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As I finish up a longer blog post on grad student snobbery, I offer to you this response to one of my favourite Lynch films. It’s a bit different for this blog, but I hope you will find it interesting nonetheless. Even though I do not call myself a scholar of the Gothic, I am immensely interested in it and this post asks about the reasons Diane Selwyn’s (played by Naomi Watts) corpse in David Lynch’s excellent film (aren’t they all excellent, though?) Mulholland Drive is revolting. This was a post originally done for a course. I tell you this because I think you, you, you oughtta know.

The synopsis on the DVD jacket of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive begins with:

Synopsis by David Lynch:

Part One: She found herself the perfect mystery

Part Two: A Sad Illusion

Part Three: Love

Sounds simple and straightforward…But nothing is straightforward in a David Lynch film. (Universal Studios, 2001)

To say that Lynch’s films are not straightforward is pointing out the painfully obvious, although no aspect of his films is completely impervious to analysis. This was my thought process as I re-watched Mulholland Drive after having given Lynch’s oeuvre a multi-year break in my regular viewing schedule and I settled on the issue of the corpse. Not necessarily a Lynchian corpse, but corpses in general with a specific corpse from Mulholland Drive as a good example of just what is revolting about dead bodies.

The corpse of Diane Selwyn – which Diane Selwyn, I don’t know, but let it suffice to say that it’s the dead one – is first noticed by Betty and Rita via their olfactory bulbs from its advanced stage of putrefaction. As the two women trace the malodour through an apartment they finally get visual confirmation of the decedent and the first glimpse approaches from behind: a pleasantly-shaped, albeit grossly discoloured, female buttock and leg nestled into a black nightie that is still somehow attractive even though the body resting within it has been dead and stinking for an unspecified period. When we finally see the face, this gets the most visceral reaction from the two women. The skin of the blue cheese-hued face has shrunk so that the teeth are exposed through a seeming lipless mouth and it is frozen in the green lifeless death mask reminiscent of the zombie genre with sunken and unfocused eyes that only partially recall the sparkle in those of a human. I do not mean to get bogged down with too much description, but rather I would like to ask why this is frightening, both to our protagonists on-screen and people in general.

I find myself wondering whether it is the reminder of the decay and lifelessness that awaits us all or the sheer physicality of the rotting meat that is the truly frightening thing about death and dead bodies. Elaine Scarry, in her book The Body in Pain, compares the body to shelter or, more specifically, a room. The room, like the body, “expresses the most benign potential of human life. It is, on the one hand, an enlargement of the body: it keeps warm and safe the individual it houses in the same way the body encloses and protects the individual within” (Scarry 38). When the body ceases to be inhabited by the self, the soul, or whatever animates it, an essential feature has been lost and all that remains is a lump of flesh that is susceptible to senescence and the elements in a way that people have prided themselves of being resistant to whilst living. The body is no longer useful for protecting anything. It is food for various bacteria and parasites as it decomposes and returns to the earth whence it came (in most cases, anyhow). The body has fulfilled its duty to the best of its abilities much as the room has done for its occupants; while they still inhabit it. Scarry continues the body-as-room metaphor by arguing that the sentient body and the senses enable “the self to move out into the world and allow that world to enter” (38) thus creating a microcosm of civilization which, of course, necessitates many bodies, selves, and rooms.

So, I wonder again, what is frightening or even uncanny about this lump of vacant flesh? In the case of Diane Selwyn there is of course the inherent danger surrounding the unknown cause of her death and the possibility that whoever vacated her body can or will do the same to Betty and Rita. Putting aside those who have died in violent or unknown circumstances, there must also be something else about rotting corpses that makes them an object of disgust. Maybe we do not like to be reminded of what awaits us when the ghost in the machine leaves for good. The inability of the corpse to live again changes the way in which we look at a person. It is no longer a person but an object; it no longer has politics, beliefs, or opinions. It is as incidental as the one liquefied potato that is left in the refrigerator too long and thrown out without a thought. Maybe this is the thing we do not like corpses to remind us of: every person’s innate inability to be of use for very long until we turn into disgusting masses and are never heard from again.

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