Images of Engulfment

Tarzan, Jungle Movies
and the Symbolism of Jungles

Many jungle movies, including those about Tarzan, give us the archetypal portrayal of man's fear of woman, derived from the child's fantasy of the female genitals as a source of riches and as something that can also engulf and devour. Typically, in these stories, a group of people (mostly men) from European civilization is on a journey into the lush overgrowth of the jungle. At first, they may be arrogant and overconfident because they have no idea of the terrors that await them. They make their way into the interior, cutting away vines with a single, castrating, slice.

Perhaps they are on a safari that is forcing its way into the jungle in search of hidden treasure, in which case the movie may show us visions of lost cities, abandoned temples and chests overflowing with jewels. To get to it, they may plan -- like the prototypical adolescent male -- to force their way through the layers of defense and then make their escape.

Whatever reason they have for being in the jungle, soon, they are in over their heads in a dangerous world devoid of reason. They may have dreamed of raping the jungle and making off with its treasures. Instead, they are trapped in a place in which the act of entry in sex finds its oral double in the devouring world of eating and being eaten -- of wild animals on the prowl for food; alligators with gaping jaws; piranhas; cannibals; and engulfing quicksand, all of which are smaller versions of the devouring jungle itself. It is a claustrophobic world that closes in on them on all sides, a world that is apparently without conscience, in which terrors can leap out from nowhere and traps that protect hidden treasure can be sprung at any time.

It may be a world that is simply predatory by nature. But there is often a moral element involved: the jungle is extruding the invaders from its midst or it is getting revenge for their crimes against it. In other words, they are in a battle against the jungle itself; it is there will and wile against that of their surroundings.

This sense that the jungle is an instrument of revenge, directed against those who have committed crimes against it, is heightened by the contrast we are given in the ultimate jungle movies, about Tarzan. Here, we see two very different images of the jungle in the same movie. In one, the intruders see only gaping jaws and death with very large teeth. In the other, Tarzan the noble savage sees a very different jungle, a paradise that gives up its riches to him, with animals he is able to communicate with.

Tarzan is the innocent (adopted) son of the jungle who tamed it and lives inside it undevoured, because he never tried to rape it. He lives in the trees, which, clichéd as it may be, are phallic and allow him to rise above the closed-in world and keep an eye on things from above. He is also the force of law who protects the jungle from those who would misuse it, rallying his deputies (elephants, et al) when extra help is needed. All of this may make for a goofy image, particularly when the animal army comes to save the day, but it also offers us an image of unfallen natural humanity and unfallen civilized nature, which is contrasted with the fallen humanity of the intruders and the fallen nature they evoke.*

One can also read these movies as colonialist in outlook, of course, showing us a white man who ends up taking over the jungle. But it gets more interesting when we see them as early eco-nature stories, with a hero who lives in harmony with nature, instead of exploiting it, and with intruders who get their just deserts. Here, in addition to the jungle as predator, we see the jungle as victim, a theme that is now all-too popular, and that makes Tarzan an early variation on one of our contemporary culture heroes: the nature savior.

By identifying with him, audiences get to play the grandiose hero and innocent savage and, perhaps, they get to conquer fears of engulfment, by experiencing its imagined dangers and discovering that only the ill-intentioned need be concerned.

At the same time, these stories depict the anomalous world of dreams and the unconscious, which is what the intruders are descending into. It is full of dark terrors and it is much like night, even during the day; an alien world inside the self. **

In jungle movies, than, we get a number of images of the female body and of nature as a source of riches and a victim to be exploited, entered, robbed and controlled; as a devouring aperture that embodies pure predation and revenge; and as a protecting, nurturing home and paradise. These images help us understand attitudes toward both women and nature: they take us into another landscape, of the mind.


In Aliens we get a different variation on these themes, which, like the images of jungles, embodies fantasies inherited from childhood. Here, the characters are stuck in a labyrinthine space colony on another planet, up against a giant, insectlike, queen, the ultimate bad mother (bad to others, not to her own progeny). The creature kidnaps Sigourney Weaver's surrogate child and entraps the child in "webbing", with the intention of planting her own offspring inside the child's body. There then follows an epic struggle between good and bad mothers, with Sigourney Weaver as the ultimate Amazon macho mother, defending her own against  a "postmodern" version of the witch in Hansel and Gretel.

The tunnels and pathways of the space colony symbolize the interior of the alien queen and seem at times hard to distinguish from the vast cavelike body from which she lays her eggs. If the alien queen is a parent and the space colony is a house, then here we see an image of the house as an extension of the body of the parent. She and her progeny are also much like the jungle: they are pure predatory evil -- hunters and stalkers, parasites and entrappers -- beyond conscience or reason.

Betty Boop

Another, more obvious, engulfing landscape of an even more fantastic sort are the virtual worlds depicted in Betty Boop cartoons in which the characters are constantly being swallowed (or are threatened with being swallowed) by mouth-like, genital-like apertures. They then find themselves inside other spaces, foreshadowing all kinds of science fiction stories in which the characters travel through wormholes and other anomalous openings that lead to all kinds of dimensions, times, and places, which can symbolize the interior spaces of body and mind, and the imagined worlds that open under the bed or behind the closet door.

Journey to the Center of the Earth

Another trip into the interior is depicted in the movie  Journey to the Center of the Earth in which two competing groups of people travel into the body of the earth. As in haunted houses (described next), they move through anomalous spaces and fall through one or more openings that are much like trap doors, although, here, they seek out this world and are fascinated by the prospect of making its unknown recesses known.

What they find is a world within a world that contains an underground ocean, living things, a light source, and the ruins of an ancient civilization. They are bodies inside the body of mother earth and they discover a world inside the world. In addition to engaging in a journey into the body (from which they are born at the end), they are also on a journey into mind, unearthing its hidden past.

Haunted Houses

Haunted houses are neurotic minds fixated on some trauma and repeating it endlessly, and they are also the household of childhood, transformed by the nightmares of the child's mind, full of secret places and imagined parental monsters that can emerge from nowhere to seek revenge. As in jungle movies, the characters in haunted house stories travel through various spaces in a dark world, never knowing what will leap out at them, although they may ultimately discover that the ghosts they feared are actually suffering creatures in need of release. People in psychotherapy often make the same discovery about their own monsters and those that symbolize the (mostly fantasized) danger presented by their parents: what they feared turns out to be worthy of compassion.

Like the jungle, only more so and more explicitly so, haunted houses act  out of a single will, which is the will of the dead who have been freed from the physical limits of the body but not the psychological limits of the mind. They are often controlled environments, not unlike  the controlled environments described in the essays on post-apocalyptic fiction. But they are also full of images of engulfment and entrapment, with dark spaces and trap doors that can swallow up the unsuspecting victim.

Polar Opposites

Many of these depictions also have their polar opposites, embodying our desires rather than our fears. The opposite of the predatory jungle can be found in images of gardens, which are  often female, beautiful, shapely, exotic, safe, and tamed. They may include the same lush growth, the same sense of generativity, but they offer protection and comfort instead of teeth. In some of the walk-through rain forest exhibits that will be described in book two, we see an effort to combine both images, to create an illusion that visitors are in a wild and untamed place, but one that has lost most of its terrors.

The opposite of  the underground world depicted in Journey to the Center of the Earth, which is dangerous but mostly a source of wonders, is all the chthonic underworlds full of darkness, toil and death, such as those depicted in The Time Machine and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. 

The polar opposite of haunted houses is all the loving, safe, demystified households of television and the movies: Leave It to Beaver and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet as a cure for what goes bump in the night. They hold and protect rather than engulfing, giving us the architectural equivalent of the parents' loving arms. In the evening, they are well lit and cozy, without unseen places, allowing the kids to feel safe in the dark after they are tucked in for the night because the only conflicts with parents are over staying out late and getting caught in a small lie.

What we see in all these images is that it isn't only ourselves and parents and other people who can be depicted in the mind as good and evil. Places can be as well, whether or not they are identified with people. And one place can undergo a transformation in our minds from evil to good, just as characters can. Thus, the jungle can be transformed before our eyes from devouring revenge-seeker to paradise in Tarzan. And the house in haunted house stories can change its countenance, from a terrifying mystery to a home, after the main characters free the ghosts who dwelled there and then decide to set up residence.  

A place can also be transformed from good to evil. Even a Brady house can be turned into a living nightmare after dark if there is a suspicious noise and a character is forced to make a terrified journey, flashlight in hand, to see what intruder has come to mete out his revenge.


* The jungle isn't depicted as a purely nonviolent paradise, even for Tarzan, of course. But he is equal to the task of dealing with its dangers.

** The mind can equate one image of the jungle both with anatomy and with aspects of mind because it latches on to similarities in appearance or function or meaning. The female genitals and the unconscious may both be seen in fantasy as containing dark recesses full of danger or treasure, and so they may be equated with each other and with other images that include the same ideas. But, in addition, there is another connection. What is "in" the unconscious are the internalized images of family members, the family drama, anatomy, and so on. When one travels into the recesses of the unconscious, one discovers fantasies about the recesses of the body.