Gender, Sympathy, and the “Monstrous Hero”

By Andreas

Forever ago (i.e., last October), I wrote about my horror-centric comps project. I planned to analyze Cat People, The Haunting, Carrie, and May to glean what each film had to say about female sexuality, and how these ideas manifested themselves stylistically. Well, over the past few months, I wrote that 30-page paper, revised it twice, gave a public presentation on it, and now the process is done! So, just in case you’re really eager to read a mammoth research paper about these movies, I give you my comps paper: “Gender, Sympathy, and the ‘Monstrous Hero’ in the American Horror Film.”

After the jump, read over 8,000 words of theory and textual analysis on horror and sexuality…

Horror films speak in the language of metaphor. Through narrative conceits like monsters and threats of supernatural violence, they engage what Carol J. Clover describes as “repressed fears and desires” (Clover 11)—attitudes and subjects too taboo to broach directly. These staples of the genre act at once on literal and symbolic levels, and are an expedient way for filmmakers to explore subjects like female sexuality and repression while operating within horror’s generic parameters. For example, in Cat People (1942), directed by Jacques Tourneur and produced by Val Lewton, the Serbian émigré Irena Dubrovna fears that her own arousal will turn her into a panther. Irena is situated as the primary recipient of viewer sympathy, and the films’s style encourages the viewer to align with her point of view, even though she is also the film’s monster. This strategy structures the film so that Irena’s sexuality, and the film’s implicit attitudes toward it, are embedded in the viewer’s visceral experience of the text. Cat People occupies a pivotal location in horror film history, as its early use of these techniques influenced most future attempts to chart female anxieties within horror territory. Thus a close textual analysis of Cat People is necessary for a greater understanding of subsequent filmmakers’ approaches to these topics.

These later examples include Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963), in which the emotionally fragile Nell is intractably drawn to a supposedly haunted house; Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976), in which the abused title character ultimately uses her newfound telekinetic powers for mass murder; and Lucky McKee’s May (2002), whose protagonist goes on a killing spree in order to resolve her loneliness. Each of these films foregrounds its female protagonist’s sexuality while linking it to acts of violence, and each of them positions that protagonist as the film’s monster. (The notable exception is The Haunting, as Nell’s role is much more ambiguous than just “monster,” but the film shares every other pattern with the others listed.) Each protagonist is also identified as a sexual and social outsider—”odd” [Cat People] or “weird” [May]—and is driven by a troubled connection with her mother. Finally, each film ends with an act of self-destruction on the protagonist’s part, each of which is fundamentally related to the character’s sexuality. Despite the films’ cosmetic differences, they have substantial enough similarities in terms of these underlying character and plot traits that it merits grouping and contrasting them in order to further understand horrific representations of sexuality.

Despite the films’ protagonists’ shared possession of these ostensibly negative qualities—monstrosity, outsider sexualities, dysfunctional mother/daughter relationships, and self-destructive desires—the films nonetheless encourage viewers to sympathize with them. Noël Carroll writes generally about sympathy in horror films that “we are not only horrified, but are concerned that such a person—the protagonist with all the virtues the plot has endowed him/her with—is in the clutches of a loathsome and threatening being” (Carroll 93), and we experience emotions which are “other-regarding and altruistic” (Carroll 91). These same principles of altruistic sympathy apply to the films in question, since these characters are in every way their films’ protagonists: they are formally placed at the centers of their respective narratives, and are located closest to the viewer through techniques like subjective camera and voiceover.

However, what marks these characters as unusual among horror protagonists is that they are their films’ “loathsome and threatening being[s],” and shift fluidly between the roles of protagonist and monster across the course of their films. These films’ gender ideologies are ultimately a function of both their narratives and the sympathies they elicit for their protagonists. By evoking audience sympathy for putatively monstrous characters, these filmmakers construct complex argumenta about the role of female sexuality in relation to patriarchal values that go beyond mere villification. Their diverse, often self-contradictory conclusions result from how their protagonists’ subjectivities manifest themselves in the films’ visual motifs and mise-en-scènes.

Cat People, for example, repeats images of elision and erasure that reiterate Irena’s repression of her own national/sexual Otherness and physical monstrosity. The film’s opening quote about how “ancient sin cling[s] to the low places” (Cat People) preemptively asserts the futility of Irena’s attempted escape from true nature. During the film’s first scene—a meet-cute between her and her husband-to-be, Oliver—she conceals and then throws away a sketch of a panther run through with a sword, an image that obsesses her, but which she does not want to reveal to the emphatically bland, unsuspecting Oliver. In Cat People, Irena’s foreign origins, her hidden past, her sexuality, and her monstrous curse are all conflated into the “evil things” (Cat People) that she seeks to repress in order to prevent them from affecting her relationship with Oliver.

As she points out repeatedly throughout the film, Irena never lies to Oliver. However, just as Irena tries to push down the dangerous, unacceptable parts of her identity, Oliver blinds himself to her sexual and emotional anxieties and thoughtlessly contradicts her beliefs in the supernatural; both of these are correlated through horrific metaphor. This gendered divide over acceptance of the supernatural is typical in horror: as Clover writes with regard to the possession film, “In the same way that women spectators are figured as more open to the image… so women in general are figured as more open to the supernatural” (Clover 74), and this applies to Cat People, where the male characters see Irena’s crisis only in psychological terms. Within the film, her curse is simultaneously viewed on literal and metaphorical planes. She does, in fact, transform into a vicious panther, but it also acts as a horrific stand-in for Irena’s sexuality and its power.

Although constrained by the Production Code, the film is nonetheless fairly overt about this metaphorical link: Irena repeatedly argues with Oliver over her inability to have sex with him, as when she tells him on their wedding night, “I want to be Mrs. Reed really. I want to be everything that name means to me. And I can’t… I can’t” (Cat People). That night, Irena leans against her bedroom door while speaking to her husband on the other side, creating a visual realization of their troubled relationship. The film’s conflict (that is, Irena’s battle against herself and her hang-ups) is played out both through domestic melodrama and horror, two realms which intersect when Oliver’s infidelity leads Irena to stalk her husband’s more “normal,” better-adjusted paramour Alice while in cat form. (While discussing her problems with Oliver, Irena complains, “[Other women are] happy, they make their husbands happy, they lead normal, happy lives…” [Cat People], making it explicit that Irena’s inability to sexually engage with her husband is a basic source of her anxiety, and consequently her resentment of Alice.) Thus, Irena’s monstrosity is represented as a result of the dysfunctional sexuality she fears and wishes to repress—a wish that distorts the construction of the film itself.

Images of concealment and repression pervade the film: the locked cages that hold the panther or Irena’s pet bird; the box that Oliver uses to hide a meowing cat; the bedroom and bathrooms doors that hide Irena herself from her husband; and most obviously, the film’s famous stalking scenes. In them, the cinematography itself is complicit in Irena’s attempts at concealment, as she trails Alice down a sidewalk and, in a later scene, to an indoor swimming pool. During the scene on the sidewalk, the editing establishes a pattern as it moves back and forth between Alice and Irena, who follows her rival from a distance. As soon as Irena transforms into a panther (as signaled by the silence of her high-heeled shoes), however, the camera lingers on a single empty spot as Alice walks on, and nothing comes into view. Later, as Irena turns back into a human being, the camera tracks along as feline paw prints become shoe prints, as again the film can only represent the traces of Irena’s monstrosity, rather than the image itself. During the film’s climax, Irena’s panther form is seen, albeit briefly, but this does not undercut the earlier effect of Irena’s fear and shame being so ingrained in the film’s style.

In fact, Irena genuinely represses the story of her childhood to the point that it must be extracted through hypnosis by the film’s lecherous psychiatrist, Dr. Judd, who tells Irena, “You said you didn’t know your father, that he died in some mysterious accident in the forest before your birth. And because of that the children teased you and called your mother a witch, a cat woman!” (Cat People). Dr. Judd’s use of the word “witch” is significant, since as Barbara Creed notes, “the representation of the witch [in horror films] continues to foreground her essentially sexual nature,” and she is “usually depicted as a monstrous figure with supernatural powers and a desire for evil” (Creed 76). By invoking this “monstrous figure,” Cat People also hails back to a pattern of representation linking female sexuality with these “supernatural powers” and acts of violence. (The figure of the witch is important in The Haunting and Carrie as well.) Thus, this scene joins both Irena’s heritage and the danger of her sexuality in the figure of the unseen mother, the memories of whom Irena has repressed.

Kim Newman sees further implications of elision in these hypnotic revelations, as he writes, “we are supposed to understand that… [Irena’s] father made love to her mother in a forest, impregnating her, and she transformed into a panther and killed him” (Newman 37). Although it is impossible to know whether or not Newman’s conclusion is accurate, it is still clear from this scene that even Irena’s rediscovered memories are incomplete, since the nature of this “mysterious accident” is never explicitly revealed. Such fragmented recollections could never function as a psychological skeleton key for Irena’s character, but must merely serve as another fragmentary hint that connects Irena’s fears with her foreignness, her childhood, and her sexual identity. Her Serbian origins can also be read in light of the film’s wartime setting, as in Alexander Nemerov’s reading of Lewton’s films; he concludes “in [the Lewton] movies celebrated for their portrayal of the unseen, the war is the singular invisible beast” (Nemerov 1). However, the specter of World War II is just one potential meaning of the film’s many displacements, tangled up with a more ambiguous, truly unknowable sense of Irena’s Otherness.

Another key event in the film that positions Irena’s vision of herself as a dangerously sexual “witch” or “cat woman” as correlated with her national identity is an encounter with a strange woman (played by Elizabeth Russell) in a Serbian restaurant on Irena and Oliver’s wedding night. Initially, the woman is visually isolated from the wedding party, which consists mostly of Oliver’s American coworkers, by an editing pattern that alternates between shots of the party and shots of her sitting alone. But when she catches the eye of one of the Americans, who exclaims, “Looks like a cat!” (Cat People), she approaches the table and says twice—dubbed over in the voice of Simone Simon, who plays Irena (Fujiwara 80)—“Moja sestra?”, or “My sister?” in Serbian.

Although this encounter compounds Irena’s anxieties about her suitability as Oliver’s wife, its meaning is never elucidated. The catlike woman may be Irena’s actual sister, as Kim Newman speculates, or perhaps a past lover, as viewers of the film suggested to screenwriter DeWitt Bodeen (Newman 31). The film never answers the question of her identity, but only raises tantalizing possibilities. Whatever the case, she is an enigmatic doppelganger for Irena, a signifier of the past that refuses to remain hidden. While Irena is dressed more or less identically to Alice, who sits beside her during this scene, the stranger wears a shiny black dress with a black bow that resembles cat ears. On a national level, this difference implies that Irena is attempting to assimilate and look “American”; on a broader symbolic level, the stranger is visually embodying Irena’s fears of her feline identity. Indeed, surface appearance versus reality is a recurring theme in Cat People, in keeping with the problems of Irena’s fraught nationality and sexuality, and her desire to keep them from affecting her life with Oliver.

This gulf between appearance and reality is incorporated into the film both verbally and visually: during the wedding party, for example, one of Oliver’s coworkers notes that Irena “seems to be a very nice girl—and a very pretty one, too” (Cat People) before adding that she has a reputation for being “a bit odd.” When Oliver first enters Irena’s apartment building, he is struck by its lavish decor and tellingly exclaims, “I never cease to marvel at what lies behind a brownstone front,” and after Irena asserts that the panther is beautiful, a zookeeper corrects her: “No, he ain’t beautiful. He’s an evil critter, ma’am” (Cat People). Each of these incidents suggests that, at least according to these male characters, Irena’s charm and beauty comprise a deceptive façade—that although she “seems” to be beautiful, her “brownstone front” in fact conceals an underlying evil. A pet shop owner even suggests, when Irena’s presence prompts a cat’s frightened hisses, that “[cats] seem to know who’s not right” (Cat People), with the words “not right” hanging unexplained in the air; the comment implies that while Irena’s surface may have won over Oliver, cats can see straight into her true (catlike) nature. However, although Irena is both an attractive woman and a dangerous monster, the film never fully endorses the opinion that she is mendacious or “evil.” As she insists time and again (although no one listens until it’s too late), “I’ve never lied to you,” and the film overall never contradicts her.

In The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, and Psychoanalysis, Barbara Creed writes with specific regard to Cat People and other horror films with female monsters, “[Woman] may appear pure and beautiful on the outside but evil may, nevertheless, reside within. It is this stereotype of feminine evil—beautiful on the outside/corrupt within—that is so popular within patriarchal discourse about woman’s evil nature” (Creed 42). Although Creed cites other films about female monsters (including Adrian Lyne’s Fatal Attraction [1987]) where this reasoning works, it fails when applied to Cat People simply because Irena is not “evil” in the same sense as someone like Fatal Attraction‘s Alex (Glenn Close). She’s never willfully malicious or destructive. Instead, she is positioned as a victim of both her husband’s secret infidelity and of her “curse”—i.e., the feared sexual power that she strives futilely to either contain or eradicate. Any signs of “evil” in Irena are merely the conflicts between her dual natures (Serbian vs. American, animal vs. human, sexually different vs. “normal [and] happy”), over which she has limited (if any) control, especially after she is so bitterly betrayed by her husband, whom she also identifies as her “first real friend” (Cat People).

Karen Hollinger, meanwhile, addresses the film’s ending—in which Irena, after being wounded by Dr. Judd, frees the panther from the zoo and allows it to kill her—in her essay “The Monster as Woman: Two Generations of Cat People” by explaining that “acting in accord with the patriarchal standards that she has internalized, Irena punishes herself for a sexual nature that she has come to see as evil” (Hollinger 302). Irena’s “evil nature,” then, is only subjectively seen as evil by the patriarchal perspective that Irena has adopted to view her own identity, leading to her irrational fear and self-hatred. This argument is more in line with the film’s representation of Irena then Creed’s, the latter of which assumes an objectivity and intentionality to Irena’s supposed “evil” within the film’s diegesis that never materializes. (In fact, Creed precedes the above quote by stating that this stereotype “position[s] woman as deceptively treacherous” [Creed 42]; the film’s dialogue takes great pains to absolve Irena of any deception or treachery.) Thus, Cat People finds horror, monstrosity, and “evil” not in the sheer fact of Irena’s sexuality, but in the conflicted mindset produced by her “internalization of patriarchal standards” (Hollinger 303).

Crucially, the film’s ending is not a happy one, even though it sees the monster killed, the violence ended, and the “normal, happy” couple of Oliver and Alice reunited; Irena’s victimhood hangs over the denouement like a pall. This lingering tragedy is rooted in how she was lied to and cheated on by Oliver; how she sought to destroy the “evil” she saw in herself, leading to her suicide-by-panther; how she was manipulated by Dr. Judd for his own libidinous purposes; and how both Oliver and Dr. Judd encouraged her to ignore or repress the “fairy tales” that drove her obsessive fear while refusing to take her opinions seriously. (Notably, Dr. Judd possesses another image of appearance contradicting reality in the form of his decidedly phallic cane, which conceals the sword he uses to mortally wound Irena just before his own death at her paws.) The film’s last line is delivered by Oliver, who finally does his late wife justice by admitting, “She never lied to us,” and as he turns away with Alice, the camera pulls back to reveal Irena’s body lying beside the panther cage. This places the finale’s emphasis squarely on Irena’s death rather than the couple’s survival.

This mood is reinforced by a closing quote from John Donne’s “Holy Sonnet 5,” which states that “black sin hath betrayed to endless night / My world, both parts, and both parts must die” (Cat People). Just as in the opening quote, “sin” is invoked as an abstract concept, and in Cat People, this “sin” is equated with everything “odd” or “not right” about Irena, including her foreign background and her internalized sexual fears, both of which are fused in the partially recollected story of Irena’s mother. As insinuated by the Donne quote, these differences constitute the “sin” and must by default result in Irena’s death; this is a fatalistic sentiment redolent of film noir. Tonally, then, Cat People‘s ending furthers the case for Irena as both a victim and as the figure with whom the film’s point of view is most closely allied.

Kim Newman gets at this all-important point in his discussion of the film’s stalking scenes: “Though the fright scenes work, demonstrating that it’s possible for audiences to be unnerved on behalf of an unsympathetic character, nothing could make us really like the calculating Alice or the cloddish Oliver” (Newman 40). Even though Irena is the monster and the origin of the film’s horror, she is also the protagonist and the intended object of the viewer’s “altruistic concern” (Carroll 93). The film does not suggest these two roles to be mutually exclusive, but rather naturally congruent, as it slides the viewer into alliance with all the strange, foreign qualities inherent to Irena’s personality and background. Starting in the film’s first scene, when the camera is privy to Irena’s discarded, revealing sketch, the viewer is brought intimately close to her, whereas the film only regards Oliver and Alice insofar as they relate to Irena.

Another scene that demonstrates how the film draws the viewer into sympathy with Irena’s internal state is the one which immediately follows Irena’s stalking of Alice on the sidewalk. Although, as Newman points out, the stalking scene is effective because it gets the viewer to fear for an “unsympathetic character,” in its aftermath, the film is interested only in Irena’s reaction. She sneaks back into her apartment, then after a brief confrontation with Oliver, goes to wash herself off in the bath. (This post-violence purification ritual is echoed in Carrie.) The film intercuts between Oliver standing outside of the bathroom, symbolically cut off from his wife, and Irena’s increasing vulnerability as she strips before bathing. After a jarring cut from Oliver to a close-up of an ornate claw foot at the bottom of the bathtub (subtly suggesting Irena’s bestial nature), the camera tilts up to show Irena, her back wet and bare, convulsed with sobs for several seconds before the next cut. The shot is shocking in both its intimacy and in the intensity of its pathos. For once in this illusory film, all distorting self-images or skewed perceptions are stripped away, leaving only the raw, purely tragic image of Irena, facing away from the camera in tears; she’s both literally and emotionally naked. Consumed with fear, Irena isolates herself from the other characters, and the viewer is isolated with her.

As a consequence of these stylistic choices, the film’s vantage point is one from which Irena’s alien, incomprehensible qualities appear sympathetic and well-motivated rather than as signs of innate corruption or malicious intent. From this perspective, Irena’s grisly end is both traumatic and inevitable, the expected result of her sexual anxieties, which border on the pathological. These problems are exacerbated by her treatment at the hands of Oliver, Alice, and Dr. Judd, each of whom never engages her truly as a human being but always as an unknowable Other. Even after falling in love with and marrying her, Oliver insists, “In many ways, we’re strangers” (Cat People). Within the film, Irena is not only the monster, but also the heroine and victim, a trio of roles described by Clover with reference to Carrie (Clover 4). These shifting roles are tied to the film’s ambiguous representation of Irena’s sexuality, which in turn is forcibly repressed, then poses a threat to the hierarchical orders within the film, and ultimately destroys Irena because of how intensely she fears it. As manifested visually and thematically throughout the film, Cat People mediates Irena’s anxieties and repressive compulsions.

Many of these same stylistic and ideological tendencies recur in The Haunting, directed by Robert Wise. Wise had a fruitful association with Lewton in the 1940s (Newman 71), and he carried over many aspects of Lewton’s filmmaking mentality to this film. Like Cat People, The Haunting generally keeps its supernatural threats unseen and unknowable, and metaphorically identifies them with the sexual proclivities that its characters experience, fear, and cannot speak aloud. From the expository monologue that opens the film—delivered by Dr. Markway, a male authority on hauntings whose objectivity and wisdom are called into question during the course of the film—Hill House (the site of the titular haunting) is both explicitly anthropomorphized and tacitly equated with the female body.

“An evil house… is like an undiscovered country waiting to be explored” (The Haunting) announces Dr. Markway, and Patricia White observes this opening line’s “uncanny resonance with a description of woman as ‘the dark continent'” (White 214). This link is reinforced first when Dr. Markway adds that the house was “born bad” (The Haunting), and then throughout the film as the house and its spirits are constantly connected through various means to Eleanor’s late mother and her contentious relationship with the lesbian Theo. According to Dr. Markway, Theo has (like Eleanor) “been involved before, one way or another, with the abnormal” (The Haunting), leaving the term “abnormal” as an unexplained but ominous descriptor like Cat People‘s “not right.”  (Unlike Cat People, which is intentionally vague about the exact nature of Irena’s sexual pathology so that it can’t possibly be pinned down, The Haunting is relatively communicative about Theo and her desire for Eleanor. This could result from the Production Code’s loosening in the early ’60s, this film’s differing intentions, or both.)

As the film establishes these psychosexually salient parallels, Hill House is proven to be a labyrinthine, treacherous, and perhaps even sentient building whose every angle is slightly off. This fits well with Eleanor’s sexuality and emotional state as she navigates between Theo, her memories of her mother, and her own childishly expressed desires for the paternal Dr. Markway. Theo and her overt desire for Eleanor are also repeatedly aligned with the house’s “abnormal” qualities. For example, Eleanor howls at her, “You’re the monster of Hill House!” and soon thereafter calls her “unnatural” and one of “nature’s mistakes” (The Haunting). The haunting itself thus becomes a metaphorical extrapolation of both Eleanor and Theo’s distinct, queered sexualities. As White writes, the film is not about sexuality, but “something else,” and “‘something else’ [would] be a useful working definition of lesbianism in classical cinema” (White 216). Any discussion of female sexuality or what Cat People calls “ancient sin” is displaced into Dr. Markway’s intellectualized descriptions of Hill House.

All of this explains Eleanor’s irrational attachment to the house itself, a building which expresses her own repressed, multifaceted anxieties through its supernatural infestation. Even as Dr. Markway decides that the experiment is too dangerous for her to continue, Eleanor ends up repeatedly stating her intent to remain: “I don’t want to leave Hill House… ever, ever, ever” (The Haunting). The process by which she grows attached to Hill House is presented in an ambiguous light. Initially, she refers to inhabiting it as “like [being] a small creature swallowed whole by a monster” (The Haunting), suggesting the house’s vast, predatory nature, and when the words “LET ELEANOR GO HOME” are found scrawled on the wall, she is infuriated and begins accusing Theo of tormenting her. But as the symptoms of the haunting worsen, and as Eleanor believes that she’s being replaced by Dr. Markway’s intruding wife, she becomes more and more detached from reality (as does the film itself), and more willing to embrace Hill House and its dangers.

In the end, she resolves never to leave the house and crashes into a tree on the estate, although Mrs. Markway claims that loses control of the car. The film concludes with the final, postmortem monologue from Eleanor, repeating a phrase Dr. Markway uses in the opening lines: “…and we who walk here walk alone” (The Haunting). This line implies that in the afterlife, Eleanor has become a permanent resident of Hill House, and it infuses the film’s ending with a bittersweet mix of pathos and contentment very much unlike that of Cat People, whose ending was solely negative. Eleanor suffers a violent death, but at the same time, she receives what she most desired in the form of never leaving Hill House; indeed, as she says just before her death, “Something at last is really, really, really happening to me” (The Haunting), and this for her marks a total departure from the previous eleven years spent caring for her ailing mother. This tension between the sadness of Eleanor’s death and the satisfaction of her homecoming is complemented by the further confusion between house and mother, which are alternately positioned as opposed and as one and the same.

Throughout The Haunting, Eleanor talks so much about her mother that it practically constitutes a verbal tic, yet she rarely gives any substantive information about their relationship; as in Cat People, the back story is repressed as much as possible. When she first sees the nursery (described by Dr. Markway as the most haunted of the house’s rooms), she mutters, “My mother…” before cutting herself off. She mistakes a loud knocking (a product of the haunting) for her mother’s call, and this gains added significance later when it turns out that her mother may have died because Eleanor couldn’t hear her pounding in the night. Later a room in Hill House has a sampler on the wall reading “Honour thy father and mother.” It goes unremarked upon by the characters, but hangs in plain view, quietly reinforcing the connection between Hill House (whose back story involves its first owner Hugh Crain’s mistreatment of his daughter Abigail) and Eleanor’s thoughts about filial piety. These incidents correspond with Creed’s reading of the haunted house as generally “the place of beginnings, the womb… [where] the body/house is literally the body of horror, the place of the uncanny where desire is always marked by the shadowy presence of the mother” (Creed 55). If Hill House is viewed in this sense as being overshadowed by the “ghost” of Eleanor’s mother, it implies that letting Eleanor “GO HOME” is letting her retreat to a presexual state within the mother’s womb.

However, the film repeatedly frustrates this reading by describing movement toward Hill House as being away from Eleanor’s mother. While first driving to Hill House, Eleanor says via voiceover, “I’m a new person,” and this (like her ecstatic realization that “something at last is… happening to me”) indicates that by leaving her old home, she’s shedding the burden of her dead mother and all the attendant guilt. This guilt is brought to the surface by Theo, who says apropos of nothing (and presumably using her “keen powers of extrasensory perception” [White 217]), “Well, why be mad at me? I don’t think you killed your mother” (The Haunting). This statement—calculated by Theo to suggest the exact opposite—dredges up Eleanor’s guilt and anxiety about her mother’s death, which continue to dog her throughout the film. Just as in Cat People, the past (and specifically memory of the mother) refuses to stay compartmentalized, and ends up contaminating the protagonist’s chances at a new life, whether with Dr. Markway in Hill House or with Oliver in New York. Irena and Eleanor’s relationships with their mothers are reminiscent of William Faulkner’s saying that “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” (Similar maternal intrusions destroy the protagonists’ attempts at new lives with Tommy in Carrie, and with Adam in May.)

In stories about ghosts and ancient curses, the past is all the more able to assert itself anew through the metaphorical language of horror, and in The Haunting this translates into the complex relationship between Hill House’s ghosts and Eleanor’s mother. It’s a relationship that parallels Eleanor’s internal conflicts, as she is simultaneously and paradoxically driven toward and away from her mother, and as this confusion intensifies, she recedes further and further into her own mind. The film follows this path as well: like Cat People, it stylistically aligns the viewer with its protagonist’s unrealistic perceptions. The clearest example of this lies in the haunting scenes, when Wise uses close-ups on architectural features in combination with quick montage editing and jarring sound effects to impress the experience of the haunting upon the viewer—an event which, as Eleanor says, may be “all in [her] mind” (The Haunting).

Nonetheless, as the film wears on and Eleanor becomes more and more disconnected from the real world, the camera continues to share in her perspective. While Eleanor stands in the foreground, biting her thumb and delivering her thoughts through stream-of-consciousness voiceover, Dr. Markway and Theo (both potential objects of Eleanor’s desire) are relegated to the visual and auditory background, even as they’re talking about Eleanor. It’s through her subjectivity that the film sees Hill House, and thus the viewer is granted an insight into her fatal crash and its motivations that the other guests never receive. The unusually perceptive Theo, however, suspects the truth, as she contradicts Dr. Markway in the film’s final moments: “Maybe not ‘poor Eleanor’. It was what she wanted, to stay here. She had no place else to go” (The Haunting). Although Eleanor (and the viewer, who understands the film through her thought processes) initially considers the visit to Hill House as an opportunity to break away from the oppressive past and forge a new, independent identity, she is like Irena overwhelmed by the weight of her emotional baggage and finds an end to her problems, as well as a newfound home, in death.

Similar negotiations between the mother, patriarchal values, and the sexual self comprise the conflict in Brian De Palm’s Carrie (1976), again with a violent, self-destructive resolution. In Carrie, however, the mother is alive and more prominent, acting as the film’s primary antagonist, while the film’s style is influenced not by Val Lewton, but by Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, to which De Palma makes several clear homages. The film opens, in fact, with a riff on Psycho‘s iconic shower scene, and this introduces its attitudes toward femininity and female sexuality. Set in the girls’ locker room of Bates High School (another Psycho allusion), the camera first tracks past dozens of half-dressed girls to the accompaniment of Pino Donaggio’s serene, idyllic soundtrack before arriving at Carrie White, who is showering alone; the viewer is allowed to share in the pleasure of her warmth and solitude for a few moments before she begins menstruating and screaming, “I’m dying!” En masse, her classmates begin throwing tampons at her, telling her to “plug it up!”, but Carrie (due to her restrictive upbringing) doesn’t understand what is happening, and is hysterical until her gym teacher slaps her to calm her down.

Barbara Creed interprets this shower scene as a repeat of Psycho, positing that “like Marion [the anti-heroine of Psycho], Carrie is also cruelly punished for enjoying solitary, sensual pleasures” (Creed 79). However, Creed’s analysis ignores a basic narrative difference between the two films: in Hitchcock’s film, the victim is not just enjoying a symbolically cleansing shower, but more importantly, has also embezzled $40,000 and spent a lunch break having sex with her boyfriend (Psycho). Carrie has committed no such transgressions and is represented in the opening scene as purely innocent. In her essay “Horror, Femininity, and Carrie’s Monstrous Puberty,” Shelley Stamp Lindsey takes a different approach, contrasting Carrie with Psycho by pointing out that the latter film has the violence perpetrated by Norman Bates against Marion, whereas in Carrie, “no such division exists: Carrie’s adolescent body becomes the site upon which monster and victim converge, and we are encouraged to postulate that a monster resides within her” (282).

The traumatic event and its relationship to Psycho certainly do hint at the monstrousness that will later emerge within Carrie, especially since she exerts her first instance of telekinetic power (within the film) moments later by shattering a lightbulb. However, Lindsey argues that by attacking her, “the entire locker room full of girls is implicated in this horror [of Carrie’s body] as well” (Lindsey 283), and throughout her essay Lindsey alleges an inclination in the film to present Carrie as a synecdochic stand-in for all women. The problem with this line of argument is that Carrie is decidedly not like all the other girls, and therefore her monstrous traits cannot be projected directly onto them. Just as Irena is a foreigner and Eleanor and Theo are associated with “the abnormal,” Carrie is marked—through her treatment by her peers, through her powers, and through her abusive upbringing—as a total outsider.

Furthermore, her menstruation (a potential point of feminine bonding) is crucially unlike that of the other girls: her mother’s withholding of information has led her to see it not as a natural, biological process but instead as a fatal stabbing perpetrated by her own body, and this in turn leads her to be bullied. Another major difference, connected to the first, is that the onset of Carrie’s menstruation has enabled her formidable powers, which are not innately monstrous, but become so when Carrie is provoked. This runs contrary to Lindsey’s claim that “what erupts on prom night is… an absolute monstrousness the film finds lurking at the heart of female sexuality” (Lindsey 290), referring to the film’s infamous climax, during which Carrie is declared prom queen, showered with pig blood, and promptly uses her powers to brutally decimate the student body. As with Irena, Carrie’s monstrousness is not a product merely of her sexuality in itself, but rather how she has been torn between repressing and expressing it. As Creed says, Carrie “redeploys ancient blood taboos and misogynistic myths… [but also] invites sympathy for Carrie as a victim of these prejudices” (Creed 83).”

Over the course of her argument, Creed mentions how the film solicits sympathy for Carrie in her many trials, but she never follows this fact to its logical conclusion. Clover effectively summarizes Carrie’s many roles by reasoning that “throughout most of the movie she is the victim of monstrous schoolmates and a monstrous mother, but when, at the end, she turns the tables, she herself becomes a kind of monstrous hero,” adding that “the hero part [is] always understood as implying some degree of monstrosity” (Clover 4). This incorporation of multiple identities into a single character is essential to understanding Carrie, as well as other monstrous protagonists, because it is exactly this proliferation of narrative functions that allows these films to configure female sexuality as a force which is itself neutral, but which can lead to monstrosity if repressed or misunderstood. The film Carrie, therefore, is not fundamentally “a masculine fantasy in which the feminine is constituted as horrific” (Lindsey 281), but a fantasy in which the feminine can become horrific under certain conditions. Like the violence that erupts in The Haunting, a film with similar psychosexual concerns at its core, the utter destruction that ends Carrie is the result of Carrie being pushed and pulled between her classmates and her mother while trying to establish her own independent identity. Ultimately, she destroys them all—unsympathetic classmates, domineering mother, and self—because she is unable to resolve this internal conflict.

After leaving death and destruction in her wake at the prom, Carrie returns home to her mother, who had violently opposed Carrie’s plan to attend the prom, telling her daughter, “They’re all going to laugh at you!” Although it is true that “the prom-night apocalypse marks the fulfillment of Mrs. White’s prophecies” (Lindsey 291), this does not necessarily prove Lindsey’s conclusion that “it is finally [Mrs. White’s] view of female sexuality that the film upholds, a view… equating female sexuality with sin” (Lindsey 291). Instead, Mrs. White’s predictions act as self-fulfilling prophecies, since the doubt and anxiety that she instills in Carrie are what lead to the devastation rather than the mere fact of Carrie’s prom attendance.

After Carrie is splattered with blood, the scene unfolds from her heavily distorted point of view: the students and faculty are seen as kaleidoscopically multiplied, and the soundtrack is filled with lines from earlier in the film—“They’re all going to laugh at you!” and “Plug it up!” among them—juxtaposed with howling laughter. Carrie’s mockery at the hands of her peers and teachers is represented as her own stylized, twisted perception of the crowd’s reaction, not as unambiguous, objective reality. These stylistic choices show how the film’s climax is not an endorsement of Mrs. White’s perspective, but rather an illustration of how her abuse of Carrie and her demonization of female sexuality propagate the apocalyptic violence that destroys the high school and her own home.

Carrie’s return to her mother is the culmination of her back-and-forth progress between the private world of home and the public world of school. After washing the blood off her body in the bathtub (shades of Cat People), Carrie encounters her psychotic, knife-wielding mother and tells her, echoing Mrs. White’s earlier words, “It was bad, Mama; they laughed at me” (Carrie). Again reminiscent of Cat People, Carrie’s foray into heterosexual romance has been obstructed by the damaging maternal influence, and she attempts to find solace with her self-hating mother, who declares of Carrie’s birth (and the sex that led to it), “sin never dies” (Carrie). This line resonates with all the preceding representations of female monstrosity, especially the mentions of “ancient” and “black” sin at the beginning and end of Cat People.

In each film, sexuality does not inherently give way to monstrosity, but is transmuted into violence because of the lingering guilt: over Irena’s contamination by her mother’s supposed identity as a “witch”; Eleanor’s unshakable attachment to her mother and anxiety over her mother’s death; or Carrie’s indoctrinated belief in the evil of her own sexuality. Just after Carrie leaves for the prom, her mother pulls out the knife and quotes the Bible quietly but with deep conviction: “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” (Carrie). Although Carrie earlier protests that “It’s nothing to do with Satan, mama! It’s me!” (Carrie), her mother maintains an obsessive belief that Carrie’s powers are manifestations of Satan’s influence. As in Cat People and The Haunting, the violence results from Mrs. White’s subjective take on her daughter’s actions, as she (like Irena) “act[s] in accord with the patriarchal standards that she has internalized” (Hollinger 302).

When Carrie tries to embrace her mother one last time, her mother stabs her, and using her psychic powers, Carrie retaliates by hurling kitchen knives at her mother until she resembles the statue of St. Sebastian sitting in Carrie’s prayer closet. She then ends the cycle of violence by making the White home crumble into the ground. This is not, as Creed says, Carrie’s “complete surrender to the power of the maternal identity” and “the castrating mother tak[ing] back the life she once created” (Creed 82), since it is Carrie alone who consciously destroys her mother, herself, her home. Within the film, this ending appears to be the best possible solution for Carrie, as she eradicates her monstrous self and the sick home/mother that created her. Carrie’s evil lies not “the heart of female sexuality” (Lindsey 290), but in its brutal repression.

Like Carrie, Lucky McKee’s May deals with attempts to rein in natural desires and behaviors, but rather than concerning itself with religiously motivated family melodrama, it follows the structure of a romantic melodrama, as its title character, an introverted young woman, struggles to find companionship. May opens with a disjointed series of images that lay out its major themes and visual motifs: first, the title is stitched with a sewing machine; next, as foreshadowing, May is screaming while bleeding from one of her eyes; this is interrupted by a stream of doll parts falling through an empty, unspecified space; and finally May (as a little girl) asks her mother, “What’s wrong with my eye, mama?” to which her mother responds, “The doctor says it’s lazy. But… we’re gonna make you look perfect” (May). Each of these images—May’s eye, whether lazy or removed; the doll limbs and torsos; and the sewing machine—is related to the film’s dominant crisis, which revolves around the relationship between the parts and the whole, and the question of whether the whole can ever be “perfect.” It is this understanding of the human body (and self) that drives May’s desires and actions.

Just after this introductory sequence, during a scene set at one of May’s birthday parties, her mother gives her a doll named Suzy in a glass case, explaining that “she was my best friend,” but that “you can’t take her out [of the case]; she’s special” (May). This scene cuts to decades in the future, when May is living on her own. Her mother is never seen or mentioned again, but Suzy is always there, acting as May’s “best friend.” Whereas the maternal legacies in the other films were more discernibly omnipresent (a supernatural curse, guilt, abuse), May’s mother remains present in May’s apartment solely through Suzy, with whom May has come to have a love/hate relationship.

May speaks to Suzy on a daily basis, ascribing her personality traits and arguing with her when she opposes May’s plan to find “a real friend… someone [she] can hold” (May). As May’s mental state grows more and more fractured, so does Suzy’s case, at least as May sees it. In both this cracking imagery and May’s apartment-bound isolation, McKee is referencing Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965), another important text of female monstrosity and repressed sexuality. But while Repulsion‘s Carole (whom Newman dubs “a fairy obvious descendant of Irena” [Newman 76]) becomes a monster through her fear of touching other bodies, May becomes one because she’s fixated on touching what she sees as “pretty parts” (May) and making a new “friend” who will have a perfect whole.

This desire leads May to gravitate around two secondary characters: an amateur filmmaker named Adam whose hands she considers perfect, and her lesbian coworker Polly, whom she believes to have a perfect neck. She is briefly in romantic relationships with both of them, but each is derailed primarily because May wants to fully possess the parts she loves. The closest she comes is through little tokens—Polly gives her a cat, while Adam gives her a pack of cigarettes—that she cherishes as fetish objects. Later, when she volunteers at a school for disabled children, a blind girl gives her a handmade ashtray with her name carved into it. After May breaks it (in the process of killing the cat), it comes to fulfill a similar purpose. These objects and their owners’ perfect parts all come fully into play during the film’s gory third act, as May systematically kills Polly, Adam, and others, then carts pieces of them back to her apartment where she sews them together.

This conclusion is prefigured visually throughout the film: when she’s at home, May is constantly sewing together new clothes, and she works at a veterinary clinic where she frequently assists during surgeries on cats and dogs. Through these activities, she’s constituted as someone who alters bodies and surfaces, creating new out of old. Furthermore, through the use of the sewing machine, these tendencies are coded as feminine. (Similarly, Carrie repeatedly uses sewing as a signifier of femininity, both for Mrs. White and Carrie.) May is also repeatedly described, for both her awkward social interactions and her fixation on individual parts, as being “weird,” and this word figures heavily in how the film understands her sexuality.

Toward the end of their relationship, Adam and May are making out, and May bites him hard on the lip. Adam says that her behavior is weird, and when she responds, “You like weird,” he fires back, “Not that weird” (May). This three-part exchange is echoed later on as Polly and May are making out: Polly asks if May feels weird doing this, and May says, “I am weird.” Polly then giggles, “I love weird.” The Haunting‘s Dr. Markway spoke vaguely of “the abnormal,” which was linked with both of the heroines’ sexualities, as well as the horror that transpired. In May, this unexplained idea of “weird” serves much the same purpose, as it is used to generally describe May’s personality, her actions, and her sexual desires—in short, the sources of the film’s horror.

Yet as in Carrie, May does not merely become a monster when she goes on her murderous rampage. She is still Clover’s “monstrous hero,” having endured the pain of loneliness and resolved to change her life by making a new, perfect friend. As in the other films, the camerawork makes the viewer complicit in May’s desires: when she looks around the city, lamenting the lack of perfect wholes, the shots are narrowed down to show just individual body parts, and thus the viewer is made to understand May’s perspective. The film’s ambiguous ending has another, even more important use of this subjective camera. In it, May has sewn together her new friend and given her the name “Amy” (having rearranged the letters from the broken ashtray). Desperate to bring Amy to life, May implores her creation to “see me!”, and to this end she cuts out her own eye and places it on Amy. Having shared a part of herself—the very part that allowed her to gaze on the other parts—May lies on the floor bleeding, and repeats the words “see me.”

The film’s second-to-last shot is from May’s point of view, and features Amy (now animate) reaching over to May with Adam’s hands. The final shot shows the same gesture, but from above. This essentially forces the viewer to understand the conclusion from May’s damaged vantage point, regardless of whether Amy’s actions are real or imagined. Like the bittersweet ending of The Haunting, this suggests an act of self-destruction done in order to satisfy May’s desires. By moving away the safe, walled-in “friend” designated by her mother toward the “perfect” friend she has created for herself, May simultaneously becomes monstrous and actively resolves her own loneliness. Through its sympathy toward May’s efforts, the film establishes her transgressions as, at least, emotionally justified.

This sympathy persists across all four of these films: in each one, subjective camera techniques are used in coordination with narrative devices in order to establish viewer sympathy for the protagonist, monstrous though she may be. These four women move across roles, each becoming a victim, as when Irena is cheated on or May is unable to find happiness, as they attempt to break free from their mothers’ legacies and establish their own independent selves. Like Carrie or Eleanor, they each grow concurrently into both monster and hero, and bring an end to their victimhoods through violence and self-destruction. Through these shifts in the characters’ identities, the filmmakers render their heroines’ actions morally comprehensible, if not justifiable. The resulting films have diverse, complex attitudes toward female sexuality and its relationships to monstrosity and violence, but they all concur in the belief that the danger emerges when the protagonist is conflicted. This conflict can be between past and present, mother and self, normal and “weird,” or patriarchal law and self-expression, but in each case, it is what breeds monstrosity. Through monstrosity, a trope specific to the horror genre, these filmmakers express their attitudes toward their protagonists’ sexualities.

Works Cited

Carrie. Dir. Brian De Palma. Perf. Sissy Spacek, John Travolta, Piper Laurie. Redbank Films, 1976.

Carroll, Noël. The Philosophy of Horror. New York, NY: Routledge, 1990.

Cat People. Dir. Jacques Tourneur. Perf. Simone Simon, Kent Smith. RKO Radio Pictures, 1942.

Clover, Carol J. Men, Women, and Chain Saws. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992.

Creed, Barbara. The Monstrous-Feminine. New York: Routledge, 1993.

Fujiwara, Chris. Jacques Tourneur: The Cinema of Nightfall. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1998.

The Haunting. Dir. Robert Wise. Perf. Julie Harris, Claire Bloom, Richard Johnson. Argyle Enterprises, 1963.

Hollinger, Karen. “The Monster as Woman: Two Generations of Cat People.” The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film. Ed. Barry Keith Grant. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1996.

Lindsey, Shelley Stamp. “Horror, Femininity, and Carrie’s Monstrous Puberty.” The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film. Ed. Barry Keith Grant. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1996.

May. Dir. Lucky McKee. Perf. Angela Bettis, Jeremy Sisto, Anna Faris. 2 Loop Films, 2002.

Nemerov, Alexander. Icons of Grief: Val Lewton’s Home Front Pictures. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2005.

Newman, Kim. Cat People. London: British Film Institute, 1999.

Psycho. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Perf. Anthony Perkins, Vera Miles, John Gavin. Universal.


Filed under Cinema, Personal, Sexuality

2 responses to “Gender, Sympathy, and the “Monstrous Hero”

  1. Pingback: Movie Review: The Haunting (1963) | Alex Kittle

  2. Pingback: Movie Review: May (2002) | Alex Kittle

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