The horror genre is perhaps most often associated with physically massive, ominous, and hypermasculine villains like Leatherface from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Jason from Friday the 13th. And while many of horror’s most notorious monsters fall under this category, what does this mean for those villains and monsters that fall under feminine archetypes?
In a video essay titled “The Feminine Horror,” Renegade Cut undergoes an analysis of three types of feminine monsters that commonly appear in horror film: the witch, the castrator, and the temptress. While much scholarly research has been focused on the pattern of the victim as female, particularly in slashers, arguably less talked about are monsters that are female or maintain feminine qualities. With Laura Mulvey’s theory of the male gaze consistently gendering narrative perspective in cinema, this essay highlights how these feminine monsters are “constructed in a patriarchal discourse” to reveal male desires and, perhaps even more so, male fears.
Watch the video, by Leon Thomas, below:
The first archetype analyzed here is the witch. Dr. Joseph Campbell is cited for his claim that women throughout history have always been ascribed magical powers before men due to their ability to create new life. Although witches were originally regarded as healers, their rituals were re-imagined as demonic and evil when witchery became heresy in the 14th century. Alleged crimes of women who were witches include having “sex with the devil, male impotence, causing the penis to disappear, and stealing men’s penises,” leading witches to often be portrayed as sexual transgressors.
It is also noted that the focus in film is generally on the hunt for the witch or it is from the perspective of the hunter, such as in Black Sunday (1960) and Burn Witch Burn! (1962). The essay also links the supernatural to the reproductive system, such as in Carrie (1976), the title character of which discovers her supernatural powers in conjunction with her first menstrual cycle and whose mother claims that female sexuality is inherently evil.
I think it is important to add that witches in horror film can stand for more than just sexual deviance, such as in Robert Eggers’ The Witch (2015). Anya Taylor-Joy’s Thomasin slowly develops her connection to witchcraft as the film progresses. The film’s overarching meaning isn’t necessarily clear-cut, but Thomasin’s descent into witchcraft can perhaps be classified as something broader than a sexual deviance: it shows young woman deviating from the prescribed “natural” order of things.
The second archetype mentioned in the essay is the castrator. Castration anxieties are quite often considered one of the core male anxieties in psychoanalytic theory: it does not necessarily mean a physical castration, but it can also refer to a lack of conformation to male gender expectations. An example of this kind of metaphorical castration is given with Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). Norman Bates is “castrated” in a sense by his mother, in that she only appears personified in Norman himself. Norman is a “psychotic killer son” that is the product of an “overbearing mother.” The mother personality is the one doing the killing, and so Norman’s masculinity is consistently threatened to be overtaken.
Considering the lack of monsters in horror that can perhaps be considered physical castrators, it seems to me that it can be a bit harder to definitively identify. In the case of Psycho, while it is pretty difficult to dispute that gender has absolutely no role, to label Norman’s mother as a castrator is only one reading of the character. However, this ambiguity makes more monsters in horror identifiable as castrators than perhaps the other feminine archetypes.
The final archetype discussed in the essay is the temptress. This type of villain is notorious for seducing men and then tricking them in order to kill, eat, or castrate them. With the exception of Dracula, the female vampire is generally the most commonly used prototype, often using her sexuality as a weapon. Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) shows Dracula’s brides seducing Jonathan Harker in order to eat him, only to be stopped by none other than Dracula himself (of course, the only other male present). Another example of the temptress is given with Species (1995), the alien antagonist wants a baby, so lures men in with an offer of sex with the true goal of getting pregnant.
Although this was touched on in the essay itself, a film such as Species is pretty telling of the expectation that women could only ever want sex for some sort of ulterior motive, rather than because she is also a sexual being. Why should a woman’s motives, after all, be any different from a man’s? If anything, this trope is less revealing of woman but rather reveals a male fear of commitment and obligation.
While horror is an easy genre to consume solely for the sheer entertainment of the gore and madness, it is instances like the presence of these feminine monsters that we should always be paying close attention to what a film or its characters are really trying to communicate to its audience. And it is quite revealing—after all, these portrayals of women in horror are coming straight from the fears and anxieties that men have planted over the course of time in society. But that being said, characters like these can help teach us about these misconceptions, and hopefully, help us to do better.