Clover approaches horror films, especially the slasher sub-genre, in a different way from the usual feminist approach that dwells on the acts of violence perpetrated by active male monsters against passive women victims. Sadism is a lesser part of the horror film experience; the movies engage the viewer in the plight of the victim/heroine, they cheer on the 'final girl' as she dispatches (castrates) the monster. This book explores the relationship between a predominantly male horror audience and the female victim/heroine. She discusses many 1970's and 1980's slasher films that are quite often neglected in serious film discourse as well as occult, possession and rape/revenge films. Of particular interest are her ideas on the eye of horror, the terrible place, weapons and sexual transgression.
The chapter on horror films provides a short history of horror film criticism as well as summaries of some of the most important essays on horror films by Stephen Neale, Robin Wood and Linda Williams, dealing with psycho-sociological, post-structuralist and feminist issues. Although the original texts by these authors are listed on this site, these summaries can be useful in providing a quick reminder of the most interesting points.
Creed discusses the representation of the woman as the monster rather than as victim to a male monster. She links the monstrous feminine in patriarchal society, (the Sirens, Medusa, witches and movie monsters), to sexual difference and castration. The term monstrous feminine emphasises the importance of gender in the construction of her monstrosity. She challenges the notion of the male monster and Freud's theory of the castrated woman who is constituted as a victim by nature. The monstrous feminine speaks more about male fears than female desire/subjectivity. The woman is feared as castrator rather than castrated. Personally I found it easier to understand Laura Mulvey's essay after reading Creed's analysis of 'Alien and the monstrous feminine'. Of particular interest in this book is the chapter dealing with Julia Kristeva's ideas about abjection, where the monstrous in horror is grounded in ancient religious/historical notions of sexual immorality and perversion, corporeal alteration, decay and death, human sacrifice, murder, the corpse, bodily wastes, the feminine body and incest.
She identifies the importance of the abject in horror films:
a. A perverse pleasure derived from watching sickening images to the point of making oneself feel physically sick.
b. The crossing of borders, the abject crosses the border and threatens the symbolic order and stability. This confrontation usually takes the form of good/evil, human/inhuman, man/beast, natural/supernatural, proper/improper gender roles (Psycho, USA, 1960, d. Alfred Hitchcock), normal/abnormal desire (Cat People, USA, 1942, d. Jacques Tourneur), and clean, pure body/abject body.
1. When the Woman Looks. Linda Williams.
2. Horror and the Monstrous Feminine: an imaginary abjection. Barbara Creed.
3. Her Body, Himself: gender in the slasher film. Carol J. Clover
4. “It will thrill you, it may shock you, it might even horrify you”: Gender, Reception and Classic Horror Cinema. Rhona J. Bernstein.
5. Bringing It All Back Home: family, economy and generic exchange. Vivian Sobchack.
6. Trying to Survive on the Darker Side: 1980’s family horror. Tony Williams.
7. Genre, Gender and the Aliens Trilogy. Tomas Doherty.
8. Taking back the Night of the Living Dead: George Romero, feminism and the horror film.
9. Gender, Genre, Argento. Adam Knee.
10. “Beyond the Veil of the Flesh”: David Cronenberg and the disembodiment of horror. Lianne McLarty.
11. The Horror Film in Neo-Conservative culture. Christopher Sharrett.
12. Horror, Femininity and CARRIE’s Monstrous Puberty. Shelly Stamp Lindsey.
13. The Monster as Woman: two generations of CAT PEOPLE. Karen Hollinger.
14. Here Comes the Bride: wedding, gender and race in BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN. Elizabeth Young.
15. KING KONG the Beast in the Boudoir – or “You Can’t Marry that Girl, You’re a Gorilla!” Harvey Roy Greenberg.
16. THE STEPFATHER: the father as monster in the contemporary horror film. Patricie Brett Erens.
17. Burying the Undead: the use and obsolescence of Count Dracula. Robin Wood.
18. DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS: the lesbian vampire on film. Bonnie Zimmerman.
19. From Dracula - With Love. Vera Dika.
20. The Place of Passion: reflections of FATAL ATTRACTION. James Conlon.
21. Birth Traumas: parturition and horror in ROSEMARY’S BABY.
Most of the other texts that I have consulted refer to Freud from the point of view of fetishism and castration crisis. This essay investigates the very nature of that what we refer to as uncanny. The uncanny is that class of frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar. Freud's discussion of the uncanny centres on the German word unheimlich (unhomely). Heimlich, its opposite, is something belonging to the home, concealed from the eyes of strangers, secret. Schelling wrote 'everything is unheimlich that ought to have remained secret and hidden, but has come to light'.
Freud identifies three classes of the uncanny:
a. The notion of the double, cyborg, twin, doppelganger, multiplied object, ghost, spirit, and involuntary repetition of an act. (A discrete entity).
b. Castration anxieties expressed as fear of female genitals or dismembered limbs, severed head/hand, loss of eyes, and fear of going blind. (Gender).
c. Familiar/unfamiliar place, loosing one's way, womb-phantasies, and haunted houses. (Known/unknowable). All these ideas are explored in the horror film. (Barbara Creed). This work is probably the most important amongst this selection.
Peter Hutchings suggests that the notion of looking at horror films as hopelessly misogynist is an inadequate method for dealing with the genre. The male response is more complex; there are a range of responses and pleasures available. Horror (a masculine genre) can be revealing for men and women, about some of the fantasies and actualities of male power and identity. This essay also refers to the works of Linda Williams and Carol Clover. A study of the work of these three authors should provide a thorough understanding of the issue of gender in the horror film.
This is the seminal essay dealing with power structures within film, the active and powerful male, and the passive, powerless female. In horror films the division usually takes the form of male monster and female victim. Mulvey refers to Freud's writings on fetishism, voyeurism and the castration complex, issues common to discussions of the horror film. She shows how there are two forms of mastery over castration crisis:
a. Sadistic voyeurism; the endangerment and punishment of the woman via a powerful and active male character.
b. Fetishistic over-valuation; mastering castration crisis by investing the woman's body with an excess of aesthetic perfection. (Linda Williams). Mulvey's concern with the sadistic male subject led her to overlook the masochistic potential of fetishistic scopophilia. (Carol Clover). The masochistic angle is dealt with in Peter Hutchings essay.
Reprinted in The Dread of Difference. Williams challenges the traditional role of the woman as victim, instead she draws a relationship between the woman and the monster in terms of sexual difference from the normal male. She recognises herself in the form of the monster; they both have similar status within patriarchal structures of seeing. Like Barbara Creed, she draws on Susan Lurie's re-reading of Freud (a castrated version of man is comforting, bereft of sexuality, helpless and incapable); castration trauma results not from the woman having been castrated, but the fact that she is not castrated, she is whole. A man without his external genitalia would be mutilated but the woman is not. She is complete, and has the power to castrate the male. In horror films where women are seen to have sexual 'freedom', the titillating attention given to the expression of women's desires is directly proportional to the violence perpetrated against the women. She is punished to demonstrate how monstrous female desire can be. Williams discusses these ideas with references to classic horror films such as Nosferatu (Germany, 1922, d. F. W. Murnau) and The Phantom of the Opera (USA, 1925, d. Rupert Julian), and psychological horror films such as Psycho, Peeping Tom and Dressed to Kill (USA, 1980, d. Brian De Palma).
Wood investigates the horror film's relationship with the dominant ideology. In particular he talks about the return of the repressed in horror films via the monster. Bisexual, homosexual and female desire is a threat to the existing order that encourages reproductive sexuality only. He highlights the progressive and reactionary wings of horror films. His theories on the repressed 'other' are linked to Freud's Uncanny (repressed ideas that can suddenly return to haunt us) and Kristeva's abject (that which threatens to cross the border to disrupt the stability of the symbolic order).