The Unpredictability Of Repugnance
This past week's installment of Hannibal, "Primavera," featured one of the more revolting scenes of the show (which is saying something). During one of Will Graham's empathing episodes, a skinned, dismembered, reconfigured corpse comes to life, sprouts hooves and antlers, and moves menacingly towards him.
Show creator Bryan Fuller dubbed the creation "Stagenstein," while production sketches for the show called it "Stumpman." (I'm partial to my own term, "Cronenstag.") This concoction is more grotesque than Mason Verger eating parts of his own face in Season Two's "Tome-wan." I remained fascinated and could not look away, even rewatching animated GIFs of the Cronenstag on Tumblr.
I've talked before about "the uncanny," in which things are both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. Somehow Cronenstag seemed worse to me. On the one hand it was a wet, fleshy creature that moved realistically. On the other hand, I know in my gut that it isn't real. So why the disgust and fear?
In many ways, this scene reminded me of the film Splice. (Vincenzo Natali, who wrote and directed Splice, also directed "Primavera.") The movie is one of the best examples of that Mystery Science Theater 3000 cliché, "he tampered in God's domain."
Two scientists (Elsa and Clive) develop animal hybrids for a genetic research company. Explicitly prevented by the company from adding human DNA into the mix, they conduct their human/animal hybrid genetic research in secret, eventually giving birth to a creature they refer to as "Dren." Dren is decidedly creepy and looks not totally unlike Hannibal's Cronenstag, with her spidery limbs and hoof-like feet.
Again, watching Splice I know that Dren is a cinematic creation and thus unreal. Still, Splice is one of the most disturbing and unpleasant films I've seen in recent memory precisely because it's so obviously unreal but could very well exist. As Natali noted in an interview on the film: "The centerpiece of the movie is a creature which goes through a dramatic evolutionary process. The goal is to create something shocking but also very subtle and completely believable."
Natali has explained in several interviews that the idea of Splice came from his encounter with the Vacanti mouse. In this experiment, scientists seeded "cow cartilage cells into a biodegradable ear-shaped mold" and then implanted it "under the skin of the mouse." (As an odd side note, the "nude mouse" on which the structure was grown is not a genetic experiment, but a spontaneous genetic mutation.) Are we repulsed by these images because we don't want to accept that such genetic experiments could actually be real? After all, the advent of cinematic technology has developed hand in hand with scientific technology; what filmmakers can create visually may not be so far removed from what scientists have created in labs.
Dren isn't the only creepy thing in Splice. Elsa and Clive also develop a pair of seemingly amorphous blobs named Fred and Ginger. These critters have been copyrighted and will be used to create livestock feed (an ethical quagmire in its own right). Fred and Ginger, like Dren, resemble what an article on sculptor Patricia Piccinini refers to as "parahuman." "Piccinini's parahuman beings are both uncannily real and somewhat disturbing. Certain people have a hard time with these works or find them so disturbing they can't stay near them."
Parahuman creatures like Cronenstag, Dren, or Fred and Ginger all recall what bioconservative scientist Leon Kass has called the "wisdom of repugnance." From Wikipedia: "In all cases, it expresses the view that one's 'gut reaction' might justify objecting to some practice even in the absence of a persuasive rational case against that practice." Since the "wisdom of repugnance" can also be used to justify prejudice against others on the basis of race, sexual orientation, disability, and a host of other factors, it's a problematic concept that has been the subject of much criticism. It can be argued that such prejudices reveal more about the repugnant qualities of the person who is objecting to another entity, i.e., that he is himself racist, sexist, or ableist.
In the case of Splice and the Cronenstag at least, repugnance is still a real reaction to something seemingly unreal. It begs the question: at what point does fascination veer into disgust or disgust into fascination? That's the precise kind of liminal space that both Splice and the Cronenstag occupy. It's a question whose answer can't be predicted, and that's scary.