! Oh, do not believe
that I, too, am mad! I stay here only because I love the living dead. I deeply
pity them, and I want to give all of them life!’
Mary listened nervously to Drakula, the human monster, whose voice
sounded like a roar from hell, and whose deep fiery black eyes glowed with
dark flames. Then he towered over fragile little Mary as if he was going to
squeeze her to death with one single movement.
Doctor Tillner, who had been watching the scene from a distance, rescued
Mary and escorted her back into the hospital. The doctor ushered the girl into
an operation room and said to her: ‘Please, take a seat here while I have a
word with the director about giving your father a room of his own.’
Mary replied in a trembling voice, ‘I am so very disturbed by that terrible
man dressed in black … Drakula.’
‘Please relax,’ the doctor told her. ‘Drakula only looks terrifying. You must
not be scared of him. Calm down.’
Mary nervously sat down in the sterile, white operation room. She was still
shuddering. Faced with an irrepressible and unceasing image, her thoughts
struggled with Drakula. While she was waiting, consumed by her thoughts, one
of the doors opened and a man who appeared to be a doctor entered quietly.
Mary grabbed at her chair. She was terrified by the stranger’s weird looks.
Though he wore a doctor’s white coat, the man was one of the inmates. He
was tall and had a gaunt face. The madman believed he was a doctor, always
wore a doctor’s coat, and always arrogantly tried to examine and operate on
the other patients.
‘I am Professor Wells,’ he told Mary, ‘a doctor of universal medicine. If you
don’t mind, Miss, I will examine you.’ He then sat down next to her, staring at
her with his eyes wide open.
Mary had no idea that ‘Professor Wells’ was a madman disguised as a doctor,
but she instinctively felt that danger was near. She feared, abhorred, and then
shrank from this man who gazed at her with great intensity.
‘Tell me, please, do your eyes not hurt?’ the madman said, breaking the
silence, and all of a sudden he started to examine her. ‘My diagnosis is very
clear! You are suffering from severe eye disease, Miss,’ the fake doctor pro-
nounced. ‘If we do not operate at once, you will go blind!’
Mary was taken aback. Her doubts about the man vanished. She believed
him and was convinced that he was indeed a doctor.
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Gary D. Rhodes
At that very moment, the door opened and another man wearing a doctor’s
coat entered. Professor Wells’s face lit up and he said to Mary: ‘If you don’t believe
me, ask my colleague,’ and he pointed to the man who had just entered.
The other fake doctor scrutinized Mary’s eyes and produced his diagnosis:
‘Vulpis doloris! To be operated on without delay!’
Utterly terrified, Mary changed her opinion once more and tried to get
away from the two men. But they grabbed the young maiden and threw her
onto the operating table. They strapped down her hands and feet. Professor
Wells then appeared over her brandishing a surgical knife that he had removed
from one of the cupboards. All of this occurred within a few moments.
A terrible shriek then escaped from Mary’s throat: ‘For God’s sake … Let
me go! Help!’
‘Be quiet!’ one of the fake doctors shouted at her.
‘You should be glad that we have chosen to operate on you!’ the other
madman exclaimed. ‘You will owe us your life, your eyesight … It will take
only a minute or two, and then it will be over!’
Mary cried: ‘No! I won’t let you do it! Let me go! Please, let me go!’
But the two madmen, their eyes wildly ablaze, descended on the maiden,
who was now fighting with all her might. She desperately wanted to escape
from the operating table, and while she was struggling, she kept crying: ‘Help!
Her words echoed throughout the white operating room, but fate seemed
determined to keep her where she was. Like a bird caught in a net, she was
helplessly trapped in the claws of the two madmen. As an ominous, cruel
silence fell across the room, Mary suddenly quit crying. The two madmen
were just about to pierce open her eyes, when Doctor Tillner and his assist-
ants rushed into the operation room, grabbed hold of the madmen, and freed
the maiden from her straps.
Mary was lying there, swooning. She didn’t recover consciousness for more
than an hour. Doctor Tillner watched over her, checking her heavy breath and
the convulsions of her body, which was still heavily affected by the terrifying
adventure she had experienced. Eventually, she opened her eyes.
‘What happened to me?’ she asked with a frightened voice, her eyes full of
terror. ‘Have I dreamt an evil dream, or did those awful things actually happen
to me?’
The doctor tried to comfort her as best he could. ‘There is nothing that can
hurt you now, little Mary!’ he said. ‘Forget what happened; consider it noth-
ing more than an unpleasant dream.’
‘It is so awful to think about!’
‘You shouldn’t have been in here alone, Mary, but nobody could have
guessed that you might attract such strange visitors.’
Hoping to banish the terrible memories from her mind, Mary wiped her
forehead, and then she left the operation room with Doctor Tillner’s help.
Finally Mary went to see her father, who was near death. Though weak, he
embraced his daughter. Mary’s tears washed down her face … then she heard
a loud groan … the father’s outstretched arms lost their strength … his bony
fingers stiffened … his head dropped to one side … his confused eyes were
forever shut …
In tears, Mary held onto her father’s corpse. Doctor Tillner raised her and
took the sad, shaken young maiden out of the ward. Had his death, and her
strange adventure with the two doctors, really happened, or were they simply
a dream?
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Drakula halála (1921): The Cinema’s First Dracula
The doctor helped the poor, fainting creature into a little room adjacent to
the director’s office and laid her on a couch so she could rest. But Mary longed
to get away. To run from this house of hell, where she had suffered so utterly,
where the most horrendous memories of her life had been born.
‘Away … I want to go away … to escape … My life is threatened here! Let
me go!’ the frightened little maiden kept crying.
Doctor Tillner was hardly able to keep Mary from fleeing. ‘In such a terrible
state of mind, you cannot leave,’ the doctor said. ‘Stay here for the night and
have a rest. In the morning you will be fine, and then you can leave for home.’
The maiden felt inclined to follow the doctor’s kind advice. She lay down
on the couch, but said in a frightened voice, ‘I beg you … don’t hurt me … I
haven’t done anything.’ Her eyelids then closed, and she fell asleep.
Mary had been asleep for several hours … When the tower clock struck midnight,
Drakula appeared in the room like a ghost from hell. He quietly approached the
sleeping girl and then touched her shoulder with his long, bony fingers, which
caused Mary to awaken. Taken aback, she looked up at Drakula, whose eyes
burned with all the horrendous colours of hell. A satanic smile formed on his
lips before he grabbed the girl and began to drag her across the room.
Figure 4: Károly Lajthay in Vorrei morir (1918).
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Gary D. Rhodes
‘Follow me!’ he commanded. ‘We are going to my castle, the home of lust
and delight! I want to save you! All of these men here are evil. They want to
destroy you just like they destroyed your father!
Mary listened in terror while Drakula continued: ‘Flee from this Hell!
Follow me and trust me. I am immortal, and I possess supernatural powers!
‘No! … For God’s sake, leave me alone,’ Mary protested. Then she nerv-
ously asked him a flurry of questions: ‘Who are you? What do you want of
me? By what right do you command me to follow you? Where do you want
to take me?’
Without responding, Drakula grabbed her and set off for his castle like a
whirlwind so that they would reach it before dawn.
Outside, the mysterious veil of night enshrouded the town. Large, soft
snowflakes fell to the earth, and this black-and-white panorama created a
weird, haunting effect.
The human monster dragged Mary into the night as if she was a helpless
puppet … Their desperate journey lasted for hours, until they finally reached
a strange, enormous building: Drakula’s castle.
Mary shuddered. Shaking in the icy wind, she was completely bewildered
by her weird companion. She wanted to escape from Drakula’s arms, but the
monster was holding her firmly.
‘Hah, my dear,’ he laughed in his satanic voice. ‘Joy and ecstasy are await-
ing you! Why would you try to flee?’
‘Let me go! Let me go!’
‘You, too, will enter the realm of immortality, the palace of wonders:
Drakula’s castle! Do not be afraid; do not shudder! Be happy instead, for bliss
is awaiting you! Come!’
The young maiden’s protests were all in vain. Drakula’s power overcame her.
Then an immense stone gate creaked open before them. Drakula had
reached home with his prey.
Though scared, Mary was curious, and so she looked around in the inte-
rior of the palace: its weird architecture, its phantastic illumination reminded
her of the strange realms that appear in fairy tales.
And then she smelled a weird and rank odour in Drakula’s Castle, the
smell of death and decay. This heavy, suffocating smell nearly intoxicated the
mentally-broken young maiden.
‘Why have you brought me here?’ Mary finally asked. ‘What do you want
from me?’
Drakula replied triumphantly: ‘You will never be able to escape! Tomorrow
we will celebrate our engagement! You will be my bride! I will marry you with
an immortal kiss, and you will stay here with my other wives, all of whom
possess eternal life!’
Then, with a wave of Drakula’s hand, the marble floor in the middle of the
palace opened. A blue-violet light appeared from below … the lush sounds of
supernatural music could be heard … and twelve beautiful women could be
seen. With their exquisite bodies covered in veils, they danced to the rhythm
of the soft music …
Drakula told Mary: ‘Before the sun rises twice, you will be among my sub-
terranean residents!’
‘No … I don’t want to be here, not for all the treasures in the world,’ Mary
screamed. Filled with despair, she grabbed the cross hanging around her neck
and beseeched God to save her from such horrors.
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Drakula halála (1921): The Cinema’s First Dracula
‘Damnation! … Hell! … The only means by which my power is paralyzed! …
Away with it!’ Drakula shouted, after seeing the crucifix.
Soon the palace was lit up by the first light of dawn. As he began to flee,
Drakula scowled, ‘I hate the sunlight! It forces me away. But I shall see you
again, tonight!’
Drakula disappeared, and all the gates of the palace closed behind him.
Mary was left alone in the mysterious castle, and yet in every corner she could
still see Drakula’s satanic image grinning at her … She wanted to flee from
the terrible phantom, but her actions were all in vain … Drakula’s power pre-
vented her from escaping.
Hours of agony passed … Mary helplessly moved around in her prison …
She dragged her trembling limbs from one room to the next, in search of
some relief, but to no avail … The horrendous image of Drakula’s cruel, grin-
ning face seemed to be everywhere.
Evening was soon at hand … Mary ran down into the park of the palace …
Just as she did, the great gate opened with majesty and Drakula entered …
‘How kind of you to receive me!’ he said to the terrified maiden.
Drakula took Mary by her arm and led her through the palace. He told
her: ‘Go now, and dress for our marriage ceremony.’
Drakula then waved to his enslaved wives, who surrounded Mary and led
her into a beautiful, flowery room. Inside it was a wedding dress adorned with
gold, silver and priceless jewels. They dressed Mary, and when they had fin-
ished, Drakula’s newest bride was led into the great hall of the palace, where
the devil’s son was eagerly expecting her.
Drakula approached her, offering her a lustful smile. Deprived of her own
will, as if trapped in a dream, Mary yielded to the power of the satanic man.
‘You are welcome, my beautiful bride,’ Drakula flattered Mary. ‘We are
now celebrating a feast of joy, the eve of our nuptials!’
Shrill music was then heard … It was the loud, weird music of some devil-
ish wedding march, to which some strangely costumed ballerinas offered a
wanton dance. The whole palace was covered in a mystical light … Shocking
colours interchanged. A flash of colourful light appeared and then faded, only
to be followed by another flash of light. Drakula’s engagement feast was luxu-
rious, but strange.
‘After the rain of flowers, my kiss will unite us for ever!’ the bridegroom
said to the bride.
In the wake of these words, thousands and thousands of flowers fell from
the ceiling of the palace, like summer rain, covering the floor. Horrible, death-
like odours filled the enormous hall. Then, Drakula bent his head towards
Mary in order to bestow a kiss onto her lips. His mouth trembled from wild
desire, and he opened his arms to embrace her.
But at that very moment Mary pushed Drakula away, reached for the cross
hanging around her neck, and bravely revealed it to him, her eyes flashing as
she did.
‘The cross! … The cross!’ Drakula roared, shrinking back from the girl in
At the sight of the crucifix, the entire hall was seized with panic … Drakula
and all of the other evil spirits fled. Mary seized her opportunity. She rushed
through the castle gate and into the snowy night.
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Gary D. Rhodes
Mary fled from Drakula and the palace of hell, but her tired legs could not
take her very far. Fainting, she fell on some snowy ground beside a tree trunk;
the rays of dawn were just starting to shine upon her. Later that same morn-
ing, a nice family discovered her and took her back to their house so that she
could rest. However, they were unable to revive her.
Mary Land was unconscious, though a fever had taken control of her
mind. She was tormented by cruel, gruesome images. Drakula’s hellish face
never ceased grinning at her. His eerie eyes, his satanic features, and his ter-
rible hands seemed always ready to possess her. Those images danced in front
of her unconscious eyes.
‘No… no… Don’t hurt me!’ Sometimes a word or two escaped from
between her parched lips, causing Mary’s rescuers to watch her with great
‘We must call a doctor,’ the head of the household decided. ‘We won’t
learn anything from her until she regains consciousness. There might be
information we need to know before then.’ His younger brother then jour-
neyed into the town to call a doctor.
All the while, Mary’s agony persisted. She was tormented by nightmares
that seemed as if they might destroy her. In an effort to help ease her fever,
the family covered her burning forehead and face with snow.
Hours later, the room was almost silent. Only poor Mary’s panting could
be heard. But the quiet was broken when the door opened unexpectedly.
Mary’s rescuers saw a visitor clad in black standing at the threshold. It was
Drakula. The devilish creature made the family shudder in fear.
Outside the wind was howling and blowing snow into the room. Without
saying a word, Drakula closed the door behind him and quietly approached
Mary. He paid no attention to the family members staring with wonder at his
‘I am here because she requires medical help. Nothing else is more impor-
tant,’ Drakula informed the onlookers.
‘But who sent you?’ the head of the household asked. ‘How did you know
to come here? My brother has left to get a doctor from the town.’
Drakula chose not to answer. Instead, he approached the still-unconscious
Mary, looked at her briefly, and then said: ‘This young maiden is insane and
must have escaped from a mental asylum. She must be removed from here as
soon as possible. She is a threat to herself and those around her.’
Those standing nearby fell under the spell of Drakula’s powerful words.
An awkward silence followed. Drakula’s blazing eyes hypnotized the fam-
ily, who helplessly suffered as a result. Then it seemed as if he would never
remove his violet, flashing eyes from Mary’s poor body, which had become
more and more disturbed since Drakula’s arrival.
‘Don’t surrender me! Rescue me! Help …! He is killing me!’ she screamed,
trapped in a state of extreme terror. Then Drakula once again displayed his
cruel, hellish smile. With his arms crossed, he stood beside Mary while the
horrified family watched.
Then the head of the household’s brother arrived with a real doctor from
the town. ‘This doctor considers the young woman to be a dangerous maniac,’
the head of the household said to the real doctor.
After examining Mary, the real doctor turned to Drakula and said: ‘You
seem to be wrong, dear colleague. All I can perceive are wounds … and a
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Drakula halála (1921): The Cinema’s First Dracula
fever.’ Then he proceeded to say: ‘This seems to be quite an extraordinary
case! Whatever it is, I will remain here, in order to watch over her.’
Disgusted by the real doctor’s words, Drakula immediately disappeared
from the house.
Days passed … Mary struggled to regain her health and, after a week had
gone by, she was in much better form. She was cheerful again, as if noth-
ing had happened. In fact, she could hardly recall the horrible events that
had transpired. She just felt as if she had awoken from a terrible nightmare,
but one that she could hardly remember. The family continued to watch over
Mary as if she was one of their own relatives.
One day, after examining the little patient, the doctor happily announced:
‘Mary is definitely getting better. Soon she will be fully recovered!’
One night, when everyone in the household was sitting together, a man
arrived at their door. ‘You have been requested,’ he said to the surgeon.
‘Somebody has had an accident at the sports field! They are waiting for
‘Who are you?’ the doctor inquired.
‘I am a coachman,’ the man replied. ‘It is me who takes the hotel guests
to the train and back.’
‘But it is pitch dark outside,’ the doctor said with a concerned voice.
‘You need not be afraid, doctor! I know the road by heart, and my horse is
very reliable,’ the coachman said reassuringly.
The doctor understood his duty and left with the coachman. He promised
Mary and the others that he would return as soon as he had finished his work.
Outside the sky was pitch black and a heavy fog blanketed the landscape.
The snow crunched under the two men’s steps. The doctor took a seat inside
the little carriage; the coachman sat on the box, lashed the horses, and the
wooden frame was set into motion. The doctor turned back to look behind
them. The bright window of the little house became an increasingly distant
image as the carriage moved forward through the white snow.
The coachman drove faster and faster. The carriage seemed to fly on
wings, as the road it travelled over could not be seen. The blackness of night
and the thick fog seemed to hide everything. As he smoked his cigar during
the long journey, the doctor thought about Mary, and he rejoiced in the fact
that he had helped the blossoming young woman regain her life.
The carriage continued its journey, faster and faster, and the sound of the
horses suggested the sole hint of life in the otherwise desolate and mysterious
night. After a quarter of an hour had passed, the doctor asked the coachman,
‘Where are you headed?’
Perhaps the question escaped the coachman’s attention, or perhaps he
chose not to hear it, as he kept silent and continued to drive the horses. The
doctor was puzzled and so he asked even more loudly: ‘Where are you head-
ing? Where are you taking me? Stop!’ But this call, too, was lost in the night.
The doctor then felt his pockets; he had no weapon. He was now aware that
his guide was part of some cruel plan.
However, the doctor did not lose faith. Encouraged by a sense of urgency
and danger, the doctor once again raised his voice: ‘Tell me, will you, where
you are taking me? What is our destination?’
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Gary D. Rhodes
At that very moment, the little carriage reached a hazardous stretch of
road that ran alongside a deep abyss … Even a slight landslide would cause
the carriage to falls to its doom.
Realizing the risk they faced, the coachman admitted: ‘A strange man clad
in black gave me a gold coin and ordered me to bring you here, doctor.’
‘You miserable man! Turn back at once!’ the doctor said. ‘Our lives are in
The graveness of the situation and the doctor’s warning did not fail to
have an effect on the coachman who had been bribed by Drakula. He cau-
tiously turned the carriage around and took his passenger back to the home
where Mary now resided.
On the return journey, the doctor questioned the coachman further, but the
coachman was unable to give anything more than a vague description of his
employer. Nonetheless, his information was enough for the doctor to realize
that the man who bribed the coachman was the same ‘doctor’ that had been
at Mary’s sick bed. That man had suggested that Mary should go to a mental
institute as a ruse to kidnap her. However, all of this information was of limited
help, since the doctor did not know where the mysterious stranger lived.
Meanwhile, the family’s house was enshrouded by the deep silence of the
night. The whole family was asleep; only little Mary was restless … At about
midnight, Mary awoke to an odd, frightening sound … It was as if she heard
the ghost-like wail of an owl … Her entire body shuddered … She looked
around in the half-lit gloom of the house … Her eyes turned towards a dim
lamp … She looked for the source of the mysterious sounds, but she saw
nothing. Mary then sank back into her bed and tried to sleep.
The wind outside howled viciously, and so Mary was unable to close her
eyes. The dim light of the lamp cast strange images around the room, and
Mary believed she could see shadows flickering on a white wall.
Drakula invaded her thoughts …
The kind family and the good doctor had helped her forget about the hor-
rors of the past: its terrible memory had grown distant, but this horrible night
brought it back to the forefront of her mind.
‘To-whoo … To-whoo … To-whoo …’ Mary heard the hoots of an owl, but
she did not know whether she really heard it or if it was yet another dream …
And the dark shadows kept creeping around the room. Sweat beaded from
her forehead; her body was burning with fever. Overcome with distress and
terror, she tossed around in her bed.
Mary desperately tried to forget everything, keeping her eyes closed in
stubborn determination and pushing her head into the pillows. She wanted
sleep, nothing but sleep. Her lips murmured prayers, beseeching God to grant
her a deep and restful sleep.
Try as she might, her eyes would not close. On the contrary, no matter how
hard she tried, her eyelids remained open. ‘My God … don’t leave me!’ she
whispered, feeling that her fate was about to reach a terrible turning point.
Outside the wind howled more horribly than ever. It caused the windows
to shake with a vengeance. Mary felt she could hear countless cries echoed
in the roaring wind. The minutes passed slowly, which weighed on the poor
maiden as if they were hours.
Mary looked once again into the vanishing lamplight; the lamp crashed
down onto the floor, flames erupting in its wake, setting the carpet on fire and
spreading across the little room. Jumping out of her bed, Mary fled from the
sea of fire into the cold winter night …
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Drakula halála (1921): The Cinema’s First Dracula
As if pursued by something, she ran and ran through the night … She did
not feel the cold of the snow or the lashes of the icy wind. She just ran and
ran and ran …
At last the terrible nightmare ended.
Mary woke up and, with her frightened eyes, she looked around the oper-
ation room, where the snow-white furnishings and the operating table were
reminiscent of death. They had a ghastly effect on the poor creature, who had
just been freed from her terrible dream …
The red rays of the rising sun appeared. Nature was waking up, and the hos-
pital, too, with its wretched patients, was also coming to life. Looking worried,
Mary ran across the room. She raised her frail hand to stroke her forehead.
Shuddering, she remembered her awful experiences, but her soul cheered
up at the thought that they had only been a dream.
But then a terrible fear gripped her, and Mary began to worry once more.
Since she had entered the madhouse, so many bizarre things had happened:
the incident in the operation room and the cruel nightmare that seemed so
real. Her nerves began jumping, and her heart was beating heavily. Then she
heard a horrible sound that seemed to come from the asylum’s garden.
Remembering her poor father, who had lost his mind, Mary grew worried.
The icy hand of suspicion crept across her body. ‘What if … what if … if I
too … ?’ she shuddered.
At that moment, the door of the operation room began to creak open, but
Mary wasn’t strong enough to look at who entered.
Doctor Tillner’s morning rounds brought him to the operation room. Mary
was still lying on the couch. Her eyes were open, but she was too weak to get
up. The nurse standing beside her approached the doctor.
‘She must have had very horrible dreams. She was crying out all night,’
the nurse explained.
Doctor Tillner tenderly held the maiden. She was still shaking with fear
and distress. She was still frightened of the satanic Drakula …
‘What is it … what happened to me?’ Mary nervously asked the doctor.
‘Am I awake … or I am still trapped in that awful nightmare?’
‘Calm down, my dear,’ Tillner said to her. ‘It was just a dream. Please try
to forget about it.’
The mental patients had already gathered in the garden of the asylum. They
continued with their strange habits. The scientist feared for his ‘glass leg’,
but – acting as the ‘Minister of Finance’ – he continued to dole out checks.
Drakula, the one-time composer, gave a speech about his immortality to a
group of patients who quickly grew bored with him.
Among these living dead stood a heavyset little man who wore a tall,
pointed top hat. A pair of enormous spectacles weighed down on his thick
nose. His old, parchment-coloured face displayed a permanent smile, as if
he was forever caught in a distorted laugh. He never ceased making strange
jokes and was always playing pranks on his companions. He liked to fool the
others, though they were long used to his habits.
This morning, the ‘Funny Man,’ as he was nicknamed, had somehow
discovered a loaded revolver, which he began pointing at his panicked
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Gary D. Rhodes
companions. The armed madman then appeared before Drakula, pointed his
gun at him, and laughed with a distorted grin.
Drakula nearly erupted with joy, telling the Funny Man: ‘At last I can
prove that I am immortal! Shoot!’
Drakula’s voice boomed throughout the garden, causing the other patients
to gather.
Drakula then thundered: ‘What are you waiting for, you cowardly mon-
grel! All of you have always stared at me like fools, not believing in my
immortality. Now, come here all of you, gather around and witness the truth!
Drakula is safe from your bullets; they will not penetrate my body. Drakula
is immortal! Ha ha ha! Come … here … all of you! And you … raise your
The Funny Man nervously began to back away from Drakula.
‘No … I dare not do it … I dare not do it!’ – he said, slowly lowering the
‘So you are afraid? You coward! Shoot, as I command you to do! Here –
aim at my chest!’ Drakula shouted.
The terrified group that surrounded the two madmen surveyed the scene
with heightened interest. Then, obeying his stern command, the Funny Man
cocked the trigger of his pistol and fired …
The bullet hit Drakula in the heart and killed him at once. His blood
poured forth, staining the fresh snow with the colour red.
After the gun was fired, the terror-stricken patients scattered throughout
the garden. Within moments, Doctor Tillner and his assistants stood beside
Drakula’s body.
‘Drakula is dead,’ one of the assistants told the doctor after examining
him. ‘The Funny Man has killed him with a stolen gun.’
At the sight of his gruesome deed, the mad murderer was at first seized
with panic, but soon he began giggling once again. While the assistants tied
him up and took him back to his cell, the Funny Man’s face grew even more
disfigured by his insane laughter.
A sleigh stopped in front of the madhouse. Mary’s fiancé George climbed out
of it. After having waited in vain for his bride-to-be the previous night, he had
rushed to the city in order to find her and take her back home.
Overjoyed at the sight of George, Mary ran up to him, fell into his arms,
and then the two lovers shared a long kiss …
‘Thank God,’ the young man said with the sound of relief and happiness
in his voice. ‘At last we are reunited … I was so worried … so anxious that
something might have happened to you! … But please tell me, why didn’t you
come back last night? What kept you?’
A flood of questions poured out of George’s lips, but Mary did not have
the time or desire to answer them: Doctor Tillner was approaching. He bid
the young couple farewell, and they set out across the garden to leave the
hospital. As they were walking arm in arm, they came across two assistants
who were carrying Drakula’s corpse on a stretcher. When the procession
passed in front of her, Mary caught sight of Drakula’s formidable face, which
caused her even more fright than when he was alive. Nearly fainting, she
drew close to George. Not knowing about her horrible dream, George was
puzzled by her reaction.
HOST 1.1_art_ Rhodes_025-048.indd 46 12/30/09 8:42:22 AM
Drakula halála (1921): The Cinema’s First Dracula
The assistants carried Drakula away. As they did, a notebook dropped out
of his pocket. George picked it up and examined the cover:
Glimpsing the title and growing even more frightened, Mary demanded:
‘Throw it away at once! I don’t want to look at it! This man was the cause of
my terrible dream!’
George followed her wishes. He threw the diary away, took Mary by the
arm, and then helped her into his sleigh. Its little wooden frame then carried
the lovers back home, back to happiness and to bliss.
During the journey, George repeatedly tried to get Mary to talk, but her
lips remained sealed. She did not tell him a single word about the agony she
had endured because of the terrible dream. George would not learn what
had happened. Realizing she wished to remain silent, he never spoke of the
bizarre incident again.
The End
Translation copyright Gary D. Rhodes, 2009
Drakula – Károly Lajthay’s Latest Film (1921), Képes Mozivilág, 16 January,
p. 21.
Farkas, J. (1997), ‘Nosferatu Elött: A Magyar Drakula’, Filmvilág, 12: December,
pp. 34–37.
Hungarian Film Directors in Vienna (1920), Színházi Élet, No. 52, unpaginated.
I Attended a Wedding (1921), Színház és Mozi, January, p. 26–27.
Rhodes, G. D. (2010), ‘Drakula halála (1921): The Cinema’s First Dracula, Horror
Studies 1: 1, pp. 25–47, doi: 10.1386/host.1.1.25/1
Gary D. Rhodes is a Lecturer at The Queen’s University in Belfast, Northern
Ireland. He is the author of such books as Lugosi (McFarland, 1997), White
Zombie: Anatomy of a Horror Film (McFarland, 2002), and Alma Rubens,
Silent Snowbird (McFarland, 2006), as well as the editor of such antholo-
gies as Horror at the Drive-In (McFarland, 2001), Edgar G. Ulmer: Detour on
Poverty Row (Lexington, 2008), and The Films of Joseph H. Lewis (Wayne State
University, 2010-pending). Rhodes is also the writer-director of such docu-
mentary films as Fiddlin’ Man: The Life and Times of Bob Wills (1994), Chair
(2000), and Banned in Oklahoma (2004). Currently, he is working on a book
about the early history of the American horror film to 1915.
E-mail: g.rhodes@qub.ac.uk
HOST 1.1_art_ Rhodes_025-048.indd 47 12/30/09 8:42:22 AM
Transnational Cinemas
ISSN 2040-3550 (2 issues | Volume 1, 2010)
Aims and Scope
Transnational Cinemas has emerged in response to a shift in global film cultures
and how we understand them. Dynamic new industrial and textual practices are
being established throughout the world and the academic community is responding.
Our journal aims to break down traditional geographical divisions and welcomes
submissions that reflect the changing nature of global filmmaking.
Call for Papers
Transnational Cinemas covers a vast and diverse range of film related subjects. It
provides a new and exciting forum for disseminating research. The editors are seeking
articles, interviews, visual essays, reports on film festivals and conferences. Articles
should be up to 6,000 words in length and should be written in English, with all
quotations translated.
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HOST 1.1_art_ Rhodes_025-048.indd 48 12/30/09 8:42:22 AM
HOST 1 (1) pp. 49–71 Intellect Limited 2010
Horror Studies
Volume 1 Number 1
© 2010 Intellect Ltd Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/host.1.1.49/1
classic horror cinema
werewolf films
Werewolf of London
queer studies
gender studies
gender inversion
Case Western Reserve University
Strange Botany in
Werewolf of London
Werewolf of London (Walker, 1935) depicts a man struggling, unsuccessfully, to
control urges that would make him an outlaw in society at large and especially, the
film makes clear, in his already troubled marriage. The film transforms the were-
wolf legend (in large measure by infusing it with liberal doses of botany) to create a
portrait of a werewolf as a gay man, to represent homosexuality as a form of gender
inversion, and to explore the horrors of being a gay man living in a violently repres-
sive society.
As for the sudden and uncalled-for revival of the genre at the moment, it
can only be explained as further evidence of Hollywood’s determination to
leave no closet door untried during its present period of embarrassment.
William Troy, ‘Through the Closet Door,’ Review of
Werewolf of London, The Nation, 29 May 1935
Where shall I begin my tale?
This one has neither beginning nor end, but only a perpetual unfolding,
a multi-petaled blossom of strange botany.
Guy Endore, The Werewolf of Paris, 1933
Werewolf of London (Walker, 1935) has always stood in one shadow or another.
When it was first released, the film opened within days of both Mark of the
HOST 1.1_art_Spadoni_049-072.indd 49 1/2/10 12:12:35 PM
Robert Spadoni
1. In New York, a 7 May
preview of Werewolf of
London (hereafter WWL)
was followed, on 8
May, by the opening of
Bride (Anon. 1935a).
Mark of the Vampire
opened on 2 May (Senn
1996: 264).
2. A typical comparison
in which WWL pales
alongside The Wolf
Man is in Brunas et al.
1990: 133.
3. For example, of the four
films mentioned above,
Benshoff writes the least
about WWL (1997:
39–51, 59, 77–81,
89); Berenstein writes
about gay subtexts in
The Old Dark House,
Bride, and Dracula’s
Daughter (1996:
24–28, 85–87, 122,
135–36, 142–47);
and Skal mentions them
in Bride and Dracula’s
Daughter (2001:
184–85, 199–200). A
recent exception to the
trend is Peirse, which
contains a chapter titled
‘Homosocial Desire
and the Male Body
in Pieces: Masochistic
Looking Relations in
Werewolf of London’
(2007: 148–88).
Another to give WWL
serious consideration,
Reynold Humphries,
sees the film’s subtext
dealing primarily with
incest (2006: 29–30,
4. Colton’s homosexuality
is mentioned in Mann
2001: 207; Brunas et
al. 1990: 125; Vieira
2003: 79; Madsen
1995: 12, 52; and
Hanke 1999: 30.
5. Throughout this essay,
quoted dialogue refers to
the film unless I indicate
that it comes from the
Vampire (Browning, 1935) and the much anticipated Bride of Frankenstein
(Whale, 1935).
Then, six years later, The Wolf Man (Waggner, 1941) turned
Universal’s first try at a werewolf film into a list for checking off everything
the studio got right the second time around.
A more recent shadow has been
cast by other classic horror films, including The Old Dark House (Whale, 1932),
Bride of Frankenstein, and Dracula’s Daughter (Hillyer, 1936), which seem to
have more interesting gay subtexts than Werewolf of London does.
One rea-
son for the critical neglect of this dimension of the film, I believe, is that it is
in many ways so obvious. Not all aspects of the gay subtext, however, are easy
to spot. Subtly, the film resonates with an influential theory of homosexuality,
circulating in 1935 and earlier, which saw homosexuality as a form of gen-
der inversion. Looking at the film alongside its screenplay, by gay playwright
and screenwriter John Colton, reveals how this nearly explicitly queer were-
wolf film also invites its viewers to ‘look below its surface’ to an extraordinary
To do so is to see a film that challenges narrow and restrictive defini-
tions of what it means to be normal and human, and a film that, with deep
ambivalence, makes a plea for locating gay men within both these categories
by construing its main character’s condition as a natural variation along a con-
tinuum that includes us all.
To his botanical gardens comes Dr. Yogami, a strange Oriental, in whom
Glendon recognizes something strangely familiar. As it is quickly real-
ized that Yogami is a werewolf, one of Glendon’s buds develops.
‘The Werewolf of London,’ Motion Picture Herald, 4 May 1935
Even a brief summary of the plot begins to make clear the overtness of the
film’s gay subtext. Werewolf of London (hereafter WWL) opens with Wilfred
Glendon (Henry Hull) hiking through the wilds of Tibet in search of the
Mariphasa Lupino Lumino, a rare plant that blooms only by moonlight. At the
moment he finds the plant, he is attacked and bitten by a wolf-like creature.
He returns to London, where he meets Dr. Yogami (Warner Oland), another
botanist who, he tells Glendon, in wolf form bit him back in Tibet. Yogami
explains that he needs Glendon’s Mariphasa plant, the juices of which can
be used to counteract ‘werewolfery’. Glendon refuses Yogami’s request, and
he refuses to believe in werewolves until he himself transforms and takes his
first victim. Meanwhile, Glendon wife, Lisa (Valerie Hobson), has become
reacquainted with her childhood sweetheart Paul (Lester Matthews), who still
loves her and who senses her unhappiness in her marriage. At the climax,
Glendon transforms, kills Yogami, and nearly kills Lisa before being fatally
shot. The film ends with Lisa and Paul flying to California to begin their new
life together.
If this story outline suggests that Glendon is drawn into an outlaw lifestyle
by the same-sex, same-profession, same-curse character of Yogami, while
Lisa finds her far more conventional ideal partner in Paul, a closer look at
the film reveals how much farther it goes to equate Glendon’s and Yogami’s
curse with homosexuality. Not-so-subtle signs of this equation include when
Glendon, attacking Paul, appears to mount him from behind; and loaded dia-
logue exchanges, such as when Glendon asks Yogami, ‘Have we met before,
sir?’ and Yogami replies, ‘In Tibet, once, but only for a moment, in the dark.’

The reply is made to seem more suggestive by Warner Oland’s pause before
HOST 1.1_art_Spadoni_049-072.indd 50 12/30/09 8:44:19 AM
Strange Botany in Werewolf of London
6. On the intimacy these
characters share, see
Hanke 1999: 33. On
this scene’s homosexual
undertones, see Peirse
2007: 158–61, where
she notes how closely
together they stand
(2007: 160).
7. ‘B-6’ denotes shot B-6.
8. At one point in the
screenplay, Yogami calls
it ‘lycanthropia’ (Colton
1935: I-5). No one calls
it this in the film.
‘in the dark’ and by the heavy emphasis he lays on those words. As these two
characters, who have just met, converse, they stand so closely together that
their bellies appear to be touching; and when their conversation ends, Yogami
grasps Glendon’s sleeve and strokes the spot where both know the scar of the
bite lies hidden.
The characters’ encounters, laden with a tension that is eas-
ily read as sexual in nature, contrast Glendon’s interactions with Lisa, which
are always strained and uncomfortable. As one reviewer, Glenn Erikson, who
finds the gay subtext impossible to miss, writes: Glendon’s ‘unholy bond with
the mysterious Dr. Yogami completely overwhelms his jealous/indifferent
relationship with his unfulfilled wife. Together, he and Yogami share “secrets”
unacceptable to the police and society at large’ (Erikson 2001). Colton writes
in his screenplay that running between the husband and wife is ‘an undercur-
rent of frustration and anxiety which cannot be entirely identified as either’
(Colton 1935: B-6).
One senses this undercurrent in every scene the char-
acters share, and in ones where Lisa, apart from Glendon, frets about her
increasingly remote husband.
If WWL seems in places to be wearing its queerness on its sleeve, in oth-
ers the film presents itself as a textual surface that hides as much as it reveals.
Take the names and attributes of certain key elements in the story, starting with
Glendon’s and Yogami’s condition. Yogami refers to it as ‘werewolfery’ one
moment and as ‘lycanthrophobia’ the next. The second name struck The Nation
reviewer as fanciful enough to report (inaccurately) that Glendon ‘contracts
a very bad case of what will hereafter be known to all film patrons as lycan-
thropia’ (Troy 1935).
The Los Angeles Times noted that Universal ‘invented two
new words for lycanthropy’ (Scheuer 1935). Variety gamely invented a third
name when it wrote that Glendon is ‘afflicted with lycanthrophobia (slang for
werewolfitis)’ (Bige. 1935). Such comments suggest that these names could
seem excessive both in number and in important-sounding syllables, that they
could be interpreted as signs that the film is trying too hard to sell its premise
and legitimize its dramatic action with an air of scientific validity, and that they
could have the opposite effect, which is to make Glendon’s condition seem,
even for a werewolf film, lightweight, arbitrary, and made up.
A similar impression is made by the name of the rare plant at the story’s cen-
tre. In the space of an inch, Colton calls it the ‘maraphasa’ and the ‘Mariphasa’
(Colton 1935: C-1 and C-2). Glendon calls it, in the screenplay, the ‘mariphasa
lumino lupino’ (Colton 1935: A-21), but Henry Hull, when he says this line,
calls it the ‘mariphasa lupino lumino’. Yogami at one point refers to it as the
‘mariphasa lumina lupina’: you can see Oland hesitate for a moment as he strug-
gles and fails to get the line right. Writers on the film over the years have been
no more careful. Variations include ‘mariphasa Lupino lumino’ (Gifford 1973:
115), ‘Marifasa Lupina’ (Clarens 1997: 77), ‘mariphaisa lumia lupina’ (Senn 1996:
288), ‘Marifesa lupina lumina’ (Benshoff 1997: 47), and ‘merefesa’ (Douglas
1966: 80). Arguably, the film encourages us to view this plant as a flimsy substi-
tute for something more substantial when Lisa’s aunt, Ettie Coombes (Spring
Byington), remarks that ‘only God can make a daffodil,’ and Glendon says, ‘The
poet said, “Only God can make a tree,” Aunt Ettie.’
Also manifesting a suspicious arbitrariness is Yogami’s race and ethnic-
ity. Writers have called him a ‘strange Oriental’ (Anon. 1935b: 39), a ‘Hindu
Botanist’ (McDermid 1935), a ‘Japanese scientist’ (Aylesworth 1972: 61),
and a ‘gypsy doctor’ (Douglas 1992: 248). What is the country of origin of
this character with the Japanese-sounding name, played by a Swedish actor
best known, in 1935, for playing Fu Manchu and Charlie Chan – and who,
HOST 1.1_art_Spadoni_049-072.indd 51 12/30/09 8:44:19 AM
Robert Spadoni
9. Yu in The Painted Veil
(Boleslawski, 1934),
Achmed in Bulldog
Drummond Strikes Back
(Del Ruth, 1934), Lomi
in As Husbands Go
(McFadden, 1934).
in 1934 alone, played characters named ‘General Yu’, ‘Prince Achmed’, and
‘Hippolitus Lomi’?
Clarifying nothing is the institution where the doctor cur-
rently holds a position: the University of Carpathia. Ettie gives voice to doubts
about the real significance of this character’s surface attributes when she calls
him, three times, ‘Dr. Yokohama’.
Making the outward appearances of these elements seem still more insub-
stantial, unstable, and beside the point is the ease with which one can evoke
another – even when they are supposed to be opposites. Consider the moon,
the Mariphasa, and the werewolf. The plant, like a man marked with the
werewolf curse, thrives under moonlight, and both react to the moon with
moment-by-moment sensitivity. In the screenplay, the blossoms shimmer
when the moon is out and appear dull when it is obscured by clouds (Colton
1935: A-39). In the film, in his lab, Glendon’s hand falls under a lamp pro-
ducing artificial moonlight and hair instantly sprouts there. The screenplay
describes a moment when the ‘moon goes behind a cloud and Yogami-wolf
seems to turn into hairy man’ (Colton 1935: A-48).
Werewolf and plant mirror each other in other ways as well. Right after the
attack in Tibet, according to the screenplay, ‘some of the flowers have fallen
from the plant. They are dull and lifeless but as the moon comes from behind
a cloud they glow like cut crystal. Glendon’s hand reaches for them. His arm
is torn and bleeding’ (Colton 1935: A-50). Stressed here is the simultaneous
woundedness of the plant and man. The film encourages us to read one as
an analogue of the other – and draws Yogami into the equation – when, in
Tibet, Yogami-wolf and Glendon struggle and the flower, in the foreground
of the shot, overlays them both. The producers strengthened the Mariphasa-
werewolf link when, to save money, they reduced the number of plants in the
Tibetan valley from many, as Colton envisioned, to one (Seymour 1995: C8).
Now the incredibly rare plant calls to mind the fugitive Glendon’s feelings
when, asked by the innkeeper, Mrs Moncaster (Zeffie Tilbury), if he is single,
he replies, ‘Singularly single, Madame. More single than I ever realized it pos-
sible for a human being to be.’
Pointing to another way the cursed man and the curse’s antidote mir-
ror each other is a book in Glendon’s study which states that ‘unless this
rare flower is used the werewolf must kill at least one human being each
night of the full moon or become permanently afflicted.’ The flower, then,
must be administered or the werewolf must kill. The flower can prevent
a transformation – but the signal activity of the werewolf, killing, has a
preventative power as well. Colton also rhymes the means of contracting
werewolfism with one of the two for staving it off. During the climactic
fight between Glendon and Yogami-wolf: ‘Both men rush to secure the
flower. Glendon grabs it, tearing it off stem … tries to pierce his wrist with
thorn. Yogami bites him, causing Glendon to drop flower’ (Colton 1935:
I-65 – 66). Catch the disease with a bite, treat it with a pierce: this is one
treatment. The other, the kill, does not resemble – but is identical to – the
most horrible manifestation of Glendon’s disease.
Reflecting on the exigencies of the narrative does not turn up easy expla-
nations for why the werewolf and the plant should share so many qualities.
As the perplexed reviewer in The Nation wrote:
It can be seen that one of the difficulties with this particular descent into
the night-soul is that the machinery of the occult and the quasi-scientific
which it is necessary to build up is somewhat more than the average
HOST 1.1_art_Spadoni_049-072.indd 52 12/30/09 8:44:19 AM
Strange Botany in Werewolf of London
mind can follow with any degree of ease. It is not clear, for example,
exactly why both the disease and the flower which is its antidote have a
preference for the full moon.
(Troy 1935)
One way to start to answer this question is to look back into the werewolf lore
and fiction, where one finds a tradition of flowers not relieving the disease
but causing it (O’Donnell [1912] 1996: 174, 175; Frost 2003: 112–13). In WWL,
then, the werewolf, moon, and Mariphasa form a tightly bound triad, one
we can see inscribed in the plant name’s evocation of the other two terms:
moonlight (lumino) and wolf (lupino). ‘Lumino’ and ‘lupino’, the same but for
a letter, threaten to change places at any moment, and indeed they do more
than once in the course of the film.
Made-up sounding names, and similarities that make supposedly dis-
tinct and separate entities seem about to collapse into each another, sup-
port impressions of these entities as arbitrary and interchangeable, merely
placeholders. One should hesitate before taking anything in this film at
face value. Inspiring the same cautiousness is the pronounced tendency of
characters in the film and screenplay to be urbanely witty. They routinely
say things that can be taken two or more ways, sometimes without the
speaker’s awareness. Leading this trend is Ettie Coombes. In the screen-
play, she jokes at the soirée she hosts: ‘I want to warn everybody to be
careful who they murder here tonight – ha ha ha – we have with us no less a
person than Colonel Sir Thomas Forsythe, Chief of the Metropolitan police
of Scotland Yard’ (Colton 1935: D-32, emphasis original). This night,
Glendon-wolf will nearly kill Ettie in her bed, and when she says this
line, we have already seen him transform. Viewers are in on this second
meaning – as most are when, unhappy at having to dress up and entertain
guests, Glendon tells his wife with mock seriousness, ‘I’ll not only divorce
you but I’ll beat you as well if ever again you get me mixed up in a mess
like this.’ Viewers not yet suspecting that Glendon will pose a threat to
Lisa later learn, from Yogami, that ‘the werewolf instinctively seeks to kill
the thing it loves best.’
Characters wrap sentiments in cleverly metaphorical and hyperbolic lan-
guage. At the Glendon garden party, Ettie quips to Lisa that ‘marrying any
man is risky. Marrying a famous man is kissing catastrophe!’ It is not enough
merely to court catastrophe. Spicing up the language makes it more sugges-
tive – with the suggestion here being that the ‘catastrophe’ of Lisa’s marriage
has a sexual basis: an impression reinforced by the icy and forlorn distance
between the two, evident, for example, in Lisa’s limp-armed unresponsive-
ness when Glendon embraces and kisses her. Other statements announce
their second meanings more quietly. When Paul, pretending to be angry at
Lisa for stepping on a party guest’s train, warns, ‘I shall take you home in a
minute!’ we know that both characters would like nothing more than for Paul
to make good on his threat.
Alerted to the prevalence of these two-edged statements, we can spot
them at less happy moments, such as when Lisa, in the screenplay, tells
Glendon, ‘You’re disagreeable to me now – you never used to be’ (Colton
1935: E-11). Is Lisa saying that Wilfred’s behaviour has changed or is she talk-
ing about a change in her own feelings toward her husband? The film wipes
out this ambiguity when, instead, she says, ‘You’re short-tempered with me
now. You never used to be.’ Another exchange, just in the screenplay, invites
HOST 1.1_art_Spadoni_049-072.indd 53 12/30/09 8:44:19 AM
Robert Spadoni
10. On the emphasis on
‘orality’ (through biting
and the Madagascar
Carnalia plant),
and throats (through
strangling), and its
connection to the film’s
homosocial themes,
see Peirse 2007: 151,
157, 166, 182.
11. In the film, Glendon
asks Lisa if she’s in
that mood, and Ettie
holds a strawberry,
but the talk about
asking nothing more
of life is in connection
with Paul owning his
own flying school, not
strawberries or tragedies
of consummation.
us to wonder about the real reason for Glendon’s social discomfort and his
far-flung excursions. He chats with a party guest:
Miss Charteris: What an interesting life you must lead, Doctor Glendon
… Madagascar, Kamaschatcha, Java, Thibet!
Glendon (miserably): It has its theres and heres.
Miss Charteris (coquettishly): Which do you enjoy the most? The theres
or heres?
(Colton 1935: B-24)
Glendon, whom we saw in Tibet ‘fired with the hope of success for his search’
(Colton 1935: A-24), the ‘fanatic light of the collector’s mania’ (Colton 1935:
A-26) in his eye, clearly prefers the theres. There, far from Lisa, he searches
for a flower and grapples with a man-wolf on the ground – in an encounter
Colton telegraphically and suggestively describes as ‘wolf and man blend in
weird tangle’ (Colton 1935: A-43).
The characters’ double talk discloses motifs that suggest that Colton, far from
merely encouraging viewers to look below the surface, is working through a
systematic, hidden agenda. One pattern is initiated at the garden party, when
Ettie says, ‘I must have my tea, quick. My tongue is hanging out.’ This motif,
elaborated more extensively in the screenplay than in the film, equates food (and
drink) with sex, and signals a desire for the latter with expressions of hunger (and
thirst) for the former.
At the party, Colton writes, Ettie ‘immediately descends
on the huge bowl of strawberries on the center of the tea table’ (Colton 1935:
B-28). When Lisa says, ‘Wilfred – you aren’t eating any strawberries! – They’re
the first of the season – Didn’t you tell me how once in Thibet the thing you
wanted most in the world was an English Strawberry?’ Ettie interjects, ‘Wanting
is the comedy of life – consummation the tragedy!’ following which she ‘pops
a strawberry into her mouth’ (Colton 1935: B-32). The overloaded dialogue
continues when, amid the talk of tragedy, strawberries, and wanting nothing
more from life, Glendon, watching Lisa and Paul together, asks, ‘Are you in that
mood, Lisa?’ (Colton 1935: B-33, emphasis original). Ettie says, ‘Anyway – I’m
in that mood – it’s all these flowers – everywhere!’ (Colton 1935: B-34, empha-
sis original).
In the screenplay, Ettie says of Yogami, with whom she will later
attempt to flirt, ‘What a perfectly delicious man!’ (Colton 1935: C-23).
Glendon refrains from eating perhaps because he fears to, or maybe
because he craves something more ‘exotic’ than an English strawberry. He
will later try to suppress his burgeoning hunger through abstinence. Near the
end of the film, he tells the servant Timothy (Reginald Barlow) to lock him up
in the Monk’s Rest, a room at the top of a tower on Lisa’s family estate. When
Timothy, in the screenplay, asks, ‘Are you sure I can’t bring you some sup-
per?’ Glendon answers, ‘Not a thing’ (Colton 1935: I-17). In both the film and
screenplay, he refuses a bed. Glendon’s strategy of self-denial will fail when
he rushes headlong into the tragedy of consummation prophesied by Ettie.
Food stands in for another sort of indulgence, and werewolfism stands in
for another sort of ‘disease.’ Encouragement not to take Glendon’s condition
at its face value comes in the form of another motif. Lisa makes an excuse
for a drunk, giggling Ettie, saying, ‘My aunt is feeling a little ill.’ A patrolman
explains that upon hearing a scream, he ‘took off as fast as anybody could that
was suffering from broken arches.’ When Paul asks about Lisa’s sullenness,
she says, ‘I have a toothache today. I never seem to be able to rise above a
toothache. It makes me want to howl, break things, pull noses, tweak ears,
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Strange Botany in Werewolf of London
12. For a drawing of the
original design, see Riley
1993: 44.
13. On communications
between the Breen
Office and Universal on
WWL, see Worland
2007: 124–25; and
Skal 2001: 194.
screech!’ Paul replies, ‘It isn’t toothache that’s troubling you today.’ Viewers,
like Paul, see through Lisa’s sham malady, and Colton cloaks her malaise in
wolf-like behaviour to lead viewers to the larger point, which is that Glendon’s
malady, too, is only a surface condition.
We are thus invited to view WWL as an exceedingly interpretable text. Aspects
of the film’s production history encourage the same, for changes were ordered
during production that acted to warp and disguise elements that Universal, or the
Breen Office (Hollywood’s self-censoring organ), deemed too potentially objec-
tionable to risk. For example, Jack Pierce’s werewolf make-up design, close to
the one that would be used for The Wolf Man, was scaled back to the not-very-
hairy design seen in the film (Brunas et al. 1990: 132).
Also, the studio reshot
the prologue to include a missionary telling Glendon and his travelling partner,
Hugh Renwick (Clark Williams), before they enter the valley, that ‘there are some
things it is better not to bother with’ – an addition, a Breen Office memo indi-
cates, meant ‘to introduce a morality note of sorts’ (Stuart 1935). Further, two
lines were cut that, Breen claimed, referred to British dirty jokes (Breen 1935). And
Glendon’s first victim was changed from a prostitute to a beggar woman (Stuart
But these covered-over bits can have a way of ‘poking through’ the fin-
ished film. Glendon’s first victim, for example, has not struck every viewer as a
beggar by profession. Producer Robert Harris laboriously explained to Breen that
the girl, being of the lower class, is wearing a skirt which is not too
lengthy, possibly having shrunk when she herself washed it, being quite
without money to send it to be regularly cleaned, and carried a handbag
such as is carried by millions of respectable women today, large enough
to hold the miscellaneous vanities which women carry today.
(Breen 1935; and see Humphries 2006: 57–58)
Viewers without access to Harris’s explanation have been free to draw differ-
ent conclusions. One writer, for example, refers to the scene where the were-
wolf ‘kills a prostitute’ (Douglas 1966: 81).
Other camouflaged elements can raise bulging blank spots on the filmic
text. I will argue that the Mariphasa stands in for a love that dares not speak
its name. Sometimes the name of this surrogate item itself dares not be spo-
ken, such as when a character inquires, ‘And where shall I get this … posy?’
On hearing Yogami’s description of a werewolf, Glendon asks, ‘How did
these unfortunate gentlemen contract this, uh, this medieval unpleasantness?’
These substitutions push the film’s hidden subject to a second remove – the
equivalent of handling this subject with kid gloves pulled over kid gloves.
Another moment marked by the unsaid comes just before Glendon enters
the Monk’s Rest. He tells Timothy, ‘Miss Lisa and I miss the old times, too.’
Then, Colton indicates, Glendon ‘smiles at Timothy as though to say, “Now
do you understand?”’ (Colton 1935: I-12) As Timothy has no knowledge of
Glendon’s affliction, it is not clear what he might now understand. More of
the unsaid percolates underneath this exchange, which appears in the film,
minus Glendon’s question, virtually as Colton describes it:
Yogami stops, regards Glendon with his strange melancholy eyes –
Yogami: Remember this, Glendon – the werewolf always seeks first to
kill the thing it loves best …
As the two men measure each other … Glendon asks, trying to make
his voice casual –
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Robert Spadoni
14. On werewolves and
boundary crossings,
including between
animals and humans,
nature and culture,
and masculinity and
femininity, see Bourgault
du Coudray 2006; and
Creed 2005: 124–52.
Glendon: Er – by the way – how would an afflicted person apply this
blossom to ensure ‘normalcy?’
(Colton 1935: C-25)
Why put ‘normalcy’ in quotes? Had Colton gone further than he did, he might
have put ‘werewolf’ in quotes, too.
Looking in this film’s margins, at what appears in it only in disguised and
fragmentary forms, becomes a necessary strategy (and one with the screen-
play at its centre) for understanding how the film engages contemporaneous
debates over whether homosexuality is an immoral lifestyle choice or some-
thing that no person chooses; and whether it is an abominable condition or a
perfectly normal variation along the human spectrum.
Mother God Damn: To-night we dip into the darkness, eh?
Charteris: Yes – to find our devils!
Mother God Damn: My foxes, your badgers; my wolves, your dogs; my
wasps, your spiders; my wild cats, your swine; we
start all the insects, all the animals in both of us –
fighting, howling, snarling, in the black night you
John Colton, The Shanghai Gesture: A Play, 1926
Lady Stevens: You’re in love. Well, what could be more natural?
An African moon, two healthy young animals –
Ronald: Oh, stop it!
The Invisible Ray (Hillyer 1936),
screenplay by John Colton
One way to begin to piece together the film’s reflection on these debates is
to return to the moon/wolf/Mariphasa cluster and, singling out the moon,
note that it comes to the film loaded with romantic associations. These the
film foregrounds when Ettie, flirting with an uninterested Yogami, asks,
‘Don’t you just love moonlight?’ and when Lisa, after Glendon begs her to
return from her ride with Paul before the moon rises, replies, ‘I shall ride
tonight, tomorrow night, and the next night, in fact every night there’s a
moon. Come, Paul.’ Or we could start with the Mariphasa, which Harry
Benshoff calls ‘the key signifier of the homoerotic male couple’s lycan-
thropy in Werewolf of London’ (Benshoff 1997: 47) – or with Glendon’s
occupation as an overreaching scientist, a stock character in horror films
but a relatively rare one in the werewolf sub-genre. Colton calls Glendon
‘a man of great power and determination, a thinker, a discoverer’ (Colton
1935: A-8). For Benshoff, Hollywood horror films sometimes use science
‘to suggest that “normality” needs to update its thinking on queer matters’
(Benshoff 1997: 39).
If WWL features – like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Mamoulian, 1931) and
Frankenstein (Whale, 1931) – a scientist who goes too far, it is arguably bet-
ter suited than these other ‘mad scientist’ films to explore ideas about cross-
ing boundaries, and this is crucial for understanding the film’s gay subtext.
WWL goes further than other horror films in this regard partly because the
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Strange Botany in Werewolf of London
14. On werewolves and
boundary crossings,
including between
animals and humans,
nature and culture,
and masculinity and
femininity, see Bourgault
du Coudray 2006; and
Creed 2005: 124–52.
15. The association of
werewolves with plants,
and the transgressive
qualities of plants seen in
the film, are discussed in
Peirse 2007: 157–58.
werewolf legend supplies Colton with a rich array of tropes with which to
Moreover, if transgressing and dissolving traditionally construed
boundaries, such as between humans and animals, is something that virtu-
ally any werewolf film can claim to do, WWL stands out within the sub-
genre by attacking these distinctions especially forcefully. One way the film
does this is by making its two werewolves botanists, thus drawing plants
into the mix.
WWL demonstrates a strong preoccupation with the question of what it
means to be human. The film considers, but ultimately rejects, constrictive
definitions. Glendon promises his disappointed wife, ‘As soon as I’ve com-
pleted that experiment, I’ll try to be more … well, more human.’ She light-
heartedly replies, ‘It isn’t in you,’ then goes on to suggest that one definition
of ‘being human’ is to be a good spouse: ‘Ever since you came back from
Tibet, I have had a feeling you were planning to divorce me and marry your
laboratory.’ Lisa would narrow the sense of what it means to be human: other
characters seem intent to broaden and problematize it. In the screenplay,
Renwick remarks that ‘man’s a funny little animal, isn’t he?’ (Colton 1935:
A-29), suggesting that humans should be included in the animal category
rather than set off against it. Here is one boundary blurred. Another bound-
ary, this one between animals and plants, blurs when the film shows a Venus
flytrap in action.
The film’s most striking challenge to the separateness of
the animal and plant kingdoms comes in the form of the giant, carnivorous
Madagascar Carnalia that Glendon keeps in his greenhouse. At one point,
Yogami remarks that the Madagascar ‘makes one wonder just where the plant
world leaves off and the animal world begins.’
Further complicating both human/animal and animal/plant distinc-
tions is Glendon’s head gardener, Hawkins (J. M. Kerrigan). Uneasy about
Glendon’s Mariphasa specimen, he says, ‘I got a feeling that mariphasy ain’t
a human plant, sir.’ That Hawkins can find some plants ‘human’ indicates
that he is not working with a literal definition of the term. How can a plant
be human? The screenplay gives an answer, and suggests that Hawkins is
wrong about the Mariphasa, when Yogami, trying to revive the specimen,
‘injects a darkish fluid into the soul of the plant’ (Colton 1935: I-59). Is the
common element a soul? A less ethereal possibility is put forward by Yogami
when, in the screenplay, he tells Glendon that ‘there is enough blood in that
flower to save us both if it blooms in time’ (Colton 1935: I-62). The plant has
a soul, and blood – and even a voice: when Yogami crushes the plant, ‘The
flower dies with an agonizing cry. A ray of moonlight shoots from the dead
flower to the moon … the soul of the flower returned to its final resting
place’ (Colton 1935: I-70).
These touches, absent in the film and perhaps too esoteric to be seriously
considered by a Hollywood studio trying to turn out a horror picture, suggest
that Colton is sorting through a coherent set of ideas. The servant Hawkins
has probed less deeply into life’s mysteries than his intrepid master. Glendon
stands on a vanguard – while Hawkins, no trekking botanist but a mere head
gardener, trudges somewhere behind. Yogami, meanwhile, is, if anywhere,
ahead of Glendon. To a guest who, agape at the Madagascar, exclaims, ‘Heretic!
Bringing a beastly thing like that into Christian England!’ Yogami coolly replies
that ‘nature is very tolerant, sir. She has no creeds.’ A moment later he muses
that ‘evolution was in a strange mood when that creation came along.’
Yogami is at ease with these strange plants inhabiting his world. The
film implies that Yogami and Glendon belong on one side of a divide, and
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Robert Spadoni
16. Humphries finds Yogami
‘vaguely “effete”
and “nonvirile” in
appearance, talk, and
behavior’ (2006: 64).
Hawkins belongs on the other, by making the pair scientists – and were-
wolves, creatures closely aligned with the night and with things noctur-
nal (especially in this film, where they have so much in common with a
moon-plant) – while Hawkins’s name implies that he is a creature of the day,
since hawks are diurnal animals. His antipodal nature to theirs would explain
why, when Glendon, in the screenplay, referring to his experiments with the
moon-lamp and the Mariphasa, asks, ‘You don’t approve of this, Hawkins?’
the servant – called by Colton ‘the personification of disapproval’ – answers,
‘It’s all kind o’ creepy o’ to me, sir’ (Colton 1935: C-3 – C-4).
But just as between humans and animals, and animals and plants, a sense
of a clear-cut distinction between the servant and his master cannot be sus-
tained. Hawkins, like Yogami, shares moments of physical intimacy with
Glendon that seem excessive for a Hollywood film. (In one scene, for example,
Glendon grasps the gardener’s arm for eighteen seconds.) Moreover, while
nowhere near the cutting edge of botanical knowledge, Hawkins is still a gar-
dener. He cannot be an utter stranger to strange botany, after all. If Glendon
can claim a certain superiority over one less knowledgeable than himself,
Hawkins shows that he can do the same when he tells a butler: ‘Of course,
Mr. Plympton, you being a mere indoor person has no idea of the mysteries
of nature.’ Lastly, the character’s name might conjure up a diurnal bird but his
swept-back hair and round eyeglasses make him look like a nocturnal one,
an owl. The film underscores this resemblance when, after the lamp makes
Glendon’s hand sprout hair, he snaps at Hawkins, ‘Don’t stand there staring
at me all solemn and owl-eyed.’
Perhaps Hawkins makes Glendon nervous, and disapproves of his experi-
ments so strenuously, because Hawkins understands too well the desires that
send his master into distant and forbidden valleys. Dreading the moonrise,
Glendon prays aloud in the Monk’s Rest. His prayer runs longer in the screen-
play than in the film:
Glendon: I know. It isn’t God. God doesn’t let such things happen. It’s
the devil. It’s something creeping out of Hell. God has noth-
ing to do with it. It’s man – poor pitiful man – who cannot
bear the face of God – (moans – grovels) Some must win –
some must lose – ... It’s the law – but why must I be lost that
others may learn? Why, God, why?
(Colton 1935: F-14, emphasis original)
Maybe Hawkins ‘wins’ because he manages to keep a tight lid on what is,
after all, as natural for him as nocturnal prowling is for an owl (or wolf) –
even an owl that goes about disguised as a hawk. To either side of Glendon,
then, stand two figures, one bold enough to wear his difference on his sleeve
(Yogami is exotically – if unspecifically – foreign, and openly champions such
‘heretical’ concepts as evolution), the other keeping his difference under
wraps (even though we see through them).
Returning to Glendon’s despair-
ing question, maybe he ‘loses’ because in a society that, to recall Benshoff, has
not updated its thinking on queer matters, the actions he dares to base on his
own self-knowledge can lead only to his death. But a gleam of hope is held
out in the thought that Glendon must be ‘lost that others may learn.’ WWL
attacks orthodox definitions of the normal, the natural, and the human, and
suggests that Glendon dies not because he represents an abomination against
nature but because he remains dangerously true to his own.
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Strange Botany in Werewolf of London
Glendon yields to his secret, inner nature. Werewolf stories about beasts
that body forth from within provide Colton with promising raw material for
fleshing out this idea. As Chantal Bourgault du Coudray writes:
The symbiosis of human and wolf in the figure of the werewolf has pre-
sented the opposition of nature (represented by the wolf) and culture
(represented by the human) in potent terms: terms that were further
developed in the romantic period, which witnessed the emergence of a
subjectivity imaged through an internal-external or depth-surface dual-
ity. This spatialization of subjectivity resonated with the human exteri-
or-lupine interior (or vice versa) imagery of the werewolf.
(Bourgault du Coudray 2006: 3)
Werewolves, as Bourgault du Coudray notes, can inspire a writer interested in
exploring human psychology in terms of inside/outside oppositions. Here again,
Colton multiplies the possibilities for doing so, and for spatializing his protago-
nist’s subjectivity, by placing his protagonist in a botanical werewolf story.
Aside from the few growing in Tibet, overwhelmingly the plants we see
in this film are inside Glendon’s house. Hawkins dismisses the butler as a
‘mere indoor person,’ even though this is where most of the plants on view
in this film are to be found. Colton indicates that the door to Glendon’s lab
‘must suggest the secrecy of the interior of the laboratory’ (Colton 1935: B-5).
The reinforced interiority of the lab, and the enclosed nature of the conserv-
atory adjacent to it, invites us to read the lush contents of these spaces as
representations not of the great outdoors but of Glendon’s inner nature. In
WWL plant nature, as much as wolf nature, stands in for Glendon’s own.
This nature Glendon tries, with less success than Hawkins, to keep bottled
up inside. That its unleashing proves to be his undoing does not mean that
the film condemns Glendon for the turn of events that ends his life. This will
become clearer as we turn more fully to the plants that, for a werewolf film,
claim an unusually large share of the narrative centre stage.
‘Well,’ said Aymar, ‘I shall see what can be done, but first tell me. Do
you ever ... well ... change?’
Bertrand hung his head again.
‘Indelicate question, huh? Like asking a girl if she – Yes, I quite
Guy Endore, The Werewolf of Paris, 1933
The Mariphasa is human, then, and Hawkins and society need to update their
thinking and broaden their definition. Changing ‘human’ to ‘man’ can help us
target the film’s implicit concerns more precisely, for through the Mariphasa, the
film suggests that understanding what it means to be a man should be expanded
to include qualities and attributes that have traditionally been understood to
belong to women. WWL’s undermining of the separateness of the human, ani-
mal, and plant worlds lays the foundation for the real work of the film, which is to
challenge traditional distinctions between the male and female genders.
Werewolves – hairy, ruled by bloodlust, and explosively aggressive – are
easily seen to embody qualities of masculinity. However, the werewolf tem-
plate again provides Colton with rich material to work with, for werewolves
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Robert Spadoni
17. Visually and aurally,
‘Mariphasa’ also calls
to mind mariposa,
Spanish for butterfly and
slang for an effeminate
homosexual (Stewart
1995: 160). Colton’s
obituary notes that ‘brief
service on a New York
magazine and with
troops on the Mexican
border came shortly
before his playwriting
career’ (Anon. 1946).
18. ‘Carnalia’ appears
under ‘not spiritual,
in a negative sense’,
and, within that, under
‘“Carnal things,”
temporal or worldly
also carry associations with femininity. One basis for this association, Walter
Evans points out, is the monster’s connection to the moon and its monthly
cycles (Evans 1984: 56). A link can also be traced linguistically: in Italian, lupa
means both wolf and vulva (Jones [1931] 1949: 136), and from it derive words
for whore and strumpet (Summers 1934: 69). Linda Badley finds werewolves
feminized by their status as not only aggressors but also victims (Badley 1995:
120–21). Bourgault du Coudray aligns werewolves with women when she
notes ‘the pervasive cultural association of femininity with nature, embodi-
ment and biology’ (Bourgault du Coudray 2006: 112). And Barbara Creed
argues that because women are mutable and ‘unstable’ in ways that men are
not (they bleed on a monthly basis, and change shape during pregnancy),
when a man turns into a wolf, he exhibits a similar instability and this femi-
nizes him (Creed 2005: 128–29; also see Creed 1993a: 124–26).
WWL pushes the potential for a werewolf to display its feminine side to
a new level. Several elements in the film can be read as feminine in nature
and to have a feminizing power. The Mariphasa grows in a ‘vaginal’ depres-
sion, a valley, where Glendon receives a gash that, when it heals, leaves a
distinct V shape on his forearm. This is Glendon’s ‘scarlet letter,’ the secret
Yogami indicates he knows when, earlier, he grasps Glendon’s sleeve. The
Mariphasa’s soft, fleshy, convex bloom constitutes another emblem of the
feminine: a sense of the plant that gathers force through its link to another
specimen under Glendon’s care, the Madagascar Carnalia.
The hairs grow inward – the wolfish coat is within – the wolfish heart is
within – the wolfish fangs are within.
Charles Robert Maturin, The Albigenses, A Romance, 1824
Seldom, very seldom, is the wolf lucky.
Montague Summers, The Werewolf, 1934
Much less central to the narrative than the Mariphasa, but more grotesquely
spectacular, is the Madagascar, which the Mariphasa calls to mind by starting
with the same letter and by having the same number of syllables, with the
stresses on the same (first and third) syllables – all similarities of a sort that
Ettie’s ‘Yokohama’ slip invites us to notice.
I will argue that the two plants
can be linked in other ways as well, as I move the Madagascar – by far the
most overdetermined figure in my reading of the film’s gay subtext – to the
centre of the moon/wolf/Mariphasa triad.
Ettie again serves as our helpful, if clueless, interpretive guide when she
asks, ‘I wonder, where is that … that horrible Madagascar plant? The one
that eats mice and men?’ Renwick corrects her, ‘Mice and spiders, Miss Ettie.’
Ettie once more demonstrates her talent for making comments with two or
three meanings, since a plant that ‘eats men’ can be construed as a signifier of
vampish feminity, or male homosexuality, or possibly of both at once.
‘Madagascar’ sparks a connection to ‘Mariphasa,’ while ‘Carnalia’ folds into
itself a bundle of dripping connotations. The entry for ‘Carnal’ in the Oxford
English Dictionary includes ‘Carnalia’ and lists these senses: ‘according to the
flesh,’ ‘pertaining to the body as the seat of passions or appetites; fleshly, sen-
sual,’ ‘sexual,’ ‘not spiritual, in a negative sense,’ and ‘carnivorous’ (entry for
‘carnal,’ in Murray et al. 1991).
Does the plant live up to its name?
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Strange Botany in Werewolf of London
Answering this question requires us to remember our strategy of looking
in WWL’s margins, for traces of things that Colton envisioned and that did
not find their way into the finished film. A scene featuring the Madagascar,
shot and subsequently deleted, was to have occurred shortly after Ettie’s ‘mice
and men’ comment. In it the Madagascar attempts to eat a boy who strays too
close to its maw. The film gives us barely a glimpse of the aftermath of this
incident, after Glendon has rescued the boy and returned him to his mother. I
break up the sequence Colton wrote below.
The giant Madagascar Carnalia, a pink fleshy looking plant, in appear-
ance rather like an octopus, is waving its tubular leaves in wild agitation.
One of these snakish tentacles has reached out over the railing and is
grasping a little boy of four or five around the middle. A short distance
off someone is holding the child’s hysterical mother. Glendon forces his
way through the crowd, pats the child’s head.
(Colton 1935: B-38)
The Madagascar, animal-like in appetite and appearance, resembles a nest
of writhing snakes, or an octopus. The colour Colton stipulates calls to mind
human flesh that, in its pinkness, suggests delicate inner folds rather than a
calloused extremity that has seen plenty of sunlight. Among the meanings
spilling out of this image is a sense of these tubular appendages, waving ‘in
wild agitation,’ as monstrously hyper-phallic and highly aroused by the young
boy. The ‘leaves’ swirl around a furry maw that it does not take much effort to
see as a vaginal orifice and therefore as another symbol of femininity associ-
ated with Glendon.
The scene continues:
Glendon (soothingly): There – there – we’ll have you out of this in a jiffy
– (looks about him) Has anyone a long pin?
(Colton 1935: B-38)
Glendon ‘stabs sharply at the ugly mouth like opening in the middle of the
plant’ (Colton 1935: B-39). He ‘thrusts the pin into the plant’s head. A spurt
of black looking juice spurts upward’ (Colton 1935: B-40). This juice smells
terrible. The guests hold handkerchiefs to their faces.
We can draw parallels from this moment to others in the screenplay and
film. The pin stabbing the head of the Madagascar resembles the technique
for administering the Mariphasa antidote, described more explicitly in the
screenplay than in the film, which is to puncture one’s flesh with a thorn and
then squeeze the plant’s essence out of the bulb at the stamen’s base (Colton
1935: C-25). It also calls to mind when Yogami injects the ‘darkish fluid’ into
the Mariphasa – only here the function (to nourish) and the direction of the
fluid’s movement (into the plant) have been reversed. Man, Mariphasa, and
Madagascar all receive similar treatment in Colton’s text.
Following the screenplay to the next moment brings us back into the film,
to the guest’s remark about ‘bringing a beastly thing like that into Christian
England,’ and Yogami’s about nature having no creeds. The next moment
takes us back out again. Pierced, ‘the plant’s tentacle quivers and begins to
loosen its grip on the child. Glendon speaks in calm reassuring tones,’ saying,
‘There – there – poor Madagascar Carnalia was hungry, that’s all! – lucky for
you – you were rather too big a spoonful for her to manage’ (Colton 1935:
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Robert Spadoni
19. For a recent set of essays
that explore the concept
of ‘inversion’ from a
number of directions, see
Cassar 2008.
20. See for example:
Ellis 1908: 183–84;
Symonds 1928:
137–38; Carpenter
1908: 19; and
Sedgwick 1993: 56.
Freud doubted the
existence of ‘psychical
([1905] 1953: 141–
44). For an overview
of Freud’s theories of
homosexuality contrasted
with ones that came
before his, see Davis
1995: 115–32.
B-42). The comment, like Ettie’s about being hungry because of ‘all these
flowers,’ entwines the film’s food and botany motifs.
The Madagascar, though barely in the film, nevertheless makes an impres-
sion through its monstrousness and size. The larger role Colton planned for it
clarifies the plant’s central importance to understanding how the Madagascar,
and Glendon, confound traditional gender definitions in a way that is alarm-
ing and frightening and that, at the same time, demands our understanding
and possibly even our full acceptance. The Madagascar Carnalia densely reg-
isters the film’s ambivalence toward Glendon and his situation.
To understand this ambivalence, we need to consider how this vaginal, phal-
lic, boy-hungry, animal-like plant embodies a theory of homosexuality that was
popular in the first third of the twentieth century. This theory construed homo-
sexuality as a form of ‘gender inversion.’ It understood the orientation to be less
a matter of sexual preference than a constitutive fact of one’s gender make-up.
Inversion theory asserted that a man experiencing same-sex desire possessed a
feminine gender identity. Such a man was thought to represent a ‘third sex’ made
up of qualities of both the male and female genders. As Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick
writes, ‘inversion models […] locate gay people – whether biologically or cultur-
ally – at the threshold between genders’ (Sedgwick 1993: 172, my ellipsis). Such
a view, which originally could be quite literal in its thinking about the biological
basis of inversion, represents a form of what Richard Dyer describes as ‘in-
betweenism’ (Dyer 2002: 30–37; also see Dyer with Pidduck 2003: 33–37). He
notes that third sex theories persisted in popular views of homosexuality long after
science had abandoned them, and that in the twentieth century in-betweenism
has characterized how some gay men have thought about themselves (Dyer with
Pidduck 2003: 34; and see Dyer 2002: 37).
Accounts of how this third sex blends qualities of the male and female gen-
ders can call on models that posit inside/outside oppositions. Some theorists
pictured a woman’s spirit or soul trapped in a man’s body. Others pictured
a woman’s mind or brain so trapped.
In 1928, John Addington Symonds,
working within psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s taxonomy of inverted
types, described an extreme case of inversion:
The inverted bias given to the sexual appetite, as part of the spiritual
nature of the man, can never quite transmute male organs into female
organs of procreation. But it modifies the bony structure of the body, the
form of the face, the fleshy and muscular integuments to such an obvi-
ous extent that Krafft-Ebing thinks himself justified in placing a separate
class of androgynous beings (with their gynardrous correspondents) at
the end of the extraordinary process.
(Symonds 1928: 141)
Here, a limit case of inversion induces a bodily transformation from the
inside out.
This description, like inversion theories generally, resonates with aspects of
the werewolf archetype. Some versions of the legend, for example, claim that
werewolves wear their hairy hides on the inside and transform by flipping their
skins inside out (Baring-Gould 1865: 64–66; Jones [1931] 1949: 137; Summers
1934: 160–61; Douglas 1992: 231–232; Frost 2003: 13). In such accounts, the
transformation comes about literally through a process of inversion.
Though it does not incorporate this neat transformation trick into its nar-
rative, WWL more than makes up for it by adopting other means to associate
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21. For other ‘forms of
inversion’ in the film, see
Humphries 2006: 30.
werewolves with inversion. There is Glendon’s lab (a space that I have argued
can be viewed as an analogue of Glendon’s interior nature), which houses
the Mariphasa – a plant that mirrors his nocturnal wolf identity and that con-
stitutes a marker of difference that secretly ties him to Yogami. The shielded
Mariphasa, living though in no conventional sense human or even animal in
nature, emblematizes a view that sees outwardly ordinary appearances masking
internal biological differences. The Mariphasa inverts the functioning of most
plant life by blooming at night. Meanwhile, the Madagascar, a more alarmingly
overt marker of difference, sits – dangerously for Glendon’s cover – not in a
locked lab but in full view of Glendon’s party guests; Glendon’s secret, like that
of the owlish Hawkins, is already half out in the open. This most conspicuous
embodiment of his secret evokes gender inversion in several ways.
A plant squirming with numerous long, independently dexterous ‘phal-
luses’, all encircling a hairy maw, seems well designed to visualize theo-
ries that see gay men combining attributes of two sexes. The signifiers of
maleness – construed one way, hideously extreme because they represent
a desperate attempt to hide an essential biological truth with a grotesquely
overcompensating show of masculinity – ring a vaginal centre. Alternatively,
one could view the tentacles as pubic hairs and see the whole plant repre-
senting the secret truth that Glendon’s (unpersuasive) husbandly demean-
our is meant to conceal. The deleted sequence discloses three more figures
of inversion. First, the plant spurts not a white liquid, as in a typical male
ejaculation, but a black one. Second and third, as noted, the moment inverts
the direction and function of the nurturing fluid Yogami injects into the
Finally, this dark outflow, in this scene jammed with more
implications than it can control, can be understood to depict a sudden, con-
vulsive, menstrual discharge.
Should the Madagascar be viewed as an abomination against nature or
as simply a product of it? Yogami makes clear that his answer is the latter.
But does the film give him the last word on this crucial question? Benshoff
reframes our question, and broadens its context:
In accordance with the prevailing construction of homosexuality as a
matter of gender inversion rather than sexual object choice, medical
studies continued to write about homosexuality as a disorder primarily
having to do with gender nonconformity, even as the experts differed as
to whether this was the result of nature or nurture. The origins of movie
monsters were similarly contested: were they man-made creatures such
as Frankenstein’s monster, or part of a natural, but hitherto unexplored,
territory, such as the werewolf?
(Benshoff 1997: 38)
Benshoff suggests that WWL, by virtue of the monster it depicts, comes down
on the ‘nature’ side of the debate. I have argued that the human/animal/plant
business involving the Mariphasa, the Madagascar, and Hawkins does the
same. But Glendon gets the plant to bloom with help from an electric lamp,
an artificial means; and this sullen, haunted character seems to hate himself,
and the film kills him off. While all of this should be taken as signs of the
film’s ambivalence toward its main character, I believe that ultimately the film,
even though it destroys Glendon, does not fault him for being what he is. A
basis for viewing Glendon as guiltless, and his ‘condition’ as natural, is rooted
in the concept of inversion itself.
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Robert Spadoni
22. On this claim, see
Benshoff 1997: 32–33.
23. This resemblance does
not, for Peirse, by
association figure in
the film’s feminization
of Glendon. She writes
that ‘the filmic structures
of Werewolf of London
do not encourage a
feminised reading at any
point’ (2007: 164).
Dyer notes that ‘ideas of in-betweenism have been used by gay people
themselves, not only in subcultural practices but in historically progressive
activism’ (Dyer 2002: 30–31). One who took a progressive view was Symonds,
who wrote that
the accomplished languages of Europe in the nineteenth century sup-
ply no term for this persistent feature of human psychology, without
importing some implication of disgust, disgrace, vituperation. Science,
however, has recently – within the last twenty years in fact – invented a
convenient phrase, which does not prejudice the matter under consider-
ation. She speaks of the ‘inverted sexual instinct’; and with this neutral
nomenclature the investigator has good reason to be satisfied.
(Symonds 1928: 2 [unnumbered])
One could apply the term neutrally, and even laudingly. Edward Carpenter,
in a 1908 study of ‘intermediate types,’ notes that ‘the double life and nature
certainly, in many cases of inverts observed to-day, seems to give to them an
extraordinary humanity and sympathy, together with a remarkable power of
dealing with human beings’ (Carpenter 1908: 63).
Whether or not one felt celebratory about ‘intermediate types,’ a great
deal was at stake in claims that placed ‘inverts’ on a continuum that included
males and females, for as Dyer and others note, if inversion is inborn and bio-
logical, there can be no question of an immoral choice to be condemned (Dyer
with Pidduck 2003: 34; also see Katz 1995: 29, 52, 88). As Symonds wrote
passionately: ‘What is human is alien to no human being’ (Symonds 1928:
3 [unnumbered]). Humans should, according to this thinking, follow nature
and, recalling Yogami, follow no ‘creed’ that would damn one of its own. The
Madagascar, like the soul-crying Mariphasa, might represent an implicit plea
for seeing homosexuality as human and a fact of nature.
But a sense of the film’s hostility toward Glendon’s situation cannot
be shaken off so easily. The Madagascar also might represent the ‘devi-
ant’ Glendon’s gynophobia. Symonds, considering Krafft-Ebing, describes
a class of homosexuals who ‘shrinks from the female’ (Symonds 1928: 139).
Psychologist William Stekel notes that in some homosexuals, ‘beyond the
apparent indifference stands the fear of women’ (Stekel 1922: 272).
Here we
can recall Glendon’s visible discomfort in his interactions with Lisa and other
women, where we see nothing like the rock-still intensity he exhibits when-
ever he locks into eye contact with Yogami.
Another negative view finds the Madagascar visualizing Glendon’s dread
not of other women but of the feminine within himself. Of effeminate charac-
ters in Hollywood films, Benshoff writes that ‘the male homosexual or queer
is monstrous precisely because he embodies characteristics of the feminine’
(Benshoff 1997: 6). Relevant here is the Madagascar’s resemblance, noted by
Alison Peirse, to a vagina dentata (Peirse 2007: 157–58).
Does this voracious
plant incarnate the monstrous femininity that threatens to devour Glendon
from the inside out?
In ‘The Taboo of Virginity,’ Freud speculated on a source of ‘a generalized
dread of women’, writing that
perhaps this dread is based on the fact that woman is different from
man, for ever incomprehensible and mysterious, strange and therefore
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Strange Botany in Werewolf of London
24. On some critics’
association of
the Medusa with
homosexuality, see
Dellamora 1990: 136.
25. See Creed 1993b:
161–62, for where
she links this line of
thinking, through Lacan,
to homosexuality. On the
Medusa as a symbol of
not the castrated but the
castrating mother, also
see Wilk 2000: 97–99.
apparently hostile. The man is afraid of being weakened by the woman,
infected with her femininity and of then showing himself incapable.
(Freud [1918] 1957: 198–99)
Creed notes that for Freud and others, ever looming behind this dread is a
fear of castration (Creed 1993b: 196). Glendon, in danger of losing his social
standing, his wife, and his life, has good reason to be horrified by the emascu-
lating forces that attack him from within.
Mother God Damn: You have reached a dangerous age, my man; your
sex is shaky – you must have new excitements for
your appetite, which hitherto have been so British.
John Colton, The Shanghai Gesture: A Play, 1926
To explore the deeper level at which the Madagascar holds the key to under-
standing this conflicted text’s both best hopes for and deepest dread of
Glendon’s situation, we must consider the Madagascar’s resemblance to a
mythical figure that Creed sees as another manifestation of the vagina dentata:
the head of the Medusa. This head, like the pierced Madagascar, bleeds – and
this, Creed notes, supports readings of the Medusa as a representation of the
menstruating female genitals (Creed 1993b: 65–66; and see Creed 2005: 23).
Not surprisingly, Freud associates this figure with male fears of castration. He
writes that ‘to decapitate = to castrate,’ and he links the figure to homosexual-
ity: ‘Since the Greeks were in the main strongly homosexual, it was inevitable
that we should find among them a representation of woman as a being who
frightens and repels because she is castrated’ (Freud [1922] 1955: 273, 274).

More recent theorists have challenged Freud’s thinking along this line. Creed,
for example, asks, ‘Is woman castrated or does she castrate?’ and adds that
‘the way in which the genitals might horrify is open to interpretation’ (Creed
1993b: 158, emphasis original).
Another who sees the Medusa’s head as semantically ambiguous is Richard
Dellamora. He examines nineteenth century writers who view the Medusa
as a liminal figure, signifying transition, and commingling life with death,
beauty with corruption, pleasure with pain, and – in this female head with
phallic locks – masculinity with femininity (Dellamora 1990: 81, 125, 139–40).
Considering this ambiguity returns us to the possibility that the Madagascar
represents a positive, tolerant, and hopeful attitude toward Glendon and his
Dellamora describes a vein of criticism that finds the Medusa articulat-
ing a fantasy: a ‘wish to be woman’ (Dellamora 1990: 80). He sees this wish
strongly evoked by a painting, once mistakenly attributed to Leonardo, Head
of Medusa at the Uffizi. Reading this painting through nineteenth century art
and literature critic Walter Pater, and noting what Freud misses in his reading
of Pater, Dellamora writes that Freud suppresses ‘the suggestion that Medusa
and other images by Leonardo may be a figure of the passage from the con-
ventional male state into a metaphorical state of “being-woman”’ (Dellamora
1990: 137). The figuration of this passage, Dellamora argues, could potentially
appeal to a gay man because it offers ‘a means for men to own their desire
for other men’ (Dellamora 1990: 80). So viewed, the Medusa represents not a
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Robert Spadoni
26. Examples of these critics
are Anon. 1935b: 38;
Harrison 1935; Clarens
1997: 78.
27. Views of the character
as unsympathetic are
expressed in Gifford
1973: 117; Everson
1974: 214; Hardy
1994: 64; Senn 1996:
292; and Soister 1999:
230. Writers who find
the character growing
more sympathetic as
the film progresses
include Riley 1993:
28; and Brunas et al.
1990: 132. Another
writes that the film
‘places the viewer in the
uncomfortable position
of understanding a man
without really liking him’
(Hanke 1999: 37).
dread and a horror but a wish and a means. How it does this, and the figure’s
relevance to Glendon, centre on the figure’s morbidity.
‘There can be no cure for hereditary madness until Judgment Day,’ said
Oliver, ‘and every man’s Judgment Day is the day he dies.’
Jessie Douglas Kerruish, The Undying Monster:
A Tale of the Fifth Dimension – a werewolf novel – 1922
Some comparisons immediately spring to mind: the first with Dracula,
who shares the widow’s peak and twin fangs, the main difference being
that Hull’s werewolf has the fangs in upside down.
Adam Douglas, The Beast Within, 1992
Let us consider the Uffizi Medusa in conjunction with Glendon’s death scene,
when the film frees him from his curse, and from forever having to chase
after stopgap remedies (the antidote, the kill), without quite letting him off
the hook. He must die, and when he does his death does not strike the same
tragic note as, say, the teary Frankenstein monster’s when, in Bride, he pulls
the lever that blows himself and his persecutors to pieces. WWL denies the
monster a measure of this dignity through, in part, a framing choice at the
moment of the figure’s death. This scene comes at the end of a film in which
the monster-victim has never aroused the sympathy we feel for Boris Karloff’s
monster or, in The Wolf Man, Lon Chaney’s Larry Talbot.
Many critics note that they do not really like Glendon. Only a few find
him sympathetic.
A common complaint is that Hull makes the character
too stiff, though some find him growing on them as his situation darkens.

The film goes hard on Glendon, although in the end it offers him a sliver of
Again, it’s a sliver. William K. Everson writes that ‘in horror films the
werewolf motif inevitably culminates with the monster changing slowly
back into human form in his dying moments, with the suggestion, supplied
by the incidental music, of the attainment of long sought peace’ (Everson
[1954] 2000: 25). This we get in WWL, although for me at least, a different
version plays out in memory. On film, the werewolf expires and changes back
into a man. What makes me remember Glendon dying and remaining a were-
wolf are two things: first, the character utters his last lines as a werewolf (as
a man he is silent and inert); second, after the werewolf has tumbled down
the steps, a medium close-up frames him upside down. He says his last
words and dies. A moment later he returns to human form. Through all this,
the figure remains upside down. Neuroscientists tell us that upside-down
faces are harder to recognize than right-side up ones (Yovel and Kanwisher
2005: 2256–62). The last time we see Glendon right-side up is as a werewolf.
Then there are the last words themselves. He says: ‘Thanks for the bullet.
It was the only way. In a – in a few moments now, I shall know why all this
had to be.’ Then, thrusting marital discord back into spotlight, from which it
has never strayed far, he adds, ‘Goodbye, Lisa. I’m sorry I – I couldn’t have
made you happier.’ The character’s last lines are similar in the screenplay,
although there he says: ‘There was no place on earth left for me’ (Colton 1935:
I-93). There was no place on earth left for Glendon, but maybe he goes to
a better place. Erikson writes that the final shots of Glendon ‘hold his face
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Strange Botany in Werewolf of London
upside-down in the frame, visually robbing his death of a peaceful repose, in
compositional terms’ (Erikson 2001). Glendon’s death scene simultaneously
grants and denies him a release from his curse.
Compositionally, the shots of the dying and dead Glendon also send us
back to the Uffizi Head of Medusa. Dellamora quotes Pater’s description of this
painting, in which the decapitated head is shown upside down:
The hue which violent death always brings with it is in the features;
features singularly massive and grand, as we catch them inverted, in a
dexterous foreshortening, sloping upwards, almost sliding down upon
us, crown foremost, like a great calm stone against which the wave of
serpents breaks.
(Dellamora 1990: 140; original text in Pater 1980: 83)
Glendon remains inverted to the last, and the film robs him of a dignified and
reposeful death by hanging him upside down. But Pater, Dellamora writes,
finds the Uffizi Head of Medusa (and Shelley’s poem on this painting) express-
ing ‘the possibility of a new life that lies on the other side of the death that
the entry into sexual desire and activity portends’ (Dellamora 1990, p. 140).
Death, seen as an oblique figuration of the sort of transition and transforma-
tion that Dellamora envisions, is the only hope we will find this film extending
to Glendon and his kind. In the world Glendon leaves, a man who expresses
desire for another man can only be a monster, and the only cure held out to
him will be a bullet.
The Werewolf of London is a nasty little fantasy.
‘The Werewolf of London,’ Time, 20 May 1935
Before it settled on a title for its film, Universal held a contest in which studio
employees read a plot synopsis and submitted ideas. Some entries point to
the dense tangle of themes that even a brief outline of the story suggests. A
few register the slippery interchangeability of the narrative’s central elements:
‘The Curious Man’ and ‘The Curious Curse’; ‘The Curse of the White Flower’
and ‘The Curse of the Werewolf’; ‘The Moonlight Demon’ and ‘The Evil
Flower’; ‘Phantom Monster’ and ‘Phantom Moonflower’. Linking the were-
wolf and the Madagascar in one title is ‘Man, the Carnivorous,’ while ‘Fangs
of the Flower’ links the werewolf to both the Madagascar and the Mariphasa.
The shame that wracks Glendon is suggested by ‘Secrets of a Werewolf,’
and by ‘Safe in the Shadows’, which would be a good title for a film about
clandestine lovers meeting in back alleyways. ‘The Inhuman Man’ hints at the
natural/unnatural ambivalence I have traced in the screenplay and film, while
‘The Innocent was Guilty’ limns the film’s dooming and yet sympathetic
stance toward its protagonist. Other titles – ‘Rendezvous with Moonlight’,
‘Bitten’, ‘The Bewitching Moon’, ‘Moonlight Interlude’, ‘Moon Struck’, ‘Desire
Under the Moon’, ‘Kismet’, and ‘When the Moon is High’ – sound like they
were pitched for a love story, while ‘The Moan in the Night’ invites us to pic-
ture more than hand holding taking place under cover of darkness (various
Universal Pictures employees 1935).
Another entry seems to tap a deeper vein of meaning. ‘Gautama’s Return’
refers to the epiphany of the Buddha Gautama, who, after living a life of every
HOST 1.1_art_Spadoni_049-072.indd 67 12/30/09 8:44:19 AM
Robert Spadoni
28. Other bits of my
description are culled
from Anon. 2008 and
Keown 2003.
earthly luxury and comfort, renounces all and spends six years enduring the
severest conditions of self-denial and mortification. One day, after fainting
from weakness, he realizes that, as a 1907 encyclopaedia puts it: ‘So long as
he allows unholy desires to reign within him, there will be unsatisfied long-
ings, useless weariness, and care. To attempt to purify himself by oppress-
ing his body would be only wasted effort’ (Baynes and Smith 1907: 384).

Seeking a ‘middle way’, Gautama starts eating again, and returns to the life
from which he had sought to escape. This title, terrible for a Universal horror
film of the 1930s, nevertheless registers a theme Colton manages to explore in
his ambitious blueprint for a modest genre production: a film obsessed with
the potential of surfaces to appear ordinary while they hide the alien, natural,
abominable, human secrets that lie underneath them.
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Van Teslaar), Boston: Richard G. Badger, Gorham.
Stewart, W. (1995), Cassell’s Queer Companion, London: Cassell.
Stuart, J. M. (1935), memo, 15 January, WWL PCA file, AMPAS.
Summers, M. (1934), The Werewolf, New York: E. P. Dutton.
Symonds, J. A. (1928), Studies in Sexual Inversion, Privately printed.
Troy, W. (1935), ‘Through the Closet Door’, review of Werewolf of London, The
Nation, 29 May, p. 640.
HOST 1.1_art_Spadoni_049-072.indd 70 12/30/09 8:44:19 AM
Strange Botany in Werewolf of London
Various Universal Pictures employees (1935), submissions to the WWL title
contest, USC, Box 789/Folder 24373.
Vieira, M. J. (2003), Hollywood Horror: From Gothic to Cosmic, New York:
Harry N. Abrams.
Waggner, George (1941), The Wolf Man, Universal City: Universal Pictures.
Walker, Stuart (1935), Werewolf of London, Universal City: Universal Pictures.
Whale, James (1931), Frankenstein, Universal City: Universal Pictures.
Whale, James (1932), The Old Dark House, Universal City: Universal Pictures.
Whale, James (1935), Bride of Frankenstein, Universal City: Universal Pictures.
Wilk, S. R. (2000), Medusa: Solving the Mystery of the Gorgon, Oxford:
Oxford UP.
Worland, R. (2007), The Horror Film: An Introduction, Malden, MA: Blackwell.
Yovel, G. and Kanwisher, N. (2005), ‘The Neural Basis of the Behavioral Face–
Inversion Effect,’ Current Biology, 15:24, December 20, pp. 2256–62.
I would like to thank Harry Benshoff and Mark Jancovich for their very help-
ful comments on a draft of this essay, and Rick Worland, Ned Comstock of
the Cinema/Television Library at the University of Southern California, and
William Claspy of Kelvin Smith Library at Case Western Reserve University
for their assistance with the research.
Spadoni, R. (2010), ‘Strange Botany in Werewolf of London’, Horror Studies 1: 1,
pp. 49–71, doi: 10.1386/host.1.1.49/1
Robert Spadoni is the author of the 2007 University of California Press book,
Uncanny Bodies: The Coming of Sound Film and the Origins of the Horror Genre.
An Associate Professor, he teaches Film Studies at Case Western Reserve
University in Ohio.
E-mail: robert.spadoni@case.edu
HOST 1.1_art_Spadoni_049-072.indd 71 12/30/09 8:44:19 AM
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HOST 1 (1) pp. 73–88 Intellect Limited 2010
Horror Studies
Volume 1 Number 1
© 2010 Intellect Ltd Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/host.1.1.73/1
radical evil
narrative space
ahistorical fantastic
Kennesaw State University
‘Evil against Evil’: The
Parabolic Structure and
Thematics of William
Friedkin’s The Exorcist
This essay examines and deconstructs three sets of antagonisms in William Friedkin’s
The Exorcist (1973). It argues that the film describes its own narrative conflicts as
a thematics of ‘evil against evil,’ so as to de-ethicize the moral violence of those
metaphysical dogmatisms that compete over the ‘souls’ of others. It then re-couches
the one-sidedness of scientific and religious orthodoxies, which damage in similar
ways Regan MacNeil, one of the film’s main characters, as another variation of this
thematics. Finally, this essay suggests that The Exorcist surveys certain sociopoliti-
cal tensions, thus commenting, in its video and theatrical re-releases, ‘timelessly’
on US tensions with its own counterculture and with the Middle East. The film
‘transcends’ such mutually destructive tensions in its dramatization of ‘sacrifice,’
though without taking this term in its soteriological sense; ‘sacrifice’ rather involves
the reduction of these thematics to Regan’s flesh—involves reversing their anagogic
tendencies—so that this flesh at once re-emerges as the site and the template of the
film’s narrative contestations.
HOST 1.1_art_Dudenhoeffer_073-088.indd 73 1/2/10 12:14:26 PM
Larrie Dudenhoeffer
If you’re asking if I believe in the Devil, the answer is yes – yeah, that I
William Peter Blatty, deletion from The Exorcist (1973)
Our difficulty in believing in the – for want of a better word – political
inspiration of the Devil is due in great part to the fact that he is called
up and damned not only by our social antagonists but by our own
side, whatever it may be […] Political opposition, thereby, is given an
inhumane overlay which then justifies the abrogation of all normally
applied customs of civilized intercourse. A political policy is equated
with moral right, and opposition to it with diabolical malevolence.
Arthur Miller, The Crucible (1953)
Mankind likes to think in terms of extreme opposites. It is given to
formulating its beliefs in terms of Either-Ors, between which it recog-
nizes no intermediate possibilities. When forced to recognize that the
extremes cannot be acted upon, it is still inclined to hold that they are all
right in theory but that when it comes to practical matters circumstances
compel us to compromise.
John Dewey, Experience and Education (1938, original emphasis)
The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973), with its 2000 anniversary reissue,
seems more relevant than ever since the collapse of the World Trade
Center on September 11, 2001. The film sets its introduction in Nineveh,
where Father Lankester Merrin, clergyman, archaeologist, and some-
time exorcist, unearths an image of the demon that menaces 12-year-old
Regan MacNeil later in the film. The relic seems out-of-context to Father
Merrin, much as tales of exorcism and demonic influence seem out-of-
context for twentieth century Washington, D.C., where actress Chris and
Regan MacNeil live at the time of the film’s action. Father Merrin scru-
tinizes the artefact, and then offers us a summary of the film’s theodicy:
‘evil against evil,’ an inscription on the artefact that Merrin translates. This
moment, and its redefinition of terms in the traditional ‘good versus evil’
formula, sets the ideological tenor of the film’s narrative, making Father
Damien Karras’s sacrifice at its conclusion meaningful as a transcend-
ence of this formula. The Exorcist favours sacrifice over confrontation as
a moral stance, arguing that confrontation creates mutual antagonism
with morally, socio-culturally, and epistemologically disastrous results.
It identifies ‘good versus evil’ as an ultimately ‘evil against evil’ relation-
ship of terms, thus forcing its audience to rethink its confidence in its
moral, political, and medico-religious views. The Exorcist thus functions
as a parable that teaches us the value of sacrifice on a transnational scale;
a lesson valuable for Americans at a time when Muslims and Christians
war with each other while calling each other ‘evil’ in an attempt to invoke
divine sanction for their actions.
Unfortunately, most criticism of The Exorcist ignores, misreads, or glosses
over the film’s revaluation of ‘good and evil’ nomenclature. In fact, most criti-
cism sees the film as a reaffirmation of these dichotomous terms: a develop-
ment indicative of and responsible for our culture’s 1980 and 2000 oscillation
to conservatism, which reduces the complexities of two wartime eras, the sex-
ual revolution, and the emergence of new wave feminism to a more accessible
HOST 1.1_art_Dudenhoeffer_073-088.indd 74 12/22/09 7:13:07 PM
‘Evil against Evil’
formula (one with a causative scapegoat in the Devil’s influence on our
children). As Mark Kermode argues,
[The] solutions The Exorcist appeared to offer were oddly reassuring for
those who longed for a return to an absolute moral order. For here on
screen was a clear-cut struggle between good and evil in which priests,
policemen, good mothers, and devoted sons fought a righteous battle to
release rebellious, parent-hating children from the grip of a lustful, all-
consuming devil.
(Kermode 2003: 9–10)
The language Kermode uses to describe the Devil – ‘lustful’, ‘rebellious’, and
‘all-consuming’ – associates ‘evil’ with the sexual, political, and generational
iconoclasm of 1970s’ counter-culture. In contrast, the language Kermode uses
to describe ‘priests, policemen, and mothers’ associates ‘good’ with ‘order,’ a
sense of righteousness, and reactionary thinking. The language The Exorcist uses,
though, recasts these forces as narrow, destructive, and ‘evil’ in their inimicality.
Although Mark Jancovich seems to detect this strain of revaluation in the film, he
nevertheless carries Kermode’s interpretation of the film further, decrying its
remarkably crude conservatism which distinguishes it from more gen-
eral developments in the genre. It does present the forces of order and
chaos as being indistinguishable from one another within the modern
world, but it does so specifically to establish the need for traditional
forms of religious authority. […] The modern world is presented as a
kind of permissive hell which is now open to the invasion of demonic
forces, especially since the Catholic Church has given up the concept of
evil and come to rely on sociology, psychology, and psychoanalysis.
(Jancovich 1992: 93–4)
Kermode and Jancovich, in their inaccurate assessment of the film’s conserva-
tism and moral reductiveness, enable the film to subsume their criticism as
an example of ‘evil against evil’ confrontation; since these men resort to a
formula they fail to identify the major shortcoming of the film – the ‘evil’ of its
political fallout as they see it. The Exorcist, though, in its first scenes, oversteps
this criticism, instructing its audience to resist any dogmatist evaluation of its
content, cultural work, and resonance.
Jancovich’s criticism, though, informs other distillations of the film’s sub-
text into easier-to-take forms. Allison M. Kelly, for example, sees The Exorcist
as a tacit recuperation of the audience’s faith in scientific authority, envi-
sioning Father Merrin as the ultimate father figure: one that satisfies Regan
MacNeil’s Oedipal search for one and otherwise mitigates the disruptiveness
of non-traditional family structures:
Behind the scenes of vomiting, levitation, guttural insults and rotating
heads in The Exorcist lies a much deeper threat: the demon might be
manifesting itself because of Regan’s family situation: a bitter divorce, a
deadbeat dad […] and a career-obsessed mother.
(Kelly 2004: 64)
This specimen of criticism more than resembles Jancovich’s reductive take
on the film’s moral commentary; it reaffirms as salutary conservative modes
HOST 1.1_art_Dudenhoeffer_073-088.indd 75 12/22/09 7:13:07 PM
Larrie Dudenhoeffer
of thinking and organization to thus make the film defensible – a form of
‘tough love’ for the audience, our culture, and its characters. It enlists science
to neutralize the film’s challenging ‘evil against evil’ theodicy, even though
the film clearly makes medical and psychiatric examination seem as invasive,
fetishistic, and torturous as demonic influence – or anything else in the closets
of Catholic doctrine. It ignores once more the film’s critique of strict allegiance
to a set of extremes, whether ‘good or evil’ or ‘faith or science,’ as sympto-
matic in any case of a mutually destructive opposition.
Of course, we cannot ignore The Exorcist’s critique of scientism, as we
cannot likewise narrow our focus to the film’s construction of faith and
spirituality. Robert F. Geary, though, in shifting away from Kelly’s analysis,
falls into the temptation of couching an ontological discussion of the film in
dichotomous terms:
The Exorcist is a work about deep horror, about the lure of a nihilistic sense
of meaninglessness which arises from human suffering and death and can
break the human spirit. But it is not a work of deep horror; instead, it tells
the story of heroic and successful resistance to deep horror.
(Geary 1993: 62, original emphasis)
This language of ‘resistance’ threatens to recast ‘good and evil’ in other terms:
‘good’ translates into ‘heroic’, ‘successful’, and reactionary (in two senses of
that term), whereas ‘evil’ translates into nihilism, ‘death’, ‘suffering’, and ‘deep
horror’, or that which unnerves, unsettles, or makes hellish or rebellious, in
Kermode’s and Jancovich’s language. Much as with Kelly, faith, the vehicle
for long-range meaningfulness, for Geary seems a means of overturning the
film’s entreaties not to resist, but to transcend ‘evil’ confrontations in line with
Christ-like sacrifice. This theodicy is unattractive to critics and audiences who
take umbrage at the suggestion of turning the other cheek, especially in art, in
the horror genre, and even in light of the film’s wartime contexts.
We must therefore focus on The Exorcist’s introduction, which establishes
its cultural, ethical, and narrative mission statement, as a way of understand-
ing the film, as well as its cultural contexts, and its mediation of our tendencies
to war. Ross Murfin and Supryia M. Ray define a parable as ‘a short, realistic,
and illustrative story intended to teach a moral or religious lesson’ (Murfin
and Ray 1997: 265). The Exorcist, with its religious overtones, conforms to
this definition, in that it unsettles world views that conceive of existence in
dichotomous terms, as a Manichean contest of the forces of good and evil.
The Exorcist redefines this contest as ‘evil against evil’; this thrust of the film
collapses three main dichotomies, all of them American favourites, especially
since the George W. Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq:
1. The Exorcist collapses metaphysical dichotomies, especially the audience’s
temptation to view Father Merrin’s struggle with the Devil in terms of
Manichean ‘good and evil’ absolutes. The film rather defines these forces
as extremes that threaten the lives, consciences, and emotional wellbeing
of Regan MacNeil, Chris MacNeil, and Father Damien Karras.
2. The Exorcist collapses epistemic dichotomies, especially the tensions of
faith and science in the American consciousness. The film invokes the
catechistic terms of superstition and irreligion to define faith and science
as extremes that cannot alone offer us a complete, realistic, or salubrious
understanding of the world.
HOST 1.1_art_Dudenhoeffer_073-088.indd 76 12/22/09 7:13:07 PM
‘Evil against Evil’
3. Finally, The Exorcist collapses (geo)political dichotomies, redefining lib-
eral and conservative dogma as another variation of ‘evil against evil’;
conservatives who see a recrimination of the moral looseness of the 1960s in
the film court opposition from liberals who see in it a recrimination of moral
and institutional repressiveness. The film implies that these stances result in
a mutual and continuous animus, terrorization, and destructiveness.
The Exorcist, since its 1973 release, thus seems a timely anticipation of Iraqi/
American, Christian/Muslim, and theocratic/democratic tensions, warning
us to eschew self-righteousness, rethink dichotomies in our technocratic and
military-industrial schemes, and emphasize sacrifice as a way of transcending
our more treacherous moral, social, cultural, and political imperatives. Ironically,
the film uses Regan’s flesh to explore this ‘transcendence’ and to materialize its
‘evil against evil’ thematics – in other words, the film recasts a series of opposi-
tions as tautological and, at core, reducible to the most sensori-active levels of
our being, or the film rather recasts these oppositions as what we might describe,
in a much too vulgar display of neologism, as altogether taut-ontological.
William Peter Blatty, the screenwriter for The Exorcist, expresses concern over
certain misinterpretations of the film in an interview for its twenty-fifth anni-
versary DVD release: ‘I don’t want them [the audience] to think that the devil
won’. He refers to the film’s conclusion, where, after Father Merrin dies off-
screen while alone with Regan MacNeil, Father Damien Karras invites the
demon into himself, and then throws himself out of a window, sacrificing
himself for Regan’s sake. In short, the exorcism fails, at least in its confronta-
tion with the demon. Kermode thus reports that after the film’s release Blatty
and Friedkin ‘were shocked to learn that audiences were interpreting the
finale as negative, a victory of evil over good’ (Kermode 2003: 83). Moreover,
televangelist Billy Graham thought that a demon or ‘evil’ entity actually made
its way into The Exorcist’s film stock. Even later, critics like Thomas S. Hibbs
argue that The Exorcist glamorizes evil. These responses to the film once more
violate its theodicy: the transcendence of confrontation and ‘good versus evil’
Manichaeism in line with the Catholic Church’s teachings on evil.
The Catholic catechism discusses the existence of evil in terms of a ‘mystery
of lawlessness’: one that acknowledges the ‘reality of sin’ and offers no solutions
as to its origins, its activeness, or the reasons for God allowing its continuation.
However, the catechism also claims that Adam’s fall and Satan’s duplicities in the
Book of Genesis result in Christ’s rise, truth, and sacrifice, offering us ‘blessings’
greater than those Adam and Eve lost (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1995:
108–9). Likewise, the demon in The Exorcist (in a woman’s form) costs a family
its innocence, works to sexually vitiate others, and takes the lives of three men,
Merrin, Karras, and Burke Dennings, Chris MacNeil’s director and love interest.
It also offers Karras a chance at redemption, renews the faith of the MacNeils and
the audience – Regan kisses Father Dyer at the film’s denouement – and reaffirms
the value of sacrifice as a truer form of exorcism: one that invites the audience to
rethink ‘combat’ ideologies in matters of faith, ethics, and supernaturalism.
The scene in Nineveh describes these ideologies as ‘evil against evil’, in that
they subsume Manichean oppositions and misrepresent the Christian impe-
tus to the transcendence of terms that can make virtue myopic, inflexible, and
HOST 1.1_art_Dudenhoeffer_073-088.indd 77 12/22/09 7:13:07 PM
Larrie Dudenhoeffer
antagonistic. The scene thus warns its audience that Father Merrin, for all his
merit, moral authority, and traditionalism, cannot sustain attributions of good-
ness or heroism, since Merrin, in setting himself against the demon inside Regan
MacNeil, resembles the demon in terms of strategy and orientation. He turns
away from the self-sacrificing meekness of the Catholic vocation and conforms
to the film’s ‘evil against evil’ redefinition as a ‘soldier of Christ’, rather than a
Christ-like man. The scene culminates in Merrin’s face-off with a statue of the
demon – the sunset on the horizon indicative of the destructiveness and inter-
changeability of these figures. Moreover, the film juxtaposes these images with
the image of two dogs fighting, one that underscores the continual, near-animal
senselessness of Merrin and the audience’s moral sureness. William Friedkin, The
Exorcist’s director, thus states the importance of the Nineveh scene to the film:
The Iraq scene introduces to you what kind of man Father Merrin is, the
man who is called in as an exorcist. It establishes, in a kind of abstract fash-
ion, that Merrin gets a premonition that he is going to have to perform an
exorcism. It also establishes the fact that he is not a very well man. That he
is a very sick man. And this sick old man, who is given to believe in omens
and symbols, is going to be asked to drive a demon out of a little girl.
(Derry 1977: 121)
Merrin’s ‘sickness’ refers to a weakness of constitution, one that results in
Merrin’s death at the film’s conclusion. It also refers to Merrin’s interest in
‘omens and symbols’, to ‘good versus evil’ constructions of destiny that cre-
ate a sort of moral, religious, and intellectual sickness that forces Merrin to
uncritically confront a 12 year old girl: a move that eventually brings Merrin
and the demon together, as the film later suggests.
In contrast, Father Damien Karras seems intermediate to Regan’s demon and
Father Merrin, more uncertain, and also more Christ-like in that Karras wavers
from the human to the divine, from the ‘evil’ of confrontation to the transcend-
ence of self-sacrifice. His instincts first move him to confrontation: Karras argues
with his mother while trying to console her, she dies thereafter, and he then
dreams of her descent into a Hell’s Kitchen subway. Karras, also a boxer, later
takes some frustration out on a heavy bag, an image that foreshadows the con-
frontation with the demon. In fact, when Karras first meets Regan MacNeil, the
demon rearticulates the theodicy of the film first given in the Nineveh scene:
Demon: What an excellent day for an exorcism!
Father Karras: You’d like that?
Demon: Intensely.
Father Karras: But wouldn’t that drive you out of Regan?
Demon: It would bring us together.
Father Karras: You and Regan?
Demon: You and us.
(The Exorcist 1973)
At the exorcism, Karras resolves to save Regan, even though he could not save
his mother, and tells Chris MacNeil that her daughter will not die. He re-enters
Regan’s room and discovers Father Merrin’s death, which came about after
Merrin and Karras took on the demon with an incredible adversarial tenor to
the rite: ‘The power of Christ compels you’ to leave us, they exhort the demon
(The Exorcist 1973). Karras mounts the stairs in a movement suggestive of
HOST 1.1_art_Dudenhoeffer_073-088.indd 78 12/22/09 7:13:07 PM
‘Evil against Evil’
transcendence and opposite to his cantankerous mother’s descent into the sub-
way. Meanwhile, Regan lurches over Merrin’s corpse, meditative at first, then
contemptuously giddy over Merrin’s death – an uncomfortable moment in the
film that suggests that Merrin and the demon come together in the afterlife.
Karras, in frustration, attacks the demon and thus threatens injury or death
to Regan in a consummation of the film’s ‘evil against evil’ theodicy. Karras,
though, freely invites the demon into himself; like Christ, Karras shoulders
the enormity of others’ sins, which the devil totalizes and represents. Also,
like Christ, who chastises Peter for severing a soldier’s ear at Christ’s arrest in
Gethsemane, Karras chooses self-sacrifice over confrontation. Hibbs sees divine
intervention in this moment of the film:
Through our manifold weaknesses, we are vulnerable to assault from
malevolent spiritual forces. If there is a way to overcome this danger, it
points beyond morality narrowly construed to a narrative of redemption,
not to what we achieve on our own, but to what can be done through
a divine gift.
(Hibbs 1999: 63)
In any case, the ‘gift’ of The Exorcist is that the film moves us away from
this ‘morality’ to a sense of Christ’s ‘grace’, and the ultimate compensation
for Adam and Eve’s weakness; from two hours of watching Regan MacNeil’s
torture, debilitation, and embarrassment; and from the mistakenness of the
audience’s either/or moral sureties, especially as we see the consequences of
these sureties in the film.
Mark Kermode argues that the Nineveh scene in The Exorcist contextualizes
its later exorcism scenes, though he insists on using stale ‘good versus evil’ ter-
minology for them. The film’s ‘evil against evil’ theme translocates from Iraq,
the site of Eden and Adam’s loss of innocence, to Georgetown, Washington
D.C., which reveals another set of tensions in the forces of spiritualism and
secularism. Kermode thus argues that the Nineveh scene also establishes
‘the forthcoming contest between science and religion, in which doctors and
priests will battle to subdue an uncontrollable child whose sociopathic behav-
iour is threatening to destroy her already vulnerable family’ (Kermode 2003:
25). Faith, in the film’s terms, and science correlate with the Jesuit spiritual-
ism and Capitol Hill secularism that inform the film’s main location, and also,
according to Frentz and Farrell, correlate with two ideological tendencies that
create tremendous turbulence, conflict, and dissatisfaction in the American
consciousness: ‘transcendence,’ another term for faith or spiritualism, can,
when taken to extremes, induce ignorance, moral smugness, and arrogant
notions of manifest destiny, whereas ‘positivism,’ another term for science,
can inhibit social criticism, self-actualization, and the development of new
ideas, resulting in feelings of alienation and helplessness. Frentz and Farrell
see in The Exorcist a vindication of their definition of ‘transcendence’:
As a social event, The Exorcist marks a watershed moment of American
social change. It at once crystallized America’s disillusionment with
Positivism and at the same time reaffirmed transcendent Christian faith
HOST 1.1_art_Dudenhoeffer_073-088.indd 79 12/22/09 7:13:07 PM
Larrie Dudenhoeffer
as the most viable means of coping with the problems of contemporary
life [...]
In short, the reaffirmation of religious faith within The Exorcist may
find its rhetorical correlate in communicative acts which create or
assume transcendent ideals and principles as guides to public life.
(Frentz and Farrell 1975: 40, 47)
This criticism, though, uses ‘transcendence’ in a narrow transcendentalist
sense, even while it conforms its terms to the film’s ‘evil against evil’ theodicy:
in that movement towards one extreme seems no more salvific, comprehen-
sive, or worthwhile than movement towards the other. In fact, The Exorcist
types faith and science as two terms in opposition, and invites the very tran-
scendence of these terms and the limitations of their epistemologies.
Again, The Exorcist relies on Catholic catechism to re-term and clarify the
limitations of faith and science. The Catechism discusses ‘the virtue of reli-
gion’, which carefully eschews superstition, the excess of religion and the
extreme of faith, and also irreligion, the deficiency of religion and thus the
extreme of science and direct experience. The Catechism argues that supersti-
tion deviates from ‘the virtue of religion’ in its magical and unlawful think-
ing, and that irreligion means ‘tempting God, in words or deeds’ out of an
overemphasis on scepticism (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1995: 564–71).
The Exorcist offers us ‘the virtue of religion’ – the moderation of faith and
science – as a means of transcending the uneasy co-extensiveness of these
terms in the American consciousness. Regan MacNeil thus undergoes a set
of exorcism rites and medical examinations that point up the invasiveness,
overconfidence, and deleterious effects of the rival epistemologies of faith and
science. Moreover, Father Damien Karras serves to mediate the superstition of
Father Merrin and the irreligion of Lieutenant Kinderman, the officer investi-
gating Burke Dennings’s murder. Karras thus hypostatizes, in a sense, these
two contentious methodologies of experience.
We first see Chris MacNeil vacillating from one extreme to another in
the course of the film, and we cannot ascertain whether she wholly arrives
at ‘the virtue of religion’ in the Catholic sense of the term (Catechism of the
Catholic Church 1995: 568). She treats the disturbances affecting Regan’s
mental health sceptically, in an almost positivistic manner, carrying a can-
dle into an attic to investigate strange noises coming from that direction. She
never considers supernatural explanations for these noises, attributing them
to rats, even though she cannot detect any in the attic and even though she
witnesses the candle’s flame coruscate without reason. When Regan’s condi-
tion worsens, Chris MacNeil turns to medical examiners and later psychother-
apists to account for Regan’s violent, erratic, and uncharacteristic outbursts,
obscenities, truculence, and moroseness. Regan undergoes an arteriogram, an
encephalogram, and a hypnosis session, all of which seem to Kermode like
‘Inquisitional torture,’ sadistically invasive in their execution (Kermode 2003:
52). The doctors’ confidence in these diagnostic instruments and medical tech-
nologies overlies a faith in scientism much like faith in religion. These doctors
remain uncertain as to the cause of Regan’s distress much as Catholics, for
example, must remain uncertain, at the level of direct and objective experi-
ence, of God or Satan’s definite existence. These doctors, stuck at the extreme
of irreligion, insist that Chris ‘exhaust the somatic possibilities’ concerning
Regan’s treatment, arguing that a ‘disturbance in the chemico-electrical activ-
ity’ of the temporal lobe will likely account for Regan’s condition (The Exorcist
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‘Evil against Evil’
1973). Chris, dissatisfied with these diagnoses, shifts away from irreligion for
a moment, even referencing Christ to express a sense of alienation and dis-
satisfaction with the doctors’ scientism: ‘Oh what are you talking about for
Chrissakes! Did you see her or not? She’s acting like she’s out of her fucking
mind’ (The Exorcist 1973). Chris overturns the saneness of the doctors’ ration-
alistic interpretation of Regan’s condition, and thus articulates Geary’s later
reading of early scenes like these in The Exorcist: ‘The intrusions mount to an
explosion of terror which overturns the original materialistic mindset, leaving
a sense that what reality contains is larger and darker than the legacy of the
Enlightenment would have us believe’ (Geary 1993: 57). The doctors, at a loss
for an explanation, then mention to Chris the therapeutic recourse of exor-
cism while discrediting the faith-healing efficaciousness of its rites:
Clinician: Have you ever heard of an exorcism? […] Well, it’s a stylized
ritual in which the, uh, rabbi or the priest try to drive out the
so-called invading spirit. It’s pretty much discarded these days,
except by the Catholics, who keep it in the closet as a sort of
embarrassment, but, uh, it has worked, in fact, although not
for the reasons they think, of course. It’s, uh, purely, uh, force
of suggestion. The victim’s belief in possession is what helped
cause it, so that in the same way, the belief in the power of
exorcism can make it disappear.
Chris (incredulous): You’re telling me that I should take my daughter to
a witch doctor, is that it?
(The Exorcist 1973)
This exchange attaches witchery, faith healing, and magical thinking to these
doctors and therapists recommending exorcism; more than deconstructing their
scientism, this exchange makes ‘realistic’ the ritualism and ‘transcendence’ of
those who conduct exorcisms. In spite of this convergence of two otherwise
contentious epistemologies, Chris turns almost superstitious in trying to enlist
the services of ‘a witch doctor’ for Regan’s sake, surprising Father Karras about
‘getting an exorcism’. He reacts with scepticism, trusting in ‘all those things they
taught [him] at Harvard’, though when Chris cries in frustration, Karras, unlike
the doctors, never wholly discounts supernaturalism’s influence on us.
Chris MacNeil has confidence in Father Karras’s abilities; in a sense, she
has faith in the clearest Christ-figure in the film. Karras, much like Chris,
moves from irreligion to superstition in the narrative, although more so
towards self-sacrifice, which, in a way the doctors seem incapable of, involves
the hypostatizing transcendence of these extremes. He develops a sense of
the limitations of irreligion, facing the very scepticism with which he at first
treats Chris MacNeil’s entreaties for a Catholic intervention:
Karras: I’m only against the possibility of doing your daughter more
harm than good […] I need evidence that the church would
accept as signs of possession, like her speaking in a language
she’s never known or studied […] Look, your daughter doesn’t
say she’s a demon. She says she’s the devil himself. Now if
you’ve seen as many psychotics as I have, you realize that’s the
same thing as saying you’re Napoleon Bonaparte. You asked me
what I think is best for your daughter. Six months, under obser-
vation, in the best hospital you can find.
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Larrie Dudenhoeffer
Chris: I’m telling you that that thing upstairs isn’t my daughter. Now I want
you to tell me that you know for a fact that there’s nothing wrong
with my daughter except in her mind. You tell me that you know for
a fact that an exorcism wouldn’t do any good! You tell me that!
(The Exorcist 1973)
Karras returns Chris’s movement towards credulousness, if not ‘the virtue of
religion’, with a scepticism resembling her own, thus enacting the tensions
of faith and science that couch the film’s ‘evil against evil’ theme in epis-
temic terms. Earlier, though, Karras met the film’s embodiment of the inad-
equacies of science and irreligion, Lieutenant Kinderman, who suspects, in
an over-reliance on forensic clichés, that a ‘very large man’ took the life of
Burke Dennings. Karras and Kinderman discuss the matter close to some ten-
nis courts, which signify the volleying of Karras’s connection with faith and
Kinderman’s common sense rationalism:
Kinderman: Burke Dennings, good Father, was found at the bottom of
those steps leading to M Street with his head turned com-
pletely around, facing backwards.
Karras: It didn’t happen in the fall?
Kinderman: It’s possible. Possible, however …
Karras: Unlikely.
Kinderman: Exactly. So on the one hand, we’ve got a witchcraft kind of
murder, and on the other hand a Black Mass type desecra-
tion on the chruch. […] If you knew [who committed these
acts], you wouln’t tell huh?
Karras: No, I probably wouldn’t.
Kinderman: Not to bother you with trivia, but a psychiatrist, in sunny
California no less, was put in jail for not telling the police
what he knew about a patient.
Karras: Is that a threat?
Kinderman: No, I mention it only in passing.
Karras: Incidentally, I mention it only in passing. I could always tell the
judge it was a matter of confession.
(The Exorcist 1973)
Karras turns and leaves after this exchange, in which Kinderman confronts
Karras with the limitations of scientific investigation, with its incessant
cross-examining, and moreover with its chauvinism, which discounts other
modes of experience and interpretations of events. Karras thus turns away
from Kinderman in an epistemic sense – and also in a narrative one, since
Kinderman remains on the margins of the action for the rest of the film.
Karras receives church sanction for the exorcism and must conduct it with
Father Merrin, Kinderman’s opposite given that Merrin epitomizes supersti-
tion and excessive faith. At first Karras offers Merrin some information on
Regan’s case:
Karras: I think it might be helpful if I gave you some background on
the different personalities Regan has manifested. So far, I’d say
there seem to be three. She’s convinced …
Merrin: There is only one.
(The Exorcist 1973)
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‘Evil against Evil’
Merrin’s shortness with Karras ironically shows three inadequacies of an
over-reliance on faith. First, unlike Kinderman, who uses so much dialogue
as to accomplish nothing, Merrin silences dialogue altogether, commanding
respect and deference from Karras while evidencing the arrogance and igno-
rance that Frentz and Farrell associate with their notion of ‘transcendence’.
Next, Merrin’s intransigence causes Regan undue suffering, since he takes a
combative, self-righteous stance in the exorcism; this results in the demon
scarring Regan’s calves and inducing her to vomit in retaliation. Finally, Merrin
assumes the same staunchness – a tenacious form of faith that resembles
superstition – with which Karras left Kinderman, thus confronting Karras with
the excesses of faith in a narrative reversal of Karras earlier confronting Chris
MacNeil with the excesses of reason. Karras must renounce the extremes that
Merrin and Kinderman represent. These three men mirror the three entities
troubling Regan MacNeil, since none of them can cope methodologically with
her distress: the superstition of the exorcism and the irreligion of the medical
and criminal investigations rather serve to aggravate it. Only Father Karras, in
a final, desperate act of self-sacrifice – of somatic and spiritual simpatico with
the demon – comes to reconcile and transcend these extremes, thus restoring
Regan to her former state of being.
Through its epistemic re-creation of other images in western literature, The
Exorcist cautions us away from other forms of superstition: specifically, it
cautions us away from using texts like it to anticipate future textual, cultural,
or trans/national developments. In one of the film’s most salient moments,
Regan MacNeil’s face rotates 180 degrees. Kermode describes this moment as
a ‘crowd-pleasing piece of nonsense’ (Kermode 2003: 65), and thus misses the
film’s allusion to the circle of the fortune-tellers in Dante’s Inferno. These sin-
ners must suffer an ironic torment for wishing to see too far ahead of them:
[I saw] that each of them was hideously distorted
between the top of the chest and the lines of the jaw;
for the face was reversed on the neck, and they came on
backwards, staring backwards at their loins,
for to look before them was forbidden.
(Alighieri 2001: 174–5)
Earlier in the film, Regan MacNeil uses an Ouija medium to contact ‘Captain
Howdy,’ a code name for the demon that later possesses her. Her experimenta-
tion constitutes fortune telling, in that Ouijas allow us a look into the ‘forbidden’
unknown, and thus Regan’s face-swivelling alludes to the judgment of the
fortune-tellers in The Inferno. More than a curious allusion, this scene also warns
us of the consequences of superstition. As a parable, though, The Exorcist must
also teach us to search out codifications of the future in the film’s literary and
historical contexts – always remaining careful of the tendency of irreligious sci-
ence to objectify men and women and shunt them into deterministic worldviews.
This 180-degree set piece strategically and intra-textually figures The Exorcist as
a Janus-work, always synchronic and somehow relevant at the time of its recep-
tion: always a form of what we may term the ahistorical fantastic.
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Larrie Dudenhoeffer
The Exorcist thus collapses another set of dichotomous terms involving
competitive socio-political interests, trans/national identities, and references to
‘core values’ that deadlock attempts at diplomatic negotiation. Interpretation
that focuses on these inimical terms can fragment understanding of the film
and moreover frustrate the transcendence of terms that foment conflict, dis-
sension, and unwillingness to listen or compromise. Peter Hutchings, for
example, states that The Exorcist re-images the tensions of conservatism and
progressivism for audiences of the 1970s. The film’s association with Regan’s
vulgarity and rebelliousness, with divorce and single-mother families, comes
from uneasiness over 1960s atheism, feminism and sexual revolution, and
religious experimentation. In the film, Chris MacNeil disclaims religion; and
Regan, almost a teenager, asserts her sexuality and uses an Ouija in spite of
religious interdiction, which necessitates the reestablishment of conservative
male authorities. Kinder and Houston thus argue that The Exorcist teaches
us to fear ‘all irreverence, unconventionality, rebellion, and complex sensual-
ity’ (Kinder and Houston 1987: 52). However, we can also see Regan as the
victim of state and church authorities that repress women’s sexual awareness
and maturation. These authorities fear, make ugly, and distort the meaning of
irreverence, teenage rebellion, and female sensuality. Unfortunately, either of
these interpretations fall into the film’s ‘evil against evil’ formulation, mean-
ing that they set up contention over the rightness of certain arguments, value
systems, and political intentionality, which, in turn, can result in a climate of
unfriendliness, demagoguery, and cultural division.
We see the destructiveness of dichotomous values and identities on the set
of actress Chris MacNeil’s film Crash Course, a title suggestive of the internecine
relationship of these conflicting identities. The title also implies Regan’s narra-
tive ‘crash course’ with the demon, which allegorizes the effects of combative
ideologies on children living in a culture torn by them. In the film within a film,
Chris shouts through a megaphone at a near-riot of student agitators, whose
actions, Chris tells them, seem fractious and irresponsible – ‘You’re betraying
your own principles,’ she screams at them. After this scene, the film cuts to a
shot of Chris and director Burke Dennings laughing and embracing, with Father
Karras watching them at the margins of the shoot and smiling with them. These
two scenes constitute a meta-fictive moment in The Exorcist, with the message
that interpretations like the ones Hutchings mentions coincide with the film’s
‘evil against evil’ theme: conservative and anti-establishmentarian forces collide
with violent and counterproductive results. The embrace, though, implies the
transcendence of these identities and the ‘evil against evil’ theme that subsumes
them – the figure of Karras even signifies ‘divine’ sanction for this transcend-
ence, the sidelines offering him little chance at grandstanding in a way nicely
congruous to the film’s climactic self-sacrifice.
Unfortunately, Burke Dennings, after the embrace and the moral instruc-
tion it signifies, carries divisiveness into Chris MacNeil’s home, coincidentally
on the night when Regan first starts to manifest symptoms of disturbance. At
a dinner party, the Jewish Dennings confronts, while drunk, Chris’s German
servant Karl, accusing him of having Nazi sympathies, even though the film
never corroborates Dennings’s suspicions. This scene re-enacts the campus
standoff in Crash Course: in it, we see conservative forces (Karl’s stuffiness) in
stubborn, chest-beating conflict with the forces of progressivism, which the
freer, artistic Dennings embodies. Moreover, this confrontation (with its his-
torical and geopolitical baggage) invades the family unit; Regan then exagger-
ates this unreasonableness in murdering Dennings and threatening the staff
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‘Evil against Evil’
enough to leave a crucifix in Regan’s room in an effort to sidestep the destruc-
tive consequences of a mutual antagonism that conforms to the film’s ‘evil
against evil’ theme. In any case, we see the narrative marginalization of these
characters after their confrontation – another consequence of irreconcilable
terms that mirror the internal conflicts of Israel and Germany in the twenti-
eth century, resulting from separatist ethnic, political, and national thinking.
Regan, in the film’s synchronic rhetoricizing of her struggle with the demon,
internalizes similar conflicts for Americans; whether the social unrest of the
film’s 1970s context or the confusion over the Gulf War, the 9/11 attacks, and
the ‘war against terror’ around the time of the film’s reissue.
The Exorcist traces out some of these wide-scale religio-political contesta-
tions in its narrative—ones trans/national in relation to values, state and church
identities, and theatres of operation—making the film almost trans/historical
in its moral vision. The Exorcist moves from Nineveh to Georgetown – Iraq
to Washington D.C. – anticipating the international tensions that these sites
came to represent. Nineveh, wellspring of Mesopotamian religion and capi-
tal of the Assyrians (enemies of the Jews in the Books of Jonah and Nahum),
opposes Georgetown, an early Jesuit centre for ‘securing the future of American
Catholicism through education’ (Georgetown’s Catholic and Jesuit Identity
2008: para. 1). The film thus opposes Muslims to Christians, ‘infidels’ to one
another in the most orthodox sense of these religions. It also opposes the ‘cra-
dle of civilization’ to the ‘new world’ and thus the religious conservatism of the
Middle East to the religious openness and moral flexibility of the United States,
at least since the 1960s. Most importantly, the settings of the film oppose Iraq,
and the former capital of Assyria, to the United States and its current capital
Washington D.C. In this sense, the film commingles the religious, historical, and
geopolitical to arrive at an ‘evil against evil’ characterization of America’s tense
relations with Iraq and other nation-states in the Middle East, in which these
states refer to one another as ‘evil’ or ‘satanic’ to obviate negotiation, sanctify
violence, inflame their citizens against other cultures, and rationalize dubious
military, political, and socio-economic strategies. We see this type of rhetoric,
for example, in former Iranian Chief-of-State Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s
12 September, 1980, ‘Message to the Pilgrims’:
America is the number-one enemy of the deprived and oppressed peo-
ple of the world. […] Iran has tried to sever all its relations with this
Great Satan and it is for this reason that it now finds wars imposed on
it. America has urged Iraq to spill the blood of our young men […] Let
Muslim nations be aware that Iran is a country effectively at war with
America, and that our martyrs – the brave young men of our army and
the Revolutionary Guards – are defending Iran and the Islam we hold
dear against America.
(Khomeini 1981: 305)
Khomeini came up with the term ‘Great Satan’ to denounce America for its
interference with Muslim countries, establishing a ‘good versus evil’ relation-
ship that, as we see in The Exorcist and Khomeini’s language, results in loss of
lives and mutual destruction. The connotations of ‘Great Satan’ remain com-
mon in the Middle East, with former Iraqi Chief-of-State Saddam Hussein,
once Khomeini’s enemy, using the term ‘evil’ to describe America in the 1991
Persian Gulf War. Hussein first warned Americans that Iraqis ‘are capable of
fighting to the victorious end which God wants’ and that ‘the blood of our
HOST 1.1_art_Dudenhoeffer_073-088.indd 85 12/22/09 7:13:07 PM
Larrie Dudenhoeffer
martyrs will burn you’; after the war, he declared that ‘Iraq is the one that is
victorious. Iraq has succeeded in demolishing the aura of the United States,
the empire of evil, terror, and aggression’ (Karsh and Rautsi 1991: 222, 266).
Like Khomeini, Hussein morally vindicates decisions involving the destruc-
tion of lives, as Iraqi casualties translate into ‘martyrs’, much as with Iranian
Muslims. Hussein’s language, especially the use of epithets like ‘evil’ and
‘aggression’, resembles the rhetoric of President George H. W. Bush, who
sought to condemn ‘the brutal aggression of Saddam Hussein’, describing the
war with Iraq as ‘a clear case of good versus evil’, with America ‘selflessly
confronting evil for the sake of good in a land so far away’ (Campbell 1993:
21–2). His son, President George W. Bush, went on to term Iran and Iraq an
‘axis of evil’ in the 29 January 2002, State of the Union Address, inflaming
American sentiment against these nations: ‘We’ve come to know truths that
we will never question: evil is real, and must be opposed’ by the ‘greater good’
that America represents (Bush 2002: para. 63). After capturing Hussein in
late 2003, Bush went on to associate the ‘thugs’ of the Iraq insurgencies with
Hussein’s ‘evil regime’ in the 20 January 2004 State of the Union Address. The
Bushes’ and Hussein’s use of ‘evil’ and its cognate terms to describe each oth-
er’s governments, in line with The Exorcist’s ‘evil against evil’ theme, results
in continuous war, destruction, the freezing of negotiation, and the under-
scoring of differences in culture, religion, and social values.
Of course, the 1973 The Exorcist cannot forecast the current situation
in America and the Middle East, nor the fallout of the September 11, 2001
attacks. We cannot treat the film superstitiously, of course. However, The
Exorcist also warns us that we cannot see these events as inevitable, that we
must look to art and religion for a fuller engagement with history, so that
we can then exercise smarter decision-making towards the transcendence of
‘crash course’ identities, morally reductive discourse, and deterministic modes
of study that threaten alienation and disempowerment. Father Merrin and
Lieutenant Kinderman, in spite of their moral and juridical authoritativeness,
work against Regan MacNeil’s welfare; and their self-justifying unwillingness
to consider other viewpoints anticipates Bush and Hussein’s criticism of each
other, which the charges of ‘evil’, ‘terror,’ and ‘aggression’ cover over and
rationalize. Father Karras, unlike these men, though caught in the middle of
them, realizes The Exorcist’s intentions as a parable – the film does not mean
to tell our fortunes or survey international relations, but to offer its viewers a
realistic, illustrative, and memorable means of using sacrifice, compromise,
sympathizing, and active negotiation to overcome our moral and political
shortsightedness, without overreaching the current moment for the nebulous
future. In this way, the film emerges as transhistorical; it collapses dichoto-
mies that might culminate in further destruction and calls for a transcendence
of those identities, state or otherwise, that call on God’s name in the interest
of murder. Thus, in its own way, The Exorcist seeks our liberation.
Our discussion of ‘transcendence’ does not mean to lessen or neutralize the ter-
ror The Exorcist evokes. Entertainment Weekly ranks the film as the number one
‘scariest movie of all time’ for a reason (Ascher-Walsh 1999: 25). We must not
assume, though, like some critics, that this reason indicates the moral sickness
of The Exorcist’s viewers. William K. Everson wonders whether it ‘is perhaps a
symptom of our unhealthy times that audiences flocked to The Exorcist, wanting
HOST 1.1_art_Dudenhoeffer_073-088.indd 86 12/22/09 10:01:54 PM
‘Evil against Evil’
to be scared, intending to scream, coming away haunted and sickened by it, yet
somehow proud of having forced themselves to endure it’ (Everson 1974: 247,
original emphasis). Everson treats the film’s audiences like Merrin and the doc-
tors treat Regan – as unhealthy, even contemptible. A more optimistic reading,
though, one in tune with The Exorcist’s cautionary dialogue, argues that these
audiences, more like Karras, sacrifice themselves to a film experience that, no
matter how excruciating, allows them to transform their sensibilities and walk
away from the theatre unsatisfied with fighting and wanting to embrace
others – an act more complex than it looks, since it resembles Father Merrin’s
stare-down with the statue of the demon in the opening moments of the film,
and reconciles this image with Father Dyer’s Janus-like about-face after con-
templating the stairs that Karras fell down in the film’s conclusion. This con-
vergence of profiles, much like the superimposition of the demon over Regan’s
features, invites us to sacrifice the cheek-turning/head-swivelling anxieties
which ideological terror taut-ontologically contrives out of the sense-activity of
our own relative embodiments.
Alighieri, Dante (2001), The Inferno (trans. John Ciardi), New York: Signet.
Ascher-Walsh, Rebecca, et al. (1999), ‘25 Scariest Movies of All Time’,
Entertainment Weekly, 23 July, pp. 25–30.
Bush, George W. (2002), ‘State of the Union’, Presidential Speeches. 29 January,
http://www.presidentialrhetoric.com/speeches/01.29.02.html. Accessed 11
November 2009.
Bush, George W. (2004), ‘State of the Union Address’, Presidential Speeches.
20 January, http://www.presidentialrhetoric.com/speeches/01.20.04.html.
Accessed 11 November 2009.
Campbell, David (1993), Politics Without Principle: Sovereignty, Ethics, and the
Narratives of the Gulf War, Boulder: Lynne Rienner.
Catechism of the Catholic Church (1995), New York: Image.
Derry, Charles (1977), Dark Dreams: The Horror Film from Psycho to Jaws,
New York: A. S. Barnes.
Everson, William K. (1974), Classics of the Horror Film: From the Days of the
Silent Film to The Exorcist, Secaucus, New Jersey: Citadel.
Frentz, Thomas S., and Farrell, Thomas B. (1975), ‘Conversion of America’s
Consciousness: The Rhetoric of The Exorcist’, Quarterly Journal of Speech,
61 (1), pp. 40–47.
Friedkin, William (1974), The Exorcist, perf. Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow,
and Linda Blair, Burbank: Warner Studios.
Geary, Robert F. (1993), ‘The Exorcist: Deep Horror?’ Journal of the Fantastic in
the Arts, 5 (4), pp. 55–63.
Georgetown’s Catholic and Jesuit Identity (2008), About Georgetown,
Georgetown University: Washington D.C., 15 February, http://explore.
georgetown.edu/documents/?DocumentID=736. Accessed 11 November
Hibbs, Thomas S. (1999), Shows About Nothing: Nihilism in Popular Culture
from The Exorcist to Seinfeld, Dallas: Spence.
Hutchings, Peter (2004), The Horror Film, Harlow, England: Pearson.
Jancovich, Mark (1992), Horror, London: B. T. Batsford.
Karsh, Efraim, and Rautsi, Inari (1991), Saddam Hussein: A Political Biography,
New York: Grove Press.
HOST 1.1_art_Dudenhoeffer_073-088.indd 87 12/22/09 10:01:54 PM
Larrie Dudenhoeffer
Kelly, Allison M. (2004), ‘A Girl’s Best Friend Is Her Mother: The Exorcist as
a Post-Modern Oedipal Tale’, Journal of Evolutionary Psychology, 25 (6),
pp. 64–69.
Kermode, Mark (2003), The Exorcist, second edition, London: BFI.
Khomeini, Ruhollah (1981), Islam and Revolution: Writings and Declarations of
Imam Khomeini (trans. Hamid Algar), Berkeley: Mizan Press.
Kinder, Marsha, and Houston, Beverle (1987), ‘Seeing Is Believing: The Exorcist
and Don’t Look Now’, in Gregory A. Waller (ed.), American Horrors: Essays
on the Modern American Horror Film, Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Murfin, Ross, and Ray, Supryia M. (1997), The Bedford Glossary of Critical and
Literary Terms, Boston: Bedford.
Dudenhoeffer, L. (2010), ‘‘Evil against Evil’: The Parabolic Structure and
Thematics of William Friedkin’s The Exorcist’, Horror Studies 1: 1, pp. 73–88,
doi: 10.1386/host.1.1.73/1
Larrie Dudenhoeffer is an Assistant Professor of English at Kennesaw State
University and a doctoral candidate in critical theory, film studies, and classical
rhetorics at Georgia State University. He is the author of ‘Monster Mishmash:
Iconicity and Intertextuality in Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’
in Volume 19 of the Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts and ‘Hitch-cockeyed:
Ocular Dysfunction Ocular Dys/function in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window’
in the forthcoming issue of Cinephile.
E-mail: ldudenho@kennesaw.edu
HOST 1.1_art_Dudenhoeffer_073-088.indd 88 12/22/09 7:13:08 PM
HOST 1 (1) pp. 89–110 Intellect Limited 2010
Horror Studies
Volume 1 Number 1
© 2010 Intellect Ltd Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/host.1.1.89/1
film music
sound effects
Aarhus University
Of Submarines and
Sharks: Musical Settings
of a Silent Menace
This essay analyses the substance of the submarine myth and its relation to the
shark myth, as it has been propagated in film since Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975).
The essential elements of the submarine myth are defined, with stealth being at the
center of the submarine existence. As with sharks in the natural ocean surrounding,
submarine warfare exploits the basic human fear of the silent monster coming from
the depth, unheard and unseen. In fictional film, this highly emotional essence of
both the submarine and the shark myth is exploited especially in the design of the
soundtrack. The essay exposes techniques of sound design and musical composition
in various films that serve to impart the feeling of a silent, deadly menace.
On 23 May 1939, a US submarine sank off the New Hampshire coast in 243
feet of water. Thirty-three men sat trapped on the sea floor; their submarine
was half-flooded. Due to a spectacular rescue action and due to the new
McCann Rescue Chamber, the 33 men survived. Their damaged submarine
was called Squalus.
On 10 April 1963, a nuclear submarine of the US Navy sank while on
deep-dive trials south-east of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. The 129 men aboard
were drowned and crushed to death at the same time at a depth of 8,400 feet.
The submarine’s name was Thresher.
HOST 1.1_art_Koldau_089-110.indd 89 1/2/10 12:15:52 PM
Linda Maria Koldau
1. In fact, it is almost
certain that the shark’s
jaws were painted onto
the bow of the BIBER
only after the war. There
is another mini-submarine
of the same class in the
Auto & Technik Museum,
Speyer, bearing a
similar ‘Maling’. While it
is unlikely that a ‘shark’
BIBER boat was ever in
service during World
War II, there is evidence
that some of the one-man
submersibles of the
MOLCH class, which
were tested during the
war in 1944/1945,
were decorated in this
manner. I am grateful
to Klaus Mattes for
these details (cf. Mattes
1995). To complete
the enumeration of links
between submarines
and sharks, it should
be mentioned that one
class of German mini-
submarines developed
in World War II was
called HAI (‘Shark’);
however, it failed to
meet the necessary
qualities for a maritime
war weapon and it
never went into service.
Furthermore, the German
submarines and their
crews were frequently
likened to sharks,
as is, among other
instances, obvious in the
title of Timothy Patrick
Mulligan’s excellent
study (Mulligan 1999).
2. Cf. Hadley 2001.
3. A book on the
submarine ‘myth’ in film
and the media is in
print (to be published by
Steiner Verlag, Stuttgart,
in spring 2010).
4. This is due to the fact
that they are generally
allocated to different
genres: submarine films
are mostly regarded as
a sub-genre of the war
film; shark films usually
(unless documentaries)
belong to the genre of
the horror film. As will
be shown, though, the
genre question is more
complex in the case of
submarine films.
In 1956, the newly founded ‘Bundesmarine’ (Navy of the Federal Republic of
Germany) retrieved a sunken World War II submarine (type XXIII) from the floor
of the Kattegat and put it back into service as a training submarine on 15 August,
1957. On 14 September 1966, this submarine sank in a storm on the Doggerbank
in the North Sea. Of the twenty crew members, only one survived. As a boat in
service of the young Federal German navy, the boat had been christened U-Hai.
Three submarines, almost 140 dead men (and all died in times of peace), and
the rest of the crew traumatized for the rest of their lives. Except for their ill fate,
these submarines – of extremely different technical design – were united by one
remarkable characteristic: they were all named after sharks. ‘Hai’ is the general
German word for shark. ‘Squalus’ is the name of a genus within the family of the
squalidae/dogfish sharks. The thresher sharks (alopiidae) are distinguished by
their extraordinarily large caudal fin, with which they ‘thresh’ at schools of fish
they prey upon. In fact, this conspicuous sea animal is also seen on the insignia
of the lost submarine Thresher. It was certainly not the names of the submarines
that caused their ill fate – there are numerous other boats, American, Russian,
German, English, and of other nations, that have sunk in the depths of the
world’s oceans. However, the naming of submarines after sharks is not a coinci-
dence – there is ample evidence that submarines have frequently been associated
with the carnivorous animals from the depths. Germany’s youngest submarine
(212A class), U-34 includes a hammerhead shark in its insignia. A large number
of German submarines in World War II had various images of sharks as their
emblem on the conning tower; even the ill-fated U-Hai continued this tradi-
tion (Figure 1). And a number of them were specially decorated: the bow of the
German ‘secret weapon’ would occasionally have a shark’s jaws as special orna-
ment, indicating the murderous stealth and danger of this weapon. This likening
is especially obvious in the ‘Maling’ (drawing) on the BIBER mini-submarine still
preserved in the Royal Navy Submarine Museum in Gosport: with its straight
deck and its conspicuous jaws, the submarine strikingly resembles the famous
great white in the movie Jaws – or rather, the infamous mechanical model that
caused so many problems to the film crew (Figure 2).
The reader may by now – and with good reason – wonder what subma-
rines and sharks have to do in a horror periodical. In the past 150 years, sub-
marines have assumed a considerable significance in the public awareness.
Due to the dissemination of their aura as secret and deadly weapon, they have
been turned into a myth (the term here is used in the modern sense estab-
lished by Roland Barthes): a master story strongly linked in the first instance
to propaganda, later to the media’s need to arouse interest for commercial or
ideological reasons.
It is the medium of film that has contributed decisively to
the proliferation of the ‘submarine myth’ – most notably, the famous Das Boot
(Wolfgang Petersen, 1981), but also the Hollywood productions of the 1950s
and the 1980s onwards.
The quoted evidence from the history of submarines
shows that the myth of the submarines (or U-boats, as the German World
War I and II submarines were called) is intricately linked to the myth of the
shark: a monster that comes from the depth, unheard and unseen, strikes and
retreats with the same stealth and speed. Again, the fear of sharks, a variation
of the deeper fear of the uncanny (cf. Sigmund Freud’s famous essay of 1919),
has been widely spread through one film: the 1975 blockbuster Jaws by Steven
Spielberg. Generally, submarine and shark films are not associated with each
It is less obvious, though, that these entangled myths have got very
much to do with sound – and equally with its opposite, silence. Sound, in
turn, leads to music: the music of the submarines, the music of the sharks, as
HOST 1.1_art_Koldau_089-110.indd 90 12/30/09 8:48:54 AM
Of Submarines and Sharks: Musical Settings of a Silent Menace
Figure 1: Emblem of U-Hai (sunk in 1966), preserved in the museum of the Marine-Ehrenmal Laboe
(photo: Linda Maria Koldau).
HOST 1.1_art_Koldau_089-110.indd 91 12/30/09 8:48:54 AM
Linda Maria Koldau





















HOST 1.1_art_Koldau_089-110.indd 92 1/2/10 4:45:36 PM
Of Submarines and Sharks: Musical Settings of a Silent Menace
5. The genre question is
discussed in detail in
Koldau 2010a.
represented in film, is used to arouse emotions in the audience which bring
home the shark or submarine myth to them like an acoustic imprint.
This article aims to introduce a filmic genre which lives on a historical and
literary myth – intricately linked to a more archaic myth of mankind, the fear
of the unknown, a silent menace – and to show how sound and music are used
in films belonging to this genre to affect the audience by these very ‘myths’
and their long-standing connotations of that silent menace, the unseen peril
from the depths.
A recent publication on the genesis of Petersen’s Das Boot includes a filmo-
graphy of 150 submarine films (Kamps 2006). Although submarine films are
generally considered to be a sub-genre of the war film, the broad spectrum in
this filmography clearly shows that there is more to this specific group of films.

While the majority of films indeed treat episodes from World War II, World
War I, and from the Cold War, there are quite a number of films that can by
no means be subsumed under the genre of war film. Thus, there are spy films
(Lieutenant Rose and the Stolen Submarine, [Percy Stow 1910]; Lieutenant Pimple
and the Stolen Submarine [Fred Evans, Joe Evans, 1914]; The Spy in Black [Michael
Powell, 1939]; Ice Station Zebra [John Sturges, 1968]; The Spy Who Loved Me
[Lewis Gilbert, 1977]), action films (Crash Dive I and II [Andrew Stevens 1997;
Fred Olen Ray, 1999]); Yuryeoung Phantom: The Submarine [Byung-chun Min,
1999]; Submerged [Anthony Hickox, 2005]), there are rescue dramas (Gray Lady
Down [David Greene, 1978]), comedies (Operation Petticoat, [Blake Edwards,
1959]; Il Sommergibile Più Pazzo del Mondo/The Craziest Submarine in the World
[Mariano Laurenti, 1982]; Going Under [Mark W. Travis, 1990/91]; Down
Periscope [David S. Ward, 1996]), fantasy films (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
[Richard Fleischer, 1954]; Kaitei Gunkan [Ishirô Honda, 1963]; The Fantastic
Voyage [Richard Fleischer, 1966]), human interest dramas (Hellcats of the Navy
[Nathan Juran, 1957]; K-19 – The Widowmaker [Kathryn Bigelow, 2002]), and
finally, real thrillers including haunting ghosts (Below [David Twohy, 2002]). Of
course, the genres of the films named cannot be neatly separated – quite often
they overlap, adding the thrill of a haunted submarine to the suspense of the
war situation, the dire straits of the Cold War to the claustrophobic submarine
surroundings, and of course, of love stories in manifold variations to the tales of
male combat and heroism. There is quite a number of semantic traits, though,
that is common to them, and these traits are typical of a submarine setting (cf.
the detailed discussion in Koldau 2010a). The structural genre definition, in turn,
can be reduced to the basic contrast between a friendly, safe “inside” and an
inimical “outside” (the enemy, water pressure etc.), thus leading to the funda-
mental structural pattern of fictional film, the tension between good and bad.
If the submarine both as a palpable object and as a symbol is the common
denominator of both semantic and structural traits, it must be asked what
there is about the submarine to make it such an effective object of film (and,
in due course, of film music and sound). The most important elements that
make up the submarine myth, extensively used in literature and film, can be
summarized under the following headings:
The fascination of the third dimension: human endeavour to master the •
depths of the oceans and to survive in inimical surroundings
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Linda Maria Koldau
6. This capability became
shockingly clear
to the Americans
with the ‘Operation
Paukenschlag’ (Operation
Drum-Beat) in January
1942, when German
submarines approached
the American coast
unhindered and wrought
havoc among the
unprotected commercial
7. ‘Der Bericht über den
U-Boot-Krieg der Jahre
1943 bis 1945 ist ein
Bericht aus dem Reich
der Toten. Sie waren
jung: 22, 21 Jahre
die Kommandanten,
die ‘Alten’, 20, 19
die Wachoffiziere.
Ihre Lebenserwartung
betrug wenige Monate,
statistisch waren sie
binnen Jahresfrist alle
tot. Wenn die Boote La
Rochelle oder Brest, La
Pallice oder Bordeaux
verließen, verdichteten
sich Krieg und
Geschichte zum raum-
und zeitlosen Kampf
ums Überleben, der fast
immer verlorenging.
Nicht mehr das
‘Großdeutsche Reich’
kämpfte gegen die
‘Seemächte’, sondern
vierzig bis fünfzig
Jugendliche gegen das
unerschöpfliche Potential
des halben Erdballs.’
‘The account of
the submarine war
1939–1945 is an
account from the realm
of the dead. They were
young: the commanders,
the ‘grizzled’, 22 or
21 years, the officers
20, 19 years. Their
life expectancy was a
few months, they were
virtually all dead within
a year. When the boats
left La Rochelle or Brest,
La Pallice or Bordeaux,
war and history were
condensed to a timeless
struggle for survival,
which was almost always
lost. It was not the
‘Great German Reich’
that fought against the
‘naval powers’, but forty
to fifty youths against the
inexhaustible potential
of half of the globe’
(Salewski 1985: 29).
The aura of the secret weapon: its capability to approach the enemy •
the myth constructed after World War I (and also applied to
World War II) that the German submarines would almost have decided
the war in favour of Germany
The fascination of technology: technical innovation lifting man above his •
natural possibilities; man as a perfectly functioning implement in a high-
tech surrounding
Special qualities of the submariners’ service: comradeship among men, •
mutual trust, ‘Schicksalsgemeinschaft’ (all live, fight, and die together; one
for all and all for one)
The heroic combat with all kinds of enemies in extremely confined sur- •
roundings: fire, water, time running out, nuclear radiation, outward ene-
mies, mutiny/treason
The youth of the submariners: David (small, vulnerable, isolated) •
against Goliath (several allied armies, larger forces, better possibilities of
The figure of the Commander: hero and father, head and brain of the •
entire boat and the crew
Most of these characteristics can be used to build up a specific suspense, thus sup-
porting the covert or open fear of danger that is so central to submarine films: the
constant menace of the underwater setting (water pressure, leaks, and in fantasy
films also sea monsters attacking submarines); the menace of underwater or sur-
face enemies in a war situation; the potential failure of the technical equipment
(which is the central premise for survival in a submarine); the immediate dangers
deriving from such a failure (fire, water, radiation); in some settings also treason
among the crew members or personal failure of the leading officers.
Of course, the above enumeration cannot be seen as fixed and complete; there
are many more motives recurring again and again in submarine literature and
film. They are generally more open, though. Thus, the above-mentioned char-
acteristics of the submarine setting are supplemented by other stock motives in
naval literature and film: the conflict between the Commander and his Executive
the threat of global nuclear destruction; the elitist standing of the sub-
mariners in society (this was the case in Germany during World War II, owing to
the myth about the U-boat heroes of World War I that had systematically been
built up and spread in German publicity and film); the relationship between man
and sea; the sailors’ isolation and their longing for home; the disturbing presence
of women on board (a motif used for romantic or comedy effects).
All these motifs add up to the perfect fabric of filmic drama: a company
of young and brave men is put into a borderline situation, their eagerness
for combat, their comradeship, their heroism are put to the test and seen in
contrast to mortal fear, a nerve-racking chase, and cruel death. A considerable
number of submarine films even relinquish the subject of love – without losing
any of their drama and tension.
And the men are isolated, not only removed
from their families and loved ones but quite often also from their headquar-
ters: contact broken by way of damaged antennae, malfunction of the radio
transmission, breakdown of the sonar system, and other ‘coincidences’ are
a leitmotif in submarine films and serve to focus on the extreme pressure of
responsibility weighing down on the young men’s shoulders.
There is one further leitmotif common to all submarine films and it is this
leitmotif that poses a problem in the context of the soundscape of submarines:
stealth. The Howaldtwerke Deutsche Werft – Germany’s central shipyard for
HOST 1.1_art_Koldau_089-110.indd 94 12/30/09 8:49:01 AM
Of Submarines and Sharks: Musical Settings of a Silent Menace
8. The classic example of
this is, of course, The
Caine Mutiny (1954)
with the famous conflict
between the paranoid
Commander (Humphrey
Bogart) and his
conscientious Executive
Officer (Van Johnson).
Dissent between the two
senior officers of the boat
is a recurrent motive in
submarine films, most
notably exploited in the
fictitious drama Crimson
Tide (1995), focusing
on the disagreement
over the launching of a
nuclear missile against
Russian rebels.
9. A separate study on
gender construction in
submarine films is under
10. In fact, Günter Rohrbach,
the producer of Das
Boot, was warned
beforehand that a
film ‘without women
and without love’ was
condemned to failure,
but the success of the
film proved the contrary.
Although the director
Wolfgang Petersen gave
the love story between
Fähnrich Ullmann and
the French girl Françoise
(only hinted at in the
novel by Lothar-Günther
Buchheim) more room in
the film, including extra
scenes, this episode
is of no importance to
the actual plot. Leaving
it out would not have
damaged the film at all.
11. This isolation is not
necessarily due to
defects: nuclear
submarines patrolling
in the Cold War, and
after, often had to
maintain radio silence in
order to avoid detection.
Accordingly, many films
play on the motif of
extremely dangerous
situations that eventually
force the Commander
of a submarine to
countermand this
order and enter
into contact with his
headquarters (e.g.
Hostile Waters [David
Drury, 1986]; The Hunt
for Red October [John
McTiernan, 1989]).
building submarines – advertises its latest submersible product, the 214-class
submarine, as ‘an air-independent but non-nuclear submarine with excep-
tional technical and operational capabilities, featuring extraordinarily devel-
oped stealth characteristics and an impressive weapon and sensor payload’.
Stealth is the primary weapon of a submarine: the element of surprise that
turns it into a deadly ‘shark’ or ‘wolf’. This primary feature, though, poses a
problem to film directors: how are sound designers to tackle a subject that
emits – due to the combined efforts of high-tech development and the navy –
less and less noise? The directors of the very first submarine films were privi-
leged in this respect: their films were silent – the only sound accompanying the
notorious submersibles was the music of the theatre pianists. Unfortunately,
we do not know how Lieutenant Rose and the Stolen Submarine (1910) and its
1914 parody Lieutenant Pimple and the Stolen Submarine were accompanied –
but certainly not by the imitation of propulsion sounds or the famous ‘ping’.
In the course of time, the submarine films became more realistic, at least
in their depiction of the submarines, while layers of mystification and propa-
ganda were added to the filmic representation of reality. Thus, the soundscape
integrates the flapping of waves against the boat’s hull, the sound effects of
detection, the propulsion and detonation of torpedoes, and the incisive ringing
of alarms. More intriguing, though, are the sounds of the strange underwater
world: they offer the perfect material to be exploited on the soundtrack of a
submarine film. The speed of sound in water is 4.4 times greater than in air,
and the density ratio of sound is about 820.
Thus, any sound made on the
surface or under water is magnified and transported at a far greater speed than
sound in air. Due to the varying density, temperature and salinity of ocean
water, the transportation and reflection of sound varies strongly underwater;
the thermocline – a thin layer in the ocean that separates mixed layers of water
above from calm deep water below and that functions as a reflector of sound –
as well as numerous other special effects in underwater acoustics make mat-
ters even more complicated. These physical preconditions have been used and
refined in submarine warfare throughout the twentieth century; among oth-
ers, the famous ‘ping’ of the sonar depends on them. For a film setting, these
circumstances are ideal to create a soundscape that transports something of
the strangeness and distortion of sound under water – and thus, sound is one
of the strongest elements to enhance the effect of estrangement and hidden
danger in submarine films (Koldau 2010b). The fact that underwater sounds
in films are often conceived diegetically, but at the same time transgress the
borders of the familiar by their (natural) distortion, makes them so unsettling:
they blur the line between the diegetic and the non-diegetic, the known world
and something beyond (an effect which is often used in horror films).
Another element of the soundtrack is also characteristic of the special world
of the submarines, albeit less conspicuous: language is turned into technical
and martial litanies as the commands for submerging, surfacing, and firing
are reiterated according to the chain of command. Lothar-Günther Buchheim,
the late author of the bestseller Das Boot, stresses the musical character of
these reiterations several times in his novel, and in his original film script for
Das Boot he puts special emphasis on the sound effect of these linguistic lita-
nies (Buchheim 1981).
Thus, the language in a submarine setting assumes a
musical character – or at least that of a distinct and recognizable sound effect.
Nobody who has watched Das Boot several times will fail to notice the neat
acoustic and visual imitation of some its central scenes in the 2000 production
U-571 (director Jonathan Mostow). And American audiences will not forget
HOST 1.1_art_Koldau_089-110.indd 95 12/30/09 8:49:01 AM
Linda Maria Koldau
12. http://www.
Accessed 17 April
13. Detailed information is
offered by Urick 1983;
cf. also Brown and
Colling 1995.
14. The stock setting would
be the gradual change
from some natural sound
(e.g. the creaking of
a door) into something
definitely supernatural.
For the broad gamut
of possibilities offered
and used by sound
design, cf. Chion 2002;
Chion 1994; Langkjær
1997; Langkjær 2000;
Flückiger 2001.
15. This film script was not
used by the director
Wolfgang Petersen,
who eventually wrote
the script for Das Boot
16. For an extensive
discussion of the
expressive use of silence
(and language) in film
cf. Grover-Friedlander
17. Interestingly, Wolfgang
Petersen did not make
use of the sound effect
Buchheim described as
the most frightening in
his novel. In the film,
only the conspicuous
ping of the destroyer’s
sonar is heard in the
film, but not the ASDIC,
which is described like
the sound ‘of a handful
of gravel’ by Buchheim
and other witnesses of
the submarine war.
Clark Gable’s obsessive ‘Dive! Dive!’ in Run Silent, Run Deep (Robert Wise,
1958), the American standard command for a submarine’s diving.
While the submarines do everything to fulfil their number one task of stealth,
it is these sounds – the sound effects of the technical surrounding and of the sea
(itself a strong amplifier of sound) as well as the phonetic fingerprint of the ‘sub-
marine language’ – that make up the acoustic world of the ‘Silent Service’ (as the
submarine section in the US Navy is called). And it is analysis of the acoustic sur-
roundings that becomes the essential perceptive sense of the blind giants in the
depths: it is the sounds that are the ‘eyes’ of the submarines. In the 1930s there
existed gramophone records with characteristic underwater sounds, including all
kinds of warships, by which the sonar men (‘Horcher’/listeners) were trained for
their German U-boat service (Möller and Brack 2002). Today, a ship can be iden-
tified by the sound of its propeller – and not just the class of ship, but the very
ship itself. Sound is like a fingerprint, and it is unique to every vessel.
Indeed, sound is a central, maybe the strongest and most flexible char-
acteristic of the submarine myth. Buchheim’s meticulous description of life
on a German VIIc-type submarine offers a cosmos of sound: he distinguishes
more than 40 sorts of sound that can be categorized into sounds of propulsion,
sounds of board life, sounds of storm, sounds of attack and submarine chase –
and all those categories evince a broad spectrum of sub-categories. Last, but by
no means least there is the ‘sound of silence’ – the silence of the stealthy hunt,
the silence of deadly fear between the destroyer’s ‘pings’, finally the silence of
death far below the surface of the sea. It is obvious that this silence is an emo-
tionally highly charged dramatic element in any kind of submarine film.
Directors of submarine films have increasingly taken heed of this wealth
of sound and silence. Due to digital sound mastering, the soundtracks of more
recent films have become extremely complex, combining all sorts of sounds
and exploiting their emotional potential. Again it is Das Boot that set the sub-
marine standard with its soundscape: the famous ‘ping’ – a sound effect com-
poser Klaus Doldinger found so fascinating that he explicitly integrated it into
his musical score – has become the signum of the submarine film ever since.
However, this effect is by no means as original as one might think. Countless
earlier films display the ominous ‘ping’ and also other sounds that are found
again in Das Boot.
In later films, though, acoustic and visual levels merge: on
today’s sonar systems, sounds are registered electronically, processed digitally
and thus transferred to the visual level on the sonar display, accompanied by
nerve-racking acoustic blips if an enemy is detected. Many films that feature
the nuclear submarines of the Cold War and post-Cold War period make dra-
matic use of this special acoustic-visual phenomenon – turning the sounds
and technicalities of the submarine into an intentional interaction of the filmic
levels and our senses.
In contrast to sound and language, the musical element of the sound-
track cannot be identified as a specifically submarine type of composition.
Aficionados of submarine films often ask if a specific ‘music of the subma-
rines’ can be identified. This is not the case, though: music does not have a
special ‘submarine’ code. Instead, the non-diegetic musical score has to inter-
act acoustically with the ‘realism’ of sound and language, and it has to react
to the exigencies of the plot, of its historical setting, of the dominant lines of
action and of the emotions exposed in the visuals of the film. Thus, submarine
films offer a broad gamut of musical scores, ranging from the stock-in-trade
military fanfares and ‘Schlager’ of German films of the 1930s and 1940s via
the blaring brass and luscious violins of Hollywood productions in the 1950s
HOST 1.1_art_Koldau_089-110.indd 96 12/30/09 8:49:01 AM
Of Submarines and Sharks: Musical Settings of a Silent Menace
18. Deutscher
1982; Gold and
Platin in 1992; after
a digital reworking of
the soundtrack, Gold
again in 1996. There
are several versions
of Das Boot available
on DVD today. The
original movie version
of 1981 was re-edited
and published as ‘The
Director’s Cut’ in 1997;
this version features
a highly improved
soundtrack with a new
synchronization, several
sound channels and
subwoofer. Equally,
the TV version of 1985
(almost five hours in
length) was improved
both in visuals and
sound for the DVD
edition of 2004.
19. Here, the fallacies of
memory, that are a
typical impediment
in working with oral
history, have of course
to be taken into account.
Yet even if the old
submariner’s recollection
of the actual sound (as
he had experienced it
in the 1930s) mingled
with his experience of
having seen the film
Das Boot, his excitement
engendered by hearing
the sound of the ping
again and in quite
another context gives
evidence of the strong
emotional impact of this
sound, whether artificially
produced or real, on a
person familiar with the
submarine world.
to the extreme diversity of musical scores from the late 1970s onwards, when
synthesizers and electronic sound started to be integrated into film scores. If
there is no specific ‘submarine music’, the question has to be asked in a differ-
ent way: How does music contribute to the central elements of the submarine
myth, how does it bring home to the audience the decisive awareness of a
silent menace, of an unseen peril?
There are, of course, countless ways in music – especially if classical, elec-
tronic, and digital ways of composition are united – to evoke and intensify the
suspense based on the fear of a silent menace. It would not make much sense to
enumerate the solutions found in the submarine films accessible to us today –
especially, since the question of compositional techniques to create a certain
atmosphere overlaps with the large-scale development of film music in the
twentieth century, which cannot be ignored when examining the soundtrack
of submarine films. In order to avoid too complex a constellation, I shall con-
centrate on films produced after 1980 to outline a few compositional techniques
and to illustrate how the strangeness of the underwater world in combination
with the silent menace of an unseen enemy is transformed into music.
The most famous of all submarine music is probably the soundtrack of Das
Boot by Klaus Doldinger, which received the highest awards of the German
music industry in the 1980s and 1990s.
As mentioned above, Klaus Doldinger
intentionally integrated the fascinating sound of the ‘ping’ into his musical
score, thus linking it inseparably to the soundscape of the submarines. It is
this ping that creates a highly emotional effect on the listener: even those
who know very little about submarine warfare will know that the unexpected
sound of a ping means the worst has happened – the boat has been detected.
In fact, an 88 year old submariner, who was in service on the first German
submarines after World War I from 1935 onwards, became all excited when
I played the soundtrack to him and he heard the ‘ping’: ‘Yes, that’s what it
sounded like! That’s exactly as I heard it off the coast of Helgoland!’
emotional impact of the ‘ping’ is used extensively in Das Boot, when the sub-
marine is hunted by destroyers – the reiteration of this sound effect turns into
a nerve-racking torture, for the crew knows that the water bombs will come
in due course.
It is this emotional impact of a sound effect, subsequently combined with
the musical main theme of Das Boot, which is used at the very opening of the
film. At first sight, the title sequence appears to be quite conventional, if not
technically simple compared to films produced just a few years later. The audi-
ence is confronted with a black screen on which, in simple white letters, the
situation is soberly sketched: U-boat war in the Atlantic in 1941. However,
this frugal visual opening is imbued with an atmosphere of stealthy menace
by acoustic means. The black screens with the white writing are acoustically
underscored by the sound of underwater propulsion and an occasional ping.
As the sequence culminates in Buchheim’s telling – albeit slightly incorrect –
statement, ‘Of the 40,000 German U-boat sailors serving in World War II 30,000
never returned’, the ominous sounds reveal their deadly message. It is at this
point that the music begins: the propulsion sounds are overlaid by high vio-
lin tension, the black turns into a dark, yet transparent, somewhat menacing
green: we are in the depths of the ocean. From these depths, low strings begin
to unwind and rise. They seem to herald a dark shape that can be faintly dis-
cerned far away in the middle of the screen: a long shadow, dark and threat-
ening, drawing nearer and nearer. The strings seem to entangle and stifle the
audience as the shadow turns into a black giant from the depth and overrides
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Linda Maria Koldau
the spectator – cold, emotionless, merciless. The music explodes, and the dark-
ness of the uncanny monster turns into the famous letters perforated by bul-
lets: DAS BOOT. By now, the audience knows that it is to enter a horrifying,
merciless world: the underwater world of submarine warfare.
Doldinger’s music seems to rise naturally from the submarine soundscape:
the tension of the strings is added to the noise of the propulsion, the dark,
winding main theme becomes the musical counterpart to the thrilling impulse
of the ping. This technique of merging submarine sounds with music is con-
tinued throughout the soundtrack of Das Boot – and thus, the music of this
film has become to millions of people the music of a submarine scenario, an
acoustic emblem of the U-boat warfare in World War II.
A similar technique, less conspicuous, but of astounding emotional effect,
is used in Hostile Waters (David Drury, music by David Ferguson, 1997),
a film that dramatizes a submarine disaster that happened in October 1986
on the Atlantic Ocean. The film conflates two disasters that happened inde-
pendently on two Soviet nuclear submarines within a few days: while a fire
broke out on a Soviet submarine with nuclear missiles near Bermuda, another
nuclear submarine with missiles on board collided with the U.S.S. Augusta, an
American nuclear submarine on patrol in the Atlantic. Like the later K-19 –
The Widowmaker (2002), Hostile Waters focuses on the Russian crew and their
heroic fight against the desperate situation on board, depicting the enemy’s
soldiers as young, playful, and good-humoured, but brave and ready for self-
sacrifice. Although there are also a few short scenes on the U.S.S. Augusta, the
film concentrates entirely on the Soviet submarine and its crew. Again, it is
the music and the soundscape of the film that make clear from the very outset
that this boat and its men are doomed: almost the entire soundtrack is under-
pinned by an ominous throbbing sound, sometimes isolated like a ‘realistic’
sound of submarine technology, sometimes integrated into the musical fabric
of the film. At first sight, the film starts like Das Boot: a black screen with a text
in white letters, informing us that the incident shown in the film took place
right before the summit of Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavik
on 11 October, 1986, and that the submarine collision off the East Coast imper-
iled not only this political summit, but also the lives of millions of people. The
affirmation that the following movie is a ‘reconstruction’ of the incident at sea,
based on interviews and the testimonies of people involved, and that it shows
an event which has been denied by the US Navy up to this day, is a stock-in-
trade feature of submarine films which, if set in a historical context, aim at the
display of utmost ‘authenticity’. The claim to bring to light some decisive and
dangerous military event hitherto hidden from our knowledge is, by the way,
another facet of the submarine myth. The screen and the soundtrack of the
opening scenes of Hostile Waters almost seem to copy the opening of Das Boot.
The first screen informs us that the cat-and-mouse game between American
and Soviet nuclear submarines was considered a serious and growing threat
to the political balance of the 1980s. We then hear an indefinite, low growling
sound, reminding us of the propulsion sounds of a submarine. Reverberating,
unsettling sound effects give the impression that we are under water, though
there is not the characteristic ‘ping’ to be heard. However, the growling sound
quickly develops into musical fabric, and it becomes clear that it is low brass
instruments, mixed with synthesizer sounds, we hear. From this fabric, the
opening motif of the main theme in d-minor arises (Figure 3).
The motif, exposed by low strings in a ponderous, serious manner and
then taken up by a solo trumpet, heralds a tragic story. Taken by itself, the
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Of Submarines and Sharks: Musical Settings of a Silent Menace
weighty minor theme, composed by David Ferguson in the late romantic tra-
dition, might stand for any tragic subject matter. But there is more to it than
a minor context and the ponderous melody – the music is unsettlingly enli-
vened by throbbing pulsations, which seem to exist independently from the
theme, disturbing the flowing character of the melodic strains. The sound-
track is thus filled by an inner unrest and it is this unrest that will prevail
throughout the entire film. While the film’s opening proceeds with the grand,
melancholy theme and its unsettling throbbing underground, the visuals
propel us into quite another place: we watch a digital rendering of the ocean
floor, as it might be visualized on a high-tech submarine of the Cold War,
and from the digital underwater canyons, a nuclear submarine soundlessly
emerges, again rendered in digital reconstruction. As we are visually ‘taken’
into the submarine and gradually ‘shown’ the control room, the silo with the
ballistic missiles, and the reactor compartment, an isolated, distinctive ‘ping’
is heard in each section, with the musical flow going on undisturbed. The
premise is set: it is the silo and the reactor where the deadly defects will hap-
pen, and it is the control room where the most difficult decisions will have to
be taken by the commander (including a short-term dive with open hatches
to extinguish the uncontrollable fire in the silo and the sacrifice of a member
of the crew to shut the reactor down). By this time, the throb has turned into
a regular, dotted double beat integrated into the musical fabric, though nev-
ertheless continuing to enliven it.
After an introduction that bodes no good, the film itself opens with an
innocent scene: young Soviet sailors in the mess room making fun of the cook
(traditionally a comical figure in submarine and navy films). Only gradually
does the spectator realize that there is a very quiet, but constant double throb
to the leisurely jesting of the young men. The throbbing becomes more con-
spicuous when the scene turns to the command centre, where ballistic missiles
are being programmed, with various metropoles on the American East Coast
as targets. There is no music in these opening scenes, and when the throbbing
becomes more clearly heard, it seems at first to be a realistic by-product of the
submarine’s stealthy course. This impression, however, is incorrect. Although
not as quiet as the later Victor, Akula, and Sierra classes, submarines of the
Yankee and Delta class (to which the ill-fated Soviet submarines of October
1986 belonged) would never emit such a distinctive throbbing sound. This
sound is clearly non-diegetic – and therefore atmospheric. As we see the
familiar map of the United States, the screen suddenly turns dark, strings
set in – and we see the ominous shapes of the nuclear missiles with the red
Soviet star. The throb appears to have disappeared, but this is not the case:
instead, is has become integrated into the music, a stealthy counterpoint to
the slow, hesitating sounds of the violins, which themselves utter throbbing,
or rather sighing, melodic fragments. Again we see the map, and we hear
the officer’s voice, punctuated by varying scenes in the boat: ‘Washington –
programmed’ – ‘Philadelphia – programmed’ – ‘New York – programmed’.
The scenario is one of impending danger – deadly danger. The music becomes
louder and louder with the growing menace, brass instruments entering. And
Figure 3: Opening motif to the main theme of the music to Hostile Waters.
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Linda Maria Koldau
20. In fact, this melody
seems to be closely
modelled on Brünhilde’s
emphatic greeting to
Sieglinde, ‘… den
hehrsten Helden der
Welt bergst du, o Weib,
im schirmenden Schoß!’
at the end of Act 3,
Scene 1 in Richard
Wagner’s The Valkyrie.
It reappears several
times until Wotan’s great
farewell to Brünhilde in
the final scene of The
Valkyrie: ‘Wer meines
Speeres Spitze fürchtet,
durchschreite das Feuer
21. This hymn was written
and set to music in the
nineteenth century on
the occasion of a sea
passage from Britain to
America. It has become
the official hymn of the
British and the American
Navies, with many extra
verses for the individual
units, among them also
a verse for submariners
(Bless those who serve
beneath the deep, /
Through lonely hours
their vigil keep. / May
peace their mission ever
be, / Protect each one
we ask of Thee. / Bless
those at home who wait
and pray, / For their
return by night and day).
Director James Cameron
also used it as diegetic
music for a protestant
service on the Titanic in
his blockbuster Titanic
again we hear the throb, like the famous ‘knocking of doom’ that has become
the popular, or rather populist interpretation of the opening ‘da-da-da-daaa’
of Beethoven’s Fifth. Here, the throbbing is not dramatic but ubiquitous and
therefore relentless. There is an incisive irony when the music sets in, linking
the programming of the missiles (experienced by a Western audience as a
deadly menace) with the sight of the missiles themselves: in a few minutes,
the red star, painted as triumphant token of the Soviet Union on the missiles,
will turn into the ill-starred fate of the Soviet crew, since it is the leak in the
fuel pipe of this missile, caused by the collision with the U.S.S. Aurora (as
the U.S.S. Augusta was renamed in the film), that will eventually lead to the
Soviet submarine’s doom.
The throbbing continues throughout the film; there are only few scenes in
which it is absent and, tellingly, these are scenes that are outside the Soviet
boat. Thus, this throb – merging sound effect and music – is the aural symbol
of the doomed boat. It is part of the music (in later scenes, it will return as
conspicuous beats or double beats within the musical score), but even more
striking, it is an indispensable part of the Soviet submarine’s soundscape. To
an untrained listener, it may appear like a real, diegetic sound in submarine
technology, but in fact it is an emotional cue telling us about the boat’s fate
from the very start of the film.
Two years before the production of Hostile Waters, another submarine
film came out, which not only set standards for later submarine productions,
but seemed to prophesize the asymmetrical war situation that has decisively
changed the tasks of the international navy forces in the past few years.
Crimson Tide (Tony Scott, music by Hans Zimmer, 1995) establishes the ficti-
tious drama of Russian nationalist rebels taking over various military bases in
the former Soviet Union and threatening to fire nuclear missiles onto targets
in the US and Japan. The U.S.S. Alabama is ordered into the Northern Pacific
to prevent this attack by destroying the rebels’ base with trident missiles. Due
to a defect in radio communication, only fragments of a second ‘emergency
action message’ (EAM) of the national military command centre gets through
to the submarine, and a decisive conflict develops between Commander
Ramsey (Gene Hackmann) and the young Executive Officer Ron Hunter
(Denzel Washington), leading to mutiny on the boat. Again, we have the
well-known characteristics of time running out, an underwater submarine
chase and duel, tension between the Commander and his Executive Officer,
and global responsibility put into the hand of an isolated Commander and
his crew.
In terms of the music, the score by Hans Zimmer is the least ‘classical’
among the films discussed so far: except for its main theme, a grand melody
with a clearly Wagnerian pathos,
and the chorale Eternal Father, strong to
we have an almost amorphous soundscape. This is filled with uncanny
electronic sounds and low drones, with unsettlingly long-drawn brass sounds,
and dark throbbing rhythms – an impalpable menace surrounding us without
clear direction.
Crimson Tide offers a highly interesting combination of the acoustic merging
of commercial and filmic elements. The opening of the film displays an inte-
gration of the dramatic soundtrack and commercial targets: as usual, the film
opens with the logo of the film company (Hollywood pictures), dramatized by
acoustic and visual elements to convince the audience that this company has
a sublime product to offer. However, it is not the usual fanfare we hear: the
visuals are already underpinned by what turns out to be the soundscape of
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Of Submarines and Sharks: Musical Settings of a Silent Menace
22. The music is written
down after listening to
the soundtrack; slight
discrepancies with
the original may have
23. In fact, the news reporter
Richard Valeriani is a
real character, adding
yet more ‘authenticity’ to
this introduction: in real
life, the well-known NBC
news reporter Richard
Valeriani was active in
the period 1961–1988,
covering, among other
‘big stories’, the entire
Falkland War for his
24. Tellingly, the drone
becomes clearly
perceivable at precisely
the same moment as the
words ‘nuclear attack on
the United States and
Japan’ are uttered.
25. The telephone is a
typical object for the
sound effect of an
urgent alarm in films. Cf.
Debatin/Wulff 1991.
the film. A low, menacing drone sets in while the screen is still dark, and odd
reverberating sounds from a netherworld convey the impression of an endless
space; indefinite vocalizations are heard, reiterating a minor third, like some
archaic invocation. These low sounds are answered by the shocking crack of a
thunderbolt, and out of this comes a trumpet solo, hesitatingly answered by a
trombone (Figure 4).
In the following sequences of the film, music drops in and out – yet
despite the pauses, it continues to build up a seamlessly dark and threatening
atmosphere. The movie opens with a CNN news report informing the audi-
ence (and an imagined ‘diegetic audience’ of the filmic present) about Russian
national rebels taking over greater and greater territories of the former Soviet
Union. This report is underscored by long-drawn trombone sounds – hover-
ing, luring low sounds that serve to dramatize the already highly dramatic
pictures of spreading rebellion and warfare ‘really’ happening in the unstable
eastern republics. Completing this opening of impending, deadly danger is the
voice report of CNN journalist Richard Valeriani, who speaks in the standard
news reporter style, but the phonetics of his report add to the urgency of the
Due to his being on an aircraft carrier with the extreme noise of
starting air-fighters in the background, his voice is loud and urgent, obviously
excited – and obviously anxious. The audience is immediately drawn into the
plot: music, visuals, sound effects, and language make it clear to the spectator
that we are on the brink of a global military disaster.
As the trombone notes become more and more urgent, building up to
some yet unknown climax, the end of the report overlaps with helicopter
noise (another stock sound effect in film that conveys the feeling of urgency),
and the trombones, suddenly supported by percussion, come to an end with
a last, menacing major second step, avoiding the conclusiveness of a leading
tone – a brutal confrontation of something inevitable to come.
After the dramatic contrast of an innocent birthday party for the 4 year
old daughter of Ron Hunter (with no musical underscoring), the drone sets in
again as Hunter and his friend Peter Ince (as we later learn, Weapon Officer
on the same boat) notice a news report about the dangerous situation in the
Ince’s hopeful words – ‘Maybe it’s not as bad as it looks’ – are coun-
tered by a chilling sound effect: the penetrating ring of Hunter’s telephone,
immediately answered by the urgent beep of Ince’s alarm.
The image is
symbolic: the telephone lies right next to the birthday cake with its burning
candles on top – global evil has broken into the innocent birthday party of a
little girl and her family.
Finally, at the briefing of the officers, a familiar sound effect returns: the
extreme danger, as summarized by Admiral Anderson, is underscored by a
Figure 4: Opening melodic motif of the score to Crimson Tide.
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Linda Maria Koldau
26. Cf. Koldau 2008a.
27. Cf. the statement of
Christine Whitaker,
producer of the National
Geographic TV-Series
Explorer: ‘It does what
the best National
Geographic stories do
[…] It brings you into
another place, another
culture, and it humanizes
the people who inhabit
that world. Historically,
Russians have been
portrayed in the movies
as our traditional enemy,
but this story gave us
the chance to show
the heroism of these
people in a moment of
real crisis’(http://www.
Accessed 17 April
28. The clicking of this
alarm is another sound
effect frequently used
in this film to indicate
the deadly danger of
nuclear contamination.
slow, brooding minor motif – and this again is underpinned by a throbbing
rhythm (Figure 5).
Again, it is an ominous, continuous throb that adds a distinct sense of
urgency to the soundscape of submarine films. Like the strange, long-held
tones, the low drones, the chant-like vocalizations and the odd electronic
sounds, this throbbing will turn up again and again in the soundtrack of the
movie, filling it with a sense of immediate danger and deadly seriousness.
A final example introduces another simple, yet effective musical tech-
nique to create the feeling of rising tension and growing danger. K-19 –
The Widowmaker (Kathryn Bigelow, music by Klaus Badelt, 2002) tells the
story of the Russian nuclear submarine K-19, the first Russian submarine
to be armed with nuclear missiles. On its maiden voyage in the summer
of 1961, this submarine had a deadly reactor defect which cost the lives of
more than ten crew members. With the exception of the ‘war music’ (used
for drills and the firing of the test missile), Klaus Badelt’s film music con-
centrates entirely on the tragic doom of the submarine: the score, written
in a late romantic style, is a large-scale variation on two intricately linked
minor themes, which adapt the respective situation and imbue the entire
film with a sense of doom.
Compared to other submarine films, K-19 – The
Widowmaker makes little use of characteristic submarine sounds; instead,
it concentrates almost entirely on the ‘human interest story’, which the
producers wished to highlight.
However, in the luscious, almost unin-
terrupted musical flow, there is a tiny instance that seems to turn into an
aural personification of the unseen, deadly radiation that is contaminating
the boat. Occasionally, the main musical theme of the film, a strong, heavy
minor melody, is made more poignant through a long-held note by a solo
trumpet, which builds up a strong tension against the melody. In fact, the
juxtaposition of a static sound and movement is a standard technique in
general composition, and especially in film music, to create tension. In
K-19 – The Widowmaker it is applied several times, most noticeably at the
point when the radiation level in the boat is slowly, imperceptibly rising.
The single note of a solo trumpet is heard for more than one minute – a
long span of time in a film – set off against a few, plucked string notes.
The following series of scenes, underscored by this static tone, suggests
imminent misfortune:
K-19 lying helpless and small in the open ocean •
The crew’s deserted quarters with the radiation alarm blinking regularly •
Misha, the pet mouse of a crew member, in agony •
Radiation in the various compartments is measured with a Geiger counter •
The cook asks the commander how he is to feed the men, the food on the •
boat being contaminated
Figure 5: Rhythm as a means of adding urgency in Crimson Tide.
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Of Submarines and Sharks: Musical Settings of a Silent Menace
29. Strictly speaking, it is
only in the mythology of
Hawaii and other Pacific
Ocean cultures that
sharks figure prominently,
being considered gods
and guardians of the
sea. Here, as mentioned
in the introduction, ‘myth’
is used in the modern,
generalized sense: as
a concept imbued with
secondary and symbolic
meanings created by the
collective memory.
30. An (incomplete) list of
shark movies and films
with conspicuous shark
scenes was offered at
(accessed 13 February
2008; not contained
in the current version of
the website any more),
starting with 20,000
Leagues Under the
Sea (Richard Fleischer,
1954) and ending
with the documentary
Sharkwater (Rob Stewart,
The consistent link in this sequence of shots is the radiation that cannot be
seen or felt by the men. Only Misha, the mouse, is already feeling its deadly
effect. The visual manifestation of the deadly danger – the blinking of the
radiation alarm, the mortal agony of the little rodent, a crew member walking
round with the Geiger counter (pursued by the suspicious looks of his com-
rades) – is complemented by the long note of the solo trumpet: an acoustic
sign of rising danger. It is this penetrating, relentless sound that represents
the radiation that cannot be perceived by human senses.
So far, various techniques of representing a silent menace acoustically, the
sense of impending danger from the depths, have been examined. The
question now is, why bring in sharks? Why the elaborate introduction about
the link between sharks and submarines, if they obviously belong to two
quite different worlds, man-made warfare versus nature? Of course, there
are considerable differences if we compare submarine films and horror
films with sharks attacking and devouring people – most of the character-
istics shown to be part of the submarine myth do not apply to the shark
myth, if we can speak of such a ‘myth’ at all.
In fact, a worldwide, almost
contagious, fear of sharks did not spread until the late twentieth century,
when Peter Benchley’s novel Jaws came out in 1974 and was turned into the
famous blockbuster by Steven Spielberg the following year – only then did
the image of the sharp-toothed monster from the ocean’s depth, lurking in
search of human prey, become a kind of universal myth which caused peo-
ple to change their holiday plans from a seashore vacation to hiking in the
mountains. A myth that cost many a fish’s life: Lothar-Günther Buchheim,
already introduced as author of Das Boot, includes a telling scene in his novel
Der Abschied (2000), featuring a realistic and yet symbolic farewell voyage on
the German nuclear tanker Otto Hahn: a (harmless) shark is caught by one
of the most gentle of the sailors, heaved onto deck and brutally slaughtered
by the man, with several sailors and the female stewardesses watching the
slaughter in overwhelmed fascination until one of the women finally cuts
out the shark’s jaws with her own knife (Buchheim 2000). In fact, Spielberg’s
famed movie not only inspired films, computer games, and musical produc-
tions – it has also been criticized by conservation groups, who registered
that it had become considerably harder to convince the public of the need of
protection for sharks after the film had been shown in theatres worldwide
from 1975 onwards (Chapple 2009).
Jaws and its three sequels (1978, 1983, 1987; none of them directed by
Spielberg) were, of course, not the first films to highlight the fear of sharks – the
precursor is probably the shark attack in Walt Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under
the Sea (Richard Fleischer, 1954).
Yet it is Jaws that linked the unseen and
unheard monster inseparably to music – in such a dramatically convincing way
that film composer John Williams received the Academy Award for his score.
The overture to Jaws is so well known that it does not need any descrip-
tion. However, in the light of the openings of submarine films just discussed,
it is remarkable how close this thriller comes to the films belonging to the
submarine genre. In his essay on the opening sequence of Jaws, Alexandre
Tylski has impressively described the make-up and the emotional impact of
the first shot seen:
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Linda Maria Koldau
John Williams’ Ives-like and incisive score deals with the energy and
mythical aspect of this significant introduction. As the movie opens,
the Universal logo appears. We hear mysterious and disturbing sounds,
underwater sounds, sonar blips perhaps (as is clearly heard later in the
film). Nevertheless, the ambiance prepares us to dive. The logo disap-
pears and we remain in the darkness for several seconds (Spielberg is
obviously aware of the primal aspect of a darkened theater). After the
sonar-like sounds, two notes: F then F sharp, low and performed by
a cellist, permeate the theater then suddenly disappear, exactly like a
shark slowly circling its prey, vanishing without warning, then attacking
abruptly from an unknown quarter. Another silence, following which the
producers’ names appear on the screen in response to the shark motif.
(This association between the shark and the producer is amusing since
the film often criticizes the power of money.) The same two notes then
return, followed by a short silence and two other notes, doubled, as in
a mirror. Another silence. Two more notes, still the same, then six more
notes performed crescendo. We feel that something threatening is com-
ing closer and closer but we can see nothing. Williams, by using the cre-
scendo, creates an idea of distance and movement, transforming rhythm
into a highly visual element – which has always been one of Williams’
most effective skills. The movie makes us dive into a world of sounds
before showing us images (though what is heard can conjure up many
images to an imaginative mind). In fact, this overture clearly announces
how the whole film will be organized: some sounds often lead to the
introduction of music and the music often leads to images (the music
enables us to see beyond the images). […] If the sound often comes first
in Jaws, it is likely due to the invisible presence of the monster which we
see only in fragments throughout the movie. Music thus brings an exist-
ence to the void (this is true in some movies and also in some lives). This
musical overture also reminds us of a ballet overture. The composer tries
to capture our attention, giving us the tone of the spectacle before the
curtain opens. In any case, the music here ends as the darkness breaks,
as we burst forth into the opening shot of the movie.
(Tylski 1999)
It is all there: the logo, the black screen, the writing, all very simple and very
sober, a classical film’s opening – if it were not for the sound. As in Das Boot
and Hostile Waters, as in Crimson Tide with its merging of commercial logo
and film sound, the visuals are imbued with a menacing atmosphere due to
the sound underlay. The underwater sounds, fittingly described by Tylski as
‘disturbing’, open the acoustic scene to the presence of the Other – of some
unseen horror, drawing closer and closer. In Das Boot the black giant visually
emerges from the green depths. In Jaws nothing is seen, but it is a two-note
musical motif, a minor second, that represents some horrible threat coming
closer and closer. The audience is even more helpless than in Das Boot, for
there is nothing but blackness – yet the music, with its rhythmic intensifica-
tion and rapid multiplication of the two-note motif, tells the spectator clearly
that a mortal danger is approaching. Other critics have convincingly identified
the famous ostinato theme as a representation of the zealous shark itself:
In fact, the theme represents the internalized zeal of the shark itself –
a flow that Williams and Spielberg allow the audience to listen in on.
HOST 1.1_art_Koldau_089-110.indd 104 12/30/09 8:49:04 AM
Of Submarines and Sharks: Musical Settings of a Silent Menace
31. Cf. a similar judgment of
the theme in the review
of Jaws by Berardinelli
32. It is this optical trick, the
technique of subjective
camera applied to a
monster, that made the
opening of Spielberg’s
film so famous.
33. A remarkable instance of
imitation shows the long-
standing viability of this
theme as a token for the
relentless approach of an
underwater monster: the
1999 production Deep
Blue Sea (Renny Harlin,
music by Trevor Rabin)
pays homage to Jaws
in several ways (even
using the very same
Louisiana registration
plate that is extracted
from the smaller shark’s
stomach in Spielberg’s
blockbuster). The music
in Deep Blue Sea is
radically different from
the symphonic score
used in Jaws, yet it also
relies conspicuously
on the step of a minor
second. However, it
is not the music of the
film itself that rings a
bell: in the USA trailer
of the film, the growing
dramatization of the
gripping plot promised
to the audience is
suddenly underpinned by
an unmistakable imitation
of John Williams’s Jaws
theme as used in the
opening sequence of
Spielberg’s film. It is
all there: the isolated
second, the low strings,
the reiteration of the two-
note motif, and finally
its ruthless acceleration,
conveying a sense of
deadly danger and
determination. The film
itself does not use this
music at all – such
a bland copy of the
famous Jaws score
would probably have
caused a scandal (not
to mention a law suit for
plagiarism). In the trailer,
though, the insertion
of this music perfectly
lives up to a trailer’s
function: it imparts to
the audience that, 24
years after Spielberg’s
great shark success,
The theme speeds up as the shark gets excited, and the theme is absent
from scenes in which the shark isn’t anywhere near, most notably in the
false alarm scenes of mistaken identity. The shark’s primitive and bru-
tal hunting inclinations make the musically simplistic two-note theme
into the embodiment of the shark that Spielberg had struggled to obtain
with the actual physical shark that he had built for the film. Even if you
see a fin in the water, if Williams’ theme isn’t heard, then there’s no
reason to worry or panic.
(Anon. 2003)
As with the ‘ping’ in Das Boot, the spectator instinctively grasps that behind
this music there is a deadly menace. It is a little later in the film (starting with
the scene in which Chrissie dies swimming at night) that the musical theme is
unmistakably linked to the shark by its combination with the monster’s (pre-
sumed) perspective; this allows the spectator to share the visual perception of
the shark itself.
Williams’s famous Jaws theme, based on the accelerated reiteration of a
minor second, is of course not a succinct visual rendering of a shark. It could
also be applied to other horror films featuring zombies or ghosts – or anything
horrible stealthily approaching an innocent prey. It is clear, though, that the
music ‘depicts’ a stealthy approach of something unseen – and therefore offers
an acoustic rendering of a central element of the shark and submarine myth.
In fact, the rhythmic intensification of this theme – the reiteration and acceler-
ated multiplication of a two-note cell – produces a palpable spatial effect of
approach, thus building a bridge between the acoustic and the visual.
vital ‘trick’ of Jaws – as well as the submarine warfare in general – is that the
approaching predator is not seen.
It is music that represents the horror com-
ing from below. To quote Alexandre Tylski once more:
Just as Bernard Herrmann’s music in the Psycho shower scene was, figu-
ratively speaking, symbolizing what Hitchcock did not show us, that is
the knife’s contact with the victim’s body, Williams’ score gives a reality
to what Spielberg prevents us from seeing: the shark’s jaws.
(Tylski 1999)
Thus, music becomes the stand-in for something that is too dreadful to be seen –
and thus, it becomes the perfect tool of a horror film, transferring elements of the
familiar visual level to the unseen, aural level. Music is ambiguous, and therefore
it has stronger effects on the emotions than visible, palpable objects.
Yet it is not music alone that represents the shark: the sound of the shark
is the sound of silence. If the typical hunting technique of sharks is trans-
ferred to sound and music, it results in a suspense-filled interplay of sound
and silence. In many cases, sharks give their prey a first bite and retreat, in
order to wait until the prey is weakened by loss of blood and cannot defend
itself any more. Thus, a ‘typical’ shark attack will consist of a sudden shock,
then sudden silence, tense waiting, and then the second, mortal attack. This
pattern is frequently exploited in shark attack scenes in film: the retreat of
the shark offers a moment of intensification and growing fear. Transferred
to music, it means a sudden (perhaps dissonant) outburst, then silence and
growing tension, until the next attack provokes a new acoustic drama. Beyond
this specific hunting technique, silence integrated into sound is an essential
feature of a ‘shark score’, because it transfers one of the essential characteristics
HOST 1.1_art_Koldau_089-110.indd 105 12/30/09 8:49:04 AM
Linda Maria Koldau
another gripping movie
of corresponding quality
is to be expected.
And, just as director
Renny Harlin inserted
the references to Jaws
with a little tongue-
in-cheek effect, the
musical reference in the
trailer might also have
an almost humorous
double meaning: it is
not only the shark that is
relentlessly approaching,
but also the first night of
the movie itself.
34. Curiously, it was the
mechanical flaws of
the fake shark used
for the shooting that
forced Spielberg to
conceive most of the
scenes with the shark
only hinted at. Instead of
weakening the dramatic
fabric, this compromise
increased the suspense
of the attack scenes in
which the shark is only
represented, if at all, by
brief visual allusions –
and by the horrified
reaction of those
attacked (cf. Stephenson
35. For a broad discussion
of this quality, especially
with regard to film music,
see Langkjær 2000 and
Robinson 2005.
36. On the visual level, this
feature is undermined
by the famous shark’s
fin, if the shark attacks
close to the surface (and
this is the case in most
scenarios containing
attacks on swimming
humans). As a visual cue
for the imminent danger,
the shark’s fin is so
ubiquitously present that
it has almost turned into
a comical feature (thus, it
is used in countless trick
films). Spielberg uses the
ambiguity of this visual
cue in Jaws to build up
a double tension before
the next real attack in
the little bay on 4

(featuring first a fake-fin
that is used as a joke
by two little boys and
causes panic on the
beach, which distracts
the general attention
from the real monster
stealthily entering the little
of this predator to the soundtrack: the stealth of the animal, necessary for a
successful surprise attack on whatever prey.
Thereby returning to the initial assertion that submarines and sharks have
much in common (the same being valid for the films focusing on these two
species of ‘monsters from the depth’), one very special instance in which both
myths are merged should not pass unnoticed: a satirical instance, which serves
even better to highlight the topoi of these two genres. Since satire often works
by exaggeration of the norm, it underlines the features that are perceived as
‘normal’. Thus, in the case of submarines and sharks, particular features of the
visuals and the soundtrack are highlighted that are used as topoi in films on
this subject. In 1977, a new James Bond film was released: The Spy Who Loved
Me, directed by Lewis Gilbert and starring Roger Moore as the British agent
James Bond, Barbara Bach as his beautiful Russian opponent Anya Amasova,
and Curd Jürgens – the famous German submarine Commander in the sub-
marine film The Enemy Below (USA 1957, Dick Powell) – as the misanthropic
megalomaniac Karl Stromberg. This movie unites elements of both the shark
and submarine myth in film: the story revolves around two nuclear ballis-
tic submarines, one British, one Soviet, which have disappeared with crew
and full armament. As James Bond sets out to discover what has happened to
these submarines, he comes across Stromberg’s underwater empire ‘Atlantis’,
which Stromberg intends to use to destroy the entire world (with the cap-
tured submarines’ nuclear missiles) in order to build up his own underwater
In the course of events, Bond and Amasova are taken onto an English
nuclear submarine, which is then captured by Stromberg’s giant super-tanker
Liparus. The capturing scene is remarkable: the submarine is ‘gobbled up’ by
the giant ship, whose bow opens to take in the apparently tiny submersible
(in fact, modern nuclear submarines have a length of up to 560 ft). The music
used in this scene is characteristic of the Bond films: not at all refined and
over-explicit. As the giant super-tanker is seen approaching the helpless sub-
marine, massive brass is heard, hammering a quasi-ostinato two-note motif, a
major second upwards. This is juxtaposed by shrill violin ‘sighs’ above – minor
seconds that are obsessively hammered downwards by the strings. Ostinato
motifs and obsessive seconds are both stock signifiers of growing suspense
and menace in film music, which relate to century-old hermeneutic traditions
in western composition.
However, director Gilbert did not content himself with elements from the
submarine myth to spin his yarn of Bond the superman – he also integrated
elements of the shark myth, making The Spy Who Loved Me an explicit parody
of Jaws, which had just conquered the audience in movie theatres all over
the world.
Indeed, the indefatigable and invulnerable killer sent to destroy
Bond and Amasova is called Jaws, owing to his steel jaws which – a pinch of
Dracula brought into the film – he uses to kill his victims. There are even more
palpable allusions to Spielberg’s blockbuster, though: one of Stromberg’s
little pleasures is to dispose of his enemies by dropping them into a shark
basin and watch through a window as his maritime pet – a pretty imitation of
Spielberg’s plaything – devours them, while listening to classical music. The
first feeding we see is Stromberg’s treacherous secretary, a sensitive young
woman who tried to sell Stromberg’s plans of his future empire. The parody is
achieved on both a visual and an acoustic level with the opening of the shut-
ter on the observation window (decorated with a reproduction of Botticelli’s
La primavera) as Bach’s famous Air on the G String is played; this transforms
the desperate woman’s underwater fight against the shark into a macabre
HOST 1.1_art_Koldau_089-110.indd 106 12/30/09 8:49:04 AM
Of Submarines and Sharks: Musical Settings of a Silent Menace
37. The idea of Stromberg’s
underwater empire is
clearly modelled on
Captain Nemo’s dream
of living in an alternative
world underneath the
surface of the oceans in
20,000 Leagues Under
the Sea. At the same
time, the architecture of
Atlantis is a variant on
the tripods in War of the
38. Cf. Koldau 2008b.
39. In fact, Spielberg was
originally asked to be
the director of The Spy
Who Loved Me, but,
still busy with the post-
production of Jaws, he
declined the offer.
40. A first introduction to
such an approach
to the analysis and
interpretation of film
music is offered in
Koldau 2008b.
ballet of death. Visually, this parody of bloody underwater battle is intensi-
fied through the indecency of the shark, whose pinpointed muzzle displays a
conspicuous and quite ungentlemanly interest in the very private parts of the
long-legged woman.
The second instance brings together the inhuman character of the serv-
ant Jaws with his animal counterpart – and lets man (or rather human mon-
ster) triumph over beast: as Jaws is dropped into the shark basin by Bond,
he grabs the dangerous fish and sinks his steel teeth into the shark’s spine.
While the scene in which Bond lifts Jaws using an electromagnet does not
have any musical underscoring, hard kettledrum-beats set in as Bond leaves
the basin hall and Jaws begins his fight against the fish. Visually, we are
again confronted with a parody of Jaws as the water turns red when Jaws
gives the shark the lethal bite (the reddening of water is used as a cue for
the yet unseen monster in the first half of Jaws, and it returns as an enor-
mous cloud of blood when the beast is torn to pieces by an explosion at
the end of the movie). On part of the soundtrack, the ostinato kettledrum
beats are parodically used as a portent of inevitable misfortune. However,
they are only triggered off by the combat between Jaws and the shark – in
the context of the movie’s showdown, they actually refer to the impending
destruction of Atlantis, which becomes the target of the nuclear torpedoes
fired by the English submarine that was captured by Stromberg’s Liparus
earlier in the film and had freed itself from the super-tanker in a dramatic
battle. Thus, the downfall of Stromberg’s empire is set off visually by a shark
scene and completed by the torpedoes from a nuclear submarine, i.e., with
two familiar motives from shark and submarine films. This doom is acousti-
cally sealed by the underlying drum beat, a musical stock device for fateful
and fatal situations.
Examining a number of submarine films and the famous blockbuster Jaws,
as well as the submarine and shark parody The Spy Who Loved Me, several
musical and acoustic techniques have been introduced that serve to evoke
and to intensify the impression of a silent menace drawing closer from the
depths of the ocean. In the field of sound effects the imitation of propulsion
sounds, ocean rush and reverberating underwater sounds, uncannily distorted
by the acoustic setting of the ocean, set the scene for drama that will mainly
take place underwater. Added to this, there comes the famous ‘ping’ of the
sonar, exposing a submarine to its enemy. To this layer of ‘diegetic’ sound,
music in many guises is added, using certain compositional features to gener-
ate impressions of danger and mortal fear. On the one hand, there are basic
musical devices like the strong tension built up by static notes or chords (cf.
the violin tension in Das Boot or the suspense of the long trumpet note in
K-19 – The Widowmaker). Another ‘technical’, or rather rhythmical instance
are repeated rhythms, which vary from subliminal ostinato throbs to hard and
relentless drum beats announcing the inevitable. On the other hand, there is
the broad level of melody, motif and theme.
This is an issue that has to be explored further in film music studies;
so far, a hermeneutic interpretation of musical microstructures in film has
not yet been attempted.
It can be observed in film productions employing
compositional features of the western classical music traditions that certain
musical topoi are used again and again in specific situations. Thus, the minor
HOST 1.1_art_Koldau_089-110.indd 107 12/30/09 8:49:04 AM
Linda Maria Koldau
41. Tellingly, Fred Karlin and
Rayburn Wright in their
guide to contemporary
film scoring concentrate
mainly on small motifs,
their structural use
and their emotional
impact when writing
about ‘melody’ as the
first parameter of film
composition (cf. Karlin/
Wright 2004,
pp. 197–222). A new
approach to the analysis
and interpretation of film
music, combining these
practical considerations
with theoretical views
on the effect of sound
and film music, will
be elaborated in
Studienbuch Filmmusik
by the author (to be
published by Böhlau
Verlag, Cologne, in
42. In fact, in the sequels to
Jaws, there are instances
where the roaring of a
monster is heard when
the shark jumps out of
the water – according
to the dramatic fabric
of these films, it was
obviously inconceivable
to present a monster
whose horrifying
appearance is not
accompanied by an
appropriately monstrous
second is a prominent interval, especially in its downward ‘sigh’ form; this
became associated with a labelled ‘sigh motif’ in the baroque Figurenlehre
and carries a correspondent expressive ‘aura’ up to its (most famous) brassy
version in Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, where it is labelled
‘Wehe-Motiv’ (‘woe’-leitmotif). In the films examined, the minor second
plays an important role in the main theme of Hostile Waters (cf. the music
example above, where the marcato on the highest note b flat turns the sub-
sequent downward step to ‘a’ into a sigh motif) and in the dark, brooding
vocalization that underlies the ominous briefing in Crimson Tide (cf. the
first two bars of the melodic line in the music reproduced above). The motif
of the shark’s theme in Jaws is an inverted sigh, thus displaying determi-
nation (if a minor second is directed upwards, it immediately assumes the
assertive character of a leading tone approaching the tonic). But also the
upward major second step can have its characteristic connotation, as seen
(or rather heard) in the harsh, assertive ending of the trombone underscor-
ing in the opening news report in Crimson Tide. However, in comparison
to the sighing minor second, the connotation of the upward major second
relies much more on the musical context, since it can have the connotation
of the archaic if used instead of a leading tone (i.e., a whole tone step from
the seventh to the keynote instead of the concluding semitone step that
has been established as ‘classical ending’ in western tradition for the past
It is obvious from these examples that such music can certainly not be
described as ‘typical submarine’ or ‘typical shark’ music. In fact, if we come
to the question of compositional technique, much of film music becomes
reduced to microstructures that are varied in innumerable ways and adapted
to the respective context, without losing the basic connotation that has been
associated with these musical cells for many centuries.
Thus, there is no ‘music of the submarines’. The ‘music’ of the subma-
rines is their typical soundscape, consisting of mechanical sound, commands
of submarine warfare, and, above all, underwater sounds. Music in submarine
films has to react to this soundscape, to integrate or to contrast it, according
to the exigencies of the film. The same applies to shark films. However, the
task is more difficult, since we have hardly any typical sounds of sharks, so
that the responsibility lies mainly with the music.
But music is not all; on the
contrary, as explained above, music (and sound) only unfold their true effects
if complemented by the other side of a shark’s attack – by sudden silence and
the horrifying tension building up from it, in expectation of the next attack.
Only then do music and silence add up to a convincing acoustic representa-
tion of this stealthy predator.
This feature in turn closes the circle and brings us back to submarines,
whose entire existence depends on the quality of stealth. To examine the rela-
tion between stealth and overt action, between sound and silence in subma-
rine and shark films would require a study of its own. Here, it was attempted
to show that sound and music are systematically used in film to impart to the
audience the inevitable by-product of stealth in the raids of submarines and
sharks: the unmistakable feeling of a silent menace.
Anon. (2003), ‘Review of Jaws’, http://www.filmtracks.com/titles/jaws.html.
Accessed 11 November, 2009.
HOST 1.1_art_Koldau_089-110.indd 108 12/30/09 8:49:04 AM
Of Submarines and Sharks: Musical Settings of a Silent Menace
Berardinelli, James (2002), ‘Review of Jaws’, http://reelviews.net/movies/j/jaws.
html. Accessed 17 April, 2009.
Brown, Evelyn, Colling, Angela et al. (eds) (1995), Seawater, Its Composition,
Properties and Behaviour, revised second edition, Kidlington: Pergamon
Brown, Royal S. (1994), Overtones and Undertones. Reading Film Music, Berkeley
and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
Buchheim, Lothar-Günther (1981), U96. Szenen aus dem Seekrieg, introduction
by Helmut Krapp, Hamburg: Knaus.
Buchheim, Lothar-Günther (2000), Der Abschied, Munich, Zurich: Piper.
Chapple, Mike (2005), ‘Great white hope’, http://icliverpool.icnetwork.co.uk,
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April, 2009.
Chion, Michel (1994), Le son au cinéma, new, revised and corrected edition,
Paris: Editions de l’Etoile.
Chion, Michel (2002), L’audio-vision: son et image au cinéma, second edition,
Paris: Nathan.
Flückiger, Barbara (2001), Sound Design. Die virtuelle Klangwelt des Films,
Marburg: Schüren (Zürcher Filmstudien 6).
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Telefon im Spielfilm, Berlin: Spiess (Telefon und Gesellschaft 4).
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Cinema to Opera, Princeton: Princeton University Press (Princeton Studies
in Opera).
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Berlin, Bonn: Koehler/Mittler.
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der Crew der U96, catalogue of the exhibition of the same title, Frankfurt/
Main, September 2006–January 2007, edited by the Deutsches Filmmuseum
Frankfurt, Frankfurt/Main: Henschel, pp. 182–197.
Karlin, Fred and Rayburn Wright (2004), On the Track: A Guide to Contemporary
Film Scoring, 2
, rev. edition, New York/London: Routledge.
Koldau, Linda Maria (2008a), ‘Filmmusik als Bedeutungsträger. Die musi-
kalische Schicht von K19 – The Widowmaker’, in Kieler Beiträge zur
Filmmusikforschung, 2: 2, pp. 89–134, http://www.filmmusik.uni-kiel.de/
beitraege.htm. Accessed 22 November, 2009.
Koldau, Linda Maria (2008b), ‘Kompositorische Topoi als Kategorie in der
Analyse von Filmmusik’, in Archiv für Musikwissenschaft, 65: 4, pp. 247–271.
Koldau, Linda Maria (2010a), U-Boot. Ein Mythos in Film und Medien, Stuttgart:
Steiner (forthcoming).
Koldau, Linda Maria (2010b), ‘Sound as Defining Auditory Moment in
Submarine Films’, MedieKultur, 47: 1 (forthcoming).
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in deutschen Marinen, 9. Forum Wilhelmshaven, Wilhelmshaven, Germany,
9.–11. November, 2007, ed. Stefan Huck & Jörg Hillmann (forthcoming).
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Kopenhagen: Tusculanum.
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Kopenhagen: Tusculanum.
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Möller, Eberhard and Werner Brack (2002), Enzyklopädie deutscher U-Boote.
Von 1904 bis zur Gegenwart, Stuttgart: Motorbuch Verlag.
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Institute Press.
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Music, and Art, Oxford: Clarendon Press.
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Kontroversen zu Buchheims ‘Boot’, München: dtv.
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fans/essay.html, 23 May. Accessed 17 April 2009.
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Koldau, L. M. (2010), ‘Of Submarines and Sharks: Musical Settings of a Silent
Menace’, Horror Studies 1: 1, pp. 89–110, doi: 10.1386/host.1.1.89/1
Linda Maria Koldau is Chair of Music and Cultural Studies at Aarhus
University (Denmark) and focuses in her research on Monteverdi; music in
convents; music and nationalism, the oratorio in the nineteenth century, and
film music. Besides numerous scholarly essays she has published the books Die
venezianische Kirchenmusik von Claudio Monteverdi (2001, 2
ed. 2005), Frauen –
Musik – Kultur. Ein Handbuch zum deutschen Sprachgebiet der Frühen Neuzeit
(2005); Die Moldau. Smetanas Zyklus „Mein Vaterland“ (2007), and U-Boot. Ein
Mythos in Film und Medien (forthcoming). She is currently working on a general
textbook on compositional techniques and the emotional effects of film music.
E-mail: muslmk@hum.au.dk
HOST 1.1_art_Koldau_089-110.indd 110 12/30/09 8:49:04 AM
Horror Studies
Volume 1 Number 1
© 2010 Intellect Ltd Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/host.1.1.111/1
HOST 1 (1) pp. 111–128 Intellect Limited 2010
Gilles Deleuze
Michael Almereyda
The Eternal
Tulane University in New Orleans
‘Uncontrollably Herself’:
Deleuze’s Becoming-
woman in the Horror
Films of Michael
The philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari chose the term Becoming-woman
to signify our desire to continually and productively transform ourselves as well as
an ever-evolving, contingent world. They picked this particular term because wom-
en’s possibilities have not been completely territorialized in an aesthetic or philo-
sophical sense (even when they’re codified in a bourgeois sense). Becoming-woman
is thus radically different from most mainstream, filmic portrayals of both men and
women’s possibilities. In this article, I flesh out how the two female protagonists
from the horror films Nadja (1994) and The Eternal (1998), both written and
directed by Michael Almereyda, self-create their own powers of Becoming-woman
for transformative personal as well as cultural effects.
Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari chose the term Becoming-woman to sig-
nify our desire to self-create virtual powers that can continually transform an
HOST 1.1_O'Connor_111-128.indd 111 1/2/10 12:17:16 PM
Tom O’Connor
ever-evolving, contingent world. Deleuze and Guattari picked this particular
term because women’s possibilities have not been completely invented or
realized. Becoming-woman, therefore, is radically different from the closed
image of man as ideal law-giver/godlike-judge who can supposedly decide
for all what life should mean – that is, there is no Becoming-man ‘because
man is the molar entity par excellence’ (Deleuze & Guattari 1980: 292). For
this reason, Becoming-woman exists outside ‘dualities’, and it is completely
unlike a timeless definition of feminine identity since it seeks to unmoor all
essentialist concepts of being so as to maximize an individual’s capacities for
virtual Becoming (Deleuze & Guattari 1980: 352). Becoming-woman, in this
way, intersects with feminist, post-human reconfigurations of subjectivity –
especially Rosi Braidotti’s nomadic subjectivity. The artistically productive,
slippery category of Becoming-woman is, therefore, not a pejorative symbol
of instability or insanity because it is a productive attempt to stay creatively
empowered, which then allows us (men and women alike) the ability to over-
come anything that alienates us from our imaginative potentials.
In addition, Becoming-woman is radically distinct from most mainstream,
filmic portrayals of both men and women’s possibilities. In this article, I will
flesh out the ways that the two female protagonists from the horror films
Nadja (1994) and The Eternal (1998), both written and directed by Michael
Almereyda, embody and self-create their own powers of Becoming-woman
for transformative effects. Poetic or artistic treatments of horror motifs are rich
sites for such imaginative Becomings because they allow for a vast amount of
artistic license – that is, they permit us to productively blur actual reality with
virtual transformations, which can challenge and rewrite anything that seeks
to predetermine or limit our powers of self-creation.
One of the more stunning aesthetic moments in Michael Almereyda’s Nadja
occurs more than halfway through the film: Nadja (Elina Löwensohn) is being
chased by not only those who want to stake and kill her, but the woman on
whom she had previously cast a love spell. Almereyda filmed this scene with
Nadja standing in front of a movie screen, completely separate from the diegetic
action unfolding on the screen behind her, as if to imply that no one can possibly
catch her because the vampire’s reality is always tragically cut off from human
reality. Nadja is a unique character in vampire lore because she actively laments
and resents this separation. Similar to Neil Jordan’s Interview with the Vampire
(1994), Almereyda’s film tackles the angst and despair inherent in a cursed eternal
life, but Nadja critiques this problem in a much more sophisticated/philosophi-
cal manner. Moreover, Nadja can be seen as a rather non-idealized or dismodern
commentary-on/psychedelic-pastiche-of many other vampire tales, especially
Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897). The term ‘dismodern’was coined by Lennard Davis
in his disability theory, and it rejects the normalizing/ableist assumptions that
commonly plague both modernism and postmodernism. In this sense, dismod-
ern subjectivities arise from the partial, disabled, limited, interconnected as well as
interdependent natures of all our identities in a wholly contingent or de-centered
world. As if harkening to the heroine of the same name created by Andre Breton,
Nadja is also a surrealist reshaping: Almereyda transforms the elitist/upper-class
Count Dracula into the angst-ridden, club-hopping, and bisexual Nadja who is
so filled with alienation that she spends all her energy trying to evade her mur-
derous nature, which offers her no significant fulfillment whatsoever.
HOST 1.1_O'Connor_111-128.indd 112 12/22/09 8:31:04 PM
‘Uncontrollably Herself’
As I will explore in what follows, Almereyda’s film – executively produced
by surrealist auteur David Lynch – envisions vampirism mainly as a philo-
sophical or spiritual plague that can only be solved imaginatively or philo-
sophically. Enter Nadja who has come to see the ideal status of the vampire
(the forever-young, more-human-than-human power she possesses over the
living) as a completely ironic entrapment. For this reason, Almereyda shot
Nadja in black and white to heighten this film-noir reductionism, which not
only conjures up the heyday of classic vampire films, but also the worldview
of the vampire as an overly simplistic idealization that is horrible in itself. That
is, vampirism plagues both Nadja as well as her unfortunate victims with an
inescapable existential alienation.
Furthermore, the intersection of femininity and vampirism is an intriguing
one that we can identify in every literary generation. Theophile Gautier’s The
Dreamland Bride (1836) and J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (1871) stand out
as literary precursors to the archetypal figure of the transgressive female vam-
pire in popular cinema – a vampire that must be controlled or eradicated at
all costs; cinematic examples of such a destructively powerful femininity have
appeared in films such as Roger Vadim’s Blood & Roses (1961), Jess Franco’s
Vampyros Lesbos (1970), Roy Ward Baker’s The Vampire Lovers (1971), Jimmy
Sangster’s Lust for a Vampire (1971), John Hough’s Twins of Evil (1971), Tony
Scott’s The Hunger (1983), Abel Ferrara’s The Addiction (1995), and so forth.
For Paul A. Woods, ‘Nadja is an uncredited, de-romanticized update of Garret
Ford and Lambert Hillyer’s rarely-screened 1936 classic Dracula’s Daughter’
(Woods 1997: 169). However, Almereyda’s film stands out as one of the most
insightful investigations into the paradoxes inherent in the fantastic affliction
that is vampirism, especially concerning the sensational, femme-fatale figure
of the sexually irresistible but deadly vampire woman. Almereyda’s film-noir/
gothic-horror film may at first appear overly banal or obtuse when we do not
look at it philosophically because there is little suspense or dramatic tension
to its horror elements. In this way, Nadja’s existential depression serves to
undermine any sensational or romantic reading of her predicament.
James Lawler lays out the reasons why we should never read vampires in
sensational manners: ‘egotism, fear, and separation are the natural element of
the vampire’ (Lawler 2003: 110). À la Stoker’s Dracula, Nadja is a solitary figure
but, unlike Dracula, she desires a productive solution to her unhappy worldview.
Nadja’s angst, therefore, can be seen as arising from her immortal, unchange-
able ego: ‘human mentation is often out of synch with the flow of life itself,
clinging tenaciously to the spurious stability of templates that seek to freeze
Becoming’ (Powell 2005: 104). Nadja, especially, foregrounds how this timeless
blockage is the defining characteristic of her unchangeable or immortal curse –
that is, the philosophical and existential problems inherent in the human ego
become even more exaggerated for an immortal vampire. Anna Powell notes:
in Michael Almereyda’s Nadja, pixellation conveys the vampire’s viewpoint
as a heavily grained molecularity with a jittery motion. The mosaic-like
effect blurs the focus, and likewise produces a blurring of moral certitude
for both the characters and the spectators. We share the disjunctive other-
ness of vampiric consciousness.
(Powell 2005: 129)
Powell comments here on the fact that Almereyda used a toy digital camera
to film key moments when Nadja preys on her victims. In this way, Nadja’s
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Tom O’Connor
capacities for poetic perception are at complete odds with the timeless ‘tem-
plate’ of her vampire nature, which is tragically essentialist and unalterable.
This paradox can also be seen as foregrounding the mysterious powers that
gothic tropes often signify. Since gothic iconography seeks to capture the mys-
tified/supernatural otherness surrounding large mansions, castles, and houses
as well as the sublime powers of nature, both Nadja and The Eternal visually
situate themselves within gothic tropes to capture, in Deleuze’s terminology,
not only that uncanny otherness but the virtualities that always exceed any
empirical state-of-affairs. For Deleuze, shadows especially embody such virtu-
alities or possibilities for Becoming; such a virtual perspective seamlessly fits
a ‘gothic’ world, which drowns and breaks [any rational] contours,
which endows things with a non-organic life in which they lose their
individuality, and which potentializes space, whilst making it something
(Deleuze Cinema I 1986: 111)
In this way, Deleuze sees gothic iconography as a fertile ground for imagina-
tive remediation. The gender implications of the gothic are especially fascinat-
ing to explore because the lack of a ‘rational’ definition or limit for women’s
possibilities allows them to become poets and philosophers in their unique
processes of self-creation.
If we take a look at how Dracula in particular is a symbol for social fears/
desires, this will help to elucidate why Nadja feels that she must overcome
the vampire’s essentialist curse. In the style of the gothic/Victorian grotesque,
Stoker’s Dracula comes from noble heritage, and he is often described in
courtly and covert ways, which creates a strong irony because even though
Dracula is powerful, he is a suffering creature. For this reason, he has been
commonly described as a joyless sexual criminal or stalker, who cannot find
any legitimate fulfillment in his secret conquests. In effect, any form of sexu-
ality in Victorian society was coded to some degree as impure, which then
imbued it with a predatory connotation. Therefore, Dracula is a tragic literary
figure because he has been condemned to be a deadly symbol of unconscious
desires/sexuality in a stifling moral climate that sought to banish all such drives
and desires into the shadows. Since Victorian society repressed sexuality to
such an extreme degree, Dracula’s situation demonstrates the logic of Freud’s
return of the repressed, which theorizes that what is repressed never disappears
but comes back in a distorted form. By extension, in Almereyda’s postmodern
adaptation of the vampire myth, Nadja – a descendent of Dracula’s caste from
Transylvania – possesses a sexual orientation that is also cast to the shadows –
i.e., bisexuality and lesbianism are still repressed topics in many dominant
cultural discourses.
Literary/cinematic vampires like Dracula and Nadja also symbolize, in a
rather ironic manner, the myths and illusions that can dominate our everyday
fears and desires. For example, vampires embody the illusory notion that we
can actually possess a transcendent or timeless power over contingent life. As
I previously examined in Chapter four of Poetic Acts & New Media, vampires
are commonly presented as the mocking ideal of current cultural wishes in
the sense that they’re the ones who are forever young. In Dracula and Nadja,
however, vampires are stuck in an extreme state of alienation, and these narra-
tives of immortality completely contradict the Platonic ideal of vampirism that
supposedly solves human beings’ mortality. Vampires’ powers can therefore
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‘Uncontrollably Herself’
be seen as much more ironic because their ‘ideal’ existences are sadly anti-
contingency – i.e., they must continually feed off living beings to renew their
ideal states. It’s rather revealing to consider that even though vampires are
immortal, they can still be staked and killed. In addition, their ideal natures
are incapable of conquering their resentful attempts to possess control over
what’s fleeting and un-masterable – i.e., the contingent/dismodern world of
mortal beings. Vampires like Dracula and Nadja, in effect, are coded as having
profound influence over nature (they can switch from old to young, between
human and animal, or influence individuals through dream-trances), but they
have little to no power over human society at large since they must keep to
the shadows and not call too much attention to their ‘anti-civilization emo-
tions’ (Stephen King 2005: 1). Thus, à la Victorian society’s repressive codes,
vampires like Dracula and Nadja are only allowed to exist in subconscious or
bestial drives and desires.
Moreover, the social issues that vampires conjure up are rather fascinating
to explore critically. They have been interpreted in a myriad of ways. Dracula
himself can even be seen as a metaphor for the fear of the immigrant/Other in
a hegemonic society, since his exotic or gothic allure is both enticing to women
as well as socially destructive. Similarly, in the case of Nadja, her capacity for
artificial reanimation is a double threat because she can wreak havoc on both
the reproduction of human culture as well as feminine birth-giving in the
sense that she can destroy them both by turning people into asocial vampires.
A quote from Stoker’s Dracula brings this anti-civilization threat directly to
the fore: ‘your girls that you all love are mine already; and through them you
and others shall yet be mine – my creatures, to do my bidding and to be my
jackals when I want to feed’ (Stoker 1897: 312 ). This quote exposes the desire
for control that underlies Nadja’s compulsion to possess Lucy (Galaxy Craze)
when she first meets her in Almereyda’s film.
Because Nadja is immediately smitten with Lucy when she runs into her
inside a Greenwich Village bar, Nadja immediately puts a love spell on her.
The fact that Nadja meets Lucy right after the death of Nadja’s vampire-
father thematically implies that this is the time for Nadja to do something
about her curse. That is, she is no longer beholden to the patriarchal tradition
of vampirism in her family. Nadja often states in the film ‘I want to change
my life’, which thematically implies that immortality causes romantic love to
feel especially ‘unbearable’, i.e., her longing is intensified to infinity (Nadja).
Because romantic love is not timeless, it is susceptible to illness, death, etc.,
and this fact implies that Nadja cannot experience what makes it a profound,
contingent phenomenon. Renfield (Karl Geary), who bears no resemblance to
Stoker’s character other than the name, is Nadja’s personal ‘slave’/butler who
stays hopelessly in love with her throughout the film. For this reason, he ser-
io-comically remarks at one point: ‘love’s like rabies’ (Nadja). In Almereyda’s
film, obsessive love is equivalent to the philosophical and emotional plagues
of vampirism in that it can only lead to alienation and depression.
Almereyda’s film is full of such perversely dry wit, and Nadja also finds
a lot of comedy in her anti-life predicament. She even mocks her vampire
powers when she lies to Cassandra (Suzy Amis) concerning the fact that
growing up with her father was terrible because he made her eat huge slices
of bread slathered with butter, which made her hate the taste of butter. The
joke in operation here is that her father, in fact, made her eat something
much worse (human flesh). However, she despises her predator role and
hopes to overcome it by utilizing her own powers of imaginative reinvention
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Tom O’Connor
or Becoming-woman. Furthermore, Nadja can be seen here as serio-comically
foregrounding the fact that our powers of Becoming-woman can lead us to
fresh means of authorship over the narrative of such abuse.
It is no accident, then, that Nadja loses her desire for vampirism the pre-
cise moment that her father dies. The quasi-professional vampire-hunter in
this story is Van Helsing (Peter Fonda), Jim’s uncle/father, who success-
fully kills Nadja’s father at the film’s beginning. Van Helsing serio-comi-
cally mocks Nadja’s father patriarchal authority when he tells Jim (Martin
Donovan), Lucy’s husband, that Nadja’s father was doomed because ‘he
was tired, lost. He was like Elvis in the end. […]. Just going through the
motions’ (Nadja). In this way, Almereyda’s film undercuts the cultural
fetishizing of alienating, anti-contingency fantasies and projections – à la
Elvis’s ‘immortal’ mass-media-persona – which are often so tied up in ide-
alizations/mystifications that they make a person’s existential life pale in
comparison. In addition, such a false, patriarchal ideal is presented in the
film as the single greatest threat to everyone’s powers of Becoming-woman.
Almereyda’s Nadja is not only presented as a serio-comic, self-aware
character in the film, but a poet-philosopher as well. She even begins the film
with the following mini-poem: ‘Nights. Nights without sleep. Long nights in
which the brain lights up like a big city…’ (Nadja). Nadja’s curse has made her
continually ponder the fleeting poetic/sensory nature of the life around her.
She also explains to Lucy in their first meeting that Lucy should not judge her
brother for his suicide at twenty one: ‘I don’t believe that young people don’t
know anything. I think that they know just about everything – they just can’t
protect themselves from what they know’ (Nadja). Nadja goes on to tell Lucy
that life is fascinating because of its sensory/artistic possibilities for fresh experi-
ences, but all such contingent phenomena only make her more depressed. She
explains her emotional dilemma with contingency in the following manner:
‘the pain I feel is the pain of fleeting joy’ (Nadja). Such sentiments are repeated
by both Lucy and Cassandra when they are under Nadja’s thrall in that they
both wax philosophical about depression and emptiness, which signals to us
audiences how these characters are in danger of becoming existentially dead
like vampires. Plus, it thematically reinforces the necessity, à la Nadja’s quest,
of overcoming the spiritual/existential price of vampirism at any cost.
The majority of Almereyda’s narrative explores how Nadja implements her
creatively ingenious plan to escape and, therefore, resolve her vampire nature.
In order for her to embrace ‘the pain of fleeting joy’, she kidnaps the meek and
insecure Cassandra, who is both Jim’s sister and the live-in nurse of Nadja’s
quasi-vampire/twin-brother Edgar (Jared Harris). Edgar explains to Jim and
Van Helsing how ‘the family curse is selective’ in that he’s not afflicted with
vampirism to the same degree as Nadja (Nadja). Revealingly, Nadja previously
had a falling out with her brother and, even though she still ‘loves him’, he
despises her (Nadja). She, therefore, ends up using his animosity towards her
as bait: Nadja runs off to Romania to her father’s gothic castle with Cassandra
and Renfield, even sending her brother Edgar a ‘psychic fax’ so he will know
where she is – i.e., so Edgar (who has now joined Nadja’s foes Jim, Lucy,
and Van Helsing) will follow in pursuit in order to rescue Cassandra as well
as cure Lucy of her love spell (since only the death of Nadja will release her
prey from her spell) (Nadja). What they don’t realize is that Nadja has devised
the following ingenious plan of Becoming-woman in order to escape her
vampirism: she switches blood with Cassandra in a blood transfusion – à la
the blood transfusions the men used to try to save Lucy in Stoker’s Dracula –
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‘Uncontrollably Herself’
so that Nadja can now live in Cassandra’s human body with Cassandra.
Nadja, therefore, saves the day so that Lucy will not stay a captive or die
(unlike the Lucy of Stoker’s novel). The fact that this transformation occurs in
a gothic setting implies that Nadja has the power to reformulate or rewrite the
gothic’s mystical or incoherent powers into a problem-solving Becoming that,
in effect, renders Nadja a philosopher who successfully invents the solution to
the film’s central conflict. Hence, the gender implications of the gothic are not
rendered here in negative, unknowable, or destructive terms because they are
completely dependent on how Nadja re-forms or recreates them through her
own Becoming-woman.
Thus, when Van Helsing and Edgar find, stake, and kill Nadja, they only
kill her vampire body – i.e., the immortal shell which had previously impris-
oned her. According to the poetic powers of Becoming-woman, Nadja
recreates her vampire-human nature as all mortal – i.e., she will now co-in-
habit Cassandra’s body with Cassandra. Hence, Cassandra is not destroyed
and this breaks the destructive cycle of vampirism or the erasing of human-
ity in the movie. According to the self-constructed or molecular/virtual
transformations of Becoming-woman, Nadja controls the poetic logic of
this hybrid interaction, and she chooses the rather disabling or dismodern
condition of living powerlessly inside Cassandra. In this way, Cassandra
will stay in complete charge of her own identity and life, but this hybrid
existence allows Nadja to live on as the molecular or poetic impulse for
Becoming-woman in Cassandra’s subconscious, which implies that Nadja
now sees the desire for an absolute power and control over living forms
as wholly destructive. From this point on, Nadja’s powers of Becoming-
woman can serve life-affirming ends. Nadja, therefore, is both hero and
anti-hero of Almereyda’s film in the sense that she’s the one who not only
threatened everyone at film’s beginning but, in a philosophical sense, also
saves the day at film’s end.
A curious wrinkle arises at this particular narrative juncture, however,
because Edgar and Cassandra are planning to be married. Because Nadja
cannot expose the fact that she is now alive inside Cassandra’s body, she
must go through with a marriage to her twin brother. The likely quasi-joke
in operation here is that an incestuous relationship is a better option than
living under the burden of vampirism. Moreover, the philosophical impli-
cations of Nadja’s plan are rather fascinating to explore critically: Nadja
succeeds in her rebellion against her father’s patriarchal power because she
has, in effect, recreated herself as an even more subversive character than
a vampire because her power is no longer limited to a-social or destructive
ends. Hence, we can read Nadja’s desire to live close to her brother not as
a quasi-incestuous desire, but a desire to reconcile their relationship as well
as their family traumas.
Nadja’s self-transformation into the hybrid Cassandra-Nadja also trans-
gresses all essentialist/bourgeois myths, especially the illusion of a stable
or essential identity. Roland Barthes’ theory of bourgeois myth relates such
myths to ritualistic bloodlettings. Bourgeois myth, as I previously outlined
in Chapter Three of Poetic Acts & New Media, can be defined as ‘a mode of
signification or a form’ (Barthes 1982: 93) that ‘leaves its contingency behind’
(Barhtes 1982: 103). Such myth is the essentialist tool of bourgeois ideology:
bourgeois norms are experienced as the evident laws of a natural order –
the further the bourgeois class propagates its representations, the more
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Tom O’Connor
naturalized they become [. . .]. The function of [this type of] myth is to
empty reality: it is, literally, a ceaseless flowing out, a hemorrhage, or
perhaps an evaporation, in short, a perceptible absence.
(Barthes 1982: 129, 131)
Nadja’s Becoming-woman completely undercuts any supposedly stable or
idealized values of family, marriage, or the autonomous individual-ego—the
key mythological foundations of a potentially life-draining, bourgeois men-
tality – which are all exposed to be ego illusions by the hybridity of the new
Cassandra-Nadja. This non-ideal, dismodern, and hybrid Nadja-Cassandra
even states at film’s end: ‘No one knew. No one suspected that I was now
alive in her. […]. There is a better way to live. […]. Is it true: everything
beyond is in this life’ (Nadja)? This existential affirmation completely champi-
ons the creative possibilities/multiplicities inherent in the contingent world of
the here-and-now. Furthermore, both Cassandra and Nadja are presented as
more empowered/actualized through their new powers of Becoming-woman
at film’s end – i.e., Nadja’s powers have found a more life-affirming form
that also allows Cassandra to overcome her previously insecure demeanor. In
addition, with the death of Nadja’s immortal body, Edgar, too, is set free from
the ‘family curse’ that had previously kept him bed-ridden and dependent on
blood transfusions.
Since she has become human through her process of Becoming-woman,
Nadja can now freely recreate herself in the human imagination, which can
virtually cross or even overcome all blockages/boundaries because it is not
bound by a static or essentialist nature. Thus, she successfully overcomes what
makes Dracula so miserable and resentful throughout Stoker’s book because
she taps into the previously unrealized potentials of the gothic as a virtual
ground for reinventing oneself through the powers of Becoming-woman.
In addition, Almereyda avoids creating a return to bourgeois normalcy like
Stoker’s finale when, with the death of Dracula, Mina and Jonathan can
start a family now that they’re completely free of Dracula’s threat to their
social world. Almereyda’s finale undercuts bourgeois values in a much more
revolutionary manner because it foregrounds the contingent, creative, and
dismodern authorship of all identity construction.
For this reason, the hybrid Cassandra-Nadja embodies Deleuze and
Guattari’s Becoming-woman rather perfectly. Nadja’s self-creation rewrites
her own (as well as Cassandra’s) previous lack of authorial power over their
identities. Deleuze explains the power of this creative authorship: ‘writing
[and artistic-creation-at-large] are inseparable from Becoming: in writing,
one becomes-woman, becomes-animal or vegetable, becomes-molecule to
the point of Becoming-imperceptible’ so that, in such a virtual state, one can
embody the greatest possibility imaginable (Essays Critical & Clinical 1). In
many ways, Deleuze and Guattari’s insights intersect with feminist theo-
ries, especially Rosi Braidotti’s concept of nomadic subjectivity. According to
as the feminist movement put it, well before Deleuze philosophized
it: we need to learn to think differently about our historical condition;
we need to re-invent ourselves. This transformative project begins with
relinquishing the historically-established habits of thought which, until
now, have provided the ‘standard’ view of human subjectivity. We’d be
HOST 1.1_O'Connor_111-128.indd 118 12/22/09 8:31:05 PM
‘Uncontrollably Herself’
better off relinquishing all that, in favour of a decentered and multi-
layered vision of the subject as dynamic and changing entity, situated
in a shifting context. The nomad expresses my own figurations of a situ-
ated, culturally differentiated understanding of the subject. […]. In so
far as axes of differentiations like class, race, ethnicity, gender, age, and
others interact with each other in the constitution of subjectivity, the
notion of nomadism refers to the simultaneous occurrence of many of
these at once. Nomadic subjectivity is about the simultaneity of complex
and multi-layered identities.
(Braidotti 1987)
The hybrid Nadja-Cassandra embodies this nomadic subjectivity especially in
the sense that Almereyda places the unconscious (Nadja) on an equal plane of
influence with the more rational or conscious mind (Cassandra). Using the name
Cassandra to signify the rational mind can also serve as an ironic comment on
the fact that Cassandra (the mad prophetess) in Greek mythology was ignored
or dismissed (even though she knew the truth) for the simple reasons that she
was a woman and that she had been cursed by Apollo so that no one would pay
her any attention. In this way, Almereyda’s film poetically suggests that mysti-
fying feminine powers as incoherent, irrational, or socially destructive hurts both
men and women’s capacities for self-invention. Therefore, Becoming-woman
is never subordinated in Almereyda’s film to any predetermined or destructive
ideal like a patriarchal norm or the will-to-nihilism that the femme-fatale of
film noir commonly signifies.
Characters like Nadja or Stoker’s Mina (during the moments when she
exists as a human/vampire hybrid in the latter stages of Dracula) can success-
fully overcome all such supposedly rational oppressions and repressions:
the nomadic subject is a myth, or a political fiction, that allows me to
think through and move across established categories and levels of
experience. Implicit in my choice of this figuration is the belief in the
potency and relevance of the imagination, of myth-making, as a way
to step out of the political and intellectual crisis of these postmodern
times. […]. The choice of an iconoclastic, mythic figure, such as the
nomadic subject is consequently a move against the settled and con-
ventional nature of theoretical and especially philosophical thinking. It
reconnects to Nietzsche and a rather controversial counter-tradition in
western philosophy.
(Braidotti 1987)
Since Nietzsche was the first philosopher to fully articulate the powers of
Becoming and creative imagination as they relate to an adaptable, contingent
existence, it is no surprise that 20
and 21
-century artists like Almereyda
explore the political and gender dimensions of such imaginative powers.
Nadja is, therefore, not limited to any socially constructed norm concerning
what constitutes proper human behavior – for either men or women. Deleuze
and Guattari explain:
when Virginia Wolf was questioned about a specifically women’s writ-
ing, she was appalled at the idea of writing ‘as a woman’. Rather, writing
should produce a Becoming-woman as atoms of womanhood capable
HOST 1.1_O'Connor_111-128.indd 119 12/22/09 8:31:05 PM
Tom O’Connor
of crossing and impregnating the entire social field, and of contaminat-
ing men, of sweeping them up in that Becoming.
(Deleuze & Guattari 1980: 276)
Hence, Becoming-woman always creates a virtual/molecular woman (not a
molar or empirical one) à la the Nadja who imperceptibly inhabits Cassandra’s
body at film’s end. Moreover, Cassandra-Nadja’s marriage to Edgar at the
film’s end, in a visceral sense, echoes Plato’s origin myth that claimed everyone
was bisexual or a hermaphrodite at the beginning of human history, and this
helps to explain why people seek reconciliation through romantic relationships
and/or friendships. For this reason, Nadja’s new capacities for hybridity fore-
ground for us viewers the inter-dependent and inter-connected nature of all
human identities in a dismodern or always de-centered world.
Almereyda’s character Nadja, at film’s end, authors her own self-created sexual
identity as well: she shares an attractive woman’s body at the same time that
she’s married to a man. Thus, she creates her own bisexual resolution to her
desires. That is, because her sexuality is not a narrative problem in the film,
her unique solution isn’t one either because she is the problem-solver of the
film’s conflicts. As we see in Deleuze and Guattari’s philosophy, Becoming-
woman is the opening of a desire that is pre-personal, anti-oedipal, and com-
pletely contingent upon what one desires to create in that particular moment.
The final image of the film heightens this productive logic through dissolves
between images of Cassandra’s face and Nadja’s – both are submerged par-
tially underwater in a forest environment that conjures up nature’s mysteri-
ous or even gothic powers of creation. This is a fluid image that captures the
continual re-birthing or recreation of human identity itself. Almereyda himself
commented at the film’s Sundance premiere: ‘I wanted to locate horror movie
anxiety, strangeness, and fear within the heart of common experience’ (Woods
1997: 170). Hence, the film’s finale unfolds in a forest setting in order to evoke
the potentials of a regenerative nature. This ending also implies that to be truly
reconciled with the contingent/unpredictable nature of dismodern existence,
we must live fluidly and emotionally connected with others in an artistic or
multiplicitous worldview that never succumbs to fear, narcissism, or nihilism.
In the end, Almereyda’s hybrid noir/gothic-horror film Nadja can also be
seen as undercutting the misogynist scapegoating of the femme-fatale fig-
ure for any and all personal/societal problems. For this reason, Nadja can
be seen as rewriting such a problematic figure from the inside out: in film
noir, since culture’s ‘timeless’ status quo is irrevocably tainted to its core à
la a vampire’s cursed nature, its core can and must be constantly reinvented
as Nadja does in the film. According to Foster Hirsch, a noir film is discern-
able as such because it is creates a spirit of ‘isolation and wide-ranging but
unspecific fear – a kind of fear of being’ (7). Martha Nochimson further com-
ments: ‘all the vagaries of physicality [are displaced in noir] onto the mias-
mic body of the world’ (Nochimson 1995: 145). In this way, ‘involvement
causes contamination (crime)’ (Nochimson 1995: 145). Almereyda’s Nadja,
however, completely undercuts such a totalizing/nihilistic negativity through
foregrounding Nadja’s and, by extension, the audiences’ potential pow-
ers of Becoming-woman. Thus, Nadja stands as an emblematic example of
Deleuze and Guattari’s Becoming-woman in independent cinema because
the solution to personal and social dread is the ability to recreate ourselves
with the full powers of the human imagination, which can also recreate new
possibilities for life itself.
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‘Uncontrollably Herself’
The above quote is spoken by Nora’s Uncle Bill (Christopher Walken) in The
Eternal – Michael Almereyda’s follow-up film to Nadja – when Uncle Bill
describes the 2,000 year old bog-woman/druid-witch named Niamh (Niamh
Dolan) that he successfully revivifies in his gothic mansion’s basement. In fact,
both films have many central preoccupations that will make discussing them
side-by-side a fruitful endeavor. Both films center their narratives on women
protagonists who are uncontrollably themselves, who understand ‘the power
of nature’ as the ‘process of establishing relations’, and who have to go to
the ultimate extremes of the human imagination to overcome their existential
alienation (Deleuze Essays Critical & Clinical 1997: 59).
The Eternal, for this reason, successfully extends Almereyda’s explora-
tion of horror metaphors beyond the vampire lore of Nadja. Deleuze and
Guattari’s transformative concept of Becoming-woman applies equally well
to many other monster movie or gothic-horror motifs (like the mummies
and ancient Celtic/Pagan rites inherent in The Eternal) because, through the
imaginative powers of Becoming-woman, they can effectively symbolize what
these films’ female protagonists must confront and annihilate in a Dionysian
manner. In fact, the gothic or supernatural metaphors of The Eternal fluidly
intersect with the microcosm issues in the film in that such horror metaphors
can effectively embody both Nora (Allison Elliott) and her husband Jim (Jared
Harris)’s destructive tendencies like their alcoholism as well as Nora’s desire
to repress several traumas in her past. The first glimpse that we get of the
couple is when they get so drunk that Nora falls down a flight of stairs. At
the film’s beginning, the couple is living a supposedly ideal life of constant
drinking and partying.
However, Nora’s accident precipitates the couple’s newfound desire to
leave their home in New York City and travel to Ireland (where Nora grew up)
in the hope of exorcising their past demons in a fresh environment. Both Nora
and Jim are haunted by a mystical spirit (i.e., alcohol), which severs them from
any productive relation to the contingent/dismodern world. For this reason,
their realities become dominated by their own self-authored, fantasy-based
alienation from themselves, and this mystical obfuscation must be confronted
and overcome through their own powers of Becoming-woman. In the film,
the mummy Niamh symbolizes Nora’s tendencies toward repression in the
sense that Niamh’s bandages hide or cover over her true, self-destructive
motivations. For this reason, the mummy symbolizes an anti-contingency
ideal because she can’t transform or change her immortal nature (à la Nadja’s
immortal vampire-form). Nora, because of her desire to demystify and work
through her repressions, states at film’s beginning that a trip to Ireland will
help them to get rid of all their repressed ‘bad habits, bad thoughts, and bad
dreams’ (The Eternal).
It is perhaps comical to imagine that a trip to Ireland will help them to
stop drinking but, as the film counter-intuitively suggests, it may actually be
the perfect place to overcome such a spirit haunting. Since most of the film
takes place in Ireland, the gothic mood and feel of the rural/West of Ireland is
a key to unlocking the film’s dynamic metaphors. While The Eternal is as visu-
ally stunning as the noir visuals of Nadja, The Eternal is perhaps even more
adept at capturing how Western Ireland is the perfect mise-en-scène for a
story that blurs myth and reality – that is, the contemporary, rural Ireland of
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Tom O’Connor
the here-and-now still conjures up the ancient or gothic tone of a mysteri-
ous/haunted land that envisioned no strict division between spirits and liv-
ing beings. In addition, since Ireland was colonized by both England and the
Catholic Church for centuries, it can now be seen as a rich place for the artistic
powers of Becoming-woman because those colonial/patriarchal powers over
Ireland’s possibilities, which especially limited the possibilities of women, are
beginning to lift. In this way, Irish women now have a stronger, more creative
say in their future development.
What stands in the way of Nora’s powers of Becoming-woman at film’s
beginning is the fact that she is continually haunted by her traumatic, ado-
lescent life in Ireland: her mother was killed in a car bomb when she was
young, and she also had to leave the country because she was pregnant with
an old boyfriend’s baby (Ireland doesn’t allow abortion so she had to move to
New York for the procedure). The entire narrative of Almereyda’s film hinges
upon whether Nora can successfully exorcise her past traumas/demons that
never stop coming back to life (Freud’s return of the repressed). Her most sig-
nificant monster is, in fact, her unconscious relation to herself. For this reason,
the bog-woman reinforces this truth when she reincarnates herself in the exact
same physical visage as Nora’s. Moreover, the film argues that Nora’s only way
to overcome her past ghosts/problems is to invent a new relation to the world
that allows her the poetic power of a Becoming-woman, which can creatively
embody the problematic cycles of her past behaviors in a material form that can
then be exorcized in the Dionysian spirit of positive destruction.
In effect, necessity forces Nora to create a solution to her problems that
will poetically solve her death-drive/will-for-self-destruction that the bog-
woman/mummy symbolizes. Thus, Nora’s unstable Uncle Bill actually does
her a great favor by revivifying the druid mummy because this mummy’s
destructive nature cannot be repressed or denied any longer now that it’s a
living entity. Almereyda’s film, therefore, completely morphs from an identifi-
able, everyday reality into one (during Nora and Jim’s stay in Ireland) that is
co-created by Nora’s subconscious manifestations or the virtual powers inher-
ent in Becoming-woman. Hence, Nora must become the author or creative
agent of the plot (like Nadja) so that she can poetically restructure or reinvent
its rules in such a way that she can overcome her repressions/issues in reality-
at-large. In such a gothic or cognitively constructed world, the virtual and the
actual are equal powers that lose their normal distinctions for fresh and trans-
formative effects.
As I will show below, The Eternal can be read as arguing that the only
truly human relation to the ‘eternal’ changes inherent in contingent life is
the unlimited, continually-transforming processes of Becoming-woman. Nora,
throughout Almereyda’s film, must battle the anti-contingency illusions that
plague her by confronting both the radical horrors (i.e. the mummy) as well
as the potentials for re-creation inherent in such a radical Becoming which, in
effect, is a self-constructed, poetic process that productively blurs the bound-
aries between life & death, past & present, self & Other, the conscious &
the unconscious, the rational & the non-rational, nature & culture, and so
forth. In this way, Becoming-woman can establish a relation to any force –
real or imaginary – for its own self-transforming agendas. Because all such
Becomings are virtual in nature, there is no need to view their powers in mor-
alistic or judgmental manners. Violence and even murder, within the context
of a Becoming-woman, can create positive/transformative effects whenever
they become Dionysian forces of transformation (see below). The Eternal, like
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‘Uncontrollably Herself’
Nadja, is one of Almereyda’s most poetically rich films because it reveals how
we must, like Nora, continually re-author our imaginative potentials so that
we can embody the most life-affirming relations to a continually regenerating/
de-centered world.
It is no accident, then, that the minute Nora, Jim, and their son Jim
Jr. (Jeffrey Goldschrafe) get to Ireland, their troubles begin to multiply. The
thematic message in the film, therefore, implies that running away from our
troubles only makes them more intense and powerful. Uncle Bill even waxes
philosophical to Nora about the druid witch that he is attempting to revivify:
‘she’s gone, but something still keeps going, continues. […]. No beginning
is like what it leads to. Nothing stops. Everything that is is in the process of
turning into something else’. As this statement reveals, Uncle Bill has some
profound insights into the world’s evolving nature, but he completely misun-
derstands the consequences of his desire to bring the attractive mummy back to
life. Thematically, it is also no accident that the druid witch begins to awaken
at the exact moment when Nora arrives and begins to become drunk on Uncle
Bill’s 12-year-old, single-malt Irish whiskey.
Moreover, the mummy’s back-story, which Uncle Bill tells to Nora, is sig-
nificant to Nora and Jim’s present problems. Uncle Bill explains that Niamh
amassed massive powers because she was ‘a force unto her own will’, but
her downfall was falling in love with a younger man who would not requite
her love. She became so distraught after she bore him a child that she bru-
tally killed him and her child before committing suicide (à la Medea). In
Nietzsche’s terminology, Niamh’s life-affirming will-to-power turned into an
anti-life will-to-dominate life’s possibilities. A key irony in the film arises from
the fact that Uncle Bill should have paid more attention to the witch’s biog-
raphy and the potential issues she had never dealt with when alive before
deciding to revivify her. Uncle Bill is solely obsessed with her power and
beauty, completely disregarding the fact that she may come back to life still
seeking revenge for her past humiliation and self-destruction. Furthermore,
since Nora’s current family echoes the mummy’s old family structure, Uncle
Bill should have realized the fact that this places them in imminent danger.
The female mummy, therefore, symbolizes Nora’s as well as her own
death drive (or the repetition of past traumas) and, only by rewriting this
drive, will Nora actualize the poetically productive powers of Becoming-
woman. Almereyda’s film serio-comically brings out this fact because, once
the druid witch begins to come back to life, all the natural life around the
castle dies, including the garden, which echoes the witch’s will-to-dominate.
Consequently, every problem from Nora’s past takes center stage again when
she arrives at Uncle Bill’s mansion: her old boyfriend who got her pregnant,
Joe (Paul Ferriter), shows up at Uncle Bill’s gothic house, and they even start
to kiss for a fleeting moment. In addition, the secret that Nora had been keep-
ing from Jim finally comes out – i.e., she was pregnant with Joe’s baby and
had to move to America for the abortion. Nora even tells Jim that he was ‘too
stupid’ to figure out her past for himself, which highlights the intensity of her
repressed anger at herself and others for not dealing with her past problems
effectively (The Eternal).
Tellingly, Nora has a disquieting moment when she notices that the
mummy has mimicked her exact face, which implies that Nora’s unresolved,
unconscious issues have now been reincarnated or duplicated in the mummy.
For this reason, Nora has now entered into a virtual or molecular process of
Becoming-woman with the mummy – one that productively frees Nora from
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Tom O’Connor
any set identity. Alice (Rachel O’Rourke), the young girl who was adopted by
Uncle Bill and his mother Mrs. Ferriter (Lois Smith), explains the mummy’s
intentions to Nora:
[this is a] transmigration of the soul: that’s when you pass from one life
to another, like sleeping in different beds in different rooms in a big
house. […]. She’s a shape-shifter, caught halfway between being alive
and dead. A spell’s been cast. This body is only a temporary vessel. Her
spirit has made a partial transfer to you [Nora]. Until she completes the
process, you’ll both be in torment.
(The Eternal)
Revealingly, Alice learned this mystical information from Mrs. Ferriter, who
is an important character in the film because she foresaw the dangers of the
mummy and attempted to get Uncle Bill to stop his revivification experiment.
It is rather fortunate for Nora that Mrs. Ferriter is a model for the revolution-
ary powers of Becoming-woman. That is, Mrs. Ferriter possesses a rebellious
spirit in her defiance of both Uncle Bill as well as England’s colonial oppres-
sion of Ireland: her castle is an I.R.A. safe-house for the explosive gelignite.
Nonetheless, Uncle Bill keeps the rebellious Mrs. Ferriter sedated with
Quaaludes, which renders her incapable of interfering with his plans for the
most part. Since Nora is trying to escape her past traumas through alcohol
stupors, she is, in effect, ripe for Niamh to take over her unconscious as well
as conscious mind. In the guise of another young woman (Nora), Niamh can
escape detection as she kills everyone around her again out of her spite for
what destroyed her life in the distant past. The druid witch, in effect, comes
back to life to kill the memory of her old lover again and again. In this sense,
Nora’s process of Becoming-woman is an even more dangerous undertaking
than Nadja’s because Nadja was immortal at the beginning of her transfor-
mation. It is not surprising, however, that the first person Niamh kills and
dismembers is Uncle Bill, which thematically implies that no patriarchal figure
can control the possibilities of a Becoming-woman. Moreover, it is this section
of Almereyda’s film that may become confusing to some because there are
two Noras from this point on in the narrative. The two Noras, in effect, share
a hybrid existence: the mummy is half inside the real Nora, and vice-versa
(à la Nadja’s hybrid existence of Becoming-woman with Cassandra). At this
stage, Jim is having a difficult time understanding exactly what is happening
to his family. According to the typical iconography of the gothic as well as
monster movies, no action seems capable of subduing or killing the supernat-
ural mummy: after realizing Niamh is not the true Nora, Jim, Nora, Joe and
the gardener Sean (Karl Geary) try to shoot and electrocute her to no avail.
Because Niamh is a spirit attempting to take over Nora, she cannot be killed
in any normal sense. It appears fated that she will take over Nora’s identity.
The mission, for everyone in the film at this point, is to imagine or self-cre-
ate a way to effectively kill the seemingly all-powerful druid-mummy-witch.
Unfortunately, this becomes even more challenging when the Iron-age/
shape-shifting mummy takes Jim and Nora’s son Jim Jr. hostage. This scene
in particular highlights the metaphorical significance of the mummy. To reit-
erate: she has come to embody not only her own past horrors but Nora’s as
well, since all the real Nora’s unresolved issues – like Nora’s alcoholism, the
past abortion that she hid from her husband, and the death of her mother –
now echo the mummy’s desire to steal both Nora’s child as well as her new life
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‘Uncontrollably Herself’
as a wife and mother. Logically, Nora is the one who must stop the mummy
since she is now a part of the mummy and, only by not repressing and cou-
rageously understanding what the mummy desires, can she overcome and
conquer the mummy’s plan for another murderous rampage. It is at this point
in the film that Nora’s grandmother, Mrs. Ferriter, becomes a key helper in
Nora’s Becoming-woman. In fact, Mrs. Ferriter is the one character who pos-
sesses life-affirming knowledge as a pagan witch or druid-poet.
The climax of The Eternal occurs on the Western coast of Ireland, and this
gothic mise-en-scène effectively expresses the clash of a conscious reality (the
supposedly-solid-template-of-land) with a more gothic or unconscious one
(the ocean), which further implies that, in Almereyda’s psychodrama, the
mummy’s unconscious threat to Nora must now be consciously confronted
and overcome. The mummy takes Nora’s son to the edge of the waves where,
centuries before, she killed her unfaithful lover and then drowned herself and
her child. Mrs. Ferriter, who runs onto the beach to help Nora, explains to her
that the mummy requires a sacrifice, and Nora assumes that she must offer
herself so that her son can be set free. Shockingly, Nora takes a knife and slits
her own throat, assuming that she has to die to pacify the witch’s destructive
What Nora accomplishes with this act, however, transforms the witch’s
will-to-dominate into Nora’s own life-affirming will-to-power, and this plays
out in a curious transformation: since Nora has entered into the virtual or
molecular process of Becoming-woman with Niamh, she can successfully kill
the witch part of herself by taking a page from the witch’s book (so to speak)
and transforming herself molecularly into the witch’s true visage in order to
cut the witch’s throat – that is, Nora preemptively acts in order to author/
transform the purpose of the Becoming she has entered into with Niamh.
Revealingly, we then watch the true visage of the druid witch come back
into reality as she stumbles into the ocean, clutching her bleeding throat. It
appears that Nora’s courageous, unexpected action to end the mummy’s reign
of terror short-circuits the druid-witch’s totalizing, anti-life desires to repeat
the exact pattern of her past trauma, which then causes a fundamental schism
between their two personalities. Furthermore, the undetermined powers of
Becoming-woman allow Nora to, in effect, use Niamh in order to sacrifice her
previous anti-life self-destructiveness that she now wishes to be rid of. Similar
to how Nadja switches her blood into Cassandra’s body in Nadja, Nora crea-
tively acts to break her own cycle of succumbing to the return of the repressed
in the film.
Thus, as the mummy stumbles into the ocean and sinks into its depths,
she can drift away to her rightful place – i.e., to the grave. Since the mummy
chose to die, Uncle Bill’s desire to bring her back was an affront to her wishes.
Niamh’s body, which was preserved in the bog, will now be allowed to decay
and die a true death. As the metaphorical message of the film implies, Nora
has enacted the molecular powers of Becoming-woman that she authors (in
the film’s diegetic reality at large) according to her own creative or virtual
rules. In this way, she outsmarts Niamh by becoming a molecular woman who
is no longer beholden to the exact pattern of either her own or Niamh’s past
traumas. Hence, Nora, through her own poetic/creative intervention, has used
Niamh’s tragic life-story to exorcise her own traumatic past in a Dionysian
transformation. This Becoming-woman/molecular of Nora’s consciousness
has granted her the powers of a true trans-formation (Braidotti’s nomadic sub-
jectivity) because the mummy’s ancient will-to-destruction will now die with
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Tom O’Connor
Niamh. In this way, Nora succeeds in becoming the poetic problem-solver of
the film’s central conflicts similar to Nadja.
To edify this productive logic, Alice, the narrator of the film, tells us at the
film’s close: ‘[Jim and Nora] were starting over. People start over all the time.
Every day, all the time: you wake [up], take a breath, open your eyes, [and]
start over. That’s how it is’ (The Eternal). A poetic process of Becoming-woman
can grant all of us fresh powers of self-creation and overcoming which, reveal-
ingly, should only be limited according to how we define or choose the limita-
tions of our imaginations. Alice’s poetic insight into the reality of a contingent,
dismodern world thematically echoes the importance of Nora’s Becoming-
woman in the film: we must effectively adapt to a world of ever-new possi-
bilities should be as existentially affirming as possible. Thus, Nora’s prophecy
about her family’s trip to Ireland actually turns out to be true: they can now
get rid of their bad, thoughts, habits, and dreams – at least for the moment
at hand. In this sense, Uncle Bill’s reawakening of the mummy becomes the
best thing that could have happened to Nora because it is the phenomenon
that set her Becoming-woman in motion. Plus, Nora owes the success of her
Becoming-woman to the poetic insights that Alice and Mrs. Ferriter offered
her, which highlights the fact that a Becoming-woman is always a pre- or
extra-personal power – as in Braidotti’s nomadic subjectivity.
It is rather significant here to think back to Alice’s poetic message to us
audiences at the film’s beginning concerning the difficulty of living in a con-
tingent world – one that requires each of us to self-create our own powers of
Becoming-woman; similarly to Nadja’s previous mini-poem, Alice states:
In the beginning of the world,
The earth and the sky were one creature,
And it was the hardest thing to tear them apart –
They loved each other so much.
That’s why it rains,
Because the earth & the sky
Are always trying to get back together…
(The Eternal)
Alice learned this childlike poem (which also echoes Plato’s previously men-
tioned creation myth) about the inevitability and reality of loss and separa-
tion in a contingent/dismodern world from Mrs. Ferriter after Alice’s mother’s
death, which thematically unites Alice with Nora’s suffering because both of
their mothers passed away. Mrs. Ferriter, therefore, becomes the main cata-
lyst for the healing feminine in the film as well as its arbiter of the produc-
tively poetic knowledge that can resist repression, bitterness, and resentment.
Mrs. Ferriter’s insights seek to help other people’s creative processes of
Becoming-woman, which foregrounds Becoming-woman’s extra-personal or
inter-dependent dimensions. According to Almereyda’s film, we should all
allow our Becomings (which always involve hybrids of actual and virtual forces)
to produce fresh possibilities for life-at-large. Poetic processes of Becoming-
woman, like Nadja and Nora’s, blend empirical phenomena with virtual ones
for healing effects as well as the production of unique, future possibilities.
Almereyda’s artistic detour into the horror genre in the nineties likely
arose from the fact that he saw many previously unseen possibilities for poetic
expression or Becoming-woman in those genre conventions. In this way, he
situates these films more in the horror sub-genre of the gothic because gothic
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‘Uncontrollably Herself’
tropes can most effectively capture the productive mystery/virtuality of tradi-
tionally feminine spaces like domestic houses or nature’s scenic landscapes.
His films suggest that an artistic medium like independent film must con-
tinually renew its capacities for Becoming-woman—especially concerning we
audiences’ perceptual capabilities. Becoming-woman, therefore, foregrounds
the fact that imaginative creativity can solve real-world problems (such as our
tendencies toward repression and alienation). Almereyda’s two horror films,
Nadja and The Eternal, do not play by the hokey conventions of mainstream
horror since they are slow-paced, character-driven, and predominantly meta-
phorical in nature—hence, they require a lot of interpretive work on the part
of audiences. Even though Amereyda’s horror films are not made for massive
commercial success, they benefit the creative possibilities of horror in general
and the gothic in particular. For this reason, they are significant contributions
to the adaptability and resilience of a genre that is not homogenous, and that
is never reducible to cheap shocks and thrills. Hopefully there will be many
more films like Nadja and The Eternal that blend art-house artistic possibilities
with the genre conventions that horror fans know and love. Only then will
horror films and the horror genre successfully mirror for us viewers the explo-
sive powers of Becoming-woman.
Barthes, Roland (1982), ‘Myth Today’, in Susan Sontag (ed.), A Barthes Reader,,
New York: Hill and Wang, pp. 93–149.
Braidotti, Rosi (1987), ‘Difference, Diversity, and Nomadic Subjectivity’, Available
at <http://www.let.uu.nl/ ~rosi.braidotti/personal/rosilecture.html>
Davis, Lennard J. (2002), Bending Over Backwards’: Disability, Dismodernism &
Other Difficult Positions. New York: NYU Press.
Deleuze, Gilles (1986), Cinema I: the Movement-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson
and Barbara Habberjam, Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press.
Deleuze, Gilles (1997), Essays Critical and Clinical, trans. Daniel W. Smith
with Michael A. Greco, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.
Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari (1980), A Thousand Plateaus, trans. Brian
Massumi, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Hirsch, Foster (1999), Detours and Lost Highways: A Map of Neo-Noir,
New York: Limelight.
King, Stephen, Why We Crave Horror Movies, Accessed 5/2008, Available at:
Lawler, J. B. (2003), ‘Between Heaven and Hells: The Multidimensional
Universe in Kant and Buffy the Vampire Slayer’, in James B. South (ed.),
Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Philosophy, Chicago: Open Court, pp. 103–16.
Nochimson, M. P. (1995), ‘Desire Under the Douglas Firs: Entering the Body of
Reality in Twin Peaks’, in David Lavery (ed.), Full of Secrets: Critical Approaches
to Twin Peaks, Detroit: Wayne State University Press, pp. 144–159.
O’Connor, Tom (2007), Poetic Acts & New Media. Lanham, Md.: University
Press of America.
Pasolini, Pier Paolo (1998 [1965]), ‘The ‘Cinema of Poetry’, in Louise K. Barnett
(ed.), Heretical Empiricism, trans. Ben Lawton and Louise K. Barnett.
Bloomington: Indiana University Press, pp. 167–186.
Powell, A. (2005), Deleuze and Horror Film, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University
HOST 1.1_O'Connor_111-128.indd 127 12/22/09 8:31:05 PM
Tom O’Connor
Stoker, B. (1978 [1897]), Dracula, New York: Signet Classics.
Woods, P, (1997), Weirdsville USA: The Obsessive Universe of David Lynch,
London: Plexus.
O’Connor, T. ‘‘Uncontrollably Herself’: Deleuze’s Becoming-woman in the
Horror Films of Michael Almereyda’, Horror Studies 1: 1, pp. 111–128, doi:
Tom O’Connor is a Post Doctoral Teaching Fellow at Tulane University in
New Orleans, Louisiana. He has published articles in The Journal of Film &
Video and Social Semiotics, among other journals. The University Press of
America released his first book, Poetic Acts & New Media, in 2007.
E-mail: toconno@tulane.edu
HOST 1.1_O'Connor_111-128.indd 128 12/22/09 8:31:05 PM
Horror Studies
Volume 1 Number 1
© 2010 Intellect Ltd Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/host.1.1.129/1
HOST 1 (1) pp. 129–141 Intellect Limited 2010
monstrous masculine
Napa Valley College
The Monstrous
Masculine: Abjection
and Todd Solondz’s
Horror films often use the male as monster, though conventional ideology says
that it is not his masculine characteristics that make him monstrous. Barbara
Creed writes that in the horror film, the male body is represented as monstrous
“because it assumes characteristics usually associated with the female body.”
The thematic thread of Todd Solondz’s Happiness (1998), beneath its facade
of domestic anxiety, is that of deviant masculinity. In mapping Billy’s horrific
trajectory towards maturity, the film’s project is an abject representation of the
specific rites of passage that he must undergo in order to accede to manhood.
Masculinity in the film is constructed as monstrous via the very characteris-
tics that are inherent to his experience of becoming a man. While at face value
Happiness would seem to elude classification as a horror film, it addresses these
issues through the generic conventions of the horror film, employing many of the
codes and conventions of horror, evoking an effect on the body of the spectator
that is in keeping with the traditional appeal of the genre. Where these films
traditionally work to annihilate the threat to patriarchy and repress the abject,
Happiness concludes with images of the paternal order in crisis. Billy comes to
embody the monstrous masculine, his semen marking the collapse of symbolic
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Adam Wadenius
law, illustrated by the failure of the paternal figure to prohibit the incestuous
bond that is established between mother and child.
There is a scene in Todd Solondz’s Happiness that echoes the dread and fasci-
nation that consumes the spectator when watching Norman Bates, the protag-
onist of Alfred Hitchcock’s horror classic Psycho (1960), as he shifts worriedly
from right to left after pushing Marion Crane’s car into the murky waters of
a swamp. Bill, the deviant, yet empathetic paedophile of Happiness, has pre-
pared a tuna sandwich for his son’s friend, Johnny, who is sleeping over for
the night. After lacing the tuna with a sleeping pill, having earlier drugged his
wife and sons with similarly laced ice cream sundaes, his gaze moves back
and forth between the boy and the sandwich, as he waits for Johnny to divert
his occupied attention to the fishy snack. An uncanny anticipation develops,
akin to the feeling that resonates when Norman looks at Marion’s car, her
body entombed in the trunk, as it momentarily sticks in the muddy swamp.
The simultaneous sense of repulsion and relief that fills the spectator when
the car resumes its descent is similarly evoked when Johnny, falling victim to
Bill’s deception, looks cautiously into the tuna sandwich and takes a bite. Both
Marion and Johnny are unsuspecting victims of a brutal crime carried out at
the hands of a monster, with whom the spectator momentarily identifies.
In Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, Julia Kristeva analyses the con-
ditions that make personal and social identity possible, positing a phase in
the construction of subjectivity that requires a separation from the mother.
This abjection takes place in the semiotic space of the mother/child symbi-
osis, a pre-symbolic level, prior to the subject’s entry into language. In this
space, the oral and anal drives of the child are regulated by its relationship
with the maternal body (Oliver 1993: 34). The abject is ‘not a quality in itself’,
but a relationship to a boundary, representing ‘the object jettisoned out of
that boundary, its other side, a margin’ (Kristeva 1982: 69). The abject is tied
to the fluids of childhood (excrement, vomit, blood), and to a lack of control
and shamelessness. Experiencing the abject induces a simultaneous fear and
fascination, a return to the space of the maternal semiotic, to ‘the place where
meaning collapses’ (Kristeva 1982: 2). In her book The Monstrous Feminine:
Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis, Barbara Creed draws upon Kristeva’s theory
of abjection to argue that the horror film represents woman’s reproductive
functions as abject in order to produce her as monstrous. The genre’s ideo-
logical project, she writes, is an attempt to ‘bring about a confrontation with
the abject’, ultimately to expel it and ‘redraw the boundaries between the
human and non-human’ (Creed 1996: 46). She posits that the horror film is
linked to Kristeva’s theory through its abundance of abject imagery, its treat-
ment of boundary crossing, and its construction of the maternal figure as the
monstrous feminine (Creed 1993a: 11). The male body, on the other hand, is
represented as monstrous only when it assumes characteristics that are asso-
ciated with the female body; his monstrosity is defined by the characteristics
that make him not male (Creed 1993b: 118).
The thematic thread that permeates Todd Solondz’s Happiness is deviant
masculinity, and each male in the film is burdened with a particular sexual
dysfunction that gradually comes to light through displays of perverse or
obscene behaviour. Situated among them is Billy Maplewood, the adolescent
HOST 1.1_Wadenius_129-142.indd 130 12/22/09 8:35:31 PM
The Monstrous Masculine
boy whose burgeoning sexuality emerges as the primary focus of the narrative.
In mapping Billy’s horrific trajectory towards maturity, the film’s project is an
abject representation of the specific rites of passage that he must undergo in
order to accede to manhood. As both an application of, and a reimagining of
Creed’s concepts, Happiness addresses its theme of abject masculinity through
the generic conventions of the horror film, adopting a fluid strategy that
adheres to, and then traverses, the boundaries of her thesis. Masculinity is
constructed as monstrous in terms of the very characteristics that shape Billy’s
experience of becoming a man; characteristics that are revealed as inherent in
the development of his sexual identity.
At face value Happiness would seem to elude classification as a horror film.
Its outer appearance is that of black comedy, though resonating beneath its
facade of suburban anxiety is a narrative that employs the shock tactics of hor-
ror, evoking an effect on the body of the spectator that is in keeping with the
traditional appeal of the genre. Abject signifiers penetrate the mise-en-scène –
death, vomit, excrement, semen – and the inappropriate relationship that
develops between Bill and Billy situates the father and son on the side of the
abject. Billy must navigate and eventually come to accept a path to matu-
rity that is fraught with the deviance represented by his father, who comes
to signify the collapse of the boundary between normal and abnormal sexual
desire (Creed 1996: 39). In her chapter on The Exorcist, Creed argues that rep-
resentations of the monstrous feminine are constructed through the female
subject’s rejection of the paternal order; her refusal to ‘take up her place in
the proper symbolic’ represented as a return to the semiotic (Creed 1993a:
38). She arrives at this point by first explaining that this denial of the father is
also construed as a failure on his part to ensure the separation between the
mother and child. A similar breakdown in the paternal function produces a
representation of the abject in Happiness. Bill’s failure to respect the border
that separates normal and abnormal sexuality positions him as abject, and
his inability to enforce the symbolic law ultimately signals its collapse. His
example of monstrous masculinity is proffered to Billy as a rite of passage into
manhood. Accepting this cue from his father, Billy too violates the border of
normative sexual behaviour. He passes into maturity with his first ejaculation,
his semen marking a collapse of the symbolic law, as Bill fails to prohibit the
incestuous bond that Billy enters into with his mother at the film’s climax.
The typical horror film attempts to resolve this conflict in patriarchal author-
ity, working to ‘separate out the symbolic order from all that threatens its
stability’, via the restoration of the law of the father, and by the repression of
the abject maternal element (Creed 1996: 46). In Happiness, there is no such
resolution for patriarchy, as embodied by Bill, and thus the film concludes
with the symbolic order in chaos; the failure of the paternal constructed as
abject masculinity.
Central to the horror film is the theme of the nuclear family in crisis and
Happiness employs this basic narrative strategy, exploring the horrific nature of
a family invaded by male monstrosity. We are introduced to the Maplewoods:
Bill is a psychiatrist and father, struggling to control his nascent paedophilic
urges; he’s married to Trish, a vapidly domestic housewife, and together they
have two children, Billy and Timmy. In his Introduction to the American Horror
Film, Robin Wood contends that a society built on monogamy and family
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Adam Wadenius
demands the repression of an enormous amount of sexual energy: its return
to culture taking the form of our nightmarish visions, visions that find expres-
sion in the horror film (Wood 1979: 10, 15). He argues for the centrality of
the family unit, identifying the primary narrative conflict in horror films as
an issue linked to or triggered by familial or sexual tension (Wood 1979: 17).
On the exterior the Maplewoods fit the ideal patriarchal mould. They are, as
Trish puts it, a family who ‘has it all’. However, their seemingly ideal subur-
ban lifestyle is soon ruptured as Bill’s repressed deviant masculinity gradually
comes to light. This disruption at the heart of the Maplewood family serves
as the central crisis of the film, out of which the surrounding narrative action
Wood contends that the release of sexuality in horror films is typically pre-
sented as perverse and excessive, and such is the case in Happiness (Wood
1979: 21). At the centre of every horror film is a monster; in Happiness a
monstrous masculinity haunts its characters, finding its core representation
in Bill. In his taxonomy of the modern horror film, David J. Russell suggests
that serial killers, maniacs and other human figures who appear monstrous
to the audience are classifiable as ‘deviant’ (Russell 1998: 241). These deviant
monsters threaten normality through acts of abnormality and transgression,
challenging socially constructed rules of acceptable behaviour. The males in
Happiness are unable to either assert or control their respective sexual drives,
and these conditions ultimately lead to displays of their deviant, repudiated
compulsions. Fraught with sexual desire for young boys, Bill’s unchecked
libidinal urges emerge during several conversations with his son, Billy, in
which he offers answers to questions about sex and male anatomy. Just as
their talks should be drawing to a close, however, he fractures the boundary
of responsible parenting with inappropriate questions of his own that hint at
a need to act out his frustrated sexual desires with the boy. His lack of con-
trol and disregard for the boundaries of proper sexual behaviour mark him as
deviant. The film depicts two specific instances in which Bill acquiesces to his
paedophilic impulses. The first is the aforementioned ‘tuna sandwich’ scene,
where he drugs and rapes Billy’s friend Johnny Grasso during a sleepover. His
second encounter is with Ronald Farber, another one of Billy’s schoolmates.
When Billy mentions that Ronald’s parents have gone on vacation and left
him alone for the week, Bill drives to Ronald’s house and takes advantage
of the young boy. Both of these scenarios, however, are not played out on
screen. Their horrific nature is only alluded to by an ominous fade to black
that cuts the action just before the spectator can witness Bill go through with
each malicious act. Their devastating effects are instead given representation
in a dream sequence that Bill describes to his therapist.
Bill’s fantasy begins in a lush green park where the sun is shining and the
birds are chirping. One couple are jogging together along a gravel trail, and
another walk hand-in-hand through the grass while a calming melody domi-
nates the soundscape. The camera pans left, revealing more couples loung-
ing together on a bench and picnicking in the sunlight. The peaceful setting is
abruptly cut short as Bill comes into frame holding a machine gun. He cocks
his weapon and stalks through the park pumping bullets into the frightened
couples, stopping as the camera zooms out to capture him in long shot, stand-
ing amidst a scattering of bloody dead bodies. Wood writes that dreams are the
embodiment of one’s repressed desires, those that the conscious mind rejects
(Wood 1979: 13); Bill’s dream is a violent representation of the conflict between
his drive to fulfil his obligation as a husband and father, and his desire to have
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The Monstrous Masculine
improper sexual relations with young boys. The former gives in to the latter,
and his paedophilic impulses take over, finding expression as a murderous
outburst that offers only a momentary feeling of release. Just after describing
the fantasy, Bill is asked by his psychiatrist how it makes him feel. ‘Much better,’
he says. ‘I wake up happy … feeling good’. After his session, he goes to a local
convenience mart and buys a copy of a teen magazine. In the parking lot, he
masturbates to a picture of a young boy in the rear seat of his car. Coupled
with the sense of relief he feels after recounting the nightmare, his display of
perverse self-gratification is only a temporary mechanism for assuaging his
repressed urges. Bill is eventually consumed by his perverse desire, the brutality
of his fantasized shoot-out inflicted onto Johnny Grasso and Ronald Farber
through two equally vicious acts of rape.
Perverse sexuality is on display from the very onset and, true to the con-
ventions of the popular horror genre, this signals a return of the repressed
deviance that exists at the core of masculinity in the film. The spectator is
introduced to Allen through a verbal recounting of his sadistic sexual fantasy,
in which he longs to tie up his neighbour Helen and ‘pump, pump, pump
her’ so hard that his ‘dick shoots right through her’. His over-abundance of
testosterone is exuded as raw, sexual aggression; however, his conception of
masculinity is so heavily associated with the orgasmic capacity of his genita-
lia that he is rendered impotent in the company of women. Confused as to
what to do in their presence, he has instead regressed from female contact to
making obscene phone calls and masturbating excessively, depicted in abject
detail in the film. Lenny’s affliction is his extreme apathy, requesting a separa-
tion from his wife and continually affirming throughout the film that he is ‘in
love with no one’. When Mona tells him not to feel guilty after the two have
a brief sexual encounter in her apartment, his listless reply is that he ‘doesn’t
feel anything’. His presence throughout the film is an eerie foreshadowing
of the late stages of the male experience; he is a figure whose deviance has
left him totally devoid of emotion, a symbol of patriarchy in decline. Perverse
sexual behaviour perforates the boundaries of the film’s primary male charac-
ters, spilling out onto the secondary and peripheral players as well: Pedro, the
seemingly well-intentioned doorman, is revealed as a hostile rapist, forcing
himself sexually upon Christina; Joe is a homophobic father who, suspecting
his son is gay, wants to buy him a prostitute; Andy is without control of his
masculinity, pitifully reduced to infantilism; and Vlad is a testosterone-fuelled
philanderer, taking advantage of Joy’s naiveté to use her for sex. There is no
reprieve from deviance for the males in Happiness, an aspect of the narrative
that proves essential towards an affirmation of the film’s primary thematic
In his scathing critique of the film, Andrew Lewis Conn remarks that
Happiness is nothing more than a series of ‘shock tactics’ that sink to the level
of ‘the stabbings and beheadings of the splatter film’ (Lewis Conn 1999: 71). He
overlooks the film’s theme of deviant masculinity, dismissing its abject imagery
as mere mechanical devices, superfluous to the progression of the film’s nar-
rative. Conn likens the film to action movies such as Armageddon (1998) and
Speed 2 (1997), suggesting that its failure to engage the spectator rests in its
inability to support affable and empathetic characters for one to identify with.
It is, however, the precise implementation of taboo subject matter that func-
tions to give Happiness its unique sense of horror. In his discussion of David
Cronenberg’s Shivers, Robin Wood writes of the film’s ‘breaking of every sex-
ual-social taboo – promiscuity, lesbianism, homosexuality, age-difference and
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Adam Wadenius
finally, incest’ (Wood 1979: 24). In much the same way that Cronenberg’s film
is driven by specific instances of abnormal sexual behaviour, Happiness system-
atically builds its acts of sexual deviance one on top of another as a strategy
towards what Wood calls an ‘accumulation of horrors’. The physical effects of
the horror film on the body of the spectator mark its primary allure as a popu-
lar genre, and Happiness’s project is to provoke sensations of disgust through
images of masturbation, death, sexual impropriety and incest. This defile-
ment is methodically revealed as the narrative progresses, gradually laying the
groundwork for a horrifying portrait of abject masculinity.
The concept of the border in horror films is essential to a production of the
monstrous, and Creed writes that anything that ‘crosses or threatens to cross
the border’ is abject (Creed 1993a: 10–11). The construction of monstrosity in
Happiness takes place at the border that separates normal and abnormal sexu-
ality (Creed 1993a: 10–11). The opening sequence of the film is a cue to the
spectator that the standards of a rational and controlled masculinity are out of
balance, and no longer respected.
The film opens with a couple sharing an awkward pause as they sit
together in an upscale restaurant. Joy has just broken-up with Andy, who,
teary-eyed and shaken, asks if it’s because of someone else. ‘No,’ she replies,
‘it’s just you’ – a statement that cuts right to the heart of his inadequacy as a
man. Instead of accepting her decision with the decorum expected of a man,
he instead lashes out with a string of hateful remarks, evoking the abject with
his supposition that she thinks he’s ‘shit’. He has failed to live up to the con-
ventional standards of masculinity, evidenced by his childlike response to Joy’s
rejection. The scene is played out as if the two have exchanged gender roles,
with Joy adopting the aggressive, forthright attitude, and Andy assuming the
role of the vulnerable, jilted lover. This sequence signals a crossing over into a
foreign space, where the dominant order is unsettled and out of control. The
film is set up to be about male deviance, with the male subject signifying the
abject with his disregard for the boundaries of proper masculinity.
The symbolic order sustains itself by maintaining its borders, and of
all the characters in the film, Bill is the monstrous centre whose deviant
transgressions most clearly point to the fragility of the symbolic order.
Early in the film his son Billy approaches him to ask what the word ‘come’
means; Billy then admits that, although he has tried through masturbation,
he has not yet been able to come – evidence that he has yet to surmount
the most significant step in his sexual development, his first ejaculation.
Bill responds as any father might, with an honest, clinical answer to his
question. Billy continues to express frustration at not knowing what to
do, and Bill then oversteps the boundaries of the situation when he asks,
‘Do you want me to show you?’ Later in the film the two are sitting in
the family room, and Billy hesitantly inquires about the size of his penis.
Again Bill offers sincere, fatherly advice, and again he fails to control his
urges when asking, ‘Do you want me to measure?’ Kristeva writes that
the abject ‘does not respect borders, positions, rules’ (Kristeva 1982: 4).
These moments where Bill violates the borders of responsible fathering
are marked as rites of passage in Billy’s advancement toward maturity.
His curiosity about sex and manhood is repeatedly met with answers that
steer him toward a deviant, abject path.
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The Monstrous Masculine
Bill’s representation in the film is one that both repels and attracts, evoking
parallel feelings of disgust and pity. The deranged monster of the horror film
is often its emotional centre, positioned as a sympathetic character with whom
the audience is asked to identify (Wood 1979: 15). There is a sense of compas-
sion felt for Bill as he tries to teach Billy what it is to be a man, equalled by
the outrage that is provoked when his genuine advances venture beyond the
bounds of decent parenting. His identity as a loving father and hard-working
husband is fractured by the abject urges that have persisted beyond his con-
trol, corrupting Billy’s path to manhood. Bill is the ‘amoral oscillator’; at once
conforming to one set of moral principles that define him as father and hus-
band and secretly flaunting them with his deviant behaviours (Lechte 1990:
160). Bill signifies perverse sexuality, and his transgressions against proper
symbolic masculinity mark him as abject, calling attention to the fragility of
the law with his disregard for the border that separates normal and abnormal
sexual desire.
In the closing moments of the film, after Bill’s crimes of paedophilia have
been made public, he sits with Billy for one last father/son discussion. The
children at school have been talking, and Billy asks if the rumours and accusa-
tions that he is a ‘serial rapist’ and ‘pervert’ are true. Bill candidly describes
the sexual acts he committed with Johnny and Ronald. ‘I touched them,’ he
admits, ‘I fucked them’. Billy asks whether or not he would ever want to share
a similar encounter with him, asking, ‘Would you ever fuck me?’ Bill declines,
saying, ‘No, I’d jerk off instead’. Overwhelmed with emotion, Billy’s only
response is to weep in the face of Bill’s brutal honesty. Chris Chang, in his
article ‘Cruel To Be Kind,’ criticizes Solondz for what he calls an ‘insistence on
ambiguity’ in such a critical moment in the film, accusing him of sidestepping
the issue of whether Billy’s tears are over the horrific events that have tran-
spired or Bill’s refusal to engage in sexual behaviour with him (Chang 1998:
75). Kristeva writes that, above all, abjection is ambiguity (Kristeva 1982: 9). It
is the absence of borders, the in-between that lacks a definable object, which
disturbs ‘identity, system, order’ (Kristeva 1982: 4). This void pushes the sub-
ject to seek out the symbolic structure and offers a sense of delineation against
the loathsome, horrific body that exists at its foundation. Billy’s outburst is
neither a horrified judgment nor a jealous protest of his father’s affections,
but rather recognition of the abject and of the deviant model of masculin-
ity being proffered to him. For Billy, this is the moment in which he is faced
with the abject, with that which he must acknowledge and accept in himself
as he navigates his treacherous path to maturity. The ambiguity surrounding
this sequence is crucial to a representation of abjection in the film. As the
two sit together in the darkened space of the living room, the dungeon-like
atmosphere evokes an uncanny similarity to Dr Frankenstein’s laboratory. Bill
is frequently masked in shadow, like the vampire, creature, or monster that
lurks in so many popular horror films. This visual motif is emphasized in key
moments such as this throughout the film, and it is here that Bill has given
life to a monstrous creation of his own. The boundary that once delineated
father and son has dissolved, revealing them as dual representations of the
monstrous masculine.
On a social level, Kristeva posits that a confrontation with the feminine is
equivalent to a confrontation with the abject. The maternal authority is charged
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Adam Wadenius
with separating out and organizing the fluids and wastes that the child expe-
riences in its early stages. Its relationship with the mother is defined by this
‘primal mapping’ of the body, during which the child exists in a realm without
guilt or shame, in opposition to the symbolic (Creed 1993a: 38, 40). The mother
lays out a foundation onto which the paternal law ‘concatenates an order …
precisely by repressing the maternal authority and the corporeal mapping that
abuts against them’ (Kristeva 1982: 72). As a means of purifying the abject,
the symbolic order supports interdictions against incest and defilement rituals,
marking the body’s ‘clean and proper’ boundaries (Kristeva 1982: 102). These
symbolic mechanisms function to exclude the abject from personal and social
identity, offering protection from the threat of dissolution.
The abject is that which has been ‘jettisoned from the symbolic system’:
what the body must ‘permanently thrust aside in order to live’ (Kristeva 1982:
3, 65). Creed’s contention is that the popular horror film acts as a modern
form of defilement rite; it attempts to purify the abject through a representa-
tion of, and encounter with, the maternal body. Its project is to saturate the
film text with images of defilement, pointing to the fragility of the symbolic
order, evoking the loathsome allure of abjection (Creed 1996: 43–44). The
horror film provides an arena for spectators to consume these images, signal-
ling a desire for the ‘perverse pleasure’ experienced in confronting the abject,
which is equalled by the desire to expel it upon satiation (Creed 1993a: 10). In
keeping with the horror film’s propensity for the shocking, Happiness supplies
an appreciable amount of abject imagery.
Blood, death, sexual impropriety and incest permeate the filmic space,
finding expression through deviant masculine behaviour. Unable to bear the
pain of Joy’s rejection, Andy’s cold, pale corpse is uncovered after he com-
mits suicide by consuming a cocktail of pills and vodka. Christina grabs hold
of Pedro’s neck after he attacks her, snapping it backwards and killing him
instantly. ‘I had to cut up his body and plastic-bag all the parts,’ she says
when speaking about his remains. ‘There’s still some left in my freezer’. Bill’s
nightmare provides the most vicious images of murder in the film – his shoot-
ing spree leaves behind a trail of bloody wounds and corpses. These dead and
decaying bodies in Happiness signify the ultimate collapse of boundaries: the
‘utmost of abjection … death infecting life’ (Kristeva 1982: 4).
The blood that leaks from Bill’s victims also serves to mark Johnny as
abject. The morning after his sleepover at Billy’s, Johnny remarks that he’s not
feeling very well and he vomits a viscous white goo onto the kitchen table.
Later that day he finds blood in his stool, and at the hospital his parents dis-
cover that he has been raped. Johnny is doubly bound by abjection. His expul-
sion of abject waste points to the collapse of his body’s proper borders, while
at the same time signalling his violation of the ‘interdiction against love of the
same’ (Kristeva 1982: 102) via the improper sexual relationship forced upon
him by Bill. His vomit, bloody stool, and the breach of his body evoke the
abject, and at the same time they signify Bill’s horrific crime of rape. Kristeva
writes that those who perpetrate crimes against the law are abject: ‘the traitor,
the liar, the criminal with a good conscience, the shameless rapist, the killer
who claims he is a savior’ (Kristeva 1982: 4). Johnny’s sickness points to Bill’s
abject criminality, and to the corrupt masculinity that has been awakened in
him; the interior of the male body made visible via an encounter with abject
In her book Cinema’s Missing Children, Emma Wilson posits a repulsive
similarity between Johnny’s sickness at the breakfast table and Allen’s sadistic
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The Monstrous Masculine
sexual fantasies (Wilson 2003: 49). Allen’s desire to ‘pump’ Helen so hard that
his ‘dick shoots right through her … and [his] cum squirts out of her mouth’,
evokes a strange association between vomiting and ejaculation in the film.
After an episode in which he makes an obscene phone call to Helen from his
desk at work, Allen vomits when his neighbour Christina comes to visit him
with information about Pedro’s death. This mirrors an earlier lewd phone call
that he makes to Joy where he masturbates while talking to her, his semen
captured in abject close-up as he ejaculates against the wall. Throughout the
film, vomit and ejaculate are represented as vile by-products of an encounter
with abject masculinity. This same sickness befalls Bill after his rape of Ronald
Farber. He returns home to find Trish on the couch watching television. ‘I
think I have to lie down,’ he says. ‘I hope you’re not coming down with
whatever Johnny Grasso had,’ she replies. What makes Bill sick, however, is
that which he cannot cure. His affliction is an uncontrollable, deviant sexual
make-up that is inherent to him as a man, and shared by the rest of the male
characters in the film.
Allen is also linked to Billy in the film, and he is in many ways a fore-
shadowing of the man Billy will become: an uncanny doppelganger of sorts.
The two are bound together not only by their physical similarities (both have
chubby, awkward bodies and bespectacled faces) and their individual mastur-
batory episodes, but each also shares an intimate relationship with Bill. When
Allen is describing the vile, abject fantasies he has about his neighbour Helen,
Bill sits across from him, looking on with what seems to be genuine con-
cern. His gaze, however, is insincere, and a subjective voice-over reveals that
he is only pretending to listen, instead daydreaming about a list of errands
he needs to finish. To the contrary, when talking with Billy, he is open and
attentive; indeed his forthrightness pushes beyond the acceptable limits of
proper fathering. Throughout the course of both relationships the abject flow
of sexual impropriety is ignored between men. Bill abuses his responsibility as
Billy’s father, continually crossing the boundaries of proper parenting when
talking to him about sex and manhood. He is similarly positioned as a father
figure to Allen, and he neglects his obligation as a psychiatrist to counsel
him through his perverse sexual fantasies. In both cases, abject masculinity
is treated as unremarkable. It passes between men as something inherent in
their masculine make-up, unnoticed but ever-present.
Allen and Billy are further tied to each other through the graphic expul-
sion of abject fluids: their semen. Kristeva writes that polluting objects fall
into two types: excremental and menstrual (Kristeva 1982: 71). Both types
emanate from the subject’s relationship with the maternal body, excremen-
tal objects endangering from without, and menstrual blood threatening from
within. Excremental fluids signify a split between the maternal authority and
the paternal symbolic. They point back to a time when the child’s relationship
with the mother was unbound by feelings of embarrassment and shame, set
apart as a realm characterized by his ‘untrammeled pleasure in “playing” with
the body and its wastes’ (Creed 1993a: 13). These feelings are surmounted
upon the subject’s entry into the symbolic, during which the exclusion of filth
is ‘promoted to the ritual level of defilement’, marking the sacred order of the
body’s ‘self and clean’ (Kristeva 1982: 65).
Defilement is expelled from the ‘pores and openings’ of the body, point-
ing to the fragility of its borders, as that which ‘gives rise to abjection’
(Kristeva 1982: 108). Impurities such as urine, blood, sperm, and excrement
are those that obscure the borders of the body, and are ‘subject to ritual acts,
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Adam Wadenius
whose purpose is to ward off defilement’ (Lechte 1990: 160). Kristeva writes
that, ‘any secretion or discharge, anything that leaks out of the feminine or
masculine body, defiles’ (Kristeva 1982: 102). She notes, however, that not
everything within one’s body contaminates, and although sperm ‘belongs to
the borders of the body’, it cannot represent the abject because it ‘contains
no polluting value’ (Kristeva 1982: 71). The presence of semen in Happiness,
however, does come to signify the abject, because it is contextualized as
filthy, unclean. It is ascribed a polluted value because it represents a non-
normative masculinity. This is evidenced not only by the specific focus put
on Billy’s quest to come, but also by the way in which it manifests itself in
the film physically in Billy and Allen’s abject cum shots, and symbolically in
Johnny’s ejaculatory vomiting and Bill’s unrestrained gunfire. Happiness is
explicitly about semen, and about the way in which it contaminates proper
masculinity. Semen signifies the sickness that haunts the male body in the
film, polluting him from within, and represented as abjected masculinity
upon its expulsion.
The closing sequence of the film begins with Billy standing alone on a balcony
outside of his grandmother’s new condominium. Looking down onto the pool
area below, he spies a woman laying out a towel in preparation for sunbath-
ing. His eyes devour her voluptuous figure, the scant bikini accentuating her
curves, as she sits and opens a tube of sunscreen. He watches as she massages
the lotion along her arms and over her breasts: his mouth agape as she turns
over onto her stomach, softly untying her top to start tanning. In a state of
arousal, and with no regard for the boundaries of the situation, Billy begins to
masturbate on the open balcony while watching her sunbathe. Taking a cue
from Bill’s deviant model of behaviour, Billy’s instinctual response when faced
with the stimulation of a nearly naked woman is to immediately gratify his
urges in plain view on the balcony, regardless of the potential consequences.
Creed posits that woman’s monstrosity in the horror film is derived from
her physical, sexual and biological attributes. She adds that man cannot ‘give
birth, lactate or menstruate’, thus ‘rendering his fathering and reproductive
functions incapable of signifying monstrosity’ (Creed 2005: 16). The perverse
characteristics that define masculinity in Happiness, however, are explicitly
related to Bill’s perverse conception of fatherhood, and to Billy’s comprehen-
sion of his newly acquired reproductive capabilities. Bill ignores the bounda-
ries of proper father/son relations throughout the film, proffering his perverse
conception of masculinity unto Billy. Upon realizing his father’s fallibility,
Billy is able to accept the notion of his own masculinity as abject, and he
engages in behaviour similar to that of his deviant counterparts in the film. He
achieves his first orgasm while masturbating in a setting where his respect for
the boundaries of normal sexuality is disregarded, signalling his passage into
an abject maturity. In Happiness, the deviant nature of the male body and its
features are put on display and represented as abject, producing masculinity
as monstrous.
Immediately after his transgression on the balcony, a vivid close-up cap-
tures Billy’s semen as it drips onto the guard rail, and the family dog Cookie
scuttles over to lap up the milky substance. Running back into the dining
room, Cookie rushes over to Trish and gives her an unexpected sign of affec-
tion, licking her on the face and mouth. Trish’s interaction with the dog is a
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The Monstrous Masculine
vivid evocation of the abject, their abnormal contact functioning to symboli-
cally unite Billy with his mother in an incestuous relationship, signified by the
transfer of his semen to her via the dog’s kiss. This illicit encounter is alluded
to earlier in the scene by the half-finished glass of milk that sits in front of
Billy’s chair at the dinner table. Kristeva writes that milk binds the mother
to the child, thus connoting incest (Kristeva 1982: 105). As a symbol of the
semiotic, Billy’s consumption of milk just prior to his revelation on the bal-
cony implies his desire to reconnect with the maternal (Weir 1993: 82). He
regresses to the early relationship with his mother, to the realm where guilt
and embarrassment cease to exist. The spectator is immersed in the ‘vortex
of summons and repulsion’ that characterizes the abject, situated in a state of
disgusted pleasure, stirred by the experience of a violation of the incest taboo
(Kristeva 1982: 1).
The prohibition against incest protects the subject from a return to the
pre-Oedipal: a paternal function that acts as a rejection of the abject. Incest
represents a breakdown of symbolic law, and Billy’s improper union with his
mother is a consequence of Bill’s failure as a father. His absence at the film’s
conclusion, in conjunction with the pitiful image of Lenny at the dinner table,
signifies a rupture in the paternal order. Creed argues that the popular horror
film is an attempt to stage an encounter with the abject, only to annihilate its
threat to the symbolic and restore the boundaries of normality (Creed 1993a:
14). Such is not the case in Happiness. The film stages a collapse of the sym-
bolic order, signalling horror as an encounter with the perverse characteristics
of the monstrous male figure. Where the traditional horror film functions to
redraw its boundaries and abject the monstrous element, the paternal crisis in
Happiness remains unresolved. Incest marks Billy as unclean, and his abject
passage into manhood ultimately symbolizes the inherent deviance that exists
at the core of masculinity in the film.
The horror film’s milieu is its violation of boundaries, its pleasure in perversity,
and its revelry in the breaking of cultural taboos. Happiness traverses these
grounds in its exploration of the monstrous masculine, staging a collapse of
the paternal order via Billy’s horrific adolescent trajectory. In his essay ‘The W/
Hole and the Abject,’ Phil Powrie points to the perverse masculinity of Gaspar
Noé’s Seul contre tous as a crucial component in the film’s radical exploration
of abjection. He argues that the sordid ‘variations’ of the film’s protagonist
negotiates a delicate equilibrium between a confirmation and a refutation of
the abject (Powrie 2004: 215). Happiness’s construction of monstrous mascu-
linity has the same subversive potential, working within and around the bor-
ders of the popular horror film to expose the inherent deviance of the male
subject, and pointing to an encounter with the male body as an encounter
with the abject.
In the final moments of the film, after his transgression on the balcony,
Billy follows Cookie into the dining room and looks toward his family,
proudly exclaiming, ‘I came’. Their heads whirl around and look back in
stunned silence as they realize for the first time that, like his father, Billy
too has become a monster. The closing image of Norman Bates in Psycho
imparts a similar representation of monstrosity, with its chilling juxtaposi-
tion of his mother’s corpse, Marion’s car being pulled from the water, and
his devious, smiling face staring back at the spectator. Like Bill, Billy and
HOST 1.1_Wadenius_129-142.indd 139 12/22/09 8:35:31 PM
Adam Wadenius
the rest of the men in Happiness, Norman is positioned as abject because
of his criminality, his refusal to let go of the maternal, and his disregard
for sexual borders. Hitchcock’s film marks a significant turning point in the
evolution of the horror film. Its subversive approach to the genre reinvented
traditional conceptions of the monster, transforming him from an external,
physical being to an internalized, psychological threat. As a horrifying por-
trait of a deranged serial killer, Psycho arouses concerns about one’s ethi-
cal boundaries, implicating the spectator as capable of crime and murder.
Happiness’s grim vision of a patriarchal family is equally horrific; its portrait
of a father and son at the margin of their sexual identities implicates an
intrinsic male deviance, while their abject representation is constructed as
monstrous masculinity.
Chang, Chris (1998), ‘Cruel to Be Kind: A Brief History of Todd Solondz,’ Film
Comment, 34: 5, September–October, pp. 72–75.
Creed, Barbara (1993a), The Monstrous Feminine: Film, Feminism,
Psychoanalysis, New York: Routledge.
Creed, Barbara (1993b), ‘Dark Desires: Male Masochism in the Horror Film’,
in Steven Cohan and Ina Rae Hark (eds), Screening the Male: Exploring
Masculinities in Hollywood Cinema, New York: Routledge, pp. 118–133.
Creed, Barbara (1996), ‘Horror and the Monstrous-Feminine: An Imaginary
Abjection’, in Barry Keith Grant (ed.), The Dread of Difference, Austin:
University of Texas Press, pp. 35–65.
Creed, Barbara (2005), Phallic Panic: Film, Horror and the Primal Uncanny,
Melbourne: Melbourne University Publishing.
Kristeva, Julia (1982), Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, New York:
Columbia University Press.
Lechte, John (1990), Julia Kristeva, New York: Routledge.
Lewis Conn, Andrew (1999), ‘The Bad Review Happiness Deserves or: The
Tyranny of Critic-Proof Movies’, Film Comment, 35: 1, January, pp. 70–72.
Oliver, Kelly (1993), Reading Kristeva, Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Powrie, Phil (2004), ‘The W/Hole and the Abject’, in Phil Powrie et al. (eds),
The Trouble with Men: Masculinities in European and Hollywood Cinema,
New York: Wallflower Press, pp. 207–215.
Russell, David J. (1998), ‘Monster Roundup: Reintegrating the Horror
Genre’, in Nick Browne (ed.), Refiguring American Film Genres, Berkeley:
University of California Press, pp. 233–254.
Solondz, Todd (1998), Happiness, USA: Good Machine.
Weir, Allison (1993), ‘Identification with the Divided Mother: Kristeva’s
Ambivalence’, in Kelly Oliver (ed.), Ethics, Politics & Difference in Julia
Kristeva’s Writings, New York: Routledge, pp. 79–91.
Wilson, Emma (2003), Cinema’s Missing Children, New York: Wallflower
Wood, Robin (1979), American Nightmare: Essays on the Horror Film, Toronto:
Festival of Festivals.
Wadenius, A. (2010), ‘The Monstrous Masculine: Abjection and Todd Solondz’s
Happiness’, Horror Studies 1: 1, pp. 129–141, doi: 10.1386/host.1.1.129/1
HOST 1.1_Wadenius_129-142.indd 140 12/22/09 8:35:31 PM
The Monstrous Masculine
Adam Wadenius earned his Master’s degree in Film Studies at San Francisco
State University, and teaches Film Studies at Napa Valley College in California.
His research interests include the work of Julia Kristeva, horror and the abject,
postmodern theory, and cultural politics. He is currently working on a project
entitled, ‘I Don’t Think I was Cut Out to be a Director,’ which analyses
themes of identity, abjection, self-loathing, and alienation in the films of Todd
E-mail: adam@apwadenius.com
HOST 1.1_Wadenius_129-142.indd 141 12/26/09 1:09:29 PM
Studies in Eastern
European Cinema
ISSN 2040-350X (2 issues | Volume 1, 2010)
Aims and Scope
Call for Papers
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HOST 1.1_Wadenius_129-142.indd 142 12/26/09 1:08:23 PM
Horror Studies
Volume 1 Number 1
© 2010 Intellect Ltd Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/host.1.1.143/1
HOST 1 (1) pp. 143–160 Intellect Limited 2010
Dark Looks: An Interview
With Valerie Steele
Valerie Steele is the Chief Curator of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of
Technology, New York, and one of the most prominent fashion historians working
today. Her exhibition Gothic: Dark Glamour ran from September 2008 to February
2009, and is the first major exhibition to focus on Gothic influences in fashion. An
accompanying book, with an additional essay by Jennifer Park, was published by
Yale University Press in 2008. I met Steele on 12 February just before the exhibi-
tion closed, and talked to her about the process of putting together the exhibition, the
popular reaction to it, and about what Gothic in fashion means more generally.
Catherine Spooner: I really enjoyed the exhibition – it was utterly fabulous.
There’s something particularly timely about it I think: Gothic has been coming
back again and again in the media over the last few years, and in particular the
Autumn/Winter season 2008 saw many designers show Gothic-influenced col-
lections. So my first question is quite a big one: why Gothic and why now – and
that relates to the exhibition and more generally.
Valerie Steele: I’ve been working on the exhibition for the past two years, so I
felt very pleased that it opened in September 2008, right when the collections
were so Gothic, and there were all these other Gothic phenomena in the cul-
ture, like all of the vampire movies and TV shows and so on. I guess I felt when
I started working on the show that it had been pretty much ten years since
Gothic had had a really major impact on fashion. The last time it was really
HOST 1.1_art_Spooner_143-160.indd 143 1/2/10 12:20:20 PM
Catherine Spooner
huge in fashion was Autumn/Winter 97-98 – so a little over ten years – and it just
seemed to me it was time for it to re-emerge in a big way. I first started studying
it myself back in 1995, when it was on its way up towards that peak, in 97-98,
and I remember doing a slide lecture for my graduate students about Gothic
influence on fashion. So a lot of reporters kept trying to get me to say the cur-
rent Gothic revival had to do with either the war in Iraq or the economy being
terrible and I said, ‘Well no, the last time it was really big was when Clinton was
around and the economy was booming!’ There’s nothing as simple in fashion
as wars or economies triggering fashion phenomena – it’s obviously much more
associated with things that are going on at a visual, or in the case of Goth,
musical level – developments that are happening that people aren’t particularly
aware of in the wider culture. I’m not entirely sure what was the concatenation
of musical and visual and subcultural and fashion things that all perfectly gelled
to make this such a spectacularly Gothic moment. I think that there had been
developments like the emergence of Steampunk as the next kind of iteration.
High fashion people are very reactive, they’re sensitive to things that are hap-
pening in the culture, but they’re not actually the first to notice things. Contrary
to the reputation that fashion is the first thing that can tell change, actually
change tends to be happening for quite a while before it finally hits fashion
designers, so I think undoubtedly things were happening in the world of music
and street style, and in visual arts, that are only now being picked up on. For
example, there have been a ton of exhibitions about Gothic themes in art, and
in fact one reviewer said that no one who has been going to art galleries in
Chelsea would think this is such a hugely new thing. But the point is it was new
for high fashion, to have this moment, to have Gothic emerge again.
CS: Full credit to your fashion radar for getting it so spectacularly right! Your
own career has demonstrated an interest in the dark or more perverse side of
fashion for quite some time, for instance your books on fetish and the corset,
so in a sense was a full-blown exhibition and book on Gothic the next inevi-
table step for you?
VS: Well, I don’t know if it was inevitable, but certainly when you look back
on it, it is all part of a picture. There was Fetish [1996], and there was Corset
[2000], and then I did a beautiful small exhibition here at FIT, Femme Fatale
[2003], which was about fin-de-siecle decadence. So this has definitely been a
major theme in my work; I would have thought at the beginning my work was
mostly tying fashion to issues of sexuality and the body, because of things like
Corset, but I guess there has also always been a perverse undertone to that.
CS: One of the things that I enjoyed most about the book, and the exhibition
as well, was the way you talk about the relationship between subcultural style
and high fashion and also historical costume. So, I was hoping you might be
able to tell me a bit more about the process of curating these very disparate
elements – how did you practically go about it?
VS: It seemed to me highly unlikely that that stereotype was true that design-
ers just ripped off subcultural style; that paradigm always seemed grossly over-
simplistic. I think when I got all of the things together, if you walk through
the exhibition you can see well, that sometimes the designers are derivative
of subcultural styles, but most of the time what’s happened is the designers
and the creators of subcultural looks – who are often designers themselves,
just not internationally branded designers – are responding to the same kind
of stimuli, like horror movies for example, vampire movies. So I had a kind of
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Dark Looks: an interview with Valerie Steele
two-pronged attack. I was contacting designers to see what things they still
had in their archive, and what I could borrow. Whenever possible I would try
and interview them, like I was able to interview Rick Owens a couple of times,
and John Galliano, Anna Sui, Olivier Theyskens, and some others. But I also
was able to interview quite a few people who self-identified as Goths, and
they would introduce me one to the other person, and I’d either talk to them
on the phone, if they lived in the UK, or I’d meet them. With Evan [Michelson]
for example, who had the store Obscura, I went to the store and met her and
then I went to her house, and she introduced me to other people and they
came up here to FIT – I think for a while the guards felt there was an endless
stream of black-clad young people who were coming up to the office!
CS: It looks and sounds like it was an awful lot of fun!
VS: It was enormously fun – it was SO fun! I would happily have worked on
this for another year, but I guess then my timing would have been off!
CS: Were there any pieces that you really wanted to have in the exhibition
that you couldn’t get?
VS: The only piece I really wanted that I couldn’t get was Schiaparelli’s skel-
eton dress, which I wanted to borrow from the V&A, but because Fashion and
Surrealism was still travelling around the world, they couldn’t lend me that.
I was amazed, I thought that a lot of designers would have refused to lend
to the show, because they wouldn’t want to be associated with the Gothic,
because of all the sort of pejorative connotations, and that wasn’t true! Ann
Demeulemeester did call me up and she said, ‘Val, I trust you: I will lend
you the dress that you want, but I want you to know that I am not a Gothic
designer!’ And this is from someone who has always worn black since she
was fifteen, and her clothes are often described as being Gothic in feeling. I
said, ‘OK, I’ll make that clear Ann, but what does Gothic mean to you?’ And
she said, ‘Well, skulls: it’s this kind of kitschy thing with skulls.’ I said, ‘Well
we’ll have a few of those but not a whole lot, because actually it’s been so
over-done, you know I’m running into people walking their dog wearing a
dog-coat with skulls on it!’ So I asked her, ‘How would you describe your own
clothes?’ and she said, ‘Kind of dark Romanticism’. I said, ‘Well, that’s kind of
where I’m seeing a lot of the Gothic really being, a dark Romanticism.’
CS: The way she expressed that is really interesting, as there’s a frequent
subcultural strategy where Goths refuse to call themselves Goths: Bauhaus
famously said that they weren’t Goths, and The Sisters of Mercy say that
they’re not Goths…
VS: Exactly! So even in the core of the culture there’s this sense that it’s a
pejorative, and I found that interesting because Punk is valorised, Hip Hop is
valorised, people with no connection to Goth claim to have a connection, but
then real Goths say, ‘Oh no not me! Oh no, I’m not Goth at all!’
CS: ‘Gothic’ was frequently used pejoratively in the eighteenth century…
VS: Of course, it’s been a pejorative from the beginning! Absolutely! Even in
the Middle Ages, people who built cathedrals didn’t call them Gothic cathe-
drals. It was a couple of centuries later that people looked back and said,
‘Weren’t they horrible and barbaric, those old Gothic cathedrals!’ It always
seems to carry this pejorative, like the word decadence: it’s never something
HOST 1.1_art_Spooner_143-160.indd 145 12/30/09 8:53:31 AM
Catherine Spooner
Figure 1: Evening dress by Ann Demeulemeester, autumn/winter 1997/1998.
HOST 1.1_art_Spooner_143-160.indd 146 12/30/09 8:53:31 AM
Dark Looks: an interview with Valerie Steele




HOST 1.1_art_Spooner_143-160.indd 147 1/2/10 4:53:43 PM
Catherine Spooner
neutral, or just a description; it’s all this sense of the morbid, the macabre, the
barbarous, the primitive.
CS: So how self-conscious do you think contemporary Gothic style is about
the literary and historical precedents?
VS: It really varies a lot. Some of the Goths that I talked to were very much
into literary and artistic antecedents and they talked to me about not just
Baudelaire, but Byron – they were very widely read, and had lots of differ-
ent artists that they wanted to bring into the Gothic pantheon, from Gustave
Doré, to the Pre-Raphaelites, all kinds of people. Others sent me little sniffy
messages that said, ‘You’re so dumb, it has nothing to do with Goths in his-
tory, it all started in the late 1970s.’ Which reminded me of one of my inform-
ants to whom I said, ‘Everyone I talk to is so culturally literate and articulate!’
She said, ‘Oh no, some of them just read Anne Rice.’
CS: What sort of reactions did Goths have, or have Goths had, to the exhibition?
VS: Really positive! Except for the occasional snippy thing, like, ‘You were
wrong about thinking it has this long history’, on the whole I’ve been really
gratified, because people have written and called and emailed me; one of
them said ‘It’s absolutely amazing that someone who’s not a Goth herself
could get this so right! You really did your homework.’ Then another person
who identified as a Goth said, ‘We were really worried that you were going
to make something that was really kitschy, or make fun of us, and instead it’s
really true to the feeling of being a Goth’, so I was really pleased by that.
CS: The one part of the exhibition that I felt slightly ambivalent about was the
Batcave section, which has the Goth subcultural styles in it. The reason for
that is very subjective, and I’m very self-conscious of why that is, and it’s that
I didn’t recognise myself there from the days when I self-identified as a Goth.
Of course, asserting one’s own perceived difference is a completely typical
subcultural strategy! However, it must be very difficult to encompass such a
diverse subculture and such a long-lived subculture – I think there are eleven
mannequins in that section. You do find very representative styles, I think,
and do some really interesting things with that section, but I wonder if other
Goths or ex-Goths have had similar reservations?
VS: Nobody has said it to my face, but I could certainly understand that peo-
ple might say, OK, so I certainly recognise that those existed, but there is
more to it than that.
CS: It’s funny, because I actually found myself self-identifying more with
some of the designer fashion, and I wonder if that’s because the self-image
that you have is a fantasised one?
VS: Yeah, and I think that I tried to give a sense in the Batcave of a club
environment, which is very hard to do without music – we couldn’t afford
to pay for the rights to get the music. But of course the club is a literal
environment, it’s not an imaginative environment, so something like the
laboratory or the ruined castle in a way is more imaginatively evocative.
Even in the section about the Victorian Cult of Mourning, when I have this
Goth girl’s real Victorian dress that she wears to cemeteries and parties,
that in a way was more evocative of the Goth scene than the Batcave was
as a set.
HOST 1.1_art_Spooner_143-160.indd 148 12/30/09 8:53:35 AM
Dark Looks: an interview with Valerie Steele
CS: Another thing that I loved about the exhibition was the way it was staged.
You talk in the accompanying blurb about it being labyrinthine, and all the
other Gothic metaphors that circulate around that space, but the one that I
really strongly reacted to was the way that the whole exhibition played with
the gaze and the notion of the veil.
VS: I got that from your book! I got that from you, totally. Did you notice how
we put a little black band around some of the mannequins’ eyes?
CS: And the two-way mirror in the Batcave which is obviously a reference
to Alexander McQueen’s ‘Voss’ show with the reflective glass box, and the
mirroring in the Victorian Cult of Mourning section where you have the man-
nequins mirroring each other, then mirroring each other in the mirrors, and
the doubling and the uncanny effects and the gauzes and the curtains – it’s
just fabulous, it’s continually playing with the notion of looking, and how we
VS: And also the Jean Cocteau movie and opera about death [Orpheé], when
Death comes through the mirror.
Figure 3: ‘The Victorian Cult of Mourning’.
HOST 1.1_art_Spooner_143-160.indd 149 12/30/09 8:53:35 AM
Catherine Spooner

















HOST 1.1_art_Spooner_143-160.indd 150 1/2/10 4:53:47 PM
Dark Looks: an interview with Valerie Steele
Valerie was interrupted by a colleague, and after we resumed she continued to talk
about the staging of the exhibition.
VS: It was incredibly fun putting the show together. I have a wonderful
exhibition designer, Charles Froom, but I also wanted to bring in Simon
Costin because he’s someone who’s an artist and a designer and he worked
with McQueen and he has a tremendous Gothic sensibility, and collection of
things himself. So the three of us worked, and then my exhibition manager,
Fred Dennis, and we got more and more itchy, we had these amazing brain-
storming sessions trying to envision what could we have. And I told them
I had to have a ruined castle, and I had to have a laboratory, and I wanted
vampires and I wanted mourning, but then I said how there was that thing
in Poe about the haunted palace, and this was a metaphor for a disturbed
mind, and I wanted it to somehow be like the Alexander McQueen collec-
tion ‘Voss’, all that madness and horror and beauty, and Simon was the one
who came up with those wonderful, Caligari-esque huge doors and the dis-
proportion, and how they’re all different angles, and then Fred and I were
placing the mannequins, and Fred said ‘You’ve got to be careful to have the
mannequins not look at each other’ – they’re all alienated and separate from
each other.
CS: Except for the two who are looking at each other directly – the one with
her back to you is quite uncanny as you feel like she might turn round at
any moment! I got that sense of the uncanny from the exhibition, that at any
moment the mannequins might come alive!
VS: We got some special, ghost-like mannequins, to have some of that,
because I hate the normal, schleppy mannequins, but when the shleppys were
ghosted, it was more abstract.
CS: What makes them ‘ghosted’?
VS: It’s a different material; if you look carefully some of them are greyish
clear, instead of the normal white, and then some of the more theatrical ones
were older, highly stylised, ‘realistic’ mannequins by Reifstein. And someone’s
friend came in for practically nothing to do the wigs, and they were inspired,
and people were so keen on working on this show that they were doing it
for a fraction of the fee they’d normally charge. Then we started coming up
with these amazing wigs and things to capture the doll-like quality, which is
so uncanny, like an automaton or a mannequin coming to life. I once wanted
to do a show called ‘Sexy Robots’, so this idea of the robot mannequin doll is
really important.
CS: You incorporate quite a lot about Japanese Gothic Lolita style in the cata-
logue and there are some examples in the exhibition as well. I find Gothic Lolita
particularly interesting, because it seems to be all about the clothes and not
necessarily so much about the lifestyle or the music, so it’s almost a distillation
of the Gothic in clothes. When I was looking round the exhibition I noticed
there were many interesting pieces by Japanese designers as well: Comme des
Garçons and Yohji Yamamoto and so on. What interests me, therefore, is how
you think Gothic style works in non-Western cultural contexts?
VS: Well, there are real Goths in Japan, and also people who are into vam-
pires, but Elegant Gothic Lolitas are a whole separate category, and are
not ‘real Goths’. I mean they’re into Visual Kei music, and they’re not into
HOST 1.1_art_Spooner_143-160.indd 151 12/30/09 8:53:40 AM
Catherine Spooner
Figure 5: ‘Elegant Gothic Lolita’ ensemble by Hirooka Naoto with ‘angry’ doll, autumn 2008.
HOST 1.1_art_Spooner_143-160.indd 152 12/30/09 8:53:40 AM
Dark Looks: an interview with Valerie Steele
Goth antecedents. However, they all have this totally fantastic look that
they put together, and that look is actually influencing a lot of Western
Goths now in a big way. So I think that to say I couldn’t include them
because they’re not ‘real’ Goths is not valid. There are ‘real’ Goths in lots of
other non-Western cultures apparently, in Mexico and South America there
are also whole Goth subcultures, but the Japanese are just different – in so
many ways – I mean way more different even than the Indians, certainly
more different than the Chinese, it’s such a fascinatingly different culture.
A lot of Japanese designers are very avant-garde and they’re very sensitive
to visual ideas. I think it depends from designer to designer how much
you could say that they had a real Gothic sensibility. I mean someone like
Yohji Yamamoto actually used to have a line called Gothic, as well as a line
called Noir. Jun Takahashi talks about how his clothes are ‘cute and scary’,
which is kind of like Gothic Lolita. There was Lolita first and then there
was Gothic Lolita, and he carried that on further. But I do think probably
there’s a bit of leaching with the next project that I’m working on, which is
about Japanese fashion, so part of it was also that I was starting to get really
interested in that.
CS: I found some of those pieces, as I said, among the most brilliant in the
exhibition. I particularly loved the Yamamoto dress which he compares to
Samurai clothes but it’s like a deconstructed suit at the same time. It’s cut so
amazingly! But you wouldn’t necessarily have thought of it as Gothic in a dif-
ferent context.
VS: There just seem to be things about ruin and destruction and transi-
ence, I think a lot of the Japanese – and this does actually have to do with
Japanese culture, into that idea of mono no aware, the fleetingness of time
and the pathos of things, the beauty of ruins, that’s a deep part of Japanese
CS: In the accompanying book to the exhibition you call Alexander McQueen
the greatest contemporary Gothic fashion designer. I would agree with you –
but why do you think he is so great, and what is it about his work that is so
particularly Gothic?
VS: I think that he’s the designer who’s most consistently interested in certain
Gothic themes such as the macabre, and the beauty and horror of context. He
often incorporates themes having to do with death, and skulls, and bones,
and also religious iconography, and he often views religion through this lens
of it having to do with the sorcery and superstition and prejudice of the past.
He created a collection inspired by his ancestor who was executed as a witch
at Salem, all about religious persecution, and sorcery, and superstition. The
‘Joan of Arc’ collection, which we didn’t include in Gothic because I’d included
it in an earlier show on The Weaponized Woman, had to do again with Joan as
a heretic and a witch and a female deviant, who was being cast out as a scape-
goat. So I think he’s very much obsessed with that outsiderdom, which I think
is really part of that Gothic sensibility too, from Walpole on. I mean Walpole’s
biographer describes him as the great outsider, and I think that that feeling is
why so many adolescents are drawn to Gothic, as during adolescence you feel
like an outsider.
CS: Does McQueen accept the term Gothic?
VS: I didn’t have a chance to ask him – I couldn’t get an interview.
HOST 1.1_art_Spooner_143-160.indd 153 12/30/09 8:53:41 AM
Catherine Spooner
Figure 6: ‘In memory of Elizabeth Howe, Salem, 1692’ by Alexander McQueen, autumn/winter 2007.
HOST 1.1_art_Spooner_143-160.indd 154 12/30/09 8:53:41 AM
Dark Looks: an interview with Valerie Steele
1. Luisa Casati Stampa di
Soncino, Marcheas di
Roma (1881–1957),
flamboyant Italian
2. The quotation from
‘Dialogue Between
Fashion and Death’
(1824), by Italian poet
Giacomo Leopardi,
displayed on the wall of
the museum, reads as
‘Fashion: “I am fashion,
your sister.”
‘Death: “My sister?”
‘Fashion: “Yes, don’t
you remember that both
of us are daughters of
CS: That’s a shame. Another thing that’s really struck me, and this was con-
firmed when I went round the exhibition, is that so many of these designers
are British – what is it about the British that draws them to Gothic in particu-
lar do you think?
VS: I think that it has to do with the connection between high fashion and
street style in Great Britain, which is so strong – it’s strong in Japan too. And
I think it also has to do with a sensibility which prizes the eccentric and the
offbeat, whereas something like Italian fashion does not: it’s all about luxury,
and it’s a kind of haut-bourgeois fashion. Riccardo Tischi is practically the
only really Gothic Italian designer.
CS: And he trained in Britain…
VS: Exactly. I remember I gave a tour to some dignitaries from Italy and
walked them through the show, and they hated it! They were like, ‘This is
Hallowe’en!’ It was only near the very end, when I showed them Galliano’s
take on the Marchesa Casati,
and they read the Leopardi quote about fashion
and death,
that they were like, ‘Oh – la Decadenza!’ And then they could
understand it through that framework – d’Annunzio and so on. It’s so alien –
I mean that’s the heartland of the classical, of making everything calm, and
where preserving the equilibrium is all – whereas Gothic is the exact opposite,
it’s northern and barbaric and anti-classical.
CS: It’s interesting how that still plays itself out in fashion even though that’s
such an ancient division. You say in the book that the role of the fashion pho-
tographer and the stylist is crucial to understanding Gothic fashion, and there
are some examples in the exhibition of Sean Ellis’s work and that of art pho-
tographer Tanya Marcuse. So what do you think that photography can bring
to the clothes?
VS: I think photography’s essential as I think the photographer and stylist
are the ones who tell the story about the clothes. Clothes can look many
different ways depending on how you style them. I deliberately included a
couple of dresses, one by Calvin Klein and one by Armani, that don’t par-
ticularly look Gothic, but they were both chosen for Gothic fashion spreads,
one in American Vogue and one in Paris Vogue, and both pieces are a black
dress which can be styled Gothically. Now the stylist and photographer
could do another take, they could do a Punky, rock’n’roll take, or a ‘tough
chic’ take, but once in a while they choose to style it in a way which is
Gothic. So fashion photography can take more liberties with developing a
full-scale story and a scenario, because of the other objects there, and which
mannequins you choose, and everything including the contact lenses can
make the look much more one way than another way.
CS: So in a sense, the curator is also telling a story about the clothes too, so
you’re doing the same thing in a different medium. Do you think the story
that the exhibition tells and the story that the book tells is a slightly differ-
ent one?
VS: Yes, they are a slightly different story, and I think I’m very happy with the
book but I think the exhibition is even better. I think it’s the best exhibition
I’ve ever done – even better than Corset and Femme Fatale. So, I spent a lot of
effort trying to get good photographs of the exhibition, because an exhibition
is like a dance performance, it’s so ephemeral, I mean in a week and a half
HOST 1.1_art_Spooner_143-160.indd 155 12/30/09 8:53:46 AM
Catherine Spooner
they’re going to tear down all of the ruined castle and everything, and it will
all be gone.
CS: In the book you write that, ‘Gothic fashion is thus a rejection of “normal”,
“natural” beauty in favor of an alternative vision of horrific, excessive, artificial
and (sometimes) sexually fetishistic beauty.’ That leads me to wonder whether
you see Gothic fashion as possessing a capacity to critique our perfection-
obsessed culture?
VS: Oh I think it does, potentially.
CS: I like that ‘potentially’.
VS: The meaning’s not in the clothes, ever. Like a high heel is not a sex
object per se, it’s only the stories we tell about it, how we use it to create
a mise-en-scene. So if somebody is wearing a dress and make-up and hair
and body presentation which is questioning or denying what is assumed
to be beautiful and acceptable, then I think it does have a potentially dis-
ruptive effect. If you think of something like the Comme des Garçons so-
called ‘bump’ dress, when that was shown all the journalists went crazy
and they said, ‘Oh, she’s deforming women and making them look ugly’.
I thought ‘Well, maybe…’, but you could just as easily say she’s question-
ing how come it’s OK to have padding in certain parts of a woman’s body
and that’s normative and making it more beautiful, while in other places
it’s making it into a witch, a monster. But I think that many people have a
very low threshold in how much they’re willing to turn themselves into an
alternative vision, particularly in America, which is very conformist. One of
the cool things about Britain and Japan is that many people are very, very
willing to go out on a limb and have people not understand what they look
like. I remember in the Eighties I used to wear all Japanese, big oversized
black clothes and even people who were in the industry didn’t get them,
and it was like, ‘What are you doing, that is so weird!’ Most of these mes-
sages simply are not understood by those around, but a few other people
maybe will pick up on them. One of the Goth girls that I interviewed has
green dreadlocks, and she’s a living question to the people around her.
Is green OK too? Is it OK for a white girl to have dreadlocks? It’s asking
potentially all kinds of questions.
CS: So do you think that part of whether the fashion is subversive or not is
partly to do with the story that’s being told around it and partly, as you said,
to do with the context?
VS: Oh yes, and the perception, and most people won’t get it at all, which
I think is also interesting – the fact that it’s unreadable to most people is
just part of what’s going on, it becomes sort of a secret Masonic handshake
that only some people are going to understand. Others may understand
at some visceral level – ‘I don’t like that person, they’re questioning my
values’ – but they wouldn’t be able to put a finger on exactly what values
are being questioned.
CS: But some of the dresses could be worn in a relatively conventional way.
VS: Absolutely.
CS: They could be styled conventionally and probably wouldn’t trouble any-
one at all, they could be worn on the red carpet or whatever. Arguably, you
HOST 1.1_art_Spooner_143-160.indd 156 12/30/09 8:53:46 AM
Dark Looks: an interview with Valerie Steele
Figure 7: ‘Dress becomes body’ by Rei Kawakubo for Comme des Garçons, spring 1997.
HOST 1.1_art_Spooner_143-160.indd 157 12/30/09 8:53:46 AM
Catherine Spooner
Figure 8: Evening dress by Rodarte, autumn 2008.
HOST 1.1_art_Spooner_143-160.indd 158 12/30/09 8:53:48 AM
Dark Looks: an interview with Valerie Steele
could say the same thing about Goth subculture, that some of the looks are
deliberately outrageous, disturbing and all the rest of it, but it is also possible
to wear Goth street style in quite a conventional way. Or would you disagree
with that?
VS: No, its meaning is always contextual and is always being recreated at any
given time. Absolutely. And whether there’s a deep teenage angst behind it
or whether there’s a slightly ironic feeling that, ‘Yes, I believe this but I know
that it’s also over the top’ or whatever, that’s going to be part of it too.
CS: I suppose what I’m thinking of is what Goths within the subculture
often call the ‘Weekenders’ or the ‘Saturday Goths’, that you can just dress
up that way for a Hallowe’en party and you can actually look quite glam-
orous. Many Goths would probably think of that as not representing the
whole lifestyle; also, that look might still conform to conventional ideas of
VS: Yes, and most people are going to want to conform in one way or another,
if not to conventional ideas then to the conventions within that subculture –
because there won’t be a hard and fast difference. But I think one thing that
was interesting is that a lot of Goths were very open to the idea that there
were nuances between the kind of ‘authenticness’ and the fashion quality.
That you know when you’re talking [in Fashioning Gothic Bodies] about how
the clothes are the life and it’s really part of the Gothic psyche, but also a
sense that there’s an awareness that it’s a theatrical, artificial thing too – that’s
really interesting, because when I interviewed fetish people, they flatly hated
the fashionable co-optation of elements. As one guy said to one leather-fetish
guy, ‘What do you think of Versace?’ He said ‘I hate it!’ He asked why, and
the leather-fetishist said, ‘Because now you can’t tell if people are really into
it or not. I mean, are you really into it, or is it just fashion?’ But I think that
with Goth there is a much more sophisticated awareness that the outer layer
is always going to be to some extent a mask, and there might just be layers
of masks.
CS: Last question: why do you think Gothic does keep coming back in fash-
ion, and why does it keep being recycled every ten years or however many
VS: Well, I think that people respond emotionally to that whole vocabulary
of images and stories that have been built up over the years about the Gothic
and people respond to feelings of monstrosity, they respond to the eroticism
of the vampire story, they respond to the dark grammar of being the dandy
anti-hero, and I think that vocabulary and that visual iconography keeps being
added to. One thing that I loved about the Rodarte dress in the exhibition is
that the designers looked to East Asian, Japanese and Korean horror films
and they came up with new imagery and new ways to convey that feeling of
outsiderness and eroticised horror.
All photographs by Irving Solero, © The Museum at FIT, New York.
Brill, Dunja (2008), Goth Culture: Gender, Sexuality and Style, Oxford: Berg.
Evans, Caroline (2003), Fashion at the Edge: Spectacle, Modernity and Deathliness,
New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
HOST 1.1_art_Spooner_143-160.indd 159 12/30/09 8:53:53 AM
Catherine Spooner
Godoy, Tiffany and Ivan Vartanian (2009), Japanese Goth: Art and Design, New
York: Universe Publishing.
Goodlad, Lauren and Bibby, Michael (eds.) (2007), Goth: Undead Subculture,
Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Hodkinson, Paul (2002), Goth: Identity, Style and Subculture, Oxford: Berg.
Spooner, Catherine (2004), Fashioning Gothic Bodies, Manchester: Manchester
University Press.
Spooner, Catherine (2006), Contemporary Gothic, London: Reaktion.
Steele, Valerie (1996), Fetish: Fashion, Sex and Power, Oxford: Oxford University
Steele, Valerie (2001), The Corset: A Cultural History, New Haven, CT: Yale
University Press.
Steele, Valerie (2008), Gothic: Dark Glamour, New Haven, CT: Yale University
Spooner, C. (2010), ‘Dark Looks: An Interview With Valerie Steele’, Horror
Studies 1: 1, pp. 143–160, doi: 10.1386/host.1.1.143/1
Catherine Spooner is Senior Lecturer in English Literature at Lancaster
University, UK. Her research explores the relationships between Gothic,
fashion and material culture, and she is the author of Fashioning Gothic
Bodies (2004), Contemporary Gothic (2006) and the co-editor of The Routledge
Companion to Gothic (2007). Her review of Gothic: Dark Glamour appears in
Gothic Studies 11/2 (November 2009).
E-mail: c.spooner@lancaster.ac.uk
HOST 1.1_art_Spooner_143-160.indd 160 12/30/09 8:53:53 AM
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Stroöter-Bender, J. (1995), L’Art contemporain dans
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