[Guest Post] Our Sinister Sisters: the Girl Monster on Screen
- This guest post was originally pitched for Halloween – big apologies to our guest writer Ruth Sullivan that the ed being unwell prevented it going up earlier. We reckon it’s still a great read any time of the year (and if you’re in London and enjoying or about to start enjoying the BFI’s Gothic season, which runs into January, this is an excellent primer!). If you have a guest post a-brewing, email us on [email protected].
The nights have drawn in, there’s a chill in the air and it’s that time of year where I like to do what I, admittedly, like to do pretty much the rest of the year: gather the family around a nice cosy horror film and scare the bejeezus out of ourselves.
I’m especially fortunate, living in Brighton, that there’s a thriving scene of horror fanatics, including the founders of the Classic Horror Campaign, whose raison d’etre is to bring back British horror to our TV screens and who run a brilliant occasional horror film festival called Frighten Brighton.
Last year they ran a day of screenings that traversed the decades from the Thirties to the Seventies. It was fascinating to watch an intricate snapshot of women in horror unfolding before me, reflective of Hollywood’s complex relationship with sexuality, equality, objectification and empowerment.
In just the five films screened – Mad Love, The Cat People, Them, Plague of the Zombies and Phantasm – a gamut of femininity was presented, from virginal innocent to sexual seductress, strident powerful woman to flailing damsel in distress, repressed lesbian to swooning romantic.
In almost all these films there is a notable slide towards objectification; the woman’s body as a object of desire for the monster or mad scientist, the virginal sacrificial lamb, or the slutty cannon fodder helpless to avert her fate. This is reflective of the wider problems within a genre that still churns out women’s bodies to be fondled, fucked, kidnapped and sliced up.
The brilliant, feminist-principled Women in Horror Recognition Month campaign1 recognises this difficult relationship with horror. Their campaign illustrates that it can be one of the most objectifying genres, but is also an important genre for exploring a vast array of issues – power, psyche, politics, social constructs, war, violence, gender – and therefore that it’s important that women’s roles are recognised and supported.
They provide a platform for women directors, writers, actors and aficionados to get their work seen and to address issues within the industry, as well as misogyny in the genre. They’ve also used social media, blogging and film festivals to explore what horror has to contribute to the female narrative.
It’s a massive area to dig into. There’s been a swathe of material written about women as survivors in horror films – they occupy a myriad of roles: the Final Girl, the matriarch (all hail Ellen Ripley!), the victim who finds her nerve and the avenging angel survivor – frequently a victim of sexual violence.
It’s a rich seam to explore, and there’s a whole other vein to mine exploring the ones who live and the ones who die in horror movies, and what this represents metaphorically, culturally and politically. Equally, there’s a huge area to address when it comes to representations of race in horror – for example, why the last one to live is often a white woman (think Night of the Living Dead). But what about when women themselves are the stuff of nightmares?
Women aren’t always the victims in horror, and whilst there have been significant problems in the history of the genre, it has also been willing to explore areas of female experience that other genres just weren’t ready for, often at times when it would have been deeply contentious to make a film that discussed, say, sexuality or sexual violence, let alone the fact that you’d still be hard pushed to find a film about what a nightmare getting your period can be! There are numerous examples of fantastic writing and performances in horror that explore the feminine diabolique whilst also touching on real world issues underneath.
1936’s Dracula’s Daughter is a fine example of how horror can reflect both the cultural perception of women and the abiding social currents, as well as exploring key issues for women through the figure of a female monster. It was produced as part of the Universal stable of horror films, following directly on the heels of Tod Browning’s Dracula.
Gloria Holden plays the troubled and lonely Countess Zaleska, desperate to cure herself of vampirism. She tries both the occult and psychiatry before giving in to her bloodlust. The film is a Gothic delight, and Holden is dark and intense, quietly terrifying and tragic at the same time.
The film barely contains its sapphic undertones. Zaleska lingers over her female victims, covets their bodies and beauty, and prowls the streets at night in search of blood. The countess is very much a creature of her time in cinematic history, reflecting both the notion that homosexuality was considered a psychiatric malaise, and the censorship movements of the 1930s, with the Hays Code being introduced just a few years before. This was the first regulation code for cinema, reflecting religious and conservative views that any deviant behaviour had to be hidden, including sexual acts, prostitution, white slavery and homosexuality. The film is also a shining example of the demonisation of homosexuality, the portrayal of lesbians as predatory and dangerous and this is reflected in the scene where Zaleska attacks a young model, Lili.
1942’s Cat People likewise has a female monster at its heart. Irena moves to New York from Serbia, falling in love with the charming Oliver and marrying him. Underneath the surface, however, is the secret that she is descended from a wild people who can turn themselves into cats. Irena seems convinced that if she gives in to her passions she will lose control and turn into a cat herself – and her marriage becomes strained by a lack of intimacy.
Again, there is subtext around psychology, sexual repression and the power in a woman unleashing her sexuality. There is also a queer subtext as Irena stalks her husband’s mistress, Alice, and her inner cat is unleashed, suggesting that the repression she felt was her sexuality rather than her lack of ardour for her husband. All this is neatly tucked away from the heavy-handed censors, but easily readable.
Horror provided a way to express and explore female sexuality as complex and powerful – although again, it’s a sign of the times that it was also dangerous and deadly. Both films provided bold representations of female sex and sexuality at a time when it just wouldn’t have been possible to do so in a straightforward feature film. Although the subtext was ultimately tragic and fatal, it was a fair reflection of both the turmoil of coming to terms with being queer and the risk of society’s response if the fact was made public. Horror was the perfect cypher.
Moving forward, horror has continued to provide the perfect medium to explore these themes. The female monster has been a great platform for exploring puberty and all its commensurate delights: it’s all blood, mayhem and rage, after all. Think Carrie at the prom, exploding with fear, confusion and violence at her tormentors, triggered by her menstruation. Think Ginger in Ginger Snaps (2000) – first period, first full moon, morphing to discover her sense of identity, her confidence and her sexual liberation.
Both Carrie and Ginger Snaps are reflective of the fact that we are also still culturally trained to view periods and puberty with a sense of revulsion. There are several key moments in Ginger Snaps where adult characters view menstruation with disgust, implying that the girls should be ashamed of even speaking about it. Our bodies are the centre of the change in puberty, and this is interpreted into a kind of body horror, where the confusion, pain, hormones of puberty are projected outwards.
Carrie acquires powers to impact on the world around her to be able to make herself visible, powerful and a force to be reckoned with for the first time. Ginger starts to pay attention to and receive attention from her peers – she becomes a sexual being as well as a creature of rage. Bianca Nielson’s fascinating article Something’s Wrong, Like More Than You Being Female delves even further into Ginger Snaps’ representation of puberty and is well worth a read.
What is great about the film is the way that Brigitte and Ginger deconstruct their experiences together, sharing their views of their society, their bodies, and of their relationships. It’s notable how isolated Brigitte becomes when she can no longer share Ginger’s experiences. Although these conversations revolve around the fantastical, trying to deal with Ginger’s ‘wolfing out’, they’re also painfully familiar.
The female monster also allows us opportunity to address expectations of the female body. Hammer has a lot to answer for when it comes to heaving bosoms and frail victims in flimsy nighties, but in Countess Dracula (1971) it also addressed ageing. In particular, it addressed the fear of no longer meeting the expectation that women should be beautiful, and the anxiety that to age means to no longer be desirable.
The countess, fearing the loss of her young lovers, takes to bathing in the blood of virgins to retain her youth. Played by horror queen Ingrid Pitt, she was also rooted in the real life Elizabeth Bathory, who was imprisoned for murdering over 80 women and allegedly bathing in their blood. Countess Dracula is a silly, campy horror film, but it also manages to contain moments of poignancy, especially as the countess is forced to face her fate – old, hated and done for. It’s not a cheery message, but it’s a fair reflection of the cultural obsession with youth and beauty.
The girl monster also allows us to explore the idea that what’s outside doesn’t necessarily reflect what’s inside – ideas around appearances that fall outside the norms of society, the idea that ‘the other’ isn’t necessarily horrific, and the idea that monsters, conversely, can come in appealing packages. This is especially powerful when it challenges perceived notions of womanhood and beauty.
In Return of the Living Dead 3, reluctant zombie Julie bodily punishes herself because she’s no longer wholesome and good. She uses pain and piercing to control herself and to make her outside appearance reflect the badness she feels within, self-harming, cutting, modifying and piercing until she loses control. Again, on the surface it’s a silly film, but it’s a powerful scene when we begin to unpick the body as an object of aberration for young women. When Julie modifies herself she appears dangerous and sinister, but ultimately she’s still Julie underneath – she’s still a young woman mortified by herself.
This issue is also brilliantly addressed in last year’s breakthrough horror American Mary. Filmed by twins Jen and Sylvia Soska, and from their point of view explicitly feminist, it deals with the world of extreme body modification – carried out by trainee doctor Mary.
The modified women are deeply challenging representations of femininity and beauty. Their appearances are shocking and extreme, although underneath, they are caring and gentle despite seeming monstrous. This is exemplified by the character Ruby Realdoll, who desires to become sexless and doll-like. Her body has been cut and sliced to become featureless – monstrous to the accepted notion of beauty, but beautiful to her and vital to her self acceptance. The modification has dire consequences and accurately reflects how society rejects the other, often violently.
Mary herself – the ‘normal’ girl – is herself made monstrous, violent and increasingly amoral. In part, this is due to the societal pressures on her, including the fact that surgery is a boys’ club from which she is excluded as a young woman. It is also in part caused by an awful attack carried out by someone who presents themselves as the nice guy – nice job, caring profession, well respected, known to Mary. It’s a very challenging scene, mostly because the directors don’t allow you to look away, and because they refuse to fetishise it to make it more bearable. Horror reflects reality – as the directors themselves said, there are no cutaways in real life.
Importantly, though, Mary is also not a particularly nice person. She looks stunning, but she is not what we expect. She is sharp edged, cold, and self-absorbed; neither a fluffy air-headed beauty nor a bookish high achiever. Horror allows us to subvert some accepted tropes and often spits cultural expectations and stereotypes back in our faces. The fact that American Mary has generated so much discussion about what is and isn’t feminist cinema is fantastic.
Mainstream cinema is still deeply prescriptive about how women can act, talk and be – the girl monster refuses to be chained by these prescriptions. Horror is a brilliant, bloody palate for our real issues, and as a result it’s provided a forum for us to to talk about being a woman in a way that other genres could only dream of.
Of course we should enjoy the thrill of being scared. Of course we should immerse ourselves in the delight of a silly campy horror or a terrifying splatterfest – and no, I’m not suggesting that every horror fest should be an exercise in cinematic analytical criticism. But I love our sinister sisters. They’ve been reclaiming the night for decades.
- Ruth Sullivan is a children’s charity worker by day and avid gamer and consumer of pop culture by night. A former teacher and history nerd, she blogs in a personal capacity at i-conoclastic and is part of the reviews team for Close-Up Film. She tweets as @littlespy.