Kinoeye: New perspectives on European film

Vol 2
 Issue 9 
13 May

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Anatomical model at the La Specola museum in Florence HORROR
Surprising origins
Florentine 18th-century wax anatomical models as inspiration for Italian horror

Drawing from feminist-oriented psychoanalytic theories of the horror film as well as the socio-cultural analysis of horror myths, Annette Burfoot reveals the extent to which 18th-century life-size wax models of the female body in various states of dissection—still on display in a Florentine museum, La Specola—"provides the basis for various principles of horror."

The literature surrounding the study of the horror film genre is well established. The 1980s witnessed a remarkable spate of consideration of horror from the psychoanalytic point of view, with feminist critics there from the start. Out of the French (in particular) feminist philosophies of the 1960s and 70s[1] came crucial links between Freudian dramas involving mothers, fathers, daughters and sons and the representation of the abject.[2]

Of course, considerable academic attention has also been paid to the gothic novel and the horror tale (many horror movies are the book-to-film translations of these novels, such as Frankenstein, Dracula, etc). Yet there remains an unappreciated source of the principles of modern horror: early modern scientific representations of the body. An incredible example of these can be found in the 18th-century museum of the natural and physical sciences, La Specola, in Florence, Italy. This extensive collection of life-size and very life-like wax models in various states of dissection can be understood as the earliest "cinematic" representations of the body as liminal subject between fear and rationality—key components of the horror genre.

This article shall interrogate these scientific models as providing the basis for various principles of horror. The terms of reference are drawn from a particular psychoanalytic perspective (elaborated by Carol Clover and Barbara Creed), one that addresses the Freudian primal scene and masculine transference in finding a way "out" of the horrific. The terms shall also include a socio-cultural analysis based on the work of Martin Tropp[3] who argues the significance of a historical/cultural analysis of horror myths as formative to the modern social imaginary.

Principles of horror

Two key contributors to and popularisers of the feminist study of cinematic horror are undoubtedly Carol Clover with Men Women and Chainsaws (1992) and Barbara Creed with The Monstrous Feminine (1993). Clover and Creed each develop an accessible and convincing critique of horror as masculine catharsis of fundamental fears. I will here focus on Creed's use of the primal scene in analysing horror as feminine abjection and Clover's "final girl" as a masculine strategy in the face of monstrous threat.

Creed distinguishes between pre-oedipal and "archaic" mothers; the first representing a maternal presence restricted within a phallic economy as undistinguished from the child and therefore not yet a contested possession (as in the oedipal stage). Creed attempts to rescue the "mythological figure of woman as the source of all life" with a self-referential womb from a negative reconstruction that is "...the dread of the generative mother seen only in the abyss, the monstrous vagina, the origin of all life threatening to reabsorb what it once birthed."[4]

Ridley Scott's Alien (1979)She illustrates the activation of this principle in horror with an in-depth analysis of Ridley Scott's 1979 horror/science fiction classic, Alien. She describes the alien monster and what it does with human bodies in terms of the abject-as-corpse (embodying the putrid), the abject-as-boundary transgressor (rupturing and colonising bodies), and the abject-as-maternal (tubular hells and killer births).

Clover's analysis focuses on exploitation slasher horror films of the 1970s and 80s (Texas Chainsaw Massacre [1974], Halloween [1978], etc). She pays particular attention to the role of the "Final Girl"—the usually virginal young woman who remains to kill the killer after a period of slaughter of sacrificial lambs, one-by-one, by a crazed and monstrous man. Clover argues that this last girl, untouched heterosexually and thus open to sexual transformation in a heterosexist ideology, in fact represents the male psyche and masculine frailties in the face of profound and horrible threat. S/he is the one who restores order and containment after bodies have been mutilated and turned inside out by chainsaws, blades, etc.

Finally, I want to turn to a much less well-known contributor to the critical literature on horror, Martin Tropp and his work in Images of Fear (1990). Tropp's approach does not take the psychoanalytic route but the social, particularly a form of historical-cultural study. Because he engages with the origins of the horror story in Gothic romance, he concentrates on novels rather than film. He compares the three main horror tales of the 19th century—Frankenstein, Dracula and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde—with significant socio-cultural events in the late 1800s and early 1900s: the industrial revolution and mechanisation, the liberation of women and the working class, urbanisation, and the first World War.

Tropp's is an innovative and convincing demonstration of how, "These materials...connect individual lives with the group experience of culture... [H]orror in fiction moved from a safe remoteness to a frightening immediacy, from subjective to objective reality."[5] He points to the 19th-century factory-castles sprouting up throughout Europe, home to both great mechanical beasts built on social promise and the horrors of child labour and other forms of class exploitation. The image of Frankenstein's monster was used in social demonstrations to symbolise the body politic gone horribly wrong while Tropp displays the links between the Dr Jekyll story and the Jack the Ripper murders as evidence of growing anxieties over class boundaries (both Dr Jekyll and Jack are thought to be men of a cultured class who secretly sport wild and savage behaviour, especially towards lower-class women). Finally, the eroticism in the story of Dracula is characterised as the bringing of women "to a frightening new power."[6]

Feminist socio-cultural analysis
of anatomy-as-horror

La Specola has always been open to the public, and to all classes thereof, so long as they were clean and presentable. As such, this museum in particular, but also the emerging visual culture of modern science in general, opened up the new empirical world to venues beyond the traditional closed doors of its courtly and priestly patrons. Following the practice of dramatic display of dissection (performed in semi-public "theatres"), these models can be read as a type of contemporary popular culture. And one of the display's main draws was the journey into the mysterious terrain of the body's interior, with the most exciting scene of all in the gynaecological room. This is the spectacle of horror that we will now examine.

Anatomical model at the La Specola museum in FlorenceThe eight anatomical rooms are designed to be walked thorough in a certain order: from the outward and visual manifestations of the human body (muscles and skeleton) to the inside and functional aspects (circulatory and nervous systems, organs, and reproduction). Besides establishing a persistent distinction between form and function in modern medicine, this set-up draws significantly on dualistic gendered assumptions regarding life and death, rationality and carnality, fear and desire. It also presages Freud and Lacan's interpretation of the primal scene that underlies so much interpretation of the horror scene as psychic catharsis.

Almost everyone walking into the first room of models (skeletal and muscle systems) recoils at the hyper-realism of the "skinned" figures that surround and fill the area. Skulls sit perched atop rather elegant figures that assume upright and animated postures. Other figures lounge horizontally in large glass cabinets, skinned faces resting on bony and sinewy hands and arms. The carefully crafted and coloured wax reveals every anatomical detail and provides a constant reminder of how time will treat our bodies the same way as death and decay will strip our mortality, layer by layer, to the bare bones.

But these early models of the skeleton-as-gentleman are replaced by more horrific dissections that follow. Ironically these later models have "more to them" in the sense that they display the circulatory, nervous and endocrine systems, thus enabling one to see the skeletal and muscular base covered with veins and arteries, glands and nerves. Although this additional anatomical detail and more precise dissection draws us nearer to the moment of violation or the cutting into the body, these figures remain more mechanistic than organismic.

In contrast, a sense of edging towards the abyss and the horrific is heightened as you move into the next room, where three female models lie prostrate in their respective glass cases. Up to now, no full figure has much in the way of skin or hair, thus appearing rather unbelievable as humans and more like some form of organic robot or cyborg. Inversely, the female figures have plenty of signs of what we hold to be human.

Anatomical model at the La Specola museum in FlorenceDesigned to exhibit the internal organs and the digestive system, the models of the young beautiful women with long plaited hair lie with their torsos cut from clavicle to pubis and the innards pulled out and draped over both sides of nubile torsos. Their heads are tilted backwards exposing the neck and inviting the viewer in, as if in a scene that crosses between Dracula and Jack the Ripper. The female models' faces are masks of a sort of drugged rapture, their lips partially open and their beautiful but unfocused eyes gazing into the distance. Their hands are gracefully poised by their sides, with one of the figures holding her own plait.

This visual feast of gore and the erotic continues. Down the corridor from this large room is a much smaller room on the way out of the museum (resonating with the Bataillian notion of the dreaded lower half of the body as fecal exit, among other things[7]). It is the gynecological room containing "decomposable" or modular female figure: "the doll." This is a hands-on model that is designed to have the front panel of the torso removed to reveal four successive levels of dissection until reaching the deepest level that includes an opened uterus with a five-month fetus inside.

Anatomical model at the La Specola museum in FlorenceThe model in its "closed" form is remarkably worked in terms of rendering a beautiful and erotic female figure. The likeness is of a young woman, again supine with her head tiled back and slightly to one side as if in some state of sexual ecstasy. Her young firm breasts sport erect nipples, her lips are slightly parted and she stares dreamily off into the distance. One leg is slightly bent allowing us to look directly at her external genitals (rendered complete with pubic hair). This model is normally displayed closed.

This "Medical Venus" is surrounded by full-sized models of the female uterus (heavily pregnant in most cases), with large amputated thigh stumps framing the external genitalia and the dissected womb. Skin, fat and muscle are peeled back like a huge orange to reveal either a distended pregnant uterus or a well-developed fetuses or fetuses inside. There are also cabinets containing a large collection of fetuses in all stages of gestation (although the earlier models illustrate homonculism—fully formed miniature humans—rather than embryology as it is understood today).

Anatomical model at the La Specola museum in FlorenceThere are also a choir of dissected newborns, almost all male and positioned in a baby Christ-like pose with little arms reaching outwards to embrace and bless and a slightly tilted head gazing down knowingly and forgivingly on the observer and the doll. Within this womb-like, small and packed room, anatomical femininity is completely exposed—there are no surprises left and the mystery of life itself glows softly in a waxy realism that both shocks and delights. And off in a corner of the gynaecological room is a beribboned phallus—a large penis separate from any other part of the male genitalia with a little bow wrapped around its base. It lies at the foot-end of the doll, near her genitalia, and serves as a phallic pointer within a patriarchal display of curiosity and fetish.

The "Little Venus," created at the same time as the Medical Venus, is at the Museum of the Poggi Palace in Bologna. With La Specola's doll, these two decomposable (as translated literally from the Italian "scomponibile") figures are both female, young and beautiful, and form elegant and erotic presents or packages. Psychoanalytic and feminist film scholar Laura Mulvey analyses the metaphoric implications of Pandora's box in terms of Pandora-as-box. She describes Pandora, along the lines of Creed's all-defining archaic mother, as the "mythic origin of surface/secret and interior/exterior topography."[8] Mulvey uses the myth to illustrate femininity-as-fetish—the psychoanalytical reaction to profound and primordial fears—and draws parallels to Trojan horses (the Christian myth of woman as the origin of betrayal and knowledge), as well as to modern robots and cyborgs (often beautifully feminine and bearing dangerous knowledge as technology-gone-amok).

Anatomical model at the La Specola museum in FlorenceThe female wax figures of La Specola deserve to be included on the list. Their exterior exquisite beauty-as-femininity draws the eye into the terrifying interior of, literally, spilled guts. The mysterious lack, the womb, the vagina are all laid out for rational comprehension and celebration over dark, dangerous, chaotic nature. These models are the "final girl" of the material (disease and early death) and metaphorical (femininity as mysterious betrayer and site of origin) horrors of 18th-century Europe. They are embodiments of our fears of body-based fragility and mortality, yet they bring these same bodies into the ordered world of modern scientific rationalism.


The social and political contexts of these bodies are also significant. Although it is possible to apply Tropp's Victorian icons of horror to contemporary conceptualisations of these figures, a brief consideration of the atmosphere in when they were created reveals a different iconography that plays prominently in the rise of modern scientific rationalism. These models form a logical extension of scientific "sight" associated with one of science's earliest martyrs, Galileo. For as the telescope was developed and disseminated widely throughout Europe and beyond in the 17th century, so was its inverse, the microscope.

As eyes turned skyward, so did they enter the body and other unchartered territories, decrying dogmatic and mythic representations for the naked-eye truth. And the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Peter Leopold's (1747-1792) decision to collect together the scientific "curiosities" of the Duchy in La Specola, to augment them with increasingly popular anatomical waxes—effectively making the Museum a working medical school—and to open the display to the public both heralded the rise of empiricism as a new world order and provided the spectacle of its triumph over the horrific "other."

Rationalism takes an embodied anatomical form logically inscribing and containing the body even as it opens it up. Surfing the edge of this wave of modern scientific ideology is the archaic, monstrous feminine, tamed somewhat through scientific enscribing and sexual objectification. But anxieties remain. Alignments of fleshed and desirable features with gore and the feminine as site of origin return us to primal fears of the generational matrix. But as Creed argues, it is important to distinguish prescription from description.[9] This display of horrified science makes sense but needn't.

Annette Burfoot

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Also of interest
About the author

Annette Burfoot is an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at Queen's University, Canada. Her current research is on the foundations of medical imaging as visual culture. She is editor of the Encyclopedia of Reproductive Technologies (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1999), is currently editing a collection, Killing Women, on the representation of women who kill and are killed, and has published on theories of representation, reproductive and genetic technologies and the visual culture of science/fiction.

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1. Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, trans Leon Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press. 1982); Luce Irigaray, This Sex Which is Not One, trans Catherine Porter (New York: Cornell University Press, 1985).return to text

2. See Laura Mulvey, Visual and Other Pleasures (Boomington: Indiana University Press, 1981); E Ann Kaplan, Women and Film: Both Sides of the Camera (London: Methuen, 1983); Tania Modleski, "The terror of pleasure: The contemporary horror film and postmodern theory," in Studies in Entertainment, ed Tania Modleski Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986); Judith Butler, "The force of fantasy: Feminism, Mapplethorpe, and discursive excess," Differences 2 (1990): 105-125; Carol Clover, Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992); and Barbara Creed, The Monstrous Feminine: Film, Feminism and Psychoanalysis (New York: Routledge, 1993).return to text

3. Martin Tropp, Images of Fear: How Horror Stories Helped Shape Modern Culture (1818-1918) (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co, 1999; 1990).return to text

4. Barbara Creed, "Alien and the monstrous-feminine," in Alien Zone: Cultural Theory and Contemporary Science Fiction Cinema, ed Annette Kuhn (London: Verso, 1990), 135.return to text

5. Tropp, 5.return to text

6. Ibid, 139.return to text

7. See Georges Bataille, Death and Sensuality: A Study of Eroticism and Taboo (New York: Walker, 1962).return to text

8. Laura Mulvey, "Pandora's box: Topographies of curiosity," Fetishism and Curiosity (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996), 55.return to text

9. Creed, "Alien and the monstrous-feminine," 140.return to text

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