The Fly (1986)
Dead Ringers (1988)
When talk turns to the career of David Cronenberg, it turns almost immediately to body horror. The Canadian director, whose career has been so long and varied that it has involved a number of original scripts and several literary adaptations (all imbued with a healthy dose of Canuxploitation and Splatter), has become known as something of the grand auteur of the visceral horror of bodily transformation.
A popular fringe subgenre, body horror involves mutation, disfigurement, parasitism and unsettling bodily configuration. (1) Much like the Werewolf subgenre, it plays on the primal fear of bodily transformation, rooted in the psychosexual, in puberty, in the animalistic ‘other’ and in loss of control of one’s own self. Horror is, of course, no stranger to empowering narratives for marginalised people, and recently, Cronenberg’s most visceral, most visually unsettling and disturbing output, has contributed to conversations of transgender cinema.
The notion of transgender cinema tropes in horror comes not without a serious note of caution. It is horror, after all, a genre that deals in death and destruction and attempts to terrify and repulse audiences in equal measure through the notion of the ‘other’. Horror movies have often been used as fuel for moral panic, and Cronenberg’s own body of work has on occasion been used by internet trolls to highlight images of “unnecessary” (in fact life-affirming, even life-saving) surgery in service of creating a viral propaganda. This is something that transphobes will happily sew into their bigoted narratives – after all, what better way to advocate the dehumanizing of a marginalised group than to compare them to a horror movie monster? It is a tale almost as old as cinema itself.
I myself remain cautious in tackling transgender themes in horror, because as a cishet man I do not feel qualified to talk about it with any authority. However, when explored by authentic voices, relative to their own experiences (voices I hope to highlight in this piece), the horror film (and Cronenberg in particular) can aid in productive, progressive and positive conversations. As it is Pride month, and I wanted to contribute towards those conversations somehow as an ally, and it was in trying to help without centring myself that determined the aim of this first piece in my Cronenberg series: to shine a light on the discussions being had by trans, non-binary and genderqueer folks within the horror community. To show how the narrative of body horror in the Canadian's oeuvre can reveal positive, affirming themes of benefit to a marginalised community. Understanding that my modest audience is mostly made up of heteronormative folks, and if I can help direct you towards some of the insightful pieces being written by diverse, authentic voices, then hopefully I have been of some small use.
The human brain is brilliant at talking itself into embracing an adrenalized fear, one that can surface in the form of anxiety, anger, stress, sadness, discontent, or any variation of emotional upheaval. Film recognizes the power of these feelings, and manufactures it in order to hit the same synapses. When combining this with themes that resonate with a person’s own lived experience, this ensures a visceral and, for some, quite life-affirming experience.
Netty Rodriguez Arauz first encountered evidence of positive transgender themes in horror cinema with Clive Barker’s Hellraiser. In the fledgling director’s adaptation of his own novella, the film’s Cenobites were presented as an ‘other’ that crucially was not the villain of the film. Frank and Julia, cishet lovers (albeit with a number of sexual kinks that saw them occupy the fringes of cinematic characterisation themselves), were the antagonists, killing in order to continue their relationship and fulfil their perverse sexual desires. Kirsty, the protagonist, an American girl in England, is herself an ‘outsider’ (if not an ‘other’, per se), and the Cenobites occupy the margins, creatures from another dimension (for Leviathan is often called Hell, but bears no connection to the biblical Hell made canon by Dante Alighieri in The Divine Comedy) who no more fit the archetype of the 1980s horror villain than they do that of binary gender. Despite there being a “female cenobite” listed in the credits, I never considered the Cenobites to fit the binary understanding of gender, not even back in 1987 when I had no concept of anything other than ‘boys and girls’ in the now outdated sense.
Rodriguez Arauz explores their understanding of their own gender identity via an adolescent experience of watching Hellraiser:
“Hellraiser isn’t overtly queer per se, it also ISN’T overtly heteronormative/”straight” either. It’s uncomfortable, just like the 80s were.” (2) The writer discusses an attraction to the ‘otherness’ of the Cenobites, a desire to join them. Rodriguez Arauz notes the similarity between Hellraiser and the body horror films of Cronenberg in socializing us in the idea of bodily transformation rather than using it purely to elicit repulsion. Recognizing that an experience can be both horrific and liberating allows us to explore many marginalized ways of being through the experience of the ‘other’ in horror, but in body horror there may be a queer experience that does more than just co-opt, more than just equate queer with monster.
Rabid (1975) began Cronenberg’s body horror themes with its tale of Rose (Marilyn Chambers). After a motorcycle accident, Rose is forced to undergo surgery, and later develops an orifice under her armpit. From this psychosexual cavity, a phallic stinger grows, which feeds on blood and spreads a terrible infection across Quebec and Montreal. Like the later The Fly (1986), Rabid is initially viewed as a rather ominous foreshadowing of the AIDS ‘epidemic’ of the 1980s which unfortunately killed many and was erroneously considered (by conservative, reactionary voices) to be the fault of the gay community.
Caden Gardner and Willow Maclay recognise that at the centre of Cronenberg’s cinema is trauma, and that this provides the transgender link. Maclay suggests that the hallucinatory quality of trauma in Cronenberg’s cinema has particular resonance, as hallucinations “take the real world and make it strange, and…that’s how we perceive things”. (3)
Samwise Lastname agrees, recounting a memory of discovering the cinema of body horror and a level of fascination that “in retrospect…made a lot of sense”. (4) Dysphoria is not something that can be easily prepared for, and discovery of body horror has helped with “navigating intimacy in a ‘wrong’ body” (4) and the erotic element that runs side by side with the physical horror is attractive in that it gives the characters a sense of mystique and intrigue beyond the ‘monster’. Lastname discusses Cronenberg not without a note of discomfort that those same monsters commit sexual violence on the ‘normal’ characters. Rabid’s Rose does this repeatedly, gaining violent carnal knowledge of her victims by stabbing them with her phallic stinger, and infecting them with a new strain of rabies. Rose even infects the patrons of a sex cinema, further hammering home the angle of sexualized violence.
In Videodrome (1983), sex and violence blur in a number of ways, and Cronenberg begins to use imagery that more overtly suggests a trans narrative. Gardner and Maclay note that when James Woods’ character finds a vulva-like crevice in his sunken chest, he reacts with fear and panic not far removed from dysphoria, and what follows represents something akin to suicidal ideation. (3) This could be read as a quite controversial image, of a violent fantasy, but Gardner gives Cronenberg more credit: “I recall Cronenberg saying that he believes everyone has control, with varying degrees of complete grip, over their identities”. (3) He goes on to posit that Cronenberg’s worlds make sense for young trans people despite their surrealism and visceral images, as they show people going on a self-discovery that is imperfect and prone to trial and error, but that this is down to “fallibility (rather) than damnation”. (3)
Dead Ringers (1988) offers a very different take on body horror to Cronenberg’s entries so far, in that it deals with the melodrama of identical twin gynaecologists Beverly and Elliot Mantle (Jeremy Irons) and with their patient and sometime lover Claire, (Geneviève Bujold) who has a mutant cervix.
Levin Tan considers Dead Ringers’ self-realisation theme to mirror their own non-binary transgender experiences on a psychological level. In an intriguing and accomplished essay, Tan explains that the Mantle twins represent extreme masculinity and femininity. (5) Of course Elliot is the epitome of toxic masculinity, cynically using his practice to seduce and bed women, then tossing them aside when he is bored. His professional position is one of influence and authority, which he uses for very personal and cynical (mostly sexual, in a search for fleeting self-satisfaction rather than any meaningful connection); Beverly is shy, sensitive and passive, has what many would consider a woman’s name, and very much occupies the feminine end of the spectrum.
Where Tan’s theory really starts to come together is in examination of Claire’s role in the narrative. She presents with a trifurcate cervix, which is important for a number of reasons. As Tan explains, genitalia and the ability to bear children are traits often weaponized by transphobes to exclude trans women from their ‘experience’ of womanhood. (5) Definitions such as ‘natal women' and ‘adult human female’ are adopted for no reason other than to exclude trans women, as are taunts of ‘penis’ to suggest the lack of a vagina defines them. The oft-repeated cry that only those who can give birth to a baby are true women is weaponized biology to marginalise and invalidate trans women, but of course they also ostracise any woman unable to bear children, and give no thought to trans men, some of whom can still get pregnant and carry a child to full term while clearly presenting as male. Nor does the tactic take into account persons born with intersex conditions.
Claire, of course, has mutated reproductive organs and will never bear children. In the small but vocal cult of the ‘gender-critical’, ‘gender-free’ or ‘sex-not-gender’ transphobes, Claire represents this marginalised ‘other’. In addition, her attitude (assertive, self-assured) suggests traits of masculinity, further blurring her gender identity.
Thus, Claire exists in a place that shows the binary notion of gender to be archaic, outmoded and incorrect. If Elliot is GI Joe, and Beverly is Barbie (the children's toys that help illlustrate the toxic absurdity of the notion of binary gender), Claire is neither – instead, she lies somewhere in between.
But Claire is much more than her biology. She has sexual autonomy, indulges in kinks, and is able to have a sexual relationship with both the masculine Elliot and feminine Beverly, suggesting her sexuality may also be something other than the very much heterosexual or homosexual norms. Perhaps Bi, perhaps Pan…perhaps it doesn’t matter. Claire eventually embarks upon a relationship with Beverly, feeling attracted to his feminine traits and thereby shunning Elliot’s masculinity. Though she is initially used by Elliot, Claire’s ‘otherness’ makes her an altogether stronger character than either of the Mantle brothers: she is liberated and celebrated, while they descend into self-destruction. Claire exists in an impenetrable space between traditional notions of male and female (with the addition that the characters exhibiting the traditional notions both present as male) and her existence within Dead Ringers' narrative creates enough confusion (for the audience) to necessitate a different way of thinking about gender identity when it comes to both the Mantle brothers and to Claire.
Tan’s essay What Transpires Within: Self-realisation and Trans Narratives in ‘Dead Ringers’ (5) tackles Aaron Devor’s Fourteen Stage Model of Transsexual Identity Formation, and goes in-depth on the identity crisis that befalls both Mantle twins. I will make no attempt to summarize this here – go read Tan’s work in order to truly appreciate their insight.
Prior to Dead Ringers, Cronenberg had already taken the idea of physical and psychosexual transformation to horrific extremes in his 1986 remake of Kurt Neumann’s 1958 The Fly. Lukas and Marmysz consider the position that “remakes accomplish nothing more than to cheapen filmic discourse.” which in itself suggests that any remake must be “derivative, formulaic, and lacking in creativity or artistic inspiration”, (6) when in fact horror remakes can be among the most fertile ground for exploration and innovation. Lukas and Marmysz take the view that “remakes of horror, science fiction, and fantasy films have the potential to reveal something to us about our recurrent fears, anxieties, and hopes for the future”. (6) In The Fly, Cronenberg uses George Langelaan’s rather quaint 1957 take on Kafka’s Metamorphosis (and Kurt Neumann’s film adaptation of the following year) as no more than a starting point, eschewing the original’s melodrama to create a treatise on fear of transformation.
Jeff Goldblum’s Seth Brundle is Cronenberg’s creature about to undergo transformation. Initially a mixture of arrogance and childlike naivety, revelling in an invention that is going to see him immortalized in the annals of science. That Brundle is so childlike, so full of nervous energy, paints him as almost prepubescent, an act that is of course deliberate: as a precursor to his imminent transformation, it feeds the audience subconscious. When Brundle’s metamorphosis begins, Cronenberg treats us to a crude caricature of puberty, repulsive and absurd all at once. After an initial increase in strength, intellect and carnal appetite, the transformation is heading not into a chrysalis but into a coffin. Brundle’s skin breaks down, then bits start falling off, first his teeth and hair, then his ear and then, of course, his penis. Brundlefly becomes something completely else, foreign to what he was before. Neither man nor woman but (sadly) a monster. The transformation brings Brundle nothing but pain and misery for the remaining days of Brundlefly’s short, tragic life. In a way, Brundle is rejecting puberty. He abhors what it has done to him, turning his body into something repulsive, and ultimately tries to take Geena Davis’ Ronnie (real name Veronica, but shortened to Ronnie in yet another act of gender confusion) character through the teleportation process with him, in the hope that being combined with her female body will ‘fix’ him. This does not work out for Brundlefly, whose inevitable death is all the more tragic when it comes.
Consider Dysphoria. This profound state of unease or dissatisfaction, often coupled with depression, anxiety or agitation. When the term is expanded to refer to gender dysphoria, it refers to the experience of someone whose gender identity does not align with their sex assigned at birth. Believed to have biological as well as psychological causes, the dysphoria experience is essentially one of being trapped in a body that you do not recognise as yours. (7) The medical profession now recommends the use of puberty-blocking medicines to halt the onset of puberty in transgender children, thus helping to better manage the trans child's anxieties and making eventual reassignment surgery an easier experience. Seth Brundle/Brundlefly could be considered to be exhibiting dysphoria at the time of puberty. He rejects his body, rejects the changes enforced by a puberty that he did not ask for. In attempting to drag Ronnie through the teleportation process with him, is Brundle making a desperate attempt at gender reassignment surgery?
In queer circles, The Fly has previously been known as an AIDS allegory, particularly with regard to Geena Davis’ character. Her worry that she is the victim of Brundle’s sexually transmitted ‘condition’ manifests in a dream sequence where she gives birth to a repellent creature. Gardner and Maclay discuss in some depth what importance the films of this cisgender filmmaker have in ‘Transgender Cinema’: “Cronenberg really seemed to get how much of a personal terror it is to not feel like you’re present in your own body, with your skin morphing and deteriorating in such gross, disturbing ways. Dysphoria was not as gross as a Cronenberg film to me, but boy it can feel that way”. (3) They note the AIDS allegory present in the narrative of The Fly, but are more drawn to themes of “the body as a vessel for chaos and the horror of that lack of control (that is) a trans story”. (3)
Discussion by relevant, responsible, authentic voices (and I must state clearly that I am not one of those voices, though I hope to be considered an ally) ensures that Cronenberg’s works have a new lease of life in 2019, contributing to awareness of issues faced by marginalised communities. His returning themes of “bodies in complete disarray and characters grappling with various levels of control with their bodies” (3) provides ample food for thought with regard to transgender narratives in cinema. The writers cited here (all of whom you should go read immediately) highlight all the ways in which Cronenberg’s visceral body horror can be used to support queer identity conversations and may empower individuals in coming to terms with their own identities.
Thanks for reading! Please do go and discover the wonderful writers I have cited and check out their incredibly insightful writings on genre cinema. Please leave a comment below if you can, and join us next week for the second installment of this Cronenberg treatise.
1 TV Tropes (no date) Body horror. [online] Available at: https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/BodyHorror [Accessed 9 March 2019]
2 Rodriguez Arauz, N (2019) Puzzle Boxes [online] VULTURE BONES: Spec Fic from Trans & Enby Voices. Available at: https://www.vulturebonesmag.com/04-02-puzzle-boxes-eneri-rodriguez-arauz [Accessed 9 March 2019]
3 Maclay, W (2018) Body Talk: Conversations on Transgender Cinema with Caden Gardner: Part Six [online] Available at: http://curtsiesandhandgrenades.blogspot.com/2018/06/body-talkconversations-on-transgender.html?m=1 [Accessed 9 March 2019]
4 Lastname, Samwise (2017) Antiviral: a Transgender Take on Body Horror [online] Available at: https://genderterror.com/2017/06/29/antiviral-a-transgender-take/ [Accessed 9 March 2019]
5 Tan, L (2018) What Transpires Within: Self-realisation and Trans Narratives in ‘Dead Ringers’ [online] Available at: https://muchadoaboutcinema.com/2018/07/28/what-transpires-within-self-realisation-and-trans-narratives-in-dead-ringers/ [Accessed 10 March 2019]
6 Lukas, S. and Marmysz, J (2009) Fear, Cultural Anxiety, and Transformation: Horror, Science Fiction, and Fantasy Films Remade. 1st ed. Plymouth: Lexington Books
7 Merriam-Webster (no date) gender dysphoria noun [online] Available from: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/gender%20dysphoria [Accessed 10 March 2019]
The son of a VHS pirate, Matt Rogerson became a horror fan at a tender young age. A student of the genre, he is currently writing his first book (about Italian horror and the Vatican) and he believes horror cinema is in the middle of a new golden age.
Have you listened to our HORROR Podcast? This week on Beyond The Void Horror Podcast . We have on a special guest Brian from Terrible Terror Podcast joins to talk about some Mexican Slasher movies that we break down in hilarity. These supernatural slashers are not messing around. You need to hear us tell you about them. Check it out! Listen/Subscribe on iTunes here!