Shape of Water and Our Fascination with Monster Romance

Pop Culture

Shape of Water and Our Fascination with Monster Romance

Illustration: Sushant Ahire

Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water achieves its romantic peak in a sequence that is straight out of childhood. Eliza Esposito, the mute heroine of the piece, jambs the gap between the door frame and the floor with towels and lets the taps run. Somehow – and this has never been the outcome every time I’ve pulled this little stunt – the bathroom fills to the ceiling, leaving her free to romance her partner in a small, but earnest reimagination of the Amazon in gushing force. Then the door opens, the water gushes out into her crummy apartment, and Eliza looks out over her partner’s shoulder: Her gaze direct, announcing her intent to love this person whom she has locked in a naked embrace, simultaneously challenging the viewer to judge her.

Because she is hugging a biped amphibious monster.

Eliza’s beloved is a creature she has spirited away from the aerospace research facility where she is the lowest-rung cleaner. A blue-green scaly creature with a startling nictitating membrane, who might have been revered as a God in the South American Amazon where he was captured, but is too alien to be referred to as anything but “the thing” in the facility where he is housed.

It’s fitting that del Toro should choose the basic format of a children’s fairytale to mount a story, lush with adult desires, about outsiders. The director, known for creating the intricate world of Pan’s Labyrinth and lavish Hollywood superhero vehicles like Hellboy, excavates and displays the simmering sexual undercurrents of a fairytale like the Beauty and the Beast, papered over in multiple retellings and milquetoast Disney renditions. The era is the Cold War, with all its hysteria about the Russians, and the space race, with all its mistrust of them.

In del Toro’s handling, though, it is the Russian that has a heart. In fact, it’s all outsiders and people on the periphery that can’t quite fit in – the immigrant, the black, the gay, the cleaning staff, even the amphibious man, whose heart is literally a glowing set of synapses on his sleeve. At one point in the movie, the unmitigated arsehole Colonel Richard Strickland (played with delicious glee by Michael Shannon), says, “The thing we keep in there is an affront.” (In Eliza’s artist friend Giles’ view, though, “He’s so beautiful.”) The real monsters, instead, are straight, white males.

Long before del Toro challenged your understanding of a monster and the possibility of a sexual liaison with one, an early 19th-century Japanese artist went there. Hokusai produced the woodcut print, “The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife”, a fine example of shunga (erotic) art that gives the term “romantic entanglement” a new meaning. In it, a woman is in the throes of pleasure, as two octopi go to town on her: A giant one performs cunnilingus on her, while the other fondles her breast and mouth.

“The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife” is not only a favourite bachelorette party gift, it is also considered an early progenitor of a particularly depraved form of tentacle porn. In fact, some Western notions consider it rape (ignoring the obvious pleasure writ large on the woman’s face), because how does the possibility of sexualising a creature from another species even arise?

Why are we so fascinated by beasts and monsters? Why does the idea of being sexually attracted to them entice and repulse us in equal measure?

This is a question – posed by the viewer, as well as the characters in the film’s universe – that Eliza has to confront throughout the movie. It falls to Zelda to ask her outright how the mechanics of sex with an amphibious creature even work. Does he even have a penis, because he looks like a Ken doll down there? Yes, Eliza mimes, opening her clasped hands a crack and letting down her index finger. He has the equipment, but even if he didn’t the viewer knows it wouldn’t have mattered.  

Why are we so fascinated by beasts and monsters? Why does the idea of being sexually attracted to them entice and repulse us in equal measure? Is it the thirst to find common ground with a creature from another species that we can’t quite understand, an attempt to humanise them even as we are scared by it?

Greek mythology is full of lusty satyrs and centaurs that sleep with goddesses and mortals. In Penny Dreadful, a wonderful iteration of the reassembled human from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, seeks a mate just like himself, who will respond to his sexual and emotional energy. The Austrians have the Christmas tradition of the Krampus, the lascivious red elf-devil, who clutches a bunch of birch twigs, with which to swipe naughty children. Krampus is the anti-Santa: Not only does he actively punish kids who’ve failed to ingratiate themselves through the year, he also goes after women. In several Krampuskarten, 19-century greeting cards, he drinks champagne with women, particularly “those who were guilty of any of the seven deadly sins.”

“Monsters are the outsider’s outsider,” says an article in the Hollywood Reporter, that dwells on the subject, “the object for the perennially objectified; a spectacle that offers up both thrilling danger and enticing empathy.”

It is this interplay between empathy and danger that goes to the heart of any monster romance. On the nastier side of this divide lies Fay Wray’s abduction by King Kong – on the kinder side is the sweet pleasure of the fisherman’s wife and the love between Eliza and amphibious man. It might be difficult to understand, but it is not impossible – with or without the requisite equipment.