Issue 40 2004
Passing For Horror
Race, Fear, and Elia Kazan’s Pinky
By MIRIAM J. PETTY
| Note: Click on each
image to see an enlargement of it.
 Film genres routinely mix and evolve over time in ways
that change our expectations of them, and change the way that we
as audiences read and receive them. At times, however, the mixing
of genres can function to focus our attention on certain film texts,
and certain critical moments within these texts. While work on genre
by scholars such as Thomas Schatz, Charles Maland, and Steve Neale
suggests that social problem films are "too various in their
narratives and thematic characteristics to warrant the label ‘genre’"
(Maland 307), John Hill, Peter Roffman, and Jim Purdy observe the
way that social problem films typically employ "general
conventions, especially those of narrative and realism"
(Roffman, Purdy 222). In this essay, I use the 1949 Hollywood film
Pinky to suggest the ways in which social problem films dealing
with the phenomenon of racial "passing" (instances in
which light-skinned black characters "pretend" to be whites)
use themes and motifs commonly found in horror films.
 A post-World War II offering from the Fox studio, Pinky
represents part of what Christopher Jones calls the "culmination
of the trend toward black realism in the American cinema of the
forties" (110) in 1949. As Jones observes, this year saw the
release of films like Lost Boundaries (also a cinematic account
of a "black-as-white" passing story), Stanley Kramer’s
post-war drama Home of the Brave, and the film adaptation
of William Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust. Pinky’s
place as the most popular and critically acclaimed of these films
dealing substantially with "blacks at home in the United States,
enduring the problems of civilian life" (Jones 110-111)
suggests the significance of examining the currents of fear
and repression underlying its presentation of racial realities.
 In his noted essay "Ideology, Genre, Auteur,"
Robin Wood posits that "in the classical Hollywood cinema motifs
cross repeatedly from genre to genre," and continues by asserting
that genres "represent different strategies for dealing with
the same ideological tensions" (671). As one of Hollywood’s
social problem films on the theme of race, Pinky indeed addresses
the profound and lasting ideological tension created by the social
construct of race, the taboo of interracial relationships and the
children of such relations. Pinky also casts a white actress
as a "mulatto" character light-skinned enough to "pass
for white," further complicating the film’s ideological function
by making "white as black" passing acceptable, while simultaneously
problematizing "black as white passing," a paradox I will
discuss more fully later.
 Throughout this essay, I use the word "mulatto"
or the phrase "mulatto figure" to reflect the function
that such characters perform—one which disrupts the boundaries
of traditional racial stratifications between blacks and whites.
In fact, my analysis of Pinky frequently conflates the terms
"black" and "mulatto" or "mixed-race,"
identities and experiences that are not necessarily one in the same.
Pinky itself conflates these terms in its storyline. What
is more, historically, Hollywood films that feature the mulatto
figure do not attend to such differences, but at once exploit the
sensationalism in the issue of passing and use the mulatto as a
generic cipher for "the race problem." Pinky pays
more attention to questions of intraracial color difference than
most, but still limits Pinky’s experience to a series of problems
of race that subside when she accedes to the status quo of segregation.
The specificity of her ancestry only serves to give her story an
 In reading the way that horror informs Pinky,
I employ two well-known and canonical horror films of the 1940s
and 50s, namely Cat People (1942) and Creature from the
Black Lagoon (1954), both of which arguably carry anti-miscegenation
themes in their own right. Film scholars like LeiLani Nishime have
observed that anxieties about racial purity have long been played
out in the narratives of sci-fi and horror films (3). As such, I
seek here to examine why and how the conventions of cinematic horror
are used in a film like Pinky, a film most commonly identified
with melodrama or "women’s pictures," and with the loosely
bound "social problem film" genre.
 This paper takes as a point of departure the argument
that Susan Courtney makes in her 1997 Berkeley dissertation, "Hollywood’s
Fantasy of Miscegenation," (forthcoming in January 2005 from
Princeton University Press) in which she provides specific and extended
analysis of Pinky. Placing Pinky amongst the class
of films she terms "miscegenation films," Courtney writes
that these works consistently "engage with the constitution
of racial boundaries both: in the domain of the visual, exerting
considerable cinematic pressure to make ‘race’ appear visibly self-evident:
and in the domain of the psychic, directing spectators how to believe
in, and identify and desire in accordance with cinematically imposed
racial ‘lines’" (13). I suggest that part of the way that
Pinky –and arguably similar films like Lost Boundaries
and the 1959 Imitation of Life–achieve their cinematic re-constitution
of race is by using motifs of the horror genre such as I will identify
here; these films thus draw upon racialized beliefs that associate
fear with blackness to indelibly mark the white actors featured
in these films as black. Richard Dyer has observed how in cinema,
slippage occurs between the registers that categorize black and
white as symbol, hue, and skin color (Dyer 41-81). That blackness
as fear might slip into blackness as skin color here, in films about
passing seems likely. I argue further that part of the way that
horror is invoked in Pinky is through Jeanne Crain’s performance
of the role, and in the complexity of her identity as a white woman
playing a black woman who ultimately does not, who must not
pass for white.
Pinky, The Horror Genre, and Blackness
 Pinky tells the story of Patricia Johnson (Jeanne
Crain)—known as "Pinky"—a young woman who
returns to her native home in the South, after having lived in the
North for many years for training as a nurse. According to the film,
Pinky is black, but light-skinned enough to pass for white, and
we learn that she has passed while in the North, and fallen in love
with a white man, Tom Adams (William Lundigan). However, when she
returns to the South, her grandmother Dicey Johnson (Ethel Waters),
and others attempt to influence her to remain there and to identify
herself as black. At her grandmother’s behest, Pinky acts as a nurse
for the invalid Miss Em (Ethel Barrymore). Miss Em is an elderly
white woman who is both her grandmother’s friend and a member of
the white family who owned Dicey in slavery. Miss Em also encourages
Pinky to reject passing as an option, advising her to "be yourself."
Pinky initially dislikes Miss Em intensely, but in nursing her,
comes to admire her strength and spirit. When Miss Em dies, she
leaves a will that grants Pinky her mansion and all of her land.
The will is contested in court by Miss Em’s malicious Cousin Wooley
(Evelyn Varden), who alleges that Pinky doped and manipulated Miss
Em when she was ill. Pinky prevails however, inherits the estate,
and ultimately makes her decision to remain in the South, and use
the land and home to open a professional nursing school for blacks.
Though Tom has maintained that he still loves her and wants to marry
her, she refuses him, insisting that her place is with her people.
 Even read superficially, Pinky manifests elements
of the Gothic genre in literature. Literary scholar Jerrold Hogle
defines a Gothic tale as one which "usually takes place...in
an antiquated or seemingly antiquated space – be it a castle, a
foreign palace, ...a large old house or theatre, ...[and so on]...Within
this space, or a combination of such spaces, are hidden some secrets
from the past (sometimes the recent past) that haunt the characters,
psychologically, physically, or otherwise at the main time of the
story" (2). Hauntings can take a number of forms, but usually
assume supernatural shapes, "to manifest unresolved crimes
or conflicts that can no longer be successfully buried from view"
 On its face, Pinky carries many of these elements:
the South as a whole is certainly represented as "an antiquated
space," and the film’s more specific primary settings, the
land on which Pinky’s grandmother lives, in former slave quarters,
and the former plantation’s "big house" are antediluvian
sites that are "haunted" by a specific, raced set of histories
and memories. Pinky, who has been gone from the South since she
was a child, and has since "passed" as a white person
in the North, is psychologically haunted by both the recent memory
of her having passed as white, and by what all around her presume
as the "fact" of her blackness, a fact which had evidently
ceased to be a part of her life for many years.
 Moreover, the visual style of certain shots in Pinky
plainly suggests classic works of the horror film genre specifically.
Of course, the tradition of Gothic literature ultimately spawned
the horror film genre; the Edison company would give Mary Shelley’s
Frankenstein its first cinematic adaptation in 1910, and
James Whale’s 1931 film version of the same text would become a
horror classic, one of many films of the 1930s to establish cornerstones
of the cinematic vocabulary we now recognize as the iconography
of horror. As William Everson reminds us, the horror film "depends
for its ultimate effect on the scaring of the audience by manipulating
their emotions" (2). David Chute likewise asserts, "horror
is defined...by a mood or atmosphere; by how it makes its audiences
feel" (80). While Pinky does not actively depict the
supernatural, it does draw upon the classic horror lexicon, creating
within the rural setting of Pinky’s hometown an atmosphere that
is often ethereal and shadowy. This atmosphere is particularly potent
early in the film, a coincidence consistent with Courtney’s
observation that through its apparatus, Pinky goes
about directing the audience through a complicated series of racially
identifying "looks" and "recognitions" of Jeanne
Crain/Pinky. Courtney argues that it is the:
arrangement of cinematic elements, and not any innate knowledge
on the part of the viewer, that directs us to see Pinky--as first
white...then black ...then black pretending to be white ...then
white on the outside struggling to be black on the inside...and
finally completely black through and through (319-20, emphasis in
 Pinky’s early "arrangement of cinematic
elements" relies heavily upon shots of mist, shadow, graveyards,
ramshackle homes and eerie ruins as central set pieces within the
South to which Pinky returns. Their prominence is pronounced here,
primarily occurring during the first half of the film. If we read
Pinky through its established genre of "social problem
film," this is the portion of the film that moves the protagonist
"through an experience of education about the social problem
as the film develops" (Maland 314). This early portion of the
film is also the window of time wherein an audience’s belief in
and identification of Jeanne Crain as herself, as "white actress,"
would likely be at its height. In this critical juncture as Pinky
concerns itself with educating the protagonist (and the viewer)
about "black experiences," and in associating its white
lead actress with a black identity, the film makes use of
horror conventions to conjure a psychological and atmospheric "blackness."
For example, the second full scene of the film takes place the night
of Pinky’s return home from the North. We find Pinky asleep in bed,
and have just seen her initial reunion with her grandmother Dicey
be spoiled by Pinky’s admission that she has passed for white during
her years away from home. As Pinky sleeps now, troubled by the quarrel,
she begins to toss and turn, dreaming restlessly of Tom, the white
boyfriend she has left behind in the North. She calls Tom’s name
and it is echoed in voice-over, in Pinky’s voice, as she calls out
to him in her dream. Finally
the dream voice screams Tom’s name. Pinky is quickly jolted awake,
and sits bolt upright in bed, her frightened face captured in an
abrupt extreme close-up. She glances around slowly and fearfully,
initially not remembering where she is. Hearing the crickets chirping
about her, she rises from her bed and looks out of the back door
to her room, which is standing open to the outside of the house.
Besides the sound of crickets and frogs, a train is audible in the
distance. The door opens onto the rear of the house, where Pinky
sees a mist-covered night, mossy trees looming out of the shadows,
and the jagged teeth of a dilapidated fence, all distinctly gloomy
and ominous. The
entire sequence has been lighted harshly, in a way that makes shadows
appear large and threatening. The effect of this lighting is perhaps
at its greatest as Pinky looks out of her door onto the night. She
stands at the door for a moment, then shuts the door quickly, returns
to her bed, and pulls the covers up to her nose, now very awake,
and staring troubled and wide-eyed as the sequence ends (Figs. 1,
2, and 3).
 The lighting and gloomy setting of this scene and others
recall the look of classic horror films like Frankenstein
(1931), Dracula (1931), Murders in the Rue Morgue
(1932) The Black Cat (1934), and The Werewolf of London
(1935). Indeed, as Pinky looks out into the murky, desolate night
the viewer is reminded of the archetypal horror film moment, in
which the protagonist first glimpses the symbolically threatening
space or edifice that Robin Wood calls the "terrible house"
("American Horror Film" 188). In Pinky, as in the
horror films cited here, it is a moment that greatly influences
mood and atmosphere, creating "a sinister and foreboding effect"
upon both character and audience (Bunnell 85,88). While we cannot
see any distinct structure as Pinky looks out the back door, the
nature of Pinky’s terrible house is revealed to us the next
morning, when Dicey and Pinky talk of Miss Em, whose neglected southern
manor is visible in the distance. When Dicey inquires why Pinky
dislikes Miss Em so intently, Pinky replies, "Look at her house.
Slave-built, slave-run, and run-down ever since." Her bitter
description calls to mind Wood’s conclusion that the terrible house
signifies "the dead weight of the past crushing the life of
the younger generation, the future" ("American Horror
Film" 188). Though from the film’s point of view, the house
will in the end be renovated and restored specifically for the purpose
of uplifting this younger generation, critics of the film’s resolution
observe that this uplift nonetheless occurs within a strictly segregationist
 To return to the "sleeping" sequence, we can
also observe the way that the "dream to wake" sequence
at its center evokes psychological horror and the nightmare, which,
as Noël Carroll points out, has been bound to horror "since
the inception of the modern tradition" (16). As the distant
train whistle intimates, Pinky is being haunted, so to speak, by
the memory of her recent past—the past in which she has passed
for white in the North and taken a white lover—and the conflict
it raises with her ancestral (black) past and her current (black)
circumstances. As Pinky is called upon to both confront and accept
the blackness the film insists is the only possible identity for
her, it frames her amongst visuals and a style that connote horror
and create a visual/psychological rhyme between blackness and fear.
 It is also worth noting that Jeanne Crain’s performance
in this scene largely conveys fear over and above the sadness and
confusion that the film has by now established that Pinky feels.
Her furtive glancing around the room, her abrupt shutting and latching
the door, and her retreat beneath the covers all beg the question:
What is Pinky afraid of? While on the one hand, the setting suggests
that Pinky’s fear has an external source, on the other, because
the film will adhere to a racially segregationist doctrine throughout
(and particularly in the resolution that places Pinky with blacks
and away from the white Tom), we are invited to understand that
disturbing setting as reflecting what is symbolically inside of
Pinky as well. To put it another way, Pinky may be afraid of
the place that she is in, but the film will maintain that Pinky
is indeed "in her place"—in it, and of it.
Thus ultimately what Pinky is afraid of in this sequence is what
the film tells us she is – of being, of once more becoming,
a black person.
 Significantly, blackness is neither invoked by the looks
of the character Pinky, nor by Jeanne Crain as the actress that
plays her. In fact there are aspects of Pinky’s production
that suggest that Crain’s visual whiteness was an element to be
preserved, or even heightened, in the presentation of Crain as the
sympathetic Pinky. A September 1949 article in Ebony reported
that in trying "to fit her into the part of a part-Negro girl,
the studio makeup man tried every dark shade in his grease-paint
box before settling on a lighter shade than [Crain] usually wears"
(25). Ironically then, Crain’s skin appears whiter in Pinky
than it does in films in which she plays a white character. Her
"whiter than white" appearance would have complemented
the film’s careful lighting, which, as Susan Courtney points out,
consistently lit or shadowed Crain’s face and body to reinforce
the message of racial identity the narrative sought to send about
her character in a given moment (314-19). Yet her appearance also
may have been subtly powerful in helping to undermine the vision
of black humanity that the film claimed to champion.
 A useful point of comparison here is the performance
of light-skinned black actress Fredi Washington in the 1934 Imitation
of Life. Washington’s body and performance combined with the
character Peola to create what Anna Everett terms the "Peola
discourse," an "authenticating aura" (221) that compelled
and electrified black viewers. Everett argues that Washington’s
presence in the role of Peola made Imitation of Life, despite
its many shortcomings, wildly popular with black audiences. "Far
beyond the limits of the tragic mulatta icon," Everett writes,
"Washington’s Peola generated a signifying chain of highly
complex social, historical, economical, racial, and psychical meanings
for black spectators," because her "degree zero of representational
whiteness," (221) imparted the resistant character with a genuine
spirit of black self-representation.
 By contrast Crain’s body can never be separated from
its whiteness. The extra-filmic narrative of Pinky, in which
"white actress Jeanne Crain has been cast as a mulatto,"
asserts that white passing for black is acceptable, while Pinky’s
main text simultaneously maintains that black passing for white
is not (Rogin, 185). The social context of white supremacist American
culture that makes this paradox possible is evident in the history
of Hollywood cinema, a history, in which whites have "enjoyed
the unilateral prerogative of acting in ‘blackface,’ ‘redface,’
brownface,’ and ‘yellowface,’ while the reverse has rarely been
the case" (Shohat, Stam 189).
 Doubly disembodied by Jeanne Crain/Pinky, blackness is
turned into a kind of threatening, invisible, additional character
in Pinky, an unruly poltergeist that roams about, sometimes
in spite of the film’s best attempts to control and direct our perception
of it. Thus, when white Jeanne Crain as Pinky is afraid in the "sleeping
scene," with its harsh black and white shadows and lighting,
and the set outside of her back door that looks for all the world
like a ruined churchyard, the spectral blackness disembodied by
her white presence comes to mind; perhaps this is what she fears?
Such a fear is magnified and complicated by the effect of audience
identification, for as Elspeth Kydd comments, by casting a white
actress as a mulatto/black character, Pinky produces "an
ambiguous interplay of audience identifications" (96). In a
review of Pinky that appeared in a September 1949 New
York Times review, Bosley Crowther makes a similar point:
the veteran scriptwriters and Elia Kazan...have brought all their
talents to defining the social knocks that are absorbed by this
girl, after carefully making her a figure of gentle aspect with
whom the audience can ‘identify.’ And thus they have cleverly contrived
it so that each blow and shock that she receives is soundly transmitted
to the audience, which is prompted to feel and think for her. Her
cogitations and emotions are obvious and arbitrary, therefore (28).
As Jeanne Crain/Pinky trembles in her bed in this early scene,
it is not difficult to imagine her threatened by an alienated, spectral
blackness that hovers over her. She calls out desperately for Tom,
sturdy symbol of her white life, imagining that he may yet be her
rescuer. That a white audience could have identified with Crain,
as Kydd and Crowther note, meant that they could literally imagine
themselves sharing her fate. Pinky does not require
them to stretch themselves to imagine what it is like to be black,
but actually gives them a vehicle to imagine their own white appearances
as fallible, as no guarantee of continued enjoyment all of the rights
and privileges of whiteness. If a black Pinky could "pass"
for white, why could a white viewer not be "mistaken"
for black? Thus, Pinky, like many horror movies, poses "vivid
threats to our values and concepts, our very bodily and mental integrity"
(Freeland 273). In a larger sense, what is threatened with a sinister
and unnerving transformation/conflation in Pinky is the very
nature of whiteness and blackness, constructs which have long stood
as the imagined ultimate symbols of the American system of racial
 If one function of Pinky’s use of horror is to
offer to white viewers of the film the transformation of a white
woman (and via identification, of themselves) into a black woman,
what might have made the experience even more atypical and strange
was that white audiences by this time were well acquainted with
the transformation of whites into blacks via blackface minstrelsy,
though with a decidedly different set of attendant expectations.
To be sure, as Michael Rogin has pointed out, the only film more
popular than Pinky in 1949 was the sequel biopic Jolson
Sings Again, starring Larry Parks as both Al Jolson and as himself,
"the actor who would play Jolson," in the film’s most
self-referential of narratives.
 But Rogin also points us toward the way that the difference
between blackface minstrelsy and the social problem film is not
necessarily so great as might be imagined, calling the racial social
problem film "an inheritance" from the blackface musical
(176). Citing the 1929 genre-crosser The Jazz Singer as the
root of both types, Rogin incisively observes, "not only do
blackface stereotypes carry over into race relations movies, but
the blackface celebration of performance infects the social problem
film as well, since role-playing and identity transformation organize
both genres. Both offer the Hollywood method to cross the racial-ethnic
divide" (173). Rogin’s assessment is clearly most applicable
to social problem films like Pinky, which cast white actors
in its primary black role(s). Too, the Ebony magazine article’s
concern over what color of makeup would be used on Jeanne Crain
to convey Pinky’s race likewise emphasizes the kinship between the
blackface musical and the social problem film. If we can yet further
conceive of Pinky as part horror film, then its generic ancestry
is indeed complex, drawing upon the working-class-male oriented
white supremacist ideology of the minstrel show, the white middle
class female orientation of the melodrama and "woman’s film,"
the liberal political tradition of the social problem picture, and
the largely young white male-oriented strategies of the horror movie.
 Pinky, and indeed, the mulatto character played by "white"
actors more generally, functions as the obverse of the male minstrel
who looks black but articulates a white supremacist vision of black
identity. Instead, a white female, in this case Jeanne Crain in
a naturalistic "whiteface," plays black, and has black
experiences of violent and everyday racism visited upon her. This
inversion moves the white body substituted for the black from the
stop of humor to the stop of pathos and especially fear. It moves
from the white minstrel male as the spectacular and powerful wielder
of blackness as emblem of white privilege to the white "mulatto"
female as the spectacular victim of blackness’ effects. These dynamics
profoundly inform the way that the genre of horror is relevant to
films like Pinky.
Pinky and Cat People: The "Hidden Essence"
 Susan Courtney observes that Pinky offers
a specific "explanation for the source of Pinky’s blackness
through the ongoing discourse of essence as emanating from within...this
logic argues that the appearance of the bodily image does not matter,
because the inside will shine through" (319). Many horror
films use a similar device or theme about essential natures hidden
within, and in them, as in films on passing, these hidden essences
create destabilized, dangerous identities that must be addressed
and resolved. This discourse of "hidden essence" perhaps
suggests another way to examine a fear of transformation as part
of Pinky’s "horrific" subtext. Val Lewton’s 1942
horror film Cat People bears a number of intriguing
and compelling similarities to Pinky. In one sense it is
also a story of passing which inherently criticizes the practice
as the attempt to suppress something essential that lies within.
Like Pinky, Cat People further contends that as such,
passing is an untenable, impossible, and potentially dangerous idea.
 In Cat People, Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon),
a Serbian immigrant, comes to America as a fashion designer. Making
sketches of a panther in the Central Park Zoo, she meets Oliver
Reed (Kent Smith), a young, generically white American man. The
two soon fall in love and are married. Yet throughout their brief
courtship, Irena alludes to her strange ancestry, as a descendant
of Serbian "cat women," practitioners of witchcraft who
turn into panther-like cats when angry or impassioned. These women
cannot love a man, because in an embrace, they will transform into
their cat form and attack and kill their lover. Irena’s fear that
she carries the trait of the cat women troubles her attempt at "normal"
married life with Oliver, because the pair cannot be sexually intimate.
Oliver confides his troubles to his female co-worker Alice (Jane
Randolph) and over Irena’s embarrassment and objections, she suggests
a psychiatrist. Throughout the film we are presented with evidence
that, despite Oliver’s doubting, Irena’s fears are well founded.
In the end she does transform into a cat, killing her psychiatrist
(Tom Conway) as he attempts to seduce her. She is in turn killed
by the same panther she sketched in the film’s opening, which she
releases from its cage in the zoo.
 Pinky and Cat People both create
moments in which they capitalize upon the idea of concealed inner
natures in awkward or tension-filled interactions, moments in which
the audience knows or suspects why certain responses occur
– because of a hidden essence – while characters in the scene do
not. For instance, in Cat People, Oliver gives Irena a kitten
as a present– but the cat, sensing Irena’s "difference,"
responds badly to her, hissing and arching its back. When the two
return to the pet store to exchange the kitten for a different,
more tractable pet, all of the animals in the store go wild, carrying
on noisily and running/flying to and fro inside their cages. When
Irena waits outside, the din ceases completely, leaving the store
"as peaceful as my dream of heaven," as the pet shop’s
elderly proprietress observes. Indeed it is she who notes, in her
own long-winded way, that the animals did not seem to like Irena,
privately commenting to Oliver that
Animals are ever so psychic. There are some people who just can’t
come in here. My dear brother’s wife, for instance. She’s a very
nice girl. I’ve got nothing against her. But you just should see
what happens when she puts her foot inside this place. The cats
particularly—they seem to know. You can fool everybody,
but landy dearie me, you can’t fool a cat. They seem to know who’s
not right, if you know what I mean.
 The animals’ raucous reception of Irena remains mystifying
(and simply inconsequential) to Oliver, though the pet shop lady
has obviously got the idea—and she attempts to pass it on
to Oliver by intimating that the cat he has just returned "knew"
something about Irena. In fact, everyone—the audience, the
animals, the pet-shop lady, and Irena herself —everyone except
the love-struck, dull-witted Oliver, has at least an inkling that
the animals’ response signifies the presence of a hidden,
 In an analogous scene in Pinky, just after the
midpoint of the film, Pinky goes to the town’s dry goods store to
purchase a mourning veil to wear to Miss Em’s funeral. As Pinky
comes through the door of the store, the shot’s lighting "telegraphs"
to us in advance that she is going to "pass" for white
in this scene; as she walks into the store, she stands in the doorway,
first in shadow. She takes a step forward into the light and stops,
presenting her white skin, her white features, and then proceeds
into the store. She is greeted by a saleswoman who treats her kindly
and courteously; thus we understand that Pinky is "passing."
 Pinky’s racial transgression is made clearer still when
Mrs. Wooley, the late Miss Em’s cousin and Pinky’s emerging nemesis
at this point in the film, enters the scene. Mrs. Wooley has by
this time met Pinky in Miss Em’s house. She knows that Pinky was
her late cousin’s nurse; more to the point, she knows that Pinky
is black. Mrs. Wooley calls somewhat impatiently to the salesgirl
who is wrapping up Pinky’s veil, saying, "Miss Viola, come
wait on me please." Mrs. Wooley’s entrance changes Pinky’s
"passing" from indirect to direct, as she can essentially
be understood to be competing directly with a white person for equal
treatment. Mrs. Wooley quickly becomes angered when the saleswoman
does not abandon Pinky to wait on her. Clearly, she is even more
outraged that Pinky has the audacity to allow the salesgirl
to wait on her ahead of a white person, when the salesgirl obviously
believes Pinky is white. Her indignation mounts, as she calls the
store owner onto the scene, demanding to know when it became "your
policy to wait on nigras [sic] before white folks?!" As Mrs.
Wooley "accuses" Pinky of blackness, the scene’s coded
lighting is arranged to correspond to the change in the characters’
view of Pinky. When the camera cuts back from the intimidated store
owner to the bewildered salesgirl and Pinky, Pinky’s face and body
are cast into shadow, in particular contrast to the salesgirl, who
is in the light.
 What this scene makes equally clear is that the film
places all responsibility for "passing" with Pinky herself.
Scenes like the one in the store suggest that for Pinky, anything
other than responding, "I’m colored," when the salesgirl
offers her assistance is "passing." Thus the "social
problem" of passing ostensibly comes from within Pinky, not
from the society without, a conclusion that is reinforced by the
film’s positioning Pinky to "solve" the problem herself,
through her remaining south, ending her relationship with Tom, and
establishing the black nursing school. As Kydd observes, in order
for us to receive Pinky as black, we must also accept the notion
that since "her blackness is not visible, it is her duty to
tell people of it. This gives her the burden of constantly having
to put her racial identity, and by extension, societal racism, into
discourse" (113). The invisible blackness disembodied both
by white-looking character Pinky and white actress Jean Crain is
at the heart of this notion of "hidden essence;" its dramatic
and disturbing effects are at play, swirling around in this volatile
scene. This is why Pinky fears to put her identity "into discourse,"
because by doing so, she potentially unleashes this powerful, spectral
 When we consider the notion of such hidden, essential
natures within the contexts of films that treat passing, the light-skinned
body itself becomes characterized as a "fraudulent"
or "deceptive" bodily text. In such instances, the hidden
essential (black/hybrid) nature, is characterized as monstrous or
threatening, and in potential danger of becoming known or discovered
– thus characterized by the silent "lie" that the light-skinned
body tells when read as white. While the film plainly positions
the viewer to deem the way Pinky is treated as unjust, at the same
time the incident in the dry goods store raises the question of
Pinky’s body, which ostensibly hides something shocking within,
just as Irena’s body in Cat People contains a hidden essence
that provokes the commotion in the pet store. Indeed, producer Lewton
and director Jacques Tourneur’s subtlety in implying rather
than showing Irena’s monstrousness is part of what makes
Cat People feel so similar to Pinky. Both rely upon
"devices of figuration" common to horror films in which
the viewer "senses a terrible presence in the articulation
of imagery, but the images themselves display only an absence
of the terrible object, or the possibility that it may become visible"
(Giles 42). For Irena and Pinky, "being hidden" and "being
discovered" can occur in the same moment. Both characters articulate
the complexity of "the relationship between normality and the
Monster," that which for Wood "constitutes the essential
subject of the horror film" ("American Horror Film"
176). For both, disclosure seems necessary and yet comes with its
own set of repercussions.
The Hybrid (Black) Body as Monstrous: Pinky and the Gill-man
 There are already hints here that Pinky’s monstrousness,
such as it is, derives both from her status as hybrid and from the
definition of that hybridity as black. In this final section, I
attempt to examine this idea more fully, using the 1954 film Creature
from the Black Lagoon. As a seminal "creature feature"
horror movie with science fiction overtones, Creature From the
Black Lagoon is used here to suggest the ways that Pinky
also functions as a "creature feature" of sorts. Like
many such films, Pinky’s title draws attention to the film’s
"featured creature," both naming and locating her. As
it happens, in reviewing the film, Variety took care to define
the word "pinky" for its readers as "the tag hung
by Negroes on a member of their own race who is light-skinned enough
to pass for white." Likewise, Life magazine’s review
offered readers a similar definition of "pinky." Such
public explanations highlight the way that Pinky sought to
sell itself as a film that purveyed "insider" information
about African American cultural practices and norms. Yet they also
establish the character Pinky as a "what" as much as a
"who," as a set of peculiar characteristics as much as
a specific individual.
 It is important to note that Pinky predates
Creature From the Black Lagoon by five years, and
that the burgeoning science fiction craze that Creature
represented in 1954 was in fact augured by competition from
television, and audiences’ turn away from the horror formulas that
had been successful throughout the 1930s and 40s (Brunas, Brunas,
and Weaver 588-9). However, Creature’s particular emphasis
upon bodily spectacularity and scrutiny of the monster draws upon
models that were in fact established by older horror films like
The Mummy (1932), The Invisible Man (1933), or even
the earlier silent films of Lon Chaney, such as The Phantom of
the Opera (1925) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)
 In Creature from the Black Lagoon, a scientific
team stumbles upon a prehistoric half-man/half-fish creature in
a tributary of the Amazon River. The film is also part tragic love
story, in which the creature falls in love with Kay (played by Julie
Adams), the expedition’s sole woman scientist. The team manages
to capture the creature, but it escapes, and then returns to their
vessel to kidnap Kay. After rescuing Kay, they kill the creature
and leave the lagoon behind.
 Creature features often invite the scrutiny of monstrous,
and in this case hybrid bodies, and narratively positioning them
as disrupters of a pastoral setting. Indeed, Creature from the
Black Lagoon takes great care that its monster’s appearances
are announced and signaled. The creature’s entrances onscreen frequently
occur as breaks in the contemplation of the tranquility of the lagoon
itself, which is described by one character as a kind of forbidden
paradise. These visual breaks are emphasized by the film’s musical
score, which changes from a light, somewhat dreamy and meditative
melody to music that is dissonant and harsh, as blaring and ragged
trumpets punctuate each of the monster’s appearances. He (and the
creature is explicitly gendered and referenced as male in this film,
largely through his pursuit of Kay) - is highly lit so as to facilitate
and intensify our looking, and this further emphasizes our sense
of his monstrosity, particularly when he is out of the water, out
of his element. The creature is on the one hand humanoid in shape,
bipedal and symmetrical, having at the same time, prominent fins,
large layered scales as well as gills, which are emphasized by his
labored breathing on land. Furthermore, his claw-like hands and
feet are highlighted by the tracks he leaves both in the sand and
upon the bodies of those he kills. In this way, his hybridity is
itself depicted as the source of his monstrosity. In publicity and
promotional materials for the film, the creature is often referred
to as the "Gill-man," a name that highlights his genetic
duality. As well, the 3-D effect used in producing and marketing
this film lays even greater emphasis upon viewers’ scrutiny of the
 Despite the fact that the passing "creatures"
in films like Pinky do not share the overt monstrosity of
the Gill-man, their hybridity, and our sense of them as definitively
black as well, constitute a "veiled" monstrosity
that is disturbing in its seeming normality/whiteness. The tropes
that accompany the overtly monstrous body, that is, the disruptive
appearance of the body, the scrutiny of the body, and with these
the notion of the body as hybrid and thereby grotesque, are nevertheless
evident in Pinky, as well as in its contemporary Lost
Boundaries, and the later Douglas Sirk version of Imitation
of Life. We can observe that the monstrosity of the creature
from the black lagoon is derived specifically from the biological
cross between human and fish that creates a deformed, bizarre body
and shape. Were he solely fish or human, he would not be conceived
of as monstrous. Passing characters like Pinky are conceived of
as monstrous in part because of the racial hybridity that manifests
in a white-looking body that is socially defined as black, and in
part because the social definition of blackness itself carries a
long-standing set of associations with sub-humanity, deformity and
 In Pinky, key scenes illustrate the themes I outline
here. For example, there is the scene in which two young white men
assault Pinky as she walks through the black section of town where
she has returned to live with her grandmother. This scene also occurs
early in the film, on Pinky’s second night after her return to the
South. It is evening, and a solitary and melancholy Pinky stands
at a bridge, gazing out into the night sky and listlessly fingering
a small branch of flowers in her hand. The lights of a distant car
appear; as its motor becomes audible, Pinky turns and begins to
walk across the bridge. As the car comes into view, it pulls up
beside her and follows slowly just behind her as she walks on the
side of the road. The car is a convertible with its top down, and
we can see that it contains two young white men. The car starts
to pass Pinky, but the driver sees her, stops and then slows and
rolls slowly alongside and just behind her on the road. The driver
offers her a ride, and when Pinky quickly declines, the passenger,
who has just swigged from a pint bottle concealed in the car, responds
"’Scuse me ma’am, you must be a stranger around here. We can’t
let no white girl walk by herself through this here nigger section."
Pinky answers back shortly, "I live in this section."
The driver responds incredulously, "You what?" and Pinky
retorts angrily, "I said, I live here. Now just let
 Pinky’s assertion that she lives in the "nigger
section" is patently one in the same as saying that she is
black, though there is a conspicuous silence as the men pause to
let what she has said sink in, as the meaning of her words begins
to register with them ("She lives here...well what do you know."
"Who would have thought it?"). As Courtney has noted,
the spatial mapping of Pinky’s racial identity often has instantaneous
and highly specific effects (315-316). In this instance, where
Pinky lives at once establishes who and what she is
and the two white men’s previously ingratiating and dimly chivalrous
attitudes are immediately transformed as they follow her, turn the
car’s search lights on her, and then finally take off after her
at high speed, calling her "the whitest dinge I ever saw,"
and, "that little swamp rabbit." The two men catch her
and pin her against the side of the car, groping and fondling her,
examining her intimately and brutally, with their intent to rape
her quite clear. When one steps away from her to fetch the pint
bottle of liquor for her to drink, Pinky kicks and pushes the other
one away, and then lights out off the road into the forest, and
escapes successfully. As Pinky flees through the graveyard to evade
her pursuers, the film further draws upon the associations between
blackness —with Pinky’s "internal" blackness and
the night’s frightening blackness again invoked as rhymes—and
death. The graveyard is of course a staple location in tales of
 Again at the beginning of this scene, there is the eerie
atmosphere that permeates many of the early scenes in Pinky,
as well as what is now recognized by most as a basic device of horror
films, the lone, unaware victim. However, Pinky is peculiarly positioned
as both victim and "monstrous" in the sequence. Pinky
herself does not disrupt the melancholy reverie that begins the
scene, but the specter of her hybridity and blackness does, after
a fashion. It is the revelation of who and what Pinky is that, in
the minds of the young hoodlums who chase her, both provoke and
"justify" their assault. In this scene we see Pinky vacillating
between the position of the woman scientist Kay in Creature
From the Black Lagoon – an object of the patriarchal
gaze, and of male desire – and the position of the creature itself,
prey to be run down and caught, and an object of intense
curiosity and violent scrutiny, an object to be examined, and literally
poked and prodded.
 Much of these white men’s assault on Pinky is concerned
with scrutiny and examination. Her would-be rapist’s declaration
"That’s the whitest dinge I ever saw" as the car’s headlights
illuminate Pinky’s body so that it is visible through the fabric
of her dress, emphasizes the notion of Pinky as a highly spectacular
curiosity. Once they have caught her, they are absorbed enough with
their crude examination ("What a build on her," one mutters,
then demands, "let’s see your face") that Pinky is able
to get away.
 This is not at all to deny the simultaneous levels at
which their scrutiny of Pinky functions—their remarks invoke
contemporary discourses of the pin-up girl and the historical, gendered
discourses of the slave auction block, at the very least. Indeed,
I would suggest that these primary, and somewhat contradictory discourses
inform the men’s response to Pinky in a manner that is indexical
of the particular fusion of racial and sexual identifications that
they perceive as located freakishly within her body. What makes
Pinky freakish also makes her vulnerability more extreme. Because
she is black, she lacks social status and can be attacked without
fear of reprisal; because she is female, she is perceived as a sexual
object; because she looks white, she is perceived as sexually desirable.
Because Pinky is vulnerable in these ways, she is also more sympathetic
to the audience, and her freakishness, her monstrousness takes on
a more complicated aspect.
 The scene thus invokes a common trope of ambiguity that
so often makes monsters of the screen complex, an ambiguity that
pushes the viewer to ponder who the "real" monster is.
Though the creature of Black Lagoon is clearly aggressive
and dangerous, the film’s narrative also includes Dr. Mark Williams
(Richard Denning) among the scientific team that hunts him. Williams
is blindly ambitious, self-seeking, and ruthless; he is willing
to jeopardize the lives of other members of the team to continue
the hunt for the creature. He, like the creature, has a somewhat
unsavory and inappropriate attraction to Kay, though she is the
fiancée of another of the team’s scientists, Dr. David Reed (Richard
Carlson). Near the film’s close, the creature in fact kills Williams;
Reed survives and in turn (with the help of the rest of the team)
kills the creature.
 This trope is memorably invoked in an exchange in the
1986 film Aliens, in which Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) discovers
that the ruthless and slimy character Burke (Paul Reiser) has attempted
to make her and a child unwitting hosts of the parasitic vicious
and dangerous aliens they have found back to earth—for a profit.
"I don’t know which species is worse," she rages, "you
don’t see them fucking each other over for a goddamn percentage!"
Among older Hollywood films, one might think of Tod Browning’s Hollywood
parable Freaks (1932), or the comparisons implicit in Henry
Frankenstein’s hubris in wanting to "play God," and the
angry, torch-wielding mob that hounds the terrified monster to his
death in the original film version of Frankenstein (1931).
Terming this dynamic "ambivalence," Wood reminds us that
by contrast, "the Frankenstein monster suffers, weeps, responds
to music, longs to relate to people..." ("American Horror
Film" 177). This ambivalence marks a signal moment in which
the viewer has to stop and think about the monstrousness of humanity,
and the humanity of the monster.
 Through its idealization of Pinky as beautiful, vulnerable,
female, and a fetish figure who is simultaneously white and black,
as well as victimized, primarily by whites, Pinky poses a
similar, somewhat more complicated meta-narrative meditation upon
the identity of the "real" monster. It does so, ironically,
by using a visually and literally white figure to play upon long-standing
ideological assumptions of black inferiority, criminality, indigence,
brutality, and monstrosity. Here as the assumed monster,
the "creature" of Pinky, is the blackness disembodied
from the character Pinky, the shadow presence for Jeanne Crain’s
white presence. Casting white southerners, both poor and wealthy,
as the answers to the "real monster" question, Pinky
echoes the discourse of Creature from the Black Lagoon
and other such films that evoke "our" sympathy for
the "creature," and questions "our" ostensibly
collective humanity, while tacitly predicating access to that humanity
upon white skin. By presenting white men who aggressively pursue
Pinky as their prey, this part of Pinky’s narrative assumes
that its white audience is accustomed to imagining the scene reversed,
with black male monsters pursuing white female quarry. Though this
scene pushes the boundaries of racial and gender conceptions by
ostensibly inverting the racial identity of aggressor and prey,
the inversion nonetheless relies upon the assumption of monstrosity
that has accumulated around the film’s disembodied black presence.
Moreover, the inversion loses a good deal of its integrity in that
it both visually and in fact (re)places a white woman in jeopardy,
in that the attack is not successful, and ultimately in that despite
Pinky’s attempts to show that African Americans, these social
monsters, are "like us," the film resolves the problem
"they" pose by sequestering "Pinky and them"
off amongst themselves. In Pinky, as in many horror films,
as Bruce Kawin observes, "the negative projection is not re-owned
but rejected and repressed.... Repression solves nothing, but (coupled
with the momentary wish-fulfillment) gives a temporary sense of
"It just gives me the creeps..."
 Although I have confined my analysis to Pinky
here, there are, I believe, similar elements to be found in the
films Lost Boundaries (1949) and Imitation of Life
(1959). There is in Lost Boundaries some interesting horror-inflected
exposition that suggests the theme of the fear of transformation,
for instance, a dream/nightmare sequence, in which Howard, the son
of a black family that has passed for white, envisions each of his
family members in turn changing into a black person; he then awakens
fearful and in a cold sweat. After the dream sequence, Howard himself
is visually transformed, and appears in a number of shots after
the dream sweaty, unshaven (very unshaven, after just one
night in Harlem) and generally unkempt, with a wild and distraught
manner that brings to mind werewolf movies, or films that treat
the Jekyll/Hyde figure. Like the monsters of these films, we see
Howard becoming simultaneously psychologically and physically unstable.
Likewise, I believe that the notion of "hidden essences"
could be very profitably applied to the 1959 Imitation of Life’s
mulatto figure Sarah Jane. The transformation of this character
from the unhappy but still sympathetic Peola of Stahl’s 1934 Imitation,
into the wholly unlikable fury-driven child, and then young woman
of the Sirk version is indeed remarkable. The Sarah Jane character
is far less sympathetic and markedly more threatening to her mother
and her white counterpart Susie (Sandra Dee).
 At about the midpoint of Pinky’s narrative, Miss
Em’s Cousin Wooley meets Pinky for the first time in the foyer of
Miss Em’s mansion. She appraises her swiftly from head to foot,
then says, "I heard you were light but I had no idea...why,
you’re practically white." Later in the scene she discusses
Pinky with Miss Em, declaring incredulously, "She’s whiter
than I am...it just gives me the creeps." What is creepy
about Pinky for Mrs. Wooley is certainly her simultaneous blackness
and hybridity, and the way that both seemingly defy signification,
resulting in a "peculiar" and contradictory phenotype
vs. social definition. What is also creepy about Pinky for Mrs.
Wooley is that if Pinky is indeed whiter than she is, as she claims,
then the system of race that structures and shapes her own understanding
of the world cannot be relied on, a state of affairs she clearly
finds unsettling. What is creepy about Pinky as a film
is the manner in which it uses horror and fear to support its underlying
assumptions about race, while creating a series of profound absences
that "haunt" the film’s text. What is more interesting,
perhaps, is that while there are places in Pinky where horror
seems fairly explicitly used as a device, there are other places
in which it seems to make sense, as a cultural referent. The feeling
of horror suits Pinky’s account of passing, to the extent
that the film draws upon the repressive function of the horror film,
an approach that seeks to bring anxieties and tensions out briefly
for an airing, and then lock them up safely and tightly again.
Thanks to Frances Gateward and the Society for Cinema and Media
Studies Black Caucus for sponsoring the 2003 conference panel "Scared
of the Dark." Thanks to Renea Henry, for the provocative discussion
that inspired this essay, and to Rudolph Byrd, Matthew Bernstein,
Audrey Petty, Jill Petty, and Steven Adams for their insightful
reading of this work in its various iterations.
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MIRIAM J. PETTY is the Elaine R. Dodge Postdoctoral Fellow
at Rutgers University’s Institute on Ethnicity, Culture and
the Modern Experience. She studies the politics of African American
representation as well as film history, and worked as a coordinator
for the Atlanta exhibit “Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography
in America.” She is currently revising her dissertation, “‘Doubtful
Glory’: 1930s Hollywood and the African American Actor as
Star,” an examination of the screen images of Louise Beavers,
Lincoln “Stepin Fetchit” Perry, Paul Robeson, and Fredi