Kirsten Strayer March 12 2019

Becoming Animal: Cinemas of transformation


We are fascinated by the idea of becoming animal partially but not completely. Gregor Samsa is a cockroach, yes, but he still holds the intelligence, memories, and thoughts that he had when he was human. When writers, painters, and other artists create these part animal, part human hybrids, they allow their audiences to imagine the possible pleasure, abjections, and distinct biologies that are so foreign to us as mere humans.

Early cinema was fascinated with human transmogrification. Méliès’s early, short trick films had dozens of strange and partially human creatures such as mushroom men and mobile tree spirits. In his film La sirène (The Mermaid, 1904), a magician uses his magic hat to transform fish into a mermaid, and then the mermaid into a human woman. Although the mermaid is only on the screen for a scant thirty seconds, her in-between stage lets the audiences celebrate the superimpositions that allow a fish person to exist and to glimpse (on a literal stage) this entity that is supposedly more seductive than regular women.

The Mermaid (Georges Méliès, 1904)

Méliès’s trick films are an early excursion into what would be a staple of the cinematic experience. Lon Chaney would play the Wolf Man in 1941, a wolf/man hybrid that would undergo countless revisions over the course of the next 80 years. The shapeshifter novel The Island of Dr. Moreau would be filmed over a dozen times, starting as early as 1932. These transmogrifications appear in high modernism (Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Porcile) and in extremely low budget (see The Guyver, in which Mark Hamill’s character transforms into a cockroach).

Part animals, part human creatures allow us to indulge in our beastly side. As werewolves, we can be aggressive and hungry, like mermaids, we can be captivating. Ultimately, animal transformation allows us to be impulsive and illogical, without the trappings of the human experience. In these films, there is no joy in anthropomorphizing animals. Instead, they thrive on dehumanizing (or re-animalizing) humans. The perspective from the floor is far more thought-provoking and radical than the one from the psychoanalyst’s couch.

This Spotlight explores some recent short films and their excursions into animal transformations. Today--between robotics and gene manipulations--the potential transformations are even greater. In contemporary films, the thematics explored through transmogrification can touch on science, religion, robotics, the sanctity of bodies, and the line between organic and artificial life.

Both The Cat with Hands (Robert Morgan, 2001) and Turning (Karni Arnell and Saul Freed, 2010) explore how human/animal hybrids allow audiences to reject humanity for their animal selves. Turnings protagonist, a boy on his sixth birthday, is happy to have some visitors, three elderly flamingo women (who turn visually from flamingos to old ladies throughout the film). As the creatures coo and nuzzle him, he, in turn, appears fascinated with the ways that they can change from birds to old ladies to birds again. From this film’s perspective, these elderly bodies hold non-human secrets, from bird’s stories to internal film projectors, which are visible to those not yet invested in human rationalism.

Turning (Karni Arieli, Saul Freed, 2010)

However, The Cat with Hands is much more horrific story (for humans, anyway). In the short film, the central creature is neither human nor cat. Instead, it is a cat’s instinct for hunting hidden inside a human shell. In the beginning, as an old man draws water from a well, he recounts the story of the cat with human hands, a hybrid creature which absorbs human limbs when it comes in contact with them. In the film’s initial shot of the cat, it takes its very human hands and uses them to catch a bird and stuff it whole in its mouth. For the cat, these human hands no longer engage in humanist experiences but amoral ones. The creature’s primal instincts are horrific to the audience only because they end up emerging from a ‘human’ body. To the cat, they seem absolutely normal.  

The Cat with Hands (Robert Morgan, 2001)

The Carnival of the Animals (Aria Covamonas, 2017), a series of stop motion and live action images that augment the performance of Camille Saint-Saëns’s The Carnival of the Animals, turns the score into a taxonomy of animal oddities. The creatures that flutter across the screen include horse/humans, giant chicks, pig men, and the like, which populate this entire filmic world, from the aviary to the drawing room. This catalog of creatures imagines a space in which human and animal experience are drawn together until they are indistinguishable.

Whereas the earlier films speculate on the fate of animal/man hybrids, both Shaheen (Samuel Ridgeway, 2016) and Polymer (Astrid Goldman, 2016) play with animal/tech/modern object synthesis. In the documentary Shaheen, falconers explore other ways of hunting, including creating falcon/drone hybrids, with the exterior looking feathery but the interior being entirely drone. Here, chimeras move from fantasy to reality, live falcons clash with their robotic brothers.

Shaheen (Samuel Ridgeway, 2016)

Polymer (Astrid Goldsmith , 2016)

Polymer, on the other hand, imagines what would happen if plastic joined with animals to reject the environmental catastrophe wrought by humankind. In this short animated piece, dead fish and the ocean’s plastic detritus combine to form a vengeful ocean creature. Polymer’s first shot (on the beach) is the famous statue of Han Christen Andersen’s Little Mermaid. By juxtaposing the statue and the ocean monster, the film shows that this vengeful ocean creature is part of a series of hybrids. In this case, however, the hybrid is alive instead of being encased in bronze.

Finally, while Polymer gives us a statue of a mermaid, The Spring (Delaney Buffet, 2017) gives us the real thing. This short documentary charts the careers of the mermaids—choreographed swimmers—at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park in Florida. The water dancers have formed a community through being mermaids; they even refer to each other as their “mer-friends.” Perhaps most insightfully, the dancers know that by choosing this life they have also shed some of the traditional bounds of normative American human experience. As one (much older) mermaid notes, in the 50s, you either got married, went to college, or became a mermaid. By becoming a mermaid, women could cast off their normative role and become something ethereal and otherworldly, and in doing so embrace their own anti-human, mystical nature. 

The Spring (Delaney Buffett, 2017)


The animal must sit on the floor, not lie on the psychoanalyst’s couch.

--Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 235

About the author

Kirsten Strayer is a writer, curator, and film scholar who has published in academic journals, anthologies, and pop culture magazines. Her recent anthology, Transnational Horror Across Visual Media: Fragmented Bodies, was published in 2014 by Routledge Press.

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