“We understand each other, my friend”. The freak show and Victorian medicine in "The Elephant Man"
A large part of David Lynch’s oeuvre centres around corporeal anxieties and grotesque, divergent bodies drawing attention to their own biological nature. One such example is the 1980 feature "The Elephant Man", focusing on John Merrick, a freak show performer severely afflicted with a disfiguring disease. The film juxtaposes key characters in the film and moves between their different perspectives: that of Merrick, a freak show performer; Doctor Treves, a man of science; Bytes, an entertainer; and finally, a number of peripheral observers from both the high and low classes of Victorian society. The titular Elephant Man’s disfigured body becomes the object of spectacle both in a freak show and in a medical lecture theatre. This paper compares scenes presenting Merrick’s body as an exhibit and argues that Lynch draws parallels between the domain of sensational entertainment (Merrick as a carnival monster) and scientific analysis (Merrick as a medical specimen). In this way, the film highlights the similarities between the perception of the body in those two seemingly incongruous discourses. I suggest that the exhibition of a monstrous body in The Elephant Man, both in the context of a sideshow and Victorian medical lecture, are consciously theatrical.
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