Hands play a huge role in the horror film: there is the shot of the hand (alive or dead) grasping for its victim, the severed hand lying inertly on the ground, the detached hand crawling across the floor, with a life of its own—and the hand that has a life of its own even though it’s still attached.
So why is the hand so crucial to the horror film tradition?
Noël Carroll has argued that the notion of “impurity” is a defining characteristic of horror’s “monster”—and that one particular kind of impurity is “categorical incompleteness”: the monster doesn’t have all its parts, or is made up of parts, or is only one part: “detached body parts are serviceable monsters,” Carroll writes, “severed heads and especially hands.”[i]
But why does Carroll write “especially hands”? He explains why body parts recur in horror, but not hands specifically—and it does seem to me that hands (followed closely, perhaps, by brains) play a special role in horror films.Our hands are perhaps the most tangible signs of our agency. We act with and through our hands, and, ideally, our hands do exactly what we direct them to do. From the very inception of the horror film tradition, however, hands have not done what they’re told. The 1924 Austrian silent film, Hands of Orlac (directed by Rober Wiene), which was based on the 1920 novel Les Main D’Orlac by Maurice Renard, tells the story of a man given two hand transplants that signally refuse to do what his brain wills. This story has been re-told numerous times—its first American incarnation being Mad Love (Karl Freund, 1935).
The hands that do not do what we want them to—the hands that act on their own—fundamentally challenge not only our belief that we have agency (that we choose, consciously, rationally—what we do) but also the idea that we even have a unified “self” that can do the choosing.
What the whole idea of disobedient, destructive, and even self-destructive hands bring to horror is the crucial move from an “I” to an “It.” Horror suggests that rather than our lives being directed by an “I think”—a singular self in charge of its thoughts and actions—our lives are directed by an “It thinks”: our bodies, outside of the control of our mind, often do just what they want to do.
There are countless films about unruly hands that (literally) think for themselves, but an interesting series of references to hands runs through three important early American horror films—and they all highlight the idea of “It” (not “I”) thinking. Frankenstein (James Whale, 1931), The Thing from Another World (Christian Nyby, 1951), and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) all emphasize the autonomy of the hand, in particular, as part of the generally dangerous threat to humanity (and the human itself) posed by the monster.
Henry Frankenstein’s (Colin Clive) famous words, “It’s alive! It’s alive!,” as his creation (Boris Karloff) is galvanized into life are a landmark in the horror film tradition. While Frankenstein appears to be talking about the creature as a whole, however, he’s looking at its hand—and it’s the hand that first moves, first shows signs of life. What the narrative suggests, then, is that in creating a “monster,” Frankenstein has, more particularly, created a hand that moves independently—independently of him, certainly, but even independently of the creature himself who will kill Maria (Marilyn Harris) with those hands without meaning or wanting to.
A (less exuberant) version of Frankenstein’s famous words is repeated in The Thing from Another World when everyone at the base gathers around the arm that was ripped from the alien “Thing” by one of the dogs. “It’s moving,” lead scientist, Dr. Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite) says, adding: “At 12:10 a.m., the hand became alive.” Again, it is the autonomy of the hand (called “it”) that focuses the destructive power of the monster to invade and destroy the human community.
And, lastly, Henry Frankenstein’s words recur in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, as the seedpod starts to take over Jack Belicec (King Donovan). His wife Teddy (Carolyn Jones) wakes him up and they flee, and, as Teddy describes what she saw to Jack and Miles (Kevin McCarthy), she utters, in horror, “It’s alive! It’s alive!” While she is overtly referring, as Henry Frankenstein had done, to the body itself, the camera focuses on the hand, a close-up revealing to Teddy and to the viewers that it has a cut, just like Jack’s. Indeed, it’s almost impossible to tell which hand is Jack’s and which is the pod’s—which hand is human, in other words, and which hand is inhuman (an “inhuman enemy bent on my destruction,” as Miles will say later, running in fear).
In all three of these early horror films, the hand—emphasized in both the narrative and the mise-en-scène—comes to stand in not only for the monster itself, which seems (increasingly, as we move from Frankenstein to Invasion) bent on the destruction of humanity, but also, I argue, for the ways in which our own bodies can take on a life of their own, destroying the “human.” We like to think we’re singular “selves,” our minds in control, but so often we aren’t.
Through a discussion of the infamously autonomous hand of Evil Dead 2 (1987), Timothy Verstynen and Bradley Voytek (in their fantastic book Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep?) have explored the neurological disorder, Cotard’s delusion, in which patients “exhibited this strange sense that their bodies were no longer their own.” The hand that won’t do what you want, the hand that seems literally not a part of you, is, then, an actual disorder.[ii] But in what it represents—that we don’t have the control we think we do over what we do and who we are—it’s a “disorder” shared by us all. And as in so much else, horror films have been telling us this truth about ourselves from the beginning.
Tweet me your favorite hands of horror; I’m making a collection! @horrorhomeroom or @DawnKeetley.
[i] Noël Carroll, The Philosophy of Horror (New York: Routledge, 1990), 33.
[ii] Verstynen and Voytek, Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep? A Neuroscientific View of the Zombie Brain (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014), 169-70.