There is an entity that appears in our favorite science fiction, fantasy, and horror stories—a living substance that elicits both disgust and excitement in the human imagination. It’s related to the bad black barf and black blood TV tropes, but while those examples are relatively inert and formless, ‘black goo’ refers to a class of protean, intelligent beings who can be extraordinarily hard and strong when they want to be. Black goo will attack you like an Obscurial, or consume you like a Symbiote!
The goo appears in films like Under The Skin, where a pitch-black alien wearing a Scarlet Johansson suit lures men to her house where they sink naked into her black goo floor. Johansson also plays the black goo in Lucy where a drug causes her character’s pure, unrestricted consciousness to become wormhole-like, black lava eyes that reach across vast spans of cosmic time. Through the goo, she can stop and rewind entire cities. Through the goo, she can mind-travel ‘back’ to the past as the future, where her fingers always touch her primate ancestors. In the end, Lucy becomes a memory stick. I am reminded of the inky, transtemporal logograms secreted by aliens in Arrival. “This has all happened before”.
Is it future, or is it past? Let’s appreciate the black goo in the context of its many sources. Psychologically, it may represent a repressed fear or humiliation. In Satoshi Kon’s masterwork, Paranoia Agent, black goo is a shape-shifting tulpa: an all-consuming, ransacking suicidal rage created from personal and group anxiety. In Spirited Away, it manifests as an emotionally insecure, rampaging, vomiting No Face. It’s also the quality of the mysterious beings that live beneath the bathhouse. In Princess Mononoke, it’s the wrathful substance inside the tiny Forest Spirit that floods the world with death, once again revealing how ‘insides’ are always bigger than ‘outsides.’ We see this in the punctured monster baby that spurts out mounds of feces in Lynch’s Eraserhead. Likewise, black, gooey worms move like tentacles through the God carcasses in Princess Mononoke. “Everyone look! This is what hate looks like!” The black ooze burns like dragon ejaculate, like the substance surrounding Pennywise in Steven King’s It, like Dilophosaurus’s black poison-spit in Jurassic Park. The monolith in Kubric’s 2001 is another example of the protean black goo, as are the henchmen in Howl’s Moving Castle.
In Prometheus (2012) black goo is LUCA, our Last Universal Common Ancestor. The Engineer drinks it, “Agent A0–3959X.91–15,” and then combusts into the waters of Earth to create first life. This story supports black goo’s association not only with Eve and Lilith, but also with lava, blood, and fat, “the stuff of life.” And what is fat but frozen oil? And what is oil but frozen smoke?
Black goo can turn into something transcendent. It can run down your throat like the mirror substance in The Matrix, which awakens people to the ‘pink goo’ they are actually surrounded by. It’s the “mimetic polyalloy” of the T-1000 in Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991) that can take on the shape of whatever it touches. Sometimes it appears as ‘smart matter,’ able to break up and move like a swarm of drones, like a biblical horde of locusts, or like trillions of tiny alien nanomachines in The Day The Earth Stood Still remake. Big Hero 6’s ‘grey goo’ becomes a form of thinking: It’s a child’s neuro-linking art project that gets out of hand. In the teenage soap opera The 100, it’s tied to a scientist’s ability to reincarnate. She uses the lineage of women who have evolved “night blood,” because that gooey black blood can meld with the computer chip that magically inserts itself into the base of the skull.
In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Skin of Evil,” a black goo alien is called Armus and can morph into a human-shape. In the Marvel Universe, a similar alien goo is called a Symbiote: a parasite that can envelop its hosts like a costume, creating a bond “through which the host’s mind can be influenced.” As we see in Venom, this gooey alien parasite is also a fully aware and sentient creature.
Little Nemo: Adventures In Slumberland (an Alice in Wonderland for boys) features a scary black goo that children are supposed to relate with. It bubbles up from the shadows like lava and is called The Nightmare King. Blacker than night, blacker than Anish Kappor’s Vantablack® and Stuart Semple’s Black 3.0, it acts like The Blob or like the new Mindflayer in Stranger Things, creeping along the floor, squeezing through the cracks of the door, coming in through your window at night. In FernGully, black goo is more smoke-like, similar to the genie from Aladdin and the smoke monster from Lost—if it could sing and dance. The black goo is called Hexxus, who identifies as acid rain, sludge, anti-life…“Oil and grime, poison sludge/ Diesel clouds and noxious muck/ Slime beneath me, slime up above/ Ooh, you’ll love my toxic love.” Tim Curry sings the song!
Toxic spills and other radioactive, dark and penetrating powers represent an invisible, ecological dimension—a global, psychic demon—that may inform our black goo. It’s probably part of some Hopi prophecy about black snakes that signals the coming apocalypse. When The Nation’s Naomi Klein traveled to the Gulf of Mexico in December 2011 to report on the aftermath of BP’s Deepwater Horizon spill, the research crew encountered “a slimy black substance” coating the ocean floor that none of them had ever seen before. It was made out of death.
Black goo indicates deep cultural anxieties. We know that if it gets into your body you might turn into an alien, as we see in District 9. We hear echoes of the ‘semen-filled donut fraternity prank’ and the ‘angry fast food employee secret-sauce’ urban legends, which also express cultural anxieties. These stories touch on larger, deeper fears: the fear of foreigners, the fear of contaminants, the fear of losing control, the fear of STIs, the fear of shitting your pants. We have many good reasons to police our borders and our orifices.
Black goo runs down people’s heads in The Fifth Element with no explanation. In the video game Dead By Daylight, it appears as The Entity, a parasitic, pure evil that nobody can see directly, “that lives in the space between our world and our imagination.” In Final Fantasy Geostigma, black goo is the alien ooze that takes over human hosts, and in the game The Secret World, a similar antagonistic black goo is called The Filth.
It’s called The Hole in the manga Dorohedoro, formed out of a mountain of corpses killed by magic. Black goo is also featured in the tv show Helix, and in the show Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. as “Gravitonium.” ODD TV points out a Verizon Wireless commercial for their Droid DNA, where the goo is injected like a drug into some hot guy’s body. “It’s not an upgrade to your phone; it’s an upgrade to your self.” Tangentially, the gooey poop of a newborn fetus is called meconium because it resembles pure, tar-like opium. Open up a newborn baby’s diaper and read a profound cosmic joke, or a mythical story about the separation and collision of worlds, about mothers, dreams, and disgust; “In the world but not of the world.” Be careful: the sticky black poop can also suffocate the fetus in what’s called “meconium aspiration syndrome.”
No matter what form it takes, black goo is categorically alien, and, more often than not, it’s evil, which is why we must keep an eye on it. Popular symbols for ‘evil’ and ‘alien’ are dangerous if left unchecked. Usually, they end up revealing something deeply personal and uncomfortable, not about the ‘other,’ but about ourselves. When “every character in a dream is you,” black goo might reflect aspects of our own story we are not yet willing to accept.
In Twin Peaks, we see the goo in Mr.C’s toxic vomit, in the mysterious scorched engine oil—a kind of demonic secretion—in the BOB orb, in the artfully crafted puddles found in Glastonberry Grove, in the state-changing coffee, and in the shape-shifting box living beneath the streets of Argentina. “Plip!” The strange device with two red eyes shrinks down to become a tiny nugget of black gold, an alien computer chip, an Apache tear. Mark Frost must know about the black goo conspiracies related to meteorites found on the Thule Islands of Argentina.
Black goo is sensually ‘bundled’ with real-life substances like oil, fat, tar, feces, obsidian, meconium, opium—substances that elicit emotional, historical, and philosophical reveries; substances that substantiate abstract ideas like “evil,” “alien,” and “other.” Therefore, let’s read the other-worldly black goo in Twin Peaks as we would read any other symbol: by looking into its worldly characteristics.
“Aunt Sarah? Uncle Leland? It smells like something’s burning!” Maddy was smelling the black stuff right before she died. In Twin Peaks, it’s not the sight, but the sharp smell of burnt engine oil that signals BOB is near. Maybe it’s not BOB’s smell so much as it is the evil Woodsmen. Grease turns their faces black, which makes sense considering they come from a gas station convenience store ignited by racist, nuclear colonialism. Twin Peaks is able to blend the ‘evil black goo’ trope with an Abraham Lincoln impersonator to create a spectral, toxic, blackfaced spirit monster that roams the American dreamscape and puts people to sleep with its poetry so that a tiny monster can crawl into a little girl’s mouth. She opens wide.
The Woodsmen story is told not only through the pitch-black goo on their faces, but also through gooey sounds like the slowed-down Moonlight Sonata, and more importantly, through unpleasant smells. Neuroscientists talk about how smell plays an important role in “excavating consciousness” and connecting with our memories. Sensory historians say it’s good to think “history stinks” because it’s through those foul smells that we can more fully ‘feel’ our way into the past. Just think about city life before modern plumbing. How much of our culture is shaped and haunted by ancient, disgusting smells? Cooper exploits ‘smell memory’ when he, like an evil psychopath, makes Ronette relive her rape trauma by smelling scorched engine oil. Hexxus: “And what a beautiful machine they have provided, to slice a path of doom with my sweet breath to guide it.”
Black goo is oily because oils have special powers: they can absorb smells from their surroundings. Since the skin readily absorbs them, oils are also ‘penetrative’ and ‘boundary-crossing’ substances, capable of altering themselves as well as the living beings they touch. Hebrew culture uses oil to imbue an object with divinity, as we see with Jacob’s stone pillow and in the tradition of consecrating kings by anointing them with oil. Oil also was rubbed into the skin of Greek athletes. After their training, the greasy gunk was scraped off and sold as a cure-all salve. This is also the time when oil was used for scrying, “lecanomancy,” divining the future by watching how oil interacts with water. Is this why we see Laura’s face in the oily, black coffee at the end of Season 2? Is she our future?
Like the black goo, fat is a ‘problematic’ substance, partly because it doesn’t follow the rules we expect solids and liquids to follow. As Christopher Forth outlines in Fat: A Cultural History of the Stuff of Life, “fat jiggles and slides about, seemingly ready to collapse into a liquid state at any moment. But even melting does not restore fat to its ‘true’ state, for oil doesn’t quite fit into the category of most liquids either. In addition to being somewhat viscous, oils evaporate at a much higher temperature than water, thus retaining their liquidity for longer periods. This durability may be why many ancient cultures associated fats and oil with strength, fertility and even life itself.” Its protean characteristics are why certain cultures viewed fat as magical in the past, and why we view black goo as magical today.
Goo infuses and sticks. Like oil, it can permeate hard-won boundaries, or it can combust into fire and smoke, conquering darkness. Our relationship with this sci-fi trope probably goes back all the way to the Paleolithic stone lamps that employed animal fats as fuel. It was the numinous black goo that allowed humans to remain active at night. It was the black goo that facilitated cultural advances like cave painting and tool-making. Gooey black paint helped us remember stories about who we are, where we come from, and where we are going. Evolving into black ink, the goo continues to tell all of our stories.
Forth: “If fat seemed to symbolize light and life to many early cultures, it was because such qualities were frequently considered intrinsic to the oily substance itself. Fat seemed to ‘contain’ rather than merely represent such powers.” In a process strikingly similar to alchemy, black goo can transform from a state of ‘gross’ or ‘dull’ materiality into something subtle and even transcendent.
Yet its stickiness is always alarming. Rather than passively yielding to the human touch like other solids, black goo seems to touch us back, adhering to surfaces and attaching itself to our bodies and our minds. There is another black substance that’s known to stick, suffocate, and kill:
The popularity of black goo imagery in what is currently known as the United States could relate to the cultural and literary history of tar. Take, for example, the tar-baby.
One of the most widespread stories in the world, Tar Baby is often read like an Aesop’s fable. Essentially, it’s about a doll made of tar and used by Fox to trap Rabbit, who’s been stealing food. Rabbit encounters the fake person and gets angry when it doesn’t respond to his greetings. Rabbit punches the doll and gets stuck, and the more he fights the tar baby, the more entangled and stuck he becomes. Once caught, Rabbit uses reverse psychology on Fox to get free. “Skin me, eat me, but whatever you do, don’t throw me in the thicket!” The term tar baby has come to refer to any problematic situation that only gets worse by additional involvement with it. However, the tar baby’s resemblance to actual black bodies disturbs the idiom.
Furthermore, it turns out American plantation owners used to build tar fences to keep hungry slaves out of their fruit gardens. Anyone found with tar on their body was deemed guilty and brutally whipped. “The slaves became as fearful of tar as of the lash,” writes Frederick Douglass in An American Slave. “They seemed to realize the impossibility of touching tar without being defiled.”
Tar punishes. It suffocates the skin—people used to get ‘tarred and feathered’ as a form of torture (The Ku Klux Klan used to host “tar and feather parties”). But tar also preserves, especially bones of trapped animals. It must have been terrifying to run into a tar pit in prehistory. They were, like our ancient predators, an interspecies source of anxiety. Humans were hunted way longer than we were hunters; it’s in our genes to be afraid of large cats, and maybe also tar pits, aka ‘death pits.’ King James’s Bible calls them ‘slime pits,’ which is interesting. The Valley of Siddim, aka the Dead Sea, was said to be full of them. Within the black goo symbolic complex, slime, fat, predators, and tar all blend to make something powerful, sticky, and hard as stone. In Genesis 11:3, tar is a glue that can harden into a mortar. It’s a new technology. In one myth, Noah covers the ark with black tar to save and preserve all life. In Exodus, Moses’s mother covers the wicker basket with tar and pitch. “Then she put the child into it and set it among the reeds by the bank of the Nile.” Black goo protects.
Its relationship to asphalt may reflect a secreted knowledge that streets have agency and we are their prisoners. Asphalt has overcome Surface World, has ensnared us in slow motion with its black, gooey tentacles. Every day, the asphalt directs our movements like arteries directing blood cells. “The fact that tar was used as a police technology under slavery undoubtedly has some relevance to the story.”
Black goo is often without any clear shape or form of its own. It is sticky, engulfing, difficult to be rid of; any separation from it is not a matter of certainty. Black goo can get into you as you can get into it. It absorbs bodies like a tar pit or like a swamp. Historian of Nazi masculinity, Klauss Theleweit, in his book Male Fantasies, describes how the swamp was a popular symbol for the flowing, dark, chaotic world of women. This was because swamps are penetrable, “the impressionable medium par excellence”, but can also trap and destroy. “In other words, they are remarkably alive; they can move autonomously, fast or slow, however they wish.” Swamps, like the black goo, like fat and tar, are solid and liquid at the same time — and this ‘hybrid’ or ‘impure’ condition, alongside their capacity for killing, makes them very well suited as symbols for danger and the forbidden. Since swamps become peaceful again after they kill, you cannot tell how dangerous they are, so it is easy for them to be seen as embodiments of deceptiveness.
Swamps, moist places, and all places that produce foul smells, according to Aurel Kolnai, are “pregnant with death,” and are therefore avoided by any sensible, ethical person. Gooey swamps relate to areas on our bodies we may not be comfortable with. Body openings and their effluvia have been negativized to such an extent that some scholars believe they are physical manifestations of all that is terrifying. We may, therefore, want to seriously consider how black goo relates to other gooey substances occurring on the body. In the symbolically rich mother!, the protagonist finds a dark, wet hole in the floor of her ‘house,’ a bloody hole that opens to a dark, ‘secret room’ in her basement where she finds an oil drum that she uses to destroy the world over and over again. Black goo leads to secret powers. Black goo leads to our insides.
The disgust and fear which we experience when confronting black goo may derive from a perception of all slimy fluids as ‘waste,’ as substances cut off from the life of the body. Fluids like black goo attest to the permeability of the body, its necessary dependence on an outside, its liability to collapse into this outside (which is what death implies), to what Elizabeth Grosz calls the “perilous divisions between the body’s inside and its outside.” Black goo reflects a certain irreducible ‘dirt’ or disgust, the ‘abject,’ a horror of the unknown, “that permeates, lurks, lingers, and at times leaks out of the body…a testimony of the fraudulence or impossibility of the ‘clean’ and ‘proper.'” Black goo most likely also refers to human feces, “the most feared substance of all.” Even though we know it is teeming with life, with trillions of beings working together, the dark organic matter is also toxic waste. We can’t handle the fact that our bodies produce one of the most disgusting, putrid substances in the entire universe, and so we ‘shadow project,’ and our monsters look like our poop.
We find the narrative again and again of western culture’s persistent effort to position women as the antithesis of the male body. Women are cast as having cold, uncontrollable, smelly bodies (as opposed to men, who are ‘dry’ and ‘clean’). Women are fluid; men are not. They are dirty; we are not. Black goo sticks, it stinks, it flows, and therefore, if it has a gender, it’s feminine. In The Secret Diary, BOB continually harasses Laura for having a dirty, smelly vagina, which she is constantly ashamed of.
Gender theorists often point out that identity is found through difference, and if men are human, then women are their opposite, alien. In Male Fantasies, Theweleit uncovers how misogyny is driven basically by a fear of dissolving boundaries, and the reactive need to affirm the male body’s hardness, dryness, and invulnerability.
Black goo may signify feminine power and male anxiety, but when it hardens, it looks like obsidian: masculine goo: phallic black weapons and dark crystal geometries. For centuries, obsidian was used as ‘arms,’ and was believed to be the physical body of an ancient American God, Tezcatlipoca. Throughout California and Mesoamerica especially, obsidian played a huge role in the physical and symbolic world. In A Dark Light, anthropologist Nicholas Saunders explores our aesthetic engagement with the strange stone, and how its looks and materiality bestowed distinctive kinds of agency on objects made from the dark volcanic glass, “especially as blades used for bloodletting and human sacrifice.”
Polished obsidian mirrors were powerful instruments of magic. By gazing into a mirror’s smoky depths, humans could travel to different worlds. This petrified black goo represented the newest technology, the highest minds, and it was linked to the landscape, to myth, to the body of Tezcatlipoca, whose name means “smoky mirror.” These dark, greasy lights found within polished obsidian mirrors look forward to the black plasma screens we all carry around with us in our pockets today.
As futurist Michael Garfield puts it, “we amplify the present in our speculative fictions.” As a programmable matter, black goo is the ghee or the “cream” of technology—a matured image of the technium, the “7th kingdom of life,” which Kevin Kelly calls “the greater, global, massively interconnected system of technology vibrating around us.” It’s a symbiotic organism co-evolving with us. And it’s evil, not as something theological and harmful, but as “the annunciation of the next level of order.”
What can we learn about ourselves by looking at the black goo? Maybe that the future is disgusting; that our next stage of evolution won’t be lighter and cleaner, but darker and gooier. Futurist Eric Davis, in a recent conversation with Garfield, associates black goo with the secretions of the body during ayahuasca trance–what Terence Mckenna called violet psychofluid. McKenna:
When you vomit from taking ayahuasca, this violet fluid comes out of your body; it also forms on the surface of the skin, like sweat. The Jivaro do much of their magic with this peculiar stuff. These matters are extremely secret. Informants insist that the shamans spread the stuff out on the ground in front of them, and that one can look at this material and see other times and other places. According to their reports, the nature of this fluid is completely outside of ordinary experience: it is made out of space/time or mind, or it is pure hallucination objectively expressed by always keeping itself within the confines of a liquid.
As a symbol pointing to something else, what do you think the black goo means? Please comment below. Its dark, shiny surface accepts all our projections. I think the evil black goo we see in Twin Peaks and elsewhere is the greasy, residual nightmare of tar pits and predators of our past, a polysemous signal from our future, and a potent message trying to get through to us about our present. If we step back far enough, black goo may even symbolize the ‘ground’ and the ‘goal’ of life itself: it’s the body-blood of the Black Madonna.
Archeologists and cultural historians like to remind us that we “think through things,” that, in the end, we not only imbue the goo with our own moods and shadows, but the goo also guides our imaginations in certain directions. How has it been guiding you?