Brooding Men and Unholy Births: Parthenogenesis and the inter-generational transmission of abuse in The Brood and Men.

                I sat on Michael’s couch for a while tonight, next to his wise, oversized unicorn, Justin, biting my worn-down acrylic French tips and oscillating between potential writing projects.  I settled on a blog post, since it’s been quite some time since I wrote on my blog, and I decided to put a classic 1979 Cronenberg horror movie (The Brood) in conversation with the recently released horror film Men because they were both on my mind, and I couldn’t decide which one to write about.  I’m finishing up my section on The Brood for chapter two of my dissertation, and I went to see Men with Michael, Jaelyn, and Ryan a few weeks ago, a riveting film that we followed up with a long conversation outside the theater in the cool Erie late-May weather about what it all means and how it—Men—re-enacts contemporary phenomenon.

                I will try to write about each piece through the lens of “monstrous madness,” which is the general theoretical concept through which I’m exploring horror movies in my dissertation.  I’ve paid sporadic, intermittent attention to my blog since I started my PhD program six years ago; when I’m really invested in the blog, it supplements my writing well and helps me kick around ideas for other projects.  So, I plan to use this blog post, and perhaps future ones, to help me reiterate my dissertation ideas and, possibly, generate new ideas before I bring my first section of chapter two to an official close.  

I define “monstrous madness,” in my dissertation and in this piece, as the tendency to make madness or mental illness seem monstrous in horror television, literature, and cinema, and perhaps I’m particularly interested in this concept because I, too, go a little mad sometimes (although not the way Norman Bates does, despite the Psycho reference).  After many years of thinking I had Bi-Polar Disorder that included Psychotic episodes, this past fall, after seeing the same, really good, attentive psychiatrist for about three years, I was diagnosed, instead, with Schizoaffective Disorder – Bi-Polar Type, a condition that causes me to experience episodes of Bi-Polar Disorder and Schizophrenia. 

For some time my psychiatrist thought I had schizoaffective disorder and an unspecified anxiety disorder, but with some more probing, he came to the conclusion, the other day, that I actually have schizoaffective disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder.  Along with experiencing mania, depression, anxiety, and delusional episodes in phases, on a daily basis, when I’m otherwise stable, I get really disturbing thoughts that coarse through my mind at inopportune times, I tend to perseverate over worst-case scenarios, I obsess over most things I say after I say them, and I’m terrified of making mistakes (which is funny, because in life I make quite a lot of them). 

Which is all to say that at age 37, I’m still struggling a bit, and I have my work cut out for me.  My mental health journey has been an interesting one – the source of a memoir, someday, I think – and it’s made me fascinated with how we view “madness” as a culture – a concept that often occupies a fraught, contradictory position in contemporary cultural thought, discourse, and iconography.  For that reason, I’ve made it a fundamental part of my academic research, and I’ve started being more forthcoming about my own experiences – with other people, and on my blog.

And monstrous madness, so-called, is particularly apparent in David Cronenberg’s The Brood.  In her book, The Monstrous Feminine, Barbara Creed walks through an awesome analysis of The Brood as a film about an archetypal “monstrous womb” that, like all wombs and most things feminine, is viewed as abject, animalistic, and close to nature. But to fully appreciate Creed’s analysis, it might be useful to know a little bit more about the film.   In The Brood, Nola Carveth is in a custody battle with her husband, Frank Carveth, over their five-year-old daughter, Candy.  While Frank seems like your typical, basically well-intentioned man and father, Nola is being held in isolation at what is framed, in the narrative, as a cutting-edge psychiatric clinic owned by Hal Raglan, who practices “psychoplasmics,” by provoking strong emotions to the extent that they manifest, externally, on the sufferer (for example, in the form of welts) and provide emotive release.  While the men in the movie seem to grow bodily abnormalities that, at worst, threaten only their own health and well-being, Nola develops a monstrous, externalized womb that breeds semi-human children who are controlled by nutrient sacks at the napes of their necks and whose only purpose is to kill those toward whom Nola directs her rage.  It isn’t until the end of the film, however, that Frank (and the audience) sees Nola’s womb in all its abject glory, and watches her birth one of her bloody monstrous children while slowly licking the bloody afterbirth off its skull.  In this scene, Nola is truly monstrous, and Frank is aghast at the obtrusive sack that’s grown out of the belly of his beautiful wife.

This is not to say that Frank has to see Nola’s abject womb to reject her; while Creed makes this claim, the story’s exposition leads the reader to believe that Frank has rejected Nola and written her off as “mad” long before seeing the externalized womb that breeds monster children.  Creed reads The Brood as a movie that exhibits a fear of the abject feminine, which is associated with defilement, bodily fluids, and nature.  In my dissertation, I assert that while this reading is not “wrong,” it elides the fact that Nola is heavily psychologized in the narrative, so it treats her as a sort of every-woman instead of a mad-woman.  To Creed, Nola is representative of the female sex—a prototype.  I argue that because she is psychologized in the narrative, Nola’s abjection stems from her madness as much or more as it does her femininity.  To that end, Nola is not a prototype; she is an anomaly, an aberration.

               Significantly, like the feminine, madness is also often linked to the abject in horror films.  Perhaps this linkage is fitting, because just as both the feminine and madness are associated with abjection, so the feminine is also associated with madness in Western culture, according to Elaine Showalter (and probably other theorists, but Showalter writes a great theoretical text called The English Malady that really explores this contention.)  Not only is the feminine associated with things like the womb, nature, and bloody afterbirth in our culture, but it is, according to Julia Kristeva, the site of “the abject” (that which is disgusting, repulsive, or objectionable).  Kristeva employs Lacanian psychoanalysis to contrast the abject site of the mother to the male symbolic order, typically thought of as the clean, smooth, non-abject world of language and culture affiliated with the father and patriarchy (note – I know only what I know here; psychoanalysis is a strange animal).  When we encounter the abject, it reminds us of the semiotic, or the pre-linguistic maternal – the world of the mother that precedes language and is affiliated with abjection.  More specifically, to Kristeva, we think of the process of splitting from the abject maternal and, through the acquisition of language and self-recognition, entering what Lacan would call the “mirror phase,” a phase of self-awareness that marks the subject’s entry into the symbolic order. 

                But should we be quick to assert that this affiliation between the maternal and the abject signifies a fear of the general female/maternal in Cronenberg’s The Brood, we’ll want to put this theory in context by exploring the film’s plot in a little more detail.  The film’s other pivotal female characters are Nola’s mother, Julia, who the diegetic narrative accuses (or strongly suggests, but without official affirmation) abused Nola as a child, Candy (Nola’s daughter) and Ruth Meyer, the school teacher.  Candy certainly isn’t treated as an object of abjection, and Ruth Meyer is the quintessential “clean and proper” woman – to borrow a phrase from Kristeva.  I’ve found, in my research, a strong tendency to explore caretaking and caregiving in the horror genre, and abject, “monster-moms” are often situated in their respective narratives as failed caregivers.  This descriptor encapsulates Nola well; we know that she gets visits with Candy, but because she’s in the institute for psychoplasmics, largely because of her anger problems, she cannot care for her daughter and is likely to lose her daughter in an imminent custody battle.  Not surprisingly, Nola’s abjection, vis a vis her malformed womb and her monster children, is underscored.  Ruth Meyer, on the other hand (Candy’s school teacher) is depicted as the quintessential caregiver.  She is a kindergarten teacher who stays after school voluntarily to watch Candy when Frank, her father, is late picking her up.  She demonstrates significant concern for Candy, and even babysits her while Frank is out at one high point of action in the narrative.  Before we assume, thus, that the brood only exhibits a fear of the feminine in the context of her closeness to nature, birth, and abjection, we should seriously consider the non-abject presence of the “proper” caregiver, Ruth Meyer.

                Ruth is never depicted as a monstrous birther, or a monster, in general.  And the key difference between Ruth and Nola is, of course, that Ruth isn’t locked away in therapy receiving treatment for pent-up rage.  Unlike Nola, who the narrative also suggests at least indirectly abuses Candy through the presence of the Brood, Ruth would do no such thing and in fact notices the marks at one point and expresses her concern.  Nola’s anger problems and proclivity toward abuse are psychologized and thus conflated with “madness” in The Brood; aside from her rage, which she relieves by birthing semi-human brood children who kill those who cross her, we don’t really know what’s wrong with her.  She has no diagnosis, and appears “mad” in the most general of ways.  And this is, perhaps, fitting, because I make the argument in my dissertation that female madness is often conflated with sadism and/or abuse in horror movies.  In any case, it is because of this madness that Nola’s abjection is foregrounded in the film.  The externalized womb that breeds abnormal children is, from one vantage point, a defective womb; it cannot breed children who, in Lacanian terms, have the capacity for speech and self-awareness and can ultimately enter the symbolic order.  They are stuck in the mad, abject realm of the mad maternal, and Nola’s deformed womb becomes not a marker of her femininity, but a marker of her abject madness. 

                Despite some ways in which I deviate from Creed (by focusing on feminine madness instead of only femininity in The Brood) some of her observations are compelling, difficult to ignore, and relevant when I put the 1979 film The Brood in conversation with the 2022 film Men.  Creed is particularly interest in parthenogenesis in the monstrous feminine – the ability for the woman to birth without the help of another sex.  Part of the reason why Nola’s children are stuck in the maternal and unfit for the symbolic order is undoubtedly because she conceives them parthenogenetically, essentially mating with her own irrepressible ire to produce her mad little minions.  Creed is interested in this parthenogenesis, and uses a concluding scene, in which the camera pans toward a welt on Candy’s hand, to conclude that abuse is a disease passed down through the female in this film.  I would agree with this, but would couple abuse with rage and a more general form of “madness” that passes from Julianna, to Nola, to Candy.  In The Brood, thus, defective birth promulgates defective, sick, abject minions, and “defective” women, women who abuse because of the rage and abuse that has been passed down to them, birth more angry, “defective” women.  While, thus, I argue that the Brood is more concerned with the mad feminine than the feminine in general, I’ll still acquiesce and admit that it’s not the most flattering portrayal of females. 

                While The Brood centers largely around the womb and a type of parthenogenetic birthing labeled defective and expressly female, Men, which is also interested in madness, examines how metaphoric male-centered parthenogenesis breeds male violence, gaslighting, and patriarchal control instead of female violence.  Shortly after Harper Marlowe watches her husband throw himself out of a high window and plunge to his death, she seeks solace in a quaint, rented house in the English countryside.  As the story unfolds, we learn that Harper’s relationship with her husband was difficult, and he frequently threatened to kill himself if she left him.  Ultimately, during one of their arguments, he got angry with her and hit her.  Enraged at the entry of physical abuse into their already troubled relationship, Harper forced him out of her apartment and told him she would never see him again.  Seconds later, he jumped out a widow, and Harper locked eyes with him as he fell to his death.

                Of course, at the beginning of the film, we know only that Harper is going to the countryside in response to her husband’s recent death.  As Harper begins to heal in the beautiful mansion, the film appears, at first, like a meditation on the beauty of life despite suffering and sadness.  Melodic music plays while the camera explores the English countryside, a big tunnel that echoes Harper’s voice when she sings, and the carefully placed dew drops on a fallen leaf.  But the serene turns sinister when Harper spots a man standing at the end of the tunnel and runs home.  About halfway home, she sees a naked man, standing, watching her, and later that day (or perhaps the next day) she calls the police when she spots a different, strange, naked man in her yard who tries to break into her house. 

                The village that Harper lives in appears to be comprised of solely men, and no matter who she tells about these incidents, they all make her question her grip on reality by suggesting that she’s exaggerating, mis-remembering, or losing her mind.  There are a few key “men” that show up frequently in the film, including a young man who calls her a bitch for no reason, and the owner of the house, who seems amiable enough at first but appears to be in on the secret with the other men by the end of the movie.  One particularly profound scene that underscored gaslighting and blaming the women for her abuse is when Harper stumbles upon a country church and meets a creepy preacher.  Initially, though a little odd, perhaps, the preacher seems kind and receptive, like he might provide a reprieve from the madness that has been going on around Harper up to this point in the movie.  In a moment of trust, Harper tells her story and includes the fact that she asked her husband to leave when he hit her.  The preacher looks completely serious when he asks Harper if she gave her husband a chance to apologize for the abuse, and suggests that she must feel incredibly guilty for not giving him such a chance and thus provoking his death.  While Harper, then, has retreated to the countryside to heal, come to terms with her husband’s death, and reassure herself that his abuse and suicide were not her fault, one of the first trustworthy men she meets, in the calmest, most seemingly “rational” way, suggests that it is her fault. 

                To me, this was a turning point in the movie, although one I predicted ahead of time; this is that great moment in the horror movie where the distressed heroine realizes that she now has very few people (if any) to turn to for help, and virtually nowhere to go.  The men in the village, on the other hand, though all different, all have similar features and mannerisms and start to become interchangeable.  One shot will feature one man (the young man who swore at her, the bartender, etc.) and then follow the man as he slowly morphs into another.  The message seems to be that when it comes to abuse, the men are interchangeable; to that end, patriarchy has been gaslighting women for centuries, and appears to be an evil committed by a range of men in the movie, suggesting that such gaslighting and abuse by men toward women is a crime that doesn’t discriminate across age, race, occupation, etc.

                This reality, the fact that patriarchy tends to abuse and gaslight women to maintain its own power, a reality underscored by the name of the movie, which is simply “Men,” is best highlighted in the strange parthenogenetic birth scene featured toward the end of the film.  While Nola mated with her own rage to give birth to children who couldn’t speak and killed almost as if the act were a reflex, the “babies” birthed parthenogenetically by the abusive men are far more knowing and calculating.  It starts with one man, who literally gives birth to another full-grown man covered in after birth, and the cycle continues.  A second man gives birth to a third man, and so forth; all of the births happen in anomalous ways (i.e. one man will be birthed out of another’s mouth) but the constant presence of afterbirth on the men and the other strange visual and audial references to birth make the message clear enough; patriarchal abuse and gaslighting is a disease passed down from one man to the next, without involving women at all.  Like abuse in The Brood, it appears to be passed from one generation to the next, but in Men it is passed down without female intervention; gaslighting men breed gaslighting men, to make women question their reality when they experience abuse and oppression and to thus keep men in  power.   

It should be noted, as a sidenote, that the film conveys this phenomenon quite well.  In The Brood, for example, we never really question that Nola is the abuser.  Frank, the father, is clearly “the good guy” and child abuse appears to be an oddly female phenomenon.  In Men this is not so.  Just as the men in the movie cause Harper to question her reality – about the stalking and abuse around her, and about who was at “fault” with her husband’s death – so the movie might cause the vulnerable (or even not so vulnerable) viewer to question their grip on reality and what the evidence in the story clearly demonstrates is true.  I began to think, as I watched the film, maybe this Harper is worse than I thought; maybe she did do something more than we’re seeing to provoke her husband’s death.  It’s not a thought I paid great heed to, but it is an excellent example of a narrative that centers around patriarchal gaslighting messing with the viewer enough so that it almost gaslights the viewer.  This element of the film was very meta, and very well done.

In that sense, then, Men almost seems like a response to The Brood.  If women are full of rage and abusive tendencies, it seems to infer, it’s because their minds are constantly being manipulated in patriarchal culture to make them question their realities, to make them more susceptible to madness, and to thus keep men in power.  Of course, as with anything, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.  Indeed, patriarchy does pass down messages, subtle and overt, through media, discourse, and iconography that make women question themselves and also make them more fragile.  Patriarchy, to that end, is, perhaps, the disease being birthed in the pivotal scene of Men.  Abuse alone is not a gender specific phenomenon, but seems, in contemporary horror lore, to be treated as a phenomenon interchangeable with monstrosity, and specifically with monstrous madness.

Brooding Men and Unholy Births: Parthenogenesis and the inter-generational transmission of abuse in The Brood and Men.

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