The Wicker Tree (Robin Hardy 2011)

MV5BMTkyNzkyODE5N15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNjUxNzIxNw@@._V1_SX214_AL_and so anyway it turns out that the best thing about The Wicker Tree (2011) is not as I initially thought its ability to transform those memories of the Nicolas Cage Wicker Man remake into fond memories of the Nicolas Cage Wicker Man remake, but its ability to make you realise that they were always fond memories…

Carrie (Kimberly Peirce 2013)

Carrie_Domestic_One-sheetand so anyway it turns out the best thing about Carrie (2013) is the moment when you remember that back in 1988 the Royal Shakespeare Company decided it would be a good idea to blow the best part of $10 million on a flop Broadway musical version, but it turns out the very worst thing about it comes a moment later when you realise you would much rather be in the stalls, singing along and soaked in pig’s blood…

Z is for Zombies

Zombies are to us as we are to what we could be.

Zombie narratives try to make us side with the worst of us against the most of us. (Accumulation by) dispossession shall be the whole of the law.

Zombies are the twenty-first century’s bomb-throwing anarchists, its beardy dirigibilists raining incendiary terror from the air. Destroy destroy destroy so a new world will rise from the ashes. But, as always, the destruction is welcomed by the architects of perpetual immiseration. Ultimately, the zombies work for them.

Zombies who struggle to retain or regain their humanity lack ambition. When zoe is all you are, why settle for the same old bios?

Zombies are metaphors, and zombie metaphors hang around long after they should have been shot in the head. Beat ’em or burn ’em, they go up pretty easy.

Wrapping Up Hellboy’s Penis: del Toro, disability, The Devil’s Backbone and Blade

Guillermo del Toro, by Carlos Chavira
Guillermo del Toro, by Carlos Chavira

This is the promised follow-up post to  ‘On Hellboy’s Penis’ and ‘On the Back of Hellboy’s Penis: Pacific Rim‘ . Once it is out there, I will stop using the words ‘Hellboy’ and ‘Penis’ in close conjunction to clickbait y’all.

One of the curious features of Guillermo del Toro’s films thus far is that they all contain characters with disabilities or who become disabled through injury in some way during the course of the action – most often people with legs that are damaged or only partially functional. This ranges from De la Guardia (Claudio Brook), the billionaire villain seeking immortality through the eponymous device in Cronos (1993), who lives in a sterile environment and spiders around on a pair of crutches to signify his waning powers as a form of castration (but also because at least since Shakespeare’s Richard III ‘being crippled’ signifies villainy), to the  Republican guerrilla who, injured by fascists, has his leg amputated in El laberinto del fauna/Pan’s Labyrinth (2006).

Although such characters are usually not particularly well thought through, what makes them interesting is that they are often situated among monsters, which by their very nature raise questions about what are considered normal or normative bodies and abilities.

devilsbackbonethe_640x360Far and away the most interesting of these characters is Carmen (Marisa Paredes) in El espinazo del diablo/The Devil’s Backbone (2001), who runs a remote boarding school/orphanage, sheltering the children of those fighting for the Spanish Republic or whose parents have been killed by the fascists. A woman in her mid-fifties, she regularly has sex with Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega), a handyman half her age. She has no feelings for him – it is just a matter of her sexual pleasure – and he goes along with it in order to gain access to her set of keys, one of which will unlock the hidden safe in which she stores gold to fund the Republican cause. She also has lost one of her legs at the knee, and we several times see her remove or replace her prosthetic lower limb.

Jacinto finally blows up the safe, only to find it empty. Later, Carmen’s body is found among the rubble, the gold concealed within her artificial leg. It is a fascinating image, this gold among the rubble, this hidden fold within which treasure is found, this older sexual woman who is not at all an object of repulsion or criticism.


Blade (Wesley Snipes) can be understood in terms of disability (he is part vampire and thirsts for blood because of this condition, for which he self-medicates) and of extra ability (he is a vampire, with all the powers that implies, but he is unaffected by sunlight). In the Blade (Norrington 1998), a film in which del Toro was not involved, a potential genetic cure for Blade’s vampirism is extrapolated from experimental treatments for sickle-cell anaemia. Blade ultimately refuses it, in a heavily coded moment that is also all about staying black. In Blade II (del Toro Blade-Wesley-Snipes12002), the vampires conduct genetic experiments to ‘cure’ themselves of their inability to go out in daylight.

Blade’s peculiar situation – a person with a disability, a person with superpowers – is really useful for beginning to think through superhero narratives, which, whatever else they might do, profoundly relativise ability. As Scott Bukatman wrote, in an essay on Superman and Spider-Man (among others), ‘Through the superhero, we gain a freedom of movement not constrained by the ground-level order imposed by the urban grid’ (188). That is, only the superhero is adequate to the environments we build for ourselves; the merely human – regardless of ‘ability’ – is not.

Scott Bukatman, Matters of Gravity: Special Effects and Supermen in the 21st Century. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003.

This post and the related ones, ‘On Hellboy’s Penis’ and ‘On the Back of Hellboy’s Penis: Pacific Rim’  are extracted from ‘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 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).

On the Back of Hellboy’s Penis: Pacific Rim

bg_0This is the promised follow-up to my recent post on the Hellboy movies; there is one more after this.

Complex images of emergent intersubjectivity such as those I identified in ‘On Hellboy’s Penis’ can also be found in Pacific Rim (del Toro 2012).

In 2013, creatures from another dimension open a portal in the gap between tectonic plates in the Pacific, and from this Breach giant monsters – kaiju – emerge. Humanity responds by building giant mecha – piloted robots known as Jaegers – with which to fight them.

Piloting a Jaeger requires a direct link between the human brain and the mecha body, but a single human mind cannot cope with the neural load. So pairs of ‘drift-compatible’ humans undergo a technologically-enabled mind-meld with each other in order to control the machine. This is initiated by a process known as a ‘neural handshake’, but obviously reaches far deeper than such a formal-sounding gesture implies.

Each pilot shares the memories of the other, their feelings and thoughts, without, it appears, exception. It is extremely intimate. It can be profoundly traumatic.

The process leaves us with a single consciousness, albeit one that is comprised of two parts, both of which seem to retain some level of distinction from the other even though they become as one. And it leaves us with two separate bodies over which each of them seems to retain individual control, and a third body, that of the Jaeger, which they jointly control.

500px-Crimson_Typhoon_PilotsWhile the compatibility of the pilots tends to rely on some kind of family or intimate relationship – brothers, father and son, lovers – sadly we are given no insight into how this works with the Wei Tang triplets (the pilots of the three-armed Jaeger Crimson Typhoon) played by the Luu brothers, themselves identical triplets. If identical twins represent an uncanny doubling of the selfsame (Shildrick 56), the further ‘excess’ of identical triplets surely extends this, undermining even further any sense of the security of selfhood by implying not just doubling but seriality.

Furthermore, when they pilot Crimson Typhoon, they become conjoined, concorporeal, even though they can in some ways be told apart.

The kaiju also trouble the notion of a singular identity. To begin with, each creature is so massive that it requires two brains: the main brain in the head and, located somewhere towards the other end of its spine, a secondary brain. The arse brain. This hierarchisation of SSD-15157.DNGcorporeal control echoes, perhaps unintentionally, that of the pilots of the Jaeger Gipsy Danger: Raleigh Beckett (Charlie Hunnam), the experienced white male brought out of retirement for one last mission; and the novice, Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), a small Asian woman at whom – despite their mind-meld – Raleigh still feels the need to shout orders. (Though if there is an arsebrain among the Jaeger pilots, he is well in the running.)

When Dr Geiszler (Charlie Day) mind-melds with a fragment of a kaiju brain, he discovers some other things about them.

First, they have been here before. In a throwaway line, it is revealed that the dinosaurs were kaiju from this other dimension. But they could not survive in a terrestrial environment until the Anthropocene era rendered the world habitable for them. Of course, this is nonsense. Dinosaurs existed quite happily for about 165 million years and were the dominant vertebrates for 135 million of them; humans have only been around for about 200,000 years, about one 825th as long. But this absurdity at least suggests the extent of the ongoing devastation for which we humans are responsible, the mass extinction event and global climatological transformations over which we blithely preside.1

Second, although each kaiju is physically unique – each one looks like it is from a separate species – they all have identical DNA. So what appears to us as speciation is actually individuation within a single species.2

Third, they are all actually clones of each other. The film implies that they are a particular kind of soldier species created and deployed by some other, as yet unrevealed, monsters intent on colonising the Earth.

Fourth, despite all this variety or instability of form, the kaiju share a hive-mind, which implies that despite their many bodies they are effectively a single individual.

Sadly, Pacific Rim does not explore these potentially troubling seams of gold but, as one might expect of a film with a budget of $190 million, buries them in rubble. They are worth excavating, however, and transvaluating, turning into something positive.

For example, they speak to the politics of the contemporary moment which needs urgently to move beyond neoliberalism’s competitive individualism as the model of how humans are and how we interact, that treats ‘all creative agency and potential rationality as properties of individuals rather than of groups’ (Gilbert viii), that everywhere undermines democracy by treating collectives as irrational mobs or dupes under the sway of demagogues, that treats the social realm as a space of antagonism rather than an intersubjective field from which we all arise and through which we all mutually form each other.3


The habitation of monsters is utopia.

Those who tell us how horrible utopia would be, and all that we would have to give up, ignore that the majority world lack so much that utopia, even if it is a place of monsters, is better than what we have.4

And if we do indeed turn to such monsters as these – human, alien, animal, machine – as figures of utopia, we again find that Derrida has done some of the groundwork for us.

In the same interview I quoted in ‘On Hellboy’s Penis’, he says;

the future is necessarily monstrous: the figure of the future, that is, that which can only be surprising, that for which are not prepared … is heralded by species of monsters. A future that would not be monstrous would not be a future; it would already be a predictable, calculable, and programmable tomorrow. All experience open to the future is prepared or prepares itself to welcome the monstrous arrivant, … to accord hospitality to that which is absolutely foreign or strange. (386-7)5

With this in mind, I will conclude with a monster not of del Toro’s making.

In H.G. Wells’s The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), the deranged vivisectionist is on one occasion diverted from his attempts to surgically uplift beasts to human status, to move them from zöe to bios, by trying to create life itself, a pure beast – what appears to be the quintessence of zöe:

[a] writhing Footless Thing … a limbless thing, with a horrible face, that writhed along the ground… immensely strong, and in infuriating pain. (77)

This creature suggests that the monstrous other is always also the utopian trace, the barely glimpsed signifier of a radically alternative space and time struggling to emerge into the text.

It is a place where such a creature could be at home, and so could we.

1 The original context for which this paper was written was a symposium on disability and sf, a context not present in these blog extracts. However, I did argue at this point that this history of the kaiju offers us a way to think about the Jaegers. They function as prosthetic ‘cures’ for the ways in which the kaiju presence relativises human ‘ability’ by abruptly rendering our world rather less habitable. This indicates the extent to which ‘ability’ and ‘disability’ can be understood as being constructed by the environments – here primarily physical, but also clearly social, cultural, political, economic – in which we attempt to live. Rather than let this note get any longer, I will post a final few comments on del Toro and disability in a couple of days.
2 This could be read as implying that each kaiju represents a stage within a life cycle which includes multiple, radical morphological changes, and that we are seeing a single species at different stages of its development. Though the film does not seem to mean this.
3 One might point to political philosophies building on the work of Alfred North Whitehead, Deleuze and Guattari, such as the vital materialism of Jane Bennett (see Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (2010)) or William Connolly (A World of Becoming (2011)).
4 Or perhaps the habitation of monsters is merely the threshold of utopia, something through which we must pass in order to achieve full-on communism. Not merely the full-communism for which so many of my friends on the left call, often ironically, but a communism that is full-on: radically decentred and radically democratic, as green as it is red, as queer as it is feminist, as beyond racism as it is beyond ableism; just and libidinal and joyous.
5 Observing how culture tends to work, he notes that it will also be domesticated, but at least sees that as a negotiated process, in which it learns our habits and we learn new habits.

Previous post; follow-up post.

Jeremy Gilbert, Common Ground: Democracy and Collectivity in an Age of Individualism. London: Pluto, 2013.
Jacques Derrida, Points…Interviews, 1976-1994. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995.
Margrit Shildrick, Embodying the Monster: Encounters with the Vulnerable Self. London: Sage, 2002.

This and its associated posts are 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 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).

Stephen King, The Shining (1977)

1839lzdygndfmjpgFirst, the confession.

Until now, I have never read a Stephen King novel.

In my early teens, I just could not get into Christine (1983) or Carrie (1974) or, indeed, The Shining. Each time I gave up a few chapters in, and just figured he was not for me. Sure, I’ve read Danse Macabre (1981), his history of horror fiction, a couple of times, and have always cherished its description of Harold Robbins (he can’t tell the difference between a well-structured sentence and a shit-and-anchovy pizza). And I did read The Talisman (1984), King’s fat fantasy novel collaboration with Peter Straub, when it first came out – and since I enjoyed it, I attributed that to Straub (although not enough to actually read any of his solo novels).1 I even bought a copy of Dreamcatcher (2001) a couple of years ago, just to see if it is as hilariously inept as the William Goldman/Lawrence Kasdan film version, but gave it to a friend in the hope she would do the research for me. (She didn’t.)

But I am teaching the US cut of Kubrick’s movie this semester, so I figured alongside also watching Mick Garris’s 1997 King-scripted Shining miniseries and the Room 237 documentary, I should really give the novel another ago.

And you know what?

It’s all right.

It isn’t scary or suspenseful in any way, which might be because I already know the story. The prose only rises above workmanlike for literally – and I do not mean figuratively – a couple of nicely-crafted short sentences (which I failed to mark in the text so I can’t tell you what they were and may never find them again). But it is interesting in the way it is such a seventies novel.

That ain't no monolith...
That ain’t no monolith…

First, and least significantly, the cook, Dick Hallorann, often talks and thinks as if blaxploitation movies were King’s only source for imagining an African-American man – a quality Kubrick suppressed by

...and neither is that
…and neither is that

casting Scatman Crothers in the role, but which returns in the paintings decorating Hallorann’s Florida apartment.

Second, The Shining has something of Close Encounters of the Third Kind’s post-counterculture misogynistic whininess that pins the dissatisfactions of lower middle class white masculinity on women.2 Terri Garr’s performance in the margins of Spielberg’s movie can, if observed, prompt at least some sympathy for her character. But just as Spielberg is uninterested in Ronnie Neary, so King, despite giving Wendy Torrance some backstory, some viewpoint chapters and some noteworthy nipples, really could care less. Like Spielberg always, King here is obsessed with paternity and patrilineality, even using the word ‘patricide’ in the novel’s climax to describe Danny’s role in the destruction of the Overlook/Jack.

Third, and most intriguingly, The Shining anticipates neoliberalism’s particular intensification of demands on workers. Much as the novel is about the past – the ghosts of the Overlook hotel; the effect Jack and Wendy’s neglectful, manipulative and/or violent parents had on them; Jack’s alcoholism; Jack’s violence – haunting the present, it now also has an air of being haunted by the future. When one socio-economic structure subsumes another, it does not replace it completely but carries forward, mutatis mutandis, that which it needs, that which it can make use of, that which does not contradict its operation and expansion. Which is why early capitalism had its feudal robber barons, and why this social relation and the sociopaths it rewards are ever increasingly evident in the aftermath of 2008.

In the later stages of the novel, the Overlook is revealed as a kind of raging Old Testament god, cruelly demanding that Jack sacrifice his son. His reward will be acceptance into a great chain of being, presided over by this dark ancient power and populated by mobsters, killers, CEOs and other criminals. However, the contract underpinning his adoption by the hotel is repeatedly expressed in terms of climbing the corporate ladder, of Jack having to prove that he is management material. From caretaker to manager – the American Dream! – through subservience and self-abasement misdescribed as personal merit.3

But what is the nature of Jack’s actual job? It is not the mountain-top location that makes his employment so precarious. Unearned, it is within the gift of his millionaire ex-drinking-buddy, Al Shockley, who inherited his wealth; and, as Jack learns, if he steps out of line, Al will fire him without hesitation. It is a job that completely obliterates any line between work and not-work, between workplace and home. It relocates and dislocates his entire family, but will last only a few months, and if he is fired, they will all be homeless. It requires his constant presence, often in stand-by mode. It colonises his consciousness and creative human capacities, and subordinates him entirely to the extraction of his labour-power.

Jonathan Crary entitled his 2014 book on the ruinous human effects of contemporary capitalism and its attention economy 24/7: Late Capitalism and the End of Sleep; I guess I will now have to read King’s 2013 sequel to The Shining to see whether it is just a coincidence that he called it Doctor Sleep.

PS Even after reading The Shining, I have still read more Guy N. Smith novels and seen more Lawnmower Man movies than I have read King novels.

1 I got bogged down in the early pages of Koko (1988) years ago, and still have an unread Shadowland (1980) in a box somewhere. But I did once stay in a hotel room next to Peter Straub at a conference in Florida, and was (admittedly unintentionally) a considerate neighbour, which surely must count for something.
2 You will be glad to hear this kind of silly whinging and contrafactual scapegoating is a thing of the past. Oh. No, wait. See  this. And this excellent response.
3 As satirised in Frank Tashlin’s Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957) and Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (1960), and straightfacedly reiterated every day by all that bullshit about this being a meritocracy.

On Hellboy’s penis

look at the size of that whammer!
look at the size of that whammer!

(See follow-up posts here and here.)

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 Baby 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, lexi-baby-tumorHellboy 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).Pale_Man 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).

Follow-up posts: here and here.

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.