Posted on July 21, 2019

Styx and the ‘Monstrous-Migrant’

Dawn Keetley

Styx (2018) is a taut psychological drama from Austrian director Wolfgang Fischer that turns to horror near its end, offering something of a commentary on horror as it does so. Indeed, Styx is part of an emerging sub-genre of horror that I’m calling the ‘monstrous-migrant’, after Barbara Creed’s ‘monstrous-feminine’.

The film follows a German doctor, Rike (Susanne Wolff), who lives and works in Gibraltar. The first scenes of the film, which show her at work as a trauma physician, are almost entirely silent and dark and strongly suggest the deadening nature of her work. One morning, however, she packs her sailing boat the Asa Gray (named after US botanist and friend of Charles Darwin) with plentiful supplies and sets off to sail down the coast of Africa to Ascension Island in the South Atlantic Ocean.

Here’s the trailer for Styx:

For quite a while, the film dwells on Rike on her boat –silently going about the job of sailing. The abiding silence and the vastness of the ocean emphasize her detachment. This sense of what defines the protagonist—her remoteness—is emphasized in a scene soon after Rike departs, which shows her plotting a course down the African coast on a map and then reading a (fictitious) book, The Creation of Paradise: Darwin on Ascension Island, with idyllic illustrations of lush green scenery, starkly different from the opening scenes in Gibraltar. These scenes suggest that Rike lives her life above the mass and the mess of lived humanity, in the abstract realms represented by maps and illustrations. She hovers over the map of Africa rather than plunging into the life of the continent, experiencing its terrain and its people.


Rike plotting her course on the map; and reading The Creation of Paradise

Indeed, it’s no accident that Rike is re-tracing Darwin’s path to Ascension Island in particular. Along with his botanist and explorer friend Joseph Hooker, Darwin transformed Ascension Island from a volcanic rock devoid of trees to a forested oasis; for decades, the two men directed the Royal Navy to transplant trees and plants from Kew Garden, perpetuating “the world’s first experiment in ‘terra-forming’. They created a self-sustaining and self-reproducing ecosystem in order to make Ascension Island more habitable.’ Ascension Island is not a ‘real’ place but the manifestation of an idea, an abstraction given tangible form.

Needless to say, Rike is not allowed to continue on her course, away from the coast, away from messy humanity. She sees a boat, adrift, sinking, and full of people who yell and jump in the ocean when they see her. Rike calls the coast guard, but they tell her to stay away, not to intervene. They say they’re putting together a rescue but it doesn’t come. Agonized over what to do –and doing nothing—Rike sees that a boy (Kingsley, played by Gedion Oduor Wekesa) has made it close to her boat, so she pulls him aboard and takes care of him. Still the coast guard doesn’t come—indeed, it’s unclear if they ever will, and Rike realizes that refugees at seas are left to fend for themselves.


Kingsley (Gedion Oduor Wekesa)

Rike’s developing relationship with the boy she rescues finally pushes her out of her indecision and she heads toward the sinking boat. When she boards, her life changes—and the experience seems very much akin to what Barbara Creed has argued is the project of the horror film: ‘The horror film attempts to bring about a confrontation with the abject’, she writes, ‘in order finally to eject the abject and redraw the boundaries between the human and non-human’.[i] Many horror films, however, never eject the abject, never redraw the boundaries—and such is Rike’s experience on the sinking boat. She encounters the ‘abject’—a human abject, bound up with contemporary political realities—and she seems then unable to eject it.

Fischer’s film takes aim squarely at the problem of migrants and refugees that has been so central in European politics in the second decade of the twenty-first century. It shows the inhumanity of state responses to the refugee crisis and the difficult decisions individuals find they have to make. It also, above all, shows the arbitrariness of borders and nations. It begins in Gibraltar, not insignificantly, which has been occupied and colonized by waves of different peoples. Rike herself is clearly not native to Gibraltar (which is in the European Union).


The barbary macaque in Gibraltar

Indeed, the very first scene of the film says much about the arbitrariness of borders and claims about which people a land or nation ‘belongs’ to. It shows the famous barbary macaques – inhabitants of the island long before the British occupation began in 1704; they may have been introduced during the earlier Islamic period, as early as the 8th century. By beginning with the macaques, Fisher suggests that they were the original inhabitants of Gibraltar and everyone else has been some form of intruder or colonizer. Their presence in the film argues for human humility, for a recognition by modern Europeans, especially, that they have been migrants and refugees, that they have crossed borders. The film’s beginning thus pushes for compassion for the sinking boat of refugees. There is also even folklore on the island, apparently, claiming that the monkeys entered the Rock from Morocco through an underground tunnel linking Gibraltar to the African continent. The monkey thus macaques thus also signal quite directly the ongoing, continual breaching of borders, even between and across continents.[ii]


Susanne Wolff as Rike

Styx is a slow film that spends much of its time developing Rike’s character through painstaking, small details. It’s about setting up the dilemma she faces and then, with the character of Kingsley, showing her what’s at stake in the decision she must make. It’s more drama / thriller than horror—but, in Rike’s encounter with the refugee boat, it depicts what all horror does: it takes its characters to a place of the abject, whether that abject is bodily or political. Barbara Creed in the early 1990s wrote about the abject in terms of the ‘monstrous-feminine’; now, in the 2010s, we are seeing increasing numbers of films that explore the ‘monstrous-migrant’.[iii] Styx is a thoughtful example of this new sub-genre—and it shows how hard, how sometimes impossible, it is to come back from or to banish the abject.

You can find Styx on Amazon:

[i] Barbara Creed, The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis (New York: Routledge, 1993), p. 14.


[iii] See our posts on Desierto, Beneath Us and It Comes at Night. Chris Peckover’s Undocumented (2010) is also a brilliant example of the ‘monstrous-migrant’.

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