Scattered Thoughts on ‘The Elephant Man’

Poster for ‘The Elephant Man’ (1980)

It has been many years since I last saw The Elephant Man (David Lynch, 1980), and a considerable time too – although somewhat less – since I last sat in a cinema with tears in my eyes. Last night I revisited both experiences, thanks to a special screening of the film as part of Exeter University’s Screentalks series. What follows below is just a series of scattered thoughts and impressions, written without the usual care applied to my blog posts.

Sometimes The Elephant Man is described as an anomaly in Lynch’s oeuvre, its period setting, factual basis and star-studded cast distancing the film from the highly original and darkly surreal narratives of his other projects. Such an opinion seems convincing on paper, even in conversation, but when watching the film on the big screen one cannot fail to be impressed by the powerful motifs familiar from other David Lynch movies: the bleak monochrome industrial landscape and off-screen synthesised drones of Eraserhead (1977), the use of dream sequences and visions reminiscent of Wild at Heart (1990) or an anxiety about the infernal worlds that lie beneath and behind the respectable facades of society, disturbingly portrayed in Blue Velvet (1986.)

In her introductory talk, Corinna Wagner drew attention to the Gothic elements of the film, including the preoccupation with dark secrets, with what is hidden behind the surface. Episodes during Merrick’s early period in the hospital evoke Gothic tropes, such as the ‘madwoman in the attic’ of Jane Eyre or the ‘horror behind the door’ of Bluebeard. 

The threat of ‘what lies beneath’ is depicted quite literally in several sequences, where the camera appears to drop beneath the streets of London to glimpse a labyrinthine network of tunnels and serpentine pipes, shadowy chambers in which we occasionally spy blackened half-naked men slaving away in fiery pits or labouring over mysterious Victorian machines, the purpose and function of which remain obscure. Again, these sequences recall the lady in the radiator in Eraserhead but also the unnerving opening shot in Blue Velvet when Lynch shows us the subterranean horrors that lurk beneath the white picket fences and smiling firemen of small-town America.

One might argue that there was enough horror within damp, dank, smoke-filled squalor of industrial London, without the need for any further Gothic mystery – but it was growing anxiety about such urban nightmares that encouraged authors to use cities as their setting for ghastly tales. Eighteenth century Gothic stories contrasted the civilization of the city with the dangers of the countryside, a place under the sway of strange customs, primitive superstitions, lawless brigands and feudal tyranny, not to mention unmapped forests, inhospitable terrain and wild animals. Technological progress in the Victorian era may have brought a degree of enlightenment, but at what cost?

Near the beginning of the film, we see Dr Treves (Anthony Hopkins) operating on a man who has been injured in a machine accident – another sign that modern technologies brought new dangers as well as benefits. He remarks to his colleague that they will be seeing many more of these injuries in the future, one fatal drawback of machines being that ‘you can’t reason with them.’ There is a sense here that man is caught between two contrasting, inhuman threats: the irrationality of primitive nature (darkness, wild beasts, madness and the like) and the irrationality of modern technology. Despite his attempts to master them, ultimately he cannot claim to control either. Many of the classic Gothic tales contemporary with the period in which The Elephant Man is set – The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1885), The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) and Dracula (1897) blend modern science and the supernatural within contemporary urban settings. Darwinian theories about evolution may have seemed daringly progressive, but they were backward-looking too: for if modern man had evolved as part of a long and gradual process, then what distinguished him from animals was a matter of degree rather than a distinction in kind. Surely such a mutation could move in the opposite direction as well?


The Pig-Man (Buster Brodie) in ‘Island of Lost Souls’ (1932)
The title The Elephant Man is an obvious indication of anxieties about transgressing boundaries between man and beast. Similar fears played out in H.G. Wells’ novel The Island of Dr Moreau (1896), in which a crazed scientist attempts to create humans through surgical operations on animals. Characters included The Dog-Man, The Leopard-Man and The Ape-Man. It was made into a film, The Island of Lost Souls (Erie Kenton, 1932), starring Charles Laughton as Dr Moreau and also featuring Bela Lugosi – emphasising Paramount’s wish to link the film with Universal’s Dracula and Frankenstein movies from the previous year. The possible fusion of man and beast is further alluded to in The Elephant Man by the animal costumes worn by the performers in the theatre show attended by Merrick. While playing with the notion of the ‘noble savage’ there is an obvious contrast made between Merrick’s gentle, civilised soul trapped in a deformed body, and the bestial, inhuman behaviour of porter Jim (Michael Elphick) and his able-bodied friends. This is also paralleled in the kindness shown Merrick by the dwarves and ‘circus freaks’ in Belgium, who join forces to free him from his cage and help him return to England. It’s all very reminiscent of Freaks (Tod Browning, 1932) – which incidentally starred Leila Hyams from Island of Lost Souls – in which the murderous deceptions of the able-bodied trapeze artist and strongman are defeated by the humanity and kindness of the deformed performers (dwarves, amputees, a ‘bird-woman’ and Siamese twins – played by Violet and Daisy Hilton who feature in my book A Carnal Medium.) Lynch’s films, of course, have frequently included characters with physical disabilities – such as the main character in The Amputee, the radiator-lady in Eraserhead, Ed (Blue Velvet), Juana (Wild at Heart) or Arnie (The Lost Highway.)

I wrote a little about Victorian freakshows in a previous post, and The Elephant Man makes the same point as I did: much as we like to distance ourselves from the insensitive vulgarity of those showground spectacles, modern media is not really that different in its commercialisation of all manner of forms of human tragedy, and we as audiences often share equal guilt in our consumption. In the film, Treves’ conscience begins to trouble him after visitors start flocking to see Merrick at the hospital: he recognises the truth of the accusation of hypocrisy made by Merrick’s previous ‘mentor’, the showman Bytes (Freddie Jones) – are not both men, in their own way, exploiting Merrick for their own ends?

What sort of man was Treves? There is actually a copy of his December 1923 obituary in the scrapbook that I wrote about in last week’s blog post. Reference to ‘The Elephant Man’ appears in the second half of the tribute.

Treves and Merrick first met in November 1884, and it is not hard to equate his rapid rise thereafter with the publicity generated by their association. By 1902 the respectable doctor had been granted the rank of baronet, and this surely shaped his perspective on the events of the 1880s. The film claims to be based on Treves’ 1923 memoir, The Elephant Man and other Reminiscences, and the depiction of London’s ‘lower’ classes is far from flattering. Recently I came across Raphael Samuel’s essay ‘Modern Gothic: the Elephant Man’ in Theatres of Memory (1994) which dissects the use of class stereotypes in the film, and argues that Lynch has in fact created a ‘fairy tale in documentary form.’ The Elephant Man is unashamedly moralising and sentimental, playing with our emotions sometimes in ways we might associate more with the director of E.T. than Eraserhead, and the fairytale element is impossible to deny. One cannot watch the scene with Merrick and famous actress Madge Kendal (Anne Bancroft) without being reminded of Beauty and the Beast…
...which reminds me that the next Screentalks event is a screening of Cocteau’s La Belle et La Bête (1946) on Monday 9th February. I’m looking forward to that already.
Posted in All, Film, Gothic, Horror.