Hideous Progeny

Hideous Progeny: Disability, Eugenics, and Classic Horror Cinema

EDITOR JOHN BELTON
ANGELA M. SMITH
Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 368
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7312/smit15716
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  • Book Info
    Hideous Progeny
    Book Description:

    Twisted bodies, deformed faces, aberrant behavior, and abnormal desires characterized the hideous creatures of classic Hollywood horror, which thrilled audiences with their sheer grotesqueness. Most critics have interpreted these traits as symptoms of sexual repression or as metaphors for other kinds of marginalized identities, yet Angela M. Smith conducts a richer investigation into the period's social and cultural preoccupations. She finds instead a fascination with eugenics and physical and cognitive debility in the narrative and spectacle of classic 1930s horror, heightened by the viewer's desire for visions of vulnerability and transformation.

    Reading such films as Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), Freaks (1932), and Mad Love (1935) against early-twentieth-century disability discourse and propaganda on racial and biological purity, Smith showcases classic horror's dependence on the narratives of eugenics and physiognomics. She also notes the genre's conflicted and often contradictory visualizations. Smith ultimately locates an indictment of biological determinism in filmmakers' visceral treatments, which take the impossibility of racial improvement and bodily perfection to sensationalistic heights. Playing up the artifice and conventions of disabled monsters, filmmakers exploited the fears and yearnings of their audience, accentuating both the perversity of the medical and scientific gaze and the debilitating experience of watching horror. Classic horror films therefore encourage empathy with the disabled monster, offering captive viewers an unsettling encounter with their own impairment. Smith's work profoundly advances cinema and disability studies, in addition to general histories concerning the construction of social and political attitudes toward the Other.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-52785-9
    Subjects: Film Studies, History, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. INTRODUCTION DISABILITY, EUGENICS, AND CLASSIC HORROR CINEMA
    (pp. 1-32)

    In December 1931, Colonel Jason S. Joy, administrator of Hollywood’s Production Code, was a little anxious. Writing to Paramount executive B. P. Schulberg about the forthcoming film Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Joy wondered whether local censors would “overlook the horrors that result from the realism of the Hyde make-up,” and warned, “[W]e cannot estimate what the reaction will be to this, or to other horror pictures.” A few days later, Joy expanded on his concern in a memo to Will Hays, president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America:

    Perhaps it would be wise to obtain an...

  6. 1 EUGENIC REPRODUCTION CHIMERAS IN DRACULA AND FRANKENSTEIN
    (pp. 33-82)

    In 2005 an article in the New York Times appealed to horror film to contextualize the “weirdnesses” of genetic science. Nicholas Wade’s “Chimeras on the Horizon, but Don’t Expect Centaurs” defines the “original chimera” as “a tripartite medley of lion, goat, and snake.” The reference is to the Iliad, in which Homer describes the Chimaera as a “raging monster, divine, inhuman— / A lion in the front, a serpent in the rear,/ In the middle a goat—and breathing fire.” The Times article lists other classical and fantastical chimeras: “centaurs, sphinxes, werewolves, minotaurs and mermaids, and the gorgon Medusa.” In...

  7. 2 ENFREAKING THE CLASSIC HORROR GENRE FREAKS
    (pp. 83-118)

    Early in Freaks (dir. Tod Browning, MGM, 1932), horrified French caretaker Jean (Michael Visaroff) leads the estate owner (Albert Conti) toward a troubling spectacle: a group of sideshow freaks gamboling in a sunny, wooded clearing. Disgusted and fearful, Jean describes these unsettling bodies to his employer: “The most horrible, twisted things, crawling, whining, laughing!” “Oh, monsieur!” he declares. “There must be a law in France to smother such things at birth. Or lock ’em up!” Jean’s effort to oust the freaks (fig. 2.1) and his conviction that they should be imprisoned or destroyed at birth echo both eugenic imperatives and...

  8. 3 REVELATIONS AND CONVULSIONS SPECTACLES OF IMPAIRMENT IN CLASSIC HORROR FILM
    (pp. 119-160)

    The narrative and metaphoric construction of disability in classical myth, folklore, and literature has invested certain impairments with particular symbolic meanings. Blindness, for instance, often figures an absolute helplessness or dependency, accompanied by the sentiment summarized in Oedipus the King: “Better to be dead than live blind.”¹ Alternatively, blindness indicates, or is compensated with, inner sight and wisdom, as in Sophocles’ prophet Tiresias. Eugenicists also interpreted blindness according to their purposes, associating hereditary blindness with insanity and degeneracy and translating earlier discourses of blind people’s helplessness into economic terms, emphasizing the “cost” of blindness to the nation and, consequently, seeking...

  9. 4 MAD MEDICINE DISABILITY IN THE MAD-DOCTOR FILMS
    (pp. 161-194)

    Released at the end of the 1930s, the British horror film Dark Eyes of London (dir. Walter Summers, John Argyle Productions, 1939) contains stock ingredients from earlier American classic horror films—for instance, starring Dracula’s Bela Lugosi and featuring an impaired monster who stalks the movie’s heroine. Lugosi plays the dastardly Dr. Orloff, a former doctor who has his insurance clients murdered for their money. Orloff also masquerades as Dearborn, the congenial, blind director of a Home for the Destitute Blind, where he exploits the men under his “care.” Orloff’s henchman and assassin is Jake (Wilfred Walters), a hulking and...

  10. 5 SHOCK HORROR AND DEATH RAYS DISABLING SPECTATORSHIP
    (pp. 195-232)

    Doctor X (dir. Michael Curtiz, First National/Warner Bros., 1932), a sensationalistic horror movie filmed in Technicolor, has a climactic scene that encapsulates the dynamics of horror-film spectatorship. A series of murders in New York, in which the bodies are mutilated and partially cannibalized at the time of the full moon, has been linked, through the use of a specific surgical instrument, to Dr. Xavier’s medical academy. Xavier (Lionel Atwill) sequesters himself and the academy’s four other doctors in his isolated mansion, in order to determine the murderer’s identity. The suspects provide quintessential images of crazed doctors hunched over body parts...

  11. CONCLUSION
    (pp. 233-244)

    In 1927 the United States Supreme Court ruling in the case of Carrie Buck affirmed the right of states to destroy the reproductive capacities of those designated “feebleminded” or otherwise congenitally defective.¹ Expert opinion in the case was provided by Harry H. Laughlin of the Eugenics Record Office (ERO), who, having never met Carrie, her mother, or her daughter, testified “that Carrie’s alleged feeblemindedness was primarily hereditary.”² Buck’s lawyer protested that salpingectomy, “the opening of the abdominal cavity and the cutting of the Fallopian tubes with the result that sterility is produced,” violated Buck’s “constitutional right of bodily integrity.” He...

  12. NOTES
    (pp. 245-292)
  13. BIBLIOGRAPHY
    (pp. 293-316)
  14. SELECTED FILMS
    (pp. 317-320)
  15. INDEX
    (pp. 321-336)
  16. Back Matter
    (pp. 337-346)