Published: Aug. 1, 2004 By

(part of a series in Special Issue #40: Scared of the Dark: Race, Gender and the “Horror Film” – Guest Editor: Frances Gateward)

[1] In periodizing film studies as a modern/modernist phenomenon simply because film technology emerges at the end of the nineteenth century, film scholars sometimes miss the opportunity to discuss the origins of ideologies that are as much a part of film as film technology itself.  After discussing the various technologies that lead up to film (the magic lantern), or ideas that seem directly related either to the pictorial aspect of film (Renaissance optics) or to film narrative (Charles Dickens), we “seen our duty and we done it.”  In a complementary manner, academic cultural studies, which tends toward a synchronic structuralist approach, tends to Polaroid its subject, examining it in the context of a single historical moment (even if that moment endures for thirty years).  The more general susceptibility for periodization and specialization within scholarly disciplines inclines toward the same effect.  Some critics stand of course as notable exceptions to the rule of synchronicity, but they almost always belong to an earlier period of film scholarship, when literature, philosophy, language, and art history were all sloppily lumped together. 

Bird’s Eye View: The West Discovers an Other

[2] One problem with the attractions of such synchronicity is a propensity for ignoring all but the local “efficient” causes for American film representation.  So, for example, the origin of African American representation in film, when considered at all, is regarded as deriving from fin-de-siécle minstrelsy.  (Michael Rogin’s Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot and the Marlon Riggs’s documentary Ethnic Notions (1987) are good examples of this kind of criticism.  But what if, like Jean-Louis Baudry—who in the 1970s related Andre Bazin, Plato, Freud, and film—one were to discuss once more the ideological implications for film studies of an idea that precedes the existence of film by several hundreds of years?  What if, at the possible expense of committing the kind of factual error committed in Sergei Eisenstein’s discussion of film and the ideogram, we think once more about the larger historical context into which film fits?  What if, like Baudry, we think of history analogically rather than, as cultural studies has taught us, simply causally?

[3] The fetish has been discussed in three influential ways: first, as a religious icon first documented by fifteenth-century Portuguese sailors and subsequently the object of research in (especially nineteenth-century) anthropology; second, as a fact of capitalist economy described by Marx in the middle of the nineteenth century; and finally as a fact of psychical life first described by sexologists near the end of the nineteenth century.  The commodity fetish and the psychic fetish have been most important to cultural studies and representation theory because, more than anthropology, psychoanalysis and Marxism are cross-disciplinary theoretical models.  However, both because etymology is almost coequal with definition, and because the disappearance of any third term always smacks of repression, I would like to examine the anthropological notion of the fetish for a moment, returning to film scholarship with what we might learn.

[4] According to the most exhaustive scholar of the anthropological version of the fetish, William Pietz, the history of the fetish is in large measure the history of the first encounters between the new world and the old, which is to say between Europe and Africa/the Americas.  It is a coinage related to the phenomenon we understand at present as “border crossings,” or cross-cultural encounters.  As either or both a corruption of a medieval term for witchcraft and/or a caconym of some now-lost African term, the feitiço was Portuguese coinage used to denote both a repudiated medieval past, and the investment of spirituality in the material in a way that was inexplicable to European explorers.  One of Pietz’s primary examples is not in fact the religious fetish as we have come to identify it—the totem pole or the voodoo doll or mandala jewelry—but gold, for which Africans had a great reverence, but which they traded for very cheap beads and jewelry.  Thus, the fetish stands for the space of negotiation between two cultures whose values are mutually mysterious and untranslatable.  In this respect, Pietz is in that camp of postcolonial writers for whom cultural interchange is bi-directional.  Perhaps chief among such theorists is Homi Bhabha, whose principal work—The Location of Culture—has become the chief methodological resource for this approach.

[5] The early modern anthropological fetish, then, acquires a number of qualities that we think of as having been attributed to it within later psychoanalysis or Marxism.  It is associated with the primitive, the irrational, and the mysterious.   It is a mystification of another culture’s relation to the material and economic realms.  As such, it is a symbol that both mediates between and hides the true socioeconomic relationships between two cultures.  It is not, however, a symbol without a referent: it refers to the weltanschauung of another culture, but in an exploitatively mistaken manner.  It is méconnaissance at the cultural level, a newly mistaken Western notion.  Because it is lost, however, the originary African idea of the fetish suggests, not that no African or new-world presence exists apart from its representation by the West, but that the notion of the fetish is both a projection—for example, of the early modern catholic/protestant problem of iconographic representation—and the (mis-)recognition of a newly perceived culture’s new orientation toward the material.  The fetish represents both orientalism and méconnaissance, two psychoanalytic notions that were always, in some unacknowledged way, related.

[6] Further, if one credits the Foucauldian-derived notion that skin color is not an important defining category until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, best exemplified by Ivan Hannaford’s Race: The History of an Idea, such constructs as the fetish were, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the dominant categories that distinguished between cultures whose differences would later be more importantly denoted by pigmentation.   Fetishism as an anthropological term denoted arbitrariness and primitivism in culture; tribal Africa was initially enslavable not (or not simply) because it was black but, for example, because it was not identifiably Christian and did not practice emergent capitalism.

[7] In short, the Portuguese coinage of the word already suggests the most important property of both the psychoanalytic and Marxist fetish: it’s there and it isn’t: a different culture exists, but not as imagined by the explorer.  The properties described by Marx and Freud in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are already connoted by the word at the moment of its coinage as a proto-anthropological term.  As a corruption of something original that is immediately lost to Western culture, the feitiço signifies both presence and absence as much for the Portuguese as “fetish” does for Freud and Marx.  Just as the vagina disappears for the fetishist in psychoanalytic theory, and just as the produced thing is displaced by the fetishism of the commodity in Marx, the original thing described by the word feitiço is real but not available to Western discourse.  Like Walter Benjamin’s notion of the impossibility of translation, or Jacques Lacan’s notion of the real, “fetish” refers to a culture that it can not but mistakenly describe.

[8] Swish pan from the Portuguese explorers a few hundred years forward—to the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries, which see, among other things, the emergence of a more or less modern anthropology, the high moment of colonialism and internal colonialism, the practice of Marxism, film, and psychology/psychoanalysis as distinct disciplines for understanding the world.  Though I will be centering my critique on the psychoanalytic appropriation of the notion of the fetish, I might as easily critique the notion of commodity fetishism.  The best and most widely cited text on commodity fetishism, representation, and colonialism remains Michael T. Taussig’s The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America.  His examination of specific Latin American fetishes is meant to critique European fetishism: “the fetishism that is found in the economics of precapitalist societies arises from the sense of organic unity between persons and their products, and this stands in stark contrast to the fetishism of commodities in capitalist societies” (37).

[9] Like Marx, for whom “fetish” meant a representation of the commodity that hides its true value (the commodity is there and it isn’t), Freud used the term pejoratively, describing atavistic cultural or personal behavior. Appearing in Marx in the 1860s, in Krafft-Ebing in 1886, in Havelock Ellis in 1897, and belatedly in Freud in 1927, the fetish as a fin-de-siécle concept is bound by nineteenth-century imperialist culture, the realm from which, in the guise of anthropology, it is borrowed. (That imperialist culture includes movements internal to Europe. Though I would not care to offer proof in the present work, I suspect that nineteenth-century Gothic is an ambiguously xenophobic response to the various mass ethnic migrations of that century, beginning with the Napoleonic Wars, continuing with the Franco-Prussian War, and ending with “that delayed Teutonic migration,” World War I.  Not just Dracula but other versions of the monstrous reflect intra-European imperialism: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,Frankenstein, The Island of Dr. Moreau, She, and so on.)

[10] I shall take as representative of the fin-de-siecle pejorative use of the fetish Freud’s elaboration of the concept, because his is the one most frequently cited when cultural studies scholars redeploy the term.  In “Fetishism,” Freud distinguishes between the “idea” and its “affect”: between the reason for the fetish and its nature (199).  The affect is complex, not always simply a privately held material object.  Freud’s first example is as much a view of the thing as the thing in itself—a “Glanz auf der Nase,” (“shine on the nose,” [198])—while his last example is a visual and cultural, rather than individual, obsession: the bound and maimed feet of Chinese women (204). (The examples constitute a nice Freudian pun: he treats the subject from head to foot.)  In other words, Freud the ethnologist remains receptive—if only implicitly or unconsciously—to the possibility that a fetish can be other than a simple material object—a handkerchief or a whip.  It can be a materially visible cultural construct as well.

[11] While a careful reading of Freud demonstrates the ethnological (if racist) debt he owes in his discussions of the fetish, poststructuralist scholars tend to ignore that debt, just as they ignore that debt in Marx.  The poststructuralist appropriation of the nineteenth-century fetish further divorces the fetish from its anthropological etymology, instead privileging the Marxist and psychoanalytic definitions.  While film critics as otherwise distinct as Roger Dadoun and Laura Mulvey have taken a whack at synthesizing the Marxian and Freudian fetishes, the best example of the contemporary tendency to find analogize between the two while leaving out the Portuguese fetish is probably located in Marcia Ian’s Remembering the Phallic Mother.  While she is most interested in the psychoanalytic fetish, Ian finds commonalities between that and commodity fetishism: “Psychoanalysis locates ‘inside us’ the fetishism Marx described as inherent in capitalist society.”   The qualities Ian takes to be the most important about both uses of the fetish are the ones already present in the Portuguese use of the term: first, that fetishes are physical (which is to say in both cases visible rather than, for instance, palpable), and, second, that they constitute mystified accounts of the real relationship between the individual and things: either the shoe-as-commodity or the shoe-as-object-of-sexual-desire.  Both abstract and embody some aspect of the real—the commodity abstracts the real relationship between things, while the shoe abstracts sexuality.  Both hide a real relationship to something: the commodity to the laborer’s relation to production, and the fetish to the woman’s genitalia.  In other words, both Marxist and Freudian paradigms deploy the most significant aspect of the anthropological fetish: it’s there and it isn’t. 

[12] I use Ian’s account of the correlation between Marxian and Freudian fetishes to demonstrate the fact that the poststructuralist fetish is typically engaged with only two of the three principal sources of contemporary political praxis: with gender and class, but not (perhaps understandably) with race.  This omission reproduces the often-remarked American feminist tendency in the 1970s and early 1980s to struggle for gender equality in various economic and psychical disciplines, while often forgetting about the importance of race in the political dialectic.  In response, I would like to suggest a general definition of the fetish that might encompass class, psychoanalysis, and racial dimensions, and that combines Pietz’s observations about the Portuguese discovery of the fetish with Marx and Freud. As I’ve argued, the fetish was originally an attempt to orientalize the visible material culture of the unknowable other in such a way that the other’s culture can exist only in monstrous form.  In the same way, modern disciplines define the fetish as monstrous or pathological deformations of the visibly material.  In anthropology, Marxism, and psychoanalysis, the fetish signifies for its believer a material object whose secret belies its materiality.  To its believer, the fetish signifies potency; to the Western observer, impotence.  At a different level of signification, however, the fetish serves a fetish function for the observer as well—for the psychoanalyst as for the proto-anthropologist.  Identifying the fetish as fetish serves to repress the observer’s fear of cultural otherness.

Long Shot: A Century Ago

[13] To return to the medium of film after this perhaps overlong preface, I’d like to introduce my thesis, which is that the monster in American film—and special effects more generally construed—is a conspicuous representative of the racialized fetish, a creation of the racial and ethnic others as fetishes. Film special effects simultaneously suggest and deny the thing they represent: the racial/ethnic/immigrant other.  Like all other fetishes, monstrosity and special effects constitute a materialization—a visualization—that is simultaneously orientalization and méconnaissance.  Such effects impose a mistaken idea of racial difference on film representation, hiding the real relations between different cultures.  Like Pietz, who is not really interested in “actual conceptions of West African culture” but rather in the “distinctiveness of the notion [of the fetish] in European discourse,” I am here interested only in Hollywood’s image of the racial other (Pietz, “The Problem of the Fetish, II,” 24).  I will postulate that, to some degree, Hollywood imagines itself as Europe; its West Africa is African America.  My sense of the American horror film is that it resurrects nineteenth-century anthropological/biometric pseudo-sciences in the manner of Madison Grant, who used the physical “evidence” offered by craniology and the “cephalic index” (22 andpassim).   The product of this pseudo-science is the filmic equivalent of the Portuguese/anthropological fetish.

[14] To begin near the beginning: the end of the “primitive” and the beginning of the “classical” period of American silent film.  The 1910s and 1920s constituted a high moment of anti-immigration legislation, Jim Crow laws, and Ku Klux Klan visibility; this was also the last moment in the United States during which overt white supremacist race theory was considered seriously both in the scientific community and in mass culture.  Further, these decades constituted a significant moment in the history of Social Darwinism and eugenics, both in social commentary and in legislation.  According to Alan M. Kraut, “The word eugenics . . . .had become a popular buzzword in the United States by the 1920s, as well as a precise course of systematic population studies promoted by serious scientists as the means of perfecting the human race through genetic management”  (253).  InCarrie Buck v. Bell (1926-27), “the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of Virginia’s sterilization laws” (Hannaford, 362). Theodore Stoddard’s famous and influential Revolt Against Civilizationwas originally published in 1922.  In the 1910s and 1920s Madison Grant and fellow American racial theorist Theodore Stoddard were spokesmen for the eugenics movement precisely because its absorption with race, inherited illness, and deformity helped establish a bridge between race and monstrosity.  African Americans and immigrants were both treated as problematic viscera: African Americans were medically objectified and isolated in such horrific ways as the Tuskegee experiments, while physically unfit immigrants were simply isolated and turned back at Ellis Island.  For early twentieth-century eugenicists, the racial other was a systemic disorder, a disease communicated from without.  Grant’s The Passing of the Great Race (originally written in 1916 and reprinted several times in the 1920s), for example, sounds precisely like a description of an extra-terrestrial plague á la Invasion of the Body Snatchers:

The native American [i.e.: Nordic type] is . . . gradually withdrawing from the scene, abandoning to these aliens the land which he conquered and developed.  The man of the old stock is being crowded out of many country districts by these foreigners just as he is to-day being literally driven off the streets of New York City by the swarms of Polish Jews.  These immigrants adopt the language of the native American, they wear his clothes, they steal his name and they are beginning to take his women, but they seldom adopt his religion or understand his ideals. . . . (91)

At its simplest level, this description suggests a response to an other ethnic/racial culture that is at least as mystified as the response of the Portuguese explorers to the West Africans.  Later in the work, Grant is mystified by the Jew’s perceived overvaluation of money in the same way that the Portuguese are unable to account for the African’s perceived undervaluation of gold.  More than simply identifying the Jew’s money fetish, such descriptions—and others in which, through an absorption with miscegenation, the racial other is both feared and desired—fetishize the alienized immigrant and racial other himself as popular or mass icon, making him simultaneously strong and weak, present and absent.

[15] In his account of African American representation in early film, Clyde Taylor briefly refers to the turn-of -the-century conflation of the entertainment and horror values of the minstrel show and lynching as “Negro-fetishism” (27).   Though he discards this term in favor of “negrophobia” because of the anthropological associations of “fetish,” I would like to extend his use of the term to include both the anthropological identification of an icon the West takes as representing an empty but compelling magic—apt as an object always identified with the racial other—as well as the psychoanalytic complex.  In part because the fetish is now traditionally deployed as a feminist mechanism for reading texts, I would like to extend the notion of Negro-fetishism to read both race and ethnicity more generally construed, allowing it the anthropological valence that feminist theory does not normally allow the fetish.  Like the psychoanalytic fetish, and insofar as s/he evokes the fear of miscegenation, the racial other is simultaneously erotic and anxiety-producing: “the cross between a white man and an Indian is an Indian; the cross between a white man and a Negro is a Negro. . . . and the cross between any of the three European races and a Jew is a Jew” (Grant, 18)   But, as a locus for both sexual and racial anxiety, the racialized fetish also reveals an important parallelism between racial and gender oppression.  For example, the various alien rapes correctly read by Barbara Creed as a fear of the “archaic mother” are simultaneously instances of a fear of miscegenation (43- 48).   Other issues generally considered gender-neutral or gender-equal in discussions of race are thematically conflated in special effects: eugenics, venereal disease, and so on.

[16] Further supporting the notion that the ethnic/racial other is him/herself a fetish, the identification of the ethnic other, like the fetish, has an ambiguously material basis. Though, as the first quarter of the twentieth century ended, craniology was less and less credited as an index of intelligence, it and other biometric sciences of the body still formed the basis for distinguishing between the races.  The skull had been an intense object of study through the nineteenth century, and amounted to attaching the memento mori—a different fetish—to the study of race.   In response to the racism of the 1910s and 1920s, a limited liberalism began to insist on the erasure of overt racism and xenophobia in America.  Film scholars understand, for example, thatBirth of a Nation (1915) reinvigorated the Ku Klux Klan, but also the NAACP.  The story goes that liberal sensibility won a kind of limited victory: the Classical Hollywood style tended to eschew most of the overt racism of films like Birth of a Nation.  However, filmic racism and the discourse about race did not disappear; it was sublimated as a result of this liberalism.  Because the racial/ethnic/immigrant other had to be negotiated as an internal-colonial phenomenon, which is to say because the other was an intensely visible presence, American popular culture had to provide a concomitantly more powerful and efficient mechanism for making the visible both visible and invisible, the scopic raison d’être of the fetish.  In essence, the interest in the racial other, disguised as eugenics, social Darwinism, biometrics, and craniology, was really a kind of racialized fetishism at work in the culture that spilled onto the screen in various forms.

[17] In his now-classic article on fetishism and film, Roger Dadoun specifically connects Freud’s fetish to the horror film, finding the vampire to be a consummate fetish: “the originality of the horror film is that it manages to make us aware of the conjunction: it’s there—it isn’t there” (56).  Though primarily interested in the vampire, Dadoun also intimates that makeup that results in the imagery of King Kong and the Wolf Man is a fetish effect, and that the horror film serves a “fetish function” more generally (39).  His argument remains a paradigmatic psychoanalytic account, in the sense that the source of anxiety remains with the mother, not the commodity or the racial other.  Later accounts tend also to accept as given the notion that the fetish reinstalls the maternal phallus, turning their attentions instead to other attributes of the fetish.  I would like to emphasize Dadoun’s excellent account of the fetish as a particular set of filmic techniques rather than as a pathology because this first remove from psychoanalysis allows leeway to connect the notion of the fetish to larger social issues.  My argument is that in both the “primitive” and “classical” eras of American film production, filmic special effects became one way of sublimating and representing racist discourse.

[18] As a consequence of the social, political, and ideological neutrality of the term “special effects” I shall be using a coinage from this point on—FXing—to designate the use of special effects as it thematizes race/ethnicity/immigration.  This pun-like gerund coined from an industry-derived noun seems to me descriptive of an active participation by filmmakers in the dynamic I am describing.)  While there has been some work on class and horror, feminist film criticism provides the most powerful precedent for viewing the special effects in politicized terms.  The last decade, especially, has seen a proliferation of essays and books on gender and science fiction and/or horror by such writers as Linda Williams, Donna Haraway, William Boddy, Claudia Springer, Anne Balsamo, Veronica Hollinger, Vivian Sobchak, and so on.  Of course, a perusal of articles on science fiction film inScreen, Camera Obscura, Cinema Journal, or even Science-Fiction Studies fails to reveal anything like a similarly sweeping interest in race or ethnicity.

[19] (Thomas Cripps and James Snead, two major critics of the African American film, remark and then gloss over the phenomenon of racial and ethnic substitution.  While Snead’s more theoretical account suggests this omission takes place throughout the history of American film, Cripps suggests that one specific moment of omission is the post-WWII era.  In his posthumously published White Screens, Black Images : Hollywood from the Dark Side: Hollywood from the Dark Side, Snead postulates three rhetorical devices “whereby blacks have been consigned to minor significance on screen”: mythification, marking, and omission [4].  Though he treats the first two with extreme care, the last and the most difficult to track [which he defines as “exclusion by reversal, distortion, or some other form of censorship”] he omits almost entirely from his exposition, except to point to racial displacement in a single monster film: King Kong [6].)

[20] While Dadoun suggests the fetish’s connection to ethnicity, and later writers like Laura Mulvey acknowledge the primacy in the fetish of the gaze, Freud’s notion of the fetish seems to fit FXing in ways that neither Dadoun nor Mulvey suggests: at work in FXing are not only Freud’s revealing and concealing—in this case, of a strong monster with a fatal, visceral weakness—but also Freud’s notorious remembered interruption.   Remember that the individual in the Freudian scenario is thrust into fetishistic behavior via the attempt to retain a sense of autonomy by maintaining the notion, belied in a castrating visual experience, that the mother has a penis.  Fetishism is an always-failing attempt at denying the existence of the gendered other.  Hence, the famous low-angle shots that characterize the photography of the monster suggest not simply the monster’s power but, by implication, our own potential powerlessness.  (As elaborated by  Elizabeth Grosz, even female fetishism, revolves around the possibility of feminine identification with a phallic woman.  FXing allows us to imagine that the prime movers in the film fetish scenario are simultaneously the mother and the racial other. At the expense of seeming to totalize for Western culture at large, individual autonomy since at least the fifteenth century has been threatened by the possibility of a cultural/ethnic/racial other.  The West’s large-scale rediscovery of a racial other during the European Renaissance, and the consequent attempt to deny that other in the colonizing process, is an equivalent source of interruption and consequent fetishism, perhaps all the more to be emphasized since, as I have discussed, the term “fetish” was coined during the voyages of discovery .  While at the personal level the fetish hides and reveals the mother’s phallus, at the cultural level it hides and reveals an ethnic phallus that tumesces as colonialism progresses, so that the late nineteenth-century empire builder—of which Freud himself is an example—can conflate mother and, say, mother Africa.  It is not accidental, then, that, when not hyper-masculinized, the racial other is usually feminized.  This conflation of the feminine and the racial other is the cultural dynamic in which fetishism arises as the attempt to erase the trace of all otherness.

[21] The widely cited “double attitude of fetishists” in both acknowledging and disavowing the anxiety that the fetish simultaneously raises and allays is present in FXing as the cultural refusal to acknowledge origin of the fetish in ethnicity, while ethnicity is everywhere present in the text (203).  The particular difference between the materiality of the horror film and that of the shoe seems to me, as it does for Freud in his example of the “shine on the nose,” less important than the universal status of the fetish as a spectacular object of a gaze.  Almost anything visible can be a fetish as long as it represses the thing it signifies.  The “fetish function” that Dadoun asserts characterizes the much-studied films of the 1930s actually originates in the lesser-examined horror and occult films of the 1910s and 1920s, precisely because official American culture of the period requires a mechanism for making racism immanent and so ideologically acceptable.  Even the most cursory examination of film reviews in the New York Times or Variety for the 1910s and 1920s reveals an inordinate number of films on race, and simultaneously a number of fantasy/horror/science/occult fiction films. In fact, it is in the immediate post-World War I era that FXing begins to enable a wider latitude for xenophobia, thematizing, for example, “passing” and ethnic cultural appropriation as paranoid phenomena, inventions of a nativist movement.

[22] Makeup and other kinds of FXing establish the ambiguous materiality of these films.  While the historical development of monstrous makeup, for example, has been in the direction of an ever-greater degree of realism, such makeup almost always militates against the cinema’s claim to photographic verisimilitude.   Like the fetish, monstrous makeup establishes and denies the reality of the thing it represents.  It is real and it is not real.  Makeup conceals the (usually white) actor but, in so doing, reveals a preoccupation with the ethnic and racial.  As the cultural substitute for the fetishist’s shoe, makeup is the substitute for a substitute.  Like blackface minstrelsy, from which it in part derives, monstrous makeup allows for a liberated behavior on the part of the actor, which in turn allows an audience to imagine that behavior as its own.  Also, however, like the fetishist, the audience may then repudiate the actor’s licentiousness as not actually reflecting its own desires.  The various “perversions” enacted under the guise of makeup forget their origin in the fear of the racial.  Like other fetishes, monstrous makeup is a vehicle for displacement whose object is the forgetting of the thing being displaced.  As the vagina disappears completely during the etiology of Freud’s fetish, so does the racial disappear from makeup, so much so that, again like the fetish, it can appear in a sense by itself, casting off as the fetish does the trace of the material basis for anxiety.  Thus, like blackface, which by the 1920s is also relegated to mainly white performers, monster makeup can (and most often does) appear on the body of the white actor.  More radically, the monster is not even human, made up instead as the pterodactyls of The Lost World (1925), the stop-motion animation of Ray Harryhausen, and the animatronics of Jurassic Park(1993).

Medium Shot: Before Sound

[23] At the expense of a thorough reading of any individual film, I would like to present a very short overview of silent horror and science fiction films in order to establish the ubiquity of this genre’s fetishized interest in conflating the fear of race and femininity from almost the beginning of the American film industry.  I will briefly examine some film titles of the era, some representative films, and the work of two actors.  While the American film version of miscegenation before the 1920s is not quite as overtly monstrous as in other countries whose tastes are slightly less squeamish (for example Germany’s Alraune, in which “a beautiful but deadly female monster [who] is created when a prostitute is artificially inseminated with the sperm of a hanged murderer” (Kinnard, 95), these years nevertheless produce countless films that collapse race, femininity, monstrosity, miscegenation, disease, and the occult in a fetishized fashion, which is to say by making them anxiety-allaying objects of simultaneously repressed and eroticized spectacles. The titles of countless early American silent films themselves suggest an interest in a variety of races and ethnicities:The Leprechaun (1908), The Oriental Mystic (1909), The Budda’s [sic] Curse (1910).  More significantly, the various “keys,” “vases,” “bells,” “chimes,” “black orchids,” “mirrors,” and other objects in the titles of such horror films suggest a fetishistic absorption in the material object within each film, and across the genre as a whole.  Several titles evoke the spiritualism of the era: The Princess in the Vase (1908), in which “a cremated Egyptian princess is reincarnated from her own ashes” (26); The Key of Life (1910), in which “Hindu charms transform a kitten into a murderous cat-woman.”  This latter film suggests one manner in which the monstrous ethnic and the feminine are conflated: the woman is associated with the ethnic other.  Theda Bara as foreign vamp(ire) stands as a sign for dangerous ethnic femininity.  The feminine is also identified with the ethnic other as his the object of his predations, however, as in the often-filmed story of Trilby and Cagliostro (at least three times in 1912, twice in 1914, and in 1910, 1913, 1915, 1920, 1922, and 1923).

[24] A number of pseudo-Darwinian films that invoke polygenesis and miscegenation involve men becoming apes: The Monkey Man (1909),The Hypnotic Monkey (1916), and Scream in the Night (1919), which features “Darwa, a wild jungle girl . . . created by a mad scientist intent on proving Darwin’s theory of evolution” (106).  The Dinosaur and the Missing Link (1917) depicts magic rituals from antique (principally Egyptian) or otherwise remote cultures; and countless versions of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  Even Edison’s response to Melies’ fantasies smacks of miscegenation; in A Trip to Mars (1910) a professor “meets a half human creature and tree monsters” (40).

 Missing Link in the Lost World monster

Figure 1--Missing link in The Lost World (1925)

[25] Although this flood of atavistically racialized filmic Darwinism ebbs in the 1920s and 1930s, a scarcely less overt racism featuring the now-undeclared ethnic as a monstrously grotesque “missing link” (the term itself suggests a tendency to see the fetish as something lost, forgotten, and sinister) continues to inform some of the most high-profile film productions of these decades.  These are pure examples of FXing: the substitution of the monster for the racial other.  Two such films, landmarks for science fiction and horror in the silent and early sound eras, especially demonstrate this motif: The Lost World (1925) and Island of Lost Souls (1932), the latter of which, though a 1930s sound film, preceded the more famous and discussedKing Kong by a year, and apotheosizes the phenomenon in the pre-censorship code era.  Each of these film adaptations of a very popular novel contrasts its isolated, foreign, alien world with the more civilized world that serves as a normalizing frame of reference.  The contrast in The Lost World is especially stark: the film begins and ends in London.  Both films contain missing links, as well as cultured white men and women favorably contrasted to them.  Island of Lost Souls (an adaptation of H.G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau) is especially transparent in its typing.  The men/beasts are dull, unintelligent, strong, and stooped: good only for servitude, which Moreau enforces with a whip.  Their makeup renders them similar to the wild men in P.T. Barnum’s circus advertisements; their activity is limited to threatening the white explorers.  (Interestingly, The Lost World contains a comic black servant who remains at the bottom of the prehistoric plateau on whose top most of the action takes place, still another non-human link between the white explorers and the missing links.)

 Missing links as colonial subjects

Figure 2--Missing Links as Colonial subjects. (Island of Lost Souls, 1932.)

[26] The status of race and ethnicity in these texts is still more or less unequivocal: the racial other is foregrounded as strange and exotic.  However, in one of the most celebrated and high-profile productions of the 1920s, representation shifts: John Barrymore’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920). As Virginia Wright Wexman first observes, Hyde does not represent the amorphous atavism of the novel; rather, he is a literary Jew brought to film, a combination of Uriah Heep, Fagin, and Nosferatu.  (He is the monstrous half of the dichotomy between Nordic and degenerate races that constitutes the bulk of race theorizing in the nineteenth century.  The visual contrast  between Anglo-Saxon and Jew is striking.  When we first see Barrymore as Jekyll he is in profile, like a silhouette: the angle for which his good looks were legendarily most suited.  When he stands his bearing is regal.  In various vignettes we are shown that his beauty in fact reflects an innate kindness, nobility, gentility, and gentleness. Barrymore’s side view—itself an object of worship for acolytes who only semi-comically referred to him as the “great profile”—thus implies concentration on high ideals: philanthropy, science, friendship, and love. (The profile more generally can imply a relationship of the character to someone within the narration; handshakes and kisses take place in profile.)

 John Barrymore as good man

Figure 3--John Barrymore as a good man. (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, 1920)

[27] However, in converting to Hyde, Barrymore  stoops to the point of seeming almost hunchbacked, probably a legacy of his Richard III, which he was simultaneously playing on Broadway; Madison Grant observes that inferior races are also inferior in height.  (“[I]t is race, always race, that sets the limit.  The tall Scot and the dwarfed Sardinian owe their respective sizes to race and not to oatmeal or olive oil” [Grant 28-29].)  Hyde’s fingers elongate and calcify in order to seem more grasping, like the talons on Nosferatu or the clutching of Uriah Heep.  The nose elongates as well, developing a slight hook and flare, literalizing the first example in Freud’s fetishism essay, the “glance at the nose” (Freud 198).  We discover almost comically at one point that beneath the high-crowned hat is a high, pointy head, reminiscent of both the circus pinhead and the yarmulke, now not a skullcap but a skull—an emphasis on the cranium that hearkens back to race theory and craniology.  Women of course find him simultaneously fascinating and repulsive.  Like Uriah Heep, he gains ascendancy over a good man (Jekyll) and over his fortune; like Heep, he must be punished.  Finally, he even lives in a slum that resembles both Fagin’s domain and the oriental Limehouse (he visits an opium den at one point).  He preys on the weak and helpless, and like Shylock delights in humiliating the vulnerable. Like a bad Jew, he is responsible for the death of a child, and he further tries to buy away his guilt, on the putatively Jewish assumption that all spiritual things also have an exchange value. But most importantly, Barrymore tends to play Mr. Hyde not in profile but in full face for the camera, reminding one rather of Max Schreck’s more famous blocking in Nosferatu, released two years later.  Hyde’s egotism and narcissism spill across the dream screen; his gaze is directed less at an object on screen and more toward the film audience.  This kind of self-consciousness places him in a dependent relationship to the audience; he is sycophantic, the “culture-bearer” as opposed to the “culture-former,” to paraphrase Hitler (Hannaford 363).   In contrast to the innate nobility of Jekyll’s expression, Hyde’s looks are calculating, modern, urban.  He is an industrialist, a peddler.  I have elsewhere discussed how the direct appeal of the gaze to the audience in comedy is also coded as ethnic; it creates a rather brutal intimacy.  When the originator of the gaze is monstrous-ethnic, the gaze is intimate again, insisting against instinct that the horrific is an extension of oneself, the audience’s own Mr. Hyde.  I believe that the Barrymore adaptation is the first American horror film to insist self-consciously on the identification between the subject of horror and the audience.  It sets a precedent for the gaze as a recurring motif in the horror film, from its reproduction in the gaze ofDracula to the obverse: the camera becoming our own horrific gaze inPeeping Tom (1960) and its many imitators.

 John Barrymore as bad Jew

Figure 4--John Barrymore as a bad Jew. (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, 1920)

[28] Finally, with the unacknowledged image of the Jew in Hyde carefully embedded in the film, an intertitle toward the end of the film makes the racial thesis almost explicit.  Hyde as Jew is the disease itself: “For some time Dr. Jekyll renounced the dark indulgences of Hyde—until in an hour of weakness the demon, long caged, burst forth more malignant than before.” Like tuberculosis, called the “Jewish disease” in the United States, Judaism—and ethnicity more generally—is depicted as wasting away the substance of the otherwise healthy Anglo-Saxon, Jekyll.   (At the turn of the century the bubonic plague was considered the Chinese disease [Kraut 78-96], while typhoid was considered the Irish disease [Kraut 97-104].  That Hyde is a part of Jekyll might signify that what we view as ethnic forms a part of all races.  However, since the noble Jekyll would rather die than allow free rein to Hyde, one may more safely infer that if anything Jekyll reads himself as spiritually miscegenated—both the raped Anglo-Saxon and the product of that rape.  There are several indications in the film that Hyde is interested in Jekyll’s fiancée; Mr. Hyde is representable as black as well as Jewish, even though Barrymore does not assay this equation in this or a later version of the film.  (Other actors, however, do, as Virginia Wright Wexman observes about the 1932 production [288 and passim]).

[29] The most important parallel between FXing and fetishizing should be immediately clear from the example of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: the audience is suddenly at liberty to feel a perverse (which is to say ideologically unacceptable) pleasure in the spectacle of the monster, a pleasure that the race theorist has tried, overtly or covertly, to instill in his audience.   While fear and loathing of the ethnic/racial/immigrant other cannot be directly addressed in the Classical Hollywood Style, their affect can still be felt in full.  While the entire constellation of defects nineteenth-century ethnologists assign to the ethnic pass across the screen in monstrous form, indictments of slander or salaciousness by the Knights of Columbus, the NAACP, or the Legion of Decency are almost impossible.  Denying the existence of the object most feared—the racial other or the immigrant, with his/her threat of disease, invasion, and death—the monster as fetish raises that fear in displaced form and then allays it.  Even the metonymic eroticism that is at the core of the fetish is present in the fact of the monster who, as erotic object, is part of a human but not himself quite human.

Close-up and Fadeout: Theorizing the Filmic Other

[30] Just as the feminist critique of Freud’s notion of the fetish really critiques the assumptions of psychoanalysis more generally, so the study of a neglected film technique has repercussions for the way in which race and ethnicity are also exploited by the disciplines.  I have used the fetish to describe the connection between an historicized racial other and a neglected but extraordinarily important component of American film: FXing.  This connection, however, can explain as much about the psychoanalytic paradigm of the fetish as the latter can explain the former. Because the word “fetish” is of partly European derivation, it signifies the imposition of one continent’s notion of  meaning onto other cultures in order to indicate linguistic otherness without even reference to the object cultures’ own languages—in contrast to, say, the Melanesian, Micronesian, and Papuan word “taboo.”

[31] Of course, in the process of describing tribalism and fetishism, white culture is itself defined. The notion of the fetish is itself a fetish for the West.  Early anthropology defined ethnic, “backward” tribes as requiring fetishes, making a fetish of the tribe itself: the idea of the tribe becomes simplified, reduced to nearly iconic status, hiding and revealing at the same time its own otherness in a manner that allays the anxiety of the white culture doing the simplification—a white culture that, having objectified and disavowed the source of anxiety by replacing it with an ambiguous icon—the racial monstrous—can now identify itself as in all other ways “normal.”  (Remember that for Freud one advantage of the fetish is the fact that it is both secret in the sense that it is never to be acknowledged openly, and public in the sense that its materiality makes it broadly available.)  In psychoanalytic terms that tribe is the specter of the past: Freud’s ghost-maternal.  The ethnic group becomes comforting at the same time that, like Freud’s Chinese foot, it is severed by the fetishist from the body of which it is one extension.  Like the fetishist, the Western explorer and his inheritors—the anthropologist, the psychoanalyst, and the economist—are like the blind man who defines the elephant as a snake because all he has felt is the trunk.  And while anthropologists at least recognize the fetish as a complex and multiple phenomenon, both psychoanalysis and Marxism not only reduce the notion of the fetish, but require the concept of reduction itself as a precondition of desire and objectification

[32] I suspect that, in choosing as his first example a patient whose fetish (the “glance at the nose”) derived from earliest childhood and had to be articulated in his first, forgotten “mother-tongue,” Freud was perfectly aware that fetish-devotion is related to the recognition/disavowal of cultural and linguistic as well as gender boundaries (198).  Yet, though calling attention to the fact of these boundaries, Freud—in an ideologically significant move—did not cross them, in a moment that itself amounts to a disavowal.  For Freud, as for anthropologists and the rest of us, the original signified is there and it isn’t; the notion of the fetish is itself a fetish masking its own etiology from the racial.

[33] FXing, then, serves the meta-fetishistic function of closing the chain of associations that began with the defining of the ritual other as a fetish.  The notion of the aboriginal or tribal fetish emerges at about the moment at which early modern Europe wished to slough off similar notions in its own ideology as archaisms.  (For Protestants, for example, that archaism was an iconophilic Catholicism.)  Whatever it is now, anthropology began as a Western notion whose raison d’êtrewas not to explain cultural otherness but to mystify it in ideas like the fetish, an idea that became so necessary that it was appropriated for at least two other disciplines before becoming a metaphor in several more.

[34] In the twentieth century, the West imposed on its orient the idea of an object that signifies tribalism, superstition, lack.  The evolving classical Hollywood style displaced an overtly racist discourse with the mechanism of the fetish—the unconscious raising and allaying of the spectre of race and gender otherness.  As I have tried to demonstrate, American film practice accomplished this displacement through a particular set of techniques—FXing.  (However, one might further demonstrate the degree to which American film technology more generally construed configures filmmaking itself as a racially fetishistic practice, in a manner analogous to Mulvey’s demonstration of film as simply a gender fetish.)  By returning the chain of significations back to the ethnic, FXing reveals the way in which the notion of the fetish was always compromised.  The fetish was always a term for a nexus of phenomena in other cultures utterly misunderstood, always a placeholder for a referent incomprehensible not so much because of its magical qualities as because of the power relation between the colonizing Europeans and the colonized New Guineans, Brazilians, and Africans.  In essence, we have been misapplying a trope in psychoanalysis for about seventy years, and in Marxist economics for 120 years, that has always had the linguistic effect of further demeaning the groups whose cultures it was originally intended to describe, reinventing those cultures as pathologies in need of curing.


Thanks are due for this essay to the following scholars: Katherine Eggert, without whose advice this essay would not be as clear, and Frances Gateward, whose suggestions and gentle proddings were invaluable.

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