BY JESS PEACOCK
“If our shallow, self-critical culture sometimes seems to lack a sense of the numinous or spiritual, it’s only in the same way a fish lacks a sense of the ocean. Because the numinous is everywhere, we need to be reminded of it. We live among wonders.” – Grant Morrison
Having raked in numerous nominations and awards, including the Academy Award for Best Motion Picture of the Year, The Shape of Water, Guillermo del Toro’s stunning journey into magical realism disguised as a classic Universal monster creature feature, made an indelible stamp on popular culture, and elevated the art of the horror genre in the eyes of moviegoers worldwide. “This is the year in which the genre takes its place on the stage without being backed by a bestselling book or a literary classic,” del Toro recently said. “Normally when the fantastic is at this stage of the conversion, it is backed up by one of these things. I think it’s beautiful that this has happened.”
This conversion has been aided by a string of horror films that have sought to use the metaphorical flexibility of the genre to not only unnerve audiences, but to challenge them culturally and, at times, spiritually. It Follows, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, The Babadook, It Comes at Night, and others have primed the pump for a moment in history where genre films such as the fan-favorite Get Outand The Shape of Water could emerge as box office and critical successes while also sharing the spotlight at the Academy Awards. These cinematic efforts have utilized the realm of the fantastic to tell stories that address an array of social ills such as sexism, homophobia, racism, xenophobia, and toxic masculinity. In the case of The Shape of Water, del Toro has created a dark fairy tale of intersectional commentary that boldly explores the alienation of otherized bodies through the lens of the monstrous, and how the divine itself becomes a monstrosity in the face of an inhuman cultural hegemony.
“The movie tries to embody the beauty of the other,” del Toro explained in an interview with Vulture.com. “We’re living in a time where we demonize the other. We are told we’ve got to fear…whether race, religion, government sexual preference, gender — anything that creates this fake division between us and them…But there is only us.”
The other is represented within The Shape of Water through a number of marginalized characters: Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a mute and physically scarred woman working as a custodian at a secret research facility, and Zelda (Octavia Spencer), her black co-worker, both of whom face the daily pressures of misogyny, ableism, and racism. Along with Giles (Richard Jenkins), a gay artist grappling with the cruel reality of a closeted life in 1962 Baltimore,the heroes of del Toro’s Oscar winning tale are social throwaways, particularly with regard to a United States in the early 1960s still entrenched in white patriarchal heteronormativity (and let’s be honest, not much has changed since then).
Strickland (Michael Shannon), the square jawed straight white male we’ve come to expect from a story of this ilk (think Richard Denning who played the macho Dr. Mark Williams in the original Creature from the Black Lagoon), is represented as the epitome of toxic masculinity, a frightening career military man who lords his cultural dominance as an entitled white Christian alpha male over Elisa and Zelda from the start, telling them, “[W]e’re created in the Lord’s image…He looks like a human, like me. Or even you. Maybe a little more like me, I guess.”
“The movie tries to embody the beauty of the other…We’re living in a time where we demonize the other.”
– Guillermo del Toro
For Strickland, women are simply there to serve his privilege, evidenced not only by his disregarding of Elisa and Zelda’s presence in the bathroom when he takes a piss, but in his assertion of domestic authority over his dutiful wife, who he expects to remain obediently silent during sex…even as he bleeds on her face. Of course, it is Strickland’s sense of entitlement and misogynistic superiority that ultimately proves to be his downfall, as he is unable to initially conceive of a world where anything less than a ten-man strike force could undermine him, let alone two women aided by a middle-aged queer artist.
“HE’S SO BEAUTIFUL”
Enter the Amphibian Man, del Toro’s cinematic homage to the Creature from the Black Lagoon, violently ripped out of its Amazonian home waters by Strickland and brought to the research facility Elisa works at. “You know the natives in the Amazon worshipped it like a god,” Strickland tells his boss, who responds with a disgusted, “Doesn’t look like much of a god now.” The disinterested and incurious reaction of these two military men in the face of such an extraordinary find reflects German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s Enlightenment era perspective on phenomenology, which viewed human experience, and human experience alone, as the determiner of truth. For Kant – as well as for Strickland – anything other is meant only to serve a white-hetero-male dominated society.
However, what kind of other are we dealing with in del Toro’s The Shape of Water? There are undoubtedly the cultural others represented in the human protagonists – and we know Strickland expects them to serve his desires – but what of the creature?
The brilliant use by del Toro of the genre of magical realism, which was borne out of a Latin American post-colonial critique, opens the narrative to his Amphibian Man serving as a disruptive and transgressive divine presence for those who recognize it as such, and existing only as a repulsive monster in the eyes of the privileged and powerful who are unable to see another culture’s traditions as anything but monstrous.
Monstrosity often emerges out of a dominant culture’s lack of understanding of difference or otherness. Strickland, explaining how the locals worshipped the creature, says, “Well they’re primitive…they would toss offerings into the water. Flowers, fruits, crap like that. Then they tried to stop the oil drill with bows and arrows, that didn’t turn out well.” Strickland’s use of the word primitive to describe the Amazonian native people might as well be read as weak, thus making them eligible for control and domination under the guise of Western progress. Of course, whether Strickland viewed the creature as divine or as merely an animal is not the point. What matters is that the creature is other– as are those who worshipped it as a god – and thus below Strickland, while Giles and Elisa are unable to see anything but a numinous splendor when they gaze upon the creature, also placing them beneath the esteem of the increasingly psychotic government agent.
However, for those already marginalized, the divine presence of the Amphibian Man, monstrous though it may be, offers something beyond the dominant narrative of power and oppression provided by structures of privilege and normativity. The existence of del Toro’s monstrous divine introduces a hermeneutical alternative by personifying the marginalized bodies that have been othered, demonized, and treated as monsters themselves – something Elisa, Giles, and Zelda understand all too well. The monster represented in the body of the Amphibian Man violates imposed boundaries, existing as the incarnation of radical difference. And it is here where del Toro’s aquatic creation emerges as a Christ figure, evoking awe and reverence reserved for an encounter with the wholly divine other.
In an interview with NPR, del Toro explained how The Shape of Water was informed by his Catholic upbringing, as well as his love of fairy-tales, and how sea creatures are closely enmeshed with both, stating, “In fairy tales, in fact, there is an entire strand of tales that would be encompassed by the title ‘The Magical Fish.’ And [it’s] not exactly a secret that a fish is a Christian symbol.” So, it should not be considered too much of a stretch to posit the connective tissue of the Amphibian Man and Jesus of Nazareth, both in their divinity as well as their transgressive monstrosity.
“FUCK. YOU ARE A GOD”
At its essence, the horrific or the monstrous is a deviation from a customary experience, a departure that is ultimately stretched well beyond acceptable norms. In some sense, it is also an inversion of the natural order, or, as French philosopher Emmaunel Levinas argued, a disordering of interiority and exteriority. While this definition might be easy to understand in the presence of del Toro’s Amphibian Man, it might be more difficult for some to see it through the figure of the Christian savior.
However, within the overall narrative of Jesus of Nazareth, we are witness to a cosmic being that could walk on water, control the weather, perform a kind of alchemy by turning water into wine, manipulate matter as he did with the loaves and fishes, and, ultimately, reverse the finality of death – all forms of a kind of monstrosity of nature and humanity. In addition, Jesus is referred to in the Gospel of John as the Word – itself an othering descriptor, something not human, described within scripture as a cosmic force never having not existed that ultimately donned a human suit and ripped through space and time to reveal itself as an existential monstrosity.
This otherness that we find in the figures of Jesus and del Toro’s Amphibian Man speaks to what scholar Dylan Trigg refers to as an un-human or monstrous phenomenology, one that stands in opposition to Kant’s previously mentioned anthropomorphized phenomenology which prioritizes human experience. These narratives of the monstrous divine present to us an alternative model for the other, an unhuman or post-human phenomenology that emphasizes an intimate connection betwixt and between all living things; difference and otherness enfleshed.
To this, the late queer feminist scholar Gloria Anzaldua, whose book Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza explores the cultural and social other as monstrous (in her case the queer mestiza body), wrote of her experience watching Ridley Scott’s classic sci-fi/horror film Alien for the first time:
“I really identified with it. There was this serpent-like alien being, a parasite, in this man’s chest. It exploded; the being rushed out…In the film, it seemed like they were taking all the things they fear and hate about themselves and projecting them onto the monster. Just like we did with blacks and like people do with queers – all the evils get projected. My sympathies were not with the people at all; they were with the alien.”
Anzaldua, like del Toro, understood how the monster can speak to the marginalized and the oppressed, and how the role of the horror genre might serve to tear down boundaries, even if those boundaries have been rendered invisible by the dominant hegemonic structures within society. Alien provided Anzaldua a point of departure to identify with something wholly other, yet also entirely relatable, a place where one can begin to embark on the work of the transformation of their social reality, a space where the beautiful and the grotesque comingle and enmesh to create something unique and, perhaps, transcendent.
The Shape of Water’s Amphibian Man serves a similar role of disruptive provocateur alongside other models of divinity such as Jesus of Nazareth. The theme of revealing oppressive and marginalizing structures, of dismantling the illusion of cultural normativity, of disturbing and transforming the status quo, is a constant theme in del Toro’s film as well as within the Christian gospel narratives, as Jesus and del Toro’s creature, through their divine monstrousness, expose and confront systems of spiritual and physical oppression.
For some, this process of disruption is revelatory and transformative, as Giles, after a brush with the Amphibian Man that left him cut and bleeding, experiences a rebirth of sorts through rapid healing, a reversal of the hair loss he often attempted to hide with a toupee, and an awakening from his increasing emotional and spiritual lethargy. For others such as Strickland, a similar brush with the creature costs him two of his fingers and results in a deterioration of the mind and body (he literally becomes a toxic male), culminating in the declaration, “Fuck. You are a god,” a statement that is more awful than awe-full.
“THE PRINCESS WITHOUT A VOICE”
Throughout The Shape of Water, del Toro uses masterful brush strokes to create hints and highlights of a larger theological tapestry surrounding the events transpiring in and around the OCCAM research facility. From overt biblical references such as The Story of Ruth playing at the Orpheum theater, or Strickland’s obsession with the story of Samson and Delilah, to more subtle allusions such as Elisa’s backstory of being found as an infant in a river à la the baby Moses, and the death/resurrection/descent of the creature at the climax of the narrative, it is these understated aspects of the fairy tale that provide the most intriguing insights.
I doubt that the director’s decision to conceptually connect Elisa to Moses was a coincidence, a figure from the Hebrew Bible who, as an infant, was found on the Nile river and adopted as an orphan into Egypt’s royal family (Esposito literally translates to ‘orphan’). Elisa’s royal or perhaps divine(?) lineage is hinted at in the very opening shot of the film when the camera pushes into the entrance of an underwater temple, the hallway of which leads into her submerged living room. The implication is subtle but evident – Elisa is more of a stranger to this world than even her disability, scars, and gender have made her.
It is when she encounters the Amphibian Man that something is awakened within her, perhaps a sense of belonging, an awareness of the numinous that compels her not only to external action, but internal transformation, culminating in the ignition of what the Christian Gnostics described as the divine spark, or a piece of god trapped inside each of us. In the Gnostic tradition the figure of the cosmic Christ donned its human façade and entered the physical dimension in order to remind humanity of their spiritual lineage, and we might also wonder if the presence of the Amphibian Man carried with it similar implications.
Elisa’s home above the Orpheum theater is named after Orpheus from Greek mythology, the musician and Argonaut who traveled to the underworld to retrieve his wife Eurydice. Had the Amphibian Man allowed his own capture in order to travel through the hell of torture and imprisonment in order to retrieve his long-lost love? Was Elisa’s attraction to the creature born out of subconscious memories of her status of princess alongside her prince? Or was the manifestation of the creature simply a reminder to the characters within the narrative – as well as the viewer – of their divine spark?
Whatever the greater spiritual implications might be, Elisa’s awakening is ultimately expressed in the oddly controversial sexual encounter between she and the Amphibian Man, earning the film the alternative title of Grinding Nemo. Erotic representations of intermingling between mortals and the divine are commonplace in religious myths, poetry, liturgy, and theology, from the Song of Songs in the Hebrew Bible and the holy insemination of Mary in the New Testament, to Hindu bhakti theology and the love between Krishna and the gopis found in the Ashtapadis, to the near comical inability of Zeus to keep it in his pants, gods and humans have been getting it on for some time. Teresa of Avila’sshockingly graphic encounter with the divine as recorded in her autobiography, The Life of Teresa of Jesus, is a prime example of just how explicit these encounters have been represented within the culture:
“I saw in his [the angel’s] hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron’s point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it.”
Of course, the debate over sexual intercourse between del Toro’s fictional characters is moot for several reasons (I’m sure Belle and the Beast engaged in some off-camera canoodling), not the least of which is that it would appear that Elisa was, in fact, not human at all. Shot by a rampaging Strickland, Elisa lies dying in the rain when the Amphibian Man picks her up and leaps into the ocean. There she achieves her full divine state which had been suppressed by a world in which she didn’t belong. The scars on her neck, the scars she carried with her throughout her life, now transform her – the beautiful and the grotesque (or what she had seen as grotesque) comingle to create something new. For Elisa, her scars were the evidence of her divinity…her scars ultimately indicated her worth.
“A FAIRY TALE FOR TROUBLED TIMES”
The Shape of Water is a film that speaks truth to power through the megaphone of magical realism, lending metaphorical power to voices at the margins of society as they struggle against dominant oppressive paradigms. Guillermo del Toro’s spin on the classic horror movie Creature from the Black Lagoon is a parable of compassion that challenges our self-imposed cultural blinders. “The movie is about connecting with the other,” del Toro explained in his NPR interview. “And that’s why the original title of the screenplay when I wrote it was A Fairy Tale for Troubled Times, because I think that this is a movie that is incredibly pertinent and almost like an antidote to a lot of the cynicism and disconnect that we experience day to day.”
With The Shape of Water, del Toro is using old symbols and dangerous memories to create new myths while reinvigorating the religious and social impact of classic narratives. Considering the culture’s turn toward pessimism and distrust over the last several years, the director could have easily constructed a cautionary tale advocating for alienation and isolation. Rather, he chose to embrace compassion, beauty, and healing by lifting up the voices of the oppressed and their condemnation of structures of injustice, versus succumbing to those within our culture who would echo Strickland when he says, “We export decency. We sell it because we don’t use it.”
Religion scholar Karen Armstrong writes, “It has been writers and artists, rather than religious leaders, who have stepped into the vacuum and attempted to reacquaint us with the mythological wisdom of the past.” In this regard, del Toro is operating as a type of pop culture priest, an oracle of the monstrous, channeling and documenting a new canon of scripture within The Shape of Water that helps us identify and empathize with humanity, while also encouraging us to nurture a spiritual framework that challenges our perception of the shape of the divine as it relates to the other in a troubled world.