Frankenstein

JACK THE RIPPER ‘THE DEMENTED GENIUS’ – HIS DEEDS AND TIMES

TWO – THE VICTIMS

 

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Critics have claimed that the supposed victims of Jack the Ripper have become celebrities for a modern generation that lacks sympathy.  The photographs of the slain bodies of the murdered women are now in the public domain and are essential to any book about Jack The Ripper. Some readers will examine those photographs more than once and perhaps look at the photographs before they read any of the text.   There will be readers who are disappointed that the pictures are not in colour and frustrated because it is not possible to identify the removed organs amidst the bloody mess.

The interest in Jack the Ripper has persisted for various reasons. There is the social significance of the crimes in an exceptional historical period. The tale is also a compelling mystery for amateur detectives. But it cannot be denied that the violence of the crimes of The Ripper has been relished by ghouls and sadistic misogynists. The critics are right to complain about attitudes to the murdered women.  The victims, though, are not the alleged celebrities.   In Britain the vast majority of people are unable to give the names of the women, and just as many become confused when asked about the supposed number of the victims.  For many readers and viewers their memories of the films and books are vague.  The fate of the women has claimed attention but only as part of an overall drama. People move on to the next movie or book. Little respect is shown to the victims by film directors. Middle-class actresses have overacted and created caricatures. Heather Graham as Mary Kelly in From Hell is an exception but that happens in a movie that is romantic fantasy.   The victims deserve respect but they also need to be remembered.   Resisting neglect is as important now as it was back in 1888.

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The Nemesis of Neglect is the title of a cartoon that was published in Punch magazine. The illustration was drawn by John Tenniel. He illustrated the first edition of Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.   The connection between the Ripper and Carroll in the work of Tenniel may be evidence of a civilised conscience and concerns or it may be something sinister.   In the British Library the creator of the accompanying verse is identified as nothing more than Punch. The cartoon and the verse had compassion.   The poem referred to ‘the slum’s foul air’ and concluded with ‘the murderous crime – the nemesis of neglect’. The poem and cartoon appeared in Punch on the 29th of September 1888, eleven days after a letter to The Times from Sidney Godolphin Osborne.   The signature was reduced to SGO. Osborne described Whitechapel as a community ‘begotten and reared in an atmosphere of Godless brutality’.  According to SGO, the people of Whitechapel had become ‘a species of human sewage, the very drainage of the vilest production of ordinary vice.’ We may have doubts about the word ordinary but we get the point.   Mary Shelley argued something similar in Frankenstein, which was published in 1812. Then as now improvements in technology were making some people rich and others poor. Shelley pleaded for nurture to rescue people.   In the case of Frankenstein and his creation neglect produced a monster. For the people of Whitechapel at the end of the 19th Century indifference from the affluent enabled the ‘vilest production of ordinary vice’.   The names and number of the victims of Jack the Ripper need to be remembered.

Inevitably there is debate. Some of the arguments about the number of victims are fanciful. If we assume that Jack left the country and continued his evil ways, the increase in numbers becomes exponential. We believe what we want to believe from the legend. An American, Martin Fido, is credited with introducing the term ‘the canonical five’.   The phrase refers to those murders most likely to have been committed by Jack the Ripper.   As there are other women that could qualify as victims of the Ripper, there should at least be consensus over these five. There is not.

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The drama around the five murders is intensified by the timetable. The first of the five was killed on 31st August 1888, and the last was discovered on the 9th of November 1888, two victims a month.   Sensation is added by ‘the double event’. On the 30th of September 1888 two women were slain in the early hours of the morning. When discovered, the first victim was alive and still bleeding. Perhaps the modern NHS and ambulance service would have rescued her life. Instead, the victim was proclaimed dead by a doctor sixteen minutes after her wounds were noticed.   The second victim that morning appeared three quarters of an hour later.   The conventional opinion is that Jack the Ripper was disturbed during the first murder and, not satisfied, he found his second victim. But the wounds, location and doubts about the weapon used in the first murder that night have led some to challenge the notion of the double event.  Others are not only reluctant to weaken a good story; they think the doubters are being fanciful.   Neither side has convincing arguments. We believe what we want to believe.

In ascribing victims to serial killers the selection of criteria is important. Nothing beats a solid confession and reliable witnesses but Jack the Ripper was slippery, his crimes generated hysteria and the London streets were dark and foggy. All that is available to analysts are time or dates, location and method. The murders that occurred outside London are weakened further by details. When a murder in Gateshead is suggested and we note that the boyfriend was hanged for the murder, we realise that some people are too willing to indulge an imagination.

There were nine murders of women in the East End of London between April 1888 and February 1891. The first murder deserves to be discounted because the victim told a doctor that she was attacked by three men. The last murder occurred almost three years after the explosion of violence in 1888. This leaves two victims not included in the ‘canonical five’.

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The first of these two victims was discovered a mere 24 days before the first of the ‘canonical five’. The method of killing was a little different.  The throat was not cut, and the body was not mutilated. The woman, though, was a victim of what has been described as a frenzied attack. Even serial murderers have to begin somewhere. The second of the murders not included in the ‘canonical five’ happened in 1889. Not as late as the murder of 1891 but less than a year after the series of killings in 1888. The body was mutilated but the injuries divided both medical and police opinion.   Those unwilling to believe it was the work of Jack the Ripper may have had political reasons for denying the return of the murderer.  It is not irresponsible to credit Jack the Ripper with seven killings.  The truth is that we will never know the exact number.   Some of the killings may have been the actions of a copycat.  Jack the Ripper killed more than one woman, and for some it is at least four, and for others at least seven.   We are all affected by our imaginations.

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Three murders occurred that did not conform to the methods we associate with Jack the Ripper.   Between 1887 and 1889 headless torsos appeared in London. All three belonged to women. Limbs that could be matched to the torsos also appeared at random.   One of the torsos was discovered while building work was being done on the foundations of New Scotland Yard and around the time the police were being criticised for not solving the crimes of the Ripper. 1888 was not a good year for the Metropolitan Police.   The imaginations of policemen must have been affected by these discoveries.   It is an odd coincidence that headless female torsos popped up in the Thames while an unknown killer of women roamed the streets of Whitechapel. Some present day imaginations are also affected. Since Jack the Ripper there have been serial killers with diverse interests and tastes. When we imagine Jack the Ripper, we have to wonder what he did at home.   What happened on the streets of the East End was savage but perhaps Jack the Ripper was more twisted than we realise and unknown horror happened in the privacy of his home.

Two of the three torsos belonged to unidentified women. The third belonged to a woman called Elizabeth Jackson.   The names of the seven victims in Whitechapel, some of whom may or may not have been murdered by Jack the Ripper, are as follows- Martha Tabram, Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, Mary Jane Kelly and Alice McKenzie. They all had difficult lives and, when they were murdered, they were doing what they had done in the previous months, trying as hard as they could to get to the end of the day.  These women deserve to be remembered.  Before they were murdered they were given little thought.

Howard Jackson has had seven books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism.   If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.

 

 

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Fearflix 36

LA PIEL QUE HABITO (THE SKIN I LIVE IN)

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The Spanish director Pedro Almodovar, who directed La Piel Que Habito, described it as a ‘horror film without shocks or screams.’   The purpose of the film he added was to entertain. In interviews he has been self-effacing about the film. The plot has twists and surprises, and the film is good to look at, but it is more than an empty headed entertainment. Pedro Almodovar has a good eye and he fills his films with glossy but unusual and sometimes cheesy images. At his best Almodovar redefines cinema into something lush and extravagant but there are also moments when a viewer feels he or she is sharing the imagination of someone who has spent too much of his life either in an art gallery or watching glossy TV adverts. In La Piel Que Habito this weakness becomes a strength.

Doctor Robert Ledgard is a successful and rich plastic surgeon. He lives in a palatial home that contains paintings by the great masters but in certain rooms Almodovar adds cheap furniture in order to have the photogenic image that he needs. In La Piel Que Habito the visual quality of surfaces is important to the message in the film.

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La Piel Que Habito pays homage to three iconic films. In the Hitchcock thriller Vertigo James Stewart tried to recreate a dead woman in a lookalike shop assistant. In Eyes Without A Face a doctor kills young women to provide skin for his daughter whose face has been damaged in a car accident. There is also, of course, Frankenstein, which has the dedicated scientist who creates a creature from dead body parts. The twist in La Piel Que Habito is that Doctor Robert Ledgard kidnaps the man who raped his daughter and changes the male rapist into a woman who looks like the raped daughter. All this is revealed in a flashback that is over-extended. The best movie flashbacks have independent life, and the viewer during the flashback forgets the original film. Almodovar achieves this in Hable Con Ella (Talk to Her). In La Piel Que Habito the surprise in the flashback is great but the segment also has a lot of material that is familiar and gloomy. Almodovar is correct. La Piel Que Habito does not have shocks or screams. Neither is the film a thrill a minute drama, and the film does last for 120 minutes.

The rape scene in La Piel Que Habito was not controversial but it should have been. The daughter of Dr Robert Ledgard has mixed alcohol with the medicine she is taking. Vincent, like other young people at the party, is high on drugs and assumes that the daughter of the doctor wants sex. They go outside into the gardens where four other young couples are having sex.   These eight people are not discreet. Identity or privacy is not important to them, and we suspect that before they are finished they will have swapped partners. While this happens the entertainer at the party sings about how people are in love with love. The inference is that love is a self-serving abstract and has little to do with the sexual activity that occurs amongst the trees. Almodovar uses this glutinous sexuality to define rape as an assault against ideals rather than our not very discriminating bodies. There is also the suggestion that the ideals of the raped daughter are precious and wrong headed. She does not recover from the rape but the serious damage has been caused by her awakening in the arms of her father who is attempting to console her.

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All the sex in La Piel Que Habito is heterosexual and the various attempts can all be interpreted as rape. Zeca, the brother of Robert, who happens to be dressed in a tiger suit, rapes someone whom he mistakes for another woman. Vincent rapes the daughter of Dr Robert Ledgard. After his gender has been changed Vincent has to prepare his new female genitalia. Dr Robert Ledgard has designed just the thing, a selection of smooth shaped dildos. In other words Vincent is obliged to rape himself. Finally Vincent, who has become Vera and whose genitalia is still a little sensitive, has to submit to Dr Robert Ledgard and his sexual desires for a woman created to look like his daughter.

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Almodovar is gay, and La Piel Que Habito has a gay subtext. The male lovers in the sexual scenes are not attractive. These heterosexual males represent either destructive violent protest or twisted power. The heterosexual male is an animal that likes to feed from a different fruit. Not everyone will agree but it appears that Almodovar is suggesting that the difference between men and women, their desire to have intimacy with a different physical form, makes lovemaking between opposite genders less aesthetic than sex between the same genders. Heterosexuals are obliged to be obsessed by alternative skin and features. This means that their sexual activity is either defined by hostility to the other or its glorification. It is not, though, empathetic. Because its members have a fixation on a different skin, heterosexual authority is not only hostile to gays it is determined to define the others in their society by their sexual identity, or the skin they live in.

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The notions of skin and identity are challenged throughout in La Piel Que Habito. The limitations of human skin are made obvious. Dr Robert Ledgard develops an alternative material that is resistant to fire and insect bites. Fires exist in several images of the film, and the flames become a presence that reminds the audience of the threat of fire and our vulnerability to accidents that can strip away identities rooted in the physical and sexual. At the beginning of the film Vera appears in a figure-hugging bodysuit that resembles skin. This skin or her new obligatory identity is not innate. It is something that can be created.  Prior to his kidnap by Dr Robert Ledgard, Vincent works in a dress shop. He sells alternative skins to women who want to improve their appearance and perhaps redefine themselves. There is an irony. Later, when he has been given an alternative sexual identity and a new skin, he tears the dresses that have been left in the room where he is kept prisoner.

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We have a choice about our skin and, now we have money, it has become a preoccupation. We can diet or visit the gymnasium. Faces can be redesigned with make up and alternative hairstyles.  Replicas of human beings can also be created with alternative surfaces such as cloth or marble.   Almodovar, of course, knows that he makes the same mistakes as the rest of us. His sensitive eye means that he is obliged to define objects by their surfaces, which is why we notice the chipboard wardrobe and assume it is out of place until the camera lingers on the fake wood grain to give it aesthetic validity. Zeca, the useless brother, wears a tiger outfit because there has been a carnival but the tiger skin has no relevance to what he does and how he is perceived by his mother. Zeca is not a tiger, and nobody is confused by the outfit or thinks his odd appearance has consequence. Zeca is a threat to the ambitions of Dr Robert Ledgard and his crazy assistant because he is coarse and an idiot, not because he is a tiger.

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To dismiss skin and arbitrary social identity as irrelevant, Almodovar needs an alternative. His efforts are not convincing. The evocation of the yoga instructor to discover the inner self and the DNA helix model that we see as we watch the end credits are superficial and slight references.   The film, though, has a good ending. Almodovar is unequivocal. Gays have to be true to themselves. Vincent may have a different skin and the body of a woman but he is still Vincent. Because of his body and appearance, he will be different to many men. The end scene implies that it is likely that he will now prefer the company of women. His identity, though, will be decided by Vincent and not by what society thinks of his appearance.

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Because Frankenstein made an error and assumed that the Creature that he created was not human, the Creature was condemned to being rejected and misunderstood. Heterosexual hierarchical authority is the Frankenstein that is built into society and it consists too often of people who are consumed by guilt over their own repressed desires. Inevitably such people react to what they see and, lacking curiosity, they assume that what they see is identity when it is only appearance. Frankenstein was repelled by the Creature and the scientist doubted his motives and his ability to cope with what might happen next.   Almodovar is clear on gender and identity. No one is entitled to the privilege of determining the identity of any other person other than him or herself. For all individuals that responsibility is personal and exclusive. Humans are fragile, and balancing the exclusive and universal is difficult but it is a responsibility that cannot be ignored.

Howard Jackson has had five books published by Red Rattle Books. His latest book Choke Bay is now available here. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the other books of Howard Jackson and other great titles, click here.