Posted on August 16, 2015

Horror at the Edge of the Human: AMC’s Humans

Dawn Keetley

In the late 1970s, Robin Wood offered his famous argument that the “true subject of the horror genre is the struggle for recognition of all that our civilization represses or oppresses,” and for Wood that was primarily sexuality (notably bisexuality and female sexuality) as well as women, the proletariat, and racial and ethnic groups.[i]

Thinking about two of the most interesting TV series of the summer—Channel 4/AMC’s Humans and CBS’s Zoo—it occurred to me that horror may be much less driven by gender, race, sex, and class in 2015 than it was in 1978.

As my earlier post on Zoo points out, CBS’s provocative summer show represents animals fighting back against our exploitation of them, developing cognitive and communication skills way beyond their “natural” abilities, and much more uncannily akin to our own. (Early in the series, lions actually manage to hoist a man into a tree with a rope to “send a message”!)

1. Zoo, lion

Humans is about a near-future in which artificial humans—synths—have become fully integrated into British life. As synths get more and more indistinguishable from humans, anxieties rise. The humans are terrified that the machines they made to serve them will rise up, take over.

2. Humans, Anita and Sophie

Both series, then, abandon what we might call intra-human tensions as a source of horror and mine the borders of the human instead—the border between us and nonhuman animals, the border between us and machines. Both borders are revealed to be much more permeable than one might have thought. In fact, the plots of both Zoo and Humans, and the horror woven through those plots, are driven precisely by the dissolution of that border.

In fact, in what I propose is a trend that goes beyond these two series, horror has been pushed beyond the realm of the strictly human (beyond our intra-species divisions of gender, race, and sex) to the limit edges of the human, the place where we (all) confront the nonhuman, whether animal or machine.

Humans offers a stark example of this shift in episode six. D. I. Karen Voss (Ruth Bradley) reveals her feelings to her partner, D. S. Pete Drummond (Neil Maskell), telling him he’s her “favorite person.” They have sex and, afterwards, she tells him, “I need you to know who I am.” She proceeds to pull a cable out of the drawer of her bedside table and goes to plug it in (to charge herself). She is (as the audience knew before Pete) a synth. Pete is horrified, repulsed—grabs up all his clothes and runs for the door.

3. Humans, Karen and Pete, ep. 6 4. Humans, Pete's reaction, ep 6

This scene reminded me of the iconic 1990s film, The Crying Game (Neil Jordan, 1992). In one of the film’s more famous scenes, Fergus (Stephen Rea) begins making out with Dil (Jaye Davidson), whom he believes to be a woman. He discovers she’s not—that she’s transgender—and his reaction is one of utter, visceral revulsion, as he runs to the bathroom to throw up. Trading in the “horror” of ambiguous gender and sexed identity, as Boys Don’t Cry (Kimberly Pierce, 1999) similarly did at the end of the decade, The Crying Game exemplifies the intense focus on the multiplicities of identity (race, gender, sex, class) that consumed the 1990s. (It was, after all, the decade that kicked off with Paris Is Burning [Jennie Livingston, 1990] and Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble [1990].)

5. Crying Game, discovery

In the encounter between Karen and Pete (which is not the only human-synth encounter to elicit disgust and horror in its human characters), Humans re-orients the focus on human identity (with all its “trouble,” as Butler put it) to the boundaries between human and nonhuman others. The “hole” that Karen discloses to Pete is not the bodily hole, the vagina, that Fergus expected to find, in The Crying Game, and horrifyingly didn’t (the hole that arguably centered the politics of the 90s). What Pete finds is a hole that signifies the nonhuman, the artificial human.

6. Humans, Karen's hole, ep. 6

What does this shift mean? In the twenty-first century, British and American horror may well be reflecting some genuine progress toward greater equality in terms of gender, race, and sex. This is, after all, the decade in which gay and lesbian marriage became legal across the US, in which Bruce Jenner has been celebrated and supported in the mainstream press for his choice to transition to a female, and in which the Pentagon is about to lift the longstanding prohibition on transgender men and women serving in the military. We are, in truth, a long way from The Crying Game.[ii] British-American horror, as a result, seems now to be exploiting fears and anxieties that lie at the end of the most virulent problems of the twentieth century.

In the penultimate episode of Humans, the young (human) Sophie looks across her dining-room table at four of the five “conscious” synths whom her family is helping. They are all of varying body types, varying races—a fact that matters not one bit to them as they are all one “family.” (And it tends not to matter to the viewer, either, as we are pushed to focus only on the human-synth divide.) Sophie asks them, “If you’re brothers and sisters, and you have the same dad, how come you all look so different?” Mia (Gemma Chan) replies: “Our father—the man who made us—didn’t think bodies were important, so he chose them at random.”

7. Humans, synth family, ep. 7

Humans indeed takes us to a world where the vagaries of the bodies we’re born into (skin, hair, and eye color, for instance) don’t matter. What seems to matter—and not to everyone—is whether that body is organic or machine. And horror, it seems, might now, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, lurk elsewhere than the place it’s lurked for the last four decades.


[i] Robin Wood, Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan (Columbia University Press, 1986), 73-77.

[ii] This isn’t to ignore the fact that many people would still act like Fergus, but perhaps his response is no longer as universal as Wood’s argument about our “collective nightmares” about race, sex, gender, and class suggest.

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