From the Goo to the Woo
What can a tv trope teach us about ourselves?
There is an entity who shows up in our favorite shows, films, and video games—an actor but also a technology that reflects something inside all of us. It may even foreshadow our future.
What is this stuff? It’s related to the black blood and black barf TV tropes, but while those substances are rather inert and passive, black goo can be extraordinarily hard and assertive when it wants to be. It’ll attack you like an Obscurial, envelope you like a Symbiote, or eat you like the alien wearing a Scarlet Johansson suit who lures men to her house to consume them through her black goo floor in Under The Skin (2013).
Sometimes it’s an all-consuming, ransacking suicidal rage created from personal and group anxiety, like we see in Satoshi Kon’s Paranoia Agent (2004), but it can also be an inky, ephemeral, transtemporal logogram secreted by aliens, as we see in Arrival (2016).
No matter what form it takes, black goo is other-worldly by nature, yet it’s tied to real-world materials we all know and live with.
For example, black goo is oily because oils have powers. They can absorb smells from their surroundings, and they can penetrate any surface; the skin readily absorbs them, and we produce oils, too; they’re under the skin and are capable of altering themselves as well as the living beings they touch. Ancient Hebrew culture, for example, used oils to imbue an object with divinity, as we see with Jacob’s stone pillow and in the ritual consecration of kings. Oil was rubbed into the skin of Greek athletes, making them shine, and after the athlete’s training, the greasy gunk was scraped off and sold as a cure-all salve! It has healing powers, and can be used for scrying, “lecanomancy.”
Like black goo, oil doesn’t fit into the category of most liquids. It’s somewhat viscous and it evaporates at a much higher temperature than water. It retains its liquidity for longer, and this durability, according to historian Christopher Forth, is why many cultures associate oil with strength and vitality.
Black goo doesn’t follow the rules we expect liquids and solids to follow. Instead, it behaves more like fat—it jiggles and slides about, “ready to collapse into a liquid state at any moment.” Forth points out that even melting it doesn’t restore fat to its ‘true’ state. Fat can firm up or combust into fire, conquering darkness. What if our relationship with this sci-fi trope goes back to the Paleolithic stone lamps that used fat as fuel? Suddenly, the numinous goo is what allowed humans to remain active at night; the goo facilitated cultural advances like cave painting and tool-making—gootechnics. In the beginning was the goo.
This is made literal in Prometheus (2012), when the Engineer drinks it, Agent A0–3959X.91–15, and then combusts into the waters of Earth to create first life. It’s a symbol for LUCA, our Last Universal Common Ancestor, black sludge. Now as origin—the Ever-present Origin?— it’s associated with Eve and Lilith, lava, dirt, fat—“the stuff of life”—as well as fat’s evil twin: the stuff of death, the stuff of aliens, demons, and dreams.
As ink and paint, the goo continues to tell our stories; It gives body to words. It helps us live forever. At the 2016 seminar Painting Beyond Itself: The Medium in the Post-medium Condition, Matt Saunders argued that gooey paint is part of a production line that eventually delivers printed text, “the supply train behind words on a page.” Saunders:
If we dig into any endeavor — into any medium — there’s often a gooey world lurking.
In a process similar to alchemy, black goo can transform from a state of ‘gross’ or ‘dull’ materiality into something transcendent, yet its stickiness is alarming. is terrifying even. Rather than passively yielding to the human touch like all other solids, black goo seems to touch us back, like fat, like ink, adhering to surfaces and attaching itself to our bodies and minds. Beware!
There is another black substance that’s known to stick and kill…
The popularity of black goo imagery could relate to the cultural and literary history of tar. Take, for example, The Tar Baby. A doll made of tar is used by Fox to catch Rabbit who’s been stealing Fox’s 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 Rabbit fights the tar baby, the more entangled and stuck Rabbit becomes.
The term tar baby has apparently come to refer to any situation that only gets worse by additional involvement with it. However, the tar baby’s resemblance to actual black bodies and its use as a racial slur in the US makes it a rather sticky phrase.
When Fox arrives, Rabbit uses reverse psychology to get free. “Kill me, skin me, eat me, but whatever you do, don’t throw me in the thicket!” Fox tosses him into the thicket, perfect for cutting through the tar, and Rabbit gets away.
Plantation owners used to build tar fences to keep slaves out of 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. It’s in our genes to be afraid of tar pits, “slime pits,” The Valley of Siddim—the Dead Sea—was said to be full of them.
Tar is also powerful, like armor. In Genesis 11:3, it’s a glue and new technology. In one story, the tar sealing the ark helps save and preserve all life. In Exodus, Moses’s mother covers the wicker basket with tar and pitch, and then releases the precious bundle into the Nile. Today, Michael Garfield points out that black goo is the radar-scattering black paint on spy planes.
Little Nemo: Adventures In Slumberland (1989) features a version of black goo called The Nightmare King who bubbles up from the shadows like lava. It’s blacker than night, blacker than Anish Kappor’s Vantablack®, it acts like The Blob (1958) or like stages of the Mindflayer in Stranger Things (2016) creeping along the floor, squeezing in through the cracks of the door, coming in through your window at night. In the Marvel Universe, black goo is called a Symbiote, a parasite that can envelop its hosts like an armored costume, creating a bond through which the host’s mind can be influenced. We see this in Venom (2018), and in what comes out of the meteorite in Spiderman 3 (2007)/ In Star Trek: The Next Generation (1988), there is an episode called “Skin of Evil,” that stars a black goo alien named Armus who morphs into a human shape.
Black goo and tar can be our friends, right? The fact that tar was used as a police technology under slavery undoubtedly has some relevance to the story.
Lastly, black goo’s 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.
Without any clear shape of its own, the goo absorbs bodies like a tar pit or like a swamp. Historian Klauss Theleweit uncovers that the swamp was a popular symbol for the flowing, dark, chaotic world of women in young Nazi men’s journals. 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.” Women were swamp monsters, solid and liquid at the same time — and this ‘hybrid’ or ‘impure’ condition, alongside their capacity for killing, makes them (women, swamps, and black goo monsters) very well suited as symbols for danger and the forbidden, explains Theleweit. Since swamps become peaceful again after they kill, you can’t tell how dangerous they are, so they also come to be seen as embodiments of deceptiveness.
All places that produce foul smells, according to Aurel Kolnai (2004), are “pregnant with death,” and are therefore avoided. Gooey swamps relate to areas on our bodies we’re often uncomfortable with and ashamed of. 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 film mother! (2017), 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. We can see that black goo leads to secret powers. It leads to our insides.
Nothing is more terrifying than mold, who gets into everything and breaks down boundaries. It can take everything away, even your personality. The way this pervasive and aggressively invasive fungal “other” spreads and terrorizes our homes suggests it may be source material for black goo. Some types of mold are helpful, but others, like Stachybotrys chartarum “black mold”, can be deadly.
Ali Kenner: “Mold’s presence on the Earth for millions of years, cohabitating with humans for as long as we have been creating shelter, belies its anthropogenic elementality. Over decades, it has become a problematic companion.” It’s part of an ancient relationship, nurtured by shadows. Tanizaki in In Praise of Shadows argues that shadows are the foundation of a house: “In making for ourselves a place to live, we first spread a parasol to throw a shadow on the earth, and in the pale light of the shadow we put together a house.”
Moreover, mold, like goo, relates to dreams. Some anthropologists think that the Salem Witch Trials weren't caused by religious panic but by a hallucinogenic mold called ergot. Sarah Lohman: “This is an alkaloid that is very, very, similar to LSD. But unlike LSD, the effects produced by it are not potentially pleasant — you don’t have a good trip. You never have a good trip.” Brenda S. Gardenour Walter, in The Fungus among Us, chronicles science fiction and horror films where the human body is invaded, corrupted, and consumed by fungus. She brings up the metaphor of the body as a house, and also Harry Adam Knight’s 1985 novel The Fungus, in which scientists create a fungus to solve world hunger, but the fungus consumes humans instead. This kind of looks forward to the hypothetical Paperclip Maximizer.
Black goo most likely refers, on some level, 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.
The disgust and fear that 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.
Liquid death. 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. Toxic spills and other radioactive, dark, and penetrating powers represent an invisible, ecological dimension that may inform our black goo. It’s part of a Hopi prophecy about black snakes that signals the coming apocalypse/new world.
Is it a message from the deep, from the environment, from the future? In Fern Gully (1992), the black goo monster is smoke-like — the genie from Aladdin mixed with the smoke monster from Lost. Its name is Hexxus, it can sing and dance, and it identifies as anti-life, acid rain, and sludge: Tim Curry sings the theme song: “Oil and grime, poison sludge/ Diesel clouds and noxious muck/ Slime beneath me, slime up above/ Ooh, you’ll love my toxic love.”
Another symptomatic reading is that black goo indicates deep, chronic anxieties shared by everyone: the fear of losing control, of shitting your pants, of STIs like HIV and AIDS, as well as cultural anxieties: the fear of foreigners, the fear of “contaminants,” We have many good reasons to police our borders and our orifices. For example, if it gets into your body you might turn into an alien, as we see in District 9 (2009), and in this there are echoes of urban legends, like the semen-filled donut fraternity prank, or the angry fast food employee’s “secret sauce.”
Black goo has a twin, white goo, and examining our “living water” and its problematic association with the soul helps us to better understand its evil doppelganger. Rabbinic texts on the Curse of Ham talk about the blackening of semen, and compare the process to ruining a coin. “I decree that the image be blackened and the coin be invalidated.” The name Ham is evidently derived from the Hebrew word for black —so it’s “Ham goo” — and this image of semen and people becoming black due to a curse brought on by a son seeing his father’s penis will be used in Europe and the US to justify slavery and anti-black racism. Even Herodotus, “the first historian,” believed that black bodies produced black semen.
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 mythical story about the separation and collision of worlds, about mothers, dreams, and disgust; woo-woo black goo, it's the excrement before the baby eats food of this world, “in the world but not of it.” Be careful: in utero, the sticky black poop can suffocate the fetus in what’s called “meconium aspiration syndrome.”
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. We find the narrative again and again of our 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.
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, throughout California and Mesoamerica especially, obsidian was used for weapons, “especially as blades used for bloodletting and human sacrifice,” and was believed to be the physical body of an ancient Turtle Island God, Tezcatlipoca. In A Dark Light, anthropologist Nicholas Saunders explores how objects made from the dark volcanic glass obtained a distinctive kind of agency. Polished obsidian mirrors were likewise powerful instruments of magic. By gazing into the black depths, humans could travel to different worlds. This hardened glassy black goo represented the newest technology, the highest mind, and it was linked to the landscape, to myth, to the body of the Night (See the video game Prototype 1 & 2). The greasy lights found within polished obsidian mirrors look forward to the black plasma screens we carry around with us in our pockets today!
Black goo is in Ghibli films — in the clown-like henchmen in Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) and in the emotionally insecure, rampaging No Face In Spirited Away (2001). It also lives beneath Yu-Baba’s bathhouse. In Princess Mononoke (1997), it’s a wrathful substance inside the Forest Spirit that floods the world with death, once again revealing how ‘insides’ are always bigger than ‘outsides’ — a theme also seen in the punctured monster baby that spurts out mounds of feces in David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977), and in the ethereal black worms that animate the god carcasses in Princess Mononoke. “Everyone! This is what hate looks like!” The ooze burns Ashitaka, like Dilophosaurus’s fictional black spit in Jurassic Park (1993), or the dream-like substance surrounding Pennywise in Steven King’s It (2017).
Sometimes it has magic. In Twin Peaks (1990–2017), there is a mysterious, shape-shifting black box hiding beneath the streets of Argentina, akin to Kubrick’s monolith, and a black puddle of goo in Gastomberry Grove that’s an extraction point of sorts; gooey coffee that changes state in the Waiting Room; and there is ‘scorched engine oil’ described as a gateway and a kind of demonic secretion whose smell lingers like a ghost.
Michael Garfield: “We amplify the present in our speculative fictions.” It can run down your throat and pull you out of delusion like the mirror substance in The Matrix (1999). Sometimes it appears as “smart matter,” able to break up and move like a swarm of drones, or like the trillions of tiny alien nanomachines in The Day The Earth Stood Still (2008).
It’s “programmable matter,” the ghee of technology — of the technium — the evolution of the “7th kingdom of life.” Kevin Kelly describes the technium as a “global, massively interconnected system of technology vibrating around us.”
It’s an extension of the self and a form of thinking, as we see in Big Hero 6 (2014) and the “grey goo” made of microbots controlled through a child’s neuro-link art project. It gets out of hand.
Whatever it is, we know black goo and the technium is ultraterrestrial, it’s cohabitating with us, and it’s evil; maybe not evil in the Biblical sense, but evil as in “the annunciation of the next level of order.” Garfield compares the goo to the next level of surveillance. This reminds me of a Verizon Wireless commercial for the 2012 Droid DNA, where black goo is injected like a drug into a young man’s body. The slogan, which I love, is: “Not an upgrade to your phone; an upgrade to your self.”
What does the prevalence of this techno-futurist black goo tell us about our dreams? Is it a message from the deep? Maybe it’s prophetic and is showing us that our next stage of evolution won’t be lighter and cleaner, but darker and gooier. It’s saying that the future is disgusting.
Eric Davis, in a recent conversation with Garfield, associates the black goo with Mckenna’s ‘violet psychofluid’: body secretions that occur during ayahuasca trance. 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.”
In 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Kubrick explains that the black monolith is a “minimalist symbol for the unimaginable,” as well as “an extraterrestrial creature.”
All you can do is try to represent it in an artistic manner that will convey something of its quality. That’s why we settled on the black monolith — which is, of course, in itself something of a Jungian archetype.
Black goo can become black woo, tied to reincarnation. For characters in the teenage sci-fi soap opera The 100 (2014), a postapocalyptic lineage of women scientists evolve black gooey “night blood” that can meld with a cybernetic implant and AI, The Flame, later called Mind Drive, used to transfer the consciousness from host to host. In Lucy (2014), a drug overdose causes Johansson’s character to become lava-like wormholes that reach across vast spans of cosmic time. The protean goo is how she expresses her highest nature. How strange that Johansons has played black goo twice, and wears black suits in Black Widow and Ghost In The Shell.
Future blood? Black goo runs down people’s heads in The Fifth Element (1997) with no explanation. The Baron Harkonen in both Dune films (1984, 2021) bathes in a sort of bacta tank filled with it, possibly ‘salusan mud.’
Ethan in Sky High (2005) has the power to shapeshift into a puddle of goo to slip into spaces other people cannot.
It’s a videogame trope. In Dead By Daylight (2016), it appears as The Entity, a pure evil that nobody can see directly because it “lives in the space between our world and our imagination.” In Final Fantasy Geostigma (2010), it’s an alien ooze that takes over human hosts, similar to the goo in The Secret World (2012) called The Filth. In Kingdom Hearts (2002), black goo is called a “Heartless” that can swallow you up and transport you to a different world.
It’s called The Hole in the manga Dorohedoro (2000), formed out of a mountain of corpses killed by magic. In Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.(2013) it’s “Gravitonium.” and in X-Files (1993) it’s an alien called the “Purity Virus.” In Ares (2020), the black stuff represents guilt. It’s called “Beal” after Bael/Baal, is vomited from bodies, collected, and one character bathes in a pool of it that resembles Anish Kapoor’s installation, “Descension.”
Black goo is an entity with a thousand faces. When ‘every character in a dream is you,’ black goo reflects aspects of our own story we are not yet willing to accept: a certain irreducible ‘dirt’ or disgust, the abject, a horror at the unknown, as Elizebeth Grosz puts it, “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 is a living substance that elicits both disgust and excitement in the human imagination. Its dark, shiny surface accepts all our projections, and like the mimetic polyalloy of the T-1000 in Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991), black goo can take on the shape of whatever it touches.
No matter what form it takes, black goo is categorically alien, and, more often than not, it’s evil, which is why we have to keep an eye on it. Popular symbols for evil are dangerous if left unchecked; they’ll be used to justify inhumane attitudes and actions.
I think the evil black goo we see in our art media 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: We come from and are contained somehow by this darkness.
It could also be the hieroglyphic language of a communally generated egregore or ultraterrestrial parasite that lives beyond the periphery of our human consciousness like Cthulhu.
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 that the goo guides our imaginations in certain directions. How has it been guiding you?
Special thanks to Josh Perman, Calen Presser, Harrison Terry, Christopher Forth, Micheal Garfield, and everyone else who shared with me their favorite examples of the goo.
Did I miss anything? Where else do we see black goo? What else can we learn about ourselves by engaging with it? Please comment below.