I have always loved film monsters. While the most common plot is a male monster terrorizing a female victim Creature of the Black Lagoon (1954) style, as commented by many feminist film critics, elements of horror are often feminised. Alien (1979), for example, is all about a repugnant reproductive cycle that rips men to shreds and one tough woman forced to fight against it in a confined space… a pretty weird message about what society is afraid of, right? It also came at a time when women’s liberation in the U.S. had become part of popular culture. Sure, you can laud Alien for the no-nonsense heroine, Ripley, but the message gets a little muddled when you consider the alien as a grotesque female figure as well. Species (1995) reproduced the same essential plot (and, essentially, the same monster design), but with a direct sexual element (Species destroys men in the sexual act vs. Alien‘s grotesque male “pregnancy” which rips through a man’s body), as well as the added element of genetic engineering by humans, a hot topic at the time. In this way, genre films tend to relate pretty directly to societal concerns.
Bakhtin commented on the generative principles in his imagining of the carnivalesque. By making reproduction grotesque, it is made funny and also the power of the act is both celebrated and neutralised. Of course, he was talking about Rabelais, but I think that the principle is interesting when applied to horror films, which are used to exorcise societal fears in much the same way. What elements of femininity are distorted and made grotesque? What does this reveal about societal anxieties? The following is a list of some of my favourite lady-monsters and a critique of the scares that they bring.
- Eek! Puberty!: This is a stand-by in genre films, and shows that society is consistently uncomfortable with the idea of the transformation of childhood into womanhood. The transformative element is distorted in various ways, sidestepping womanhood for something grotesque. Carrie (1976) is, of course, the best known example, where alienation leads to a girl to, in turn, become something alien. The Exorcist (1973) does much the same, with a girl becoming a literal demon as she matures (a formula repeated ad infinitum in every exorcism since; it is no coincidence that pubescent girls are always the victims of possession rather than boys). Ginger Snaps (2000) equates the beginning of menstruation to becoming a werewolf with humour as well as sensitivity. The Witch (2015) would seem to be part of this genre on the surface, but it also deals themes of loss and misplaced anger in a way that is truly original and captivating.
- Distorting the idea of STIs as traditional horror creatures: This seems to be a recent phenomena, until you consider more symbolic infections as well, like the vampire or zombie. Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) clarifies Dracula’s role, as his victims are sickened, then permanently altered in grotesque fashion. It Follows (2014) posits STI as demonic possession. Contracted (2013) is zombification as STI, and it is outright hilarious that the sequel, with a male hero, shows him fighting back against the infection and seeking out the person who infected him to put an end to the disease, versus the female protagonist of the original who spends the entire film trying to hide her disease, infecting others, and, eventually, simply, succumbs.
- Female revenge films: This genre has also existed for a long time, and to me it is not comfortable to watch, any more than any other gruesome torture-porn. This female violence is often filmed in such a way as to mirror the wrong done, very much in line with the the Biblical adage of an eye for an eye. Deathproof (2007) was a more recent iteration which paid direct homage to the 70s, and there was also the direct remake of I Spit on Your Grave (1978) in 2010. This is another genre that seems rooted mostly in the 1970s, but earlier film noir examples exist as well, although in these films the female vigilante is usually caught and faces justice for her actions. The genre is now popular again. Hard Candy (2005) plays with the fairy tale of Red Riding Hood as a revenge piece. Hevn (2016) is an interesting recent example, in that it was written and directed by women (it is also worth noting that TIFF cites this as the first revenge flick by women, ignoring American Mary (2012) by Jen and Sylvia Soska, probably because it is a horror genre film). The violence of women is meant to shock, as it is a reversal of the typical dynamic between female victim and masculine monster, but is such a reversal really shocking when there are already so many feminised monsters? This genre usually deals with the theme of rape, but the message that violence should be met with violence does not prevent rape nor free victims from their pain, which is why many of the modern examples simply end once the violent act is complete, rather than dealing with any future repercussions. There is no redemption in violence, it simply reproduces the circumstance that led to the female protagonist’s pain.
- Reproduction horror: This is a common thread (as discussed, in Alien and Species) which shows the way that motherhood, similar to puberty, is a transformation . Grotesque mothers are everywhere, and especially prevalent in zombie movies, in which zombies of both genders are “mothers” to those that they bite, and infected pregnant women have recently become a common feature in films such as Dawn of the Dead (2004), and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2016). Splice (2009) and Red Dragon (2002) directly link a traumatic childhood to an unnatural form of motherhood which the victim of trauma recreates. Candyman (1992) literally has a woman crawling through fire and disfiguring herself in order to deliver a child. Dead Alive (1992) culminates in the grotesque re-birth of the male protagonist as he is eaten by a larger-than-life, demon-possessed mother and subsequently cuts his way out of her belly. Even the childhood staple Gremlins (1984) deals with a grotesque form of reproduction (spay and neuter your pets, kids).
- Confused gender as horror: The mixture of gender traits is already present in many of the examples already mentioned, such as Splice (2009), as well as earlier films such as Silence of the Lambs (1991) and Psycho (1960), but this can be traced back to the earliest days of movies, in films like Freaks! (1932). It is obvious that this fear is deeply-rooted, since the history stretches back so far. Society is uncomfortable with figures that straddle the border between their expected gender traits, regardless of the extent to which such traits are arbitrary.
Can you think of any other typical feminine horrors? Let me know in the comments below.