'The Shape of Water' is the first film about a woman having sex with a fish-man to win a Golden Globe for Best Director. But getting seduced by an alluring creature is a tale as old as time.
Photo via Fox Searchlight
The most important thing to Guillermo del Toro when crafting the Creature From the Black Lagoon-esque monster from The Shape of Water was making sure that it had a great ass. “The main direction I got from Guillermo was, ‘Make him sexy,’” creature designer Mark Hill told the New York Times. “Guillermo was adamant that we give him a sexy butt.” (Hill later elaborated on this point to Wired, claiming that the director carried a photo of the creature’s backside around with him so he could solicit input from family and friends.)
The team did strike a balance between monstrous and sexy. Sure, the creature—referred to in the film as “the Asset”—has fins, animalistic instincts, and an unusual penis (yes, the movie explains how it works), but he’s also oddly alluring, and intentionally so. The team who built him spent months meticulously tweaking his face to ensure he had a leading fish-man’s features: a perfect nose, appropriately-spaced eyes, and gills that didn’t look out of place.
This was all done, presumably, so that the audience could understand the Asset’s appeal. Del Toro didn’t want the central relationship in the film to read as “a bestiality, kinky, perverse thing,” he told Wired. It had to make sense that Elisa (played by Sally Hawkins), a cleaning woman at the government facility at which the Asset is held, would fall in love with him. And it’s not just his appearance that makes him alluring: The Asset is sympathetic, the prisoner of a system that doesn’t care for his intelligence or his true potential. And as we learn, he’s also capable of communicating, caring for others, and love.
Still, some people didn’t get it. A review of the film in Gamespot insinuated that it was preposterous a woman would fall in love with a fish-monster: “It’s one thing to ask audiences to suspend belief for this fairy tale, and it’s a whole other thing to ask them to consider for one moment that an otherwise sane woman would be so desperate as to fall for a creature who can’t even survive on dry land—not when there are actual men in this town.” At Baltimore Magazine, another reviewer echoed this confusion, calling the movie “interspecies porn.”
In truth, though, there’s nothing groundbreaking or really that unconventional about making a monster sexy. People have eroticized supernatural beasts for centuries, and folklore is rife with examples of this tendency: the lidérc, a Hungarian monster believed to drain the blood and life force of humans through sex; the succubus and incubus, who appear in dreams to seduce people of the opposite sex; sirens, which lure sailors to their death with their seductive songs; and the encantado, a Brazilian dolphin that turns into a human in order to copulate with other humans. And of course there’s Dracula, the notorious vampire best known for taking virginial, pure women and turns them into raving, hungry maniacs.
“Guillermo was adamant that we give him a sexy butt.”
Tales like this tend to be cautionary, if not outright sinister, positioning monster sex as an existential threat. In each, succumbing to the monster’s seductive wiles will leave one dead, dragged into another world, or at least pregnant with demonic spawn. But the biggest source of anxiety that accompanies these tales is not that mortals will be tricked into monster sex. It’s that we’ll seek it out, that we’ll like it, and, worst of all, that we’ll identify with our monstrous seducers.
“Our traditional monsters are our creations, but they are also us—these dark aspects of ourselves which we seek to deny and which, therefore, we must destroy,” argue John G. Nachbar and Kevin Lausé in their introduction to Walter Evans’ essay Monster Movies: A Sexual Theory. “Monsters both reflect sexual concerns and help to inculcate society’s need to accommodate and control those urges.”
These urges, as Evans argues in Monster Movies: A Sexual Theory, must be controlled violently—which is why Dracula is staked through the heart, Frankenstein’s monster is burned alive, and King Kong is flung from the top of a building following their attempts to connect with humans, sexually or otherwise. Traditional monster tales also end with a wholesome, inter-human marriage. Far from a “mindless cliché wrap-up,” he posits, these traditional unions serve a vital ideological point: “Only marriage can save Henry Frankenstein from his perverted compulsion for private experimentation on the human body; only marriage can save Mina Harker from her dalliance with [Count Dracula]… sexuality is tamed and sanctified by marriage.”
Still, the specter of identification always remains, and it’s now something that monster stories engage with directly. In Frankenstein, Mary Shelley arguably created one of literature’s first sympathetic, romantic monsters. The Creature, as he is called, was an outcast. At the start of the novel, he only resembles a monster physically—he’s created from the body parts of the deceased and is physically deformed—but he’s sensitive and inquisitive, eager to learn about humanity. It’s humanity’s horrified reaction to his appearance that turns him into a true monster: “I had hardly placed my foot within the door before the children shrieked, and one of the women fainted,” the Creature recalls at one point, in an attempt to explain his tragic existence. This treatment hardens his heart: “If I cannot inspire love, I will cause fear!” he proclaims.
If Frankenstein’s creation was literature’s first sympathetic depiction of a monster, he was far from the last. The famed Creature from the Black Lagoon, too, seemed to crave human connection. Writing on the 1954 film, Constantine Verevis, a professor of film and television studies at Monash University in Melbourne, quotes the film’s screenwriter: “The whole idea was to give the Creature a kind of humanity—all he wants is to love the girl, but everybody’s chasing him!” This humanity was central to the film’s appeal, the main reason the Creature became such an iconic and memorable figure in horror. In The Seven Year Itch, which came out a year after Creature from the Black Lagoon, Marilyn Monroe’s character, leaving the cinema, remarks on the Creature’s allure: “He was kind of scary looking, but he wasn’t really all bad. I just think he craved a little affection. You know, a sense of being loved and needed and wanted.” (Sympathy for the titular monster aside, Creature from the Black Lagoon ends with him appearing to sink to a watery grave, while the heroine is rescued by three men.)
The Asset can be read as a combination of Frankenstein’s monster and the Creature from the Black Lagoon—something that looks inhuman but longs for something more. “As a kid, watching Frankenstein or Creature or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, I was always rooting for the monster. So I always wanted to see that movie,” del Toro explained to Variety. “If we had made a normal movie, in the scene where the beast carries the beauty in his arms, the hero would be … the square-jawed, beautifully tailored white-man savior. Here, it’s the fact that we see him from another point of view that makes him the villain. For me, stories are interesting if you change the point of view.”
While the Shape of Water isn’t unique in sexualizing or humanizing, to some degree, its monster, it’s radical in another way: It presents a story in which the woman chooses the monster, and the monster remains monstrous. There is no corrective marriage plot—instead, the third act of the film revolves around ensuring that Elisa and the Asset end up together. Elisa’s friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer) immediately treats their relationship as normal, asking her about how sex works and teasing her about their first time together. Elisa’s neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) is more skeptical at first, and even cuts himself out of the scheme to break the Asset free, but seeing his friend’s love for it sways him to take the risk.
Monsters make up a special place in media: As reflections of our cultural and psychosexual anxieties, they serve as a safe place for us to interrogate these fears without the threat of identification. No matter how sexy or sympathetic, the monster is never supposed to end up with the girl. In bucking this tradition, The Shape of Water shows a new path forward: Not only does the relationship between Elisa and the Asset work, but it’s arguably the only functional relationship in the film. Zelda, for example, is in a loveless marriage, and Giles, who is gay, has to hide his sexuality. The story’s actual big bad, Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) is shown having violent, joyless sex with his wife, who mostly acts as a housewife and sounding board for his goals.
By literally embracing her monster, a figure meant to represent our darker aspects, Elisa enters a new realm of possibility: one that exists outside of the repression that plagues everyone else in the film. Indeed, their more “monstrous” or othering qualities—most notably their shared inability to communicate with other humans—are what make them more human to each other. “The real miracle of the Amphibian Man is the way Sally looks at him,” says del Toro. “Her eyes vibrate with emotion. All the characters in the film who have the ability to speak have communication problems, but our two nonverbal characters communicate flawlessly.”