Published: Oct. 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]        Film genres routinely mix and evolve over time in ways that change our expectations of them, and change the way that we as audiences read and receive them. At times, however, the mixing of genres can function to focus our attention on certain film texts, and certain critical moments within these texts. While work on genre by scholars such as Thomas Schatz, Charles Maland, and Steve Neale suggests that social problem films are “too various in their narratives and thematic characteristics to warrant the label ‘genre’” (Maland 307), John Hill, Peter Roffman, and Jim Purdy observe the way that social problem films typically employ “general conventions, especially those of narrative and realism” (Roffman, Purdy 222). In this essay, I use the 1949 Hollywood film Pinky to suggest the ways in which social problem films dealing with the phenomenon of racial “passing” (instances in which light-skinned black characters “pretend” to be whites) use themes and motifs commonly found in horror films.

[2]        A post-World War II offering from the Fox studio, Pinkyrepresents part of what Christopher Jones calls the “culmination of the trend toward black realism in the American cinema of the forties” (110) in 1949. As Jones observes, this year saw the release of films likeLost Boundaries (also a cinematic account of a “black-as-white” passing story), Stanley Kramer’s post-war drama Home of the Brave, and the film adaptation of William Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust.Pinky’s place as the most popular and critically acclaimed of these films dealing substantially with “blacks at home in the United States, enduring the problems of civilian life” (Jones 110-111) suggests the significance of examining the currents of fear and repression underlying its presentation of racial realities.

[3]        In his noted essay “Ideology, Genre, Auteur,” Robin Wood posits that “in the classical Hollywood cinema motifs cross repeatedly from genre to genre,” and continues by asserting that genres “represent different strategies for dealing with the same ideological tensions” (671). As one of Hollywood’s social problem films on the theme of race, Pinky indeed addresses the profound and lasting ideological tension created by the social construct of race, the taboo of interracial relationships and the children of such relations. Pinkyalso casts a white actress as a “mulatto” character light-skinned enough to “pass for white,” further complicating the film’s ideological function by making “white as black” passing acceptable, while simultaneously problematizing “black as white passing,” a paradox I will discuss more fully later.

[4]        Throughout this essay, I use the word “mulatto” or the phrase “mulatto figure” to reflect the functionthat such characters perform—one which disrupts the boundaries of traditional racial stratifications between blacks and whites. In fact, my analysis of Pinky frequently conflates the terms “black” and “mulatto” or “mixed-race,” identities and experiences that are not necessarily one in the same. Pinky itself conflates these terms in its storyline. What is more, historically, Hollywood films that feature the mulatto figure do not attend to such differences, but at once exploit the sensationalism in the issue of passing and use the mulatto as a generic cipher for “the race problem.” Pinky pays more attention to questions of intraracial color difference than most, but still limits Pinky’s experience to a series of problems of race that subside when she accedes to the status quo of segregation. The specificity of her ancestry only serves to give her story an unusual “angle.”

[5]        In reading the way that horror informs Pinky, I employ two well-known and canonical horror films of the 1940s and 50s, namelyCat People (1942) and Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), both of which arguably carry anti-miscegenation themes in their own right. Film scholars like LeiLani Nishime have observed that anxieties about racial purity have long been played out in the narratives of sci-fi and horror films (3). As such, I seek here to examine why and how the conventions of cinematic horror are used in a film like Pinky, a film most commonly identified with melodrama or “women’s pictures,” and with the loosely bound “social problem film” genre.

[6]        This paper takes as a point of departure the argument that Susan Courtney makes in her 1997 Berkeley dissertation, “Hollywood’s Fantasy of Miscegenation,” (forthcoming in January 2005 from Princeton University Press) in which she provides specific and extended analysis of Pinky. Placing Pinkyamongst the class of films she terms “miscegenation films,” Courtney writes that these works consistently “engage with the constitution of racial boundaries both: in the domain of the visual, exerting considerable cinematic pressure to make ‘race’ appear visibly self-evident: and in the domain of the psychic, directing spectators how to believe in, and identify and desire in accordance with cinematically imposed racial ‘lines’” (13).  I suggest that part of the way that Pinky –and arguably similar films likeLost Boundaries and the 1959Imitation of Life–achieve their cinematic re-constitution of race is by using motifs of the horror genre such as I will identify here; these films thus draw upon racialized beliefs that associate fear with blackness to indelibly mark the white actors featured in these films as black. Richard Dyer has observed how in cinema, slippage occurs between the registers that categorize black and white as symbol, hue, and skin color (Dyer 41-81). That blackness as fear might slip into blackness as skin color here, in films about passing seems likely. I argue further that part of the way that horror is invoked in Pinky is through Jeanne Crain’s performance of the role, and in the complexity of her identity as a white woman playing a black woman who ultimately does not, who must not pass for white.

Pinky, The Horror Genre, and Blackness Disembodied

[7]        Pinky tells the story of Patricia Johnson (Jeanne Crain)—known as “Pinky”—a young woman who returns to her native home in the South, after having lived in the North for many years for training as a nurse. According to the film, Pinky is black, but light-skinned enough to pass for white, and we learn that she has passed while in the North, and fallen in love with a white man, Tom Adams (William Lundigan). However, when she returns to the South, her grandmother Dicey Johnson (Ethel Waters), and others attempt to influence her to remain there and to identify herself as black. At her grandmother’s behest, Pinky acts as a nurse for the invalid Miss Em (Ethel Barrymore). Miss Em is an elderly white woman who is both her grandmother’s friend and a member of the white family who owned Dicey in slavery. Miss Em also encourages Pinky to reject passing as an option, advising her to “be yourself.” Pinky initially dislikes Miss Em intensely, but in nursing her, comes to admire her strength and spirit. When Miss Em dies, she leaves a will that grants Pinky her mansion and all of her land. The will is contested in court by Miss Em’s malicious Cousin Wooley (Evelyn Varden), who alleges that Pinky doped and manipulated Miss Em when she was ill. Pinky prevails however, inherits the estate, and ultimately makes her decision to remain in the South, and use the land and home to open a professional nursing school for blacks. Though Tom has maintained that he still loves her and wants to marry her, she refuses him, insisting that her place is with her people.

[8]        Even read superficially, Pinky manifests elements of the Gothic genre in literature. Literary scholar Jerrold Hogle defines a Gothic tale as one which “usually takes place…in an antiquated or seemingly antiquated space – be it a castle, a foreign palace, …a large old house or theatre, …[and so on]…Within this space, or a combination of such spaces, are hidden some secrets from the past (sometimes the recent past) that haunt the characters, psychologically, physically, or otherwise at the main time of the story” (2).  Hauntings can take a number of forms, but usually assume supernatural shapes, “to manifest unresolved crimes or conflicts that can no longer be successfully buried from view” (3).

[9]        On its face, Pinky carries many of these elements: the South as a whole is certainly represented as “an antiquated space,” and the film’s more specific primary settings, the land on which Pinky’s grandmother lives, in former slave quarters, and the former plantation’s “big house” are antediluvian sites that are “haunted” by a specific, raced set of histories and memories. Pinky, who has been gone from the South since she was a child, and has since “passed” as a white person in the North, is psychologically haunted by both the recent memory of her having passed as white, and by what all around her presume as the “fact” of her blackness, a fact which had evidently ceased to be a part of her life for many years.

[10]      Moreover, the visual style of certain shots in Pinky plainly suggests classic works of the horror film genre specifically. Of course, the tradition of Gothic literature ultimately spawned the horror film genre; the Edison company would give Mary Shelley’s Frankensteinits first cinematic adaptation in 1910, and James Whale’s 1931 film version of the same text would become a horror classic, one of many films of the 1930s to establish cornerstones of the cinematic vocabulary we now recognize as the iconography of horror. As William Everson reminds us, the horror film “depends for its ultimate effect on the scaring of the audience by manipulating their emotions” (2). David Chute likewise asserts, “horror is defined…by a mood or atmosphere; by how it makes its audiences feel” (80). While Pinky does not actively depict the supernatural, it does draw upon the classic horror lexicon, creating within the rural setting of Pinky’s hometown an atmosphere that is often ethereal and shadowy. This atmosphere is particularly potent early in the film, a coincidence consistent with Courtney’s observation that through its apparatus, Pinky goes about directing the audience through a complicated series of racially identifying “looks” and “recognitions” of Jeanne Crain/Pinky.  Courtney argues that it is the:

arrangement of cinematic elements, and not any innate knowledge on the part of the viewer, that directs us to see Pinky–as first white…then black …then black pretending to be white …then white on the outside struggling to be black on the inside…and finally completely black through and through (319-20, emphasis in original).

[11]      Pinky’s early “arrangement of cinematic elements” relies heavily upon shots of mist, shadow, graveyards, ramshackle homes and eerie ruins as central set pieces within the South to which Pinky returns. Their prominence is pronounced here, primarily occurring during the first half of the film. If we read Pinkythrough its established genre of “social problem film,” this is the portion of the film that moves the protagonist “through an experience of education about the social problem as the film develops” (Maland 314). This early portion of the film is also the window of time wherein an audience’s belief in and identification of Jeanne Crain as herself, as “white actress,” would likely be at its height. In this critical juncture as Pinky concerns itself with educating the protagonist (and the viewer) about “black experiences,” and in associating its white lead actress with a black identity, the film makes use of horror conventions to conjure a psychological and atmospheric “blackness.”

 Pinky awakes, afraid

Figure 1

[12]      For example, the second full scene of the film takes place the night of Pinky’s return home from the North. We find Pinky asleep in bed, and have just seen her initial reunion with her grandmother Dicey be spoiled by Pinky’s admission that she has passed for white during her years away from home. As Pinky sleeps now, troubled by the quarrel, she begins to toss and turn, dreaming restlessly of Tom, the white boyfriend she has left behind in the North. She calls Tom’s name and it is echoed in voice-over, in Pinky’s voice, as she calls out to him in her dream.

 Pinky looks out the back door

Figure 2

Finally the dream voice screams Tom’s name. Pinky is quickly jolted awake, and sits bolt upright in bed, her frightened face captured in an abrupt extreme close-up. She glances around slowly and fearfully, initially not remembering where she is. Hearing the crickets chirping about her, she rises from her bed and looks out of the back door to her room, which is standing open to the outside of the house. Besides the sound of crickets and frogs, a train is audible in the distance. The door opens onto the rear of the house, where Pinky sees a mist-covered night, mossy trees looming out of the shadows, and the jagged teeth of a dilapidated fence, all distinctly gloomy and ominous.

 A frightened Pinky, back in bed

Figure 3

The entire sequence has been lighted harshly, in a way that makes shadows appear large and threatening. The effect of this lighting is perhaps at its greatest as Pinky looks out of her door onto the night. She stands at the door for a moment, then shuts the door quickly, returns to her bed, and pulls the covers up to her nose, now very awake, and staring troubled and wide-eyed as the sequence ends (Figs. 1, 2, and 3).

[13]      The lighting and gloomy setting of this scene and others recall the look of classic horror films likeFrankenstein (1931), Dracula(1931), Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) The Black Cat (1934), andThe Werewolf of London (1935). Indeed, as Pinky looks out into the murky, desolate night the viewer is reminded of the archetypal horror film moment, in which the protagonist first glimpses the symbolically threatening space or edifice that Robin Wood calls the “terrible house” (“American Horror Film” 188). In Pinky, as in the horror films cited here, it is a moment that greatly influences mood and atmosphere, creating “a sinister and foreboding effect” upon both character and audience (Bunnell 85,88). While we cannot see any distinct structure as Pinky looks out the back door, the nature of Pinky’s terrible house is revealed to us the next morning, when Dicey and Pinky talk of Miss Em, whose neglected southern manor is visible in the distance. When Dicey inquires why Pinky dislikes Miss Em so intently, Pinky replies, “Look at her house. Slave-built, slave-run, and run-down ever since.” Her bitter description calls to mind Wood’s conclusion that the terrible house signifies “the dead weight of the past crushing the life of the younger generation, the future” (“American Horror Film” 188). Though from the film’s point of view, the house will in the end be renovated and restored specifically for the purpose of uplifting this younger generation, critics of the film’s resolution observe that this uplift nonetheless occurs within a strictly segregationist plan.

[14]      To return to the “sleeping” sequence, we can also observe the way that the “dream to wake” sequence at its center evokes psychological horror and the nightmare, which, as Noël Carroll points out, has been bound to horror “since the inception of the modern tradition” (16). As the distant train whistle intimates, Pinky is being haunted, so to speak, by the memory of her recent past—the past in which she has passed for white in the North and taken a white lover—and the conflict it raises with her ancestral (black) past and her current (black) circumstances. As Pinky is called upon to both confront and accept the blackness the film insists is the only possible identity for her, it frames her amongst visuals and a style that connote horror and create a visual/psychological rhyme between blackness and fear.

[15]      It is also worth noting that Jeanne Crain’s performance in this scene largely conveys fear over and above the sadness and confusion that the film has by now established that Pinky feels. Her furtive glancing around the room, her abrupt shutting and latching the door, and her retreat beneath the covers all beg the question: What is Pinky afraid of? While on the one hand, the setting suggests that Pinky’s fear has an external source, on the other, because the film will adhere to a racially segregationist doctrine throughout (and particularly in the resolution that places Pinky with blacks and away from the white Tom), we are invited to understand that disturbing setting as reflecting what is symbolically inside of Pinky as well. To put it another way, Pinky may be afraid of the place that she is in, but the film will maintain that Pinky is indeed “in her place”—in it, and of it.  Thus ultimately what Pinky is afraid of in this sequence is what the film tells us she is – of being, of once more becoming, a black person.

[16]      Significantly, blackness is neither invoked by the looks of the character Pinky, nor by Jeanne Crain as the actress that plays her. In fact there are aspects of Pinky’s production that suggest that Crain’s visual whiteness was an element to be preserved, or even heightened, in the presentation of Crain as the sympathetic Pinky. A September 1949 article in Ebony reported that in trying “to fit her into the part of a part-Negro girl, the studio makeup man tried every dark shade in his grease-paint box before settling on a lighter shade than [Crain] usually wears” (25). Ironically then, Crain’s skin appears whiter in Pinky than it does in films in which she plays a white character. Her “whiter than white” appearance would have complemented the film’s careful lighting, which, as Susan Courtney points out, consistently lit or shadowed Crain’s face and body to reinforce the message of racial identity the narrative sought to send about her character in a given moment (314-19). Yet her appearance also may have been subtly powerful in helping to undermine the vision of black humanity that the film claimed to champion.

[17]      A useful point of comparison here is the performance of light-skinned black actress Fredi Washington in the 1934 Imitation of Life. Washington’s body and performance combined with the character Peola to create what Anna Everett terms the “Peola discourse,” an “authenticating aura” (221) that compelled and electrified black viewers. Everett argues that Washington’s presence in the role of Peola made Imitation of Life, despite its many shortcomings, wildly popular with black audiences. “Far beyond the limits of the tragic mulatta icon,” Everett writes, “Washington’s Peola generated a signifying chain of highly complex social, historical, economical, racial, and psychical meanings for black spectators,” because her “degree zero of representational whiteness,” (221) imparted the resistant character with a genuine spirit of black self-representation.

[18]      By contrast Crain’s body can never be separated from its whiteness. The extra-filmic narrative ofPinky, in which “white actress Jeanne Crain has been cast as a mulatto,” asserts that white passing for black is acceptable, while Pinky’s main text simultaneously maintains that black passing for white is not (Rogin, 185). The social context of white supremacist American culture that makes this paradox possible is evident in the history of Hollywood cinema, a history, in which whites have “enjoyed the unilateral prerogative of acting in ‘blackface,’ ‘redface,’ brownface,’ and ‘yellowface,’ while the reverse has rarely been the case” (Shohat, Stam 189).

[19]      Doubly disembodied by Jeanne Crain/Pinky, blackness is turned into a kind of threatening, invisible, additional character inPinky, an unruly poltergeist that roams about, sometimes in spite of the film’s best attempts to control and direct our perception of it. Thus, when white Jeanne Crain as Pinky is afraid in the “sleeping scene,” with its harsh black and white shadows and lighting, and the set outside of her back door that looks for all the world like a ruined churchyard, the spectral blackness disembodied by her white presence comes to mind; perhaps this is what she fears? Such a fear is magnified and complicated by the effect of audience identification, for as Elspeth Kydd comments, by casting a white actress as a mulatto/black character, Pinky produces “an ambiguous interplay of audience identifications” (96). In a review of Pinky that appeared in a September 1949 New York Times review, Bosley Crowther makes a similar point:

the veteran scriptwriters and Elia Kazan…have brought all their talents to defining the social knocks that are absorbed by this girl, after carefully making her a figure of gentle aspect with whom the audience can ‘identify.’ And thus they have cleverly contrived it so that each blow and shock that she receives is soundly transmitted to the audience, which is prompted to feel and think for her. Her cogitations and emotions are obvious and arbitrary, therefore (28).

As Jeanne Crain/Pinky trembles in her bed in this early scene, it is not difficult to imagine her threatened by an alienated, spectral blackness that hovers over her. She calls out desperately for Tom, sturdy symbol of her white life, imagining that he may yet be her rescuer. That a white audience could have identified with Crain, as Kydd and Crowther note, meant that they could literally imagine themselvessharing her fate. Pinkydoes not require them to stretch themselves to imagine what it is like to be black, but actually gives them a vehicle to imagine their own white appearances as fallible, as no guarantee of continued enjoyment all of the rights and privileges of whiteness. If a black Pinky could “pass” for white, why could a white viewer not be “mistaken” for black? Thus, Pinky, like many horror movies, poses “vivid threats to our values and concepts, our very bodily and mental integrity” (Freeland 273). In a larger sense, what is threatened with a sinister and unnerving transformation/conflation in Pinky is the very nature of whiteness and blackness, constructs which have long stood as the imagined ultimate symbols of the American system of racial stratification.

[20]      If one function of Pinky’s use of horror is to offer to white viewers of the film the transformation of a white woman (and via identification, of themselves) into a black woman, what might have made the experience even more atypical and strange was that white audiences by this time were well acquainted with the transformation of whites into blacks via blackface minstrelsy, though with a decidedly different set of attendant expectations. To be sure, as Michael Rogin has pointed out, the only film more popular than Pinkyin 1949 was the sequel biopic Jolson Sings Again, starring Larry Parks as both Al Jolson and as himself, “the actor who would play Jolson,” in the film’s most self-referential of narratives.

[21]      But Rogin also points us toward the way that the difference between blackface minstrelsy and the social problem film is not necessarily so great as might be imagined, calling the racial social problem film “an inheritance” from the blackface musical (176). Citing the 1929 genre-crosser The Jazz Singer as the root of both types, Rogin incisively observes, “not only do blackface stereotypes carry over into race relations movies, but the blackface celebration of performance infects the social problem film as well, since role-playing and identity transformation organize both genres. Both offer the Hollywood method to cross the racial-ethnic divide” (173). Rogin’s assessment is clearly most applicable to social problem films likePinky, which cast white actors in its primary black role(s). Too, theEbony magazine article’s concern over what color of makeup would be used on Jeanne Crain to convey Pinky’s race likewise emphasizes the kinship between the blackface musical and the social problem film. If we can yet further conceive of Pinkyas part horror film, then its generic ancestry is indeed complex, drawing upon the working-class-male oriented white supremacist ideology of the minstrel show, the white middle class female orientation of the melodrama and “woman’s film,” the liberal political tradition of the social problem picture, and the largely young white male-oriented strategies of the horror movie.

[22]      Pinky, and indeed, the mulatto character played by “white” actors more generally, functions as the obverse of the male minstrel who looks black but articulates a white supremacist vision of black identity. Instead, a white female, in this case Jeanne Crain in a naturalistic “whiteface,” plays black, and has black experiences of violent and everyday racism visited upon her. This inversion moves the white body substituted for the black from the stop of humor to the stop of pathos and especially fear. It moves from the white minstrel male as the spectacular and powerful wielder of blackness as emblem of white privilege to the white “mulatto” female as the spectacular victim of blackness’ effects. These dynamics profoundly inform the way that the genre of horror is relevant to films like Pinky.

Pinky and Cat People: The “Hidden Essence”

[23]      Susan Courtney observes that Pinky offers a specific “explanation for the source of Pinky’s blackness through the ongoing discourse of essence as emanating from within…this logic argues that the appearance of the bodily image does not matter, because the inside will shine through” (319).  Many horror films use a similar device or theme about essential natures hidden within, and in them, as in films on passing, these hidden essences create destabilized, dangerous identities that must be addressed and resolved. This discourse of “hidden essence” perhaps suggests another way to examine a fear of transformation as part of Pinky’s “horrific” subtext. Val Lewton’s 1942 horror film Cat People bears a number of intriguing and compelling similarities to Pinky. In one sense it is also a story of passing which inherently criticizes the practice as the attempt to suppress something essential that lies within. Like Pinky,Cat Peoplefurther contends that as such, passing is an untenable, impossible, and potentially dangerous idea.

[24]      In Cat People, Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon), a Serbian immigrant, comes to America as a fashion designer. Making sketches of a panther in the Central Park Zoo, she meets Oliver Reed (Kent Smith), a young, generically white American man. The two soon fall in love and are married. Yet throughout their brief courtship, Irena alludes to her strange ancestry, as a descendant of Serbian “cat women,” practitioners of witchcraft who turn into panther-like cats when angry or impassioned. These women cannot love a man, because in an embrace, they will transform into their cat form and attack and kill their lover. Irena’s fear that she carries the trait of the cat women troubles her attempt at “normal” married life with Oliver, because the pair cannot be sexually intimate. Oliver confides his troubles to his female co-worker Alice (Jane Randolph) and over Irena’s embarrassment and objections, she suggests a psychiatrist. Throughout the film we are presented with evidence that, despite Oliver’s doubting, Irena’s fears are well founded. In the end she does transform into a cat, killing her psychiatrist (Tom Conway) as he attempts to seduce her. She is in turn killed by the same panther she sketched in the film’s opening, which she releases from its cage in the zoo.

[25]      Pinky and Cat People both create moments in which they capitalize upon the idea of concealed inner natures in awkward or tension-filled interactions, moments in which the audience knows or suspects why certain responses occur – because of a hidden essence – while characters in the scene do not. For instance, in Cat People, Oliver gives Irena a kitten as a present– but the cat, sensing Irena’s “difference,” responds badly to her, hissing and arching its back. When the two return to the pet store to exchange the kitten for a different, more tractable pet, all of the animals in the store go wild, carrying on noisily and running/flying to and fro inside their cages. When Irena waits outside, the din ceases completely, leaving the store “as peaceful as my dream of heaven,” as the pet shop’s elderly proprietress observes. Indeed it is she who notes, in her own long-winded way, that the animals did not seem to like Irena, privately commenting to Oliver that

Animals are ever so psychic. There are some people who just can’t come in here. My dear brother’s wife, for instance. She’s a very nice girl. I’ve got nothing against her. But you just should see what happens when she puts her foot inside this place. The cats particularly—they seem to know. You can fool everybody, but landy dearie me, you can’t fool a cat. They seem to know who’s not right, if you know what I mean.

[26]      The animals’ raucous reception of Irena remains mystifying (and simply inconsequential) to Oliver, though the pet shop lady has obviously got the idea—and she attempts to pass it on to Oliver by intimating that the cat he has just returned “knew” something about Irena. In fact, everyone—the audience, the animals, the pet-shop lady, and Irena herself —everyone except the love-struck, dull-witted Oliver, has at least an inkling that the animals’ response signifies the presence of a hidden, dangerous essence.

[27]      In an analogous scene in Pinky, just after the midpoint of the film, Pinky goes to the town’s dry goods store to purchase a mourning veil to wear to Miss Em’s funeral. As Pinky comes through the door of the store, the shot’s lighting “telegraphs” to us in advance that she is going to “pass” for white in this scene; as she walks into the store, she stands in the doorway, first in shadow. She takes a step forward into the light and stops, presenting her white skin, her white features, and then proceeds into the store. She is greeted by a saleswoman who treats her kindly and courteously; thus we understand that Pinky is “passing.”

[28]      Pinky’s racial transgression is made clearer still when Mrs. Wooley, the late Miss Em’s cousin and Pinky’s emerging nemesis at this point in the film, enters the scene. Mrs. Wooley has by this time met Pinky in Miss Em’s house. She knows that Pinky was her late cousin’s nurse; more to the point, she knows that Pinky is black. Mrs. Wooley calls somewhat impatiently to the salesgirl who is wrapping up Pinky’s veil, saying, “Miss Viola, come wait on me please.” Mrs. Wooley’s entrance changes Pinky’s “passing” from indirect to direct, as she can essentially be understood to be competing directly with a white person for equal treatment. Mrs. Wooley quickly becomes angered when the saleswoman does not abandon Pinky to wait on her. Clearly, she is even more outraged that Pinky has the audacity toallow the salesgirl to wait on her ahead of a white person, when the salesgirl obviously believes Pinky is white. Her indignation mounts, as she calls the store owner onto the scene, demanding to know when it became “your policy to wait on nigras [sic] before white folks?!” As Mrs. Wooley “accuses” Pinky of blackness, the scene’s coded lighting is arranged to correspond to the change in the characters’ view of Pinky. When the camera cuts back from the intimidated store owner to the bewildered salesgirl and Pinky, Pinky’s face and body are cast into shadow, in particular contrast to the salesgirl, who is in the light.

[29]      What this scene makes equally clear is that the film places all responsibility for “passing” with Pinky herself. Scenes like the one in the store suggest that for Pinky, anything other than responding, “I’m colored,” when the salesgirl offers her assistance is “passing.” Thus the “social problem” of passing ostensibly comes from within Pinky, not from the society without, a conclusion that is reinforced by the film’s positioning Pinky to “solve” the problem herself, through her remaining south, ending her relationship with Tom, and establishing the black nursing school. As Kydd observes, in order for us to receive Pinky as black, we must also accept the notion that since “her blackness is not visible, it is her duty to tell people of it. This gives her the burden of constantly having to put her racial identity, and by extension, societal racism, into discourse” (113). The invisible blackness disembodied both by white-looking character Pinky and white actress Jean Crain is at the heart of this notion of “hidden essence;” its dramatic and disturbing effects are at play, swirling around in this volatile scene. This is why Pinky fears to put her identity “into discourse,” because by doing so, she potentially unleashes this powerful, spectral force.

[30]      When we consider the notion of such hidden, essential natures within the contexts of films that treat passing, the light-skinned bodyitself becomes characterized as a “fraudulent” or “deceptive” bodily text. In such instances, the hidden essential (black/hybrid) nature, is characterized as monstrous or threatening, and in potential danger of becoming known or discovered – thus characterized by the silent “lie” that the light-skinned body tells when read as white. While the film plainly positions the viewer to deem the way Pinky is treated as unjust, at the same time the incident in the dry goods store raises the question of Pinky’s body, which ostensibly hides something shocking within, just as Irena’s body in Cat People contains a hidden essence that provokes the commotion in the pet store. Indeed, producer Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur’s subtlety in implying rather than showing Irena’s monstrousness is part of what makesCat People feel so similar to Pinky. Both rely upon “devices of figuration” common to horror films in which the viewer “senses a terrible presence in the articulation of imagery, but the images themselves display only an absence of the terrible object, or the possibility that it may become visible” (Giles 42). For Irena and Pinky, “being hidden” and “being discovered” can occur in the same moment. Both characters articulate the complexity of “the relationship between normality and the Monster,” that which for Wood “constitutes the essential subject of the horror film” (“American Horror Film” 176). For both, disclosure seems necessary and yet comes with its own set of repercussions.

The Hybrid (Black) Body as Monstrous: Pinky and the Gill-man

[31]      There are already hints here that Pinky’s monstrousness, such as it is, derives both from her status as hybrid and from the definition of that hybridity as black. In this final section, I attempt to examine this idea more fully, using the 1954 film Creature from the Black Lagoon. As a seminal “creature feature” horror movie with science fiction overtones, Creature From the Black Lagoon is used here to suggest the ways thatPinky also functions as a “creature feature” of sorts. Like many such films, Pinky’s title draws attention to the film’s “featured creature,” both naming and locating her. As it happens, in reviewing the film, Variety took care to define the word “pinky” for its readers as “the tag hung by Negroes on a member of their own race who is light-skinned enough to pass for white.” Likewise, Lifemagazine’s review offered readers a similar definition of “pinky.” Such public explanations highlight the way that Pinky sought to sell itself as a film that purveyed “insider” information about African American cultural practices and norms. Yet they also establish the character Pinky as a “what” as much as a “who,” as a set of peculiar characteristics as much as a specific individual.

[32]      It is important to note that Pinky predates Creature From the Black Lagoon by five years, and that the burgeoning science fiction craze that Creature represented in 1954 was in fact augured by competition from television, and audiences’ turn away from the horror formulas that had been successful throughout the 1930s and 40s (Brunas, Brunas, and Weaver 588-9). However, Creature’s particular emphasis upon bodily spectacularity and scrutiny of the monster draws upon models that were in fact established by older horror films like The Mummy (1932), The Invisible Man (1933), or even the earlier silent films of Lon Chaney, such as The Phantom of the Opera (1925) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) (Studlar 204-216).

[33]      In Creature from the Black Lagoona scientific team stumbles upon a prehistoric half-man/half-fish creature in a tributary of the Amazon River. The film is also part tragic love story, in which the creature falls in love with Kay (played by Julie Adams), the expedition’s sole woman scientist. The team manages to capture the creature, but it escapes, and then returns to their vessel to kidnap Kay. After rescuing Kay, they kill the creature and leave the lagoon behind.

[34]      Creature features often invite the scrutiny of monstrous, and in this case hybrid bodies, and narratively positioning them as disrupters of a pastoral setting. Indeed, Creature from the Black Lagoontakes great care that its monster’s appearances are announced and signaled. The creature’s entrances onscreen frequently occur as breaks in the contemplation of the tranquility of the lagoon itself, which is described by one character as a kind of forbidden paradise. These visual breaks are emphasized by the film’s musical score, which changes from a light, somewhat dreamy and meditative melody to music that is dissonant and harsh, as blaring and ragged trumpets punctuate each of the monster’s appearances. He (and the creature is explicitly gendered and referenced as male in this film, largely through his pursuit of Kay)  – is highly lit so as to facilitate and intensify our looking, and this further emphasizes our sense of his monstrosity, particularly when he is out of the water, out of his element. The creature is on the one hand humanoid in shape, bipedal and symmetrical, having at the same time, prominent fins, large layered scales as well as gills, which are emphasized by his labored breathing on land. Furthermore, his claw-like hands and feet are highlighted by the tracks he leaves both in the sand and upon the bodies of those he kills. In this way, his hybridity is itself depicted as the source of his monstrosity. In publicity and promotional materials for the film, the creature is often referred to as the “Gill-man,” a name that highlights his genetic duality. As well, the 3-D effect used in producing and marketing this film lays even greater emphasis upon viewers’ scrutiny of the creature’s body.

[35]      Despite the fact that the passing “creatures” in films like Pinkydo not share the overt monstrosity of the Gill-man, their hybridity, and our sense of them as definitively black as well, constitute a “veiled” monstrosity that is disturbing in its seeming normality/whiteness. The tropes that accompany the overtly monstrous body, that is, the disruptive appearance of the body, the scrutiny of the body, and with these the notion of the body as hybrid and thereby grotesque, are nevertheless evident in Pinky, as well as in its contemporary Lost Boundaries, and the later Douglas Sirk version of Imitation of Life. We can observe that the monstrosity of the creature from the black lagoon is derived specifically from the biological cross between human and fish that creates a deformed, bizarre body and shape. Were he solely fish or human, he would not be conceived of as monstrous. Passing characters like Pinky are conceived of as monstrous in part because of the racial hybridity that manifests in a white-looking body that is socially defined as black, and in part because the social definition of blackness itself carries a long-standing set of associations with sub-humanity, deformity and monstrousness.

[36]      In Pinky, key scenes illustrate the themes I outline here. For example, there is the scene in which two young white men assault Pinky as she walks through the black section of town where she has returned to live with her grandmother. This scene also occurs early in the film, on Pinky’s second night after her return to the South. It is evening, and a solitary and melancholy Pinky stands at a bridge, gazing out into the night sky and listlessly fingering a small branch of flowers in her hand. The lights of a distant car appear; as its motor becomes audible, Pinky turns and begins to walk across the bridge. As the car comes into view, it pulls up beside her and follows slowly just behind her as she walks on the side of the road. The car is a convertible with its top down, and we can see that it contains two young white men. The car starts to pass Pinky, but the driver sees her, stops and then slows and rolls slowly alongside and just behind her on the road. The driver offers her a ride, and when Pinky quickly declines, the passenger, who has just swigged from a pint bottle concealed in the car, responds “’Scuse me ma’am, you must be a stranger around here. We can’t let no white girl walk by herself through this here nigger section.” Pinky answers back shortly, “I live in this section.” The driver responds incredulously, “You what?” and Pinky retorts angrily, “I said, I live here. Now just let me alone.”

[37]      Pinky’s assertion that she lives in the “nigger section” is patently one in the same as saying that she is black, though there is a conspicuous silence as the men pause to let what she has said sink in, as the meaning of her words begins to register with them (“She lives here…well what do you know.” “Who would have thought it?”). As Courtney has noted, the spatial mapping of Pinky’s racial identity often has instantaneous and highly specific effects (315-316). In this instance, where Pinky lives at once establisheswho and what she is and the two white men’s previously ingratiating and dimly chivalrous attitudes are immediately transformed as they follow her, turn the car’s search lights on her, and then finally take off after her at high speed, calling her “the whitest dinge I ever saw,” and, “that little swamp rabbit.” The two men catch her and pin her against the side of the car, groping and fondling her, examining her intimately and brutally, with their intent to rape her quite clear.  When one steps away from her to fetch the pint bottle of liquor for her to drink, Pinky kicks and pushes the other one away, and then lights out off the road into the forest, and escapes successfully. As Pinky flees through the graveyard to evade her pursuers, the film further draws upon the associations between blackness —with Pinky’s “internal” blackness and the night’s frightening blackness again invoked as rhymes—and death. The graveyard is of course a staple location in tales of horror.

[38]      Again at the beginning of this scene, there is the eerie atmosphere that permeates many of the early scenes in Pinky, as well as what is now recognized by most as a basic device of horror films, the lone, unaware victim. However, Pinky is peculiarly positioned as both victim and “monstrous” in the sequence. Pinky herself does not disrupt the melancholy reverie that begins the scene, but the specter of her hybridity and blackness does, after a fashion. It is the revelation of who and what Pinky is that, in the minds of the young hoodlums who chase her, both provoke and “justify” their assault. In this scene we see Pinky vacillating between the position of the woman scientist Kay in Creature From the Black Lagoon – an object of the patriarchal gaze, and of male desire – and the position of the creature itself, prey to be run down and caught, and an object of intense curiosity and violent scrutiny, an object to be examined, and literally poked and prodded.

[39]      Much of these white men’s assault on Pinky is concerned with scrutiny and examination. Her would-be rapist’s declaration “That’s the whitest dinge I ever saw” as the car’s headlights illuminate Pinky’s body so that it is visible through the fabric of her dress, emphasizes the notion of Pinky as a highly spectacular curiosity. Once they have caught her, they are absorbed enough with their crude examination (“What a build on her,” one mutters, then demands, “let’s see your face”) that Pinky is able to get away.

[40]      This is not at all to deny the simultaneous levels at which their scrutiny of Pinky functions—their remarks invoke contemporary discourses of the pin-up girl and the historical, gendered discourses of the slave auction block, at the very least. Indeed, I would suggest that these primary, and somewhat contradictory discourses inform the men’s response to Pinky in a manner that is indexical of the particular fusion of racial and sexual identifications that they perceive as located freakishly within her body. What makes Pinky freakish also makes her vulnerability more extreme. Because she is black, she lacks social status and can be attacked without fear of reprisal; because she is female, she is perceived as a sexual object; because she looks white, she is perceived as sexually desirable. Because Pinky is vulnerable in these ways, she is also more sympathetic to the audience, and her freakishness, her monstrousness takes on a more complicated aspect.

[41]      The scene thus invokes a common trope of ambiguity that so often makes monsters of the screen complex, an ambiguity that pushes the viewer to ponder who the “real” monster is. Though the creature ofBlack Lagoon is clearly aggressive and dangerous, the film’s narrative also includes Dr. Mark Williams (Richard Denning) among the scientific team that hunts him. Williams is blindly ambitious, self-seeking, and ruthless; he is willing to jeopardize the lives of other members of the team to continue the hunt for the creature. He, like the creature, has a somewhat unsavory and inappropriate attraction to Kay, though she is the fiancée of another of the team’s scientists, Dr. David Reed (Richard Carlson). Near the film’s close, the creature in fact kills Williams; Reed survives and in turn (with the help of the rest of the team) kills the creature.

[42]      This trope is memorably invoked in an exchange in the 1986 film Aliens, in which Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) discovers that the ruthless and slimy character Burke (Paul Reiser) has attempted to make her and a child unwitting hosts of the parasitic vicious and dangerous aliens they have found back to earth—for a profit. “I don’t know which species is worse,” she rages, “you don’t see them fucking each other over for a goddamn percentage!” Among older Hollywood films, one might think of Tod Browning’s Hollywood parableFreaks(1932), or the comparisons implicit in Henry Frankenstein’s hubris in wanting to “play God,” and the angry, torch-wielding mob that hounds the terrified monster to his death in the original film version ofFrankenstein (1931). Terming this dynamic “ambivalence,” Wood reminds us that by contrast, “the Frankenstein monster suffers, weeps, responds to music, longs to relate to people…” (“American Horror Film” 177). This ambivalence marks a signal moment in which the viewer has to stop and think about the monstrousness of humanity, and the humanity of the monster.

[43]      Through its idealization of Pinky as beautiful, vulnerable, female, and a fetish figure who is simultaneously white and black, as well as victimized, primarily by whites, Pinky poses a similar, somewhat more complicated meta-narrative meditation upon the identity of the “real” monster. It does so, ironically, by using a visually and literally white figure to play upon long-standing ideological assumptions of black inferiority, criminality, indigence, brutality, and monstrosity. Here as the assumed monster, the “creature” ofPinky, is the blackness disembodied from the character Pinky, the shadow presence for Jeanne Crain’s white presence. Casting white southerners, both poor and wealthy, as the answers to the “real monster” question, Pinky echoes the discourse of Creature from the Black Lagoon and other such films that evoke “our” sympathy for the “creature,” and questions “our” ostensibly collective humanity, while tacitly predicating access to that humanity upon white skin. By presenting white men who aggressively pursue Pinky as their prey, this part of Pinky’s narrative assumes that its white audience is accustomed to imagining the scene reversed, with black male monsters pursuing white female quarry. Though this scene pushes the boundaries of racial and gender conceptions by ostensibly inverting the racial identity of aggressor and prey, the inversion nonetheless relies upon the assumption of monstrosity that has accumulated around the film’s disembodied black presence. Moreover, the inversion loses a good deal of its integrity in that it both visually and in fact (re)places a white woman in jeopardy, in that the attack is not successful, and ultimately in that despite Pinky’s attempts to show that African Americans, these social monsters, are “like us,” the film resolves the problem “they” pose by sequestering “Pinky and them” off amongst themselves. In Pinky, as in many horror films, as Bruce Kawin observes, “the negative projection is not re-owned but rejected and repressed…. Repression solves nothing, but (coupled with the momentary wish-fulfillment) gives a temporary sense of relief” (683).


“It just gives me the creeps…”

[44]      Although I have confined my analysis to Pinky here, there are, I believe, similar elements to be found in the films Lost Boundaries(1949) and Imitation of Life (1959). There is in Lost Boundaries some interesting horror-inflected exposition that suggests the theme of the fear of transformation, for instance, a dream/nightmare sequence, in which Howard, the son of a black family that has passed for white, envisions each of his family members in turn changing into a black person; he then awakens fearful and in a cold sweat. After the dream sequence, Howard himself is visually transformed, and appears in a number of shots after the dream sweaty, unshaven (very unshaven, after just one night in Harlem) and generally unkempt, with a wild and distraught manner that brings to mind werewolf movies, or films that treat the Jekyll/Hyde figure. Like the monsters of these films, we see Howard becoming simultaneously psychologically and physically unstable.  Likewise, I believe that the notion of “hidden essences” could be very profitably applied to the 1959 Imitation of Life’s mulatto figure Sarah Jane. The transformation of this character from the unhappy but still sympathetic Peola of Stahl’s 1934 Imitation, into the wholly unlikable fury-driven child, and then young woman of the Sirk version is indeed remarkable. The Sarah Jane character is far less sympathetic and markedly more threatening to her mother and her white counterpart Susie (Sandra Dee).

[45]      At about the midpoint of Pinky’s narrative, Miss Em’s Cousin Wooley meets Pinky for the first time in the foyer of Miss Em’s mansion.  She appraises her swiftly from head to foot, then says, “I heard you were light but I had no idea…why, you’re practically white.” Later in the scene she discusses Pinky with Miss Em, declaring incredulously, “She’s whiter than I am…it just gives me the creeps.” What is creepy about Pinky for Mrs. Wooley is certainly her simultaneous blackness and hybridity, and the way that both seemingly defy signification, resulting in a “peculiar” and contradictory phenotype vs. social definition. What is also creepy about Pinky for Mrs. Wooley is that if Pinky is indeed whiter than she is, as she claims, then the system of race that structures and shapes her own understanding of the world cannot be relied on, a state of affairs she clearly finds unsettling. What is creepy about Pinky as a film is the manner in which it uses horror and fear to support its underlying assumptions about race, while creating a series of profound absences that “haunt” the film’s text. What is more interesting, perhaps, is that while there are places in Pinky where horror seems fairly explicitly used as a device, there are other places in which it seems to make sense, as a cultural referent. The feeling of horror suits Pinky’s account of passing, to the extent that the film draws upon the repressive function of the horror film, an approach that seeks to bring anxieties and tensions out briefly for an airing, and then lock them up safely and tightly again.


Thanks to Frances Gateward and the Society for Cinema and Media Studies Black Caucus for sponsoring the 2003 conference panel “Scared of the Dark.” Thanks to Renea Henry, for the provocative discussion that inspired this essay, and to Rudolph Byrd, Matthew Bernstein, Audrey Petty, Jill Petty, and Steven Adams for their insightful reading of this work in its various iterations.

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