Harriet Thompson


It's the year 1999 and my parents have introduced cable television into our household. My two older brothers and I will begin to fight over the remote control, grappling over whether to watch the Disney Channel or WWF Wrestling-Mania. I look forward to when the boys are both out playing football, my dad is cooking tea, and I get the luxury of the control to myself. Cycling through the channels, methodically clicking the up arrow, barely allowing time to register what programme is playing before I flick to next one. Flick, flick, flick, until I have gone all the way through the numbers and the dancing pictures disappear. I have passed through the visual threshold into the dark-screened realm of radio stations. 17 years later whilst watching the characters in Rick and Morty excitedly engage in the televisual spectacle, I am transported back to these first memories of exercising my autonomy over the television channels. Here I will explore how Rick and Morty engages with anxieties about the relationship between public and private spaces through its depiction of multiple realities and more specifically, through the medium of inter-dimensional television. The show uses comic body horror as a catalyst to confront spatial politics.

Rick and Morty creators Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland have pointed out that Morty is at a tricky stage of life in comparison to say, Bart and Lisa from The Simpsons, who remain children. Morty is in the midst of puberty, so every episode has to incorporate this strange transition; his breaking voice, his strong emotional and sexual urges, his lack of confidence. Rick on the other hand is descending into old age, his body gradually decaying, presumably accelerated by his substance abuse. The protagonists are united in their transitional life stages: as Morty’s body becomes unpredictable so too does Rick’s. Rife with the symptoms of years of alcohol abuse, Rick foams at the mouth; his speech is punctuated by belches. In some episodes, Rick has a large patch of pastel green spittle dangling from his chin.

Through their episodical adventures, the show explores physical themes including the corruption of the body wrought by ordinary human experience - ageing, puberty - and the role of consciousness in physical sensation. Each episode enters into a different world, which challenges and corrupts the characters’ sense of reality. In one episode, Rick and Morty are forced to bury alternate versions of themselves who have died in another dimension so that they can assume their places in the world. In another, the family is attacked by a parasite which implants memories into their brains, leading them to question whether the people around them are real. Their encounters with inter-dimensional television, that is, the meta-televisual element of Rick and Morty in which the characters’ watch television from other dimensions, is a particularly important device. 

A salesman is fronting an commercial on the shop floor of his store, narrating the great deals on offer. Except this trope is disrupted through the man’s absurd physical affliction, insects crawling all over his eyeballs. “I’m Ants-in-my-eyes Johnson”, he says, “Look at these electronics. I mean, there’s so many ants in my eyes”. As he lists the wares on sale in his shop, he adds doubtfully “I mean I think we do, I can’t be completely sure because I can’t see anything”.

This use of television becomes a prominent aspect of the show and a principle means by which the characters come to engage with the world they are entering. In the episode ‘Rixty Minutes’ we are introduced to television as it is communicated in other dimensions through the space between the programmes: the commercial break.

While the rest of the family develop an obsession with Rick’s latest invention, a headset that enables them to watch alternate versions of their own lives in other realities, Rick and Morty indulge in the spectacle of inter-dimensional TV. “Hey, I don’t give a crap about myself, Rick. Let’s watch some crazy stuff, yo”, cries Morty as Rick switches on the television. A familiar advertisement scene appears on the screen. A salesman is fronting an commercial on the shop floor of his store, narrating the great deals on offer. Except this trope is disrupted through the man’s absurd physical affliction, insects crawling all over his eyeballs. “I’m Ants-in-my-eyes Johnson”, he says, “Look at these electronics. I mean, there’s so many ants in my eyes”. As he lists the wares on sale in his shop, he adds doubtfully “I mean I think we do, I can’t be completely sure because I can’t see anything”.

In the 1986, Screen, a film journal produced by the University of Glasgow, coined the term ‘body horror’ to refer to a type of horror fiction which deals with the graphic destruction or degeneration of the human body. This genre can be seen principally in film and television, graphic novels and video games and involves decay, disease, mutilation, parasitism or mutation. David Cronenberg, a prolific director operating within the genre, said that his films should been seen ‘from the point of view of the disease’. In this sense, the mutations and degeneration suffered by his characters become agents within the narrative, not destroying the characters, but creating them. Ants-in-my-eyes Johnson epitomises this kind of horrific mutation. He is created (and named) by his mutation; it is the singular component that makes this commercial unique from a similar commercial in another dimension. Indeed, Rick and Morty pays explicit homage to the body horror director in an episode where Rick refers to a collection of monsters created by a mutated virus as ‘Cronenbergs’.

As well as expressing a universal anxiety about the constantly corrupting nature of the corporeal form, Rick and Morty taps into other modern anxieties associated with public and private spaces. At a time when humans are retreating further into virtual spaces, anxieties about actual contact with other humans seem to be evermore prevalent. According to Edward T. Hall’s diagram of proxemics, personal space constitutes the 1.5 foot radius around a person’s body, whilst social space is the area 4 feet away and public space extends to 25 feet. Anyone who lives in a densely populated urban environment will be used to having their personal space invaded regularly in packed train carriages and busy streets. Rick, Morty and his sister Summer are confronted with ‘The Personal Space Show’ whilst watching television in a hospital waiting room. This programme is hosted by a man called Phillip Jacobs, who proceeds to outline the key points of personal space with a repetitive powerpoint presentation: “One: personal space. Two: personal space. Three: stay out of my personal space. Four: keep away from my personal space.” The man’s anxiety accelerates until he announces that his own skin is invading his personal space. A nightmarish sight follows as Phillip Jacobs peels the skin off his body until he is nothing but bones, muscle and sinews. This is body horror, but it’s comic too. The viewers onscreen who are reacting from within the show like the people on Gogglebox, are disgusted at the sight but they don’t switch off. “What an asshole!”, cries Rick delightedly.

Body horror is not exclusive to the realm of inter-dimensional television. Rick and Morty further depicts an obsession with the body through corruptions of the corporeal form. In ‘Anatomy Park’, Rick takes Morty into a theme park of infectious diseases which is located inside the body of a homeless man. This is body horror writ large, as countless diseases - ecoli, gonorrhoea, hepatitis A among them - run riot. In an absurd escapade, Morty is teleported (and simultaneously shrunk) into the theme park of this man’s disease ridden internal organs. This homeless man is not a character, merely a body, but the diseases are represented as horrific monsters of different shapes and sizes encountered by Morty. It’s not as subtle as David Cronenberg might wish, but these creatures are nonetheless a physical embodiment of an anxiety about infectious diseases.

Through the use of comic body horror, Rick and Morty confronts the crucial role that spatial politics plays in our understanding of the world. Urban living forces us to face the paradox that as we are pushed physically closer together through housing crises and an ever-increasing population, we are simultaneously separated from close human contact and real-life communication by technology. The anxieties about personal space, the threat of disease, death and the alienating force of the media depicted in Rick and Morty are increasingly prevalent. Cable television may be becoming an outdated media as our lives quickly migrate into the virtual, digital realm - streaming television through Netflix, reading the news through notifications on a smartphone - but in Rick and Morty it becomes a prism through which we can examine our own lives and relationship with media. As life expectancy increases, so too does our anxiety about diseases and the gradual decay of our bodies.

Harriet is a freelance writer and researcher with an interest in 20th century literary and visual cultures. Contact her on @HarrietTho