Welcome to the Void!
In what amounts to a Freudian slip of the ear, I have for years now misheard a line in Lorde’s track “A World Alone” that feels deeply relevant to the start of this journey together. The official version goes, “All my fake friends and all of their noise/ complain about work/ they’re studying business, I study the floor.” But to my ear it goes, “they’re studying business, I study the void.” Which brings us precisely here, dear Reader. Studying the Void. Thanks for joining me.
The idea for this column was birthed from an article I wrote last year entitled, The Ontology of Open Mouths: The Scream and The Swallowing. Originally published by Ariel Fisher, editor of Shudder’s weekly newsletter and blog, The Bite (sign up here!), the piece discusses the symbology of the open mouth as one of the most ubiquitous motifs featured in both horror and the Gothic, the significations of which visually narrate the grand preoccupations of the human condition: jubilation, awe, hunger, song and, indeed, terror. Here, we’ll build on the concepts introduced in that essay, namely what I’ve termed The Swallowing, which refers to the many occasions in horror and the Gothic where terror manifests in the form of a devouring Other: a visual lexicon which essentializes fear in the face of an open mouth, most often aestheticized as a black hole.
If one were to look at Nosferatu, Jaws, Cloverfield, Ginger Snaps, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Poltergeist and Night of the Living Dead, their only common thread is the threat of something hungry. The ontological repetition of this imagery and its many resultant metaphors is so pervasive, it transcends genre, medium, discipline, culture, continent, time itself, in reflection of what amounts to an essential (some will say evolutionary), compulsive preoccupation both with consumption and being consumed.
I note in the original essay that this approach represents a departure from some of horror criticism’s most widely employed analytic methods, much of which is rooted in psychoanalysis – Julia Kristeva’s concept of abjection in particular, which sees horror and terror arise from instances of trespass, perceived corruption, or the violation of a prescribed boundary. But what notions of subjecthood need be naturalized in order to accept this rendering? By definition, corruption indicates the decay of something once pure, clean, and whole. But what if that estimation is itself a false narrative? What happens if we decide purity as a concept does not and has never existed? In other words, what is abjection to the abject?
All forms of artistic and cultural production ultimately reflect their creators, a statement true of the individual, but more significantly true of society (which also happens to be the thesis of Frankenstein). If you read my last piece for FANGORIA, you’ll know I view monsters – objects of terror – as a form of cultural technology. If we accept that monsters always reflect the cultures and societies that birth them, what might examination of The Swallowing in all its many forms indicate about our culture and society?
What questions are raised – what truths mirrored – when we sit down with our monsters and have a conversation?
There have been some tough conversations in and around horror as of late, so I wanted to start with a film I love, one I return to often, and which – sentimentally-speaking – demonstrates the spirit of this column, and certainly the double entendre insinuated in the title’s stylization.
Based on the book of the same name by Mike Carey, Colm McCarthy’s The Girl with All the Gifts (2016) is one of those "Blacks in horror" films that, despite being written and directed by white men, still accomplishes movements native to the Black Horror tradition. It’s worth noting this quality is completely incidental. As was the case with George Romero, Duane Jones and Night of the Living Dead, Sennia Nanua simply killed the audition for the lead role of Melanie, and her casting changed the entire story – made it better, and above all, transformed it into a distinctly abolitionist text.
The film opens with Melanie crouched in the dark, counting the seconds before the lights turn on to reveal her location not as a room, but a cell. With the light comes shouting – “rise and shine you friggin’ abortions” – repeated again and again, the echo of iron around fist. She hides two photos under her pillow, slips into a bright orange outfit, and waits diligently in a wheelchair when two militarized guards enter the cell, guns focused on her. She greets them both with cheer, addresses them by name, goes so far as to correct Gallagher, one of the laxer officers, on his form. This detail is to say, before we know much of anything with regard to the world of the film, we know this character is observant, detail-oriented, precocious.
While lamenting the tragedy of transformation – nostalgia – is a trademark of most contemporary zombie apocalypse narratives, it has no place in this universe. The origin of the fungal infection which created the “hungries” is irrelevant, as are the human characters’ backstories prior to the military lab where the film opens in medias res. What we’re presented with initially is not chaos, but extreme regimentation, a definitive feature of carceral systems, and the only life Melanie has ever known. There is no reminiscence of the human past precisely because, as the film’s emotional center, the before did not exist for her. It wasn’t the world she chewed her way into.
The fungal infection that creates the hungries was passed to Melanie in utero and therefore “function[s] as a symbiote.” Unlike the “first-generation” hungries (those born human who became infected), she is able to retain her capacity for human emotion, intellect and control. Nevertheless, when we first meet her, she is one of twenty “subjects," all children like her, incarcerated in a military lab responsible for developing a vaccine to purportedly save humanity, overseen by Sergeant Eddie Parks (Paddy Considine) – original purveyor of the oft used “friggin’ abortions” expletive – and Dr. Caroline Caldwell (Glenn Close), the head scientist. Helen Justineau (Gemma Arterton) is a much-beloved teacher, whose job is actually to observe, study and test the children’s capabilities, something she struggles with because she does in fact view them as children and not “abortions.”
Themselves devouring creatures, the hungries represent the most immediate iteration of The Swallowing, evidenced literally by their descriptor (not “zombie” or “walker” but “hungry”). The carceral state, represented here by the military and militarized science, seeks to establish power through control of The Swallowing, a matter of survival, but they need the children – these human-hungry hybrids – in order to engineer the vaccine which makes that power tangible.
At a critical moment for the vaccine’s development (which is to say, just as Caldwell is about to dissect Melanie), the fence around the base falls and the lab overrun by hungries. Melanie saves Justineau and the two manage to escape alongside Caldwell, Parks and a couple other deputies who value her life exclusively for its utility. Once outside the carceral institution, however, their prescriptive roles begin to fall away. Parks and Caldwell persistently dehumanize her – claim she only “present[s]” as a child, that she displays “exquisite mimicry of observed behavior” – but Melanie proves herself resourceful, reliable, empathetic, well able to regulate her appetite, and even eager to please her subjugators. In other words, the cracks in the institutionalized human/monster binary become increasingly apparent.
Coined by Orlando Patterson, “social death” is an oft-discussed condition in Black Studies, the established method implemented to render atrocity justifiable. When I say the monster is a form of cultural technology, this is partially what I’m referring to (credit to Jack Halberstam for this 25-year-old idea). Marginalization is foremost a process of monster-making, evidenced all throughout human history in stories naturalized and reproduced across generations, treated as dogmatic truths – except they’re not that. They’re stories, written or told by humans about humans with painfully human motivations.
Parks and Caldwell need to see Melanie as a monster – as something ultimately disposable – in order to justify their production of the vaccine through exploitation of her body. They deny her even an ounce of humanity, insist on her monstrousness to deflect from their own: a logic movement that mirrors how white supremacy naturalizes Black suffering in order to protect itself. It’s worth noticing the distinction between the first-generation hungries with no interest in “eating their own,” and the humans enthusiastically willing to do just that.
In this way, she’s something beyond what you might call a "sympathetic monster." Even as the question of her humanity forms the film’s core tension, in privileging her perspective, the question ceases to be a question at all – becomes, instead, a riddle the (white) human characters contend with through the film’s duration.
As Melanie guides the group through an apocalyptic London, they come upon a skyscraper completely encased in hundreds of thousands of catatonic “hungry” bodies. Caldwell speculates that this enormous fungal system indicates their “mature, sexual stage,” evidenced in the seed pods that have sprouted from this new form. She hypothesizes that, if opened, the pods would send the infecting fungus airborne, spurning what she calls “the end of the world.”
Another rendering of The Swallowing is presented in this evolution of the fungus’ life cycle. Many of the most literal representations of The Swallowing play with the idea that “nature bites back,” casting the natural world as a monstrous, devouring, and antagonistic entity. Caldwell’s estimation exemplifies this perspective: the very Western belief that the human is severed (extracted) from the natural world, as though we are not an intimately connected extension, as are all living things. This statement not only demonstrates her arrogance, it also creates space for a great irony to emerge as the viewer begins to realize what the human characters have not: the era of human sovereignty is already over, if it ever existed at all.
Significant to this point is Melanie’s discovery of a group of other children like her, but feral for having grown up outside the sphere of human influence (that is, outside the carceral institution). In order to save Justineau and Parks, she kills their leader and asserts dominance over the group. Despite her best efforts to win the humans’ favor and assurance, the question of her humanity comes back around when Caldwell, on the verge of death, begs her to willingly sacrifice herself.
“Would you want to see Miss Justineau turn into a monster, an animal?” she asks. The question is a trap, commanding Melanie define herself based on the perception of her oppressor. And because she’s an empathetic being, the manipulation almost works. As she’s about to submit, she asks suddenly, “We’re alive?” Caldwell fails to see her own trap as it’s laid. “Yes, you’re alive,” she confirms.
“Then why should it be us who die for you?”
Echoed in Melanie’s question is an essential defiance of power, an intellectual movement akin to Frederick Douglass’ beating of the sadistic slaveowner, Covey, whose sovereignty could only be codified through a performance of dominance and subjugation. Caldwell’s power outside the institution is as flimsy as the prescription of Melanie’s monstrosity, which is to say, it requires her participation to exist… so she refuses. In the end, she sets the sprouting system ablaze, sending the fungus into the air.
“It’s over,” Parks laments, “it’s all over.” Melanie responds, “It’s not over – it’s just not yours anymore.”
Here, The Swallowing takes on a more metaphysical meaning. It is not just the hungries or the fungus which consumes humanity – it’s Melanie and the other second-generation “symbiote” children who represent human evolution and succession. They are the ones destined to inherit the earth; the truth which made them monsters to the human gaze in the first place.
The film ends with Melanie corralling the children – a combination of the feral ones and those also escaped from the lab – for lessons with a confined Justineau. The scene exhibits a complete reversal of the power dynamics presented at the film’s start as Melanie steps into the role of policing overseer. It’s an ending which, if cathartic, also contains a dire warning. In “The Great American Disease,” Audre Lorde said, “It is not the destiny of Black america to repeat white america’s mistakes. But we will, if we mistake the trappings of success in a sick society for the signs of a meaningful life.”
By this measure, freedom is not equated with agency, power or choice. Justice can’t be met through reproduction of carceral logics. Rather, it requires a liberation from the ideologies which created the carceral state in the first place.
At its core, The Girl with All the Gifts is a reimagining of the coming of Pandora, “she who brings gifts,” narrated by Justineau at the film’s start. “The gods do not forget,” she begins, telling of how Pandora – the first woman – was created by Zeus to punish Prometheus for his misdeeds. Prometheus’ brother, Epimetheus, marries her, even as he’d been warned against accepting gifts from the vengeful Zeus. As the story goes:
Pandora opened up the box whereupon every plague and tribulation, every misfortune and evil thing in the world came pouring out, and they have afflicted mankind ever since, all because of Pandora’s curiosity. But then Pandora peered into the box and found one more thing in the bottom. It was Hope, and she lifted it in her hands and set it free.
It’s not simply that this telling foreshadows the film’s events; it also revises the original myth.
The story of Prometheus, Epimetheus, Zeus and Pandora derives from Hesiod’s poem, Works and Days. Written around 700 BCE, the poem is also essentially a farmer’s almanac full of moralizing advice offered by way of mythology and metaphor. While the version presented in the film sets Hope free in the end, Hesiod’s original conclusion leaves Hope at the bottom of the box, translated as such: “Only Hope remained there in an unbreakable home…under the rim of the great jar, and did not fly out at the door.” To further engrain the story’s moralism, he ends with the sentiment, “…there is no way to escape the will of Zeus.”
If we imagine the box (or jar) as a figurative mouth, what Pandora releases – The Swallowing – is the truth about humanity and the evils we unleash on each other. Though the lessons offered by Hesiod prefer we keep a lid on it, so to speak, it is always in the best interest of the oppressor to naturalize their oppression. Hesiod may have considered Zeus infallible, but we know, reading a millenia later, that this is not true. Infallibility is an imagined state, reliant on faith for its existence. The same was said with regard to manifest destiny and the Divine Right of Kings, the same said of chattel slavery.
Carey and McCarthy’s reimagining, with Nanua in the lead role, offers a more expansive adaptation of the myth. If we read Melanie as a manifestation of Pandora, she’s not so much a harbinger of evil – a monster – but rather, the physical embodiment of futurity. She begs us to ask what image or version of ourselves we must kill in order to grow? Or rather, what world must die in order for the next to be born?
When must we beware The Swallowing... and when must we become it?