Horror films are about the crossing of lines: the line between good and evil, light and dark, but also between the human and the monstrous, natural and supernatural. Emphasizing these lines and crossing them is a way in which horror films reflect on the taboos present in our society. But what about a character who is constantly on this edge, in a state of continuous change? Like a child or teenage character.
This character lives on the border between child and adult. A body in development, on its way to maturity, exploring the boundaries of sexuality and becoming aware of their own bodies. In the child or teenage body we can see the formation of an own identity, but also the malleability of the body.
Still, it seems like cinema is mainly inhabited by female child-monsters, or as film scientist Barbara Creed puts it: “baby bitches from hell”. An accurate example of this statement can be seen in Jack Hill’s Spider Baby (1967), in which Virginia is obsessed by spiders. In Brian de Palma’s Carrie (1976), she uses her telekinetic powers to get revenge on her classmates. While these tiny monsters certainly terrify us, they also confront us with our social taboos. These female child monsters create a mirror for the real life adult world in which they become embodiments of desires and fears.
One of the most well-known child-monsters is Regan, the twelve-year-old from William Friendkin’s The Exorcist (1973). Simply put this film is about a girl possessed by the devil. Within hides female passivity, as it is a female body which is controlled unwillingly. Yet, within the possession of Regan’s body, I see a power trying to free this female body from control.
The monstrous transformation of Regan’s body in The Exorcist can be read as a manifestation of puberty. Her voice changes, her skin breaks as a symbolic interpretation of acne and she goes through her first menstrual cycle. Maybe even more important is that her malleable teenage body has its first introduction to sexual oppression and violence. To read Regan’s character as a strong woman it is important to look past the gruelling horror scenes, the scenes we strongly associate with The Exorcist.
When Regan’s body subjects to a couple of medical tests, her body made to a medical object belonging to the male doctors, we can see how a male doctor holds a dripping syringe at the height of his crotch. In the next shot, we see the needle penetrates Regan’s skin. The way this is shot makes the syringe like an extension of an erect penis, the fluid dripping out. Ready to penetrate a passive female body. This passive and oppressed state her body is in creates a contrast to the scene that follows, in which Regan’s body moves violently on the bed. The injected stop on her body swells to a frightening size. The monstrous in her body protects her by threatening. It is resisting the oppression and strives for sexual liberation.
These same desires shone though in the second feminist wave of the 70’s, the time in which The Exorcist was made. The Exorcist is about the male fear of feminist groups while at the same time giving a voice to a female noise saturated with the ideals of the feminist movement.
This monstrous resistance against sexual oppression can be seen even more clearly in Mitchell Lichtenstein’s Teeth (2007). This film features the devout Dawn who discovers teeth in her vagina after she had been raped. The myth of the vagina dentata is visualized and the male fear of castration is realized. Both of these were conceptualized by Sigmund Freud; they are essentially about the male fear of the female reproductive organ and in turn, the fear of women. Feminist Scientists resist this patriarchal train of thought. They don’t see the woman as the castrated but as the one who castrates. They conceptualized the vagina dentata though the myth of Medusa: a powerful threatening woman with the power to destroy men. In Teeth we can see Dawn as a true femme castratrice punishing every unwanted male penetration with castration.
The moment Dawn passes out and is consequently raped, the camera seems to adopt the male point of view, corresponding to rape scenes in most mainstream cinema. However, the moment Dawn regains consciousness we see a rapid represaille. The audience is invited to the moment of female retribution, the castration. Another good example is the moment Dawn bites off the male doctor’s fingers during a medical examination. The deconstruction of hands is also an act of castration in several oriental cultures.
It is clear that Teeth sees the woman not as the castrated, but as the one who castrates. This makes her powerful, a kick-ass woman.
About the author
After completing her bachelor’s degree cum laude, Gwyneth Sleutel (1994) was selected for the professional track in Film Studies at the University of Amsterdam. During her studies Gwyneth did extensive research into the portrayal of women in cinema and became inspired by the combination of film and feminism, as movies offer us a unique insight into how our society functions and deals with issues regarding gender. During her master thesis she took a closer look at the development of feminist film theory in order to analyse the portrayal of the ‘mother’ in Dutch movies.
Her passion for cinema also shows in her work as a freelance filmmaker and her contributions to critical online media platforms. However, her heart lies with the script development of fictional film. After a few internships with a focus on dramaturgy and the practical development of movies, at the VPRO among others, Gwyneth is now working as a freelance dramaturg and script editor. In addition to this she is editor-in-chief for the faculty magazine Babel. Gwyneth will publish a weekly article for Imagine Film Festival, drawing inspiration from her talents as an analyst and critical thinking skills concerning the portrayal of women in cinema. Championing the idea that there can never be enough kick-ass women in film.