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Reluctant Metamorphosis: Body Horror in David Cronenberg’s The Fly

NOTE: This article is an excerpt of the final thesis for my M. A. degree in American studies. The paper’s full title is The Figure of the Mad Scientist in Contemporary Fiction. It deals with aforesaid character and his (as he is almost exclusively presented as male) rendering in movies such as Frankenstein, Tarantula, Bride of the Monster, Re-Animator and The Fly. By identifying the mad scientist’s diverse appearances, it can be reasoned that this particular character has another purpose besides alluding to the dangers of science gone out of control. More than that, the figure of the mad scientist serves as an indicator of zeitgeist anxieties. Mad scientist movies reached their peak at a time in which the general population frequently reacted to the emergence of new technologies with scepticism and rejection. Therefore, it is unsurprising to find those sentiments reflected in movies of that time. The following article will exemplify how the protagonist in David Cronenberg’s The Fly is an embodiment of those anxieties.

Since his movies frequently deal with “excessive physical transformation, eruption, or rebellion of the human body against itself,” the term “body horror” is often used to describe the work of Canadian director David Cronenberg (Worland 275; Grant 24). His films create different modes of horror in order to terrify the audience. In its most apparent form, visual horror is inspired by altering the physical form of the human body, explicitly depicting its deformation and, ultimately, its complete destruction. In The Fly, bodies are literally turned inside out: the reversed baboon of Brundle’s first failed attempt of teleporting a living being, the maggot embryo from Ronnie’s womb and, finally, the inner fly which erupts from the protagonist’s body. Psychological horror, on the other hand, is aroused by the metaphorical meaning of the protagonist’s transformation. According to Charney, “Cronenberg insists that these shifts in character serve as metaphors for actual life transformations” (Charney 164). In an interview the director explains how he incorporates the inevitable process of ageing in order to hint at the audience’s anxieties: “If we live long enough we all become monsters. Our hair falls out, our skin changes, and we become a burden and sometimes even a threat to those who love us” (Charney 164). In his movies, this alteration is associated with the protagonist’s loss of personality and identity. Therefore, a common motif in Cronenberg’s films is the conflict between body and mind as the threat comes from within. In addition to that, “physical horror of deformed and dysfunctional materiality is related to another bodily fear upon which Cronenberg consistently plays on in The Fly and elsewhere: the loss of bodily integrity (wholeness, oneness, unity)” (Smith, M. 74). By addressing such primal fears, the themes of Cronenberg’s movies encompass “every anxiety from existential depression to phobic hysteria” (Beard 200).

In his remake version of The Fly from 1986, a gifted scientist gradually transforms into a monstrous insect due to a flawed self-experiment. As the scientist realises the process he triggered by accident not only affects his body, but also shatters his existence as a human being, he desperately tries to revert the metamorphosis. The process of change is dichotomous because on the one hand it evokes connotations of horror, pain and decease, but on the other hand it is also associated in a positive way—at least for a short peroid of time in which Brundle enjoys his newly gained abilities—with the emergence of a new lifeform, namely Brundlefly, as the scientist calls himself in an advanced stage of his transformation. Referring to the “audience’s fear of displacement by a technological society,” Charney sets forth that movies like Re-Animator and The Fly “frighten by suggesting that the monster is within us and can be endlessly reactivated by attempts to improve humanity through technological experimentation” (Charney 162). This trend can be traced back to science fiction movies of the 1950s, as the example of Tarantula shows, yet directors Stuart Gordon and David Cronenberg “create new horror hybrids with complex, recognizable, sympathetic protagonists: films that locate within the victim the potential for villainy” (Charney 162). Other than Professor Deemer in Tarantula, who is portrayed as an unsympathetic loner from the beginning, the protagonist in The Flysuccessfully unites the supernatural and psychotic into a monster whose power stems both from technological supremacy and human sympathy” (Charney 162).

Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) is a brilliant scientist who was “an inch away from the Nobel Prize for physics” at the age of 20 (Cronenberg 17:36). He is introduced talking to journalist Veronica ‘Ronnie’ Quaife (Geena Davis) about his new device at a scientific convention. “I’m working on something that’ll change the world and human life as we know it,” proclaims Brundle (Cronenberg 1:28). Since he does not want other scientists to eavesdrop their conversation, he invites Veronica to his laboratory which is also the place where he lives. On the way there, he reveals the motivation of his research which is supposed to revolutionise modern methods of transportation: “I hate vehicles,” justifies Brundle his disdain for cars (Cronenberg 3:03). His workplace is located in an old warehouse which looks run down from the outside, but “cleaner from the inside” (Cronenberg 3:27). Brundle’s remark is a hint to his current mental condition which is reflected in the state of his laboratory; both undergo significant changes in the further development of the plot. Transformation processes and the reflection thereof is a recurring theme in The Fly. William Beard identifies how Brundle’s character and habits correspondent to his outer appearance:

Seth’s changing internal condition is reflected in his clothing. This is clearly seen—indeed it is foregrounded and thematized—when Ronnie discovers his closet full of identical anonymous grey jackets and blank trousers. This wardrobe exactly embodies Seth’s cerebral ‘scientific’ marginalization of the body, as well as the qualities that we understand as giving rise to or growing out of that attitude: his discomfort with physicality and with his own body and his social backwardness, especially around women. (Beard 228)

As soon as Brundle and Ronnie enter the laboratory, the scientist begins to play Love is a Many-Splendored Thing on a piano, a melody which “will echo ironically against the gruesome turns of the love story to follow” (Clarke 142). While Brundle is playing the instrument, the camera pans on sheets of a Beethoven composition, a further clue to Brundle’s looming madness. Beethoven and Brundle both share the gift of genius, and like the composer in his later days, the scientist eventually becomes insane. In a broader sense, the piano also anticipates Brundle’s metamorphosis because “manipulating this particular keyboard, Seth is still in full control, the musical output being entirely predictable from the fingered input” (Clarke 142). Equally apt, Brundle uses the keyboard of the computer which controls the telepods. As the transformation reaches a stage in which Brundle’s fingers become useless, he cannot operate the computer accurately any more. Consequently, his ability to program the computer vanishes and so do his chances to reverse his transformation. These first scenes set the frame for the plot in accordance with the typical patterns of mad scientist movies. What distinguishes The Fly from other films, however, is its self-referential approach. For example, Brundle overtly threatens Ronnie he “can’t let [her] leave here alive” now that she knows about his invention (Cronenberg 4:22). Due to its ironic undertone, his threat is not real, yet it reveals Brundle’s awareness of the mad scientist’s generic concept. Being “resolutely anti-ironic,” however, Cronenberg’s film stands out by its “dour seriousness” and thus completely deviates from self-referential postmodern horror movies, for example Wes Craven’s Scream series which revitalised the genre of slasher movies in 1996 (Grant 24).

Consisting of two cabins which are connected to a control unit, Brundle’s device is supposed to disintegrate objects in one cabin and reassemble them in the other cabin. Ronnie at first confuses the cabins with “designer phone boots,” but is told by Brundle that they are actually “telepods” (Cronenberg 5:10). “The updated substitution of ‘telepod’ for ‘telephone’ marks the amplification of ‘transportation,’” as Clarke reasons: “the extension of the concept and metaphor of transmission from informatic forms such as acoustic and visual vibrations to material substances such as inorganic and organic bodies” (Clarke 140). In order to prove his invention to be functional and working, Brundle asks her for a personal item as a test object. Still not convinced by his idea, she gives him one of her stockings. Brundle places the stocking in a telepod and initiates the teleportation sequence. A look at the control unit’s screen confirms his prediction: “TELEPORTATION SUCCESSFUL” (Cronenberg 7:35). Astonished by the experiment, the reporter is unable to grasp what she just witnessed. “You get it all right, you just can’t handle it,” Brundle reassures her (Cronenberg 8:42). Veronica’s reaction typifies the difficulties of a non-scientific public to understand scientific processes. Whereas Seth is familiar with his research, Veronica is not because she is not an expert. However, since she is a reporter for a science magazine, her assignment is to communicate images of science to a public audience outside the scientific community. Therefore, the relationship between Quaife and Brundle is—besides the subsequent love affair—a dialogue between the non-professional public and the scientific sector. Back in her office, Ronnie reports Brundle’s experiment to her employer and ex-lover, Stathis Borans, who does not believe her story. Denying Brundle’s talent as a scientist, he calls him a “magician” who performs tricks which have nothing to do with real science (Cronenberg 11:28).

Brundle tells Ronnie that he has “been working alone for too long” and that he does not have a life (Cronenberg 12:46). Again, it is Brundle himself who unveils the characteristics of a mad scientist who is all focused on his work and disregards social interaction. His lack of sense for appropriate social intercourse is underlined by the fact he takes her to a uncomfortable fast-food restaurant. Brundle’s invention is not complete yet because its most important feature is still missing, as he makes clear: “I can only teleport inanimate objects” (Cronenberg 13:30). His first test run with a live baboon goes horribly wrong as the teleportation process turns the animal into a galvanic pile of flesh. Veronica documents Brundle’s work with a video camera in order to showcase it to the public. “I’ve gotta do this,” she professes because “the world will wanna know” (Cronenberg 19:54). Reconsidering the failed experiment, Seth assumes the gadget “can’t deal with the flesh” yet (Cronenberg 29:22). “I must not know enough about the flesh myself. I’m gonna have to learn,” continues Brundle to expound the issue. His request is satisfied when Ronnie introduces him to the pleasures of the flesh. “I just wanna eat you up . . . It’s the flesh, it just makes you crazy,” she discloses her sexual desire for him (Cronenberg 23:38). This is when Seth has his eureka moment; in order to study the computer’s ability to interpret organic matter, he lets Veronica compare the taste of a teleported piece of steak to another piece he did not teleport. “It tastes synthetic,” is her verdict (Cronenberg 25:38). To Brundle, this finding is crucial because it inspires him to teach the computer “the poetry of the steak” (Cronenberg 26:14). Soon after, he teleports another baboon and this time the animal survives the process unharmed. Similar to Frankenstein, who gives birth to a creature by replacing a biological mother, the telepods are a metaphor for a new technological method of fertilisation once they are correctly programmed.

In a word, at first Brundle’s invention is sterile; it cannot encompass the living world, and particularly the world of the body, appetite, sexuality. It might be said that the offspring, the invention, is only a success, only really existent, after its ‘fertilization’ by knowledge of the flesh. (Beard 205)

As it turns out Brundle’s ensuing self-experiment engenders unpredictable side-effects, “the introduction of ‘the flesh’ into this abstracting scientific project creates the condition not only for organic ‘birth’ but also for organic mutation, disease, and death” (Beard 206). Seth Brundle experiences a bizarre metamorphosis from an over-intellectual scientist, who has everything under control, into a bestial monster which lacks any human traits. His gradual mental and physical degeneration is reflected in the state of his laboratory; first it is a tidy and organised place, but it is turned into a mess the further his transformation progresses. In the beginning of the movie, Brundle’s life is centred around his research. He has no social contacts and even his sponsors do not bother about his work because his expenses are reasonable. Thoroughly focused on his work, Brundle seems to lack any physical presence since he apparently considers his body merely a shell for his mind. His motion sickness exemplifies the deficiency of his body; he therefore invents a teleportation device in order to abolish mechanical transportation. Another sign of the negligence of his body, and thus his outer appearance, is the way he dresses. He never needs to consider his outfit because he is wearing the same combination of clothes every day, a habit he claims to have adopted from Einstein. His total devotion to his mental labour does not cease until Veronica introduces him to the “poetry of the flesh” (see Oetjen and Wacker 138).

Their romance arouses a consciousness of his corporeality in Brundle which is taken to an extreme after his genes are spliced with those of a housefly. Brundle’s perception of his own body is elevated to another level in the first stage of his transformation. Experiencing his augmented physical potential as a catharsis at first, his newly gained freedom and feigned self-fulfilment soon turn into megalomania. Tired of “society’s sick gray fear of the flesh” restricting physical desires, Brundle strives to satisfy his sex drive with no regard for Veronica’s needs (Cronenberg 48:26). Brundle thus “contributes to his own downfall by combining increasing fascination with technological progress with the need to pursue sexual and/or professional interests” (Charney 163). When Veronica refuses to try the teleportion device herself, he gets mad and denies her loyalty: “Drink deep, or taste not the plasma spring” (Cronenberg 48:31). Entirely focusing on his basic instincts which are his sexuality and the assimilation of food now, Brundle disposes his human traits. According to Oetjen and Wacker, the obsession with his body, his flesh and the renunciation of his mind, is an expression of his mental transformation into an animal (see Oetjen and Wacker 138). In this first period of the conflict between body and mind, his animal instincts prevail. As a consequence thereof, his transformation causes an estrangement not only from himself, but also from others. Hence, “Brundle, like Frankenstein before him, [must] now battle his creation for control” (Crane 57).

When Brundle realises the advancing decay of his body, he begins to document his transformation and asks Veronica to videotape it. Regarding himself as a test object, he painstakingly collects fragments of his decomposing body in a bathroom cabinet which he calls “the Brundle Museum of Natural History” (Cronenberg 76:10). There he keeps his shedded teeth among other body parts he lost, such as an ear, fingernails and his penis. Brundle’s scientific method of documenting his stepwise disintegration escalates in a disturbing scene in which he demonstrates how “he eats much the way a fly eats” (Cronenberg 69:47).

His teeth are now useless because although he can chew up solid food, he can’t digest it. Solid food hurts. So, like a fly, Brundlefly breaks down solids with a corrosive enzyme, playfully called ‘vomit drop.’ He regurgitates on his food, it liquefies, and then he sucks it back up. Ready for a demonstration, kids? (Cronenberg 69:50)

Acting like a host of a TV show, Brundle presents an image of science to the non-scientific audience. Pretending to be talking to children, he makes sure his presentation is easily understood by the broadest public possible. Despite the alleged educational effect, however, the spectacle is rather repulsive and reveals Brundle’s sarcasm. When Ronnie shows the recording of Brundle vomiting on his food to Borans, he is accordingly disgusted. By depicting Boran’s detestation, Cronenberg reflects the audience’s supposed reaction to the scene and thereby confirms the film’s aim to horrify its viewers.

Before the onset of his transformation, Brundle used to ignore his body. When he notices the changes in his physicalness, he begins to explore his alteration from a scientific point of view. However, as soon as he detects his progressing loss of humanity, he warns Ronnie:

Have you ever heard of insect politics? Neither have I. Insects don’t have politics. They are very brutal. No compassion, no compromise. We can’t trust the insect. I’d like to become the first insect politician . . . I’m an insect who dreamt he was a man and loved it. But now the dream is over and the insect is awake. (Cronenberg 77:03)

Realising the danger emanating from within himself, the scientist has become “a beast that loses most of its human characteristics but still retains memory and affection” (Charney 163). This is also the key scene in which he “understands that the inevitability of [Veronica] being lost to him coincides with his having to confront the further truth of his unbearable exile from the human condition” (Grant 11). Brundle’s dilemma is the presence of both, human values and animal instincts, in his body. In a desperate effort to reduce the proportion of fly genes in his organism, Brundle plans to fuse his contaminated body with Veronica’s in order to become more human again. Due to Stathis Boran’s interference, however, the procedure is interrupted and Brundle’s body merges with the broken telepod which results in “a technological monster, part human, part machine” (Charney 163). Even though there is no visible trace left of the human Brundle, he still demonstrates a final act of human sentiment when he points the rifle in Veronica’s hands to his head, begging her to put him out of his misery. Although he finally comes to realise his hubris, Brundle cannot be saved. His transformation has reached a terminal stage in which the fly ultimately dominates over his human body. Hence, Brundle “is trapped in a seemingly endless cycle, as mutation follows mutation” and if Ronnie did not kill him, he “would otherwise have been condemned to live on as a further appalling combination—of man, fly and telepod” (Grant 1).

Following the pattern originally set by Frankenstein, Brundle’s experiment has produced a new lifeform. However, Cronenberg alters the scheme insofar as his portrayal of the mad scientist places the conflict between creator and creation within the scientist (see Meteling 182). Michael Grant points out how the figure of the mad scientist has shifted over the years by comparing the metaphor of birth in Frankenstein to Cronenberg’s rendering.

It is a womb that is realised externally (and hence metaphorically) in Frankenstein, where the laboratory provides the birthplace of the creature, while its realisation in The Fly is internal, as Brundle gives birth to the man-fly out of his own flesh. (Grant 30)

In contrast to other mad scientist films, “the experimental scientist-inventor is not some distant figure who manipulates people and then stands back to watch, but now is the protagonist himself“ (Beard 199). By visualising this conflict as a gradual metamorphosis, the director responds to primary issues of human life, such as ageing, terminal diseases and alienating. In regard to Tudor’s study, Jonathan Crane assumes that the figure of the mad scientist has suffered “a long period of decline” in the horror genre from the 1960s onwards because nowadays “we more commonly expect the random serial killer or bestial clique, shorn of supernatural trappings, to create horror and havoc” (Crane 52). By “reviving an extinguished, retrograde element—the ‘mad scientist’—and dragging him back into the contemporary arena,” Cronenberg puts new life into the genre. However, Crane’s chain of reasoning is to a certain degree one-dimensional because he presumes that scientists in horror films are in general modelled after the character of Frankenstein. Accordingly, he puts the motivation of Seth Brundle’s experiment on par with Frankenstein’s original intention by asserting that there is “no better way to address the unbearable ties that link Frankenstein and his scion than to sheathe the adversaries in the same skin” (Crane 57). Even though this claim applies to the movie, it is only one aspect in The Fly. While Frankenstein’s creature is deliberately brought to life, Brundle oversees the fly in the telepod by mistake. His telepods were actually meant to supersede mechanical transportation, not to create new lifeforms of any kind—even though they give birth to Brundlefly in a metaphorical sense. A central theme in the film is the protagonist’s progressive downfall which can be interpreted as a metaphor for an accelerated ageing process (see Riepe 84). Other than Frankenstein, who is—at least in the cinematic adaptations of James Whale—presented as mad from the beginning, Brundle’s decline is portrayed in stages. Therefore, Seth Brundle is an incarnation of a reluctant mad scientist who unwittingly gets afflicted with the consequences of his experiment which was originally supposed to have a different outcome.

Works Cited

Beard, William. The Artist as Monster: The Cinema of David Cronenberg. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006.

Charney, Mark J. “Beauty in the Beast: Technological Reanimation in the Contemporary Horror Film.” Trajectories of the Fantastic: Selected Essays from the Fourteenth International Conference on the Fantastics in the Arts. Ed. Michael A. Morrison. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1997. 161-170.

Clarke, Bruce. Posthuman Metamorphoses: Narrative and Systems. New York: Fordham University Press, 2008.

Crane, Jonathan. “A Body Apart: Cronenberg and Genre.” The Modern Fantastic: The Films of David Cronenberg. Ed. Michael Grant. Westport: Praeger, 2000. 50-68.

Grant, Michael. “Introduction.” The Modern Fantastic: The Films of David Cronenberg. Ed. Michael Grant. Westport: Praeger, 2000. 1-34.

Oetjen, Almut and Holger Wacker. Organischer Horror: Die Filme des David Cronenberg. Meitingen: Corian-Verlag, 1993.

Riepe, Manfred. Bildgeschwüre: Körper und Fremdkörper im Kino David Cronenbergs. Bielefeld: Transcript, 2002.

Skal, David J. Screams of Reason: Mad Science and Modern Culture. New York: Norton, 1998.

Smith, Murray. “(A)moral Monstrosity.” The Modern Fantastic: The Films of David Cronenberg. Ed. Michael Grant. Westport: Praeger, 2000. 69-83.

The Fly. Dir. David Cronenberg. Perfs. Jeff Goldblum, Geena Davis, and John Getz. 1986. BluRay. Twentieth Century Fox, 2008.

Worland, Rick. The Horror Film: An Introduction. Malden: Blackwell, 2007.


2 responses to “Reluctant Metamorphosis: Body Horror in David Cronenberg’s The Fly

  1. hd420p August 7, 2011 at 9:04 am

    Wow, I read all of that! No guesses what I’ll be watching later.

  2. vornoff August 8, 2011 at 7:30 am

    Thanks man! I hope you enjoyed reading. I agree that it is pretty long, maybe I gonna split the next article over 2 pages or so.

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