Hysteria and Curses in Nigel Kneale’s Baby (Beasts, 1976).

When watching Nigel Kneale’s infinitely weird TV series, Beasts (1976), there’s a great sense of underlying currents behind what appear to be strange amalgamations of the everyday with something of the Other.  Though the links between the episodes are often animalistic, ranging the ghost of a dolphin in Buddyboy to the hoards of rats in During Barty’s Party, the majority of the episodes all, at some point, touch upon psychoanalytical subjects.  This wasn’t a new interest for Kneale who had been using the weirder end of fantasy and science fiction to ask disturbing questions about the human psyche but Beasts provides the most alarming and effectively Freudian treatise in its fourth episode, Baby.

Baby concerns a vet and his pregnant wife as they move into a new country cottage in the middle of nowhere.  They’re having the place done up by builders who appear to be rather superstitious and afraid when, after leaving part of a wall up that needs demolishing, the husband and wife find a buried jar which contains the remains of some sort of creature.  The play follows the gradual realisation that the jar has been put there as some sort of historical curse, meaning that the occupants of the house and the land can never give birth safely or successfully.

On first viewing, Baby initially comes across as the typical Kneale-esque interpretation of M.R. James’ narrative style.  There’s no doubt a strong resemblance perceivable of the jar to the stalls in James’ The Stalls of Barchester (which house a cursed scroll in the blood soaked wood) or any number of James’ stories that contain objects with unnerving power.  Yet Baby does more than the usual Jamesian moralising; it centres quite refreshingly on a female focus, showing the callous disregard of the male dominance and the flaws of such a status quo.  The wife, Jo (Jane Wymark), is all but ignored in her worries about the jar whose meaning she quickly figures out far before her excitable husband, Peter (Simon MacCorkindale), and his new veterinary colleague, Dick (T.P. McKenna).

The superstition of the builders seems to prove right yet the scientific obsession of the two vets, again in a stroke of Jamesian underestimating, blinds them to the potential danger that Jo and her unborn baby are in.  Yet it is Kneale’s portrayal of Jo’s breakdown that has the most detailed academic potential in its study.  In his, now rightly questioned, study of hysteria, Freud stated the following: “During the attack, the control of the whole bodily innervation passes over to the hypnoid consciousness.  As familiar experiences show, the normal consciousness is not always entirely repressed by it; it may even perceive the motor phenomenon of the attack while the psychic processes of the same escape all knowledge of it.” (1895). In relating this particular detail to the end of Baby, the potential of contextualising the narrative in a build up of hysteria presents a strong reading of the play as a whole.

During a final breakdown, Jo goes downstairs in the house to find some horrific monster suckling the dead creature from the jar.  It works as a stunningly effective metaphor over the fears of pregnancy, especially in Jo’s world where her husband seems to care very little of anything but his work.  But the moment is more than symbolic or metaphorical ; it is the final stage that Freud described in what has been a gradual build-up of a case of hysteria.  It isn’t a simple case by any means and the theory as a general train of thought is rightly open to interpretations of sexism.  Kneale does not, however, simply adhere to Freud’s admitted bias and concerns the psychic phenomenon to the relations with all of the people that surround Jo’s character; the hysteria isn’t inherent in just her but built up through everyone else’s relation to the building and, eventually, the jar.

It is hinted earlier in the play that Jo has already lost one baby during childbirth.  The potential for increase in paranoia is clearly there for the character as stories are related of how farmers simply couldn’t use the adjacent fields any longer for grazing as it meant the cattle went infertile.  The hysterical state of Jo builds from when this story is related, not because of the simple connection made between the story and the reality of danger but because it clearly awakens these memories of the loss of her first child.  Freud said that “The attack then comes spontaneously just as memories are wont to come, but just like memories it can also be provoked by the laws of association.  The provocation of an attack results either through stimulating a hysterogenic zone or through a new experience which by similarity recalls the pathogenic experience.” (1895).  From this description, the application of the idea to Kneale’s narrative is relatively simple, albeit that both potential forms of trigger happen in Baby‘s story.

Freud’s study of hysteria would become more humanised in accounting for past traumas that lead to a more gender neutral form of study, moving towards the ideas of the compulsion neurosis:  “The return of the repression into visual pictures comes nearer to the character of hysteria than to the character of compulsion neurosis; still hysteria is wont to repeat its memory symbols without modification, whereas the paranoiac memory hallucination undergoes a distortion similar to that in compulsion neurosis.” (1896).  This is an interesting point to finish on as it leaves open the finale of Baby to more detailed readings.  Rather than being something esoteric, the vision that Jo sees at the end of Baby moves away from the feeling of hysteria and towards the past trauma (albeit not a sexual one).  The vision has the potential to become a distorted memory rather than a modified one. The baby in the jar represents the lost child and Jo’s vision is one encompassed by guilt as it finds a new mother; the presence of which threatens the very life of the new child as its mother succumbs to a built up, paranoid attack.

Adam Scovell

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