Friday, September 18, 2009

The Elephant Man (1980 - dir. David Lynch)

Psychologists and, especially, evolutionary psychologists, are always inquiring why. Why do parents love their children? Why are people attracted to physically desirable others? Why are some people more physically attractive than others? Evolutionary psychology attempts to examine the deepest reasons for what many take for granted. From this point of view, it is not because someone is "good-looking" that you find them physically attractive. The scientific question is, why are they perceived as "good-looking" in the first place and, therefore, found to be attractive? Research in this area provides a context from which to understand what is perhaps one of the most promiscuous themes in cinema...the "monster"movie.

One of the best treatments of the deep themes that run through many "monster" movies is David Lynch's The Elephant Man. This film does not portray a supernatural monster, an outer space monster, or some sort of improbable creation of science gone out of control. But, that makes no difference in that the underlying psychology behind films of this type is remarkably similar. Turning the psychology of physical attraction on its head, Lynch's film addresses the question, "why are people repulsed by physically unattractive (indeed, repulsive) others, even though these others are intelligent, sensitive people"?

Joseph Merrick was afflicted with physical deformities, the causes of which are still hotly disputed. Lynch's film is a moving rumination on the way that interpersonal connection is often preempted by apparently superficial physical variables. Why should the way one looks matters? Why can't people look beyond physical abnormalities (or, even "normalities") and see the "real" person? While our disgust reactions to physical deformity seem "natural" and unrequiring of explanation, something inside us demands to know why.

In Lynch's film, the deformed Merrick is rescued from a life as a carnival sideshow attraction by a physician who is fascinated with his malady as well as the possibility of integrating this kind soul into Victorian society. Despite Merrick's human nature, it becomes clear that his physical presence is a curse that he will never be able to overcome. Recent evolutionary psychological research has given us a way to understand this peculiar aspect of human behavior. Schaller and Duncan (2007) have hypothesized the "behavioral immune system" that, essentially, argues that
"evolved mechanisms designed to inhibit contact with disease-carrying conspecifics are likely to promote specific kinds of aversive reactions toward many specific kinds of people who are, in fact, perfectly healthy." In other words, humans may possess psychological adaptations that promoted aversive reactions to cues of infection, disease, or other maladies in our ancestral history. Those that possessed these cognitive aversions, and their attendant emotional reactions of disgust, etc., were more likely to avoid the possible contagious effects that would occur with close, interpersonal contact. As with most evolved disgust reactions, overgeneralization of such responses would be selected for as the costs of avoiding a healthy person would be less than the cost of not avoiding a "contagious" person. Consequently, and as subsequent research by these psychologists has demonstrated, contagion avoidance, as ancestrally cued by physical abnormalities, has generalized to avoidance reactions to cases of deformity and infirmity that have nothing to do with contagious disease (for example, physical disabilities). Think about it. Do you ever feel uncomfortable in the presence of physically disabled or deformed individuals?

Monsters have mothers, too...

Obviously, these reactions are not justified in that "disabled" individuals are not less human nor less "worthy" than anybody else. This research is clearly not suggesting that. What is being examined is the nature of individuals' reactions to specific cues of "contagion" that, over time, have been overgeneralized to physical cues that signal nothing at all.

Frankenstein's monster, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Wolfman, Jason, and never-ending squadrons of zombies attest to the fascination of humans with the physically "abnormal." Clearly, in these films, they are beings to be avoided. Lynch's Elephant Man provokes avoidance. But...he's nice, smart, and elegant. And there's the eternal contradiction of the monster...

Monsters on Parade


  1. One of the only David Lynch movies I haven't seen. In my queue now.

    Is Blue Velvet on tap for a review? "I'll f*** anything that moves!" is a perfectly succint and elegant way to pass along ones material. Well, perhaps not perfect, but makes for great cinema.

  2. Lynch's films almost defy interpretation...from ANY point of view. My favorite is Mulholland Dr. but I have no idea how to "rationalize" it. It seems to have a dream logic all its own. And, in that way, makes "sense."

    Blue Velvet is somewhat similar but a bit more concrete....I still don't know how the hell to understand it, though. His films seem to have more to do with dreams and madness and, as a consequence, are the ultimate cinematic Rorschach blots.

  3. I just fought tears three times during a David Lynch movie. I would have never guessed. A lot to mull over; thank you for writing about it.

  4. You're most welcome...happy to hear that it affected you in a similar way that it affected me.

  5. Just started typing and I noticed your nick can be arranged to spell out "I'm in a ward."
    Seems fitting given Mr. Merrick's surroundings.

    Anyway, my fundamental interest in your reviews and notes is based in my writing project called "Shiloh". A deeply philosophical film, rooted in the connect and/or disconnect in a persons emotional and physical reactions to stimuli. Like, a monsterly rapist has the same physical manifestation of arousal as does a caring, loving husband. But the emotional stirrings and connection to the physical manifestation are somewhat polar opposites. Further: or are they? A debate greater minds than I continue to carry on.

    A further connection: I have long pondered a scene in my film where the mute anti-hero (my view of Jesus Christ) has a wordless run-in with a highly disfigured individual. Just a look, nothing more. The muse has insisted this takes place, and until seeing the Elephant Man I have had little idea as to why. I'm starting to see those reasons now.

  6. Best wishes on the writing sounds interesting. I'm happy that The Elephant Man could be of some assistance!

  7. Been a few weeks; you're still writing reviews, I hope.


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