Horror-Tober VIII: Under the Skin

Written by Alexander Greco

October 28, 2020

I don’t know if Under the Skin is scary as much as it is unsettling, disturbing and deeply nihilistic.

I still don’t even know if I know what Under the Skin is about.

It’s about a girl who’s an alien who seduces male humans to come back to her home so she can steal their skin and turn their bodies into some sort of ground-beef-ish sludge. Then, she seems to gain self-awareness and decides to run away from that life, briefly living with some random stranger who tries to form a real relationship with her, and inevitably meets her demise at the hands of a terrified would-be-rapist.

But there’s still so much to the movie that is A) confusing, B) left unexplained and C) random.

Who are the “aliens”? What are they doing? Why are they doing what they’re doing?

On top of this, the movie takes a major shift about halfway through the movie (at the point of “self-awareness”), with not just a shift in the events and actions of the characters, but also a shift in the mood, atmosphere and, seemingly, the themes of the movie.

The movie shifts from disturbing, Lovecraftian horror to depressing, Dostoyevskian existentialism at the midpoint, transforming from a story that seems to be focused on psychopathy or amorality to a story focused on the human condition.

Then, taken in its entirety, Under the Skin seems to be a movie about self-consciousness and awareness, the dawning of empathy and a struggle with identity. More specifically, I think this movie delves into a look at the human condition, and, inadvertently, delves into a look at female identity and the human condition as a female. However, while I do want to delve into these things, and more, first, I want to try to understand what is happening in this film.

If you haven’t seen this film, I am on the fence about recommending it.

It’s great, it’s a fantastic film, and it’s both a subtle and highly complex film. However, it can be tough to watch, and it’s certainly not for everyone. It’s an exceedingly unsettling, uncomfortable and at times deeply disturbing film, and it excels at hammering home these emotions in subtle, quietly screaming ways.

This movie is so good at being uncomfortable that we get to see Scarlett Johansson completely naked a number of times, and these moments somehow manage to be exceedingly unpleasant to watch. I can respect that.

Anywho, let’s begin.

Literal Analysis

Summary

Some of this I guess would fall more into a film theory, especially since much of this wont play into the other parts of the analysis, and since of this I think might contradict portions of the analysis. Still, I think this is an important aspect of the film to look at (since, you know, this is the part where I actually try to understand what the fuck is going on).

I’m don’t want to spend too much time summarizing the movie, and there are a lot of small details to go through that I suppose support the major themes and story arcs, but fuck it, we’ll make do.

I was debating whether or not this movie should be broken into 2 parts, 3 parts or 4 parts, but I eventually settled on 4 parts.

The first part I’ll call the “Amoral Arc”. The second part, the “Dissonance Arc”. The third part, the “Discovery Arc”. And the fourth part, the “Annihilation Arc”.

In the Amoral Arc, we first see the “motorcycle man” bringing a limp woman into a van. While supposedly still in the van (though the van seems to possess extradimensional space), the alien woman and protagonist of the film takes off her clothes and puts them on herself. We see the possibly human woman begin to cry, though she is still limp and paralyzed.

Then, the alien woman goes to buy more clothes and some makeup before driving around asking men for directions. This tactic also serves as a way to flirt with men and try to bring them home with her, which seems to be her method of hunting/talking prey. Once she gets a man to come home with her, a man who also seems less likely to be noticed if they go missing, she lures them into her dilapidated house and into another extradimensional space—a massive, dark space, where the floor gives way to a large body of strange fluid the man sinks into while the woman walks on it normally.

Later, she tries to use this same tactic on a foreign swimmer, but the swimmer tries to save a man and his wife from drowning. Exhausting himself in the process, the foreign man fails at saving the couple and collapses on the beach, where the alien woman strikes his head on the rock. She and the motor cycle man take the foreign man and his belongings, both ignoring the couple swept out to see and their screaming infant they left on the beach.

In the Dissonance Arc, the alien woman continues preying on men in a similar way, first seducing and victimizing a man she met at a club and then an unsocial deformed man.

However, during this arc, their seem to be slight disturbances to the psyche of the alien woman. First, some men yell at her while she is parked, and she seems confused by this. Later, while going to and while at the party, she seems confused and even frightened by what is happening. Later, she receives a rose as a gift while in traffic, and the rose has blood on it, which seems to deeply disturb the woman.

While driving around with a man who continuously complements her and her looks, she seems more distracted than she was before and barely answers the man (who nonetheless returns home with her). After a short montage of random people out and about the city, the woman is sitting in her van alone at night, and a group of men come and attack her. She drives off, unharmed, but she does seem slightly disturbed by this.

Afterwards is the scene where she seduces the deformed man, and ends the Dissonance Arc.

Also in this Arc, however, we see how the skin is removed from bodies that have been in the tarry-fluid long enough, and we see that their bodies are processed and fed through some sort of trough into a red light. Where they go is not and is never explained.

The next arc, the Discovery Arc, begins with the alien woman looking at herself in the mirror, and then letting the deformed man leave. After this, she leaves the city, driving her van until the engine stops, then walking through a dense fog until she eventually makes her way to a town.

Here, she eats food that she immediately spits out, then wanders around until a man tells her a bus will be coming shortly. She gets on the bus with the man, and the man offers to help her (which she accepts). She ends up living with the man, and the two seem to develop something like a relationship, though the alien woman is an incredibly awkward individual. During this time, the motorcycle man and 3-4 other motorcycle men set off in search of the woman, each riding across the land in different directions looking for her.

The man and alien woman inevitably try to have sex, which seems to end disastrously when he tries to penetrate her. She freaks out, gets him off of her, sits on the end of the bed, and inspects her vagina (or where a vagina would be). We don’t know what she sees down there, though the reality of what she is (which we discover at the end of the movie) raises speculation.

The woman leaves, and this begins the Annihilation Arc.

This arc essentially consists of the alien woman traversing through a forest, where she runs across a lumberman who acts aggressively towards her, eventually to the point of rape and murder. She sleeps in a hiker’s rest area alone, and wakes up to find the lumberman molesting her.

She runs off into the woods, trying to escape the lumberman, but ends up finding his truck. She gets in his truck (I don’t know why) and the lumberman finds her. She honks the horn (I still don’t know why), then gets out and runs away again. The lumberman chases after her, and eventually catches her, pins her to the ground and begins trying to rape her.

However, at one point, he stops and recoils in horror at the sight of something, letting her go. We see that her skin is coming off, and beneath her “normal” human skin is jet-black flesh.

The lumberman runs away, and the woman begins peeling off her skin, revealing more and more of her body beneath. She even takes off the skin around her head, revealing a simplistic head with few features, then looks at her tarry body with her human head/face. The lumberman returns and pours gasoline, kerosine, oil or some other flammable liquid on her, then sets her on fire. She runs away, though she is still engulfed in flame, and runs out of the woods and into an open, snowy field, where she collapses.

Then, the movie ends.

Analysis

Each Arc of the film warrants its own literal interpretation, and then the film as a whole warrants its own literal interpretation.

First, the Amoral Act. What we see here, and what is even hinted at a few times, seems to be a take on entities who possess either a completely different form of morality than humans, or they possess no morality whatsoever.

This is an exceedingly interesting topic for me, amorality, and if you’re less familiar with the concept, it’s not that something possesses a bad or evil sense of morality, it’s that they possess no morality whatsoever, except perhaps a survival instinct.

While Lovecraft hasn’t explicitly covered amorality in his writing, he has explored to some degree the concept of an alien morality, or something that exists beyond a sense of morality, that operates under different existential parameters than humans do (typically ones that humans cannot understand or fathom). I personally have explored the concept in much of my fiction (so hit me up if you ever want to read some of it *wink wink*), and the key to understanding it, funnily enough, is empathy.

You have to be able to put yourself in the mindset of an individual, organism or other cognizant entity capable of agency or action, and think of what you would do in that situation. What would you do if you acted purely instinctually, or purely out of survival, or purely out of some cold, calculating, sociopathically-detached plan?

And Scarlett Johansen pulls this off perfectly. Watching her is like watching a praying mantis, a barracuda or a Komodo Dragon disguised as a human.

In the Dissonance Act, we see small shifts in the alien woman’s behavior (I keep calling her “alien woman”, but literally no one has any names except for Andy and the dead couple, so fuck off).

So, what is happening here?

Why would the alien begin to act oddly? Why is it afraid of the club and large crowds? Why does it react so strangely to the sight of blood?

And is the alien beginning to develop some sort of mental dissonance, or some form of self-awareness or awareness in general that runs counter to its previous understanding of the world?

What we can surmise from the club and from scenes throughout the film is that the alien woman does not actually know how to socialize whatsoever, which falls back to the “reptilian mind” thing. When the woman is seducing men, she almost has a program she runs to seduce them. She has her initial question, then she tries to figure out what they’re doing, if they’re free, if they have an excuse for her to get them in the van, and then finally to try and seduce them to bring them home.

She isn’t actually socializing with them, she’s running a program she uses to hunt her prey.

This is why she may seem so uncomfortable by going to the club and why she acts so strangely in situations with other humans that don’t fall under her pre-programmed responses. She doesn’t know what to do.

Now, as far as the blood, perhaps she doesn’t even know anything about human anatomy (evidenced later by her reaction to sex) or human biology.

And is she changing psychologically? It’s certainly possible, though what would do it? What would make that change? This I think I’ll get into later.

We must also discuss what the fuck is going on in the aliens’ house.

So, there’s a floor made of a tar-water/fluid/solid-floor/thingstuff, which the aliens seem to have some control over, since they can walk on it and others’ end up sinking into it.

There also seems to be some sort of psychological effect the place has on people, since no sane person would take a look at the endless black expanse of that room and think it was a safe place. In addition, there’s the blood-flesh-meat-slosh trough, and what the fuck is going on there?

I think we can assume the skins of humans are being harvested to be used later as suits, and then the flesh and organs of humans are being harvested to be used as flesh? Or fuel for something? Or maybe just discarded as waste? We don’t know, we really don’t know.

There’s a lot we don’t know, such as what the dark fluid is, or what the aliens’ purpose on Earth is. So, while some of these mysteries could be scoured for more details, I think we’ll have to leave this as a dead end.

Next, the Discovery Arc. I think this arc is relatively simple, though there’s three elephants in the room.

The deformed man, the motorcycle man/men and the sex scene.

There’s a few other minor things, such as the cake, the woman’s strange behavior in certain scenes and her aversion to dark castles, but I think these are either obvious or explained by what we previously discussed: not acclimated/adapted to this world, does not know how to behave as a normal human and so forth. These we won’t split hairs over.

With the deformed man, almost immediately after being released by the alien woman, he is tracked down and attacked by the primary motorcycle man. We can assume this is because he has seen too much and his existence might lead to the aliens’ discovery, but then the motorcycle man essentially kills him in broad daylight, and the motorcycle man even sees a witness and does nothing about it, then steals someone’s car. This isn’t discrete and seems somewhat odd.

Next with the motorcycle man/men, why is/are he/they hunting down the alien woman?

And what will they do when they find her?

Now, I have a theory about this, but I won’t delve into it until later.

Finally, the sex scene, and this is actually an incredibly interesting scene. In this scene, when the alien woman stops to look at her vagina, there are a couple things happening here.

One, perhaps something went wrong with her skin-suit. This is definitely a possibility, especially since we see the skinsuit tear later, and we see the body that is revealed underneath.

Second, and this is what I think, the alien woman has no idea whatsoever what sex is or what is happening as the man tries to penetrate her. I think it shocks her so much that she has to stop and try to figure out what is happening, which is insanely ironic, since her whole schtick for the first half of the movie is seducing men with the promise of sex, and essentially using her self as sexual bait without even knowing how sex works.

There is also the possibility that both of these things are true at once, and the sudden introduction of sex also brings a moment of shock and epiphany.

But why does this then make her leave the man and go out into the woods alone? Why does she no longer wish to stay safe and in his company?

Maybe she realized sex wasn’t what she thought it was. Maybe it was painful or uncomfortable for her (also ironic). Or maybe there really was an anatomical redundancy that kept her from actually having sex (the lack of a real vagina) and she didn’t want her cover to be blown.

I will probably come back to this in a bit, but it’s probably one of the most interesting scenes in the entire movie just because it immediately creates a network of implications connecting so many other events, themes and subtext throughout the film.

Finally, the Annihilation Arc, which is also relatively straight-forward, but with one simple thing we need to figure out:

When the woman was born, created, awoken, etc., did she know what she looked like on the inside, or did she live her entire life identifying with her exterior form? And did she always know there was another body under the skin

Or did she not discover this until the end of the film?

And while I think the prior sex scene is incredibly interesting (for scholarly, intellectual reasons), this moment is obviously the crux of the film.

It leads to many questions, and I don’t know how many answers there are.

Did the woman always know this was who she was and what she was like? Or was this a moment of self-discovery? Or was this a moment where she realized her own mortality and her body’s limitations and inevitable destruction?

So then, the question that follows many of the events of this film: How much does the woman know?

How much does she know about humans? How much does she know about herself? How much does she know about the consequences of her actions?

In the beginning of the film, I think there is an assumption of superiority in the woman. She is the ultimate femme fatale, who lures men back to her home to use them as a resource for her species. However, we slowly begin to see that she is incredibly awkward in unscripted social situations, that she may or may not understand human anatomy/biology, and that she may or may not understand her own anatomy.

At the same time, we slowly see this outward perception of superiority vanish and a sense of vulnerability slowly grows, until, at the end of the film, we see that she is essentially all but helpless when she’s alone (another very interesting thing to reflect on with this film, the complete turnaround from seduction-control-superiority to rape-helpless-vulnerability).

This will factor into a future part of the analysis.

Now, something else to discuss here, in the broader scope of the film: what are the aliens doing? What is going on?

More specifically, what is going on with the woman?

Now, I have other things to get to with this analysis, and this portion has already dragged on long enough as it is, but here’s my theory about the woman.

In the opening of the movie, we see an eye being formed, and then we hear the woman practicing phonemes (z-, th-, t-, s-, p-, f-, etc.). Immediately after this is the scene where the paralyzed woman is brought into the back of the van and the naked alien woman takes off all of her clothes and puts them on herself. The body of the paralyzed woman presumably is disposed of in a similar fashion as other used bodies.

So, I think this means that the alien woman was newly created or constructed, and is being “programmed” to speak while she is being made to look like a human woman. I also think it’s possible that the paralyzed woman is actually an alien herself and may have undergone a similar psychological transformation as the Johansson alien—meaning this woman was the previous seductress alien and was replaced by Johansson once it gained self-awareness.

Now, unfortunately, I don’t have much to back this up with. There isn’t much evidence for this, but it’s a gut feeling I have. I suppose a more rational take on this is that this is just some woman they found who just so happened to have the same sized clothes as the Johansson alien.

I do think, however, that it’s not a stretch to imagine the male aliens created the Johansson alien, or maybe the Johansson construct-alien, in order to carry out their aims (whatever they may ultimately be).

And so, this is why the Johansson alien seems to know so little about anything­—they’re programmed only to fulfil one task, and she hasn’t had enough experience to know how so many different things work (socialization, sex, biology—human and her own). Once she “goes rogue”, the other aliens try to track her down. This could be because they think she’s in danger, or it could be because they’re going to “recycle” her like they did the other female alien.

We don’t know, and I don’t think we’ll ever know. This movie is based on a book by the same name, written by Michael Faber and released in 2000, so the book may have more answers for us, but for now I think we’ll have to be content with what we have.

Gender Analysis

I don’t want to spend too much time with this portion of the analysis. This isn’t to minimize its potential depth or significance, this is simply because I think the true meaningfulness of the movie resides in a much deeper place, and I don’t think the director and co-writer, Jonathan Glazer intended it to be about gender.

However, the pieces of the puzzle are all but staring at us in the face, so I think an exploration of the significance of gender in this movie is warranted.

First, there is the foundational element of sexual dynamics here to examine. The seductress alien is primarily seen as an object of sexual attraction. There is something interesting that happens is done in the movie, something I don’t think even the creators are aware of. The woman-alien can only be an object throughout the movie because no human knows her true nature until the end of the film.

Throughout the movie, humans can only project their sexual idealizations onto the female alien because they cannot, and maybe can never understand the woman, as a subject. Because of their ignorance of what she is, it is impossible for them to know anything about the woman except for surface information. She can only be an object, until the very end of the movie. At the moment she becomes a subject (at the moment her inner self is revealed) the only human to have seen her inner self elects to destroy her.

Now, following this line of the seductress alien as an object of sexual attraction, there are two ironies on either side of all these interactions.

One, the men who are sexually attracted to her are only attracted to her because of her outward appearance, showing a shallowness to romance and sexual attraction. In some ways, it shows a sort of hypocrisy in love and romance and sexuality, since the woman is desired simply because of her looks. If anyone were to discover who/what she really was, they would immediately lose their attraction to her.

Another tangential irony to this is the fact that it might not even be possible to have sex with this woman. Her body may be physically incapable of sex, and only capable of looking attractive. In this way, the men who desire to have sex with her are completely fetishizing a non-sexual entity (non-sexual meaning incapable of procreating or having sex). Now, this might not be the case, simply because there’s a bit of ambivalence in the sole “sex scene” of the movie as to what the Johansson alien sees when she peers down at her vagina, but one of the possibilities is that she discovers a shallow dead end.

So the men sexualizing her may be sexualizing something that has no actual sexual function, and simply “looks pretty”, further adding to the idea that she can be considered nothing more than a sexualized object by anyone else in the film.

Two, the Johansson alien probably doesn’t even know how sex works, or what sex really is. There is a scene where she sees blood and freaks out. Why does she freak out? I mean, admittedly, I would freak out as well if I was handed flowers by a stranger and they were covered in blood, but I don’t think this is why she freaks out. When she sees the blood, she reacts, but then she doesn’t do anything to wipe it off.

This seems to indicate that she gets upset by the sight of blood not because she knows what blood is, but because she doesn’t know what blood is. If she did know what blood is and reacted how she did, one would assume she would want to wipe off the blood.

This can lead us to believe that she doesn’t understand the fundamentals of human biology. Later, when she tries to have sex, the seductress alien freaks out for one of two reasons:

  1. She is physically incapable of having sex
  2. She suddenly realizes what sex actually is and this bothers her

I think the second has to be true, because it’s true whether or not the first one is true. Either way, whether she’s physically capable of sex or not, she doesn’t understand what sex: either she doesn’t know human anatomy and her anatomy, or she doesn’t know the process of sex.

What this means is that she spends the entire film as an object of sexual attraction—more than that, her entire purpose in life seems to be luring men to their death so they can be harvested—and yet she doesn’t even understand sex. Her entire purpose on Earth seems to be centered on sex and sexual attraction, and yet she doesn’t even know what sex is, how sex works or the anatomical structures responsible for sex.

Another aspect of this to look at is the shift in power dynamics from the beginning of the movie to the end of the movie.

In the beginning of the movie, the seductress alien is in full control. She lures men back to her home, like fish willingly putting the hook into their own cheeks, and guides them to their own deaths. She is in complete control, she possesses an air of superiority about her, and she is the predator.

However, in the end of the movie, she is completely vulnerable and has no control. She is an environment she doesn’t understand and cannot use to her advantage like her home, and she is being aggressed upon rather than being docilely followed by the individual sexually attracted to her.

I don’t entirely have a great analysis of this, but it seems to be about the social dynamics of sexuality, as well as perhaps a commentary on the different modes of behavior dependent on one’s gender.

However, while there’s more to delve into with these few topics I’ve mentioned, as well as other avenues left in the dark, I do think I’ll move on now to a more universal analysis.

Human Analysis

While I think the gender analysis might be the more obvious one, given the sexual nature of Under the Skin, I think the film deserves to be looked at on a deeper level.

Under the Skin is an exceedingly lonely film. The first half of it feels inhuman and detached, for some obvious reasons. The female alien is a cold, amoral, nearly-mechanical being who, as we learn throughout the film, doesn’t seem to know much about humanity or even their own nature.

They have pre-programmed socializations with one agenda, luring men to their deaths, and any other social interaction seems to be difficult for them to have. They don’t know how to react except in short, awkward responses, and sometimes with no responses at all.

Then, the female alien seems to gain consciousness or awareness of a sort, and goes off on their own—first developing a romantic relationship that quickly fails, and then being killed/destroyed by someone who attempts to rape them.

In many ways, this film reflects the human condition for everyone, regardless of general.

We all become programmed with social responses and behaviors that we use in a variety of situations, but we don’t have many original responses to things—we don’t know how to act in novel situations.

In addition, we all have “masks” or “skinsuits” we wear to hide who are underneath—both to ourselves and to others. We develop personas we use to mask our underlying nature, our underlying agendas, and our underlying identities. However, we sometimes even develop these personas to hide who we are from ourselves.

Or, we develop personas without developing any underlying identity, sense of self, or other psychological structure beneath our personas. Many people in some ways are only the skinsuits, with nothing else inside of us (psychologically/behaviorally speaking).

On top of this, we as humans seem to use each other mindlessly. We use each other for our own self-gain, for our own self-pleasure, for our own self-validation, and we do this all with our pre-programmed social behaviors without any thought of how the other individual might be affected by us and our actions.

We use our skinsuits to get what we want, and we don’t think twice about it.

However, there can be an awakening of sorts where we realize all these things, and this, I believe, is the awakening that occurs at the midway point of the film.

The midway point of the film, primarily involving the deformed man, is interesting in many ways. The fact that her last victim and the first victim she saves (or attempts to) is the way he contrasts with the beauty of the female alien. However, I think the deformed man signals a shift in a sense of self-awareness and self-image.

The ugliness (I’m sorry, guy, if you really look like that) of the man I think represents a self-projected self-image by the man. It’s his own insecurities, loneliness and sense of self-worth projected or manifested onto his appearance.

So there’s this implication here of the man’s outer image not mattering to the female alien (though we know this is because A: she isn’t planning on having sex with him and B: probably doesn’t actually care about human beauty standards).

This contrast in attraction might signal the female aliens psychological shift, which seems to come about by seeing her own reflection. This seems to be a shift in perspective where outward appearance and outward behavior stop mattering, which means there must be something else that matters.

This triggers the female alien into leaving the city she’s been living in, presumably to get away from the life of sexual seduction and human harvesting in order to maybe discover herself, or try attempting to understand what is happening.

A psychological shift like this unfortunately does not happen in everyone, but it is still an incredibly important turning point in many people’s lives: the realization of the true nature of one’s self, and the attempt at creating a different life than they are already leading.

However, perhaps the woman is still living a lie. She attempts to form a relationship which still seems to be entirely dependent on the woman’s appearance. Would the man she met on the bus still have brought her home, fed her, clothed her, sheltered her and so forth if he wasn’t attracted to her and didn’t think there would be a sexual reward in it for him?

And still, the relationship is also built on a lie because the man does not know who the woman actually is.

It isn’t until the end that the woman’s true nature is revealed, and we see that she is the pitch-black-bodied alien. She is immediately killed or destroyed immediately after.

This scene is interesting in our current conversation for a number of reasons.

First of all, the fact that the man is trying to rape her is, unfortunately, a purification or distillation of the underlying desires all men who meet the woman have. Rather than the overlaying social behaviors used to either mask what they want or get what they want, the lumberman simply tries to take what he wants.

Here, his underlying agenda is not masked or gained by pre-programmed social behaviors or responses, and his actions directly reflect his desires.

As far as the alien woman goes, the fact that she is destroyed after her true nature is revealed shows goes back to the idea of her being only an object of sexual attraction throughout that film, until the moment her true body his revealed. At this moment, the projected sexual object is shattered, and the individual perceiving her (the lumberman) recoils in fear.

This I think also has multiple angles to view it.

I think one could say that we as individuals do not enjoy seeing others for who they truly are. We don’t want to actually know a person, we want to create an idealized projection (whether negative or positive) of who we want them to be, with three modes of idealization: desire/attraction/love (sexual or otherwise), neutrality/ambivalence, and fear/disgust/hate.

The moment the lumberman’s idealization of the woman was shattered by seeing her true form, his model of reality was damaged or maybe even destroyed. As a defense mechanism, he attempted to annihilate the thing he suddenly understood too well.

I also think it’s interesting to note that the lumberman’s behavior mirrors the alien woman’s behavior as well. First, he gives some semi-bullshit spew of dialogue, where he’s not actually connecting with the woman, he’s just asking questions and talking at her.

All of these questions seem to be gauging how risky or not it would be for him to prey on her. Once he’s gauged that she would be safe to rape, he finds her again and stalks her through the woods until he finally catches her. This exactly mirrors, at least on a structural level, what the woman does when she herself preys on men.

Now, there’s another, more complicated angle that I find exceedingly interesting.

First, we build this premise (which we already started building):

Sex and sexuality is idealized and romanticized throughout the movie. The protagonist her/itself is a sexually idealized object which is not perceived as its own subject (its own subject for what it really is) until the end of the movie. However, pretty much every individual the protagonist comes into contact with sexually desires her, so all of their underlying motivations align with the same sexual motivation the lumberman-rapist has.

So, the sexual motivations begin as idealized/romanticized, but they are still the driving force.

The moment we have direct contact with the true nature the man/men’s motivation(s) (the assault/rape scene) we also come into direct contact with the true nature of the woman (revealing her body).

So there are two “bare” forces or concepts that come into direct contact—the true nature of the sexual motivations, or of the libido, and the true nature of the woman herself.

It is possible that the thing the lumberman actually recoils from while attempting to rape the woman is the fact of his own actions and behaviors. He might be recoiling from the sudden realization of what he is trying to do.

See, the black, alien body beneath the human appearance can be seen as symbolic of the actual, violent, insidious nature of the aliens’ actions/agenda/motivations. So, when seeing the true body of the woman, the man is seeing the dark, violent nature of behavior and motivations (possibly the dark nature of libido in general).

The sight of the woman’s body is the realization of a dark, insidious motivation, and the sight of the woman’s body may be the realization of one’s own dark, insidious motivations.

How so?

This is where it gets a bit complicated (if it hasn’t already) so I hope I explain this well.

There’s a fun trick you can play with films like these—in theory, any film with a woman who is evenly remotely sexualized or put into a romantic light. Part of the meaning of the movie is derived from the fact that we are watching it.

We as the viewer are perceiving characters in a sexual light, meaning we as the viewers have been observing Scarlett Johansson in a sexual light. If we ourselves are sexually attracted to her, then perhaps we’ve been existing vicariously through the male characters.

Of course, this does not end well for us as the vicarious/voyeuristic observer. However, then there is the sex scene with the guy the alien woman meets on the bus. He so far has come the closest to having sex with the woman, but it inevitably fails. Finally, the observer’s sexual frustration peaking at the fact they haven’t vicariously had sex with Scarlett Johansson yet, the lumberman attempts to rape her.

We as an observer might be torn by this.

The individual who has been sexually idealized to such an extreme throughout the film has yet to have sex with anyone yet, but now, finally, the sex will happen. However, it is through force that the sex will happen. It is rape, it is violence, it is wrong in so many ways.

The lumberman seeing the alien woman has who she truly may be the audience-observer seeing their own libidinal motivations at their darkest—their sexual desire and frustration taken to an extreme—and the darkest nature of what lies under the skin is revealed.

This can be extended beyond sexuality into any number of things we pursue in our lives—any number of obsessions, desires, motivations, agendas and so forth. The moment of witnessing the Johansson alien as who she truly is reflects the moment of seeing anything we desire or obsess over for what it truly is.

Perhaps it is people we desire, perhaps it is pleasure we desire, perhaps it is status we desire, but there will always come a moment where our idealized, romanticized projection of our desires becomes torn, and a truer reality reveals itself.

The knee-jerk reaction, of course, to such a revelatory event is to annihilate the evidence of such a reality.

We Have Come to Terms

And that concludes the analysis.

This analysis has already become exceedingly long, so I don’t want to spend too much more time here.

Despite being a relatively unknown box office flop, this movie has garnered an impressive number of accolades, with many credible sources stating it’s one of the greatest films of all time.

I don’t know if I’d go that far, but it’s certainly an excellent film, and one that deserves your attention if you’re into things like this (like I said previously, it’s definitely not for everyone).

Nonetheless, I greatly appreciate you reading this (especially such an article as long as this one). Please let me know if you have any thoughts, comments, questions or critiques.

See You Later, Space Cowboy.

Horror-Tober VI: Ghosts as Symbols

Written by Alexander Greco

October 21, 2020

So, this article and probably the next as well will be relatively short, I’m trying to get caught up after stumbling a bit the last week and try to get back on course.

Today, I will be discussing ghosts (oooh, spooooky…).

There are a number of things that can haunt you, ghosts being one of them. To harken back to a short story I wrote a long time ago, (literally A Ghost’s Story) I personally have a theory that a house represents the psyche, or the brain and all the space in it for all its various contents. The house can be filled will all kinds of normal or positive things, as well as all kinds of negative things—ghosts, ghouls, goblins, demons—and these things that fill your house all represent something about your psyche.

Demons for example might represent our “sinful” or destructive and self-destructive tendencies.

Monsters, doppelgangers and lightless rooms or hallways might be the things inside of us we are afraid of confronting, seeing or entering.

Ghosts, for me, have a relatively common motif: something haunting you from the past.

It could be a memory, it could be a person, it could be a trauma. It could be all three, or more. Whatever the case, the ghost represents something from the past which haunts your current life.

So, to explore this topic, I want to analyze several ghost-centric stories, or even non-horror stories/films that employ ghosts, and see how ghosts represent the people, places and things of the past which haunt us in the present.

Boring Classical Literature

So, I’ll begin with some of the OG ghosts of Christmas past.

First, Hamlet.

Of course, the primary ghost of Hamlet is Hamlet’s father, the deceased king of Denmark.

Now, Hamlet might not be a great story to start off with, since any of Shakespeare’s more well-known plays are like a Normandy Beach of literary analysis. We’ll disregard that though.

As a ghost, Hamlet’s father is like a messenger from Hamlet’s unconscious. Actually, possibly a messenger from the unconscious of all those who care about Hamlet, Hamlet’s father and the Danish kingdom in general.

Out of the guardsmen, Horatio and Halmet (those who saw the ghost), none of them could have known the truth of what happened to Hamlet’s father. However, all of them do know that Hamlet’s father died, and Hamlet’s mother immediately married Hamlet’s uncle. So, one might be able to make a few connections here.

Hamlet’s father may be an emergent perception or feeling coming from the unconscious of those loyal to Hamlet’s father. Their minds may be correlating events of the past, and they know that something is amiss. For Halmet himself, this feeling and epiphany emerges even stronger, and Hamlet’s father outright tells Hamlet what happened and that Hamlet should avenge him.

Of course, Hamlet must confirm this, just as anyone ought to confirm their suspicions and theories. Nonetheless, Hamlet’s vision of his dead father represents Hamlet’s loyalty, responsibility and vengeance at the memory of his father and suspicions of his father’s death, which emerge from the unconsciousness.

Next, Wuthering Heights, another literary can of worms.

Wuthering Heights is a complex story and a difficult story to parse through (the older era of language not helping this). The primary ghost here is Catherine.

Catherine as a ghost “appears” in two ways. One, she appears before Lockwood in the beginning of the story. Two, she appears before Heathcliff at the end of the story, and then Catherine and Heathcliff both are seen wandering the countryside by local inhabitants (however, these two “appearances” are not directly observed in the book).

Now, Catherine could be a number of things, but, in the context of ghosts, she obviously represents the past which haunts Heathcliff. First, her appearance in the beginning of the book is followed almost immediately by Nelly retelling the history of Wuthering Heights. This, by way of approximate comparison, indicates Catherine as being symbolic of the past (Catherine’s existence at least warrants an explanation of the past).

Later on in the book, Heathcliff is haunted by the ghost of Catherine, and he cannot look at the younger generations because they have the same eyes as Catherine. This is the present (and the future) being haunted by the past. The younger generation is a product of the past, and so even the existence of the younger generation haunts Heathcliff.

Semi-Classic Films

Next, here are three films which utilize the ghost motif rather well, though in unique ways.

First, there’s The Sixth Sense, which is almost entirely focused on ghosts. The primary theme of the movie is reconciling with the past. Every ghost inevitably wants help reconciling themselves with prior events (particularly the events that led to their death). Almost all of these events were the result of some sort of traumatic or violent event, with the mother poisoning the daughter being one of the darkest events that took place.

It is up to the child to uncover these traumatic events and put the ghosts to rest.

Another interesting point of the movie is that the protagonist themselves is a ghost, and in the end must reconcile with their past. This is something I’ll discuss a bit more with another movie, but The Sixth Sense does a good job of de-horrifying the ghosts in this movie, and ultimately allows us to empathize with one of the ghosts. This twist off events may also imply that the “ghosts” may not even be the psychological traumas that haunt us, but that the ghosts are the people who are haunted by the psychological trauma (someone “being a ghost of who they once were”).

The Shining

This one might be the most difficult piece of media on here to parse apart, and it involves a few theories about the film that aren’t explicitly confirmed by the film.

First, I’d like to mention The Shining’s reflection of what I said earlier about a “haunted house”. The empty hotel eventually becomes filled with ghosts and other malicious entities, and this may be symbolic of Jack Torrence’s mind itself.

Jack goes out to the middle of nowhere to watch over an isolated, empty hotel for the winter. Why? So he can have some peace and quiet and spend time working on his book. He tries to empty his world and empty his mind of distractions and other negative thoughts. However, this emptiness allows the ghosts and other monsters who reside in his unconscious to emerge. What ghosts would these be?

Well, there’s one very obvious and rather explicit one. Jack doesn’t feel like he’s adequate. Jack wants to prove he’s the man, prove he’s in charge, prove he’s capable and so forth. The ghosts even encourage this and treat him like he’s the man in charge of everything, the man on top of the world. Of course, they use this to manipulate him into committing violent acts. Jack’s narcissism urges him toward destructive behavior.

And then, a much less obvious and much less explicit ghost. It is almost explicitly revealed that Jack was physically abusive to his family in the past, especially when he was an alcoholic. However, it has been theorized that Jack sexually abused his own son. There’s too much to get into with this, but there’s quite a lot of small, circumstantial clues that point to this, and if you read the subtext of several scenes in the movie, Jack might have even started doing this again in the present time.

At the very least, Jack’s ghosts involving alcoholism and physical abuse certainly return to haunt him, and eventually possess him.

The Others

The Others is a rather unique film which explores ghosts in an incredibly interesting way. If you haven’t watched the film, I’m about to spoil it. If you don’t want it spoiled, skip to the next section.

It is revealed at the end of The Others that every character is actually a ghost. Everyone in the film is already dead and haunt either the mansion they live in, or, in the case of the protagonists’ father/husband, they haunt the country or land they live in.

This sort of extends the idea from The Sixth Sense, of both empathizing with the ghosts and with people becoming ghosts rather than being haunted by them. They become a ghost of their prior selves.

I won’t delve too deeply into this film, but there’s something interesting to note here. This film takes place in the 1940’s, and we discover that the protagonists’ father/husband died in WWII, the deadliest war in human history. Because of the fact that all of the characters in the film are dead (except for the living people, who were thought to be ghosts the entire time), maybe it is being implied that everyone involved in that war “died”, that perhaps humanity itself “died” after that war and that era of history. The rest of history, and the rest of humanity, will forever be haunted by the events of that war.

Cool Stuff

Now, to wrap this up, I want to examine three stories that employ ghosts and other supernatural events, but they do so in highly unique ways (and they’re very popular).

Harry Potter

The Harry Potter series (both the books and the movies, but probably more so the books) make semi-frequent use of ghosts and ghost-like creatures.

Now, there’s two semi-obvious things here that aren’t explicitly ghosts, and I won’t discuss too much, but I’ll give a brief overview of them: the Dementors and the Patronus projections.

The Dementors are mysterious entities which siphon happiness and other positive emotions from their victims. They can drive their victims to the state of insanity, or they can even siphon the souls from their victims, leaving them in a vegetative state.

The counterpart of the Dementors—which are used to fend off the Dementors—are the animal projections made by the Patronus charm, which is in many ways like a projection of the individual’s soul itself.

So, Dementors may be like depression or some other mental illness, while the Patronus projections may be like a cure to those mental illnesses—the “true, inner self” or the spirit or soul of an individual emerging to confront the negative mental effects of an illness.

Beyond these, there are plenty of actual ghosts in Harry Potter.

There’s ghosts all throughout Hogwarts, there are many individuals who die in the series and return as ghosts (or as paintings) and even Harry Potter’s parents are ghosts.

In fact, the theme of life and death is quite prevalent throughout the film.

There are the Death Eaters. There is the phoenix, Fawkes. There is the Order of the Phoenix, led by Harry himself.

Voldemort has various horcruxes which essentially prevent him from dying. However, in the event before the beginning of the books, when Voldemort tried to kill Harry, Voldemort did “die” in a sort of Saurony way. His spirit or soul or psychic force remained alive, though his physical body had been destroyed or killed.

In addition, Harry himself even dies and returns to the end in the climax of the series.

The Deathly Hallows, which are prevalent to some degree throughout the series, but really only emerge as important factors of the series in the last book, are rooted in a legend involving the grim reaper, or Death.

With just a cursory look through the Harry Potter books/movies, ghosts and other things related to death, souls, spirits, etc. seem to be highly prevalent in the series. So how do they relate to the themes of the series?

Well, there seem to be two primary and opposing forces throughout the story: Voldemort & Co vs Potter Inc.

Both possess the death and rebirth motif, with Voldemort “coming back to life” in the fourth book, and Harry Potter dying and coming back to life in the seventh book. However, their methods of death and rebirth seem to be as opposed as their goals and methods of attaining those goals. Voldemort maintains life after death through the horcruxes (dark magic). Harry maintains life after death in a much more ambiguous and far less clear way, but Potter Inc. seems to be attached to the idea of a Phoenix (Fawkes, Order of the Phoenix, etc.), and Phoenixes of course are creatures that burn to death and then are reborn in the ashes.

This death and rebirth is typically symbolic of a spiritual death and rebirth, or of the death and rebirth of ideas, stories and culture across the succession of generations.

Now, to get more into the specific ghosts, many of them seem to serve specific symbolic purposes.

Moaning Mrytle of the second book seemed to be symbolic of a past horror that was re-emerging in the story. She herself was killed by the basilisk and helped Potter Inc discover where the basilisk was hiding.

Dumbledore as a ghost in the final story may have been a part of Harry’s spiritual catharsis: Harry, having sacrificed himself help stop Voldemort, is now dead, but Dumbledore’s ghost comes to help return Harry to the world of the living, to revive his soul. Dumbledore here may have been a more positive apparition; a reminder of the plan Harry must still follow and the goal of defeating Voldemort he had to achieve.

Harry’s parents are symbolic of the great trauma that inevitably led to all the events of the Harry Potter series. The scar on his forehead is a constant reminder of the day they died, a constant reminder of the sacrifice they made to defend Harry from evil, and the sacrifice Harry himself would one day need to make to defend the world from evil. (But… why do Harry’s parents only show up as ghosts a few times? Can’t they, like, chill with him all the time?)

Other ghosts may show up in certain times as reminders of the evil done unto others, or possibly as reasons why Harry should continue fighting (Cedric, for example).

Silent Hill

The Silent Hill video game (and I suppose the movies as well) might be another topic that could be too complicated to get into, so I’ll be brief. However, I think Silent Hill solidifies a bit of our analytic theory here.

The town of Silent Hill is an “empty” town that had been wracked with great trauma in the past. It now possesses two “modes” or dimensions beyond normal, material reality. First, there is the fog dimension, where the entire town of Silent Hill becomes shrouded in a deep fog. Second, there is the “Otherworld”, which is a much darker, bloodier and violent dimension.

So, in this way, Silent Hill mirrors consciousness or the psyche. There is the conscious mind, the preconscious mind and the unconscious mind.

The town of Silent Hill, as I previously said, has experienced great traumas in the past. Those traumas are invisible on the surface (the town appears empty), but as one explores the traumas more deeply (delving into the unconscious mind), one discovers the existence and the effects of those traumas

Babadook

My last mini-analysis about ghosts, and one of my favorite horror movies ever (from a somehow simpler time in my life), The Babadook.

The Babadook is about an Australian woman who is left to take care of her child alone after her husband dies. The relationship between the woman and her child becomes increasingly toxic, especially as both of them seem to increasingly suffer from different forms and degrees of mental illness.

At the same time, a horrific, man/cockroach-like entity known as the Babadook invades their home and terrorizes the two of them.

In the end, it is implied that the Babadook is a ghost or imposter-ghost/shade/revenant/whatever of the woman’s husband. The mother and son learn to live with the Babadook in their home, and the relationship between the three of them seems to become more positive.

The Babadook in this movie seems to be a manifestation of the grief and pain that the death of the father/husband has brought onto the family, as well as a manifestation of the ensuing mental health decline and resulting toxicity. The Babadook is the dark, sinister, bitter grief that morphs into violence towards others—especially with the mother possibly seeing the son as the source of her grief, or blaming him for the death of her husband and the hardships of having to raise him alone.

This movie is a fantastic take on grief, pain, mental illness and the toxicity of unchecked bitterness and suppressed frustration.

La Fin

I think this one is a pretty obvious analysis, and I don’t think I’m illuminating too much here, but it is nonetheless a fun analysis, and it’s insightful even if it’s tried and true.

There are many variations of this theme or of this symbol, of course, as well as many tangential symbols (such as the phoenix, such as zombies, such as other paranormal spirits/eentities/whatevers), and so this line of thinking can take you far analytically.

Feel free to let me know if you have any thoughts on these analyses. Thank you for reading, and stay tuned for more Horror-Tober.

Horror-Tober IV: Eraserhead Part 3

Written by Alexander Greco

October 14, 2020

This is the final article analyzing Eraserhead (for now…), and because of how long this analysis took, I think I’m not going to do the articles on witches and werewolves, though I may see if there’s any topics in the future I’d rather swap in witches or werewolves for.

If you haven’t read the previous articles on Eraserhead, I’d recommend reading those before this article. However, this article does summarize much of what I discussed in the previous analyses. If you don’t mind a bit of a lack of context or as much depth in explanation, feel free to read this without reading the others.

Layer 2: Synthesis and Generalization of Patterns and Themes

There’s a lot to go over here. A lot information to try and bring together. And I don’t want to spend too much time wrapping this up.

So, let’s start by trying to crystallize some key themes and patterns from across the film.

First, there is the man with the levers at the beginning of the film. Henry seems to be a disassociated observer, passively watching and allowing events to occur before him while Fate or God, or even Henry’s own unconscious mechanisms, are in control of reality. At the same time, Fate or God or Henry’s unconscious is portrayed as this grotesque sort of figure.

Perhaps the entity pulling the levers of Fate has aged into a monstrous being, or perhaps always ways.

Combine this with the setting and atmosphere of the film.

Modern and industrial cityscapes, devoid of most life other than humans walking around. The movie has a constant eeriness too it, and a constant tension. There are few, if any, moments throughout the film that don’t possess some tension or conflict, or else something unsettling, uncomfortable or disturbing.

Henry passively exists within and observes a reality which cold and disassociated from life and living, but which there is also no control over one’s fate. Henry passively watches himself act in this barren, dispassionate world without any effort of intervention.

And, it seems, so does everyone else. Everyone in this film, from Henry to Gathy, seem to behave caricaturistically and almost mechanically. They behave in absurd and strange ways, yet this seems to be the typical mode of being in this world.

Everything feels at least awkward or slightly uncomfortable. Even when Henry is alone, there are very few moments that don’t at least feel awkward. Our protagonist is a bit of a strange individual. He’s not very fit, he has a bit of a stoop, he walks awkwardly, his expressions are wonky, and he speaks rather awkwardly as well.

All of the people he interacts with likewise have many strange idiosyncrasies—no one seems normal, yet, at the same time, every somehow seems natural.

What I see here are a bunch of individuals with their own oddities and idiosyncrasies, attempting to co-exist in an incredibly strange and somewhat cold world. Everyone is sort of trying to cope with life and trying to survive, and they all become these strange characters attempting to exist with one another.

So, we have a theme of modernity and we have a theme of strange social interactions. The cold alienation of modernity, and the disassociation of modern socialization.

Everyone is just a listless, arbitrary entity acting out of their pre-ordained mechanical manner, and everyone passively exists in a cold, lifeless world.

How are they able to exist in this world emotionally or psychologically without going insane? Well, many of the characters do seem to act insane, but so do people in real life, and yet society manages to keep going?

They find a meaning to go on through comfort, intimacy and I suppose responsibility—all three of which form a sort of interwoven monolith around libido and sexuality.

Henry has a job to have an apartment and possessions, which acts as a place to invite women he’s attracted to—Mary then Gathy. Then, Mary has a child, and now Henry must take care of Mary and the child. Comfort through sex, as well as intimacy through sex and a romantic relationship, and then responsibility through their job (with its connections to other elements of life) and through raising a child.

There is something like a façade placed over the bleak world Henry lives in—his idealization of reality—so long as he can have some level(s) of comfort, intimacy and responsibility.

However, all these things become complicated. Mary lives with Henry, but their relationship seems less than romantic, and she seems to be refusing sexual intimacy with Henry. Henry is attracted to Gathy, which prompts an affair, but then Gathy refuses Henry because he is a father. Henry is a father, but being a father seems to be the locus of so much of his frustration.

So, his idealization of reality does not match reality itself. This is why I think there are two key projections Henry makes in the film.

He projects the warmth and comfort of his idealized reality (which we might say used to be sex with Mary without thought of consequence) onto the Radiator Girl. The girl herself is an imaginary person with a partially fake and mask-like face, and she is always presented in a positive manner. I think this projection of an idealized life or reality is made especially apparent in the Radiator Girl’s song about Heaven.

She is Henry’s desire to return to a simpler life—an innocent state of being.

The second projection is the child itself. Is the grotesqueness of the child reality itself? Is that how the child actually appears? Or is this just a projection onto the child?

Is the child truly that deformed? Is that simply how it appears in the eyes of its Boomer parents? (Just kidding, Boomers).

Let’s see how well we can paint this picture:

They live in a cold, alienating world devoid of life, and that seems to be commonplace for them. Sexuality is something strange, frightening, uncomfortable and omnipresent, as it is also a source of warmth, comfort and intimacy. Socialization with others seems to be difficult and bizarre. How does one create meaningful meaningfulness between themselves and others in a meaningless void? Every character seems so fragmented and disconnected from each other, they can’t seem to come to terms on a more personal level.

The only way to happily live in this world might be to idealize it and to live life for the few things that bring one warmth (such as sex, which might also be one of the only ways to be truly intimate with someone in this world as well).

However, the child created through that sex tears down the idealized simulation of reality that has been laid over the world’s ugliness (as children do), and frustrates their efforts at sanity, happiness and intimacy. If we can grant my theory that the child’s grotesque nature is being projected onto it, then we can see the child as a symbolic locus of frustration, fear and disgust for all those connected to it.

Mary’s father never even mentions the child, but Mary’s child also seems far more disassociated from reality and its consequences than the other characters­—in the sense that he barely seems to be conscious in a meaningful way, and is just sort of a personality machine inside a human skin suit. Perhaps he either refuses to acknowledge it, or accepts the child in a flat, affectless manner (juxtaposed to the bombastic and smiling personality he mechanically possesses).

Mary’s mother seems to accept the child, but only if Henry agrees to marry Mary and help take care of the two of them. Considering the mother’s sexual actions and behavior, she may even welcome the child’s existence.

Henry seems in the beginning to accept the child and its grotesque appearance, but it might be a safe assumption that he does it for the intimacy he believes it will afford him with Mary, as well as the sense of responsibility and meaning it might provide him. However, he then loses this intimacy with Mary, as well as with Gathy, because of the child’s existence. Now, the child truly becomes a source of his frustration.

Henry, already living in a cold, barren, alienating world, becomes so disconnected and so frustrated that he does the unthinkable—he kills his child. He destroys life in order to maintain his idealized state of being. This may even be the state of modernity in general. Modernity may be choking out and destroying life in order to maintain its idealized state—which is the state he returns to in the end of the film.

Not only this, he defies fate, or the man pulling the levers, and annihilates or destroys the planetoid womb. He defies the natural order of things in order to return to an idealized life.

Now, there are two routes to go about examining this. The first, a more literal and more critical view of Henry and his actions, and the second, a more symbolically cathartic one.

The first route, Henry is not only abdicating his responsibility as a father—more than that, committing infanticide—he is perpetuating the barren reality he lives in and idealizes. Rather than live with the frustrating reality brought upon by his child, he is seeking to destroy that reality in order to return to a place of warmth, ignorance and bliss (the murky white fluid he and Gathy descend into may be a precursor to the place of blinding white light at the end).

Now, to flip this in one simple maneuver. What if what Henry kills in the end is not his child, but the projection he creates of his child? What if Henry’s problem was not that the child was a destructive force on the nature of his life, but that Henry’s idealized perception of life was never fully updated to include his child in it? Of course, Lynch being a Boomer, this may be a bit of a stretch, but, for me, it fits the movie itself.

And what of the eraserhead sequence? Perhaps Henry needed to erase his prior reality and his prior identity in order to find that higher, ideal state again.

He had to defy the natural order of things—in fact, he had to annihilate it. He had to annihilate his identity. He had to annihilate his reality. He had to annihilate the negative projection of his child. All this, and now he can recreate a more idealized reality that included a more positive projection of his child.

Of course, there’s still a catch to this.

It is both impossible and unhealthy to permanently try to exist in an idealized state, or a projection of an idealized state. However, it is also unhealthy (though much more possible) to exist in the non-idealized state of perpetual detachment and alienation that is the material reality.

We have models of reality projected onto actual reality, which are not reality themselves, but which need to be continually updated as we receive new information about reality.

The introduction of a child into Henry’s life was a major disruption to its previously idealized state. The ensuing psychosis is Henry’s mind attempting to cope with this disruption.

However, the disruption was so great, Henry was forced to annihilate his previous identity, his previous way of life, and his previous idealization of reality: eraserhead.

Layer 3: Broad Universals

So how can all of this be taken back to an examination of real life?

I don’t, how much more of an accurate representation of reality do you want than Eraserhead?

We live on a rock in space. We live in a social reality that is at all times fragmented and disassociated. We are all random people who come from random backgrounds attempting to associate with similarly random people who likewise come from random backgrounds.

No one’s really given the rules of engagement except in half-ass regurgitations of “passed-down wisdom” from our parents—we have to learn it on our own. We’re all just animals trying to figure out how to be humans on a rock in the middle of space.

And so, we all seem crazy or weird or arbitrary or downright insane to one another. If you examine someone close enough, the persona either you or they attempted to create will crumble, and beneath it, you will see that person for the strange, scared, dumb, blind, ignorant and absolutely insane person they really are—and that’s everyone, everyone is like this.

And so, half of Eraserhead is this. Half of Eraserhead is contending with this strange social mechanism we are all apart of that requires us to behave under certain terms of engagement, and yet we are all also individuals carved naturally and artificially by our own hands, the hands of others and by our circumstances.

The other half similarly follows this line of thought—idealization. Except, rather than the social idealizations and the idealization we have of the nature of reality, it’s a sort of internalized idealization.

It’s the moth drawn toward a bright light, or someone cold searching for warmth.

It’s the things we do to make ourselves feel okay with life, and the distances we’ll go to achieve this “okayness”. It’s the stories we tell ourselves—which aren’t necessarily explicit within Eraserhead, but I’d argue are certainly implicit to the narrative.

And, in the end, it’s what we do as a reaction to the inevitable discovery that life is not okay, life is not the idealized mask we put upon it, and that life is a bizarre, absurd, meaningless mess that we were left to fend against and contend with.

That’s the catharsis at the end of the movie:

How do we contend with the inevitability of reality?

How do we contend with the actuality of things and the actuality of their existence, consequences and effects?

How do we live with the experience of pulling back the veil and staring into sheer absurdity, sheer arbitrariness and sheer meaninglessness?

How do we put the pieces back together once our vision of reality has begun to crumble?

Conclusion

To conclude, I kind of want to give a meta-analysis of this analysis, since this was such big fucking analysis of a 90 minute film.

Perhaps I’m making much ado about nothing with Eraserhead. A lot of these conclusions may be a bit far-fetched from the information we’re given in the film.

However, what I’m trying to do is convert the images, symbols and characters in the film into something like a meaningful language, and then convert the events or causality, the emotions and the context of the movie into something like grammar, rhetoric and articulation; and then I want to see what comes out on the other side.

The process of this is to examine much of the film literally, for what is literally happening. This, in a sense, abstracts it (though this might not be how one normally things of “abstraction”). Here’s an abstraction:

Take an apple (apple as an object, not as the word). Red is an abstraction of an apple. Fruit is an abstraction of an apple. Food is an abstraction of an apple.

These are abstract categorizations or abstract descriptions of the apple.

So, you abstract from a film and it’s contents, then examine the abstractions.

We examine the film (you can examine anything like this, really) literally and abstract meaningful information from it, then analyze that meaningful information and look for patters. How do you know if that analysis works?

Well, you test it or compare it along multiple levels or dimensions of meaning.

You can test it against itself: I say Henry develops a growing resentment for his child, or that his child is a source of resentment.

Is this completely unfounded? Or does it have a basis in the reality of the movie?

Well, the child is arguably the reason why Mary doesn’t want to have sex with Henry, as well as more obviously the reason Gathy doesn’t want to have sex with Henry, and Henry kills his child in the end, shortly after he sees Gathy with another man.

Seems sound. Seems logical.

Is the appearance of the child a projection? Well, this one is more of a thought tool, more of an assumption that can help aid an argument, but it circumstantially fits with much of the rest of the film.

Is Henry’s final moment with the Radiator Girl a moment of catharsis with his psychological manifestation of an ideal reality? Well, this one gets more complicated as you have to explain many other things, particularly the Radiator Girl and her relationship to Henry. However, if we assume the Radiator Girl to be associated with warmth (radiator), sexual attraction (all other women in the movie being related in some way to sex or sexuality), an idealized mask (the girl possessing fake cheeks that might accentuate her looks), then it seems likely.

So, these are examples of testing your analysis against the thing you are analyzing, but the problem here is that the analysis becomes a closed system. X = Y if Y = Z; Z = Y if X = Z. It can become to self-referential to be completely accurate.

So, you need to examine your own examination. Whatever you are analyzing creates its own reality (a movie creates its own, self-contained universe), and you must make sure you are analyzing that with minimized bias. You must make sure that even your unbiased analysis is at least founded in logic, or at least founded in the logic of the self-contained reality.

Then, you must break out of the self-contained reality of the creation you are examining, and compare the analysis to reality. Why? Because, inevitably, the creation is either a science or engineering experiment in art (in which case, one is not analyzing the meaning of that film), or the creation is a reflection of reality, whether material, social or psychological.

So, one’s analysis must inevitably lead back to the actuality of reality.

Does this analysis do all of this? I don’t know, but I do think so.

There can be many interpretations of something, true, especially with a David Lynch film. However, given the information we do have in the film, given the recurrent themes or meaningful patterns, and given some of the assumed quasi-universal meaning underlying much of the images, characters, symbols, etc. in the film, I think this analysis fits.

I do think this is close to approximating a quasi-objectively correct analysis of the film (if you squint and cross your eyes).

Part of the problem with such an analysis though, especially with such a movie, is that the movie is already incredibly abstract, and an analysis like this, in part, abstracts it even further.

The movie itself constructs a reality, and, in the case of most David Lynch films, these realities are incredibly abstract. A David Lynch film reminds me in many ways of the “Layers of Irony” memes, where Meme-Man inevitably spirals into a pocket dimension of hyper-ironic complexity.

We have a film that is an abstraction of reality already, which is constructed of abstractions, which communicates meaning in abstractions. That’s a typical David Lynch film. Analyzing it is like trying to add another layer of abstraction across all abstractions, so the initial cubed abstraction (abstract x abstract x abstract = abstract^3) becomes a tesseracted abstraction (abstract^4).

And that’s what it’s like trying to analyze a Lynch film. And that’s why this analysis hit ~10,000 words and still feels incomplete.

And of course, this can never be fully objective, and any interpretation can vary quite a lot from person to person, even if they’re looking at similar themes.

Hopefully though, this provides a solid analysis for you to understand Eraserhead as I understand it, and hopefully this also provides a solid method of analysis for you to analyze other works of art, music, film and so forth.

Thank you for reading.

Happy Horror-Tober.

Horror-Tober III: Eraserhead Part 2

Written by Alexander Greco

October 13, 2020

I wanted this to be a two-parter, but goddamnit, this movie’s just too good. However, to be perfectly honest, I wrote a ton today, and there came a time my brain was just too fried. So, a third article will be written to tidily wrap this all up.

This article finishes the surface-level analysis, and next article will synthesize the analysis from the first two parts and delve into some of the themes a bit deeper.

With out further ado, here’s Part 2, leaving off right where Part 1 ended.

Living Together / Raising the Child

This part of the movie is relatively short.

First, we see Mary trying to take care of the new child—which is nothing short of a grotesque monster, but we’re forced to empathize with it because it’s a baby—and she is having an incredibly difficult time with it. The baby fusses, the baby cries, the baby refuses to eat and so forth.

Henry comes back from work, secretly checks his mail and opens up a box with some sort of dried organic thing inside of it (it looks like a small, dried worm or leech). Henry comes back inside, sees Mary and the Baby, the lies on the bed. Mary asks if there’s any mail, Henry tells her there wasn’t, and then Henry briefly gazes into the radiator.

There’re a few obvious things to talk about here. Mary is incredibly exasperated by living with the baby. The baby itself doesn’t make living with it hard.

It’s physical appearance is not something it can help, but it nonetheless rounds up any parents’ nightmares about how their child might be born: it seems to be deformed, it is wrapped in bandages, and it seems its body would not be able to function properly otherwise, and, on top of this, it incessantly cries and wails.

The baby here is something extremely grotesque—on the high end of parents’ fears of how their baby might come out—and yet the two parents must try to love the baby (ironically, Henry, until the very end, seems to be better at this than Mary). It’s a locus of problems, insecurities, frustrations and an entire network of psychological issues.

It’s all the worries, doubts and regrets we have about pregnancy, childbirth, childcare and children themselves all rolled into one.

The dried slug-creature comes into play later, so there’s not too much to discuss here other than wondering why Henry is hiding it. I think the dried slug might be Henry’s sexuality, which he is now hiding from Mary, and this will be developed a bit throughout the analysis.

The radiator likewise comes back later in the movie, and I think this radiator might be a sort of source of warmth in the cold, with the contents we later see in the radiator being the more symbolic or psychological sources of warmth.

Split

That night, Henry first places the dried worm (which now seems less-than-dry) into a small cabinet hanging on the wall. He then seems to make a sexual advance on Mary, which she promptly denies and the two try to get some sleep. The baby continues crying. Henry manages to sleep, but Mary cannot. She eventually begins yelling at the baby to shut up before trying to go back to sleep again.

The baby will not stop crying, and Mary still cannot sleep, so she eventually decides to leave for her parents’ house so she can try to get some sleep. She leaves Henry with the baby, telling him he’d better look after it.

After this, there are a few notable events. The baby gets sick, which is a disgusting sight to see, though Henry seems to take care of the baby relatively well. Then, Henry tries to leave the apartment, but every time he does, the baby begins crying to he returns. Henry lays in bed to sleep, and his radiator begins emitting light and sound.

Some major notes for this are, of course, the return and rejuvenation of the worm, which makes an appearance just before Henry tries to have sex with Mary again. Mary refusing might either be Mary’s general frustration at the situation, or it might be Mary’s realization that it was sex that led to all of her current problems and frustrations. She may be both weary of sex and may be resentful towards Henry for doing this to her.

Henry’s ensuing issues with the baby might be the first signs of his own resentment towards the baby, though so far he seems to be doing a better job at parenting than Mary. However, this frustration seems to be a little more evident in the moment when he’s trying to leave the apartment.

Here, we have the first of two hallucinations/dreams/visions of the girl in the radiator.

She has exaggerated cheeks, a constant smile and an innocent look to her. Perhaps she is meant to be child-like in some way, or perhaps she is meant to be like an innocent version of Mary before they had their child, and is a sexually idealized woman. There have been some theories that this girl is in fact Henry’s subconscious.

Though I haven’t seen it, the argument could also be made that this girl is Henry’s Anima (a Jungian term).

I won’t go down that line of thought too much, though my own line of thought may be precisely this.

I think the girl is sort of a projection of a sexualized woman. She is innocent, though potentially in a somewhat seductive way, she is young, she is happy, and she is associated with the warmth provided by the radiator. Also, and this is a big “also”, the cheeks she has are almost like a mask, and while their “purpose” might be to accentuate her looks, her innocence or her attractiveness, they are a bit grotesque.

So, in a way, this idealized mask that the girl wears mirrors the possibility that she is an idealized projection of Henry’s attraction.

The woman is also dancing across a stage in the radiator, and the strange sperm-fetuses we saw in the dream sequence at the beginning of the film begin falling from above her onto the stage. At first she dances around them, but then she steps on them and squashes them.

This might be the woman acting like a spermicide, or even committing infanticide. All of Henry’s problems, including his potential sexual frustration and Mary’s frustration/resentment/cold shoulder, stem from their child. So, Henry’s idealized female-figure would be one that either: cannot get pregnant; kills sperm; or kills fetuses.

Affair with the Girl Across the Hall

After this, it appears that Mary is back and is sleeping in the bed with Henry again. She is constantly moving around, making biting noises and taking up much of the bed. Henry finds another one of the sperm-fetus-creatures in the bed, presumably coming from out of Mary’s vagina, and pulls it out of her. After throwing these against the wall, the light in thee room dims, then a single light illuminates the cabinet with the worm in it.

The cabinet opens, and the worm seems fully rejuvenated now and begins moving around, making small noises. It moves into the dark, then we see it moving across a rocky landscape (possibly the rocky landscape from the beginning of the movie). The worm begins moving in and out of several holes, growing larger each time and its squeals growing deeper in pitch, until it emerges as a large worm with a gaping mouth.

Next we see Henry sitting alone in the apartment through a large hole in the wall (similar to the hole in the roof of the house at the beginning dream sequence). The Girl Across the Hall (who I will now start to call “Gathy” [Girl Across the Hall = GATH = Gathy]) comes into the apartment. She has a seductive, almost predatory, expression and body language.

Henry silences the baby while talking to Gathy, and the two eventually start having sex in Henry’s bed, which now has a large, hot-tub size pool of white, murky water in it. The two are having sex in this pool of whitish fluid, and Gathy sees the baby across the room and seems frightened by it.

The two continue to have sex, then slowly sink into the murky pool until they have completely disappeared. We briefly see Gathy staring into the dark, though we’re not sure what she’s staring at, and then we see the giant rock floating through space. I would wager that she is seeing the strange infant, and the giant rock might be the womb the baby came from. Gathy may right now be realizing that Henry created the grotesque monster through sex, and that she just had sex with Henry (more on this later).

Henry having sex with Gathy is him attempting to return to the life he had before the child, sex without care or perceived consequence. The pool of whitish fluid obviously has a biological vibe to it, and likely refers to sperm. However, it may also be a return to the womb, or a return to innocence—a return to an opaque place that consumes one in warmth, ignorance and bliss.

If it’s not obvious, the worm does seem to be associated with sex and a mix of libido and sexual frustration. The sperm-fetuses Henry pulls out of Mary may be his disgust at Mary, aided by his growing resentment of the child and Mary’s own behavior in bed. Henry might be realizing or acknowledging, as the other characters seem to have, that sex with Mary resulted in something grotesque he resents.

Girl in the Radiator, Eraserhead and Infanticide

At this point in the film, we’ve really lost all hold on reality, and Lynch provides us with a roller coaster of visions and dreams and surreal events. I will try to analyze each sequence here as we go, since there is quite a lot.

Girl in the Radiato

Immediately after Gathy is staring into the dark and we see the rock hurtling through the void, we see the Radiator Girl again. She begins singing:

“In heaven, everything is fine

“In heaven, everything is fine

“In heaven, everything is fine

“You’ve got your good things, and I’ve got mine

“In heaven, everything is fine

“In heaven, everything is fine

“In heaven, everything is fine

“You’ve got your good things, and you’ve got mine

“In heaven, everything is fine.”

This, I took as possessing a dichotomy to it’s meaning, but overall, it’s about an idealization of life and a comforting narrative about the nature of reality.

First, “In heaven, everything is fine” is a comforting phrase repeated like a prayer, chant or mantra. It is the desire and hope that everything will turn out okay in the end, or that there is something better to be found, achieved or accessed—it’s a sort of escapism and belief that the grass is greener on the other side.

Then, there’s the line, “You’ve got your good things, and I’ve got mine”. This line indicates a separation of individuals and possessions. Possibly a divorce, or possibly just a state of two people living individually and distinctly from each other, but still co-existing in a positive state.

Then, there’s the line, “You’ve got your good things, and I’ve got mine”. This line sort of contradicts the other line and seems to indicate a union of individuals and possessions. This might be a marriage, or simply two people living peacefully and happily together.

It also reflects an idealization of Henry’s life before and after Mary had their child. Henry previously may have previously idealized his relationship with Mary as having no consequences, and their entire relationship was sort of built atop a more hedonic relationship of sexuality.

After this, once Mary had the baby, Henry may have idealized his new relationship with Mary as being a happy, unified relationship—the nuclear family—where mother, father and child live happily together.

The idealized yet grotesquely-masked Radiator Girl sings this to Henry, presenting both halves of his life in an idealized way.

Eraserhead

After this, Henry steps onstage with the Radiator Girl and a series of events happens in sort of rapid-fire succession (or as close to rapid-fire as Eraserhead can get at x1 speed). I will also say, parts of this analysis really feel like they go off in the deep end for me, but I think it all at least makes sense (and it’s a David Lynch film, I can think whatever I want about it).

Henry interacts with the girl onstage, then, after a couple flashes of light, she disappears. We briefly see a vision of the man pulling the levers from the beginning of the movie, the sperm fetuses littering the floor are swept away by the wind, and finally a dead tree emerging from a tarp-covered pile is rolled onstage.

Henry retreats behind a small barricade, then his head falls off and bounces onstage. From the hole where his neck is, the head of the child emerges, screaming and wailing, until Henry’s head falls through a pool of blood or dark fluid onstage. It falls into the industrial cityscape Henry had been traversing earlier in the film.

A small boy picks up the head and takes it to a shop. The boy is taken to a man in the back room who is operating a strange machine, and the man operating the machine drills a hole into Henry’s head and produces a stick of, presumably, brain matter. He puts the stick into the machine, and uses the stick to create eraserheads for pencils (get it?).

The boy is paid for his efforts, and some eraser dust is flung off of the man’s table before Henry wakes up.

There’s a lot here that happens in a short amount of time, so I’ll try to go through this relatively quickly.

Henry confronts his idealized projection of a woman, and she disappears. We briefly see the man pulling the levers—the idealized projection vanishing and briefly being erased with the entity in control of fate, reality, the universe, or maybe just Henry’s own thoughts and actions.

The sperm is blown away, possibly sanitizing the stage or blowing away Henry’s fears, and then the tree is wheeled onstage. The tree has no leaves—it is lifeless—and it grows from a plastic hill that is disassociated from the rest of the earth/ground (it is on a mobile vehicle rather than being planted on the ground).

This may be the lifelessness present in a society which has uprooted itself from a natural way of living, the barrenness of such a life, or perhaps Henry’s own desire for lifelessness or fruitlessness in the world (his desire for a barren, sanitized love-life free of the consequences of children).

Henry’s head falling off and being replaced with the child’s head is a few things. Henry has died, either physically or metaphorically. His identity is destroyed, he’s nothing more than a headless, mindless body, and either his identity or his mind has been replaced with the baby. This could be that Henry’s new identity is that of a father, and all other identity is now gone (even the identity that seeks sexual comfort). It also harkens back to the idea of a succession of generations.

Henry helped create a child of the next generation, and now his life is subordinate to the new generation’s life (which will eventually take Henry’s place in society/life once the baby has matured).

Now, the part where Henry’s head is taken away and sold to make erasers.

This part, despite being what the movie is named after, really took a while to make sense to me, but I think I’ve got it.

The three men at the shop are like three aspects of modern society, especially in the economic sense.

There is the storefront clerk, the shop owner/manager/boss, and the expert or professional working in the back room. We have the service/servant class, we have the professional or craftsman class, and then we have the managerial or ruling class. All three form a sort trifecta representing the needs, expectations or pressures of society, as manifested through business and the economy.

The boy could be Henry’s son, or it could be a child-like Henry himself, selling his head (selling his identity or his cognitive ability and attention) to the ruling/managerial class. Henry is sold, and his brain is turned into something that erases. What is being erased here?

Well, Henry is being erased (his identity and his mind), but also Henry’s brain is being used to erase mistakes people make, or erase things people don’t want anymore after they’ve created it with a pencil (a pencil being a phallic object).

So, there’s a few things happening here at once. Henry’s identity and thoughts are being sold to a manifestation of society. Henry himself is being erased. This means the child that brought Henry’s head/identity/thoughts to this place is in part responsible for Henry’s erasure. But also, Henry is turned into something that erases. He erases mistakes and other undesirable creations.

And that’s exactly what Henry does.

Infanticide

Sometime after Henry wakes up, he goes and knocks on Gathy’s door, with no response. When he returns, the baby begins coughing or wheezing, except it sounds almost like a mocking laugh. Then, Henry sees Gathy with another man, kissing and feeling her up. When Gathy looks at Henry, he sees the infant’s head instead of his.

This is Gathy associating sex with Henry to the creation of the infant. She identifies Henry as the father of something grotesque.

In the next scene, Henry cuts open the infant’s bandages, revealing its organs beneath. This is another “pulling of the veil”, where something idealized or hidden from the eye by outward appearances is revealed for what it truly is.

Then, Henry uses his scissors to stab the infant’s organs. This is an act of destroying the thing he created—something either perceived as or projected as being grotesque—and it is also an attack on the grotesque reality that has been revealed to him.

The baby dies, with a yolk-like fluid oozing from its body (possibly a connection to eggs), and then a foam substance begins growing out of the baby’s body, engulfing it. Then, the baby turns into something similar to the sperm-fetuses.

Henry begins seeing giant versions of the baby’s head moving around in the dark. The electricity is going insane at this point, and then the power goes out. Henry is left alone in the dark with the giant head of the baby, which then turns into the giant rock.

The giant rock explodes, revealing that it is hollow, and the dust from the explosion resembles the dust from the eraserhead. Inside the rock, we see the man with the levers again. Sparks are flying from the mechanism. This cuts to the final moment of the movie.

Henry is standing in a place of blinding, white light, and the Radiator Girl comes and embraces him. Henry here seems to be at peace.

The giant infant head, for me, is a number of things. It is like a ghost, in that it is something that comes back from the dead to haunt Henry. It is something giant, something that has grown to immeasurable proportions, something that is larger or greater than Henry. It is something that exists in the dark, which flits in and out of existence on a whim, it seems.

It is like a giant monster lurking in Henry’s unconscious (the dark), which has grown to immeasurable proportions through Henry’s actions. It could be guilt, it could be the ghost of his child haunting him for what he has done, it could be the cathartic accumulation of emotion swelling into some monstrous projection that is confronting Henry, or that Henry is confronting.

And then, the rock, if it is a womb, explodes. Is this birth? Is this re-entry into the womb? Or is this also the destruction of something that has brought Henry so much frustration and resentment?

The man with the levers is struggling to maintain control over his machine. Perhaps it is fate struggling to contend with Henry’s actions—perhaps Henry has now broken out of the pre-ordained structures of reality—or perhaps it is Henry’s mind itself struggling to contend with his own actions. The machines of either fate or decision and action-making are malfunctioning, with either God or Henry’s unconscious struggling to maintain control.

Finally, Henry is bathed in white light and an overwhelming crashing of white noise all around him. He has entered into a transcendent place or state—much like at the end of The Lighthouse—where his idealized projection of women has come to embrace him.

He has destroyed the part of his life that has caused him and Mary so much frustration and resentment, he has broken the mechanisms of fate or his programmed decisions/actions, and has reunited with his idealized perception of life (the life he wishes he could go back to after having the baby).

End of Part 2

Horror-Tober II: Eraserhead Part 1

Written by Alexander Greco

October 12, 2020

This article is the first part of two. I originally wanted to do one, but, as per usual, I just couldn’t contain the words bursting from my head.

Introduction

When I think about David Lynch, I don’t think about the director of Mulholland Drive, Blue Velvet and Lost Highway. When I think about David Lynch, I think about the director of The Grandmother, Rabbits and The Alphabet. When I think about David Lynch, I think about Eraserhead.

This article’s been a long time coming. I’d known about Eraserhead before I even knew about David Lynch, and I’d seen a few of David Lynch’s short films before watching Eraserhead and was pretty impressed by his work, but when I finally did watch this film, I was blown away by how well it was made and how unique it was.

Eraserhead is like if Tim Burton had been a Middle-American opioid-addict in the rust-belt for seven years, then switched to cocaine and Adderall shortly before directing Edward Scissor Hands.

David Lynch seemed to have carefully selected every minute detail in this film, painstakingly constructed every shot and every scene, and masterfully orchestrated every moment, every line-delivery, every emotion and every facial expression in the actors.

As bizarre and strange and absurd as this movie seems outwardly, if one delves just deep enough beneath the surface, you’ll find volumes of meaning spoken through the actions, expressions, words and emotions of the characters; an architecture of thematic elements constructed through the layout of the scenes, the relationship and flow of events and the relationships of subjects and objects with one another; and amidst it all, the humming, grinding, howling of subconscious emotion created by the setting, the atmosphere and the constant surreality and discomfort Lynch creates.

This is one of a handful of films I’ve seen where every scrap of information seems important. Every minute detail seems to not only support and emphasize the larger themes and meanings communicated in the movie, but also independently communicate their own meanings. You can’t entirely try to understand the movie by analyzing the events and character actions in a linear, causal way; you have to analyze the movie in a more mechanical and symbolic way.

I’d talked about this a bit with The Lighthouse and how you have to analyze the symbolism and narrative sub-structures of the movie, rather than simply the surface-level visions and events of the movie. However, while I think The Lighthouse is the first film I tried to analyze in this way, I think watching Eraserhead for the first time over a year ago was when I started to articulate this method in my head.

With this article/analysis, I’ll try to do the same for what I did with The Lighthouse, as well as with some of my other analyses, such as Neon Genesis Evangelion, Big O and Shin Gojira. However, I also hope to make this article/analysis a bit tidier and more concise than those.

While Eraserhead has single frames whose contents could be analyzed over the course of several pages, I want to try and stick to the more general events and primary acts of the movie. First, the opening of the movie, with the dream sequence, Henry returning home and hearing Mary called for him; then the dinner scene; then Mary and Henry raising their child; Mary leaving Henry, the baby getting sick and Henry having an affair; and then the final, schizophrenic downward-spiral that caps off the film.

The analysis isn’t entirely a new take on the film, my “theory” isn’t a new one; but I do think it’s the best one, and I do think it will allow me to further showcase my analytic method.

Eraserhead is a film about two still-maturing adults in the cold alienation of the modern world who find themselves having to take care of a child. It shows not only the universal difficulties of parenthood, but also the emotional and psychological problems many parents face; the labyrinth of human interaction one must navigate through; and the inner turmoil of being thrust into one of the most difficult positions in life one can face: raising a child.

But, more than this, Lynch pulls back the romanticized and idealized veil of sex and relationships, mixing an almost paradoxical verisimilitude and absurd surrealism to depict the strangeness of life, the strangeness of love and the strangeness of modernity.

With this article, we will explore the structural and symbolic meaningfulness of Eraserhead and how David Lynch crafted a film that depicts the bizarre, surreal and absurd reality of human relationships, sexuality and parenthood—more specifically, relationships, sexuality and parenthood in the cold, alienating world of modernity.

Layer 1: Dissecting the Surface

First, I’ll break the movie up into a few important arcs or acts, with a few of them further broken up, and analyze each as we go along.

Dream Sequence

Eraserhead begins and ends with two surreal dream sequences or hallucinations/visions.

The first dream sequence shows a giant rock floating in space with Henry’s face hovering over it. The POV slowly zooms in on the rock before drifting over its surface, then closing in on a house with a giant hole in its roof. A disfigured man is sitting inside the house, looking out the window, with a number of levers in front of him.

The ghostly, disembodied view of Henry seems to be looking back at the man, then Henry’s mouth opens wide, possibly in horror or shock. A fetus emerges from Henry’s mouth and drifts in space next to him. The disfigured man pulls a lever, and the fetus moves out of view. The disfigured man pulls another two levers. We first see a pool of strange fluid, and then the fetus is thrown into the pool.

We see what seems to be light coming into the pool of fluid, except the POV seems to be from inside the pool.

Then, we see Henry walking through a dirty, lifeless, cold industrial area.

This first dream sequence begs for explanation, but is never given. I don’t think it’s crucial to understanding the entirety of the film, but I do have my own personal thoughts on it.

The giant rock is a planetoid. It may be Earth itself. It seems barren and lifeless, and it seems entirely exposed to the cold, empty void of the cosmos. The only sign of life is the disfigured man in the old, decrepit building, and then the fetus that is thrown into the strange fluid.

I think the man can be a number of things. He could be God, or some other entity who pulls the levers of fate and works the mechanisms of reality. The man could be humanity itself, fending for life on a cold, barren rock in the middle of space. The man is deformed an decrepit-looking, and perhaps humanity is deformed and decrepit looking by the time modernity has come around.

The giant rock could be Earth, or even Mother Earth/Gaia. The giant rock could be a womb, with the strange fluid on its surface being the amniotic fluid of the womb. The fetus might not even be a fetus, it’s difficult to tell honestly. It might be a sperm cell, and the giant rock might be an egg cell becoming fertilized.

The face Henry makes as the cell/fetus emerges from his mouth might be the face of an orgasm, and his expressions afterwards are the dull disaffection he carries throughout much of the film.

Henry’s Arrival Home

Moving on, Henry makes his way through the barren, industrial setting of whatever town or city he lives in—at one point stepping into a muddy puddle similar to the pool of fluid, and then walking past a swampy morass of dark, oily fluid and debris in some industrial site or other.

He makes his way back to his apartment, which is somewhat more welcoming than the industrial setting outside, but still carries a sense of discomfort and alienation. At his apartment door, he is confronted by his neighbor, a woman identified only as “Girl Across the Hall”, who informs him that a girl named Mary called him about having dinner with her and her parents. Henry awkwardly acknowledges this and enters his apartment.

Once he’s inside, there’s an assortment of minor things that could be discussed, but they would distract from the primary analysis.

While Mary and the Girl Across the Hall will warrant further discussion later in the analysis, here I’ll give a short introduction to their meaningfulness. Mary is (spoilers, if it wasn’t already spoiled) the mother of Henry’s child, and eventually his wife (kinda). There’s an allusion here to Mary as the Mother of Christ, but also David Lynch’s own ex-wife (a couple of them, actually) was named Mary.

There’s an irony to this, as the child Mary gives birth to is grotesque and incredibly uncomfortable to look at—as opposed to the Biblical Mary giving birth to the Christ, or savior of humankind.

The Girl Across the Hallway is a sort of foil to Mary—a sexualized counterpart to Mary (Mary being the woman who bore Henry’s child). Where Henry is forced to stay with Mary because of their child, the Girl is an object of sexual attraction to Henry, or possibly a sexually idealized projection of Mary before she became pregnant (or a sexually idealized projection of women in general).

Dinner

Moving on to what I think is the most important and arguably the deepest part of the movie, albeit in incredibly subtle ways: the Dinner Scene.

When I say this scene is subtly important and deep, I’m looking at not only all the small details and minor symbols of the scene, but also the bizarre or absurd interactions between many of the characters.

This part of the movie is where I think many people will chalk most of the events up to “well, it’s just weird and random”, but where a more symbolic approach looking a the “grammar” of the scene (analyzing the sub-structures of the events) will provide volumes of meaning.

Because of this, I want to break this one scene into five sub-sequences to analyze them in further detail:

  • Henry’s Arrival
  • Meeting Mother and Father
  • Preparing Dinner
  • Having Dinner
  • Discussion with Mother and Mary

So, first, Henry’s Arrival:

  • Henry walks through the dark, industrialized town or city to a small, cramped home in an equally cramped-appearing part of town.
  • Mary is watching from the window and calls out to Henry telling him he’s late.
  • Henry tries to talk with her, asking where she’s been and whether or not she even wanted to see him. Mary avoids these questions and tells him dinner is ready, that he should come in. This already shows a disconnect both socially and in reality, as Mary’s reply is an evasive non-sequitur.

Meeting Mother and Father

  • Henry enters the house, and he and Mary’s mother introduce each other before Henry and Mary sit down.
  • There is a brief shot of a mother dog nursing a litter of puppies, which are squealing and writhing in an unsettling way.
  • Mary’s mother and Henry attempt conversation while Mary fidgets and scratches herself uncomfortably.
  • Mary seems to begin having a seizure, and Mary’s mother brushes her hair and holds her mouth to calm or soothe her, after which Mary seems to return to normal.
  • Mary’s father emerges from the kitchen and behaves in an almost caricaturistic way without any substance or thought or real meaningfulness—like he’s just a mechanical character and little else.

Preparing for Dinner

This is a relatively unimportant part of this scene, for me, but there is an interesting moment where Mary’s grandmother (we presume) is introduced. She is sitting completely still in a chair, then Mary’s mother sets a bowl of salad in her lap, puts the salad-mixing utensils in the grandmother’s hands and mixes the salad using the mother’s arms.

After this, Mary’s mother place’s a cigarette in the grandmother’s mouth and lights it for her.

Also in this part, we see Henry and Mary sitting next to each other quietly and awkwardly.

Having Dinner

This might be one of the strangest parts of the entire movie (and there’s definitely some competition).

  • Everyone is sitting around the table, and Mary’s father brings out the food for dinner.
  • Henry slowly, awkwardly, eventually asks Henry to cut the chickens (which are tiny, miniature, manmade chickens).
  • The moment Henry touches one of the chickens with his utensil, a thick, dark fluid begins oozing out of the chicken, and Mary’s mother begins having what can only be described as an orgasmic seizure at the sight of this before screaming and running out of the room.
  • Mary seems upset and runs out of the room after her mother, leaving Henry and Mary’s Mother alone for hot minute before Mary’s mother returns and asks Henry to talk with her alone.

Discussion with Mother and Mary

  • Mary’s drags Henry off to ask if he’s been having sexual intercourse with Mary, telling him he’ll be in trouble if he doesn’t cooperate.
  • Henry tries evading the question, saying things like it’s none of her business, he loves Mary, he’s nervous, etc., until Mary’s mother pushes herself onto him and begins kissing his neck.
  • Henry calls out to Mary who comes back and pulls her mother away from Henry, then tearfully asks if he would mind marrying her, to which Henry agrees.

There’s so much to discuss here, so many details to unpack, but I will try to be brief with this and examine some of the more important elements here.

The three core things to examine are:

  • Sexuality
  • Socialization or connecting with others
  • Succession of generations

With sexuality, we see the dog and her litter of puppies, there is the chicken-cutting scene and then there is Mary’s mother kissing Henry.

With the dog and puppies, we are shown the somewhat unsettling sight of something we normally find cute or loveable: a dog, firstly, but also dog-puppies. This takes the human process of child-rearing and reflects it onto an animal—showing both the reality that humans are animals who go through similar processes, but also showing the stark reality of child-rearing in an almost disturbing way.

This is also evidence of a sort of juxtaposition between our idealized reality and actual reality.

The chicken-cutting scene shows a small, artificial chicken squirming at the touch of Henry’s cooking utensil (which we could possibly consider as a phallic object), and then oozing a dark, viscous fluid. Perhaps this fluid is menstrual blood, perhaps this fluid is a lubricant, perhaps this fluid is a part of giving birth. Nonetheless, the fluid is something bodily, something that comes at the onset of being prodded with Henry’s phallic utensil, and something that both greatly disturbs Henry and greatly excites Mary’s mother.

That is another strange note about this scene, the fact that Mary’s mother seems to become sexually aroused by the chicken-cutting and Mary seems to be upset by it.

Then, there is the part where Mary begins kissing Henry. What is happening here? Why is she doing this?

Is it that she is aroused by the man who made her daughter pregnant (whom she was once made pregnant with by her husband)? And maybe she’s sexually attracted now to a man who resembles her husband at a younger age?

Maybe Mary’s mother is a fragment of Mary’s psyche, or some other part of her personality or behavior. Maybe it’s some strange way of Mary’s mother suddenly accepting Henry into their family or as the husband of her daughter.

Nonetheless, this is an incredibly uncomfortable and bizarre event, both for the viewer and for Henry.

Now, as far as the socialization with others, this entire portion of the movie is incredibly awkward and uncomfortable as far as the relationships between people are concerned.

Not only are the conversations strange, with roller-coasters of emotions, but the actions characters take are strange.

There is the initial part where Mary begins having a seizure and is calmed down by her mother without really slowing down the pace of the conversation. There is the father, both his entrance, his stumbling attempt at asking Henry to cut the chicken (and the ensuing chicken-cutting sequence), and then the rest of his half-minded and at times mechanical behaviors. There is the mother’s coldness and short questions and answers, as well as her sternness while confronting Henry.

Throughout this whole part of the movie, we are shown the bizarre idiosyncrasies of the family, and much of the meaning is derived from Henry’s reactions to the family’s idiosyncrasies. Whether it’s attempting to maintain a conversation, trying to figure out what course of action to take, or his struggle to respond to the family members, Henry—who is a strange, idiosyncratic individual himself—struggles with connecting and reacting to Mary and her family.

Finally, the succession of generations, which I think is a less-important but still interesting part of this analysis.

It is interesting to note that Mary lives with her mother and father, as well as her grandmother, but not with her grandfather.

First, we look at the reflection of Mary and Henry to Mary’s parents.

Henry and Mary’s father seem to be the most stable individuals here; both of them have their professions or careers (printing and plumbing); and both of them seem to have relatively flat responses to everything Mary and her mother do. The only difference really is that Henry seems quietly bewildered, while Mary’s father seems to have accepted or learn to ignore the bizarreness of life.

Mary’s father seems to be missing “something” and acts somewhat mechanical and pre-programmed. Henry seems reactive to everything in small, quiet ways, and when Mary asks if he’ll marry her, he seems to accept this without giving it much thought.

Mary and Mary’s mother both have strange, quasi-epileptic fits, both of them show quite a lot of negative emotion (Mary crying or weeping, Mary’s mother acting hostile towards Henry). Both of them are the only ones who seem upset or even cognizant of Mary’s child. Mary’s mother seems to show sexual excitement and sexual attraction towards Henry, while Mary was previously having sex with Henry.

There’s this sort of reflection between the two generations of couples. Perhaps this is meant to show where Mary and Henry are going to end up. Or, perhaps it shows how couples like Mary and Henry previously ended up in previous generations, which contrasts to how the more modern couple Mary and Henry become have so many complications and problems.

Nonetheless, I think this, as well as much of the sexual evocations here indicate a sort of relentlessness of Nature in bringing about offspring—a “trap” (trap inferred by the negative connotations surrounding the child) that ensnares every generation and foists the task of procreating the next generation.

There is one last note here for this part, then I will move on (though much of this I will likely bring up again later), and that is the presence of Mary’s grandmother. I won’t delve into this too much, but, interestingly, it does create the mythological triad of Maiden-Mother-Matron, or Virgin-Mother-Crone (three generations of women existing simultaneously). And, at the same time, Mary’s grandfather is not there. Perhaps the deformed “God” we saw in the beginning? Pulling the strings?

End of Part 1

This concludes the first part of the Eraserhead analysis. In the next part of the analysis, I will conclude analyzing the surface elements of the movie and synthesize the information I’ve gone over before discussing some of the more universal themes of the movie.

Horror-Tober Part I: Vampires

Written by Alexander Greco

October 7, 2020

“And if they get me and the sun goes down into the ground

“And if they get me take this spike to my heart and

“And if they get me and the sun goes down

“And if they get me take this spike and

“You put the spike in my heart”

My Chemical Romance, “Vampires Will Never Hurt You”

As a quick forewarning, some of this analysis and the things I talk about are pretty rapid-fire and probably should be elaborated or explained more, but I wanted to shorten many of the points here. If you want to learn more about some of these things, you can check it out for yourself, or reach out to me with any questions and whatnot.

Introduction

Vampires need very little introduction, but here we go.

Vampires have become something that borders on memey at this point, but vampires as a Dawkinsian meme (the immaterial, “idea-gene” or evolving idea) have a long evolutionary history—starting with folklore, developing into the classic Dracula-vampire, and then finally committing a slow suicide with a glittery stake in the 2000’s and 2010’s.

Concepts of vampires or of things similar to vampires have appeared across cultures throughout history, beginning with ancient stories such as the Indian Vetalas and Pisaca; the Babylonian/Assyrian and Hebrew Lilitu and Lilith, respectively; and a slew of Greek monsters: the Empusae, Lamia, Stirges and Gello.

Many of these creatures, as well as other similar tales throughout the world, are not strictly “vampires”, but they bear similarities to the modern concept of the vampire (nocturnal, blood-sucking/flesh-eating, demonic, undead/undying, odd rules around their behaviors). These ancient creatures in particular may have given rise to the modern “Draculian” (yes, I just made up a new word) or Gothic Vampire.

Accounts of this more modern concept of a vampire arose from the Medieval Period to the 18th Century (the century where a widespread fear of vampires began to crystallize and bloom across Europe). There were Hebrew, Norse and British accounts of undead or vampiric entities, such as revenants and draugrs, and then in the 18th century, when European populations began using the term “vampire”, vampires became the object of hysteria.

Similar in many ways to the witch-hunts that spread across Europe and North America, the notion of vampires became an object of fear, paranoia, hate and morbid scholarship. The “18th-Century Vampire Controversy” was a generation-long marathon of grave-desecration, hysteric accusations, and the tail-end of pre-modern superstitious-hysteria (though, I’d say the underlying psychological/psychic structure persists to this day).

One interesting note here is that this Vampire scare flared parallel to the Age of Enlightenment, a tangent that I probably won’t bring up much beyond this, or will simply forget to bring up, but an interesting corollary to the analysis.

Why was it that both witch-hunts and vampire-scares coincided with progressive philosophic movements?

Why is it that such ancient, superstitious cleansing-hysterias emerged in tandem to socio-cultural and cognitive leaps forward?

Why have we, at such dramatic cultural turning points such as the 60’s, 80’s and 00’s, faced similar witch-hunts and vampire-hysterias?

And why do we now, in such a strange and tumultuous politico-cultural shift of contemporary history, do we seem to be face similar superstitious hysterias?

This 18th century vampire evolved into the Bram Stoker Dracula of 1897—another curious example of society/culture/media that roughly coincided with Nietzsche’s famous proclamation, “God is Dead”.

From out of the dying light of Romanticism, Dracula—named after Vlad III, Vlad the Impaler or Vlad Dracula (I may talk about him more, I haven’t decided yet)—evolved through the 19th century into suave villains and anti-heroes (excluding Nosferatu, who was less-than-suave). After Bella Lugosi and pulp fiction, there came waves of comic book and genre-fiction renditions of vampires who all played as variations of the Gothic/Dracula vampire, peaking with thee ’92 Bram Stoker’s Dracula film before its new, contemporary variations (one might say the Post-Modern vampire).

And with this relatively brief but relatively whole history of vampires, I will examine the core psycho-symbolic meaningfulness of vampires.

I want to use this to analyze the modern depictions of vampires in an almost historic study of its evolution and bring this all in to a contemporary analysis of culture and society using this initial analysis, but I don’t think I’ll be able to do that without a hyper-extended article.

So, I may do this in the future.

For this analysis, there are three crucial “modes” of the ancient, classical and post-classical/early modern vampire narrative I wish to examine:

  1. Vampire as Feminine Demon
  2. Vampire as Indifferent Entity
  3. Vampire as Masculine Aristocrat

And, for those already jumping on this “controversial analysis”, this has nothing to do with value claims about actual gender/sex, rather the mytho-narrative symbolism of these fragmented archetypes. This is all aimed at a symbolic mythological analysis, not a material, cultural or philosophical analysis of sex or gender.

Analysis of Vampires

I’ll first roughly define each of these sub-archetypes and give a mythological/historic relation/foundation to each of them, then delve into each. As a fun little note here, these three archetypes I think may still be present, at least partially, in modern culture, arts and narrative, but it’s safe to say they’ve both splintered and evolved into more sub-archetypes.

However.

The actual “psychological archetypes” (since we’ve already entered the realm of Jung here) are most certainly still alive and well in our culture, sleeping in tombs or ruling from dark castles.

First, we have to examine vampirism at its foundation. Vampirism, roughly speaking, relates to an undead, undying or demonic/infernal force that parasitizes “normal” humanity. Vampirism relates to death, but it also relates to undeath (either something dead returning to life, or something immortal) which preys upon life.

Vampirism more particular relates to either consuming flesh or blood, and so can be seen as siphoning a life force or siphoning “what makes us ‘us’” as a source of sustenance. Vampirism also relates to the nocturnal, which is what we cannot see, what lurks in “the dark”, or what comes out in times or places of “dark”.

Vampirism is often treated in a disease-like manner. It can either kill others, or it can be spread to others who then become new nodes of Vampirism.

Vampirism also relates to immortality, but usually is more specific to the ability to consume the “life force” of others in order to maintain or continue its own life.

This can be seen in a number of ways:

– Something which we suppress, either in our own selves or in our conception of reality / Something parasitic or destructive in ourselves which we actively decide not to acknowledge, or something external to us that we do not acknowledge.

– Something we regress to, or something that the state of society, state of nature or state of being regresses to in moments or periods of weakness or “death” / Some state of behavior or being that emerges as we as individuals or we as a collective revert into a less humane state of being.

– Some eternal and recurrent force, or some “undying” force—or an aging force that maintains itself beyond death—which preys upon, parasitizes or infects the contemporary culture or youthful population.

Now, for the promised controversial analysis.

Vampire as Feminine Demon refers to the “Lilithian” vampire—the darker elements of Hecatean feminine-mythology. Really, this archetype goes down to one of the deepest roots of mythology: the feminine archetype of Mother Nature. More particularly, this relates the negative aspect of the Mother Nature archetype: Nature as cruel consumer and destroyer, as opposed to Nature as loving creator and nurturer.

Examples in Modern Culture: Antichrist (I would argue); Blair Witch Project (also arguable); Jennifer’s Body (there aren’t many great examples, guys); A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (but not really); Let the Right One In (kinda)

Vampire as Indifferent Entity is sort of an off-shoot of the Lilithian vampire. Where the Lilithian vampire may be seen as the more divine (divine meaning “of-higher-being”, not necessarily in a positive or negative sense) conscious progenitor, source or monarch of vampirism, the Indifferent Entity is more like an amoral child or creation of the source-being. This Indifferent Entity is like an animal, a more unconscious being driven by instinct, and closer to an unthinking, mechanical object than a conscious, moral agent.

Examples in Modern Culture: Stakeland, 30 Days of Night, I Am Legend

Vampire as Masculine Aristocrat is closer to the more traditional conception of vampire. This is the Draculian vampire, ranging from Nosferatu to Dracula to Edward Cullen (brace yourselves, Twilight fans, it’s only just begun). The Masculine Aristocrat vampire relates to the patriarchal sense of masculine—the twin brother of Mother Nature—as the archetype of “Father Society”. Just as the Lilithian vampire represents the negative aspect of Mother Nature, the Draculian vampire represents a negative aspect of society—the manipulative, bureaucratic, parasitic aspect of society.

Examples in Modern Culture: Bram Stokers Dracula, the Underworld series, the Twilight series (Edward’s a pedophile, accept this fact)

The first analysis will be of the “Vampire as Feminine Demon”. And here, with feminine, I will repeat:

I do not mean the modern contextual meaning of “feminine as effeminate” or “feminine as female biological sex”, or even “feminine as cultural gender”. I mean “feminine as mythological ‘Mother-archetype’” and it has nothing to do with actual sex/gender. Thank you for your time.

With this, we look at the concept of a vampire as the Hebrew Lilith, which arose from the Babylonian Lilitu. Lilith has often been associated with Satan, and in some traditions, Lilith couples with Samael, who, in some ways, can be considered as an initial conception of Satan (Samael being “Ha-Satan”, the accuser, seducer and destroyer).

However, focusing more on Lilitu, Lilitu was a Babylonian “female night demon” who consumed the blood of infants for sustenance. A similar Hebrew demon, the estries, were nocturnal predators who consumed the blood of their victims for sustenance. And then we have the Greek Lamia and Stirges, which feasted on the blood of children and adults (Lamia more particularly on children).

This historic “Lilitu” meme generalizes to a nocturnal, blood-feasting predator, which often preys on children or infants. Here, I think one concept becomes blindingly clear: the negative Mother archetype.

The Mother archetype, as previously stated, is the archetype of Mother Nature, which is both protective, nurturant and procreative, but also cruel, preying and destructive. Mother Nature is that which creates life, and mother nature is that which consumes life. These Lilitu and Lilitu-esque demons are female entities which consume the life-force of individuals, and often the life-force of children (one could say that all individuals, youthful or mature, are children).

So, this ancient proto-vampire, the Lilithian vampire, is an aspect of Mother Nature. The Lilithian vampire might have been a personification of the fear of child mortality/morbidity—the fear of predators, the fear of disease, the fear of fatal injury, the fear of one’s child suddenly going missing when they’re out of sight (in the dark).

This fear could also be seen as a Mother’s fear of her own part to play in the potential destruction of their child. This might be reflective or symbolic of two things. The first, the mother’s own incompetence or the mother’s own malevolence. Perhaps the fear manifested here is that it is the Mother’s fault through their inadequacies that their child either dies or matures into an unsuccessful or even malignant individual.

The second might be an aspect of another negative aspect of the Mother archetype: the Oedipal Mother. This is the archetypal maternal force which is overbearing, overprotective, smothering, and even manipulative and parasitic.

The Oedipal Mother (archetypically speaking, though perhaps literally speaking) keeps their children, particularly their sons, from going out into the world and exploring. They keep their sons at home, where they fulfill the role of their father (sometimes only superficially, sometimes behaviorally, sometimes to a Freudian/Oedipal extreme). This relationship is manipulative, as the mother must coerce, or at the very least be an enabler, the child/son into remaining at home and fulfilling the role of the father, in exchange for continued protection and “nurturing”. The relationship is parasitic, as the mother essentially ruins the child’s life by smothering them, keeping them from maturing and keeping them from living a fulfilled, satisfying life in order to satisfy her own needs.

These are a bit of a stretch. They fit the “vampiric mold”, though it may be difficult to prove that Lilith/Lilitu and their corollary mythological monsters are in fact symbolic of this (but it’s still fun to think about).

The next part of the analysis is the “Vampire as Indifferent Entity”. This one, I will be honest, interests me the least, so I will be quick with this one. However, these happen to be the types of vampires in three of the only good vampire flics in the last couple decades (30 Days of Night, I Am Legend, Stakeland).

These are the animalistic, zombie-like vampires—the mindless, raving, depraved animals. Now, these might be represented at times as semi-autonomous people, or at the very least may outwardly appear as being normal humans, but are far more animalistically autonomous than they are moral agents.

And I think that’s the key here: these are parasitic entities without moral agency.

But, at the same time, it could be argued that a vampire, especially the traditional Draculian concept of a vampire, is without moral agency, since they have a sort of addictive “ball-and-chain”. They cannot escape their necessity to consume blood.

And so, we might look at this Indifferent Entity as being the baseline for vampirism, or the core mode of vampirism—a revelatory vision of vampirism beneath the faux aesthetic put on vampires. At the core of both feminine and masculine modes of vampirism, there is this mindless hunger—this animal instinct to feed.

Perhaps this vision of the Indifferent Entity is the masculine/feminine modes stripped of all external pretense and power—the animal without the divine/demonic powers or omniscience, omnipresence and omnipotence of nature; and the animal without the structures and powers afforded by culture and society.

It is a parasitic animal, and perhaps all animals, humans included, are these indifferent, parasitic entities, stripped of all aesthetic and power and pretense.

Finally, there is the “Vampire as Masculine Aristocrat”. This relates to, as previously mentioned, the Patriarchal Father archetype, and the negative Patriarchal archetype: the Tyrannical King. With the Father archetype, there are the positive elements or aspects: protection, order, meaningfulness, a place in society, tradition and so forth. But, there are also the negative aspects: tyranny, conformity, stagnation, immobile and unfair hierarchies, inability to adapt.

However, one aspect of the negative Patriarchal archetype I think is often overlooked is it’s parasitic and manipulative nature. Now, this might be because the elements of tyranny are often regarded in terms of brute force and reigns of fear. However, this is not a nuanced perspective on Tyranny. Some of the most disturbing aspects of tyranny are the manipulative and parasitic aspects of it.

Take for example bureaucracy. Bureaucracies are monolithic hyper-complexes of rules and regulations, filled with a five-dimensional labyrinth of legalities, jargon, hierarchies, departments, divisions, forms, contracts, signatures, waiting lists and so forth. Bureaucracies are unquestionable and impenetrable. Unless you know the infinite in’s and out’s of a bureaucracy, you are at their mercy, and you cannot battle them except on their own terms.

In order to overcome the labyrinth, you must first enter the labyrinth, and we have all committed and signed ourselves over to a bureaucracy from the moment we enter a society. From the moment we enroll in school, from the moment we become an active agent in the legal system, a rational agent in the economy, or a consumer, employee, car-owner, etc., we have entered the labyrinth of a pre-constructed bureaucracy. And at that point, you are subject to a multitude of fines, legal requirements, insurances, non-disclosures, liability forms and so on.

Perhaps this is Dracula’s castle.

And then, you are subject to the sway of society (I would recommend Camus’ The Stranger, Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, and the dystopian diad, 1984 and Brave New World in order to get a fuller scope of this).

You are under the sway of conformity, and the lure of advertisements, and the pull of envy and resentment and ego and uncertainty and the schizophrenia of modernity.

You are gaslit by everyone around you, your conceptions of reality are constantly questioned and attacked (which may be good in some circumstances), and you’re either with us or against us—with a multiplicity of reasons why (with a multitude of sub-labyrinths and Kafka-traps that trigger your determined “otherness-hood”)—and you’re an enemy because you’re not a patriot, or you’re an enemy because you are, or an enemy because you’re neutral, or you’re an enemy because you’re not, or you’re an enemy because you’re as independent and individualistic as possible, or you’re an enemy because you’re part of the herd—and then, on top of it, everyone finds every way they can to make you all of these things at once, and then in the end, who are you anyway? so just follow the herd, but be your own person, but be the person we want you to be, until we’re done with you.

And this is the psychosis of modernity, and this this is the charm and trap of Dracula.

You need a job. Go get one, and now you’re trapped.

You need an education. Go get one, and now you’re trapped.

You need to buy a thing. Go get one, and now you’re trapped.

Okay, let’s sound it out together.
Pe-do-phi-le

And powers on all sides are trying to convince you of five things at once, and you succumb, and now you’re a warm, comatose body they can siphon blood off of.

And thenTHEN—there is Dracula as the aging noble who seduces, entraps and parasitizes the youth (Dracula seducing the virgin into being his bride and prey). This is the key element of understanding the Draculian vampire.

The Dracula-vampire is an entity which is immortal, but it can only continue its immortality by drinking the blood of the youth.

It is a parasite which exists only to manipulate new generations in order to siphon their life-force from them. These are the decade and even centuries-old institutions which have been created by prior generations for their benefit. While these in some ways may offer some benefit for those entrapped (just as Dracula offers a home, a purpose and pleasure for his brides), the vast majority of the benefits go to the Draculian institutions.

These are colleges and student loans. These are Big Pharma and Big Oil. These are monolithic retail stores. These will soon be the monolithic social media and online retail stores. These are all the institutions created with benefits for the many and the small, but with tremendous and corrupted benefits for the few and the big.

And, no, I’m not a Marxist or a Socialist. No, no, no. But, fuck man. Some days.

Some days.

A Sudden Stop and Conclusion

There’s so much more I wanted to discuss with this analysis, but the analysis is already long, and there’s so much more I have to say—so much more that I’m not sure I can comfortably articulate in a sane manner.

There may be a part 2 to this at some point, or another standalone article to discuss more of this article, but I do think that this is a good place to stop for now.

I want to say here that I think the analysis I’ve started has opened up a sort of psycho-symbolic-social-critique can of worms. These are complicated topics, and the three symbols I’ve dredged up from the concept of vampires are incredibly deep and complex symbols/ideas and parts of our society and widespread, cultural mythos.

Unfortunately, I think there’s a lot of “begging the question” in this analysis, where I’ve mentioned a lot of things that want to be brought into a sort of practical moral conversation, but would be compounding cans of worms if I did right now.

So, I will say this here as well:

This isn’t intended necessarily to make any social or moral value claims, even though it kind of did make a few. It’s intended to analyze vampires as a symbol (and this was written somewhat manically over the course of a couple days, so cut me some slack). And it’s meant to be fun.

I think this is a strong though in parts somewhat shaky analysis of the core aspects of the vampire symbol:

  • The relationship of vampires or proto-vampiric-entities and the negative aspects of Nature
  • The animalistic vampirism present in life and nature as a mechanical, unconscious agent
  • The now-traditional aristocratic vampirism of social institutions

But these are each complex topics, and the implications to a broader moral and social conversation become even more complex [Xander is currently still realizing the deep end of the pool he dove into was actually the Ocean].

Do I think anything bad of Nature? No! Do I think anything bad of the occult? No! Do I think anything bad of women? Only a few.

Do I think anything bad about animals? No! Do I think anything bad about the masses? That’s a loaded question. Do I think anything bad about being an unconscious, mechanical agent in a moral system? Well, yes, I do, actually.

Do I think anything bad about older people/generations? Next question. Do I think anything bad about social institutions? That’s a complicated question. Do I want to burn down all institutions? No, but I do want change.

Do I think the world governments are secretly run by Alex-Jonesian psychic-pedophile-vampires? Maybe. The jury’s out.

But, this is all beside the point.

Here’s what vampires are. Here’s what I believe them to represent. Here’s a foundation for how we can begin discussing the symbolism of said vampires.

I didn’t get to drive a stake through Twilight’s heart, but goddamn, I wanted to.

Hopefully in the future I can work out these ideas a bit more, maybe give myself more time to organize my thoughts, but for now, I’ll have to put this bad boy back in its coffin. Next up, I will analyze Eraserhead, and I think this will be a much more sober analysis. Thank you for reading, and have a spooky October.

I Know the Pieces Fit: An Analysis of the 1982 The Thing (Part 2)

Written by Alexander Greco

September 17, 2020

Where you been hiding lately?

Where you been hiding from the news?

Because we’ve been fighting lately,

We’ve been fighting with the wolves.

Ben Howard

Now, I will pivot into the second half of the analysis, the inversion of Thing as Metaphoric Object.

Analysis Part 2: Thing as Phenomenological Object

While the first half of the analysis is fun and interesting, and possesses moral/ethical/political considerations that are worth discussing (and will be discussed), this second half of the analysis is far more interesting to me.

For this, we will be examining what the Thing is to the humans.

For this, we will be examining the Thing from the perspective of humans as a metaphoric, narrative object, meaning: what is the Thing from a symbolic and psychological perspective?

But, if this is more important and more meaningful to me, why begin with the other analysis?

Because, while we are now looking at the Thing as an object, the nature of it as an object must be understood as an object capable of subjectivity.

When the humans are perceiving the Thing, they are not looking at an inanimate object, they are looking at a conscious and rational object.

However, the Thing and the contents of its subjective experience is a “black box”, a programming term that here means the contents of the Thing’s consciousness and cognition cannot be known.

In programming, a “black box” is a piece of code that has a function—there are inputs, which are then processed by whatever code exists in the black box, and then there are outputs produced by the code—but the function of the “black box” is completely unknown. The contents of the unknown programming can be guessed by looking at the inputs and the resulting outputs, but the code within nonetheless remains a mystery.

The fact that the Thing does have a consciousness and is capable of rational thought is known. There are measurable inputs and measurable outputs, the inputs being reality and events, the outputs being the actions the Thing takes. However, the humans do not know what the consciousness and rational thoughts of the alien are—they cannot examine the “code” inside the Thing’s “black box”.

So, when the humans perceive the Thing (possibly the most apt name here), they perceive an organism they cannot fully understand, with a psychological/cognitive/subjective black box that they cannot examine.

All humans are actually like this to all other humans.

No two humans can actually know what is happening inside the other human’s mind—not fully, at least.

The minds of all humans are like “black boxes” to all other humans.

Here, I can recall the fictional (though, unfortunately, not completely unmoored from reality) anecdote of the lesbian in a Muslim society.

She might be the only person on the planet who knows she is a lesbian. She might not have shared with any other human the fact that she secretly has a sexual and romantic attraction to other women. This, being a function of her mind, experience, psyche, etc., remains a content of the “black box” of her psyche.

This “black box”, however, extends beyond just our thoughts, our motivations, our sexual preferences, our beliefs and so forth, and extends to things like our memories—which then extends epistemologically to our actions, our experiences, our decisions and so forth. Not only can we hide from others what we think, feel or believe, but we can also hide from others our actions, our patterns of actions (actions taken as part of an agenda) and the things we have experienced in our lives.

Now, one of the great peculiarities of humanity is our ability to communicate the contents of this “black box” to others. We can tell other people: This is what I think; this is how I feel; this is what I have done; this is what I have gone through in my life; etc.

And here, we find the interwoven segments of a functioning, healthy society (or, on the micro-level, functioning, healthy relationships): communication, honesty and trust.

Humans have the ability to communicate what resides within our “black boxes”, so long as we trust what the other person is communicating.

By knowing what these contents are—so long as we also know these contents do not indicate a hostility towards us—the people we know can be perceived as something we understand.

That may be one of the most important functions of language and society: providing every individual with a socio-linguistic structure that allows us to understand to a high enough resolution who everyone else within a society is.

You don’t have to know someone’s name, you don’t have to know their address, you don’t have to know their job, but we are able to safely and comfortably walk into a Starbucks without immediately backing into a corner at the sight of a dozen hairless primates because society has provided us with enough information to know (or believe) that none of the people are actively or passively hostile towards you.

However, what happens at the point at which someone doesn’t make any sense? Let’s examine this.

If we have a socio-linguistically mediated epistemological structure which provides us with the information about others, and this information ensures as that particular individuals will not be hostile, what happens when this epistemological structure is violated?

What happens if you go into a Starbucks, and someone pulls out a gun?

What happens, I think, is much deeper than most might suppose.

On a rational, material level, very little has actually changed. The only change in the material environment around us is that a small, mechanical object has been introduced to the physical contents of Starbucks.

However, from a deeper cognitive and psychological level, the change is nearly infinitely drastic.

You are no longer standing in a Starbucks waiting for your coffee to be made. This idea, this perception of reality, is not the material reality, it is a cognitive, phenomenological reality. The idea of Starbucks, the idea of what you are doing in Starbucks, the idea of what others are doing in Starbucks, and the idea of how these things are situated within our understanding of reality are all socio-linguistically mediated knowledge-structures we base our decisions on.

Suddenly, by the introduction of a gun into the environment, these socio-linguistic knowledge-structures have disintegrated. The reality of standing in a Starbucks waiting for your coffee no longer exists—that reality is gone—and a new reality of being in a place where a stranger has a gun has taken its place.

In addition, the person who was also waiting at Starbucks for a cup of coffee also vanishes, and they become an entirely different person. They may not even be a person anymore—at least as far as your psyche is concerned. The benign stranger at Starbucks (another mediated knowledge-structure) has suddenly vanished, and is replaced with an object whose intentions, motivations, knowledge and experiences you suddenly don’t understand.

That person transforms into some other thing that is no longer a person as you understood them to be.

That person, on a psychological or phenomenological level, literally transforms their being from a defined, articulated, mutually understood citizen of a country into a living, thinking, acting black box.

And here, now, I hope you can begin to see how this connects back to The Thing.

At the moment at which one of the dogs or humans is transforming into its alien form, what precisely is happening from the perspective of one of the non-aliens?

What subjectively and psychologically is happening?

We’ll take the scene at which Palmer is revealed to be one of the Things.

The poke his blood with the hot metal, and the blood reacts as a living organism.

Suddenly, we now know Palmer is a Thing, and at this precise moment, Palmer “physically” begins to transform.

He begins convulsing unnaturally; his eyes bleed and bulge; his head grotesquely deforms; his entire body transforms into a pseudo-human horror; his head splits open into a giant, monstrous mouth and attacks Windows; and MacReady finally burns the creature alive then kills it with dynamite as it tries to escape outside.

What is happening is Palmer begins with a defined, articulated, orderly form. What Palmer is—Palmer’s being as a perceived object—is understood. Then, at the moment Palmer is revealed to be a Thing, Palmer transforms into something that is not understood.

What is happening when the humans or dogs are turning into the chaotic monstrosities we refer to as “the Thing”? All of our fundamental and assumed knowledge about their being suddenly vanishes. They transform from something that has a rigid, defined form and a concrete definition-of, into something that cannot be easily described, except as something grotesque, volatile and chaotic.

Now, viewing this as a phenomenological event (rather than an actual, physical event), it is not that the people and animals are physically turning into these chaotic alien-creatures, it is that we are witnessing the psychological transformation of these beings from the perspective of the human-observers. The moment a dog or human transforms into a “Thing” is the moment where a defined, ordered, articulated being transforms into something that we cannot understand.

The perceived physical transformation is therefore actually a projected psychological transformation of the other being.

So here, if we view the entire film in this light, with the transformations as symbolic, phenomenological transformations, what is happening is quite peculiar.

What if, instead of viewing the movie as a sci-fi horror film where they’re being attacked by these assimilating aliens, we view this as a movie where everyone is subjected to a mass hysteria where they begin to “hallucinate” that their fellow outpost members are turning into monsters?

What if the members of the outpost are going insane, and begin projecting these monstrous psychological transformations onto each other?

Throughout the beginning of the movie, we see many of the characters at odds with each other, just over mundane things. With the introduction of the Thing into their midst, they suddenly become paranoid, suspicious of one another, and delusional. They perform purity tests on one another (like the blood tests), and enact a sort of martial law where the typical legalities and civilities are out the window.

How much of this is caused by the actual introduction of the Thing into their population, and how much of this is caused by a mass hysteria?

To bring this back to our prior quasi-fictional anecdotes:

At the moment the lesbian woman reveals herself to be a lesbian in the fundamentalist Muslim-dominated society, she is no longer an accepted, understood human within that society; she transforms into a being that must be ritually annihilated.

At the moment the benign coffee-drinker at Starbucks pulls a gun out from their pocket, they are no longer a benign stranger in a socially mediated/understood setting; they have transformed into a chaotic, undefined being who is armed with a mechanism that can quickly and effectively end lives.

To bring this back to our prior analysis of Thing-as-Subject, we (“we” as all of us as individuals) are at all times both Thing-as-Subject and Subject-Observing-OtherThing-as-Object.

And now, to wrap this analysis up, we will examine what this perpetual duality means.

Conclusion: Bring the Pieces Back Together

There are two obvious but conflicting moral or ethical statements to the analysis:

Communication between two beings—and so an understanding between two beings—must be established in order for there to be peaceful co-existence.

That which cannot be communicated with or understood may have to be annihilated if it cannot otherwise be survived.

While with the 1982 The Thing, the ethical question of communication and survival may remain ambiguous, in the original 1951 version of the film, The Thing From Another World, this ethical question is actually confronted, but is answered in a much less ambiguous way.

One of the characters attempts to communicate with the alien, but is killed for his efforts, and the remaining characters then annihilated the alien in order to survive it.

While I can applaud the original film for confronting this question more outrightly (itself adapted from the 1938 novella, Who Goes There? (of which I know little about)), and perhaps the 1982 The Thing ought to have brought this ethical issue more to the surface, the 1982 film nonetheless captures the true, phenomenological or subjective reality of this moral issue more accurately (though opaquely).

The problem is we never can know what to do.

The problem is not that we should create a society where there are no Starbucks shooters, or a society where we don’t murder lesbians in the streets (though both are admirable goals).

The problem is that it is impossible to create a society that does not possess analogues to these anecdotal societies.

The true “point” to the 1982 The Thing is not a moral answer to this combined problem of every individual being at once a Subject-Who-Perceives and Object-Being-Perceived.

The true point here is a pragmatic and amoral one, and the point is this:

We cannot know what is truly going on in the minds of anyone else. We cannot truly know what is happening in others’ minds, what they are motivated by and what actions they may take for or against us. We cannot truly know who (and, so, what) another person is.

And, so, psychologically, people we cannot understand transform into grotesque monsters before our eyes, even if physically they are exactly the same.

What The Thing proposes to us is not a moral proposition, but an amoral Truth about the reality of subjective experience and the phenomenology of human relationships.

All humans—all organisms and, more broadly, all objects with a personal subjectivity—are simultaneously:

  • Subject Perceiving Other-Object

And

  • Object Perceived by Other-Subject

Now, this is more applicable in situations where the aforementioned social-structures have been violated, but the problem here, as I tried to illuminate, is in part that we can never know when these violations will be made, or what the nature of this violation is.

So, I said previously these were not intended to be made into political/moral value statements, but, fuck you, I’m a lying black-box-bastard, live with it.

What is the most pressing moral/ethical/political and even epistemological (knowledge-based) issue today in America? (And, likely, throughout the world right now)

Our ability to communicate with one another has all but been corrupted to an impossibly unreconcilable state.

Our politics (in America, and, from what I know, in many places across Western society) has become so polarized that to say you support Trump is to self-declare yourself as a Fascist, and to say you support Biden is to self-declare yourself as an Anarchist.

Of course, except in the marginally extreme, neither of these cases are true. 99% of Trump-supporters are not Fascists, and 98% of Biden-supporters are not Anarchists (I’m kidding, fellow-Liberals, I really mean 97%).

However, those 99% who’ve fallen into the “Trump Camp” cannot convince those in the “Biden Camp” that they are not Fascist Bigots intent on inciting the Fourth Reich; and those 95% (I kid) who’ve fallen into the “Biden Camp” cannot convince those in the “Trump Camp” that they are not psychotic Anarchists seeking a Communist Revolution.

So, what has happened?

Both sides of our political divide have decided they can no longer convince the other side that they are not vicious monsters, so they’ve taken to treating the other side as vicious monsters.

What has happened to both sides of our current political “war”?

The Right and the Left currently perceive themselves as the humans, and they perceive the others as the “Things”.

We have a strange and potentially catastrophic situation right now where both the Right and the Left are simultaneously Subject-Perceiving-Object-as-Thing and Object-as-Thing-Perceived-by-Subject.

So, what do we do?

Obviously, we must come to understand that the shooter at Starbucks may actually be a Muslim Lesbian. I mean this jokingly, and I mean this seriously.

Imagine the moment you realize someone you know supports the candidate you currently oppose. How quickly does that person transform into something grotesque and horrific?

If you support Trump and you discover someone you know supports Biden, how immediate is the effect on you? How immediately do you either go quiet and politely smile and nod before walking away, or attack them on the spot, engulfing them in the fiery Truth of your words?

How immediately do you, a Biden-supporter, see your friends transform into a Fascistic Existential threat to equality and compassion the moment you see them don a MAGA hat?

How it feels telling your friends you support Constitutional Rights and Mixed Social Economics.

At this moment, you may even be wondering whose side I am on, so you can know whether or not to condemn my words as profanity or praise them as sacred wisdom. “He poked fun at Liberals, but then he called himself a Liberal, but then ambiguously quasi-supported/quasi-criticized both sides, so what the hell is he?” Fuck you, that’s what side I am on.

The ending of this upcoming election may precisely reflect the ending of The Thing. The architecture we live in that protect us and trap us with the Thing—the structures of society/the outpost of Antartica—are destroyed in fire. We are left in the wreckage, only remaining alive by the dying light of burning buildings. And we face each other as the last survivors of a great cataclysm, wondering if the Thing across from us is a friend or foe.

We must communicate with each other.

We must learn to trust each other again, whether or not we agree on the other’s opinions.

We must learn to understand each other again, to open up our own black boxes, despite the ensuing vulnerability, so that others may open up their own black boxes.

And while we may find that our friends turn into Things and Things turn into friends, maybe, just maybe, if we can stop, think and speak to each other, we’ll come out of this alive.

Covid Month #6: “I know you gentlemen have been through a lot, but when you find the time, I’d rather not spend the rest of the Winter tied to this fucking couch.”

I Know the Pieces Fit: An Analysis of the 1982 The Thing (Part 1)

Written by Alexander Greco

September 16, 2020

Cold silence has

A tendency to

Atrophy any

Sense of compassion

Tool / Maynard James Keenan

This article is the first of two on the 1982 The Thing. This article will introduce the movie and the two halves of the analysis, then present the first half of the two-part analysis. The second article will present the second part of the analysis, then conclude by examining both and comparing them to current social events.

The contents of the first article will focus on a theoretical analysis of the film revolving around the key element of Information Control, while the second article will delve into more philosophical and psycho-social territories.

Introduction

The 1982 remake of The Thing has gone down in history as one of the best sci-fi/horror films of all time, with good reason. It’s a tremendous movie, it was made in the golden age of classic special effects, right in between the developing stages of earlier films and the rocky slide into 90’s and 00’s effects and CGI.

The setting was great, the characters were memorable and unique, the pacing and storytelling was masterful, and the underlying Cosmic Horror themes and tones of the movie were pitch perfect.

However, while The Thing has gained enormous notoriety since its initial box office flop, I still think it’s a vastly misunderstood movie, and even a vastly underappreciated movie. The source of this misunderstanding and underappreciation comes from the most overlooked element of the film: Control of Information.

The key to understanding The Thing, what made The Thing so horrifying and why the The Thing has been misunderstood is how the film’s director and screenwriter, John Carpenter and Bill Lancaster, controlled what information the viewer does and doesn’t know:

– The absolute knowns, or facts

– The assumptions

– The absolute unknowns, or known unknowns

– The unknown unknowns, or things we don’t even know that we don’t know

Control of Information is important in any form of narrative, but it is key in genres like sci-fi, horror and mystery, where so much of the meaning or emotion is derived cognitively rather than aesthetically.

For Future Reference, Left to Right: Norris, Bennings, Childs, Copper, Fuchs, Garry

With The Thing, nearly the entirety of the film’s true horror is derived from what we know and don’t know as opposed to what we are perceiving physically or aesthetically. So much of the horror is derived from Carpenter and Lancaster’s Control of Information: What we know; what we don’t know; what we’re lead to believe; what we assume; what assumptions we’re forced to question; and what information is left to the imagination.

The entire film is centered on an alien who can assimilate other organisms and disguise itself as any organism it has assimilated. So, throughout the movie, right to the final scene, we are constantly questioning who is an alien, who isn’t an alien, how the alien can be discovered, how the alien can be defeated, and what might happen if the alien isn’t defeated.

While The Thing is a master-class on Control of Information, with its ability to penetrate and terrorize your consciousness with doubt, isolation, paranoia and these constant questions, one question is never actually asked—one question is kept hidden by such overt terror, or the answer seems so obvious we never think to ask it—and this may be the question that is most crucial to understanding the film:

“I just want a home…”

What does the alien want?

This is one piece of information is secreted away, hidden and kept beneath all the other layers of the story to such a greater extent than anything else in the movie.

And so, the Control of Information—and, as sub-sets, both the ignorance of individuals and the inability to communicate or perceive information cohesively or coherently—may actually be the deepest and most important theme of the movie.

The instinctual assumption of both the characters and the movie-viewers is that the alien wants to assimilate other organisms for its own gain, and to eventually take over the world by assimilating all other lifeforms. However, this may only be a projection of motivation onto the organism, as this motivation is never explicitly confirmed by the end of the movie. The grotesque, violent horror of The Thing is so great that we never stop to question this motivation. We simply take it as a given.

However, we know so little about the monster in The Thing that it seems foolish to assume anything about it:

– We don’t know where it’s from

– We don’t know why it came to Earth

– We don’t know what it was doing before it came to Earth

– We don’t know how it’s able to assimilate organisms (we don’t know very well, at least)

– We don’t know what it is, that’s part of the point of the film: it’s just a thing that came from space

This of course connects to Cosmic Horror and the Lovecraftian Cosmic Nihilism, but I won’t delve too much into this. Feel free to read my articles if you want to read more about Cosmic Horror/Nihilism.

The short of it is we are small, limited creatures living on a small, blue dot in an imperceivably vast reality. We are far more blind and ignorant that we are perceiving and knowing, and the knowledge that we don’t know is so tremendously more massive than the knowledge we do know.

We don’t know where the alien is from or why it’s on Earth. We don’t know what the alien is or what it is capable of. We don’t know what it wants, what it’s goals are or what it it’s like to be the alien.

What is interesting, is that we do know the motivations of those who have remained humans: survival.

The motivations we do know (of the humans) are the will to live. The motivations we don’t know (of the aliens) are assumed to be violence, domination and usurpation.

But, we don’t know what the alien’s motivations actually are.

What are the motivations of, what is going on in the mind of, and what is it like to be The Thing? As an important inversion of this, why are the Thing’s motivations, and the Thing itself, perceived the way it is?

These will be the focus of the analysis.

Summary and Structure of Information

This summary will, of course, have spoilers in it, so be warned.

However, the summary will be centered on how information is controlled throughout the film, so, though much of the film is luckily centered on this as well, it will likely leave out decent swaths of the film’s content.

If you haven’t watched The Thing, it goes without saying that I highly recommend it. If you have watched The Thing, this will all be old news, so feel free to skip to the meat of the analysis.

After one of the most memorable and iconic opening title scenes in sci-fi history (up there with the 1979 Alien), the movie begins with two Norwegians in a helicopter, chasing a husky dog across the icy wastes of Antarctica.

The Norwegians are shooting at the dog, and at one point throw dynamite at it. The husky arrives at the American Outpost, Outpost 31, where the majority of the film takes place.

The Norwegians follow the sled dog and soon arrive at the outpost as well. One of them accidentally blows themselves and their helicopter up, while the other pursues the dog on foot with their rifle.

While trying to kill the dog, the Norwegian shoots one of the Americans, then begins yelling something at the Americans in Norwegian, brandishing the gun at them. However, no one can understand the Norwegian, and they shoot the man dead, then take the dog inside their outpost.

Immediately, we are introduced to both the key tool of the film, Control of Information, and a key theme of the film, Communication.

The sad irony of this opening scene is that the dog (spoilers) is actually the alien that will later terrorize the outpost for the remainder of the film. The Norwegians know this, and their actions to kill the dog may have (spoilers) saved the lives of everyone at the outpost, but the Americans cannot understand the Norwegians, and so kill them.

However, we as the viewers cannot know this, just as the characters cannot know this, and so we are left with the same blind assumptions as the Americans (if that ain’t a metaphor).

The dog is allowed to wander around the outpost, doing god-knows-what behind the scenes, while we still assume it is only a dog, until it is put into a kennel with the other dogs.

After MacReady and Copper have investigated the Norwegian base, the dog finally reveals itself to be what it truly is: the Thing.

The dog’s body begins to change, with tentacles and other appendages growing from it, and its face eventually splits open to reveal a monstrous “mouth”. It begins attacking and assimilating the other dogs (meaning it absorbs their bodies into its own and begins copying the cells of the dog). But then, the alien is killed by the Americans, though the question remains open as to whether or not other members of the outpost have been assimilated.

There are two important threads to follow through the beginning of the movie:

The Salt is strong with this one.

One: we see the relationships of the characters as tense, often with a lot of conflict between them that erupts over minor things. One example is Blair asking Windows if he’s been able to reach anyone over the radio, with Windows blowing up and saying it’s impossible to reach anyone at this time. (This, along with other moments, builds on the them of communication, and comes into play more in the second half of the analysis.)

Two: our knowledge of the alien/Thing is developed, though only to a certain degree (we never fully/explicitly learn much about the Thing). Primarily, we learn of its ability to assimilate other organisms, and of the possibility that it could eventually assimilate the entirety of organisms on the planet, if it were to make it to any other continent (if it was motivated to do so).

And, of course, much of the rest of the first two thirds of the film is devoted to determining who has been assimilated or not.

Blair suspects Clark, who was in charge of looking out for the dogs, and was alone with the dogs when the Thing began assimilating them.

Bennings becomes partially assimilated, and attempts to escape, but is discovered and killed before it could fully assimilate.

Blair goes crazy, suspecting anyone and everyone could be an assimilated alien, and is locked up in a building outside of the main structure.

A supply of blood samples that could’ve have been used to test who has been assimilated is destroyed, implicating the small number of people with access to the blood as being assimilated (and subtly implying the alien may have assimilated the DNA of all members at the outpost).

Fuchs goes outside to find a piece of clothing with MacReady’s name on it (this happening shortly after MacReady himself mentioning the alien seems to tear apart people’s clothing while assimilating them).

Fuchs is then found dead outside, apparently burning himself alive to keep himself from committing suicide.

Mac and Nauls go out to check on Blair. However, a storm hits, so the two are late coming back. The rest of the outpost decides to close off all entrances.

While closing off one of the last entrances, Norris sees Nauls coming back alone through the blizzard. Nauls is let back inside and says he found a scrap of clothing with Mac’s name on it (the same one Fuchs previously found).

Mac then returns to the base, but the outpost members refuse to let him inside. Palmer and Norris are both quick to decide Mac ought to be killed, since he has likely been assimilated.

Mac breaks into the outpost, brandishing a flare and a stick of dynamite, letting everyone know he’ll blow himself and the others up if the try to stop him. However, Norris then collapse and stops breathing. He is brought to the infirmary where Copper tries to revive him, but Norris’s stomach splits open into a giant mouth and kills Copper (thus revealing Norris to have been assimilated all along).

After the Norris iteration of the Thing has been killed, Mac forces everyone to do a blood test to see if they have been assimilated. The assumption is that the cells of the Thing act autonomously, and so will attempt to survive if harmed. Mac uses a hot piece of metal to poke the blood, and eventually Palmer is revealed to be a Thing.

Palmer transforms and attacks the other outpost members, killing Windows before Mac can kill the Thing.

Here, we finally arrive at the wind-up to the climax.

The team discovers Blair has gone missing and has built a spacecraft beneath the structure he was put in, and so Blair is the last remaining Thing (that they know of).

While getting ready to blow up “Blair’s” spaceship, Nauls sees Childs run off into the blizzard. Immediately after this, the power for the entire outpost goes out. They assume this is Blair shutting down the power so that everyone else will die and Blair will be frozen until a search party comes and recovers everyone’s body (effectively reviving Blair/the Thing once its body thaws).

Mac, Nauls and Garry decide to blow up and burn down the outpost, effectively committing suicide, but ensuring the Thing does not survive as well.

While preparing the explosives and incendiaries, Blair picks off Garry then Nauls, then attacks Mac. Mac kills the transformed Blair-Thing and blows up the outpost. Mac escapes outside and is sitting in the cold as the outpost burns down.

Childs finally returns and sits down with Mac, telling him he ran off into the blizzard because he thought he saw Blair, then got lost and couldn’t find his way back. Neither can tell whether the other is a human or a Thing. The film ends ambiguously with the two of them sitting outside, “[waiting to] see what happens” as the outpost burns down and the Antarctic cold sets in.

That’s The Thing. Got it? Good.

The Poetry of Squaring Off: Analyses of the Thing as Subject and Object

And so, I will jump as quickly as I can into this.

This analysis has two halves: One, examining the Thing as a Literal Subject capable of perceiving, rationalizing and critical strategizing; and Two, examining the Thing as a Phenomenological Object being observed by humans.

The Thing as Literal Subject must be understood first in order to transition into an understanding of its inverse, the Thing as Phenomenological Object.

What do I mean by these terms?

Thing as Literal Subject is exactly that: we assume the Thing has sentience, and we build a possible model of its phenomenological reality from what we can assume in the film, then examine this reality.

This will fall more into a “film theory” than a proper “analysis”, though it is pivotal to understanding to the second half of the analysis.

Thing as Phenomenological Object: we examine not what the Thing is perceived as by the humans, but we examine why there is a Thing being observed by the humans.

This will contain more of my typical approach to analysis, though more focused on one specific aspect of the film rather than the broader narrative analysis I typically write.

Analysis Part 1: Thing as Literal Subject

What is the immediate conflict that arises in The Thing?

The Norwegians and the dog.

The Norwegians are chasing the dog through the Antarctic wastes, trying to kill it—knowing fully what the dog is and what it is capable of—but the last standing Norwegian is killed because the Americans can’t communicate with the Norwegian, can’t understand why the Norwegian is doing what he is doing, and don’t know what the Norwegian knows or perceives.

Of course, the brutal irony is that the Norwegian could have saved the entire American outpost from catastrophic destruction and death, and this as I mentioned implicates the deepest themes of the film: ignorance and communication.

It’s like the Mark Zuckerberg of dogs.

What is the dog/alien thinking at the start of the film?

What is going on in the alien’s mind at this point?

Well, first, let’s construct a potential reality for the alien as a conscious subject. This might be technically impossible, considering there’s so much about the alien we don’t know (and that’s part of the point of the film), but, if we start from one basic assumption or premise, we can work our way to something that I think is most likely to be true.

The one basic assumption is: the alien wishes to survive.

Why assume this?

Because, as far as we know, all life forms share this instinct. Instinct might not even be the right word, it may go even deeper than instinct, as it’s difficult to say single-celled organisms possess “instincts”. The will to live seems to be a mechanism that is embedded so deeply in the fabric of “living” that it may be at the core of existence for life or even proto-life.

The will to live, or something like it—and, as tangents of this, the will to maintain life through various motivations and functions, including replication—had to have been present even in the earliest stages of life as the theorized “first replicators”.

So, assuming the alien wishes to survive, let’s reconstruct what its experience would be like before the start of the movie and at the start of the movie.

God damn, I love MacReady’s hat.

The alien crash-lands on Earth, and we know the alien piloting the ship is the same alien capable of assimilation (rather than the pilot of the ship becoming assimilated pre-crash) because Blair as the assimilated alien version of Blair has begun constructing a new spaceship by the end of the film.

The alien is frozen in Antarctica, and is then unfrozen by the Norwegians. We don’t know the full scope of what happened with the Norwegians, but we do know something went fucky-wucky, and the Norwegians and the alien decided they couldn’t work out their differences.

Now, another assumption here is that the alien likely treats assimilation as something relatively natural and commonplace. We are capable of natural acts like eating, speaking and procreating, and the alien’s act of assimilation is likely as natural to it as any of these acts. So, while assimilation is remarkably violent and grotesque to humans, it may not be so violent and grotesque to the alien.

However, assuming the alien’s act of assimilation was at least a part of what led the Norwegians to hunt down and try to kill the last remaining alien, and knowing the alien is intelligent enough to build a spacecraft and pilot it across the cosmos, then the alien is probably smart enough to have realized the humans do not appreciate the alien’s act of assimilation. That said, the alien may not fully understand why the humans do not like this, just as we would be confused if we went to another planet, and the natural inhabitants did not enjoy us trying to breathe air, eat food, have sex or speak words.

So, the last of the Norwegians attempt to hunt down and kill the last of the aliens, resulting in the brutal irony of The Thing’s opening scene.

Throughout the rest of the film, once the alien is discovered in the iconic dog scene, the plot turns into a sort of cat-and-mouse/Clue/who-dunnit plot where the humans are trying to survive and the alien(s) are trying to survive.

So, what is the rest of the film after the opening scene like from the perspective of the alien?

Each scene must be looked at as the alien’s attempt at survival, rather than the pre-supposed attempt at world domination. Why?

Well, other than the base instincts the alien likely has, there is one telling scene: the Thing-as-Blair attempting to build a spacecraft.

Why would the alien build a spacecraft rather than find some other mode of transportation or find some other mode of survival? Obviously, because it is trying to leave the planet Earth and return to its own civilization, or return to whatever it was doing beforehand.

It could be argued that the Thing would use the craft it created to travel to some other part of the planet and begin its worldwide domination there, but why? Why would it want to?

It has already seen the humans to be incredibly hostile towards it, and it landed there accidentally rather than on purpose, and, if we assume the alien’s core motivation is to survive, why risk trying to interact with other Earth-organisms that are likely to be just as hostile? On top of this, all it knows of Earth so far is the frozen wastes of Antarctica, unless it is smart enough or has learned enough to know what the rest of Earth is like (which may be unlikely, since it crash landed thousands of years ago, pre-civilization).

So, in these circumstances, why would the alien behave as we see it behave?

With the dog scene, this is possibly the most unclear, but, if it was assimilating the dogs as an act of survival, than perhaps it was doing so to create “allies”, or to spread itself out among a wider array of individual organisms and so increase its likelihood of survival. Perhaps it was an attempt at communication, though we don’t know enough about assimilation to know if this is a form of communication, and we do know enough to know it is used for functions other than communication.

The rest of the movie after this, however, is much more clear.

The dogs are now all under suspicion, and are killed because of their potential contact with the alien. And, while all the other humans are now under suspicion, they cannot be killed so recklessly. So, the alien begins assimilating humans to blend in and survive.

Another reason for assimilating humans is that this may be the only mode of communication the alien currently possesses. If you are trying to survive, one of the best places to start is to ask the hostile population, “Please! Don’t kill me!”

But, knowing the humans are hostile towards it, it may have decided not to communicate in the given circumstances—especially since no communication from the humans has been attempted.

So, the alien is in a circumstance where it is being hunted down. It may wish to communicate to the humans, which would be a reason to assimilate the other humans, but communication may also result in its own death.

Let’s say, as an example, you are a lesbian woman in a non-Western country that is predominated by a Muslim population (just to be arbitrarily controversial): while one mode of survival may be to yell out, “Please! Don’t kill me! Yes, I am a homosexual, one of the things you wish to kill, but, please, I mean you no harm! Don’t kill me! Let me live!”

What are the odds this woman won’t be killed?

The better, though less-optimal, choice would be to blend in with the population around you, and survive as long as you can until you can find understanding allies in others, or until such a time that you can escape to a less hostile population.

Let’s say the alien as an assimilated human were to shout out, “Please! Don’t kill me! Yes, I am the alien that has assimilated other organisms, but, please, I mean you no harm! I only wish to survive! Don’t kill me! Let me live!”

What are the odds the alien won’t be killed?

The better, though less-optimal, choice would be to blend in with the humans around you, and survive as long as you can until you can find a human willing to communicatee with you, or until such a time that the alien can escape Earth and go back home, or at least go somewhere it won’t be hunted down.

These assumptions and this understanding of the alien as a conscious and at least somewhat intelligent/rational creature can explain its actions throughout the rest of the film:

  • Attempting to escape as the half-assimilated Bennings
  • The alien as the fully assimilated Palmer and Norris being so quick to want MacReady killed, knowing MacReady is not an alien and that MacReady is the biggest threat to their existence
  • The alien as the “deceased” Norris attacking Copper before attempting to escape
  • The alien as Palmer attacking the others once it is discovered
  • The alien as Blair constructing the spaceship
  • The alien as Blair attacking the remaining humans once its spaceship is destroyed and the other humans are attempting to kill it

There is of course the ambiguity at the end of the film, with the final scene of Childs and MacReady in the wreckage of the destroyed outpost. While I could go into this and the various theories of whether or not one or both of them are the alien, and then what this would mean for our analysis, it is not so important, and I will let you decide.

So, here we have a construction of what the subjective reality and the motivations of the Thing most likely are.

There is a single hole in this argument: why didn’t the Thing-as-Blair simply run into the cold and be frozen, which would allow it to survive until a rescue party came and recovered their bodies, which would result in the Thing surviving until it was thawed out enough. But, this “hole” can have several counter-arguments to explain it, the least of which being: fuck it, it’s just a movie, and what a shitty ending that would have been.

Plus, if Childs or MacReady are an alien, then the alien being frozen and revived will likely happen anyway.

The Thing is trying to survive on an alien planet. It has woken up in an incredibly hostile environment, Antarctica, and it finds itself being assaulted on all sides by incredibly hostile lifeforms which do not seek to communicate with it.

The grand conflict here is on two levels a conflict of survival (the deeper, though maybe less interesting conflict), and the conflict of epistemology: the conflict of what is known and what is unknown.

The Thing cannot communicate with the humans unless it assimilates them. If it assimilates a human, then that assimilated human will be killed, so broadcasting that you are the alien disguised as a human will likely result in death.

I will return to this in the conclusion, but I think you get the idea here.

This essentially wraps up this part of the analysis. There’s no grand conclusion here, but it’s intended to roll right into the next analysis (where you will find a grand conclusion).

What a hat, man.

A Brief History of Fear

Written by Tara East

Re-Published June, 03, 2019

The following paper analyzes how the theme of fear has changed in Australian Literature over time. The Australian settlers responsible for our early gothic fictions gave external form to their internal fears through their descriptions of the landscape as eerie, dangerous and monstrous. While some contemporary works, such as Craig Silvey’s Jasper Jones, revisit the nation’s classic literary themes of racism and “who belongs?”, others, such as Liane Moriarty’s Truly Madly Guilty, fall into the emerging trend of domestic suburban thrillers. Both these works will be analysed through a psychoanalytic, post-colonial and feminist lens to determine how contemporary fiction has changed the face of fear.

Fear has played a major role in the history of Australian literature in response to the establishment of British colonies and what that meant to Aboriginal culture and way of life; beginning with the gothic tales published in the late nineteenth century. The colonial writers of these early Australian novels wove unnerving tales about the anxiety of not belonging in a foreign land. At the same time, the unknown landscape also inspired their fearful descriptions. In The Anthology of Colonial Australian Gothic Fiction, author Marcus Clarke provides a ghostly description of the Australian landscape.

The Australian mountain forests are funeral, secret, scorn. Their solitude is desolation. They seem to stifle, in their black gorges, a story of sullen despair . . . In the Australian forests no leaves fall. The savage winds shout among the rock clefts. From the melancholy gums scrips of white bark hang and rustle. The very animal life of these frowning hills is either grotesque or ghostly. Great grey kangaroos hop noiselessly over the coarse grass. Flights of white cockatoos stream out, shrieking like evil souls. The sun suddenly sinks, and the mopokes bursts out into horrible peals of semi-human laughter. The natives aver that, when night comes, from out the bottomless depth of some lagoon the Bunyip rises, and, in form like monstrous sea calf, drags his loathsome length from out the ooze. From a corner of the silent forest rises a dismal chant, and around a fire dance natives painted like skeletons. All is fear-inspiring and gloomy (Gelder 2007)  

Gerry Turcolte, lecturer at the University of Wollongong, provides further insight into the Gothic narratives place in the history of Australian literature.

Long before the fact of Australia was ever confirmed by explorers and cartographers it had already been imagined as a grotesque space, a land peopled by monsters. The idea of its existence was disputed, was even heretical for a time, and with the advent of the transportation of convicts its darkness seemed confirmed. The Antipodes was a world of reversals, the dark subconscious of Britain. It was, for all intents and purposes, Gothic par excellence, the dungeon of the world. It is perhaps for this reason that the Gothic as a mode has been a consistent presence in Australia since European settlement (Turcotte 1998).

Early Australians saw the land as a fearsome place.

Literary monsters are timely as they embody social and cultural present-day fears. Before the White Australia Policy was dismantled, books such as Charles Chauvel’s Uncivilised were popular. The story is a fairy tale about an indigenous tribe making a lost white child its leader and includes what would later become the archetype of the “evil witch doctor” (Breyley 2009), a reference that also appears in Bingham and other Golden Boomerang books. This continued into adult novels such as Ion Idriess’ Lasseter’s Last Ride which featured a black witch doctor:

With skinny claw the witch-doctor pulled out a dried lizard . . . His lips moved sibilantly and Lasseter could have sworn that the lizard hissed in reply . . . Over each article he pored . . . as if it possessed some power of evil (Breyley, 2009).

Shared global fears in the twenty-first century, at least for Western countries, largely concern terrorist attacks. This is reflected in Janette Turner’s Hospital, A.L. McCann’s Subtopia and Linda Jaivin’s The Infernal Optimist; three narratives about the destructive nature of terrorist and their desire to wreak havoc (Carr, 2016).

Post-colonial Fear

The self/white heteromasculinity and two subtly different types of Other, Indigenous people and ethnic groups (those who are understood as offering a threat of social, political or military invasion). Other authors are more concerned with the horrific actions carried out by members of our own community, such is the premise of Craig Silvey’s novel, Jasper Jones. Fear maintains an active presence in the work following the opening catalyst: the grisly discovery of a young girl’s body, hung from a tree by a local watering hole. Though this incident is frightening enough, the sensation of fear continues well beyond this scene. The protagonist, Charlie Bucktin, is consumed by fear. Some of Charlie’s worries are spurred from actual experiences, others are the conjuring of his own mind. He is instantly suspicious when Jasper Jones knocks on his window that fateful night and enters his life. Later, Charlie is terrified of the idea of Jasper leaving town and abandoning him. After disposing of the young girl’s body, Charlie is afraid of getting caught, of not getting caught; afraid that there is a murderer in his town, and that maybe that person is Jasper. And to top it all off, he has an irrational fear of bugs.

Racism, prejudice and the underlining fear of the Other are explored through the outsider characters of Jasper and Jeffery. Jasper is the child of a white father and an aboriginal mother. Jasper experiences an unstable childhood following the death of his mother. His rebellious, alluring and aloof personality quickly establish him as a convenient scapegoat and he is blamed for every unseemly activity that occurs in the town. It is because of this prejudice that Jasper compels Charlie to dispose of Laura’s body. Jasper is convinced that if they don’t, then he will be arrested for Laura’s murder; a reasonable conclusion given that the victim is a white teenage girl (believed to be a virgin) from one of the town’s wealthiest families. Similarly, Jeffery Lu and his Vietnamese family are the continuous victims of racial prejudice as many of the local residences have sent their sons off to fight in the Vietnam War. Charlie witnesses the town’s prejudice first hand during a town meeting. Following the announcement that the police have no new leads on Laura’s disappearance, Charlie notices the gossip and speculations around the potential culprit.

“Then someone mentioned Jasper Jones. The same way they did when the post office burned to the ground. With titled eyebrows and suspicion. … And I understood then that maybe we really did do the wrong thing for the right reasons” (Silvey 2009).

Australia, like America, continues to struggle with its colonial past and issues of “who belongs?”

Before Charlie turns to leave the hall, he hears Jeffery’s mother, Mrs. Lu, cry out. After filling her teacup up from the communal urn, a woman named Sue Findlay, slaps the cup from Mrs. Lu’s hand, scalding her badly, and precedes to jab the air and recite racist remarks. It isn’t until Sue reaches out to pull on Mrs. Lu’s hair that the town Reverend intervenes.

This racial tension continues throughout the novel. At one point, Jasper is arrested – without evidence – beaten up by the town sergeant, locked up for a weekend and enticed to confess to Laura’s murder. It is during this illegal detaining that Jasper meets Laura’s father, who also beats him, and discovers that Pete is the president of the shire. Here, Silvey illustrates that racism was not only common in Australia in the 1960s, but celebrated. As the narrative continues, the Lu family continue to experience violent attacks and abuse. Jeffery is mocked by his schoolmates, and Mr. Lu is brutally beaten on his front lawn after a town father discovers that his son has died in action while fighting in Vietnam.

Fear and racism have remained popular themes in Australian literature because of our settler history and our present-day multiculturalism and social egalitarianism. As Cornel West argues in the case of America, “To engage in a serious discussion of race…we must begin not with the problems of black people but with the flaws of American society — flaws rooted in historic in equalities and longstanding cultural stereotypes” (Huggan 2017). Graham Huggan states that Australia, like America, also suffers from this same “violence and ideological extremism” (Huggan 2017). Racism is fear; fear of the other. It could be argued that the racism that exists within Australia, and that is reflected within its literature, may not be the result of the nation itself but the product of far reaching roots that go beyond the nation’s history and borders. The root behind the racism within Australian literature boils down to one question, “who has the right to belong?” (Huggan 2017)

Feminism and Fear

Until we reach a political, social and cultural utopia, themes regarding racism and “who belongs” will continue to dominate contemporary Australian fiction. In alignment with Poe’s earlier sentiments about fear being a luxury in a time of comfort, the new subgenre of the domestic/suburban thriller has emerged. Fear is no longer generated through external evils that exist outside the home: monsters, supernatural entities or psychopaths. Instead, publishers and readers are interested in experiencing sophisticated, modern, and internalised fear by exposing the evil that exists in our homes, our spouses and ourselves. Evening Standard Journalist Rosamun Urwin describes this new genre as chick lit with “no happy ending, no wedding dress or pram, just plot twists and tortured souls. These are thrillers thrown into the domestic sphere, tales of intimate betrayal and mistrust” (Whitehouse 2014). International best-sellers Gone Girl (Gillian Flynn, USA) and How To Be A Good Wife (Emma Chapman, UK) have helped craft this new sub-genre and Australian author Liane Moriarty’s suburban thriller, The Husband’s Secret, hit number one on the New York Times, and her novel, Big Little Lies, has been turned into a US television drama. Truly Madly Guilty is Moriarty most recent work, hitting number one on the Australian bestseller list while her two-previous works were still in the top ten.

The target audience of these novels is straight, married women. What makes these books marketable and profitable is their ability to tap into the audiences’ collective fear that men are a threat to women’s safety. Though men are more likely to be the victim of a violent crime than women, women assume that they are more vulnerable to attacks than men. Criminologists dub this the fear-victimization paradox (Yodanic 2004) The belief that women are more vulnerable to sexual attack than men assists in the divide between the public sphere and the private. The private sphere, physical structures built by men, are safe. The public sphere, which is dominated by men, is unsafe. The perceived threat of inescapable attack when entering the public sphere keeps women fearful, and therefore, easier to control. Women are not doomed to become victims and not all men are violent, but by manipulating the knowledge that some women have become victims, then women are collectively easier to control and suppress.

Women are the target audience of Suburban Thrillers as these novels personify their deepest fears.

Suburban thrillers take advantage of this basic fear by having female characters experience multiple forms of domestic violence or abuse. In the case of Lianne Moriarty’s work, Truly Madly Guilty, all the female leads are the victims of their male counterparts. Erika becomes a foster parent because her husband Oliver wants to be a father (though she doesn’t want to be a mother), Clementine is blamed by her husband Sam for the near death of their child (though both parents were present at the time of the accident) and Tiffany is encouraged by her husband Vid to strip during a neighbourly barbeque (despite her reservations to do so). Moriarty plays directly into her audience’s basic fear of men taking control of women.

Although Jasper Jones is set in the 1960s, the suppression experiences by its female character remain uncomfortably relatable. Initially, Jasper idolises Eliza through his comparison to her and Audrey Hepburn; both are prim, proper and perfect. A simplification that causes him to underestimate her. As the truth behind Laura’s death is revealed, Jasper learns of the tragic circumstances that lead to her demise. Both Wishart sisters were abused by their father, a wealthy and prominent man in the community. Pete Wishart, a closet alcoholic, sexually and physically abused his oldest daughter Laura, and physically abused his youngest Eliza. In an effort to save Eliza from their father, Laura submits to his abuse. Eventually, Laura decides to commit suicide, seeing no other means of escaping her powerful father. Eliza eventually gets her revenge, by setting a fire in her home and injuring her father. Similarly, Charlie’s mother Ruth feels suppressed by the circumstance of her own life. Now middle-aged, she feels that both her youth and dreams have withered as she raised her son in the small town of Corrigan, isolated from her own family in the city. Her outlook is further embittered through her passionless marriage to Charlie’s father, Wesley; a relationship that is not improved by Wesley’s decision to disappear into his study every night after dinner. In the end, Ruth is only able to liberate herself by abandoning Charlie and Wesley, knowing that her husband would never be willing to sacrifice his comfort and preference for small town living in order to follow her into a new life in the city.

Literary Devices and Supporting Themes

If a novel is truly terrifying – or at least unsettling – why do readers continue to read? Some may argue that a likeable character is enough to keep readers’ attention, but award-winning author Patrick deWitt disagrees: “Some of my favourite books have despicable protagonists but I find them fascinating […] I hope some [readers] might be willing to push a bit deeper and look to spend time with characters who aren’t entirely likeable” (Bethune 2015. In alignment with deWitt’s statement, Moriarty’s Truly Madly Guilty focuses on three largely unlikeable couples, their children and one rude neighbour. Though unlikeable, Moriarty has made the characters interesting through their dynamic interactions with one another, complex personal and interpersonal histories and through her withholding of information. Given the sizeable cast, Moriarty initially allows her characters to fall into stereotypical roles, making it easier for the reader to differentiate them. First, there is the outrageous and wealthy couple Vid and Tiffany, OCD control freak and germophobes Oliver and Erika and the artsy new-age parents Clementine and Sam. As the book progresses the characters deepen and change and justification for certain behaviours are revealed. For instance, Erika and Oliver’s controlled demeanour is the result of their respective parents’ mental illnesses. Previously endearing characteristics, such as Sam and Clementine’s playful marriage are later revealed as a forced re-enactment of how ‘happy families’ behave in the movies. In reality, their marriage has become sexless and is on the verge of collapse. However, despite each character’s flawed nature, they are capable of selfless acts. For example; Erika accepts Vid’s invitation to the barbeque, even though she doesn’t want to go, and Clementine agrees to donate her eggs to Erika for IVF treatments, even though she finds the idea repulsive. Readers are willing to invest in these characters because they can relate to the (admittedly bloated) suburban problems.

Truly Madly Guilty challenges the stereotype that all women are maternal/motherly.

In order to convince a reader to stay with a novel that explores fearful themes, one needs more than a cast of interesting characters. The use of literary devices such as voice, POV and pacing double as tools to engage readers, heighten tension and build fear. Truly Madly Guilty uses a rotating, past tense, third person limited POV, while Jasper Jones uses first person, present tense. While Moriarty maintains a consistent tone throughout, the voice within each chapter changes to reflect that POV character’s unique perspective. Though the horrifying events of the barbeque are not revealed until halfway through Truly Madly Guilty, Moriarty successful keeps her readers hooked by making them care about her complex characters and by delicately insinuating the reasons behind particular behaviours and conversations. Despite the close third person POV, Moriarty subtly alludes to deep seeded secrets and regrets while holding back on the details. Though she shows that the characters’ feel appalled by the behaviour of their shadow selves, she conceals the particularities of their situation until the end of the novel.

Fear is maximised in Truly Madly Guilty through the manipulation of its pace. As the timeline, sequence of events, or character motivations become clear, Moriarty peels back another layer to reveal a new unexpected truth: Erika is a kleptomaniac, having stolen items from Clementine’s home for years and storing them in a concealed chest in her bedroom cupboard. The book moves quickly throughout, despite the fact that the traumatising event hinted at in chapter one is not revealed until page 291. Moriarty leads us to this pivotal moment with five short sharp chapters, increasing the pace and instilling a sense of fear: something is coming. A red herring appears, but when the much-foreshadowed event is revealed the plot twists again.

One of the book’s central mysteries is Erika’s memory loss. Fear is propelled through these gaps as other characters step in to reveal what they witnessed on the night of the barbeque. So much information is brought forth that the reader is led to believe that they have the full picture. It is only when Erika regains her memory within the last ten pages that the plot twists one final time. Truly Madly Guilty generates terror in its readers through its characters exploration of their shadow selves, but also through Moriarty’s withholding of information, consistent allusion to character secrets, and the tension created by the combination of these two elements.

Misdirection and mystery are central to the plots of Jasper Jones and Truly Madly Guilty.

The subject matter and style of Jasper Jones is very different from Truly Madly Guilty, yet it uses similar techniques. Employing a mystery novel structure, Silvey carefully exposes the truth behind Laura’s death while simultaneous unravelling the complicated and rich subplots of 1960s racism, marital discord (domestic servitude), first loves, sexual abuse and child abuse. The question of Laura’s death is what drives the narrative, however, it is the compounding emotional terror of the subplots that keeps readers engaged. Readers identify, or at least empathise, with Ruth’s domestic suffocation, Jeffery’s alienation, Jasper’s abandonment and the abuses suffered by the Wishart sisters. Though the emotional tenor is what keeps readers engaged, Silvey also employs classic mystery novel techniques like red herrings – did Jasper kill Laura, did she kill herself, did Mad Jack Lionel do it? – and the gradual exposure of secondary characters’ motivations and backstories to keep the central plot moving forward.

Jasper Jones combines horrific events both real and rumoured. Mad Jack Lionel, as the name suggests, is cast as the town’s mad man supposedly responsible for the murder of a young girl, her car slowly rusting away in Jack’s backyard. Fear is struck into the hearts of Corrigan’s youth as teenagers dare each other to dash across Jack’s property to steal a peach from the tree in the backyard. Even when Charlie learns that Mad Jack Lionel isn’t mad, that the rusting car in the backyard belonged to Jasper’s deceased mother and that Jack is, in fact, Jasper’s Grandfather, he stills feels uncertain after accepting Warwick Trent’s dare.

“I’m so far inside [the yard] that I can’t hear them, or even feel their presence anymore. And even though I know I’m under no threat, it’s still an eerie and intimidating pilgrimage. I start to tread lighter as I get closer … I wonder if he’s watching me … I breathe deep.” (Silvey 2009)

Then there are the real horrors: Mr. Wishart’s repeated assaults on his daughters, a town blaming a teenage boy for all its mischievous activities and the brutal hate crime against the Lu family. Through the manipulation of pace and careful control of information Silvey is able to turn commonplace events into terrifying experiences. Both Jasper Jones and Truly Madly Guilty start with enticing, violent incidents: the death of a young girl and the near drowning of a small child. However, these events are not the plot, but a mere catalyst to get the ball rolling. The true plot is the snowballing effect generated from the terrifying incident and how that crime has caused some characters to expose their shadow selves or become aware of the shadow selves in their families, friends and perceived enemies. Following Laura’s death, Charlie’s eyes are opened to the racism that exists in his small town of Corrigan and the abuse the women in his life have suffered. Following the near drowning of a child, Erika’s kleptomania is revealed, Clementine confesses that she is only friends with Erika out of obligation, Oliver’s need for control increases, Sam and Clementine’s marriage grows colder and the neighbour who warns Erika of the near drowning, Harry, immediately falls down the stairs and dies.

While Jasper Jones is a contemporary take on the classic Australian tropes of racism and belonging, Truly Madly Guilty falls neatly into the trendy category of domestic suburban thrillers. And yet, both give form to fear not as an external Other but in the shape of neighbours, family, friends and ourselves. While early horror novels gave form to fears – social and cultural – by way of supernatural creatures and monsters, contemporary literature leans towards a more sophisticated representation. Now, terror is explored through the exposure of a character’s shadow self. Now, we are the monster.

Works Cited:

Bethune, B (2015) ‘The Interview’, Business Source Ultimate, issue. 128 pp. 23, available from: <https://usq.summon.serialssolutions.com/2.0.0/link?t=1527742826133>

Breyley, G (2009), ‘Fearing the Protector, fearing the protected: Indigenous and “National” fears in Twentieth-century Australia’, vol. 23, issue 1, available from: <http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.usc.edu.au:2048/docview/211256754?rfr_id=info%3Axri%2Fsid%3Aprimo&gt;

Gelder, K and Weaver, R (2007), ‘The Anthology of Colonial Australian Gothic Fiction’, Melbourne University Print, Melbourne.

Huggan, G (2017), ‘Australian Literature: Postcolonialism, Racism, Transnationalism’, Oxford University Press, Oxford, available from: https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.ezproxy.usq.edu.au/lib/usq/reader.action?docID=415105&query=

Moriarty, L 2016 Truly Madly Guilty, Pan Macmillan Australia, Sydney. 

Silvey, C (2009), ‘Jasper Jones’, Allen and Unwin, Sydney.

Turcotte, G (1998) ‘Australian Gothic’, in Mary Mulvey-Roberts (ed.) The Handbook to Gothic Literature, pp. 10-19, Basingstoke: Pan Macmillan.

Whitehouse, L (2014), ‘Rise of the marriage thriller’, The Guardian, available from: <https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2014/jan/15/rise-marriage-thriller-couples-secrets-gillian-flynn&gt;

Yodanic, C (2004) ‘Gender Inequality, Violence Against Women, and Fear: A Cross-National Test of the Feminist Theory of Violence Against Women, Journal of Interpersonal Violence’, Sage Publications, no. 19, vol.6, pp. 655-675, available from: http://journals.sagepub.com.ezproxy.usq.edu.au/doi/pdf/10.1177/0886260504263868