Thursday, December 20, 2007

Noah Berlatsky: Fecund Horror

for Tabico, naturally

Ever since Dr. Frankenstein gave birth to his monster, horror has been brooding, in the precise sense. Whether it’s a woman impregnated by a demon in Rosemary’s Baby, a man impregnated by an alien in Alien, or cthonic fish-things impregnated by New Englanders in Lovecraft’s The Shadow Over Innsmouth, we have seen the enemy, and it is coming out of us. Julia Kristeva argues that the despised feminine is linked to menstrual blood, to maternal lessons in sphincter control, and to the child’s efforts to break away from the mother. But it seems to me that she is most insightful when she ties it to “[f]ear of the uncontrollable generative mother.”(78-79) Surely it is pregnancy itself which is the ultimate metaphor for abjection -- an indissoluble link to our own monstrous flesh and the ultimate violation of sealed interiority, ringed about with ritual and magic. In fact, Kristeva’s description of abjection could almost be read as an on-the-scene account of childbirth:

It is not the white expanse or slack boredom of repression, not the translations and transformations of desire that wrench bodies, nights, and discourse; rather it is a brutish suffering that “I” puts up with, sublime and devastated, for “I” desposits it to the father’s account: I endure it, for I imagine that such is the desire of the other. A massive and sudden emergence of uncanniness, which, familiar as it might have been in an opaque and forgotten life, now harries me as radically separate, loathsome. Not me. Not that. But not nothing, either. A “something” that I do not recognize as a thing.”(3)

Or, in the more direct words of radical feminist Shulamith Firestone, “Pregnancy is barbaric.”(226) It is uncivilized and uncivilizable; indeed it defines the boundaries of civilization. As Firestone argues in her book, The Dialectic of Sex, “the natural reproductive difference between the sexes led directly to the first division of labor based on sex, which is at the origins of all further division into economic and cultural classes and is possibly even at the root of all caste....”(9) For Firestone, our society is predicated on this biological fact, which precedes culture and yet defines it. Women’s biological difference is the basis of hierarchy, exploitation, and, therefore, of alienation and of our twisted relationship to love and each other. All that we think of as inhumane -- injustice, exploitation, even, perhaps, cruelty and pain -- has crawled out of women’s swollen bellies.

Firestone therefore argues that we cannot be truly civilized until we do away with pregnancy. Writing in 1969, she imagined a world in which scientific advances in birth control, cloning, and test tubes might free women from the burden of parturition. With the most important distinction between men and women removed, the nuclear family, with its Oedipal baggage, would collapse. The result would be the gay utopia:

Thus, without the incest taboo, adults might return within a few generations to a more natural “polymorphously perverse” sexuality, the concentration on genital sex and orgasmic pleasure giving way to total physical/emotional relationships that included that. Relations with children would include as much genital sex as the child was capable of.... Adult/child and homosexual sex taboos would disappear, as well as nonsexual friendships.... All close relationships would include the physical, our concept of exclusive physical partnerships (monogamy) disappearing from our psychic structure as well as the construct of a Partner Ideal. (272)

Firestone’s vision is...well, visionary. As an origin story, it can’t be proven or disproven in any ordinary sense. But it can be believed, and that belief has evocative, spiritual, and political power. For Firestone, the end result of this belief is positive -- transforming pregnancy and repealing taboo results in a fluid and sunlit Eden. For the horror genre, on the other hand, transforming pregnancy and repealing taboo results in a slimy and tenebrous abyss. But the underlying economy of both is the same. Pregnancy is a central truth of our selves. It is the basis for the regulation of sexuality, of boundaries, of affection, and of love. If it is altered, identity collapses, and with it the world as we know it. The new birth is the apocalypse.

These ideas are essential to a modern incarnation of a vampiric sub-genre which might be called fecund horror -- narratives in which, rather than fighting a monster outside themselves, humans instead become monsters themselves. One of the ur-texts in this regard is Don Siegel 1956 film version of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers . In Body Snatchers, the artificial generation of bodies results in the withering of emotions. The communal growing of individuals puts an end to the twisted psychodrama of the nuclear family, just as Firestone suggested it would -- but it also ends all affection for anyone. G. K. Chesterton contends that “you never understand this great earth until you own a little bit of it; and you do not really know anything about any order of things from cats to angels until you have one of your own.”(59) Without individual, proprietary personal ties, all affection dies, leading to Ronald Reagan’s “ant heap of totalitarianism”; a world in which humans become automatons.

Like much ‘50s horror, Body Snatchers is often seen as a parable about communism. It certainly can be read that way fairly easily. One of the first signs of trouble in the film is a failed entrepreneurial effort -- a once successful, but now abandoned roadside vegetable stand. It’s worth noting, though, that the capitalist tragedy here is not linked to a loss of individualism, but rather to a familial crisis: the owner of the stand is never shown, but we do see his wife chasing their panic-stricken son. In Body Snatchers nieces don’t recognize their uncles, fathers betray their daughters, lovers are indifferent to each other. Moreover, the film’s most abject scenes are ones of monstrous birth: of full-grown clones issuing oozily from overgrown seed-pods. In contrast, at her moment of greatest terror, when she believes she is about to be possessed, the heroine Becky (Dana Wynter) turns to Miles (Kevin McCarthy), the hero, and exclaims, “I want to love and be loved! I want to have your babies!” The protagonists here are childhood sweethearts who each married other spouses and subsequently divorced them (and both in Reno, no less!) Their desire for a “traditional” home is, therefore, a reaction against both the encroaching alien collective and their own up-to-date, atomized lifestyles. (The 1978 remake uses even more explicit fetal imagery -- but it drops the family and community themes, replacing them with nothing of any particular interest, unless you count Donald Sutherland’s remarkably frightening 70s hair.)

Underlying the original Body Snatchers movie, then, is a queasiness about birth and new modes of family which expresses itself, on the one hand, in idealization and, on the other, in terror. Barbara Creed explains this by arguing that science-fiction movies are concerned with “the reworking of the primal scene in relation to the representation of other forms of copulation and procreation.”(48) In this context, the fraught primal scene in the 1956 Body Snatchers, occurs at the end of the film, when Miles kisses Becky in the cave. As their lips connect, he realizes that she is no longer who he thought -- she has become something else. Director Don Siegel described this scene with good-humored misogyny, noting that the hero wants to

kiss her awake in a delicious non-pod way but she’s a limp fish and he knows immediately that she’s a pod. In my life, I am sorry to say, I have kissed many pods. (quoted in Grant, ed. Introduction p.4)

Certainly Becky is no longer interested in bearing Miles’ children. But, despite Siegel, I don’t think she exactly becomes a “limp fish.” On the contrary, the transformation makes her more aggressive and more competent. Before her change, she was desperate, exhausted, muddy, and generally done in. Afterwards, she’s confident, decisive and even, if my eyes don’t deceive me, cleaner. And while I guess it could just be a personal kink, I don’t think that being possessed by an alien life-form and forcibly bent to its will has desexed her. Dana Wynter is a remarkably attractive woman under any conditions, but there’s an extra-special something in those final scenes with her, both as the camera lingers lovingly on her face in close-up, and as she holds herself rigid, accentuating her impressive bosom, while Miles flees. There’s a similar heroine conversion scene in Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot in which the fetishization of the take-over is even more clear:

In life [Susan] had been a cheerfully pretty girl who had missed the turn to beauty somewhere (perhaps by inches), not through any lack in her features but -- just possibly -- because her life had been so calm and unremarkable. But now she had achieved beauty. Dark beauty. (349)

King’s coyness here is really, as his chief vampire quips, “toothsome.” Susan wasn’t beautiful because “just possibly” she was dull! This paragraph is followed with a leisurely and erotic description, in which King compares Susan’s appeal to that of thirteen-year-old whores in Saigon -- and then, of course, we get to read about the staking, with gobs and gobs of blood.

Not unsexy; Dana Wynter as a pod-person.
From Invasion of the Body Snatchers, ©Allied Artists Pictures Corporation.

In discussing Don Siegel’s dismissal of non-responsive pod-women, Barry Keith Grant argues that “Here the director, like so much of horror cinema generally, disavows the possibility of his own inadequacy and projects it onto the woman as the Other....these movies...verily shout the fact that men were... ‘running scared.’” Shulamith Firestone makes the same point in a broader context when she argues that:

Man’s difficult triumph over Nature has made it possible to restore the truly natural: he could undo Adam’s and Eve’s curse both, to reestablish the earthly Garden of Eden. But in his long toil his imagination has been stifled: he fears an enlargement of his drudgery, through the incorporation of Eve’s curse into his own. (239)

It’s certainly true that, even given the most fantastic suppositions, the most amazing leaps of science, fecund horror can see no way out of our current gender impasse short of utter disintegration and defilement. Partially this may be because of male fear and/or lack of imagination. But it also seems to be about male pleasure and fantasy. Barbara Creed points out that “Images of blood, vomit, pus, shit and so forth signify a split between two orders: the maternal authority and the law of the father.” By reveling in fluids -- and, presumably, in images of birth -- she argues that horror films “evoke pleasure in breaking the taboo of filth...( 43-44) But surely there is also titillation in the law of the father itself -- in a monstrous discipline which controls both bodies and pleasures, and forces them into novel arrangements. In Salem’s Lot the scene with Susan is energized secondly because she is spewing body fluids, but firstly because she has been corrupted, diagetically by a vampire, extra-narratively by King himself. As Pygmalion knew, making (or remaking) the Other is sexy. Like the obstetrician who reaps money and status from his high Cesarean rate, men may be nervous about Eve’s curse, but laying hold of it has its benefits.

C.S. Lewis notes that “...if the worst came to the worst, a heaven for mosquitoes and a hell for men could very conveniently be combined.” A utopia is just a dystopia with different affect -- or, sometimes, with the same affect. Fecund horror is certainly a nightmare, but it’s also a kind of perverse daydream (or gay utopia), in which the agonized and sublimated gender-bending provides both the ostensible terror and the furtive pleasure. In the rest of the essay, we’ll look at three perverse daydreams more closely: John Carpenter’s The Thing; David Cronenberg’s Shivers,; and Tabico’s short story, Adaptation.

Man Is The Warmest Place to Stick Your Thing

John Carpenter’s 1982 version of The Thing has all the hallmarks of fecund horror. In the movie, an American government research station in Antarctica is invaded -- or infested -- by an orifice-laden, gelatinous alien thing which can perfectly duplicate whatever it devours. While there is plenty of ugly, unnatural reproduction here, however, there is no balancing vision of natural pregnancy, as there is in Body Snatchers. There are no pregnant women in this movie -- indeed, there are no women in it at all.

A mainstream Hollywood movie without female characters is exceedingly odd -- not least because it is bad box office. When asked to explain why he’d chosen to use an all male cast, scriptwriter Bill Lancaster explained:

In reality there aren’t any women in these kinds of situations. I remember thinking as a kid that the obligatory love scenes in horror movies interrupted the action. It seemed more honest to have a group of just men in that situation.... Women have taken on a different role in 1982 than they did in 1951 [the year of the first filmed version of The Thing], so perhaps we should have put in one or two, but they would have seemed gratuitous to me. (quoted in Billson 35)

Anne Billson, in her self-described “case for the defense,” expands on this line, arguing that “the inclusion of a women in such an environment would automatically give rise to script problems....”(36) By this she means that, if a woman were present, the script would have to confront gender power dynamics.

All of which sounds reasonable...until you stop to think about it for a moment. Lancaster says women would be “gratuitous.” Yet The Thing, for all its fantastical elements, is basically a slasher film, a genre which, as John Carpenter knew well, is pretty much defined by the chasing down and mangling of female bodies. Women were central to this kind of story -- not gratuitous at all. As for Billson’s worries about the script problems of gender dynamics -- well, a couple years before the release of The Thing, another hugely successful sci-fi/slasher crossover had had unprecedented success with a strong woman lead. Alien influenced The Thing’s special effects, its sense of paranoid dread, and its Ten Little Indians plot structure. But it couldn’t convince the scriptwriter that a female protagonist -- or even a female character -- was viable. Billson tries to dismiss the precedent by arguing that Alien was lessened by the quasi-rape of secondary female character Lambert, and suggesting that “it’s less disturbing to see grown men terrorised and maimed by special effects monsters.”(37) In other words, The Thing excludes women because John Carpenter is reticent and tasteful.

So why aren’t there any women, then? Billson starts to get at the answer when she observes that, “The men in The Thing are curiously asexual beings, in fact; there’s not the slightest hint of physical intimacy or unrequited homosexual relationship.”(37) She perhaps even understates her case here: not only is there little sign of physical intimacy between the men in The Thing, but there’s little sign of intimacy, period. Besides one almost tearful moment in which Garry (Donald Moffat) mourns for Bennings (Peter Maloney), the characters all treat each other -- even before the entrance of the monster -- with either indifference or open annoyance. Certainly, there’s none of the tiresome manly-men-banding-together-against-a-common-foe schtick which plays such a large role in both the Howard Hawks’ 1951 film version of the story and in John W. Campbell’s original version of the tale, Who Goes There? Martial homosocial bonds are what allow the heroes in Campbell and Hawks to defeat the monster. Their absence in Carpenter’s version is a big part of why his heroes meet a less pleasant fate. The men in the 1982 The Thing aren’t gay enough to live.

Or are they, perhaps, too gay? In Epistemology of the Closet, Eve Sedgwick argues

...that many of the major nodes of thought and knowledge in twentieth century Western culture as a whole are structured -- indeed fractured -- by a chronic, now endemic crisis of homo/heterosexual definition, indicatively male, dating from the end of the nineteenth century.(1)

In other words, male heterosexual identity is incoherent, built upon a binary definition of homosexual identity which is essentially untenable. Though it’s taking a few liberties with Sedgwick’s formulation, I tend to think of it like this: Heterosexual men are men who like women. But if you like women too much, then you’re feminine, and so gay. But if you don’t like women, you like men and then you’re gay. Does not compute...does not compute...boom, you blow up like one of those robots out-witted by the very manly Captain Kirk and his close, close buddy, Mr. Spock.

Sedgwick argues that this homosexual/heterosexual binary tends to generate other binaries around sex: binaries such as public/private, health/illness; utopia/apocalypse, to list only a few that are relevant to The Thing.(91 ff) One binary Sedgwick doesn’t discuss, but which I think is implicit in her discussion, is emotional/emotionless. Any male display of feelings is ipso facto gay -- whether its Garry crying for Bennings or the obviously affectionate railery in Hawks’ 1951 Thing. But, on the other hand, a lack of emotional also gay. A 35-year-old schoolteacher who lives with his mother and has no other family ties; two male roommates who don’t date; celibate priests; a group of men in Antarctica with no sign of women or even pornography -- they’re all “bachelors.” In quotes.

Billson’s “not the slightest hint,” is, then, in fact itself a hint of homosexuality, and specifically of the significant glances, quiet denials, and double entendres that cluster around the closet. As just a few examples:

-- The drugged-out mechanic Palmer (David Clennon) looks up at Garry and says, “Was wondering when "El Capitan" was going to get a chance to use his pop gun. “ Garry rewards him with a long, meaningful look. (In a later scene, we are treated to a slow motion pan across Garry’s rear-end.)

--Nauls (T.K. Carter) bursts into the rec room and says, in an exaggerated effeminately bitchy voice, “Which of you disrespectful men been tossing his dirty drawers in the kitchen trash can?!”

--Blair (Wilford Brimley) and Clark (Richard Masur) engage in a tete-a-tete, the camera catching in close-up the pregnant stares of each. Finally Clark demands (on behalf of all straight objects of gay cruising everywhere) “What the hell you lookin’ at me like that for?”

--At the very end of the film, Macready (Kurt Russell) and Childs (Keith David) are sitting alone in the cold sizing each other up. Childs wonders what they should do. Macready, holding a liquor bottle, looks at him pointedly and responds with a classic come-hither line, “Why don’t we just wait here for a while? See what happens.”

This sort of thing is fun for everyone. Knowledge about gay identity gives a pleasurable frisson of power and wisdom -- there’s a “delectability” to it, as Eve Sedgwick puts it.(67) And, not coincidentally, this is a large part of how one ends up enjoying The Thing. Is that man different? Is there something queer about him? The delightful thrill of wonder, the creeping chill of paranoia, meld and fuse into one another like the Thing’s own distorted flesh.

This cathexis of suspicion, knowledge, paranoia, potential love and potential violence are all summed up by Sedgwick in a single phrase “homosexual panic.” Sedgwick describes homosexual panic as

a structural residue of terrorist potential, of blackmailability, of Western maleness through the leverage of homophobia....(20)

Homosexual panic, in other words, can be seen as the violence, the terror, and the secretive distrust engendered (in several senses) by the fact that male identity is comprised and compromised by its relation to a despised Other.

My argument is that The Thing is structured around, and draws its moral and emotional force from, homosexual panic. From this perspective, Bill Lancaster is exactly right -- there “aren’t any women in these situation,” they would be “gratuitous,” because homosexual panic is about men doing manly things with each other. Women aren’t a part of the psychodrama. The particular paranoia here, the particular fear, and the particular pleasure, would be impossible if there were women characters. As one example, there is a moment in the film when many of the men are standing around in the snow discussing their plight. Childs asks, “If I were an imitation, a perfect imitation, how would you know it was really me?” There is an uncomfortable silence, and no wonder. Childs is asking about intimacy, and the Biblical sense in “how would you know?” isn’t all that far beneath the surface. Indeed, if we remember Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the way to identify an imposter is to kiss her (or, in this case, him.) The men, wrapped up in snow gear, eyes concealed behind dark glasses, all seem to be contemplating, with roughly equal trepidation, the frightening prospect of death through not knowing, and the equally frightening prospect of knowledge and its implications of intimacy. You almost expect them all to clear their throats and start talking gruffly about football.

In Body Snatchers, a big part of the terror of the impersonation is in the severing of relationships -- the breakdown of love. This is the case in Alien too. Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) isn’t romantically involved with Dallas (Tom Skerritt), but when she sees him fused with the alien breeding structure, her reaction is emotional and personal. In contrast, evil in Alien -- in the form of the alien and its admirer, the robotic science officer, Ash (Ian Holm) -- is presented as emotionlessly Darwinian. Movies like Alien, Body Snatchers, and Village of the Damned are worried about femininity -- for each, the nightmare is that womanly reproduction and womanly affection may become separated, resulting in ruthless proliferation.

But when you’re talking about homosexual panic, it’s love itself that provokes terror: love which, indeed, dare not speak its name. This is why Mac, the hero, is the least trusting of the men at the base. It is only when he is drunk (unmanned) that he laments the loss of trust; otherwise, he seems almost to revel in it. “Trust is a hard thing to come by these days. Maybe you should trust in the Lord,” he coldly tells the distraught Blair. The casual disregard of trust is a sign of manly self-sufficiency. Sure, it has its downside -- Mac murders Clark, who, it turns out, is not a Thing. But sometimes a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do if he wants to stay a man. The opposite of love is not hate, but paranoia, and it’s paranoia that preserves, and therefore constitutes, male identity.

The thing about The Thing, therefore, is not that it severs the nonexistent emotional bonds between the men at the station, but that it enacts them. The Thing obliterates distinctions not only between bodies, but also between hearts and brains -- it reproduces you cell by cell. Moreover, it imitates your behavior perfectly. If a pod from Body Snatcher gets you, you are hollowed out, a husk of your former self. If The Thing gets you, you are filled up -- everything about you is the same, except that you are two, not one. The Thing doesn’t just imitate you, it knows you, in a hyper-intimacy that, like love, annihilates and transforms. And, in the ineluctable logic of homosexual panic, that intimacy leads, not to pleasure, or babies, or an expansion of soul, but rather to violence and death.

Intimacy can be another name for sex, of course, and there is certainly a sexual component to The Thing. For instance, in one scene, Bennings is in the storeroom with the supposedly dead Thing. Slowly its body starts to ooze ichor, while, in the background, Bennings bends over, his butt suggestively towards the frame. A short while later we see Bennings, stripped, covered in latex-like slime, and wrapped in slithery, phallic, bondage tentacles. A later scene in which Palmer is exposed as a Thing is perhaps even more explicit. The Palmer-Thing’s face splits open, and then it swallows Windows’ head in a hideous kiss. Linked at the face, the two jerk around the room , spurting internal glop, while the other men (tied to a couch) shout in horror and disgust, and Mac impotently fires his malfunctioning flame thrower.

What’s perhaps most interesting about these scenes is the way in which Windows figures in both. It is Windows who first discovers Bennings in the throws of his passion/transformation. The discovery has something of the air of a primal scene -- something that not only terrifies Windows, but fascinates and perhaps taints him. Later, Windows has a moment to react before the Palmer-Thing attacks him. But instead of turning on the flame thrower, Windows is transfixed, his face blank with an expression which could be fear but could also, I think, be interpreted as desire: (Kristeva: “the victims of the abject are its fascinated victims -- if not its submissive or willing ones.”(9)) And so he is raped and turned into a Thing.

In The Thing, then, sex and sexual desire are a kind of disease. Unable to mate and produce a child, The Thing instead mates and becomes its partner. Not coincidentally, this life-cycle maps perfectly onto some of our culture’s most powerful visions of gay sexuality. The idea of a homosexual conspiracy, of homosexuals recruiting, is based around an idea of gay sex as uncontrollable and viral. Gay sex is dangerous not because it appeals to a minority, but because its presence threatens and fascinates all men, tempting them from the narrow and, er, straight. Blair’s computer tells him that, if it is not stopped, everyone in the world will be converted by the perverse sexuality of Thingdom. And over against this queer apocalypse the movie sets a vision of...straight apocalypse, fueled by homosexual panic. Once you’ve fallen, you go into the flames. In an orgy of fire, all the infected must be burned.

The point to take from the film is not that one of these dueling apocalypses is good while the other is bad, nor even that both are good, or that both are bad. Rather, both are appealing, and their appeal relies on each other. Kristeva argues that the incest taboo

cuts short the temptation to return, with abjection and jouissance, to that passivity status...where the subject, fluctuating between inside and outside, pleasure and pain, word and deed, would find death, along with nirvana. (64)

But I think you could just as easily say that the incest taboo embodies the temptation to abjection. For Kristeva, sacred ritual is about warding off “the subject’s fear of his very own identity sinking irretrievably into the mother.” But couldn’t the sacred also be seen as glorifying that annihilation of self? How can you tell the difference? As Bataille argues, taboo exists to be violated, so that the violator may have a sacred experience; ritual is as much about violation as it is about purification. In what is perhaps The Thing’s most striking scene, the half-converted Bennings-Thing runs into the snowy night, where he is surrounded by the men of the camp, who form a loose circle. They fire flares, and in the light, Bennings looks up. His hands are still unformed; they look like misshapen claws. His face, though, is weirdly beautiful. His expression is placid, detached, and expectant -- he looks as you might imagine Adam to have looked, born into a new body and a new world. Ennio Morricone’s eerie synth score increases the air of otherworldliness -- and then, breath foaming in the cold, the Bennings-Thing opens its mouth and bellows. On cue, Mac tips over a can of kerosene and sets the Thing on fire. The slowness and solemnity of this scene mark it as a ritual around the sacred, with two money-shots -- the revelation of Benning’s otherness, and his destruction. The flames are apotheosis, not negation.

Kristeva, as quoted above, sees the dissolution of identity as a violation of the incest taboo, a “sinking irretrievably into the mother.” Following this logic, several critics have argued, more or less seriously, that the Thing is a kind of femme fatale -- an embodiment of unchecked, deadly femininity.(Billson 37; Mulvie-Roberts 81) If you’re Freud, this makes sense -- the Other is always female, the subject is always male. But the incest taboo is not the only taboo, and, I think, in this case, the Thing as Woman rather misses the mark. In the first place, the Thing’s very name suggests its genderlessness. And, in the second, whenever the Thing is anything in the movie, it’s a male (even the dog it takes over is a boy.) Similarly, I don’t think it makes sense to argue that the Thing is gay -- even if it prefers men, it can’t exactly be said to be a man itself. Nor, am I convinced by Eduard Guerrero’s argument, that the characters at the Antarctic research station are living a liberal homosexual lifestyle, and that the Thing is a metaphor for AIDS.(discussed in Muir 105)

In fact, the whole point of homosexual panic is that, as Eve Sedgwick notes, it “is necessarily a problem only, but endemically, of nonhomosexual -identified men.(201, my emphasis) An out gay man does not have to worry about being perceived as gay; it’s the straight man who has to worry. And it is this worry of straight men which creates the potential for violence and control (“hey, man, you can’t wear that, read that, think that -- it’s gay). These dynamics are, Sedgwick argues, at the center of the “paranoid Gothic”; narratives like Frankenstein or Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner, in which “one man’s mind could be read by that of the feared and desired other.”(Sedgwick 186-187)

The Thing then is not homosexuality per se, but rather a fear of homosexuality. That is, the Thing is the extruded, rejected part of maleness -- the anxiety, terror, and desire which threaten a compromised masculine identity. This denied Thing can be seen at times as a femaleness which threatens to engulf and therefore feminize the protagonists. Or it can be seen as a rampaging maleness, which extrudes phallic pseudopods and tentacles with which it rapes, and thereby feminizes, the protagonists. Or it can be seen as simultaneously androgynous and genderless -- a formless chaos which erases the boundaries of self, so that manhood slides helplessly into an unidentified, unknowable aperture of alien being and desire.

In The Thing, then, homosexual panic and abjection coexist and interpenetrate. The abject is that which inspires homosexual panic -- the not-male (which, again, doesn’t necessarily mean “female.”) As Kristeva says:

The abject has only one quality of the object -- that of being opposed to I....what is abject...the jettisoned object, is radically excluded and draws me toward the place where meaning collapses.... It lies outside, beyond the set, and does not seem to agree to the [superego’s] rules of the game. And yet, from its place of banishment, the abject does not cease challenging its master.” (Kristeva 3)

In other words, the not-male is defined solely in reference to the male. But since the not-male, in turn, defines the male, there is a nonsense loop -- male depends on non-male, non-male depends on male, round and round, until meaning, as Kristeva says, collapses. The not-male is banished, but its very banishment challenges the existence of masculinity. To retain one’s identity as a man, one must contemplate, loathe, obsess about the not-male -- you must, in other words, know the not-male as well as you know yourself. And that knowing, that intimacy, that interpenetration of self and other, is the very essence of Thingness. A man, to be a man, must be a Thing -- just as a Thing, to be a Thing, must be a man. Like the burnt horror the men find in the ice, with its bifurcated, screaming face(s), masculine identity is a disgusting and painful duality -- but whether the pain comes from splitting oneself apart or from fusing oneself together is impossible to say.

The double-faced Thing suggests not just division, but mitosis. The plot of the Thing hinges on fecundity in an all male group. Its most memorable set-pieces, therefore, are images of masculine reproduction -- or, from another perspective, of the reproduction of masculinity. As I’ve discussed, several of these set-pieces (the Thinging of Bennings, the attack of the Palmer-Thing) are tied to a vision of a devouring (gay) sexuality.

But the film’s most brilliant special effects sequence takes a different tack. In this scene, Norris (Charles Hallahan) has suffered a heart-attack. Dr. Copper (Richard Dysart) is trying to revive him with a defibrillator. Copper shouts “Clear!” reaches down...and Norris’ chest cavity opens like an enormous toothy mouth, which bites off the lower part of Copper’s arms. As Copper bleeds to death, the stomach then spits out a towering, mottled, phallic umbilical pillar, to the top of which is attached a kind of writhing spider-thing...sporting a grotesque parody of Norris’ head. Meanwhile, Norris’ actual head detaches from the body with a gluey, ichorous schlurp, slides off the table, shoots its tongue out to pull itself along the floor, and finally sprouts insect legs and scurries away.

Billson sees the toothy chest cavity as a “castrating vagina dentata” chopping off the doctor’s arms.(73) Perhaps. But it seems to me that the focus here is less on sexual fears than it is on anxieties about reproduction. The clinical setting, with Norris placed on his back, mirrors a delivery room -- and then, of course, there’s The Thing bursting from Norris’ stomach -- a Thing which has a distinct and disturbing resemblance to its parent. As in the analagous scene in Alien, this is a nightmare vision of male pregnancy.

Niles-Thing, son of Niles-Thing.
From The Thing, ©MCA/Universal Pictures.

And yet, the scene in Alien is actually quite different from the one here. The whole point in Alien is that the crewmember has been invaded; his body has been taken over for another’s use; he has, in other words, inherited Eve’s curse, and been feminized. But this can’t really be made to fit The Thing . This isn’t Eve’s curse but, at best, a parody of it. If Alien uses pregnancy as a metaphor for fear of difference, The Thing uses it to represent fear of sameness, or, indeed, of the inability to tell the difference. Niles’ body is not used by another: it already is the other, and what it gives birth to is simply itself -- a monstrous version of a monster, topped off by its own severed head.

Abjection is usually thought of in terms of disgusting bits of and from the flesh. As Kristeva says:

The body’s inside...shows up in order to compensate for the collapse of the border between inside and outside. It is as if the skin, a fragile container, no longer guaranteed the integrity of one’s ‘own and clean self’ but, scraped or transparent, invisible or taut, gave way before the dejection of its contents. Urine, blood sperm, excrement” show up in order to reassure a subject that is lacking its ‘own and clean self.’ (53)

For The Thing , however, not-maleness itself (or, if you prefer, maleness itself) is the vile discharge. Rejected, loathed, a hideous son for a hideous father, it tears out of the burst corpse in an excess of ugliness. The child is so vile that the parent forgets his own torn and disgusting flesh; he can crawl away from it to make a new (equally horrible) self. This, then, is how masculinity propagates; through the “Hare-brained staging of an abortion, of a self-giving birth ever miscarried, endlessly to be renewed....”(Kristeva 54) Maleness is always extruding and thereby reconstituting itself. MacReady and Childs need each other at the end of the film; without their mutual distrust, their shared suspicion of Thingness, they would, as males, cease to exist.

It’s worth remembering that most movie-goers (myself included) love the gory defibrillation scene. In their commentary on the DVD, John Carpenter and Kurt Russell were almost chortling with glee as they waited for Niles’ stomach to come gaping open. And no wonder; Rob Bottin’s special effects are one of the glories of this film. Their imagination alone is breath-taking -- watching Niles’ head slide down the table and then sprout insect legs, you can’t help but say with Palmer, “You gotta be fucking kidding.” And every bit as staggering as the invention -- especially in our era of smooth-edged computer graphics -- is the tactility. The Thing, in all its glistening twisted, mottled glory, looks like it could reach out of the screen and give you a big repulsive kiss.

This is why people want to see the movie. As Kristeva says “jouissance alone causes the abject to exist at all. One does not know it, one does not desire it, one joys in it”(9) -- or, to put it in a less (ahem) art-faggy way, you go to the Thing to be amazed and disgusted by some cool fucking shit. Horror films revel in the loathsome because loathing is fun -- and, I think, the same dynamic is true of homosexual panic. Males loathe the not-male because, among other reasons, doing so is stimulating and exciting. Male identity, like the gay utopia, is built on pleasure: in defilement, in identity, and in the erasure and enforcement of the difference between the two. Masculinity, then, rejects the gay utopia exactly as Man rejects the Thing -- not as one rejects an enemy, but as one rejects one’s lover, or one’s self.

New Slugs in Old Towers

When I was 24 I was a virgin -- indeed, I had, as the saying goes, never been kissed. The typical emotional responses our culture offers to a heterosexual male in this situation are (A) misogyny, (B) self-pity and, (C) self-loathing. I chose C and, for variety, B, utilizing them with an assiduity that was extremely tedious to be around -- definitely for me, and presumably for others as well.

One night, while feeling especially maudlin , I dragged myself out of the house to go watch (alone, naturally), a showing of David Cronenberg’s Shivers. In the film, a plague of blood-drenched, phallic, sexually transmitted slugs infests an island gated community (Starliner Towers) and transforms the inhabitants into monstrously concupiscent zombies. Our hero, a blandly good-looking doctor named St. Luc, spends the entire film racing about trying to avoid intercourse. Finally, he is caught; and as his former neighbors hold him down his infected girlfriend Forsythe (Lynn Lowry) has her way with him. Now transformed himself, he lights a cigarette and leads his libidinous hordes out into the city, where, the movie implies, they will bring about an apocalypse of id, flesh, and various oozing bodily fluids. This was, I thought at the time, about the most preposterous thing I had ever seen in my entire life -- and I loved it inordinately. I left on an adrenalin high, completely jazzed. I think I ran all the way home.

I am now 36, older, more married, and less (or at least differently) self-pitying than I was back then. And while I still like Shivers , I can no longer say (as I did for many years) that it’s my favorite movie. But there was definitely something in it, at that particular point in my life, which said something I needed, or at least wanted, to hear. What was it?

Cronenberg himself might argue that what I was responding to, or “jazzed” by, was a vision of bodies, pleasures, and sexual liberation -- in the terms of this symposium, a kind of gay utopia. When asked about the film, Cronenberg has stated that he “identifies with the parasites” that he sees the finale as a “happy ending, ”and that "Living on Nun's Island [while filming the movie], we all wanted to rip that place apart and run naked, screaming through the halls." And, on an even more hippieish note, he claimed, “In Shivers I’m a venereal disease having the greatest time of my life, and encouraging everybody to get into it.”(quoted in Beard 33, in Lowe, and in Smith 71). In other words, Cronenberg sees himself as Shivers’ Dr. Emil Hobbes (Fred Doederlin), the man who created the aphrodisiac slugs. Like Hobbes, Cronenberg is sickened by the sterility of hypocritical modern rationalism, he feels, with Hobbes, that “man is an animal that thinks too much” and he therefore wants “to turn the world into a beautiful mindless orgy.” Cronenberg is endorsing the vision of unbounded libido expressed by the newly infected Nurse Forsythe:

Roger, I had a very disturbing dream last night. In this dream, I found myself making love to a strange man. Only I’m having trouble, you see, because he’s old and dying, and he smells bad, and I find him repulsive. But then he tells me that everything is erotic, that everything is sexual. You know what I mean? He tells me that even old flesh is erotic flesh, that disease is the love of two kinds of alien creatures for each other -- that even dying is an act of eroticism. That talking is sexual. That breathing is sexual. That even to physically exist is sexual. And I believe him. And we make love beautifully.

So Cronenberg in creating the movie, and I in responding to it, were lusty, zesty omnisexuals, joying in the fluid play of sensuality? Alas, I think not. In the first place, I can say with some certainty that, at the time I saw Shivers, open sexuality did not fill me with joie de vivre. On the contrary, my furtive relationship with pornography and my (much, much more limited) experience with Dionysiac parties merely accentuated my sense of isolation, and hence my self-disgust. I may not have been especially happy with my non-libidinous self, but an abject violation of boundaries -- of actual flesh, of self-image -- wasn’t appealing either. Or rather, it was appealing, but also terrifying, and both the appeal and the terror seemed despicable. For me as a (self-proclaimed) heterosexual failure, the gay utopia would have appeared not as an opening of possibilities, but as an elaborate and vicious mockery...I can’t even find anyone to hold my hand at the damn movie, and you want me to do what with whom?

And, despite his claims to be a fucking transgressor, Cronenberg clearly shares a lot of my ambivalence about this vision of sexual utopia/apocalypse. Yes, there are various unusual pairings presented -- old-young, guy-guy, father-daughter. But the bodies Cronenberg really enthusiastically sexualizes are pretty much entirely young and female. We get to see Forsythe and Betts nude even before the parasite infects them, and the camera is throughout the film very interested in Janine’s breasts. After they’re infected, the woman are even more prone to shedding clothes; a young mother in an elevator, for example, ends up in her slip after she’s been infected. Men like the delivery boy who assaults her, on the other hand, seem to be magically able to have sex without taking off their pants. Similarly, when the middle-aged and portly laundry woman is infested, she doesn’t strip down, but paints her face with bizarre and creepy make-up, just to emphasize that, you know, she’s not really sexy. Other perversions (S&M pedophilia, incest, gay male sex) are trotted out in a rush at the end to show Just How Bad Things Have Gotten for St. Luc. They’re punchlines, not objects of prurient interest. Forsythe may think that “all flesh is erotic flesh,” but the movie is less catholic in its tastes -- it likes them young, it likes them female, and the only real “perversion” it’s interested in is lesbianism.

Forsythe (Lynn Lowry) isn't infected yet,
but that doesn't mean she can't provide fan service.
From Shivers. ©Cinépic Film Properties.

Even “normal” sexuality, though, is linked to blood, unpleasant fluids, and various other bits of nastiness. After Forsythe utters her paean to pan-eroticism, she makes a strangled hiss, opens her mouth -- and out wriggles one of the mottled parasites. This moment -- and, indeed, all of the scenes with the slugs -- are repulsive. In The Thing, as we noted, the gross-out special effects had an inventive dash and brio; the characters themselves often express an amazed astonishment analogous to the audiences delight. The much more low-key effects in Shivers are less spectacular, more directly tied to conventional bodily products like blood and shit, and, for both these reasons, the anxiety seems a lot harder to disentangle from the visceral charm. Both the viewer and, I think, Cronenberg, share the disgust Roger St. Luc (Paul Hampton) feels when Forsythe’s little friend pops out -- when he hits her and knocks her out, he does it with that detached shiver of righteous violence with which one steps on a roach. Thinking of moments like this, Robin Wood claims that the film views sexual liberation with “unmitigated horror,” and that it “is premised on and motivated by sexual disgust” with “a very special animus reserved for female sexuality.” Sneering as only an academic radical can sneer, Wood concludes that the supposedly uptight Cronenberg is “reactionary.”(Wood 216-217) From this perspective, then, Cronenberg is not the mad scientist Hobbes, but rather the chaste St. Luc, who spends the entire film desperately trying not to have sex. Though, for that matter, and as I’m not the first to have noted, the whole cast is oddly, unemotionally cold, their performances redolent of what, as we've already noted, Kristeva calls “the white expanse or slack boredom of repression.”(2)

Obviously, Shivers is structured around the idea of repression; the sense that sexuality and animality is boiling barely contained beneath the thin facade of civilization. For some critics, the film is saying repression is bad; for others it’s saying that sexuality is bad, for still others, it’s presenting a more complicated mistrust of both surface and depths: “a dialectic of forces of equal weight and equal undesirability,” as William Beard puts it.(30) But however the moral labels are distributed, the film is consciously about the refusal, displacement, and inevitable return of desire.

But just as I can’t connect my personal response to the film to liberation, so do I find it hard to link it to a psychological mechanism of denial. I may not have been having sex when I was a twentysomething, but my impulses in that regard were neither inaccessible nor unacknowledged. On the contrary, they were all too accessible, all too acknowledged. I thought and talked about a lack of sex constantly, and it was this verbal circling, not some primal unslaked sex-drive, which was intolerable. To very loosely paraphrase James Brown, an erection won’t change you (and is, besides, easy enough to get rid of), but discourse will take you on.

This is the point Foucault makes in History of Sexuality -- a book that, at the time, I liked almost as much as I liked Shivers. For Foucault, repression isn’t a truth, but a rhetorical strategy: Cronenberg and those like him “speak about sex in terms of repression” because it gives them the opportunity to “pronounce a discourse that combines the fervor of knowledge, the determination to change the laws, and the longing for the garden of earthly delights."(7) In other words, talking about repression is a pleasure, not because it liberates, but because it allows one to engage in moral preening. Foucault goes on to wonder what is up with a society which

speaks verbosely of its own silence, takes great pains to relate in detail the things it does not say, denounces the powers it exercises, and promises to liberate itself from the very laws that have made it function. (8)

The central question for Foucault, then, is not the truth about sex, but rather the “forms of power” which create and result from talking about sex, how discourse “penetrates and controls everyday pleasure.” And he argues that, while in some cases power operates by “refusal, blockage, and invalidation,” it may also use “incitement and intensification,” all of which make up what he calls the “polymorphous techniques of power.”(11)

I think that, as far as Shivers goes, this is exactly right. The movie isn’t about rejecting the bourgeoisie, identifying with the other, and embracing one’s inner parasite. Nor is it about rejecting one’s inner parasite and embracing the bourgeoisie. Instead, it’s about “polymorphous techniques of power” -- that is, it is interested, first, last, and primarily, in control. An obsession with control is the main marketing concern of Starliner Towers; the community presents itself as safe, clean, and self-sufficient. And the parasites are also obsessed with control. They bend people to their will, forcing their hosts not just to have sex, but to defend the slugs, deliberately spread the disease, and finally to organize to capture St. Luc and ultimately the world. Thus, the Starliner infomercial is ironic not because control is impossible, but rather because, compared to the rigorous techniques of the parasites, the security apparatus of the high rise is decidedly...limp. In one of the first lines of the film, a prospective tenant asks a (rather effeminate) security guard whether he has ever used his gun. He responds that he has “never had it out of the holster.” Somewhat later, he’s held down and sexually assaulted by a prepubescent girl. In slow motion. And he still doesn’t draw his gun. It just doesn’t get much more emasculating than that.

Everybody knows that power grows out of the barrel of a penis, but few movies can ever have taken this, um, dictum quite as literally as Shivers. As I’ve already mentioned, the slugs themselves are narrow, mottled pieces of phallic flesh. They squirm through the movie and into bodies, instilling and enforcing the patriarchal law of the dick. Nineteen-year old Annabelle (Kathy Graham) is taken over by the penis-creatures, and turns into an insatiable wet-dream, inexplicably wearing a school-girl uniform and sleeping with whatever older man will have her. Janine (Susan Petrie) -- who Beard says is “portrayed as a caring and vulnerable person”(41) -- is actually, it seems to me, portrayed as a whiny clingy, hapless wife who even her best friend Betts calls “uptight" She is utterly impossible to watch save for her extremely impressive bralessness. Ah, but take this drippy water-works, insert the über-phallus and, hey, presto! She’s romping in the public pool in a see-through shirt, giggling at the prospect of some girl-on-girl action.

And then there’s Betts herself. Played by Barbara Steele, she’s feeling down because she has an unrequited crush on Janine, so she decides to sip some wine in a bath. A slug crawls out of the drain and into her vagina; she thrashes spasmodically and passes out with her hair tossed fetchingly across her face. When she comes to, her glass has shattered -- but she simply walks across the broken shards, trailing blood. Her cut foot, and, indeed, the vileness of the slug as it slips inside her, are signs that the mastery and violation are complete; the degradation and filth is part of the power, and therefore part of the fetish. Similarly, when Betts and Janine kiss, their throats pulse to show us that the parasites are moving beneath the surface. Their lesbianism has, almost literally, been colonized by a penis. Their pain, discomfort, and pleasure are no longer important; their will is bent, not on their own desires, but on fulfilling someone else’s -- the slug’s, Cronenberg’s, the viewer’s. The difference hardly matters: in this sense, it’s not so much that Cronenberg is identifying with the parasites as it is that the parasites are identified with him. They’re a kind of remote-control magic phallic extension -- the physical embodiment of a simple principle: we want to see Barbara Steele get fucked. The flat acting style doesn’t demonstrate that the characters are repressed, but that they’re unreal fantasies; masturbatory drones in a heterosexual dream. Cronenberg may be Hobbes, and he may be St. John, but he is also certainly Merrick (Ronald Mlodzik) -- the oleaginous manager/ guide, giving the viewer a tour through room after room of more or less seedy objects of desire.

In our culture, and at least since the 1960s, political transgressive rebellion has often been liked to, or even defined in terms of, sex. Cronenberg says Shivers is anti-bourgeoisie because it’s pro-sex; Robin Wood says its anti-sex and therefore pro-bourgeoisie. But at this stage it does seem worth asking: Does the bourgeoisie really dislike sex? Or, a slightly different question, is patriarchy really dependent on the nuclear family? Can you bring down the man, as Shivers seems to suggest, just by fucking?

Well, the hippies tried it in the ‘60s, and, based on their experiences, Andrea Dworkin provides this typically blunt assessment:

Empirically speaking, sexual liberation was practiced by women on a wide scale in the sixties and it did not work: that is, it did not free women. Its purpose -- it turned out -- was to free men to use women without bourgeois constraints, and in that it was successful. (91)

Dworkin identifies two different visions of sexual radicalism. For women there was “sexual equality...sexual eroticization of sibling equality...”; in other words, a breakdown in gender roles and genital primacy which looks a lot like what we’re here calling the gay utopia. For men, on the other hand, “Sexual radicalism was defined in classically male terms: number of partners, frequency of sex, varieties of sex (for instance, group sex,) eagerness to engage in sex.”(90-91) Sexual freedom for men, then, often ends up meaning not freedom from, but rather more freedom for, patriarchy. For women the familial virtues of affection and respectability are ambivalent protection at best, but if you replace them with lust and ego, you get -- well, Shivers, basically. In the movie, sex and violence are hardly distinguishable; the parasite’s bloody invasion of Betts, for example, is, as mentioned above, sexualized; the zombie hordes that finally abduct Forsythe from St. Luc are noticeably brutal even though she’s willing; in another scene, a man bends over a woman lying on the hood of a car, but whether she already has her own parasite and so is happy to participate or is being forcibly infected as we watch is impossible to tell. Here intercourse is created by and creates, not love, but control, and the aphorism often erroneously attributed to Dworkin is actually true: all sex is rape.

Whether it’s sex or rape, though, there are certain consequences that you’d expect to follow. In Shivers, however, they emphatically do not: no one gets pregnant. Annabelle has been screwing everything in sight for some undetermined period of time, and it’s hard to imagine that the parasites are especially careful about condom use. Yet the movie never considers the possibility that she could have gotten knocked up. Instead, reproduction in the film is imagined entirely as a male phenomenon. When Hobbes slices Annabelle open in a surgical parody of a Cesarean, what he finds is not a human fetus, but his own teeming phallus-progeny. This is, supposedly, the sight which causes him to cut his throat -- though one wonders if it’s not rather the woman’s interior, and the specter of a different, more familiar reproductive system, which suddenly makes his life seem insupportable.

Andrea Dworkin notes that, “Pregnancy, the fact of it, [is] antiaphrodisiacal.”(94) It’s also a brake on male control, both practically (it gives women priorities other than their men) and symbolically (women have a space and an ability that men don’t.) That’s why, Dworkin argues, for men on the left abortion can be seen as a way to control women.(94-95) Where Shulamith Firestone sees reproductive technologies as potentially liberating, Dworkin focuses on the down side -- the further into women’s bodies that science extends, the further into women’s bodies that (male) scientists can reach.

The male dream of seizing control of reproduction hardly started with free-love hippies, though. Freud argues that boys sometimes think of their own feces as children. John Rieder connects this specifically to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Victor Frankenstein, Rieder argues, is, like a small child, “ignorant, or at least resistant, of the notion that boys can’t have babies, and confused about the relation between genitalia and reproduction.”(16) Within a society built around a patriarchal family structure, Victor’s inability to tell his ass from a womb is disastrous. You can’t play with your feces and be a good patriarch, and while Victor is doing the first, his family spectacularly disintegrates.

The idea of a fecal-child (or a shit-baby, as Bert Stabler would have it) works even better for Shivers than it does for Frankenstein. John Rieder has to spend a fair amount of effort trying to prove that yes, it makes sense to think of the Frankenstein monster as a pile of dung. The slugs in Shivers, on the other hand, look -- in their shape, in their coloration -- like turds. If the Frankenstein monster is depressive shit that bemoans its fate, however, the slugs in Shivers are positive, forward-looking, mother-fucking pieces of shit -- shit that has abandoned the bourgeois outhouse and is happily swimming about in the modern, capitalist profligacy of plumbing. In Shivers the shit-baby doesn’t represent a confused violation of male regulatory structures -- instead, it’s a new, improved way for male authority to circulate.

This means, as we’ve seen, a more efficient way to control women. But it also means, and perhaps more importantly, a way to make men act like men: dominant, violent, controlling. Remember the wimpy security guard who had never pulled out his gun? Well once he gets a penis-slug or two he suddenly has enough testosterone to both assault and infect the leading lady. On the other hand, when confronted with another man, an infected man’s thoughts turn lightly, not to sex, but to bloodlust. Neither the black man who attacks St. Luc in the garbage room, nor the white man who bashes St. Luc’s car with his own, seem to have any interest in getting into our hero’s pants. They simply want to beat the snot out of him. With the exception of one apparently gentle homosexual couple towards the end of the movie, in the place where there should be sex between men, Shivers follows the tried and true heterosexual formula, and substitutes violence.

The film’s most interesting example of male intercourse, or lack thereof, is the relationship between St. Luc and Nicholas Tudor (Alan Kolman). The two meet only once, and that very briefly. But the whole film leading up to that point can be seen as an extended tease. Cronenberg in general, and in this movie in particular, has a masterful grasp of structure, and he uses it to continually defer an encounter between his two male protagonists. At the beginning of the narrative, Nick, who is having an affair with Annabelle, goes to her room for a quickie, only to discover her dead body. Presumably not wanting to alert his wife to his adultery, he tells no one -- and shortly thereafter, St. Luc (re)discovers the corpse, and alerts the police. Later, Janine (Nick’s wife) comes to St. Luc to ask him to check up on her husband, who the parasites are making very sick indeed. St. Luc agrees to come up to the apartment...but just as he is getting ready to go, he is distracted by Forsythe, who has just foiled an attempted rape...and then he’s distracted by another attack...and so forth. Nick, then, serves as a kind of elusive object of desire; always somewhere in the back of St. Luc’s mind, but never quite attainable.

Coitus interruptus is an especially fitting metaphor for both of these characters. St. Luc has, of course, not been infected throughout most of the movie. Still, as I suggested before, even for a man not powered by an aphrodisiac, he seems like a remarkably cold fish. When his young, extremely attractive, and not-yet-infected girlfriend comes on to him, he refuses to even kiss her on the mouth, and then looks on completely unmoved as she strips for him (and the camera). He retains this lack of affect throughout the film; the escalating array of perversions occasionally provokes a slight grimace of distaste, but certainly neither the interest nor the loathing which might signal involvement.

Nick is one of the first people in the movie to be infected. Yet he, too, seems to care little for sex. Instead he is obsessed with himself. At first this seems like the preoccupation of a sick man; the parasites seem to have found him an unusually receptive host, and they keep bursting out of his mouth in spectacular eruptions of bloody vomit. As the movie progresses, though, it becomes clear that he isn’t so much worried about his body as he is fascinated with it. In part, this seems like the distraction/anticipation of an expectant parent. His vomiting, his bitchy mood swings, and his penchant for talking to the lumps in his abdomen all suggest pregnancy -- and, indeed, eventually his beloved slugs are “born” through a smoking hole in his stomach.

What he’s giving birth to is essentially his own penis. Where female pregnancy is generally seen as a means of social attachment and perpetuation, male birth here is solipsistic -- and, indeed, onanistic. Nick’s main preoccupation is masturbatory; he wants Janine to leave him alone so he can stroke his shit-phalluses, whispering to them seductively, “We’re going to be good friends.” And, for a man, this focus on a penis as object of pleasure -- not to mention the mere having of a secret -- is, inevitably, coded gay. Nick does eventually try for some heterosexual cred by demanding, “Make love to me Janine! You’re my wife!” But his follow-through is so weak one wonders whether he’s trying to convince her or himself. All she has to do is put him off for a minute while she runs to the bathroom; when she returns he’s unresponsive, focused entirely on the parasite sliding suggestively out of his mouth. He licks his lips, and Janine, grossed out by what looks a lot like gay male oral sex, rushes off to Betts -- who, when she says, “Make love to me,” actually seems to mean it.

Nick (Alan Kolman) has an intimate moment with his parasite.
From Shivers. ©Cinépic Film Properties.

Like Nick, St. Luc’s disinterest in women is linked to an ambiguous association with men and with the penis-law of patriarchy. St. Luc finds Annabelle’s body because his old teacher, Hobbes had asked to meet him in her apartment, telling the younger doctor that, “It’s time to complete your education.” Hobbes was certainly planning to impart sexual knowledge -- and we learn shortly thereafter that his relationships with his students were often improper. Hobbes’ suicide prevents him from keeping his appointment, but his empty place as father-figure/confidant is quickly supplied by his partner, Dr. Linsky, to whom St. Luc pays an impromptu visit.

Linsky is, hands down, the single most charismatic person in the movie. Joe Silver, who plays him, is a character actor with oodles of personality, and he’s got most of the best dialogue in the script. “You know and I know that Hobbes was a lousy teacher, eh? Lousy. Dry, academic, afraid of women, lousy. But he was always a genius at one thing -- getting grants.” St. Luc, like the audience, is charmed. Around his girlfriend St. Luc may be distant (afraid of women like Hobbes, perhaps?), but with Linsky he banters, smiles, and jovially exchanges sandwich fixings. At the end of their lunch together, the two clasp hands in a male-bonding moment, and St. Luc promises to think about taking Hobbes’ place as Linsky’s partner. Then they swap a pickle.

Alas, Linsky and St. Luc’s romantic future together never quite comes to pass. Instead, at Janine’s request, the two men decide to meet at Nick’s apartment for a consultation. Linsky gets there first, finds Nick unconscious, and lifts the sheet covering his body. Nick’s stomach is covered with newly-birthed parasites who leap onto Linsky’s face and start to eat into the skin. Linsky staggers away, trying to pry them off with a pair of pliers. The threat to his penis-progeny wakes Nick, who proceeds to beat Linsky to death. With his usual felicitous timing, St. Luc shows up, and he and Nick, finally united, stare at each other for one passionate heartbeat. Then Roger points the gun at Nick, and shoots him to death. Such is love.

At this point St Luc’s male significant others -- fathers, friends, enemies -- are all dead. The only penis left is the parasite of patriarchy itself, and that is speedily inserted by the community in general (which holds him down) and Forsythe in particular (who kisses him.) When Cronenberg says that this is a happy ending, he is being very precise. It is the happy ending; it’s a marriage. There is a great celebration, and then St. Luc takes his rightful place at the forefront of the sex-zombies, as they drive out to plunge the world into a utopia of masculine violence, voyeurism, self-aggrandizement, and control.

Shivers, then, is essentially a movie about masculine power, or patriarchy. Rather than being implemented through familial structures of continence, affection, and male-bonding, in Shivers power is distributed and apportioned through lust and violence: unrestrained desire and competition. That’s capitalism; a corrosive acid that dissolves traditional structures and taboos, leaving a community bonded only by need. And the miracle is that, despite the hopes of Shulamith Firestone and the gay utopia, such a community need be neither more egalitarian nor more free. The old boss is the same as the new boss; after the plague, Starliner Towers is exactly the same, only better.

So as a heterosexual male who wasn’t getting any, what did I find so appealing about this vision of phallic triumph, accessible female bodies, and orgasmically murderous male ones? Well, first of all, I certainly responded to the straightforwardly exploitative aspects; I find all the female leads smoking hot, and the scene where Betts seduces Janine remains one of my favorite erotic moments on film. In addition, Cronenberg’s cold, detached visuals and sense of narrative structure make watching Shivers a sublime experience: the people of Starliner Towers follow their accelerating path into the abyss with an air of seamless, classical inevitability. And, incongruously coupled with this beautiful starkness is the fact that the movie is wildly funny. Many critics seem to feel that Cronenberg’s films are “Devoid of humour, acutely grave.”(Smith 64) But that’s not my experience of them at all. I laughed so hard at Naked Lunch that a friend erroneously thought I was stoned. Cronenberg’s anxieties are presented as gob-smackingly literal grotesques. If he’s worried about penises, by god, we’re going to see some penises...and they’ll be trailing blood!

Beyond all of that, though, I think I responded to Shivers because I saw myself in it. The binaries which define St. Luc and Nick -- hypersexual/sexless, male/not-male, controlling/controlled -- also defined me. My self at the time seemed painfully and rather farcically born, not out of familial dynamics, but out of half-understood proscriptions to continence and concupiscence. These proscriptions were located both inside my body and outside it, as if, alone and without relation, I slunk through a series of identical cubicles, straining to hear and not to hear the commands of an abject zombie-patriarch, whose voice was my voice. Watching Shivers, I felt that my self-pity my self-loathing, and perhaps my misogyny as well, had been taken over, repurposed, and sent out into the world as a monstrously aestheticized clone. And this frightening double was then, in an excess of vicious glee, smashed. Cronenberg’s grip on his masculinity -- and on mine -- was so solipsistically intense that the organ in question actually detached and went a-roving. Heterosexuality becomes the abject Other: uncontrollable, rejected -- and, paradoxically, therefore, controlled. To reconcile with masculinity, one must utterly cast out one’s manhood, and then be repenetrated by it. St. Luc only becomes a man when he ceases to be a man, and that vision of masculinity going and coming is, I think, what made the movie for me so exhilarating. It’s a kind of gay utopia for straight people. In Shivers you get liberated from the bonds of sexuality and gender and then (with a certain amount of blood and pain) you get them right back.

Insect Politics

In his movie The Fly David Cronenberg notes that“Insects don’t have politics,” and, for the most part, fecund horror doesn’t either -- especially if you define politics with Bismark as “the art of the possible.” In fecund horror, nothing is possible; the apocalypse is here, and it is us. There is no difference between monster and human; indeed, it is this very lack of difference which is itself the monster. Where is that thing which will separate the men from the not-men? The incoherence of male identity is both the core and the boundary of these films; a primal scene not of sex, but of the end of sex, from which the narratives cannot turn away. Indeed, they don’t want to turn away from it; the very pain is a pleasure -- a delicious agony of masochism and self-pity. The comfortingly merciless closing off of options, the exhilarating embrace of paranoia, the exquisitely filthy crushing of one’s own spirit -- this is what gives fecund horror its abject charge. Man is a neurotic ouroboros, which eats its own anus and loves it.

Fecund horror, then takes the social realities of gender relations and turns them into a perverse poetics of manly degradation. Horror in general, and horror movies in particular, are overwhelmingly created and consumed by men. Fecund horror may focus on traditionally female issues of pregnancy and reproduction, but it does so almost exclusively through the lens of male obsessions and concerns. For these films, form mirrors content; the alien man-thing battens upon the female victim, colonizing her body and experiences in order to excrete a terrifyingly delectable nightmare of abjection. The gender slippage here is definitely erotic , but that too is borrowed and displaced -- gay experience shot through with guilt, obsession, control, violence and amnesia, and then packaged for the enjoyment of straight men. Which is to say, fecund horror is as repulsive in political and moral terms as a pod, parasite, or vampire is in more visceral ones.

Of course, pods, parasites and vampires aren’t really repulsive -- or, at least, they’re ambivalently, attractively so. Fecund horror bares masculinity’s slimy nether orifices; it shows male pleasures, male terrors, and how maleness reproduces itself. The genre is a kind of symptomatic journalism, taking a voyeuristic thrill in its own diseased carcass. It’s an image; a description of an illness in progress, which means that fecund horror is, at least potentially, a diagnosis. To the extent that there are insights in this essay, they are here because The Thing and Shivers thought of them first. It would be churlish to sneer at the works of art on the brains of which I’m feeding.

So I’m merely observing, not censuring when I point out that fecund horror, like any genre, has limitations. It is male. It is heterosexual. And it is Puritanical -- by which I mean that it views the body in general, and sex in particular, as a site of terrifying attractions and repulsions. Puritans get a very bad rap, of course -- they tend to be seen as hypocritical moralists condemning the very lusts which compel them. But I think they’re distrust of their own pleasure can also be viewed more charitably -- as a recognition of sin; and an understanding that every apple contains a worm.

Either way, Puritanism puts a definite boundary on what fecund horror can say and on who it can sympathize with. Deviance is seen as libidinal excess; it is an Other which can be embraced as the self only furtively and with much (often literal) wailing and gnashing of teeth. This is certainly the case for generally apolitical creators like Carpenter and Cronenberg. But it is even true of an avowedly progressive director like George Romero. When Romero attacks capitalism, it is primarily because it is decadent. His zombies are orally-fixated infants, moving with the clumsy ineptness of toddlers -- and so, in many ways, are his humans. Both zombie and human are motivated by appetite, which eventually and inevitably consumes them. In Romero, desire leads nowhere good, or just nowhere; his movies, so gruesomely and explicitly violent, are surprisingly reticent about showing sex. The one exception that springs to mind is a brief scene in Land of the Dead; two attractive women are giggling and kissing in the first stages of foreplay. Then, with satisfying suddenness, the zombies break in and kill them. The episode is completely gratuitous -- neither woman is ever shown before or mentioned again. They are there solely to express their marginal desires, for which the zombies are both the punishment and the natural end.

In her book Men, Women, and Chain Saws, Carol Clover argues that “the first and central aim of horror cinema is to play to masochistic fears and desires in its audiences....”(229) Certainly in fecund horror lust -- for sex, for violence -- is always controlled and fetishized through its own self-punishment and self-denial. These films love to hate and hate to love both the women-kissing-women and/or the zombies who tear them apart. They are about a loathing, a flailing, a crushing of the self. But this is not an eradication of boundaries, a polymorphous jouissance. Rather, self-abuse yields an ever more painful self-awareness. The truest self is the paranoid self; the truest body is the violated body; the truest thought is the most agonized thought, always focused on the next moment, the next instant, when thought itself will cease.

If fecund horror crushes the self, though, the self it crushes is always fecund horror. The genre is about collapsing its own binaries. This isn’t a matter of deconstructing a text against authorial intention; the authorial intention here is deconstruction. Self and other blur; the story means both what it means, and the opposite of what it means. And that, in turn, suggests that a female, queer, sex-positive, sadistic version of fecund horror would be, not the opposite of the genre, but the genre itself.

Which brings us to Tabico’s 2002 story Adaptation, a narrative which both is and is not in the tradition of Body Snatchers and its progeny. You can see the tension even in the author’s opening note to her readers, which reads as follows:

Warning! Extreme Squick! Bugs! Blood! Cruelty! Yucky & Mean Stuff!

This warning is something of a genre paradox. The content of the message (“Bugs! Blood! Cruelty!”) certainly suggests that what we’ve got here is horror. And yet, horror creators don’t generally feel it necessary to warn their audiences -- if said audiences aren’t there for the bugs, the blood, and the cruelty, then what are they there for? Even in cases where you might want to issue an all-ages advisory you would usually avoid phrases like “Extreme Squick!...Yucky & Mean Stuff!” Horror Marketing 101 clearly states: “Manly evilness...good! Girly cutesiness...bad!” It might all make sense if Tabico were goth...but she really doesn't quite fit into that demographic either.

Tabico's story is, in fact, not marketed well -- or, for that matter, at all. It’s simply posted to The Erotic Mind Control Story Archive. The EMCSA is just what it sounds like; a site for folks who get off on mind-control porn to read each other’s fiction. The quality of this writing varies widely; some of it is marginally literate, some of it is excellent. Very little of it could be classified as horror. And yet there is Tabico’s “Adaptation,” a story about giant space wasps whose larvae burrow into human brains, turning the victims into zombies eager to bear more insect young. Add in the ichor, the fluids, the violence, the cruelty, the, as Tabico says, “Extreme Squick!”-- and what you’ve got is, undeniably, fecund horror.

Sort of. On the surface, “Adaptation” acts much like Body Snatchers, but when you look more closely, there are subtle, disturbing differences. In some ways, it’s like one of those high-minded, PC literary reversals...Jane Eyre from the perspective of the mulatto wife, Gone With the Wind from the perspective of the slaves. But Tabico isn’t straightforwardly PC, and, she’s not at all high-minded (she’s a pornographer, after all.) Her concerns are those of fecund horror -- abjection, sex, violation, degradation, control -- and her treatment of them is every bit as exploitive as that of her predecessors. She’s exactly the same, except that she isn’t. To read “Adaptation” is a kind of mini-tutorial in fecund horror’s limits and presuppositions. To really see how the organic mechanism fits together, you need to watch someone like Tabico come along and fuck with it.

The first big shift here has to do with “Adaptation’s” main character. In fecund horror, you need to create a credible threat to identity, and the best way to do that is to have a clear identity to be threatened. Thus, the protagonists in the genre are generally skillful, competent, or at least acculturated. Most frequently they’re adult men holding down jobs that require a a high-level of specialized knowledge: a doctor like Miles or St. Luc, a helicopter pilot like Mac, SWAT team members like the main characters in Dawn of the Dead. In those rare instances where the protagonist is a women or a child she or he is likely to be extra-specially effective, in order to make up for the gap in authority caused by being the wrong gender or age. Sarah in Day of the Dead and Ripley in Alien are the stars by virtue of being thoroughly professionalized, and indeed, masculinized women. Mark, the young boy in Salem’s Lot is preternaturally cool-headed; the other characters compare him to Van Helsing.

This high level of competence is important because the main character has to be the final one standing. In all of these movies, in other words, we are interested in the last person who succumbs to the abject hordes. This is the engine of mounting paranoia; stable identities are corrupted, and all the civilized certainties disintegrate. Towards the end, these stories move inevitably towards incoherence.

In “Adaptation,” this is reversed. The main character, a tentative young woman named Lirra, is not masculine, and she’s not a prodigy. She’s a low status nonentity living on a backwater named Fenson’s Planet, which has been colonized by a quasi-Puritanical religious farming community called the Hansonites. Lirra’s life consists of routine chores and, as far as we can tell, not much else. At the beginning of the story, she is left behind to tend the farm not because she is especially trustworthy or smart, but because she is the least necessary representative of the “clan” -- the “youngest unmarried adult” in the family. Her emotional attachments are sketchy and distant. Her father barely exists except as a vague fog of patriarchal disapprobation; he will be “so angry if one of the cows had to be killed,” he “was always frowning.” Her relationship with the rest of her family is even less specific, and there is no suggestion of possible boyfriends. Her mental life is no more propitious than her emotional one -- dithering and confused, she is manifestly not up to the job of running the farm on her own. Lirra is, in other words, nobody special. If the apocalypse occurred, you wouldn’t expect her to survive very long. And, indeed, she doesn’t. She is not the last person to succumb to the fecund horror; she’s the first.

In most of these narratives, the initial person infected is either unknown (The Thing) or an innocent victim (Shivers). The point is, essentially, that it could happen to anybody -- it doesn’t take any inner resources to be turned into a zombie. And yet, as we follow Lirra, it becomes quite clear that she is taken over only because of who she, in particular, is. The fecund horror -- the wasps -- are not new to Fenson’s Planet. On the contrary, they are a native life form, and though they’re very big for insects, they are known to be harmless. They generally lay eggs on cattle; if the eggs aren’t removed within a few days, they will hatch, burrow into the cow brains, and then cause the bovine to serve the wasps -- protect the nest, feed the larvae, and so forth. But humans have hands and can call for help; as a result, “no human had ever actually been infected. A few had had eggs laid on them, often in their sleep, but nobody had ever had one hatch.”

And then along comes Lirra. She finds a Lyrkan wasp egg on a cow, seeks out the nest in the barn, and gets herself ambushed, stung, pumped full of paralyzing venom, and implanted with an egg within half a day of her family’s departure.

That, however, is as far as simple incompetence and bad luck can take her. The venom wears off quickly; all she has to do is pull the egg off and she’s fine. Instead she goes into the bathroom where she

realized with a start that she was incredibly horny, hornier than she’d ever been. The venom? Whatever. She slipped a hand into her pants and found that her underwear were wet almost to the waistband. When her fingers slid lightly inside and brushed her slit, she almost came leaning on the sink counter.

Lirra then spends the next several days in a masturbatory haze. Because it turns her on, she puts off removing the egg from day to day until, finally, it hatches, and spurts into her brain.

In the quote above, Lirra wonders if its the venom that makes her find the egg erotic. This is the Shivers explanation -- the larvae is manipulating Lirra’s sexual responses -- but it’s pretty clearly a rationalization. From the first moment Lirra sees the egg on the cow, she’s hooked:

Some part of Lirra, nearer her belly than her brain, wanted to see what the egg would do. It actually would take over the cow, make the cow feed and defend the wasp’s hive. Enslave it to bugs.

Somehow, it gave Lirra a dangerous thrill to think about it.

Lirra’s “thrill” is her kink. In Shivers the prurient moments are a kind of conspiracy between Cronenberg and audience against the characters; the excitement is in forcing the victims to share in desires not their own. But Tabico, here and in other stories (see for example Mind Worms) lets the protagonist in on the thrill; the infestation is the culmination of Lirra’s desires, not just of the author’s. The story is not organized around a conspiracy, and there is little paranoia. Rather than moving from certainty and stability towards distrust and chaos, the narrative moves in the opposite direction. It is, in fact, a typical YA fiction plot about a normal girl who finds her true extraordinary self.

The kicker, of course, is that Lirra’s inner extraordinary self happens to be a bug. In Cronenberg’s The Fly the male character states “I’m an insect who dreamed he was a man and loved it.” Lirra’s dream is exactly the opposite:

Every time she drifted off she dreamt of being carried off to that hive on the mountain. Now when she was dropped into her little paper cell, there was a larvae there, and she would bend her legs and lower herself onto it, allowing it to pulse its way into her pussy and bond with her.

Normally, she woke coming, but sometimes she only came in her dream, and remained dreaming, watching the larvae take over her dream self and slowly transform her into an insect, glossy black eyes, antennae sprouting from her head, beautiful wasp wings hatching from her shoulders.

Then she woke coming.

What does it mean to become an insect? For Cronenberg in The Fly it’s about becoming strong, aggressive, hairy -- a hyper-masculine atavistic animal. For Lirra, though, becoming an insect is about becoming female and more intelligent. It is her religious community which is backwards: “No Hansonite would conduct any sort of experiment...,” she notes. Her own fascination with the insects is fueled by curiosity and tinged with a naturalist’s wonder . You can sense her joy, and for that matter Tabico’s, in discovering how and why these creatures work. For instance, here’s Tabico’s description of the wasp:

It was really quite beautiful. Four sets of glossy wings, like a dragonfly only spaced apart further. Six sets of legs. Big black eyes like marbles, set on either side of glossy mandibles. The body was very like that of a wasp, only thicker through the waist. It was a dull lacquered green except for the large tail, which was just translucent enough to show the dozens and dozens of eggs inside.

And here’s the equally attentive examination of the egg on the cow:

She stared at the little egg, the same size as before but now a transparent green, obviously filled with liquid. And floating inside was a little black larvae, the size of two fingers, with lots of little strings floating around it.

Hesitantly, she touched it. It was soft, now, like a plastic bag filled with gelatin. Swallowing, she leaned towards it, to look at the little black thing that was preparing to take over the cow.

Even when Lirra is taken over herself, she doesn’t slide down the evolutionary scale. As the larvae starts to control her she does begin to think of herself as “just an animal” -- but a domestic animal, not a wild one. The larvae is training her, and as animal handler Vicki Hearne notes:

training...results in ennoblement, in the development of the animal’s character....getting absolute obedience from a dog...confers nobility, character and dignity on the dog.(43)

Hearne’s book, Adam’s Task argues at length that animals are most truly themselves not when they are free, but rather when they are commanded, controlled. As Hearne’s title suggests, this is a Biblical idea -- Adam and Eve became less truly human, and indeed less free, when they rebelled. It is a spiritual paradox common to many religions: submission is power, selflessness is self. Thus, the disobedient Lirra was a mediocre-to-lousy farmer’s daughter, while the absolutely obedient Lirrahost is frighteningly resourceful and intelligent. She kills one unexpected visitor to the farm, feeds his flesh to the insects, and grinds up his bones in the grain mill. When her family arrives home, she shoots them all with tranquilizer darts before they even know what’s happening. Nor can Lirra’s new competence be explained as the result of being controlled by a superior species. On the contrary, she realizes that the larvae “wasn’t sapient. It was just bending her own thoughts.... She knew what it wanted, and it was using that to adjust her thinking.” Before they had taken over Lirra, the insects were being hunted to extinction. The “adaptation” of the title is Lirra herself. The hive is not smart enough; if it is to survive, Lirrahost must be, and is, as she proudly notes, “clever enough for all of them.”

The group or hive mind in horror generally looks like the affectless psionic children in Village of the Damned; “cold collectives with individualism abolished...all emotion considered weakness, love destroyed, and so on,” as Shulamith Firestone says. (238) Tabico’s insects, however, have “not so much a hive-mind as a hive-feel...a complex cloud of emotional nuances” which “cradled Host [Lirra] in a constant sense of belonging and purpose.” Lirrahost obeys not out of duty or reflex, but out of joy -- and what she obeys is not a hierarchy, but a group emotional/social bond. Patriarchy is replaced by more subtle and effective engines of control -- analogous to communism or capitalism. The way in which the larvae takes control looks less like the violent rapes of Shivers, and more like the repetitive seduction of propaganda or -- given the emphasis on personal pleasure -- of advertising.

Yes, she wanted to think so that it could direct her properly (good). Think about obedience (good). Think about being its slave (good). About happily letting it grow into her mind (good). About not telling anyone that it was inside her (bad). About relaxing, and letting it take over her mind (good), and becoming its host (good.)

Kant’s moral law is supposed to be an internal voice issuing commandments against pleasure. But for Lirrahost, obedience and pleasure become indistinguishable. This is certainly capitalist (“obey your thirst!”) But it also echoes St. Paul’s vision of a realm, where “love is the fulfilling of the law.” W.H. Auden says that the “traditional term for this ideal order is paradise.”(quoted in Hearne 65) Lirrahost is in fact a kind of reverse Eve. By succumbing to temptation, she has entered Eden.

One of the signature characteristics of Eden is, of course, that there is no shame -- which is to say that (once you’ve gotten rid of the apple) there is no taboo. When you have become one with the law, nothing is forbidden. After the larvae takes full control of Lirra, the first thing she does is to let the wasp implant its eggs in her womb, an act which violates, simultaneously and thoroughly, a full range of sexual proscriptions. The wasp isn’t human, so there’s bestiality. Then the wasp is a female with a protruding biological penis substitute -- so it’s definitely queer intercourse of some sort. Finally, the wasp is the Broodmother; Lirra is the larvae, and the wasp gave birth to her. Sex between Lirra and wasp is, therefore, incest.

When taboo crumbles, so does abjection. Kristeva’s terrifying feminine is embraced and placed inside. Literally.

The tip of [Broodmother’s] ovipositor slid down between the cheeks of Lirra’s ass. It pushed around a bit, broodmother stepping forward and backward on Lirra’s back, but the tip hung too low to insert itself.

So Lirra reached back, took gentle hold of it, and slid it into her wet snatch.

Shulamith Firestone says that horror, or in our terms abjection, “is directly the product of the attempt to imagine a society in which women have become like men, crippled in the identical ways, thus destroying a balance of interlocking dependencies.” In opposition, she imagines a world in which we take the “female principle” and “rediffuse it.”(238) This is Tabico’s vision of hive existence; a community in which maternal and sisterly bonds of love and care blur and intermingle, replacing the hierarchical glue of duty and competition. As Cronenberg’s fly is male, Tabico’s hive is female. When Lirrahost attaches the wasp larvae to her side so they can feed on her own blood, their presence fills her “with a maternal sense of correctness,” but she also sees them as her sisters. Again, Emily, Lirra’s mother, is taken over by a larvae which is Lirrahost’s sister -- and, indeed, even Lirra’s brothers and father, with the larvae in their brains, presumably end up as sisters. Though there are male bodies in the wasp colony, there does not appear to be any masculinity. The role of Protector is taken, not by a man, but by neutered drones, created by interspecies female-female sex and born out of the womb of a host species.

Lirrahost herself gives birth to such drones in the last scene of “Adaptation”. This is that most elusive of things in fecund horror -- a female pregnancy carried successfully to term. Unlike the male births in The Thing, Alien, or Shivers, this birth is not tinged with masturbatory anxiety, tearing abdomens, death, or medicalization. In fact, it’s pretty much the ideal homebirth; Lirrahost works right up to onset in the garden. Her larval sister, planted in the brain of her biological sister, is with her, and sends her “feelings of comfort.” The scene is quiet, joyful, and part of a natural rhythm of life; an example of how artificial reproduction can, in Shulamith Firestone’s words, “restore the truly natural.”(239)

This, then, is a gay or feminist utopia -- a vision of humankind adapting and evolving into new creatures, for whom the tensions of taboo and freedom, flesh and law, obedience and identity, sex and gender all resolve into a universal paradise of pleasure and love. It is all tied together in a final ecstatic image of alien birth and egolessness.

Host quickly pulled off its pants, and knelt, spreading its legs. Host(jana), also in the garden, paused in its weeding to watch. It could sense Host's joyous emotion, and reflected it, as Host watched a black leg slide out of its pussy and bend back against its stomach. That first leg was followed by another, then the Protector's head emerged.

Host(jana) walked over to watch the birthing. Host was in ecstasy, fulfilling its purpose. The first Protector, covered in fluid, dropped to the ground. When it dried, it would fly to the nest, to bond with Broodmother.

Another leg pushed its way out of Host's vagina.

What is great about “Adaptation”, though, is not the dream of happy sisterhood -- which is, after all, familiar enough from Firestone and others -- but the monstrous ambivalence. I mean, as that quote above makes clear, this is a gay utopia with insects coming out of your cunt. It’s a feminist Eden where you let larvae suck blood from your breasts and masturbate in front of your mother moments before you murder her. It’s a perfected future in which you shoot that nice neighboring farmer in the face and then feed his flesh to a monster; where you watch your little brothers and sisters cowering in the corner and feel only vague contempt. This is, in other words, a happy, sunny, feminine daydream which is at least as ruthlessly perverted and viscerally disturbing as anything John Carpenter or David Cronenberg could cook up on their best days. Its a nightmare of perfected communism that makes Body Snatchers look reticent; a nightmare of perfected capitalism which makes Dawn of the Dead look blithely cheerful. It’s fucking hard core.

And that’s exactly what it should be. Shulamith Firestone subtitled her book The Case for Feminist Revolution, but, radical as she is, she never quite works through all the implications. To revamp all our ideas about gender, sexuality, identity, and taboo would be catastrophic. It would really take, I think, something like an insect-sex-zombie apocalypse. And while the results of that might be appealing in some ways, they would also be, by the standards of just about everyone, thoroughly hideous. Certainly, such a revolution would involve an orgy of murder, fanaticism, betrayal, and various other unconscionable moral acts. You don’t remake a species without breaking a few eggs.

Fecund horror then, is both fascinated by the gay utopia and disgusted by it; both terrifyingly revolutionary and horrifyingly conservative. And it is this vacillation, this excessive binary vision, which is, perhaps, the single most gay thing about the genre. In her moments of masturbatory shame, when she recognizes her hidden desires and finds herself lying to her father about them, Lirra is queer. In her moments of transcendent euphoria when she gives herself in triumph to her new community, rejects the mores of family and friends, and even compels their acquiescence, she is queer. In the breathtaking speed and intensity with which her personal transformation becomes political and revolutionary, Lirra is queer. And in the moments when the story reads against itself, when Lirra’s gayness and forbidden desire are equated with monstrosity, defilement, and the utter loss of identity, family, and love -- well, Lirra is queer then, too.

In her recent book Feeling Backward, Heather Love points out that “the movement from abjection to glorious community is the underlying structure of the story of coming out of the closet....” This “powerful utopianism” can, she argues, “turn shame into pride, secrecy into visibility, social exclusion into outsider glamour.” But at the same time, she says, “We can turn shame into pride, but we cannot do so once and for all: shame lives on in pride, and pride can easily turn back into shame.”(28) In the face of a positive, pride-oriented gay movement, Love thinks it’s important to remember the down sides of gay identity -- “shame, secrecy, self-loathing.”(20)

Indeed, loathing, or homophobia, defines gay identity in many ways. Homophobic institutions prevent gay people from assimilating and so create a distinctively gay community. Homophobic self-disgust is at the center of many gay people’s first consciousness of themselves as gay; it is this self-disgust, in fact, which makes the call for pride so important and resonant. And since homophobia is so importantly linked to gay identity, it makes sense that it would be central to a gay utopia as well. The self-hatred, the defilement, in “Adaptation” is not a sign of false consciousness or backwards politics -- it’s an ineradicable part of the fantasy, what gives it life. Without the inhumanity, the community couldn’t work. As Love argues, in queer politics, it is “understanding of a shared abjection [which] cuts through hierarchies.”(14) Puritans focused on the body of Christ and gay activists united by the experience of shame concur: abjection is utopia, utopia is abjection. Shared degradation is the precondition for equality, and for love.

Tabico is female, queer, and a remarkable artist. For all those reasons, “Adaptation” deals with gender and sexuality more forthrightly and more deftly than do most other works of fecund horror. But the difference is in emphasis, not in kind. In its narratives of secrecy, personal transformation, public apocalypse , and alternate reproduction, fecund horror is a dream of loving and despising our abject gendered selves -- and in doing both at once it is the gay utopia.

©Noah Berlatsky Used by permission.

Works Cited

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Miss D Ember said...

Um, wow.

This is a sweet essay detailing elements that draw and repulse me about horror mixed with sex.

You've illuminated my psyche in a good way. Thanks.

Unknown said...

Just wanted to drop you a line and let you know how phenomenal this essay was. I started skimming, then found myself pondering nearly every line in depth.

I've been studying and writing about horror for years, but your insights into the dualistic nature of horror's exploration of our fears...I'm not sure I can fully translate my thoughts into words here, but it's a superb conception of the way art-horror both reflects the zeitgeist and advances it.

The directors you mention are some of my all-time favorites, and it's wonderful to see someone else giving them serious consideration.

If you'd ever drop by my blog and offer a comment, I'd be honored. I'm sure I'll be heading back here again.