by Margaret Kolb
Published by Columbia University Press, 2011 | 336 pages
Angela Smith’s aptly titled Hideous Progeny takes its name from Mary Shelley’s long-ago plea in support of her Frankenstein. Demanding that her critics let her “hideous progeny go forth and prosper,” Shelley remained defiant in the face of detractors that had lambasted her work as “a tissue of horrible and disgusting absurdity.” She published and republished Frankenstein to widespread acclaim, establishing the monster as a terrifying fixture of contemporary fiction.
While Angela Smith touches upon literary monstrosity, her book is more narrowly focused on the monsters of classic horror cinema. One hundred years after Shelley, when the script for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde first made the rounds among Hollywood producers in December of 1931, the predominant critical reaction was more of the same. With the studio ready to scrap the entire venture over doubts that the censors would “overlook the horrors that result from the realism of the Hyde make-up,” the future of nascent horror cinema hung in the balance.
Although the time and medium had changed, the central paradox of the fictional monster – the degree to which they oscillate between repulsiveness and aesthetically-desirable – remained the same.
Horror fiction would not exist without the monster, of course, and Smith notes, the monster would not exist without our “desire to both see and experience bodily debilitation.” Despite their initial trepidation, both Shelley and the cinema producers a century later came to discover that monsters not only scare, but also sell. Any reservations about figures too grotesque for the screen soon melted away when Hollywood realized that it was precisely the grotesque that drew viewers. Thus, Smith proclaims that the horror genre’s raison d’être is “the pleasurable display of the monstrous body in familiar terms” (italics mine). And indeed, as in the history of gothic literature, where the hideous proved an immediate hit, the early cinematic forays into the genre (Dracula, Frankenstein, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) met with unexpected success. A deluge of similar works (Freaks, The Mummy, and Island of Lost Souls) quickly and inevitably followed the next year, all clamoring over each other in the race to set one box office record after another. Smith’s Hideous Progeny takes as its subject this “golden age” of horror cinema of the 1930s.
Smith’s study stresses that the portrayal of “monstrosity” is fraught with problems within the politics of representation. Historically, the genre evolved from tropes that associate physical disfigurement with moral aberration. Drawing on prominent disability scholarship, Smith relies on Sharon Snyder and David Mitchell’s concept of “narrative prosthesis” to describe how the iconography of physical disability has often been used as a problematic shorthand to represent hidden moral flaw. Consider, for instance, Shakespeare’s Richard III, whose hunched back exceeds a mere physical trait to become the denotative proxy for his iniquity. The horror genre originated out of the idea that the monster’s disfigured body is not only physically repulsive, but also, and more importantly, manifests a deeper moral corruption.
Indeed, in film’s earliest, pre 1930s “golden age” years, Hideous Progeny documents just how influential this idea of the physical deformation as “narrative prosthesis” for moral degeneracy was, locating the roots of the genre firmly in the woeful history of American eugenics. According to Smith, the earliest of horror films grew directly out of their predecessor “eugenic” films, exemplified by titles like Heredity (1912) and The Black Stork (1916; 1927).
These eugenic films flourished during a historical era when eugenics was championed by prominent social scientists who misappropriated Darwinian insights and sought to implement them in social policy. Smith traces its history to the work of European phrenologists, perhaps best represented by Cesare Lombroso, the Italian criminologist who insisted that wayward behavior was an inherited trait identifiable in “evil” facial structures. Another contributor to this line of thought was the Harvard biologist Charles Davenport, who, in 1911, defined eugenics as “the science of the improvement of the human race by breeding.” Eugenic thought climaxed in American political culture with the controversial 1927 Supreme Court case of Buck v. Bell, in which the Supreme Court ruled that a state may compulsorily sterilize the “unfit,” including the mentally retarded, for the “protection and health of the state.”
The influence of the eugenic idea on the film genre had, however, as Smith notes, declined by the early 1930s, around the time of its peak in academic discussion and long before its utter collapse in the wake of the Second World War and the failures of Nazi experimentation. Indeed, Smith argues that a crucial break from eugenics was made by Tod Browning – director of the smashingly successful Dracula and later, Freaks. Tod Browning, it is argued, broke new ground in the genre by forefronting the visual trope of the “monstrous body” inherited from the eugenic film, while simultaneously problematizing it’s previously assumed connection to any inner, moral deformity. It could be argued that Freaks remains, to this day, the most radical polemic against the eugenic platform ever captured on celluloid (David Lynch’s masterpiece The Elephant Man is another).
Though the nature of the questioning has changed since the days of Shelley and the early years of the 20th century, the question as to the “morality” of the portrayal of physical disability, especially within the “horror” genre, remains. One popular disability studies view is that horror films “are “irrevocably ableist in their caricatured and negative view of disabled characters.” Which is to say, the entire genre is, by its nature, an affront to the disabled. Horror cinema’s basic modus operandi is thus understood to be inherently eugenic in nature, exploiting the distinction between the “normal” body and its disfigured counterpart. From this angle, disability scholars’ frustration at horror cinema is certainly defensible, the entire genre thus seen to be, from a disability perspective, “the equivalent of racist films.”
This reading is, of course, not final. Although Smith spends much of Hideous Progeny outlining how early films – particularly Dracula and Frankenstein – drew heavily from eugenic tropes, she assuages disability scholars’ fears about horror cinema by offering us powerful arguments for redeeming the genre. Smith argues that the elements that would ostensibly sustain the eugenic message of these films are often thwarted by the inherent representational instability of portraying the disabled. At every turn, the eugenic logic that makes monsters legible is simultaneously that which makes the viewer conscious of their reliance on eugenic logic to understand the monster. In other words, Smith concludes that while seeing deformity gives us terrifying pleasure, it is also that which indicts us, the viewers, as complicit in its function. While to some this conclusion may seem like an equivocating sleight-of-hand to claim both sides of the argument, to most others, this more nuanced treatment is more productive than a straightforward condemnation of the genre.
Thus does Smith argue that classic horror cinema, as well as its ravenous audience, can in fact be recovered from even the most emphatic imputations of ableism. We ought, Smith suggests, move beyond the straightforward condemnation of horror cinema to instead look at how the horror genre can just as easily, and persuasively, be interpreted as being “defined by its grappling with the politics and aesthetics of disability representation.”
Allen Zhang is an English PhD candidate at UCLA. His research is primarily focused on monsters in nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature. He received his BA in English from Dartmouth College.