A number of disquieting and related definitions are attached to this Latin term. The homunculus can simply be a very small man, or a dwarf made through alchemical processes. An archaic theory of human development holds that the homunculus is a miniature human enclosed within a germ cell that increases in size, like a sprouting seed, as it matures. An upside-down homunculus, draped along the side of the cerebral cortex, roughly depicts the distribution and proportion of nerve centers assigned to the motor and perceptual areas of the body. Or the homunculus can simply refer to the human fetus.
Whether attached to another person, or running free, the image of the homunculus has always been very disturbing. The creature—almost human—combines squeamishness about physical deformity with anxieties surrounding the experience of pregnancy and childbirth. Typically an agent of revenge, the homunculus has often appeared in horror entertainments. A few that come to mind are an episode from the second season of The X-Files, (“Humbug”, which aired in March of 1995), a disturbing 1979 horror film called The Brood, and the notorious Basket Case (1982). Readers probably can think of numerous other stories or films featuring evil homunculi.
It seems likely that the plot in “Humbug” was inspired in part by an idea of H.P. Lovecraft’s, later developed by Henry S. Whitehead in his novella, Cassius (1931). In “Humbug”, Mulder and Scully investigate a number of brutal murders involving circus freaks and sideshow performers. These turn out to be the work of the diminutive and conjoined twin brother of one of the performers. He is able to detach himself from his ailing and alcoholic brother, and go abroad at night, seeking others to whom he can attach himself as a kind of mobile parasite. He is looking for a replacement for his twin brother, who is dying. Incredibly, “Humbug” contains some very funny scenes, and is well worth watching if you have not already seen it. The episode supposedly has something to say about diversity and respect for difference.
The Brood is much darker and more disturbing than “Humbug”. A series of murders appear to be committed by dwarfish children. However, these are not ordinary youngsters. Physiologically, they are genderless, color-blind, toothless and lacking a navel. They are not the product of ordinary human pregnancy but are “psychoplasmic” offspring, created by a bizarre new psychotherapy technique. In one female patient, repressed emotional traumas are literally converted into physical lesions which gradually take humanoid shape as therapy progresses. When mature, these parthenogenetic creatures detach and are able to express the intense rage of their creator.
Like “Humbug”, Basket Case contains some scenes that are played for laughs. But the film is over-the top-grotesque in its depiction of two brothers, one normal looking and the other horribly deformed. The two were conjoined at birth and later surgically separated against their will. Psychically linked, as young adults they seek revenge against the doctors responsible for the surgery. This is not a movie for a first date!
Cassius (1931), by Henry S. Whitehead, contains elements typical of a homunculus story, as well as distinctive features that make it interesting. Curious readers should be forewarned that the story contains overt and casual racism, as well as cringe-worthy pseudoscientific theories about racial characteristics and the consequences of miscegenation. One can see why Lovecraft, who was a notorious racist, would find Whitehead an agreeable companion on this topic. That said, the story is an illuminating snapshot of attitudes towards ethnic and social class differences, circa the early 1930s, as well as the pervasiveness of traditional Christian morality at that time.
Whitehead’s story is based on an entry H.P. Lovecraft made in his “commonplace book”, and it follows some of the details of Lovecraft’s synopsis. According to S.T. Joshi, Lovecraft’s idea came from a circus freak show the author had visited in 1925. The show included the exhibit of a man with an anthropoid growth on his abdomen. The X-Files episode described above maintains the circus setting as well as the subsequent rampage by the homunculus. However, Whitehead transfers the story to a tropical backyard, and limits the victims to just one: the beleaguered twin brother. Apparently, Whitehead at first asked Lovecraft to collaborate with him on the story, but Lovecraft declined and apparently gave Whitehead the idea to develop on his own. The two men were close friends and correspondents.
Cassius opens with a disturbance in the household of the wealthy Gerald Canevin, not long after the arrival of his “houseman’s” friend, Brutus Hellman. Hellman takes up service as second houseman, living in a stone hut on the grounds. Unknown to Canevin, Hellman has just recovered from the surgical removal of his tiny twin brother, Cassius, who escapes from the operating room to wreak havoc on Brutus in his hut at night—chiefly by biting, stabbing and goring him viciously.
It seems that the motivation for Cassius’ murderous rage is vengeance for all the years that Brutus received parental love, nurturing and attention that Cassius was denied. That the twins are named Brutus and Cassius seems an odd allusion to the co-conspirators in William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. But something must be done right away about this unpleasantness!
The story is effective initially in creating mounting horror through the parceling out of details about Hellman’s wounds and the true nature and origin of “de T’ing”. Whitehead makes skillful use of contrast to amplify the darkness and hideousness of an evil homunculus against the pristine whiteness, purity, and tropical ambiance of a colonial mansion in the West Indies. Indeed, the story can be read as ‘black and white’ on many levels. There is racism, classism, exploitation, and hypocrisy, along with the struggle of evil against good. (Going back to the Shakespeare reference, one impression is that Brutus and Cassius represent in some sense African co-conspirators against their local Caucasian Julius Caesar, the wealthy land owner Canevin.)
Like the X-Files episode “Humbug”, Cassius also ends on a lively and humorously ironic note. Canevin cannot bring himself to kill the homunculus at the end because Cassius had been baptized earlier in life into the Christian faith. He was thus “A Child of God—an Inheritor of the Kingdom of Heaven”. Happily, Providence, (not the city), sends an instrument of His divine will, and the story ends with Canevin providing the evil homunculus a Christian burial. (Whitehead was an Episcopal clergyman.)
Whitehead's work was published in two collections of short fiction in the mid 1940s. He also collaborated with Lovecraft on other stories, for example The Trap (1931). According to S.T. Joshi, Whitehead was an ordained deacon in the Episcopal Church, who served parishes in Connecticut, New York City, the Virgin Islands—where some of his stories are set—and eventually in Dunedin, Florida. Lovecraft once visited him there, and Whitehead reportedly gave him a white tropical suit as well as a snake he had caught, pickled, and put in a jar.
Joshi describes Whitehead’s work as “urbane, erudite weird fiction”. Among Lovecraft’s collaborators, the author was one of the very few who did not reference Lovecraft’s pseudo-mythology in his stories, or attempt to imitate Lovecraft by creating additions to his pantheon of Old Ones. Cassius was originally published in Strange Tales, a competitor of Weird Tales that also featured stories by Clark Ashton Smith, August Derleth and others. The magazine only had seven issues and discontinued publication in 1933.