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Talking heads, unruly women and wound culture
Dario Argento's Trauma (1993)
In its exposé of American soullessness as a product of a "wound culture" that substitutes pop psychological diagnoses for interrogation of gender inequities and real social lack, Argento's Trauma makes beheading a metaphor for contemporary life. Linda Badley explains.
Trauma (1993), Dario Argento's first American feature, was almost uniformly ignored or disparaged as "Americanised," ie, cleaned up and "dumbed down." Another adjective, unutterable but couched there in the silence, was "feminised." The maestro had suddenly gone soft on women. He had crossed the giallo form not with a teen slasher so much as a "woman's film"—a made-for-TV "disease-of-the-week" melodrama that with a few (albeit drastic) alterations might pass for a Lifetime Channel five-hanky.
The film's issues are the stuff of female gothic and 1990s "trauma culture": anorexia/bulimia nervosa, dysfunctional mother-daughter relationships, oppressive medical institutions, malpractice cover-ups, recovered memories, incest and false memory syndrome. The pop psychology usually left by Argento to subtext or used to wrap an already baroque finale, Trauma foregrounds and then develops in its case-study of a suicidal anorexic and a mother traumatised by the loss of her infant son.
The "featureless" Midwestern landscape (Minneapolis, Minnesota) and the bleached out, sepia palette are consistent with a topical critique. When asked about his idea for the film, Argento replied, "I took it from reality. I was in a city in America, walking along the street, when I saw an extremely thin girl who was vomiting. She was totally ignored by the passing people. I then began to grow an interest in the problems caused by [sic] anorexia. I wrote a little short story called 'L'Enigma di Aura' ('Aura's enigma') and then I slowly developed it."
The killer's modus operandi, although grisly and intimate, is unvarying—decapitation via a personal guillotine, a portable mechanised garrote. "The 'noose-o-matic'!" Tom Savini fondly recalls. The decapitation scenes, moreover, have been noted chiefly for their failure (or else their refusal) to achieve Argento's trademark aestheticised violence. In place of spectacular shots of gorgeously slaughtered bodies against stained glass-and-marble settings, Trauma features close-ups of choking middle-aged heads—an assortment in regard to race, class, color, texture and gender—against backdrops of motel rooms, warehouses and suburban cellars. The spectacle, if it can be called such, is a matter of trophies and talking heads.
Severed heads, wandering minds, lost souls
Trauma seems less interested in its look than in its titular subject, which I interpret as having to do with more than individual experience and personal agendas. The personal, as feminists in the 1970s began to put it, is political. The French Revolution sequence, beginning with the sounds of shouts, harangues and intermittent strains of Le Marseilles over the opening credits, places the trauma in the context of Dr Guillotin's "humane" machine, the Reign of Terror and Madame Tussaud's atrocity exhibit. We should think also of the fall of Cartesian logic (of the cogito as represented by the head), of the rule of the mob (the body politic) and of revolutionary French ideas. In the scenes to come, we are informed, signifying heads will fall, and the film covers several categories of heads: the police, social services, the Faraday (psychiatric) Clinic, St Bartholomew Hospital and the local television news station.
As the guillotine became a cultural icon and even a children's toy in post-revolutionary Europe, the head becomes a visual pun for capital punishment, American capitalism, paternalism, medical authority. In the film's closing sequence, the guillotine scenario is revealed to be a toy in a child's playroom: now the centrepiece of a shrine dedicated to Nicholas, Adriana Petrescu's (Piper Laurie) infant son, decapitated accidentally at birth by a scalpel employed with thoughtless clinicism during a violent thunderstorm. The historical is thus realised ultimately in the most personal (and fantastic) space of all, the nursery where the grieving mother cherishes her rage.
Trauma, like its weapon of choice, is deceptively straightforward. The central enigma appears to be that of Adriana's daughter Aura (Asia Argento)—Why does she starve herself?—seen through the eyes of leading man David Parsons (Christopher Rydell) as he tries to "save" her and help her solve it. The film's real text, however, lies in the gruesome psycho-metaphorics of the mother's back story.
It is Adriana, the avenging mother, headhunter and medium—as opposed to the decapitated child—who has been left "headless," and in at least the following eight senses:
- As the mother of the child about to be born, she is viewed by the medical staff simply as a labouring body about to produce a male head.
- Violently severed from her child (and as viewed from the Freudian perspective underlying the primary metaphors of the film), she is castrated, deprived of her phallic supplement (ie, the male child as the mother's "head").
- To silence her screams and erase her memory of the trauma, the medical staff has administered shock treatments, effectively beheading her yet again. (In the logic provided by the Faraday Clinic psychiatrist Dr Judd [Frederic Forrest], "Each human being's head contains a soul," and "The soul is composed of memories." The fact that Judd wears a neck brace when in Adriana's presence shows how seriously he takes this equation.)
- Dr Judd's subsequent "cure" (a suspect combination of drugs, hypnosis and sexual intercourse) has apparently restored Adriana's memory of the event, informed her of her loss/lack, turned her hysteria into psychosis and brought on her serial decapitation spree. In razoring the medical personnel "responsible" for her dispossession, she reclaims (her) head(s).
- The abusive (at best, irregular) nature of the therapist-patient relationship seems to have added insult to injury. (In Aura's flashback, which purportedly reveals the history of this relationship, Judd assumes a rigorous version of the classic missionary position while Adriana glares uncannily—upside down—at the camera moving in for a close-up.)
- Adriana experiences the loss of her mind as "possession" by Nicholas, who has "taken over" her head.
- Finally, she stages her own death. Wearing a man's suit and tie, she holds the severed head of her husband Stefan (Dominique Serrand) aloft next to her own, creating the following illusion: a male 'headhunter' appears simultaneously to be shielding 'his' identity and exhibiting trophies, one male, one female, in front of 'his' face. Thus she accomplishes four goals simultaneously: (a) she acts out her trauma and displays her doubly decapitated condition for the benefit of Aura and the camera; (b) she liberates her body to avenge Nicholas/reclaim her heads; (c) she performs masculinity (via serial beheading and as phallic mother); and (d) she foreshadows her literal death.
- Proclaimed headless at least once more, by the local television news, Adriana subsequently remains invisible to the camera, except as represented by lizards that seem to be serpentine familiars, an old-fashioned black medical bag—the sort once carried by fatherly doctors when making house calls—the mechanical garrote and the (familiar for Argento) black-gloved hands.
The laugh of the Medusa
Perhaps most importantly, Adriana is a professional medium, a psychic who channels the spirit/voice of "Nicholas"—whom I interpret to be Adriana's silenced (decapitated) self finding its tongue in (French) revolutionary Cixousian/Medusan hysteria/sorcery. In the séance scene, she pretends to speak for the headhunter's most recent victim, saying, "My head. Look, my head. I know who the killer is." She speaks, as we find out later, for herself, her victims being externalisations of her hysterical/headless condition. Indeed, decapitation has a perverse way of "voicing" the silenced head, freeing it to speak a last word, to name the next victim (and/or killer), making atrocity and revolution public. The last image of Adriana is her decapitated head, opening her mouth to speak the name of "Nicholas."
Hysteria was once thought to be the product of a "wandering womb", but in this film it is heads and memories, souls and voices that are hysterically lost, found, stolen, exchanged. Ultimately, "Nicholas" is the name Adriana gives to the terror she stages on a grand scale, a revolution of the body from the head, in which all heads must fall. "I thought, after the others, I would stop..." she raves as she prepares to decapitate David and, presumably, even her own daughter.
The birth of the clinic
In the meantime, Aura has matured into a sixteen-year-old anorexic and runaway, another variation on woman as decapitated male child. (If the male child is the mother's substitute penis/head, the daughter is merely another signifier of its absence, as suggested in Adriana's less than benign neglect, Aura's deeply felt desire to disappear and the very name "Aura," which suggests that she is an emanation or disembodied spirit, a lost soul.) Her case makes sense in light of her mother's fate: becoming an adult female means being embodied and subjected to the authority of doctors. The Faraday Clinic comes to represent various social agencies who want to imprison, silence and/or "get something from [Aura]" rather than help her. In Trauma's opening scene, she is attempting to jump off a bridge as a final effort to get somewhere where "they" cannot. Her anorexia, the film implies, is a product of the clinic in the Foucauldian sense, of the medical perspective through which the body became subject to the domination of the head, the mind, the gaze, the speculum and the scalpel.
Aura's anorexia, like her supposed addiction to intravenous drugs, is a medical/social construction. When administered by doctors, her food is invariably force-fed intravenously and laced with sedatives (in the IV scene) or else it is literally a drug (Dr Judd's psychotropic berries). In refusing food, Aura struggles against becoming a consumer and a medium, a "headless" body like her mother. Her view of her home and the clinic as equivalent madhouses and extensions of one another (confirmed by Piper's Laurie's raving reprisal of her Margaret White maniacal mother character in Carrie ) is correct. Taken home, Aura will be sent back to the clinic. Taken to the clinic, she will be sent back home to Mother. Her "suicide" note says "I've gone to join my mother," whom we assume (from evidence provided by the camera, the television news and Aura herself) is decapitated.
In the first of several scenes in which she is being taken "home," she protests, "Doctors? I don't need more doctors!" Throughout the film (and as in Argento's earlier Suspiria  and Phenomena [aka Creepers, 1985]), the hospital—whether the psychiatric Clinic or the maternity ward at St Bartholomew's—is an institution that chops off heads and constructs docile, consuming bodies. In one extended sequence, the screams of the victim (Aura's nurse) mingle with the howls of lunatics wandering the halls, and we watch as one inmate bemusedly observes the beheading through a curtain, waving at the headhunter/camera as he/she/it exits.
Wound culture and junk/food/television
Mark Seltzer in 1998 linked the serial killer to American "wound culture," a public culture obsessed with trauma— whether the public display of "torn and open bodies" or the confession of psychological "damage" on talk shows such as Donohue, Oprah and Jerry Springer. Lacking subjectivity in a socially-constructed culture of information, we seek and find our "selves" in what pop psychology and sociology identify and track, through "symptoms" like anorexia, as our traumas. Our psychic wounds, in other words, are all that is left of our selves, or, in the symbolic system of Trauma, our heads and souls. In discovering our traumas (recovering our severed heads), crafting them into art and displaying them, we hope to achieve healing and signification. One product of this wound culture, serial killers inflict their traumas on others through a kind of sadistic performance art, thus "making something of themselves" in the pathology of the public sphere.
Trauma's "small-screen" focus and melodramatic emphasis is quite to the point here, as the film examines television as the medium through which the clinic and the home, public news and the private wound, reinflict pain on one another. ("Television," moreover, extends to American cinema, Argento's collusion via Trauma with this cinematic tradition and cinema as the medium "we" are presently immersed in.) The public medium is represented by Grace Harrington (Laura Johnson), David's cool blonde girlfriend, who is featured either as a talking head—a newscaster/automaton who recites the headhunter's atrocities—or as a sexual partner. Twenty minutes into the film, David, a TV news art director, displays drawings of the headhunter with a trophy. "Ugh," exclaims Grace, demanding "something a little more stylised" in an obvious jab at Argento's censors. "Well, keep it tasteful," adds Arnie (Ira Belgrade), another newsroom colleague.
Later, when David describes Aura's symptoms to Arnie, a perpetually gnoshing junk food addict, the latter diagnoses her as an anorexic, rattling off the "profile" in about thirty seconds. "How do you know all this?" David asks. "Don't you watch Donahue and Oprah?" Arnie incredulously replies, adding after a long glance at the soap opera playing on the screen, "you should be watching that thing and eating this stuff." Later he re-runs videotaped segments of the news, which reveal that the murders occur only when it rains. "Do you see it?" he asks. "I told you, you can get everything you need from watching TV."
Arnie's equation of the television news, the weather, talk shows, soap operas, commercials and junk food has direct bearing on Trauma's more obvious issues. Television provides pop psychological diagnoses, which it passes off as "solutions" to the social problems it creates and feeds—as indicated in the serial killer's "profile" that misidentifies the headhunter but exhibits "his" trophies, or in Aura's misdiagnosed or induced addiction/anorexia, or in Arnie's glib recycling of information on disorders to which he himself is a walking testimony. As he begins to see through this surface, David refuses Grace, television and drugs much as Aura disgorges food and flees therapies. "Swallowing" any of these means re-entering the cycle of consumption, addiction, and addiction to addiction that, in an information culture obsessed with trauma, increasingly constitutes postmodern life.
"La machine," as the guillotine came to be called, and the Terror it came to represent, took on a cyclical, unstoppable life. My favourite subplot in Trauma concerns the little boy who manages to behead the beheader. This is woven throughout as a leitmotif and eventually wraps the film:
- In the house next door to the headhunter, a little blond boy complains to his mother that a "black lady" is looking at him from the window opposite. We cut to a shot of black gloved hands cutting the braids (snakes) from the headhunter's trophy, clearly visible in the window. The sight frightens, then inspires this young Perseus who, as will shortly be revealed, is already a collector and a scientist.
- In another abrupt cut from the primary narrative (one of darkness, rain and claustrophobic interior shots), the boy, blond hair reflecting the sunlight, stares fascinated through thick glasses at a butterfly. Consulting a book, then swapping his glasses for binoculars, he identifies it as a rare specimen. (In Argento's universe, insects have or are souls, and as the entomologist in Phenomena explains via the myth of Psyche, butterflies are symbols of the soul. In the next few bedroom scenes, a lovely mobile of captured "psyches" is seen hanging delicately above the boy's bed.)
- Later, the boy pursues another butterfly in time to spot one of the lizards from the first murder scene emerge from the window opposite and swallow it. Angry, then curious, he enters what we know to be the murderer's den. Prowling, he finds the mechanical garrote, tries to turn it on (even placing it tentatively around his own neck), then spots the lizard on the wall, grabs it, hears someone coming and in a hasty exit squeezes and drops it lifeless on the floor.
- In the final sequence of the film, and on another bright, sunny afternoon, David, looking for Aura even though he believes her to be dead, has unknowingly tracked down the headhunter's house. Next door, the boy is preparing his butterfly net for conquest. The film ends as he surprises and beheads Adriana with her own weapon.
The plucky towhead, perhaps an allusion to Disney, Home Alone (1990)—or, more likely, Michael Powell's Peeping Tom (1960) and William Wyler's The Collector (1965)—continues the cycle of terror and revenge, beginning with Adriana's pet lizard in exchange for his prize butterfly and progressing from butterflies to lizards to Adriana (Ariadne?), his most exotic trophy yet. He is a headhunter himself: now a budding entomologist, perhaps eventually a doctor or a psychiatrist, a collector of souls. As a "high federal official" is said to have told a reporter in Thomas Harris's Red Dragon, speaking of serial killer Hannibal Lecter and/or his profiler-pursuer Will Graham, "It takes one to catch one."
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About the author
Linda Badley is Professor of English at Middle Tennessee State University, Murfreesboro, Tennessee, where she teaches courses in Victorian and modern literature, film studies and women's studies. She is the author of Film, Horror, and the Body Fantastic (Greenwood, 1995) and Writing Horror and the Body: The Fiction of Stephen King, Clive Barker, and Anne Rice (Greenwood, 1996), and has published essays in fantasy, science-fiction and horror literature, film and television. She is currently working on a study of intersections/interactions between horror film and auteur theory.
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1. For example, see Maitland McDonagh, Broken Mirrors, Broken Minds: the Dark Dreams of Dario Argento (New York: Citadel, 1994), 232-34. Co-writer T E D Klein's input may have been partly responsible for this purported "taming" of Argento.
2. The fact that his daughter Asia Argento stars in the film may have been a factor. The director admits he had Asia in mind for the part as he developed the project. See the interview "Argento Speaks!" with Andrea Giorgi. Violent Vision, 5 December 2001.
3. McDonagh (p 232), for example, disparages the film's "washed out" look and washed up visual style.
4. Argento, "Argento Speaks!"
5. Dario Argento: An Eye for Horror (Writ: Charles Preece. Dir: Leon Ferguson). DVD Image Entertainment, 2000.
6. A profoundly ambiguous cultural symbol, the guillotine is associated with equalisation and revolution but also with the tyrannies and cyclical mechanics of the Terror. As the product of medical technologies whose social forms are based in the cogito, and much like the "machine" it supposedly defeated, it became referred to during the Terror simply as "la machine."
7. Stefan Petrescu (Dominique Serrand), Adriana's milquetoast husband, whom Aura's recovered memory tells us may not be her (or Nicholas') father, is shown wearing a medical gown at the child's birth/decapitation; it seems that because Petrescu wears the robes and bears the title of the pater familias, he is included in the group.
I should note that Aura's recovered memory of Judd's and Adriana's affair is ironic--it is not the memory Judd wishes to recover, of the murder scene--and less than reliable. It is produced by Judd's deeply suspect psychotropic drug therapy, which Argento visually depicts as force-feeding (in what may be a metaphor for false memory syndrome). As usual in Argento, what one sees and remembers is often least likely to be true. The confusion over paternity is further confabulated by the multivalenced suggestion of incest, extending from Petrescu to Judd to Argento himself. As Asia's father/director, Argento is directly implicated in a controversial scene in which the camera, via David's "inadvertent" glance, "catches" her unbandaging her breasts. Fairly early in the film, Arnie includes in his "profile" of the anorexic a "classic" incest dream, wish or memory of her father "leaning over her about to kiss her." In the next scene, as Arnie's words are replayed in David's musings via a dreamy voiceover narrative, Aura awakens to a nightmare in which Petrescu, leaning over her, is strangled by the headhunter's noose. As the film goes on, however, it is Judd who is most often shown leaning over Aura in intimate settings and suggestive close-ups as he tries to force information from her. These culminate in the scene in David's apartment in which Judd is caught by the camera leaning over Aura in the middle of the night, whispering into her ear.
8. At least since Helene Cixous's "The Laugh of the Medusa" (trans Keith Cohen and Paul Cohen, Signs 1 [Summer 1976]: 875-93), Medusa, the rape victim as monster, has been associated with French feminist celebration of hysteria as a language, as writing or speaking from the body. I see Medusa and Cixous's famous piece referenced in Trauma's first murder sequence, in which the headhunter kills the chiropractor—directly (and appropriately) following the French Revolution/guillotine overture. A close-up of a caged lizard is followed by the black-gloved hands, doctor's bag in tow, performing the decapitation of an African American woman with braided hair. Following the decapitation, the killer holds up the head by the braids, then positions it on a table as a trophy, featuring the coiled braids and expression of open-eyed horror. The Medusa image is made complete by two more cuts to Adriana's caged lizards, which hiss open-mouthed.
9. This scene is very similar to one in Bryan Forbes' Séance On a Wet Afternoon (UK, 1964). More generally, Argento's fascination (if not obsession) with female madness may have been enriched by the British horror film tradition, in which the theme of hysteria as a "female malady" has a long history. See Steven Jay Schneider, "Barbara, Julia, Myra, Carol and Nell: Diagnosing Female Madness in British Horror Cinema," in British Horror Cinema, ed Steve Chibnall and Julian Petley (London: Routledge, 2002, 117-30).
10. The association between hysteria (from the Greek hystera, "womb") and "abnormal" female sexual activity or inactivity goes as far back as Egyptian medical papyri from around 1900 BC, and is well documented by the Greeks. In Timaeus, Plato describes the womb as "an animal which longs to generate children" which, when barren for a long time, becomes "disturbed," and straying about in the body and cutting off the passages of the breath, provokes "all manner of diseases besides" (Vieth, qtd in Charles Bernheimer, "Introduction: Part One," in Dora's Case: Freud—Hysteria—Feminism [2nd ed, New York: Columbia University Press, 1985, 3]). The cure for unruly wombs through the Victorian era and Freud was marriage, pregnancy and "submission to the yoke of patriarchy (the reproduction of mothering)" (Bernheimer, 3).
11. See Michel Foucault, The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception (trans. AM Sheridan Smith, New York: Random House, 1975).
12. Mark Seltzer, Serial Killers: Death and Life in America's Wound Culture (New York & London: Routledge, 1998). On trauma culture generally, see Mark Edmundson's Nightmare on Main Street: Angels, Sadomasochism, and the Culture of Gothic (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997) and Elaine Showalter's Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Media (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997). In this context of wound culture, the relationship between Adriana's headhunting and Aura's "enigma" begins to make sense. Aura must discover and understand her mother's wound before she can begin to understand the cultural origin of her own. Also, Judd's mysterious neck brace, car wreck, death by (what appears to be) whiplash and trunk full of missing heads begin to fit into the thematic puzzle. Even though he did not literally kill anybody, as Aura tells David, he is in several senses an accessory to the crime. As "head" of the Clinic, he is indicted for this collectivity of wounds.
13. Also called the "louison," in reference to the condemned criminal, it was more affectionately referred to as "Madame Guillotine," "the widow," "Saint Guillotine" and "the national razor."
14. The primary allusion, however, may be to Argento himself and his (unfinished) "Three Mothers Trilogy," via a shot in Inferno (1980) of a lizard eating a butterfly, wings twitching as it is swallowed head first. We cut to a close-up of black-gloved hands clipping the heads off a chain of paper dolls cut out of black paper.
15. Thomas Harris, Red Dragon (New York: Bantam, 2000 ), 115. It is more than likely that Argento had Jonathan Demme's 1991 film The Silence of the Lambs, based on Harris's 1988 sequel to Red Dragon, in mind when he made Trauma.
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