a-linguistic corporeal sounds of transformation

This is my fourth category of how voice operates in horror. I feel it is the most complex and difficult to locate (but I feel that the few I have are amongst the most powerful scenes in all of my research.). It is also the most fascinating of all the categories. It is intriguing, perhaps, because it is difficult to define, unlike the other tropes it is not a case of displaced voice, disembodied voice or ventriloquised voice - there is no spatial shift at play. To clarify; alinguistic corporeal sounds of tranformation could be screams, grunts, yelps or cries. They could be strange straining sounds or anguished moans. But, they could also be the texture and nature of voice behind the words - the pheno-phone to riff on a Barthesian conception. I will tentatively propose that this forth category provides a horrific and visceral foregrounding of the grain of the voice - grain in the Barthesian sense.

“the grain of the voice is not - or is not merely – its timbre” (Barthes, 1977, pp. 185) but “is the body in the voice as it sings, the hand as it writes, the limb as it performs” (Barthes, 1977, pp. 188).

Grain is the glimmer of the corporeal machine, the body, making the signifier. It is noise in a somewhat cyborgian (the machinic body) or “cybernetic sense” (Barthes, 1977, pp. 187); it is an echo of the signifier’s maker in the signifier, the sound of the maker making the sounds – and one that harbours the uncomfortable corporeality of: "the tongue, the glottis, the teeth, the mucous membranes, the nose.” (Barthes, 1977, pp. 183)

What interests me in a-linguistic corporeal sounds of transformation is how a voice changes to show a personality change or a bodily change (or both). The timbre, tone and grain of the voice will shift to signify a change (usually a threatening change). One of the most horrifying examples of this can be found in Michael Jackson's Thriller Video:



This scene could be interpreted as Michael Jackson's core psychological drive captured in a microcosm.  Michael was Peter Pan; he never wanted to grow up, sometimes he would answer the phone in a gruff masculine voice (as mentioned in Spike Lee's documentary Bad), when asked about this he would reply that he just preferred his Other voice... Jackson's utter control of his body, his limbs against gravity and his larynx against the physiological and hormonal changes of puberty was wish. In the werewolf scene we see Jackson's last sentiment growled through a vocal shift of bodily possession. The werewolf/puberty threat to the clean presentable boyish superstar is a easy trace. But the growling voice, the alien body, the unknown self emerging in his throat is not a problem unique to Michael Jackson - it is a genuine locus of signifying change (or rather a sonic grain that divulges a change impossible to put in language). The voice embarks upon a change that is analogous to either a physical transformation or a change in personality. In the Thriller example above the physical changes from young Michael to werewolf are shown in typical horror coding - but it is the voice that breaks out, erupts mid change to show that this change is truly real, truly horrifying.

This formulation of voice against physiognomy is inverted in Mamoulian's Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde (1931). The changes are glimpsed in a fragmented fashion, the camera moves to and fro, we witness the change of facial features, then the hands, then the face, before seeing the nails and hair changing on the other hand. Throughout this sequence the straining voice, the grunts and wheezes track the painful physical transformation Dr. Jeckyll into Mr. Hyde. So whereas in Thriller the voice erupts suddenly, emerging with a different pheno-phone than expected, in Mamoulian's Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) the voice remains part of the image - slowly shifting, detailing, tracking the change. The changing a-linguistic sound of transformation is the only constant image within this scene. This is the cinematic difference between two formulation of the same vocal horror trope - that to show a change, a massively traumatic, physical change is best done with a voice, either abruptly for shock or slowly, with relish, to detail the grotesqueness at hand.

Importantly, it should also be noted that physique alone is often not enough to show a change - or rather that the voice alone is the character litmus test par excellence for cinematic convention. The obvious physical changes of Michael and Dr. Jeckyll depicted on screen require a vocal marker of change. Any transformation needs to be confirmed by the voice. In fact, in the original Robert Louis Stevenson story, The Strange Case of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde, the voice alone is enough proof for Poole to continue battering down a door. No physical evidence is required at all:

"But now the ten minutes drew to an end. Poole disinterred the axe from under a stack of packing straw; the candle was set upon the nearest table to light them to the attack; and they drew near with bated breath to where that patient foot was still going up and down, up and down, in the quiet of the night. "Jekyll," cried Utterson, with a loud voice, "I demand to see you." He paused a moment, but there came no reply. "I give you fair warning, our suspicions are aroused, and I must and shall see you," he resumed; "if not by fair means, then by foul--if not of your consent, then by brute force!" "Utterson," said the voice, "for God's sake, have mercy!" "Ah, that's not Jekyll's voice--it's Hyde's!" cried Utterson. "Down with the door, Poole!""



The two previous examples are very similar, both scenes feature a good character changing into a less good character. And in both instances the change is physical and psychological, the physiognomy of Michael and Dr Jeckyll undergoes an excruciating change whilst their personalities, temperaments and motives also change. In the next example we shall see how an observable physical change is not even required by cinema and the viewer. The pheno-phonic shift alone is enough to warrant an emotive appreciation of a traumatic change - even if the thing changing is not human and does not have a body.

Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey features HAL. A computer program with an infallible level of artificial intelligence. The scene below shows Dr. David Bowman dismantling HAL('s) core memory drives. Dr. Bowman does not want HAL to continue controlling the ship, the only way to do this is to shut down HAL. In the context of the film we have become as attached to HAL as any other member of the team on the ship. HAL's death is poignant in that is feels like one crew member killing his colleague/friend/guardian. This is not logging off. It is a slow killing.

As David travels into the area that the memory cores are located in we hear HAL's synthetic voice dryly asking him to "stop", "please", "please Dave, stop". The language is emotive enough, we can understand that HAL does not 'wish' to be shut down. This serves the purpose of showing that HAL is reduced to pleading, he is in danger. The a-linguistic sound of transformation emerges moments later when the first few memory cores are extracted by Dr. Bowman. Here we already have all the emotive cinematic potency a director could wish for, but the tone of the scene needs to change: Kubrick has a problem, he needs to show how a thing that isn't living, a thing that doesn't have a body, emotions, hopes or dreams can die. This is accomplished through one thing alone: HAL('s) voice.

As the memory cores are removed the tone of HAL changes, the voice becomes deeper, the words are delivered slower, more laboriously. As HAL tries to sing "Daisy Daisy" the a-linguistic phone of transformation (and let's remember it is a non linguistic change here that evokes emotion in the viewer - HAL('s) dialogue is utterly mundane and not even referring to the plot any more, he is no longer asking Dave to stop) is the one component that conveys HAL's demise. "Daisy Daisy" is transformed from an automatic speech synthesis program to an anguished death rattle. The reason why I feel this scene is so important is because it always feels human watching David remove the memory cores, hearing HAL's voice change is more emotionally resonant than most human-human death scenes in cinema, yet all along we are reminded that HAL is just a program that is being shut down.



A further scene that shows an a-linguistic sound of corporeal transformation (albeit indiscernible for the viewer and instead detected by a computer) can be found in David Cronenberg's The Fly (1986). In this classic body-horror a renegade scientist, Seth Brundle, builds a teleportation machine. Naturally he cannot resist but give a spot of auto-telepotation a bash. All goes well, infact Brudle even has more energy afterwards and feels that teleportation is the key to unlocking his true potential. Unfortunately a fly was in his telepod and the teleportation essentially fused his DNA with fly DNA (except it didn't make him cool). He became part man, part fly; except the fly DNA started to overtake his own, he started to change from man to fly. In the days after his accidental gene splicing Brundle approaches his computer and speaks a comment (the computer has voice recognition). The computer informs Brundle that his voice is not recognised and he then has to manually enter the password. This scene shows how the voice recognition flags up the imminently massive physiological change.

In all these examples it is not the words that are significant, in fact the words do signify anything the physiological change is marked solely by a phonic outside of language. It is either a change in timbre in Thriller, a change in grunting - a becoming glottal in Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde, a granular modulation and decay in 2001: A Space Odyssey or a technologically detected and highlighted micro-phonic change in Cronenberg's The Fly. The a-linguistic sounds of transformation are just further examples of how voice (and not physicality or occularcentric manifestations) is the key marker of a beings change, and that this change cannot enter into logos, it is never part of language but rather a phonic truth that lurks behind the words or erupts through them.


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