The Theology of The Fly


The Fly CollectionWhile watching the 1958 film of The Fly last night, I was struck by its similarities to Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, Frankenstein. And in the similarity of the underpinning morality of both.

I recently picked up the DVD collection with all three movies (The Fly, Return of The Fly and Curse of the Fly, plus a collection of special features).*

I saw the original film back in the late 1950s at the drive-in with my parents, and I’ve seen it on TV since, but not for many years. It’s not quite the “terror topping supershock thrill sensation” promised on the box (a term lifted from ads for The Return of The Fly and similar films).**

Still, it’s a good, classic example of the genre. As I watched it last night, I was struck by several things in the movie I had not considered before.

First is the role of Vincent Price. Known for his serio-comic roles in horror films – mostly B-films – he was usually cast as the villain, often some sort of mad scientist character. In The Fly, he plays a dramatic, sympathetic role, not the sort of person one expects of Price. Not villainous at all; a very understated character. helped no doubt by a literate script written by James Clavell (later novelist of Shogun and Noble House fame).

Second is that the film was shot in colour, which was not common for low-budget films (the sequel was shot in B&W) but the sets and props were minimal (the basement lab is more a metaphor for mad scientist than an actually believable laboratory). It looks more like the set from Father Knows Best than a monster film.

Third is the aforementioned similarities with Shelley’s Frankenstein (the original novel, not the subsequent films, which, with rare exception, veer significantly from the book’s plot – but again to be fair, the film script of The Fly changed the plot of the original short story).

In both, the moral of the story is that messing around with Nature (aka God) is wrong and ends in tragedy. In both, the creatures have a strong sense of morality. In the novel the creature (Shelley never names him) develops his views and behaviour from observing humans; in The Fly is it the essential humanity still maintained within Andre, the human-turned-fly. In both, they make a decision “for the best” or the greater good that involves their own death (suicide, although in Shelley’s story the creature only vows his own death; the act is not described, thus allowing us to wonder if he carried it out).

That ending is quite different from the usual monster film in which the creature is overcome by villagers, loyal friends, the police, a priest, a doctor or some other figure (or group) that represents authority, orthodoxy and the community (you can see in monster films the metaphor of the stranger or outsider a la Camus or Kafka, versus the status quo – The Wild One with a bug’s head).

The Fly also features an assisted suicide, which makes it relevant to the debate going on today about that issue. Plus it has a mercy murder – or is it? Is the fly with the human head a human? – which raises the question or euthanasia in another light. The short story also has a suicide. All big, moral and ethical issues.

Both stories make us question our values. Are the creatures worth our sympathy, or at least empathy? Or simply horror and disgust? Do they have a soul? Are they to be hated (the Frankenstein Complex that despises the artificial results of scientific experiment) or pitied? Helped or destroyed? Do they reason or are they simply animals? And is it right to experiment on animals?

And how does our perspective on the fictional characters relate to our perspective in the real world – towards animals, insects, other humans (especially those with physical or developmental challenges)? Shelley’s creature is a walking, talking human – but is treated like an animal to be hunted and destroyed. The Fly creature is a human-insect meld, unable to speak but capable of writing, that in the end must also be destroyed. Although why either needs to die is never made clear – they certainly don’t pose a threat to humanity, although they may to individuals. There’s no justice for monsters, no due process.

The Fly

In both the Shelley novel and in The Fly, the creatures are sentient, questioning their existence. They and the audience have to wonder about the wider “problem of evil.” The creature and Andre, the transformed scientist, are both “innocents” in that they are cast into tragedies that came from no evil they did or harm they caused. They suffer because of the deus ex machina effect, although in the novel, the creature later murders Victor’s wife for vengeance, thus bring on himself the judgment of the reader (although earlier does not choose to kills the pigs he sleeps with out of a sense of morality that the pigs share common ground with him).

There’s not a little of the Book of Job in both their tales. Except that neither one gets redemption or is rewarded.

In both, the creatures seek truth, albeit different sorts of truth, and through different avenues. Shelley’s creature gets his truth and the insight into both his creation/creator and the ways of humans – and finds it all wanting. He essentially turns his back on civilization entirely; wanting to disappear into the wilderness in what might be the Romantic Era’s noble savage, were it not for his origins.

For Andre, the scientist, his truth is the bitter realization he has fooled with Nature, been hurt, and cannot be changed back to human again. It is made more bitter by losing his work, his family and his comfortable existence. Civilization turns its back on Andre, not the other way around.

The death of Victor Frankenstein is paralleled in the destruction of the equipment and papers in The Fly: the “creators” are destroyed by their creations.

But there are clearly theological differences. Shelley was an atheist (as was her father, William Godwin) and projected her view of religion – actually more a questioning of it rather than a complete dismissal – through her creature as it searches for approval from its creator, and finally to overcome the creator. It’s somewhat ironic, then, that Shelley writes about the dangers of playing God.

In The Fly, the creature is an accidental, not deliberate creation; an unexpected and tragic side effect of humans tampering (through science). Andre’s downfall is one of hubris: the scientist who believed he could change the natural laws, defy God, a modern Prometheus brought low by a humble house fly. Mary Shelley’s subtitle for her novel is “Prometheus Unbound.”

The near-Medieval anti-science twist is seen in a lot of this genre (it forms the basis of almost every Japanese monster series: scientists tinker, unleash a sleeping-hibernating-frozen monster, aka Nature). The ‘mad scientist’ tinkers with Nature, and either creates a monster or comes to a bad end when Nature strikes back (a “serve ’em right” conclusion). Science is the demon that makes the Faustian deal for the soul of the scientist. You see it in the Mummy and the Invisible Man, too. Wolfman and Dracula are, however, different themes (in both, Nature unleashes its Dark Side which usually requires religion to defeat it. Stuff for a future post.)

That attitude is still found in real life with the anti-vaccination crowd, the anti-GMO crowd, the pro-homeopathy and magic potion crowd, the anti-wind turbine crowd. That, of course, is generally just ignorance not theology (except in the case of the creationists).

From my admittedly lay perspective, the science-versus Nature theme looks like a throwback to natural theology of Thomas Aquinas, which “attempts to either prove God’s existence, define God’s attributes, or derive correct doctrine based solely from human reason and/or observations of the natural world.” The corollary of that theology is that if you see God in nature, then you see Nature in God: they are inseparable, the creator and the creation.

Essentially, Nature is God’s realm (or Nature is God) and it is inappropriate for humans to interfere or change (which scientists do by their machinery and equipment); once you do so you are punished because you went against God’s creation (often seen as perfect thus interference diminishes its attributes) which means going against God. And for that you have to be punished.***

It’s a theme stemming back to the Garden of Eden legend and Gilgamesh. In fact, the pre-creature life of Andre is Eden-like in its Ozzie-and-Harriet way.

Rather oddly, no one has written a novel or film demonizing farmers for tinkering with nature to make better crops or breed better sheep, even though it’s really the same thing. But I’m sure someone will do a horror film showing how mad-scientist-created GMO crops mutate into monsters, rise up against humankind, only to be thwarted by well-meaning environmentalists living in a VW Microbus and playing folk music in their spare time.


* I have the legacy series for all the great, original horror/monster films: Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy, Wolfman, Invisible Man and Creature From the Black Lagoon. Most sets have four or five films, plus special features. Great series, mostly filmed in the 1930s and 40s, although the Creature series was 1954-6 (the re-boxed and Blu-Ray series adds the 1943 Phantom of the Opera). The Fly pretty much completes the monster series for me. Plus I have a lot of the Japanese Godzilla, Gamera and other monster films (including the original Gojira). I have a lot of non-series B-films of that genre including many by Roger Corman or those coming from the Hammer Studios through the 60s. By the 1970s, the genre was drifting into slasher films and scary special effects, so I lost interest. These are my “girls’ night out” movies – when Susan has a night out with her friends, I get to heat frozen pizza, open a beer and watch my B-films. Life is good.

** As for the movie, The Fly is not scary: most of the film time is taken up by conversations, scenes of family life and a police interrogation that is barely credible. The potential mad scientist is a well-groomed loving father and husband, and his science – the teleportation of matter a la Star Trek’s beaming devices – is never explained or even properly commented on. The Fly is much drier that you expect from the genre, more melodramatic than frightening, and and aside from the heroine’s few moments of screaming – an the stereotypical fainting – it’s not histrionic (although the sequels were moreso). Reviewer Derek Winnert noted:

Sadly, the movie seems pretty tacky and cheesy now, and not really the 50s horror masterpiece of its reputation… But engaging acting, a reasonable production with amusingly quaint special effects and a haunting, creepy central idea keep it still buzzing along nicely. And Karl Struss’s widescreen, DeLuxe colour cinematography and Lyle R Wheeler crafty set designs are useful assets. But it shows that Wheeler is working on a tiny budget. The key lab set cost only $28,000, but he gussied it up a bit with some likely looking army surplus equipment and a computer borrowed from another movie, Tracy and Hepburn’s Desk Set (1956).

*** The teleological argument, or argument from design, that is in part the basis for natural theology is also used by by creationists. In that argument, complexity in nature is proof of an intelligent designer, rather than an evolutionary process. It also pops up in empirical theism:

According to the argument from design we can use the evidence of the natural world to arrive at knowledge about the nature of God in the following way: We see that the universe is like a machine insofar as it is perfectly and intricately ordered so that every part, from smallest to largest, fits harmoniously with every other part. We take note of the fact that every machine we have ever come across in our experience has been the product of intelligent design. Seeing the similarity between the universe and machines, we reason that since they are so analogous, they must certainly have analogous causes. We conclude, therefore, that the universe must also be caused by an intelligent designer. We thus arrive at knowledge about God’s nature: we know that he resembles human intelligence.

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  1. Pingback: Gojira, the original kaiju – Scripturient

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