Feminist Filmmakers Are Reinventing Horror Cinema
Early physicians who did not understand female anatomy routinely used ‘female hysteria’ as a potent weapon against women to institutionalize them for illnesses they never had. It wasn’t until the 1950s that the American Psychiatric Association rescinded the usage of the term “hysteria” — from hystera, the Greek word for uterus — as a medical diagnosis. But, “crazy,” “neurotic,” “psychopathic” are still acceptable adjectives to describe women who don’t conform to social norms. These perceptions have wormed their way into mainstream media and inspired cinema, especially the horror genre.
Erin Harrington, in her book Women, Monstrosity and Horror Film, coined the term ‘gynaehorror’ — a genre of horror that encapsulates all aspects of socio-biological womanhood, from virginity, pregnancy, childbirth, motherhood to menopause. Gynaehorror draws on the patriarchal myths of many cultures — from voracious vagina dentate and blood-sucking vampires, to Southeast Asia’s long-haired women, in their whitish, virginal robes — all of which claim to counter women’s mental illness with a miraculous cure, an exorcism or a sacrifice. Ever since the days of the first silent horror film, these portrayals have been a manifestation of grief, death, ostracization, of being subdued, and of many other emotional upheavals that forewarn ‘hysteria.’
But a recent spate of female-led films suggests horror can be a feminist gateway to better understand a woman’s psyche, rather than a tool to cure or repress it. These filmmakers turn the psychological fallout of society’s ephemeral gender norms into somatic, horrifying material that depicts women’s mental health struggles not as innate, but as horrifying damage wrought by patriarchal oppression.
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Traditionally, horror films have posited the loss of virginity as some grave tragedy for women. The demure, duteous female virgin is both the victim of her virginity imposition, but also a hero for safeguarding it. A fine example of this trope is Black Swan (2010), in which Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), a ballerina, gets the chance she’s been yearning for all her life — to play the “White Swan” — and nearly dies trying to keep the chastity of said role at her overbearing mother’s behest. She envies the sexual and seductive “Black Swan,” played by Mila Kunis, fights with hallucinations, and ultimately undergoes a blood-curdling transformation.
Compare that with Carol Morley’s The Falling (2014), a sensuous coming-of-age horror/thriller that infuses the Victorian urban legend of hysterical fainting with modern sensibilities. Set at a puritanical girls’ school, a series of contagious, supernatural faintings ensues after one young girl “loses” her virginity, thus threatening the pure footing that the place, not the girl, is trying to uphold. An open-ended interpretation of this mass fainting could be an involuntary, somatic depiction of the threat that female sexuality poses to patriarchal institutions. Stoker (2013), It Follows (2014), and Veronica (2017, Mexican) are more films that counter the implication that female sexual desires must be restrained, tamed or propped up for the use of another, by instead focusing on the broader consequences of such primordial subjugation.
Horror depictions of pregnancy and motherhood are changing, too. We live in a world that takes a mother’s thankless job of nurturing her child for granted, and expects her to show unconditional love, even at the cost of her own health. Deviance from these norms has traditionally been relied on to horrify. But certain films are suggesting the real terror lies in the inhumanity of expectations that make the deviance inevitable.
XX (2017) is a four-part anthology horror film, all directed by women, of which Karyn Kusama’s “Her Only Living Son” is a sinister contesting of unconditional motherhood. It draws attention at the extent to which this demand can expunge sanity, and push one into breaking free from the box. A hardworking mother, on her son’s 18th birthday, realizes that he is turning into a violent apparition — that she has fallen short of her motherly duties and must repay a debt to the boy’s father in order to keep her son. While many occult films have explored this premise before, Kusama’s film sees it through to its logical, humanizing conclusion, asking how a mother would actually react when faced with such horrors. “I was hoping the (audience) could watch the film and see it as potentially allegorical to the experience of being a parent—living with the stress of having a child who’s showing signs of mental illness or addiction and how that can really cripple a family when you feel like you’re losing control of a child, and your child is losing control of themselves,” Kusama has said in an interview.
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Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook (2014) similarly takes the horror out of a mother hating her son by making the monstrosity an embodiment of the mother’s grief and depression. Kent’s cinematic brilliance draws attention to the fact that a more traditional ‘gynae-monster’ would be easier to tame than a condition that has neither a physical form nor a voice. “I always was drawn to the idea of grief, and the suppression of that grief, and the question of how that would affect a person,” she has said.
By contrast, in the film Lights Out (2016), a metaphorical monster has taken over the life of a single mother. With no way to rid herself of this shadow, which threatens the lives of her children, the mother ends her own life to kill it. This portrays a tired and damaging expectation of women – that they should sacrifice themselves at all costs, in order to protect everyone else; that being maternal means being expendable. Rather than using horror to depict what these expectations do to women, the film uses horror to reinforce mental instability as a natural state for women.
Monstrosity can also manifest just by virtue of being a woman, as Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014) shows. In this one-of-a-kind, goth-horror-spaghetti-Western film from Iran, a girl turns into a blood-sucking vigilante who punishes the denizens of the Bad City for their misogyny. The film suggests the horror lies in what drives a woman to monstrousness — a lack of recourse from society’s revolting gendered norms — rather than in what she does. In the same vein, Julia Ducournau’s Raw (2016) is a fabulous subversion of the “monstrous female” in its depiction of two, college-age sisters who struggle to cope with adulthood, sex, conformity, body image and lust. In a society where eating is criminalized and shamed — with shades of anorexia nervosa plugged in the heart of the film – Ducournau’s take on cannibalism is a fitting rebuttal.
“I have this thing in my head — the idea of the positive monstrosity,” Ducournau has said in an interview about her film, Raw. “This character who wants to fit in but realizes she can’t fit this particular box, no matter what … well, what do we do with her? Should she stop existing? I believe that monstrosities are what make us unique. If she realizes she could kill someone but she won’t, then she can be her own wild animal. That’s a positive thing — to pinpoint who you are once you’ve been confronted by your first real moral choice in your life. Most people never get to that stage.… She’s maybe more human than any of us at the end of the movie.”
While real life is no less horrifying — if anything, it’s far more grotesque — feminist gynaehorror aids in the visceral experience by humanizing the demons. These films, in their own quirky and horrifying ways, offer representational and aesthetic space to women’s bodies and embodied lives. They are radical and transformative and celebrate the complexity of a genre that is, too often, written off as low-brow and reactionary. This slow-brewing revolution could well be an audiovisual genesis in our quest to understand female mental health — only this time, strictly through the female eye.