‘Swallow’ Is a Haunting Cinematic Portrait on Body and Control

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A thumbtack rests on the kitchen counter, pointing up. It had been pulled from the vacuum. Hunter, played by Hayley Benett, stares at it longingly. She pauses for a moment, and then pops it into her mouth.

“Swallow,” a psychological horror film written and directed by Carlo Mirabella-Davis, follows a soft-spoken and polished housewife named Hunter. Released in March 2020, the film focuses on a condition known as pica — the puzzling desire to consume inedible objects.

Hunter’s quiet secret quickly becomes a compulsion that threatens her marriage and most importantly, her freedom. But what lies beneath her unraveling?

In the 94-minute film, Hunter lives with her husband Richie. Their spacious home is filled with the finest decor: stylish, mid-century modern furniture and expansive natural light from tall, floor-to-ceiling windows.

As a trust-fund businessman and a newly-pregnant homemaker, the couple receives the privileged benefits of generational wealth. The world Hunter married into, though set in present-day, is actually more reminiscent of the classic post-war American dream.

Yet, Hunter is always trying to shrink to fit the expectations of her husband and his family. More than once, her mother-in-law discreetly reminds her of how lucky she is to be a wife. She should be grateful.

From her neat appearance to her meticulous tidying, Hunter embodies a woman stuck in the sphere of feminine domesticity. Even when she cleans and vacuums the rug, she’s color-coordinated in a beige dress and brown heels.

While vacuuming, she finds and eats the tack. It’s her second object. She is overcome; she laughs through tears.

Compulsion and control

According to a study published in Psychological Science in 2014, Hunter’s reaction of laugh-crying simultaneously is an incongruous emotional response, also known as a dimorphous behavior. Surprisingly, it’s one of the ways of finding balance and returning to homeostasis.

Sometimes, as the film depicts, internal attempts to regulate difficult emotions can manifest in unexpected ways.

Hunter’s days are spent puttering around and decorating the house, engaging in small, subconscious attempts to regain control. After the objects she consumes move through her, Hunter collects them. Dignified and with grace, she sorts the trophies from her excrement.

Shortly after consuming a marble and then the tack, she moves on to batteries, book pages, dirt and various other nonfood items. She sets up a small shrine of the emergent pieces and organizes them thoughtfully on her vanity.

Hunter is disconnected from her pregnancy, often staring at the ceiling in moments of dissociation. Instead of fawning over the nursery, her swelling sense of disillusionment leads to strange and dangerous eating behaviors.

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A pica diagnosis

Pica, which is classified as the “persistent eating of nonnutritive, nonfood substances” in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), is a mental health condition in the same family as obsessive-compulsive disorder. It’s an eating disorder involving behaviors that are not part of a culturally supported or socially normative practice.

In 2013, pica was added to the DSM-V, the fifth version of the manual, along with two other newly-added eating disorders: avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder and rumination disorder.

Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder: Feeding disturbance as manifested by persistent failure to eat adequately with significant failure to gain weight, or significant loss of weight, over at least 1 month.

Rumination Disorder: Repeated regurgitation of food over a period of at least 1 month. Regurgitated food may be re-chewed, re-swallowed or spit out.

Pica often occurs in conjunction with another illness or condition. Pregnancy, where cravings for odd food combinations are already customary, is the second most common pairing with pica, behind iron deficiency and/or anemia, which together comprise the first.

Pica can lead to malnutrition, infection, intestinal obstruction, lead poisoning and even a “bezoar” — a mass of indigestible material trapped inside the stomach and gastrointestinal tract. When large enough, a bezoar can cause serious health problems.

It appears pica may have existed long before it received official recognition from the psychological establishment. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics credits the name pica — a Latin word for a type of bird who ate everything — all the way back to medieval times.

An exhibit on pica at the Glore Psychiatric Museum in Missouri shows a chilling circular display of 1,446 metal objects, surgically removed from a patient with the condition in 1929. The stomach contents of the patient, who reportedly died during emergency surgery, included nails, screws, spoons and other objects.

The photo is widely circulated through Wikipedia.

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Symbolism of body horror

An arthouse film in the body horror genre, “Swallow” builds suspense with each object consumed. Also known as biological horror, a main feature of this film genre is the destruction or degeneration of a human body or bodies.

Different from the graphic gore or violence of bloody horror, the genre may lend itself to a type of psychological terror intended to be more subtle and cerebral. It generally depicts something that we are inherently afraid of happening to our own form.

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Inspired by a true story

“Swallow” is inspired by memories of Mirabella-Davis’ grandmother, Edith. In the ’50s, Edith washed her hands obsessively and was later institutionalized, where she reportedly received electroshock therapy and a bilateral lobotomy.

“She would go through four cakes of soap a day and 12 bottles of rubbing alcohol a week,” Mirabella-Davis told Variety.

When staffing his first feature film, Mirabella-Davis employed a cast made up of two-thirds women. In an interview for Variety, the writer-director shared his own experiences exploring gender expression and examining gendered expectations.

The film illustrates Hunter’s haunting psychological reaction to a tangible lack of agency over her own body. The 1950s-era style production design, artfully created by Erin Magill, emphasizes the patriarchal hold of the era.

Hunter’s embodiment of the ideal wife ultimately led to her disembodiment. And eating objects, a dangerous internal rebellion, somehow became a symbolic step toward taking hold of her identity.

Told with dark cinematic beauty, Hunter’s unusual version of the heroine’s journey has an underlying message of women’s liberation — though, in truth, pica can be very detrimental to a person’s health.

By Ashley Lombardo

Ashley Lombardo is a reporter, editor and photographer currently based in Los Angeles, CA. She studied journalism and cultural anthropology with a focus on long-form, narrative, investigative features. In her spare time, she loves seeing live jazz and funk music.

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