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David Blakesley
Southern Illinois University, Carbondale

Enculturation, Vol. 2, No. 1, Fall 1998

It is a lurid and fleshy word, eviscerating. Eviscerate usually means "to take out the internal organs or entrails of, to disembowel, to gut," as in Adams’s 1633 usage, "A spider eviscerates herself, spends her own bowels in making a web to catch a fly," or Trapp’s 1654 sentence, "Your most elaborate demonstrations, for the which you had eviscerated your brains." Eviscerate can also mean to draw out what is vital or essential in anything, to elicit the pith or essence of (OED). The purpose of this essay is to eviscerate David Cronenberg’s pith; or, rather, to examine the thematic insistence of evisceration in his films.  I hope to show that even films like Dead Ringers and Crash are transformations on the theme that has always animated his work: the monstrous is not in the Other or in the family, but in the unintended by-products of technology and social life that metastasize in the body.  The body is enculturated (and thus diseased), with the imagery of evisceration in Cronenberg's films symbolizing its ritual purification.


deadtitl.jpg (3654 bytes)Evisceration is a staple of the horror genre. And even though evisceration is regular fare in many of Cronenberg’s films, his allegiance to horror's generic characteristics (e.g., evisceration) is equivocal.  I think that it is safe to say that films like They Came from Within, a.k.a. Shivers or The Parasite Murders (1975), Rabid (1976), The Brood (1979), Scanners (1980), Videodrome (1982), The Dead Zone (1983), and The Fly (1986) fit comfortably into conventional conceptions of the modern horror genre, as flexible and ambiguous as it is. Cronenberg’s more recent films--Dead Ringers (1988), Naked Lunch (1991), M. Butterfly (1993), and Crash (1996)--are more difficult cases, especially M. Butterfly.  But even they share thematic concerns, perhaps what Kenneth Burke would call an "occupational psychosis" or "trained incapacity" (7-9) that ultimately identifies Cronenberg as a director with a penchant for horror, however explicitly his films contain the usual content of the prototypical horror film.

His hegemonic idea is driven by an urge to rediscover the possibility of the autonomous (and auto-erotic) subject in a post-Freudian, post-modern, post-technological world. Since an insight also functions as a blindness, I want to bring Cronenberg’s particular insights into relief so that we can see both how what might be called his meta-biology of the sexual motive gets externalized as the neurotic "love" (or "eroticization") of technology, and how this meta-biology de-politicizes the ideological structures that influence/reify sexual identity. Cronenberg admits as much when he says,

A complete film-maker should be able to appeal to all facets of human existence, the sensual as well as the cerebral. If you do this mixture together properly, you have a perfect example of healing the Carstesian schism. You have something that appeals to the intellect and to the viscera. If you mix them together, you get a whole movie. I don’t particularly like cerebral movies. On the other hand, I don’t like movies that are all viscera and no brains. (Rodley 90)

The image in Scanners of the exploding head serves as a nice metaphor for what I think is Cronenberg’s strength (and weakness) as a director. That is, after the mind has exploded (the mind and all that it represents, including the political and cultural codes that animate the body), the headless body remains, figuratively free of the regulatory power of sociality and thus free to nurse its own urges (or at the very least, to wobble around before it falls). Cronenberg is both fascinated and terrified by the freedom made possible by decapitation (real or as a figure of the mind-body schism). It is no coincidence that in Cronenberg’s latest film, Crash, Vaughan (Elias Koteas) longs to witness, or even re-create, a crash like the one that decapitated Jayne Mansfield. Crash is a significant development in Cronenberg’s work because it illuminates--more so than any of this other films--the dangers of sexual purification, which in Crash is sublimated as the fetishization of cars and the technology they represent.


Before I discuss Crash--the film Ted Turner said you’d have to have a warped mind to like--I want to spend some time on four earlier films that I believe set the stage for Cronenberg’s latest effort to, as Shakespeare put it so well, lug the guts.

shivers.jpg (9356 bytes)Cronenberg’s first feature-length film, They Came from Within (or Shivers) tells the story of a medical experiment gone awry in yuppydom. Dr. Emil Hobbes breeds an experimental parasite that will help people regenerate diseased organs. The parasite, which ends up looking like "animated human excrement" (in academic parlance), gets passed between people living in the Starliner Apartments--a self-enclosed enclave with all the amenities of upper-middle class culture--through kissing and other sexual contact. It turns out that the parasite is VD with a vengeance, but its side-effects are an insatiable urge to copulate, so by the end of the film, the scene is a chaotic orgy of unsafe sex, with, as Michael J. Collins puts it, "horny hordes" hunting down all those who’ve managed to resist infection (64). The film "acts out the surreal death of the love generation, a death writ in blood, pus, and parasites" (65). The key is to notice how Cronenberg sees the body as a metaphor/container in/through which the material, including medical technology, runs its deadly course. Accepting the parasite into one’s body requires yielding to both the exigencies of the external and the purity of sexual desire. Cronenberg explains this process in simpler terms: In Shivers, he says, I was saying,

I love sex, but I love sex as a venereal disease. I am syphillis, I am enthusiastic about it in a different way from you. . . . I’m a venereal disease having the greatest time of my life, and encouraging everybody to get into it. To take a venereal disease’s point of view might be considered demonic, depending on who you are. (Rodley 151)

That Cronenberg can even imagine being a venereal disease suggests quite clearly that subjectivity for him is grounded in the materiality of the body, its fundamental processes and diseases.


In Videodrome, Cronenberg focuses his attention on the ways in which propaganda, as a mechanism of mind control enabled/enhanced by emergent technologies, fuses itself to the body, again in a parasitic relationship. By the end of the film, the protagonist, Max Renn (James Woods) has a gun organically fused to his hand and has developed a vagina-like orifice in his stomach that plays video tapes. These mutations are, again, metaphors for the transmutation of social/cultural malaise (characterized by the paranoia that sex and violence on videodrome.jpg (10674 bytes)TV could literally transform the body, first as an hallucination, then in actuality). Max becomes, in his own words, "The video word made flesh." What’s important to notice, I think, is the way that Cronenberg collapses the mind-body dichotomy (and its parallel, culture-nature) into the biological, so that the social psychoses enabled by technology have the unintended by-product of refiguring the very flesh that sought satisfaction through material means. In other words, it is not strictly the case that the body’s necessities are the mothers of invention, but that its inventions are the mothers of necessity. Technological "progress" taps into, transforms, the very biological processes that drive it. And thus, as Robert Haas has noted, Cronenberg’s genetically and psychically mutated characters represent an alternative to the usual image of the cyborg as superhuman (6). In Videodrome in particular, Max Renn is a cyborg who, rather than transcending the material optimism that creates him and thereby exposing its destructive potential (e.g., like Frankenstein’s monster), becomes the pure embodiment of Marx’s idea that life (and materiality) determines consciousness.


fly.jpg (4739 bytes)The Fly is another of Cronenberg’s films showing how he pursues the bodily basis of wider social dis-ease. Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) is a "bundle" of human, animal, and machine by the film’s end, having been unable to achieve any sort of comfortable synthesis of intellect, emotion, and technology. In the beginning, he seeks equilibrium between the disparate urges of the mind and body and sees the telepod (technology) as the agency through which this dream of unity can be achieved. Had it worked properly, the telepod would have merged mind/body/technology in one act, transporting him literally to another place and figuratively, to a state of being uncontaminated by sociality, an open space of unlimited freedom. What remains of Seth by the end is a fusion of the animalistic and the machine, with his human side capable only of expressing the wish to die. In this film and in most of Cronenberg’s others, technology is the physical expression, the dream, of the body as it writes its desires on social life.


I’d like now to turn to Dead Ringers and note how this film complicates the interanimation of identity, sexuality, and technology in the figures of the twins, Beverly and Elliot (Jeremy Irons). They face the problem of identification, which Cronenberg has said is the "real subject of most of my films" (Hickenlooper 7). That they are identical, share the same profession, apartment, women, etc. makes self-identification virtually impossible even as the two begin to grow apart emotionally (early in the film, Elliot tells Beverly, "You haven’t had an experience until I’ve had it, too").

Of their many quirks, the most relevant for my purposes is their desire to transform the woman’s body through technological, even artistic, innovation. This process begins when, as medical students in anatomy class, they used a specially designed intrument ("The Mantle Retractor") to examine the uterus of cadavers. The "fabulous Mantle twins" win a prestigious award for the innovation, which laid bare the female viscera during surgery. Twenty years later, they have a thriving gynecological practice specializing in reproductive problems. When Beverly discovers that a new patient, Claire Nuveau, has three cervixes, they are fascinated. Elliot examines her, and we get this exchange:

Elliot: "Fantastic."

Claire: "I’ve never had anyone say that about the inside of my body."

Elliot: "Surely you’ve heard of inner beauty . . . [we ought to have] beauty contests for the inside of bodies."

Claire: "I have a feeling you do."

Claire’s "mutation" becomes for them a mystery that they set about solving, with Elliot seducing her and then pressing Beverly to take his place. Beverly falls in love with her, and as he wrestles with the necessity of giving her up and falls deeper into addiction (which Claire herself has encouraged), he has new gynecological instruments made that will help him examine Claire (and other women) and thus satisfy his and Elliot's mutual and as William Beard puts it, "fascinated perception of women’s bodily otherness" (18). This otherness is magnified in their imagination by their so-called "mutant" patients, so much so that Beverly commissions an artist/metallurgist to make these "gynaecological instruments for operating on mutant women." (And this after Beverly uses the Mantle deadcover.jpg (5314 bytes)Retractor, in one of the most disturbing scenes in the film, on a patient who complains, "That really hurt," to which he replies, "We have the technology. This can’t hurt.") What’s critical to note is that the Mantle twins conceive of these instruments as the means of discovering the secret of bodies they cannot understand and that, in their warped sensibility, represent not just the otherness of women, but the site upon which are written social evils (Claire Nuveau, Elliot says, is a "an actress and a flake"). Once Beverly confirms that these evils have been inscribed on the woman’s body, identifying himself in opposition to them remains an open possibility. The central irony is that Beverly uses these same instruments to eviscerate Elliot at the end of the film, and so, by the same logic, expose the otherness of his twin so that he can exist as a unique individual. (Beverly’s logic is not quite this smooth, of course.) As Cronenberg shows, the attempt fails, leaving Beverly unable to answer Claire’s question, "Who is this?" He returns to Elliot’s body, curls up beside it, and dies.


crashtitle.jpg (4457 bytes)Crash’s release created a remarkable fuss, both in the media and among film aficionados. The film won the Special Jury Award at Cannes "for originality, for daring, and for audacity" and was chosen as the best film of 1996 by Cahiers du Cinema. In addition to causing great turmoil in France and England, its release in the U.S., originally scheduled for October 1996, was postponed until March 21, 1997, reportedly because Ted Turner, Time-Warner’s VP (which owns Fine Line), hated the film, according to Cronenberg,. (Cronenberg retorted at the film’s premiere that Turner was entitled to his opinion, as ignorant and misinformed as it was.) In an interview with Jim Emerson, Cronenberg complains about the irrational fear critics have that the film will spawn copy cats: "What, they think people are going to masturbate and crash? Guys in Camaros do that all the time! They don’t need my movie to encourage that!"


The film is an adaptation of the 1973 novel by J.G. Ballard, who sees the film as "extremely faithful to the spirit of the book." Crash traces the escalating fetishization of car crashes by its two main characters, James and Catherine Ballard (James Spader and Deborah Unger).  Ultimately, Cronenberg's linkage between cars, car crashes, and sexuality is grounded on the same association in popular culture that we see made all the time on screen and TV, as well as on the automobile's mystique as a technological marvel. But the linkage is also a very personal one. On the first day of filming Scanners, Cronenberg and crew set up to shoot a scene that he describes as follows:

We were shooting along the expressway, and the traffic was jamming up. A guy in a truck was watching us shooting by the side of the road and didn't notice everyone in front of him had stopped. I turned around in time to see his truck climb up on top of this little Toyota. Our grips had to jump the fence and drag these two women out of their car and lay them on the verge. Dead. It was hideous. (Rodley 86-7)

I don't want to suggest that Cronenberg himself felt anything but dread for having indirectly contributed to this accident, but in the artist's imagination, this incident resonated. The accident is caused by someone in a vehicle watching something out of the ordinary, some event that interrupts the orderly but dangerous world of expressway traffic.


crashhazard1.jpg (9779 bytes)Speaking of Crash and the erotic element of car crashes, Cronenberg says: "It has to do with the power of the car and the speed of it, the visceral thrills, and so on. The feeling of control on the edge of danger and all that stuff is very sexual." In the film, James Ballard is a cinematographer (or director), and one of the ways he and his wife have found to energize their sex life is to have sex with other people in places where "getting caught in the act" is a good possibility. They spend much of their time sharing these stories. As Cronenberg describes it, the old forms of sex, love, and emotion have no meaning for them anymore. But then James gets in a violent car crash with another man and Dr. Helen Remington (Holly Hunter), the man’s wife. The man dies, having been propelled through his own front windshield, then through James's. (In a twist on the motif of evisceration, the scene shows the technological body eject its organic impurities, a form of purification that will be developed further later in the film.) As James heals in his hospital bed, he and Catherine discuss the crash, and it becomes clear that at that point for them it's an exciting experience. Cronenberg describes it this way: "The car accident is an epiphany that unleashes a kind of awareness--a revelation for them, really, of their existential responsibility to reinvent all those things that have meaning."


Well, they do reinvent the meaning of sex, with the generous assistance of Vaughan, who's already found that car crashes (and their aftermath) are especially sexy. The meaning they create is essentially that, as Cronenberg has said, "[T[here's something sexual about cars penetrating each other."

James and Catherine essentially reinvent their sexual organs, figuring them as cars, and in perfect piety to this new orientation, seek new thrills that will stimulate them. But the transition to this state of mind is more gradual than I've implied. Right after his accident, James has a complicated contraption stabilizing his two broken legs, suggesting that he has already made the transition into the cyborg. And Vaughan, posing as an orderly, has already begun to work his magic on Dr. Remington, the woman who survived the crash with James and who later seduces him into having sex in--where else?--the back seat of a car in a parking garage as Vaughan secretly takes pictures. James and Catherine are spirited along on this new road in their lives. They swap stories about near crashes, fantasize about the sexual thrills Vaughan himself gets from re-staging famous car crashes (like James Dean's), and gradually act upon this newly discovered fetish.


Two exchanges between Vaughan and James draw out the theme of this film and show Cronenberg's persistence in extending the themes of his previous ones. Midway through the film, Vaughan explains his "Project" to James. He wants to re-create the circumstances of Jayne Mansfield's death in the car crash that decapitated her. James asks him about it, and Vaughan replies, "It's something we're all involved in . . . the reshaping of the body by modern technology." The scene cuts at that point, but a bit later he and James pick up the same issue. James feels the thrill, but can't explain it because Vaughan's earlier explanation seems inadequate: "It's all very satisfying, but I'm not sure why a car crash is a fertilizing event." Vaughan replies that all that technology/body stuff is a pop sci/fi idea, that the real charge is the release of pent-up sexual energy that a crash, or a near-crash releases. The eroticism comes from the potential power of a car to break the barriers of normality, the "rules of the road," proxemic spatiality, the socially sanctioned ways of acting (sexually speaking or otherwise). (We're much more likely to break codes to get an orgasm than for anything else). As James says, "After being bombarded by road safety propaganda, it was almost a relief to find myself in an accident."

Like orgasm, the car crash is an apocalyptic event that severs the mind from the body and, of course, the ideal vehicle for one of Cronenberg’s artistic tics. Crash shows how James’s and Catherine’s desire to rewrite meaning into their relationship by eroticizing Buicks, Gremlins, and Spitfires never is satisfied. Instead, it leads them away from their desired "authenticity" and into a self-absorbed world where who (or what) they have sex with is irrelevant. Although by the end of the film James and Catherine seem more connected spiritually, the touching moment occurs while she is pinned under a car on the side of a freeway, James saying, "Maybe the next one, darling." Technology desensitizes us to essential emotional and bodily processes by becoming the object of the fetish. The sexual embrace of technology (lots of car-stroking in Crash) is a surrender to its power, and addiction to this embrace is a form of both intellectual and physical masturbation.  In Crash, it's not just too much exhuberance for technology's potential for solving human problems that gets people into trouble.   It's too much exhuberance, too much desire, for the material products of technology.  It would not be hard to imagine Cronenberg's next film being about laptop cybersex.


From They Came from Within to Crash, Cronenberg has explored the ways in which ideology and its material productions cause generally grotesque physical (and nearly always psychological) evolution or regression. He has foreseen our dangerous desire to converge (in cyborg fashion) with this materiality. Not all of his works are horror films in the generic sense, but by examining the thematic insistence of evisceration throughout his films, we can see both his own interpretation of physical and psychological alienation in postmodern culture and shed light on the parallel evolution of sci-fi and horror, which now situate the monstrous not in the Other or in the family, but in the unintended by-products of technology and social life, and—in Cronenberg’s case—Dodge Darts.



* An earlier version of this paper was presented at the Popular Culture Association in San Antonio, Texas, on March 26, 1997.

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Works Cited

Beard, William. "Lost and Gone Forever: Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers." Post Script 15.2 (1996): 18.

Burke, Kenneth. Permanence and Change: An Anatomy of Purpose. 3rd. ed., Berkeley: U of California P, 1984.

Collins, Michael J. "Medicine, Surrealism, Lust, Anger, and Death: Three Early Films by David Cronenberg." Post Script 15.2 (1996). 62-69.

Cronenberg, David. "David Cronenberg on the Collision of Sex, Violence, and Politics in Crash." Interview by Jim Emerson. Cinemania Online. 1996. http://cinemania.msn.com/cinemania/features/Cronenberginterview.htm. June 30, 1998.

Haas, Robert. "The Cronenberg Project: Literature, Science, Psychology, and the Monster in Cinema." Post Script 15.2 (1996). 3-10.

Hickenlooper, George. "The Primal Energies of the Horror Film: An Interview with David Cronenberg." Cineaste 17.2 (1989). 4-7.

Rodley, Chris, ed. Cronenberg on Cronenberg, rev. ed. London: Faber and Faber, 1992.

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