The films The Terminator, Alien, Teeth, Ginger Snaps, Shaun of the Dead and Daybreakers all have two things common with each other. They all fall under the film genre of horror but most importantly they all have their own unique representations of the ‘other’. This concept of the ‘other’ refers to the self as the ‘same’ and a difference as the ‘other’; that is to say that anything that is different from the norm are seen as the ‘other’ because they displace an otherness from society. “Alterity: the complex dynamic between identity and alterity, the self and the other…” (Mikula, 2008, pg. 6). We will be examining the representation of the ‘other’ in horror films, while looking at what the type of otherness is being portrayed. We will first examine the representation of women in horror films and why they are portrayed as such; Freud’s notion of the castration anxiety will discussed in contrast to the film Teeth. Furthermore, we will go on to look at the menstrual cycle in relation to the female being represented as the ‘other’; the film example used will be Ginger Snaps. Women are already pretty scary; mood swings, the ability to scare a boy with a death stare but women are also portrayed as victims, damsels in distress, but us lovely ladies always seem to make it out of danger or kick ass and take names.
There is an abundant amount of horror films that show the female as the victim, Scream and Halloween, both have female characters that are the victim and are more sympathized with by audiences. But what about the horror films that depict the female as the predator, the “bad guy” or the ‘other’; there are films that have female characters that are very different from the norm in society. The two films that will be discussed are Teeth, directed by Mitchell Lichtenstein and released in 2007 and Ginger Snaps, directed by John Fawcett and released in 2000. In her book, Men, Women and Chainsaws, Carol Clover explains how the dynamic between men and women is to work in horror films; “The world of horror is in any case one that knows very well that men and women are profoundly different (and the former are vastly superior to the latter)…” (Clover, 1992, pg. 15). That is to say that, women are inferior to men in the world of horror, but these two films, Teeth and Ginger Snaps, break this rule and make the female the superior sex. I will go on to discuss the themes presented in Teeth and Ginger Snaps, how these themes relate to their depiction of otherness and why these females characters are depicted as the ‘other’.
Teeth tells the story of the teenager Dawn O’Keefe who learns that she has the condition known as Vagina Dentata; this is where the vagina has teeth, it is safe to say that this is every man’s fear. The Castration Anxiety was put forward by Freud; it details the fear that an adolescent child feels when he discovers the lacking of male genitalia on his mother and how he fears that he will be castrated like his mother was (Freud, 1924). Metaphorically, it can be related to the fear of being degraded or loss of sexual dominance; this ties in directly to the themes in the film Teeth. At the beginning of the film, Dawn is an abstinent teenager who only wants to do right by people but by the end of the film Dawn has comes to terms with her condition and is the one taking advantage of the men around her and punishing those she deems deserving. Barbara Creed says, in her book The Monstrous Feminine, that the Vagina Dentata is extremely applicable to the castration anxiety; “The Vagina Dentata is particularly relevant to the iconography of the horror film, which abounds with images that play on the fear of castration and dismemberment” (Creed, 1993, pg. 107). While the character of Dawn is seen as this woman with a horrible condition, it can be argued that the Vagina Dentata is merely a male concept; “Freud does not consider the other possibility that it is man who constructs woman as a castrator and that he has displaced his anxiety on to women…” (Creed, 1993, pg. 121). It can be argued that the representation of the vagina in this film is a metaphor for the power of the female genitalia; “…man’s fear of sexual intercourse with woman is based on irrational fears about the deadly powers of the vagina…” (Creed, 1993, pg. 121). This ‘other’ interpretation can be seen as the males lack of knowledge and understanding of the female organs, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown” (Lovecraft, 1927, pg. 13).
It is well known that men do not have vaginas and as Lovecraft tells us, what we fear the most is what we don’t understand. Throughout time the lack of understanding of the menstrual system would stir up fear in communities; women’s blood, whether it be menstrual blood or other, was associated with witchcraft; “Menstruation was also linked to the witch’s curse… Historically, the curse of a woman, particularly if she was pregnant or menstruating, was considered far more potent than a man’s curse” (Creed, 1993, pg. 74). The Witch has been a supernatural creature that has been feared for the powers that they hold; “In ancient societies all magical powers, whether used for good or evil purposes, inspired the deepest dread amongst the members of the community” (Creed, 1993, pg 74). It is simple to see how the power of the witch is related back to her power as a female, her vagina and the power that organ has over others. When asked about the novel Carrie, Stephen King said “Carrie is largely about how women find their own channels of power, and what men fear about women and women’s sexuality” (King, 1986, pg. 7). The film Ginger Snaps is has a very close story line to Carrie, both girls discover they have begun their menstrual cycle for the first time and supernatural things start happening around them. Both films are juxtapositions of the female menstrual system and the supernatural; Ginger Snaps contrast the menstrual cycle with lycanthropy while Carrie contrasts it with telekinesis.
In the patriarchal society that we live in today and have lived in for many years, it would make sense that women would be perceived as the ‘other’ and be feared by men; “…women are more inclined to witchcraft than men. The reasons all relate to the classic and phallocentric definition of woman as the ‘other’, a weaker but dangerous complement of man.” (Creed, 1993, pg. 74). Witches were made to confess absurd crimes, such as stealing men’s penises and having sexual intercourse with the devil; these confessions would just add more fear into the “mythology about the depraved and monstrous nature of the woman’s sexual appetites” (Creed, 1993, pg. 75). It can be argued that a women’s power comes from her sexual organs, men have long feared the vagina (Freud’s Castration Anxiety) and anything to do with the vagina; menstrual cycle or the Vagina Dentata. What is unknown is feared, but the workings of the vagina are a lot less unknown now than they were hundreds of years ago, this fear of the vagina may just go down to superstition.
Ginger Snaps was a film released in 2000, written by Karen Walton and directed by John Fawcett; this film tells the story of the Fitzgerald sisters, one of which (Ginger) has just started her first menstrual cycle. The twist or horror element of the film is the concurrence between Ginger beginning her menstrual cycle for the first time and her unlucky situation of turning into a werewolf; she turns into an “aggressive young woman on the prowl” (from the synopsis) and she kills other people and animals for fun. The tagline for the film is “They don’t call it the curse for nothing” alluding to the curse of the menstrual cycle and the curse of lycanthropy. One scene in the film highlights the similarity between Gingers transformation as a girl into a woman and a girl into a werewolf; Ginger and Brigitte (Ginger’s sister) go to the school nurse to find out if the symptoms that Ginger feel are from her menstrual cycle or her lycanthropy. Whilst having the menstrual system explained to them, the effects that Ginger have from the lycanthropy are contrasted with Ginger’s menstrual cycle. The girls list the symptoms of the lycanthropy, including loss of blood and “hair that wasn’t there before”. While the blood that Ginger losses are from her menstrual cycle, the unexplained hair growing on her chest is confused with pubic hair, the nurse explains that everything Ginger is experiencing is “normal”. Another contrast that appears is Ginger’s growing libido and her urge to kill; Ginger says that killing other people is a like to sexual experiences: “It’s like touching yourself; you know all the right moves”. This juxtaposition of Ginger’s menstrual cycle and her changing into a werewolf is like Carrie’s contrast between her menstrual cycle and telekinesis; ‘Ginger Snaps’ like ‘Carrie’ is another metaphor for the power of the female sexual organs. Barbra Creed argues that the otherness of women displayed in horror films is merely a projection of mans fear of the female; “Her representation in popular discourses as monstrous is a function of the ideological project of the horror film – a project designed to perpetuate the belief that woman’s monstrous nature is inextricably bound up with her difference as a man’s sexual other” (Creed, 1993, pg. 83).
This otherness that is shown through the characters Ginger and Dawn are projections of the male fear of the vagina and the female sexual power that women hold over men. Though this fear is shown through their respective depictions, this otherness is still something that is familiar to the viewer. In this day and age the menstrual cycle is a lot more understood than it was in ancient times, there is no need to fear it as a source of supernatural power, per say, because we as human beings understand why the menstrual cycle happens. While there has been no concrete evidence to suggest that the Vagina Dentata actually exists, this concept is rather told as a cautionary tale as a recommendation not to have sex with strange women; it is a superstition.
Horror films constantly create fearsome characters that are in ways familiar to the audience, for example, the father come crazy man in The Shining, the social outcast turned psycho- telekinetic-killer in Carrie, or the boy who kills his friends because of an unfortunate childhood like in Scream; needless to say, characters in films are familiar and relatable to the audience. I’m sure there are plenty of teenage girls out there who think puberty is something sinister. It is safe to say that film makers and writers create characters that are familiar to the audience and because it is familiar it will be more horrifying to see what these characters do. Freud says that “the uncanny is that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar” (Freud, 1919, pg. 1). That is to say that the most frightening things are those that are familiar to us; horror films do this, in the examples given, the films take a concept, like the menstruation cycle and turn it into something terrifying to the audience. In her book Alice Doesn’t, Teresa Lauretis states that “If psychoanalysis was dubbed by its inventor “the royal road” to the unconscious, surely cinema must be our way of “looking into the soul” (Lauretis,1984, pg. 67). It can be argued then that the stories of the horrific female are just fears that people have about the female and the characters written about are merely conceptions of these fears; the fears that we feel in our souls. The ‘other’ is not something that is different but something that is misunderstood yet still familiar to those who see it as otherness.
Personally, both these films, ‘Ginger Snaps’ and ‘Teeth’ are empowering. What do you think? Do you think female portrayal in horror films are cliche and shallow or do you think that these representations are the way to go when it comes to a true representation of us lovely ladies?
Clover, C., 1992, Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, Princeton University Press, New Jersey, USA.
Creed, B., 1993, The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis, Routledge, London, United Kingdom.
Freud, S., 1919, The “Uncanny”, Austria.
- Freud, S., 1924, The Passing of the Oedipus Complex, The International Journal of Psychoanalysis, vol. 5, pg. 419 – 424.
Lovecraft, H.P., 1927, Fear of the Unknown Quote: Supernatural Horror in Literature, The Recluse, USA.
Mikula, M., 2008, Key Concepts in Cultural Studies, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, USA.