A Medico-Experimental Horror: Reading Tom Six’s ‘The Human Centipede’
By Sumantra Baral
The Dutch film series, The Human Centipede (2009), directed by Tom Six, produces both horror and disgust. This article would deal with the first sequence of the film series, which takes the viewers to multiple perspectives – from psychological realm to body gothic, from horror to terror, and the artistic and corporeal experiment to new dimension of torture as well. It also presents the violation, violence, and transgression of the human body and its limit, which challenges the natural order and medical experiments, and questions the nature of creation and grotesque. The film, undoubtedly, is difficult to put into any generic categorization as it is loaded with various theoretical possibilities. My contention here, however, is to deal with the bodies used as an experiment from the perspective of waste, and to examine if this dimension of waste could offer a new extent of horror. This, in turn, I argue would enable us to explore waste not just as a natural cyclical process but a human intervention/ interference especially in relation to state and power in the cycle of natural order, which is particularly responsible in the creation of waste out of the living.
The first sequence of The Human Centipede which is set in Germany narrates the story of a retired surgeon named Dr. Josef Heiter and his deranged ambition to go through a gory medical experiment over human bodies. The title of the film is also weird as there is no existence of the idea of human centipede in our reality. The film begins with the typical approach of the horror film where two American girls Lindsay and Jenny are discussing about going to a late-night party, and ultimately, they find themselves lost in the middle of a jungle amidst rain. The film stands different by not depicting horror in the form of a poltergeist or precisely in the form of a different entity, but places horror within human body. This approach takes the viewers to an alternative understanding of horror which is always already there in life. The girls found a house of a retired surgeon who happened to be the expert of separating Siamese twins. But he suddenly came up with the idea of attaching human figures. He started executing his idea by drawing the sketch of his art in the diagram when for the first time the viewers get an idea of what he is aiming at. Although he tried to do this with three dogs before but they didn’t survive and he fails. As a result, the surgeon turns his attention to human bodies hoping to achieve his coveted result and higher chance of success which he didn’t achieve before. Finally, he kidnapped another Chinese tourist named Katsuro and began his experiment. By attaching the three victims from mouth to anus for sharing a single digestive system, where the consumption of food in the first body reaches to the subsequent bodies as excrement or waste, the surgeon creates a human centipede or what he calls a Siamese triplet. The film ends with the death of both the doctor and his creation missing only one girl stuck in the middle of the centipede structure.
The film shares a substantial amount of German connection which is not limited only in the domain of geography, landscape, or in the etymological inquiry of the Surgeon’s German identity. It was German Expressionist movement that was responsible in establishing ‘horror’ as a genre in the world of film (Loutzenhiser 2016, 4). The film appears as a critique of fascism, anti-sematism and the inhuman medical experiments conducted over the victim’s bodies in Nazi Concentration camps in Auschwitz. The director of the film, Tom Six in an interview mentioned that the film was inspired from a joke that he had once told his friend where ‘he explained a punishment for child molesters which would see their mouths stitched to the anus of a fat truck driver. Six’s chief historical inspiration was the Nazi experiments conducted on Concentration Camp prisoners in World War II, including the diabolical experiments of Dr. Josef Mengele’ (Mirror, 2020). Dr. Josef Heiter’s character and role in the film is exactly based on him. Known widely as the ‘Angel of Death’, Dr. Mengele was an advocator of Nazism, antisemitism, racial hygiene and eugenics. He was appointed as the chief physician in Auschwitz and he got involved in the activities like selection, anthropological research and human experimentation with the camp inmates. His specific interest in identical twins, people with heterochroma iridum (eyes of two different colours) has a direct connection with Heiter’s obsession with Siamese twins in the film. The intricacies lied in the method of torturing which became the highlight of every passing scene, managed to capture horror extensively. This brings us to the end when the human centipede is created. It appears like a dog crawling on knees and obeying the doctor as he dictates and commands. It delineates the submission of the subjects involved as none of them were German. It also indicates the powerful position of the German surgeon who is dictating and controlling the subjects according to his wish. According to Noel Carrol ‘the monster is regarded as threatening and impure. If the monster were only evaluated as potentially threatening, the emotion would be fear; if only potentially impure, the emotion would be disgust. Art-horror requires evaluation both in terms of threat and disgust’ (1987, 55). This notion of ‘impurity’ is significant here, which can offer a different perspective on body horror. Initially, to the viewers the impurity lies in the distorted bodies and grotesque figure of the centipede much like a monster that produce disgust. But if we look closer, the element of ‘impurity’ is connected with Nazi history. To the ‘racially superior’ and ‘pure’ German doctor, the other human beings were already ‘monsters’ since they did not belong to the superior race and thereby stand ‘impure’.
In the film, horror is achieved with the element of gore and excessive exhibition of torture, The Human Centipede is not the first film in this tradition though. Horror subgenres like torture porn, hammer horror focus on gore, grotesque, body horror, excessive killings and bloodsheds, violent methods of tortures, elaborate usage of torture devices and so on. According to Stephen Loutzenhiser, “[T]his was epitomized by the Saw franchise, which sought to bring back splatter and gore from decades past and movies like Night of the Living Dead or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to the horror industry with intense deaths and a cerebral mystery” (2016, 9). In fact, the director was inspired by films on Nazi tortures like Pasolini’s Sade or 120 Days of Sodom and also by the cinematographic and storytelling brilliance of David Cronenberg, David Lynch and others. In addition to horror, Human Centipede presents an element of terror. In the essay, “The Nature of Horror”, Noel Carrol differentiates between horror and terror. She mentions: “[T]his distinguishes horror from what are sometimes called tales of terror, such as Poe’s ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’ and ‘The Telltale Heart’, or Hitchcock’s Psycho, which, though eerie and scary, achieve their hair-raising effects by exploring extreme psychological phenomenon that are all too human” (52). It is this element of ‘all too human’ in the film that adds the terror part. There is no other- worldly and unnatural intervention but rather an exploration of a twisted human psyche involved in a diabolical human experiment. Disinvolvement of anything other than human beings, makes it more horrifying since it exposes the darkest desires of human mind. In fact, what a human being is capable of achieving in what extent, really troubles the viewers. It unleashes the monster that resides within the human psyche. Since the human beings consider monsters as unnatural, and in this case where that monster lurks within the human soul, it unsettles our position as a superior, pure and evolved species because monsters are often understood with inferiority and bestiality and prone to violence.
Violence refers to animality or is the return of animality to inter-human relations. To conceive human violence in terms of animality attests to the metaphysical opposition between man and animal in which ‘man’ stands as the higher term, which affirms the superiority of the human species over all the other animal species (Direk 2004, 29). The acts of killing, winning, and copulation give rise to a feeling of ‘transcendence’ in the human world due to the ‘objectification’ of the other as passive. The torturer or the surgeon in the film, therefore, does not think other human beings as an extension of them but only object and ‘Other’. Carl Jung argued this while interpreting the psychology of the Nazis. For the surgeon therefore, the other bodies possess no value or utilitarian possibility in life and are already nothing but waste.
Waste defies a model, a category, an opposition with which a kind of distance from civilization is associated. Waste brings the sense of repression, concealment and public shame if exposed. The body both produces the waste and is itself the waste. Waste as a category stands as an opposition to sanctity which validates the self and its purity. Waste hints at teleology. It marks an end. It also begets the sense of non-utility. The waste which is still in contact with the body or the body which itself is a waste is largely understood as grotesque. This nature of grotesque is connected with the absence of normalcy. To understand waste, therefore, it is required to understand it with the abnormal, something which has lost its normal ‘use’ and ‘need’ in this world. For Dr. Heiter the bodies he used for experiment and torture has lost its need because of their racial and genetic inferiority. So, the kind of torture that is unleashed upon them becomes a justification of their already lost value and significance in the world advocated by Nazism. In this way, through cruel experimentation they are not really wasting any lives but working with those bodies that are already wasted and therefore, no harm done. Most importantly this was supported and sponsored by the State. Twin research was very popular during World War II to prove the ‘supremacy of heredity over the environment in determining phenotypes and thus strengthen the Nazi premise of the genetic superiority of the Aryan race’ (Wikipedia) as “identical twins are heredity’s perfect genetic specimens” (Lagnado and Dekel 1991, 9). In fact, a grant was provided by German Research Foundation to build a pathology laboratory for those experimentations.
While Othering as a process of marking superiority over something or someone. Therefore, a hierarchy is needed to maintain and the Other should be in an unfortunate position (Susan Signe Morrison, The Literature of Waste, 2015). Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman in his book, Wasted Lives: Modernity and its Outcasts (2003) argues that this process of othering has created “wasted lives,” those wasted humans rendered invisible as non-entities. He gives examples of migrants, refugees, asylum seekers and other outcasts. This goes back to the victims in Nazi camps and of course the victims in the film. For the Doctor they are just non-entities. But still why did it become necessary for the Nazi to abolish the Jew when they are already inferior? Because waste lingers. It has a threatening capacity to overpower us. The irony is that the doctor can consider the others as waste but he cannot deny their existence. Waste is something we take all means to avoid but wasted humans – disdained, ignored, and made invisible – are ontologically non-existent (The Literature of Waste).
The perception of the greatest number of viewers assigns The Human Centipede more to the realm of disgust than horror but it is a question worth asking what type of horror we are talking about here. Horror as a word, etymologically, culturally and subjectively thrives and changes its connotation. But horror is not just an emotion, an affect or genre but also a historical reminder. This film is a rendition of the legacy of horror historically modified, sponsored by state and conducted by humans. The horror, therefore, lies not in the final object, in this case the centipede, but in the procedure, methods, involvement of state and power, and especially when all these have a real historical basis. There is nothing supernatural about it to turn up in the film and take charge to horrify others. Since The Human centipede is a production of contemporary time and delineates contemporary violence and horror to a great extent, terminologies like ‘horror’ and ‘terror’ falls short to capture the essence of violence of this time. Adriana Cavarero has come up with a new terminology named ‘Horrorism’ (Cavarero 2011, 29) in order to include and also to represent properly the situation contemporary time is going through in terms of violence and also violation. By taking into account the events of disfiguration and massacre, torture, suicide bombing, extermination and Nazi Death camps, ‘horrorism’ captures the experience of violence on helpless subjects in our time and also comes close to define what this film is about.
Bauman, Zygmunt. Wasted Lives: Modernity and its Outcasts. Wiley; Polity: 2003.
Carroll, Noel. “The Nature of Horror.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 46, No. 1, Autumn, 1987, pp. 51-59.
Cavarero, Adriana. Horrorism: Naming Contemporary Violence. Translated by William McCuaig. Columbia University Press, 2011.
Direk, Zeynep. “Bataille on Immanent and Transcedent Violence.” Bulletin de la Societe Americaine de Philosophie de Langue Francais, Vol. 14, No. 2, Fall 2004.
“Josef Mengele.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 14 October 2022, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Josef_Mengele#CITEREFSteinbacher2005.
Knight, Lewis. “True story behind The Human Centipede—It’s link to Nazi Germany as director talks new film.” https://www.mirror.co.uk/film/true-story-human-centipede-film-12588945. Accessed September 28, 2022.
Lagnado, Lucette Matalon and Sheila Cohn Dekel. Children of the Flames: Dr. Josef Mengele and the Untold Story of the Twins of Auschwitz. William Morrow and Company, INC: 1991.
Loutzenhiser, Stephen. The Decay of Monsters: Horror Movies throughout History, BFA dissertation, March 2016.
Morrison, Susan Signe. The Literature of Waste: Material Ecopoetics and Ethical Matter. Palgrave Macmillan: 2015.
Sumantra Baral is currently pursuing M.Phil. from the Department of English, Jadavpur University. He has presented papers in various national and international conferences. His poems have frequently appeared at the University of Edinburgh Journal.
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