Inverting Lovecraftian Racial and Sexual Monstrosity in Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water 

by Nowell Marshall 

Note: Page numbers from the print version are indicated in brackets and should not be considered part of the text of the article. 

[page 43] Abstract: This essay reads Guillermo del Toro’s award-winning 2017 film The Shape of Water as a rewriting and inversion of key racial and sexual tropes about H.P. Lovecraft’s Deep Ones. Rather than abjecting interracial/interspecies and queer forms of desire as Lovecraft did in “Dagon” and The Shadow Over Innsmouth, del Toro’s film deploys an oppositional gaze to recenter the narrative on diverse characters and sexual experiences, ultimately representing Elisa as a hybrid woman who finds a place to belong. 

Keywords: H.P. Lovecraft, Guillermo del Toro, race and the gothic, film adaptation, Deep Ones, The Shape of Water 

In The Age of Lovecraft, Carl H. Sederholm and Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock suggest that scholarship on H.P. Lovecraft’s work has coalesced in three particular areas: critiques of his racism and xenophobia (25-26); discussions of his “antihumanist orientation” in the fields of new materialism, posthumanism, speculative realism, and object-oriented ontology (4); and analyses of his influence on popular culture and contemporary speculative writers (12- 23).¹ Since then, Antonio Alcalá González and Sederholm’s Lovecraft in the 21st Century has expanded these categories to include readings that address Lovecraft in relation to the Anthropocene, adaptations, and video games (2-4).

While nuanced readings of gender and sexuality in Lovecraft’s work have begun to appear, they remain sparse. For example, Victoria Nelson argues that “sex is the major unaddressed issue of Lovecraft’s work” (115) and links his aversion to sexuality to his father’s syphilis-related death. Taking an intertextual approach to gender and sexuality, Gavin Callaghan argues that Lovecraft eschewed the [page 44] “traditional romantic structure of desire, pursuit, and bonding” (161). Writing about women, Gina Wisker explores Lovecraft’s use of “the monstrous feminine” via witches, hags, and femme fatales (“Spawn” 31). Assessing Lovecraft’s letters, Sederholm argues that Lovecraft saw sex as “beneath him, something that should be associated with animals and not intellectually inclined men” (35). Drawing on Lovecraft’s asexuality² and his depiction of women as monstrous, Sederholm reads Lavinia Whateley from “The Dunwich Horror” as an abject figure representing “Lovecraft’s general fear of women and sexuality” (141). The most recent work on sexuality in Lovecraft—as opposed to debates about Lovecraft’s own sexuality³—has identified the threat/promise of queerness at the heart of the Cthulhu Mythos and noted the “attractiveness of H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction to queer readers and contemporary Mythos authors” (Johnson 268). This essay builds on recent reclamations of Lovecraft’s queer characters of color in “The Call of Cthulhu”⁴ to offer a reading of Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water (2017) as a rewriting of Lovecraft’s Deep Ones that inverts and subverts the racial and sexual ideologies in those stories.

Lovecraft’s Deep Ones: Race and Sexuality in “Dagon” and The Shadow over Innsmouth

In “Dagon,” a morphine-addicted former sailor recounts his discovery of the Deep Ones on a remote island just after the beginning of World War I. Taken prisoner when his ship is captured by Germans, the narrator manages to “escape alone in a small boat with water and provisions” and ends up shipwrecked “somewhat south of the equator” (1). The narrator drifts for “uncounted days” before waking and finding himself “half sucked into a slimy expanse of hellish black mire which extended about me in monotonous undulations as far as I could see” (1-2). He then relates how “horrified” he is to find himself on an island “putrid with carcasses of decaying fish, and of other less describable [page 45] things” (2). Everywhere the castaway looks, he sees “nasty mud,” “unutterable hideousness,” and “a vast reach of black slime” that “oppressed me with a nauseating fear” (2). The narrator describes the sun as “almost black in its cloudless cruelty; as though reflecting the inky marsh beneath my feet” (2).

In Playing in the Dark, Toni Morrison discusses “the pervasive use of black images and people in expressive prose” and “the shorthand, taken-for-granted assumptions that lie in their usage” (x). Morrison argues that such uses of blackness are central to American literature (5), which she analyzes through the lens of Africanism, a term that she uses to identify “the denotative and connotative blackness that African peoples have come to signify, as well as an entire range of views, assumptions, readings, and misreadings that accompany Eurocentric learning about these people” (6-7). In “The Negro and Psychopathology” (from Black Skin, White Masks), Frantz Fanon argues that, historically, colonial literature provided collective catharsis by associating nonwhite bodies with monstrosity: “In the magazines the Wolf, the Devil, the Evil Spirit, the Bad Man, the Savage are always symbolized by Negroes or Indians; since there is always identification with the victor, the little Negro, quite as easily as the little white boy, becomes an explorer, an adventurer, a missionary ‘who faces the danger of being eaten by the wicked Negroes’” (464). Morrison broadens this argument beyond colonial contexts to assess the uses of blackness in American literature: “What Africanism became for, and how it functioned in, the literary imagination is of paramount interest because it may be possible to discover, through a close look at literary ‘blackness,’ the nature—even the cause—of literary ‘whiteness’” (9). Applying Fanon and Morrison’s ideas to “Dagon” reveals a narrator who repeatedly defines himself as a white man in opposition to the “nasty, “hideous,” and “oppressive” images of blackness that he encounters on the island.

Before long, the castaway attempts to rationalize his [page 46] location: “Through some unprecedented volcanic upheaval, a portion of the ocean floor must have been thrown to the surface, exposing regions which for innumerable millions of years had lain under unfathomable watery depths” (Lovecraft, “Dagon” 5). For the narrator, the island represents an incursion of the ancient (and hence “primitive”) past into the present, a temporal invasion of the underwater onto the surface. In this sense, “Dagon” exemplifies both Nautical Gothic and Nautical Horror. Refining Emily Alder’s discussion of Nautical Gothic (1),⁵ which “focuses on the relationship between the ocean and its depths with ‘the unknown, the uncanny, and the secret,’” Alcalá González defines Nautical Horror as a narrative form in which “the striking threat from nature originates specifically in aquatic contexts, such as oceans and waterways, as well as more liminal spaces, including shores, islands, and ships. It incorporates a sublime maritime background from Nautical Gothic and combines it with a monstrous encounter of horrifying proportions” (176).

Time passes, the slime loses its “stickiness,” and the narrator explores the large island where he’s washed up (Lovecraft, “Dagon” 2) for four days before waking under the light of a “fantastically gibbous moon” (3). In Queer Gothic, George Haggerty writes that moonlight is crucial to gothic narratives because it “creates a world between light and darkness and suffuses the scene with an unsettling glare. Just as the animated corpse seems a figure of death-in-life, so the moonlight is a light that suggests darkness” (53). In “Dagon,” moonlight exacerbates the narrator’s fears of blackness:

[M]y horror was greater when I gained the summit of the mound and looked down the other side into an immeasurable pit or canyon, whose black recesses the moon had not yet soared high enough to illumine. I felt myself on the edge of the world; peering over the rim into a fathomless chaos of eternal night. Through my terror ran curious reminiscences of [page 47] Paradise Lost, and of Satan’s hideous climb through the unfashioned realms of darkness. (3)

In this passage, the castaway posits himself as one who has sinned and is being punished by being sent to the island. “Urged on by an impulse,” he feels compelled to explore the “Stygian depths” of the pit “where no light had yet penetrated” (3).

Throughout this first part of the story, the narrator repeatedly confronts forms of darkness and blackness— “black mire,” “black slime,” black sun—(1-2) that repulse and horrify him. This conflation of compulsion and repulsion reflects Julia Kristeva’s theorization of abjection: “Apprehensive, desire turns aside; sickened, it rejects. A certainty protects it from the shameful—a certainty of which it is proud holds on to it. But simultaneously, just the same, that impetus, that spasm, that leap is drawn toward an elsewhere as tempting as it is condemned” (1). Thus, what might appear a simplistic binary opposition between the story’s white male narrator/hero and the surrounding blackness, figured in racialized terms becomes something more complicated. If the narrator abjects and rejects the enveloping blackness surrounding him, he also secretly desires it—a phenomenon that is less surprising when one looks at the racial history of the United States and the large percentage of enslaved peoples who were the mixed-race children of their enslavers.⁶

The story again shifts these racial politics, however, when, having descended into the crater, the narrator finds his attention “captured by a vast and singular object on the opposite slope, which rose steeply about a hundred yards ahead of me; an object that gleamed whitely in the newly bestowed rays of the ascending moon. That it was merely a gigantic piece of stone, I soon assured myself” (3-4). At first glance, this gleaming white obelisk reinforces the narrator’s sense of white subjectivity amid what he perceives as an overwhelming blackness. Yet, upon closer examination, he realizes that the stone is not the reassuring representation [page 48] of pure, white nature that he had thought:

I was conscious of a distinct impression that its contour and position were not altogether the work of Nature. A closer scrutiny filled me with sensations I cannot express; for despite its enormous magnitude, and its position in an abyss which had yawned at the bottom of the seas since the world was young, I perceived beyond a doubt that the strange object was a well-shaped monolith whose massive bulk had known the workmanship and perhaps the worship of living and thinking creatures. (4)

Despite the monolith literally sitting in a dark, yawning abyss at the base of the crater, the narrator, yearning for something to reaffirm his white identity, imagines himself as a scientist or archeologist exploring the monolith as a piece of art and, thus, a representation of white “civilization” and culture. 

Examining the monolith more closely, the castaway sees

an array of bas-reliefs whose subjects would have excited the envy of Doré. I think that these things were supposed to depict men—at least, a certain sort of men; though the creatures were shewn disporting like fishes in the waters of some marine grotto, or paying homage at some monolithic shrine which appeared to be under the waves as well. Of their faces and forms I dare not speak in detail; for the mere remembrance makes me grow faint. (4)

Though the narrator hesitates to give specific details of the carvings, he describes the Deep Ones as “Grotesque beyond the imagination of a Poe or Bulwar, they were damnably human in general outline despite webbed hands and feet, shockingly wide and flabby lips, glassy, bulging eyes” (5). Realizing that the carvings are not, as he had presumed, the paragon of ancient white human culture, the narrator attempts to write them off as representations of “the imaginary gods of some primitive fishing or seafaring tribe; some tribe whose last descendant had perished eras before the [page 49] first ancestor of the Piltdown or Neanderthal Man was born” (5). Here, the castaway appraises the monument through the lens of colonialism, assuming that anything nonhuman must be ancient, tribal, and “primitive” in relation to modern Anglo-American culture.

And then, he sees the Deep One:⁷ “Vast, Polyphemus-like, and loathsome, it darted like a stupendous monster of nightmares to the monolith, about which it flung its gigantic scaly arms, the while it bowed its hideous head and gave vent to certain measured sounds. I think I went mad then” (5). In this moment of interspecies contact, “Dagon” shifts from Nautical Gothic to Nautical Horror, which, Alcalá González argues, moves beyond the “relationship between the ocean and its depths with ‘the unknown, the uncanny, and the secret’” (176) to center on “devastating encounters with the monstrous nonhuman” and “emphasize the arbitrariness behind the conception of human supremacy over the seas” (174). Confronted with the realization that white men like himself are not the pinnacle of civilization, culture, or being, the narrator goes mad, loses track of time and space, and resumes his story some time later in San Francisco after being rescued by an American ship (Lovecraft, “Dagon” 5).

Having drifted for several days, the narrator is never able to specify the island’s location beyond writing that it’s “somewhat south of the equator” (Lovecraft, “Dagon” 1), but that places the island between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, in an area that was once known as the torrid zone (Nussbaum 7). As Felicity Nussbaum illustrates, since the mid-eighteenth century, Europeans have debated the effect of climate on sexuality and generally attributed sexual excess (queerness) to people from warmer climates (8-10). Assessing the Victorian period during which Lovecraft was born, Anne McClintock demonstrates that Black people were often perceived as queer because of their blackness: “By the nineteenth century, popular lore had firmly established Africa as the quintessential zone of sexual aberration and [page 50] anomaly—‘the very picture,’ as W.D. Jordan put it, ‘of perverse negation’” (428). Thus, the narrator’s descriptions work together to position the Deep Ones as a monstrous threat that is simultaneously nonwhite and queer.

Near the end of the story, the narrator confesses that he suffers from traumatic flashbacks of the Deep One in the tropics. The creature is never assigned a specific color in “Dagon,” although the narrator’s earlier description of the Deep Ones’ “shockingly wide and flabby lips, [and] glassy, bulging eyes” (5) resembles caricatures of Black people that were popular during Lovecraft’s lifetime, which corresponds with the Jim Crow era in the United States.⁸ The creatures are similarly described in Lovecraft’s sequel to “Dagon,” The Shadow over Innsmouth, where the Deep Ones are finally named. There, they are described as “predominantly greyish-green, though they had white bellies. They were mostly shiny and slippery, but the ridges of their backs were scaly. Their forms vaguely suggested the anthropoid, while their heads were the heads of fish, with prodigious bulging eyes that never closed” (328). These images dovetail not only with racist caricatures from the Jim Crow era but also with the story’s constant invocation of the horrors of blackness and the narrator’s hints regarding island sexualities, leaving no doubt about what haunts the narrator, as he confesses: “shuddering at the nameless things,” “worshipping their ancient stone idols and carving their own detestable likenesses on submarine obelisks of water-soaked granite,” who “may rise above the billows to drag down in their reeking talons the remnants of puny, war-exhausted mankind” (“Dagon” 6). As this passage makes clear, the castaway has been traumatized by the threat of white human civilization being overthrown by the Deep Ones, a nonhuman, nonwhite race associated with sexual excess and interspecies miscegenation (Lovecraft, Innsmouth 304-305).

While many critics writing about the Deep Ones have recognized the embedded racism, others have downplayed this aspect. For example, citing their “extra-terrestrial ori-[page 51]gin and their previous presence in the Indies,” Tracy Bealer argues that the residents of Innsmouth “are, for all intents and purposes, racially marked immigrants overtaking and, according to the initial response of the narrator, polluting and degrading Innsmouth’s Anglo-Saxon stock” (45). Likewise, Brian Johnson observes that Lovecraft imbued the Deep Ones with “racist signifiers of his own xenophobic disgust” (“Weird” 275). Yet, Callaghan makes the surprising claim that “Dagon” displays “tolerant and even semi-liberal tendencies” (7) while Jed Mayer’s reading of The Shadow over Innsmouth aims for a middle ground by “contextualizing the author’s racial prejudices within a broader posthumanist perspective, one that subverts constructions of human uniqueness and superiority” (119), emphasizes how “the weird circumvents the tendency to anthropomorphize other creatures” (121), and highlights how “the narrative focuses on details that emphasize the animal nature of the Innsmouth residents” (124) to suggest a posthuman trajectory in Lovecraft’s work. Some of these critics cite the Deep Ones’ interspecies miscegenation as a source of horror, but none of them discuss the queer aspects of their monstrosity.⁹

Inverting Racial and Sexual Monstrosity in The Shape of Water

Widely recognized as “one of the leading directors of our time” (Finney 40), Guillermo del Toro is known for the profound Lovecraftian influence that his work displays (Sederholm and Weinstock 1), yet none of the critics who have written about The Shape of Water have noted del Toro as a neo-Lovecraftian filmmaker.¹⁰ Selected as one of the American Film Institute’s Top Ten Films of 2017 and nominated for thirteen Academy Awards (winning Best Picture, Director, Score, and Production Design), The Shape of Water opens with a pre-credits scene where, via tracking shot, subjective camera moves viewers into an underwater apartment that has been reclaimed by nature. This opening se-[page 52]quence immediately suggests ecological issues—perhaps a natural disaster or some radical apocalypse related to global warming—and invests viewers in how the story will unfold. While this visually prepares the audience for a Nautical Gothic or Nautical Horror narrative,¹¹ Alexandre Desplat’s dreamy, almost fairy-tale-like score immediately undercuts such associations. Instead of gothic horror, del Toro presents viewers with a modern-day gothic fairy-tale-turned-love-story that completely inverts the audience’s initial expectations.

The movie begins with a voiceover from Giles (Richard Jenkins), Elisa Esposito’s (Sally Hawkins) unassuming, gay neighbor and a struggling advertising illustrator, who sets the story “a long time ago” when a “princess without voice” lived in “a small city near the coast but far from everything else.” Through the temporal displacement in his voiceover, Giles frames the story-to-come as a fairy “tale of love and loss and the monster who tried to destroy it all.” As the precredits sequence ends, viewers see Elisa floating, asleep, above an antique sofa—foreshadowing the film’s final narrative twist—before returning to that “long time ago”: 1962 Baltimore, Maryland.

The narrative that Giles’s voiceover frames begins when the image of Elisa sleeping deep below the water match cuts to an image of Elisa sleeping on the same sofa.¹² Elisa assesses herself in the mirror, strips, and proceeds to masturbate in the tub while an egg timer ticks away on the pedestal sink. The film thus calls attention to the vexed relationship between film and female pleasure that feminist film critics have long debated.¹³ Elisa masturbates without shame, clearly enjoying herself as the camera reveals just enough for viewers to know what she’s doing without giving them the satisfaction of watching her. In the next scene, Elisa and Giles watch TV in his apartment and viewers realize that Elisa uses sign language to communicate. Rather than stigmatizing women, people of color, and bodily difference as Lovecraft so often does, del Toro inverts these tropes, [page 53] centering the film on a working-class Hispanic woman with a physical impairment.¹⁴

Working as cleaning staff in a high-security government facility, the mute Elisa listens to her Black coworker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) gossip about her husband. Although some critics have claimed that del Toro uses diversity in tokenistic ways (Chow and Bushman 107), this scene establishes community between working-class women across ethnic lines early in the film. In her foundational essay, “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Refining Difference,” Audre Lorde argues that

our future survival is predicated upon our ability to relate within equality. As women, we must root out internalized patterns of oppression within ourselves if we are to move beyond the most superficial aspects of social change. Now we must recognize differences among women who are our equals, neither inferior nor superior, and devise ways to use each others’ difference to enrich our visions and our joint struggles. (636)

Throughout the film, Zelda and Elisa set aside their superficial differences (as a Black woman and a mute, lightskinned Hispanic woman) to further their friendship and help each other in a largely white, male work environment.

While the women clean the lab, Dr. Fleming (David Hewlett) describes a new “asset,” which they soon discover is a creature reminiscent of Lovecraft’s Deep Ones and identified as the Amphibian Man (Doug Jones). The scene cuts to the men’s restroom and the women’s first significant encounter with Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), who introduces himself as part of the security team while using the urinal. When Elisa notices his baton on the sink edge, he tells them, “Look, don’t touch. That lovely dingus right there is an Alabama Howdy-do. Molded griphandle low-current, high-voltage electric shock cattle prod.” This interaction is telling: not only does Strickland show no emotion when discussing the cattle prod that he uses to tor-[page 54]ture the Amphibian Man, but also, when Elisa offers him fresh towels after he urinates, he says, “Oh no, no. A man washes his hands before or after tending to his needs. It tells you a lot about a man. He does it both times ... points to a weakness in character” before retrieving the cattle prod and exiting. Strickland washes his hands before urinating, keeps his hands on his hips while urinating, then shakes his penis, zips, and leaves. Washing his hands before urinating and not after suggests that Strickland is more concerned that something from society might contaminate his penis than he is about something from his penis transferring to his hands and contaminating something or someone outside the restroom. This reverence for the white penis—and the phallic power that the penis represents¹⁵—becomes important later in the film.

During lunch, a panicked Fleming calls the women back to Strickland’s lab to clean up blood. While mopping, Elisa finds two severed fingers and a wedding ring on the floor and wraps the fingers in a leftover brown paper lunch bag. While Zelda runs out to tell Fleming what they found, Elisa is left alone in the lab, hears a plaintive bleating, and approaches the tank. Gentle lights strobe the tank’s interior, revealing the Amphibian Man first as mere shadow, then in full body. Blood blooms from a wound on his abdomen. Before leaving, Elisa gives Fleming the paper bag containing what are later revealed to be Strickland’s fingers. Alone back at Giles’s apartment, Elisa stares longingly as a woman on TV sings “You’ll Never Know,” a romantic song about unrequited love that suggests the narrative trajectory to come.

Elisa secretly returns to the lab and cracks a hardboiled egg while seated on the edge of the creature’s pool, using the sound to draw him to her. When Elisa slowly shells the egg, then seductively holds it near her mouth, the creature swims forward, emerges from the water, and extends his webbed hand. As the creature rises, Elisa and the audience see a thick metal shackle around his neck, emphasizing his [page 55] status as Strickland’s enslaved, dehumanized lab “asset” and marking his racialized status. Elisa attempts to place the egg in his hand, which startles him, and then gestures in sign language to calm him. After Elisa sets the egg on the edge of the creature’s pool, the camera alternates between subjective camera shots of her and the creature as he assesses her intentions, causing viewers to alternate identification between the Hispanic female lead and the enslaved, racialized Deep One who the Amphibian Man represents. The difference between these alternating subjective shots and those, for example, that Carol Clover describes as shifting viewers’ identification between the killer and the Final Girl in slasher films (237) is that here, the viewer is not biased against one character: alternating between Elisa and the Amphibian Man’s perspectives via subjective camera effecttively bonds them by highlighting their mutual wariness and status as marginalized individuals. This figurative bonding becomes literal, first when he takes the egg from the edge of the pool and then, across several scenes as the two bond over the food that she smuggles to him. This bonding is facilitated as much by Elisa gently teaching the creature sign language as it is by the food that she brings. Tobin Siebers argues that disability becomes “a marker of social identity” (4) and the “pathologization of other identities by disability is referential: it summons the historical and representational structures by which disability, sickness, and injury come to signify inferior human status” (6). Like many other forms of stigma, The Shape of Water inverts this representational structure. Rather than dehumanizing Elisa, her physical impairment makes her sympathetic and, after she meets the Amphibian Man, becomes the catalyst for social activism, coalitional politics, and anti-enslavement movements in the film.

Before long, Strickland calls the women into his office. When Strickland learns that Zelda is an only child, he says, “That’s not common, is it? For your people,” indicating his racist beliefs about Black people, before thanking Elisa for [page 56] finding and returning his severed fingers. During this meeting, she also returns his missing wedding ring. When Strickland learns that Elisa is mute, he says, “All those scars on your neck. That’s what did it. Cut your voice box, right?” Strickland calls attention to Elisa’s physical impairment in an attempt to intimidate her and assert his recently diminished power before warning the women: 

Strickland: You clean that lab. You get out. The thing we keep in there is an affront. Do you know what an affront is Zelda? 

Zelda: Something offensive. 

Strickland: That’s right, and I should know. I dragged that filthy thing out of the river muck in South America all the way here. And along the way, we didn’t get to like each other much. Now, you may think that thing looks human. Stands on two legs, right? But we’re created in the Lord’s image. You don’t think that’s what the Lord looks like, do you?

Zelda: I wouldn’t know, Sir, what the Lord looks like.

Strickland: Looks human, Zelda, he looks like a human, like me. Or even you. Maybe a little more like me, I guess.

In this exchange, the women and viewers learn of Strickland’s colonialist mindset (Murray and Heumann 200). To him, beings in the Global South have no subjectivity or agency; they merely exist for his experiments, even if that means torturing them. Indeed, Strickland’s dialogue makes clear that, like Lovecraft, he believes that all beings— whether human or otherwise—exist within a hierarchy where white men are “more like” God than Black women or Amphibian Men.

In Precarious Life, Judith Butler writes, “The question that preoccupies me in the light of recent global violence is, Who counts as human? Whose lives count as lives? And, finally, What makes for a grievable life?” (20, italics in original). For Butler, those who are not recognized as human are [page 57] derealized and subjected to violence: “If violence is done against those who are unreal, then, from the perspective of violence, it fails to injure or negate those lives since those lives are already negated” (33).¹⁶ Strickland’s casual description of the cattle prod he uses to torture the Amphibian Man and his description of the Amphibian Man as “an affront” demonstrate this problem. Trained to see people from the Global South as inhuman, Strickland callously tortures the Amphibian Man, not as a person, but as an object. Schooled in colonialist rhetoric, his actions seem justified to him because of the nonwhite, potentially queer threat to white human “civilization” that the imprisoned Amphibian Man represents. Strickland is unable to recognize his violence against the Amphibian Man as violence because he perceives him as less than human and, symbolically, as a man of color, which in turn further dehumanizes the Amphibian Man because, as Nussbaum (8-10) and McClintock (428) have separately shown, people from the “torrid zones” and Black people have long been perceived as queer.

A ringing phone interrupts Strickland’s scolding of Elisa and Zelda, and as they leave his office, viewers overhear Strickland’s phone call:

Hoyt: You feeling better?

Strickland: Oh, yes, Sir, much better. Pain pills is all.

Hoyt: You lost two fingers, was it?

Strickland: Two fingers, yeah. He got two fingers. But I still got my thumb, my trigger finger, and my pussy finger.

Hoyt: Sounds to me like you’ll do all right then.

Throughout this conversation, General Hoyt questions Strickland’s ability to continue his work because of his new physical impairment, associating disability with inferiority as Siebers suggests (6). To counter these associations, Strickland reasserts his masculinity and virility through crass, locker-room-style sex talk designed to reassure Hoyt that he can still shoot a gun and fondle women—two key [page 58] elements of patriarchal, military masculinity in the 1960s.

As noted above, feminist film critics have written much about castration anxiety in films, and this scene literalizes that anxiety. As the blood left on the sink in the restroom scene suggests, Strickland tortured the Amphibian Man, who in turn bit off two of his fingers. Fingers—themselves phallic—suggest the power to grasp, hold, and manipulate but also the power to harm and torture. By biting off Strickland’s left ring finger and pinky, the Amphibian Man reduces Strickland’s ability to wield a weapon, but this reduction is minimal because Strickland is right-handed. Strickland’s loss of two fingers—and his ring left finger specifically—carries more symbolic than actual physical effect. Severing the left ring finger also removes Strickland’s wedding ring, something that confers social privilege upon him as a white heterosexual man living in 1960s America. When Strickland tells Hoyt, “I still got my thumb, my trigger finger, and my pussy finger,” then, he is also attempting to shore up his masculinity and the social prestige associated with it to maintain his place among the hierarchy of traditional white military men to which he and Hoyt belong.

The next scene emphasizes this sense of belonging and Strickland’s fear of disempowerment when Fleming takes Strickland home and viewers see his white, American nuclear family, complete with wife and two kids. After the kids leave, his wife Elaine attempts to seduce him while he rambles on about needing a new car (he later buys a new Cadillac, another sign of success and masculinity), which she transforms into a sexual metaphor. Strickland mounts her missionary style, but their lovemaking is interrupted when Elaine exclaims, “Sweetie, Sweetie? Sweetie, your, um, your hand’s bleeding” to which he answers, “Silence. Don’t talk. Don’t talk. I want you in silence. Silent, silent, Yes, silence.” Perhaps disgusted by the physical impairment that it represents, Elaine calls attention to his bleeding hand during sex, to which Strickland responds by bullying her and attempt-[page 59]ting to assert masculine dominance over her to maintain his power within the domestic space, despite his severed fingers (which have just been reattached).

In an interview, Michael Shannon, who plays Strickland, “told Vanity Fair that he and del Toro had early conversations ‘about the notion that back in the day, when Hollywood was making these kind of creature movies, Strickland would have been more like the hero. The inversion of that perception is interesting because it ultimately erodes the whole notion of heroes and villains’” (Miller). Shannon’s statement reflects del Toro’s desire to invert the kind of narrative that classic Hollywood—and Lovecraft—routinely told where white men triumphed through colonial violence at the expense of marginalized people.

Zelda initially keeps her distance from the Amphibian Man, but Elisa is more sympathetic, having bonded with the Amphibian Man because of how they are both dehumanized by the men in power and Strickland in particular. A montage compresses time and shows Elisa sneaking into the lab to eat her lunch beside the Amphibian Man’s pool, playing records for him, teaching him sign language, and offering him eggs as treats. The end of the montage sequence shows Elisa dancing to music in the lab and pressing her hands against the Amphibian Man’s glass prison as facility scientist Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) watches. This scene begins the rescue plot that makes up the rest of the film.

Revealed to be a spy assigned to recover the Amphibian Man for Russia, Hoffstetler/ Dimitri Mosenkov has a change of heart and ultimately helps Elisa and Zelda smuggle the Amphibian Man out of the lab. Hoffstetler betrays his Russian comrades for the same reason that Elisa decides to help free the Amphibian Man: like Hoyt and Strickland, the Russians refuse to recognize the creature’s personhood.

Hoffstetler: Mihalkov, this creature, I think it may [page 60] be able to communicate.

Mihalkov: Communicate?

Hoffstetler: Yes, communicate with us. I have reason to believe it is intelligent. It responds. It responds to language, music. Will you please pass that up also?

Mihalkov: I will. Now, eat, Dimitri. They call this surf and turf. The lobsters are boiled right here. They squeak a little, but they are so soft and sweet.

Mihalkov’s disregard for the lobsters indicates his view of nonhuman creatures. Like Strickland, he sees them as objects to be used or, like the lobsters, consumed, rather than as individuals who suffer or deserve rights. When Hoffstetler returns to plead his case, Mihalkov gives him a syringe: “You inject it with this. Kill it. Destroy it” with the Cold War rationale that “We don’t need to learn. We need Americans not to learn.” Realizing that Mihalkov won’t help him rescue the Amphibian Man, Hoffstetler helps Elisa, who has previously watched Strickland torture the Amphibian Man (shown out of water, shackled in a kneeling position) using the cattle prod in his fully functional right hand.

Though Strickland’s two severed fingers have been reattached, they are not yet functional. He compensates for this physical impairment by wielding the cattle prod as a representation of power. In a scene that suggests both animal cruelty and the abuse of enslaved peoples, Strickland says, “This is what scares you, huh? Well, gee, you should be used to it by now” before shocking the Amphibian Man. He scolds the Amphibian Man, saying, “There you go again, making that God-awful sound,” failing to see any correlation between cause (his actions) and effect (the Amphibian Man’s cries of pain). Further, Strickland taunts the creature: “Is that you crying, huh? Is that what it is? Are you hurting?” He taps the Amphibian Man on the top of the head with the cattle prod, then yells, “Or maybe you’re angry! Maybe you’d like to get another bite of me. Go ahead.” When the creature tries to bite him, Strickland again shocks him with the [page 61] cattle prod, taunts him, and leaves him prone, bloody, and chained to the floor. Listening from her hiding place behind some lab equipment, Elisa clutches her lunch bag.

At this moment, the camera becomes subjective, showing us how Elisa perceives the torture that Strickland has inflicted as she watches him bend down and grab an egg that she had dropped, suggesting that he knows that she has visited the Amphibian Man against his orders. Before he can confront Elisa, Hoyt arrives, and the two men discuss the Amphibian Man as though he’s not in the room and still bleeding.

Hoyt: Good God Almighty! Is that it? Hell of a lot bigger than I thought.

Strickland: Ugly as sin. You know the natives in the Amazon worshipped it like a god.

Hoyt: Doesn’t look like much of a god now, does it?

Strickland: Well, they’re primitive, Sir. You know, they would toss offerings into the water. Flowers, fruits, crap like that. Then they tried to stop the oil drill with bows and arrows. That didn’t turn out too well.

Hoyt laughs as Hoffstetler examines the creature and says, “It’s bleeding. What happened?” to which Strickland replies, “It’s an animal. Hoffstetler, just keeping it tame. This exchange not only reiterates Strickland’s Lovecraftian dehumanization of the Amphibian Man but also shows the military’s larger disregard for life, including the lives of indigenous people in the Amazon who, Strickland suggests, he killed or had killed for opposing unsanctioned oil drilling on their lands. Throughout the scene, Hoyt demonstrates a deep inability to understand anything outside his usual routine, declaring, “Well, the Soviets want it. We know that much. Those cockeyed bastards” before trailing off into dialogue that reveals his real interest in the creature. He values it only insofar as it gives him a competitive edge in the Cold War against the Russians. [page 62]

Overhearing a conversation where Hoyt tells Strickland, “So crack the damn thing open. Learn what you can,” Elisa asks Giles to help her rescue the Amphibian Man as a humanoid being. He initially refuses, saying, “You called it a thing. It’s a thing. It’s a freak” before Elisa draws a parallel between herself and the creature: “What am I? I move my mouth, like him. I make no sounds, like him. What does that make me? All that I am, all that I’ve ever been, brought me here, to him.” Giles reluctantly recognizes that Elisa sees the Amphibian Man as a “him,” and she continues, “When he looks at me, the way he looks at me, he does not know what I lack or how I am incomplete. He sees me for what I am, as I am.” Like all subjects, according to Jacques Lacan, Elisa attempts to compensate for her lack through romance (277-278).

After witnessing a waiter’s racist treatment of a Black couple at the local diner and seeing a parallel between them and the enslaved Amphibian Man, Giles knocks on Elisa’s door and agrees to smuggle the Amphibian Man out of the facility in a laundry van. Seeing Elisa slinking around the facility, Zelda learns of Elisa’s rescue mission and decides to help her as well. As they wait for the right moment to rescue the Amphibian Man, Strickland confronts Elisa while she mops the floor: “I just want you to know I don’t mind those scars. I don’t mind that you can’t speak either. When you come right down to it, I like it. A lot. Kinda gets me going.” Strickland augments his verbal aggression with sexual aggression, attempting to touch Elisa’s face be-fore she pulls away. As she backs out the door and flees down the stairs, he says, “I bet I could make you squawk a little.” This intimidation and sexual aggression fuel Elisa’s determination.

The scene cuts to Strickland’s office where Hoffstetler again pleads with him to spare the creature’s life; Strickland says, “This thing dies. You learn, I leave, out of here. I settle down. My family settles down somewhere nice. A real city.” For Strickland, recognizing the humanity of the Amphibian [page 63] Man is at odds with achieving white, suburban, domestic bliss and denying the creature’s humanity becomes a shortcut to achieving the white, middle-class American Dream. Like Lovecraft’s work, Strickland defines normative white family values against the racialized, dehumanized subject and aims to eradicate him.

Working as the kind of multi-ethnic coalition of marginalized people that Lorde discusses (636), the trio, along with the last-minute addition of Hoffstetler, who couldn’t bring himself to euthanize the creature, smuggle the Amphibian Man out of the facility and stash him in Elisa’s bathtub in water that they treat with salt to simulate sea water. Days later, Elisa accepts that her bathtub is simply too small to approximate the creature’s natural habitat and decides to release him into the harbor. While the women wait for a rainy day to release the Amphibian Man, Strickland calls them into his office for questioning about the Amphibian Man’s escape. He says to them, “If you know something about what transpired here, it’s your obligation to report any detail, no matter how small or trivial it may seem.” Strickland then insults their intelligence by adding, “Trivial means unimportant.” Zelda denies any knowledge of the incident, and Elisa, still smarting from Strickland’s sexual aggression, stares him in the eye and lies about her involvement before signing “fuck you” on her way out of his office. Frustrated by his inability to understand, Strickland yells, “What is she saying?” but Zelda covers for Elisa and escorts her from the room. During this confrontation, Elisa refuses to be cowed by Strickland’s intense, violent male gaze and stares directly at him with a quietly defiant expression on her face. This multi-ethnic coalition of women, abetted by sympathetic men, both gay and straight, finally succeeds in releasing the Amphibian Man in the Baltimore Harbor during a storm when “the rain fills the canal that flows to the sea.”

In one of the film’s most stunning scenes, just before releasing the creature, Elisa closes the bathroom door, turns [page 64] on the faucets, blocks the threshold with thick towels, fills the entire room with water, and strips. As Elisa consummates her desire with the Amphibian Man, the camera pans down from the bathroom, tracing the water that has begun to seep through the tile floor, down through the subfloor and into the theater below. By doing so, the camera leaves the particulars of their consensual, queer,¹⁷ interspecies sex to the audience’s imagination. As Alexander Doty recognizes, “to appeal to the largest audience possible it behooves the film and television industries to allow queerness some sort of expression much of the time” (4). The film nonetheless anticipates objections from mainstream audiences and preempts those objections when the camera switches to an overhead shot showing the water as it trickles down into the theater and chokes a white male spectator who has fallen asleep in his seat. Startled, he gathers his coat and heads out of the theater while the camera quickly cuts back to the interspecies lovemaking scene above. The Amphibian Man stands knee deep in water with his back to the audience, blocking his genitalia as well as one of Elisa’s breasts and her genitalia. They are having sex, but that sex act is shown only obliquely and is blocked from casual voyeurism by the audience. In the lovemaking scene, the bathroom filled to the ceiling with water, Elisa and the Amphibian Man float and embrace midwater until Giles sees the bulging door and opens it, releasing the water in a flood. When he looks into the bathroom, the Amphibian Man’s skin is covered in bioluminescent blue spots, indicating orgasm. This scene of queer desire embodies what Johnson terms “Lovecraft’s ‘posthumanist’ tendency to decenter human identity by reconnecting it to often troubling or defamiliarizing images of nonhuman nature” (“Prehistories” 105). By highlighting the couple’s sexual compatibility, del Toro hints at Elisa’s own species hybridity, to be revealed in the film’s final moments.

Brooding in his car over his inability to solve the mystery of how the creature escaped the facility, Strickland sniffs his reattached fingers and winces. Pus oozes from one [page 65] knuckle as he squeezes it. The reattachment has failed, and what he anticipated as a temporary impairment has become a permanent disability. Back at the facility, Hoyt confronts Strickland, who has been dodging his calls. After confessing that he has lost the Amphibian Man’s trail, Strickland says, “A man is faithful, loyal, efficient all his life. All of it. And he is useful. And he expects ... he has certain expectations in return. And then, he fails once. Only once. What does that make him? That make him a failure? When is a man done, Sir? Proving himself? A good man? A decent man?” Hoyt responds with

Decent? A man has the decency not to fuck up. Now that’s one thing. That’s real decent of him. But the other kind of decency? It doesn’t really matter. We sell it, but it’s an export. We sell it because we don’t use it. Thirty-six hours from now, this entire episode will be over. And so will you. Our universe will have a hole in it with your outline, and you will have moved on to an alternate universe. A universe of shit. You will be lost to civilization, and you will be unborn, unmade, and undone. So get some real decency, son, and unfuck this mess.

This conversation highlights the series of losses—castration in psychoanalytic terms—that Strickland has experienced over the course of the film. He has lost fingers, lost power, lost the ability to reconnect those fingers and the power that they represent, and ultimately faces the same disempowering violence that he once perpetuated against those he saw as less than human and abused in an attempt to increase his own social status and potency. His fingers having turned black, Strickland tears them off, completing the symbolic castration that began when the creature bit them off early in the film.

During the last part of the film, the Russians appear at Hoffstetler’s apartment to threaten him for failing to kill the creature. Later, during a scheduled check in, one of the Russians turns on him and shoots him three times, including [page 66] through both cheeks. Before the Russian can kill Hoffstetler, though, Strickland guns the Russian down and then, having realized that he is a Russian spy, hooks his finger through the hole in Hoffstetler’s cheek and uses the cattle prod to interrogate him for information about what he assumes is a Russian strike team that must have taken the Amphibian Man. Hoffstetler dies laughing at Strickland’s inability to fathom that two working class women of color outsmarted him, with his death serving as a form of narrative punishment for the role he played in the Amphibian Man’s captivity.

Having broken into Zelda’s house, terrorized her, and discovered Elisa’s plan from Zelda’s cowardly husband, Strickland arrives at the harbor just in time to shoot the Amphibian Man (who has just proposed to Elisa using sign language) twice before he can enter the canal and escape to the sea. He also shoots Elisa, who falls to the ground. Standing over the entwined bodies of Elisa and the Amphibian Man, Strickland brags, “I do not fail. I deliver,” but before he can make the kill shot, Giles downs him with a piece of scrap wood. As Giles clutches Elisa’s limp body to his chest, the Amphibian Man’s skin begins to glow, and his gunshot wounds heal, reiterating his posthuman potential. Having witnessed this resurrection while trying to reload his pistol, Strickland exclaims, “Fuck. You are a god.” The creature slashes Strickland’s throat with his talons, rendering him just as mute as Elisa, and leaves him to die on the shore, ending the tyranny of one of the many white men in powerful government leadership roles.

As police arrive on the scene, the Amphibian Man gathers Elisa’s body and dives into the canal that leads to the ocean while Giles and Zelda look on. In the water, Elisa’s body slowly begins to sink as the creature swims around her. Desplat’s ethereal, romantic score returns to center stage and crescendos as the creature kisses Elisa, the scars on her neck reveal themselves to be gills, and she revives. As Giles resumes his voiceover, completing the fairy tale [page 67] that began the film, the screen fades to black, and in true gothic fashion, the film transforms what appeared to be a queer, interspecies love affair into a same-species reunion between the Amphibian Man and Elisa, now revealed to have been a human-Deep One hybrid orphaned on land as an infant, complicating reading the affair as either queer or heterosexual.¹⁸ Elisa’s return to the sea and acceptance of her hybrid nature echoes the narrator’s eventual transformation into a Deep One and return to the sea in The Shadow over Innsmouth. Unlike Lovecraft’s story, where the male narrator breaks down upon discovering his hybrid nature, Elisa experiences no terror of being or becoming hybrid or other. Instead, her return to the sea becomes a form of healing and reunion with the Amphibian Man.

The film’s ending nonetheless suggests a small-scale revolution against an abusive white heteropatriarchy by a coalition of two women of color, a gay man, a foreign spy, and a symbolically black humanoid. In doing so, it inverts—that is, it queers—its Lovecraftian source material, and as such, The Shape of Water reads as a radical version of what Linda Hutcheon terms an “extended intertextual engagement with the adapted work” (8)—one that inverts Lovecraft’s stories about the Deep Ones from “Dagon” and The Shadow over Innsmouth. Wisker argues that “Lovecraft is fixated on miscegenation, a disgusting terror and one for which all women, particularly mothers and grandmothers, contribute when mating with the fishy folk” (“Speaking” 215). Instead of deriding and abjecting interracial/ interspecies and queer forms of desire that appear in the film as Lovecraft would have, del Toro deploys what bell hooks calls “an oppositional gaze” (308)¹⁹ to recenter the narrative on diverse characters and sexual experiences, ultimately celebrating Elisa as both a product of miscegenation and a hybrid woman who finds her way home. [page 68]


1. Herrmann notes that Lovecraft’s settings are settler-colonial and colonial, often working as plot devices in themselves such that “trade, exploration, and settlement induce dysgenia, degeneration, or potential apocalypse” (305). For an in-depth look at Lovecraft’s use of eugenics and a surprising reading of his work as utopian, see Timothy Murphy, “Physiology Is Destiny: The Fate of Eugenic Utopia in the Fiction of H.P. Lovecraft and Olaf Stapleton” (Utopian Studies, vol. 29, no. 1, 2018, pp. 21-43). While some authors like Jeff Vander Meer have argued for the need to move away from Lovecraft’s influence (see “Moving Past Lovecraft,” 1 Sept. 2012., more recent critics like Timothy Jarvis and Anthony Camara have shown how contemporary authors have appropriated Lovecraft’s mythos to subvert his racism and biological determinism. Jarvis draws on Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s concept of “becoming-Other” to argue that Laird Barron and Caitlín R. Kiernan have succeeded not by overcoming Lovecraft’s influence but by “taking on and transforming his tropes” (135). Camara reads Elizabeth Bear’s novelette “Shoggoths in Bloom” to illustrate how the text resists Lovecraft’s master-slave narrative and instead “stages a mutually transformative, symbiotic cross-species encounter between its protagonist and a Shoggoth” (26). 

2. Karli June Cerankowski and Megan Milks cite the Asexual Visibility and Education Network’s definition of an asexual person as a someone who “does not experience sexual attraction,” but are careful to note that asexuality can take many forms and can coexist with people identifying as “romantic and aromantic, monogamous and polyamorous, gay, straight, bisexual, and lesbian” (651). Lovecraft eventually married Sonia Davis, so he could also/instead be read as demisexual, a person [page 69] who needs to develop a relationship before feeling comfortable enough to have sex.

3. For an overview of Lovecraft’s sexuality and the use of sexuality in his work, see Bobby Derie, Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (Hippocampus, 2014). Despite its title, Derie’s book reads like an encyclopedia rather than a study of sexuality, spends most of its time trying to debunk readings of Lovecraft as a repressed homosexual, and does not explore sexuality in any larger sense. For a more nuanced take on Lovecraft’s sexuality and queerness more generally in his work, see Brian Johnson, “Paranoid, Panic, and the Queer Weird” (New Directions in Supernatural Horror Literature, edited by Sean Moreland, Palgrave Macmillan, 2018, pp. 51-68).

4. See Marshall, “Queering Cthulhu.”

5. Alder traces the term back to Dennis Berthold’s 1986 distinction between realistic and fantastic forms of sea writing (1).

6. Stephen Small states that “in Georgia in 1860, eighty per cent [sic] of the slaves were of mixed racial origins” (29).

7. While the creature in “Dagon” remains unnamed, I am not the only one to make this connection. See Alcalá González, “Nautical Horror and the Anthropocene.”

8. For examples of racist caricatures of Black people during the Jim Crow era, see, “Racist Cartoons—AntiBlack Imagery—Jim Crow Museum,” Jim Crow Museum of Racist Imagery,

9. The coerced couplings in The Shadow over Innsmouth occur between human men and female Deep Ones and may at first seem heterosexual but can be read as queer because they are interspecies couplings that defy sexual categorization. Alexander Doty observes that “classic texts and personalities actually can be more queersuggestive than ‘openly’ gay, lesbian, or bisexual texts” (1) and argues that “queer reading practices” exist “alongside straight ones” (2). Doty offers several defini-[page 70]tions of queer, including things that stand “apart from gender and sexuality categories” (7), which seems to encompass what happens in this scene and the later scene where Elisa and the Amphibian Man have underwater sex in her bathroom.

10. Critics routinely cite The Creature from the Black Lagoon and Beauty and the Beast as del Toro’s influences without noting that the former is a cinematic derivative of “Dagon.” (Chamberlain; Chow and Bushman 107; Finney 40; Jilkén and Johansson 136; Murray and Heumann, 197). Gema Navarro Going and Francisco Javier Sánchez-Verdejo Pérez cite the Amphibian Man’s similarity to Lovecraft’s Deep Ones in passing without developing that point or connecting it to race, sexuality, or disability studies (141-142).

11. For a reading of the film as ecohorror, see Robin Murray and Joseph Heumann. Such a reading overlooks the overt fairy-tale nature of the film and ignores that most of the film’s horror takes place far from nature.

12. Murray and Heumann (208) and Chow and Bushman (108) read the opening as a dream sequence because of Elisa’s alarm clock sounding right after this match cut. Given that she is eventually revealed to be a Deep One orphaned on land who returns to the sea, that Lovecraft’s Deep Ones are immortal, and that Giles sets the opening, fairy-tale scene “long ago,” the film can just as easily be read as a frame narrative, which is supported when Giles’s voiceover returns, presumably from the deep future, to wrap up the film.

13. Whereas Laura Mulvey argued that classic Hollywood film objectified and victimized women in service of male pleasure and power, subsequent critics have complicated her analysis. For example, Mary Ann Doane identifies the paranoid and hysterical narratives driving the Woman’s Film and argues that “woman’s sexuality, as spectator, must undergo a constant process of transformation. She must look, as if she were a man [page 71] with the phallic power of the gaze, at a woman who would attract that gaze, in order to be that woman” (71- 73). Teresa de Lauretis theorizes that women experience a double identification with both the male hero and the female object of desire (90-91), and Kaja Silverman suggests that film generates castration anxiety in male viewers via images of women because of a deeper insecurity about the male viewer’s “exclusion from the site of filmic production”: “Classic cinema’s female subject is the site at which the viewer’s discursive impotence is exhumed, exhibited, and contained” (103-104).

14. Despite her Spanish first name and a last name that suggests that she is either Hispanic or Italian, Jeremy Chow and Brandi Bushman read Elisa Esposito as “a white, female protagonist” (106), and, although Elisa is ultimately saved by the Amphibian Man, Chamberlain calls her a “white savior.” United States Census data suggests that 5 percent of people named Esposito are Hispanic and that most other Espositos are Italian; as Matthew Jacobsen shows, Italians were perceived as nonwhite until sometime in the mid-twentieth century; academics began to classify Italians as white between the 1930s-1950s (96-103), but they remained nonwhite in the American cultural imagination until around 1965: “The crossing over of the scientific appellation ‘Caucasian’ into the vernacular with increasing regularity in the mid-twentieth century marks a profound readjustment in popular thinking as to the relationship among the immigrant white races” (8).

15. For Lacan, human (hetero)sexuality is governed by the woman’s desire for what she lacks, not the penis but the phallus, a “privileged signifier” (277-278). Women pursue men because they misrecognize the penis as the phallus. In contrast, men recognize the difference between the penis and the phallus, which it symbolizes but can only approximate. Men thus pursue women because possessing a woman augments a man’s mascu-[page 72]linity and makes him feel closer to attaining the phallus (conferring the social prestige of heteronormativity, the woman becomes the phallus for the man). Thus, within Lacanian psychoanalysis, the phallus is not the penis, but because of Lacan’s gendered language (his choice to denote this privileged signifier the phallus), the phallus is also not not the penis.

16. Butler initially introduced these questions as ways of accounting for violence against people of Arabic and Palestinian descent in the wake of 9/11 and ongoing global conflicts before expanding her theory to encompass a wider range of identities in Undoing Gender (2) and applying the idea to Black Lives Matter in an interview with George Yancy (“What’s Wrong With ‘All Lives Matter’?” New York Times, 12 Jan. 2015.

17. Unlike the forced coupling between male humans and female Deep Ones in The Shadow over Innsmouth, this consensual intimacy between the Amphibian Man and Elisa, a woman, may seem heterosexual. Like the couplings in The Shadow over Innsmouth, however, it can also be read as queer because of its (seemingly) interspecies nature.

18. Chow and Bushman read the film as queer while Jilkén and Johansson read it as heterosexual. Sharon Mitchell and Sharon Snyder note in passing the Amphibian Man’s “vaginal opening that unfolds to expose a penislike erection” (152), suggesting possible trans and/or intersex readings.

19. hooks argues that “all attempts to repress our/black people’s right to gaze had produced in us an overwhelming longing to look, a rebellious desire, an oppositional gaze. By courageously looking, we defiantly declared: ‘Not only will I stare. I want my look to change reality.’ Even in the worse [sic] circumstances of domination, the ability to manipulate one’s gaze in the [page 73] face of structures of domination that would contain it, opens up the possibility of agency” (308). 

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---. “Speaking the Unspeakable: Women, Sex, and the Dismorphmythic in Lovecraft, Angela Carter, Caitlín R. Kiernan, and Beyond.” New Directions in Supernatural Horror Literature, edited by Sean Moreland, Palgrave Macmillan, 2018, pp. 209-234. 

Nowell Marshall (he/him) is Assistant Professor of English and Communications at Wilson College. He is the author of Romanticism, Gender, and Violence (Bucknell, 2013) and essays on queer and trans gothic (1764-present), LGBT literature, and speculative fiction and film; is currently finishing his book, Trans Bodies, Gothic Histories; and has forthcoming entries on eighteenth-century drag and Romantic trans representation in The Routledge Companion to Drag, The Routledge Handbook of Trans Literature, and European Romantic Review. 

MLA citation (print):

Marshall, Nowell. "Inverting Lovecraftian Racial and Sexual Monstrosity in Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water." Supernatural Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Art, Media, and Culture, vol. 8, no. 2, 2022, pp. 43-76.