For many fans of Horror, there is such a thing as looking too deeply at a work and drawing conclusions that seem more like overthinking things or wild-eyed free-association. And it does take some of the “fun” out of it. However, to intentionally not-look at subtext is to deny the genre its Literary bones. And while talking about women’s issues in the context of monsters may be a turn-off to some, it simply has to be done in the same way a mountain has to be climbed: because it’s there.
To be clear, overlaying something like Feminist Theory onto Horror is not about turning a bunch of angry women with pitchforks loose on polite society; it is not an attempt to malign the male gender. But it is meant to call significant problems to the attention of the reader or movie-goer and generate a response. This is what is meant by motere – the ability to move the audience into action…by creating empathy if not understanding.
Yet when we bring gender into the subtext of Horror, we often find resistance. It often suggested that such discussions are beneath Literary Horror by using the same language used in the arguments made by early Critics that women’s writing was about “women’s issues” and men’s writing was about “global or universal” (and therefore “Literary”) issues. But women are part of the world and the universe. It is simply that “theirs” are not “lofty” issues because men do not see them as such – instead they are down and dirty issues, issues about the drudgery of daily life and death and poverty and abuse.
Men, it would appear, prefer to think in terms of World Domination, power plays, and subterfuge. Yet while many fans of fiction and Horror fiction enjoy the monster that seeks to destroy the world and the hero who rises from the ranks to save us all with something nerdy, most of us are more intimately familiar with smaller, more insidious and localized Horrors. Most of us are looking for ways to get the better of our bullies, foil our personal enemies, to rise above our own limitations. World domination for the rest of us remains the exclusive territory of comic book heroes and video game upstarts…which means that many of us are open to exploring what the presence of female monsters may actually mean.
And to do this, we have to do what Horror does: recognize that Horror reflects historical events and our gut reactions to those events.
If Horror Is Always About Sex (It Is), Then It Is Always About Gender
For a long time (and for what seems like a lifetime for those who grew up with Horror during the 1970s, 80s, and 90s) the face of Horror was defined by that Hollywood summer blockbuster where young, nubile girls frolicked through serial killers and haunted mansions in nightgowns. The sex-connection was pretty blatantly obvious, but the gender connection – until Jamie Lee Curtis introduced us to the concept of the Final Girl in Halloween – seemed a bit less recognizable.
Yet suddenly here was a reason girls could like a good Horror movie: we could all of us be Final Girls. And even as the messaging remained subverted (that “power and strength are not [exclusively] male qualities, and that conformity is not only undesirable in a teenager, but a quality that could get him or her killed” (Muir 246)) a seed for the next generation of Horror fans and writers was planted.
For girls, this opened the door to acknowledging their own intimate connection to Horror – and even expressed the invitation to explore it – to expect it…to look for it.
But here again we must look at how girls are raised – to conform, to never-question the authority of men. We go to these movies and read these books, but we lie to ourselves and claim that we are infatuated with fact of the monster… that we just like being scared or startled or surprised. In reality, something else is drawing us back and drawing us in while we not-notice that the monster is female for a reason…
Hidden in the folds of monstrosity is the promise of justice, if not revenge.
This is one reason those accused of being monstrous can set aside umbrage and instead smile wickedly at the anticipation of an enemy’s fear. In our hour of need, at the moment of humiliation and defeat, the belief that monsters can rise and inflict justice on the sword-point of rage and indignation is cathartic. It allows the oppressed to survive, crouched in their own imaginations, wielding the belief that the required balance of nature will ensure their turn in the process of justice… monsters represent hope.
In monster-laced rhetoric, the marginalized can reimagine power – even if it is temporary, it will be terrible and emotionally freeing…a lesson repeated in action-adventure revenge-fantasies like Rambo and The Terminator…In Zombie-fests like The Walking Dead and movies like The Ring…
It just might be significant, then, that a man and a woman sitting in a movie theater watching Jurassic Park will see entirely different movies. So will those from different races or cultures. Yet for a brief moment we seem to be united in our terror. But are we really?
A man might look at the line that “all of the dinosaurs in the park are female” and accept it as the scientific reason given: so that the monsters cannot reproduce without the consent of man.
Yet for women in the audience… did a bell just ring? How often do we hear women’s demands to keep male-dominated religion and government out of our wombs?
All of the dinosaurs are female…
All of the monsters are female…
Reproduction is a monstrous act that must be controlled by men lest men be destroyed by it…
Women are here to destroy the world… whether justified or not. And mankind is the target of their bloodthirsty fury. Because…you know how women are…
Jurassic Park is just the most obvious of this angst, this battle between the sexes and the annoyance of one group of humanity versus the grievances of another. In fact, having all of the dinosaurs being female is itself a commentary on the greatest mystery of humanity – reproduction (and man’s desire to control it). Indeed, women throughout history have been assigned all manner of supernatural powers in the “seduction” of men – an irresistible supernatural kind of power equated to a kind of rape – where the godlike ability to create life without the consent or “knowledge” of innocent men can ruin patriarchal destiny. Women are seductresses, makers of the monstrous, emitters of things born in blood, an act suggestive of bodily discharge and disease.
And yet through this horrible gauntlet of blood and pain women survive… like any Horror movie monster, like every Final Girl, a woman rises from the offal and distaste of men to wreck the ambitions of those same men. The only hope of containment is total domination – from the ability to reproduce, to the isolation of monsters on “islands” where they are separated from their natural “herds”… Breeding for temperament is paramount. So are electrified fences and men with large guns.
(Or perhaps a Supreme Court Justice?)
Well let’s just go there. For the sake of understanding the way history and Literature intertwine, for the sake of building better Horror, let’s look at these two monsters we all know and love: the Jurassic Park Dinosaur and the Alien – the first of which came from published fiction, the second of which started as a screenplay…
Shoot Her! (Yes, All The Monsters On The Island Are Female – and What About the Traitor-to-her-Sex-and-Species Day-Saving T-Rex at The End?)
There is an opening scene in Jurassic Park where the monster fights back, grabbing one of its tormentors and dragging the body into its crate where it begins to devour him.
“Shoot her!” demands the head zookeeper. “Shoot her!”
Why do we in the audience sit back and decide to “wait and see”? Why do we assume the monster deserves it? And was there even the slightest flinch when you realized the monster was female?
We can call it the powerful peer pressure of the crowd – the same one that keeps us from responding immediately when we witness something happening we know is wrong but feel helpless to stop. It never occurs to us that we have been taught to feel that way – taught to second guess ourselves in favor of “authority” figures, in favor of the mob.
But another part if it is realizing that if we react, we will be separated from the herd: we will be accused, and be exposed as the next potential victim. Freezing and showing no emotion or even laughing is a conditioned response to being bullied. It’s about survival.
So it is a natural extension of our complacency that we would fail to “feel” anything when Horror monsters are feminized.
“Equal rights,” proclaim the boys triumphantly. But this is anything but… it is a continuation of the emotional assault on women’s rights.
Yet there is also a minimization at work here: the primary subtext in Jurassic Park is not about women, but about humanity’s hubris wielding technology – a retelling of the story of Icarus flying too close to the sun… So while women are sitting there absorbing the impact of the words “shoot her!” we are being distracted by the glamour of humanity’s technological godhood.
Any messaging about women and reproductive rights is sublimated, because mankind has just proven we don’t really need women to reproduce – just smart men with money and science.
Shooting the rebellious dinosaur disallowed to breed is simply enforcing the established rules.
Remember the conversation with scientist Henry Wu:
“Actually they can’t breed in the wild. Population control is one of our security precautions. There’s no unauthorized breeding in Jurassic Park.
Dr. Ian Malcolm : How do you know they can’t breed?
Henry Wu : Well, because all the animals in Jurassic Park are female. We’ve engineered them that way.”
Here – as in Alien – we are seeing the omniscient presence of the Company… that unnamed patriarchal invention disguised as “society” where everyone is expected to do as told, where existence depends on the value of exploitation and the ability to exercise containment…
Jurassic Park is not just about reconstituting dinosaurs, it is about denying the natural right of reproduction – something Alien underscores in bold lettering.
If the Alien franchise does nothing else, it reminds us that not only are working class people simple fodder in the machinery of making the exclusive wealthy and powerful few even richer and more powerful, but that the ability of women to subvert the plan by the act of reproduction demands the tightest of societal control. Could we stop there?
We could. But we shouldn’t. Horror always goes deep… And here (if one cares to look), we can see statements being made about the time the original films were being made and the stories written – times when the political environment was roiling with the battle over women’s rights, the Equal Rights Amendment, abortion rights…when science was replacing religion and religion was fighting back, when Big Business was stuffing us all into anonymous cubicles and invading every aspect of our private lives. When 1984 seemed like more than a passing fancy…
Of course we can ignore that, grab some popcorn and be satisfied. But the success of Alien had a lot more to do with resonance that it did with good filmmaking. It had to do with change…and the fear it inspired…
We can, of course, point to Final Girls in Horror as proof that things are changing in Horror and society, but just how much are they really?
When the most iconic Final Girl – Ripley from the Alien franchise is only equally matched when she battles the alien female egg-layer, what is that really saying? That the Company can ruin her life, but only she can defeat the universe-plundering she-creature? That only a female can truly, finally defeat another female? And isn’t it at least interesting that our battles with other females in Real Life always cause us to resort to the same name-calling, the same need to just shoot her that males resort to? So why do we applaud the manifestation of the “cat fight”? Why do we want the establishment to shoot her for us?
Is it because (while we are toying with the subliminal) that we also are picking up on something else: on our own precarious political situations? Are monsters like these speaking to something even deeper? Are we afraid of the consequences of the changes we seek?
Nested within the Alien franchise is the battle over reproductive rights. Who exactly will get to control whether or not Ripley gives birth and to what she will give birth? The Company? Power Brokers in society such as the military? Scientists? The Monster itself?
Maybe worse…fellow women? Why is it that most women are “taken down” in Real Life by other patriarchy-rule-following women? By the (Handmaid’s Tale) Aunt Lydias of our world?
How often have we found patriarchal rules “enforced” by women we trusted? Women we expected to know about Real Life circumstance? To empathize with rape? To shelter against the violence of men? How often have they told us how happy we should be living under subjugation? How grateful? How we invited our own misfortunes like rape or assault if we do not conform? Didn’t you have a word for those women?
We have all been there. We have all said it. We have called other women a “female dog”… And we have meant it.
Nothing is worse than infighting, in the helpless anger that flows directly from hearing scripted dialogue long preached to hold you down falling from the lips of your own kind. It becomes a battle to see who will be the most man-like, the most righteously angry.
Women do this all of the time – reciting to each other the patriarchal rules whose violation will surely (according to men) lead to the annihilation of everything held dear, will lead to fire and brimstone and total anarchy.
Yet what is at stake is the shattering of the veneer of “happiness” women are commanded to live under… the oppression of seeing our own bodies through men’s eyes… of being led to believe that having any feelings other than “bliss” is unnatural, subversive, or supernatural.
And then fearing that the consequences of losing sight of all the things we are told create that bliss are compounded by our faults in executing our responsibilities.
At the first glimpse of the Sandy Hook shooter, the first question was “Where was the mother?” not “Where was the father?” not “Where was the local church? The school he went to? The neighbors? The gun background check?” Where was the MOTHER…
Any woman who is not where she is supposed to be doing what she is supposed to be doing is culpable in our society, even now… And the first people we want to hear from is…other mothers – “good” mothers, whose sons do not grab automatic weapons and shoot other children.
Clearly the shooter’s mother was at the very least negligent. Her son was “evil.” Perhaps they were…odd… loners… outsiders… certainly not like the rest of us…
This is why all of the animals on the island are female. Females are not like the rest of us/males… women are from Venus. Or should be. But if they fail, if they are aberrations of the species, they should be eliminated – for the good (and safety) of society.
“Fixing” Our Monster Problem
When anything happens within the orbit of a woman, for good or ill, it is her fault. And maybe that is the true source behind Ripley’s venom… being sick of tripping over the feet extended everywhere she needs to walk.
We have a long way to go in “fixing” our monster problem, because we have a long way to go in making everyone see why there is a problem. And no doubt until we do there will be female monsters in Horror.
IS it coincidence that Women’s Rights were on the forefront of conversation and thought during the 1970s when the Alien franchise was born, or that (according to Poole): “Numerous films in the 1970s joined Alien in playing with the frightening potentialities of female biology and the politics of reproduction”?
Being a teenager in those times, I can tell you the environment felt anything but “safe” as the alleged adults in the room had increasingly venomous conversations about women’s bodies and the state of the women’s minds. Up for discussion were such mortifying topics as whether or not a woman could pilot an aircraft and think logically in a war-scenario if she was having her menstrual cycle (and if female presence represented a dangerous ‘distraction’ to men in the military), whether it was a woman’s biological imperative and true (universal) private desire to have children and if childrearing was a natural instinct or a learned one, or if having babies was a “cure” for “female problems”, whether a woman’s mental and physical health were impacted if she did not biologically have her own children, if women were intellectually inferior in general to men (especially in the maths), or if women were lesbians if they didn’t want to marry.
There was a tremendous pressure to always “prove” your femininity, and a more-than-implied threat of what would happen if you got it “wrong.” Pregnancy and its consequences were a ghost that loomed large in young girls lives. Is it any wonder then that young girls in the theater of Alien were seeing a totally different movie on that big screen? We were living then (as now) in historic times…
Continues W. Scott Poole, “Notably Alien 3 appeared in 1992 after a series of Supreme Court rulings that allowed states to place barriers between women and abortion, including parental consent for minors and strictures against family planning clinics counseling abortion as an option.” (184) And when we really look at the politics of the moment, we see more than a movie about alien life seeking a differently framed invasion – we see something besides the cigar.
And what we see is a layer of Literary discussion about women’s rights and women’s reproductive rights. What we see is framed in Literary Critical Theory as Feminist Theory. But we also see a new Literary Critical Theory called New Historicism, and an additionally even more new theory from Film Criticism called Monster Theory… all of this designed to excavate the subtext of a story that on its surface was great fun in the movie theater…
But none of this is really “new”… We are building on the works of others – of women who wrote in the genre when writing was not considered the work of a reputable woman. Says Martin Tropp about those early ladies: “The ‘New Woman’ writers were the precursors of the suffragettes. By advocating, among other things, birth control, women in the professions, less restrictive dress, and freedom to travel unescorted, they threatened to realign the relationship between the sexes.” (160) The battle over who “gets” to control women’s bodies has been a long one, constantly poking its head out of Horror pages because no one is listening to the point of motere… And for that reason alone – that stasis of nothing changing – we can expect to see female monsters in Horror for a good while to come.
Stephen King definitely “gets” it. In so many of his works, he showcases the plight of women – never so more poignantly as revealed in his book Delores Claiborne, when the protagonist’s upper-class boss offers a truth that suffering among women is so often shared suffering:
Why then is that woman a monster? Not because she broke a human norm, but because she did a swan dive off the pedestal. We simply have not been creative in our labelling of the collateral damage and the angry women it creates.
Yet…Monster. Is that the ONLY vocabulary we all have for “disagreeable women” in our collective language arts – the very one used on the streets and in board rooms? I fully admit to being influenced by the politics of the moment. Because witnessing the acquiescence makes me question at what point do we say “enough”?
Go ahead. Look around the audience in that dark theater. Look at the faces you thought you knew… the ones you thought you could trust to have your own back.
Why are there such unchallenged, unanimous cries to “Shoot her!”?
And are we so conditioned to it, we cannot stop ourselves from nodding in assent, even if it is to not-draw notice from the predators in the room?
This brings us right back to the battle between the sexes. Any soldier can tell you that in battle dehumanizing your enemy is the best way to shut out and override any inclination to question the efficacy of what you are doing and who you are doing it for. That emotional distancing does two things: it disables any empathetic response, and it empowers the timid by creating a mob-mentality – a compliance driven by peer pressure and the fear to not go along with the group…something we see in Horror movies all of the time.
Abdicating judgment is freeing: how many atrocities have been committed by people “just following orders”? How much rationalization and compartmentalization occurs therein? How many cries to eliminate the trauma of having to make a stand on principle have been made pointless by taking up the cry to just “shoot her”?
If you are female, you should be feeling something about this – whether you agree or disagree. By all that is Horror, you should be thinking. But if all of the above is not enough to sway your opinion of yourself and your inherent rights, ponder this:
Says Natalie Wilson in her book Willful Monstrosity: Gender and Race in 21stCentury Horror: “Women are so regularly allied with the monstruous, in fact, that they are often not depicted in exaggerated form in horror texts, their mere bodies being enough to construe monstrosity.” (Wilson 182)
If that isn’t enough to make you at least think about the feminist argument, maybe you need to watch these two films again. Maybe you should think about the cost of living on a pedestal.
Because there are times when being the monster is good…
Gilbert, Sandra M. and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: the Woman Writer and the Nineteenth Century Literary Imagination. 2nd ed.New Haven and London: Yale University Press, c1984, c1979.
Muir, John Kenneth. Horror Films FAQ: All That’s Left to Know About Slashers, Vampires, Zombies, Aliens, and More. Milwaukee, WI: Applause Theater and Cinema Books, c2013.
Poole, W. Scott. Monsters in America: Our Historical Obsession with the Hideous and the Haunting. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, c2018.
Tropp, Martin. Images of Fear: How Horror Stories Helped Shape Modern Culture (1818-1918). Jefferson, NC, and London, c1990.
Wilson, Natalie. Willful Monstrosity: Gender and Race in 21st Century Horror. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc, Publishers, c2020.