From Freaks to Scissorhands


Fantastic Films, Fantastic Bodies: Speculations on the Fantastic and Disability Representation
Volume 10, Issue 10 (October 31, 2006)
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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.



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