Barbara Creed’s The Monstrous-Feminine (1993) is a must-read for anyone interested in the female monsters (and female monstrosity) present in the modern horror film. For my oral exam list, I chose to focus on the first section of her book, “Part I: Faces of the Monstrous-Feminine,” which provides both a definition and foundation for the term “monstrous-feminine,” as well as provide a number of examples, including the archaic mother, the possessed girl, the monstrous womb, the vampire, and the witch.
Cultures that exist within patriarchal societies contain mythology and folklore that present feminine qualities and anatomy as innately monstrous. She argues, using Kristeva’s notion of abjection, that the monster-ization of women occurs because of women’s close proximity to the abject: especially through menstruation, pregnancy, and childbirth. The female body constantly challenges the destroys the boundaries set up between inside/outside, and living/dead. Creed additionally builds off of Freud’s concept of castration anxieties and the myth of the vagina dentata by claiming that the masculine fear of the mother (because she appears to be castrated) also helps to create the monstrous feminine through castrating mother characters (i.e.: Mrs. Bates) and terrifying womb and vagina-like environments or creatures.
Notes & Quotes
- Creed notes that the monstrous feminine is nothing new, but that depictions of this sort are present in classical mythology and the Bible. To this end, following Freud, she closely describes Medusa as a prominent example: by looking upon her face (which is vagina-like), men become stiff. She also covers a vast history of beliefs in witchcraft, highlighting that even a woman who had not practiced witchcraft was believed to have powers during her period and while pregnant, sometimes they were not even allowed to step inside a church during these times because of their dangerous powers. Creed claims that women in these states were not trusted because of their body’s close relationship with nature: it reminds us that we are animals, and it also serves as a reminder of our place in the chain of life and death. I liked these reminders because it allows Creed to place the modern horror film into this history of superstition and popular mythology. It highlights the potential power of studying horror films as indexes of cultural and social values and anxieties.
- In describing the body of the possessed girl, she focuses on Regan in The Exorcist and its decision to use a girl’s body as the site of the major conflict of the movie, which is, according to Creed, “between men and women.” Here, she notes that abjection is ambiguous:
Abjection ‘fascinates desire’ but must in the interests of self-preservation be repelled. Regan’s behavior is outrageous yet compelling… It takes us to the limits of what is permissible, thinkable, and then draws back. The Exorcist is not unlike a ‘ritual’ of putrefaction in that it permits the spectator to wallow vicariously in normally taboo forms of behavior before restoring order. (37)
It is the male priests who must come in to restore the order in Regan’s body and the MacNeil household. Various forms of abjection are presented, always connected to Regan’s body: she pukes green bile, pees on the floor, has blood coming from her genitals (the viewer is unsure whether this is from a first period or from the crucifix she masterbates with), she initiates incest with her mother, her skin is covered in sores and pus, and her hair becomes greasy and matted. This sort of representation helps to highlight the battle between the rituals in the film (religious and medical) tied to patriarchal structures and the boundless chaos and sexuality represented by the female body, particularly the female body at the outset of puberty (Regan is 13). This definitely works with some of the other things I’ve read about The Exorcist which highlight the MacNeil home as a matriarchal (and therefore problematic) setting, with Chris being a single mother (who swears, drinks, and is often at work). The powerful systems of religion and medicine must come in to clean up the mess and return all to order. This fits also with the conservative pleasure of the horror film (as noted by Noël Carroll, among others) in which the audience is presented with the weird, monstrous, and taboo, only to see it purged by the end of the film once normalcy is comfortably restored.
- Creed’s reading of Carrie is worthy of some discussion. The character of Carrie causes some confusion. First is the fact that, although she is a monstrous witch (according to Creed), deeply tied to the abject, and capable of supernatural destruction and apocalyptic rage, the film also “invites sympathy for Carrie as a victim of these prejudices” (83). Carrie’s capability for love (including the self-love variety) is seen throughout the film, perhaps most prominently in the opening shower scene, as she enjoys her body before being immediately punished for doing so via her terrifying first period. It’s interesting that Carrie (and Regan) are simultaneously the monsters and the victims of their films… I’m not sure of any male monster/victims of the modern horror film. 1 Additionally, Creed notes that she is surprised that Carrie is typically interpreted for its commentary on the modern American family rather than on its representation of gender. While this may be true, I’m sure there is a way that the two can connect. I’m interested to re-read Cooper’s Family Values because I think that text will make the potential connection more clear.
- Finally, Creed provides a succinct summary of all of the monstrous-feminine “faces” she discusses in the first part of her book:
…woman is represented as monstrous in relation to her reproductive and maternal functions. This occurs for a number of reasons: the archaic mother (Alien) horrifies because she threatens to cannibalize, to take back, the life forms to which she once gave birth; the possessed girl (The Exorcist) evokes a pleasurable disgust because she confronts us with those abject substances (blood, pus, vomit, urine) that signify a return to a state of infantile pre-socialization; the pregnant woman (The Brood) horrifies because her body houses an alien being- the infant/other; the female vampire (The Hunger) is monstrous because she draws attention to the female blood cycle and she reduces her captives to a state of embryonic dependency in which they must suckle blood in order to live; the young female witch (Carrie) evokes both sympathy and horror because her evil deeds are associated with puberty and menarche. The monstrous-feminine is constructed as an abject figure because she threatens the symbolic order. the monstrous-feminine draws attention to the ‘frailty of the symbolic order’ through her evocation of the natural, animal order and its terrifying associations with the passage all human beings must inevitably take from birth through life to death. (83)
- This may occur in gothic fiction if Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde count as a monster/victim, however, I’m not sure if I’d consider Dr. Jekyll to be the victim to the same extent that Carrie and Regan are victimized. Seth Brundle from The Fly may also count as a male monster/victim. ↩