I Have No Self, and Yet My Body Screams: Annihilation and Trans Self-Destruction
Body Horror speaks to Transgender people because like the characters in these films, our bodies are not guaranteed, and liable to crack under the slightest pressure.
Annihilation begins with an innocuous question. “What did you eat?” inquires the hazmat suited Lomax (Benedict Wong). “I don’t remember,” Lena (Natalie Portman) responds, isolated in frame but surrounded by a sea of scientists watching her from the other side of a glass wall. As the questioning continues, it becomes clear that she doesn’t remember anything about her time inside the exclusion zone known as ‘The Shimmer,’ including the fate of her fellow soldiers. What Lena does remember, she cannot describe. No word is the right descriptor, and she now has difficulty delineating the boundary between herself and others.
Lena’s experience is one that most transgender people will recognize; sitting in a sterile hospital, being asked to describe in concrete detail the intangible pain of being adrift in their own body, constantly aware of the staff observing them with equal parts dread and curiosity. It is a failure of language explored by Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain. “When one hears about another’s physical pain… it may seem as distant as the interstellar events referred to by scientists who speak to us of mysterious and not yet detectable intergalactic screams.” Pain can only be reached and relayed through the medium of metaphor and analogy.
Horror film is especially valuable because it allocates a space to see, rather than just hear, these metaphors acted out in all their violent glory. The subgenre of body horror in particular is prime real estate for transgender readings. For those struggling to understand themselves, it can feel as though the body is as hostile and alien as the creature from The Thing. The body rebels against the authority of the person who thought they were in control of themselves. Body horror speaks directly to the anxieties queer people have surrounding their bodily desires when faced with societal pressures to conform, and the violence queer bodies are often subjected to in reaction to their reassertion of agency. Reading Annihilation as a trans narrative goes deeper than just this surface observation. While there are body horrific creatures who call The Shimmer home, the film's core anxiety isn’t in becoming half-formed. Rather, Annihilation finds terror (and eventually peace) in exploring what happens after the acknowledgement of a self split in two. The true horror lies in the existential dread that comes from knowing that the body is self-destructing and being unable to stop it.
Annihilation follows biologist Lena as she attempts to discover what happened to her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac), a soldier sent to survey a biologic anomaly consuming and mutating swampland in the American south. Lena is joined by a unit of volunteers who all carry psychological burdens, and thus lack authority over their bodies. “We’re all damaged goods here” explains Cass (Tuva Novotny). “Anya (Gina Rodreguez) is sober, therefore an addict. Josie (Tessa Thomson) wears long sleeves because she doesn’t want you to see the scars on her forearms.” Both Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Cass deal with cancer, directly by the former and through the loss of a child by the latter. “In a way, it’s two bereavements,” she recalls, “My beautiful girl and the person I once was.” In each case, the women are mourning the loss of a fully autonomous body. Through that loss they muddle the boundaries of their own self and run the risk of completely unraveling. As Ventress notes, “Almost none of us commit suicide and almost all of us self-destruct. In some way, in some part of our lives. We drink, or we smoke. We destabilize the good job or the happy marriage but these aren’t decisions, they’re impulses… programmed into every cell.” There is less a fear of becoming a monster as there is a fear of being abstracted to the point where there is no longer even a self to become monstrous.
While dissociation and depersonalization are by no means exclusive to transgender people, they do form common symptoms of the disorder known as Gender Dysphoria. The term is contentious for it’s pathologizing of trans experience, but provides a rough guideline for understanding what it is to live as a trans person prior to coming out and possibly transitioning. The disorder refers to the distress that comes from being in a body incongruent with one’s gender and often results in being unable to function fully in social and professional situations. In extreme situations, there may also be involuntary admittance to a psychiatric hospital, as is Lena’s first thought upon waking in ‘Area X,’ the nondescript facility which bookends the film.
Dysphoria is a body horrific experience for those who suffer from it, especially those who are closeted and do not have the words to describe what is happening to their body. It is often misunderstood as simply being a deep hatred of one’s body, but it can also result in a radical and dangerous depersonalization. Months and even years of memories can go unaccounted for. Regardless of the symptoms, the results are the same. The self is placed in a state of constant distress while the subconscious mind struggles between the societal demand that trans bodies be punished and what trans academic Andrea Long Chu describes as “the force of desire.” Through this silent pain, a political problem is created. After all, if trans people cannot speak of anything beyond their pain, then it may seem as though the entirety of trans experience is pain and pain alone. The limitation is not in experience. It is in the language socially allowed to describe experience.
Imagination provides the answer to the question of what to do when faced with a deteriorating body. Scarry draws the connection between language and imagination as a form of bodily creation. If pain works actively to destroy language by robbing one of the ability to speak on their experiences, imagination does the opposite. Words, and images, allow one to convey feelings and possibilities beyond the limits of their current body. Imagination is the essence of Chu’s argument about desire. After all, to survive as a trans person requires an act of creation and the ability to both imagine and inhabit a body outside the one collapsing in on itself.
Nowhere is this transgender imagination seen more clearly than in The Shimmer itself. The Shimmer is referred to both as a territorial delineation and as a living being in it’s own right. “I don’t know what it wants, or if it wants,” Ventress says late into the film. The Shimmer is not the antagonist of Annihilation. It is simply a potent metaphor for the inevitability of change and the dread that comes with limitless imagination. It starts like a doubt in the back of the mind, easily dismissed but never forgotten, growing until the point where there is no way to think of anything else, carrying with it a simple truth: postponing the inevitable only makes the pain last longer.
The Shimmer’s tendency to create ‘corruptions,’ ‘duplicates,’ and ‘echoes’ of existing species likewise resembles the concepts Judith Butler explores in Gender Trouble. Butler understands gender as unstable and “instituted in an exterior space through a stylized repetition of acts.” Gender is maintained through repetition and, like the bodies that perform it, subject to decay or corruption. The only remedy is remixing and changing the performance. “The possibilities of gender transformation are to be found precisely in the arbitrary relation between such acts, in the possibility of a failure to repeat, a de-formity, or a parodic repetition that exposes the phantasmic effect of abiding identity as a politically tenuous construction.” The soldiers who enter The Shimmer do so largely because they have exhausted all other options, but while inside they are faced with the choice of decaying with the body they have or leaving with a body forever changed.
Transgender people have long had difficulty explaining their experiences. Language itself often poses a challenge rather than a benefit. How does one describe a body that is not even theirs? To transition requires the imagination to see outside the decaying body. Every trans person knows what it is like to live inside The Shimmer. “Nightmarish?” assumes Lomax of Lena’s time inside. “Not always,” she responds. “Sometimes it was beautiful.” The strength of Annihilation’s trans reading is that it does treat body horror as something to be afraid of. Body horror is inevitable because bodies will always be subject to change and mutation. Pain occurs where one clings to the myth of a complete and total self. The body is like an ever changing ouroboros, through unavoidable change and loss it becomes itself in truth. “I thought I was a man,” Kane reflects. “But now I’m not so sure.”