Monsters and Mutations

Health Humanities co-director Andrew Mangham (English Literature) reflects on the recent season of events.

Last week our ‘Monsters and Mutations’ series of events closed with a screening of Tod Browning’s Freaks (1832), a controversial film featuring real ‘freak show’ performers and offering an insight into the daily lives of circus performers in the early decades of the twentieth century. The film was introduced by our own PhD researcher Evan Hayles Gledhill who drew attention to the question of who the real ‘monsters’ of the film are; a pertinent query given how it is the able-bodied characters who behave most horribly throughout. Evan also introduced the second film in the series, Nosferatu, the 1922 German Expressionist gem, directed by F. W. Murnau and starring Max Schreck as the vampire Count Orlok. Evan introduced the larger cultural questions surrounding the portrayal of the vampire, including the impact of eugenicist theories, the menace of antisemitism, and the perceived spread of syphilis. A week prior, the film season had been kicked off by Xavier Aldana Reyes, senior lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University and author of Spanish Gothic (2017), Horror Film and Affect (2016), and Body Gothic (2014). Xavier introduced Der Golem, a 1915 German silent horror film, written and directed by Paul Wegener and Henrik Galeen. Introducing us to the rich and fascinating context for the film, he also discussed the question of what constitutes monstrosity, how its energies are largely man-made, even within the context of the supernatural, and how it often touches upon our deepest fears and prejudices. Overall, the three films worked extremely well together, each one taking the problem of defining the monstrous and effectively holding a mirror up to the cultural ideologies and creative powers of the societies and the industries who create them.

Complementing the three film screenings, we had a public talk on ‘Hybrids and Health Humanities: Ceroplasty, Couplets, Chimeras’ by Eleanor Crook and Kelley Swaine. Eleanor is a sculptor and medical artist. She trained at the Royal Academy and has sculpted anatomical and pathological waxworks for the Gordon Museum of Pathology at Guy’s Hospital, the London Science Museum, and the Royal College of Surgeons. Kelley is a writer working in academia, science, and the arts. She is the author of numerous books exploring questions of science and culture, the history of science, and the body in representation. Together, Eleanor and Kelley explored the intersections between sculpture, the body, and the written form; they teased out some vital questions on the intersections between medical science and the humanities, revealing patterns across artistic and biological forms. On the theme of monsters and mutations, we were introduced to some of Eleanor’s beautiful works on hybrids and metamorphoses, while Kelley’s interpretations of Eleanor’s work complemented her own creative work on chimeras, and the creative links between monsters, mutations and the imagination.

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