Literature/Film Quarterly, 2006, Vol. 34, No. 4 (2006), pp. 294-302
Editorial note: In the original publication of this article, the words “ableist” and “ableism” were used in quotation marks since they were not in such common currency as they are today. By the author’s request, we have removed these quotation marks since these terms are now widely used in critical theory and cultural discourse: for us, this is a positive sign of the changing times.
In this essay, I seek to develop a better understanding of and appreciation for the complexity of the relationship between physical disability and horror literature and cinema by considering some of the ways in which the genre might work to subvert the ableist ideology that sustains what Lennard J. Davis calls the prevailing “hegemony of normalcy” (23). To date, much of the writing done on the topic of horror in the field of disability studies has been driven by the assumption that works of horror fiction and film dealing with corporeal difference almost inevitably reflect and reinforce such an ideology. This is hardly surprising, given the fact that the genre has initiated and perpetuated many of the most insidious and enduring stereotypes about physical disability—chief among them the notion that it poses a threat not just to the body, but to the body politic as well. As Paul K. Longmore observes in his groundbreaking and influential essay on images of disability in film and television, horror movies routinely depict physically disabled characters as misshapen monsters who, “raging against their ‘fate’ and hating those who have escaped such ‘affliction,’ often seek to retaliate against ‘normals’” (3). In this way, horror links corporeal difference both with “disfigurement of the face and head and gross deformity of the body” (Longmore 4) and with “violent propensities that ‘normally’ would be kept in check by internal mechanisms of self-control” (Longmore 5), reinforcing the familiar ableist assumption that physical disability not only “involves the loss of an essential part of one’s humanity” (Longmore 5), but also “endangers the rest of society” (Longmore 5). Moreover, by demonstrating—via the mechanics of narrative conflict and resolution—that “the final and only possible solution [to the threat posed by monstrous disabled characters] is often [their] death” (Longmore 5), horror also reflects the once-prevalent attitude that “death [is] the only logical and humane solution” (Longmore 6) for the physically disabled. Indeed, the genre stands as one of the few remaining sanctioned outlets for the expression of this view, which was promulgated by nineteenth- and twentieth-century eugenicists in Europe and the United States and—most notoriously—by the Nazi Party in Germany during the 1930s and 1940s in the belief that: “If individual citizens are not fit, if they do not fit into the nation, then the national body will not be fit’’ (Davis 18). It is therefore not only unsurprising, but also fitting that horror literature and cinema have drawn a great deal of fire from critics and theorists concerned about how negative representations of corporeal difference impact people living with physical disabilities.
Nevertheless, I join Christopher R. Smit and Anthony Enns in suggesting that disability studies has, as a discipline, remained so focused on exposing and challenging stereotypical portrayals of disability in works of mainstream fiction and film that it has not sufficiently considered the ways in which a popular genre like horror might serve as a site of resistance to the ideological status quo (x). On the one hand, we need to be more attentive to the fact that a horror novel or film represents a network of competing and conflicting discourses that is not reducible to a single ideological imperative. The tendency within the discipline has been to read these books and movies monolithically, according to a relentlessly binary logic: if a work of fiction or film in any way reflects or propagates the values of the dominant social order, then it cannot also embody a critique of those values. Such readings do not take into account the fact that works of horror literature and cinema are complex, dialogical texts in which, to quote Mikhail Bakhtin, “alongside verbal-ideological centralization and unification, the uninterrupted processes of decentralization and disunification go forward” (272). On the other hand, we need to remember that the experience of reading a horror novel or watching a horror movie involves an active and lively dialogue between subject and text, an intense form of negotiation that is not reducible to a simple process of normalization. In general, disability studies continues to be dominated by the theory that horror literature and cinema invariably work to reinforce the power relations underpinning the dominant social order by symbolically “suturing” spectators into predetermined textual positions that reflect the real-life social positions they occupy. When we neglect “the ability of audiences to generate their own texts and thus to become intenders, mappers and owners in their own right” (Altman 212), however, we inadvertently help to foster the unfortunate—and inaccurate—notion that disabled viewers are the passive victims of a fundamentally ableist literary and cinematic mainstream. This is why it is essential that we develop an alternate approach to thinking and writing about the relationship between horror and physical disability that would focus not only on the ideological gaps, contradictions, and ambiguities inherent in horror novels and films, but also on the ability of readers and viewers to resist or recast the “dominant” or intended meaning of these texts. Such an approach would invite us to consider the subversive potential both of mainstream fiction and film and of the practices of the audiences who habitually consume them—not in the belief that these texts and audiences are necessarily transgressive, but rather in view of the possibility that they might be. It would encourage us, in Rosemarie Garland Thomson’s words, to “go beyond assailing stereotypes to interrogate the conventions of representation and unravel the complexity of identity production within social narratives of bodily differences” (5).
It is with this kind of approach in mind that I consider how one particular offshoot of horror literature and cinema known as “body horror” might represent a site of potential resistance to the system by which bodies are produced, ranked, and organized according to long-accepted corporeal norms because of the way in which it celebrates the breakdown of the normative human body and the emergence of the “problem” body—a body that resists easy classification because it exists “in between” established ontological categories like “alive” and “dead,” “self’ and “other,” “human” and “nonhuman,” “able-bodied” and “disabled.” Widely associated with the “splatter” movies of directors like David Cronenberg and the “splatterpunk” fiction of writers like Clive Barker-though in fact it has a long and rich history in both literature and cinema—body horror is, as Kelly Hurley describes it, a “hybrid genre that recombines the narrative [...] conventions of the science fiction, horror, and suspense [fiction and] film in order to stage a spectacle of the human body defamiliarized, rendered other” (203). Typically, the body “defamiliarized” and “rendered other” in body horror literature and cinema belongs to the protagonist. As a result of scientific experimentation or supernatural intervention, he or she is transformed into a fantastic monster and runs amok, leading to a confrontation between the human and the posthuman, with the fate both of the protagonist and of society—of the body and of the body politic—hanging in the balance. Sometimes these works of body horror fiction and film end conventionally, with the destruction of the posthuman protagonist and the re-establishment of the status quo. More often, however, they conclude ambiguously, with the apparent restoration of the protagonist’s body and the social order, yet at the same time with the implication that both have been irrevocably altered in some fundamental way. Occasionally, they end with the gleeful triumph of the posthuman and the end of the world as we know it. Like other types of horror, then, body horror represents corporeal difference as a threat both to the normative body and to the prevailing body politic. Unlike other forms of horror, however, body horror aims, as Hurley notes, to inspire not just revulsion, but also pleasure via “representations of quasi-human figures whose effect/affect is produced by their abjection, their ambiguation, their impossible embodiment of multiple, incompatible forms” (203). Indeed, body horror can be said to celebrate not only the protagonist’s physical “reconfiguration through the pluralization and confusion of bodily forms” (Hurley 205), but also the social reorganization that this physical reconfiguration both suggests and often ultimately demands. In doing so, I would argue, it invites us to question what Thomson calls the “twin myths of bodily wholeness and bodily lack” (49) that continue to shape our assumptions about physical disability and determine our places within the current social hierarchy.
Consider, for example, Maurice Renard’s classic body horror novel, Les mains d’Orlac (The Hands of Orlac, 1920), and its four cinematic progeny: Robert Wiene’s Orlacs Hände (1924), Karl Freund’s Mad Love (1935), Edmond T. Gréville’s The Hands of Orlac (1961), and Newton Arnold’s Hands of a Stranger (1962). Renard’s novel tells the story of Stephen Orlac, a brilliant young concert pianist whose promising career is threatened when he loses both of his hands in a train wreck. Knowing that “for Stephen, art, his art [is] [...] half his life [...] [and] all of his fortune” (Renard 34), Orlac’s wife, Rosine, arranges for her husband to undergo an experimental transplant procedure that will furnish him with new limbs. The operation is a success; however, while he is recuperating, Orlac learns that the donor was a recently executed murderer named Vasseur. Fearing that the spirit of the killer may still linger in the transplanted hands and eventually alter his personality “as two drops of ink, thrown into a glass of water, stain the whole glass” (Renard 256), he embarks on a rigorous course of physical therapy in order to “make [his) hands the hands of an artist and of a virtuous, upright man, to naturalize those interlopers, those refugees, those necessary parasites as Orlac’s hands!” (Renard 253). Orlac’s efforts to “fashion them in the likeness of [his) own dead hands” (Renard 253) fail, however. Indeed, it seems to him that the “hands [are) leading [him) into crime” (Renard 254), that “their flesh [is] contaminating [his] own, and that [his] blood [is] drawing from them a taste for murder!” (Renard 264). When his father, from whom he has long been estranged, is found brutally slain by a knife with Vasseur’s fingerprints on it, Orlac concludes that he himself is the killer, though he has no memory of committing the patricide. His belief is confirmed by a mysterious man with prosthetic hands who claims to be none other than Vasseur himself. Explaining that he was brought back to life after his execution by a radical surgical procedure that re-attached his head to his body, Vasseur demands that Orlac pay him for the use of his hands and for his silence in the matter of the elder Orlac’s murder. Orlac alerts the police instead, however, and they capture the man, who is unmasked as an able-bodied imposter, a career criminal who once worked as an orderly at the hospital where Orlac underwent the hand transplant. He confesses to murdering Orlac’s father (using specially made gloves that enabled him to fake Vasseur’s fingerprints) and then impersonating Vasseur as part of a scheme to blackmail Orlac out of his inheritance; furthermore, he admits that he also committed the murders for which the real Vasseur was executed. The news that Vasseur is not only dead and buried, but also innocent of the heinous crimes previously attributed to him, relieves Orlac, who, terrified that his hands might yet inspire him to kill, had made preparations to destroy them. With Orlac cleared of his father’s murder and possessed of the knowledge that his hands are “undefiled” (Renard 301), the stage is set for a conventional happy ending. There is a note of ambiguity, however, as we are left to imagine how the former pianist will come to grips with the fact that his hands are still not his own, that he is, as Rosine Orlac earlier observes, “no longer himself!” (Renard 68).
As this plot synopsis suggests, The Hands of Orlac is anything but typical with regard to its treatment of physical disability. Lennard J. Davis notes:
The novel form, that proliferator of ideology, is intricately connected with concepts of the norm. From the typicality of the central character, to the normalizing devices of plot designed to bring deviant characters back into the norms of society, to the normalizing codas of endings, the nineteenth- and twentieth-century novel promulgates and disburses notions of normalcy and by extension makes of physical differences ideological differences. (26)
If, however, many novels “reproduce, on some level, the semiologically normative signs surrounding the reader, that paradoxically help the reader to read those signs in the world as well as the text” (Davis 21), The Hands of Orlac does not. In the first place, it turns the conventions that ordinarily govern the representation of disabled characters in literature on their head. Thomson has pointed out: “Disabled literary characters usually remain on the margins of fiction as uncomplicated figures or exotic aliens whose bodily configurations operate as spectacles, eliciting responses from other characters or producing rhetorical effects that depend on disability’s cultural resonance” (9). When disabled characters do take the center stage in literature, they are generally villains who, as Davis writes, “more often than not [...] tend to be physically abnormal: scarred, deformed, or mutilated” (21). In Renard’s novel, however, it is the protagonist—the hero of the book—who is disabled. Conversely, the antagonist, who initially poses as disabled, is finally revealed to be able-bodied. The effect of this reversal is two-fold. On the one hand, by making his protagonist a complex and sympathetic disabled character, Renard encourages his readers to reflect upon and revise their assumptions about physical disability. On the other hand, by making his villain an able-bodied charlatan posing as a disabled criminal, Renard deconstructs the cliche of the bitter, vengeful disabled villain while at the same time implying the constructedness of disability itself. In this respect, The Hands of Orlac could not be more different from works of literature that “objectify disabled characters by denying them any opportunity for subjectivity or agency” so that “the disabled figure remain[s] other to the reader—identifiably human but resolutely different” (Thomson 11). Moreover, the spectacle of Orlac’s posthuman body in Renard’s novel works to blur the very line between “able-bodied” and “disabled,” challenging the ableist assumption that “able-bodiedness” and “disability” are self-evident physical conditions. As Thomson reminds us, physical disability is “produced by way of legal, medical, political, cultural, and literary narratives that comprise an exclusionary discourse” (6). It is not “an absolute, inferior state and a personal misfortune,” but rather “a representation, a cultural interpretation of physical transformation or configuration, and a comparison of bodies that structures social relations and institutions” (Thomson 6). In The Hands of Orlac, the “problem” body that Stephen Orlac inhabits after his transplant operation upsets the process by which bodies are produced, ranked, and organized according to long-accepted corporeal norms. And despite the “happy ending” Renard gives his readers at the conclusion of the novel, the challenge to body politic presented by Orlac’s corporeal difference stands, encouraging us to imagine a “problem” body politic: a future society in which Davis’s “hegemony of normalcy” no longer holds sway.
The four horror-film adaptations of The Hands of Orlac likewise work to debunk the “twin myths of bodily wholeness and bodily lack” (Thomson 49) upon which the body politic is founded by chronicling the breakdown of the normative body and the emergence of a “problem” body. Each of them follows the same basic three-act narrative structure established by Renard’s novel: an eminent pianist loses his hands in an accident and undergoes an experimental surgical procedure in which the limbs of a recently executed murderer are substituted for his own; strange events cause him to imagine that the spirit of the murderer lingers on in the hands, urging him to commit acts of violence against those closest to him; in the end, order (of a sort) is restored in an ambiguous resolution that either has the pianist coming to grips with his corporeal difference or has the authorities eliminating him and the imminent threat he poses to the body politic. In each film we find the same subversive reversals in the depiction of physical disability and the same concomitant disruption of the “cultural interpretation of physical transformation or configuration [...] that structures social relations and institutions” (Thomson 6) that we find in Renard’s novel. Of course, the films all depart to some extent from the original text: the pianist in Gréville’s 1961 version of The Hands of Orlac loses his hands in a plane crash instead of a train wreck, the villain in Mad Love is the doctor who performs the transplant rather than a disaffected hospital orderly, the identity of the transplant donor is never made clear in Hands of a Stranger, and so on. It is precisely because these films offer fascinating variations on a central theme of corporeal difference, however, that they are so ripe for collective analysis from the perspective of disability studies. Taken together, they represent a compelling and coherent meditation on the way in which the ideal of the “able” body determines our places in the body politic and on the ramifications for the body politic of the deconstruction of that ideal. In the pages that remain, I attempt a holistic examination of these films in which I “cross-cut,” as it were, between them in order to paint a comprehensive picture of how they carry on the work of “interrogat[ing] the conventions of representation and unravel[ing] the complexity of identity production within social narratives of bodily differences” (Thomson 5) begun in The Hands of Orlac.
Each of the four horror-film adaptations of Renard’s novel begins by establishing the corporeal and societal norms that will be violated by the protagonist’s disfiguring accident and subsequent transplant. In the opening scene of Gréville’s The Hands of Orlac, the credits roll over a montage of shots showing tuxedoed piano virtuoso Stephen Orlac (Mel Ferrer) performing with an orchestra in front of a smartly dressed and appreciative audience. We see his well-manicured fingers flying in close-up over the piano keys, playing the instrument with control and precision. Similar shots appear at the beginning of Orlacs Hände and Hands of a Stranger, serving to suggest that the protagonist in each inhabits what Mary Russo describes as the “classical body”: a “transcendent and monumental, closed, static, self-contained, symmetrical, and sleek” body identified with the “rationalism, individualism, and normalizing aspirations of the bourgeoisie” (8). Indeed, most of the horror film adaptations of Renard’s novel firmly establish connections early on between the “able” body and gender, sexual, racial, and class norms.
In Orlacs Hände, Wiene opens with a shot of Ivana Orlac (Alexandra Sorina) reclining on a divan bathed in a white light as she reads a letter from her husband, Paul (Conrad Veidt), a world-famous pianist. “In all the world,” he writes, “there is nothing I would rather do than play my music and hold you in my arms.” We cut to a newspaper article announcing the end of Paul’s recent concert tour and his plans to return to his wife. We then see the well-dressed Paul at his last performance, masterfully playing the piano. Finally, we cut back to Ivana, who, with the help of an attentive maid, is preparing herself and her sumptuously appointed home for her husband’s imminent arrival. The mise en scene in these sequences reinforces our sense of the heteronormative, bourgeois, and racially privileged life that the Orlacs lead. The intertitles inform us that they are respectably married, their actions (Paul active in the public sphere, Ivana passively waiting at home) signal their conformity to traditional gender roles, the decor and costumes reveal that they are wealthy, and the bright, radiant lighting—which helps to construct the image of Ivana as a “glowingly pure white woman” (Dyer 131)—confirms their racial superiority. Just as the language of Paul’s letter links his love of music with his love of his wife, the parallel editing neatly links the privileged place they occupy in the body politic with the image of Paul’s “able” body. Freund establishes the connection between corporeal and societal norms slightly differently at the outset of Mad Love. In the opening scene, we find Yvonne Orlac (Frances Drake), a famous stage actress, listening to her husband, Stephen (Colin Clive), play the piano in a live radio broadcast as she prepares for her final performance in her dressing room and speaks giddily to her maid about her imminent retirement from the world of the theatre and her upcoming wedding anniversary. The link between the “able” body and the norms of gender, sexual, and class it informs and enables is forged not through parallel editing, but rather through Freund’s canny use of diegetic sound. Although he uses cross-cutting to establish the connection between corporeal and societal norms in The Hands of Orlac, Gréville also departs from Orlacs Hände by beginning his film on the very night that Stephen Orlac and his fiancée, Louise Cochrane (Lucile Saint-Simon), are to be married: the triumphant opening performance described above is to be directly followed by their wedding. We cut from the scene detailing Orlac’s performance in the recital hall to a scene in which Louise dresses in her bridal finery with the help of a black maid. Unfortunately, fate—in the form of a plane crash that deprives Orlac of his hands and renders him unfit for marriage—intervenes. And so it goes in each of the horror film adaptations of Renard’s novel: the first act ends with a traumatic accident (a train wreck, a plane crash, an automobile collision) that not only physically disfigures the protagonist, but also disturbs his place within the body politic and ultimately throws into question the corporeal norms upon which the body politic is founded. The hand transplant that the protagonist receives following the accident transforms his “classical” body into a “problem” body that resists easy classification (is it “self’ or “other,” “able” or “disabled?”) and represents the possibility of a “problem” body politic in which the societal norms that have hitherto governed the protagonist’s life have no place.
In the second act of the horror-film adaptations of The Hands of Orlac, the “classical” body of the protagonist, having been shattered by the accident and reconfigured by experimental medical science, becomes a “revolting” body: a body at once gruesome and rebellious.
What was a “human” entity composed of indivisible, interdependent organs all working together to ensure the survival of the system is now a “posthuman” collection of divisible, alien(ated) partial objects, each potentially unwilling to be subsumed into a unitary organism. Although the hand transplant performed in each film represents an attempt to preserve the protagonist’s “classical” body, it is invariably a failure in this regard, as he eventually comes to realize. In Orlacs Hände, Wiene communicates this realization in what has become the most famous image of the film: we see Paul Orlac holding the transplanted hands before his face, staring at them in disbelief, horrified by the realization that they are completely “other.” “These hands have a mind all their own!” exclaims Orlac in an intertitle, effectively speaking for the protagonists of the other films as well. Indeed, all of the later horror film adaptations of Renard’s novel feature this iconic image and some variation on the dialogue that accompanies it. They also follow Wiene in developing strategies to visualize the post-operative fragmentation of the protagonist’s body. In Orlacs Hände, this corporeal fragmentation is conveyed through Wiene’s Expressionist approach to lighting, costume, and set design. Conrad Veidt is often photographed in black costumes against a black background with low-key lighting, so that at times only his ghostly pale face and hands register on the film, seeming to float disembodied in the darkness. In The Hands of Orlac, Gréville has Mel Ferrer wear a pair of black gloves after the transplant, suggesting not only the evil lurking in Orlac’s limbs, but also—because of the way the color of the gloves contrasts with the rest of his clothing—their inescapable difference from the rest of Orlac’s body. Many of the later films inspired by Renard’s novel emphasize the fragmentary nature of the pianist’s post-operative existence and the newfound autonomy of his hands by showing the renegade limbs almost exclusively in close-up, divorced from the rest of his body through an act of selective framing. Earlier shots of the protagonist masterfully playing the piano to a packed recital hall are replaced by images of hands clumsily banging away at the instrument’s keys, unable to coax even the rudiments of a tune out of it—as in Hands of a Stranger, when Vernon Paris (James Stapleton) visits the home of the cab driver responsible for the accident that robbed him of his hands and is unable to play the piano he finds there. Reading across the four films, we catch many such intimate glimpses of a body irrevocably altered by medical science: hands subjected to a torturous and ultimately futile regimen of physical therapy, new handwriting that does not match the old, wedding rings that no longer fit.
The image of the wedding ring that no longer fits, which we find both in Wiene’s Orlacs Hände and in Gréville’s The Hands of Orlac, is especially important, for it succinctly communicates the central theme of each of these films: that if the ideal of the “able” body informs—and even enables—the societal norms that determine our places in the body politic, then the fragmentation of the “classical” body results in the breakdown of the body politic insofar as such corporeal disintegration precludes conformity with the conventional gender, sexual, class, and race roles upon which the body politic is predicated. The post-operative “problem” body inhabited by the protagonists in the horror-film adaptations of Renard’s novel makes it impossible for them to perform the rituals necessary to maintain a heteronormative, bourgeois, and racially-privileged life, leading us to question the “naturalness” of those rituals and wonder about the possibility of a “problem” body politic in which the societal norms that such rituals support would no longer dominate. Consider, for example, how the accident that reconfigures the protagonist’s body reverses conventional gender roles in these films. If the male protagonist is shown at the beginning of these films playing “masculine” roles (that of the confident and active artist or the strong, dominant head of the household), then he is shown after the accident occupying a more “feminine” position: physically weak, emotionally unstable, and dependent on those around him for survival. In contrast, the major female character in each of these films—typically the protagonist’s wife—grows in power and stature after the protagonist’s hand transplant. In Orlacs Hände, Ivana, who we see reclining passively on a divan in the film’s opening scene, not only helps to save her husband’s life after the accident, but also takes charge of their domestic affairs when his operation renders him unable to earn a living through his music. She works aggressively to maintain their financial stability, even going so far as to disregard Paul’s express wishes by approaching his estranged father for a loan; only at the prospect of selling her body does she draw the line: “I love you, Paul,” she says, “but I can’t buy your future with my flesh.” In Hands of a Stranger, Vernon Paris’s girlfriend, Eileen Hunter (Elaine Martone), responds differently, but with equal conviction, to the changes wrought in him by the accident: “You were always a very exciting, very desirable man,” she tells him, “but this attitude in you now, this heaviness, I don’t like it at all.” “I don’t like you this way,” she concludes, “I don’t want you this way.” The implication could not be clearer: the accident that has made it impossible for the protagonist in each of these films to play the piano has also made it impossible for him to be a “man” in the conventional sense of the word. Similarly, the protagonist’s inability to perform at the piano is metaphorically equated with his inability to perform in the bedroom, to carry on the necessary rituals of a heterosexual union. In The Hands of Orlac, Louise wonders whether the plane crash that disfigured Stephen and postponed their wedding might also have robbed him of his heterosexual desire for her: “Six months ago we were going to be married. Then this awful thing happened. Perhaps it has changed you. I haven’t changed.” Later, she gazes at Stephen suggestively as he attempts to practice the piano as a form of physical therapy: “No, don’t stop! Go on, please. Begin again,” she murmurs when he gives up in frustration. Soon, the therapy session erupts into a passionate bout of lovemaking. Their lovemaking ends abruptly, however, when Stephen suddenly finds that his hands are around Louise’s throat, strangling her. Moments like this abound in each of the horror-film adaptations of Renard’s novel, effectively “queering” the relationship between the protagonist and the woman in his life.
The protagonist’s accident and subsequent hand transplant also deprive him of the social status that he has hitherto enjoyed as a member of a privileged class and race. Soon after Stephen almost strangles his fiancée in The Hands of Orlac, he opts to distance himself from her by moving into a seedy hotel in nearby Marseilles, a “low” establishment where he feels more “at home” with himself. His once-immaculate appearance becomes slovenly—he neglects to shave or launder his clothing—as he spends his days drunkenly wandering the streets and frequenting local strip clubs. Both The Hands of Orlac and Hands of a Stranger contain scenes in which their protagonists, recovering from their accident and subsequent operation, attend a carnival, and, mingling freely with its largely working-class patrons, likewise seem to feel more “at home” than they would moving in the “high” circles to which they were presumably once accustomed. Unable to perform in the marketplace or provide for his family in the way he did before the accident, the posthuman protagonist in these films is redefined not only in terms of gender and sexuality, but also in terms of class. In addition, the “problem” body inhabited by the protagonist after his transplant robs him of his racial identity and privilege. In her study of science fiction and horror movies that feature “bad-white” bodies—”white bodies out of control, invisible bodies, bodies missing hands, brains without skulls, monstrous eyeballs, bodies contaminated by nuclear fallout, bodies at war with their own corporeal existence” (67)—Gwendolyn Audrey Foster argues that films like those based on Renard’s novel “not only problematize whiteness but display the instability of white embodiedness and subjectivity and suggest a postmodern reworking of self with regards to whiteness” (67-68). Foster does not read the “bad-white” body as a disabled body and therefore does not address the possibility of a link between corporeal difference and the instability of white embodiedness and subjectivity, but it seems clear that such a connection is firmly established in the films under discussion here, both by the “bad behavior” of their white protagonists’ post-operative “problem” bodies and by the way in which those bodies are represented on screen—photographed in shadow, dressed partially or wholly in dark clothing—in the first place. Indeed, the second act of the horror-film adaptations of The Hands of Orlac strikes me as being so interesting from the perspective of disability studies precisely because it forges such a strong link between the emergence of the “problem” body and the breakdown not only of racial identity and privilege, but also of gender, sexual, and class identity and privilege. Intentionally or not, these films deploy the trope of corporeal difference in a manner that deconstructs the societal norms upon which the body politic is founded. Moreover, they ultimately work to challenge the corporeal norms that inform and enable these societal norms by exposing the “twin myths of bodily wholeness and bodily lack” at the heart of the notion of corporeal difference.
In the third and final act of the horror-film adaptations of Renard’s novel, order (of a sort) is restored in an ambiguous resolution that either has the pianist coming to grips with his corporeal difference or has the authorities eliminating him and the imminent threat he poses to the body politic. This apparent “return” to the conventional body and body politic fragmented at the outset of the film is deceptive, however. While providing a false sense of narrative closure, it does not address or redress the reality or the ramifications of the protagonist’s posthuman condition. Consider, for example, the final shot of Orlacs Hände, which is almost sinister in its implications. After finding out that his hands did not in fact belong to a murderer, Paul embraces Ivana in relief; however, as they kiss, he holds her head in his hands in such a way that both of their faces are blotted out and overshadowed by the two limbs, which even in their “innocence,” it seems, remain resolutely “other.” At the fascinating conclusion of Mad Love, Stephen Orlac is only able to save Yvonne from being strangled by the evil Dr. Gogol (Peter Lorre) by using his transplanted hands’ natural talent for throwing knives.
In doing so, it could be argued, Orlac demonstrates his commitment to the prevailing body politic—after all, he acts to preserve his conventional, heterosexual union with his wife. At the same time, however, by using his transplanted hands in this way, he also accepts and embraces their fundamental “otherness.” Unlike Renard’s Orlac, who, in the end, has the comfort of knowing that his limbs did not actually belong to a murderer, Freund’s Orlac has no such luxury; yet, significantly, he does not seem to require it. The “problem” body has become the norm and the implication, perhaps, is that the “problem” body politic is not far behind. Even in the final scenes of Hands of a Stranger, when Vernon Paris—who has embraced the impulse to kill transmitted to him through his transplanted hands and set about murdering one by one the surgeons who operated on him—is shot to death by the police in the very recital hall where he once used to perform as a renowned pianist, the implications of his posthuman condition survive his passing. Standing over the corpse of his former patient, Paris’s intended victim, Dr. Gil Harding (Paul Lukather), reaches down as if hypnotized and touches one of the transplanted limbs. The film fades to black and we are presented with a title card that reads not, ‘The End,” as we might expect, but rather: “What is past is prologue.” It is hard to resist interpreting this as a sign that Harding will continue to experiment with medical transplants, creating “problem” bodies and sustaining the conditions under which a “problem” body politic might be born and flourish. Indeed, the conclusion reached by each of these films seems to be not only that such a development is inevitable, but also—in the case of Mad Love, at least—that it is to be anticipated rather than dreaded.
I should make it clear, by way of concluding, there is no question in my mind that, despite their often radical treatment of corporeal difference, the horror-film adaptations of The Hands of Orlac also work to perpetuate some of the familiar stereotypes about physical disability. For all of the intriguing ambiguity created by the title card at the end of Hands of a Stranger, for instance, the conclusion of the film is not so very different from that of countless other horror movies that end with the extermination of a bitter, vengeful disabled villain. Likewise, one could argue that by representing the corporeal difference of their male protagonists as antithetical to the gender and sexual identities they claimed before the accident, the horror films based on Renard’s novel promulgate the offensive notion that disabled men are somehow made “less than men” by their disability. I suggest once again, however, that we need to follow Rosemarie Garland Thomson in “go[ing] beyond [the] assailing [of] stereotypes to interrogate the conventions of representation and unravel the complexity of identity production within social narratives of bodily differences” (5). We should also remember Rick Altman’s observation: “Because a genre is not one thing serving one purpose, but rather multiple things serving multiple purposes for multiple groups, it remains a permanently contested site” (195). I do not wish to take issue with Paul K. Longmore’s assertion that the “subtext of many horror films is fear and loathing of people with disabilities” (4) or to dismiss the efforts of those who continue to expose and challenge the ableist tendencies of horror cinema. Nevertheless, I do believe that disability studies can benefit from what Judith Halberstam and Ira Livingston describe as “new protocols for reading the positivity of horror and abjection, not as representational [...] but as functional dysfunctions that make other things happen” (14). I have attempted in this paper to follow such a protocol by reading into body horror literature and cinema a radical critique of both the ideal of the “able” body and the prevailing body politic modeled after it. This critique is not sustained throughout the films discussed above, of course, nor is it always explicit. Indeed, it is often expressed in moments of free play or excess—instances of ambiguity, contradiction, or sheer spectacle. Ultimately, however, it is by focusing on such moments that we can demonstrate that although it has often been a critically ignored or maligned genre, seen simply as the province of revolting bodies, horror has the capacity to become the home of bodies in revolt.
Altman, Rick. Film/Genre. London: BFI, 1999.
Bakhtin, Mikhail. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Ed. Michael Holquist. Trans. Michael Holquist and Caryl Emerson. Austin: U of Texas P, 1981.
Davis, Lennard J. “Constructing Normalcy: The Bell Curve, the Novel, and the Invention of the Disabled Body in the Nineteenth Century.” The Disability Studies Reader. Ed. Lennard J. Davis. London and New York: Routledge, 1997. 9-28.
Dyer, Richard. White. London and New York: Routledge, 1997.
Foster, Gwendolyn Audrey. Performing Whiteness: Postmodern Re/Constructions in the Cinema. Albany: SUNY P, 2003.
Halberstam, Judith, and Ira Livingston. “Introduction: Posthuman Bodies.” Posthuman Bodies. Ed. Judith Halberstam and Ira Livingston. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1995. 1-19.
Hurley, Kelly. “Reading Like an Alien: Posthuman Identity in Ridley Scott’s Alien and David Cronenberg’s Rabid.” Posthuman Bodies. Ed. Judith Halberstam and Ira Livingston. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1995. 203-24.
Longmore, Paul K. “Screening Stereotypes: Images of Disabled People.” Screening Disability: Essays on Cinema and Disability. Ed. Christopher R. Smit and Anthony Enns. Lanham: UP of America, 2001. 1-17.
Renard, Maurice. The Hands of Orlac. Trans. Iain White. London: Souvenir, 1981.
Russo, Mary. The Female Grotesque: Risk, Excess and Modernity. London and New York: Routledge, 1994.
Smit, Christopher R., and Anthony Enns. “Introduction: The State of Cinema and Disability Studies.” Screening Disability: Essays on Cinema and Disability. Ed. Christopher R. Smit and Anthony Enns. Lanham: UP of America, 2001. ix-xviii.
Thomson, Rosemarie Garland. Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature. New York: Columbia UP, 1997.