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.

The Art of Mason Laufer

Written by Alexander Greco

August 12, 2020

Depicting visions of madness, surreal hellscapes and realms outside our scope of understanding, Mason Laufer is a New York based artist who uses photo-editing software to create surreal environments and a menagerie of abyssal and otherworldly creatures. Mason’s dark, eldritch visions draw on a broad spectrum of influences, including psychology, religion, occultism, science fiction, horror and more. Beyond just what Mason creates, how Mason creates and his inner motivations to grow and create are just as interesting. As deep as Mason reaches into dark pits of the unknown below, Mason reaches equally as high into bright vaults of potential above.

Mason and I quickly connected on a number of subjects when we first started talking with each other, and my respect for him and his work only grew as I learned more and more about his journey from playful, creative experiments to making a leap into the unknown, starting his own art business at the onset of the Covid Pandemic.

“[…] I never had any formal art training past simply doing the required art classes throughout school. I was always frustrated because I was not naturally gifted artistically in the slightest. Both my handwriting and my drawing abilities have been poor since I was young. Which forced me into other creative avenues. […] I honestly just started making fun photo edits as inside jokes with my best friend. Eventually, I would just make stuff with photoshop type apps in my free time. The idea that I had a talent for it didn’t come about until my best friend said that some of my stuff was actually really good. So, I slowly started taking it more seriously.

“Once I learned about being able to promote your art on Instagram, I decided to convert my personal account to an account for art. […] And then I decided to go full out on creating an art business when I stopped going to work at the start of Covid. So, I spent my stimulus check on my new iPad Pro and Apple Pencil. And I began teaching myself how to paint digitally. So, I didn’t have any formal training, I just watched a lot of tutorials as I had all the time in the world since I didn’t work.”

All the causes and effects of the Pandemic, and of course all its eventual outcomes, are yet to be seen. Some of the effects I’ve been interested in is how the Pandemic will affect things music, writing and art. While the effects of the Pandemic on live performance have been devastating, the effects on online media have been particularly positive, and Mason’s story is an example of this.

What potential is lying in wait for those who can seek it? What opportunities might have been shaken loose by the world in wake of catastrophe? What experiments with art, music, writing, business, travel and so on are hanging ripe and ready to be picked by those who reach out to grasp them?

Of course, Mason’s story is not as simple as this, and the subject matter underlying his artwork is not something arbitrary he stumbled on one day. Mason’s art has roots spread across a number of creative genres, intellectual traditions and religious and occult teachings, and these roots of course dig into Mason’s own personal history.

The subjects and settings of Mason’s pieces vary widely, though they bimodally tend toward either the surreal or the occult, with both containing dark or weird elements.

Many pieces depict strange, monstrous entities, giants with flayed skin and flesh, or prehistoric, alien wastelands. In one image, there is a tropical landscape with a river or lake at its center. In the foreground is a woman or girl in a white dress, and in the background is a tentacled behemoth with a transparent, grid-lined head. This gives the impression not only of some dark, aquatic god wandering deep in some primal landscape, untouched by humanity, but of something that exists outside the bounds of knowledge and reason, something existing beneath, through and above our reality.

In another image, the skeletons of dinosaurs wander and fly through a dead, desert landscape. There is an eye hanging above the desert, beaming red light onto the land below it, and the hybrid of a skull and nautilus shell in the foreground. This seems almost like a mix between Salvador Dali’s surrealism and the imagination of weird sci-fi pulp authors.

Another depicts a woman held in the clouds by the tentacled embrace of some half-seen monstrosity, dangling in the heavens like a goddess in the embrace of an otherworldly demon-god.

On the darker and more occult side, there are depictions of skeleton, abyssal entities haunting the depths of forests, or fiery, volcanic bull-gods emerging in ashen storms from the violent eruptions of a volcano. Many pieces depict the body in a half-corpse form, or even as a completely mangled body devoid of any humanity.

There’s an unsettling violence done unto the body, an anti-worship of the flesh as foul, horrible, mangled subject than as something beautiful or sacred. The bloody, fleshy chaos beneath our skin is exposed, revealing the madness of the true human form we all try to ignore. Perhaps these fleshy, maddening bodies are one in the same with the fleshy, tentacled bodies of the ancient gods that roam primeval and ruined landscapes of ancient and forgotten realms.

There is a disfigured, horrifying creature that lurks just under our skins, and we constantly seek to ignore this vile, terrible vision, just as we constantly seek to ignore the terrible visions of reality and the cosmos that lurk just under the illusions of our perception. The monsters Mason depicts stalking the woods, lumbering through jungles or peering through caves are monsters stalking, lumbering and peering through our own perception of reality—the fear we have of what hunts in the dark; the dread of those forces we cannot understand, cannot reason with, cannot intervene upon; the anxiety of being seen, being watched, being known by things unknowable; and the imposed self-ignorance of the chaos beneath our skin.

Addressing how Mason came up with his ideas, he said:

“I always keep a note page of ideas so that whenever I hear a word or phrase that I like, I just write it down in my ‘idea cauldron’ haha. That way I always have content to pull from. But usually I go off whatever idea I’m super into at that moment. I follow the idea and then make something from that. I also like to consume media a lot because seeing and reading and observing is what will start the sparks of ideas in my head. Consuming topics I’m interested in is like the gas to the fire of my brain in a way. It fuels my creativity.

“[…] usually I like to free associate. So, I open my mind when consuming any kind of media to allow thoughts to connect and make new ideas. So, super imagery-heavy texts like The Divine Comedy allow my brain to make connections and basically brainstorm in real time. Sometimes, a simple phrase can trigger some sort of connection in my head that I then visualize and write down what I’m thinking so I can [actualize] it later. A lot of what I make usually comes from just reading articles about topics I’m into or source material from those topics. One book that I pull ideas from often is the book of House of Leaves. The fascination of an imperceptible paradox challenges me to dive deeper and really try to personify what should be impersonifiable.”

I found Mason’s style of generating ideas quite interesting, and his methods of free association harkened back to some of my favorite thinkers: the psychoanalysts. There’s a blend of conscious effort and unconscious “fishing” or “farming”, where one goes out and consciously gathers various ideas, lets them grow and blend in the unconscious, and gather whatever fish or fruit come to the surface. This half-conscious, half-unconscious approach is definitely reflected in many of his pieces.

Mason spoke at length about the sprawling collection of influences that inspired his work, much of which I resonated with as personal influences or inspirations as well:

“[…] a lot of my art is obviously on the darker side, thematically. That’s just honestly the kind of stuff I’ve always been interested in. Growing up in a strict Catholic household, and going to Catholic school, I know much more about the Bible and Christianity than most. I never really bought into religion, however, I fixated on the darker aspects of the faith as early as 5 years old. The idea of fire and brimstone, Lucifer and Revelation were so fascinating to me. So, I dug deeper, and began to incorporate those elements into my writing, which was easy to transfer over to my art.

“I started reading books on these subjects and the imagery of hell and devils, The Divine Comedy and Paradise Lost being two of my favorites. Such beautiful imagery being used to describe such horrors really captivated my mind. It wasn’t until college that I started doing research on my own time into other forms of this literature. It’s almost as if it was sort of a subconscious rebellion against my upbringing to be naturally drawn to the most taboo topics. I started reading books on demonology, satanism, hermeticism, paganism, books on serial killers, the paranormal, true crime. And for some reason, delving into the darkest subjects was where I felt the most at ease.

“I really more recently started getting into the idea of cosmic horror. So, naturally I consumed all of HP Lovecraft, John Carpenter, Cronenberg, Albert Camus, etc. I loved the challenge that the genre posed to creatives—describing and depicting the unknowable and indescribable. I took these elements of the unknown and used what I’d learned in classes I took in college, namely a class on the American Gothic, and a Film Horror class. So, I guess I brought a completely different and unconventional set of skills and interests into art with no real knowledge on art theory. So, I could see art through a different lens than most artists.

“Other more passive influences would be artists of the surrealism movement, such as my favorite artists, Francis Bacon, as well as Salvador Dali and strangely enough his lesser-known poetry that he wrote. Again, I loved the ethereal and musical imagery they used.”

Thematically and visually, Mason draws on a number of disparate yet complementary creative traditions. From writers like Dante and Milton, we get dream-like or nightmarish, or even hallucinogenic, visions of hell and its denizens, and heaven and its lofty, inarticulable grandeur—which much of modern horror, fantasy and sci-fi still struggle to match in scope. From authors who mastered elements of either existential absurdism or cosmic nihilism—among the few who have managed to match the scope of ancient mythologies—Mason draws on the vastness of reality, the inexplicable nature of being that escapes humanity except in fleeting moments of enlightenment or maddening visions of the infinite. And then, from the surrealists, Mason blends these mythological and cosmic elements into artistic visions that carry the torch of modern art’s rebellious, reality-warping ventures.

However, these influences on Mason go deeper than just aesthetic considerations, and Mason explained to me how many of these influences impacted him and his outlook on life:

“Growing up in that [Catholic] environment was very repressive to growing emotionally mature. Entering adulthood, I felt very sheltered and naïve about the complicated grey nature of most things as opposed to the black and white, right and wrong view that Catholicism teaches. Thankfully, I was a curious child and always loved learning and attaining more knowledge on things I found interesting. So, this allowed me to learn to critically think, which led to a lot of questioning what I was being taught as I got older. I would research on my own, not just blindly follow an ideology that I didn’t believe in. I think that helped me to form this fascination with the grey that exists between good and evil, how there is actually a lot of beauty behind most concepts that we are afraid of.

“But people are so ingrained in believing that dark topics are bad and not to look into them. I began immersing myself in this world and finding that by not allowing the darkness into our minds, that we are repressing a major part of our nature. So, I let the dark thoughts in and let them have their space. And I found that the more I did this, the more I found peace and the less afraid I was of things like death, pain, horror, evil. They say the root of fear is that of the unknown. But a lot of times that’s because we don’t allow it to BE known. We shun the very idea of it. By letting it in and acknowledging it, it actually makes us less afraid.

“And as far as the Occult, if people took the time to really look into those ideas, they’d find that the methods of living these faiths suggest are much healthier emotionally and mentally than traditional religion. Applying these ideas into my mental health has actually made me so much happier in general than I used to be. Using magick and rituals are actually just a form of meditation and mindfulness. Creating sigils and doing rituals actually [act] as positive affirmation. At their core, it’s not about ‘worshipping demons, or believing in hell and monsters and suffering.’ It’s actually about believing in yourself. They teach you to create the positive change that you desire in life, as opposed to following archaic teachings rooted in fear of eternal damnation and a vengeful creator. These ideas open your mind to the grey area. It’s taught me how to be more emotionally healthy, much more empathetic, and just generally in tune with humanity.”

For some, it can be difficult to accept the beliefs and practices of others, and people often choose to close their minds—whether consciously or unconsciously—to the ways and wills of others.

While there are certainly some who take occult practices too far (just as anyone can take anything to far), I’ve always found Pagan and occult beliefs, from Wicca to Satanism, to be far different than most people assume.

Satanism, for example—easily the most misunderstood practice or belief system in the West—is focused on life-affirming actions, individualism and personal growth and self-education. Really, Satanism seems to be focused on freedom—on freeing oneself from constraints of society, from moral or cultural conformity, from intellectual or ideological tyranny—and, more particularly, the freedom to become the Individual one desires to become. While some aspects of such beliefs, such as the more hedonic side of Satanism some people practice, could come under practical scrutiny, the broader implications of Satanic practices and other occult or Pagan practices are to question and challenge authority and belief systems; break down barriers to sources of knowledge or different states of mind; and live life according to your own values, rather than values hand down to you by the dictates of society.

The darker aspects of occult practices and aesthetics are often not a worshiping or revelry in the horrors they depict, but an acknowledgement of them, as Mason explained. In conjunction with the ideas and states of mind society and culture can obstruct, or even attempt to annihilate, there are entire portions or aspects of reality that people try to hide or ignore. People try to hide, suppress or mask the realities of sex, violence and madness. People try to hide the extreme, indifferent cruelty of existence. People comfort themselves with illusory stories and narratives, and attack anyone who questions those narratives.

Occultism is often not a conformity or worship to these darker aspects of reality, or to another narrative involving these darker realities, but simply an acknowledgement of these things.

Mason’s art reveals these dark aspects. Mason’s art pushes down boundaries into the unknown, and opens doors of perception into darker vistas of the cosmos. Mason depicts visions of what most would want to avert their eyes and their minds from—showing us without fear the monsters, demons and dark gods that inhabit the grey spaces and the inarticulable architectures of the cosmos and the unconscious.

As previously mentioned, Mason has begun developing a business with his art, and is currently broadening his horizons online.

“Yeah actually since you sent me these questions I’ve opened up a print shop to sell merchandise on. I’m starting out with prints and in a bit I will start doing shirts and hoodies and stickers maybe! As far as album art goes, I’ve done some commissions doing album art and it’s been a good format for that. Now I just put some of my designs up on an art grab account so
people can buy the license to any of the pieces that I post and use it for whatever they want. It’s mainly intended for album art so I figured that may streamline the process for people looking for that kind of thing!

“I’m still exploring what other avenues there may be in regards to showcasing my art on a larger scale and finding new ways to monetize my stuff. Ideally I’d like to build my own website to use as a portfolio/blog so I don’t have to rely on Instagram’s fickle nature. It’s always a bit unnerving to know that they can shut me down or do whatever they want at any moment without my input, but it’s really been the best medium to build an audience.”

Give Mason some support by checking out his profile on Instagram, @bleede_art . There you can check out his artwork, follow him if you want see his art as it comes out, and check out the link to his merch and artwork.