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A phenomenology of tragedy: illness and body betrayal in The Fly

Havi Carel

We’ve all got the disease - the disease of being finite. Death is the basis of all horror (David Cronenberg in Rodley 2000: 128)

Please help me; help me be human (Brundlefly in The Fly)


Many interpretations of David Cronenberg’s 1986 film The Fly read it as a film about monstrosity (Beard 2006; Freeland 2006; Modelski 2006; Smith 2000). Within this framework, the protagonist Seth Brundle’s progressive illness and decay are subsumed under his metamorphosis into a monster. Illness is taken to be a metaphor for the changes in Seth, changes that continuously turn him away from the human and towards the monstrous. Seth’s monstrosity, in turn, arises from the fusion of human and non-human, in this case the fusion of a man with an insect.                            .

In what follows I suggest an opposite interpretation: instead of seeing Seth’s illness as a metaphor for monstrosity, I suggest that monstrosity is a metaphor for illness. Seth’s physical corruption as he becomes more and more monstrous is, in fact, a depiction of illness, and elicits disgust in the viewer that is identical to the disgust elicited by physical corruption brought about by illness. The external deformation of Seth as he becomes more and more fly-like, shown so spectacularly in the film, is a representation of the internal destruction and physiological chaos caused by disease.

More specifically, I argue that the notion of the monstrous that is so central to the film in fact supports the health/ illness dichotomy, in which the two states – health and illness, or human and monster – are posited as mutually exclusive. Instead of accepting the dichotomy and focusing on the dialecticbetween human and monstrous, as many interpretations have, I claim that the film in fact demonstrates the fallacy of this dichotomous view, showing that ultimately we all have ‘the disease of being finite’. I propose to understand the film as a tragedy portraying the terminal illness of a decent man. As such, the film dupes the viewer into accepting the human/ monster and healthy/ diseased dichotomies, only to grasp their illusoriness by the end of the film.

A specific disease prototype is used in the film, that of cancer. Seth’s disease is a result of genetic mutation and there are many references to cancer in the film (when Seth tells his lover he is ill he says: “I think it’s showing itself as a bizarre form of cancer, a general cellular cancer”). I suggest that The Fly is one of the most complete cinematic portrayals of a cancerous process, from mutation to death, in all its tragic horror. As such, The Fly is a phenomenological study of illness, depicting in minute detail aspects of the changes brought about by illness.

Many have taken The Fly to be a film about the AIDS epidemic, which attracted much attention in the 80s. Indeed, the frequent references to the flesh and Seth’s transformation from a shy scientist to a hyper-sexualised promiscuous male seem to lend themselves to this interpretation. But, as I will show, the genetic and mutationist theme of the film sits uncomfortably with this reading (“We don’t have to worry about contagion anymore”, Seth says to his lover when he realises the source of his illness). As Cronenberg points out, if it were a film about AIDS, then Seth’s lover, Roni, must have given it to him, but she remains healthy throughout the film (Rodley 2000: 127). I therefore suggest that the film can be more successfully read as a general depiction of mutation-induced illness, with cancer as the paradigmatic disease.

I would like to reject the interpretations that see The Fly as a monster story, or a mad scientist horror film, although some use of these genres is made in the film (possibly explaining its box-office success). Instead I would like to use Aristotle’s definition of tragedy in the Poetics to analyse the film as a tragic narrative par excellence:  it is the story of the downfall of a decent man, who goes from happiness to misery through a hamartia, or error. This notion of tragedy will support my claim that The Fly is not a monster movie but the depiction of an ill human being, condemned to suffering and death, in all his frailty and helplessness.

The phenomenological approach deployed in the essay pivots around Merleau-Ponty’s distinction between the biological and the lived body. I claim that the cinematic medium is unique in allowing us to experience the gap between the biological and the lived body that opens up in illness (Merleau-Ponty 1962). The film does this by juxtaposing grotesque visual imagery (detailing Seth’s physical corruption) with an affective response of pity and compassion (mirroring Seth’s lived experience of illness). The biological body and the lived body are normally experienced as identical, when they function flawlessly. The gap between the two becomes explicit in cases of bodily disorder, where the biological body behaves unpredictably, fails to perform previously effortless tasks and becomes a source of suffering. This gap is, I argue, pivotal to understanding the film as a depiction of illness.

Moreover, the descriptive function of cinema as a definitive representational medium is a powerful tool for portraying illness as a multidimensional process, with physical, psychological and social aspects. As such it is the ideal medium for a phenomenology of illness. The minute detail of Seth’s transformation controlling the second part of the film is brought into sharp relief through the use of camera techniques and special effects (the film won an Oscar for best makeup in 1987). This transformation, so perfectly captured by cinematic language, is entirely overlooked in other representational forms depicting illness, most notably in medical vocabulary.

Finally, phenomenology’s emphasis on subjective experience and therefore on the divergence of first- and third-person perspectives is also a central feature of The Fly. The exploration of boundaries, both between self and other and between internal and external, is, as we shall see, the conceptual focus of the film. For these reasons I see The Fly as cinematic enactment of a phenomenology of illness. 

The main aspects of illness as played out in The Fly are examined below: the centrality and betrayal of the body, negotiating one’s identity vis-à-vis the changes brought about by illness, the altered relationships to the world and to others, and finally, the mortality and frailty of human flesh. These phenomenological elements provide the lynchpins of the tragic story of a man plagued by incurable illness.


The Fly is a remake of a 1958 horror B-movie of the same title directed by Kurt Neumann. Cronenberg, who somewhat oddly describes the film as autobiographical (Rodley 2000: 78) altered the script so much that only one line of the original script remains in his version. It is a Cronenbergian movie and as such depicts, with great emphasis on abjection, the transformation of a shy scientist, Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum), into a ‘185 lb fly’, which he cynically names ‘Brundlefly’. Seth invents a teleporting machine, but the machine cannot teleport living creatures without ‘turning them inside out’. Through a love affair with a science journalist, Veronica (Roni) Quaife (Geena Davis), Seth discovers the pleasures of the flesh and consequently succeeds in programming the computer to teleport living creatures by teaching it ‘to be crazy about the flesh’.

After the successful teleportation of a baboon, in a drunken bout of anger caused by Roni’s temporary departure to see an old boyfriend, Seth decides to teleport himself. A fly enters the telepod with him, and the computer fuses the two together. Out of the other pod comes Seth, thinking that he has been successfully teleported. But unbeknownst to him, his genes have been mixed with the fly’s. His metamorphosis begins. He becomes voracious, for both food and sex. He turns more masculine, strong, hyper-sexualised, with the first fly-hairs growing on his back mistaken for maleness. He becomes aggressive, filled with energy, and begins to eat only sweet junk food. Roni takes a few hairs from his back, and sends them to be analysed. When she tells him that the laboratory found the hairs to be insect hairs, Seth throws her out of his flat, and goes on a rampage of violence and sexual promiscuity.

Seth then retreats to his flat (he will only leave it once more until the end of the film), refusing to answer phone calls. But four weeks later he phones Roni and asks her to come over. He is now bent over crutches, his face an unsightly blotchy mess. He tells her about his illness: having asked the computer to reconstruct the teleportation process, he now realises the tragic truth. Roni wants him to seek medical help, but he refuses, saying there is nothing to be done.

As Seth’s transformation continues he becomes more and more fly-like. He loses his human features – fingernails, ears, teeth – which he stores in a cabinet he cynically but sadly refers to as “the Brundle Museum of Natural History”. When Roni comes to the flat again, to tell him that she is pregnant with his child, he crawls on the ceiling and walls and shows her the beginning of wings protruding from him abdomen. Seth warns her that insects have no compassion and that she should not stay: “You have to leave now. And never come back here...  I’ll hurt you if you stay”. Roni rushes out of the flat, in tears, to her old boyfriend, Stathis Borans, who is waiting downstairs. Seth watches her from the rooftop and hears her telling Stathis about her pregnancy.

Roni tries to obtain an abortion with Stathis’ help. But Seth appears dramatically at the clinic, shattering a glass wall, and carries her back to his flat. He consults the computer who tells him that in order to stop his metamorphosis into a fly he must fuse his genes with those of another human. He therefore wishes to fuse himself with her and the foetus ‘to make the perfect family’, as he says mockingly.

At the climactic finale Stathis appears at the flat with a gun, in an attempt to save Roni. Seth vomits acidic digestive fluid on his hand and leg, debilitating him. Seth then sheds his skin, revealing a complete exoskeletal fly-like body. He pushes Roni into one pod and gets into another, but at the last minute Stathis shoots the cable connecting Roni’s pod to the computer. The computer fuses Seth with the third, empty pod, creating a monstrous fusion of man, fly and metal. Brundleflypod slowly crawls out of the pod, metal chunks and cables trailing behind it, towards Roni, who is now holding the gun. In a final human gesture he lifts the barrel to his head, conveying his wish to die to Roni. She shoots him.

Body betrayal: transformation and identity

Every time I look at the mirror there’s someone different, someone hideous, someone repulsive (Seth Brundle in The Fly)

In The Artist as Monster (2006) William Beard argues that The Fly is an exploration of human identity and the things that threaten it. Mutation, disease and abjection are subjected to an intense personalised examination in the film, focusing on the question: what constitutes a human subject and what constitutes a monster? This investigation, says Beard, requires a fully realised subject to be erased. This subjectivity must first be established so we can fully appreciate the loss. The film’s project is to observe the utter destruction of the human subject by forces of inconceivable otherness (2006: 200).

I believe that this reading does not fully appreciate Seth’s humanness throughout the film and as such falls into the trap Cronenberg sets for the viewer. The trap is contained in the thought that Seth is slowly losing his humanity simply because his physical body is trans-humanly transformed. I believe that Seth does not become a monster. He becomes a man with a diseased body that is perceived as a monster by the other characters in the film and by the viewer. Throughout the film we watch a man grappling with the changes and decay of his body, the grotesque malformations that result from its mutation, and his resulting abjection. But throughout the film Seth is – and remains – thoroughly human. His mind, ideas and personality are transformed too, but at no point in the film can we view Seth as truly non-human, as pure monster.

Seth’s humanity is emphasised throughout the film mainly through its excessive affectivity and emotional overload. This affect is created by focusing on Seth’s curiosity and sadness in his confrontation with his biological body and its ghastly transformations. One mode of preserving his humanity and vitality is by suggesting a more optimistic interpretation of his condition. When Roni comes to see Seth, he humanly, pathetically, coaxes her into staying with him and tries to show her that his metamorphosis is not monstrous, but creative. “Maybe it’s not such a bad disease after all”, he suggests tentatively, after showing her his new ability to crawl on walls. In the early stages he obtains extreme agility and power, emphasising the creative element of his metamorphosis and as the disease progresses, we increasingly see a lonely, deformed man craving human contact (even if only in mediated form, via a videotape made by Roni, who shows it to Stathis). Seth’s humanness, it seems, remains intact and is in fact reinforced by his depiction as frightened, mournful and puzzled by the betrayal of his own body. “If you saw how scared and angry and desperate he is”, Roni says to Stathis, after visiting Seth.

Disgust plays a major role in the trap Cronenberg sets up for the viewer. Seth’s bodily transformation arouses extreme disgust from Roni and Stathis, the only people who see him, and the viewer takes her cues from the many reaction shots showing Roni appalled, disgusted, tormented by the horror of Seth’s body. Cronenberg uses visual effects and props to maximum effect. We are shown one of Seth’s ears falling off, we repeatedly see him vomiting on his food, he shows Roni the beginning of wings protruding from his abdomen and finally we see his skin splitting open and dropping like a shell, the full insect form appearing from within. We are, of course, meant to be horrified by the changes in Seth. But what makes these changes horrific is the fact that they are happening to a human. The betrayal of the flesh, the frailty of the body, the evanescent nature of health and youth are invoked in the horror scenes in the form of a general promise, that decay and disintegration are the fate of all human bodies.

We are thus led to be disgusted by Seth, but also feel tremendous pity and sadness at his physical deterioration. In fact, Cronenberg has done his utmost to generate sympathy and pity for Seth. At the end of her first visit, Seth asks Roni for help. “I’m scared”, he says, “Help me, please, please help me”. This heart wrenching appeal is repeated several times in the film. He later begs Roni to be fused with him in order to save him from continued transformation. “Help me”, he says again, “Help me be human”. And at the end of the film, when Seth is fused with the pod, in an ultimate display of physical abjection, unable to speak anymore, he holds the gun barrel to his head, silently asking Roni to kill him. In this request for assisted suicide, he is, again, asking for help. This tragic gesture expresses Seth’s humanity: he prefers to die than be seen as a monster.

Roni’s hysterical behaviour mirrors our own panic in the face of the horror of Seth’s body. She visits Seth twice and both times we see her horrified, hysterical, weeping and – most importantly – desperate to leave. In the second part of the film she, too, is transformed, from a strong, assertive woman to a prototypical woman in a horror movie, who does nothing but scream and cry. When she comes to visit Seth she says: “I have to leave. I can’t take it, it’s just too much”. Seth replies: “What is there to take?” In this pithy retort Seth is in fact saying that illness is only disgusting from the third-person perspective, only through the objectifying gaze of the spectator. In his response Seth is chastising his lover, proposing that change is only horrifying given a particular set of ideas we have about the human body, its aesthetic and function. If she really loved him, he implies, she would accept his transformation and stay with him.

Seth’s transformation is not sudden. In fact, the entire film can be seen as a slow, microscopic exploration of change. From the first time he wears a dark red shirt, replacing his identical grey suits, his first bite into a donut (one of his first symptoms is a preference for sweets), his increased physical strength and the coarse hairs growing on his back, all symbolise change. These changes in behaviour, diet, sexual and aesthetic preferences demonstrate that the metamorphosis is not in body only (like Gregor Samsa, who continued to be his fearful, subdued self, trapped in an insect body), but a total transformation of body, mind and world, of relations to others and to self.

But this transformation, which superficially seems like a unique and monstrous metamorphosis, is in fact only an instance of universal organic change. Change – especially bodily change – is not something that belongs to the monstrous, or the diseased, exclusively. We all metamorphose, only at a slower rate. As Cronenberg says: “…we are used to our bodies changing. First we grow up, then we grow down. There’s only a moment where there are a few years of the illusion of stability. It doesn’t last long” (Rodley 2000: 124) (This comment should be considered against the background of Cronenberg’s entire oeuvre. Most of his films are about bodily transformation and its consequences, notably Rabies, Crash and Dead Ringers). The gradual transformation of a normal human body takes place over many decades and is therefore experienced as unthreatening. But the changes experienced by Seth are sudden and therefore extraordinary.

If change is the condition of organic life, the general lesson the film teaches us is that no one is exempt from processes of illness, ageing and ultimately – dying. As subtle and gentle as they may be, disintegration and decay are the inevitable endpoint of human trajectory.  Returning once more to Cronenberg, he says that his films are “about cancer, death, a compression of mortality” (Rodley 2000: 128). For this reason the dichotomy between healthy and diseased, which seems so prominent in the film, is a false distinction. One is only temporarily healthy, and the difference between health and illness is only one of degree and timing. One is relatively healthy for a temporary period.

Here, again, I think Beard’s analysis is mistaken. Beard (2006) argues that illness is seen first as external and accidental in the film, but is gradually appropriated until it becomes innate and determined. Seth is essentialised as ill, with disease written into his genes. But in fact, disease – or the stigma sometimes attached to it, certainly in The Fly – is not innate, not part of Seth’s persona. Seth is diseased in relation to some ideal of health, beauty, normalcy and so on. Illness is therefore a relative concept, internally related to health, as it is only meaningful in relation to some notion of how things usually are or ought to be. But no one is exempt of stigma because no one embodies the perfect flawless norm. We are all stigmatised by others, to some extent and at some point in our lives, as ill or old, or embodying some shortcoming we suffer from relative to the norm (Goffman 1963). Seth is not a sick person, but a person suffering from an illness. The mistaken identification of Seth with his disease is yet another part of the trap constructed by Cronenberg.

Seth is rendered even more human when we consider his response to his illness. The transformation of one’s own body is a most difficult, reflexive change. How do you react when you one day discover a novel feature of your body? Seth’s defensive schema exhibits a plethora of reactions, from denial to sadness to distanced irony to anger, and most of all – self-loathing and fear. These human reactions help us identify with Seth as responding much as anyone would to a grim discovery of terminal illness.

Some may at this point question the notion of the human and present a different relation to the human/ animal distinction. They claim that the distinction is unclear, that it is rooted in a Cartesian tradition and is therefore based on erroneous metaphysical assumptions of a mind/ body distinction. Here I would like to move away from general categorisations of the human/ animal concepts and see Cronenberg as trying to bring out a particular aspect of the animal or biological body: that under certain conditions, namely those of illness, the biological body tears away from the lived, habitual body, creating a rift and repositioning itself as threatening and unpredictable. This rift played out in the film is not an attempt to negate the human. Rather, I believe the film aims to locate the human within a bodily organic existence, and to see subjectivity itself as arising from and conditioned by this embodied existence.

This point seems trivial and general, but if we think about it in relation to illness, we can see that the stakes are completely different. We are all, as both philosophers and humans, happy to embrace our embodied existence. This is seen in a broad range of views, from hedonism to embodied cognition and phenomenology, which take the body to be a significant component of subjectivity. But in the case of a bodily breakdown, the joy with which we may want to embrace the body is replaced by pain, uncertainty and incapacity. It is these uncanny conditions of embodiment Cronenberg is interested in, rather than the general point that in order to be human one must first be animal.

What is at stake in the case of illness? Merleau-Ponty (1962) turns to instances of bodily disorder in order to uncover the ambiguity of the body as lived and as biological. The natural ease of everyday bodily intentionality makes it hard for us to see this difference. But by turning to pathological cases we can see the discord and internal confusion created by the disparity between the two. What we see in the film is Seth’s biological body radically changing and hence splitting from his lived experience, with which it no longer accords. His familiar, lived body afforded him a familiar and well rehearsed set of capacities. It elicited pleasurable and predictable responses from other people (as the love story in the film emphasises). These are now replaced by uncanny capacities and, more disturbingly, incapacities. What we see in the film is Seth’s habitual body peeled away from his ‘body at this moment’, as Merleau-Ponty calls it, and how he copes with the new set of demands and challenges presented by his transformed body. This is the alienation and sense of being not at home in one’s own body. Seth’s body is the biological body exposed as disparate, unruly, uncanny.

In the following section I apply Aristotle’s definition of tragedy to support the claim that Seth is a normal man responding normally to an abnormal and unique situation. He is not a monster; in fact he is portrayed as emphatically human until his very end. Returning once again to Cronenberg, speaking about The Fly: “What fascinated me about the whole project was, how does this man deal with his disease: rationalise it, articulate it?” (Rodley 2000: 124).

Illness as relational: transforming the world

To me the film is a metaphor for ageing, a compression of any love affair that goes to the end of one of the lover’s lives … Every love story must end tragically (David Cronenberg in Rodley 2000: 125)

Illness is a relational phenomenon; not an essence. Its appearance and impact are determined by the ill person’s relationship to herself, to other people and to her world. In a cinematic depiction an additional relation comes into play, the relationship of the viewer to the protagonist. In this section I focus on Seth’s transformed relationships and the affective responses to his transformation. In The Fly this relational change takes the form of pity, horror and disgust. These, I claim, are eleos and phobos, pity and terror, the components of katharsis, presented by Aristotle as the beneficial outcome of tragedy spectatorship.

What is tragedy? In the Poetics Aristotle presents the following definition:

“Tragedy is the imitation (mimesis) of a good action (spoudaias), which is complete and of a certain length, by means of language made pleasing for each part separately; it relies in its various elements not on narrative but on acting; through pity (eleos) and fear (phobos) it achieves the purgation (katharsis) of such emotions” (6:49b).

Tragedy is the imitation – cinematic representation in this case – of an action that leads to the downfall of the protagonist. The action must not be bad and the protagonist must not be an evil man, otherwise we will not pity him, but rather feel satisfied by his just punishment. The protagonist must therefore be “a man who is neither outstanding in virtue and righteousness nor is it through wickedness and vice that he falls into misfortune, but through some error or flaw (hamartia)” (13:53a).

There is much debate about the precise interpretation of hamartia in Aristotle’s account of tragedy. Some see it as an error or ignorance of some fact, some as a character flaw, and others as moral or intellectual failing (Kaufmann 1968). The significant point is that because the protagonist is endowed with both human powers and human failings, he commits an error that is not unreasonable but that due to circumstances beyond his control escalates into fully tragic consequences. In Seth’s case, it is the hasty decision to teleport himself. The decision may be rash, but would have been harmless if it weren’t for the fly. The fly, representing our inability to control circumstances, to make reality conform to our expectations, is not part of Seth’s plans. But nor is the fly Seth’s fault.

The rest of the film plays out the consequences of this single, flawed (but not immoral) decision, which in combination with the presence of the fly sets the tragic plot in motion. Tragedy is not the gods’ punishment for hubris, as many erroneously think. It is our encounter with our own impotence and limitations, here represented by a simple house fly. In this sense, all life is tragic.

So the tragic protagonist should be a nice guy, not perfect but certainly not evil. He commits an error and this error sets off a series of events that snowball beyond any intended consequences. In other words, the universal appeal and emotional potency of tragic drama is the sense that it could have happened to anyone. This is the source of empathy, which triggers the emotional response of pity and terror. By telling the story of a downfall of a decent man, tragedy elicits pity and terror and these, in turn, lead to katharsis, purgation or cleansing. The point of tragedy, for Aristotle, is moral hygiene, achieved by purging the soul of excess emotion.

But tragedy would not work if the protagonist were a monster. We would not feel pity for a monster being shot by a woman threatened by it. Rather, the framework of tragedy requires that Seth be human, and moreover a decent human. This reading is strongly supported by the film’s depiction of Seth. Seth is a gentle and clever man. He is ambitious and inventive and he is passionate about his work and about his lover, Roni. The first part of the film portrays sweet romance: two young, attractive and talented people fall in love (in the original script the scientist has been married for a long time. Cronenberg changed this into a love affair we witness from its beginning, in order to emphasise the exciting freshness of a new love affair. Indeed, at the time of filming, Davis and Goldblum were a couple) (Rodley 2000).

Throughout the film we like Seth and later pity him. At no point does his deformation generate alienation that would override this pity. In fact, the clever use of Seth’s soliloquies while he is alone in the flat gives us insight into what he is going through and how he copes with his illness. We hear him musing about his decay, in gentle irony, in the scene in which some of his teeth fall out onto the computer keyboard. He carries them to the bathroom and gently places them in the cabinet, saying: “You are a relic. Vestigial archaeological, redundant artefacts from a bygone era. Of historical interest only”. We see his sadness, his surprise, and the gentle humour he uses to adapt to his new situation.

Similarly, when Seth tells Roni she must leave the flat and never come back, the scene is emotionally charged with tragic sorrow. Despite his desire to be with her, he tells her to leave, because he realises he might hurt her. This altruism shows the humanity and morality of Seth, despite his monstrous appearance. And towards the end of the film, when Seth kidnaps Roni to prevent her from having an abortion and to try and fuse their bodies, the following dialogue takes place, in which Seth’s fatigue and defeat, rather than monstrosity, is prominent:

-You tried to kill Brundle, the baby, all that’s left of the real me. Please don’t kill me. Please, have the baby.
-I can’t, I can’t
-Too bad. Too bad.

Within this sympathetic framework, generating pity, Cronenberg also ensures there is enough gore and goo on set to create terror. The main tool is physical disgust with Seth’s body and environment. Seth is a tidy scientist, but Brundlefly is messy and disgusting. His flat is strewn with packages and wrappers of sweets, half-eaten food, dust and debris. Seth is also physically disgusting – he vomits digestive acid on himself, his face is blotchy, bits of his body fall off, his hands – the emblem of humanity – are replaced by insect legs, and so on. When he first begins to change, shortly after teleporting himself, Roni confronts him: ‘You’re changing, Seth, everything about you is changing. You look bad, you smell bad’. 

These changes are depicted as surprising for Seth, but as opposed to others in the film and the viewers, for him these changes are intimate. He cannot walk away from them and must therefore negotiate a different relationship to his own transformation. The reflex response to disgust is to retreat, to walk away. But if your own body elicits your disgust, that is impossible. Therefore Seth must overcome his disgust of himself and does this with great creativity and imagination: he responds to his illness with anger, cynicism, irony, humour and denial. He is not only aware of the changes, he is also aware of the disgust they elicit in others. He responds appropriately – he shuts himself in his flat and remains secluded, barring two visits from Roni. The self-inflicted loneliness is a clear sign of his shame and refusal to test other people’s friendship and sympathy by, say, going to the hospital.

Notably, the viewer also experiences the disgust, the horror of watching Seth’s transformation. But, like Seth, the viewer, too, cannot walk away from it. The viewer is locked to the camera, which focuses on Seth, showing him in his most intimate moments. In an early scene Seth is seen sitting in the bathroom, biting his nails. Surprisingly, a nail comes off his finger entirely. Seth walks to the bathroom mirror, and squeezes the finger in front of it. White fluid oozes out and splashes against the mirror, while Seth asks in horror: “What ‘s happening to me? Am I dying? Is this how it starts when I die?” This scene, in all its intimacy in terms of location and action, is not meant to be witnessed by anyone. The viewer is there with Seth as a forced spectator. Moreover, the scene evokes two intimate bathroom activities: pimple squeezing and masturbation, as Helen Robbins (2003) discusses (cf. Beard’s (2006)) comparison of the early stages of Seth’s illness with adolescence).

In a later scene already mentioned, Seth loses his teeth, which he places in the bathroom cabinet. The cabinet already contains some body parts in it, an ear prominently displayed. Again, Seth is alone, talking to himself, another intimate activity. But the viewer is there too, trapped with Seth, tied to his body and its decay. This inescapability contributes to the claustrophobic and suffocating experience of the viewer. The sensation of being unable to escape one’s own body, one’s own pain and predicament, is a central feature of illness.

Whereas the others can choose whether to stay or leave, the ill person is trapped within her body, locked to the inescapable process of illness. This, perhaps, is the true horror of the film, and, as Cronenberg himself said at an interview, the film is about ageing and death, about the universal process of growing old and dysfunctional (Rodley 2000). It is the inevitability of illness and decay that is the source of horror. Seth can do nothing to stop his deterioration, while the other characters in the film are free to walk away, gawp with horror at his video, or – the ultimate act of freedom – kill him. Illness is seen as an unrelenting process of destruction that can only be met with suicide.

The changes to Seth’s existence are manifold. His illness is not only physical dysfunction, as medicine describes it, but also a change in his psychological and social states. The film is a phenomenological exploration of illness precisely because it does not limit itself to exploring the physical or visual changes to Seth’s body. It rather takes illness to be an all-encompassing life-transforming process that requires a meticulous description of the various changes.

First Seth’s personality changes – he falls in love, discovers his sexuality and intimacy with another person. This love affair, which persists throughout the film as a classic love-triangle, foreshadows the more obvious (but superficial) man-becomes-monster story. As such, the two stories should be seen as intertwined and Roni’s horror connects Seth’s personal tragedy and the love story. When Seth becomes too unsightly, too insect-like, she can no longer bear to be in his presence. At that point the love story, in fact, ends, as is not uncommon in illness.

Roni’s visits mark Seth’s contact with the social world. She visits him twice, and both times leaves in tears and disgust. During her second visit this exchange takes place:

 -I can’t stay.
-Why not? Why can’t you?
-I can’t take it; it’s just too much.
-What is there to take? The disease just revealed its purpose; we don’t have to worry about contagion anymore. I know what the disease wants.
-What does the disease want?
-It wants to turn me into something else. That’s not too terrible, is it? Most people would give anything to be turned into something else.

In this dialogue we can see the split between the two attitudes to illness. Roni wants to walk away from it, to simply remove herself from the reality of illness. Seth, on the other hand, who cannot walk away, must be creative in relation to the illness. He must give it an interpretation that will be less devastating, that will allow him to co-exist with it. He does this by exploring the advantages of becoming something else, by embracing change rather than fearing it.

This creative approach is one that has been noted by several studies examining the attitudes of ill people towards their illness (Michael 1996; Thorne et al 2002; Lindsey 1995). The results are striking: an array of responses and attitudes that people with serious and chronic conditions have created. These responses are surprisingly optimistic, in some cases. They demonstrate a creative and novel interpretation of one’s situation. For example, some paraplegics say they are happy with their current state of health and enjoy watching films of people dancing and mountain climbing. Although this may sound bizarre to the healthy, it is a creative and healthy response to a given situation. These responses are an expression of a successful change of normative boundaries (the healthy vs. the ill), and a creative response to illness. Seth is doing something similar. He is implicitly asking Roni to give up her norms of health and replace them with a more open attitude. Seth is asking Roni: why can’t you love me in my altered form?

This also brings to mind several reports of women (Australian Story, 10 July 2006; personal communication; Murphy 2005) diagnosed with a progressive terminal illness. Their partners left them. One woman told me how after her diagnosis, while sitting in the doctor’s waiting room, her husband told her he cannot cope with her prospects and is leaving her. Roni says the same to Seth: ‘I can’t take it’. In his piercing retort: “what is there to take?” Seth demonstrates this creative view of illness.

In one of the most touching scenes of the film Seth begs Roni to help him. “Help me”, he whispers, “help me be human”. This, of course, can be seen as part of the monster interpretation of the film, but by now we know better. This is the wish of an ill person, whose body betrayed him in the most terrible way, who knows he disgusts anyone who comes into contact with him or even sees him on video – the wish to continue to be seen as human, to be accepted by others, the desire that illness will not destroy his social world. This plea – help me be human – reminds one of the treatment of infectious diseases, by isolating the infected person, in particular AIDS which has also been seen as punishment for moral failing on the part of the infected person.

While the monster interpretation sees Seth’s fate as sealed at the moment of fusion with the fly, this more open interpretation of illness as also being the source of creative responses, and as enabling adaptation rather than despair, is supported by Cronenberg who said at a recent interview: “I don’t think an identity is given to us genetically, like the colour of our eyes. It’s something that is created. There’s will involved” (The Independent, 30 September 2005). Seth’s body was locked in a deterministic process of destruction, but his spirit remained free. Although mutation and bodily corruption are written into Seth’s genes, his humanity is reflected in the ways in which he responds to the mutation. The changes and tragic and inevitable deterioration of his body are contrasted with his humanity. If the film teaches us anything, it is that changes to the body, even inevitable changes, can be responded to in a variety of ways. The tragedy of Seth is the tragedy of a human being who became a victim of his own error. As such Seth is much better understood as a tragic figure than a monster.


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