+ David Cronenberg's body-horror films and diverse embodied spectators
by Wayne Egers, McGill University
My dissertation is an interdisciplinary study of David Cronenberg's body-horror films in relation to their embodied spectators. In these films, the horror is not only about the vulnerability of the mortal body, but also about the horrific consequences of organizing culture around the philosophical splitting of the mind from the body. To analyze this relationship, I utilize Merleau-Ponty's phenomenology of the body, object-relations psychoanalysis, especially D.W. Winnicott's theory of the intermeshed psyche-soma, various pro-feminist approaches to horror films, and a concept of ideology informed by nonverbal communication research. The historical arc of Cronenberg's body-horror films has produced a unique cultural record of the impact of technological change on physical bodies through dark fantasies of biological-medical technologies in Shivers, Rabid, The Brood, and Scanners; video communication technologies in Videodrome; and genetic-engineering technologies in The Fly.
My primary thesis is that Cronenberg's body-horror films encourage spectators to "read" not only with their rational-cognitive skills but with their embodied experience as well, which includes emotional and sensory memories, and fantasies, both archaic and contemporary. Cronenberg's appeal to an integrated psyche-soma reading is crucial for understanding how the culturally induced splitting of the mind from the body impacts on working class resistance to exploitative ideology.
In chapter one I argue that the diverse and contradictory readings of Cronenberg's body-horror films are possible, because of the interdependence of the cinematic text, historical and cultural context, and the embodied experience of spectators-critics. Chapter two is a preliminary step towards developing an alternative theory of the horror film spectator, by exploring the productive tension between an active, creative and embodied real viewer, and an ideologically determined, ideal subject of the cinematic apparatus. Chapter three compares Cronenberg's fantasy of metamorphosis body-horror to the fantasy of "leaving the body behind" depicted in many contemporary cyborg films. Chapter four is a series of close readings, analyzing how Cronenberg embeds "imaginary spectators" into his body-horror films through interweaving the body language of his characters and the nonverbal communication of the mise en scene with narrative strategies formulated through the plot.