Danni Glover celebrates Women in Horror month. Spoiler alert! This post contains important plot points for: Among the Living, The Babadook, The Bad Seed, Carrie, The Craft, Ginger Snaps, The Exorcist, Inside, Interview with the Vampire, Let The Right One In, Rosemary’s Baby, Switchblade Romance, The Woman. Enter at your own risk.
“It is women who love horror.” Bela Lugosi once said. “Women have a predestination to suffering. It is women who bear the race in bloody agony. Suffering is a kind of horror. Blood is a kind of horror. Therefore women are born with a predestination to horror in their very blood stream. It is a biological thing.” Well Dracula would know, I suppose. While female characters in horror are often the screaming, scantily-clad targets of suffering, I am more fascinated by the girl-monster, a woman who can gestate suffering just as she can gestate life. The girl-monster is monstrous precisely because she is female. Her power is rooted in the female part of her.
There is terror in a woman.
Lugosi’s observations may be somewhat literal (not to mention dated) but their sentiments echo in the girl-monsters of modern horror. Carrie White, played by Sissy Spacek in Carrie and by Chloe Grace Moretz in the 2013 remake of the same name, is the most iconic menstrual demon ever committed to screen. The movie is steeped in blood, from Carrie’s traumatic first period in the opening scene, to the bucket of pig blood with which her classmates torment her in the climax. It is from these bloody traumas that Carrie draws her power, unlocking violent telekinesis. Ginger Snaps, starring Katherine Isabelle, owes no small debt to Carrie’s themes of the angst of feminine puberty, but conflates Ginger’s menses with lycanthropy. The werewolf’s connection to moon cycles make it an ideal girl-monster. Ginger is also empowered by her association with blood, but her destruction is coupled with a dangerous and sudden sexual awakening. In the teen witch classic The Craft, the four main characters are joined in sisterhood by a blood ritual. Their horror is more social: what effect does a shift in power have on a volatile community? When these paradigms are transposed onto a circle of female friends, that which is often dismissed as being frivolous is now dangerous. Although not explicitly menstrual, the transformation undergone by Regan’s demonic possession in The Exorcist is also symbolic of the horror of female puberty: the change from girl to woman is so extreme it may as well be supernatural.
Motherhood, too, can be as destructive a force as it is creative. As Lugosi observed, it’s a gory business even without the added pressure of birthing the spawn of Satan. Mia Farrow’s performance as the titular character in Rosemary’s Baby is of a woman in physical decline as she does just that. In an act of motherly love bordering on the deranged, she ultimately accepts the baby as her own; Farrow’s tender half-smile and a haunting lullaby play the film out while her demon spawn fusses in a moses basket. Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook stars Essie Davis as a mother whose psychological traumas manifest as a supernatural presence, rendering her unable to care for her son. Perhaps the most frightening of all monster mothers is the anonymous “La Femme” of Inside (À l’intérieur) played by Béatrice Dalle, who arrives at the home of Alysson Paradis, who caused her to have a miscarriage in a car accident to cut Paradis’s baby out of her with scissors. In a series of excruciating scenes, she succeeds (Dalle also appears in the directors’ later film Among the Living (Aux yeux des vivants) as a pregnant woman who mutilates her own swollen stomach, prompting the question of why Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury are quite so horrified by her motherhood, specifically). Birth and motherhood are monstrous states which demonstrate the limits of human bodily functions and emotional capacity, enabling storytellers to explore the most horrific extremes of these states.
Monster mothers will birth monster children, and the girl-monster is often apparent at a young age. Patty McCormack’s prepubescent pigtailed Rhoda Penmark in The Bad Seed is one of cinema’s most sinister killers. She’s evil in the blood, as her mother Christine discovers when she learns her own mother was a notorious serial killer. Rhoda kills without remorse, gleefully slipping into childhood for ice cream and presents. (McCormack would go on to play a murderous mother in Mommy in 1995, bringing her bad seed full circle.) Lina Leandersson’s highly accomplished performance as Eli in Let the Right One In (Låt den rätte komma in), a reinvigorated the vampire myth with the asexual captivation of childhood. While McCormack’s performance is chillingly cerebral, Leandersson’s restrained physicality takes her from a small, shivering figure in the snow to a leaping animal. Kirsten Dunst’s Claudia in Interview with the Vampire is also a girl-monster, but unlike Eli she ages psychologically. She mourns her denied womanhood, killing ruthlessly with a hunger that is both physical and psychosexual. Their girlhood is a state of sweetness and assumed naivety. It’s charming and disarming; they have to be little girls because girlhood, like womanhood, is a bodily state of idealism and subversion perfect for the creation of monsters.
Women who don’t exist within comfortable structures are terrifying in their own way. Pollyanna McIntosh’s performance as the titular character in The Woman is perhaps the most shocking departure from womanhood of all: a woman who has existed outside of society for her entire life. Feral and uncivilised, The Woman reacts with cannibalistic fury when she is kidnapped by Chris Cleek and his family and forced into sexual compliance in a micro-parody of patriarchy. The Woman rescues the Cleek daughter and another feral female prisoner named Socket and they escape into, we assume, a gynocentric non-society in the woods. In Switchblade Romance (Haute tension), Cécile de France creates an alternative (male) persona who brutally murders everyone who she perceives as coming between her and her best friend, with whom she is in love. Her unreciprocated lesbianism is the cause of her alienation, and her monster is a man.
Girl-monsters exist. They are the female serial killers who elicit gendered tabloid shock, the sweet little girls who post obsessive and threatening messages online, the nurses in shamed care homes and mental hospitals. Lorena Bobbit is a girl-monster, as is Mary Bell and Sadie Mae Glutz and Jodie Marsh. If horror seems reliant on gendered tropes, even for the purposes of subversion, then perhaps it is only holding a mirror to our refusal to believe that the monsters are real, a predestination in our very blood stream.