Category Archives: David Cronenberg

From science to chaos with David Cronenberg

The cinema typically places women on the side of a chaotic and capricious nature in opposition to the male dominated social hierarchy that is enforced through military power and what Carol Clover terms ‘white science:’ ‘Its representatives are nearly always males, typically doctors, and its tools are surgery, drugs, psychotherapy, and other forms of hegemonic science’ (1992: 66). In the science fiction films of David Cronenberg science and technology represent attempts to resist the tendency towards ever-increasing chaos. Medicine, surgery and psychotherapy are the tools that are used to preserve the integrity of the human mind and body, and are exclusively employed by men and (typically) directed towards women. However, these attempts are futile as the American chemist G.N. Lewis stated in his interpretation of the second law of thermodynamics: ‘when any actual process occurs it is impossible to invent a means of restoring every system concerned to its original condition.’ The products of science become something new that breaks free of their scientifically generated order. As Linda Nochlin states, ‘The most potent natural signifier possible for folly and chaos [is] woman unleashed’ (1991: 35). What is interesting about Cronenberg’s films is that he views the failure of science and the unleashing of chaos as creative acts.

Science and technology

As an example of this moment of failure/creation of science we might look at Rabid. The film begins with a motorcycle accident in which Hart and Rose are severely injured. In order to save Rose’s life Dr. Dan Keloid performs emergency plastic surgery. The aim here is clearly the preservation of life but as a result of the operation Rose becomes a new biological creature. Rose wakes to find that she can only digest blood, which she extracts from her victims through a penile barb that has developed in her armpit. Rose, as a product of the surgical process, breaks free of the realm of science as she can no longer be classified or controlled within a laboratory environment. In fact Rose quite literally escapes the world of science as she goes on the run spreading a form of rabies throughout Montreal. Science has, by accident, created the carrier of the disease.

Such emergent evolution is not restricted to the human form as it can also be seen to transform technology. The telepods in The Fly are intended, like H.G. Wells’ time machine, to ‘end all concepts of transport, of borders and frontiers, of time and space.’ The result is not that intended by the scientist, but, as Scott Bukatman points out, Brundle is successful: ‘the dissolution of geographic boundaries yields before the breakdown of genetic and bodily hegemony … telepathy and physical projection break down the dichotomy between public and private; subjectivity and temporality collapse; man merges with machine: we have arrived in a zone without borders’ (1993: 268). Technology is as unpredictable as nature despite our efforts to control it. A device designed for tele-transportation becomes a gene-splicer, its womb-like mechanical beehives fusing the scientist and fly to create something new. As Cronenberg describes it, ‘instead of having a defective machine, we have a nicely functioning machine that just has a different purpose’ (Newman 1989: 116). This is echoed by Brundle when he says, “I seem to be stricken by a disease with a purpose.”

Alternatively scientists such Professor Brian O’Blivion and Dr. Paul Ruth become involved in the efforts of the military-industrial complex to control North America and to dictate the social order. Ruth administers the drug ephemerol to individuals who subsequently develop telepathic powers. As an employee of Consec Ruth is also recruiting these ‘scanners’ for intelligence work. The theme here is one of control through science linked to the military. Ephemerol gives relief to the voices in the heads of the scanners but in order to ensure a supply they must give themselves over to the Consec plan. However, in Darryl Revok we find a rogue with his own plan, one who cannot be manipulated by Consec. The ability of the military-industrial complex to control society is far from complete, especially where the physical nature of the human mind is concerned. Order is continually breaking down as the scanners turn on their masters inciting a revolt that is as physical as it is political.

The scientist dominates Cronenberg’s films and can be seen to be, in general, a reformulation of Wells’ Dr. Moreau. Dr. Hal Raglan, in The Brood, demonstrates many of the qualities of Moreau in particular. Prendick’s description of Moreau’s physical appearance – ‘his serenity, the touch almost of beauty from his set tranquillity, and from his magnificent build’ (Wells [1896] 1946: 87) – might as easily apply to Oliver Reed as Raglan, and both doctors are dangerously charismatic. Each of the doctors works in isolation fearing society’s response to their controversial methods. Each has a project to encourage the evolution of man by removing the obstacles of emotion and sensation from our development. Through the therapy of ‘psychoplasmics’ Raglan seeks to reintegrate individuals like Nola Carveth into society. In order to do this he has his subjects physically manifest their mental disorders. Moreau works towards his goal through surgery to remove the physical sensations of pleasure and pain. In each case the result is the same. Through the intervention of the scientist nature is populated by monstrosities that break free of the scientific and social order imposed upon them to devour man, and in particular the scientist. As Moreau is killed by his ‘manufactured monsters,’ the identical children of Nola’s brood destroy Raglan. As with Ballard’s scientists, Cronenberg’s figures carry the signature of universal destruction within their own bodies. A disease will carry the name of the scientist, such as Rouge’s Malady, or the scientist will carry the name of a disease, such as Brian O’Blivion, whose name recalls the nova of W.S Burroughs’ fiction [1].

The chaotic woman

The women in Cronenberg’s films typically act as ‘patient zeros,’ with the first manifestations of the disease to be found on the female body or in the female environment. There are two groups of women who fulfil this function. The first contains those women whom we see contract the disease directly as a result of their interaction with science and technology. This infection is not restricted to the female population but within the cinema of entropy is almost always the woman who becomes the carrier of the virus. Notable exceptions are to be found in Stereo where both sexes become transformed by the theories of Dr. Luther Stringfellow and in Scanners where both sexes are again transformed by the drug ephemerol. Those who fit into the first group are to be found in Cronenberg’s films between 1970 and 1980 and those of the second group from Videodrome to the present. In Crimes of the Future the female population of the world is infected with Rouge’s Malady, transmitted through the Doctor’s cosmetic products. Annabelle, the mistress of Dr. Emil Hobbes in Shivers, is infected in a similar manner by the Doctor’s parasites. In Rabid, Rose is contaminated by the emergency plastic surgery she undergoes following a motorcycle accident. It is through the science of ‘psychoplasmics’ that Nola Carveth in The Brood can become the chaotic mother of her bizarre ‘children.’ The Brood is, in many ways, a retelling of Mary Shelley’s play Prosperine (1820), which turns the analogy of female fruitfulness as equal to natural plenitude on its head to draw the accompanying conclusion that female rage leads to universal destruction. As Meena Alexander describes it,

If nature, as the common figure is held female, and if woman’s procreative powers are intimately involved and analogous to the cycles of birth, death and renewal visible in the landscape, then maternal loss must equal natural devastation, and a mother’s rage at the loss of her child can tighten and twist into a vision of universal destruction: ‘Ceres for ever weeps, seeking her child And in her rage has struck the land with blight’ (1989: 12).

The devastated landscape of Cronenberg’s films is conditioned by the role of the woman and comes to reflect the ‘shape of rage’ felt by Nola at the loss of her daughter to her husband in the same manner as Ceres ‘threatens to cast the whole of created nature back to chaos’, having lost her daughter to the ‘King of Hell’ (Alexander 1989: 13).

The second group consists of those women who have already been infected prior to the beginning of the narrative but who demonstrate the symptoms of entropy. Nicki Brand shows through her decadence that she has been infected and this is seen in the masochistic mutilation of her body. In Dead Ringers, Claire Niveau is biologically mutated with her trifurcate uterus, and in Naked Lunch (1991) Joan Lee is addicted to bug powder. Once infected the process of transmission is the same for both these groups. The virus is communicated by the interaction of male and female. Entropy is a sexually transmitted disease. In those instances where the technology is the dominant method of communicating the virus it is specifically associated to sex. The videodrome is a pornographic arena and the cars of Crash become the focus of sexuality with their metallic forms joining with and amputating human sexual functions.

In Veronica Quaife, in The Fly, we find the embodiment of the woman as an agent of entropy that is specifically related to technology. How she became infected is not explained to us but it is through her interaction with Seth Brundle that the scientist becomes diseased. Veronica’s contagious state is revealed to us early on in the film when she gives Brundle a ride in her car back to his apartment/laboratory. Her driving, the union of woman and heat engine, makes Brundle feel a motion sickness similar to that of Well’s time traveller. Her disruption of his life is total. Through sex she infects the scientist who then transmits the disease to his technology. She awakens Brundle to the flesh and this inspires him to pass on the information to the computer that controls the telepods. She tells Brundle, “I want to eat you up. That’s why old ladies pinch babies’ cheeks. It’s the flesh. It makes you crazy.” Veronica then goes out to buy new clothes for her new boyfriend, who has to this point been the very definition of fashionable order. He is always to be found immaculately and identically dressed from day to day. Veronica, in purchasing a red T-shirt and a leather jacket, disrupts this order and it is noticeable that once infected Brundle wears only those clothes bought for him by Veronica. He sheds the symbols of his order once infected. Veronica is an example of Robert Graves’ white goddess, ‘her word communicates indeterminacy through the poetic idiom’ (Chambers 1992: 106). In the department store scene her editor, Stathis Borans, describes her as a “goddess.” Veronica is able to communicate indeterminacy through her word as a journalist. As in Videodrome the power to control information makes the media a transmitter of the disease. Veronica’s apartment is a testament to her chaotic state, as it lies strewn with debris. Her attitude towards this mess only reinforces this view. She tells Stathis that she is, “very consciously lazy and disorganised.” In this statement it is Veronica herself who states that she is apathetic and suffers from a decay of energy, and that her natural state is one of disorder.


We see throughout the Cronenberg’s films a transformation of the human body under the influence of technology and the female. The most startling image of decay occurs in Videodrome with the rapid decomposition of the body of Barry Convex, which goes the way of the second law with his highly ordered biological constitution becoming a disordered mess.

The most recurrent theme of devolution is cannibalism and Cronenberg uses the consumption if the human flesh as a clear indicator that man has degenerated to a state of being ‘less human’ than our ‘ancestors of three or four thousand years ago.’ We see this in Shivers where a woman grabs a passing waiter shrieking “Hungry for love! Hungry for love!” As in Burroughs’ fiction cannibalism is repeatedly linked to sexuality. In Rabid it is the penile barb that Rose uses to drink the blood of her victims. Her physical need is reminiscent of Prendick’s revival after taking a substance that ‘tasted like blood.’ Compare Veronica’s description of the flesh with Burroughs’ sexual cannibals, where the “flesh drives you crazy” and she fantasises about eating Brundle. It is noticeable that these cannibals are all females feasting themselves on male flesh. Here we see Burroughs’ description of woman as a virus given physical form as they consume the male body. The major exception to this comes in The Fly where it is Brundle who turns on Stathis Borans, digesting his foot and arm with corrosive enzymes, but this only occurs after he has been introduced to the flesh by Veronica.

A further manifestation of the devolution of man is the homogenisation of appearance and sexuality. The most obvious example of this transformation in Cronenberg’s films occurs in The Brood. Nola’s “children” are identical in appearance with each possessing the same crude mockery of Candice’s face and dressed in identical clothes. Significantly they posses no sexual organs at all and it is this kind of omni-sexuality that dominates Cronenberg’s conception of the homogenisation of man. As he states, ‘Human beings could swap sexual organs, or do without sexual organs as organs per se, for procreation … The distinction between male and female would diminish, and perhaps we could become less polarised and more integrated creatures’ (quoted in Rodley : 82). We see a change in the bodies of Max Renn and Seth Brundle towards a more feminine state. Max develops an enormous slit in his belly, vaginal in its construction, and Brundle, resistant to an alcohol rub from Tawny, is described as having the “skin of a princess.” This idea of homogenisation also features in Dead Ringers. The Mantle twins are a natural mutation that has produced its own “manufactured monsters.” As gynaecologists they continue this manufacturing process, as Beverly puts it: “we make women fertile.” Beverly, although physically a male, is seen to have many female qualities, least of all his name. The Mantle twins ultimately lose the power to differentiate between each other.

In Crash man is already a technological animal. In a scene reminiscent of O’Blivion’s prophecies we see a cameraman wearing a Steadicam frame. Whereas in Videodrome the television set was to become the retina of the mind’s eye, in Crash the whole body is given over to the function of technology. The Steadicam operator shows us that technology of every kind is transforming our bodies and our functions in subtle ways that we do not even notice. The car crash is one of the most extreme forms of this modification but one that occurs repeatedly and relentlessly. This union of body and technology has given rise to a new species of human as we see in their titles. For example, ‘cameraman,’ or as Catherine refers to one of James’ sexual partners, ‘cameragirl.’ These bio-technological entities represent, like Max Renn and Seth Brundle in their final phases, an updating of Moreau’s ape-man. Cronenberg constantly associates man to the machines that dominate his world. As Leslie Dick has noted the satin bras that appear frequently mirror the shine and the curvature of the bodywork of the cars, in particular the 1955 Porsche 550 Sypder used in the recreation of James Dean’s fatal crash [2]. The stockings and suspenders of Catherine and Helen Rimmington are taken to their technological conclusion in Gabrielle’s callipers. Helen’s leather gloves and James’ jacket gleam like the cars but also recall the all-leather interiors, of Vaughan’s 1963 Lincoln in particular.


To the late Victorians decadence was a sure sign of a society in decay. This is also true of Cronenberg’s films, where decadence is most commonly portrayed as sexual excess. In Shivers the revealed aim of Dr. Emil Hobbes is to turn the world into a “beautiful orgy.” As each individual is infected they are transformed into pleasure-driven zombies. Cronenberg throughout the film transgresses the moral codes governing sexuality and violence as the most basic instincts of our bestial ancestors are represented to us. In Videodrome decadence is associated with the ever present pornography and is openly referred to in Masha’s “Apollo and Dionysus” with its bacchanalian excesses. Nicki Brand speaks of living in “over-stimulated times” where stimulation is sought for its own sake. She describes herself as living in a state of heightened stimulation and is regularly dressed in a bright red dress that recalls the videodrome arena.

Cronenberg has been criticised, in particular by Robin Wood (1983: 115-116), for his supposedly anti-liberal representation of sexuality. For Wood, films such as Shivers and Rabid attack the sexual liberation of the 1960s and assume a more conservative position with the horror inflicted upon the participants in Starliner Towers, for example, as punishment for their decadence. However, it must be acknowledged that Cronenberg’s films are, like Ballard’s fiction, descriptive and not prescriptive. Shivers takes the breakdown of social and moral order to its logical extreme and allied with Cronenberg’s views on omnisexuality we approach Sade’s longing for a combination of species where the boundaries of gender no longer have meaning. This crossing of boundaries is not confined to human social/sexual relations, as Sade urges ‘a transgression of the limits separating self from other, man from woman, human from animal, organic from inorganic objects’ (Jackson 1981: 73). Ballard and Cronenberg both take up this theme with the fetishisation of the car in Crash, the television in Videodrome, and the fly and the telepods in The Fly. Shivers should not be regarded as reactionary as it exhibits the falsity of order as a restriction of human sexual impulses. As Rosemary Jackson points out, for Sade, ‘social order, ethics, morality, institutionalised activity, are all revealed as ‘un-natural’ conditions imposed on a natural disorder’ (1981: 74). Dr. Emil Hobbes is Sade’s agent in bringing about the return to disorder, and Cronenberg plays out the decadence of Starliner Towers as the logical conclusion to these principles. Similarly Iain Sinclair has described Crash as a ‘Sadean dance,’ and Ballard has remarked that “Crash is a movie De Sade would have adored” (Sinclair 1999: 62, 69).


  1. On the relationship between horror and evolution in The Island of Dr. Moreau see Redfern (2004a). On the relationship between Burroughs and Cronenberg see my essay on the narrative of Videodrome (Redfern 2004b).
  2. In a scene cut from the finished film and taken directly from Ballard’s Crash, Cronenberg specifically made this link between sexuality and the machine. In the screenplay we find the following action: ‘Karen, Catherine’s secretary, a moody, unsmiling girl, is methodically involved in the soft technology of Catherine’s breasts and the brassieres designed to show them off’. See Cronenberg (1996: 6).


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