Published: Sept. 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] Jonathan Demme’s Beloved (1998)a film which tries to cope with the trauma of slavery, is a horror film in that it uses, and even centralizes, tropes of the genre. However, it exists in a contentious relationship with the genre, both deconstructing it and at moments redeploying its visual and cinematic instruments. Beloveddisrupts horror’s narrative impetus, visual regime, and phenomenological economy to create a different iconography of fear, one that exceeds spookiness and thrill and sheds light on the representation of cinematic horror’s social, historical and cinematic repressed. By resisting the standard meanings of horror icons, Beloved articulates a vernacularized, gothically strange Black horror aesthetic that complicates and alters the definition of horror’s source, suggesting that it does not lie in a neat containable bodily package but is instead systematic, institutional, and environmental.  Although this may absolve both viewers and characters of moral responsibility for this complex history, it nonetheless complicates the horror genre’s production and reproduction of (racialized) otherness, its tendency to make “othered” bodies receptacle for evil, and its tendency to repress the complexity of trauma, morality and history.  In an era where racial demonology still runs rampant, this is a welcome shift.

The Return of the Repressed Institution: A Narrative of Slavery in Postmodern Consciousness

[2] Beloved (1998) is a historical film based on Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer prize winning novel, published in 1987.  The narrative is inherently horrific but in ways that both incorporate and alter the symbolic economy of the typical horror film and its meanings.  Most crucially, it is slavery, rather than a monster or a spirit, that is the central horror of Beloved, but the film reveals slavery as both institutional and oppressive—as a horror machine, one productive of other horrors, many of which (ghosts, monsters, victims) are typical of the genre.  The film introduces a chain of horrors, all of which can be linked back to slavery.

[3] Beloved tells the story of Sethe, an African American woman who spends her entire life in a terrifying liminality between freedom and slavery: she lives first in slave Kentucky on a plantation called Sweet Home and then in “free” Ohio.   She manages her escape in a group runaway attempt that is supposed to include her whole family (her husband, Halle, and her three children, Bugler, Howard, and her youngest child whom she’s temporarily named “Crawling- Already?”), three other slaves on the plantation (Paul A, Sixo, and Paul D), and a slave from a distant plantation (Thirty-mile-woman).  The night of the escape attempt, however does not go as planned and indeed bears none of the marks of methodical organization that we associate with Harriet Tubman’s Underground Railroad.  Instead, it is enveloped in mystery, doubt, confusion and horror: that night, despite her pregnant status, Sethe is brutally beaten and sexually assaulted by her overseer, Schoolteacher, and the sons of her owner who steal her breast-milk and violate her pregnant body in the process.  Notwithstanding her injuries, Sethe flees north.  With the help of white transient Amy Denver, Sethe safely births her fourth child, Denver, (on the river between Ohio and Kentucky) and crosses over to Ohio.  There, Sethe is received by her mother-in law, Baby Suggs, a former slave whose manumission Halle has purchased and who has been given a house, 124 Bluestone Road, by an influential white Ohio family.

[4] In a clear allusion to the gender gap in Black freedom that the 1890s would solidify, only the women and children are successful in the escape attempt.  Paul D. is put in irons; Halle never meets Sethe either on the night of the escape or thereafter at his mother’s home (we find out later that he has gone mad); and both Paul A. and Sixo are lynched. The film here introduces the horror of the legalized destruction of Black men, which slavery institutionalized and sanctioned but which is still relevant in the 1990s.  Although the women are technically free, they experience the horrors of survival and the return of the repressed institution: thirty days after having escaped, slave catchers come to retrieve Sethe and her children.  Rather than have her children return to slavery, Sethe gathers them in a shed behind the house and attempts to kill them with an axe.  She is only successful in killing Crawling-Already?.  In a clear manifestation of horror tropes, Crawling-already? returns from the dead to haunt 124 Bluestone Road.  Howard and Bugler are driven away from the home by the ghost (or perhaps more by their mother’s unwillingness to stand up to the ghost) never to return and Denver is left alone with her mother and her sister’s ghost in the house.

[5] The narrative of the film begins when freedman Paul D., who once loved Sethe, shows up on her doorstep 18 years after her escape: although he is the wrong man (that is, he’s not Halle) and he has arrived late, he brings the needed masculine return Sethe has long waited for and so she allows him to stay and act as her husband.  Paul D. approaches the mysteries of Sethe’s home with a rational skepticism and a brute determination to get things under control.  The first thing Paul D. tackles in the house is the ghost of Crawling-already?, Beloved.  Although he is able to temporarily stop her ghostly haunting, the changeling child, undeterred (and perhaps motivated by the dramatic effect of Paul D.’s return from the “death” of enslavement and Sweet Home), becomes a living dead woman: she takes on fleshly form as the 20-year-old woman she would have been had she lived, and appears on Sethe’s doorstep helpless (and physically weak).  Although Sethe does not recognize the figure as her lost child, she is intrigued enough by her strangeness and driven maternal enough by Beloved’s helplessness to take the young woman in.  Although the hauntings are no longer ghostly but fleshly, Beloved’s presence in the family, her tireless return to the events of the past, and her intense intimacy with Sethe both stretch and threaten the family’s structure and stability.  When, after several months, Sethe finally realizes Beloved’s identity, she becomes reclusive, quitting her job to restore her relationship with Beloved in the home. This causes Beloved to revert to a possessive childlike state leaving the home in both financial and physical ruin.  Eventually, Denver is pushed by Sethe’s rejection and the family’s financial need to search for love and help outside of the home and in the Black community.  It is with the introjection, via Denver, of the broader community into the home that Sethe is able to bring Beloved, both literally and figuratively, out of the home and into the light of day where, once exposed, the child disappears—is exorcized—and the haunting ends.  Only then is Sethe able to discover and own herself and only then is Denver, her progeny and lineage, able to be free.

[6] The narrative of the story (with its hauntings, its living dead, its air of mystery, its sickening violence, and its exorcism) is itself horrific enough to substantiate its connection to the horror genre.  We know that the text is also about repression because of the narrative content: our protagonist Sethe’s oppression has been internalized to create repression and her lost objects (earrings), people (Halle, Beloved, Schoolteacher), and places (Sweet Home and the 124 Bluestone of the past) continually return to haunt her.  But the mode of narrative disclosure further underscores the repressive motif of the plotline: rather than plainly telling the tale, knitting together neat narrative threads, the central narrative of the story is itself repressed, surfacing only through abrupt and abbreviated automatic memory.  Narrative revelations, for example, Sethe’s memory of her mother’s killing, Sethe’s memory of killing her daughter, and Denver’s vicarious memorialization of Sethe’s escape from slavery all are disclosed fitfully by Demme in an achronological, psychological order.   Rather than flashbacks representing Sethe calling the past forward, these memories represent the past pulling Sethe back.  Narrative repression of this sort is not typical of the horror film. Although many films use flashbacks, the structure of the flashbacks here—their narrative unimportance and the film’s unwillingness to explain the relationship of these scenes of the past to the present action—renders both horror and history abstract.  The scenes also bear little narrative relationship to one another and appear as if they could be arranged in any order to the same effect: sequencing here is not narratively important, which is another sign that narrative tension is repressed here.  Belovedundercuts narrative continuity and centrality by repressing narrative and subverting it to the symbolic order in ways that utterly deny the possibility of narrative (or as we shall see later visual) closure.

[7] Repression is, of course, entirely typical of the horror film.  Because the horror genre’s underlying subject matter is closest to the core of the unspeakable, the repressed, and the uncontainable, it is a form that must retreat into symbolization in order to be able to adequately play with fear: if the genre’s central meanings were not abstracted into the realm of the symbolic, watching would not be entertaining, it would be painful.  Accordingly, most scholars discuss the horror film in terms of its “repressed,” that is, the rupture or contradiction that it seeks to fetishize and which holds the key to unlocking its meanings.  However, in this respect, Beloved differs from most other horror films: it demonstrates a more dynamic and complicated discourse on repression. Rather than seeking to mask its frightening “repressed” in order to enable conceptual play and resolution, Beloved attempts to expose and reveal it’s repressed—namely, slavery—and to bring it into historical representation.  The film not only raises questions about the meaning of repression during slavery, but it also comments intertextually on the repression of stories of the oppressed in Hollywood narratives of the Antebellum South.  Set immediately after emancipation, the narrative highlights the (Black/female) history, that is the repressed of the dominant Hollywood narrative of the historical era of reconstruction as deployed in films like Gone with the Wind (Fleming 1939) and The Littlest Rebel(Butler 1935), and even more recent films like Sommersby (Amiel 1993) and Glory (Zwick 1989). Unlike many other Hollywood representations of slavery, Beloved begins to enunciate a profound and difficult question, one repressed by traditional representations of slavery and one which is particularly important to African Americans in the post-civil rights, post-Black power era: what (moment, place, feeling) defines freedom for African Americans?  While this question is never fully answered, both film and book suggest that freedom implies more than emancipation from slavery and that the line, both historical and geographical, between slavery and freedom is not nearly as effective a barrier as it may first appear: slavery’s menacing unfreedom continues after the Emancipation Proclamation to seep across the Mason-Dixon line.

[8] The unveiling of the repressed in Beloved has certain cinematic consequences.  Where most horror films equate the destruction (of the monster) with the escape from horror, Beloved, in the tradition of the trauma film, suggests the need for a deeper healing and a more complicated fix than a narrative of destruction can provide.  When the horror is psychological, spiritual and intimately tied to self, easy scapegoating is not an effective mode of eradication.

[9] The revelation of the repressed in Beloved also raises new questions about how to represent history—repressed history—in post-modern consciousness: as soon as history is brought into representation—as soon as narrative is labeled historical, the history is in danger of becoming a master narrative that obscures other equally valid narrative angles on the same event and denies the trauma of past experience by narrativizing it and rendering it consumable (Kaes 207, LaCapra 100-102).    Beloved resists fixing its narrative telling of slavery by leaving much of its historical story unsaid, unnarrated, and unvisualized: as the clipped scenes of slavery demonstrate, the film appears to resist memory, visualization and explanation of the past, leaving much of its narrative to suggestion, iconic links, and resonant visual symbols.

[10] Furthermore, the forms of abstraction used in the horror film are different than those used here inBeloved.  In traditional horror, symbolization works primarily to abstract the repressed.  Here, symbolization works primarily to stop the audience from moving swiftly through the text—to cause the audience to instead meditate on the power of horror and to distance them out of visceral participation in the thrill of horror.  The aim in Beloved is to cause philosophical meditations on the meanings of the traumas which traditional horror arguably exploits for cheap thrills.  Symbolization also works as an anti-narrative strategy, one often used in trauma films and in African American films to create a non-narrative means and paradigm for communicating and understanding experience.  In Beloved, rather than the narrative narrowing to a single, emotionally and phenomenologically tense point or suspensefully poised moment, the narrative instead is diffuse and chaotic: events repeatedly pull us away from attending to a single, easily explicable narrative strand. Although it is not possible to describe it in depth here, the editing, repeated use of slow motion shots, repeat this diffusion at the level of the eye, making distance and diffusion a visual, narrative, and phenomenological motif of the film.

[11] Beloved also uses visual and cinematographic tropes that unfix its subject.  Unlike many historical dramas, which rely both technically and conceptually on the authoritative power of the establishing shot, the only establishing shots consistently used in the film are of the gothic home and therefore work against the reassuring effect of the typical establishing shot.

[12] Rather than looking at slavery through the lens of brutality, which would centralize the acts of horror,Beloved allows its viewers to enter the fragmented subjectivity created by horror and therefore to look at the long term psychological effects of this institutional oppression as we follow Sethe, who is both the film’s “final girl” and its historically, regionally, and cinematically fissured subject.  In placing us as viewers on the fault lines of individual subjectivity, it drastically shifts the experience and “effects” of watching horror.

Beloved as Gothic Horror

[13] Unlike thriller films, which have enjoyed mainstream appeal, the horror genre has arguably, from its foundations, been an extreme, alternative, marginal genre, as most of its most popular (and powerful) films have been low-budget, cult hits rather than Hollywood blockbusters.  Within the already marginal realm of horror, it is the Gothic perhaps, more than the Slasher film that is the most marginal mode of articulation.  This is true for one central reason: the Slasher film while extremely gruesome, most often relies on the contrapuntal juxtaposition between the dark and light, the good world and the evil one, while the Gothic film destroys this binary rendering all grey and thus drawing into question the possibility of return to the pure, innocent world that the Slasher film offers at its ending.  It is therefore important that, as many reviewers of the film noted, Demme chose the Gothic as his specific mode of horror for Beloved.

[14] There are a number of reasons why the Gothic is particularly apt for modifying the traditional horror film genre of which it is a subset.  For one, Gothic horror is associated more with the grotesque than the typical thriller—it may be the original gross out genre.   The Gothic genre also renders horror as milieu—as the product of mood and environment: as a part of the mise-en-scene. This makes horror spatial, airborne, and contagious rather than isolated in the individual body of a monster.  The Gothic was, crucially, in its early literary beginnings, largely a “female genre” because not only were women its principal consumers but also, quite often, its chief protagonists (Halberstam 165).  This stands in contrast to much of the rest of contemporary horror, which has tended to emphasize female moral deviancy, otherness, and abjection (Creed 12, Wood 79-85).  The genre was also the “literature noir” of the Enlightenment’s bright light—painting in doubt and shadows the same landscape that the Enlightenment had boldly illuminated.  By linking together the family, incest, sexuality, and death through the metaphor of a dark family secret, American gothic writing further suggested a lingering, subversive presence in the midst of American Puritanical iterations of Victorian purity.  Motifs of repression, demonic possession of children, family curses, and “claustrophobic family dominance” characterize the gothic writings of Edgar Allen Poe, Jane Austen, and Wilkie Collins (Williams “Hearths” 29-30).


Figure 1--The movie poster for Beloved.

[15] As was true of these earlier works, Beloved was both marketed as a gothic ghost story and discussed as such within the popular press.  The film’s trailer makes much of “the ghost” of Beloved,mentioning it explicitly on four occasions.  Iconographically, the marketing materials also play up the gothic angle.  Two of the three movie posters for the film picture Beloved when she first appears in Sethe’s yard, in her elaborate, black lace, gothic dress, leaning on the stump of the tree.  The tree stump on Beloved’s back in this poster image unites her with her mother, Sethe, whom we later learn also has a “tree” on her back (that is, a tree-shaped scar from a whipping by her slave master).  But Beloved’s tree is markedly different from Sethe’s in ways that tie Beloved closer to the gothic: where Sethe’s tree is alive and “in full bloom,” Beloved’s is not only dead but a stump, literally cut down.  However, press materials, like the film itself, signify the gothic not only for fear’s sake but to communicate the real, frightening history being depicted.  Iconographically, this tree, and Beloved’s particular position on it, represent an oblique yet lucid reference to the horrific history of lynching; Beloved’s body hangs loosely from the tree with eyes closed and neck cocked awkwardly, even brokenly, to the side in a posture somewhere between the contortions of a lynched body, the limpness of a scarecrow, and the tortured stance of a crucified Christ.  The film’s advertising materials intensify the gothic milieu of Beloved’s first appearance by adding to the posters crows, night settings, and fog, all of which are clear and potent symbols of the gothic absent in the film. The DVD package further foregrounds the film’s connection to horror by prominently mentioning not Oprah (arguably its most marketable element and auteur) but instead horror director Jonathan Demme: it bills the film as “From the Academy Award Winning Director of Silence of the Lambs.”  Even the film’s tagline—”The past has a life of its own”—promotes a sense of the ghostly.

The Terrible Place of the Home

 Creepy old house

Figure 2

[16] Although gothic elements permeate the entirety of Demme’s Belovedthe gothic home is the film’s most consistent and visually powerful gothic icon.  The home in Beloved is not only horrific in that it is the site of haunting but its architectural form and complex allegorical significations also bespeak its connection to the cinematic and literary gothic.  Homes are particularly important in the horror genre because they become the site of haunting and because they house the nuclear family that is often the primary site of repression.  In Beloved, we can see that the home is important not only because it is where most of the relevant action occurs but from the menacing long shots of the home that operate as the primary establishing shots for the film, signaling its relationship to horror films (most classically Psycho[Hitchcock 1961]), that use similar cinematography to capture the home. Gothic horror takes these associations a step further.  Because the gothic is a specific subtype of horror that highlights the importance of place in creating a terrifying milieu (the word “gothic” even stems from medieval architecture), in these films, it is often the locale and its bizarre spiritual resonance rather than the monster that precipitates the sensation of horror.  The notion of space-specific horror is well-applied to the depiction of the horrors of slavery, which were space-specific both because of the heavily-regimented spatialization of the plantation and because of the Mason-Dixon line that contained slavery in the South. Sethe’s home is also, like its antecedents in gothic literature, the site of murder, sadness, ghostly violence, and eventually, decrepitude.

[17] Beloved centers on a pair of homes that are gothically horrible both in their architectural form and their allegorical significance.  “Sweet Home,” the plantation that Sethe escapes from, is where Sethe’s maternal body is abused, robbed of its sexual autonomy and its milk—it is where the Black nuclear family is destroyed.  This brutal sexual assault on the Black female body takes place in the barn, the icon of American Puritanism in the masterly iconic painting ‘American Gothic’.  Like Poe’s House of Usher, Sethe’s 124 Bluestone Road is physiognomic in that it registers on its variously elaborate and decrepit surfaces the psychological state and history of its inhabitants.  As inPoltergeist (Hooper 1982) where the house is haunted by “natives” whose burial ground the father’s architectural firm has razed, without exhumation, to build the luxury homes that he and countless other white suburbanites occupy, and Candyman II (Condon 1995) whose plantation house is haunted by the ghost of a slave, the house inBeloved becomes the site of a haunting which resurrects the often exploitative, if ancestral, history of its inhabitants and implicates the current inhabitants in the unrest, often caused by an unjust killing, of the previous and rightful occupants.  One-Twenty-Four Bluestone Road was not only the site of an horrific infanticide but was also originally owned by the Bodwins, a white family with close social ties to Sethe’s former owners, a fact which links the home to slavery (Morrison 141-145).  What is more, the film follows the book in toying mnemonically with the limited and ironic meanings of the word “home” under the slave system.  The incongruous name of the plantation, “sweet home,” for example, connects the concept of home to the history of slavery.

[18] Horror films typically depict or represent frustration of vision and blindness (Tellote 114).   In Beloved,the home, which even in the horror film is typically a site of intimacy, is the primary site where the partialness (and partiality) of vision is exposed.  This visual straining is most often staged in 124 Bluestone’s front yard, which seems set too far back from the road for accurate sight to reach either way.  This over-long yard becomes a visual no-man’s land: distance continually frustrates, even distorts, vision. This play on distance and sight is initiated in the opening sequence where the damaged eye of Hereboy, the family dog, metaphorically signals lack of sight and where we, along with Sethe, strain to discern the identity of the male figure that has appeared in the yard. Following from this first scene, nearly all of the major events that take place in this terrain are marked by lack of visual acuity: the first revelation of the limp body of Beloved, Denver’s discovery of the food in the yard, and the final scene where the Sethe mistakes Mr. Bodwin for Schoolteacher are all marked by visual straining. The front yard of the home, therefore, becomes a space of symbolic misrecognition and haunted, distracted sight.

[19] The home also becomes the center for horrific happenings and spectral activities.  The gothic home is tirelessly linked with the “ghost” and flesh of Beloved: it is the first and only site of Beloved’s haunting; the place where she is given her fullest expression (“This is where Iam“); and the place where she looks for Sethe (“I look for this place”) and eventually “possesses” her.  Indeed, once in the flesh, Belovedvirtually never leaves the home: only once does she go outside its gates and even then, only to meet Sethe.  Significantly, Beloved’s haunting is staged first and primarily in the kitchen—the hearth of the home, its center of production and confection and a realm typically designated female.  The home is also rendered female in that it hosts the sort of intense, physical and emotional embrace that is singularly maternal.  It is womblike—it is used to possess, nurture, connect with and monitor those it contains: as Sethe once held Beloved in the womb, here Beloved holds Sethe in the home.

[20] The notion of the past as ghost—as another presence animating and filling the home—is present in both novel and film versions ofBeloved.  Morrison’s narrator explicitly refers to the centrality of space and place as containers for memory and preservers of the past:

“If a house burns down, it’s gone, but the place, the picture of it—stays, and not just in my rememory but out there in the world…. Right in the place where it happened,” (Morrison 36).

The notion of memory as preserved image—as material and phenomenal presence—is strongly represented in the film but never more strongly than in the home.  For example, when Paul D. first enters the house, Sethe and Beloved’s shared memory and presence is so powerful that his vision is fully usurped by their traumatic past:

instead of seeing the present-tense kitchen door, he sees the past-tense door of the shed in which Beloved was murdered.  Thus the memories of the past incorporate the physical reality of the house into the psychic realm of the dream.  The cinematography of the film was designed to underscore this connection.  Tak Fujimoto notes that in shooting the film, he wanted to make the house feel “haunted and alive with memories” (Rogers par. 4).

The post-production team therefore tried to “project the images against the walls” of the house as a way of making them seem inherent to—offered up by—the house.  This technique is most obvious in the sequence where Paul and Sethe dream about “Sweet Home.”  As critic Pauline Rogers and Tak Fujimoto describe it:

[A]sleep in the same bed [, they] have individual dreams of Sweet Home…Sethe’s dream was a sweet image of her and her husband, as she kisses their baby girl.  Paul D.’s dream is of the last time he saw her husband… [Fujimoto:] “The shot starts over Sethe’s head [on the wall of the house]…It then moves around and comes into him.”  (Rogers par. 21)

The house is given a further ghostliness cinematographically through the use of reflected light off of pans of water cast against the walls of the house, which provide a constant ghostly movement and glow behind the scene’s action.  Through these techniques, the house becomes, as it is in melodrama, a screen for the projections of the internal and the past, a vessel and a peculiarly expressive architectural receptacle for a variety of repressions (of self, of desire, of past), common to the home but, here, made more extreme and horrific—more menacingly haunting—by the context and history of slavery.

Beloved: Black Woman, Black Child, Black Horror

[21] According to Halberstam’s book length study of the literary and cinematic gothic, both its elaborate strangeness and its central and complicated monsters also designate the genre.  Halberstam suggests that, in gothic fiction, this strangeness is linked to excess: “Gothic…refers to an ornamental excess (think of gothic architecture—gargoyles and crazy loops and spirals), a rhetorical extravagance that produces, quite simply, too much” (Halberstam 2).   These excesses, much like those of a woman’s dress, are often marked as feminine.

[22] Much of the strangeness of Beloved can aptly be discussed in terms of Halberstam’s formulation of the gothically “strange.”  The body of Beloved herself, who is notably the only character who dons classically gothic garb, is marked, for example, by its excessive grotesquerie.  In fact its excessiveness gives way to monstrosity.  Halberstam argues that monsters stand in for the socially repressed, but that it is the bodies that (loosely) contain these monsters that are the signifiers of horror (Halberstam 3).  These bodies are “remarkably mobile, permeable and infinitely interpretable. . . Monsters are meanings machines” onto which we can project a variety of social, economic and political ills (Halberstam 21).

[23] The scene where Beloved is first introduced sets up the human body as a site monstrosity and gothic horror.  Beloved emerges from a natural realm which is far removed from the domestic pastoralism of her mother’s home and the urbanism of the Cincinnati streets mere miles away and appears more like the heaving, rhythmic wild of the jungle.  In this domain, the sounds of Beloved’s heavily labored breath and primitive grunting blend in with the deafening, rhythmic cacophony (the quacking of ducks, creaking and whirring of insects, the croaking of frogs, and the squawking of birds) of a wildly excessive and overgrown nature that bears a greater resemblance to the habitat of the rainforest than the stream.  This ‘primordial muck’ is not a literal place—it is an intense and multilayered symbolic figuration of nature that, although it has a place in the story, is more than simply narrative.  It is an abstract cinematic representation of the realm of birth (Africa), of gestation, of the creation, and of the maternal womb.  Sonically, and visually set apart from the rest of the world, this is a land of the “primitive,” a land without metrical, rational time.  It is a space of movement and process without progress.  It is a place of cyclical time.  It is explicitly anti-modern.  Crucially, however, Beloved rises from this muck not in some “primitive” state of nudity but fully clothed in Victorian garb, which, thus, becomes intrinsic to her.  This scene then integrates the gothic Victorian with the opposing realm of naturalism.  Beloved is such a product of the Victorian era that has repressed her that these clothes are, in some sense, her nudity.

[24] The scenes of her coming to life are inter-cut and closely associated with the carnival (which seems to be going on right behind the gestation scene from which she ascends).  Here the barker beckons: “Do not fear! Come with me inside.  The largest lady, Roundella, with me today.  Sweet, gentle, delicate, eating a chicken from each hand.”  The jarring conceptual contrast between the adjectives that describe Roundella (who like Beloved is named for what she is) and her actions will be repeated in both Sethe (who is a mother who murders) and Beloved (who is both innocent and monster).  The parallel editing, which vacillates between Beloved and the carnival, also serves to link the two scenes through their common fascination with spectacular or strange flesh.  At the carnival, strange horrific human flesh is on display for Sethe, Denver, and Paul D, even as the strangeness of Beloved’s flesh, intercut in close-ups here, is on display for us. Beloved is in a sense the definition of a spectacle—and not only because she hold our optical attention.  For spectators within and outside of the narrative alike, Beloved defies both paradigm and categorization: our eyes don’t know what to do with her.

[25] Throughout the film, Beloved’s body becomes the central figuration for monstrosity as well as strangeness.  Visually, not only is she first shown covered in insects in the scene just described but she is also excessively slow, jerky, and oozing. The effect of this fluidity is perhaps made most powerful by the contrast with her formal, figural look—how we might perceive her from a distance, if she were sitting still: from this vantage point, she is a fully-blossomed woman with a flawless complexion and figure.  Time and movement give lie to this first look.  Walking unevenly, one minute with awkward, ape-like slowness and the next with a surging scurry, any observer could identify that something in her physical or mental (or perhaps here spiritual) makeup is entirely wrong. Like Dracula, Beloved’s body has vampiric qualities, it “consumes to excess” air, food, and eventually the mother herself (Halberstam 21).   Much of her excess is gestural.  Her continual infantile bobbling for balance coupled with her excretory overabundance eclipse the beauty of her face and form, suggesting something wrong below the smooth surface of her unblemished skin.  The problem, then, on one level, is a problem of jarring internal contradiction.  Although Beloved has the beauty and fresh gawkiness of a young woman, her inappropriate sounds and gestures, and her utter lack of grace signal her grotesquerie.  She lacks physical composure entirely: she is no lady.  Beloved’s excesses seem to stem from her eternal infancy but they are also socially coded as “animal,” uncivilized, and too close to nature: although her messy eating can be forgiven as a residue of her infancy, her growling, her instinctiveness, and her aggressiveness are coded as animal.

[26] Not only do we see Beloved’s chronic excessiveness, we alsohear it.  Beloved invades and colonizes the soundtrack, marshalling control of the realm of the unseen, hovering sonically around the film’s margins.  Her heavy, gasping breath, her slurred, moaning speech, her noisy, sloppy eating, and her demonically low voice all cause us to associate her with the basic bodily functions she has not yet mastered.  Her body literally creaks, moans, gurgles, and groans but these sounds have no reasonable, ostensible source: they bubble forth from an unknown, untold internal location: they are not synchronized with her mouth and therefore appear extra-diagetic, although it is always her presence that catalyzes them.  Beloved’s appearance also crucially ushers in another sonic motif: the sound of buzzing (of bees or flies — we cannot tell which).  Beloved appears to be herald and source of these sounds: we see neither bees nor flies on the image track in these scenes, although the soundtrack renders them swarms.  The ambiguity of the source of the buzzing may itself be metaphorically significant, as bees are attracted to the sweetness of pollen and flies to its opposite, the stench of death, both of which are characteristics associated with Beloved’s form.

[27] However, grotesquerie is not the only excessiveness Beloved’s body manifests.  As repeated close-ups of her flawless skin show, she is also marked by excessive innocence and beauty.  Paul D., in the scene where she first arrives, comments almost immediately on her utterly beautiful feet and later is unable to resist her beautiful form.  Likewise, Denver early in the film is riveted by what appears to be a small cut on her hairline, a mark made obvious by the swath of flawless skin that surrounds it.  In gothic fiction, skin “becomes a kind of metonym for the human; its color, its pallor and shape mean everything within a semiotic of monstrosity,” (Halberstam 7).  But how, we might ask, could Beloved’s perfect complexion figure her monstrosity?  Sethe effectively answers this when she tells Paul D. that she identifies with Beloved because she knows “what it feel like to be a colored woman roaming the roads and anything God made liable to jump on you.”  Not only is Beloved’s flesh baby flesh, wrapped incongruously around a full grown body, but its purity and beauty give lie to the social construction of Black femininity: the film clearly demonstrates that her monstrosity is both racially and socially constructed.  It stems not just from her subjective state as eternal child and the bizarre opposites she manages to reconcile in her physical form but also from Beloved’s interpellated, racialized social self—because she is cast as “colored” woman.  No matter her age or physical make-up Beloved will always be considered simultaneously vile and beautiful, grotesque and desirable, because of her castigated and abject social positioning as a Black woman in a white, male world.

Flesh and the Spirit

[28] The film also resembles the horror film in its central attention to what Halberstam has called “bodies that splatter”, that is, not only to strange, grotesque bodies but to the anatomical stuff (the flesh, blood, skin, and bones) that constitute them (Halberstam 138). In white horror films, there is a separation between the fleshly physical realm (the real) and the spiritual, metaphysical realm (the realm of fantasy), the latter of which is utterly frightening.  Spirits, in white horror films, mean that the repressed has returned (and returned for YOU, the white spectator) and are accordingly frightening.  In contrast, fright (by which I mean the kind of visceral, total fear that horror centralizes) is an element entirely missing from Beloved’s emotional economy, both for spectators and for the characters themselves.  This is in part because those characters we identify with in the film are the repressed of slavery’s master narrative and because the film uses horror tropes to expose the trauma of demonization and othering (of women and minorities) that the horror genre fetishizes but wholeheartedly participates in.  It seems clear that Sethe does have a repressedobject: the white man, who returns repeatedly to take more from her.  But the more crucial repression for her and her fellow emancipated is the repression of her own memories of oppression.  Repression through physical distance does nothing to halt the return of the memories that plague, haunt, even oppress, Sethe.  The repressed, for her and the other emancipated Blacks, is not the capturable body of an “Other” but the diffuse memory and the oppressive institutional power of slavery.  While terribly, this horror (unlike those horror films typically centralize) ceases to have, in memory, the rough edge of fright and has become, in shades, a deep and abiding sadness.

[29] In addition to giving lie to the containable repressed horror typically erects, Beloved also removes the traditional generically imposed boundary between the spiritual and the fleshly realms: ghosts come into the flesh and living humans (for example, the white overseer “Schoolteacher”) have ghostly looks and tendencies, appearing in “worlds” where they don’t belong.  Indeed, the fluidity between binary realms inBeloved indicates an absence of the boundaries which are typically constitutive of the horror film: in standard Hollywood films, the horror centers around disruption, transgression and violation of a variety of socially enforced boundaries, between, for examples, living and dead, inside the flesh and outside, good and evil, reality and fantasy.  Although the traditional horror film plays with these boundaries throughout the course of its narrative, it nevertheless relies upon their existence and ultimate restoration for its eventual return to stability.  In Beloved, although the violation of boundaries (between South and North, Black and White, mother and daughter) still plays a part in the story, not only are the borders transgressed, the realms that they purport to separate are hopelessly contaminated with the “other.”  What is more, the boundaries themselves are shown to be imposed from the outside.  Because the majority of the centralized characters do not believe, for example, in the boundaries between living and dead, transgression of this line cannot hold for the audience or the characters, the same perilous charge.  Although the white world may separate ghost from man, North from South, slave from free, African Americans have experienced both the fluidity and the hypocrisy of these distinctions and have drawn boundaries in new places (e.g. inside the home versus outside, free public spaces of the Woodlawn versus the unfree public spaces of the street and the market, etc.): in essence they have mapped different spiritual and geographic boundaries, ones more prone to liminality and permeability, and ones depicted in a magical realist style by Demme.

[30] Unlike the traditional horror film, there is no inherent tension between the ghosts and people—between the two worlds—and communication between them is not seen as unusual.  Christopher Small has suggested that this connection between the spiritual and fleshly worlds, especially through a notion of shared, spiritualized flesh or blood, through “ancestry” is a trope in African American culture:  “Just as the living individual is the link between the departed and the yet unborn, so he or she is also the link between the physical and the natural worlds, linking God to nature through membership of the natural world…and through the unique human moral and ethical consciousness.  Thus all human life and activity take place within a religious framework, and no human act is without religious significance,” (Small 113).

[31] This lack of separation between realms, this integration of the living with the dead, means that, inBeloved, Sethe can know intimately who haunts her house (her dead daughter), the type of haunting it is (“it ain’t evil.  Just sad”), and can even be contented to have it stay there (“Step on through”): because of the emotional logic which in Sethe’s mind justifies Beloved’s return, Sethe not only does not fear the ghost but desires to know it better.  Beloved’s haunting, while still unwelcome in the mind of the viewer because of its destructiveness, becomes logically warranted by the justice that extends beyond the grave.  As the film progresses we see that this haunting is both general knowledge (rather than private revelation) and commonly believed (rather than received with rational skepticism) by those in the town.  It therefore becomes clear that haunting is assimilable into the logic and rational worldview of the characters in the film (who proclaim, “them that die bad don’t stay in the ground”) and thus loses in the mind of the viewer the fright of the unknown.  Sethe’s propensity to mark the ghost as not evil but sad suggests not only her understanding of the emotional makeup of the ghost but also her resistance to othering the ghost to whom she is ancestrally tied, a resistance not common to white horror film victims.

[32] Although Beloved is like the horror film in its centralization of the flesh, this horror icon, like the spirit and the home, takes on “vernacular” meanings in the light of its racialized iteration here, meanings not present in the standard horror film.  The flesh is an important medium in the economy of slavery because of its many, various incarnations: not only is the flesh lived through, but it is sold, marked, and (in freedom from bondage) resurrected.  The buoyancy and resiliency of the flesh is typical of horror films, as Night of the Living Dead (Romero, 1968) and Poltergeist (Hooper, 1982) clearly show.  In Beloved, because the film is set against the backdrop of slavery, abuse of flesh takes on much more serious and weighty meaning than it does in the traditional horror film, where it often becomes the subject of a light, sensational gag.  More than a ghost story, Beloved might better be called a flesh story in that it traces the trajectory of African American flesh from slavery to freedom, from death to life.  Symbolically, Beloved’s fleshly resurrection works to make her a cipher and symbol of the “repressed” of slavery: to represent Beloved as spirit alone would be to leave her unbound to the predominant site for the etching of slavery’s oppression and domination, the body.  While the spiritual life of the slave was clearly impaired, his/her physical flesh was the medium through which this oppression was recorded, especially through the practice of whipping and branding.  The flesh was where the mark of oppression was performed and preserved, for all to see.

[33] The scene that most clearly exemplifies the rawness of flesh is the scene where Sethe performs the attacks her children with an axe-saw, which converts them, both iconically and symbolically from humans into raw flesh.  Here, as in the Slasher film, crucially, the children’s bloodiness, their unmoving flesh, is emphasized.  Shot in hand-held style rather than with the stability of the traditional camera, the bodies of the children appear grainy, smeared, and blurry.  This is especially true of Crawling-Already?, whose face is entirely obscured, literally smothered into the mess of flesh and blood caked onto Sethe’s chest.  In this scene, Sethe both confronts her captors, directly addressing them, and answers them, communicating in the economy of hurt flesh which slavery centralizes.

[34] However much Beloved’s flesh and blood gets sensationalized, Demme and Fujimoto resist sensationalizing the beatings of slavery and the scarred flesh it produces.  They only ever show beatings and lynching momentarily, in the dark, in grainy imprecise film stock, or oblique subjective camerawork,all of which limit our view of them.  Post-emancipation shots of Paul D.’s, Baby Suggs’s, and Sethe’s, scarred, broken (and horrifically milked) bodies are not sensationalized or presented for static anthropological display, but are instead shown surviving in movement.. As we see in both the Woodlawn service and Sethe’s first sexual encounter with Paul D., these emancipated bodies are in the process of redemptive healing through love.  Fujimoto and Demme even resist showing the wounds and scars of slavery: for example, in the scene where Sethe reveals her tree-shaped scar, Fujimoto’s camera moves tentatively and delicately around her skin, only ever illuminating part of the scar.  The only flesh sensationalized and depicted as grotesque is Beloved’s eerily flawless baby flesh.  She alone bears the cinematic mark of the monstrous.  White flesh is also interestingly denaturalized here as the characters most closely associated with white privilege (Schoolteacher, Mr. Bodwin, and even Amy Denver and Mrs. Garner) are not visually white but ruddy, pock marked, yellow—off-white.  Apart from Beloved, the Black flesh in the film is flesh in motion, moving forward working, surviving, and in Baby Sugg’s clearing, loving its way toward redemption and healing.  In Fujimoto’s cinematography, because of motion, African American flesh is neither fetishized, nor made horrible.

Feeling with broken eyes: Beloved’s traumatic phenomenology

[35] Clearly horror films’ main emotional and phenomenological effect is the production or replication of fear (Carroll “Emotion” 38).  Although the horror film may seem to produce in viewers a secondary identification with the victim (because both are afraid), identification with the most horror films is actually much more complex.  In fact, we often don’t identify with the horror victim as personality (typically they are emotionally distant from the spectator and socially or morally abject).  Instead, we identify with the protagonist’s psychical, physical and emotional universe—with their (proximate) positionality in relation to the object of horror.  What we identify with more centrally than the characters is the maze of obstructions, followed by unsafe spaces that they must navigate to survive; these, to us, seem excessively real.  Sight and spectator identification with the horror film are linked because, as J.P. Telotte has suggested, we see more than the horror victim but, much to our frustration, can do nothing to inform them of the danger because they cannot see or hear us (Telotte 123-4).  That is, in most horror films, our emotions are manipulated by the perceptible thickness of the screen as barrier and the trap of our own voyeurism—we have near omniscient, psychic vision, whereas the character’s vision is slow, lethargic, dim, framed and bracketed: limited.  It is this process of overinforming the spectator that causes him/her to emotionally and narratively invest: the films morally “hook” us by suggesting that since we know and can see more than the character about the physical landscape and the nature of the horror, it is our social responsibility to “watch over” the events that take place and to psychologically and emotively (if not verbally) guide the characters through the horrors they face.  As watchers, our personal fear is displaced: we are not afraid for ourselves but for the characters we perceive.  We join with the film text, rather than its protagonists, in instructing the horror victim “Don’t Go into the House” (Ellison, 1980) or “Don’t Look Now” (Roeg, 1973).  When the character does eventually see or avoid the danger, empathetic fear, communicative frustration, and moral responsibility are relieved.  So even though the horror film produces “fear,” this fear is situational, geographically contingent and ultimately relieved within the space of the film text.  This displacement from personal fear and the very temporary, thrilling and quenchable nature of the fright produced may be a source of horror film’s pleasure.

[36] However, in Beloved the phenomenology of horror is altered. Where the horror film has traditionally relied on our omniscient (if impotent) vision, Beloved does the exact opposite, it limits spectator vision, making us less-knowing/seeing than the characters and therein places us in the predicament normally experienced by the horror victim: that of being unable to see clearly (Telotte 127). Viewers’ knowledge sets are key to identification with most films because they provide us with the visual and sonic mastery that make our experience of film pleasurable (Metz 48).  But in Beloved, the spectator’s vision is clipped and distanced.  Our visual knowledge and mastery—our ability to believe in the world that we perceive—is troubled. Because spectator vision is distorted by cinematography, the feeling of spatial mastery and our urge for the character’s clearer vision that horror films depend upon are absent, defeated by the incessant obscuring of vision: viewers are unable to help, or even to feel like they inhabit the same spaces as Sethe. In traditional horror, as Jeffrey Sconce has pointed out, the two-dimensional visual medium produces a sense of raw exhilarating physicality, of three-dimensionality (Sconce 117-119).  Phenomenologically, the genre allows us to feel we have transformed Christian Metz’s “senses at a distance” (sight and hearing) into “senses of contact” (touch, taste, smell) in ways that allow us to come closer to experiencing pleasure at the level of the perceptive organ  (Metz 59).  It does this by allowing us to create psychologically palpable spaces out of binary sensatory experience: that is, the intensified heightening and the precise interweaving of sight and sound compensates for the lack of sensory contact.  Therein, the feel of space, presence, and immediacy is created. InBeloved we have no such vital sense of space.  We can barely see, let alone geographically and psychically feel the spaces of horror.  InBeloved, the phenomenology produced by marginality, distance, and limitation, is one of yearning—even stretching—for emotional inclusion.  Its optical mode—one of straining—is perhaps better suited than viscerality to the complex historical project on whichBelovedembarks and also to the institutional nature of the horror of slavery.

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