Damsels & Demons: Women in Horror Part II

By Emma Louise Backe

Part I of the series can be read here.

The genre of horror is one that is not overtly concerned with gender, and yet gender roles, our ideas about what constitutes fear and terror, what unsettles our notions of boundaries and safety, are all bound up into traditional horror stories. Women are simultaneously the objects and drivers of horror, the unfortunate subject of a haunting gone terribly awry and the agent of supernatural mayhem and revenge. Looking at horror literature, television shows and movies over the past several decades, we can hold these contradictions to be true, while exploring the ways in which horror could be the new province of feminism.

One of the most common form of monstrous woman is the Pscyho-Biddy or Old Hag, an old woman or witch bent upon destruction. Old women have historically been associated with monstrosity. One need not look far to see examples of this trope—the old, wrinkled lover in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) or Sylvia Ganush in Drag Me To Hell (2009). Part of what made American Horror Story: Murder House (2011) so brilliant was the appropriation of established horror tropes, such as the character of Moira, the maid who presented as old to Vivien and Violet, while being perceived as young and sexual to Vivien’s partner, Ben.  While the age of these ghosts may indicate ageism or fear of death, many of these same female ghosts or vengeful spirits are also mothers, matriarchs brooding upon revenge and blood lust, a trope that may reinforce Freud’s theories about the connection between fear and mothers. Though mothers may be doting, kind and supportive while living, death has the potential to transform them into something utterly hideous. The fact that a number of horror movies pit living mothers against dead ones over the fate of children also reveals our cultural taboos about parenting. In The Conjuring (2013), for example, the Perron’s house is haunted by Bathsheba, a witch who sacrificed her child in a pact with the Devil—her character’s propulsive terrifying transformation into the agent of horror occurs when she breaks the implicit cultural taboo that you must not harm your children. A woman can only bring life—she must never take it. The central action of the movie occurs between three main female characters—Bathsheba, Lorrain Warren (the medium) and Carolyn Perron (the mother and wife). While the villain of the movie is a woman, the two other women become the custodians of typical maternity, attempting to protect their families and ward off the spirit that undermines their domestic role.

Mama, the short film that inspired the feature length version, via https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fcrM74s7tm4

Mama, the short film that inspired the feature length version, via https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fcrM74s7tm4

Conversely, the mandate of maternity and reproduction is flipped on its head in Andres Muchietti’s 2013 film Mama. In the movie, two young girls discover a mother figure in the ghost of Edith Brennan, an asylum patient whose baby drowns in her escape. Annalee Newitz wrote of Mama, “The pleasure of supernatural horror is in discovering another world where the rules of reality don’t apply. A world where a wronged woman can finally overcome her traumas, even after death. A world where fathers aren’t allowed to murder their little girls. And a world where even wildly non-traditional mothers can be sources of love and protection. Mama takes us into that world, for just a little while. It will make you shiver with fear, but it might also make you question what passes for “natural” when it comes to motherhood” (2013). Jessica Chastain’s character Annabel serves as a foil to the ghost of Edith Brennen—a recalcitrant rocker who has motherhood foisted upon her, she still manages to develop an attachment to the girls and attempts to defend them against Edith’s deadly embrace.

J.A. Bayona’s The Orphanage (2007) also revolves around the relationship between mother and child—when Laura’s adopted son Simon goes missing, Laura investigates the story of Tomás, a former tenant of the orphanage. Her maternal instinct is what ultimately enables her communication with the ghostly wards of the old home. In Guillermo del Toro’s film Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), Ofelia’s initiation into the fantastical world of fauns, Pale Men and faeries is triggered by her mother’s illness due to pregnancy complications. Mothers are both portals to the underworld and handmaidens of death. Indeed, arguably, the most terrifying aspect of Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) is the scene in which the infantile Xenomorph claws its way out of Kane’s body. The moment is iconic in horror films partially because it inverts gendered expectations of motherhood and pregnancy. Biological and sexual categories are not only disturbed—they are torn to shreds. Similarly, the climax of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) occurs when the viewer discovers that Norman Bates committed matricide, driven mad by the “clinging, demanding woman,” yet forced to reconcile this violence by adopting her identity as his own. To this day, it is the image of the dead, desiccated mother in the closet juxtaposed against the crumpled appearance of Norman in a dress and a wig that pins together and holds the disturbing storyline. The mother lives on through Norman to draw unwitting travelers into the internal scape of violence.

In many of the ghost stories mentioned, women are dragged from the afterlife into the interstitial world of haunting because they could not fulfill the maternal role to protect and raise their children. Yet many instances of horror also revolve around the mechanics of reproduction. The most famous example is the main character in Steven King’s Carrie (1974), whose telekinetic powers are triggered by the onset of her menstrual cycle. Kept in the dark about periods, Carrie panics at the sight of blood in the locker room and is subsequently punished by her peers for her ignorance with a hail of tampons. The pig’s blood dumped on her during prom solidifies her status as a horror icon while cementing the connection between women’s reproduction and the vaginal fear Freud theorized. Carrie’s relationship with her mother reveals the same fraught tension with ideals of motherhood and protection. Her religious zealotry coupled with her manic desire to maintain Carrie’s chastity frames her as an equally culpable villain in the book and movie. In fact, Carrie could be compared with the urban legend of Blood Mary, a blood-spattered female ghost who appears if you repeat her name three times in the mirror. The summoning of Blood Mary in these urban legends often occurs in bathrooms and among a cohort of young girls, within what could qualify female spaces. Folklorist Alan Dundes undertook an analysis of the legend, equating the ritual with the onset of female menstruation (1998). The ominous dread at the appearance of Blood Mary can therefore be understood as a manifestation of society’s fears of the menstruating woman.

Screen Shot 2015-01-11 at 3.14.47 PM

Laci Green, Feminism & Horror Films via https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yZ-HqozfQ5M

Throughout these examples, threaded with blood, maternal devotion, and childbearing, women incite horror through their transgression of traditional gender roles or by making painfully visible the structural, social violence inflicted on women from adolescence to adulthood. While some of the movies mentioned reinforce these stereotypes, they help to illuminate what we find so fearful about women. Other horror movies, however, have explicit feminist messages and go much further than fulfilling the parameters of the Bechdel Test.

Although many horror movies still adhere to the “Final Girl” trope, or punish the overly sexualized female characters, many more operate around women’s stories. I first began to consider this idea when watching the cinematic version of Silent Hill (2006). While the movie itself can never compare to the original Japanese video game, I was struck, in the end, by the number of complex female characters. Rose goes searching for her missing daughter in the sinister town of Silent Hill, teams up with police officer Cybil Bennett, and discovers a cult headed by Christabella, who intends to burn Rose’s daughter at the stake, driven by anachronistic ideals of purity. The entirety of the action occurs between the mélange of women, equal parts vindictive, cruel, kick-ass and tender. Women have emerged as both the heroes and anti-heroes of many other recent horror shows as well. As Eric Eidelstein notes,

“In addition to Vanessa Ives, Norma Louise Bates in Bates Motel, the many roles Jessica Lange has taken on in the American Horror Story anthology, and now Gillian Anderson’s newfound place as Hannibal Lecter’s co-conspirator in Hannibal, reflect a refreshing switch up in what the genre is providing on TV today. They aren’t damsels in distress or femme fatales, but seriously complex women who can go from vulnerable and soft to conniving and murderous scene to scene. Horror has historically challenged these conventions in film (see Rosemary’s Baby, Carrie and even this year’s It Follows), and is now defining TV in the greatest of ways. After all, in an industry consistently criticized for stereotyped or underdeveloped roles for women, the genre appears to be an oasis of sorts” (2015).

If horror is a confrontation of naturalized social and cultural boundaries, the ominous dread that comes from seeing matter out of place, then women are also using their position in horror to renegotiate new female spaces and demonstrations of power. Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) pits warrant officer Ellen Ripley against a xenomorph invader. She is the only one on the ship (apart from the cat) that is able to successfully defend herself against the alien incursion and kill the xenomorph. In the following movies, she reprises the role of action hero to fight against Queen Aliens—the redemptive and the monstrous feminine still refracting our social desires while complicating them. Australian horror movie The Babadook (2014) provides a metacommentary on horror movies and our exacting expectations of female mothers. Perhaps the most terrifying aspect of The Babadook was the banal horror of realizing that as much as a woman may want to be a mother, the demands of motherhood and the fickle, sometimes monstrous needs of children can be enough to drive anyone toward darkness. Yet Amelia, the widow and mother of the story, fights back against the narrative that has been imposed upon her—she does not relent against the dark figure that attempts to warp her into the monstrous mother figure she so desperately wants to avoid. At the culmination of the film, she is able to reconcile the dueling aspects of her psyche, presenting a radical alternative resolution to the typical horror Hollywood storyline. On a far more comical note, Joss Whedon’s Cabin in the Woods (2012) pokes fun at the horror tropes of victimization, noting how arbitrary and hypocritical the categories of the “whore” and the “virgin” are, while highlighting the fact that virginity is and still remains a cultural construct. Why should certain types of people survive when we’ve created a world founded upon normalized, routinized acts of violence?

You can't escape the Babadook via The Bark Bites Back https://thebarkbitesback.wordpress.com/2014/11/05/560/

You can’t escape the Babadook via The Bark Bites Back https://thebarkbitesback.wordpress.com/2014/11/05/560/

At the beginning, I asked that we simultaneously hold two truths together at the same time, even when they seemed to contradict one another—the genre of horror can simultaneously reproduce gender stereotypes and undermine them. Anthropologists Stephen Prince (1988) and Louise Krasniewicz (1993) have also speculated about the horror film’s ability to destabilize cultural norms, the categorical boundaries between self and other, and thereby reinscribe social conceptions of stability and sociality. Rosemary Jackson calls this “a subtle invitation to transgression” (1981, 69), positing, “texts subvert only if the reader is disturbed by their dislocated narrative form […] Breaking single, reductive ‘truths’, the fantastic traces a space within a society’s cognitive frame. It introduces multiple, contradictory ‘truths’: it becomes polysemic […] Presenting that which cannot be, but is, fantasy exposes a culture’s definitions of that which can be: it traces the limits of its epistemological and ontological frame” (1981, 23). In essence, Jackson argues that a reader or viewer’s sense of unease or fear remains a powerful emotion, because it can be harnessed to then reflect upon what elements of the story were so unsettling. In the darkness, we can only know the true shape and size of a room by bumping into the walls. By approaching and confronting the limits of our imagination, the figures that we think go bump in the night, can we begin to conceive of new horizons and new possibilities of social construction that ameliorate the very things that elicit horror. These gender paradigms are the “private traps” Norman Bates speaks of (Hitchcock 1960), the personal prisons we must learn to adapt to yet inevitably become warped by. Barbara Creed said it best: “The feminine is not a monstrous sign per se, it is constructed as such within a patriarchal discourse that reveals a great deal about male desires and fears but also tells us nothing about feminine desire in relation to the horrific” (1996, 62). We can learn much about ourselves and our latent biases by investigating the role of gender in horror, by confronting the specters of patriarchy that bend women into monstrous shapes and cajole our nightmares toward the leering, fanged mother, who just wants to tuck us in with a good bedtime story.

Works Cited

Bayona, J.A. (2007). The Orphanage. Warner Brothers Picturehouse.

Creed, Barbara (1996). “Horror and the Monstrous-Feminine: An Imaginary Abjection.” The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film. Austin: University of Texas Press. pp. 35-65.

Del Toro, Guillermo (2006). Pan’s Labyrinth. Estudios Picasso.

Dundes, Alan (1998). “Blood Mary in the Mirror: A Ritual Reflection of Pre-Pubescent Anxiety.” Western Folklore, Vol. 57, No. 2/3. pp. 119-135.

Eidelstein, Eric (2015). “Are Women Changing the Face of Television’s Horror Genre?” The Observer. http://observer.com/2015/06/penny-dreadful-and-the-strides-made-by-modern-horror-television/

Gans, Christophe (2006). Silent Hill. Davis-Films & Konami Corporations.

Hitchcock, Alfred (1960). Psycho. Shamley Productions.

Jackson, Rosemary (1981). Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion. New York: Routledge.

Kent, Jennifer (2014). The Babadook. Causeway Films & Smoking Gun Productions.

King, Stephen (1974). Carrie. New York: Doubleday.

Krasniewicz, Louise (1993). “Cinematic Gifts: The Moral and Social Exchange of Bodies in Horror Films.” Tattoo, Torture, Mutilation, and Adornment: The Denaturalization of the Body in Culture and Text. Frances Mascia-Lees and Patricia Sharpe, eds. New York: SUNY Press. pp. 30-47.

Kubrick, Stanley (1980). The Shining. Warner Bros.

Muschietti, Andres (2013). Mama. Universal Pictures.

Newitz, Annalee (2013). “Why Mama Succeeds Where So Many Other Flicks Fail.” io9. http://io9.com/5977091/why-mama-succeeds-where-so-many-other-cheesy-horror-flicks-fail

Prince, Stephen (1988). “Dread, Taboo and The Thing: Toward a Social Theory of the Horror Film.” Wide Angle. Vol. 10, No. 3. pp. 19-25.

Raimi, Sam (2009). Drag Me to Hell. Universal Pictures.

Scott, Ridley (1979). Alien. Twentieth Century Fox Productions.

Wan, James (2013). The Conjuring. New Line Cinema.

Whedon, Joss (2012). Cabin in the Woods. Lionsgate.

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.

There are 4 comments

  1. Are You Not Entertained: TGA’s Favorite 2016 Movies, Television & Media | The Geek Anthropologist

    […] Penny Dreadful fans were shocked by the sudden completion of the series at the end of season three this past summer. During its run on FX, Penny Dreadful largely flew under the mainstream radar, despite its lush cinematography, sensuous dialogue and deliciously subversive reinterpretation of Gothic horror. The show writers took characters from the established Victorian canon and gave them new teeth, acknowledging the colonial overtones that inform the 1800’s to cultivate a diverse cast and provide commentary on the politics of race, class, gender and sexuality during the time period. Dr. Frankenstein has an opiate addiction, while his good friend, Dr. Jekyll has struggled to build a reputable medical practice in a society of ethnic prejudice. It’s implied that the anger and violence that quietly simmers within Jekyll stems in part from his mixed race descent, with an English nobleman father and Indian mother. As the seasons progressed, the delicate inversions within the established narratives of Dracula, Frankenstein and The Picture of Dorian Gray developed into a tense commentary on gender politics. Frankenstein’s bride Lily, formerly known as Moira, builds an army of prostitutes she’s rescued from the streets. Disgusted by the performance of gender she is expected to play and the violence–physical, psychological, symbolic and otherwise–she is forced to accept, Lily’s bloodlust and misandry is not dissimilar from contemporary feminist contingents who’ve decided to fight systemic misogyny through ironic man hating. After a slow and simmering narrative arc for Vanessa Ives, the season finale left something to be desired, but the show feels like a feminist Byronic love affair with the uncanny while reminding us why these monsters continue to haunt our cultural imaginations. […]


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