Barbara Creed, “The Monstrous-Feminine”

1993

Creed begins by asserting that previous critical work has focused too much on the woman as victim of the monster, not as the female monster her/itself 1. Whether this stems from Freud’s assertion that men see women as castrated or the toothed nightmare of vagina dentata, for Creed, it is intimately embodied – “What is the relationship between physical states, bodily wastes (even if metaphoric ones) and the horrific – in particular, the monstrous feminine?” 3. “As with all other stereotypes of the feminine, from virgin to whore, she is defined in terms of her sexuality” 3. “Only those writers whose analysis of horror draws on recent debates about the nature of sexual difference attempt to come to terms with the nature of monstrosity in relation to gender… from the Freudian position that woman horrifies because she is castrated” 5.

Creed cites Linda Williams, who argues “in her article ‘When the woman looks,’ that it is woman’s ‘power-in-difference’ that is central to the representation of the monster in horror… ‘a surprising (and at times subversive) affinity between monster and woman’ in that woman’s look acknowledges their ‘similar status within patriarchal structures of seeing… biological freaks’ whose bodies represent a fearful and threatening form of sexuality… ‘the woman’s look at the monster… is also a recognition of their similar status as potent threats to vulnerable male power'” 6. What Creed would like to do is expand this to explain why: “woman is represented as monstrous… almost always in relation to her mothering and reproductive functions: …the archaic mother, the monstrous womb, the witch, the vampire, and the possessed woman” 7. Later Creed will focus on “questions of sexual desire… woman as the deadly femme castatrice, the castrating mother and the vagina dentata” rather than motherhood: “Whereas Freud argued that woman terrifies because she appears to be castrated, man’s fear of castration has, in my view, led him to construct another monstrous phantasy – that of woman as castrator” 7.

CHAPTER 1: KRISTEVA, FEMININITY, ABJECTION

Creed summarizes Kristeva’s argument about abjection in the border, the mother-child relationship, and the feminine body 8. For Kristeva, “definitions of the monstrous as constructed in the modern horror text are grounded in ancient religious and historical notions of abjection… perversion, corporeal alteration, decay and death, human sacrifice, murder, the corpse, bodily wastes, the feminine body, and incest” 9. The abject is, in Kristeva’s words, ‘the place where meaning collapses,’ where “I am not” 9. The horror film revels in the abject – the corpse, excrescence, and the portrayal of motherhood as abject, where the mother clings to a child narcissistically and possessively 11. Part of the horror of excrescence is the reminder that we were once connected to the shit and blood of the mother (think of Carrie & The Exorcist) 13.

CHAPTER 2: HORROR AND THE ARCHAIC MOTHER: ALIEN

Kristeva: “Fear of the archaic mother turns out to be essentially fear of her generative power” 16. Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is the one who resists allowing Kane and ‘the thing’ to come onboard – the violation of quarantine. “Alien presents various representations of the primal scene. Behind each of these lurks the figure of the archaic mother, that is, the image of the mother as sole origin of all life” 18.”In general the fetishist is usually assumed to be male, though… Freud did allow that female fetishism was a possibility” 21.

“The monstrous creature of Alien is constructed as the agent of the archaic mother but in my view the mother’s phallus-fetish covers over, not her lack – as Freud argued – but rather her castrating vagina dentata. Mother Alien is primarily a terrifying figure not because she is castrated but because she castrates. Her all-consuming, incorporating powers are concretized in the figure of her alien offspring; the creature whose deadly mission is represented as the same as that of the archaic mother – to tear apart and reincorporate all life” 22. ”

Kristeva extends the notion of the Freudian Oedipal mother to include two other faces of the mother: the fecund mother and the phantasmatic mother who constitutes the abyss which is so crucial in the formation of subjectivity. It is the notion of the fecund mother-as-abyss that is central to Alien; it is the abyss, the cannibalizing black hole from which all life comes and to which all life returns that is represented int he film as a source of deepest terror… the fertile female body is constructed as an ‘abject’ in order to keep the subject separate from the phantasmatic power of the mother, a power which threatens to obliterate the subject. An opposition is drawn between the impure fertile (female) body and pure speech associated with the symbolic (male) body 25.

The female body is “both source of life and abyss,” in a doubling parallel to madonna and whore 26. The womb, importantly, “is its own point of reference” – if female genitalia are a lack and the penis a presence, the womb may be empty or full, but is something else – is distinctly not a lack 27. “Birth can exist only as the other face of death… the alien creature murderously gnaws its way through Kane’s belly, Its birth leads to the male mother’s death… The scene in Alien where the alien creature gnaws its way out of the stomach of one of the astronauts is designed to command our attention while simultaneously punishing us for looking” 29.

“The three main ‘looks’ which have been theorized in relation to the screen-spectator relationship are: the camera’s look at the pro-filmic event; the look of the character(s) in the diegesis; and the look of the spectator at the events on the screen… [also the fourth] possibility of the viewer being overlooked while engaged in the act of looking at something he or she is not supposed to look at [porn]. The act of ‘looking away’ when viewing horror films is such a common occurrence that it should be seen as a fifth look that distinguishes the screen-spectator relationship… By not-looking, the spectator is able momentarily to withdraw identification from the image on the screen in order to reconstruct the boundary between self and screen and reconstitute the ‘self’ which is threatened with disintegration. This process of reconstitution of the self, via the fifth look, is also reaffirmed by the conventional ending of some horror narratives in which the monster is ‘named’ and destroyed” 29.

Creed relates this to Lacan’s mirror-stage. “Both the mother and death signify a monstrous obliteration of the self and both are linked to the demonic, as Alien so terrifyingly demonstrates 30.

CHAPTER 3: WOMAN AS POSSESSED MONSTER: THE EXORCIST

“As a possessed figure, Regan belongs to that lineage of dual personality horror figures such as the split personality… and invaded subject… The possessed or invaded being is a figure of abjection in that the boundary between self and other has been transgressed” 32 (is this particularly horrifying in American culture?). Creed points out that the drag double-personality is usually male in female clothing (as in Psycho), and this may continue here with a male devil in female’s body, though Creed considers the devil could be female here. Why use the feminine body to demonstrate abjection? It is partly the mother-daughter relationship, with its mysterious closeness, and partly that the woman

“may appear pure and beautiful on the outside but evil may, nevertheless, reside within… This is one reason why Regan’s possession is so horrifying… her gradual possession, with its emphasis on filthy utterances and depraved acts, seems so shocking… mockery of all established forms of propriety, of the clean and proper body and of the law itself define her as abject. Yet, despite her monstrous appearance and shocking utterances, she remains a strongly ambiguous figure. Regain’s carnivalesque display of her body reminds us quite clearly of the immense appeal of the abject. Horror emerges from the fact that woman has broken with her proper feminine role – she has ‘made a spectacle of herself’ – put her unsocialized body on display” 42.

Creed ends by noting this is before 2 male clerics – interesting to consider that all law enforcement, victims, doctors, healers, archaologists, and priests are male here. No other women besides Regan and her mother.

CHAPTER 6: WOMAN AS WITCH: CARRIE

“There is one incontestably monstrous role in the horror film that belongs to woman – that of the witch” 73. “What is perhaps most significant about Carrie’s telekinetic powers is that she acquires them at the same time as her blood flows, the time of her menarche” 79. After Carrie is humiliated with the pig’s blood and destroys the gym, she “takes off her bloody gown and huddles in a foetal position in the bath, where she washes away the blood and make-up, both signs of her womanhood” 81. “Once again we see that woman’s reproductive functions mark her as monstrous… Similarly, it is man’s phallic properties that are frequently constructed as a source of monstrosity in films dealing with the male monster… the ideological project of the horror film… [is] designed to perpetuate the belief that woman’s monstrous nature is inextricably bound up with her difference as man’s sexual other” 83.

CHAPTER 8: MEDUSA’S HEAD: THE VAGINA DENTATA AND FREUDIAN THEORY

“The myth about woman as castrator clearly points to male fears and phantasies about the female genitals as a trap, a black hole which threatens to swallow them up and cut them into pieces” 106. It is ” the mouth of hell,” “the barred and dangerous entrance” 107 (think of Ursula’s cave in The Little Mermaid!). It is important to note here that teeth construe the vagina as a mouth – a source of intake, and that Freud identified the mother’s bleeding as the sign to the child of a wound 111-112. “The phallic woman is created in response to the fetishist’s refusal to believe that woman does not possess a penis” (hence whips, guns, etc) 116. “Perhaps one should conclude that acceptance of the notion of ‘woman the castrator’ rather than ‘woman the castrated’ is not only threatening to Freud as a man but also damaging to his theories of penis envy in women, the castration crisis and the role he assigns to the father in the transmission of culture” 121.

Images such as Dali’s lobster-as-vagina and Magritte’s The Rape (where a woman’s face is overlaid with breasts, bellybutton, and vagina) reinforce this reading for Creed. In Videodrome, too, the man is focused on the mouth-teeth in the TV (recall Poltergeist argument here!).

CHAPTER 10: THE CASTRATING MOTHER: PSYCHO

“Relationships in maternal melodrama are almost always between mother and daughter; it is to the horror film we must turn for an exploration of mother-son relationships” 139. “Psycho, one of the most influential horror films ever made, provides us with an exemplary study of the horror that ensues when the son feels threatened, physically and psychically, by the maternal figure” 140. The mother is “moral watchdog” to young Marion, but to Norman as well. Creed argues that Norman calls birds passive, rather than dogs and cats, because of the relief inherent in their hovering, stagnant forms, mirroring that of his mother (she points out Marion’s last name is Crane as well…) (me: worth considering the emphasis on her teeth in the shock shot as the chair turns around) 142. If Norman is a spy, his voyeurism of course implicates us as well; the painting he covers the peephole with is Susanna and the Elders, the fictional story of a woman two men try to seduce; when she rebuffs them, they claim to have witnessed her in the sexual act with another man, but they are proven wrong by inconsistent testimony 146. The “glib” explanation of the psychiatrist – that Norman kills those he’s attracted to as a problem of mutual jealousy, covers over other, interesting readings. Perhaps the violence of sex (the affect of pleasure that does not look happy) in the first hotel scene is only mirrored by the affect of fear in the shower scene (preceded by what may be her masturbation), making penetrating men negative in both cases. Creed reads the mother-as-castrator as Norman’s alternative to the fear of being castrated, as well as a punishment for Marion’s solitary pleasures. If for Freud, the mother threatens to castrate for sexual behavior, is the woman always already castrated for it? The superimposition of the huge skull onto Norman’s face animates the dead mother in her son 150.

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