In 2005 an article in the New York Times appealed to horror film to contextualize the “weirdnesses” of genetic science. Nicholas Wade’s “Chimeras on the Horizon, but Don’t Expect Centaurs” defines the “original chimera” as “a tripartite medley of lion, goat, and snake.” The reference is to the Iliad, in which Homer describes the Chimaera as a “raging monster, divine, inhuman— / A lion in the front, a serpent in the rear, / In the middle a goat—and breathing fire.” The Times article lists other classical and fantastical chimeras: “centaurs, sphinxes, werewolves, minotaurs and mermaids, and the gorgon Medusa.” In contrast to such fabulous entities, Wade avers, biologists’ experimental chimeras are “generally bland,” consisting, for instance, of the “patchwork mouse” produced by mixing the embryonic cells of a black and a white mouse. Still, Wade admits, more disturbing chimeras loom: humans with pig-valve hearts and anticipated entities such as human organs molded from stem cells and grown in animals or the “seeding” of human cells throughout an animal’s system, perhaps even enabling an animal to reproduce with human eggs and sperm.1
The article refers twice to horror cinema. First, Dr. William Hansen, an expert in mythology at Indiana University, attributes human fascination and repulsion with chimeras to their “defiance of natural order,” commenting, “They promote a sense of wonder and awe and for many of us that is an enjoyable feeling; they are a safe form of danger as in watching a scary movie.” The article’s second allusion to films also mitigates the “danger” of biological chimeras, noting, “Contrary to the plot of every good horror movie, the biologists’ chimera cookbook contains only recipes of medical interest.” The “scary” or horror film thus domesticates the unsettling implications of genetic experimentation. It offers a “safe,” fictional engagement with a transgressive body, and it reassures by contrast, its fantastical plot throwing into relief the mundanity of biologists’ chimeras.
The article thus marks off the ostensibly “bland” realm of genetic scientific inquiry as the purview of experts, while confirming popular preference for—and distraction by—the reassuringly unbelievable excesses of horror film. As a figure at once mythic, genetic, and horrific, however, the chimera points to the inextricability of horror-film monsters, biological hybrids, and real individuals exhibiting physiological aberrance. First, the chimera illuminates the supernatural status of classic horror monsters such as Dracula’s undead vampire and Frankenstein’s reanimated creature. It reminds us that these entities are in some sense very much unreal. Second, in keeping with these mythic beginnings, the figure of the chimera connotes an utter fabrication or illusion, as in John Donne’s sentiment about distraction: “an any thing, a nothing, a fancy, a chimera in my braine troubles me in my prayer.”2 Here the chimera is an imaginary construct lacking material substance or transcendent significance. In Dracula and Frankenstein, then, the monstrous chimerical bodies may also be read as “any things,” “nothings,” “fancies” made up to serve particular cultural, social, or political purposes. Third, the chimera is also a real phenomenon. The combination of genetic material from two zygotes, as when two fertilized eggs conjoin or when one fertilized egg absorbs another egg or sperm-cell, produces a single individual composed—like the mouse, in a rather “patchwork way”—of two sets of distinct genetic material. The chimera’s odd genetic identity may be visibly “marked” in some way, for instance in admixed eye coloring or ambiguous genitalia, but, more often, chimerical humans are “normal” in appearance and never realize their genetic condition. Some researchers also point to evidence of what they call “microchimerism” to suggest that, due to the retention of fetal cells in mothers’ bloodstreams, “our bodies are cellular mongrels, teeming with cells from our mothers, maybe even from grandparents and siblings.”3 While such phenomena occur naturally, chimerism may also be the product of scientific experimentation in laboratories, of artificial reproductive technologies, or of procedures such as transplants or blood transfusion.
It is this latter artificial and nonetheless biological form of chimerism that seems most relevant to Dracula and Frankenstein. Dracula’s thematics of blood mixing suggests a process by which the vampire’s victims take on his “blood” or essence, remaining to some extent themselves, but nonetheless coming to exhibit vampiric traits. The vampire’s prey is thus re-produced as chimeric. In Frankenstein, the scientist brings together organs, body parts, and a brain from diverse sources to fashion a creature that combines different genetic imprints in the same body. Even as the films foreground deliberate and artificial chimeras, rather than “natural” combinations of genetic material in utero, we shall see that the horror plot makes it difficult to maintain a distinction between the constructed and the natural chimera. Indeed, the horror film seems to reveal that it is, aptly, impossible for the chimera to be exclusively either one or the other, a discovery that in turn debunks as chimerical the possibility of a completely pure and natural act of reproduction.
The chimera is thus at once a mythic beast; a mental construct or whim; and an actual human, animal, or plant constituted from diverse genetic materials—through natural circumstance, biological experimentation, or medical transplantation. Similarly, monstrous bodies in horror films are at once fantastical entities descended from myth and legend, intellectual and artistic mirages, and material instances of hybridity or impairment. In contradistinction to the New York Times article, then, the horror-film chimera is not a mere distraction from or reassuring exaggeration of the politics of genetic science, but a body on which we may trace the scientific and cultural metamorphosis of mundane biological accident into grotesque monstrosity—and back again. The effectiveness of horror film depends on our willingness to perceive physiological anomalies as symbols through which we may manage social and cultural fears and desires. To that extent, it collaborates closely with American eugenic discourse of the early twentieth century. If, however, horror films are to be more than a grotesque imitation of and thus distraction from the politics of science, we must both attend to and trouble the processes by which such facile translations are accomplished. We must build interpretations that interrogate the monster’s makeup and refuse to understand its physical form as merely a vehicle for something more important.
MONSTERS IN THE BED: EUGENICS AND CLASSIC HORROR FILM
The iconic bodies of the eugenic drama were eminently familiar to horror-film audiences in 1931. The two genres even seemed to share the narrative formula, later ascribed by Robin Wood to horror texts, in which “normality is threatened by the Monster.” Embodying “normality” in eugenic thought was the young, healthy, white woman, whose body had to be protected to secure the reproduction of the normal order. Opined eugenicist Harry H. Laughlin, “The perpetuity of the American race and consequently of American institutions depends upon the virtue and fecundity of American women.”4 Embodying the threat to such virtue and fecundity was the monster, in eugenic terms the product of “inferior” racial, class, or national groups, whose innate genetic defect and danger to normative reproduction was manifest as visible deformation. When author H. P. Lovecraft wrote condemning the “organic things—Italo-Semitico-Mongoloid” of Manhattan’s Lower East Side in the 1920s, he contended, “The individually grotesque was lost in the collectively devastating; which left on the eye … a yellow and leering mask with sour, sticky, acid ichors oozing at eyes, ears, nose, and mouth, and abnormally bubbling from monstrous and unbelievable sores at every point.”5 The assertion of nativist Madison Grant that “The stature [of ‘the dark Mediterranean or Iberian subspecies’] is stunted in comparison to that of the Nordic race and the musculature and bony framework weak,” underwrote his view that “New York is becoming a cloaca gentium which will produce many amazing racial hybrids and some ethnic horrors that will be beyond the powers of future anthropologists to unravel.”6 Impairments and deformities in eugenic texts thus naturalized the undesirability and aberrance of particular groups, as eugenicists exploited both a positivist belief in the visible and a presumably natural response of disgust toward certain anomalies. Discussing those deemed “feebleminded,” one attendee of the 1923 Southern Minnesota Medical Association meeting declared, “the majority are such stunted, misshapen, hideous specimens, that they arouse feelings of repulsion.”7 Obvious defect was seen to transparently reflect intellectual and other kinds of interior degeneracy, generating a “repulsion” that validated exclusive politics. The antipathy directed here toward the “feebleminded” reminds us that “the disabled” were also counted amongst those groups whose reproduction was to be contained or forestalled. Disability, then, occupies an overdetermined position in eugeni...