Monstrosity without a Body: Representational Strategies in the Popular Serial Killer Film

By Hantke, Steffen | Post Script, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

Monstrosity without a Body: Representational Strategies in the Popular Serial Killer Film


Hantke, Steffen, Post Script


Much of the recent discourse on monstrosity is more interested in the question what monsters mean than what they look like. Susan Leigh Starr, for example, talks about "multiple marginality" as an essential property of monstrosity. Her own body and its allergy to onions provides Starr with an example of how multiple marginality is "a source not only of monstrosity and impurity, but of a power that at once resists violence and encompasses heterogeneity" (30). Marie-Helene Huet presents a similar idea of categoric or classificatory impurity in her discussion of monstrosity: "By presenting similarities to categories of beings to which they are not related, monsters blur the differences between genres and disrupt the strict order of Nature" (4). Jeffrey Cohen discovers in "that uncertain cultural body" of the monster the same "intriguing simultaneity or doubleness" discussed by Starr and Huet. The monster "introjects the disturbing, repressed, but formative traumas of 'pre-' into the sensory moment of 'post'," w rites Cohen, "binding the one irrevocably to the other. The monster commands, 'Remember me: restore my fragmented body, piece me back together, allow the past its eternal return ...'" (ix). Or, more succinctly, "The monstrous body is pure culture" (4).

Abstractions such as "multiple marginality," "intriguing simultaneity," or the blurring of "differences between genres" require a textual and physical site to manifest themselves. This site, as viewers of horror cinema well know, is the monster's body, not so much as "a glyph that seeks a hierophant" (Cohen 4), but as a signifier in which monstrosity appears directly, unmistakably, palpably, visibly, shockingly. This tradition of immediacy in bodily visibility can be traced back to the Gothic. In Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818), the sight of the creature fills its creator with "breathless horror and disgust"; Victor finds himself literally "unable to endure the aspect of the being [he] had created" (57). Brain Stoker's eponymous Dracula (from the 1897 novel), capable of moving about the crowded London streets without attracting attention, has none of these physical markers of otherness, and yet there are moments when his true nature becomes visible, his body becoming spectacular. "panther-like in... moveme nt," his "eye-teeth long and pointed," and his general appearance transformed into something obviously "unhuman" (266). Stevenson's Edward Hyde (1886) already announces a shift from the surface of the body to its depths. Though Hyde's appearance still elicits a shock of physical revulsion reminiscent of Shelley--the "very essence of the creature" is "something seizing, surprising and revolting" (39)--the physical markers of his otherness are already less distinct. Witnesses point to "something displeasing, something downright detestable" (7), something "abnormal and misbegotten" (39), about him, though no one can "specify the point" (7). This difficulty in locating the exact location or nature of Hyde's "deformity," however, does not detract from the witnesses' certainty that it is indeed Hyde's body which bears "Satan's signature" (12). Seeing this body commit a monstrous act is not required to understand its true nature. His is the transitional body in the history of the Gothic, one which gives "an impressi on of deformity without any nameable malformation" (11-12).

These examples illustrate that monstrosity never really leaves the body as its preferred site of manifestation, though it may become detached from any particular bodily characteristic. Excessive body size, for example, is still a marker of monstrosity in Frankenstein's lumbering, looming creature, but no longer in Dracula; in Stevenson, the connotations have actually been reversed, and it is Mr. Hyde's short, agile figure that arouses vague disgust in others. Monstrosity moves throughout the body looking for a site to manifest itself. Especially in its movement back and forth between the exterior and the interior of the body, its surface and its depth, it seems intent on concealing itself in the hidden, impenetrable spaces beneath the surface. …

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