It is October 9th 1944.
The 28 year old Professor Trevor ‘Broom’ Bruttenholm (Kevin Trainor), paranormal advisor to the US President, is on a classified mission to an island off the Scottish coast. There, in a derelict Abbey built on the intersection of leylines – ‘boundaries between this world and the others’ – Nazis are opening a portal to another dimension. They are assisted by Grigori Efimovich Rasputin, occult adviser to the Romanovs who somehow survived that night in 1916 when he was ‘poisoned, shot, stabbed, clubbed, castrated and drowned’. Their shared goal (although Rasputin clearly has a different agenda) is to free from their crystal prison the ‘monstrous entities’ known as the ‘Ogdru Jahad – the Seven Gods of Chaos’, who are destined to ‘reclaim the Earth … and burn the heavens’.
Hellboy (del Toro 2004) then gives us a brief glimpse of this infernal otherwhere and, within it, of a monstrous eye becoming aware of the portal, of the Earth. Then the Americans attack, and Rasputin is dragged into the portal by energies beyond his control. Broom manages to close it, but not before something comes through.
There then follows a peculiar sequence which reworks an old gag I first saw on 27 December 1973 at the end of ‘The Baby Arrives’, an episode of Some Mothers Do ’Ave ’Em; others may recognise it from the 1995 Simpsons episode, ‘And Maggie Makes Three’. It goes something like this: A proud father holds up his newborn infant, glimpses beneath the blanket in which it is wrapped, and proudly boasts that this well-endowed child is indeed his son. ‘No,’ the doctor steps in to explain, ‘it’s a girl – that’s the umbilical cord’.
The US soldiers comb the ruins. Broom and his escort, Cpl. Matlin (Jim Howick), find themselves in a damp, dark crypt. It is decorated with ancient relief sculptures that depict entities – they look as much like monkeys as demons – fanning the flames beneath a hellish cauldron. There is a scuttling noise. Something is in there with them. Matlin glimpses it in the beam of his torch and fires wildly. Broom tells him to lower the torch. The light is scaring it.
It is something small and strange. Like a red ape.
More soldiers rush into the crypt.
It has a big stone in its hand, says Matlin.
No, Broom corrects him, that is its hand.
Look at the size of that whammer!, exclaims Sgt Whitman (Angus MacInnes). (The shape of the creature’s giant hand recalls that of the massive device Rasputin wore on his forearm to open the portal, though no-one notices or comments on this.)
The soldiers raise their weapons, but Broom intercedes. With a couple of Babe Ruth candy bars, he lures the creature down into a blanket, into his arms. He turns to the soldiers, like a new father.
It’s a boy, he explains.
It’s just a baby boy, says Matlin.
Some time later that morning, once the sun is up, the soldiers stand in a group around the creature so Matlin can take their photograph. Broom’s voiceover – spoken by John Hurt, who plays the older Broom through the rest of the film – says: An unready father for an unwanted child. The boys gave him a name that very night – in retrospect, perhaps not the most fortunate. But nevertheless a name we all came to use. We called him Hellboy. The picture is taken. The image freezes, turns to black and white, and blows away into the movie’s title sequence.
No intersex or other sex here, just plain old biological dimorphism and the hysterical overdetermination of masculine identity. A masculine identity confirmed not so much by those phallic appendages – the horns, the stone fist – but by an urgent insistence on placing this creature in a patriarchal order as, effectively, Broom’s son in an effort to overcome the unease that might arise from its vivid alterity. Like rights legislation and other measures around disability, this naming and adoption seems ‘designed to minimize or cover over’ corporeal differences and their effects instead of fully acknowledging them (Shildrick 53).
Margrit Shildrick, glossing Emmanuel Levinas’ Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority (87), writes:
the initial response to the unknown stranger may be no less than murderous; we would kill what seems to threaten us. Such a reaction chimes with the encounter with the monstrous, but the point Levinas wants to make is that the threat is apparent only, the violence is all mine. Though the other infinitely exceeds my power, it arises not through the exercise of force, but by the overflowing of every idea I can have of him. (91)
Broom’s persuasive defence of the monstrous infant is a remarkable sleight of hand, situated as it is between the massively overdetermined evil of comic book Nazi occultists and a white – and whitewashed – US military.1
In biopolitical terms, Broom’s apparent refusal of violence towards this other draws the monster from the realm of zöe (the mere biological life shared by humans and other species) into the realm of bios (the life of the citizen, of those judged to be properly human). It is precisely the opposite of the gesture which climaxes Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Reeves 2014), in which Caesar (Andy Serkis), the leader of the apes, reaffirms the importance of ape society’s foundational rule, ‘ape not kill ape’, before telling the rebellious ape, Koba (Toby Kebbell), ‘you are not ape’. This declaration of a state of exception ‘justifies’ Caesar’s decision to execute Koba, letting him fall to his death, without jeopardising his own position within the lawful community of apes.
Broom’s generous hospitality towards the red demon monkey infant exceeds that extended to many of Jim Crow America’s own citizens of colour, and to others whose embodiment ‘failed’ tests of normativity. But although his welcome and saving of the stranger seems like a refusal of the violence within himself, it is ultimately only an apparent refusal. This other is too capacious and heterogenous, too large, too excessive for the ideas with which Broom would constrain it; and yet, that is what Broom does. It is a boy, he declares, transforming it into his son, asserting and assuring masculine and patrilineal privilege. The poor thing is no sooner in the human world than it is interpellated, has a subject position foisted upon it.
This is, in part, what Donna Haraway means when she writes that
Organisms emerge from a discursive process. (298)
Later in the same essay, she teases human beings for using
names to point to themselves and other[s] (313)
and for so
easily … mistak[ing] the names for the things. … But the things … do not pre-exist as … fully pre-packaged … referents for the names. … Boundaries take provisional, never-finished shape in articulatory practices. (313)
Jacques Derrida describes this process in a similar way. He describes the monster as
a composite figure of heterogeneous organisms that are grafted onto each other. This graft, this hybridization, this composition that puts heterogeneous bodies together may be called a monster. (385)
And the monster cannot help but make
one aware of what normality is
and of the history and contingency of that normality:
But a monster is not just that, it is not just this chimerical figure in some way that grafts one animal onto another, one living being onto another. A monster is always alive … The monster is also that which appears for the first time and, consequently, is not yet recognized. A monster is a species for which we do not yet have a name, which does not mean that the species is abnormal, namely the composition or hybridization of already known species. Simply, it shows itself … But as soon as one perceives a monster in a monster, one begins to domesticate it, one begins … to compare it to the norm, to analyze it, consequently to master whatever could be terrifying in this figure of the monster. (386)
We can see another version of this naming/interpellating scene in Hellboy II: The Golden Army (del Toro 2008).
After a running battle in the troll market hidden away beneath New York, Hellboy stops to pet an infant held at its troll mother’s breast, patting it and saying, ‘Nice baby’. The baby turns to him and responds, ‘I’m not a baby, I’m a tumour’.
It is a curious moment, as this being evades the identity imposed on it not just by Hellboy but also by our perceptions, only to speak another identity – a pathologising one from medical discourse, which it also clearly exceeds: tumours are not sentient, do not speak.
A more unnerving version of this process can be observed in the Pale Man from El laberinto del fauno/Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). This creature has no eyes in his head; instead, they are located in the palms of his hands. Yet at key moment he raises his hands to his face so as to position his eyes where they would be, approximately, if he were a human. This uncanny semblance of humanity signifies the sheer potency of normativity, how it domesticates and distorts the other.
Donna Haraway points out that
the world has always been in the middle of things, in unruly and practical conversation, full of action and structured by a startling array of actants and of networking and unequal collectives (304).
So we should not assume that the imposition of identity is a singular or ever-complete occurrence; it is an always-ongoing negotiation between multiple agents on a never-level playing field.
We see the open-ended negotiation of identity as the Hellboy movies unfold.
Hellboy, coming from Hell, is fireproof. One of the other agents in the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense, Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), is a pyrokinetic – able to generate fire, and shape and control it, except when emotion (the silly woman!) causes her to lose control. Then, fires rage.
These complementary abilities make their heterosexual union seem natural, normal, preordained. Which, as much as Hellboy’s tendency to be a jackass, might be the reason Liz resists being in a relationship with him.
Liz is visually coded as a lesbian (although the only other person we see her consider dating is a man), and depicted as a self-harming neurotic suffering from depression. Until, that is, she fulfils her destiny, and is fully domesticated as the mother of Hellboy’s child – just as Hellboy himself is recovering from the death of Broom, his surrogate father, and taking on the mantle of paternity implied by Broom’s initial recognition of the red monkey demon as ‘a boy’.
Actually, though, Liz is pregnant with twins. Which returns us to that troubling, but potentially utopian, excessiveness of the other, which throughout western history has been strongly associated with women’s bodies. For the twins to survive the womb, and for Liz to survive the pregnancy, they must presumably share a complementarity – akin to that between Liz and Hellboy – so that none of them destroys the others. They are (or, perhaps, it is) a becoming, chaotically organised around multiplicity. This emergent cluster of bodies, and at some stage subjects, mutually developing in relation to each other exceeds the rigidly demarcated monadic subject – as with any pregnancy.2
When the twins – whether male, female, one of each or two of something else, or just one being distributed across two or maybe even more bodies – are born, how will they (or it) emerge into the world?
How will these new others be greeted?
And will their inherited powers and complementarity be such that the only partners they can find who are capable of surviving sex with them are – as with Hellboy and Liz – each other?
If they do take male and female form, how will the heteronormative sense of being a preordained couple because of their complementarity work if, in their case, it breaks incest taboos (just as Hellboy and Liz break taboos about interspecies sex)?
As long as Hellboy 3 remains a vague plan, these problems and possibilities remain open-ended – like the world, in the middle of things.
1 President Truman’s Executive Order 9981 desegregating the US military was not issued until 26 July 1948, and other major civil rights legislation overturning Jim Crow in the US is still a decade or more in the future of when the film is set.
2 Remember the troll baby who is really a tumour? Jackie Stacey, among others, has noted that the cancer cell, like the fetus, is ‘produced by the body’, is ‘Neither self nor other’ but ‘both the same as and different from its host’ (77).
Jacques Derrida, Points…Interviews, 1976-1994. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995.
Donna Haraway ‘The Promises of Monsters: A Regenerative Politics for Inappropriate/d Others’. In Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson and Paula A. Treichler, eds, Cultural Studies. New York: Routledge, 1992. 295–337.
Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority. Pittsburgh” Duquesne University Press, 1969.
Margrit Shildrick, Embodying the Monster: Encounters with the Vulnerable Self. London: Sage, 2002.
Jackie Stacey, Teratologies: A Cultural Study of Cancer. London: Routledge, 1997.
This post is extracted from a paper, ‘Disability, Monsters, Utopia: Some Lessons from Guillermo del Toro’, delivered at Disability Studies/Science Fiction, Universität zu Köln, 28–29 November 2014. Thanks to Olga Tarapata and Hanjo Berressem for the invitation to participate, to Ria Cheyne and Margrit Shildrick for their supportive comments, and to the captive audience of grad students for asking so many smart and useful questions.
Some version of it might appear in a book on monsters I am thinking about writing (cos, you know, they love to fund research leave for stuff like that).
I will post another extract – about Pacific Rim – when I have time to write it up a bit.