WIHM “You’re a maniac Divine…”: Embracing the grotesque with John Waters

A lot of horror comes from things being grotesque and monstrous, especially when it comes to horror about woman; its where the scare factor of the hags of Baby Jane come from, why werewolf films like Ginger Snaps are effective; it’s the currency that David Cronenberg used for the first decade of his career. And these films all share a common reaction when it comes to the grotesque: that it is, in fact, terrifying and something we should run away from as fast as we can, and if it catches up with us, or infects us in some way, then all hope is lost. But not all filmmakers see it that way. Or at least, John Waters doesn’t. His films take the other side of the argument; that the grotesque is liberating, that monstrosity is freedom, that taboo, disgust, and death, should be embraced.

This idea runs through almost all of his films, and is most pronounced in his early work, the films he made with Divine, and the other members of his Dreamland troupe of performers. The idea of filth and disgust being accolades worth pursuing appears in a lot of these films. In Waters’ most (in)famous work, Pink Flamingos, Divine wants the title of “Filthiest Person Alive.” Both Multiple Maniacs and Female Trouble feature a travelling sideshow that specialises in the grotesque and in Female Trouble, the Cavalcade of Filth fronted by Dawn Davenport (Divine) has her described as “the most beautiful woman in the world,” before she then gets cheered for being “crime personified.” Her list of sins are met with cheers, applause, and laughter, and she declares “I’m so fuckin’ beautiful I can’t stand it myself,” before asking the audience “who wants to die for art?” The poor souls that say yes, of course, end up getting shot. The idea here isn’t just that some people are enamoured with the idea of transgression and the grotesque that they try to court it, but instead that such courting, and even addiction to, the idea of the grotesque, isn’t necessarily bad. The characters that Divine plays in these films never undergo the kind of changes that the women in films like Baby Jane do. The grotesque doesn’t make Divine’s characters physical monsters; if anything it’s the opposite, and the women of Waters see themselves as more beautiful, and more complete, the deeper into the pits of the grotesque that they descend. Dawn insists that she’s beautiful in spite of her obvious grotesque, something that’s heightened by the drag performance that Divine gives. It’s no wonder that, when describing Female Trouble, Waters himself described it as being about someone who wants to receive the death penalty, because “in their profession it’s like receiving the Academy Award.”

This idea is taken to extremes in Multiple Maniacs, one of Waters’ first films, and certainly one of his most unapologetically grotesque. Here, there are the roots of the ideas that defined a lot of the early films that Waters and Divine made together; the idea of wanting to be the filthiest woman alive in Pink Flamingos is seen in an early form here, and there’s also a precursor to the Cavalcade of Filth in Female Trouble. But here, the cavalcade isn’t just a one woman show; the touring show of outcasts and freaks in Multiple Maniacs features porn, vomit eating, and queers. In the words of the show’s master of ceremonies “we’ve got it all and we show it all.” The show, of course, climaxes with Divine coming out and robbing her patrons. Not quite the murder for art of Female Trouble, but for Divine in Multiple Maniacs, her worst (or best, depending on your perspective) crimes are yet to come.

One sequence in Multiple Maniacs is a display of blasphemous sexuality that knocks on the door of how the film, and Waters’ other early films, view the absolute peak of the grotesque: as a gateway to transcendence. When Divine meets Mink (Mink Stole) at a church after she’s the victim of a sexual assault, the film explicitly links the ideas of depravity and holiness; the grotesque and the transcendental. Divine has a bizarre sexual encounter with Mink in a church pew: Mink gives Divine what she calls a “rosary job” (pretty much exactly what it sounds like), while describing the Stations of the Cross. Of course these descriptions become more rapturous as the sexual act becomes more climactic. This filthy counterpoint runs in tandem with the way that Divine views her acts; before her encounter with Mink she prays, saying that she commits her acts with a clear conscience, as if her sins are a way towards divinity, rather than taking her away from it.

This is what sets Divine off on her path to transcendence/damnation, what seems to permanently link the grotesque and the holy together. For Waters’ characters, sinful acts are embraced, grotesque performance and acts are considered the ideal. Amidst a body count of family and lovers, Divine says to herself “I love your sickness, I love your crimes, I love your murder […] you’re a maniac but what a state of mind that can be.” This is echoed by Divine’s rape-by-giant-lobster, in perhaps the strangest scene in a film bursting with strange scenes, when a voice repeats over and over again, “you’re a maniac now Divine.” But the treatment of the grotesque in Multiple Maniacs gives the idea that the emphasis of this idea should be different; rather than the voice calling to a name, instead it reaches for a state of mind. You’re a maniac, now divine.

by Sam Moore

Sam is a writer, artist, and editor. They mostly write about the intersections between queerness, politics, and pop culture, but will flirt with anything else if given the chance. Their work has been published online by The LA Review of Books, i-D, Little White Lies, and other places. They’re always floating around Twitter and Instagram, cruising (for commissions).

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