Gothic embodiment: Lon Chaney and affective amputation

Posted by Lena Wånggren on May 22, 2013 in Guest Blog, Lena Wånggren, Uncategorized tagged with , , , , , ,

What is a gothic body? Is there such as thing? Various scholars have theorised gothic embodiment and physical difference in gothic works, testifying to the specific corporeal side to the gothic. Examples of such works include Kelly Hurley’s groundbreaking The Gothic Body: Sexuality, Materialism, and Degeneration at the Fin de Siècle (1992), Steven Bruhm’s Gothic Bodies: The Politics of Pain in Romantic Fiction (1994), Judith Halberstam’s Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters (1995) and Catherine Spooner’s Fashioning Gothic Bodies (2004). David Punter in his Gothic Pathologies: The Text, the Body and the Law (1998) stresses the gothic’s fascination with and affinity to bodies and embodiments marked as ‘different’ or ‘other’ (9); something which we see in the often marked body of the monster, or various monstrous embodiments in gothic texts. Recently, the collection Demons of the Body and Mind: Essays on Disability in Gothic Literature (2010), edited by Ruth Bienstock Anolik, fruitfully employs the framework of disability studies to study monstrosity in the gothic. The collected essays focus on the ways in which Gothic texts respond to ‘human beings who are figured as inhuman because they do not align with the physical or mental standards of their society’ (Anolik 3). Bodies marked as different can then, as evidenced in these works, become inextricable linked to the gothic or explored in gothic writing.

This blog post, my second one, will focus on a specific physical ‘difference’ or marked body, namely the body disabled by amputation. Examining Lon Chaney’s characterisation of an amputee in The Unknown (1927), I will explore what amputation might mean when marked as different or other, and how amputation might take on different affective significations. The post is based on research I’m currently doing for a book chapter, so any ideas or reading tips would be very much appreciated.

Lon Chaney and Joan Crawford in The Unknown

‘Amputatio, the Latin noun from the verb amputare, to cut off or cut away, derived from amb, about and putare, to prune or to lop, was little used in Roman texts and never, it is believed, to indicate a surgical amputation; however, the verb amputare was employed with reference to cutting off the hands of criminals. Its deriviative in the English language, amputation, was not assigned to limb excision by surgeons much before the 17th century.’ (Kirkup 1)

Lon Chaney, ‘the man of a thousand faces’, is famous for his various and elaborate gothic embodiments on screen; well-known examples include his renditions of the hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and the phantom of the opera (1925). He specifically had an attachment to roles which required both make up and performance to embody physical difference. In two films – very different from each other – he played the roles of amputee. In the film The Penalty from 1920, Chaney’s character has both his legs amputated as a child – by mistake, by a misinformed doctor – and as a result of the social hardship he experiences grows up to be a criminal mastermind. Referred to by his rivals as ‘that cripple from hell’, Chaney’s character is desperate to take revenge on the doctor who performed the operation. The childhood amputation thus becomes the main plot of the entire film, with Chaney’s (or Blizzard’s, as his character is called) impairment posited as a marker of evil; the disabling of his body by the erring doctor causes Blizzard’s criminal career, and the criminal’s urge for revenge for what he calls his ‘mangled years’ drives the narrative. (The revenge that Blizzard seeks is a grim one: he wants his childhood doctor to amputate the legs of the doctor’s daughter’s fiancé to then attach them to his own body.) In addition, it could be argued, the abusive behaviour of Chaney’s character towards other characters in the film might be seen as emphasised through his physical difference (Anolik 3; Punter 9).

Ethel Grey Terry and Lon Chaney in The Penalty

While Chaney’s disabled character in The Penalty would make a very interesting study of gothic embodiment, I’d like to focus on a later film, in which physical difference and amputation are constructed in a slightly different – and to me more interesting – way: the strange feature The Unknown from 1927. In this extraordinary film, Chaney plays the circus artist Alonzo the Armless who ends up amputating his arms for the woman he loves – a fellow circus artist who has a phobia about being held – only to be rejected by her.

The Unknown movie poster

The film, in the few instances of critical examination of it, has generally been read as an allegory of traumatised masculinity or lost manhood. Critical analyses of The Unknown take their cue from psychoanalysis, linking to Freud’s logic in The Interpretation of Dreams (1900). Freud here argues that the dream-work frequently transposes the upper and lower portions of the body so that, for example, cutting hair or pulling teeth can be symbols of castration. The amputation of Alonzo’s arms (both faked and later on genuine) follows this logic (Worland 149). Rick Worland, for example, calls the film a ‘fantastic work of psychosexual grotesquerie’, its amputatory plot presenting a ‘fever dream of phallic symbolism, castration anxiety, and sexual terror’ (144). Karen Randell argues that Lon Chaney’s films, in which he often plays grotesque and mutilated characters, are ‘doubly coded as trauma narratives’ signifying the trauma of the first world war and simultaneously the disfigured male bodies of maimed veterans from the same war (Randell 217-218). Through Alonzo’s act of, as Randell calls it, ‘symbolic castration’, the potent whole male ‘renders himself voluntarily “impotent”‘ for love’s sake (219-220).

I will try to move away from such psychoanalytic readings of the film, suggesting instead a focus on affect and the sense of touch, in exploring the shifting formulations of gothic embodiment within the piece. Affect, as Patricia Ticineto Clough formulates it, ‘refers generally to bodily capacities to affect and be affected or the augmentation or diminuition of a body’s capacity to act, to engage, and to connect’ (2). Focusing on affects may allow us to move ‘from a psychoanalytically informed criticism of subject identity representation, and trauma [such as the criticism promoted by Worland and Randell in their readings of The Unknown, I would argue], to an engagement with information and affect’ (Clough 2). Crucial to a theory and experience of embodiment is a sense of touch; embodiment and touch are inextricably connected. Jean-Luc Nancy even states in The Birth to Presence that ‘Touching one another … is what makes [bodies,] properly speaking, bodies’ (204). Furthermore, touch bears with it a double meaning: ‘a particular intimacy seems to subsist between textures and emotions … the same double meaning, tactile plus emotional, is already there in the single word “touching”; equally it’s internal to the word “feeling”‘ (Sedgwick 17). There is a conceptual slippage between touching and feeling, they are intertwined. The human hands might best embody this dual nature of touch: they explore surfaces as well as help us to express emotion in dialogue with others. Arguably, the hands are our most active tools of touching. In this context, the expressed horror of manual touch as well as the amorous amputation in The Unknown must bear a specific importance. Through a focus on gothic embodiment in terms of touch and sense, we might read Alonzo’s extraordinary action – the amputation of his arms – as an affective act, generating a more open-ended reading of the film than previous psychoanalytic approaches.

Joan Crawford and Lon Chaney in The Unknown

The film is set in ‘old Madrid’ at an unspecified point in time, at Antonio Zanzi’s ‘gypsy circus’. Released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1927 and directed by Tod Browning, it centres on the bizarre love triangle of performers ‘Alonzo the Armless’ (Chaney), Nanon Zanzi (Joan Crawford), and the circus strongman ‘Malabar the Mighty’ (Norman Kerry). The pseudo-armless Alonzo as part of his circus act fires a gun, and throws knives, using only his feet. Assisting Alonzo in his ‘death-defying act’ is Nanon, the daughter of the circus owner Zanzi, and the secret object of Alonzo’s affections. Situated in a moving vehicle, Alonzo fires the gun at the posing Nanon, shots which remove her clothes, and then throws knives which end up circuiting her bikini-clad body figure.

Alonzo is described by the circus owner as ‘the sensation of sensations!’, this expression setting out already at the start a focus on sense or sensation. He is also announced as the ‘wonder of wonders!’ As Rosemarie Garland-Thomson notes in Staring: How We Look, so-called ‘Armless Wonders’ were among the most spectacular and well-paid performers in turn-of-the-century American freak shows (133). These performers would never simply display themselves but instead performed various tricks with their feet and toes (writing calligraphy scripts, cutting out intricate paper dolls, and much more) (133). Alonzo’s feet in fact in many scenes (strumming a guitar, smoking a cigarette, pouring wine, for example) belonged to an actual armless man named Paul Desmuke, whose head and torso were concealed off-camera while his legs and toes performed the stunts in these collaborative scenes – in frame with Chaney’s upper body and face. Only Alonzo’s assistant Cojo (John George) knows that Alonzo in fact is NOT armless – he has two functional arms. When in public, Alonzo’s arms are bound to his chest with a tight corset and covered with a shirt and jacket.

Lon Chaney and John George in The Unknown

Alonzo’s love interest Nanon has a strange horror of hands and manual touch. She tells her friend in confidence: ‘Alonzo, all my life men have tried to put their beastly hands on me… to paw over me.’ She has ‘grown so that [she] shrink[s] with fear when any man touches [her]’ with their ‘beastly hands’. Nanon’s fear becomes apparent when she is courted by the circus weight-lifter or strongman Malabar. When Malabar boasts to Nanon of his manual strength, flexing his arm muscles and grabbing her wrists, while telling her of his ‘hands that long to caress you’, Nanon struggles to get away, and the look on her face is one of terror. To Nanon, the object of gothic horror strangely seems to be not the body marked as physically different, but the normative body, emphasised even more forcefully through Malabar’s physique.

Terrified and disgusted by Malabar’s aggressive touching feeling hands, Nanon declares her abhorrence for hands, specifically those of men, exclamining: ‘Hands! Men’s hands! How I hate them!’, and indeed wishes that ‘God would … [take] the hands from all of them’. She seeks refuge with her friend Alonzo – since he is armless and thus can do her no harm.

What might Nanon’s strange fear of hands mean? It can be argued that the human hands might best embody the dual nature of touch earlier mentioned (Sedgwick’s ‘touching/feeling’, the affective character of touch): hands explore surfaces as well as help us to express emotion in dialogue with others. Garland-Thomson notes the particularity of the hands in our culture:

‘Hands make us human, or so we are told. Our opposite thumbs, the prehensile utility, agile fingers, exquisite sensitivity, sleek hairlessness, and protective nails distinguish our hands. We grasp tools, partners, enemies, and food with more accuracy and grace than our hoofed, pawed, or finned fellow creatures. … Poised for action at the end of generous and flexible arms, our hands are implement of our wills. … Hands do things. … As such, hands are witnesses to human endeavor and desire. We look to the physiology of hands for meaning.’ (119)

In this context, Nanon’s horror of manual touch and Alonzo’s later amorous amputation in The Unknown must bear a specific importance. Hands become prime markers of affective connections and negotiations between the three main characters, in their strange love triangle, and the presence or absence of hands might mark the body as either normative or specifically other, in both instances enacting or problematising different embodiments of the gothic.

Given Nanon’s fear of men’s arms and hands, Alonzo comes up with the fantastic plot of blackmailing a surgeon to amputate his arms, in order to win Nanon’s love. When Alonzo is truly without arms, surely Nanon will love him? Alonzo has his arms amputated not for medical reasons; his amputation is an act carried out for amorous or affective reasons, in order to be able to connect affectively with another body – Nanon’s. He goes through with the amputation, making himself insensible to manual cutaneous touch, seemingly without much regret.

Alonzo comes back after his surgery, arms amputated, expecting Nanon to meet him with – so to speak – open arms. However, while Alonzo has been in recovery, Nanon has in fact come to terms with the touching feeling of human hands, and is now engaged to Malabar the circus strongman. Not only is Nanon’s fear of hands gone, she declares to her old friend that she even LOVES Malabar’s hands: ‘Remember how I used to be afraid of his hands? … I am not any more. I love them now.’ This is explicitly emphasised in the acting, the bodily postures and positions of the actors: hands in focus, touching each other, in the below still.

Norman Kerry and Joan Crawford in The Unknown

Nanon has now gone from performing with Alonzo in their knife-throwing double act, to instead performing together with Malabar. Alonzo sabotages the new act, in order to get Malabar killed by having the strongman’s arms literally ripped off from his body by horses, but ends up himself being trampled to death. The film ends with the two lovers, Nanon and Malabar, embracing – and most, importantly, holding each others’ hands. The hand as signifying gothic embodiment (as expressed through Nanon’s fear) is no longer, but we recall the fate of Chaney’s character, the one marked as physically different in the story.

This piece is still a work in progress, as I have still not managed to make proper sense of the strange film. The Unknown is such rich work, and it would be difficult (and unhelpful) to try to give a conclusive or ultimate reading of it. What I hope to have shown, however, is one of the many possible readings of it, and indeed of amputation. While psychoanalysis insists on amputation as loss, as trauma (usually linked to a loss of masculinity), I wanted to present another way of reading this particular embodiment (or embodied act, perhaps). While the Gothic might be fascinated with bodies and embodiments marked as ‘other’, with physical difference, as seen in the character Nanon’s horror of hands in The Unknown also the normative body might become gothic, traumatic, horrible. Bodies and embodiments are perhaps imbued with specific significations and affects in various ways, making possible a wide range of gothic embodiments.

After reading this, you must of course be longing to see this strange film? Here it is – enjoy! The Penalty is also available online: here.


Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie. Staring: How We Look. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009.

Kirkup, John. A History of Limb Amputation. London: Springer, 2007.

Nancy, Jean-Luc. The Birth to Presence, trans. B. Holmes et al. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1993.

Punter, David. Gothic Pathologies: The Text, the Body and the Law. University Park: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998.

Anolik, Ruth Bienstock (ed.). Demons of the Body and Mind: Essays on Disability in Gothic Literature. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, 2010.

Randell, Karen. ‘Masking the Horror of Trauma: The Hysterical Body of Lon Chaney.’ Screen. 44.2 (Summer 2003): 216-221.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity. Durham; London: Duke University Press, 2003.

Ticineto Clough, Patricia (ed.). The Affective Turn: Theorizing the Social. Durham (NC): Duke University Press, 2007.

The Unknown. Dir. Tod Browning. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1927.

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

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