Not all monsters are evil, to be sure. But we often assume they are. My dissertation, and thus my primary work of scholarship right now, focuses on monstrosity, but monstrosity and evil often correlate in pop culture representations. Shortly after I started my blog, when I was a neophyte blogger and had not yet entered a PhD program, I had a profound interest in cultural manifestations of evil: who do we call evil, who gets to make that decision, what are the consequences of the word “evil,” and how do we navigate the fine line between excusing evil and seeking to understand it? Nurse Jude, played by Jessica Lange, says with her usual self-assurance in Season Two of American Horror Story, “All monsters are human.” At the same time, writer Stephen T. Asma, in his book On Monsters, highlights the precarious nature of assuming a correlation between monstrosity and innate evil with his concept of “accidental monstrosity,” a phrase he uses to describe those who, after a slip and a slide in the wrong direction, become monsters without meaning to. Monstrosity and evil, in any case, have one thing in common: both are massive umbrella terms that encompass multiple gradations and examples within their denotations.
For this blog post, I wish to discuss two incredibly different “monsters” who explore similar questions through the stories they create. Like Stephen T. Asma, I believe that the term monster should almost always have an implied, if not overt set of quotation marks around it, because it’s a problematic label to pin on anyone or anything. At the same time, both Dalek – the last remaining Dalek in the universe – as it’s portrayed in Season 1, Episode 6 of Doctor Who, and the “tethered,” as they’re portrayed in Jordan Peele’s film Us, fall, from a cultural vantage point, under the classification “monstrous.” But deciding to write about these two monsters was a bit of a process.
With some trepidation, I decided a few days ago while tidying up at work to commit to regular blog posts again. Producing a substantive piece with few or no grammatical errors, typos, or organizational problems (all idiosyncrasies that my quickly written posts fall victim to) on a regular basis is a challenge that has, for the past year or two, sounded rather daunting. But then I remembered what it was like to create, to watch a blog grow, to see people read your posts and to experiment with new writing ideas in a safe space, and so I just kind of thought, the other day, after writing my piece for the Fiction’s Fearless Female blogathon, “What the hell. I may as well start doing this again.” Blogging, at various points throughout the last five years, has been a significant part of my life, and I’m not ready to give it up yet. That said, be patient with me; I am actually kind of nervous about the thought of writing semi-regular posts. I had already planned to write about Us after my decision to start blogging again, and shortly after that I watched the Doctor Who episode “Dalek” while eating dinner and decided the two pieces explored similar themes. So, here it goes.
I will start by saying that I’m very new to the Doctor Who universe. I’m not sure how apparent that will be in my writing, so I thought I would admit it at the start of this piece. I just finished watching episode six of the first (new) season, and I was introduced to a creature who, according to my friend, will show up again as the show progresses. In the Doctor Who episode I watched today, Rose (the Doctor’s companion), and the Doctor, travel in the Tardis to the near future (2012 – the episode was made in 2005) and find themselves in an extra-terrestrial museum hidden fifty-three floors below ground level in Utah, owned by the richest man in the world, who also owns the internet, a man named Henry Van Statten. At first, the Doctor doesn’t know where the signal he received came from, but then he realizes it’s from a Dalek – and not just any Dalek, but the last remaining Dalek after most of the Daleks (and most of the Doctor’s species, the timelords) have been wiped out by the Time War. Dalek is a being from another planet who kind of looks like an overgrown R2D2, and it’s trapped in Van Statten’s basement so that Van Statten’s men can torture and experiment on it. Despite their tendency to torture the creature, Van Statten doesn’t want to destroy it or significantly ruin its exterior; to him, this living being is a mere collector’s item.
Without going into more detail about the particular episode, or about the Dalek, especially, I’ll give a brief overview of Us. First, if you haven’t seen Jordan Peele’s Us, I highly recommend it, and when people criticize it because they say it isn’t as good as Get Out, I completely disagree. Us is about a family of four, the Wilsons, who are vacationing at their summer home when a family that looks almost identical to them shows up and tries to kill them. The Wilsons learn as they’re trying to escape that these clone-like beings, “the tethered,” have lived below ground for a long time and have unleashed a plan to emerge above ground and take over. It appears that for every human being who lives a seemingly normal life above ground, there’s a matching “tethered” from below who has emerged and is trying to gain their rightful place in the above-ground world.
Neither of these cursory overviews sufficiently elucidates the brilliance of the pieces involved – the Doctor Who episode, or Us. However, if you’ve seen them, you know they’re brilliant, and if not, I hope my analysis in this piece ultimately does them justice. I’d like to look at the concepts of otherization, monstrosity, and a notion called “grey areas” through both Doctor Who’s Dalek and Us’s “the tethered,” since both dangerous, highly otherized creatures may have a lot to teach us about these ideas. To begin, what is a “grey area?”
Bernadette Marie Calafell in her book, Monstrosity, Performance, and Race in Contemporary Culture, describes a “grey area” as a “nebulous and confusing space where responsibility for inappropriate actions becomes tangled and lost” (3). In the context of Calafell’s work, the phrase is more pejorative than positive because it’s racially charged and denotes gender and racial privilege. A “grey area” is a conceptual space that the criminal, often malicious actions of white men inhabit in contemporary culture. Calafell believes – and rightly so, I’d argue – that when white men commit brutal acts, the media and cultural discourse has a tendency to explain them away. When we look at young men who take part in mass shootings at high schools, for example, it is typical for the media to look at the imperfect society that surrounds these “troubled” youth and to manufacture stories about their alienation and discrimination to explain away their crime and abdicate their guilt. This approach seems reasonable from one standpoint. I mean, didn’t Anne Frank herself say we’re all good at heart? Does not everyone deserve to be valued, honored, and understood as a human being? Well—maybe. The problem arises largely because these “grey areas” show up in cultural discourse only for white (usually American) males. If, for example, a contemporary “school shooter” were a Muslim man from another country, he would be branded an evil terrorist by the same culture (ours) that seeks to “understand” the white American male and analyze what elements of society influenced his criminal behavior.
Calafell’s use of “grey areas” can be beneficial when critiquing cultural discourse that surrounds destruction and criminality, but the concept is particularly interesting to consider in the context of fiction. And what I think I’ve learned from studying monsters so far is that fiction, in particular, loves to throw “grey areas” at us, so that the boundary between misunderstood, “mad,” and evil becomes flimsy. Take “Dalek” for example, the last Dalek of his race, chained up in a room in Von Statten’s basement. After we find out a little more about Dalek, our initial response to the possibility that the creature might be destroyed is “good riddance.” After all, Daleks are most fascinating because they’re creatures – slimy and ugly, but encased in metal so that they have a mechanistic look – who are engineered to hate, kill, and “exterminate,” a phrase that they often say in a monotone, computerized voice when pointing a little mechanical arm at someone and threatening them with death. We learn quickly in Season One, Episode 6 that Daleks wiped out the Doctor’s race, the timelords, and we see immediately that the Doctor – our kind, brave hero who saves the universe from the monsters who would harm it in various moments of space and time – hates the Dalek. On the notion of hate, we learn that Daleks, on the other hand, are engineered so that they experience no emotion except hate. Yikes. While that makes a Dalek sound like a rather odious and unpleasant machine, it might be worth experimenting, mentally, by imagining what it would be like to feel hate all the time. Not pleasant. One might be inclined, on this basis alone, to have a little sympathy for Daleks. They might be killing machines, but who among us would aspire to be hate-filled killing machines if we could? Probably not many of us.
Still, there may not seem to be, initially, many “grey areas” surrounding the existence and guilt of a Dalek. If a Dalek is a being of hate alone who makes its way through the galaxy with the intention to “exterminate” others, then the Dalek seems like the show’s vision of what innate, unmitigated evil looks like. In fact, the presence of a half-mechanized being to symbolize, possibly, the concept of absolute evil through absolute hatred and murder is an interesting choice, and one that seems, to some extent, to acquit humanity of the same sickness by suggesting that the concept of “absolute evil” can only be studied through the construction of an imaginary being. And if the Dalek is pure evil, it seems somehow “right” that it should be held accountable for its actions, right? Perhaps so. After all, these slimy little balls of puss (on the inside) encased in metal (on the outside) seem deliberately constructed by the show’s creators to look not just inhuman, but somehow the opposite of human–machines at a glance who are little lumps of slime underneath the metal. Since, in contemporary culture, albeit problematically, we often pit the “monstrous” as that which sits opposite the “human” – so that “monster” and “human” form a value-based binary that unfailingly favors the human over the monstrous – the mechanistic appearance of the Dalek not only contributes to the show’s sci-fi feel, but is liable to make us even less sympathetic of Dalek, who is not just a killer, but a killing machine, a being with whom we may not identify.
However, there is more to note about Daleks. Quite some time ago, shortly after I started this blog, I read a book by Marxist literary critic Terry Eagleton called On Evil. As tends to be the case with myself and reading, I remember, years later, sporadic bits and pieces of this book. One thing worth noting, an argument that stands out quite prominently, is that Eagleton makes the case that if innate “evil” exists – if “evil” people are born evil – then they cannot be blamed for how they were created, and thus, in theory, holding them accountable for their evil actions – which are simply a byproduct of their nature, the way sharks kill because of their nature – may not make much sense. Personally, I thought his argument was quite problematic; something about it didn’t sit well with me. I guess that’s partially because it creates a massive “grey area” to excuse away not just bad, but vicious, insidious behavior. The idea interests me now because in a way, it perfectly describes what a Dalek is, and the Dalek, in season 1 episode 6 of Doctor Who, turns out to be a sympathetic character (especially after he comes in contact with some of Rose’s DNA and starts mutating into a machine that can feel). Daleks, after all – as the Doctor explains to us – were engineered by the race who created them to hate and kill any non-Dalek and, what’s more, to believe that hatred and murder are morally right. In other words – yes, this is what I find most fascinating – a moral compass that prizes hatred and murder was instilled into these machines, so that as they move through the world, experiencing hate and “exterminating” whenever they get the chance, they honestly feel like they’re doing the right thing. Seriously, the mere notion of a Dalek blows my mind. But from a philosophical standpoint, what do we do with a Dalek? How can we hate a being who first, in line with the Eagleton quote, was created to hate and kill, and, second, believes they’re genuinely doing the right thing – doing good, even – by performing this task?
I want to talk more about Daleks, but I think it would be remiss, at this point, to keep talking about Doctor Who without giving some time and attention to “the tethered” in Jordan Peele’s Us. In Us, Adelaide Wilson, wife and mother, tells her husband a story about her childhood one night while they’re at their beach house. When she was a young girl, she wandered off alone on the boardwalk while her dad was playing an amusement park game and stumbled upon a funhouse entitled “Vision Quest.” She made her way through the fun house until she saw, in one of the mirrors, a girl who looked exactly like her. Adelaide has felt followed by the girl her entire life. Thus, in a sense, she has been running her entire life from that girl, who, as it happens, shows up, right after Adelaide tells her story to her husband, to claim revenge. The girl’s name – now a grown woman, like Adelaide – is Red, and in a harrowing monologue delivered with a deep, strained voice, Red tells us the story of her life. Scientists learned how to clone, but they couldn’t make a copy of the soul. The tethered were made, originally, as clones to live below ground and control the humans above ground, but over time, the project was abandoned. The tethered were left alone with the raw rabbits that they’re supposed to eat as sustenance, and their movements and actions mirror those made by their above ground counterparts, but their environment is entirely different – just an empty, tiled hallway that leads to similarly empty, seemingly abandoned classrooms. (In this way, their lives are similar to those of the zombie children in The Girl with All the Gifts).
The tethered, then, unlike the Daleks, are technically human beings. In fact, Red makes a point, when explaining who the tethered are to Adalaide, to emphasize that they are human. Nonetheless, like Daleks, who are literally inhuman and who are made to look less human through their machine-like visages, these “tethered,” beings who have lived underground their entire lives, look and act understandably less human than their doppelgangers above ground. Many have dark circles under their eyes and are, for lack of better terminology, affectively unusual – as in, their facial expressions and movements deviate from what we might consider “normal” for human beings. Indeed, to unleash her attack on the world above ground, Red seems to direct her family with quick motions and noises, like clicking her tongue and snapping her fingers, at which point her cloned children crawl, much like animals, to their intended location. Thus, while the tethered are intentionally labeled “human” by the film and are really human beings who have lived below ground, outside the realm of sunshine, for most of their lives, they are made to appear unusual and at least slightly animalistic, a filmmaking choice which might make them seem more monstrous and less sympathetic, initially, to viewers.
While we might look toward the unusual tethered with some degree of trepidation, we are unlikely to hate them or completely blame them for their actions. In other words, this film contains a massive grey area – and possibly more than one, as we’ll see later. While in his first film, Get Out, the actions of the suburban whites (kidnapping Black men and implanting their own brains in Black mens’ bodies) are unequivocally malicious, racist, and self-centered, Peele does more in his second film to question what evil is and to de-stabilize boundaries – boundaries between good and evil, or between monstrous and non-monstrous. The tethered, after all, are marginalized beings. Like Daleks, they were created by a race who sought to use them for a purpose. Also, they were left underground and abandoned shortly after their creation. Perhaps to enhance our sympathy for them, Red describes her life as a tethered – the raw rabbits she ate while Adelaide Wilson was being served hot meals, the sharp objects she received when Adelaide received presents as a child, and the monstrous child she birthed when Adelaide had her first beautiful baby girl. We don’t know why these hardships, these painful parameters, define the life of Red and the rest of her underground clones (why, when these clones were made, did their creators decide such a life would be suitable for them?), but we know they do, and we can hardly blame the clones for answering back by creating their own plan to enter the realm of sunlight and, in theory, to acquire lives worth living. In other words, the sad conditions of their lives, and the fact that they did nothing to deserve such conditions, easily explains why the tethered take the actions that they do. This logic, and the viewer’s corresponding sympathy, creates a definite “grey area” through which we’re inclined to acquit the clones of complete guilt. We reason, and rightly so, that if we were clones, and if we knew any better, we’d find a way to sneak above ground and overrun the human race, too. The clones, after all, are murderous – they seek to take over the world above by eliminating their human counterparts – but with the lives they’ve lived, who can blame them?
Peele’s film, then, seems to make the argument (in the context of Calafell’s scholarship), that “grey areas” are not necessarily a bad thing in fiction. While grey areas in real life create narratives that make us excuse the vicious actions of often-male whites, even as we condemn persons of color for similar or lesser crimes, when employed in fiction, and especially when linked to marginalized characters, characters with little agency (like Daleks, like the tethered), they can, quite appropriately given their name, make our thinking less black and white, or de-stabilize the boundaries between good and evil – boundaries that, while often necessary, can also, if improperly placed, cause us to incorrectly otherize, discriminate, and dehumanize. Grey areas in Doctor Who and Us rightly cause us to ask who the monsters really are, while, at the same time, we’re forced to look at ourselves and ask: Can I condemn this action, or would I do the same thing, if in a similar situation?
There is more to each story, though. After the Dalek acquires a bit of Rose’s DNA and begins to mutate, it no longer wishes to kill, only to feel the sunshine on its slimy exterior. The Doctor has full plans to kill it, because the Dalek is the enemy, but Rose convinces him not to. Throughout this episode, the Dalek consistently brings out the Doctor’s wrath, because Daleks exterminated the timelords. During one episode, as the Dalek is on camera and the Doctor is yelling threats and vitriol at it through a microphone, Dalek says to the Doctor in its broken, mechanistic voice, “You would make a good Dalek.” It’s a harrowing moment, and it causes the Doctor to pause in the thoughtful, provocative way that only Christopher Eccleston (who plays the doctor) can deliver. The show thus implements another grey area. By making us question not only whether Daleks are really “evil” because of their lack of agency, we begin to feel sympathy for them. When we see the malice of our beloved hero – a human who wasn’t programmed to hate but who can, theoretically, make the choice for himself – we may feel more sympathy for Dalek by comparison, as we ask ourselves who the real monster is. What has happened to our valiant hero? The lines between good and evil become destabilized again, as we first fully witness the Doctor’s own brutal tendencies.
If Dalek raises questions about who is evil, and who is the monster, then Us makes this question an urgent, pressing point of contention. Toward the middle of the film, Adelaide Wilson, though she continues to defend her family against the tethered, starts showing signs of sympathy for these mysterious, seemingly violent beings. When the “tethered” who looks like a zombified version of her daughter gets run over and dangles upside down from a tree branch dying, Adelaide goes over to her body and gently whispers “shhh…shhh shhh…shhh” in a comforting tone that indicates, if we read into it enough, that she empathizes with the dying girl, perhaps imagines what it would feel like if it were her daughter dying, and probably is only killing the tethered family that mirrors hers – and another tethered family they run into that mirrors her friend’s family – because she has to in self-defense. We thus look through Adelaide’s eyes and see not a monster, even though the young, dying girl was earlier described as a monster by her mother and behaves monstrously through her readiness to kill – but a child, writhing in discomfort and fear at the moment of her death. Once again, the category of “absolute monstrosity” is disrupted as we begin to realize that the tethered are just marginalized human beings who seem abnormal because of the lives they’ve lived underground.
Later, when Red steals Adelaide’s youngest child and takes him underground (by going through the original passage in the funhouse), Adelaide seems, intuitively, to know where Red has gone, and she goes to the fun house (it has a new name but is the same location and edifice) and finds the passage that Red has taken. She is not literally following Red (Red isn’t in her view), so we may be wondering, at this point, how Adelaide knows where to go. After all, so far as we know, she’s never been to the underground lair that houses the tethered. But she does know, and after a long conversation with Red, the women battle, and Adelaide ultimately kills Red. We may sympathize with Red—indeed, Peele’s use of “grey areas” is likely to thrust us into a bit of a moral quandary—but ultimately we’re probably rooting for Adelaide, because she’s situated in the narrative to be the protagonist, and, more importantly, because she’s more like us.
But Peele’s film, which is already thought-provoking, tosses another curveball our way. Ultimately Adelaide rescues her son, carries him above ground, finds the rest of her family, and gets in a car to drive into a dystopian future. We see the landscape now, and scores of “tethereds” seem to be successfully overtaking the above-ground world, standing in line and holding hands to mirror the image of a “hands across America” commercial that is featured at the film’s beginning. It seems like the film is over, but it’s not. Perhaps, arguably, the most important part of the film hasn’t been revealed yet. As Adelaide’s family drives away, the film gives us the second glimpse into Adelaide’s memory, and it’s the resolution of a story that we saw in the first glimpse. Earlier in the film, we see young Adelaide (while telling the story as an adult) as she witnesses her doppelganger in the funhouse mirror. When we enter Adelaide’s (silent) memory at the end of the film, we see the doppelganger in the mirror capture “Adelaide,” drag her down to the region of the tethered, steal her t-shirt, and re-emerge above ground, poised as Adelaide. Adelaide’s parents, soon after they find her, wonder why their daughter has stopped speaking, and they assume she encountered trauma when she walked away from her father and ended up alone at the boardwalk amusement park. But we know now that the clone didn’t speak at first because it wasn’t Adelaide. It was her doppelganger, who either didn’t have language below ground, or didn’t have English below ground, and who remains silent until she learns to speak like those around her. The protagonist we’ve been rooting for – the beautiful, eloquent Adelaide, played by Lupita Nyong’o – is really a tethered. In this final switch, the clear boundary between monster and human is obliterated. We don’t know who to “otherize” – who is really “like us” and who is “different,” – and the whole process of otherization, of claiming that a person is inherently different from ourselves, is interrogated.
We are likely to sympathize with Red even more after we realize that she lived her first years above ground and was kidnapped and taken to an underground lair. At the same time, how can we not sympathize with the young Adelaide, who saw the prospect of a better life above ground and took it? Perhaps now we look at the beautiful Adelaide and see a monster lurking in human skin (to me, her character suddenly seemed sinister) but perhaps we also acknowledge that there’s no real villain here, except the unidentified, anonymous human beings who crafted and ultimately abandoned the tethered. Indeed, what Peele’s film does, in part, is interrogate, even de-stabilize the notion of villainy; Red and her family may have returned to kill, but we can hardly blame them, and after we realize that Red was really young Adelaide, we become thoroughly confused from a moral perspective: What do we think of adult Adelaide, knowing what we know? Who do we root against now; both “monsters” have been “monsters” and “humans” at different points in the film. In a final shot, Adelaide’s young son looks at her knowingly (after all, he was underground when Adelaide and Red talked), and in a perhaps telling gesture, pulls the mask that he often wears around people (and perhaps around strangers) over his face. If he knows the secret, he isn’t telling. But does he know the truth about his mother now, and is he pulling down the mask to shield himself?
Which is all to say that by humanizing the monster, and monster-izing the human, Peele’s film creates a massive grey area where “evil” is a contested space, a floating signifier with multiple, equally non-absolute signifieds. On a slightly smaller level (Dalek is only one episode of the Doctor Who Series) Dalek does the same thing, and from what I’ve seen so far and gathered in conversation with Michael, Doctor Who will go on to complicate much of what we think we know about monsters and monstrosity throughout the rest of the film. Both of these works, Dalek and Us, illustrate that “grey areas” can be helpful and effective when used in fiction, and can ask complicated questions by erasing the boundaries between good and evil, between human and monstrous, and by making us question: What do we really know about Dalek? What do we really know…about Us?