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Hideous Progeny: Disability, Eugenics, and Classic Horror Cinema

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Twisted bodies, deformed faces, aberrant behavior, and abnormal desires characterized the hideous creatures of classic Hollywood horror, which thrilled audiences with their sheer grotesqueness. Most critics have interpreted these traits as symptoms of sexual repression or as metaphors for other kinds of marginalized identities, yet Angela M. Smith conducts a richer investi Twisted bodies, deformed faces, aberrant behavior, and abnormal desires characterized the hideous creatures of classic Hollywood horror, which thrilled audiences with their sheer grotesqueness. Most critics have interpreted these traits as symptoms of sexual repression or as metaphors for other kinds of marginalized identities, yet Angela M. Smith conducts a richer investigation into the period's social and cultural preoccupations. She finds instead a fascination with eugenics and physical and cognitive debility in the narrative and spectacle of classic 1930s horror, heightened by the viewer's desire for visions of vulnerability and transformation. Reading such films as Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), Freaks (1932), and Mad Love (1935) against early-twentieth-century disability discourse and propaganda on racial and biological purity, Smith showcases classic horror's dependence on the narratives of eugenics and physiognomics. She also notes the genre's conflicted and often contradictory visualizations. Smith ultimately locates an indictment of biological determinism in filmmakers' visceral treatments, which take the impossibility of racial improvement and bodily perfection to sensationalistic heights. Playing up the artifice and conventions of disabled monsters, filmmakers exploited the fears and yearnings of their audience, accentuating both the perversity of the medical and scientific gaze and the debilitating experience of watching horror. Classic horror films therefore encourage empathy with the disabled monster, offering captive viewers an unsettling encounter with their own impairment. Smith's work profoundly advances cinema and disability studies, in addition to general histories concerning the construction of social and political attitudes toward the Other.


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Twisted bodies, deformed faces, aberrant behavior, and abnormal desires characterized the hideous creatures of classic Hollywood horror, which thrilled audiences with their sheer grotesqueness. Most critics have interpreted these traits as symptoms of sexual repression or as metaphors for other kinds of marginalized identities, yet Angela M. Smith conducts a richer investi Twisted bodies, deformed faces, aberrant behavior, and abnormal desires characterized the hideous creatures of classic Hollywood horror, which thrilled audiences with their sheer grotesqueness. Most critics have interpreted these traits as symptoms of sexual repression or as metaphors for other kinds of marginalized identities, yet Angela M. Smith conducts a richer investigation into the period's social and cultural preoccupations. She finds instead a fascination with eugenics and physical and cognitive debility in the narrative and spectacle of classic 1930s horror, heightened by the viewer's desire for visions of vulnerability and transformation. Reading such films as Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), Freaks (1932), and Mad Love (1935) against early-twentieth-century disability discourse and propaganda on racial and biological purity, Smith showcases classic horror's dependence on the narratives of eugenics and physiognomics. She also notes the genre's conflicted and often contradictory visualizations. Smith ultimately locates an indictment of biological determinism in filmmakers' visceral treatments, which take the impossibility of racial improvement and bodily perfection to sensationalistic heights. Playing up the artifice and conventions of disabled monsters, filmmakers exploited the fears and yearnings of their audience, accentuating both the perversity of the medical and scientific gaze and the debilitating experience of watching horror. Classic horror films therefore encourage empathy with the disabled monster, offering captive viewers an unsettling encounter with their own impairment. Smith's work profoundly advances cinema and disability studies, in addition to general histories concerning the construction of social and political attitudes toward the Other.

46 review for Hideous Progeny: Disability, Eugenics, and Classic Horror Cinema

  1. 4 out of 5

    Sistermagpie

    Surprisingly engaging and even more disturbing, Hiedeous Progeny looks at classic horror films of the 30s in the context of eugenic ideas and practices going on at the time. Although I was always aware that eugenics were popular before WWII--ideas that we would associate with Nazis weren't uncommon--it's still incredibly disturbing to realize just what kind of ideas were discussed as being good for mankind. The book notes how movies about eugenics, like stories about a couple that ignores their Surprisingly engaging and even more disturbing, Hiedeous Progeny looks at classic horror films of the 30s in the context of eugenic ideas and practices going on at the time. Although I was always aware that eugenics were popular before WWII--ideas that we would associate with Nazis weren't uncommon--it's still incredibly disturbing to realize just what kind of ideas were discussed as being good for mankind. The book notes how movies about eugenics, like stories about a couple that ignores their doctor's warnings about their inferior genetic make-up, and wind up regretting it (their doctor lets their baby die for the good of everyone), that were relegated to the category of "health film," thus suggesting that discussion of eugenics be confined to the "experts." Experts that sounded a lot like the mad scientists popular in movies at the time. It was taken for granted that looking at disabled people was harmful in itself--the idea that the horror a viewer felt when looking at a disabled person was their problem that they should get over through familiarity just didn't come up except in horror movies. The movies discussed often have ambiguous meanings--they can be equally described as ableist and anti-eugenic. But I'll never again look at them the same way.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Chris

    I had the opportunity to study under Dr. Smith when finishing my undergrad degree. At that time I had been exposed to many of the concepts discussed in this book. Despite the fact that very little was new to me, I was fascinated by the subject matter. The subject of eugenics in American history are just more disturbing than any horror film. Yet, through a deeper review of classic horror film it is easy to see how the ideas of eugenics are reflected in the cannon of classic American horror films. I had the opportunity to study under Dr. Smith when finishing my undergrad degree. At that time I had been exposed to many of the concepts discussed in this book. Despite the fact that very little was new to me, I was fascinated by the subject matter. The subject of eugenics in American history are just more disturbing than any horror film. Yet, through a deeper review of classic horror film it is easy to see how the ideas of eugenics are reflected in the cannon of classic American horror films. The idea of the Other, the one to be feared and rejected is something that no one wants to admit to. But reflection is a major part of the issue: the audience is indicted for their participation in the gaze on the monster, the Other. This is a must read for everyone.

  3. 4 out of 5

    woody fanon

    Although written in an academic style (which can be tiresome), it certainly was not tedious as I learned quite a bit more from it than I thought I would. I am culturally Deaf and very involved with all aspects of the politics involving Deaf Culture so I was very pleased Smith discussed a bit about Alexander Graham Bell and the association he had with the Eugenic movements. Overall, pretty good although I will admit I did a side-eye on some parts as it was certainly a bit of an overreach but not Although written in an academic style (which can be tiresome), it certainly was not tedious as I learned quite a bit more from it than I thought I would. I am culturally Deaf and very involved with all aspects of the politics involving Deaf Culture so I was very pleased Smith discussed a bit about Alexander Graham Bell and the association he had with the Eugenic movements. Overall, pretty good although I will admit I did a side-eye on some parts as it was certainly a bit of an overreach but not by much.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Eric

    Engaging close-read of classic horror. Smith never forces connections or metaphors, and for covering a general connection that is obvious (horror cinema : eugenics), the author does a phenomenal job at weaving DS- and film-theory to make the subject matter fresh and absorbing.

  5. 4 out of 5

    saizine

    An incredibly interesting look at how classic horror films of the early twentieth century could both support and, in a way, subvert "eugenic (il)logic" - and although I have little experience in disability studies or film analysis, that was no barrier to enjoying Smith's examination of both. I particularly enjoyed the chapters on "Eugenic Reproduction: Chimeras in Dracula and Frankenstein", "Enfreaking the Classic Horror Genre: Freaks", and "Mad Medicine: Disability in the Mad-Doctor Films".

  6. 5 out of 5

    Sophia Begum

  7. 4 out of 5

    Serena

  8. 5 out of 5

    Coy Hall

  9. 4 out of 5

    Dani

  10. 4 out of 5

    Sharlene King

  11. 4 out of 5

    Matthew Liebman

  12. 5 out of 5

    Andrew Sydlik

  13. 4 out of 5

    Virginia

  14. 5 out of 5

    Jessica Stokes

  15. 5 out of 5

    Nicole Aceto

  16. 5 out of 5

    Cecil

  17. 5 out of 5

    Isabella Scappaticci

  18. 5 out of 5

    Natalie

  19. 5 out of 5

    Catherine Belling

  20. 4 out of 5

    Brian

  21. 5 out of 5

    Rachel

  22. 4 out of 5

    Jessica

  23. 4 out of 5

    Arianna O'Connell

  24. 4 out of 5

    Jcfairfi

  25. 5 out of 5

    Tori

  26. 4 out of 5

    Tegan

  27. 5 out of 5

    Sydney R.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Leigh Ann M

  29. 4 out of 5

    Christina

  30. 5 out of 5

    Leigh

  31. 5 out of 5

    E. Smith

  32. 5 out of 5

    Steven Schneider

  33. 5 out of 5

    Rachel

  34. 5 out of 5

    Blair

  35. 5 out of 5

    Whisperbat

  36. 5 out of 5

    Johanna

  37. 4 out of 5

    Kate

  38. 5 out of 5

    Ana

  39. 5 out of 5

    Izetta Autumn

  40. 5 out of 5

    Samuel Lee

  41. 5 out of 5

    A

  42. 5 out of 5

    Dani

  43. 4 out of 5

    Colee B

  44. 5 out of 5

    Stephen Sipila

  45. 5 out of 5

    Kayla

  46. 5 out of 5

    Matthew Gilboy

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