Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters

Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters

by Jack Halberstam

Paperback(New Edition)

View All Available Formats & Editions
Members save with free shipping everyday! 
See details


In this examination of the monster as cultural object, Judith Halberstam offers a rereading of the monstrous that revises our view of the Gothic. Moving from the nineteenth century and the works of Shelley, Stevenson, Stoker, and Wilde to contemporary horror film exemplified by such movies as Silence of the Lambs, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Candyman, Skin Shows understands the Gothic as a versatile technology, a means of producing monsters that is constantly being rewritten by historically and culturally conditioned fears generated by a shared sense of otherness and difference.
Deploying feminist and queer approaches to the monstrous body, Halberstam views the Gothic as a broad-based cultural phenomenon that supports and sustains the economic, social, and sexual hierarchies of the time. She resists familiar psychoanalytic critiques and cautions against any interpretive attempt to reduce the affective power of the monstrous to a single factor. The nineteenth-century monster is shown, for example, as configuring otherness as an amalgam of race, class, gender, and sexuality. Invoking Foucault, Halberstam describes the history of monsters in terms of its shifting relation to the body and its representations. As a result, her readings of familiar texts are radically new. She locates psychoanalysis itself within the gothic tradition and sees sexuality as a beast created in nineteenth century literature. Excessive interpretability, Halberstam argues, whether in film, literature, or in the culture at large, is the actual hallmark of monstrosity.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822316633
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 02/19/2020
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 232
Sales rank: 957,458
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.53(d)
Lexile: 1470L (what's this?)

About the Author

Judith Halberstam is Professor of Literature at the University of California, San Diego.

Read an Excerpt

Skin Shows

Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters

By Judith Halberstam

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1995 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-9807-3


Parasites and Perverts: An Introduction to Gothic Monstrosity

So many monsters; so little time.promotional slogan for HELLRAISER

Skin Shows

In The Silence of the Lambs (1991) by Jonathan Demme, one of many modern adaptations of Frankenstein, a serial killer known as Buffalo Bill collects women in order to flay them and use their skins to construct a "woman suit." Sitting in his basement sewing hides, Buffalo Bill makes his monster a sutured beast, a patchwork of gender, sex, and sexuality. Skin, in this morbid scene, represents the monstrosity of surfaces and as Buffalo Bill dresses up in his suit and prances in front of the mirror, he becomes a layered body, a body of many surfaces laid one upon the other. Depth and essence dissolve in this mirror dance and identity and humanity become skin deep.

My subject is monsters and I begin in Buffalo Bill's basement, his "filthy workshop of creation," because it dramatizes precisely the distance traveled between current representations of monstrosity and their genesis in nineteenth-century Gothic fiction. Where the monsters of the nineteenth century metaphorized modern subjectivity as a balancing act between inside/outside, female/male, body/mind, native/foreign, proletarian/aristocrat, monstrosity in postmodern horror films finds its place in what Baudrillard has called the obscenity of "immediate visibility" and what Linda Williams has dubbed "the frenzy of the visible." The immediate visibility of a Buffalo Bill, the way in which he makes the surface itself monstrous transforms the cavernous monstrosity of Jekyll/Hyde, Dorian Gray, or Dracula into a beast who is all body and no soul.

Victorian monsters produced and were produced by an emergent conception of the self as a body which enveloped a soul, as a body, indeed, enthralled to its soul. Michel Foucault writes in Discipline and Punish that "the soul is the prison of the body" and he proposes a genealogy of the soul that will show it to be born out of "methods of punishment, supervision and constraint." Foucault also claims that, as modern forms of discipline shifted their gaze from the body to the soul, crime literature moved from confession or gallows speeches or the cataloguing of famous criminals to the detective fiction obsessed with identifying criminality and investigating crime. The hero of such literature was now the middle- or upper-class schemer whose crime became a virtuoso performance of skill and enterprise.

There are many congruities between Gothic fiction and detective fiction but in the Gothic, crime is embodied within a specifically deviant form — the monster — that announces itself (de-monstrates) as the place of corruption. Furthermore, just as the detective character appears across genres in many different kinds of fiction (in the sensation novel, in Dickens), so Gothic infiltrates the Victorian novel as a symptomatic moment in which boundaries between good and evil, health and perversity, crime and punishment, truth and deception, inside and outside dissolve and threaten the integrity of the narrative itself. While many literary histories, therefore, have relegated Gothic to a subordinate status in relation to realism, I will be arguing that nineteenth-century literary tradition is a Gothic tradition and that this has everything to do with the changing technologies of subjectivity that Foucault describes.

Gothic fiction is a technology of subjectivity, one which produces the deviant subjectivities opposite which the normal, the healthy, and the pure can be known. Gothic, within my analysis, may be loosely defined as the rhetorical style and narrative structure designed to produce fear and desire within the reader. The production of fear in a literary text (as opposed to a cinematic text) emanates from a vertiginous excess of meaning. Gothic, in a way, refers to an ornamental excess (think of Gothic architecture — gargoyles and crazy loops and spirals), a rhetorical extravagance that produces, quite simply, too much. Within Gothic novels, I argue, multiple interpretations are embedded in the text and part of the experience of horror comes from the realization that meaning itself runs riot. Gothic novels produce a symbol for this interpretive mayhem in the body of the monster. The monster always becomes a primary focus of interpretation and its monstrosity seems available for any number of meanings. While I will examine closely the implications of embodied horror (monstrosity) in nineteenth-century Gothic, I will also be paying careful attention to the rhetorical system which produces it (Gothic).

Many histories of the Gothic novel begin with the Gothic Romances of the later eighteenth century by Mrs. Radcliffe, Horace Walpole, and Matthew Lewis. While, obviously, there are connections to be made between these stories of mad monks, haunted castles, and wicked foreigners and the nineteenth-century Gothic tales of monsters and vampires, we should not take the connections too far. I will argue in this book that the emergence of the monster within Gothic fiction marks a peculiarly modern emphasis upon the horror of particular kinds of bodies. Furthermore, the ability of the Gothic story to take the imprint of any number of interpretations makes it a hideous offspring of capitalism itself. The Gothic novel of the nineteenth century and the Gothic horror film of the late twentieth century are both obsessed with multiple modes of consumption and production, with dangerous consumptions and excessive productivity, and with economies of meaning. The monster itself is an economic form in that it condenses various racial and sexual threats to nation, capitalism, and the bourgeoisie in one body. If the Gothic novel produces an easy answer to the question of what threatens national security and prosperity (the monster), the Gothic monster represents many answers to the question of who must be removed from the community at large. I will be considering, therefore, nineteenth- and twentieth-century Gothic as separate from eighteenth-century Gothic, but I will also be tracing Gothic textuality across many modes of discourse.

Within the nineteenth-century Gothic, authors mixed and matched a wide variety of signifiers of difference to fabricate the deviant body — Dracula, Jekyll/Hyde, and even Frankenstein's monster before them are lumpen bodies, bodies pieced together out of the fabric of race, class, gender, and sexuality. In the modern period and with the advent of cinematic body horror, the shift from the literary Gothic to the visual Gothic was accompanied by a narrowing rather than a broadening of the scope of horror. One might expect to find that cinema multiplies the possibilities for monstrosity but in fact, the visual register quickly reaches a limit of visibility. In Frankenstein the reader can only imagine the dreadful spectacle of the monster and so its monstrosity is limited only by the reader's imagination; in the horror film, the monster must always fail to be monstrous enough and horror therefore depends upon the explicit violation of female bodies as opposed to simply the sight of the monster.

Furthermore, as I noted, while nineteenth-century Gothic monstrosity was a combination of the features of deviant race, class, and gender, within contemporary horror, the monster, for various reasons, tends to show clearly the markings of deviant sexualities and gendering but less clearly the signs of class or race. Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs, for example, leads one to suppose that the monstrous body is a sexed or gendered body only, but this particular body, a borrowed skin, is also clearly inscribed with a narrative of class conflict. To give just one example of deviant class in this film, the heroine, Clarice Starling, is identified by Hannibal Letter as a woman trying to hide her working-class roots behind "bad perfume" and cheap leather shoes. Given the emphases in this film upon skins and hides, it is all too significant that cheap leather gives Starling away. Poor skin, in this film, literally signifies poverty, or the trace of it. As we will see, however, the narrative of monstrous class identity has been almost completely subsumed within The Silence of the Lambs by monstrous sexuality and gender.

The discourse of racialized monstrosity within the modern horror film proves to be a discursive minefield. Perhaps because race has been so successfully gothicized within our recent history, filmmakers and screenplay writers tend not to want to make a monster who is defined by a deviant racial identity. European anti-Semitism and American racism towards black Americans are precisely Gothic discourses given over to the making monstrous of particular kinds of bodies. This study will delineate carefully the multiple strands of anti-Semitism within nineteenth-century Gothic and I will attempt to suggest why anti-Semitism in particular used Gothic methods to make Jews monstrous. But when it comes to tracing the threads of Gothic race into modern horror, we often draw a blank.

The gothicization of certain "races" over the last century, one might say, has been all too successful. This does not mean that Gothic race is not readable in the contemporary horror text but it is clear that, within Gothic, the difference between representing racism and representing race is extremely tricky to negotiate. I will be arguing, in relation to The Silence of the Lambs, that the film clearly represents homophobia and sexism and punishes actions motivated by them; it would be very difficult in a horror film to show and punish racism simultaneously. To give an example of what I am arguing here, one can look at a contemporary horror film, Candyman (1990), and the way it merges monstrosity and race.

In Candyman two female graduate students in anthropology at the University of Illinois at Chicago are researching urban legends when they run across the story of Candyman, the ghost of a murdered black man who haunts the Cabrini Green projects. Candyman was the son of a former slave who made good by inventing a procedure for the mass production of shoes. Despite his wealth, Candyman still ran into trouble with the white community by falling in love with a white woman. He was chased by white men to Cabrini Green where they caught him, cut his right hand off, and drove a hook into the bloody stump. Next Candyman was covered in honey and taken to an apiary where the bees killed him. Now, the urban myth goes, Candyman responds to all who call him. The two researchers, a white woman and a black woman, go to Cabrini Green to hunt for information on Candyman. Naturally, the black woman, Bernadette, is killed by Candyman, and the white woman, Helen, is seduced by him. While the film on some level attempts to direct all kinds of social criticisms at urban planners, historians, and racist white homeowners, ultimately the horror stabilizes in the ghastly body of the black man whose monstrosity turns upon his desire for the white woman and his murderous intentions towards black women.

No amount of elaborate framing within this film can prevent it from confirming racist assumptions about black male aggression towards white female bodies. Monstrosity, in this tired narrative, never becomes mobile; rather, it remains anchored by the weight of racist narratives. The film contains some clever visual moves, like a shot of Helen going through the back of a mirror into a derelict apartment. She next passes through a hole in the wall and the camera reverses to show her stepping through a graffiti painting of a black man's face. She stops for a moment in the mouth of the black man and this startling image hints at the various forms of oral transmissions that the film circulates. Is Helen contained by the oral history of the Candyman or is she the articulate voice of the academy that disrupts its transmission and brings violence to the surface? Inevitably, Helen's character stabilizes under the sign of the white woman victim and Candyman's horror becomes a static signifier of black male violence. If race in nineteenth-century Gothic was one of many clashing surfaces of monstrosity, in the context of twentieth-century Gothic, race becomes a master signifier of monstrosity and when invoked, it blocks out all other possibilities of monstrous identity.

Moving from nineteenth-century Gothic monsters to the monsters of contemporary horror films, my study will show that within the history of embodied deviance, monsters always combine the markings of a plurality of differences even if certain forms of difference are eclipsed momentarily by others. The fact that monstrosity within contemporary horror seems to have stabilized into an amalgam of sex and gender demonstrates the need to read a history of otherness into and out of the history of Gothic fiction. Gothic fiction of the nineteenth century specifically used the body of the monster to produce race, class, gender, and sexuality within narratives about the relation between subjectivities and certain bodies.

Monstrosity (and the fear it gives rise to) is historically conditioned rather than a psychological universal. Tracing the emergence of monstrosity from Frankenstein through to the contemporary horror film (in both its high- and low-budget forms), I will attempt to show that monsters not only reveal certain material conditions of the production of horror, but they also make strange the categories of beauty, humanity, and identity that we still cling to. While the horror within Frankenstein seemed to depend upon the monster's actual hideous physical aspect, his status as anomaly, and his essential foreignness, the threat of Buffalo Bill depends upon the violence of his identity crisis, a crisis that will exact a price in female flesh. Buffalo Bill's identity crisis is precisely that, a crisis of knowledge, a "category crisis"; but it no longer takes the form of the anomaly — now a category crisis indicates a crisis of sexual identity.

It is in the realm of sexuality, however, that Buffalo Bill and Frankenstein's monster seem to share traits and it is here that we may be inclined to read Buffalo Bill as a reincarnation of many of the features of nineteenth-century monstrosity. As a sexual being, Frankenstein's monster is foreign and as an outsider to the community, his foreign sexuality is monstrous and threatens miscegenation. Frankenstein's lonely monster is driven out of town by the mob when he threatens to reproduce. Similarly, Buffalo Bill threatens the community with his indeterminate gender and sexuality. Indeed, sexuality and its uneasy relation to gender identity creates Buffalo Bill's monstrosity. But much ground has been traveled between the stitched monstrosity of Frankenstein and the sutured gender horror of Buffalo Bill; while both monsters have been sewn into skin bodysuits and while both want to jump out of their skins, the nineteenth-century monster is marked by racial or species violation while Buffalo Bill seems to be all gender. If we measure one skin job against the other, we can read transitions between various signifying systems of identity.

Skin, I will argue with reference to certain nineteenth-century monsters, becomes a kind of metonym for the human; and its color, its pallor, its shape mean everything within a semiotic of monstrosity. Skin might be too tight (Frankenstein's creature), too dark (Hyde), too pale (Dracula), too superficial (Dorian Gray's canvas), too loose (Leatherface), or too sexed (Buffalo Bill). Skin houses the body and it is figured in Gothic as the ultimate boundary, the material that divides the inside from the outside. The vampire will puncture and mark the skin with his fangs, Mr. Hyde will covet white skin, Dorian Gray will desire his own canvas, Buffalo Bill will covet female skin, Leatherface will wear his victim's skin as a trophy and recycle his flesh as food. Slowly but surely the outside becomes the inside and the hide no longer conceals or contains, it offers itself up as text, as body, as monster. The Gothic text, whether novel or film, plays out an elaborate skin show.

How sexuality became the dominant mark of otherness is a question that we may begin to answer by deconstructing Victorian Gothic monsters and examining the constitutive features of the horror they represent. If, for example, many nineteenth-century monsters seem to produce fears more clearly related to racial identity than gender identity, how is it that we as modern readers have been unable to discern these more intricate contours of difference? Obviously, the answer to such a question and many others like it lies in a history of sexuality, a history introduced by Michel Foucault and continued by recent studies which link Foucault's work to a history of the novel.

In this study I am not simply attempting to add racial, national, or class difference to the already well-defined otherness of sexual perversion nor am I attempting merely another reading of the Gothic tradition; I am suggesting that, where the foreign and the sexual merge within monstrosity in Gothic, a particular history of sexuality unfolds. It is indeed necessary to map out a relation between the monstrous sexuality of the foreigner and the foreign sexuality of the monster because sexuality, I will argue, is itself a beast created in nineteenth-century literature. Where sexuality becomes an identity, other "others" become invisible and the multiple features of monstrosity seem to degenerate back into a primeval sexual slime. Class, race, and nation are subsumed, in other words, within the monstrous sexual body; accordingly, Dracula's bite drains pleasure rather than capital, Mr. Hyde symbolizes repression rather than the production of self, and both figure foreign aspect as a threat to domestic security. While I will attempt here to delineate the mechanism by which multiple otherness is subsumed by the unitary otherness of sexuality, it is actually beyond the scope of this study to account for the very particular and individual histories of race, nation, and class within the nineteenth century. I am concerned specifically with representational strategies and with the particularities of deviant race, class, national and gender markings.


Excerpted from Skin Shows by Judith Halberstam. Copyright © 1995 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


1 Parasites and Perverts: An Introduction to Gothic Monstrosity,
2 Making Monsters: Mary Shelley's Frankenstein,
3 Gothic Surface, Gothic Depth: The Subject of Secrecy in Stevenson and Wilde,
4 Technologies of Monstrosity: Bram Stoker's Dracula,
5 Reading Counterclockwise: Paranoid Gothic or Gothic Paranoia?,
6 Bodies that Splatter: Queers and Chain Saws,
7 Skinflick: Posthuman Gender in Jonathan Demme's the Silence of the Lambs,
8 Conclusion: Serial Killing,

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

“Halberstam’s argument is elegant in its simplicity, but far-reaching in its implications. Providing a strikingly original account of the Gothic, she proposes through her work a cultural history of fear and prejudice and, thus, paves the way for a new scholarly enterprise."—Ann Cvetkovich, University of Texas, Austin

"Skin Shows is the Gothic book that many of us have been waiting for, and it is every bit as smart as we had hoped it would be. Halberstam’s notion of monstrosity will change Gothic studies for good. The results are dazzling."—George E. Haggerty, University of California, Riverside

Customer Reviews