Monstrosity and Hybridity in Jonathan Glazer's "Under the Skin"

Term Paper, 2015

19 Pages


Table of Contents

Table of Contents


History of the Alien in the Popular Culture

Science-Fiction, Aliens and the Fantastic

Seven Theses about Monstrosity
1) The Alien as Serial Killer
2) The Alien as the monstrous Other
3) The Alien as monstrous female


Primary Sources
Secondary Sources:


The film Under the Skin was directed by Jonathan Glazer and bases on the same novel by Michel Faber. It was not a big box office hit but received intense praise by critics and was stated one of the best films in 2014, also because of its mix of different genres. The movie was released on the 14th March and deals with a female Alien, played by Scarlett Johansson, who is killing men in Scottish towns. Many of the roles were played by non-professional actors and other scenes were unscripted and filmed with hidden cameras to produce authentic scenes. In this homework the role of the alien in the movie shall be presented and analyzed. The alien is categorized and characterized in a hybrid form and embodies three different types of monstrosity which intermingle. In order to support this thesis various film scenes and motifs will be analyzed. At the beginning stands a general introduction of the alien as figure in cultural history. After that I am going to refer to Todorov´s concept of the Fantastic as the type of genre that can be related heavily to the film Under the Skin. The main part will be occupied by an analysis of several forms of monstrosity in the film which is divided into three parts, the alien as monstrous serial killer, the alien as monster because of its alien nature and at last the alien as a symbol for female monstrosity. Within the literature that is going to be used, especially Kristeva´s concept of abjection and Judith Butler´s thesis regarding performance and performativity shall be mentioned as two of the most important concept of the recent research. Regarding monstrosity the work of Cohen with its seven theses about monstrosity is used to provide a ground for the analysis (Collin, Robbie. “Under the Skin, review”. The Telegraph. Web; Holden, Stephen. “A much darker Hitchhikers guide”. New York Times. Web.).

History of the Alien in the Popular Culture

In relation to aliens the area of astronomy can be stated as the necessary predecessor for this figure. The belief of life in the outer space shows the big cultural influence of astronomy. This can be tied to the ancient beliefs of gods and goddesses and the emotional need of humanity for imaginary beings, who were located outside the realm of humanity. The current extraterrestrial life debate points out how far the concept of cosmic evolution has come in western civilization and how it developed into a form of worldview. A characteristic of the extraterrestrial life debate in the context of science is that there is in fact no monolithic scientific culture. Contrasting approaches and claims of those who proclaim the likelihood of extraterrestrials and of their opponents, demonstrate that science consists of many opinions and cultures. A good example for this are the various UFO explanations and theories of what they really are or could be. The genre of Science Fiction originates from those beliefs and so it was this genre where the Alien came to life, starting in 1897 with H.G. Well´s War of the Worlds. In the history of Science Fiction the alien has become a standard theme. Since it first appearances it has evolved from populating the outer space to images of philosophical beings and often ethereal creatures. The most recent images of aliens also play with its nature which is often to be found more in the human space of existence than in another objective reality (Dick 1996:135).

As stated above the alien has become a central motif of the popular culture. Alien identities of all kind have been made visible and celebrated by the identity politics which have become central to postmodern culture. But otherness and alienation are not only reserved for imaginary but also for all who have been excluded from dominant categories of human existence e.g. ethnic minorities. Cultures determine their own collective and individual sense of identity through external as well as internal contrast. In the 1970s and 1980s the confrontation with aliens were mostly optimistic until the 1990s returned to the anarchistic aspects of earlier alien movies, which identify the inhuman with monstrous otherness. The aliens stand no longer for anything. Instead of being used as metaphors for communism or uniformity they are simply the other, against mankind has to unite. Aliens provide a political correct enemy. Nevertheless in many of the latest alien films the extraterrestrial is often more related to the role of identity within the human culture. With this the alien enters directly into contemporary anxieties about multiculturalism, stereotyping and gender politics (Kaye 1999:2).

Science-Fiction, Aliens and the Fantastic

Science-Fiction includes various motifs and topics. In the following paragraph this will be connected to Todorov´s concept of the Fantastic, as science fiction always includes elements which are described as fantastic by readers or viewers. Even if Under the Skin is a mix of certain genres the aspect of the fantastic plays an important role. Furthermore the films deals directly with what Todorov calls an uncertainty of events, as it will be explained in this chapter. In general Todorov defines the fantastic as the occurring of an event which cannot be explained within the laws (natural, physical etc.) of the familiar world or universe. There are two possible solutions for this dilemma. Either the person which is confronted with such an event is a victim of an illusion or the unexplainable event did indeed take place, which then means that the reality is controlled by unknowable laws. Todorov points out that it is exactly this uncertainty that forms the fantastic. Once one of the before mentioned answers is chosen the fantastic disappears and is replaced by a neighboring genre, the uncanny or the marvelous. The fantastic is this hesitation of a person, character etc. who or which only is aware of specific laws and is now confronted with a supernatural event. Therefore the experience of the fantastic can also include fear and threat, it is not necessarily a positive connoted term (Todorov 1975:24).

Because of this need of decision the fantastic has a dividing character. It functions as a line between the uncanny and the marvelous. Todorov argues that the reader must be involved, because if he would be informed he would already had made a decision, therefore the fantastic would vanish. So the fantastic depends also on the integration of the reader into the world of the characters. According to Todorov the fantastic in general requires three conditions. First of all the reader must consider the world he or she experiences as a world of living persons and therefore must hesitate like those persons, when confronted with a supernatural event. As second condition this hesitation must also be experienced by the character. As a third condition Todorov mentions that the reader must adopt a certain attitude towards the text, so that he or she rejects allegorical as well as poetical interpretations (Todorov 1975:33).

As explained before the fantastic only lasts so long as the hesitation of the viewer or reader. There must be a decision whether or not that what he perceives is based on reality or not. With choosing one or the other solution the reader emerges from the fantastic. If the laws of the reality remain intact and offer a rational explanation for the seemingly supernatural event than the realm of the uncanny comes into play. If new laws must be developed or must be recognized in order to explain the event, the genre of the marvelous is entered. The fantastic seems to be located on the edge between two different genres rather than to be an autonomous genre itself. Some books and films are able to sustain this fantastic hesitation and ambiguity until the end (Todorov 1975:41).

Todorov divides the marvelous in four different aspects. The hyperbolic marvelous for example includes supernatural events that are only supernatural because of their dimensions. The exotic marvelous s second category are those events that are reported but without being presented as supernatural, they are not questioned. The third form is the instrumental marvelous which deals with techniques and gadgets that are unrealized in the described period but after all quite possible. At least stands the scientific marvelous. Here the genre of science fiction can be located. In this last category the supernatural is explained in a rational manner but functions according to laws that contemporary science does not acknowledge or cannot acknowledge. These narratives start from irrational premises and link the facts they contain in a perfectly logical manner (Todorov 1975:54).

The film can be related directly to this concept of the fantastic. Throughout the whole film various scenes that seem supernatural appear, especially the scenes when the alien has lured her victims into the house and they step into the black liquid to be killed. Also the final killing of the men trough sucking out the blood and organs from their bodies are scenes that seem to establish new laws of nature within the context of the film. Nevertheless the viewer cannot make a final decision if that what is happening is uncanny or belongs to the realm of the marvelous. Because of the human appearance of the alien and the death through “drowning” the laws of the existent reality can be seen as intact. This is emphasized through the scenery of the film. It depicts an ordinary Scottish landscape. As mentioned in the introduction the film uses unscripted scenes filmed with hidden cameras which reinforces the notion of an intact reality, through authenticity (Under the Skin 2014: 0:21).

Until the last shot the film is able to maintain this uncertainty and therefore completely takes place in the realm of the Todorov´s fantastic. Not until the scene where the alien gets raped by the worker in the woods this uncertainty is lifted. During the fight the worker tears off some of the skin of the alien and reveals the extraterrestrial origin. At this point the worker and also the viewer leave the realm of the fantastic and enter the marvelous where new laws of nature, in form of extraterrestrials, exist and must be considered. The film moves a lot in the realm of the fantastic and therefore within the aspects of uncertainty and unknowing. With this it follows the above mentioned recent trends in setting the alien not in an absolute context against humans but more in a relative context together with characteristics of humanity and multiculturalism. This can also be point out as the main motif of the film. The main reason for this hesitation is the human appearance of the alien. This leads to recent concepts of identity and othering, especially within the notion of monstrosity. In the next chapters the nature of the alien is therefore going to be analyzed under the term monstrosity (Under the Skin 2014: 1:48)

Seven Theses about Monstrosity

In many films the Alien is represented as the absolute monstrous other that must be destroyed in order to save humanity. It is therefore in the same position as other types of monsters like vampires etc. This chapter is going to deal with the concept of monstrosity before in the following chapter it will be used to analyze the different kinds of monstrosity that the alien embodies. In his book Monster Theory: Reading Culture, the author Jeffrey Jerome Cohen formulates seven Theses that in his opinion are necessary when dealing with monstrosity e.g. in literature. The first thesis states that the body of the monster is a cultural body. It incorporates fear, desire, anxiety and fantasy, therefore it is the pure embodiment of a cultural discourse. The monster only exists to be read against this discourse and its norms. Therefore the monster is always a displacement. The second thesis includes the aspect of escaping. The monster always escapes, because it is able to vanish in order to reappear somewhere else, so that the body of the monster is on the one hand corporal but on the other hand also incorporal. It is dualistic and embodies not only a bodily threat but also symbolizes otherness in a non-bodily and therefore non-extinguishable form (Cohen 1996:4).

Cohen refers to this indestructible nature and states the monster in his third thesis as a “harbinger of the category crisis”. The monster always escapes because it refuses easy categorization. It is a disturbing hybrid whose incoherent body resist attempts to be included in any systematic and discursive order. On the other side through smashing the distinctions the monster also offers an escape from this normative discourse. The monstrous itself is too much the other to be part of any conceptual system. As the pure contrast to traditional categorization and structure the monster inhibits therefore a contested space (Cohen 1996:6).

Cohen argues, as his fourth thesis that the monster stands at the gates of difference. It embodies difference and is always visible. As the other it forms the incorporated outside. Even if it is placed outside, the monstrous originates from the inside. Nevertheless a monstrous culture justifies the displacement or extermination. This displacement process of the monstrous can also be referred to the construction of gender and sexuality. The woman who oversteps the patriarchal conforming boundaries of her gender role risks to become monstrous herself. Sexual identity is similar susceptible to monsterization. Another example in regard to monster is the role of race. The African continent as an example for the earliest other where the difference was made up on the skin color. A perverse and exaggerated sexual appetite of monsters was generally quickly affixed to the African people and found its expression in the various jungle-horror films at the beginning of the 20th century, like RKO´s King Kong from 1933. Cohen points out that monsters are never created ex nihilo but through a process of fragmentation and recombination. Elements are extracted from various forms and then assembled as the monster, which can then claim an independent identity. The so created monster threatens the boundaries and categories in its attempt to erase the difference. Difference that exists outside the system is terrifying because in the end it reveals its own fragility and relativity. But it is also the contrary of difference, the similarity to the created monster that is so horrifying (Berenstein 1994: 334; Cohen 1996:7).

The fifth thesis deals with the monster as warning against the exploration of uncertain areas. The monsters symbolizes a declaration that curiosity is more punished that rewarded and that leaving the secured domestic sphere can result in terror and pain. The monster exists to demarcate the bonds that hold together the system of relations and reminds of the borders that must not be crossed. These borders are also, referring to the mix of categories in the before mentioned theses, in place to control female sexuality in establishing strictly homosocial bonds to keep a patriarchal society functional. Especially women are described in a special relation to the monstrous, because of the possibility of miscegenation. The monster arises at the gap where difference is perceived as dividing. The criterion of this division is arbitrary and can range from anatomy to skin color, religious belief etc. Therefore feminine and cultural others are monstrous enough by themselves in patriarchal society but when they threaten to mingle the entire economy of culture comes under attack (Cohen 1996:12).


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Monstrosity and Hybridity in Jonathan Glazer's "Under the Skin"
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Under the Skin, Monstrosity, Hybridity, monster, monstrosität, alien, other, Jonathan glazer
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B.A. Fabian Lukas (Author), 2015, Monstrosity and Hybridity in Jonathan Glazer's "Under the Skin", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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