Interpreting the Monster: Examining David Cronenberg’s ‘The Fly’
Written By: Nick Poulimenakos
Since the early 1900’s, horror films have used various types of “monsters” to fight against the main protagonists. Typically, the monster is not the old-fashioned type of antagonist as they come to life due to uncontrollable circumstances, thus making the audience feel some type of sympathy towards them. Commentators on horror employ diverse approaches of argumentation that are a derivative from specific contexts, social/political and/or patterns when explaining their interpretation of what the monster means to horror films. In Noel Caroll’s “Why Horror?” and Robin Wood’s “An Introduction to the American Horror Film,” the role and function of the monster is explained from two very different perspectives. This essay will summarize Carroll’s and Wood’s definition and function of the monster in the horror genre and then each author’s account will be applied to David Cronenberg’s 1986 horror classic The Fly starring Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis. Connecting the film to each author will demonstrate how Carroll and Wood might interpret the selected sequence and the eponymous monster.
Noel Carroll is a distinguished professor of philosophy at the City University of New York Graduate Center. Best known for his work in film philosophy, Carroll writes about his interpretation of the monster in his scholarly journal “Why Horror?” Carroll begins by explaining that in any horror narrative, the monster is a “functional ingredient” (Carroll, 35) in the sense that the film is staged so that it can present its main antagonist in the grandest light. Carroll suggests in the opening sentences of his journal that, for him, the monster’s main purpose is to serve as a means for discovery in the story. The horror movie revolves around discovering, investigating and validating the existence of something or someone that was thought to be unreal. For Carroll, this is proving the theoretical. The distinguished professor states that horror films follow a pattern, saying that “first the [viewer] learns of the monster’s existence, then some characters do, then some more characters do and so on” (Carroll, 35) which leads to the driving theme of curiosity. Curiosity is what drives the main protagonist(s) through a journey of proof, theory, and confirmation as they seek out their attacker.
After outlining how the monster serves the narrative in a horror film, Carroll moves on to describing what comes after the discovery of said monster. He explains that once the monster has been established it must be confronted and the narrative switches to questioning whether the monster can be killed. This keeps to the overarching theme of curiosity as the main characters begin to investigate the powers of the monster and who they really are. According to Carroll, the monster is usually “disturbing, distressful and repulsive” (Carroll, 37) and because of this, they create attention. The monster violates what it means to be a normal human. The monster is an anomaly; it deviates from the standard patterns of human beings. Monsters like “The Fly” in Cronenberg’s classic film is a mutated individual that commands attention because it is repulsive. From Carroll’s perspective, the viewer is constantly hooked on how the monster is different from the average person and what drove them to becoming the killing machines they are.
The Fly, directed and co-written by University of Toronto alum David Cronenberg, tells the story of an unconventional scientist who, after an experiment gone wrong, slowly mutates into a fly-like monster. The main sequence in question revolves around John Getz’s character Stathis Borans and Jeff Goldblum’s Seth Brundle where Stathis searches the trashed experiment room looking for a transformed, human-fly hybrid Brundle. Cronenberg’s sequence directly relates to the description of the monster provided by Carroll. The driving theme of curiosity is extremely evident within the first minute of the scene. Sathis, shotgun in hand, immediately begins slowly walking through the trashed room, silently investigating the turmoil that took place. The viewer can infer that, from Carroll’s point of view, Sathis is following the exact outline of a horror movie. First, the viewer realizes that Jeff Goldblum has become the monster, then Sathis discovers the monster and finally, Geena Davis’ character see’s what has happened to her significant other. It is curiosity that drives Sathis to continue to search the room, desperate for answers.
Once Brunder reveals himself to Stathis however, the real horror begins. Carroll writes that once the monster is discovered, the character tries to discover ways to destroy it. The film uses this as Stathis desperately tries to kill the now mutated Brunder with his shotgun. But, it is to no avail as Brunder releases his corrosive vomit, effectively disfiguring Stathis. It is Geena Davis’ character “Ronnie” who puts an end to the horror Brunder has caused. After Brunder is mortally wounded, Ronnie discovers that Brunder is silently pleading for her to euthanize him. Realizing that the shotgun is the tool, Ronnie ends the horror and destroys the self-made monster.
Robin Wood was an English film critic who spent most of his life in Canada. Known for being a long time professor at York University, Wood wrote books on several directors such as Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hanks. It was in 1979 where Wood decided to write a scholarly article on horror cinema titled “An Introduction to the American Horror Film.” Much like Noel Carroll, Wood outlines the definition and function the monster plays in the horror narrative. However, Wood’s interpretation is drastically different when compared to Carroll. Wood begins by outlining two recurring themes seen in horror cinema. The first he says is repression which includes basic and surplus. Basic repression revolves around the urges we ourselves control so that we do not act irrationally and impulsively. Surplus repression discusses the repression humans face based on current cultural and societal norms. Wood follows this by explaining oppression. He states that if something cannot be repressed, it is oppressed. When the ruling power commits unjust or cruel exercises against its people, those same people may not even be aware it is happening. It is here where Wood finally explains how this connects to his interpretation of the monster.
Wood explains that, in his opinion, the monster’s function in horror films is to attack normality. For Wood, it is repression that helps citizens understand what is normal based on society. The monster is what threatens society’s norms as it goes against various things such as family life, the heterosexual culture, masculinity and femininity. The reader can infer that Wood is saying that the fear demonstrated in horror films are assaults on the norms set by the social order. David Cronenberg expertly demonstrates Wood’s concept of the monster in The Fly through its titular monster and Geena Davis’ female lead.
The largest opposition to normality in The Fly comes from the end of the sequence where Goldblum’s character, Brunder, reveals his master plan to Davis’ Ronnie. He explains that instead of letting Ronnie give birth to their child, he is going to merge them all together so that they can give birth together. This is a direct attack on the family aspect of society. A normal culture has one person (the female) give birth to the child but Brunder resists this as he believes merging himself with Ronnie will create “the perfect family, a family of three joined together in one body” (The Fly). Brunder goes so far as to say that the merging will make him more human than ever despite already being mutated to the point of no return.
Wood would assume that Brunder is actively being impacted by surplus repression. He forgoes his role as the father of the potential human/fly child in exchange for creating one entity that he insists will be better than anything society has outlined. His basic repression does not exist anymore because of the impulsive decisions he makes throughout the sequence such as disfiguring John Getz’s character and forcing his desperate plan onto Ronnie without any discussion.
In this cinematic essay, Robin Wood’s “An Introduction to American Horror Cinema” and Noel Carroll’s “Why Horror?” were analyzed to demonstrate how each author interprets “the monster” of horror cinema. While Carroll argues that the monster is based upon curiosity, Wood explains that he sees the monster as an attack on the normality set by society and cultures. These arguments were then applied to David Cronenberg’s The Fly to see how each author would understand the sequence in question. Both authors exhibit drastically different takes on the film. Carroll would see the sequence as the character being overtaken by their curiosity which causes the monster to reveal himself and attack whereas Wood would read the scene as the monster deliberately attacking society’s definition of family life and rational thinking.