By TNHC's Editorial Director, Emily Malone. (Author’s note and TW: this article discusses themes of sexual violence)
What is horror without women? From ‘scream queens’ and final girls to possessed teens and menstruating witches, Horror has historically relied on our screams, our blood, and our bodies.
When cannibalistic demon Jennifer Check was released into cinemas in August 2009, she earned a "disappointing" response. Critics either found the film to be not funny enough or not scary enough; “a lurid adolescent distraction, not great cinema” (Ann Hornaday, The Washington Post).
Its main failing was perhaps that it was marketed towards a male audience, when in fact, it’s a film heavily laced with themes of femininity, female friendship, and revenge against male exploitation of women. It was likely lost on many to have a sex symbol like Megan Fox lure in straight male audiences only to turn her into a monstrous man-eating demon a quarter way through. Iconic behaviour from director Karyn Kusama, if you ask me.
Since then, Jennifer’s Body has gained a noticeable cult following among women, myself included. In fact, I’m sure it’s no coincidence that almost 60% of The Nottingham Horror Collective’s readership are women. Women, it seems, love horror. Let’s explore why.
The Monstrous Feminine and the abject
“But blood, a vital element, also refers to women, fertility, and the assurance of fecundation. It thus becomes a fascinating semantic crossroads, the propitious place for abjection.” (Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror)
When we talk about the abject, we’re talking about the things that society doesn't want to see or talk about — the taboos that horror needs to be horrific. We think of bodily functions; innards and blood; vomit and shit. We think of death, sex, and pain.
Had Barbara Creed written her 1993 book ‘The Monstrous Feminine’ in 2009 when Jennifer’s Body released, she’d have had a field day. Traditionally, women have been positioned as victims within the Horror genre — a patriarchal and one-dimensional position that she challenges in her book.
Creed argues that when the feminine is fabricated as monstrous, it’s commonly achieved through an abject association with our sexuality, our reproductive bodily functions, or our role as ‘mother’. She poses that the concepts of The Monstrous Feminine in horror arose from male concerns regarding female sexual difference and castration. If we were to take Sigmund Freud’s position on women, for example (which we should not, ever), women are positioned as ‘the castrated’. Creed argues that in much of the Horror genre, she is the castrator.
Creed asserts that there are a variety of different appearances of The Monstrous Feminine which all reflect female sexuality, including the archaic mother, the monstrous womb, the vampire, the possessed monster, the witch, and the castrator. So why do we watch these ‘abject’ depictions of ourselves? For the purposes of finding the appeal of horror for women, let’s explore these categories.
Woman as Archaic Mother
In films like Alien (1979) we see the archaic mother, with the titular alien as the point of origin and end. When the crew find a womb-like chamber with a row of eggs hatching inside, the creatures penetrate and impregnate the host, and then birth themselves by bursting through the host’s stomach, violently killing them.
Creed argues that the mother being able to impregnate even male hosts with her little bundles of terror creates a sort of abject twist on motherhood. Mothers aren’t supposed to be horrifying, salivating creatures hellbent on violently and fatally reproducing. They’re supposed to be nurturing, comforting bringers of life.
Birth, Creed says, can exist only as the other face of death. And when the alien offspring murderously gnaws its way through Kane’s belly, we are witnessing both birth and death simultaneously. The alien mother is therefore the depiction of the monstrous feminine. She begins the relentless cycle of birth and death, as well as represents the castrator in her ability to subvert reproductive roles.
Woman as Monstrous Womb
‘...in Christian art, hell was often represented as a womb, a ‘lurid and rotting uterus’ where sinners were perpetually tortured for their crimes (Margaret Miles, 1989, 147)’ - Creed, The Monstrous Feminine
Sex and birth are seen as ‘quintisentially grotesque’, and as women are associated with both, this category has been used in horror time and again.
We see ‘woman as monstrous womb’ in Alien (1979), where, the ship, affectionately called ‘Mother’ has become a hostile environment that contains the alien that’s killing and devouring her children. But we also see it in the likes of The Brood (1979) and Rosemary’s Baby (1968).
In body horror, The Brood (1979), we are faced with the emotional topic of intergenerational trauma; a cycle of abuse that results in monsters birthed by a mother’s rage. In his quintessentially demented and grotesque style, director David Cronenburg shows this through external, tumour-like growths on the mother that mutate, detach, and grow into murderous childlike creatures that manifest in tandem with her unconventional therapy sessions.
There is an animalistic nature to these births, too. In order to release her murderous brood from the external wombs/tumours that form on her body, the mother must bite into them. This brings another bloody, abject depiction of motherhood that’s not socially expected of the maternal figure.
Woman as Witch
By the 1960s, the witch had joined the popular horror monster ranks with Barbara Steele, who became known as ‘the high priestess of horror’ playing a witch in both The She-Beast (1966) and Black Sunday (1977). Though the emphasis was more on the witch hunt or male leader rather than of the witch in her own right. Eventually, the witch got her own films in Suspiria (1977), Carrie (1976), The Blair Witch Project (1999) and many others.
Let’s take Carrie as our ‘Woman as Witch’ example. Here, we see the traditionally abject and taboo elements of periods seep in. In films like Carrie and Ginger Snaps (2000), the ‘horror’ of menstruation is linked to activating dark power.
We also see this in more contemporary films like The VVitch (2015), where Thomasin’s sexual maturity, budding independence and newfound confidence is when she becomes ‘monstrous’. But we could also read this as: when a girl becomes a woman, she receives her power over those who wrong her and is able to free herself.
Woman as Vampire
Dracula is known to be the archetypal vampire, but one of the most interesting and compelling of monsters is the female vampire, frequently represented as lesbian such as in Sheridan La Fanu’s vampire novella, ‘Carmilla’.
Vampires are always portrayed as sexually charged creatures, but women vampires are somehow portrayed as even more so. From Akasha (Queen of The Damned, 2002) to Vampire Amy (Fright Night,1985) to Ganja (Ganja & Hess,1973), across the vastness if the horror genre, vampire women are always sexually aggressive.
Let’s take Lucy from Dracula, as an example. From her ‘Oh Quincy, you’re such a beast’ to her ‘kiss me and caress me, my darling’, Lucy’s transition into vampire has heightened her flirtatious nature and turned her into a sexually-charged and dangerous creature. We also see this in Dracula’s brides, who seduce and devour their victims.
The female vampire is abject because she disrupts order; driven by her lust for blood, she has no respect for the traditional rules of ‘proper sexual conduct’. She uses her sexuality to kill, she crosses boundaries between the living and the dead, human and animal, and she obliterates traditional gender boundaries while she’s at it.
Woman as possessed monster
‘Regan is monstrous because she breaks the major taboos, set down by the laws of symbolic order, which help to establish and maintain the self’s ‘clean and proper body’. More importantly, she demonstrates the fragility of those laws and taboos.’ (Creed, The Monstrous Feminine, 40)
Regan from The Exorcist (1973) spews green bile, screams foul obscenities, rotates her head around full circle, tries to castrate a priest, and masturbates with a crucifix. Hers is a body in complete revolt.
The Exorcist uses Regan’s body in graphic, horrifying ways to represent the conflict between innocence and sin. Her skin erupts in oozing sores, her hair is matted and tangled, she throws up on herself and others, she pisses on the carpet and refers to herself as ‘her mother’s cunting daughter’.
The abject horror comes from Regan being so far removed from her proper ‘feminine’ role. And to top it all off, she’s done all of this in front of two male clerics.
Woman as castrator
Vagina dentata (Latin for toothed vagina) describes a folk tale in which a vagina is said to contain teeth, implying that sex with a woman might result in castration. These folk stories were told as cautionary tales warning of the dangers of unknown women and to discourage rape.
Films like Teeth (2007), Jennifer’s Body (2009), A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014) and I Spit on your Grave (1979, 2010) are all obvious examples of woman as castrator. But let’s take this one back to a story that I suspect heavily influenced all of these films; a myth that still rots away in my mind.
When I read about Ovid’s myth of Medusa, and that her monstrosity was punishment for being a victim of rape, I felt as cold as the stone tombs she inflicted to defend herself with. Perhaps women who have experienced violence in this way have also felt locked away in their own personal gorgon caves. That is to say that perhaps, when so many of us have also experienced being disbelieved and vilified, we can feel her pain.
The Monstrous Feminine as subversive thrill
So what’s the appeal? Do we recognise ourselves in the monstrous feminine? To what extent do we feel empowered when identifying with any of these categories?
The answer is complex, because of course, these are monsters that kill, and no metaphor-digging from me or Creed will change that fact. But we know that Horror is a genre more willing to explore the taboo, and we have learned that watching it can be a cathartic experience.
As much as the uncanniness of watching Megan Fox transform into a cannibalistic demon in Jennifer’s Body made many uncomfortable, here is a young objectified woman turned into someone powerful and feared. Watching it is cathartic. When I think of the monstrous feminine, I think of powerful women that refuse to be bound by order. I think of women that wouldn’t be afraid to walk alone at night.
With representation beyond love interest or nurturing mother-figure, grittier depictions of femininity, and the cathartic nature of viewing women as certifiably ‘not to be fucked with’, of course we’re going to be drawn to horror. It’s not that we want to be the monsters in these films, but more about witnessing the power that unbridled feminine rage often brings within these storylines. It’s about horror being a safe space to explore these taboos, subvert traditional gender roles, and break down social constraints.
Sure, these monstrous femmes often get punished for their power in the end. But for one brief, glorious moment, they are a force to be reckoned with.