Fantastic Films, Fantastic Bodies: Speculations on the Fantastic and Disability Representation

From Freaks to Scissorhands

by David Church Volume 10, Issue 10 / October 2006 50 minutes (12295 words)

Introduction: the Fantastic, Freak Shows, and Disability Studies

As the field of disability studies expands and overlaps with film studies, its establishment of a politically progressive “minority cinema” (largely home to films by persons with disabilities, for persons with disabilities) is often overshadowed by its critiques of dominant patterns of disability representation as found in other films, most notably mainstream Hollywood pictures. As François Truffaut has suggested, cinema has followed two lines of historical descent: the realistic and the fantastic. Sobchack (1996) describes the rough division between the two overarching film styles as a question of whether or not filmic events either confirm or defy the natural laws and possibilities of verisimilitude (p. 312). Disability studies has largely focused its critical discourse on realistic films (or social realism, as it is alternately termed) for the basis of its politically minded liberation project, largely because social realism supposedly depicts the actual, everyday world—the world in which persons with disabilities find themselves (as captured in documentaries, another prominent source of disabled imagery). This identifiable “real world” as portrayed in social realist films 1 is nonetheless home to many negative depictions of disabled characters, ranging from the “supercrip” triumphing over all odds to the self-loathing cripple for whom a visible physical disability connotes an inner emotional flaw. Persons with disabilities are most often portrayed negatively as deviant, exotic, comical, pitiable, asexual, feminized, Otherly, metaphoric, powerless, dependent, tragic, and less than human. As Mitchell and Snyder (2001) note, disability studies operates largely within social realism because the control of images (according to the dictates of political correctness) is directly linked to actual political change; the division between politically “positive” and “negative” imagery will vanish only once political and social inequality between disabled and nondisabled people vanishes (p. 201). But while disability studies seems to focus primarily upon negative portrayals in social realist films, much less remarked upon are films of the “fantastic” variety, and the potential that these neglected films may hold for positive critical readings and empowering depictions of disability. I aim to briefly look at several intriguing and problematic areas as exemplified in a few sample films; while each of these fantastic films has been examined much more fully elsewhere, each represents a point of exploration largely overlooked by the discourses of disability studies.

The fantastic film seems dismissed from critical attention in disability studies because it bears so many resemblances to the disreputable phenomenon of the freak show. Both freak shows and fantastic films appear to frame the disabled body in an exploitative performance space (i.e., the stage/screen) somewhere at the boundaries of normative society, presided over by a mediating nondisabled agent (i.e., the showman/filmmaker) for the amusement, shock, and wonder of a voyeuristic audience. 2 The lack or violation of verisimilitude in the fantastic film also helps to replicate the “freakish spectacle” of the disabled body traditionally found in folktales, myths, and grotesques, as noted by Garland-Thomson (1997) in her influential study on disability representation (p. 10). Many fantastic films (such as horror films) also find themselves as part of popular or “low” culture, the same cultural stratum home to the freak show (p. 75). Although Sobchack (1996) settles her analysis of the fantastic film into three basic genres—horror, science fiction, and fantasy adventure (p. 313)—I would like to suggest a somewhat broader, more non-generic category that includes various art/avant-garde and cult/paracinema films, for disabled bodies are no less exploitatively exhibited in “high” and/or self-reflexive cultural texts than in “low,” subcultural texts. Just as various scholars have illustrated the similar and commonly overlapping reading and consumption strategies between high/art and low/cult texts (see Sconce, 1995, and Hawkins, 2000), it is often impossible to separate the influence of art and avant-garde cinema from “low” genres and styles (e.g., the inestimable influence of Surrealism 3 and Expressionism upon the modern horror film is perhaps the best example of this tendency). While neither all art/avant-garde nor all cult/paracinema films necessarily fit Sobchack’s (1996) definition of the fantastic, her general notion that fantastic films ‘“realize’ the imagination” within the diegetic context of a certain “normative realism” (p. 312, 316) should prove a guiding factor in my wider conceptualization of that cinematic variety. Fantastic films deliberately and substantially violate verisimilitude and recreate unrealistic situations, worlds, characters, or effects that are typically relegated to the domain of the imagination.

Often drawing upon our cultural subconscious for inspiration, fantastic films frequently employ disabled characters, whether in major roles or in less flattering positions as elements of the fantastic mise-en-scene—the fantastic body used to connote a fantastic world. Although high production values (as found in many Hollywood and art films) can help construct (using expensive set design and special effects) a vibrantly detailed and self-contained fantastic world, budget is not a prerequisite for fantastic films (as many cult/horror films attest); as such, fantastic films regularly cross boundaries between high/low, elite/mass, and mainstream/cult considerations.

Examples of fantastic films featuring physically or mentally disabled characters include horror entries (with the disabled character often being the “monster” or supernatural agent), such as The Phantom of the Opera (Rupert Julian, 1925), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974), The Exorcism of Emily Rose (Scott Derrickson, 2005), Friday the 13th Part 2 (Steve Miner, 1981), The Fly (David Cronenberg, 1986), Frankenstein (James Whale, 1931), Leprechaun (Mark Jones, 1993), The Hands of Orlac (Robert Wiene, 1924), and many others. With the medicalization of disabled bodies during the liberation era of the 1960’s and the popularization of psychotherapy in what Philip Rieff termed “the triumph of the therapeutic” (qtd. in Brottman, 2005, p. 43), the horror monster gradually moved from physically “abnormal” to mentally and psychologically “abnormal,” leading to the rise of more “human” monsters with all manner of psychoses and insanities. But popular science fiction illustrates that humanoid creatures (whether the organic alien, the mechanical robot, or the hybrid cyborg) are still exotic signifiers of the alien otherness associated with outer space and futuristic exploits, and it is not difficult to draw connections between imagery of disabled characters and strange sci-fi humanoids in films like This Island Earth (Joseph Newman, 1955), Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977), The Fifth Element (Luc Besson, 1997), Dark City (Alex Proyas, 1998), the Star Trek series, and so on. Likewise, fantasy adventure films use strange or non-normative bodies to “flesh out” the extent of their fantasy worlds, coming much closer to the fairy tale and mythic narratives long home to the “freakish spectacle” of disabled bodies; examples include Legend (Ridley Scott, 1985), The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, 1939), Willow (Ron Howard, 1988), Time Bandits (Terry Gilliam, 1981), Big Fish (Tim Burton, 2003), plus the myth-based Sinbad/Argonauts cycle of the 1950’s and 1960’s. Filmmakers like Terry Gilliam and Tim Burton routinely use disabled bodies to invoke the conventions of fairy tales and horror films, while others like David Lynch, Guy Maddin, David Cronenberg, Fernando Arrabal, and Alejandro Jodorowsky frequently use disabled bodies to surrealistic effect; various (other) art, cult, and avant-garde film directors also use disabled bodies in similarly “fantastic” ways (sometimes using the disabled body as a taboo object) in films like That Obscure Object of Desire (Luis Buñuel, 1977), A Zed and Two Noughts (Peter Greenaway, 1985), Even Dwarves Started Small (Werner Herzog, 1970), Satyricon (Federico Fellini, 1969), and The Tin Drum (Volker Schlöndorff, 1979).

Although these films seldom attribute clinical definitions of disability to their disabled characters, physical and mental otherness are nevertheless used as broad stigmatizing markers in most fantastic films that make prominent use of disability representation. Even while the most fantastic worlds bearing little resemblance to a “normative realism” could potentially be seen as a narrative space where the social model of disability no longer operates, there are almost always “normate” characters present to reinscribe the disabled body according to its perceived difference from the (nondisabled viewer’s) normative body. Fantastic films also represent narratives in which mind and body—of the filmmakers as creators of the fantasy and also the viewers as subjects actively entering into and sharing the fantasy—are intimately linked through the process of making the imagination perceivable by the external senses. This process makes it difficult to separate and distinguish inner mental processes from their outer manifestation in the world, blending inside/outside and mind/body in ways that can present difficulties (and even contradictions) for a disability rights movement attempting unified political action toward displacing social identity away from a supposedly “deviant” body, yet also attempting to retain the specificity and subjectivity informed by each disabled individual’s personal experience (see the discussion of standpoint theory in Garland-Thomson, 1997, p. 24). Although fantastic films often reflect collective (nondisabled) cultural fantasies (which can be critiqued by disability studies scholars), even when springing from an individual authorial imagination, the challenge to verisimilitude presented by these films subtly conjures up issues of subjective imagination and stimulated perception localized within the individual viewer (a level of consumption difficult to locate and critique), as I shall discuss more fully later.

By making visible the normally invisible dreams, fears, and visions of the imagination, fantastic films exist at the border of the liminal and the subliminal. Like freak shows (as described by Garland-Thomson, 1997, p. 60), they offer viewers a site onto which one’s own fears, needs, and desires are projected, thus constructing the disabled body within the text as a transcendent symbol of social and cultural anxiety; in this sense, the fascination with bodily (and mental) transformation so common in the horror film and other fantastic films relates to the common interpretation of such films as representing a “return of the repressed.” Sobchack (1996) makes the useful observation that since almost all films (realistic or not) are creatively constructed fantasies on some level, then fantastic films “represent a special case of what is, and has always been, a general characteristic of cinema as a whole” (p. 312). Likewise, Watson (1997) notes that “the exploitation aesthetic not only predated the advent of cinema [as in the case of freak shows], but was also to a large extent integral to its development,” making cinema in general “an avatar of exploitation” (p. 67-8). From a historical standpoint, exploitation and fantasy are undergirding elements of nearly all films, realistic or not—but nevertheless, fantastic films in particular have seemed to emerge as greatly marginalized from serious consideration by many disability studies scholars.

The conflation of the liminal and subliminal in the fantastic film may be one cause of such neglect. The social model of disability posits that “the ambient society creates environments with barriers—affective, sensory, cognitive, or architectural” (Davis, 2002, p. 40-1) which disable an impaired body. This widely accepted model moves the location of disability from the impaired body itself to the larger ableist society, emphasizing how disability is a socially constructed state. By removing the site of ableist prejudices from the impaired body, this opens the way for a positive identity that is not based upon corporeal essentialism. However, by linking the cinematic image of the disabled body within the context of mental processes implied by a predominantly imaginative diegesis, fantastic films might seem to reinforce the old essentialist stereotype that an outwardly “deviant” body denotes an inwardly “deviant” mind (and vice-versa) (see Sutherland, 1997). Although the heavy use of imagination in a film’s framework does not automatically suggest deviance, an overdependence on imagination tends by itself to garner a stigma assigned to fantastic films. Imaginative fictions are often looked down upon as somehow childish or juvenile, whether in the context of fairy-tales and myths (traditionally used to indoctrinate children with life lessons and tools for reaching adulthood) or in the formulas and excesses of horror/cult films (often equated with adolescent rituals and rites of passage). The functions and objects of imagination are typically repressed or rejected during adulthood by forces of moral and social order, replaced by more serious “adult” matters like politics and economics. In an ableist society that paternalistically treats disability as inferior and in need of care, persons with disabilities are commonly treated as if fixed with a childlike dependence—which the disability rights movement counters with political action toward self-reliance and equality. Thus it could be argued that the disproportionate attention paid to social realist films by disability studies scholars is not just a means to investigate more politically viable narratives, but the dismissal of fantastic (highly imaginative) films is also a step toward defying the harmful paternalistic attitudes assigned to persons with disabilities (despite the politically positive readings that fantastic films might help foster).

Although fantastic films stimulate the imagination, many of them also stimulate the body itself through the devices common to “body genres” (i.e., horror, porn, and melodrama); Hawkins (2000), for example, notes the predominance of body genre affect in art-horror, avant-garde films, and various “paracinematic” films that easily classify as fantastic (p. 4). With the direct appeals to the viewer’s body made by these “low” fantastic texts (not unlike the fearful and tearful affect sought by freak show practitioners showcasing “monstrous,” exotic, sexually ambiguous, and pitiable human specimens), perhaps it is not surprising that they have been ignored by disability studies scholars seeking to displace the site of disability away from the material bounds of the corporeal body. Brottman (2005) notes that “middle-class resistance to ‘low’ culture is rooted in the conception of a ‘proper’ body, distanced physically and geographically from the grotesque ‘improper’ body associated with ‘bad’ tastes and ‘bad’ places,” leaving bodily affectivity as a culturally prejudiced function for many fantastic texts (p. 4). Brottman (2005) then quotes critic Roger Dadoun as saying that “like the ‘mentally ill,’ relegated to the sidelines of communities, societies, and consciences, the horror film leads a marginal existence” (p. 6). This comment on the horror film—one of the dominant varieties of fantastic film—can also be extended to other varieties and even to audiences, for the viewer cultishly devoted to the fantastic film is often seen by wider society as somewhat defective, deviant, or underdeveloped (i.e., juvenile) in ways similar to common prejudicial conceptions of mental illness or even “insanity.” Fantastic film aficionados (especially ones for whom some degree of cult activity is involved) are frequently seen as having an “abnormal” penchant for imagination, and some films (e.g., horror films) are likewise seen as potentially dangerous for their purported ability to influence viewers unable to distinguish between cinematic fantasy and everyday reality. Societal prejudices against fantastic film devotees and cultists subtly conflate consumption strategies for these films with a deviant mentality akin to mental illness or even insanity. Meanwhile, disability studies focuses its probing and analytical gaze upon the “proper” (or “normal”) body of social realist films, largely ignoring the “grotesque” and “improper” (or “abnormal”) body of fantastic films, leaving a conspicuous gap in the discipline’s critical discourses. By quietly legitimating one “body” of films commonly signified as more “normal” and “healthy” than another, the field of disability studies therefore appears to inadvertently serve the same naturalizing and normalizing functions that it condemns in so many other circumstances.

Following from an analysis of “offensive films” by Brottman (2005), it should be noted that part of what makes many fantastic films an “improper” and “grotesque” body of films is that they are not only “freakish” in content, but also in form; examples include all of the films that I will selectively focus upon as exemplars of fantastic traits overlooked and underanalyzed by disability studies, starting with Freaks (Tod Browning, 1932). Although many fantastic films will fit into generic categories like horror, science fiction, and fantasy adventure, numerous others fall outside of clearly defined generic categories, whether mixing genres or belonging to modes of film production and consumption not necessarily associated with genres (such as art and cult films). Like disabled bodies in ableist society, many fantastic films are looked down upon as “freakish” and “deviant” because they are hybrid forms that do not conform to easy categorization, nor even adhere to the dominant cultural narratives associated with classical Hollywood cinema. Like the carnivalesque performative space of freak shows, fantastic films often use content (disabled bodies) and formal qualities (hybrid forms/genres and narratological tactics) that violate boundaries, falling outside what is considered “normal.” Compared to the subject matter and dominant narrative strategies that compose and enforce “normative” verisimilitude in realistic films, fantastic films exist as taboo, stigmatized, aberrant, and “polluted” anomalies (to use Mary Douglas’s influential formulations of purity and “dirt”), subsequently described as “abject” by Kristeva (1982) and as “interstitial” by Carroll (1990) in their discussions of horror. Following Garland-Thomson’s (1997) useful discussion of Douglas’s work in the context of disability studies, fantastic films as an “extraordinary body” of films exhibit many of the same five traits by which the “extraordinary” disabled body is contained by ableist society: they are posited as an anomalous category on one side of an absolute binary divide (realistic/fantastic, normal/abnormal); they are eliminated from society (selectively distributed and sometimes widely censored or altogether lost); they are segregated and avoided (often ghettoized into specialist genre cinemas and cult catalogues, plus overlooked by much critical appraisal); they are labeled dangerous (capable of blurring boundaries of real and fantasy so that social relations are damaged and deviant onscreen acts are mimicked in reality); and they are incorporated into rituals that “enrich meaning or call attention to other levels of existence” (as grotesque and carnivalesque figures/acts that take on metaphoric/cathartic meaning) (p. 34-37).

In their invocation of fantastic worlds and effects, the processes of imagination and dreamwork many times result in narrative games and peculiarities that violate classical narrational standards in ways either similar to, or overlapping with, art film’s narrational stylization, avant-garde film’s countercinematic experimentation, or cult film’s paracinematic eccentricities. This imaginative stylization is in marked contrast to the classical Hollywood narration that typically structures the same social realist films treated by disability studies as a more “proper” and “healthy” body of films; this critical bias toward social realism further normalizes the dominant narratological practices found in mainstream Hollywood cinema, at the expense of various countercinematic strategies that could be harnessed to open a political space for positive disability representations by moving from subjective (imaginative) experience to collective action.

Freaks: The Grotesque and the Carnivalesque

Garland-Thomson (1997) notes that the incorporation of anomaly into rituals serving a positive social purpose is the one potentially constructive method by which anomaly is dealt with by social groups (p. 37), and in this sense, Brottman’s (2005) analysis of Tod Browning’s classic 1932 film Freaks provides a strong grounding for the carnivalesque grotesque as an affirmative means to read the “abnormal” content and form of fantastic films. Freaks is an especially notable film in this respect because, unlike most fantastic films, it is perhaps one of the most critically discussed films within disability studies—a notorious counterexample to social realism that is nevertheless a sort of canonical entry within the field’s discourses of inquiry. Freaks is of great interest to disability studies because it is such a complicated and contradictory film, exploitatively displaying actual sideshow “freaks” within a “horror” narrative, yet also trying to show the freaks as sympathetic and much more human than the nondisabled circus folk who try to harm them. Framed as a sideshow barker’s lurid introduction to an astounding monstrosity revealed only at the end of the film, Freaks tells the story of a dwarf circus performer (Hans) who falls in love with a nondisabled trapeze artist (Cleopatra); when Cleopatra tries to poison Hans for his inheritance money, the other “freaks” join together to kill Cleopatra’s cruel lover and disfigure the woman so that she becomes “one of them” (and is subsequently revealed by the sideshow barker as the monstrosity he has been introducing at length). In her excellent analysis of the film, Hawkins (2000) notes how Freaks began as a mainstream horror film (directed by Tod Browning after the success of 1931’s Dracula and his series of films with the late Lon Chaney playing various disabled characters) before being marketed as an exploitation film, and later being rediscovered as an art film in the 1960’s (p. 167). Although the film attempts to present the “freaks” as ostensibly sympathetic characters, not as monsters, the revenge plot “reinscribes the film as part of the horror genre, [and] it also reinscribes the freaks as monsters within that genre” (p. 157).

For my purposes, Brottman’s (2005) discussion of the film as carnivalesque grotesque in both form and content is most useful in illustrating my speculations on the fantastic film (although a fantastic film need not necessarily be noticeably aberrant in form, given the commonly recognizable narrative conventions employed in many genre-localized and/or Hollywood-produced films). Here is a film that is at once a horror movie, but alternately an exploitation film, an art film, and a cult film; as Hawkins (2000) points out, it did not succeed as a mainstream horror film, nor as an exploitation film, but only found its niche as a hybrid form reclaimed by art and cult audiences, being especially celebrated by the Surrealists (p. 148). Not only does it cross boundaries in consumption, but Brottman (2005) notes how it also crosses boundaries in its formal qualities by employing the use of real live “freaks,” making the film a sort of uneasy hybrid between documentary and fictional narrative, difficult to market and marginalized by both genre audiences and exploitation audiences (p. 19). It is a film that blurs “any distinction between actors and acts, between performers and performance” in its desire to produce bodily affect (p. 3). As part of her study of “offensive films,” Brottman (2005) is using Freaks in somewhat different ways from my look at the wider class of fantastic films, but some of her observations still ring true. Specifically, the blurring between body/mind and liminal/subliminal (through the “realized” processes of imagination) on both a diegetic and spectatorial level in fantastic films enacts a comparably distorted distinction between performers and viewers, especially when direct appeals to bodily affect are used. In violating and rejecting the “normative” verisimilitude (as portrayed in social realist films) arguably experienced by collective (i.e., dominant: white, middle-class, male, nondisabled) society, fantastic films represent a strange mix of individual (authorial) and collective (cultural) fantasies, whether by recreating nightmares, dreams, desires, or needs—and although fantastic films thus tend to operate upon the same cultural prejudices (descended from myths and fairy tales) that impair the disabled body, this quality of wavering between the individual and the collective aligns such films with Mikhail Bakhtin’s valuable concept of the carnivalesque.

As Brottman (2005) explains, the “freakish” grotesque (which “begins where exaggeration reaches fantastic dimensions”) has long existed within the socially sanctioned space/time of carnival, a period of ritual and festivity in which social customs and values are temporarily inverted, marked by “displays of bodily deformity” as central motifs; this medieval tradition has descended into more contemporary carnival forms, such as freak shows (p. 45-6). These contemporary forms especially include the socially sanctioned act of film spectatorship, in which viewers temporarily suspend everyday reality by indulging in entertaining onscreen fictions that typically follow (at least to some extent) the ritualized patterns of filmic narrative. Fantastic films seem to exemplify this carnivalesque function because (unlike social realist films) they challenge and invert the very nature of social reality, existing as “escapist” fantasies and cinematic anomalies. Garland-Thomson (1997) notes that when the “visual fantasies and extravagances” of the grotesque figure are transferred into a realistic framework, “the grotesque becomes equated with physically disabled characters,” at once aestheticizing and depoliticizing disability (p. 111-2). Although the disabled body is often used in metaphoric ways in social realist films (e.g., to examine demasculinization and dependence), we can see this at work more strongly in fantastic films where disabled bodies seem more removed from political discourses, existing instead as signifiers of a fantastic mise-en-scene. In an age where medicalization of the disabled body has led to the demise of freak shows, the fantastic film emerges as a carnivalesque space where “freakish” bodies are still exhibited exploitatively to a nondisabled audience who can view the disabled body with a minimum of guilt due to the depoliticizing effects of a “normative realism” violated by imaginative fantasy. Wavering at the cusp between classical horror films and classical exploitation films, Freaks represents perhaps the quintessential cinematic correlation between freak shows and the carnivalesque quality of fantastic films; framed by a sideshow barker’s invocation, the main narrative uses a documentary-style “normative realism” (sympathetic to the “real” freaks) that finally topples over into a horror narrative (in the revenge plot), as if the very presence of fantastically “freakish” bodies were enough to necessitate a horrific sensationalism to finally mark these ostensibly “sympathetic” freaks with an irreconcilable otherness.

Despite the negative connotations linking freak shows to fantastic films, the transgressive qualities of the carnivalesque figure (represented as disabled bodies in fantastic films) also offer potentially fruitful readings. As Garland-Thomson (1997) says, “Bakhtin’s concept of the disorderly body as a challenge to the existing order suggests the radical potential that the disabled body as sign of difference might possess within representation” (p. 38). Like the hybrid nature of the fantastic film, the disorderly carnivalesque body is so potentially transgressive because grotesquerie breaks down individual body definition at the collective level of ritual. According to Brottman (2005), the grotesque—and by extension, the abject and interstitial—has the potential to cause not only fear and horror but humor and laughter, due to its quality as “evidence of an absence of bodily control, witnessed most vividly by the collapse of bodily boundaries and the external appearance of things that should properly be kept inside the body” (p. 12). In fantastic films (especially ones that affect the viewer’s body), the manifestation of imaginative effects within a framework of “normative realism” is transgressive for this very reason: within the ritualized space of fantastic film spectatorship, the liminal and subliminal commingle, violating bodily boundaries between internal (imagination) and external (reality) in ways that individual viewers experience collectively (as part of a wider audience), reflecting a blend of individual (authorial) and collective (cultural) fantasies. Brottman (2005) argues that the horror and laughter alternately evoked by the grotesque and carnivalesque figure (whether in freak shows, films, or elsewhere) releases a sense of repressed otherness linked to “human ambivalence about the material bodily stratum,” our widespread cultural fascination with “freakish” bodies (p. 46), and the horror “of being human and of having a human body” (p. 48). Even as it plays upon fears about the potential for bodily disablement 4 the grotesque carnival figure is therefore liberating because it paradoxically erases distinctions between individual humans (whether disabled or nondisabled) by invoking the collectively shared human state of corporeal embodiment. Within the rituals of carnival, as in the fantastic film in modern society, the grotesque figure becomes the “fantastic” marker through which one’s individual experience gives way to a collective vision as bodily boundaries collapse with the temporary inversion of shared cultural values. In the case of Freaks, Brottman (2005) argues that Browning’s carnivalesque film erases binary distinctions between “human monsters” and “monstrous humans,” instead positing all people (including the film’s viewers) as “freaks” within the collective state of corporeal embodiment: “a set of deformed caricatures whose individual identity is no longer recognizable, bound forever to other strange bodies and misshapen, atrophied selves” (p. 29).

While this critical employment of the grotesque carnival figure may be potentially affirmative in one sense, the Bakhtinian carnivalesque also has definite shortcomings. It is only a temporary inversion of social values, sanctioned by a society’s ruling powers. Brottman (2005) describes carnival as “a kind of safety valve, with an essentially conservative social function,” notably observing that “the potential of carnival for radical rebellion is, in the end, politically limited, as it is, after all, licensed misrule” (p. 151). Furthermore, the resumption of everyday “normative” life immediately following carnival serves to aggressively reconstitute dominant social values and individual bodily boundaries all the more strongly. Thus, for all of the unifying and liberating potential that the grotesque and the carnivalesque temporarily offer, traditional negative social values against “freakish” bodies and realized collective visions are resolidified. As I mentioned earlier, the fantastic film as carnivalesque may work to destabilize strictly realistic narrative forms and patterns through blending the liminal and subliminal, but its common treatment as an “improper” body of cinema further normalizes the dominant narratological traits found in social realist films. The fantastic film may temporarily violate dominant appeals to verisimilitude (through its vividly exhibited visual difference), but the carnivalesque nature of the comparatively “deviant” fantastic film inadvertently reinforces the form and content of dominant realistic verisimilitude. However, certain fantastic films (e.g., non-mainstream, paracinema, cult/horror, body genre) like Freaks contain continually taboo and abject material that is often the subject of controversy and censure; therefore, the most radical and “deviant” of these films represent an only semi-sanctioned carnivalesque performative space that may be especially fruitful for transgressive potential because of its constantly illicit and inverted quality.

As my discussion of the grotesque and the carnivalesque around Freaks should illustrate, fantastic films offer intriguing openings for potential positive readings of disability representation. However, virtually all such openings are problematic and double-edged, whether due to the primary exploitative qualities connecting fantastic films to freak shows, or due to some other complicating factors. Nevertheless, the often-contradictory nature of disability representation in fantastic films is worth far more critical attention than most critics and scholars seem to allow, so there is still much academic work to be done in many of the areas into which I will try to shine the faint light of speculation.

Edward Scissorhands: Camp, Cyborgs, and Subversive Identification

Grappling with Edward Scissorhands (Tim Burton, 1990) raises similar issues as Freaks, but with some different points of interest. Burton’s film tells the story of the eponymous young man with scissors for hands, the unfinished creation of an eccentric scientist, who is taken down from his solitary castle home to live in suburbia; the townspeople are at first anxious, then accepting of him, and finally turn hostile as the boyfriend (Jim) of Edward’s teenage love interest (Kim) frames Edward as a dangerous criminal. Made following the huge financial success of Burton’s Batman (1989), this is a small and very personal fantastic film that was produced by a major Hollywood studio for a mainstream commercial audience, but which finally found a devoted cult audience (especially amongst Burton enthusiasts, a group with crossover interests in gothic subculture). Scissorhands is a hybrid, cross-generic film mixing elements of fairy tale, Gothic horror, and teen romance into a modern fable about the need to look past outward appearances. As Burton (2000) says, it is a film made as a reaction against the way society judges and categorizes people according to preformed conceptions about normative external appearance (p. 87). Although the film is inspired by nondisabled director Burton’s feelings of ostracism as an adolescent living in a California suburb, Edward is also clearly meant to denote a “freakish” disabled character; in classic fairy tale fashion, his outwardly grotesque disability becomes symbolic of an inner emotional deficit—feelings of exclusion and an inability to be understood and loved.

Garland-Thomson (1997) notes how half-formed and interstitial supernatural figures found common expression in the grotesques of Gothic fictions (p. 112), and Scissorhands seems to follow in this vein. Edward’s isolated domain is a supposedly “haunted” Gothic castle standing high above suburbia like a relic stretching back into a repressed, half-remembered past connecting the fantastic to the “real” world. As in several other Burton films (e.g., Vincent and Frankenweenie, both 1982), the Gothic tradition of mad scientists and failed creations from Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein is reworked in Scissorhands. Edward’s “dangerous” appearance also conjures up images of the grotesque from more modern horror narratives, most notably reminiscent of the razor-fingered “Freddy Kruger” from Nightmare on Elm Street fame. Burton (2000) notes how the film explores the rather close “parallel between suburban life and a horror movie,” whether in the townspeople’s mob mentality or their hostile reactions to apparent outsiders (p. 99). The townspeople’s varied reactions to Edward are in many ways similar to common reactions by nondisabled people to grotesquely disabled performers in freak shows: a voyeuristic desire to look and stare, revulsion and horror at the “perversion of nature” (as one person calls Edward), semi- and fully-mocking condescension, pity and sympathy, and an overvaluation of the disablement as exotic and fetishized. People repeatedly treat Edward’s disability as a correctable medical condition, recommending various doctors that Edward might try in order to “fix” his incomplete state. As I have suggested elsewhere, the (permanently) disabled body in fantastic films is often treated as somehow “supernatural” because it by definition lies outside the curative capabilities of science (i.e., the medical model of disability), remaining continually disavowed and misunderstood as “abnormal,” and this trend continues within the Gothic/horror tropes at play in Scissorhands.

In addition to using the grotesque as a Gothic/horror signifier, the film exemplifies a strong and obvious camp sensibility. 5 As in the films of John Waters, the suburban mise-en-scene of the film consciously exhibits a plethora of kitschy artifacts (e.g., 1950’s interior decorating and costuming) within the stiflingly placid conformity of normative life (e.g., emphasized by the identical pastel houses, the clockwork routine of day-to-day functions, and the broad character stereotypes). The casting is also a major source of camp, providing actors playing well against type; for example, while Vincent Price reprises his familiar mad scientist role here (albeit as a sympathetic and kindly old man, not the murderous villain he played in some of the campy Roger Corman productions of the past), other actors, like Johnny Depp (the dashing star of the TV series 21 Jump Street) as Edward and Anthony Michael Hall (the nerdy character in the popular John Hughes comedies of the mid-1980’s) as the jock boyfriend, take roles which invert their well-known onscreen personas. Camp’s strategies of playful subversion are especially important given the opportunity that such a “parody of normalcy” might play for persons with disabilities whose bodies already mark them as “abnormal.” By subverting and violating what is considered “normative realism,” camp readings of the grotesque figure in fantastic films may provide a politically viable space in which the concept of the normative body is mocked and destabilized in the face of the unruly disabled body. Flinn (1999) notes that the body of camp fails or refuses to maintain its boundaries, just as in the Bakhtinian carnivalesque. “Like the disunified grotesque, camp also works to violate the standards of ‘good taste,’ allying itself with filth, the profane, and an overall sense of disreputability” (p. 447), operating like the abject and interstitial disabled body. One example of a useful way to read Scissorhands through the lens of camp is to see how the normative community only grows to value Edward through his use as a tool (e.g., for dog grooming, hedge trimming, barbecuing, haircutting, etc.) and as a functional and productive worker within society; the film’s sardonic portrayal of normative society highlights the reality that persons with disabilities face in employment discrimination, and stereotypes of persons with disabilities as economically dependent and incapable of contributing to a capitalist society.

However, the excesses of camp also have a potentially negative flipside. Flinn (1999) states that “the grotesque body in camp is a wild arid laughing body, but it is also one laughed at” (p. 448). Although anxious laughter at the grotesque carnival figure may, as Brottman (2005) says, release a sense of repressed otherness that temporarily highlights the collective human condition of corporeal embodiment (p. 46), the carnivalesque lens of an overarching camp reading also serves to mock the disabled body itself as a part of the text being campily ridiculed. The move from the grotesque individual to the collective vision therefore also works in reverse (especially as post-carnival “normalcy” is resumed), moving back from a collectively experienced otherness to a derision of the “deviant” grotesque body.

Like Freaks decades earlier, Edward Scissorhands attempts to both “humanize” the monster (Edward) and reveal the monstrosity of normative, nondisabled society (suburbia); however, Scissorhands also falls short of this goal by containing Edward within the narrative patterns of horror and fairy tale. Edward is initially just as spellbound by suburbia as we are by his Gothic domain. In a campy inversion, the everyday normative world of suburbia becomes a fantastic world for Edward to discover; while he wishes to join the “normal” world, no one from the town wishes to inhabit his Gothic world, which suggests that a marked otherness only operates in one direction, against a bodily norm. At one point he tells a TV audience that he would like to become “like everyone else” by undergoing “corrective surgery” on his hands, even if conforming to a bodily norm would cost him his fame and “exceptional” individuality. Wishing to give up his disabled identity and conform, Edward wants to become part of the same “real world” that has been campily reframed in the film as monstrous; this desire by our hero to be “normal” serves to naturalize the monstrous qualities of the “real world” (a world seemingly trapped in the years before the 1960’s liberation era) as inevitable and necessary for social integration.

The horror and fairy tale elements of Scissorhands become especially marked and stultifying near the end of the film. The townspeople have turned against Edward, calling him a “freak” and a “cripple” as they slowly drive him back up to his castle, as if safely containing him within the confines of the fantastic world from which he originated. While the townspeople have formed an angry mob reminiscent of the final scenes in James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931), Edward’s adoptive family worries for his safety but thinks that Edward might be better off “up there” in the castle. They think that Edward is lacking in the moral fabric necessary for social life, fearing that he may even cause violence; in light of an earlier flashback scene showing the scientist trying to teach etiquette to the incomplete (and obviously uninterested) Edward as sketches showing his creation’s inner construction flap in the wind, this suggests that Edward’s physical deviance might be linked to a deviant mentality. Almost as if to confirm this suspicion, Edward finally kills Jim while trying to protect Kim, realizing the horrific potential of Edward’s dangerous impairment; this “sort of junior high or high school revenge fantasy” (Burton, 2000, p. 96) of Burton’s operates the same way as the revenge plot in Freaks, tipping the sympathetic tone of the film towards horror and inadvertently confirming the “monstrosity” of the disabled figure. But while Freaks ends with a return to the sideshow barker’s framing narration, Scissorhands ends with a return to the story being framed as a fairy tale being told by a now-elderly Kim to a grandchild. Just as horror films typically end with the monster being dispelled and driven back where it came from, Edward is removed from normative society, ending up alone in the castle again, his crime dooming him to the permanent ostracism and lack of love that unfortunately seems to be the lot of so many disabled characters in film. The fairy tale, as a source of “very extreme images” for Burton (2000, p. 94), also contains Edward within the framework of an instructive or moralistic fantasy somehow divorced from normative reality. Although both Freaks and Scissorhands end with framing narratives that either contain the grotesque figure within the familiar tropes of horror and fairy tale, even as the “freaks” in each film continue to still exist “somewhere out there,” Scissorhands at least ends more ambivalently with its framing story told by someone who loved Edward, rather than the exploitative sideshow barker of Freaks.

Garland-Thomson (1997) argues that the grotesque body can be freed from its negative connotations in the related posthumanist concept of the cyborg, as popularized by Donna Haraway. A cyborg is a hybrid human/machine entity that transgresses the boundaries between organic and mechanical, self and other. This theoretical figure represents the modern body’s state of near-constant intersection with artificial technology, marked by a “permanent partiality” that defies binaries of gender, race, and normality. Furthermore, this sort of transformative hybrid self “is often consonant with [the] actual experience” of persons with disabilities, who are often enhanced by prosthetics, wheelchairs, or other technologies (p. 114-15). Constructed from mechanisms somewhere between man and machine, Edward represents a cyborg figure—especially in his presence within a reworking of Frankenstein, perhaps the first and foremost literary formulation of a cyborg figure. The cyborg links internal (self) and external (other) via the mediating role of technology, somewhat like the fantastic film’s linking of the liminal and subliminal; indeed, it should not be forgotten that film spectatorship in general is a common cyborgian interfacing of human (the viewer) and machine (the cinematic apparatus), but particularly when bodily boundaries are more evidently dissolved (as in the fantastic film’s realization of imaginative processes). The cyborg represents one of the most politically viable theoretical formulations for persons with disabilities (see, for example, the work of Ju Gosling), and yet it too has its obvious (if temporary) limitations. Although it is a popular concept within the academy and select circles, the liberating qualities of the cyborg figure are not yet widespread within society at large, and therefore it is difficult to indicate the potential for actual political change that such a theoretical concept might provoke. More likely, as Edward Scissorhands shows, the interstitial, apparently less-than-human qualities of a human/machine hybrid are likely to be a source of horror and mockery until further political change occurs. As in Frankenstein, the visible melding of flesh and technology is commonly rendered abject—not only in fictional representation but also often in life, as shown by the stigmatization and reductive categorization of persons with disabilities according to their mode of technological interface.

In Edward Scissorhands, it is hard to tell whether Burton’s role is that of Frankenstein or the scientist’s creation. Although he is the creator of the film, it seems quite apparent (though he personally denies it) that actor Johnny Depp is also a cinematic alter ego, not only in Scissorhands’ fantasy of Burton’s adolescence, but in other films like Ed Wood (1994) and Sleepy Hollow (1999). According to Burton (2000), Depp was right for the part of Edward because he could relate so well to the film’s themes of inverting outward appearances. As he explains: “The words ‘freakish’ and ‘freak’ have so many interpretations, and in a weird way [Depp] sort of relates to freaks because he’s treated as one” as a handsome and supposedly difficult actor (p. 92). In the fantastic film, an individual authorial vision is often employed to conjure up the imaginative worlds that are realized on the screen, and Tim Burton is a director who has built a career out of repeatedly doing this over a body of work produced within the Hollywood studio system. “Hollywood is so strange,” says Burton (2000). “For a community made up of so many freakish outsiders, it’s oddly conservative” (p. 84). Surely the financial bottom line is a major factor in the industry’s conservatism, for many fantastic films are produced outside the studio system, even in opposition to Hollywood standards. The cult/paracinema types of fantastic films are notable for this, as are the art and avant-garde types; in fact, many fantastic films are low-budget or independent productions. With classical Hollywood narration premised upon maintaining a “seamless” normative realism, fantastic films typically exhibit form and content that runs counter to dominant Hollywood mainstream realism. Although Burton works within the studio system (but also in many ways against it), filmmakers (and/or auteurs) like him are typically the masterminds of fantastic films, bringing the magical, wondrous, horrific, and surreal to life. Working against dominant Hollywood realism, the creators of fantastic films bring an imaginative artistic perspective into their films that marginalizes them as different; likewise, the audiences of many types of fantastic films (e.g., cult/horror) are also a marginalized minority. With both Depp and Burton themselves posited as “freakish” outsiders within Hollywood, perhaps it is no surprise that Scissorhands uses a disabled hero as its fantastic centerpiece. In making films that are markedly different (and therefore supposedly deviant) in comparison to Hollywood realism, the independent, rebellious, or individualistic creator of the fantastic film may identify with the film’s disabled characters because both are in a position of social ostracism. In fact, the common use of disabled bodies in fantastic films may be because the grotesque/interstitial/abject figure is a taboo symbol marking and (perhaps even defiantly) denoting the oppositional, marginalized status of the film and filmmaker. But if the image of the disabled body is used exploitatively for its subversive taboo qualities, it retains its politically negative qualities, preserving the disabled body as a grotesque symbol exhibited by nondisabled filmmakers for nondisabled audiences.

Videodrome: Body Horror, Masochism, Insanity, and Unreliable Narration

David Cronenberg’s 1982 film Videodrome takes ideas of cyborg figures and subversive identification with disabled characters into rather different territory. The film tells of Max Renn, the programmer of a pirate exploitation TV channel, who stumbles across a mysterious TV signal called “Videodrome,” which shows women being tortured and killed. As he investigates Videodrome, Max learns from a renegade media theorist that viewing the signal is changing him physically, causing a brain tumor that results in bizarre hallucinations. Max finally cannot tell these hallucinations from reality; meanwhile, a sinister corporation persecutes him and he finally kills himself in a messianic move to become reborn as “the new flesh.”

Part art film, part science-fiction/horror, and partly financed by a Hollywood studio but with a solid following among cult and academic audiences, Videodrome is a solid example of a fantastic film in the unreliable narrational mode (for a fuller examination of these films and their narrative devices, see Church, 2006) that has proliferated increasingly over the last decade or so. Straddling both mainstream and art-house acceptance, these films are typically cross-generic hybrids that blend traits of art film narration and classical Hollywood narration to produce marked narratological effects. All of these films share fragmented narratives that are focalized through extreme subjective devices (like dreams, memories, and psychosis) that only become known to the spectator (often through a reality-changing “twist”) at the end of the film (if at all), finally either providing audiences with clues to reconstruct the shattered plotline or leaving the narrative entirely open-ended and up to personal interpretation. As in Videodrome, the lines between objective normative reality and subjective mental states are blurred indistinguishably in unreliable narrative films, leaving gaps and a lack of closure in the narrative that must be actively filled by the perceiving spectator based upon a carefully controlled stream of cues emanating from the consciously deceptive text. Other examples of these films include Fight Club (David Fincher, 1999), The Sixth Sense (M. Night Shyamalan, 1999), Memento (Christopher Nolan, 2001), Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001), Jacob’s Ladder (Adrian Lyne, 1990), and Solaris (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1972). Other Cronenberg films to use unreliable narration include Naked Lunch (1991), eXistenZ (1999), and Spider (2001).

While these films may not necessarily be “fantastic” in a definitive sense (even if many of them belong within traditionally fantastic genres), they nevertheless produce effects synonymous with the melding of imagination and reality that denotes the fantastic. The substantial framing of diegetic reality through the subjective lens of mental processes—often exposed in a shocking moment of revelation that entirely subverts the normative nature of that previously believed diegetic reality—leads to an overall fantastic tone. Compare, for example, how many unreliable narrative films directly employ fantastic tropes in their subjective refiguration of reality through mental processes—as in the portrayal of protagonists slowly realizing their own crossing over into the afterlife in unreliable narratives like Jacob’s Ladder, The Sixth Sense, Carnival of Souls (Herk Harvey, 1962), Siesta (Mary Lambert, 1987), Abre Los Ojos (Alejandro Amenábar, 1998), and Stay (Marc Forster, 2005). Even films that would seem to demand the normative constraints of social realism, such as the award-winning biopic A Beautiful Mind (Ron Howard, 2001), become fantastically imbued once a narrative’s subjective framework is exposed and mental processes subvert the spectator’s sense of diegetic reality. The direct influence of the supernatural may not factor into unreliable narratives at all, but devices of extreme protagonist subjectivity strongly bordering on solipsism are all present: dreams (e.g., Mulholland Drive), flashbacks (e.g., Memento), and psychosis (e.g., A Beautiful Mind) are the most common devices employed.

This latter device is of the most interest to me here. I have thus far focused primarily upon the representation of physical disability, but mental or psychological disability is also noteworthy, especially with mental illness and psychosis appearing so commonly in films now that the 20th and 21th Century medicalization of physically disabled bodies has removed them from some of their earlier “freakish” connotations, leaving “psychological freaks” as a supposedly less offensive source for representations of apparent human aberrance. The interior quality of “invisible disabilities” like mental illness can allow for a greater degree of “passing” as nondisabled, which is often the case early on in unreliable narratives that use psychosis as a subjective focalizing device; the mentally disabled protagonist is typically just as unaware of his/her psychosis as the audience, thus concealing the narrative’s mysteries until both protagonist and audience come to the shared realization of just how misleading their sense of (subjectively experienced) diegetic reality has been all along. As in fantastic films in general, unreliable narratives do not necessarily use clinical diagnoses of mental disabilities, many instead using “psychosis,” “madness,” and “insanity” as broader classifications to denote the otherness of the disabled characters. For example, the protagonist of A Beautiful Mind is given the medical diagnosis of schizophrenia to explain his imaginary friend and persecution fantasies, the characters in Identity (James Mangold, 2003) are revealed to be the multiple personalities of a convict with dissociative identity disorder, and the protagonist of Memento has an acquired short-term memory loss disorder. However, less clinically defined are the mental illnesses in films like Fight Club and Lost Highway (David Lynch, 1997), both of which feature split personalities, and in others like Videodrome, where the cause is a permanent and lethal brain tumor; even the very first unreliable narrative, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1919), was framed through the subjective viewpoint of an incarcerated madman. It is notable that in many other unreliable narratives that do not necessarily involve either the supernatural or mental illness, madness and insanity are often attributed to the identity-shattered protagonists and they often end up in asylums—for example, the time-traveling Cole in 12 Monkeys (Terry Gilliam, 1995) and the hero of The Jacket (John Maybury, 2005).

What is most fascinating about unreliable narratives that use mental illness or disability as a focalizing device is that the framework of extreme subjectivity needed for the film’s narrative deception involves such an intense spectatorial identification with the disabled protagonist. Perhaps nowhere else in modern cinema (certainly not in mainstream cinema, nor in social realist films) are viewers invited to identify so strongly with a disabled character, to share the subjective experience of that disabled character’s “reality” so dramatically that it affects both the form and content of the film. (One film that veers toward this level of extreme identification is Harmony Korine’s 1999 film Julian Donkey-Boy, although it is not a proper unreliable narrative because its protagonist’s schizophrenia is known to the audience from very early on.) After the shattering of diegetic reality, the spectator’s resulting sense of disorientation and perceptual instability is even a sensation sometimes casually compared to (temporary) insanity and madness—hence the “mindfuck” nickname given to this style of narrative, as if producing similar effects in the viewer as supposedly experienced by a mentally unstable person with a “fucked” [sic] mind. Of course, these are films made by nondisabled persons for a nondisabled audience, as the broadly negative depictions of mental disability should suggest. The portrayals of disabled characters’ “insane” or “psychotic” mental states are reductive and sensationalistic, relying primarily upon cinematically realizing the mysterious and “fantastic” qualities popularly associated with the psychotic mind. Just as the physically disabled body is culturally linked to the fantastic and the domain of imagination, the mentally disabled mind is supposedly capable of imaginatively conjuring up all manner of fantastic effects by virtue of its purportedly unstable, solipsistic grasp on normative reality. The representation of mental disability in unreliable narratives is yet another telling example of the sort of liminal/subliminal intersection found in fantastic film’s realization of imaginative processes within a normative realism. Though it is used in largely exploitative ways by nondisabled filmmakers for nondisabled viewers, the extremely subjective identification with disabled characters provided by unreliable narratives could potentially be a viable tool for politically motivated filmmakers to bring positive representation of mental disability to a wider (nondisabled) audience.

In Videodrome specifically, the cyborgian intermeshing of human flesh and machine technology is vividly and grotesquely realized. Liminal (normative reality) and subliminal (Max’s hallucinations) become solipsistically indistinguishable from one another in the same way that unreliable narratives and/or fantastic films both blend normative realism and mental processes, individual authorial fantasy and collective visions; the film’s direct linking of sadomasochistic spectatorship to direct bodily affect highlights the film spectator’s cyborgian positioning as a human subject interconnected with the cinematic apparatus (which Cronenberg would also explore in the virtual-reality unreliable narrative of eXistenZ). Virtually all of Cronenberg’s films use “body horror” to highlight the vulnerability of the human body, often by showing grotesque unions of flesh and technology; in Videodrome, this occurs as a vaginal slit opens in Max’s stomach to allow videotapes to enter, a gun that bloodily fuses to his hand, a headset used to record his hallucinations, and so on. As Cronenberg (1993) says, Videodrome is about “the evanescence of our lives and the fragility of our own mental states, and therefore the fragility of reality” (p. 144). In his use of body horror and depiction of horrifically perverse images, Cronenberg deftly connects the sadomasochistic process of film spectatorship (especially in the solipsistic “realities” of unreliable narratives like Videodrome) to the transindividuating potential of the grotesque carnival body (which shows the collective fragility of corporeal embodiment), and to questions of whether fantastic films (like Cronenberg’s earlier sci-fi/horror films) can actually incite the spectator to real social deviance. This question of the spectator’s relation to “dangerous” images and their supposed potential to cause dangerous behavior also places Videodrome within the generic subset of “meta-horror,” or horror films that consciously expose the inner workings of horror films in general. 6

As Cronenberg’s comments suggest, the human capacity for mental disability can be just as important a source of anxiety about corporeal embodiment as the “threat” of physical disability, for the mind (which of course includes the physical structure of the brain) is responsible for our subjective sense of reality. “Our own perception of reality is the only one we’ll accept,” he explains. “Even if you’re going mad, it’s still your reality. But the same thing, seen from an outside perspective, is a person going insane” (Cronenberg, 1993, p. 94). Unreliable narratives like Videodrome expressly play with this solipsistic quality of perceived reality in their realization of diegetic reality lensed through a character’s extreme subjectivity. But it is precisely this sort of blurring of fantasy and reality that causes conservative outcry to be leveled at fantastic films in general (e.g., horror/cult films) for their purported ability to influence the minds of viewers (especially cultishly devoted repeat viewers). Perhaps what is so threatening to conservatives about the “dangerous” images in fantastic films (especially horror and other body genres) is the subversive potential represented by the unruly and grotesque carnival body (whether it belongs to the “insane” killer or the mutilated victim), reminding us all of the fleshy frailties of corporeal embodiment. The fantastic and horrific film is thus a temporary carnivalesque space that conservatives, fear mongers, and arbiters of social taste refuse to officially sanction, instead labeling as potentially “dangerous.”

As film theorists like Clover (1992) and Shaviro (1993) have argued, horror films involve a masochistic submission to images that highlight the fragility of the human body and mind. As both a body horror film and a fantastic unreliable narrative, Videodrome is like an index of cinema’s masochistic unpleasures. I have written elsewhere (see Church, 2006) about the especially masochistic effects in both form and content produced by unreliable narratives, and those main points are worth briefly repeating here. Following from Studlar’s (1988) theories of film spectatorship as a masochistic act, unreliable narratives feature protagonists with shattered identities and unstable formulations of reality, leaving the spectator with no point of identification but the subjective fantasies of a tormented mind that is powerless to control or make sense of the diegetic world. This subjectivity directly informs the formal qualities of these narratives as the spectator’s hypotheses about the sequence of plot events are repeatedly shattered and revealed as false, delaying indefinitely the satisfaction associated with classical cause/effect motivation and complete narrative closure. This leads to an overall sense of submission to the deceptive narrative, both for the spectator and the protagonist. This sense of disempowerment (especially in cases when madness or insanity is the focalizing device for the unreliable narrative) places the nondisabled viewer in the sort of disempowered, feminized position culturally relegated to persons with disabilities in a patriarchal, ableist society. However, while such an intense identification with a mentally disabled (or broadly, “insane”) character might seem potentially positive, the exploitative use of such identification for the provoking of masochistic unpleasures in the nondisabled spectator leaves much to be desired. A nondisabled spectator is free to experience a temporary sense of disempowerment because, as in the temporary inversions of carnival, he/she still retains hegemonic power in an ableist society once the film ends. The nondisabled spectator’s pleasurable act of actively reconstructing the fragmented narrative after the film ends allows for a sense of normative reality/sanity to be aggressively reconstituted, thus reasserting and further naturalizing the sense of a “sane” normative realism in which nondisabled people can still exert power over persons with disabilities.

Stepping back now from unreliable narratives, it would seem that fantastic films in general might produce masochistic unpleasures through their use of fantasy to destabilize normative realism and plunge the spectator into unfamiliar imaginative worlds that speak to collective cultural fantasies yet often remain a disorienting individual authorial vision. By representing the intersection of the liminal and the subliminal in the realization of dreamlike images from the cultural subconscious, grotesque disabled bodies often people these strange, Otherly, and carnivalesque worlds. As Brottman (2005) says, the grotesque carnival figure suggests a loss of bodily control and a “fearful desire to dissolve the contours of the self,” violating ego boundaries in its close relation to “fantasies about merging and fusion” (p. 46, 49)—all of which, I might add, are unpleasures closely associated with masochism. Because the disabled body is culturally figured as a signifier of death (or the potential for death), the common representations of physical and mental disability in fantastic films may be linked to the masochistic desire for death as an unattainable and complete dissolution of ego, psychoanalytically associated with a final reunion with the pre-oedipal mother; this desired reunion can only take place “in madness, death, or fantasy,” says Studlar (1988, p. 188). Cronenberg’s original ending for Videodrome would have emphasized this nicely, for Max shoots himself, only to be reborn as the transformed “new flesh,” united with his female counterparts within the technology-mediated world of Videodrome (Cronenberg, 1993, p. 97).

This cyborgian idea of a “new flesh” uniting human and technology remains intriguing because it seems to allow for a masochistic paradigm to exist within film spectatorship that would allow for positive identification with, and representation of, persons with disabilities. Just as Garland-Thomson (1997) sees the feminist post-gender potential of the cyborg figure as applicable to the culturally feminized disabled body, further explorations into the notion of all film spectatorship as a process of cyborgian interfacing may well yield a model for viewing films outside of the often stultifying political correctness of the disability studies field. Of course, I have fallen back repeatedly upon that same political correctness in this article—for the negotiating of positive and negative representations is indeed an important project for any liberation movement, but there is also a need for a more inclusive, less hypercritical paradigm of cinematic textual analysis. 7

Because nearly all films are some kind of exploitative fictional fantasy, the fantastic film could be self-reflexively indicative of the potential for a new critical lens. As the site of intersection between mind and body, liminal and subliminal, internal and external, fantasy and reality, self and other, fantastic films could be taken as a more possibly cyborgian form of cinema, one that sheds new light on film spectatorship as a whole. In a sense, all films (both fantastic and social realist) are carnivalesque spaces that temporarily suspend everyday reality as the spectator indulges in a constructed diegetic world—and therefore all films also share the problematic resumption of “normalcy” and hegemonic power that marks the end of carnival. Like the “disability simulations” aimed at nondisabled people (and frequently derided by disability activists) 8 , all films (being of a limited temporal duration) merely offer to the nondisabled spectator a temporary identification with a disabled character, before normative reality and ableist power relations are restored at the film’s end. Nevertheless, the imaginative framework of the fantastic film moves the grotesque disabled body from the margins of representation and into the spotlight, much like the freak show performer on stage: an exploitative spectacle for sure, but one which might inadvertently point back toward our own cyborgian mode of spectatorship, revealing us all as part of the “new flesh” so grotesquely intertwined with the disreputable pleasures of technology.

Works Cited

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Mitchell, D.T., & Snyder, S.L. (2001). “Representation and its Discontents: The Uneasy Home of Disability in Literature and Film.” In G.L. Albrecht, K.D. Seelman, and M. Bury (Eds.), Handbook of Disability Studies. Thousand Oaks, London, New Delhi: Sage Publications.

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Shaviro, S. (1993). The Cinematic Body. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press.

Shildrick, M. (2002). Embodying the monster: Encounters with the vulnerable self. London: Sage Publications.

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  1. Examples of social realist films widely remarked upon by disability studies discourses include My Left Foot (Jim Sheridan, 1989), Forrest Gump (Robert Zemeckis, 1994), The Best Years of Our Lives (William Wyler, 1946), Million Dollar Baby (Clint Eastwood, 2004), Born on the Fourth of July (Oliver Stone, 1989), Coming Home (Hal Ashby, 1978), Bad Day at Black Rock (John Sturges, 1955), and many others. In my discussion of social realist vs. fantastic films, I am not trying to set up a binary opposition between the two types, for indeed there are often overlapping realistic and fantastic qualities within the same film; for example, although David Lynch often uses disability for surrealistic and fantastic purposes, his film The Elephant Man (1982) is rooted primarily in social realism but still bears some “fantastic” stylistic traits. One difficult subgroup of disability film to define is the melodrama (including several of the films noted above): these show disabled characters (broadly characterized as tragic or supercrips in most cases) within a non-fantastic world of normative realism, but use manipulative appeals to excess, emotional spectacle, and victimization. These often resemble the “male weepies” described by Williams (1999) as part of her formulation of “body genres” (p. 276). Despite the unrealistic character types and melodramatic excesses of these films, I am not including them in my consideration of the “fantastic” due to their fixity within a normative realism.
  2. It should be emphasized that a disabled body does not necessarily connote “freakery,” for freakery entails what Chemers (2005) defines as “the intentional performance of constructed abnormality as entertainment.” Even if almost all cinema is historically predicated upon exploitation and voyeurism for entertainment, the social realist film supposedly treats the disabled body differently than fantastic films. Although damaging stereotypes like the supercrip and self-loathing cripple are more likely to appear in social realist films, and despite the same ableist prejudices against persons with disabilities being found in both broad types of film (which are therefore both highly exploitative in their depictions of disabled bodies), the traditional alignment of fantastic films with “escapism,” sensationalist “low” juvenilia, political unviability, and imaginative effects (meant to cause amusement, shock, and wonder) nevertheless throws the fantastic film toward more strongly paralleling the freak show. I would argue that the forces of medicalization and political correctness have merely displaced the intended effects of the freak show into different sorts of narratives featuring disabled characters: horror and shock can still be found in horror films; pity can be found in the melodramas depicting disabled characters as tragic; and wonder persists in the stories of triumphant “supercrips” conquering great obstacles.
  3. It is notable in this sense that André Breton (1969) had considered the term “supernaturalism” instead of “surrealism” to more properly name the avant-garde movement that he helped found. He claims that “supernaturalism” would have been a more fitting descriptor for the sort of fantastic imaginative effects derived from dream states and memories (p. 24-25). The supernatural is indeed one of the most instrumental factors in formulating the fantastic, for it directly involves the violation of “normative realism” by unexplainable and unnatural occurrences such as typically only exist in the imagination.
  4. Garland-Thomson (1997) observes that disability is such a fluid identity because it crosses more stable marginalized identities (e.g., femaleness, blackness). For nondisabled persons then, the constant “threat” of potential disablement makes the fluidity of disability all the more menacing (p. 14). Also it should be noted that the leveling, collectivizing effects of the grotesque carnival figure seem somehow linked to Davis’s (2002) concept of “dismodernism” as a challenge to the medical model of disability’s conceptualization of a “normative” body. The medical model of disability disables by paternalistically considering impairment to be a problematic deviation from the imagined concept of a normative body, thus treating impairment (a permanent state) as in need of a “cure.” Davis (2002) discusses dismodernism as a means of removing distinctions between “healthy/sick” and nondisabled/disabled bodies by way of locating all people on a fluid continuum of wellness that respects impairment and resists categorically assigning health-related values according to clinically diagnosed symptoms.
  5. Hollows (2003) observes how camp and cult are two categories of film that often overlap based upon similar reading and consumption strategies; for example, cult films are often consumed because of their campy qualities. She notes that cult is often based on “connoisseurship” in defiance of “mass taste,” stressing the selection of object choices, while camp is more about playfully and subversively reinterpreting any text, including mass culture texts, against the (dominant) grain (p. 38-9). As a mass culture text with both camp and cult potential, Scissorhands represents a blurred intersection between cult’s selection strategies and camp’s interpretation strategies. Camp is typically associated with a homosexual sensibility, and the almost formulaic outcast-teen romance in Scissorhands certainly conforms to this potential for a queer reading, in which the forbidden object of desire (Kim, the stereotypically pristine cheerleader beauty) slowly defies her possessive lover (Jim, the stereotypically aggressive heterosexual jock) as she falls for the sensitive social outcast. Scissorhands is also a case in which we might see realized Sontag’s (1999) observation that one origin of modern camp is the Gothic tradition (p. 56). Another point of possible discussion, given that mentally and physically disabled characters are so common in fantastic films and that fantastic films often elicit camp reading strategies, is the link between homosexuality and supposed mental “abnormality.” Just as apparent physical and/or mental abnormalities are typically used in representation to connote one another, older clinical definitions of homosexuality have similarly conflated mental and physical, mind and body; for example, the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) listed homosexuality as a mental illness until 1973 (and in various other forms until 1994). Of course, the reprehensibly prejudiced belief that homosexuality is a learned symptom of mental abnormality still persists amongst conservative society today, somewhat paralleling the naively conservative belief that viewing certain types of fantastic films (which not only link mind and body, but also invite subversive readings like camp) can cause other “abnormal learned deviance” relating to sex and violence.
  6. Other notable examples of meta-horror include Peeping Tom (Michael Powell, 1960), Opera (Dario Argento, 1987), In a Glass Cage (Agustín Villaronga, 1986), Demons (Lamberto Bava, 1986), Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (John McNaughton, 1990), amongst others.
  7. Just as the liberating potential of spectatorial masochism remained largely untheorized by feminists for many years due to its apparent ties to victimization, disability studies has also neglected this important area of (un)pleasure. Despite deploring the clinical gaze used by the medical model, disability theorists have yet to fully acknowledge their own employment of that same clinical gaze when analyzing disability in film. Studlar (1988) and Shaviro (1993) have both theorized masochism as a mode of spectatorship that eliminates the clinical gaze by removing the aesthetic distance between spectator and spectacle, going beyond the pleasures of the body genres described by Williams (1999). These theorists use Deleuzean theory to locate the visceral pleasures of all film spectatorship within the viewing body itself. This type of corporeal embodiment seems crucial to a new understanding of disability film, even if it proves controversial. By focusing on the social and medical models’ constructions of disability, disability studies scholars have moved away from corporeality, for fear of reinforcing an essentialist view of disability as located within the body itself. However, I believe that even in the absence of all social and cultural barriers, a corporeal dimension of disability would still (for many people, though not all) exist, whether in the form of chronic pain, limited mobility, etc. Furthermore, the policing of “positive” and “negative” representations denies some of the very real experiences of persons with disabilities. What needs to be formulated is an aggressive “queering” of disability representation that allows for all films, no matter how politically correct, to be read “queerly” by persons with disabilities, acknowledging the fluid and multiple identifications of all spectators. Deleuze’s conceptualizations of “becoming,” combined with considerations of disability’s constructedness and corporeality may well be the key to this new critical framework. For a useful example of scholarship linking corporeal feminism, Deleuzean theory, and queer theory, see Geller (2005/2006). Shildrick’s (2002) study of monstrous embodiment remains another key text that could importantly apply to film.
  8. Disability simulations (e.g., public wheelchair trials) are common to college campuses and other highly traveled areas. Led by well-intentioned groups aiming to raise disability awareness by allowing nondisabled people to “see how it feels to be disabled,” participants are invited to try their hand at moving with a wheelchair (or other device for assisted mobility) or experiencing some sort of sensory limitation. Disability activists point out that while, for example, temporarily using a wheelchair may momentarily illustrate the challenges to mobility and access faced by persons with disabilities, a full appreciation of the disability experience cannot be reached so easily, for the social model of disability creates continual challenges and deeper prejudices that a nondisabled person will not experience.

David Church holds a Ph.D. in Communication and Culture from Indiana University, and is the author of Grindhouse Nostalgia: Memory, Home Video, and Exploitation Film Fandom (Edinburgh University Press, 2015). He has also edited Playing with Memories: Essays on Guy Maddin (University of Manitoba Press, 2009), and is currently at work on a book called Disposable Passions: Vintage Pornography and the Material Legacies of Adult Cinema.

Volume 10, Issue 10 / October 2006 Essays david cronenberg, disabled studies, edward scissorhands, fantastic film, freaks, horror, science fiction, tim burton, tod browning