We recently watched the film the Elephant man as a part of our topic on Identity.
The film wonderfully contradicts itself by unleashing a sense of disturbing eeriness, however remaining heart warming and beautiful at the same time. To think this actually happened to a person is somewhat unimaginable, that people can truly be so shallow as to mock those who were designed different to your normal human being.
The storyline is rather straight to the point, yet surrounded by aspects of dark, harsh setbacks which helps to further create the sense of unease when watching this film. Just when you think there is light at the end of the tunnel, your pushed back into the grimy, bitter darkness.
The story is based on that of John Merrick, in real life named Joe Merrick. From birth, John starts to develop serious disfigurements, his skull enlarges, tumorous growths develop, his right arm mutating until practically useless. These growths destroyed Johns regular human face so much that he became somewhat monstrous looking. Some would say he appeared to resemble an elephant, hence the nickname “Elephant man”. This appeals the question of, what was Johns true physical identity? The monster he was shrouded by or the man underneath...
John Merrick, as we see in the film was subject to serious cruelty, being placed in a freak show at a Carnival. As John was so “special”, he was treated as the main attraction. This provokes such feeling of isolation, of which the film depicts really well, that you are hit by an overwhelming wave of sadness and gut wrenching fear. In many senses this film is actually quite scary, more so than a film based in the horror genre. Why? Its because this actually happened, its not intentionally disturbing, its just a realisation to the ignorance of mankind. What a complete bunch of selfish, insecure ingrates we all actually are. John Merrick lived a life of torture, yet still in the face of death, not necessarily caused by his disfigurement, he has a mind of such intelligence and hospitality.
As the film develops we see a Dr and Lecturer from the London hospital named Frederick Treves come to stumble across the Carnival where the Elephant man is based. He becomes curious to see the infamous “Elephant man” and decides to ask for a special intimate showing to cure his itch. What he comes to find, changes his life as well as John Merrick's.
John Merrick is treated at the London hospital, where he is taunted by fears of rejection of his carers, his room becoming his shelter and comfort zone. At first John is reluctant to speak, this fear of society and acceptance of what peoples depictions about him are drives his isolation farther, becoming more stubborn as opposed to forced. In time, Dr Treves manages to help John overcome his physiological fears, bringing forward the man inside. John in one sense was cured, his soul was brought back for the world to see, yet his physical appearance was beyond the point of return.
It is interesting to point out how Johns identity changes throughout the film, from the man who is shrouded in somewhat mystery, almost frightening, to the man who warms hearts with his supreme intelligence and kindness. It is also interesting to also observe how I say he is a man on the inside, does this mean to say I am suggesting just due to deformation he isn't any more a human being than me or you? Ive already degraded myself to the standards of the people who mock him, even though im not setting out to. I think its in human nature to reject what isn't considered normal, the unique is considered freakish. On another level I think this story has comparable morals to the life's of many even without disfigurement. I myself have felt isolated, pushed away from things I wanted to do, the target of society who was misunderstood. Im sure this subject sits in tight with many people, whether bullied at school, subject of racial abuse, homophobia, the list goes on.
John Merrick was continuously taunted by curious locals to the hospital, perhaps they was jealous that he was in such a good company, being treated above their class. This is again a case of confused identity, people seemed to believe he was lower than them due to a disfigurement.
Eventually after several incidents where he was forced back into fear and realisation of his appearance again, John Merrick decides his life is complete now he has found friendship in few that choose to believe in him He lays down his pillows, observes his life's work, a picture of himself sleeping in his bed. What's interesting is this picture depicts John as an undeformed person, showing how he perceives himself of how he should have been if he was not “different”. As he is deformed so badly, laying on his back suffocates him. John Merrick does the self respectful thing and ends his life while he feels it cant get any better.
Overall, a very sad story, but one which provokes much thought and observation to our own identities and physical perfections.