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The Velvet Light Trap 52 (2003) 33-44

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Like a Monstrous Jigsaw Puzzle:
Genetics and Race in Horror Films of the 1950s

Patrick Gonder

In The Brain That Wouldn't Die (1962), Kurt (Leslie Daniels) is a lab assistant for the film's resident mad scientist, Dr. Cortner (Jason Evers). He is Igor to Dr. Cortner's Frankenstein, and, following this dynamic of toady and master, Kurt's body is malformed, while the doctor's body is normal. Kurt's arm is ugly and useless, but his deformity differs from the stereotypical hunchback suffered by any number of mad scientist sidekicks. Through the course of the movie, we learn that Kurt's arm is a transplant, one of a series of attempts to replace his lost limb and thus regain his position as a surgeon. Dr. Cortner has been sewing on arms, but each new appendage mutates, rejecting the rest of Kurt's body. Kurt and Dr. Cortner have also created a creature from amputated limbs and locked it away in a closet. While arguing with Jan (Virginia Leith), the doctor's fiancée, who at this point is simply a head being kept alive in a pan, Kurt describes this mutant as a "monstrous jigsaw puzzle." Both bodies—Kurt's and the creature's—are comprised of pieces that are poorly put together and ready to come apart.

This conception of the body as a collection of rebellious parts is a popular one in a certain set of horror films of the 1950s and early 1960s. In films such as The Crawling Hand (1963), X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (1963), and Fiend without a Face (1958), appendages and organs revolt and disrupt the unity of the body. Hands commit murderous acts against the wishes of their owner; eyes refuse to obey commands; and brains crawl or fly about, giddily free from the skull. This subgenre of the horror movie, which I would like to call the "body rebellion film," presents the body as a highly contested, mutinous space.

Of course, body rebellion films existed prior to the 1950s, but these earlier movies differ from the films of the 1950s in a subtle but important way. The body rebellion films of the 1930s and 1940s are concerned primarily with the transplantation of body parts —particularly brains or hands—and certainly reflect the interest in actual scientific advances in this type of procedure. The monster created in these films is a horrible combination of parts, as exemplified by the grafted murderous hands of Mad Love (1935) and the piecemeal construction of Frankenstein's Monster. The body rebellion films of the 1950s break from these films in that the horror erupts not from the unearthly union of discrete parts but from the dissolution of corporeal homogeneity, the realization that the body is essentially polynucleated, a fragmentary collection of many potentially rebellious and independent units. The focus is not on the creation or the completion of an injured body through transplantation but on the instability of the body itself. The insurgence is dispersed throughout the entire body; eyes, heads, and brains all may form separate centers of command and control. Even when only one part of the body is the unit of rebellion, it may become linked with another part, as in The Fly (1958), or may only be a symptom of a condition that eventually overtakes the entire body, as in The Hand of Death (1962).

While earlier body rebellion movies are influenced by transplantation technology, I would argue that the films of the 1950s and early 1960s reflect the popular understanding of genetics, DNA, and heredity, a discourse that greatly influenced (and continues to influence) the conception of the body. Changes in genetic science, fostered by the political and social climate [End Page 33] of the 1950s, enact a shift in the discourse of embodiment and imbue the body with a somatic unconscious, an invisible aspect that governs physical form. Repressed within this unconscious is everything that is deemed "unhealthy" and "abnormal," categories...