Freud’s Mouth: Cancer and the Death Drive in Annihilation

“Don’t go in there.” When I was a kid, first awakening to the distinct pains and compulsions of horror movies, I would often yell these words at the screen. I was old enough to know they couldn’t hear me, but that didn’t stop me from doing it. It was the least I could do, some minimally helpful gesture to commiserate in advance, to hope against hope that they (whoever they were) would not encounter the Thing I knew was inside. Not quite help, but the shadow of help; repeated pointlessly, movie after movie, different people always making the same mistake and there I was, witness to their peril, fear slowly giving way to the deliciousness of knowing the unseen enormity of their penetration. “Don’t go in there. Don’t go in there!” And always, necessarily, feeling my lips curl back into a grimace, a cringe, a parody of a smile. Or maybe just the smile of possible pleasure, the inevitability of release.

Such counsel is especially useless in the context of Alex Garland’s sophomore directorial effort, Annihilation. The “there,” there, is a rim of Florida swampland, Area X, enisled by a wall of iridescence that amounts to a trick of the light, what the military operatives of the Southern Reach observation facility have taken to calling “the Shimmer.” Within, a world under the influence of what one character eventually refers to as a kind of biological prism, defracting not only light and sound, not only radio waves and radiation, but matter itself. Each of the successive teams that have entered the Shimmer – and there have been several before Our Heroines undertake the journey To the Lighthouse – have presumably borne witness to the same genre of ecological terrors, mutations and perversions of form that grow steadily more uncanny as the team approaches the epicenter, an impact site where a rock from outer space slammed into a beach. Around the lighthouse, spires of glassy sand stretch skyward in the precise shape of sequoias. In front of the lighthouse, a line of skulls, limbs, torsos, spines… different quantities of each, but collectively human, a tableau of comparative homology like something out of an anatomy textbook. And the lighthouse itself, bearing an enormous hole, where the stucco gives way to the brittle and undeniable overgrowth of bone.

Don’t go in there.

****

There’s a Freudian chestnut that I’ve always found especially apt when thinking about horror movies, and Annihilation seems to have it explicitly on its psychedelic brain. As the characters who will become, unbeknownst to them, the last two women standing discuss why anyone would willingly go beyond the Shimmer, biologist Lena (Natalie Portman) puts the question as bluntly as she can to psychologist Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh): “Why would my husband volunteer for a suicide mission?” Lena’s husband Kane (Oscar Isaac), after all, is the catalyst that sets this whole expedition in motion, at least from the viewer’s perspective. A jarhead with a penchant for taking missions of escalating risk, Lena begins the movie in mourning, having resigned herself to his death in action despite the Army’s stonewalling. Or at least, she had resigned herself, until Kane himself stumbles up the stairs into their bedroom after a year-long absence. Her joy quickly gives way to suspicion when he offers no real explanation of where he has been, can provide no account of what he remembers or even how he got home, and finally bleeds into his water glass. She calls an ambulance – they’re run off the road – and when she wakes up from being tranquilized, they’re at the doorstep of the Southern Reach, Dr. Ventress coolly looking on, wondering.

“I think,” she replies, “you’re confusing suicide with self-destruction, and they’re very different. Almost none of us commit suicide, whereas almost all of us self-destruct. Somehow. In some part of our lives. We drink, or take drugs, or destabilize the happy job – or happy marriage. But these aren’t decisions. They’re impulses. And in fact, as a biologist, you’re better placed to explain them than me. Isn’t the self-destruction coded into us? Imprinted into each cell.”

Ventress’s explanation amounts of an evocation of what Freud called the “death drive.” In Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), the psychoanalyst found himself grappling with a major inconsistency in his theory of the mind. He was wondering about soldiers, whose dreams and, more troublingly, waking lives sometimes led them to re-experience trauma that they had lived through on the battlefield, beginning a theory of post-traumatic stress disorder after the First World War. He was wondering about children, whose recreational activities sometimes involved compulsively exposing themselves to violence where pleasure was not necessarily guaranteed (like, say, watching horror movies). And he was wondering about repression in his patients, and why some of them found themselves compelled to repeat the psychic trauma they had buried, to reactivate the scene of harm in the present rather than simple remember it as being a coherent, if troubling, part of their past. These supposed aberrations flew in the face of his “pleasure principle,” the idea that the underlying psychological mechanism explaining all behavior was a desire to maximize pleasure and avoid pain. Instead, a tendency for organic matter, and the mind subtending it, to will itself toward destruction, a state of inert inorganicness, a controlled descent toward death … in a word, annihilation.

The death drive isn’t necessarily suicide, in other words, but rather a will toward compulsive retraumatizing. Its power comes not from capitulation to death, but rather from the promise of a different kind of life that it offers the person – a life hung up, captivated by a traumatic scene, that becomes a kind of feedback loop within the mind. And the scene itself can become varied, recontextualized, mutated under the influence of the subsequent substance of the traumatized person’s life. It becomes a technique of control, in Freud’s view and in Ventress’s, a means of responding to the unpredictability of death through a kind of managed instability. Rather than the pleasures of survival, sexual pleasure, and reproduction, the death drive offers the thrills of self-sabotage, the high, and the escape valve, the momentary organization of a fundamental chaos.

Each of the women comprising this mission understands this concept implicitly. The paramedic Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez) refuses a beer early in the movie – she doesn’t drink, and “therefore an addict,” according to the logic of geologist Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny). She herself lost a daughter to leukemia, feeling as though she lost a part of herself in the process. Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson) wears long sleeves to hide the scars on her arms, proof of a history of self-harm. And Lena? In a series of flashbacks, we discover that she has had a long-standing affair with another professor at the university where she teaches, despite an apparently fulfilling and loving relationship with her often absentee husband. Now Lena worries: could Kane have known about her own self-destructive tendency? Could it have fueld his own compulsion to seek out more and more dangerous missions? Will either of them ultimately live to ask each other to straighten out the story?

Lena, at least, has another reason for entering the Shimmer than fitting Ventress’s death-driven psychological profile. In a plasticene facsimile of the Shimmer at the heart of the Southern Reach base, Kane lies on a metal table, comatose. His organs are failing, one by one; his body is riddled with cancer. When she presents herself to Ventress, having already made up her mind about entering the Shimmer but needing permission, she states her belief that there might be a cure for whatever is afflicting her husband inside. “I owe it to him,” she confesses, a flicker of guilt darkening her face. On a mission of atonement, seeking to rectify her own complicity in her husband’s bent toward annihilation, Lena makes her way toward the tree line. Twenty-three expeditions have come before her, but she’s the only volunteer in the entire history of the Southern Reach program. Maybe this time, it will be different.

Don’t go in there.

****

Ventress has a somewhat different way of looking at the situation. Let’s call her perspective a kind of onco-poetics: running the world through the lens of cancer. “It makes me think of cancer,” she admits to Lena, referring to the Shimmer. “The invasion. The spread. If the cancer is terminal, is it better to know?” The question is not merely theoretical for her: the Southern Reach program is about to be decommissioned, she is doomed to be relieved of duty, and by the way, it’s terminal. Ventress and Lena become locked in mutual secrecy: no one can know that Lena is married to the only known survivor of the Shimmer, no one can no Ventress is going to die. Among the traumatized collective, mum’s the word.

And yet Lena cannot stop herself from invoking the metaphorics of cancer – even from performing literal diagnoses – once she sees the proliferating mutations within the Shimmer. Area X has metastasized. Its concrete compounds are covered in lichenous overgrowths in violent neon. Differently structured flowers, in an array of Easter egg hues, sprout from a common stem. And if the flora isn’t enough to compel us toward an optics of pathology, the fauna certain affords little room for error in diagnosis. “It’s like someone is getting married,” Radek muses to herself, admiring a garland of multicolored flowers overhanging the ruins of a boathouse, right before getting pulled into the water. Her attacker is a massive white crocodile, devoid of color except for its opalescent eyes, massive in scale, nearly impervious to bullets, with skin more like tree bark than the customary scales. Though Lena, whose prehistory includes some military training, manages to make the killshot, her calm is momentarily upended by a view of the creature’s oversized jaw: row upon row of shark teeth, a mutation impossible via cross-breeding. Whatever is happening within the Shimmer, whatever deformation of life is taking place, it doesn’t follow apparently natural rules. It behaves, in her mind and in the movie’s mind, like cancer.

Lena should know: she’s not just a biologist, but tasked with training the next generation of researchers in oncology. “This is a cell,” Lena remarks in one of the opening scenes, giving us a recap of biological fundamentals. “Like all cells, it derived from an existing cell. By extension, all cells were ultimately derived from one cell. A single organism, alone on planet Earth, perhaps alone in the universe, about four billion years ago.” Just as we appreciate the preciousness of what it is we are being shown, adjusting our sensibilities from the commonness of life on Earth to its possible rarity when considered interplanetarily, Lena rips the rug out from under our feet: the cell we’re looking at, dividing geometrically, is cervical cancer from a woman about her own age. This is the peculiar horror of cancer, and its peculiar thrill. All cancer is, fundamentally, a mutation, the result of an error in reproduction. Cells responsible for making something we consider normal – blood, marrow, gray matter – begin to do something else. Some part of us slowly, incrementally, becomes not-us – or at least that’s how cancer is often perceived. But cancer is not some bacterium lodged in our bodies breaking things down through invasion. Cancer cells are us, self-destructing.

It’s only a matter of time before the group begins to realize that the Shimmer’s peculiar riff on cancer has begun to affect their biology, estranging them from their own bodies. In the lichen-covered compound, they watch in horror as members of the previous mission record themselves confronting a diseased soldier, hancuffed to the edge of a swimming pool. Kane’s face slides into frame as he slices a massive window into the man’s abdomen, where something that looks like his large intestine slithers and undulates like a snake. Moments later, they discover the swimming pool; the knife is still sitting in the murky water, crusted in blood. And against the wall, a pair of legs, stretching up to a spine, hideously elongated as human gives way to vegetation, a blooming tree of mold and moss, culminating in a screaming skull three yards up the tile wall. It is impossible to tell how much of it – him? – is living, how much is dead. It is impossible to tell whether we should marvel at its beauty or join it in its scream.

Is it too late to say “Don’t go in there”?

****

Three years after Freud published Beyond the Pleasure Principle, he received a diagnosis of oral cancer. Or rather, his family did. As Susan Sontag reminds us in Illness as Metaphor, it was common practice for the vast majority of the twentieth century not to tell cancer patients about their diagnosis, since “doctors consider that the truth will be intolerable to all but exceptionally mature and intelligent patients.” Sigmund Freud, apparently, was not presumed to be so responsible; instead, his doctor told members of his family and several of his friends, swearing them to secrecy all the way through the first of more than thirty surgeries that the psychoanalyst underwent until he eventually succumbed – culminating in the removal of a large portion of his jaw.

While the precise diagnosis may have been concealed from Freud though, I am always baffled about what kind of a difference it might have made, what kind of a difference it ultimately did make. Freud was a chain smoker at a time when cancer was only beginning to be linked to cigarettes. By the time he was 69, in 1923, he was already habituated to smoking more than twenty cigars per day. Whatever the status of his theories in 2018, surely we can at least say that Freud was not a stupid man. And yet even after the surgery that left the father of the talking cure significantly less able to talk, impaired by a tremendous prosthesis designed to separate his sinuses from his jaw, Freud never stopped smoking.

Opening his mouth at the surgeon’s for the first time, hoping to receive his diagnosis and instead having it secreted away, he reportedly said to the man, “Be prepared to see something you will not like.”

Don’t go in there.

****

What is alive and what is dead? The Shimmer, like the death drive, fails to respect this most holy of differences. A mutated bear drags Sheppard off into the undergrowth, and when Lena finds her corpse the next day, her throat and lower jaw have been ripped off. Hence our profound surprise in a later scene, in a two-story home in an abandoned village serving as a temporary campsite, when we hear her plaintive screams from outside. It is an admittedly tense scene. Lena has already discovered, under the microscope, that her blood cells have begun to shimmer. Ventress suspects that she will have to set out for the lighthouse on her own, as the remaining women lose their grip on reality. And Thorensen has really begun to lose it: she’s tied everyone up, having sniffed out the conspiracy. Lena knows Kane, and she’s being lied to. Are they all sharing some kind of hallucination? The screams give way to language: “Please, Thorensen, is that you? Oh God, I’m hurt, I’m hurt –” An impossible Sheppard.

Thorensen opens the door and the bear, overwhelmed with vines, charges in – it quickly dispatches of Thorensen before moving around the room, opening its jaws and emitting a scream in Sheppard’s voice. Bringing her back to life, keeping a part of her beyond death, turning her dying into a means of perpetuating life, a tactic for hunting and maintaining homeostasis. Though Lena manages to kill the bear, this is a trauma from which there is no recovery. As Radek puts it the next day, “I suspect that as she was dying, part of her mind became part of the creature that was killing her. It’s a terrible thought. To die frightened and in pain, and have that as the only part of you which survives. Trapped in the mind of an animal.”

In the Shimmer, nothing really gets to die, though. It can be driven toward annihilation, toward negation, but in being so driven, it only makes itself available for recombination, remix, repetition. Radek herself is unable to escape this logic, looking down at her arms to reveal the latest perversion of the death drive, its reassimilation of human compulsion into the raw material of life. Her scars, finally revealed, but verdant, lush, stuffed with vegetation. She gazes out at the landscape surrounding the house, populated with wicker men, women, and children, trees that have grown to replicate unmoving people, lightly flowering. If you can’t beat ’em, we see her think. Lena pursues her around a hedge, but she is already gone. It is impossible to tell which of the tree people silhouetted in the middle-distance used to be Radek. It is impossible to tell if this thing is still Radek, or if the bear is Thorensen.

Two women approach the lighthouse. Two women encounter the hideous hole into the basement, a tunnel composed of slick blackness, a birth in reverse moving toward an alien womb. A repetition, but with a difference: Ventress, onco-poetically, succumbing to the temptations of the death drive. Lena, the oncologist, trying to atone.

Don’t go in there.

****

Repetitions with a difference. For Freud this is the only way to break out of the death drive’s feedback loop, to offer the mind some little bit of novelty that might rupture the vicious compulsion. The Shimmer offers its own version of this alternative, one that Radek’s decision to live as a tree represents perhaps most homeopathically.

Before discovering Thorensen’s body, Lena discovers a stag. It is white, almost iridescent, and its antlers are preternaturally large. On closer inspection, they aren’t antlers at all: they’re branches, covered in an array of open cherry blossoms. And before our eyes, the deer duplicates. Its shadow steps away from it, a perfect copy, or a negative. This deer is quicksilver, an oil slick, shot through with the spectrum over an underlying gunmetal gray. Its antlers occupy the same space, but no flowers grow. In perfect unison, they look up, look at Lena, bound gracefully away into the underbrush. Lena cannot bring herself to shoot them.

If the Shimmer induces a kind of global onco-poetics, then the complete metastasis is the double negative, a complete copy of yourself. This is the horror that Kane, Lena’s Kane, apparently encounters in the lighthouse, even before getting to the lighthouse. Compelled onward by a cameraman who records his own death, burned alive in the lighthouse base by a phosphorus bomb, Kane observes, “I thought I was a man. I had a life. People called me Kane. But now I’m not sure. If I wasn’t Kane, what was I? Was I you? Were you me?” As the corpse on camera smolders, is it really any shock to see Kane himself step out from behind the camera? With Lena, we assume the worst: what has returned from the Shimmer is not Kane, but a duplicate, a completely cancerous form. But problems present themselves. Which Kane is the real Kane? Is part of the Kane back at the Southern Reach “real”? And if the refractory operation of the Shimmer was allowed to work on Kane for as long as it did, how much of the “real Kane” is still Kane, anyway? How much of Lena is Lena?

In the basement, Ventress is transformed into an avatar of Area X itself: a massive, pulsating tumor – or an oversized cell, its outside perpetually becoming its inside – or the iridescent surface of an infinitely refracting Mandelbrot set. Whatever it is, it is unearthly, and it exacts a drop of Nina’s blood, sucked out of a willing pore, from which it constructs a humanoid form, void of features, in Nina’s shape but of the same gunmetal oil-slick base as the duplicate deer. In the movie’s most riveting sequence, they perform a ballet that ranges from delicate to destructive. The humanoid mimics her every move, replicating her gestures in real time, until she threatens to attack it, at which point it runs her up against the door of the lighthouse and threatens, intimately, to crush her out of existence.

How much of the humanoid is Ventress? Is Kane? Is bone, is alien, is Lena? The only way she can try to take control of this hideous mirror is by acceding to it, knocking herself to the floor and blacking out. When she comes to, the terms of the dance have changed. We no longer know who is leading. All that we know is what we see: Lena picking up a phosphorus bomb as the humanoid’s features begin to resolve into a Salvador Dali version of her face, Lena pulling the pin and leaving it in the creatures hand, and the flash of light as the glass skyscraper-trees outside begin to crumble and the shimmering light returns to normal.

She’s out.

****

Much critical ink has been spilled wondering whether the Kane and Lena, irises suggestively shimmering as they hug one another at the movie’s end, are the “real” Kane and Lena. But this seems to be the wrong question. Rather, I would point viewers toward the two definitions of “annihilation” that the movie interrogates, the linguistic doppelgängers whose mutuality constitutes the core of the movie’s concerns – about the death drive, about cancer, about the untenable binary between life and death. While annihilation in the popular parlance means the complete obliteration of matter, the term has a special application in physics: the quasi-alchemical conversion of matter into energy, when a particle and an antiparticle transmute through their confrontation into radiation. Overreading this movie, I might be inclined to think of the eventual elimination of cancer from Kane as a kind of charged-particle radiation therapy, an annihilation of his cancer through the annihilation of Lena.

But ultimately, what makes Garland’s movie so brilliant, so strange, and so disturbing is its relentless movement inward. Annihilation proposes that real terror is not death, which at best only ends the life span of an individual arrangement of cells. Terror, for Garland, is all of the things that might happen to the substance of you that prevent you from actually dying, the myriad ways this movie seeks to represent the fundamental illusion of death by reviving dead matter through the endlessly life-affirming ministrations of the Shimmer. Like cancer, the Shimmer has no agency: it has no agenda, it wants nothing, it offers no plan or teleology except to keep making living things. Humanity itself, our separation from the undifferentiated mass of other biota, becomes a mere psychological tendency under the influence of such a worldview. How much else might we become, if we could give up the habit of humanity?

I know what you’re thinking: Down that road lies peril. Think of the consequences. Think of what you’d be giving up. Think of all that there is left to live for, all of the perfect and beautiful things that you can do and be by staying human, all too human. Just calm down and think for a second, before letting this movie bury its seeds under your skin and let the shoots green up through your scars.

Don’t go in there.

But don’t you think it might be kind of … ?

Next week, lighter fare: The Wachowskis’ Speed Racer (2008).

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