Friday, September 18, 2009
The Elephant Man (1980 - dir. David Lynch)
Psychologists and, especially, evolutionary psychologists, are always inquiring why. Why do parents love their children? Why are people attracted to physically desirable others? Why are some people more physically attractive than others? Evolutionary psychology attempts to examine the deepest reasons for what many take for granted. From this point of view, it is not because someone is "good-looking" that you find them physically attractive. The scientific question is, why are they perceived as "good-looking" in the first place and, therefore, found to be attractive? Research in this area provides a context from which to understand what is perhaps one of the most promiscuous themes in cinema...the "monster"movie.
One of the best treatments of the deep themes that run through many "monster" movies is David Lynch's The Elephant Man. This film does not portray a supernatural monster, an outer space monster, or some sort of improbable creation of science gone out of control. But, that makes no difference in that the underlying psychology behind films of this type is remarkably similar. Turning the psychology of physical attraction on its head, Lynch's film addresses the question, "why are people repulsed by physically unattractive (indeed, repulsive) others, even though these others are intelligent, sensitive people"?
Joseph Merrick was afflicted with physical deformities, the causes of which are still hotly disputed. Lynch's film is a moving rumination on the way that interpersonal connection is often preempted by apparently superficial physical variables. Why should the way one looks matters? Why can't people look beyond physical abnormalities (or, even "normalities") and see the "real" person? While our disgust reactions to physical deformity seem "natural" and unrequiring of explanation, something inside us demands to know why.
In Lynch's film, the deformed Merrick is rescued from a life as a carnival sideshow attraction by a physician who is fascinated with his malady as well as the possibility of integrating this kind soul into Victorian society. Despite Merrick's human nature, it becomes clear that his physical presence is a curse that he will never be able to overcome. Recent evolutionary psychological research has given us a way to understand this peculiar aspect of human behavior. Schaller and Duncan (2007) have hypothesized the "behavioral immune system" that, essentially, argues that "evolved mechanisms designed to inhibit contact with disease-carrying conspecifics are likely to promote specific kinds of aversive reactions toward many specific kinds of people who are, in fact, perfectly healthy." In other words, humans may possess psychological adaptations that promoted aversive reactions to cues of infection, disease, or other maladies in our ancestral history. Those that possessed these cognitive aversions, and their attendant emotional reactions of disgust, etc., were more likely to avoid the possible contagious effects that would occur with close, interpersonal contact. As with most evolved disgust reactions, overgeneralization of such responses would be selected for as the costs of avoiding a healthy person would be less than the cost of not avoiding a "contagious" person. Consequently, and as subsequent research by these psychologists has demonstrated, contagion avoidance, as ancestrally cued by physical abnormalities, has generalized to avoidance reactions to cases of deformity and infirmity that have nothing to do with contagious disease (for example, physical disabilities). Think about it. Do you ever feel uncomfortable in the presence of physically disabled or deformed individuals?
Monsters have mothers, too...
Obviously, these reactions are not justified in that "disabled" individuals are not less human nor less "worthy" than anybody else. This research is clearly not suggesting that. What is being examined is the nature of individuals' reactions to specific cues of "contagion" that, over time, have been overgeneralized to physical cues that signal nothing at all.
Frankenstein's monster, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Wolfman, Jason, and never-ending squadrons of zombies attest to the fascination of humans with the physically "abnormal." Clearly, in these films, they are beings to be avoided. Lynch's Elephant Man provokes avoidance. But...he's nice, smart, and elegant. And there's the eternal contradiction of the monster...
Monsters on Parade