Monsters have long dominated the realms of the gothic and horrific, both in literature and the cinema. What’s more, these monsters are often male, seeking out women to overtake or destroy. Subsequently, the most common image of women in horror has been a pose of utter victimisation – the scream. In a seminal article entitled “When the Woman Looks”, scholar Linda Williams has argued that in classical cinema, women have been bound to the roles of victims by a determination to punish those women who attempt to assume power. She writes:
The bold, smouldering, dark eyes of the silent screen vamp offer an obvious example of a powerful female look. But the dubious moral status of such heroines, and the fact that they must be punished in the end, undermine the legitimacy and authentic subjectivity of this look, frequently turning it into a mere parody of the male look (17).
Here, Williams is drawing from Laura Mulvey’s work on the male gaze and how to hold the gaze is to hold the power over your (female) subject. She goes on to note, “The woman’s gaze is punished, in other words, by narrative processes that transform curiosity and desire into masochistic fantasy” (17). The suggestion then is that in order for women to assert themselves against a masculine threat, they must be willing to find pleasure in their own inevitable destruction.
In horror cinema female victimisation has always been, and it seems will always be, a necessary element. However, the concept of the Final Girl, developed by Carol Clover in the 1990s, offered a way to deny this victimisation and for female characters to assert a level of power over the male perpetrator. While many female scholars have found solace in the idea that the Final Girl is heroic in her ability to overcome the monster, something rarely discussed is the trauma she is left with, most apparent through close-ups of her screaming and/or crying which are commonly used as final shots. Ultimately, even the Final Girl is a victim in that she is rarely able to accept what has happened to her or what she has had to do to survive (i.e. kill). Whether punished for her gaze, killed for her beauty (a victim of the monster’s own sexual repression), or left traumatised by her subjection to male violence, women in horror always seem to be unable to assert any level of true power. But what of the female monster?
The Return of the Repressed can be a powerful tool in horror cinema. Film theorist Robin Wood argues that all scary movies derive their horror from the idea that within any given society, that which is repressed will always return. In particular, Wood sees monsters as manifestations of our tendency to enforce surplus repression within our communities. Conceptions of right and wrong, good and bad, therefore all boil down to what our social standards demand in order to ensure we remain “monogamous heterosexual bourgeois patriarchal capitalists” (64). He explains that in American society, what is subsequently repressed are sexualities, cultural Others, alternative ideologies, children, and women. Woman, he notes, is the counterpoint to male domination and as such remains a constant threat to patriarchal society; “on to women, men project their own innate, repressed femininity in order to disown it as inferior” (66). When this threat becomes a reality – the return of the repressed – the female monster must be subdued. The monstrous feminine is therefore a masochistic fantasy for the assumed male viewer, but it may also act as a powerful fantasy for female viewers.
Significantly, female villains are often portrayed as having a purpose far beyond senseless violence. Often, they are out for revenge, products of past male violence themselves. Therefore, an examination might well present us with an interesting portrayal of the Return of the Repressed and female victimisation. While these women are powerful, and own the gaze, they are also more likely to be punished for their actions in much more definitive ways than male monsters ever seem to be, thus unexpectedly perpetuating the cycle of female victimisation. It is a very problematic representation of female empowerment. Prominent examples of this include Carrie (1976), Ginger Snaps (2000), and American Mary (2012).
In Carrie, a teen girl, tormented by bullies in school and by an overbearing mother who resembles a religious fanatic, finds that along with puberty comes a sense of power – literally. Mirroring her hormonal changes into womanhood is the unexpected power of telekinesis. In finding this inner power, and learning to channel it into an outer-power, Carrie becomes a happier, more outgoing version of herself. Her invitation to the prom points to a development of female sexuality as well, her blossoming interest in boys is interpreted by her mother as dangerous, poison even. Pointed out in particular is how her dress accentuates her breasts. Against her mother’s best efforts, Carrie leaves… with force. All of these indicators that Carrie is growing stronger, that she has a sense of presence and authority for the first time, lead to her inevitable (self) destruction. A cruel prank forces her to exact revenge but in the heat of the moment, overtaken by this new found power, Carrie loses control and takes everyone down, including herself. Here, we have the implication that a woman’s power is both unnatural and untrustworthy.
In Ginger Snaps we have a similar scenario. Like in Carrie, Ginger’s first menstrual cycle proves to be the moment of true change. She is attacked by a werewolf so that her change into womanhood (puberty) is literally demonised as she simultaneously changes into a werewolf. The connection is obvious, especially in the film’s point to make her confused about which changes are “normal” and which aren’t. Her sexuality, her hunger, her rage, her power – all becomes blurred between the lines of woman and monster; she is a literal depiction of the monstrous feminine. Like Carrie, Ginger finds that her new power can be used to exact revenge against those who have bullied, belittled, or even objectified her. She becomes obsessed with the idea that she must protect herself and her sister from the evil, penetrating, eyes of men until she is on such a wild killing spree that she is completely out of control. As a result, she fully changes to werewolf, and is “put down” by her sister during a vicious attack. The sad ending implies that Brigitte has ended Ginger’s life for her own good. Once again, a woman’s power is proven to be uncontrollable, dangerous, and unacceptable.
In American Mary Katherine Isabelle (Ginger) stars again as a woman who will need to be stopped. This time around there is no supernatural element. Instead, Mary is a promising med-student who is traumatised to find that her superiors and idols do not take her seriously, but see her instead as a body to sexualise and objectify. After being drugged and raped by her professors at an exclusive surgeon party, Mary takes it upon herself to get even. She drops out of school and dedicates her surgeon talents to destroying her assailant slowly and painfully in the basement of a strip club where she has befriended the owner. Eventually, this power extends to her everyday life as she commits to empowering outcasts (especially women) whose beauty ideals do not correspond with Hollywood norms. Specialising in underground body modification, Mary finds a new calling. But it’s important to recognise that this growth is born out of trauma and a complete loss of self. Moreover, as she falls deeper into this role, she does question if she knows who she is anymore, if she’s a monster. Before she can come around to any healthy conclusions about who she wants to be, she is attacked in her home, murdered by the husband of a woman for whom she performed drastic body modifications. Made into a “barbie doll”, the woman’s changes meant she would no longer be available to sexually gratify her husband. The man retaliated against Mary because she was seen as having the power to empower women, and to emasculate men in the process. She became a monstrous threat to patriarchy, and was killed for it.
Ultimately, the point I’d like to make is that female killers are not Freddy’s or Jason’s or Michael Myers’s – they don’t come back again and again. They aren’t unstoppable. They aren’t immortalised. They aren’t faceless. They are fully-fledged characters with fully-fledged stories. They are monstrous if only by their ability to overpower the rules of patriarchy. And that, as it turns out, is punishable by death. Thus, the woman is subdued, and female victimisation subsequently persists within the horror genre. Of course, there will always be exceptions (Teeth 2007 creates a monstrous feminine who is not killed), but I do recognise a pattern strong enough to merit this discussion.
About the Author:
My passion for film has manifested itself into years of study in both film production and film studies. I am currently completing a Master’s Degree at Carleton University for which my focus has been Slasher cinema. My research interests include Horror, Gender, and Adaptation. My typical approach to film study is to think critically about the cultural contexts of any given film in order to make sense of the formal elements, story and connotations. I am also a freelance writer and, not surprisingly, I run two film related blogs: Sinema Addiction and Pick Canadian Pictures.