Amy S. Li
Director Guillermo del Toro has become known for visually stunning depictions of monsters and supernatural creatures in his films, from the Pale Man in Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), to the kaiju in Pacific Rim (2013). While the personalities and embodiments of these fantastical monsters vary from film to film, what ties them together is del Toro’s understanding of their potential to instill fear, but more importantly, to inspire love and empathy amongst humans. The river god/humanoid amphibian known only as “the Asset” in The Shape of Water (2017) becomes del Toro’s most recent “monster” in this lineage.
In many interviews, del Toro has spoken of the impact that classic horror films such as James Whales’ Frankenstein (1931) and Jack Arnold’s Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) have had on him since childhood. The influence of the latter seems widely self-evident in the visual similarities between the Gill-man and del Toro’s fish man, but del Toro has also spoken explicitly about how a particular scene inspired the story which eventually became The Shape of Water.
He reveals how, at the age of six, he watched Creature from the Black Lagoon with the expectation that the Gill-man would end up with Kay, the female love interest (portrayed by Julia Adams). “What a great love story!” he says of the creature swimming underneath Kay. “I was six; I thought, I’m sure it’s gonna end well!” The film of course did not end well for the creature, who sinks back into the water riddled with bullets, left to die. Del Toro concludes his anecdote by saying that though it took 46 years in the making, he “corrected it,” giving the creature the love story he thought it always deserved.
Upon rewatching the swimming scene, it strikes me that the creature appears like a dark mirror image to Kay, the striations on his body even paralleling ribbed lines on her white swimming suit. It does not surprise me then, given this doubling, that del Toro would have imagined the creature getting the girl, and living together in an underwater fantasy. The two seem made for each other in their respective grace, and perhaps in beauty too (though of course beauty is subjective).
Doubling is a common theme of Gothic literature and thus of many classic horror tales. We have the visual doubling of the Gill-man with Kay in this iconic underwater scene, but the production details behind the film also reveal some interesting parallels.
Director Jack Arnold’s initial sketches were sent to former Disney illustrator Millicent Patrick for “refinement,” according to Vincent di Fate of Tor.com; she based her designs for the Gill-man on a 17th-century mythical figure known as the “Sea Monk,” interestingly enough. However, due to conflicting stories and even threats against Patrick receiving credit for her work, many people never knew that the famous monster was in fact designed by a woman. It would have perhaps, in the early 1950s, seemed scandalous or untoward for a woman to have been the working hands and mind behind such a monstrous figure.
That is of course only if one forgets or discounts Mary Shelley as the author of Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus (1818), credited by many as the first science fiction novel, and an influential work of Romantic or Gothic literature. In thinking of Millicent Patrick’s absence or obfuscation from the popular narrative of monster creation, I am here reminded of a scene from the beginning of The Bride of Frankenstein (1935).
In the film’s prologue, Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, and Mary Shelley (played by Elsa Lanchester, who not-so-coincidentally also portrays the bride of Frankenstein in this film) convene by a fireplace while a thunderstorm rages outside. Byron proclaims that Mary “is an angel,” to which she responds, “You think so?,” with a sly and knowing smile on her face. Byron postulates to Percy, “Can you believe that bland and lovely brow conceived of Frankenstein? A monster created out of cadavers out of rifled graves? Isn’t it astonishing?” Mary quips back, “I don’t know why you should think so. Such an audience needs something stronger than a pretty little love story. So why shouldn’t I write of monsters?”
Del Toro’s love for Frankenstein is well-chronicled, and while the conversation usually hinges on the 1931 film adaptation, or its sequel, The Bride of Frankenstein, we do know that del Toro loves Mary Shelley’s novel, as he has written in an introduction to The New Annotated Frankenstein, and he even hopes to adapt it for a television miniseries in the future.
The doubling of Victor Frankenstein and the creature—Frankenstein’s monster—is well-analyzed by literary critics. Scholars have noted that it is Victor’s failure as a creator and father to the creature, to whom he wished to be a god, that plunges him into hell and misery, making him the monster. Further, as doubles to one another, while the creature gains in strength, Frankenstein grows more and more ill. The latter succumbs to death, not directly at the hands of his monster, but following the end of narrating his tale to Robert Walton. “His voice became fainter as he spoke, and at length, exhausted by his effort, he sank into silence” (Shelley 186).
In the novel, the creature is eloquent, even more so than Victor. However, in the James Whale adaptation, the monster is silent, even “dumb.” (I use scare quotes due to the word’s ableist connotations, but given the film’s usage of other ableist tropes and the pseudo-science of anthropological criminology, this word choice seems accurate.) Making only grunts—most often when angry or scared—the monster’s muteness characterizes him as less than human, and along with his abnormal physiognomy, a creature to be feared.
It seems that del Toro might be drawing upon and rephrasing this muteness in The Shape of Water. Instead of only the “monster” lacking language, however, it is the female protagonist and love interest Elisa Esposito (played by Sally Hawkins) who is mute. She speaks through American Sign Language (ASL)*, as well as through dance.
Her muteness, while making her an outsider, is not presented as a tragedy by the film. It is in fact the experience of being different, and of being perceived as different, that gives her the capacity for empathy, and for understanding the river creature. Toward the end of the film, when Elisa is planning the amphibian man’s escape, she directs an impassioned plea to her neighbor Giles. Reading her sign language out loud, he repeats: “What am I? I move my mouth, like him. I make no sound, like him. What does that make me? All that I am, all that I’ve ever been, brought me here to him. […] When he looks at me, the way he looks at me, he does not know what I lack, or how I am incomplete. He sees me for what I am, as I am.”
Speaking to a panel of directors, del Toro stated: “I feel the urgent, political, human need to […] see the other, and see the beauty and the divine in the other as opposed to the fear and the hatred.” He adds that this film was “so personal” to him, and that it might be the film that “expresses [him] most completely.” Monsters are an integral part of this personal yet universally human story.
Del Toro has remarked that “you should love monsters because they reflect our own imperfections.” When interviewer Tom Power asked del Toro what “monsters give [him] that Catholicism didn’t,” he responded: “There is a sense of acceptance, you know? […] They represent suffering and a sense of being an outcast, and that I can identify with […] Eventually I found companionship with these creatures, and I found them to be very moving.”
He adds: “I found, being raised Catholic, I felt such unforgiving; there was no leeway.” He then speaks of a modern “paradox,” in which we have a “super sophisticated social language, that makes it almost impossible to be imperfect […] and at the same time we are living in an environment where socially we see things that we thought were past,” like sexism, racism, and classism: “brutal divisions through fear and hatred.” The only place that he finds “refuge, solace, and forgiveness is in monsters. Because the monster is in itself an act that is not asking for forgiveness, […] but is there for you to accept.”
In fact, in ancient times monsters were thought of as omens from God, sent down to “demonstrate” (the Latin root of both words being monstrare, to “point out”) a societal ill that needed to be fixed. It is not the monster itself that needs to be defeated, or killed, but rather the social atmosphere. Del Toro’s film and its “monster” thus comes at a moment, a “dangerous time,” when people perceived as “other” are being persecuted both physically and emotionally. The Shape of Water is thus not only a love story between Elisa and the fish man, but also a lesson for its audience to engage in love, not fear. Reaching out to the other may in fact heal us, as shown by the river god cleansing Giles of his wounds.
Del Toro declares this fish man, a god, “one of the most beautiful creatures I’ve ever committed to film.” It is his love and empathy for monsters that transforms this moment of creation—which recalls the moment of Frankenstein bringing his creature to life—into one of beauty, rather than fear or disgust. Octavia Spencer calls del Toro an “alchemist; he makes everyday things seem so otherworldly;” yet on the other hand, he manages to make the otherworldly also seem human.
Del Toro’s work is thus transformative; though visually his films may resemble horror, he “rephrases” and “reconstructs” the genre. If horror is a “cathedral” or altar at which he worships, then his project is of making that space habitable. Unlike Frankenstein, he seeks not to be God, but instead to be more human.
In doing so, he carves out space for all the misfits of the world, which in this film include Elisa, a mute woman; Giles (Richard Jenkins), an elderly gay man; Zelda (Octavia Spencer), a black woman; and of course, the amphibian man (Doug Jones). One of my criticisms of the film is that, in devoting so much time in getting the audience to sympathize and empathize with the fish man, the other marginalized characters at times tend toward caricature-like depictions, particularly with Zelda as the trope of “sassy black friend,” or the elderly man as a hopelessly unsocial shut-in. Nevertheless, the film consciously brings together all of these characters in order to hint at the possibility of community, banded together against the threat of the assimilationist and violent white male authority, Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). In the end, love—and an acceptance of their own uniqueness—keeps them alive.
Love and horror exist only separated by a thin line. On one side lies acceptance, and on the other, fear. Del Toro’s work with monsters traverses that line, taking what might visually frighten us, and through narrative, weaving a rich tapestry of mutual understanding, ending in a beautiful kingdom under the sea.
Amy S. Li is a doctoral candidate in the Emory University Department of English. Her primary research interest is representations of embodiment in science fiction literature and media, including specific focuses on gender/feminism and disability, as well as race/ethnicity and age. Her proposed dissertation project includes explorations of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818), William Gibson’s cyberpunk short stories, and sf/genre media such as Orphan Black, Get Out, and Black Mirror. Her public scholarship includes a multimedia project called “Badaptations,” which analyzes book adaptations for film and television. You can listen to the podcast here (captions available on the video format HERE.)
* I should note here that there have been important conversations in disability studies circles about the ethics of casting a non-mute actress in the role of Elisa, which could be considered disability drag. Casting a non-signing actress, in particular, reinforces the ableist notion that ASL is not a “real” language, and as such, that it is easy for non-signers to learn, when in fact ASL has its own unique grammar. Secondly, it implies that “no one will notice the difference” between fluent or non-fluent communication, or rather, that “no one will notice who matters,” according to disability studies scholar Rebecca Sanchez. Even though I too am a non-signer, I could tell even from my very rudimentary knowledge of ASL that some of Elisa’s exchanges were perhaps not the most accurate or fluent representations of ASL usage. According to Sanchez, the implications of ASL “detached from signing people” and only directed toward non-signing audiences, for “non-linguistic purposes,” may be “increased precarity for non-normatively communicating persons,” due to non-signing persons’ inability to understand certain gestures as effective communication. Such an outcome which would surely contradict the message of del Toro’s film.
Nevertheless, I believe the film does engage in conversations about marginalization specific to the experience of identifying and presenting as non-normate.