The Monstrous Feminine (Barbara Creed 1993)

Barbara Creed, 1993. The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis. London: Routledge. (182 pages)

The author examines the role of women in horror films challenging the dominant, patriarchal view which frequently puts the woman in the position of victim. She argues that when the feminine is constructed as monstrous, it is frequently done in conjunction with its mothering functions. Her main thesis sustains that the prototype of all definitions (sic) of monstrosity related to the feminine is linked the woman’s reproductive body. Creed opts to use the term ‘monstrous feminine’ instead of ‘female monster, which, in her conception would oppose to the idea of a ‘male monster’. In doing so, she aims at providing a definition that may push the discussion beyond a mere dualism concerning the gender of the monster. Moving from a feminist perspective to a psychology oriented analysis, her arguments move on to attack Freudian concepts of human psyque. Rooted in his explanations of the Oedipus complex, Freud suggests that a woman terrifies because she is a castrated human being. Instead, Creed defends that women are primarily terrifying because they might castrate. In other words, while Freud formerly claimed that women terrify because they are abnormally castrated, Creed seeks to dismantle these assumptions by holding forth that the monstrous feminine is exactly men’s fear of the woman as a castrating other. Creed’s theory is underpinned by a reversal of Freudian patriarchal world-view which holds the woman as an “incomplete” human being. In reply to Freud’s male-centred views she claims that the woman is whole without a penis and that, along with the reproductive body, is what causes fear in men. This new take would reveal important clues about patriarchal society, masculinity and their apprehensions. The Vagina dentata is the image she uses to illustrate this masculine fear of being castrated by a woman.

The Monstrous-Feminine goes on to discuss and analyse the films Carrie, The Exorcist, Psycho, Alien and others. According to the author there are seven possible faces of female monstrosity: 1) archaic mother; 2) monstrous womb; 3) vampire; 4) witch; 5) possessed monster; 6) deadly femme castratrice and 7) the castrating mother. Creed draws heavily on the literary concept of ‘abjection’, as proposed by Kristeva, which is roughly horror derived from bodily fluids and excrements (another female-related aspect: the teaching of toiletry). In that sense, Creed does not bring any innovation, she transposes the main concepts of Kristeva’s literary feminist perspective to underpin her analysis of horror films. This book provides some valuable readings and insightful comments about the nature of some horror films, however, it is an exhaustive reading, very repetitive in its collocations and constantly coming back to the same argument. In short, Creed is proposing a reading that reveals misogynous aspects of society in horror movies, which, in itself is hardly an innovative reading. Nevertheless, her merit lies in the way she applies this framework to the films and that is what makes this book worth reading.

Creed is particularly convincing when pointing out the inequities of psychoanalytic theories to discuss sexual differences. Feminist theories are extremely important when debating ‘otherness’ but it loses is power of making convincing statements if allied to a discipline such as Psychology. The importance of this post-structural, psychoanalytic criticism was, at least in part, that it attempted to engage a serious discussion with horror films, establishing an unprecedented debate with such cultural items. Surely, it still has more to offer as long as it does not insist in finding ‘fixed structures’, providing ‘essentialist’ readings which reduce the plural, conflicting voices in a text. We can not pretend that a work of art is detached from the time and context of it production. Caught up in the critique of either the subject or ideology in general, these reading tend to forget the fact that works of art are made within time-space boundaries, and that must be observed. One way out of this a-historical, pseudo-universalising position is to make psychological readings socially, culturally and historically determined. Despite Creed’s good insights I did not feel completely convinced because, as she was trying to provide me with a key to the unconscious, I could not see how it relates to my world experience or to my own readings when I watched the film. The horror films Creed analysed were supposed to define the female body as an alien and oppressive realm that provokes feelings of disgust or fear but the acceptance of such a statement will depend of who you are.

The discussion she raised about Alien was thought-provoking and particularly illustrative of how totalitarian psychological readings can be is not situated within something more tangible such as systems of repression that are historically specific. Although I can clearly see the theme of the monstrous feminine and the abject in the film, I disagree with the author’s conclusions. It is my opinion the film is about two competing “women”, one is a human, mammal and the other one bears the marks of an insect. The fact that the child’s name is “Newt” (an amphibious) is also suggestive that a competition between species is going on. Also, Creeds reading of Psycho is problematic as the “mother” is not even there. This film seems to be linked to the disintegration of the self and its parallels can be seen the period. It is Creed’s strenuous effort to push a reading at any cost which makes The Monstrous-Feminine unpalatable at times. Indeed, its greatest shortcoming are the excessive claims based on an authority, a symbolism that is not fully convincing. One example of that immoderation that undermines a good argument is the fact that virtually everything becomes be a penis (a knife or even the crooked nose of a witch!), a vagina (caves, grottoes, holes) and even an umbilical cord (the winding road that leads to a castle-like-womb). Throughout the book there is too much discussion about the Freud, Kristeva and Lacan and not enough film analysis. Observations followed by an actual explanation of the images are very rare in this book. Most of the time, when Creed actually tackles a film analysis she tends to resort not to images (p.o.v., lighting, angles, etc.), but to either dialogues or object in the scenes. Soon after she is using these elements to force on the reader the meaning symbols and to push her reading rather then doing a more subtle, suggestive writing.

Finally, when evoking old myths of misogynous nature, Creed resorts to archetypes such as Medusa and her petrifying gaze who makes men ‘stiff’ with horror. Medusa so terrifying that she makes men “wet and shit” themselves (again, Kristeva’s the bodily fluids). However, for a work that aims at debating the concept of monstrosity derived from women, it is almost unpardonable to miss out Lilith, Adam’s former rebellious wife. The Bible, if read secularly, is our primal source of horror. Our western tradition certainly derives from Greece but mostly from a Judeo-Christian tradition that is not referred to in the book and which would have come extremely handy in the discussion of the Exorcist. In my opinion, the most intriguing sentence in the book actually comes from Kristeva. The abject is defined as “the place where meaning collapses” (p.9). In that sense, I believe Kristeva’s notion of border is a much more useful concept to think about monstrosity than other reading provide. Monstrosity takes place when the struggle to make sense out of something (by means of language or any other form of rationality) fails. When ‘meaning’ collapses, monstrosity appears. That which cannot be understood has to be de-monstrated, as the word itself suggests, and the images in horror movies are an attempt at representing that which can not be described, that which can only be shown.

Horror Movies (Carlos Clarens 1971)

Carlos Clarens, 1967. Horror Movies: an illustrated survey. London: Panther, 1971. (pp.312).

Clarens’s Horror Movies was first published in 1967; nevertheless, it remains an expressive book containing amazing insights which are sure to enthral every reader. The author surveys the subject in its widest sense, encompassing in his investigation the genre science fiction and a brief discussion about the difference between the horror film and le cinema fantastique. Despite the fact it just missed out on two films which would transform the genre in the years to come (Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby and Kulbrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey) Clarens’s Horror Movies is undoubtedly a level-headed research into history of these genres, a book which is nothing less than a classic study of horror and science fiction movies.

His method consists of what we could refer to today as a cultural approach to the horror genre, explaining its trajectory throughout the times, from its very beginning in Europe (especially France and Germany) up until his present 1960s. Clarens summarizes the plots and relates the importance of a number of relevant films, from the early works of Georges Méliès and the German Expressionists to Universal Pictures horror movies such as the original Dracula and Frankenstein to the suggestively atmospheric work of Val Lewton and the sci-fi classics of the 50s. Due to the time it was written, it is not surprising the lack of image analysis in the whole volume. However, the book describes the most important films of the period in detail and concentrates upon the work of key directors and actors.

Clarens’s writing style is non-academic, in fact, his extensive erudition and fluent narrative style resembles that of classic essay writers. This lack of academic convention (which is generally kind to the reader by stating its purposes) makes the underlying thesis a bit harder to pin-point. In spite of this, it would not be unfair to say that Clarens is interested in the mythical value of horror films, and how they affect the viewer. The author believes in universal themes (and in that sense anti-historicising) and how these themes are connected to the production and consumption of horror movies. Clarens says: “Satan is immutable, it would seem, whether ancestral dark angel or devil in the flesh. Those who imagine him today are not the doctors of demonology but the psychiatrist, the anthropologist, the sociologist. To them, horror movies might be seen as a historical imperative, if not an as aesthetic necessity” (p.10). His thesis, stated or implied, is that horror movies today perform the same function/influence Myths had on us in the past.

The author goes on to say that “only the best horror movies sustain their power to frighten through the passage of time. Yet this does not necessarily entail a loss of interest or even popularity. They gain a new dimension in perspective by appearing encrusted with the meaning of their period”(p.11). Clarens demonstrates how Prometheus represented mythical alibi for man’s defiance of divine will and then how it came to represent the myth of electricity (in Frankenstein) after being the myth of scientific power. Furthermore, he shows how Mr Hyde becomes more recognisably human as accept that our forefathers endeavoured to conceal and represses. In short, Clarens says horror films make us nostalgic of the things we once feared but “they help us to gauge the escalation of our insensibility” (p.11). In my opinion this last observation is nothing short than brilliant as it follows that a supremely violent age, like ours, calls for unprecedented violence in its aesthetics manifestations.

Clarens also traces an important distinction to the comprehension of what can be considered horror movies. According to him, the “exclusion of Les Diaboliques, Psycho, Repulsion and the more blatant borrowings from Krafft-Ebing are not as arbitrary as it may seem if we are to consider the Horror Film as the Cinema of Obsession, the rendering unto film of the immanent fears of mankind: damnation, demonic possession, old age, death, in brief, the night side of life. In Jungian fashion, I fell more compelled to single out and explore the visionary than the psychological” (p.14). Readers interested in the many horror and science fiction films made before the modern era of graphic violence and special-effects extravaganzas will be enchanted by this book. Finally, I was positively surprised by the sensible and level-headed understanding of the author over his own book. He realises that the staggering number of horror movies produced up until then could wreak havoc on any serious attempt at theorising, Clarens defends that “most movies have their own voice, and none of them was created to support a single aesthetic or theory” (p.15). All in all, Horror Movies is highly recommendable and well-worth reading.

The Horror Genre (Paul Wells 2001)

Paul Wells, 2001. The Horror Genre: From Beelzebub to Blair Witch. London: Wallflower press, Columbia University Press. (144 pages)

Paul Wells’ The Horror Genre is a highly informative book, based on extensive research in which some of the main tendencies of horror film studies are comprehensively delineated for the reader. In its succinct and very readable introduction the critic suggests a way into reading the genre by stating that the feelings evoked by the screening are what really matters and that we should not focus too much on “the intrusions of the intellect so the thrill can precede theory” (p.1). However, it is a work that can also offer a theoretical reflection on top of this claim for the pleasures of an “altered state” interpretation of horror films. The debate proposed in the book covers various fields of study among Audience Studies, Psychoanalytic interpretations and Historical readings of several horror movies. Besides the theoretical frameworks the book also offers a two-part overview into the history of horror films, a filmography of over 300 titles, a brief glossary and a commented biography of suggested reading. It should be said the volume is designed to provide readers with introductory resources only, anyone looking for a more detailed discussion will be disappointed.

His first chapter, Configuring the Monster, provides a tour of the historical contexts. The author pithily states that “the history of the horror film is essentially a history of anxiety in the twentieth century” (p.3). Like many other critics, Wells identifies the historical root of the horror film in the 18th-century gothic novel and then he briefly shows how they unfold into cinematic forms accompanying the major cultural shifts which fed the genre in the twentieth century. When covering the historical aspect of early horror films the critic suggests that “the genre has been used to explore modes of social ‘revolution’ in which modes of naturalised ideas about bourgeois orthodoxy are transgressed, exposing how the ‘working class’ in Weimar Germany, Depression-era America, Franco’s Spain and so on have been oppressed and socially manipulated to maintain those advantage by the late capitalism status quo” (p.4). In order to explain how films were (an still are) read, Wells draws on the main theoretical tendencies: Marx and theories based on historical materialism, he also refers to Darwinian naturalism and the “survival of the fittest” struggle to overcome and prevail, he also draws on Nietzschean Nihilism concepts to explain respectively the monstrous/deformities, life’s contingencies/apocalyptic dealings in horror films. He uses the following films to explain his ideas, Nosferatu (1922) and Frankenstein (1932) to exemplify the action of transformative social discourses; Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1931) and King Kong (1933) to illustrate the naturalistic ideas; and Dracula (1931) and Rosemary’s Baby (1968) to thematise the collapse of spiritual values which leaves the universe devoid of order and morality. The author saves for last the work of Freud and the emergence of the repressed, the unconscious. This interweaving of theories is actually Wells’ own insights into horror.

His next two chapters, Consensus and Constraint 1919-1960 and Chaos and Collapse 1960-2000, are equally well-researched and engaging, although, as it tries to cover long and very diverse periods of time, I did not find it as easy to follow. The arguments are not very well contextualised and signalled for the reader for a book that proposes an overview into horror movies. Also there were some monolithic interpretations of quite a few films which are very arguable. The subsections have witty names such as: Freud for the afraid, Fangs in Kate O’Mara’s Cleavage, A Virus is Trying to Live Its Own Life. Here he addresses the the influence of non-Hollywood horror, beginning with the Guignol films of Britain’s Hammer Studios and including an overview of Italian, Spanish and Mexican horror. However a clearer delineation of the influence of foreign studios is needed.

As we read on the book, the author seems to let show his preference for psychological theories. Indeed, as we move towards contemporary horror, Freud’s account of human consciousness seems to fit perfectly with the latest developments of the genre. As a matter of fact the very reading strategy proposed in the introduction, that is, the act of by-passing Reason placing the emphasis on sensation, is an indicative of his preference for psychological interpretations; an outlook seems greatly indebted to eighteenth-century ideas established by the Burkean sublime. Although modern horror does place us as victims of mysterious inner demons, individuals of gloomy psyche, subject to murky drives and desires and frequently alienated from the real sense of community life, it is my opinion that there lies the greatest shortcoming of the book. Wells’s does not explain the fact that the effectiveness of horror films (their capacity of provoking emotional response) is as also a matter of aesthetics. The migration of horror imagery into other genres is mentioned concisely but soundtrack, scenarios and other mis-en-scene elements are overlooked by the author. Furthermore, Wells seems to hold a grudge against humour in the horror film, a disdain shared by his survey group of adult film goers, who described humour as “crass and ill-suited to the genre, predicated only on attracting a younger audience and enhancing marketing practices” (p.29). I disagree that Humour should be seen as an anathema to Horror. This might explain why the book makes no mention of popular funny horror movies, such as Gremlins, etc. Modern horror films, such as Scream, are only briefly commented: “knowing deconstructions of the sub-genre speak only limitedly about the culture that produces them” (p.97). Alternatively, these “parodic”, postmodern features could also be seen as a self-conscientious maturity (as Hutchings claims) or mere exhaustion of the genre. Being a regular visitor to horror films, rather than an aficionado, I have great tolerance for such impurities and get less pleasure from watching hard-core horror.

Overall, the book provides a good introduction and a thorough bibliography, divided into essential and secondary reading, which Wells prefaces with a good description of its relationship to the text. The filmography consists of the citation of films mentioned in the text, so it would be better suited with another title such as “films quoted”, as extensive as it is many titles were left out.

This blog offers a collection of academic notes on literature and film. I am interested in discussions that involve theoretical and conceptual issues with a particular concern for the relationship of the critical and the creative.