Women, Monstrosity and Horror Film: Gynaehorror by Erin Harrington
I’ve been a horror film fan for decades now, happily watching every sort of horror I can get my hands on, and if you watch enough of it you begin to see the same motifs come up again and again. (Never trust a horror film child. Never turn your back on anything unless you’re absolutely sure it’s dead.) But one doesn’t have to be a dedicated fan to note just how very bloody often—and I use the word “bloody” deliberately, both as emphasis and descriptor—women in horror are in horror solely because of their reproductive systems. Harrington describes this particular subgenre as gynaehorror: “horror that deals with all aspects of female reproductive horror, from the reproductive and sexual organs, to virginity and first sex, through to pregnancy, birth and motherhood, and finally to menopause and post-menopause” (p. 3).
Given this definition, there are clearly limits to the scope of Women, Monstrosity and Horror Film: Gynaehorror, and Harrington makes these clear in her introduction. Her interpretation of gynaehorror is based around the “normative cisgendered female reproductive lifecycle” (p. 11), and there is little exploration of the experiences of trans women, for example. Diversity of source material is also limited mostly to Anglophone films and their particular intersections of female reproduction and demography. Harrington points out, for example, that most of the women featured in these films are white and middle-class, and this naturally affects how their experiences are portrayed and understood. Economic status, education levels, access to health care … these are factors that can materially influence how a female character navigates her own sexual experience and reproductive system in what is frequently a hostile environment.
Horror films, Harrington notes, are not always known for their positive representation of women. With notable exceptions, the feminine experience of victimhood—especially sexual victimhood, since women displaying overtly sexual behaviour in horror films have lengthier and more violently explicit deaths than similar male characters—is frequently prioritised in horror films. This is arguably derived from the historical tendency of the female body being seen as both lesser and other, something to be exploited for entertainment and shock value. Sometimes this misogynistic presentation is less than subtle, as in the film Contracted (2013), where “a woman is infected with a sexually transmitted virus that renders her dying from the inside out; at various points she bleeds profusely from her vagina and, in one particularly abject scene, maggots fall from her vagina” (p. 61). Sometimes it’s more so, such as in those slasher films where the Final Girl survives and it’s strongly implied—explicitly so, in the reactionary impulse of Scream (1996) for instance—that her survival is linked with her virginity. Harrington points out that despite the triumphant image of the single survivor it’s that tedious trope, Not Like Other Girls, that’s ultimately the reason for her survival.
I suggest, then, that it is this compulsive return to the figure of the “special” girl that is something insidiously problematic. The deaths of transgressive, active, often implicitly “unlikeable” women who assert their agency in threatening ways, in a genre that is often accused of loving to punish women, is not something to celebrate. (p. 45)
But horror itself can also be transgressive, and the ability of women in horror to flip the script, to undermine expected exploitation and maintain positive agency is also possible. The character Dawn, who in Teeth (2007) is in possession of a vagina dentata which bites off the penises of everyone who sexually assaults her, gains agency in two areas. First the obvious, in that she’s able to mutilate and kill those who look to hurt or exploit her; but the second and arguably more important (if less gory) advantage is that possession of this monstrous organ encourages her to actually learn about it. For Dawn, previous stalwart of the school chastity club, is discomforted enough by her own body to be almost entirely ignorant of it—a state which is sanctioned by a society that privileges abstinence and lack of sex education over adequate knowledge. Dawn, Harrington points out,
is doubly victimised—once by the men who assault her, but also by the movement that professed to have her best interests at heart … However, the film emphasises that it is not sex itself that is dangerous, but abusive sexual practices, sexual ignorance and misogynistic discourses of sexuality. (pp. 69-70)
The tension between misogynistic exploitation and transgression is particularly apt given current political debates over reproductive rights. Much of this is because the female reproductive system is so often seen as not suitable for polite conversation—it’s crass to talk about it. Indelicate.
… more often than not, the vagina is portrayed as inferior: as lesser than the penis; as a passive receptacle for the penis; as sexually inadequate, vulnerable and abused; as smelly, dangerous to both men and infants, and ultimately disgusting … Such negative and normalised portrayals of the vagina—indeed, of the female reproductive and sexual body as a whole—are recognised and ratified in the horror film, which offers very little in the way of positive or affirmative representation. Instead, the horror genre looks to the vagina as a place of disgust: it is a fleshy and conceptual site of monsters, of dread and of dangerously unbridled sexuality that marries terror with obscenity. (pp. 56-57)
Such an unpleasant subject … which makes it ripe to be the subject of shock-value horror, which can wallow in the unspeakable while other genres paddle about the edges or ignore the subject altogether. I was unaware, for instance, that until the late 1950s representations of pregnancy and (especially) birth were effectively banned from Hollywood cinema. They are unexceptionable today—and the determination not to go there has shifted from birth to abortion. For all the stories about evil children in horror (and they are legion) there’s much less emphasis, even in horror, on getting rid of that little problem before it arises. Honestly, the section on abortion in Women, Monstrosity and Horror Films is worth the price of admission alone. I’m not sure how I’ve managed to escape the entertainingly terrible pro-life propaganda of films such as The Life Zone (2011), which shows women wishing for abortions reliving their experiences in (literal) hell until they figure out how terrible they are for wanting control over their own bodies, but I certainly feel inclined to go looking for it now, if only to point and laugh.
I was particularly interested to note Harrington’s reference to the Alien franchise entry Prometheus (2012), which apparently was given an R-rating largely because the main character was shown giving herself an abortion of the alien rape baby she was carrying. This has shades of the birth-refusal of that earlier era of cinema, and of the consistent punishment, conceptual and actual, of women who have abortions—even in horror films. But I can’t help recall a recent Strange Horizons review of mine, of a young adult novel entitled The Fallen Children, in which one of the teen protagonists, herself forcibly impregnated by aliens, also effectively gives herself a DIY abortion. That a mainstream film for adults is so much more constrained than a novel targeted at teens is notable in itself. From my own perspective, gynaehorror is far more evident in forced pregnancy than it is in voluntary abortion, but clearly—even in horror—this is not a universal feeling. The monstrous child may be monstrous, but women are still expected to feel maternal if saddled with one, and this is an element of gynaehorror that is less well questioned in the genre than it might be.
It is in Harrington’s exploration of the maternal in horror that we begin to understand why abortion is so underserved. Her interpretation of horrific motherhood as a specific and continual negotiation is, I think, an acute one: “I suggest that horror films can be considered not as static representations of motherhood, but as culturally and historically specific, dynamic negotiations with the expectations and pressures surrounding the fulfilment of normative motherhood” (p. 181). Motherhood is indeed ringed round with expectations, with idealism and guilt, and the pressure to be a good mother is unrelenting. Social changes such as the growing combination of motherhood and career, and the increasing number of single parents, impact on this expectation. It’s impossible to be as good a mother as is expected, and the pressure to achieve the ideal—and the blame when motherhood or children turn monstrous—is enormous. The mother who kills herself so her ghost can take care of her own dead (and also ghostly) son in The Orphanage (2007), the mother who lets her ghoulish, flesh-eating baby literally devour her breast in Grace (2009) … the self-sacrifice expected of mothers has become so all-encompassing, the obsession with nurturing so determined, that it’s no wonder horror mothers boomerang between doormat and the far-too-involved Norma Bates. “The message to mothers in horror film is clear: you must do better, but you can never do enough” (p. 215). This constant negotiation, the need to reconcile the real and the ideal, is a debate entirely cut off by the act of abortion. No wonder it’s not more prominent within the genre—it cuts off the horror to come.
In all the discussion of this horror, it’s important to recall that Women, Monstrosity and Horror Film is an academic text. There’s a difficulty in reviewing such texts for the lay reader—potential audiences are so different that the writing itself can (unintentionally) exclude. Reviewing as a lay reader, this came across very much as a text of two halves.
If “academic writing” can be said to be a genre of its own, the need to justify and explain and reference every statement must be the defining characteristic thereof. Depending on the reader, this can be variously comforting or frustrating. For the most part, I found the way Harrington wove in theoretical ideas to be immensely interesting when she was talking about horror films: her frequent use of example is a finely judged leavening agent. There were often chunks of theory and background, however, that were far less digestible, especially as the focus in these areas became extremely broad, moving away from gynaehorror (or any horror) to wider contexts. There’s such a pronounced difference, as a reader, between the chunks of theory and background that are interwoven with example and the chunks that aren’t, that I found myself wishing this background absent, or at least tucked away as appendices at the back of the book. It’s not that it’s not interesting (it is, if only mildly); it’s that it seems so frequently unnecessary.
I’m not at all sure, for example, that one needs to wade through eight densely argued pages on the history of virginity as a concept to understand that (a) there is a cultural history of treating female virginity differently from male virginity, (b) cultural emphasis on the value of female virginity is frequently used to control women’s sexuality, and (c) this is often expressed in horror films. Those three sentences, appropriately backed-up of course (this is academia!), are really all that’s needed before we get to the fascinating meat of the chapter focusing on virginity and first sex in horror. The academic need to include background material inevitably has an effect on readability for lay readers, with these sections appearing to have markedly more jargon and markedly less horror.
There is one place where all this background really shines, however—and it has to, for if abortion rarely comes up in gynaehorror then menopause is even rarer. In contrast to horror films that deal with the onset of menstruation, such as Carrie (1976) and Ginger Snaps (2000), representation of menopause is practically nonexistent. Harrington points out, and accurately so, that given the wide range of horror films available this omission is itself worthy of study. As it is, criticism has to work around the gaping hole where the subject should be. Harrington does her best to use ageing women in horror as a proxy for menopause-based horror, and this results in a genuinely interesting chapter that explores what she calls hagsploitation, discussing the ways in which older women are exploited by horror and in turn can make horror into a “richly complicated site of contestation and resistance” (p. 254).
Less gripping in its contextualisation is the chapter “Not of woman born: Mad science, reproductive technology and the reconfiguration of the subject,” which, in fairness, does manage to circle back round to Harrington’s own definition of gynaehorror a couple of times. The perception of the mad scientist as a masculine figure, on science itself as a masculine subject, and the tension in the discipline between masculine and feminine is certainly interesting, but the seeming conflation of “feminine” with “gynaehorror” at this point (a conflation which seems specific to this chapter) does, I think, allow the text to wander, again, from the point—and from the gender. Victor Frankenstein might be a perfect example of man creating life and not needing women to do it, but this isn’t the book I want to read about that in. It seems a bit of a stretch to include it in a book about gynaehorror, and this stretch does pop up occasionally in other parts of the text.
I find the assertion that the shark mouth in Jaws (1975) can be read as an allusion to “the toothed, dangerous vagina” (p. 61), for instance, to be deeply unconvincing. There are illuminating metaphors and then there are vagina-coloured glasses. For the most part, however, when Harrington shifts her attention to metaphorical gynaehorror she’s far more focused. There’s an excellent section on the eco-horror Prophecy (1979), for example, in which the main character’s pregnancy is used to illuminate an environment polluted to mutant toxicity. Maggie’s pregnancy in that film—itself in jeopardy of mutation after she’s exposed to the same poisons that have destroyed the surrounding ecosystem—is an encapsulation in miniature of the central horrifying problem of the text.
As a reviewer, I’m not sure I can accurately place Women, Monstrosity and Horror Film in an academic context. For lay readers, however, it’s a fascinating and feminist look at gynaehorror, and one that’s highly recommended. If the text sometimes has slightly too wide a focus, well, readers can I think skim or even skip the jargon-heavy theory and background sections. They won’t miss much of the thought-provoking and the scary by doing so, as the majority of the text—the parts that are focused on horror films themselves—are both clear and clever, and well worth reading.