By Emma Louise Backe
In February 2018, Guillermo del Toro was awarded the Oscar for The Shape Of Water, an interspecies period romance premised on inverting the horror of seeing a beautiful woman in the arms of a monster. Inspired by classic horror films like The Creature from the Black Lagoon, Del Toro discusses being enamored with the poetry of monstrosity, the importance of recuperating the voices and experiences of characters often relegated to the margins, while making explicit (both figuratively and literally) the role sexuality plays in such supernatural tales. Indeed, The Shape of Water’s success at the beginning of 2018 seems like an appropriate precursor to what many are designating as another breakthrough year for horror. Long consigned as tacky schlock, the resurgence of horror, and its increasing consumption by the public—if the viewing stats for Netflix’s latest Bird Box are any indication—continues to illuminate cultural taboos regarding gender, prurience and otherness. Yet the outstanding horror of 2018, including Channel Zero, Sharp Objects, Hereditary and The Haunting of Hill House, continue to dwell upon the family, the claustrophobic domestic unit, the affective and physical architecture of the traditional nuclear family, and the emotional wreckage left by expectations like mandatory motherhood.
King Kong scales the Empire State Building with Ann Darrow, a becoming blonde, clutched in his simian hands. Gwen Conliffe cowers at the sight of The Wolfman, Lon Chaney Jr’s transformation from well-heeled gentleman to lycanthrope overnight. These images of the delicate ingenue captured by the licentious beast have become canonical to the visual rhetoric of horror, and yet films like The Shape of Water and recent novels like The Pisces transform traditions of purity and romantic captivity into sexual fluidity by centering the consensual relationships between humans and gods or monsters. Western fairy tales have long explored and complicated conventions of intimacy and matrimony—consider the captivity and subsequent romance between Belle and the Beast, or the sexual naïveté of Bluebeard’s wife, her innocence the deciding factor in her marriage to the mysterious nobleman. The preeminence of virginity, and the familial honor bound up in a young woman’s sexuality, often results in the physical mutilation of girls who do not abide by the sexual standards of the storyteller—the abdication of voice (The Little Mermaid), the chopping off of hands (The Handless Maiden) or the transformation into animals, minerals or monsters as punishment for their transgressions.
Often read as a didactic genre, traditional fairy tales—marked by violence, gore, and death—serve as object lessons in the taboos of the time, illustrating what is considered acceptable and dramatizing the consequences if children don’t abide by the social rules. These taboos typically have a sexual inflection—sex can serve as a pollutant between the tightly secured boundaries of the individual body, the social body, and the body politic (Scheper-Hughes & Lock 1987). Mary Douglas (1966) and Julia Kristeva (1980) note how sex is often prefigured as dirty or contaminating, and subsequently invoked to conjure up feelings of disgust when it occurs “out of place.” The damsel in distress is evocative because her maidenhead—often conflated with her reputation as a respectable woman—is threatened by a creature whose sexuality is uncontrollable, irrational. She will be forever sullied by the encounter. Or she can seek redemption only by rehabilitating the licentious monster, his transformation often visibly marked by his transition from animal into dashing prince. The same story arc can be seen in the Fifty Shades series, a franchise that continues to cash in on the presumed sexual ignorance of the female heroine, a woman whose sole purpose is to recuperate the monster’s deviance. To domesticate him, as it were.
Contemporary horror flouts these conventions. Within the opening scenes of Eliza—the heroine in The Shape of Water—it’s clear that she is very much in possession of her own sexuality. Her pre-work routine of boiling eggs and masturbating, the egg timer beating away the rhythms of her own sexual pleasures, establish a comfort and expertise in her own body. An orgasm should be as habitual and mundane as grocery shopping. As Eliza develops a relationship with the Fishman held hostage at the facility where she works as a custodian, her romantic inclinations towards the creature are not, therefore, one of corruption but rather mutual understanding and empathy. As a mute, Eliza and the Fishman are able to communicate far better than the other couples we witness on screen. The villain of the film, Strickland, is seen pinning his wife to their bed, pressing his bleeding fingers to her mouth so she can’t talk while he’s having sex with her. Her pleasure is muffled, subsidiary. His gangrenous fingers, bitten off by the Fishman he helped to capture, are an overt symbol of his necrotic masculinity. Instead, the intimacy Eliza establishes with the Fishman is sensuous, romantic, like the epic stories of love playing in the theatre beneath the floorboards of her apartment building. Similarly, in The Pisces (2018),a novel by Melissa Broder, Lucy retreats to Venice Beach after a bad breakup, set upon deciphering the erotic gaps (gasps) in Sappho’s poetry for her dissertation. Ravenous for a reminder of her desirability, we track her sexual encounters across Los Angeles, including a merman named Theo she discovers on the beach outside her apartment. Lucy describes an acute pleasure she’s never experienced with another partner, Theo’s attentiveness to the ebbs and flows of her sexual needs. As Alex Posey writes of these intercessions of interspecies erotica, “Constrained by society’s expectations, disappointed by the men in their lives, lonely, and depressed, the women find sexual expression and freedom by shucking conventionality and doing it with sea creatures” (2018).
Women are seeking out sexual gratification from the “other,” while abandoning traditional paradigms of intimacy. This evolution seems in keeping with wider conversations surrounding the #MeToo movement. Like the nuanced conversations around consent and comfort instigated by stories like “Cat Person” or allegations brought against Aziz Ansari, #MeToo is not simply a matter of spectacular violence—it must also confront the day-to-day encounters and ideologies that inform the conditions of intimacy we expect between partners, the extent to which we still expect woman to police the boundaries of propriety and therefore keep the uncontrollable carnality and carnage of male sexuality at bay. Media like The Shape of Water and The Pisces take a different tact—why should it remain women’s responsibility to control and manage sexual safety and appropriateness? What is lost when we assign perpetrators the designation of monster, rather than investigating the multifarious ways that violence manifests between people? How have categories of monstrosity been historically designated to the sub-altern and the marginal, rather than, for instance, the abusive husband? Perhaps these alternative forms of love-making signal these radical ruptures in paradigms of intimacy and pleasure.
Similar romantic fractures can be seen in shows like Black Mirror and fiction collections like Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties. The first episode of Black Mirror’s Season 4, “USS Callister,” is a blistering indictment of male entitlement and toxic geek masculinity. Throughout the episode, we watch as Robert Daly, a seemingly guiltless, yet socially awkward programmer being exploited by his colleagues at Callister Inc, transforms into the Captain of the USS Callister in an immersive gaming platform called Infinity. Riffing off of Star Trek, Infinity allows Daly to capture people from Callister Inc. and digitally imprison them within his personal fantasy, where they are forced to worship and sexually pleasure him on demand. Trapped female co-workers, like Shania Lowry, who refuse to play along are instead transformed into hideous monsters the other participants are compelled to kill. It becomes abundantly clear that while Daly perceives himself to be a persecuted genius who deserves respect and affection from his colleagues, he represents a version of embittered toxic masculinity who believes that he is owed esteem and sexual access by dint of his white male privilege.
Daly’s behavior in “USS Callister” has haunting parallels with Elliot Rogers and the incel movement that exploded into public awareness following Alek Minassian’s Toronto van attack in April 2018. Incels, or involuntary celibates—who have been linked to movements like Men’s Rights Activsts and Red Pillers—fundamentally distrust women and yet believe that, as predominantly heterosexual men, sex is a right that they are being denied. Within the sexual economy to which they are owed, incels have suggested mandating girlfriends. A poorly conceived New York Times op-ed by Ross Douthat even considered the possibility of distributing sex robots to slake the entitlement of these so-called aggrieved men. Self-described incels like Elliot Rogers and Alek Minassian have weaponized this entitlement to female attention and love into mass violence, patterns of gun violence and intimate partner violence we’ve witnessed in other attacks throughout 2018.
Traditional heterosexual expectations of sexual availability and accommodation can be seen in Her Bodies and Other Parties. Published in 2017, the book was picked up in October of 2018 by FX to be adapted into a horror miniseries. The opening story, “The Husband Stitch,” takes a story familiar to those who grew up on “The Green Ribbon” in In a Dark, Dark Room And Other Scary Stories. The narrator describes her relationship with the man who is to be her husband, the deep tug and thrust of sex between them, even as he strokes the green ribbon always tied around her neck. Even as they copulate and raise a child together, he is not to untie her ribbon, the final secret between them. And yet, despite how much the narrator is willing to give her husband, this one boundary, this one object that is off limits to him on his wife’s body, consumes him. The narrator sighs, “I look at the face of my husband, the beginning and end of his desires all etched there. He is not a bad man, and that, I realize suddenly, is the root of my hurt. He is not a bad man at all. And yet—” (Machado 2017). She finally acquiesces, and her husband finally tugs away the ribbon, allowing his wife’s head to fall, decapitated, away from her body. Men’s perceived ownership over women is killing them.
The title, “The Husband Stitch,” is also a reference to a common surgical practice. After a vaginal childbirth, the obstetric trauma to the genital area often requires some kind of surgical intervention, whether cosmetic or otherwise. Doctors might be requested to complete a “husband stitch,” in which their wives’ vagina’s are given an extra stitch for tightness, as if made into a virgin again. Indeed, vaginoplasties and labiaplasties are some of the most common forms of plastic surgery internationally, procedures done on the genital tissues that may be undergone to “reconstruct” the vaginal area after childbirth, but have also been linked to perceived aesthetic issues related to labial size, shape and coloring (Edmonds 2013). Yet obstetric violence is not uncommon—the history of gynecology is quite literally written upon the bodies of women of color who were operated on against their will, and advocacy among indigenous woman in Canada has raised awareness about the continued practice of forced sterilization. Another story in Machado’s collection, “Real Women Have Bodies,” documents a phenomenon of women literally disappearing, fading into obscurity and sewn into the ballgowns of those performing traditional rites of feminine debut, while “Eight Bites” follows a woman undergoing bariatric surgery in the hopes that physical slimness will bring the love and affection she’s always craved. Women’s bodies, in Machado’s blending of the horrific, the supernatural, and the speculative, are the plasticine manipulations of the people around them, submissive and scarred by the prescriptive qualities of beauty and love exacted of them.
Following in the footsteps of Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber (1979),Machado’s collection of feminist fairy tales reveals the sexual and symbolic violence often embedded in our cultural representations of gender and sexuality. The complicated dimensions of Machado’s work became all the more evident when she spoke out against Junot Diaz, adding her account of misogyny to other allegations of assault brought against the author. Diaz’s own admission of childhood sexual abuse (CSA), and the ways in which his experiences with sexual violence informed his relationship with partners, yet again disrupt this carefully cultivated image of the perpetrator as monster. Those who have experienced violence are equally culpable of replicating such patterns of abuse. Yet Machado’s own career, as well as shows like Channel Zero and horror hit Hereditary, also highlight the dangers of gaslighting, the kinds of stories that are dismissed and whose accounts of violence are taken seriously.
Channel Zero—the horror series on SyFy based on adaptations of CreepyPasta stories—has been quietly churning out some of the best horror on television. The latest season, The Dream Door, deals explicitly with disbelieving women, and the dangers of blaming madness or irrationality on “unreliable” female narrators. Married couple Jill and Tom discover a mysterious door in the basement of their home, a Jungian portal that releases Pretzel Jack, a terrifying protector of sorts from Jill’s childhood. Jill’s trust issues, and suspicions of her husband, as well as the people around her, trigger Pretzel Jack to kill. The more people question Jill’s version of events and her hold on reality, the more violence Pretzel Jack executes, stepping in to punish her detractors. The same domestic gaslighting occurs in Ari Aster’s Hereditary. The family matriarch, Annie Graham, peppers her grief counseling sessions with references to her brother’s schizophrenia, her father’s suicide, and her mother’s borderline personality disorder. We are meant to believe that there is a history of mental illness in her family, one that weighs heavily upon Annie and her marriage to her husband Steve. After the sudden and brutal death of her daughter, Charlie, Annie’s mental perspicacity is increasingly called into question. We watch as her husband becomes more and more suspicious of Annie, likely believing that she’s on the verge of a psychotic break. What began as a loving relationship turns into one of paternalism and disbelief, with Steve unwilling to indulge in his wife’s “delusions” that they can still communicate with Charlie from beyond the grave. It’s this spirit of denialism that ultimately leads to the immolation of their relationship.
Hereditary, HBO’s Sharp Objects and Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House all address one of the central themes of horror—motherhood. The trope of the monstrous feminine (Creed 1993) has long stalked horror, its most familiar figure manifested in the archetype of the monstrous mother. Whether the Queen Xenomorph in Aliens (1986) or the murderous witch Bathsheba who sacrifices her children in The Conjuring (2013), horror has long been preoccupied with the problem of reproduction and the mommy mandate. Many recent horror movies—such as Mama (2013), Goodnight Mommy (2014), and The Babadook (2014)—have dealt explicitly with the collateral damage of mandatory motherhood, as well as the punishment of women who don’t ascribe to an idealized version of domestic bliss. Hereditary continues this feminist investigation of gendered reproductive roles within the familiar horror terrain of the house, one that is often conflated with a woman’s body and her assigned place in the household. What Hereditary, Sharp Objects and The Haunting of Hill House—a reinterpretation of Shirley Jackson’s book of the same title—accomplish is a searing inquiry into the mundane horrors of the nuclear family. While Hereditary and Hill House, as more traditional entrées into the horror genre, include a fair amount of jump scares and terrifying imagery, it’s the confrontations between family members—the expectations projected on wives, children, and husbands—that appear the most vicious and perturbing. As Annie constructs minute dollhouse tableaus of her time nursing Charlie—her mother offering up a nipple to suck—she seethes with the fear that she is capable of killing her children. “I never wanted to be your mother!” she yells at her son Peter, a young man who seems both desperate for the love of his mother and terrified of what such a love could entail. Annie feels wracked by guilt that she couldn’t “save” the family members that keep dying around her, yet she continues to retreat into a stylized version of the miniature houses she creates, all while the remains of her family rot around her.
The visual meta-analysis of the dollhouse can also be seen in Sharp Objects, the HBO mini-series adapted from Gillian Flynn’s book of the same title. The emotional triangulation between Camille Preaker (Amy Adams), her mother Adora Crellin (Patricia Clarkson), and her younger half-sister Amma Crellin (Eliza Scanlan) largely takes place within the claustrophobic Wind Gap estate. Adora delights in showing off the perfectly manicured house, the visual opulence of Southern Charm seeming to prove that while her pregnancy with Camille was unplanned, she can still fabricate an ideal domestic space, marble floors and all. Adora’s idea of what it means to be a mother—the doting housewife who is both nurturer and caregiver—proves to be one of the central sources of affliction in the lives of both Camille and Amma. Camille’s alcoholism, tendencies towards self-harm, and other patterns of self-destruction prove to serve as a form of protection against her mother’s stifling guardianship. And yet, as the finale shows, Adora’s compulsion to poison her daughters and fulfill the trope of the murderous mother, proves to be something of a red herring. The teeth in Amma’s own private dollhouse collection, and her feigned vacillation between femme fatale and ingénue, seem almost inherited. Taking on the clinical diagnosis of Munchausen syndrome by proxy, the show seems to interrogate ongoing debates of nature versus nurture, and the environmental, rather than biological, factors that incite violence by women against women.
The Haunting of Hill House, too, centers around the dynamics of family trauma within the Crain household. While the series unfortunately replicates the tired trope of the murderous mommy, it excels in illuminating that the ghosts are always manifestations of the harms we inflict upon one another. From the beginning of the season, ghosts haunt the edges of shots, always barely visible through a pane of glass or in the shadows of a corridor. Although the parents, Olivia Crain and Hugh Crane, attempt to model a loving household while in the process of refurbishing and flipping Hill House for a profit, each of their children—Steven, Shirley, Luke, Theo and Nell—struggle with reconciling the perceptions and aspirations placed on them by their families, and the people they want to become. In the words of Arielle Bernstein, “The idea that family life itself is the hell we keep willingly returning to is at the heart the series. It’s the reason why many years after his wife’s suicide and the attempted homicide of his own children, Hugh still describes his relationship with his beloved as though it were gentle and balanced” (2018). For some, like Luke, this internal conflict manifests through grappling with addiction, what some might read as a coping mechanism for grief, ghosts and the ongoing disappointment from his family about his “inability” to recover. The Crain family is incapable of healing after Nell’s death, or exorcizing their ancestral demons, until they confront the ways in which they hid from one another, keeping secrets and disavowing the ability to truly “see” the harms experienced and inflicted on one another. Hugh’s ongoing desire to “fix” the house and “fix” his family is grounded in an ideal of stasis—a nostalgic representation of a romanticized past in which children never grow up, a utopic idea of parenthood Olivia shares. These imprints of what was, or what could be, whether spectral or actual, however, leave little room for growth, or the messiness of love when plans go awry.
The intimacies of horror exhibited by the media mentioned is also indicative of our cultural obsession with dead women, specifically dead white women. With some exceptions, horror still remains a genre largely preoccupied with whiteness, an unmarked racial category taken on by Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017). Camille returns to her hometown of Wind Gap because young white girls are being killed in spectacular, gruesome ways. The first episode of The Haunting of Hill House opens with Nell’s suicide, transformed into the “Bent-Neck Lady,” while the horrific decapitation and decomposition of Charlie in Hereditary will be forever sealed into the memory of viewers. Alice Bolin’s book, Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession (2018), traces the cultural zeitgeist and fascination with deceased women, from Hamlet’s Ophelia to Twin Peaks’ Laura Palmer. Bolin argues that, “the glamorization of violence against women is a disease. We don’t just obsess over violence against women in our popular culture. We are constantly confronted with it in our daily lives” (Ferri 2018).
While such an analysis returns us to the problem of gun violence and intimate femicide, it fails to account for the disproportionate vulnerability that women of color face. Whereas contemporary horror helps us to confront and reshape the dynamics of sexual pleasure and privilege, the damning consequences of restrictive gender roles within the family, and the invisible currents of violence and coercion that inform the #MeToo movement, ghosts and gaslighting must also encompass the dread of difference through race. The horror of maternity, especially, is one acutely experienced by women of color. The horror genre excels at illuminating the contours of identity, cultural appropriateness, and moral decorum, often displaced and warped onto the body of the zombie, the vampire, the old hag. “The work of horror,” K. Austin Collins writes, “is to uncover what a repressive culture like ours would hope is dead and buried. But as far as public discourse is concerned, black culture — more often being repressed than doing the repressing — doesn’t have room or patience for fantasy. What’s a black ghost? A slave — obviously. Outside of comedies, the black-led films that seem to get the most attention deal with the supposed reality of blackness — grit, violence, historical suffering, the melodramatic breakdowns of black families: the Moynihan Report as cinema” (2016). In light of the absence of asylum opportunities for women fleeing domestic violence, Cyntoia Brown’s legal battles, #SurvivingRKelly, the disproportionate vulnerability of trans and BIPOC women impacted by FOSTA/SESTA, and the foreclosure of reproductive autonomy—especially in poor communities of color—the horrors of gender must also be inflected through the lens of race.
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