Careful, they bite: Dangerous Mouths in Gothic Texts

Posted by Dr. Jennifer Brown on December 22, 2012 in Guest Blog, Jennifer Brown, Uncategorized tagged with , , , , , , ,

Personally, I love a good cannibal tale, something you can really get your teeth into! Ah, yes, cannibal puns! Gothic texts are full of a range of biters and orally fixated monsters. Over the previous two entries, I have explored some themes of orality and the symbolism of food and the mouth in Gothic culture. I have also examined the idea of dangerous food in some specific Gothic texts. I am now going to look at the pinnacle, for me, of Gothic orality: the cannibal.

Who's for dinner in Texas Chainsaw Massacre?

Cannibals populate ancient myths, fairy tales, children’s literature, tales of survival, and lots of horror films. I will look at a select few to get your juices, saliva and intellectual, flowing. In the late 1950s Ed Gein, a Wisconsin farmer with a taste for necrophilia and cannibalism was convicted of murder. He quickly became a reference point for hillbilly stereotypes in popular American culture. The representation of hillbillies as cannibals in films such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Dir. Hooper 1974) has contributed to the idea of redneck foreign Others which has spawned a plethora of hillbilly cannibal movies in which inbred, gap-toothed, po’ white folk feast on chirpy, middle class camping families or adventurous, smug college students. These redneck horror films have seen a resurgence in popularity with twenty-first century remakes of the originals. I suggest that these films are a kind of backlash against the Presidency of George Bush.

We cannot talk about Gothic orality and cannibals without going straight to our old friend Hannibal Lecter. The Silence of the Lambs is a text obsessed with orality – with mouths, lips, teeth, tongues, and, of course, ‘gumbs’. Warned in Hannibal to be careful of Lecter’s mouth Clarice Starling does not know whether she should be more careful of Lecter’s teeth or his words. While under physical restraint, Lecter’s oral-sadistic impulses seem to find temporary outlet in the psychiatrist’s biting tongue. Lecter has the power to enact murder through walls and cages, through use of words and the control of minds. He drains minds before he feeds on the bodies. Lecter has the rhetorical power to induce Miggs to swallow his own tongue, resulting in death. The killers in Silence are reduced to mouths; Gumb by his name, Miggs by literally swallowing himself, and Lecter is defined by his oral crimes. Lecter’s ferocious orality and perverse appetite make him primitive, savage and ogre-like. He is also, however, erudite and cultured, luring Starling and reader/viewer to a desire to know him better. He consumes human flesh but he accompanies it with fine wines, fava beans, garlic, and candlelight. Lecter’s mouth is the locus of his power in both its sharp gnashing teeth and its articulation of verbal trickery and persuasion. This preoccupation with orality is suggestive of the underlying warning in many Gothic urban cannibal tales – rapacity is monstrous. Hannibal the cannibal, he whose powers of consumption are limitless, is one of our latest heroes of consumer culture. Lecter and the likes of Patrick Bateman and Jeffrey Dahmer manage to confuse the consumption of food, sex, and human flesh in a manner we find powerfully intoxicating.

Hannibal Lecter

In Sin City (Rodriguez and Miller 2005) we are presented with Gothic orality in that blurring of sensuality and violence that Stoker gave us so successfully in Dracula. The film is famous for its iconic grey palette and strategic splashes of colour. Based on Miller’s comics, it is offers visual, visceral impact in almost every frame. The opening scene is charcoal except for a beautiful women’s scarlet lips. The viewer’s eye is naturally drawn to the colour and the tone of the movie is set. At “The Farm” we encounter a range of oral crimes: a dog is fed human body parts, eventually slobbering over his dismembered evil owner; beautiful women are decapitated, their heads kept on a wall while the rest of their bodies are eaten; fingers are nibbled on and the meat sucked off them while the victim watches.

Sin City

Echoes of Ravenous can be heard in the description of cannibalism in Sin City: “the eating, it filled him with white light…he didn’t just eat their bodies, he ate their souls…he swore to me that he felt the hand of God”. Painted lips, smoking cigarettes, talking dead, violent kissing, vomit, bleeding from the mouth in gushes of red or black, screaming as a turn on, the film is a Gothic orality feast. Sorry, more puns! But what is it all about? The cannibals and criminals in Sin City are figures of authority in the church and society, they are wealthy, they are policemen. They are the supposed pinnacles of society. As Lecter’s doctor status accords him respect and allows him access to the social events and inner workings of the upper echelons of society and their psychoses, Dracula’s wealth and charm gain him access to the juiciest of debutantes, and the criminals in Sin City go unpunished until they invoke the wrath of Marv (Mickey Rourke). Are these writers and filmmakers suggesting that those in power are feasting on the little people? Are they telling us we will be eaten alive if we continue to put out trust in corrupt leaders?

For Leon Kass, “Appetite or desire, not D.N.A. is the deepest principle of life”. This certainly seems true of Patrick Bateman, the American psycho, serial killer and composite consumer in Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho and Mary Hannon’s film adaptation of the novel released in 2000 and starring Christian Bale as a chilling Bateman. In these texts the obsession with food, consumption and elitism culminate in serial rape, murder and cannibalism. These are texts absolutely replete with Gothic orality. Underlying all his crimes is Bateman’s yearning for an elusive state of wholeness and connection with his environment. This longing is hardly unique to Bateman; rather it is typical of consumers and producers in postmodern culture. According to Sarah Sceats, the modern world manifests an “overwhelming yearning for wholeness”, a complete union of the self with another, and this yearning is apparent in oral appetites. Hunger becomes more than a need for food, it becomes an expression of deep-seated desires for connections and of uneasiness with the modern condition.

This is particularly evident in city narratives where isolation and anonymity lead to a sense of a fragmented existence and a deep need to create a sense of wholeness. The monstrous appetite of American Psycho’s notorious protagonist is a horrific projection of his inner emptiness and the fantasy of omnipotence. He constantly refers to himself as empty or shell-like. And while there are frequent scenes in restaurants, Bateman often has difficulty swallowing or eating, despite his seemingly aching hunger. Food, for Bateman and his cronies, takes on the role of status symbol. Eventually, he begins to manically ingest everything in sight and the ability to consume becomes the locus of power. Bateman initially starts out by investing food with enormous power and believes that by consuming it he will increase his own potency. However, what he finds is that, firstly he cannot eat the fine food he so desires, and secondly that even when he does, it does not satisfy his rapacious hunger since this hunger speaks of a spiritual rather than a purely material craving. It seems that certain versions of food/dining have become fetishised but (ironically) leave their consumers as physically and spiritually empty as ever. Appetite is out of control in contemporary America in an economic environment where ‘greed is good’. To a mouth everything looks good, but to a soul not everything will provide fulfilment.

Sex, and indeed murder, is, for Bateman, extremely oral-centric. Bateman is obsessed with orality and the mouth is the locus of power. Bateman bites off nipples, guts girls like fish and pulls out intestines with his teeth. He seems concerned with orifices and access. Bateman seeks new areas and ways of entry into another person. In the novel the human body is rendered a mere commodity through representing the Manhattan traders as replaceable robots and the female characters as flat, interchangeable mistresses or as literal commodities through prostitution. Thus, for Bateman, the taboo against eating them becomes less relevant, the edible-inedible binary becomes redundant. Bateman is turned on by a prostitute standing under a red neon sign flashing M.E.A.T. This awakens something in him, a desire to consume her; she is produce, just like meat, available for him to consume as he sees fit. Another of Bateman’s victims is literally butchered, cut into meat, eaten, and her corpse is treated like a carcass.

Can these Gothic biters say something about modern isolation, urban anonymity, and the privileging of consumption in contemporary society?

American Psycho

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