Sickness and Sexual Dissidence in the Victorian Gothic Imagination

SFRA Review, vol. 50, no. 1

Symposium: Medical Humanities and the Fantastic

“Sick with Longing”: Sickness and Sexual Dissidence in the Victorian Gothic Imagination

Brontë Schiltz
Manchester Metropolitan University

Sexual transgression features so frequently and prominently in eighteenth and nineteenth century Gothic fiction that William Hughes and Andrew Smith posit that “Gothic has, in a sense, always been ‘queer’” (1). Furthermore, as George Haggerty argues in Queer Gothic, “Gothic fiction offered the one semirespectable area of literary endeavor in which modes of sexual and social transgression were discursively addressed on a regular basis,” and, therefore, it actually “helped shape thinking about sexual matters—theories of sexuality, as it were” (3). Whether that thinking was positive or not, however, remains a contested issue. Ardel Haefele-Thomas argues that “some authors employed Gothic frameworks to defend queer and other marginalized characters in ways that were quite subversive. For other authors, Gothic as a genre allows them to express their ambivalence regarding “others” in society” (2). For Ellis Hanson, ambivalence is more typical:

the Gothic often reproduces the conventional paranoid structure of homophobia and other moral panics over sex, and yet it can also be a raucous site of sexual transgression and excess that undermines its own narrative efforts at erotic containment.


Hughes and Smith agree that, while early Gothic narratives set themselves apart from other literary genres in that they regularly explored transgressive configurations of gender and sexuality,

a fearful publishing industry demand[ed] that these troubling things should be contained by the eventual triumph of a familiar morality. In consequence, the genre frequently espouse[d] a characteristically conservative morality, and frequently a conventional and rather public heterosexuality.


Consequently, as Dale Townshend argues, “queerness in early Gothic is consistently bound up in the problems of negative representation,” yet “while Gothic writers, almost without exception, would recoil in horror from the queerness that their texts entertained, most, often to the point of social notoriety, were of a queer disposition themselves” (27). While this may initially seem surprising, it is surely natural that living under the oppressive conditions of criminalisation and pathologization would foster a sense of ambivalence. Such appears to be the case for both Emily Brontë and Vernon Lee, Victorian Gothic writers respectively speculated (see Kennard) and known to have had a sexual preference for their own sex, and for whom this ambivalence takes aesthetic shape in Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847) and Lee’s “A Wicked Voice” (1890) and “Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady” (1896).

In nineteenth century England, homophobia and xenophobia were closely related. As Haefele-Thomas explains, sodomites, or inverts, “were seen as ‘foreign’ or ‘another race’” (122). In this sense, in Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff’s racialised body is constructed as Other in much the same way as the bodies of those who transgressed sexually, his particular nebulousness especially reflecting the liminal position of queer individuals in this period. Although he is of indeterminate ethnicity, he laments that he apparently “must wish for Edgar Linton’s great blue eyes and even forehead,” to which the Earnshaws’ servant, Nelly, replies: “A good heart will help you to a bonny face, my lad … if you were a regular black … Who knows but your father was Emperor of China, and your mother an Indian queen[?]” (Brontë 84). Discussing the role of physiognomy in early Gothic texts, Corinna Wagner argues that “the body demonstrates truths about the self that the individual could not—or would not—articulate” (80). However, she acknowledges that this is not always the case, and that sometimes

immorality, deviance and crime are not the result of science or social institutions failing to control or understand the body; rather immorality, deviance and crime are a result of those institutions themselves.

Wagner 86

In the context of Wuthering Heights, it is interesting to consider how physiognomy figures within the institution of the home. From the moment he is introduced to the Earnshaw household as a young child, Heathcliff is vilified. As Sue Chaplin notes, he is “referred to repeatedly as demonic or monstrous; he is an ‘evil beast,’ an ‘imp of satan’ and ‘a goblin’; his eyes are ‘black fiends,’ his teeth ‘sharp, white’” (83). Even the benevolent Mr. Earnshaw, his ostensibly adoptive and potentially biological father, dehumanises him, describing him as “as dark almost as if it came from the devil” (Brontë 64, emphasis added). Likewise, upon first seeing him, Nelly “was frightened, and Mrs. Earnshaw was ready to fling it out of doors” (Brontë 64-5, emphasis added). Cathy’s brother Hindley also immediately acquires a vehement hatred towards him. He is condemned from the outset because, before anything is known of his personality, his appearance is deemed unacceptable. He is thus shaped into the monster he later becomes, given no opportunity to become anything else. This is also principally what makes Cathy’s desire for Heathcliff transgressive—as she bewails,

I’ve no more business to marry Edgar Linton than I have to be in heaven; and if [Hindley] had not brought Heathcliff so low, I shouldn’t have thought of it. It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff now; so he shall never know how I love him.

Brontë 106

Emily Brontë does not, however, condemn Cathy and Heathcliff’s desire for one another in light of its transgressive properties. Instead, her condemnation is directed at attempts to annihilate it, in radical opposition to the hegemonic discourse espoused by her contemporaries.

The nineteenth century marked a radical shift in thinking about dissident sexuality when, in 1886, the German sexologist Richard von Krafft-Ebing popularised the term “homosexuality” in Psychopathia Sexualis, categorising it as a pathological condition and thus lending credence to existing widely-held beliefs about sexual transgression. In Effeminate England, Joseph Bristow discusses what he refers to as “Wilde’s fatal effeminacy,” writing that “Wilde was indisputably a pathological figure” and that, in this sense, “the sexual criminal had transformed by degrees into something of a gothic spectre” (16, 18). Significantly, Wilde’s pathologization was explicitly related to physiognomic views of effeminacy—Arthur Symons, describing Wilde in his memoirs, wrote that “no such mouth ought ever to have existed: it is a woman’s that no man who is normal could ever have had,” and proceeded to characterise Wilde as “[a] man with a ruined body and a ravaged mind and a senseless brain” (146-7). Wilde was aware of the manner in which he was perceived, referring to himself in a letter as “a pathological problem in the eyes of German scientists” (695). It is noteworthy, then, that he explores sickness in The Picture of Dorian Gray, and yet, in doing so, shifts its cause from internal deviance to external jurisdiction. In the novel, Lord Henry describes how the “soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden to itself, with desire for what its monstrous laws have made monstrous and unlawful” (Wilde 74-5). Sickness, for Wilde, is not symptomatic of transgressive sexuality, but of its repression. This is likewise the position adopted by Brontë and Lee in their respective works, in which sense Lee is exceptionally modern in her thinking, and Brontë is half a century ahead of her time.

In both Wuthering Heights and “A Wicked Voice,” transgressive desire leads directly to sickness, yet not in the manner connoted by the work of early sexologists. Immediately after Heathcliff’s departure from Wuthering Heights after hearing that Cathy is engaged to Edgar Linton, Cathy suffers a “commencement of delirium” and is pronounced “dangerously ill” (Brontë 113). As Jean Kennard, who reads Wuthering Heights as a narratological allegory for Emily Brontë’s own queer sexuality, puts it, “[t]he separation of Heathcliff from Catherine makes Catherine ill” (128). When he returns, after Cathy’s marriage, much to Edgar’s displeasure, Cathy declares that “if I cannot keep Heathcliff for my friend—if Edgar will be mean and jealous, I’ll try to break their hearts by breaking my own” (Brontë 142). She subsequently becomes seriously ill with “a brain fever” (Brontë 157) once again, and dies soon thereafter. It is not her transgressive desire for Heathcliff that marks the destruction of her health, but her inability to indulge it—as she remarks to Nelly, “we separated! … Not as long as I live, Ellen: for no mortal creature. Every Linton on the face of the earth might melt into nothing, before I could consent to forsake Heathcliff” (Brontë 106). Later, as she lays dying, Heathcliff chastises her:

I have not one word of comfort. You deserve this. You have killed yourself. … You loved me—then what right had you to leave me? What right—answer me—for the poor fancy you felt for Linton? Because misery and degradation, and death, and nothing that God or Satan could inflict would have parted us, you, of your own will, did it. I have not broken your heart—you have broken it; and in breaking it, you have broken mine.

Brontë 183

Cathy suffers not because she loves Heathcliff, but because she cannot allow herself to love him as she really wants to. If, as Kennard argues, Emily Brontë’s own transgressive sexuality is encoded in Wuthering Heights, then the implication is that her source of torment was not that sexuality itself, but her unwillingness, or perceived inability, to indulge in it. It is notable, therefore, that Cathy and Heathcliff are eventually reunited in death: “a little boy” tells the narrator, Lockwood, that he saw “Heathcliff, and a woman” roaming the moors (Brontë 347). As Alison Milbank notes, “the most vivid materiality is accorded to the ghosts of the novel” (162)—when Lockwood encounters Cathy’s ghost, she bleeds—he “pulled its wrist on to the broken pane, and rubbed it to and fro till the blood ran down and soaked the bed-clothes” (Brontë 54). The reunion of Cathy and Heathcliff is not, in this sense, only a spectral one, but a bodily one, too. Significantly, their spectrality does not evoke horror—the novel’s final image is of “moths fluttering among the heath and hare-bells” and “soft wind breathing through the grass” (Brontë 348). Even if the indulgence of their desire for one another is permissible only in death, it is permissible nonetheless, and not only permissible, but beautiful.

Likewise, in “A Wicked Voice,” exposure to the voice of Zaffirino, the eighteenth-century Venetian singer whose voice haunts Magnus, a composer with a passionate hatred for singing, leaves Magnus “wasted by a strange and deadly disease” (Lee 158). Catherine Maxwell and Patricia Pulham write that, for Lee, “[d]esire … is always a risky business, all too often bringing death and destruction in its wake” (12). In fact, Lee herself referred to desire, and transgressive desire in particular, in terms of illness in a private journal in 1885:

may there not, at the bottom of this seemingly scientific, philanthropic, idealizing, decidedly noble-looking nature of mine, be something base, dangerous, disgraceful that is cozening me? … may I be indulging a mere depraved appetite for the loathsome while I fancy that I am studying diseases and probing wounds for the sake of diminishing both? Perhaps.

quoted in Psomiades 28

Crucially, however, she goes on to ponder “which of these two, the prudes or the easy-goers, are themselves normal, healthy?” (qtd. in Psomiades 28, emphasis added). In her essay, “Deterioration of the Soul,” she also poses a question which is echoed in Wagner’s aforementioned commentary on the institutional production of deviance: “does society not produce its own degenerates and criminals, even as the body produces its own diseases, or at least fosters them?” (Lee 942). Like Wilde, she appears to conceive of sickness not as emerging from dissident desires, but from the societal obligation to resist them.

Intriguingly, “A Wicked Voice” was inspired by a real encounter with a portrait of an eighteenth-century composer while Lee was visiting the Bologna music school with John Singer Sargent in 1872, during which “she and Sargent had both wished that they could hear the dead singer’s voice—a voice that had historically been said to have curing properties” (Haefele-Thomas 125). The voice which inspired the story was associated not with infection, but with medicinal healing. It is notable, then, that Zaffirino is not an inherently malicious figure. Relaying the story of the death of his aunt, the Procuratessa, a Venetian nobleman, Count Alvise, describes how, in life, Zaffirino “was in the habit of boasting that no woman had ever been able to resist his singing” (Lee 132). The Procuratessa “laughed when this story was told her, refused to go to hear this insolent dog, and added that it might be quite possible by the aid of spells and infernal pacts to kill a gentildonna, but as to making her fall in love with a lackey—never!” (Lee 132). It is not the threat of death which the Procuratessa disbelieves, but the threat of desire. Drawn to her resistance, “Zaffirino, who piqued himself upon always getting the better of any one who was wanting in deference to his voice” (Lee 132), visits the Procuratessa, and, as had been forewarned, “at the third air … she gave a dreadful cry, and fell into the convulsions of death” (Lee 134). It is significant that exposure to Zaffirino’s charms is not intrinsically fatal—the Count states that he “could” kill his victims “if he only felt inclined” (Lee 132, emphasis added); it is not a foregone conclusion. The Procuratessa died not because she desired Zaffirino, but because she was resistant to that desire.

Likewise, Magnus also obviously desires Zaffirino, but fiercely resists those desires. His distaste towards singing is explicitly tied to the flesh: he describes “the voice” as “that instrument which was not invented by the human intellect, but begotten of the body, and which, instead of moving the soul, merely stirs up the dregs of our nature!” (Lee 129). Yet, when he is about to first come into contact with Zaffirino’s voice, he feels that he “was going to meet [his] inspiration, and [he] awaited its coming as a lover awaits his beloved” (Lee 139). He comes to desire contact with Zaffirino and, in attempting to suppress this desire, he almost comes to meet the same fate as the Procuratessa. In the same manner as Wuthering Heights, “A Wicked Voice” is therefore radical: it is not transgressive desire itself which is associated with sickness, but attempts to resist it.

Similarly, in “Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady,” the young Prince Alberic falls ill after being told the story of his ancestral namesakes’ involvements with the Snake Lady, a beautiful and seemingly immortal woman cursed to live as a snake for all but one hour each day. Notably, the language with which this malady is described has much in common with the language typically used by religious bigots to condemn homosexuality—the priest who is sent for to attend him describes him as “just escaped from the jaws of death—and, perhaps, even from the insidious onslaught of the Evil One” (Lee 51). Yet, when Alberic learns that not only is the Snake Lady alive, but that she is the very woman he has come to know and adore as his godmother, he almost immediately recovers, and the priest remarks that “the demon has issued out of him!” (Lee 54). The following day, “his limbs seemed suddenly strong, and his mind strangely clear, as if his sickness had been but a dream” (Lee 254). Once he acknowledges his freedom to indulge his desires, even if he must keep them secret from the outside world, Alberic’s illness passes. Once again, transgressive desire is portrayed not as an illness in itself, but as a means of escape from it—a proximity to Wilde’s portrayals of illness and repression which illuminates Emma Liggins’ reading of the tale as homage to him, “published at a time when Oscar Wilde was persecuted and imprisoned, like Alberic will be, for his aesthetic and sexual beliefs and practices” (47-8). It is notable that Alberic first encounters the Snake Lady through a “tapestry of old and Gothic taste” (Lee 19-20), since Lee believed in a relationship between art and wellbeing. In Kathy Psomiandes’ words, “[t]he human animal … has a biological and a bodily need for art’s healthful effects … [w]e become the beautiful through perceiving the beautiful, and perhaps even more importantly, we become healthy” (32-33). The Gothic, transgressive Snake Lady does not threaten Alberic’s health, she produces it.

Psomiades describes Lee as “a woman thwarted by the demands of Victorian morality from getting what she must have really wanted” (29-30)—sexual communion with other women. In light of this, “A Wicked Voice” can be read as an exploration of Lee’s ambivalent relationship towards her own desires. While she, like Brontë, if Kennard’s view is accepted as fact, appeared to view them as something to be repressed, as in much of Gothic fiction, repression is rarely successful, and attempting to maintain it can only ever be disastrous.

George Haggerty argues that “gothic fiction can be read as reinscribing the status quo. Gothic resolutions repeatedly insist on order restored and (often) on reassertion of heteronormative prerogative” (10). It is this convention which Emily Brontë and Vernon Lee appear to set out to challenge in their works. While Wuthering Heights does conclude with a restoration of order, that restoration involves the spectral reunion of Cathy and Heathcliff, the most transgressive characters in the novel. In “A Wicked Voice” and “Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady,” meanwhile, order is not restored at all—Magnus “can never lay hold of [his] inspiration” (Lee 158) due to his total preoccupation with Zaffirino’s voice, which he longs to hear again, and the concluding deaths of Alberic and the Snake Lady, the latter being murdered in her reptilian form by Alberic’s grandfather’s Jester and the former subsequently dying of grief, are presented as tragic, not comforting. In this sense, despite the proliferation of representations of transgressive sexuality in Gothic fiction from its inception, Brontë and Lee demonstrate not only originality, but also genuine radicalism. Despite these texts’ ambivalent treatments of transgression, they offer a glimmer of hope in a world which was deeply hostile to those marked in any way as “queer.”

Brontë Schiltz is a Masters student with the Manchester Centre for Gothic Studies at Manchester Metropolitan University. She previously graduated from Royal Holloway University of London with a degree in English and creative writing. Her research interests include the queer Gothic, the neoliberal Gothic and the Gothic in popular culture.


Brontë, Emily. Wuthering Heights. Collins Clear-Type Press, 1960.

Bristow, Joseph. Effeminate England. Columbia UP, 1995.

Chaplin, Sue. Gothic Literature. York Press, 2011.

Haefele-Thomas, Ardel. Queer Others in Victorian Gothic: Transgressing Monstrosity. U of Wales P, 2012.

Haggerty, George. Queer Gothic. U of Illinois P, 2006.

Hanson, Ellis. “Queer Gothic.” The Routledge Companion to Gothic, edited by Catherine Spooner and Emma McEvoy. Abingdon, Routledge, 2007, pp. 174-182.

Hughes, William and Smith, Andrew. Queering the Gothic. Manchester UP, 2011.

Kennard, Jean. “Lesbianism and the Censoring of Wuthering Heights.” NSWA Journal, vol. 8, no. 2, 1996, pp. 17-36.

Krafft-Ebing, Richard von. Psychopathia Sexualis: With Especial Reference to Antipathic Sexual Instinct. New York, Arcade Publishing, 1998.

Lee, Vernon. Quoted in Psomiades, Kathy. “‘Still Burning from This Strangling Embrace’: Vernon Lee on Desire and Aesthetics.” Victorian Sexual Dissidence, edited by Richard Dellamora, Chicago, U of Chicago P, 1999, pp. 21-42.

Lee, Vernon. “A Wicked Voice.” Supernatural Tales, Peter Owen Publishers, 2004.

Lee, Vernon. “Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady.” Supernatural Tales, Peter Owen Publishers, 2004.

Liggins, Emma. “Gendering the Spectral Encounter at the Fin de Siècle: Unspeakability in Vernon Lee’s Supernatural Stories.” Gothic Studies, vol. 15, no. 2, 2013, pp. 37-52.

Milbank, Alison. “The Victorian Gothic in English novels and stories, 1830-1880.” The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction, edited by Jerrold E. Hogle, Cambridge UP, 2015, pp. 145-166.

Psomiades, Kathy. “‘Still Burning from This Strangling Embrace’: Vernon Lee on Desire and Aesthetics.” Victorian Sexual Dissidence, edited by Richard Dellamora, U of Chicago P, 1999, pp. 21-42.

Pulham, Patricia. “The Castrato and the Cry in Vernon Lee’s Wicked Voices.” Victorian Literature and Culture, vol. 30, no. 2, 2002, pp. 421-437.

Spooner, Catherine and McEvoy, Emma, editors. The Routledge Companion to Gothic. Routledge, 2007.

Symons, Arthur. The Memoirs of Arthur Symons: Life and Art in the 1890s. Pennsylvania State UP, 1977.

Townshend, Dale. “‘Love in a convent’: or, Gothic and the Perverse Father of Queer Enjoyment.” Queering the Gothic, edited by William Hughes and Andrew Smith, Manchester UP, 2011, pp. 11-35.

Wagner, Corinna. “The Dream of a Transparent Body: Identity, Science and the Gothic Novel.” Gothic Studies, vol. 14, no. 1, 2012, pp. 74-92.

Wilde, Oscar. The Letters of Oscar Wilde. Rupert Hart-Davis, 1963.

Wilde, Oscar. The Uncensored Picture of Dorian Gray. Belknap / Harvard, 2011.

Freaks and Freakery in Film and History

SFRA Review, vol. 50, no. 1

Symposium: Medical Humanities and the Fantastic

Freaks and Freakery in Film and History

Jenni Hunt
University of Leicester

My focus here is on representations of disability and freakery in the media and within history. My wider research is focused on the representation of disability and, within this paper, I will consider how museums can use the ongoing interest in stories of freaks and freakery to tackle stereotypes and stigmas surrounding disability for their audiences. Initially examining the wide range of disability stereotypes that exist within the media, I will move on to consider the history of freak shows and freakery, before ending by examining how museums can make use of this.

Images of disability are widespread within Western popular culture, but disability is often presented in such cases as a source of stereotypes or as a narrative device in which the disabled are “blessed or damned but never wholly human” (Gartner and Joe, 2). Throughout history, disabled people have been cast in various roles: often that of the villain, the object of pity, or else as an inspirational innocent, rather than a person.

Characters such as Shakespeare’s Richard III, driven by vengeance and fury, and the disfigured Batman villains Two-Face and the Joker are archetypes for Western culture. The romantic drama Me Before You depicts a disabled man choosing to die rather than continue with his life, whilst the X-Files presents disabled teenagers as “not meant to be” and deserving of mercy killing. Depictions of mental illness and physical disfigurement dominate in the horror genre. Young people growing up with disability are faced with images that present them as monsters.

With the very point of cinema being its spectacle, physically disabled bodies are often featured within film—in particular, cult films and exploitation films that use freakery to show images that are taboo, aiming to shock, horrify, and titillate audiences—and, in doing so, further marking out the disabled body as other (Church). This presentation can have harmful consequences. Much criticism of this type of film, however, like criticism of the freak show before them, centres around the idea of outraging public decency rather than concern for those who are shown. Fans of such shows can indeed find themselves accused of mental illness or insanity, separated by their interest in such “unnatural” images.

Disabled bodies can become props in fantasy settings, presenting an image of otherness, often relegated to the background, as in the recent hit The Greatest Showman. One fantasy film which deals directly with the idea of disability is Edward Scissorhands—Tim Burton’s gothic tale in which the protagonist is an unfinished creation, who has scissors for hands. His story is one about the importance of looking past appearance, yet his disability is “symbolic of an inner emotional deficit—feelings of exclusion and an inability to be understood and loved” (Church). We see the reactions he faces as he ventures into society, with some people repulsed by him, others wanting to cure him, and others wanting to use him only as a tool. In this, he experiences a number of reactions common to people with disabilities. The story humanises the monster, but in the end it is his monstrous nature which overwhelms him as he accidentally kills someone, and he finds himself retreating back into the darkness that previously defined him. Therefore he is again removed from society, and while the narrator shows her sympathy for him, it is clear that he is neither welcome in, nor suited for, society. In this way, a film which shows a disabled individual in a mainly positive light again ends up condemning them to solitude.

Having examined the range of stereotypes that are depicted in the media and the isolation and dehumanisation that it causes, I now move on to a more historical understanding of freakery. Despite the negative connotations of the word “freak” today, freak studies scholars (Bogdan; Chemers) have argued that enfreakment was a socially constructed performance, based not on an inherent quality within the individual but on a manner of presentation. Bogdan argues, for example, that while Robert Wadlow was very tall, he wasn’t a giant, as he did not cultivate the performance and persona necessary to be considered as such (272-274). Chemers argues that freakery consists of the “intentional performance of constructed abnormality as entertainment” (24), exaggerating perceived deviance for monetary gain. Framed as “wonders” and “marvels,” the disabled performers within freak shows were seen not as objects of pity, but as entertainment. This sense of wonder can be seen within the carte d’visites that many performers sold—these functioned as a visual resume, highlighting their difference and advertising their performances (Garland-Thomson, “Seeing the Disable,” 351). Within the freak show, the difference of the individual is highlighted, but framed as something unique and valuable—at least within the context of the performance itself and the money it could create. Such framing also set disabled people apart, however, implying that they were better off with their own kind rather than being included within the social environment of the world as a whole (Bogdan, 279). Freak shows faded from popularity in the early 20th century, as they were targeted for outraging “social decency” (Church).

Displays of disabled bodies have not gone away, however, nor have they faded from the public consciousness, even when medicalisation has meant that any celebration of disability was viewed as “a perverse celebration of disease” (Chermers). Individuals with disabilities have responded to this lack of representation in a number of ways—with Garland Thomson considering the work of several disabled artists who present their bodies on their own terms. Such performances are not without controversy, both within the disabled community and from outside. The statue of the artist Alison Lapper faced criticism for being a “drab monument to the backward pieties of the age” (O’Neil), with the commentator contrasting his admiration for Alison Lapper—who has “overcome great challenges”—to his revulsion at the statue itself. Here he shows a response of pity, rather than seeing the image as a celebration of disabled women’s sexuality, a topic often ignored. Similarly, the inclusion of a disabled presenter on the show Cbeebies led to unpleasant comments online, with the woman in question told she would give children nightmares (Dowell). However, Cerrie Bernell, the woman involved, used this hatred as an opportunity to start a discussion on the media’s focus on the perfect body, and was therefore able to reclaim her image.

This reclamation of identity can also be seen within the work of historic freaks. They were people who would find themselves stared at, and who chose to use this curiosity as a way of earning a living, expressing their agency, and travelling the world. This is not to say that people who worked in freak shows were not exploited—many were, with some trapped in conditions of slavery. However, for some the ability to control their own image enabled them to live out a life that would have been unimaginable had they been non-disabled. Simply because attitudes towards acceptability have changed is no reason to ignore what was achieved by these disabled pioneers, especially when modern understandings of disabled history can often be limited.

Questions remain over the limits of acceptability, especially when it conflicts with modern sensibilities. Bogdan (279-281) examines the case of Otis Jordan, a disabled man who performed as “Otis the Frog Boy” in the 1970s. He was proud of his job, publicly saying that to him the circus showing up was “the best thing that ever happened.” However, he was temporarily put out of a job due to the complaints of another individual who felt his work was a symbol of the degradation of disabled people. He fought back against this, stating, “I can’t understand it. How can she say I’m being taken advantage of? Hell, what does she want for me—to be on welfare?” His protests were successful, and he was able to resume work until his death in 1990.

Here, conflict arises as to what is an acceptable role for a disabled person within society, and who is best placed to make such judgements. Within a modern context, such exhibition for profit is seen as distasteful and dehumanising, however this denies the historical work, and cultural impact of, those who made their living by performing as freaks.

It is clear, therefore, that our initial conceptions of freakery as exploitation are in some ways a misunderstanding. Exploitation has undeniably occurred, but it has also brought with it opportunities that would be beyond the reach of many others who lived during that time. This is a topic that I feel museums should approach, as it shows agency in the lives of those who performed and acknowledges that they were able to make decisions rather than simply being acted upon.

Museums are seen as influential and to be treated with respect, with the messages they give out likely to be believed. When attention first turns to the concept of displaying disability, the shadow of the freak show looms large—with Sandell (161) discovering that curators “invoked the freak show, and a desire to avoid freak show-style approaches” as a reason to avoid displaying the lives of people who had disability within their collections. When people with disabilities face widespread discrimination and prejudice, however, it is important that their stories are told and that this happens with respect. Care must be taken to avoid encouraging further discrimination for disabled individuals, and to prevent dehumanising them. Whether the individuals discussed are historical or present-day, they need to be shown in a way that acknowledges their individuality and agency.

There are numerous ways that these stories could be told and objects related to these lives displayed. The method that museums choose will provide a signal of the value that they attach to disabled lives, and the meanings that they give them. Simply ignoring disabled individuals treats them as unworthy of attention. Instead, museums should present historic freaks as people, celebrating their achievements in a world that was working against them, while also acknowledging the hardships that they faced. People are interested in freaks—but beyond that, they are interested in stories. Sharing information about people who travelled the globe, putting on performances and showcasing their talents, is something that museums should see as an opportunity to increase understanding, rather than as a threat.

This can be seen in an interview conducted with David Hevey: 

I want people to come away thinking “Wow. Disabled people changed the paradigm, changed the world. And have fought for kind of justice.” And not, you know, sitting in back rooms in a kind of non-agency pity way. They claimed back their agency, you know. So that’s what I want. And I… the fundament is I want people to think “Yeah, I hope they win. I hope that lot win.” Which is always the essence of a good story.

By seeking out these stories full of agency, whenever they occurred in history, new understandings can be given to audiences.

I hope that this paper has given you another way of looking at these stories, and considering how they can be told in new ways, in order to increase understanding and empathy for visitors who may have little prior knowledge of disability history. Whilst any such presentation is an oversimplification, it may enable non-disabled audiences a view of agency that they would not otherwise have considered.

Jenni Hunt is studying for her PhD at the University of Leicester. She is interested in the relationship between museums, social justice, and inclusion. In particular, she is examining how museums present disability, and how they are working with disabled people to share these stories. Her supervisor is Professor Richard Sandell.


Bogdan, Robert. Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit. U of Chicago P, 1990.

Chemers, Michael M. “Staging Stigma: A Freak Studies Manifesto,” Disability Studies Quarterly,vol.  25, no. 3, 2005,

Church, David. “Freakery, Cult Films, and the Problem of Ambivalence.” Journal of Film and Video, vol. 63, no. 1, Spring 2011, pp. 3-17.

Dowell, Ben. “TV Presenter’s Calm Take on Prejudice.” The Guardian, 27 February 2009,

Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie. “Seeing the Disabled: Visual Rhetorics of Popular Disability Photography.” The New Disability History: American Perspectives, edited by Paul K. Longmore and Lauri Umansky, New York UP, 2000, pp. 335-374.

—. “Staring Back: Self-Representations of Disabled Performance Artists.” American Quarterly, vol. 52, no. 2, 2000, pp. 334-338.

—. Staring: How We Look. Oxford UP, 2009.

Gartner, Alan, and Tom Joe. Introduction. Images of the Disabled, Disabling Images, edited by Alan Gartner and Tom Joe, Praeger, 1987.

Hevey, David. Personal interview. 9 Dec. 2018

O’Neill, Brendan. “Statue of Limitations.” The Guardian, 17 May 2007,

Sandell, Richard. Museums, Prejudice, and the Reframing of Difference. Routledge, 2007.

Xenotransplantation: The Haunting Possibilities for the Future

SFRA Review, vol. 50, no. 1

Symposium: Medical Humanities and the Fantastic

Xenotransplantation: The Haunting Possibilities for the Future, within Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake

Lucy Nield
University of Liverpool

In 1997, a photograph of a mouse was released with a human ear growing on its back. This caused strong reactions with the press and raised questions concerning the bio-ethical implications of xenotransplantation. Since, interest in the medical possibilities concerning xenotransplantation, have spread across various mediums, including fiction. Margaret Atwood’s MaddAdam trilogy explores such possibilities for our future; focusing on modifying food, animals and plants all for profit and human benefit. This paper will aim to review contemporary advances of xenotransplantation as well as explore Atwood’s futuristic world and the haunting medical possibilities, it feels, she is predicting.

According to the FDA, in 2019,

Xenotransplantation is any procedure that involves the transplantation, implantation or infusion into a human recipient of either:

A) live cells, tissues or organs from a nonhuman animal source, 

B) human body fluids, cells, tissues or organs that have had EX VIVO contact with live nonhuman animal cells, tissues or organs.

According to D.K.C. Cooper in his paper “Xenotransplantation—The Current Status and Prospects,” the growing interest and increased research surrounding xenotransplantation comes from the “continuing worldwide shortage of organs from deceased human donors for transplantations into patients with organ failure.” Throughout the paper, Cooper discusses these shortages and the problems that follow; “In the USA alone, in 2016, 98,000 patients started the year on the waiting list” for new kidneys, with only 20% transplanted. Since 2005, according to Cooper’s research, over 9,000 wait-listed patients died or became too sick to transplant, thus causing the interest and continued efforts to make xenotransplantation a reality.

Whilst the use of xenotransplantation raises concerns regarding infections, Bio-ethical fears and the moral implications surrounding the subject, research and experiments are still going ahead. Particularly in the field of “genetically engineered pigs,” which contemporary researchers, such as Cooper, imply could resolve the problems facing the medical community today. Cooper states that, today, research and experiments in “utilizing genetically modified pig kidneys and other organs are moving towards clinical trials in humans,” revealing the rapid progression and enthusiasm in the field.

Xenotransplantation: A History 

Xenotransplantation, or “clinical cross species transplantation,” has a “long history going back to blood transfusions across species in the 17th century” (Cooper). According to the Science Museum, London:

Most animals used for [early transplantation attempts] were apes (or nonhuman primates), as they are our closest animal relative. Throughout the 1960s, as organ transplants between humans became more common, the possibility of animal-to-human transplants appeared feasible. It was also seen as a way of getting around the problem of the shortage of donor organs.

(“Animal-Human Transplants”)

However, numerous attempts at nonhuman primate organ transplantation in patients were carried out in the 1960s, the longest surviving patient of these attempts returned to work for 9 months on a pair of chimpanzee kidneys, before rejection began. However, with new technologies, cloning, genetic engineering and new medication it is perceived that pigs may be the animal most likely to resolve the donor organ shortage problem.

Oryx and Crake

In 2003, Margaret Atwood published the first book of her MaddAddam trilogy, Oryx and Crake. Sarah Akaws argues that “The book, preferably described by its author as being Speculative Fiction, rather than Science fiction, offers the readers an insightful review of where our world is heading,” society is separated into either “rich” or “poor” classes, corrupt governments and corporations, “and the growing, evolving branch of science,” revealing a future that we might encounter if humanity stays on its current path of scientific advances. In her article, Akaws focuses mainly on humanity’s progression in medicine, xenotransplantation, and genetic engineering. Whilst there are several examples of genetic modification, species splicing and xenotransplantation, the best example of xenotransplantation and speculations concerning such procedures within Atwood’s world, would be the Pigoons.

The Pigoons are introduced to the reader by the protagonist Jimmy (25). Jimmy grew up within large corporate compounds, including “OrganInk Farms,” which is where he first meets the Pigoons. His father works as a genographer, on “The Pigoon Project,” along with a team of “transplant experts and the microbiologists who were splicing against infections” (25). As Jimmy historicizes it, “The goal of the Pigoon project was to grow an assortment of foolproof human-tissue organs [inside] a transgenic knockout pig host—organs that would transplant smoothly and avoid rejection, but would also be able to fend off attacks by opportunistic microbes and viruses” (25).

However, the team were not only using the Pigoons to grow organs, “they were [also] perfecting a Pigoon that could grow five or six kidneys at a time. Such a host animal could be reaped of its extra kidneys, then, rather than being destroyed; it could keep on living and grow more organs, much as a lobster could grow another claw to replace a missing one. That would be less wasteful, as it took a lot of food and care to grow a Pigoon” (26). As a result, “The Pigoons were much bigger and fatter than ordinary pigs, to leave room for all the extra organs” (29). The more modifications and experiments that were conducted within the text, the more examples and possibilities Atwood presents in terms of xenotransplantation. “The Pigoon organs could be customised, using cells from individual human donors, and the organs were frozen until needed. It was much cheaper than getting yourself cloned for spare parts—a few wrinkles left to be ironed out there” (27). Here Atwood not only reveals a conceivable answer for donor shortages, but she also brushes over the idea that using genetic modification and xenotransplantation are stepping stones towards cloning human beings.

Not only are the Pigoons being used to grow organs and offer those in need an opportunity to get well and live longer, but they are also used to grow new human skin. At another compound, called NooSkins, there were also Pigoons, “just as at OrganInc farms, but these were smaller and were being used to develop skin-related biotechnologies” (62). This compound appears to be working on making anti-wrinkle/anti-aging creams obsolete, “‘NooSkins for olds’ said the snappy logo” (62-63). “The main idea was to find a method of replacing the older epidermis with a fresh one, […] a genuine start-over skin that would be wrinkle—and blemish—free” (62). However, even within the text this is a work in progress, as human trials have started and people came out “looking like the mold creature from outer space,” with green and peeling skin (63).

Atwood presents these possibilities in a defamiliarized and almost phantasmagorical manner, to force the reader to think about the possibilities for the future. Although the world of Oryx and Crake is fiction built from the assumptions surrounding certain scientific advancements and speculative theory, there is certainly contemporary truth within her work.


For the first time “xenotransplantation allows modifications of the donor and not only treatment of the recipient” (Cooper). This is viewed as positive progression in the field, as:

genetic engineering may also contribute to overcome any of the physiological barriers that might be identified as well as in reducing the risks of transfer of a potential infections within the organ […] With the new technology now available, it is becoming quicker and cheaper to achieve multiple genetic manipulations in pigs, thus accelerating progress towards clinical implementation of the technology.


Whilst within Atwood’s work the implication appears to be “NooSkin” for older customers, or people attempting to achieve immortality in appearance and health, there is an indication that the new pig skin could be good for those in need a skin graph—once the method has been perfected (62). In reality, obtaining sufficient autologous skin is a challenge. “Skin allografts from deceased donors, various artificial dermal substitutes, or skin xenografts may be transplanted to provide temporary coverage,” but little more (Cooper). Attempts have been made to transplant genetically engineered pig skin, however this is still at the stage of failure, but does provide adequate skin covering whilst an alternative cover is found (Dooldeniya and Warrens). As in Atwood’s text, in reality:

the immune response to a xenograph is generally more extreme than that seen in same species transplantation and it ultimately results in xenograph rejection, or in severe cases, recipient death. Pigs have molecules on their cell surfaces […] that humans do not have. (Dooldeniya and Warrens)

Thus, when “pig organs are transplanted into humans, the immune system recognises these molecules as non-self and begins to attack the pig tissues, leading to immediate rejection of the organ” (Tena). The two main issues with Pig organs and xenographs are size and longevity. Atwood confronts this issue within her text by growing actual human organs within the Pigoons, whilst contemporary researchers, such as Adesa Tena, are attempting to use organic pig organs as they “are a similar size and physiology to human organs,” this makes them ideal “candidates” for transplant and would be readily available when needed (Tena).

Another issue that has been encountered recently concerns the body temperature of pigs. “The body temperature of pigs is roughly 39°C, whereas human body temperature is about 37°C,” the functional implications of this for the activity of certain enzymes, within organs and skin, at the lower temperature of the human body remain unclear at this time (Tena).

Making Xenotransplantation a Reality

According to a research paper published in 2015 by Aseda Tena, “if we could eliminate the pig proteins that humans don’t have and introduce necessary human proteins into the pigs via genetic engineering, the chances of rejection could be minimised. The creation of such genetically modified pigs could solve the problem of organ availability.” Here, Tena indicates that with these changes, if they were possible, risks of infection, rejection and potential issues caused by the differing body temperature would be diminished. 

Since this time, according to a paper published in 2018 by Parsia Vagefi, researchers have been creating such genetically engineered pigs, concentrating on kidneys. These pigs are not quite as modified as Atwood’s Pigoons, but the modifications made include successfully replacing “pig kidney proteins with human proteins,” which has reduced the severity of immune responses and incompatibilities between the human and the pig, thus allowing humans to accept pig organs. Vagefi ends his paper; “With each advancement, researchers are approaching human trials for xenotransplantation. The ongoing research is extensive, and it is hard to predict when it will become a reality—but it appears to be coming.”

Reading the current research and progression surrounding xenotransplantation feels almost like reading Atwood’s work. Her hauntingly realistic speculations of where medicine may potentially lead are uncannily parallel with current research. Even those in the field of xenotransplantation are astounded by the progress that has been made in recent years. Whilst there are still issues to be ironed out, recent experiments have given them nothing but encouragement and enthusiasm. Muhammad Mohiuddin, a lead researcher, was quoted in a paper on the subject, amazed by how close they are to human trials and stated “this is not Science Fiction, this is really for real now.” (qtd. in Chen). Statements such as Mohiuddin’s, alongside experiments and research that are actually happening, brings humanity and modern medicine closer to the haunting and thought provoking ideas that Atwood presents within Oryx and Crake.

Lucy Nield is a PhD student in the Department of English Literature at the University of Liverpool. Her research interests include animal studies, the anthropocene, and posthumanism within science fiction. She is an organiser for the Current Research in Speculative Fiction conference at the University of Liverpool and has also had her poetry published, which can be found within the Pandora’s Box series and The Lovely Word.


Akawas, Sarah. “Pigoons: Future Life Savers.” Splice, 24 Mar. 2012,

“Animal-human Transplants.” Science Museum, Brought to Life: Exploring the History of Medicine, n.d.,

Atwood, Margaret. Oryx and Crake. Bloomsbury, 2013.

Chen, Angus. “Baboons Survive for Half a Year after Heart Transplants from Pigs.” Scientific American, 5 Dec. 2018,

Cooper, D.K.C. “Xenotransplantation—The Current Status and Prospects.” British Medical Bulletin, vol. 125, no. 1, Mar. 2018, pp. 5-14.

Dooldeniya, M.D., and D.N. Warrens. “Xenotransplantation: Where are we today?” Journal of The Royal Society of Medicine, vol. 93, no. 3, Mar. 2003, pp. 111-117.

Tena, Aseda. “Xenotransplantation: Can Pigs Save Human Lives?” Harvard University: The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Blog, 2 Nov. 2015,

Vagefi, Parsia. “Xenotransplantation: How Pigs Could One Day Save Kidney Patients’ Lives.” UT Southwestern Medical Centre Blog, 26 Apr. 2018,

“Xenotransplantation.” U.S. Food and Drug Administration, 28 Mar 2019,

Fungi as Destructive and Transformative in Rosewater by Tade Thompson and The Beauty by Aliya Whiteley

SFRA Review, vol. 50, no. 1

Symposium: Medical Humanities and the Fantastic

Fungi as Destructive and Transformative in Rosewater by Tade Thompson and The Beauty by Aliya Whiteley

Jonathan Thornton
University of Liverpool

In this paper I am going to explore ideas around fungi and semi-permeable bodies through the texts Rosewater by Tade Thompson (2016) and The Beauty by Aliya Whitely (2014). To do so I’m first going to outline some theoretical/conceptual ideas that discuss bodies and matter, and how fungi, with their symbiotic and parasitic interactions with bodies, disrupt the idea of the body as discrete and inviolable. Then I’m going to explore these elements through the texts. Then I’ll conclude, drawing together ideas across these two texts.

In Donna Haraway’s “The Cyborg Manifesto,” Haraway uses the cyborg as a metaphor to disrupt the humanist notion of the historically white male body as distinct from nature, woman, animal, and machine. She argues, “by the late twentieth century, our time, a mythic time, we are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism—in short, cyborgs.”(7) I am interested in how this notion of hybridity between machine and organism extends to the biomolecular machinery of the microbiota and the symbionts and parasites that we live intimately with. The notion of the human body as a discrete, inviable self is not compatible with our knowledge of ourselves as interactions of cellular machinery and genetic coding from varied sources both prokaryotic and eukaryotic. Haraway talks about biology as “a kind of cryptography” and further explores the idea of humans as interacting biological systems with no clearly defined boundaries in Staying with the Trouble

We are all lichens; so we can be scraped off the rocks by the Furies, who still erupt to avenge crimes against the earth. Alternatively, we can join in the metabolic transformations between and among rocks and critters for living and dying well.


Using Hawaray’s question from “The Cyborg Manifesto,” “Why should our bodies end at the skin, or include at best other beings encapsulated by skin?” as a jumping off point, Margrit Shildrick positions hybridity in relation to the disabled body and prostheses. Shildrick argues that prostheses, whether they be replacement limbs, behaviour altering drugs or transplanted organs, disrupt ideas about the body as a discrete entity and force us to rethink our ideas about embodiment:

They not only demonstrate the inherent plasticity of the body, but, in the very process of incorporating non-self matter, point to the multiple possibilities of co-corporeality, where bodies are not just contiguous and mutually reliant but entwined with one another.


Thus, considering bodies as “contiguous, mutually reliant and entwined” disrupts hierarchies of viewing non-disabled bodies as superior to disabled bodies, and allow us to rethink what constitutes a body and what its limits are. How we view embodiment also influences our ideas around subjectivity. Annemarie Mol uses the idea of eating an apple to explore ideas around embodiment and subjectivity. Through the act of eating, the subject’s role morphs from a traditional Western active subjectivity to a more complex one, as the apple is broken down and digested across the membranes of the digestive system, an action both passive yet regulated. Mol argues, “her actorship is distributed and her boundaries are neither firm nor fixed… Neither tightly closed off, nor completely open, an eater has semi-permeable boundaries” (30).

I would like to explore how two speculative fiction texts, Rosewater by Tade Thompson and The Beauty by Aliya Whiteley, use fungi as destructive and transformative agents that challenge the humanist idea of the body as discrete and inviolable, and offer ways of rethinking the body as a complex adaptive system interacting with and within other systems. In this way the texts allow us to challenge preconceived ideas about embodiment and subjectivity. 

Tade Thompson’s Rosewater is set in a near future Nigeria in which an alien incursion has occurred, in the form of Wormwood, which has burrowed under the ground and released fungi-like spores into Earth’s atmosphere. Wormwood is trapped under the dome of Utopicity, and the city of Rosewater has sprung up around it. The alien fungi, or xenoform, attaches itself to the natural fungi on human skin, forming a psychic network called the xenosphere which “sensitives” like protagonist Kaaro are able to access like the internet. In the virtual space of the xenosphere, sensitives are able to embody themselves in nonhuman forms—Kaaro appears as a Griffin, and inhabits such surreal places as a palace made of meat. But the xenosphere is more than just a recapitulation of the cyberpunk dream. In Rosewater, everyone is connected into a communal “worldmind,” the differences between discrete individual bodies called into question as consciousness extends across fungal networks and through different people’s minds. 

The dome opens once a year, releasing alien fungi into the atmosphere and healing the injured and diseased. However, this process does not always work as the people who flock to visit Rosewater might wish. Whilst some are healed, others are put back together wrong—the deformed, or mutated or remade in new and unusual ways—the remade. Even the dead are infected with xenoforms, brought back to life as soulless zombies—the reanimates. Thus, the interaction between humans and the alien fungi doesn’t so much return people to an idealised complete body but remakes it in challenging new forms. This is further complicated by Kaaro’s discovery that the xenoforms are slowly replacing human cells with more xenoforms whilst replicating the original body’s appearance, and that eventually humanity will be entirely replaced. This causes Kaaro to question his own subjectivity:

I am not the same. I don’t look at the dome in the same way. It’s now a stye or a boil, swollen with purulence, waiting, biding its time. I don’t know what my healing has cost me. How many native cells have the xenoforms driven out? Ten, fifteen percent? How human am I? I see the people touching me and the ones at the periphery staring as dead people. Conquered and killed by invaders, walking around carrying their death, but they don’t even know it.


The replacement of human cells by the alien xenoforms can be read as a metaphor for colonialism, especially as this all takes place in a Nigeria where the indigenous culture has been overwritten by the all-powerful cultural influences of the West. Thus the fungal entities in Rosewater force us to confront not just the way we think about human bodies but how we think about the body politic in the context of Western post-colonialism. 

The Beauty by Aliya Whiteley is set after a plague has wiped out all women. The protagonist Nate lives in the Valley of Stones with a community of men who have survived the plague. In the forest where the dead women have been buried, he meets the Beauty, creatures who have grown from the mushrooms feeding on the bodies of the women, who provide the men of the community with love and sex. Eventually the men become pregnant with the offspring of the Beauty, allowing a continuation of sorts for humanity. Like Thompson’s humans being slowly rewritten by xenoforms, the Beauty pose an ontological question. After two of the men murder their Beauties, the village doctor discovers that the Beauty have incorporated the bones of the women they grew from into their bodies. Nate sees the Beauty as the women returned to the community from beyond the dead; Uncle Tom and the other older men see them as a frightening and parasitic alien Other. 

The Beauty disrupt the boundary between alive and dead and human and nonhuman, eliciting disgust from the older members of the community but also from Nate when he first encounters them. However they also disrupt the gender norms of the men they come in contact with. Whilst they appear in feminine shape to arouse male desire, sexual intercourse with the Beauty results in the male humans becoming pregnant with the Beauty’s offspring. By putting the burden of pregnancy on the inviolable male body, and forcing it to undergo changes in shape and appearance, Whiteley challenges ideas around gendered bodies, and the idea of bodies as unchangeable. Nate reflects on the changes his body will go through as it shifts away from sexual potency towards nurturing and caring:

The idea of this was worse when it was happening to someone else. Now it is me and it is inevitable, and nothing inevitable is ever that bad. If I have to live with it, then how can it be unbearable? Besides, bodies betray us. That is what they do.


He comes to accept his body as mutable and permeable, whether through pregnancy or plague, it can be disrupted and altered. The pregnant body is another instance where the body becomes contiguous with another, in this case the foetus, as Nate realises on becoming pregnant: “We will meld to grow. Part human, part Beauty. Could anything be more wonderful, more terrifying? “ (59). The survival of humanity is assured only by this melding between human and Beauty, as embodied by their children. 

So, fungi in speculative fiction gives us a new way to think about the permeability of the body and the effects this has on embodiment and subjectivity. In Tade Thompson’s Rosewater, fungi connects humanity and its environment into a contiguous whole even as it rewrites the human body as its own. In Aliya Whiteley’s The Beauty, fungi disrupts preconceived notions around gendered bodies. Both books help us to rethink what the limits of the human body are.

Jonathan Thornton is studying for a Masters in Science Fiction literature at the University of Liverpool. He is interested in the portrayal of insects in speculative fiction and fantastika. He has a Masters in Medical Entomology, and works as an insectary technician at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine. He also writes criticism and reviews and conducts interviews for internet publications Fantasy Faction, The Fantasy Hive and Gingernuts of Horror.


Barad, Karen. “Posthumanist Performativity: Towards an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, vol. 28, no. 3, 2003, pp. 801-831

Haraway, Donna. “The Cyborg Manifesto.” Manifestly Haraway, U of Minnesota P, 2016, pp. 3-90

—. Staying With The Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Duke UP, 2016.

Mol, Annemarie. “I Eat an Apple: On Theorizing Subjectivities.” Subjectivity, vol. 22, 2008, pp. 28-37.

Shildrick, Margrit. “‘Why Should Our Bodies End at the Skin?’ Embodiment, Boundaries, and Somatechnics.” Hypatia, vol. 30, no. 1, 2015, pp. 14-29

Thompson, Tade. Rosewater. Apex Publications, 2016.

Whiteley, Aliya. The Beauty. Unsung Stories, 2014.

Articulating the Terror of Obstetric Violence

SFRA Review, vol. 50, no. 1

Symposium: Medical Humanities and the Fantastic

Articulating the Terror of Obstetric Violence in Carmen María Machado’s “The Husband Stitch”

Lucía López
University of Salamanca

Ever since I read Charlotte Perkins Gilman “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892) as an undergraduate student of English literature, I have been attracted to representations of the interactions of vulnerable bodies with what I call “the medical establishment” by which I mean state sanctioned clinical practice, that which follows mainstream discourse and does not consider other understandings of health but the Western one. Gilman’s text firmly aligns with this examination of mainstream medicine through the lens of literature, since the author depicts a “resting cure” popularized by Silas Weir Mitchell, a famous physician at the time, which consisted in enforced seclusion and bed rest for patients diagnosed with nervous conditions such as hysteria or neurasthenia. Perkins Gilman herself had been subjected to this cure, which she believed damaging and, in an effort to warn against its dangers, she denounced the extremely oppressive and confining prescriptions patients were forced to follow. In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” said prescriptions involve extreme confinement and prohibition of almost any social interaction or mental exercise, which seem to drive the protagonist to madness rather than to cure her, and the narration masterfully reflects the increasing claustrophobia and loss of touch with reality provoking an increasing unease in the reader that may well end in terror. 

Although the protagonist’s progressive illness is disquieting on its own, I argue that a good part of the terror that Gilman’s story provokes in the reader emanates from the fact that the protagonist’s husband, who is also a doctor, is the one who takes the role of care giver and enforces the limiting “resting” cure. Thus, the narrator is doubly betrayed, first by the medical establishment that pathologizes her disinterest in the domestic as a nervous condition, and second, by her husband, who prioritizes medical prescription over his partner’s explicit desires. 

The protagonist’s betrayal by those who should have her best interests at heart may seem outdated by contemporary Western standards; after all, we live in a time where feminism has drastically changed the power dynamics of marriages and the medical institutions securely stand on scientific grounds that should not allow for abuses of power. Although the forced vulnerability of Gilman’s protagonist is evocative and vaguely terrifying for a contemporary female reader, that terror should be far removed from our personal experience. However, contemporary women’s writing is still very much concerned with how gender bias and misogyny infiltrate clinical practice to the detriment of female patients: many recently published memoirs of sickness such us Abby Norman’s Ask Me About My Uterus (2018), Sonya Huber’s Pain Woman Takes Your Keys, and Other Essays from a Nervous System (2017) or Porochista Khakpour’s Sick: A Memoir (2018) certainly express the many frustrations and potential pitfalls of navigating the medical system as a woman. Although these memoirs deal explicitly with the encounters of female embodiment and the medical establishment, it is again a short story—Carmen María Machado’s “The Husband Stitch”—which talks back to “The Yellow Wallpaper” by covering the protagonist’s medical experience with a layer of terror, highlighting the betrayal of a medical establishment that is depicted as caring more for gender performativity than the wellbeing of the patient, and a husband whose obsession with taking ownership of his wife’s body leads to doom. 

In “The Husband Stitch,” published in her debut collection Her Body and Other Parties, Carmen María Machado evokes the potential dangers of the intimacy of marriage and the embodied vulnerability of giving birth and weaves a fabric of terror that speaks to its contemporary reader in the same way The Yellow Wallpaper does: addressing through figurative language and literary representation a fear well rooted in the readers’ close reality. Ann Radcliffe’s definition of terror as a feeling that expands the soul and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life” (150) accompanied by “uncertainty and obscurity” (151), which is the vehicle to the sublime in its capacity to evoke danger and excite the imagination seems poignantly close to what Machado accomplishes in her writing: by highlighting the implicit threat in the commonplace, her text forces the reader to reimagine said threats upon the everyday that lies outside the pages of the book, very different from the experience of horror, described by Radcliffe as a cheaper version of the emotion, its “effect, though sudden and strong, is also transient” (150). In Laura Kremmel’s comprehensive chapter on Medical Horror in the new Palgrave Handbook to Horror Literature, the author considers this type of literature to “provoke the fear associated with the human body and mind’s vulnerabilities” (313). However, she points out that it is not only the “fears of the body as a threat to itself” that this subgenre draws from, but also and more prominently, “the fears of the larger medical institutions and authorities that claim absolute power over the body in their promise to care for and cure it” (314). That this promise goes unfulfilled is implicit, and thus “healing becomes exploitation, experimentation, and terrorization for a goal that circumvents the benefit of the individual patient” (314). This is what happens both in “The Yellow Wallpaper” and “The Husband Stitch,” where the medical establishment takes ownership of the female body and pathologizes what is seen as a failure to acquiesce with normative gender performance within the bounds of marriage, disregarding women’s explicit decisions regarding their bodies’ performances and medicalizing dissent. 

In her Survey of Medical Horror Kremmel distinguishes between horror of “what can happen to the body (injury, illness, or death) and horror of what can be done to treat the body” (315), and I argue that is in this latter category, that the terror of the medical experience emerges from. The very real potential vulnerability to an implicit threat that the reader feels very close to their experience resonates with Radcliffe’s understanding of terror, rather than horror, and although Kremmel does not stop to make a distinction between the two, her nuanced commentary regarding the imaginative potential of the immediate experience to instill fear in the reader, certainly aligns her vision with what Radcliffe wrote about. According to Kremmel, medical terrors that promise “an inherent relevance and imminence . . . The familiarity of medical spaces and the fears that already reside in them make patients, even potential patients, vulnerable to a medical manifestation of horror tropes” (323). In the case of Machado’s short story, it is the familiar terror of obstetric violence that provokes the reader. In a complex and nuanced short story, the author evokes the absolute vulnerability in the most intimate of physical spaces and the potential for damage it posits when we are faced with an unscrupulous clinician.

Machado’s protagonist claims at the beginning of her tale that “[e]veryone knows these stories—that is, everyone tells them, even if they don’t know them—but no one ever believes them” (5). That certainly seems to be the case with the husband stitch (the procedure, not the story); as Jane Dykema states in a much-read article in Electric Literature, a quick internet search of the term will demonstrate that there is “no entry in Wikipedia, nothing in WebMD. Instead there are pages and pages of message board entries and forum discussions on pregnancy websites.” The existence of this procedure is rarely acknowledged by medical professionals, as seen by the absence of studies or official records. Consisting of an extra stitch given after a vaginal birth to tighten the vagina of the patient after there has been either a natural tear or an episiotomy, its objective is the increased sexual pleasure of a male partner and often carries with it the accompanying pain of the patient. Despite the lack of records, as Carrie Murphy states in another article on the topic, this time in the site Healthline, “the proof is in women’s words. Or sometimes, it’s sewn into their bodies.” The thousands of personal testimonies that seem to have been unearthed after the publication of the story by Machado give testament to that: the husband stitch is not a myth, but an unrecorded, unofficial and unsanctioned medical practice where stereotyped gender performativity takes precedence over the well-being of the patient. In Machado’s story, it is the protagonist’s husband who asks the doctor while she is under the haze of a powerful sedative: “How much to get that extra stitch?” . . . “You offer that, right?” (16). And despite the patient’s lack of explicit consent, or ability to consent at all, since she is under sedation, she is given the extra stitch rumored to recreate a tightness comparable to that of a virgin. When she wakes up, the protagonist is “all sewn up” “Nice and tight, everyone’s happy . . . You’re going to need to rest for a while” (17), she is told by the doctor.

In her harrowing memoir about dealing with endometriosis, Abby Norman expresses her frustration with her doctors, who repeatedly dismiss her statements that she is absolutely decided to sacrifice her fertility if it will alleviate her pain:

I can only assume that doctors don’t feel comfortable taking a woman’s word for it when she says she’s not concerned about her fertility . . . I was slowly figuring out that not only was my pain going to be disbelieved, but it was never going to take precedence.

(Norman, Kindle Position 690-693)

Precedence, in this case, over fertility, or over her partner’s sexual pleasure, as is the case in Machado’s story. Both Norman and Machado highlight in their writing instances were the medical establishment fails to make the female body the interested party. In Norman’s experience, as well as in Machado’s story, the performativity of the female body in accordance to stereotypical gender norms, as a mother or as a lover, takes precedence over the patient’s expressed desires. Women’s agency is overruled by the doctors’ perception of what her body ought to do.

The enforced silence of women’s voices is another topic that Machado addresses in her powerful story. In stage directions, the reader is introduced to the narrator by being told that her voice should be performed “as a child, high-pitched, forgettable; as a woman, the same. . . ALL OTHER WOMEN: interchangeable with my own” (3). Intermingled with the protagonist’s life story, Machado weaves a fabric of open-ended old wives’ tales, urban legends and folktales in which women are punished for behaving outside the norm: “I have heard all of the stories about girls like me, and I am unafraid to make more of them” (7), claims the narrator as a young woman discovering sex with her future husband. However, as in the classic horror stories that we find in the text, sins have punishments in Machado’s story. In “The Husband Stitch,” which is a rewriting of the classic horror tale “The Green Ribbon,” known by most in Alvin Schwartz’s retelling in the young readers’ collection In a Dark, Dark Room and Other Scary Stories, the husband is increasingly insistent and aggressive in his attempt to uncover the mystery of the green ribbon worn by his wife. Although we are first presented with an idyllic picture of the couple’s story, where they seem to fall passionately in love, their courtship, marriage and life together is marred by the husband’s continuous attempts to untangle the ribbon that his wife wears around her neck. His greed in wanting to take complete ownership and control of his wife’s body against her will, first by asking the doctor for the extra stitch, then by unraveling the ribbon, is punished with the horror of a decapitated head at the end of the story. For the unnamed narrator, who has freely rejoiced herself in her lust, the punishment is death. As Lorna Piatti-Farnell explains in her review of children’s fairytales, “bodily violence constructs the apogee of the educational lesson in the story and is seemingly justified by the receivers’ previous ill conduct and greed” (99). In this case, the female protagonist’s enjoyment of her lust is punished twice, first by the extra stitch, who reportedly may cause severe pain for the woman when attempting penetration, and secondly by her death at the hands of her untrusting husband, whose greed brings doom to the couple.

In conclusion, “The Husband Stitch” weaves several threads of terror by introducing storytelling as a powerful force that shapes our lives. Fantasy mediates uncertainty and allows Machado to recreate the embodied terror and intimate betrayal of obstetric violence by rewriting the threatening half whispered rumors of not consensual postpartum intervention into a gory children’s story of beheading. She creates a tale where the perpetrator of such violence is not an unnamed monster but “not a bad man at all. To describe him as evil or wicked or corrupted would be a deep disservice to him” (30). “He is not a bad man, and that, I realize suddenly, is the root of my hurt,” (30) the narrator says in the moments before her death. The terror of this story that we would prefer not to believe emerges from the frivolity with which the protagonist’s agency over her own body is overruled by husband and doctor, otherwise caring and functional men, normal men. Casual misogyny and how it infiltrates every layer of reality, even those we believe are protected behind the walls of scientific objectivity, is the terror of this story.

Lucía López is a MA student of the University of Salamanca, where she will begin her doctoral studies in September. She has been dedicated since her undergraduate thesis to studying the intersection of medical humanities and fantasy, science fiction and postcolonial literatures, attempting to draw attention to the behavior of the medical field towards those relegated to the fringes of society. She was awarded a prize for outstanding academic performance for her project “Marginal Bodies in Science Fiction,” recently presented at the (Post)Colonial Health Conference in Leeds and is currently researching the works of Indigenous author Lee Maracle.


Dykema, Jane. “What I Don’t Tell My Students About ‘The Husband Stitch.’” Electric Literature, 10 Oct. 2017,

Kremmel, Laura. “‘And Send Her Well-Dos’d to the Grave’: Literary Medical Horror.” The Handbook to Horror Literature, edited by Corstorphine and Kremmel, Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.

Machado, Carmen Maria. “The Husband Stitch.” Her Body and Other Parties. Serpent’s Tail, 2017.

Murphy, Carrie. “The Husband Stitch Isn’t Just a Horrifying Childbirth Myth.” Healthline, 24 January 2018,

Norman, Abby. Ask Me About My Uterus: A Quest to Make Doctors Believe in Women’s Pain. Bold Type Books, 2018.

Perkins Gilman, Charlotte. “The Yellow Wallpaper.” American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from Poe to the Pulps, edited by Peter Straub, The Library of America, 2009, pp. 131-47.

Piatti-Farnell, Lorna. “Blood Flows Freely: The Horror of Classic Fairy Tales.” The Handbook to Horror Literature, edited by Corstorphine and Kremmel, Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.

Radcliffe, Ann. “On the Supernatural in Poetry.” The New Monthly Magazine and Literary Journal, vol. 16, no. 1, 1826, pp. 145-152.

Schwartz, Alvin. “The Green Ribbon.” In a Dark, Dark Room and Other Scary Stories, HarperCollins Children’s Books, 1984.

Obese Characters as Obstructive and Antagonistic in Horror-Based Digital Games

SFRA Review, vol. 50, no. 1

Symposium: Medical Humanities and the Fantastic

“That tub a’lard’s in our way!”: Obese Characters as Obstructive and Antagonistic in Horror-Based Digital Games

Connor Jackson
Edge Hill University

A number of horror-based digital game characters conflate notions of obesity, overeating and monstrosity. For instance there is Eddie Dombrowski from Silent Hill 2, an overweight man who is shown eating pizza in a bowling alley, loitering in a prison cafeteria and is later fought in a meat locker—here it is revealed that he is a sadist who killed a bully’s dog before shooting him in the knee prior to the events of the game. In addition, there are the large Twin Chefs from Little Nightmares who prepare food in the macabre kitchen stage of the game when they are not trying to capture the player-character. Failing to flee from them can result in the avatar being thrown into a saucepan, an oven, and even a meat grinder. However, the abovementioned conflation is more discernible in zombie-based games in particular: a subset of horror-based games that are usually concerned with the struggle for survival of one or more humans during or after a zombie outbreak. This is evidenced by the Boomer from Left 4 Dead and Left 4 Dead 2, the Whopper from Resident Evil 6, and the Bloater from The Last of Us. Each creature is significantly large (as their names imply) and signifies both overeating and monstrosity due to its condition as a zombie: a being that has come to be renowned for its insatiable appetite. What is more, they are symptomatic of a broader trend in zombie fictions which, after the turn of the century, have become increasingly preoccupied with the production and consumption of food: particularly fast and processed foods. 

As a result of the contemporary zombie’s association with fast food, Michael Newbury reads zombie films as the fictional counterparts of food crisis texts: an umbrella term used to describe non-fiction books, documentaries and journalistic publications that “dwell at some length on what they understand to be an imploding system of industrial food production” (90). The goal of food crisis texts, then, is to combat the alienation of consumers from the origins and contents of the food they eat by exposing the mistreatment of animals under agribusiness, revealing the adverse effects of additives, and uncovering the risks fast food pose to consumer health. Moreover, some food crisis texts offer an alternative means of obtaining food by valorising local and organic food production. In opposition, Newbury asserts that the zombie film “extinguishes with brutal enthusiasm all aspirations to retrieving the pastoral, the natural, or alternatives to the industrial food chain” (97). Instead, these films revel in the nihilism of food consumption run amok through the cannibalistic consumption of the undead as well as their associated landscapes, which are abound with visualisations of both real and fictional food products and brands.

Despite the associative connections between the undead in zombie films and fast food, a significant point of departure from food crisis texts in these films is that typically they do not explicitly tie their apocalyptic visions to fast food corporations. As Newbury points out, food crisis texts often link prophecies of devastating diseases and bacterial infections such as Escherichia coli (E. coli) to the practices of agribusiness, whereas zombie films rarely implicate “food corporations as the specific catalyst for apocalyptic contagion” (100). The reluctance of zombie films to explicitly implicate agribusiness in their outbreaks is not resolved in the aforementioned zombie games; their antagonistic characters do connote rampant food consumption due to their obesity but like Newberry’s filmic examples they are not narratively bound to agribusiness. In this respect, when the Whopper receives verbal abuse for its weight—one non-playable character shouts “[t]hat tub a’lard’s in our way!” as the monster blocks their path to safety—the body shaming that this monster endures seems to exist in order to prompt a cheap laugh rather than tying into a larger critique of agribusiness. This changes in Capcom’s Dead Rising series, which depicts its overweight characters (both living and undead) negatively for the sake of satirising what it perceives as the gluttonous eating habits of U.S. citizens perpetuated by agribusiness.

In the first Dead Rising game non-playable character Isabela Keyes, sister of the terrorist who caused the zombie outbreak in the town of Willamette, reveals that the zombies originated from an American “Livestock Research Facility” built in her Central American hometown. Furthermore Dr. Russell Barnaby, the lead scientist behind the operations in this facility, expands upon the motivations of his team of researchers in his dying breaths: “We were… conducting… experiments to… reduce the costs of breeding… We… accidentally… made zombie livestock… […] We were trying to mass produce cattle. Do you… have any… idea… how much meat… Americans consume… in a single day!?” The aim of these scientists was to produce more food for a country that was simply consuming far too much. Sustaining vast levels of consumption was their goal, and ironically was also the outcome of their work. As such, the cannibalistic nature of the undead in the Dead Rising series—many of which are presented with overweight character models—is not just taken as a given. Rather than simply imbuing zombies with a means of threatening the player-character’s life and consequently the player’s agency within the game, their cannibalism also functions as a satirical twist on the relentless intake of meat perpetuated and encouraged by U.S. agribusiness. Furthermore, the unquenchable appetites of living American citizens, which existed before (and indeed lead to) the outbreak, are maintained and explored post-outbreak. 

In most zombie narratives the undead are ravenous, but they are not the only hungry consumers; humans must gather food to survive in their post-apocalyptic environments. For Newbury the food consumption of humans in zombie films functions cathartically. For example, candlelight dinners in 28 Days Later and the Dawn of the Dead remake (as well as Romero’s 1978 original it should be noted) serve as temporary releases from horrors of the present moment. They construct for their participants a façade of sophistication in an unbearably savage world. Cammie M. Sublette furthers Newbury’s analyses of human food consumption in zombie films by investigating not just what these meals achieve in terms of escapism, but how they accomplish this. The decimation caused by zombie outbreaks often leaves survivors searching and squabbling for sustenance but Sublette points to a type of consumption distinguishable from that engaged in for necessary nourishment, one that is pursued for pleasure. This “food hedonism is nearly always linked to some variety of nostalgia, often with an idealized or revised past providing temporary psychological escape from the horrors of the zombie apocalypse” (179). No matter how fleeting the experience might be, human food consumption in zombie films enables survivors to indulge in fantasies that centre on what once was and what could have been. They alleviate tension and enable survivors to reminisce over real or imaginatively adapted past experiences, as well as forge communal bonds with one another. 

This culinary bliss is unequivocally absent from the Dead Rising series, in which food is consumed by non-playable characters as a result of their rapaciousness. Additionally, Newbury claims that “[t]he food one eats and the way one eats it become primary signifiers of distinction between the malevolent dead or infected and those struggling to retrieve or retain a measure of human distinction from them” (104), but this statement does not apply to the Dead Rising series. In these games the food intake of survivors works toward the opposite effect. Survivors demand, hoard, and gorge upon food. They also eject food from their bodies by vomiting due to overeating. Their relationship with food is one of excess, thereby positioning them parallel to the undead as satirical and condemnatory exemplifications of human gluttony perpetuated by the industrialised food chain. This is made explicit from the first game in which the terrorist behind the outbreak, Carlito Keyes, declares that “all [zombies] do is eat, and eat, and eat, growing in number… Just like […] good red white and blue Americans”—this remark about zombies continuously eating is also repeated during the prologue of Dead Rising 4, thereby emphasising its relevance across the series. 

The message conveyed by Dead Rising is clear: zombies are gluttonous monsters and so are American citizens. This is evidenced in the first game when player-character Frank West encounters fellow survivor Ronald Shiner in a restaurant. The player can recruit and rescue this overweight survivor under one condition: they must give him a food item. These are scattered around the environments of this game (and its sequels) and are usually present within the eatery itself but become absent from this location once the side mission is triggered. The obvious implication is that despite Ronald’s claim that he is “starving to death” he has gobbled up the food in this area, which usually consists of two cartons of orange juice, four baguettes and four pies. Consequently, to recruit Ronald the player must give up one of their food items should they possess one, or worse endanger their player-character by going to the trouble of finding one elsewhere and returning it to him. Through the refusal of this character to adapt his eating habits in the midst of a zombie outbreak, Dead Rising constructs a topical satire on the self-destructive reliance of American citizens on industrialised junk foods whilst simultaneously shaming obese individuals. 

Rebecca M. Puhl and Chelsea A. Heuer produce an extensive consolidation of literature pertaining to the perceptions and treatment of obese adults. Their amalgamation of research pertaining to healthcare settings more so than that conducted with regards to employment and educational contexts emphasises perceived reasons as to why people are obese. Sources invested in a number of healthcare professionals (physicians, nurses, medical students, fitness professionals and dieticians) show a recurring commonality in their values. Generally, these people view obese individuals as “lazy, noncompliant, undisciplined, and [having] low willpower” (934); consensus among these professionals determines that obesity is a personal responsibility. Significantly, this responsibility is repeatedly linked to food consumption. Overweight people are assumed to have an excessive body mass due to “overeating” and having an “unhealthy diet” (944). Their weight is understood as a result of their “personal choices about food” and their “poor eating behaviours” as well as their intake of “too much junk food” (945). This viewpoint is perpetuated by negative portrayals of obese people in mainstream media, particularly in what Heuer calls “fattertainment” (n.p.). For instance, in filmic or televisual entertainment overweight characters are marginalised, often by relegating their inclusion to that of supporting characters or objects of ridicule (Puhl and Heuer, 951; Heuer). This is even evidenced in children’s media such as cartoons and books. Here, even when larger characters are not eating, they are shown to be “thinking about […] food” (Puhl and Heuer, 951). Of course, as the Dead Rising series demonstrates, film, television and children’s entertainment are not the only avenues through which obese people are represented in an unsavoury fashion; parallels can be drawn between their depiction in these formats and those found in digital games. 

The aforementioned character Ronald coincides with notions of sizable characters continuously thinking about food even when they are not actually eating. His description in the player-character’s notebook attests to this, simply expressing that he “[t]hinks only of eating.” However, of further significance in the Dead Rising series is the blending together of obesity and antagonism. Puhl and Heuer determine that overweight characters in popular culture are attributed with “physical aggression” (951) much more than their underweight counterparts. In Dead Rising this is especially true, as the volatility of certain hostile characters throughout the series is bound explicitly to gluttonous food consumption. Arguably the most noteworthy example of this is the antagonistic Darlene Fleischermacher from Dead Rising 3. Hiding out in Uncle Billy’s Buffet, she is introduced to the player during a cutscene. Here, player-character Nick Ramos ventures into the diner and sees an unnamed male survivor attempting to unlock the door to the kitchen. Unfortunately, they attract the attention of Darlene. She is severely obese and bound to a motor scooter as a result. She tears away at a large chicken thigh. Food stains cover her clothes, which consist of a bib stylised with the image of a lobster and a bright yellow dress pattered with a cupcake design that her enormous stomach has actually torn through. Everything about her exaggerated appearance signifies food in excess. When she spots Ramos and the other unnamed survivor she yells “get away from my food”—clearly, she is under the impression that the entire buffet belongs to her. Ramos asserts that the eatery contains enough food for everyone while the other man argues that Darlene could not possible eat all of it. However, rather than being persuaded to share the buffet Darlene takes this last comment as a challenge, shovelling multiple burgers into her mouth and swallowing them whole. When the unnamed man attempts to bypass her and claim some food for his own, she grabs a large spork and stabs him to death. Once again Dead Rising rejects the notion of human food consumption as representing reclamations of civility as proposed by Newbury, or evoking nostalgia as argued by Sublette. 

Gluttonous food consumption is not only satirised by obese characters in the Dead Rising series, but also through the player’s choices during gameplay. Consuming certain foods has an adverse effect on the player-character in the first three Dead Rising games (stomach cramps in the first and vomiting in the second and third). These outcomes can be prompted by the consumption of food that had become “spoiled” over time. This is evidenced by the transformation of “Raw Meat” to “Spoiled Meat” and “Steak” to “Spoiled Steak” for example. Tying in to the series’ satire on voracious food consumption, the player is chastised for their dubious food intake and virtual gluttony should they choose to perform such foolish consumption practices. This punishment is made clear as their agency is momentarily stripped away while the player-characters doubles over in pain. In doing so they drop whatever item they were currently holding and leave themselves open to attack. This would be particularly detrimental to the player-character’s wellbeing if it should occur as the player was aiming to navigate through a crowd of zombies. 

The Dead Rising series connects zombies to agribusiness by revealing the origin of its zombie infection as the result of unethical research into the mass production of cattle. In this way it coincides with twenty-first century zombie films, in which Newbury asserts that the undead “seem to emerge from and are profoundly associated with the landscapes of fast and junk food” (100). However, Newbury also claims that these films rarely implicate the food industry directly as the cause of their zombie outbreaks and offer no form of redemption from current food intake practices damaging people and the ecosystem at large. Contrastingly, Dead Rising makes its connections between zombies and fast food explicit, satirises overeating in the United States by portraying a number of troublesome and antagonistic characters as obese, and supports a sensible approach to fast food consumption through satirical gameplay consequences that punish the player for overeating.

Connor Jackson is a PhD student in the Department of Media at Edge Hill University, where he currently works as a Graduate Teaching Assistant. His research interests include depictions of the zombie in popular culture, with a primary focus on their presence in digital games. His work can be found in Romancing the Zombie: Essays on the Undead as Significant “Other”—part of McFarland’s ongoing Contributions to Zombie Studies publication series.


28 Days Later. Directed by Danny Boyle, Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2002.

Dawn of the Dead. Directed by George A. Romero, United Film Distribution Company, 1978.

Dawn of the Dead. Directed by Zack Snyder, Universal Pictures, 2004.

Dead Rising. Capcom, 2006.

Dead Rising 2. Blue Castle Games, 2010.

Dead Rising 2: Off The Record. Capcom Vancouver, 2011.

Dead Rising 3 Capcom Vancouver, 2013.

Dead Rising 4. Capcom Vancouver, 2016.

Heuer, Chelsea A. “‘Fattertainment’—Obesity in the Media.” Obesity Action Coalition,

The Last of Us. Naughty Dog, 2013.

Left 4 Dead. Valve, 2008.

Left 4 Dead 2. Valve, 2009.

Little Nightmares. Tarsier Studios, 2017.

Newbury, Michael. “Fast Zombie/Slow Zombie: Food Writing, Horror Movies, and Agribusiness Apocalypse.” American Literary History, vol. 24, no. 1, 2012, pp. 87-114.

Puhl, Rebecca M. and Heuer, Chelsea A. “The Stigma of Obesity: A Review and Update.” Obesity, vol. 17, no. 5, 2012, pp. 941-964. 

Resident Evil 6. Capcom, 2012.

Silent Hill 2. Konami, 2001.

Sublette, Cammie. M. “The Last Twinkie in the Universe: Culinary Hedonism and Nostalgia in Zombie Films.” Devouring Cultures: Perspectives on Food, Power, and Identity from the Zombie Apocalypse to Downton Abbey, edited by Cammie M. Sublette and Jennifer Martin, U of Arkansas P, 2016, pp. 190-205.

The Fantastic Autistic: Creating Narrative from the “Anti-Narrative” Poetics of Neurodivergence

SFRA Review, vol. 50, no. 1

Symposium: Medical Humanities and the Fantastic

The Fantastic Autistic: Creating Narrative from the “Anti-Narrative” Poetics of Neurodivergence

David Hartley
University of Manchester

Introduction: Just Joking

“Are you just joking, David?”

This is one of my autistic sister’s most common phrases which acts as a kind of verbal buffer to misunderstandings and miscommunication between our different neurotypes. She has learned that jokes are gentle disruptions to the order of things, which are usually intended to provoke positive feelings. Jokes, puns and silliness easily arise in our family unit and have persisted; thanks, perhaps, to the presence of Jenny’s autism at our core. Whenever Jenny misunderstands something, or an instruction threatens the established order, her question “are you just joking?” helps to paper over the crack. Even if the statement wasn’t a joke, her response has helped her to at least get a hand on the tiller. 

As part of my PhD in Creative Writing, I am writing a fantastical novel about autism and ghosts. The main autistic character is based on Jenny. She is three years older than me, the eldest of three siblings, and she is autistic with learning difficulties. The impulse to write a novel about her has been with me for a long time. I have still never seen a cultural representation of autism which in any way accurately reflects Jenny. I’ve recognised certain traits that match up, but Jenny’s version of autism eludes (or, perhaps, is avoided by) creatives who engage with the condition in one form or another. This exclusion has never sat comfortably with me and this discomfort became the foundation for the novel.

However, there was a second impulse. I wanted to confront a tendency that I’d seen emerging in my creative practice over the last ten years. This is my continual engagement with the weird, the strange and the absurd, all of which regularly echo into my short stories, often as a core structural factor. I found I also wanted to use the novel to explore whether my deep affection and affiliation for the fantastic had arisen from the fantastical habits, behaviours and languages of Jenny. I wanted to explore if growing up alongside autism had meant I’d grown up alongside a sort of living version of “cognitive estrangement” (Suvin, 3). I don’t, however, necessarily mean cognitive estrangement in the exact way that Darko Suvin theorised it – as a categorizing framework for the science fiction genre. Rather, I approach a sort of queered version of the theory; a neurodivergent estrangement, where the ideologically problematic concept of “cognition” (see; Mieville, 235) is replaced by the principles of what autistic activist Nick Walker has termed “the neurodiversity paradigm” (225). This latter, Walker explains, is the assertion that difference in brains and minds “is a natural, healthy, and valuable form of human diversity” (228). Furthermore, Walker argues, this fundamental element of neurodiversity establishes that “there is no ‘normal’ style of human brain or human mind, any more than there is one ‘normal’ race, ethnicity, gender, or culture” (228). Neurodivergent activists insist upon this healthy variance of human minds and argue that attempts to “normalize” are futile and violent actions. 

For “cognitive estrangement,” the presence of neurodivergence fundamentally undermines the stability of the universality implied in the “cognitive” side of the taxonomic equation. And so, in my pursuit of the estrangement of autism in my own creative practice, I use the structure of Suvin’s theory but queer its content. Instead, I am looking for a form of “neurodivergent estrangement” which can better accommodate both the reality and magic of autistic people like Jenny.

The Anti-Narratives of Autism

It soon became clear that the exclusion of Jenny’s particular version of autism was partly due to the fact that it does not easily fit into typical modes of structuring narratives. Mark Osteen has charted the various clichés and stereotypes that have haunted depictions of autism in both non-fiction memoirs and popular literature. He contends that the possible reason for persistent misrepresentation is because autism itself “seems uniquely resistant to narrative” (267). He finds that in many autism stories there is a conflict between “stasis and chaos,” brought about by autism being a disruptive condition which nevertheless thrives on orders, systems and routines (268). This, he argues, appears to be too much of a challenge to translate into normative modes of narrative. This thinking leads him to pose the question: “is it possible to narrate autism authentically […]?” (280). This became quite the challenge—and quite the worry—for someone who very much wanted to narrate autism authentically. However, more recent writing by neurodivergent scholars have started to challenge this notion of the un-narratability of autism. Melanie Yergeau’s book Authoring Autism is one such example. Yergeau covers much of the same ground as Osteen but looks at autism from the position of rhetoric. She finds in medical, cultural and social rhetoric a sort of conspiracy of language that “figures autism as anything but rhetorical” (5). She contends that the seemingly arhetorical expressions of autism are in fact full of non-normative meanings which are persistently and insidiously misunderstood by non-autistic observers. She extends this further and, in a move which questions the very basis of her own field, asks why should every expression have some sort of meaning:

I also want to put forth that, at times rhetoric is meaningless. Meaninglessness is not the pejorative so many of us would presume. I feel most autistic when I’m not making sense of anything


Why can’t expression be actively, and rebelliously, arhetorical? Such resistance to sense-making forms the basis of her core theoretical concept of the “neuroqueer.” Recognising an intertwined history of the attempted “straightening” of autistic minds with the same attempts to “straighten” the queer, Yergeau fuses the two to figure autistic people as the “ultimate asocial beings’ who defy social order by failing “to acknowledge social order’s very existence” (27). This subversive idea, as Justine Egner has shown, presents a new and radical way “to deconstruct identity categorisation and challenge hierarchies” (142). 

Yergeau concludes her book by suggesting that autism inhabits a living “in-betweenity,” a middle ground experienced as “a negotiation between rhetorical and arhetorical worlds” (205). For me, this phrase, and its “neuroqueer” underpinning, signalled the affinity between autism and the fantastic that I’d been trying to reach for. At the core of cognitive estrangement, especially when adapted towards neurodivergence and the neuroqueer, is the same negotiation between the real and the unreal, between the familiar and the uncanny, between the wonder and chaos encountered when we answer the call of Cthulu.

Neuroqueer Estrangement in Action

Osteen and Yergeau yearn for narratives and rhetoric which encounter autism on its own terms and recognise its potential. It’s my contention that the fantastic has, within its unique powers, the capacity and capability to do this. This, therefore, became the challenge for my fantastical novel: aim for an authenticity of autism, both in terms of content and form, where the representation of autism is accurate, and the poetics engages in some manner with autistic “neuroqueer” expression. Before I started the first draft, I wrote out a list of principles to follow to help me avoid the clichés that Osteen outlines and enable me to lean towards the neuroqueer paradigm of Yergeau. The principle which emerged as the most important and useful was the second one: “Include more than one significant autistic character.”

One of the key problems with representations of autism is that there only tends to be one significant autistic character within a text. This leads to a distillation of autism into this one character which then flattens out the complexities and depth of the spectrum. The result has been a mass of cookie-cutter autistic characters such as Raymond Babbit from Rain Man (1988), Christopher Boone from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory (2007-2019), Rory McKenna from The Predator (2018), Sam Gardner from Atypical (2017-present), Dr Alfred Jones from Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (2011), and Adam Raki from Adam (2009). All the characters listed here are white, male and middle-class. Most are young, adorable, serious, detached, and non-threatening. They are good at maths and science, but bad at love, relationships and other emotional connections. While there are some emerging representations of autism which diverge from these clichés, a legitimate set of questions have arisen: where are all the stories of black autism? Female autism? Autism with other disabilities? Working class autism? Historical autism, future autism, intersectional autism—and so on.

I didn’t want to disrupt the authenticity of my sister’s character by changing her race or class background, but in order to encounter and apprehend this issue properly I needed a strategy that would allow me to incorporate a multitude of autistic voices and experiences. This is where Yergeau’s “negotiation between rhetorical and arhetorical worlds,” reorganised as a “neuroqueer estrangement’, really started to help. To demonstrate this, I will now explain the core fantastical concept at the heart of the current draft of the novel.

Welcome to The Wing

Welcome to The Wing. A place of life after death. A limbo of memories and sensations; a vast solitude where you relive your fears and nostalgias until someone comes along and moves you on. But this is not the afterlife for everyone. The Wing only takes the autistic.

(Blurb from current draft of the unpublished novel, 2019)

In the world of the novel, when a person dies their afterlife destination depends on whether they are autistic or non-autistic. Autistic ghosts go to “The Wing,” while non-autistic ghosts go to a very different place: “Realm.” Whereas The Wing is an elaborate landscape of memories, structures, and sensations, Realm is a vast, barren desert of nothingness. Each individual arrives at their own separate manifestation of either The Wing or Realm and they wander around until someone intervenes to move them on to the next phase of existence.

The protagonist of the book is Leo. He is a living, non-autistic man whose job is to enter The Wing and rescue the autistic ghosts that have become stuck there. But, as is the nature of such things, all is not quite what it seems. Further conflicts arise when, back in the land of the living, Leo must suddenly become the main carer for his autistic sister, Teresa (the character based on my sister, Jenny). Eventually, Teresa and The Wing end up coming into contact and various fantastical adventures ensue.

The conception of The Wing came from the marriage of the estranging element of autism as a state-of-being with the principle I’d laid down for myself regarding the inclusion of multiple autistic characters. The Wing, and Leo’s job role, give me a legitimate method of negotiating this necessity for inclusivity. Leo goes on regular missions into many different manifestations of The Wing and encounters autistic ghosts from across the spectrum and along the manifold of intersectionality. Some of these encounters are brief while others are developed into the “significant” characters my guiding principle requires. Because death is the great equaliser, and because the afterlife has such a rich fantastical heritage, The Wing opens up an opportunity to get at some of the complexities of autism in a broad, social sense which is often missed by other representations where the focus is too narrow. In this way, the book develops from the local, familial story between Leo and Teresa into a broader reflection on neurodiversity and the neurotype divide between autism and non-autism. This division, which is apparent in the difference between The Wing and Realm, is a deliberate provocation resolved, in the end, by cross-neurotype collaboration.

It is the nature of ghosts and spirits to be invasive, interruptive, and disorderly in much the same way that autism can be invasive, interruptive and disorderly. But instead of this being something negative that needs suppression and control, the fantastic allows a subversive space for it to be considered in a neuroqueer fashion; autistic “disturbance” as chaotic but productive, interruptive but fundamental.


Following the neuroqueer approach of Julia Miele Rodas in her theorization of autism poetics, I offer an “unconclusion” in place of a traditional conclusion (Rodas, 2018 179). Rather than summarise the paper, I’m going to offer up a simple exercise for the reader. I will describe an action that my sister Jenny regularly performs, which I have incorporated into the current draft of the novel. It is an autistic gesture of sorts which is simple to teach but can feel a little weird to perform. It’s something I’ve observed Jenny doing, but it’s only when I tried it for myself that I began to understand the reasons for it. 

Jenny gets a lot of sensory pleasure from certain sounds. She likes the hums and beeps of microwaves, the ignition and vrooms of car engines, the rhythms of music, and the tenor and flexibility of voices, especially her own. Through a simple habit, Jenny has discovered a way to enhance the listening experience of her own voice and I invite you, dear reader, to experience it for yourselves.

Place the bottom edge of your palms together so that your wrists meet and you create an open lotus flower shape with your hands. Now bring that edge up to your mouth so that your fingers reach back towards your ears. It will be like you are using your hands to create a surgeon’s mouth-mask, or the facehugger from the Alien franchise. Don’t press your hands against your mouth but hold them close. Now hum, or speak a phrase, into your hands and listen to how it modulates the sound of your voice. Speaking works best; read out the last few lines of this paragraph.

Hopefully you got the sense of that. The sound intensifies as it hits your palms, travels along the insides of your fingers and reaches your ears. Jenny does this regularly for words, phrases and hums and she clearly gets a lot of pleasure and satisfaction from doing it. It’s a strange thing to do, but it’s also remarkably simple and effective. Here, in this natural and personal autistic movement, there is the glimpse of a fantastical negotiation “between rhetorical and arhetorical worlds.” It is fantastical because it cuts against established social “norms” of how to behave and would be interpreted, from a non-autistic domain, as “weird” and aberrant: a worthless, arhetorical oddity. And yet, for Jenny, it is rich with rhetorical potential and, when we try it for ourselves, we can access a sense of it, even if we never make it a part of our own behaviours. That, in both meanings of the word, is the “fantastic” autistic I’m looking for.

David Hartley is a writer, performer, and Creative Writing PhD student based at the University of Manchester. His critical work examines the intersection of neurodivergence and the fantastic, while his creative endeavors find him battling with a novel about autism and ghosts. His short stories have been published in numerous literary magazines including Ambit, The Shadow Booth and Black Static. He tweets at @DHartleyWriter.


Adam. Directed by Max Mayer, Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2009.

Atypical. Created by Robia Rashid, Netflix, 2017-present.

The Big Bang Theory. Created by Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady, CBS, 2007-2019 

Egner, Justine E. “‘The Disability Rights Community was Never Mine’: Neuroqueer Disidentification” Gender and Society, vol.33, no.1, 2019, pp. 123-147.

Haddon, Mark. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Jonathan Cape, 2003. 

Mieville, China “Cognition as Ideology: A Dialectic of SF Theory.” Red Planets: Marxism and Science Fiction, edited by Mark Bould and China Mieville, Pluto Press, 2009, pp.231-248.

Osteen, Mark. “Narrating Autism.” Worlds of Autism: Across the Spectrum of Neurological Difference, edited by Joyce Davidson and Michael Orsini, U of Minnesota P. 2013.

The Predator. Directed by Shane Black, 20th Century Fox, 2018

Rain Man. Directed by Barry Levinson, United Artists, 1988.

Rodas, Julia Miele. Autistic Disturbances: Theorizing Autism Poetics from the DSM to Robinson Crusoe. U of Michigan P, 2018.

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. Directed by Lasse Hallström, Lionsgate, 2011.

Suvin, Darko. Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre. Yale UP, 1979.

Walker, Nick. “Throwing Away the Master’s Tools: Liberating Ourselves from the Pathology Paradigm.” Loud Hands: Autistic People Speaking, edited by Julia Bascom, The Autistic Press, 2012, pp. 225-237.

Yergeau, Melanie. Authoring Autism: On Rhetoric and Neurological Queerness. Duke UP, 2018.

Medical Humanities and the Fantastic: Introduction to the Liverpool Symposium

SFRA Review, vol. 50, no. 1

Symposium: Medical Humanities and the Fantastic

Medical Humanities and the Fantastic: Introduction to the Liverpool Symposium

Beata Gubacsi
University of Liverppol

In the SFRA Review’s 2016 winter issue Anna McFarlane reports on the launch of “Science Fiction and the Medical Humanities” research project at the University of Glasgow, led by Gavin Miller, and funded by the Wellcome Trust, the largest organisation for health-related research. She notes how “in recent years academic concerns with the intersections between medical ethics and technology have particularly arisen through the field of the medical humanities” (3) and goes on to define medical humanities as “an academic field discipline [that] aims to explore the ways in which humans (or, indeed, animals) come into contact with medicine and how such encounters must change both living beings and medicine itself.” (4) This is of course evidenced by the Wellcome Seed Award itself, and also reflected in the British Medical Journal’s (BMJ) 2016 special issue Science Fiction and Medical Humanities, edited by Gavin Miller and Anna McFarlane, addressing the commonplace “headline”: Science Fiction Becomes Science Fact.

In their editorial introduction they point out the vitality of interdisciplinary research: “Research in this area challenges the limitations of disciplines such as science studies and history and philosophy of science. Lacking the analytic training and vocabulary developed in English Literature, and Film and TV studies, the sociological and historical disciplines have great difficulty in apprehending the complex social and political engagement that may be found in science fiction.” (213) They explore the theoretical framework which allows a wider interpretation of science fiction as well as allowing science fiction to function as analytical tool in the wider context of humanities, utilising Jauss and Benzinger’s notion of “horizon of expectations” and Darko Suvin’s “cognitive estrangement.” The BMJ issue itself features relevant discussions of seminal science fiction writers, such as, Stina Attebery’s piece on Mira Grant’s Parasitology trilogy, John Carlo Pasco, Camille Anderson and Sayantani DasGupta’s article exploring the “visionary medicine” of Octavia Butler’s “Bloodchild,” Donna McCormack’s work on “decolonialising transplantation” in Nalo Hopkinson’s Brown Girl in the Ring, as well as Fran Bignan’s paper “Pregnancy as protest in interwar British women’s writing: an antecedent alternative to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.” The Glasgow-based “Science Fiction and Medical Humanities” Wellcome research project with its website, workshops and conferences became a platform for further discussions, culminating in the publication of a short story collection A Practical Guide for the Resurrected, exploring how technology has and will affect the non/human body and psyche. 

The Medical Humanities and Science Fiction research project and the aforementioned anthology were also featured at the First Inaugural Congress of Medical Humanities in 2017, organized by the North West Medical Humanities Research Network. The conference series, which have been running successfully for three years now, provides examples of further engagement and entanglement between medical humanities and science fiction. As I write in my introductory blog post for the column, “Medical Humanities 2.0” at The Polyphony, “the first panel in 2017 was dedicated to “Medical Posthumanities,” where Amelia DeFalco (University of Leeds), drawing on examples from both literature and film, discussed how companion and caregiving robots embody and possibly subvert the gender and racial inequalities surrounding the economies of care work.” Later at the same event, I suggested and led a small group discussion on monstrosity in medical humanities, reflecting on topics like pregnancy, madness and disability, across eras, disciplines, and media.

The second NNMHR congress was also relevant for showcasing links between medical humanities and fantastic scholarship. The first keynote speaker was Esther L. Jones (Clark University), author of Medicine and Ethics in Black Women’s Speculative Fiction (2015), drawing attention to parallels between the biopolitics of Octavia E. Butler and the exploitation of Henrietta Lax, whose illness has led to a major scientific breakthrough. In her lecture she was talking about how speculative imagination is key to understanding biases and their consequences. The conference also had a transplantation panel featuring two distinguished scholars: Sarah Wasson (Lancaster University), leader of Translating Gothic Pain AHRC research project, whose new book, Gothic Transplantation, is forthcoming, and Margrit Shildrick, author of Embodying the Monster: Encounters with the Vulnerable Self (2001), in which she utilises the framework of monstrosity to discuss disability.

Following and engaging with these developments with increasing interest and fascination, I was wondering how can we theorise the fantastic within medical humanities and how can the fantastic facilitate research and engagement relevant to medical humanities? Consequently, organising a conference at the intersection of these fields was long in the making and a real passion project. The Medical Humanities and the Fantastic Symposium, funded by the North West Consortium Doctoral Training Programme (NWCDTP), was held at the University of Liverpool, on 19th July 2019. It provided an opportunity to explore these interdisciplinary challenges, and attracted so many fantastic (pun intended) scholars of different backgrounds. It was a long and exciting day with three keynote speakers, the aforementioned Amelia DeFalco, Anna McFarlane and Sara Wasson, and ten delegates across three panels (whose work with a few exceptions is published in this issue), and numerous guests.

The day began with Amelia DeFalco’s keynote lecture “Robot Funerals and Clone Completions: Boundary Creature Disposal in Recent Speculative Fiction,” exploring care and companionship from a critical posthumanist point of view, which introduced the “Fantastic Biases and Where to Find Them” panel. Out of the three talks three are featured in this issue: David Hartley’s exploration of autism and the poetics of neurodivergence, Connor Jackson’s talk on antagonistic representation of fatness in video games, and Lucia Lopez’s reading of Maria Machado’s “The Husband Stitch” drawing attention to oppressive gynaecological practices. Together these papers dissolve the boundaries between normal and abnormal minds and bodies, pointing out how those boundaries represent oppression. Staying with the idea of boundaries, Anna McFarlane’s keynote lecture “Bleeding Genres: Pregnancy and Fantastika” bringing together Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Lars von Trier’s Antichrist introduced the second panel, “Chimeras and Contamination,” revolving around non-human embodiment and the entanglements of science fiction and horror with the medical. Two papers featured in the issue engage with these notions differently: Johnathan Thornton discussed fungi as a transformative agent in Tade Thompson’s Rosewater and Aliya Whitely’s The Beauty, followed by Lucy Nield’s paper on xenotransplantation in Margaret Atwood’s Maddadam trilogy. The last panel was taking us back to the Gothic origins of (modern) medicine and the fantastic as well as reminding us how incredibly relevant Gothic aesthetics (and ethics) are: Jenni Hunt explored freakshows from the perspective of museology, and Bronte Schiltz talked about queerness in Gothic narratives. Sara Wasson’s keynote address, “Spectres, Strangeness and Stigmatisation: Chronic Pain and the Fantastic” pointing toward formulating answers to the symposium’s main questions, closing the long day of presentations.

Finally, I am really grateful for all the speakers who took part in this initiative, and the SFRA Review’s editorial team for supporting this project by publishing the proceedings of the symposium.


McFarlane, Anna. “Science Fiction and the Medical Humanities.” SFRA Review, no. 315, pp. 3-6.

Miller, Gavin, and Anna McFarlane. “Science Fiction and the Medical Humanities.” Medical Humanities, vol. 42, no. 4, 2016, pp. 213-218.