Disease and Decay: How David Cronenberg Knows What Scares Us

By Michael Crosby

Death. It’s universal. It’s the ultimate fear and every work in the horror genre exploits it. It can be fear of dying in your sleep, or it can be the fear of getting eaten alive by a great white shark like in the film Jaws. Or it can be the fear of a senseless death caused by a maniac as if you were one of the teenagers walking blindly into Camp Crystal Lake in Friday the 13th.

Director David Cronenberg’s work in the macabre subject has always been about the journey. Known for his visceral and transformative “body horror” style, his work almost always showcases the tragedy of death by showing us, in intimate and often heartbreaking detail, the metaphorical and literal decay of characters we have come to care for. He delights in using fantastic concepts such as the telepaths in Scanners or the mind-body connection between our psyches and physical manifestations like the titular creatures in The Brood, as a means to achieve his truly disturbing goal, or as he says in his own words, to “show us the unshowable… to speak the unspeakable.”

I look at arguably Cronenberg’s best film: his 1986 remake of The Fly. This wonderfully gloopy flick, highlighted by sensational performances from Jeff Goldblum and then-girlfriend Geena Davis, solidified Cronenberg’s status as a top-notch talent and box- office draw. It broke barriers between the then-horror ghetto and mainstream cinema. Holding its own at the box-office during a summer filled with competition like Aliens and Friday the 13th Part VI Jason Lives, The Fly won over just about everyone including critics, mainstream audiences and horror fans alike.

A large portion of the film’s success is due to the relationship between the two lead characters. Goldblum’s Seth Brundle and Davis’s Veronica Quaife shine on the screen, but the real-life chemistry between them makes them positively radiate. Brundle’s bumbling eccentric, and often hilarious scientist, meets his perfect foil in Veronica Quaife, an extroverted professional no-nonsense reporter for various science periodicals. It is this relationship, which begins so innocently and ends in such tragedy, that powers the film. At the time, Cronenberg had never (and has rarely since) captured such a love story, and the scenes depicting its rise and fall are the best in the film.

In the original version of The Fly, we are given a very quick and simple transformation for the character. In Cronenberg’s version, the transformation is a slow process, allowing the audience to sympathize and relate to the couple in ways that highlight the tragedy of their story. Cronenberg rubs our faces in death here. He leaves no stone unturned; he shows us everything in grim, vivid and often hilarious detail. Brundle’s slow descent into physical and mental decay is easily understandable to the average viewer since it is a thinly-veiled metaphor for the process of aging where the human body is susceptible to both disease and decay.

In the year of 1986, AIDS was near the height of its mainstream exposure. Many critics have been quick to cite it as an influence on the script — a claim Cronenberg denies. While FX artist Chris Walas’ bubbling pustules can be seen as nods to the concept of Brundle’s transformation being akin to a disease like HIV or any other, the director maintains a firmer grasp on his material than that easy assumption. Brundle’s descent is much more intended to fit the concept of aging, as illustrated by one scene in particular.

At one point, midway through the film, Brundle attempts to eat, only to discover he’s losing his teeth. One falls out, and in a typically messy fashion, he next discovers a fingernail peeling off. He takes the tooth and nail to the bathroom where he mumbles bemusedly about the losses before adding them to his medicine cabinet, which he has dubbed the “Brundlefly Museum of Natural History.” In the cabinet, we are given a brief glimpse of other items he has lost including an ear and his penis. The glimpse is brief but powerful. This is a man who is literally losing pieces of himself at various moments of time.

And this is where Cronenberg is at his best.

It’s a bravura, yet understated, moment. Goldblum is alone in this scene. There’s no Davis to work off from. There’s only Walas’s FX which the actor obviously took to with relish. In one simple, relatively quiet scene, we instinctively empathize with what is happening.

Who amongst us doesn’t fear the process of growing old where parts of us figurately and literally fall off? Our mental faculties dim. A quiet constant state of terror takes over. We notice an irregular red spot, feel a lump somewhere, notice with increasing trepidation that we’re losing a step, falling behind, and not what we once were. We feel isolated, as Brundle does here because we loathe sharing with others our aging, our decaying, our dying.

What will happen next?

Cronenberg knows what scares us, and it’s encapsulated beautifully in this scene. We all grow old. We all die.

There are ways that offer some semblance of dignity, and there are others. Others like where your penis rests in the Brundlefly Museum of Natural History.


Michael Crosby was a contributing writer for Manor Vellum. He passed away on December 5, 2020, and we miss him dearly. His articles remain on this site in his honor.

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A membrane of texts about the human condition and the horror genre. A MANOR feature. Email pitches and/or inquiries to contact@MANORHQ.com.

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