Damsels & Demons: Women in Horror Part I

By Emma Louise Backe

Each culture suffers from its own hauntings. We perform ceremonies to guide the ghosts back to their graves and lay out offerings of food and candy to slake the hunger of the newly dead. We whisper ghost stories beneath the sheets, thumb through anthologies full of specters and spirits, and seek out fright at the cinema. The horror genre not only provides glimpses into a culture’s deepest fears, but also explores notions of identity, social solidarity, morality, gender and personhood. Horror media is inherently transgressive; it reveals what terrifies us most by destabilizing the traditions of order and categorization that govern our lives, eliciting fear through the disruption of the very systems and mechanisms we take for granted. In such a way, I would also argue that horror can be considered a province for feminism. Although horror films often objectify women, punish the overly sexualized female characters, or replicate damsel in distress tropes, horror also provides a space to problematize and subvert patriarchal power. Women are often the antagonists of horror films, as ghosts or vengeful spirits. The representation of women as monsters indicates the role that gender can have in conditions of cultural terror, presenting us with a lens through which to analyze gender stereotypes and subvert them.

Although Noel Carroll, author of The Philosophy of Horror; Or Paradoxes of the Heart (1990), indicates that horror is a modern genre that emerged in the 18th century, humans have been telling scary stories throughout our history. The folklore, legends and myths that populate societies around the world are rife with monstrous creatures that confound explanation, terrorize communities and threaten the physical or existential safety of humans. According to Jan Brunvand, “the legends we tell, as with any folklore, reflect many of the hopes, fears and anxieties of our time” (1981, 2), indicating that the figures or ideas that are classified as horrific help us to understand the larger machinations of a society’s epistemology, or way of seeing the world.

Despite international cultural variation, women or female figures are often cast as monsters through these folktales. Joseph Campbell wrote in The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology (1968) of the reoccurring theme of the castrating woman or phallic mother, often represented as a witch or a crone across several mythological traditions. One need not look far to find these monstrous women. In Greek mythology there is the Echidna, mother of all monsters, Circe, the temptress and sorceress, and Medusa, a woman that combines male arousal with destruction. There is La Llorona, the Weeping Woman found in Latin American folktales, the European Banshee, an omen of death who wrenches the night with her screams, and the succubus, a female demon who uses her sexuality to ensnare and eliminate men. Women are both wanton temptresses, luring men to their doom or spiriting away children while their parents sleep, and harbingers of death, the nightmare that seems to lurk in almost every culture throughout time.

Carmilla, one of the original vampires from Gothic fiction, Creative Commons, Wikipedia

Carmilla, one of the original vampires from Gothic fiction, Creative Commons, Wikipedia

Women have also played an important role in the production of horror. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Or the Modern Prometheus (1818) is widely heralded as the progenitor of Gothic fiction, a genre that traffics in spirits and ghosts. In the Victorian novels of the 1800’s, female characters are often more susceptible to supernatural incursions than their male counterparts, a stereotype that paralleled 19th century spiritualism. The spiritualism movement aspired to put the living in touch with the dead through séances and spirit mediums, supernatural conduits who also happened to be women. By token of their gender, women were perceived to be more receptive to communications with the dead. Jessica Lee Jernigan, in an interview with Bitch Radio, remarked, “The idea of being a medium, a portal is already heavily coded as female […] The fact that you literally have these holes in your body, those are the places that are connected to these other worlds, because these places are already things that the world of men doesn’t want anything to do with and is scared of” (2013). Many spirit mediums of the day used “ectoplasm” to convince their clients of preternatural activity. This ectoplasm, which was supposed to be an emanation of spiritual activity, was often just a gauzy fabric drawn out for effect at the denouement of the séance, sometimes expertly hidden in the vagina of the medium (Roach 2006). Here, we can see both the historical alignment of women with the supernatural, a topic I have explored in “Something Wicked This Way Comes: Witches and Modern Women” (2014), and the ways in which women used this spiritual association to their advantage.

One of the most pernicious connections between women and horror is Sigmund Freud’s theory of the Uncanny, which “belong to all that is terrible—to all that arouses dread and creeping horror,” so much so that “it tends to coincide with whatever excites dread”  (1919, 1). Female genitalia or the womb are often presented as a source of dread. Yet the uncanny also helps us to distinguish “the boundaries of what is ‘fearful’” (Freud 1919, 1), highlighting the ability of horror to illustrate the borders erected and naturalized by culture. Clearly, the boundaries between men and women is fertile territory for terror. Mary Douglas has written extensively on cultural taboos related to purity and danger articulated through bodily boundaries and filth. Similarly, monsters can be understood as categorically transgressive. “They do not fit the scheme; they violate it. Thus, monsters are not only physically threatening; they are cognitively threatening. They are threats to common knowledge. Undoubtedly, it is in virtue of this cognitive threat that not only are horrific monsters referred to as impossible, but also that they tend to render those who encounter them insane, mad, deranged, so on. For such monsters are in a certain sense challenges to the foundations of a culture’s way of thinking” (Carroll 1990, 34). The role of women within the horror genre, therefore, provides prime framework within which to explore the boundaries of patriarchal culture, beckoning us into the shadows to witness the twisted, pernicious female monsters warped by sexism, their horrible visage serving as testimony to how much we fear female power.

Horror has often been used to explore the plight of women under stultifying, regressive or conservative conditions. Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892) chronicles the deterioration of a woman confined to her bed with a serious case of hysteria, a heavily coded medical condition many credit as the somatic response to the suppression of women’s sexuality and autonomy. As the narrator grows more agitated by her confinement and the paternalistic attitude of her husband, she begins to see a woman hiding in the wallpaper, a projection of her own feelings of entrapment. The woman eventually devolves into madness, tearing the wallpaper from her room, attempting to strip away the patriarchal veneer that dictates her life. In a similar vein, many horror films and novels take place within a house, the domestic architecture framed as the locus of pain and regret. The role of the house as a literal figure of horror is not unintentional. Women have for centuries been relegated to the domestic sphere, forced to fabricate a sense of purpose and fulfillment within the walls and barriers allotted to them. It is therefore not surprising that these houses are also the sites of female madness.

Houses often become larger, more ominous symbols of women’s discontentment as it festers and bleeds into full-blown anger and resentment. Bertha Mason is one of the most famous figures of Gothic fiction’s female repression, hiding in secret from the outside world of Jane Eyre (1847), a monstrous figure of the perils of sexism. The governess of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw (1898) is responsible for two children at a country estate in Essex, where she is seemingly the sole witness of ghosts that populate the house grounds. Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (1959) situates the house as the fraught site of escape Eleanor Vance, who is simultaneously liberated by the supernatural aura of the space and terrified by the claustrophobic memories of caring for her dying mother. In Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black (1983), the Eel Marsh House looms as a sinister omen of failed domesticity and the keen regret generated by such constricting gender roles; the titular female ghost and the house are intimately linked. The main character, Arthur Kipps, literally becomes trapped in the house, forced to live under the same conditions as Jennet Drablow, the woman in black. The same trope can be seen in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, with the opening lines, “124 was spiteful” (1987, 3). The house magnifies the psychic energies of its inhabitants, including Sethe and her daughter Denver. Beloved’s hunger for her mother’s love, her difficulties navigating the world as a black woman in Post-Abolition South, are manifested in the house, its rattles and movements, like fingers clenching into a fist. In Monster House (2006), the spurned woman literally becomes the house, made manifest in the terrifying maw of the stereotypical haunted neighborhood home.

More often than not, it is female ghosts that provoke fright and haunt families. The Japanese have a strong historical tradition of female spirits, from the Slit Mouthed Woman (Kuchisake-onna) to Onryo Onryo, female ghosts who were abused or neglected by their lovers. Many of these figures remain in the world of the living due to lingering anger or hatred. The female ghosts in The Ring (2002), The Grudge (2004) and Dark Water (2005) becomes ghosts because they were wronged by husbands, lovers or partners, forced to linger between life and death due to an abiding sense of vengeance and injustice. Even though these ghosts are not the most delicate or ideal representations of women, there is an element of compassion that imbues their stories. These ghosts tread the boundaries between life and death, disturbing the traditional contraints to a women’s agency. Women obtain a new form of subversive power as spirits—they are no longer beholden to the arbitrary rules imposed by their society and subsequently transgress coded expectations of gender and power. As Andi Zeisler writes, “Not only are these women sympathetic characters, but they’re all the more terrifying because they have every bit of anger that makes living women sources of fear, but none of the societal restriction. In this way, ghost stories are often proto-feminist tales of women who, if only in death, subvert the traditions and assumptions of women as dutiful wives and mothers, worshipful girlfriends or obedient children by unleashing a lifetime’s worth of rage and retribution” (2013). The figure of women as horrific creatures is therefore emblematic of larger cultural systems that predispose women toward madness and monstrosity. While horror movies and books often replicate these harmful stereotypes and systems, they have also provided opportunities for viewers and consumers to peer “through the glass darkly,” to examine our participation in the production of horror and subvert persistent, conservative notion of gender and power.

Damsels & Demons: Women in Horror Part II

Works Cited

Brontë, Charlotte (1847). Jane Eyre. United Kingdom: Smith, Elder, and Company.

Campbell, Joseph (1968). The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology. New York: Penguin Compass.

Carroll, Noël (1990). The Philosophy of Horror, Or Paradoxes of the Heart. New York: Routledge.

Freud, Sigmund (1919). “The Uncanny.” Imago. http://web.mit.edu/allanmc/www/freud1.pdf

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins (1892). “The Yellow Wallpaper.” The New England Magazine.

Hill, Susan (1983). The Woman in Black. United Kingdom: Hamish Hamilton.

Jackson, Shirley (1959). The Haunting of Hill House. New York: Viking/Penguin Books.

James, Henry (1898). The Turn of the Screw. New York: The Macmillan Company.

Kenan, Gil (2006). Monster House. Columbia Pictures.

Morrison, Toni (1987). Beloved. New York: Alfred Knopf.

Roach, Mary (2006). Spook: Science Tackles The Afterlife. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Salles, Walter (2005). Dark Water. Touchstone Pictures.

Shelley, Mary (1818). Frankenstein; Or, The Modern Prometheus.

Shimizu, Takashi (2004). The Grudge. Columbia Pictures.

Zeisler, Andi (2013). “The Feminist Power of Female Ghosts.” Bitch Media. http://bitchmagazine.org/post/the-feminist-power-of-female-ghosts

Verbinski, Gore (2002). The Ring. Dreamworks.

About Emma Louise Backe

PhD student in Medical Anthropology at the George Washington University and independent consultant, focusing on the intersections of international development, global health, reproductive health justice, gender-based violence, and the politics of care. Social justice sailor scout working on behalf of survivors of sexual violence, gender equity, and comprehensive sexual and reproductive health among vulnerable populations.

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