No Horror Without the Body: How Body Horror Helped Me Embrace Being Nonbinary (opens new link to blog)
First published in MIDNIGHT ECHO 16 (November, 2021)
The eternal question asked amongst those who consume or study the genre seems to be, “What is horror?” There is never one straightforward answer. Horror, like any other genre, comprises a massive spectrum of hundreds of sub-genres and thematic cross-overs that weave their way into a thousand different personal paranoias and anxieties. While some may argue that horror should, at the very least, be confronting it is also often seen as a safe space to explore those complex emotions, offering a cathartic outlet to experience fear with few unwanted side-effects.
But what if those safe places only remind us how alone and isolated we are?
I live in Aotearoa, New Zealand, too often described as “an island at the bottom of the world.” Two thousand miles from Australia, four thousand miles to Antarctica, and just under double that again to America, it is safe to say that New Zealand is pretty separated from its nearest neighbours. This distance has served us reasonably well during the COVID-19 outbreak, offering us the ability to effectively raise the drawbridge and keep ourselves safe from viral dragons. But as a people, we know very well how it feels to be kept apart from others. Personally, I am keenly aware of how many miles are between myself and my extended family, twelve thousand, in fact, the other side of the world. Perhaps that’s why isolation themed horror interests me so much.
Horror often takes things to the extreme: it explores extreme emotions and reactions; extreme events, such as the psychological and supernatural. It takes us to the very edge of our comfort zones and then throws us overboard. But isolation horror also keeps us trapped in an unrelenting grip. Sometimes it plays on elements of claustrophobia, squeezing us into tight spaces. Other times it simply cuts us off from friends and family or our community, or sets us adrift in the middle of space or the sea. Wherever we are geographically, our extreme loneliness and disconnection is the key. We cannot escape, as there is literally nowhere to go.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock recently, you’ll know there is a brand-new vampire horror series on the block that almost everyone is talking about. Mike Flanagan’s latest Netflix offering, MIDNIGHT MASS, is a tremendous, emotional deep dive into organised religion, blood sucker mythology and the horrors of guilt and grief. Yet, what few people seem to acknowledge is its deeply oppressive geographical location. Set almost entirely on the fictional fishing town of Crockett Island, thirty miles away from an unnamed “Mainland,” the island serves to separate the community actually and spiritually from any outside influences. With the only way to leave via a scheduled ferry, and electricity blackouts possible at any time, the islanders are forced into a life of frugality, self-sufficiency, and resilience.
While the exploration of organised religion as a monstrous influence where vampires are mistaken for angels is at the forefront of the story, the events that transpire could only occur in a physical space well away from the bustle of a city or wider community. Even the few scenes where the characters are off island, they are trapped in small physical spaces: a prison cell and a doctor’s office. We, as the watcher, are trapped there with them, forced to confront the impossibility of escape, isolated physically and emotionally. It makes for extremely uncomfortable viewing, often verging on claustrophobic.
Taking a character and putting them in a situation where they are separated from others or cannot get help is a common trope in horror, especially in most modern slashers. For example, we all know what the likely outcome will be for the naïve teenager who wanders off alone or the confident blonde athlete who says, “I’ll be right back…”
“At some point, everything’s gonna go south on you and you’re going to say, this is it. This is how I end. Now you can either accept that, or you can get to work. That’s all it is. You just begin. You do the math. You solve one problem and you solve the next one, and then the next. And If you solve enough problems, you get to come home.” — Mark Watney, THE MARTIAN
The most common places to isolate your unsuspecting characters (based on how often they appear in popular horror movies) include:
- A cabin in the woods
- A dilapidated mansion miles from anywhere
- A remote outpost in the Antarctic
- In the depths of uncharted space
- Down a hole.
Both the aptly-named THE HOLE (2001) and THE DESCENT (2005) put underground isolation to great use. In THE HOLE, four teenagers find themselves locked in an abandoned underground nuclear shelter after a weekend of debauchery. On discovering their predicament, they, unsurprisingly, turn on each other, although the real danger is something far more sinister. THE DESCENT follows six women as they explore a cave system and predictably become trapped inside. Not only must they try to escape to the surface, they must also avoid the blind humanoid monsters who are keen to munch on their bones.
Space-based horror often strays into science-fiction. In fact, some people argue that the location of space itself takes it out of the horror genre. I disagree. As someone who often argues that movies that are not marketed as horror, are horror—for example: THE ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND (2004), GROUNDHOG DAY (1993) and WATERSHIP DOWN (1978) spring to mind—I am very happy to include GRAVITY (2013) and THE MARTIAN (2015) on a geographical isolation horror list. What could be worse than tumbling, alone and untethered through the emptiness of deep space, or being left for dead on an uninhabited planet where you will spend eighteen months on your own?
Back on earth, while CAST AWAY (2000) is probably too light in tone to be truly horrorific—although Tom Hank’s character is stranded on a desert island for four, very lonely years—the culminating event in 127 HOURS (2010) definitely lends itself to the horror genre. Not only is the main character entirely alone in Bluejohn Canyon, a boulder on his arm pins him in place. His survival hinges on a gruesome, life-changing choice as he realises no help is forthcoming.
“I could’ve carried him. I should’ve carried him. Who are we if we can’t protect them? Who are we? You have to protect them! Promise me, you will protect them.” — Evelyn Abbott, A QUIET PLACE
While any kind of horror invokes fear, discomfort, mistrust or even revulsion, isolation horror plays specifically on our human need for companionship and community, on our terror of being rejected or left alone. It kickstarts our survival instincts and our distrust of the Other, especially if isolation is partnered with some element of invasion. While invasion horror is also a subgenre in its own right, with movies such as MOTHER! (2017) CAPE FEAR (1962 and 1991) and THE HAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE (1992) being notable titles, isolation-invasion is frequently:
- Set in a remote location, either devoid of modern technology or “off the grid”.
- The main character is very often incapacitated, disabled or mentally fragile.
Take, for example, another Flanagan creation, HUSH (2016) where a deaf writer living in solitude is tormented by a masked intruder and must fight to survive. Or A QUIET PLACE (2018) where a family, including their profoundly deaf daughter, must live every moment in complete silence or else be hunted by deadly noise-sensitive monsters. A QUIET PLACE is admittedly less claustrophobic than most invasion-isolation, but both aspects limit the characters’ movements and introduce a threat that dictates how they live.
Similarly, BIRD BOX (2018) uses lack of sight to isolate the characters from each other as they live with a catastrophic malevolent force that causes all who see it to become suicidal. DON’T BREATHE (2016), however, spins the invasion element on its head with the blind protagonist holding the upper hand as he dispatches all those who dare enter his house.
In GOODNIGHT MOMMY (2015) we face double displacement and disconnection not only thanks to its isolated lakeside location, but exacerbated by the titular Mommy’s strange facial bandages and the way she apparently ignores one of her twins. The invasion theme here is clear; is Mommy even really who she says she is? Finally, the creepy one-shot SILENT HOUSE (2011) cuts off the main character’s means of connection with the outside world and locks her in a secluded farmhouse. Enter, an unknown intruder who drags up some disturbing repressed memories, and the isolation-invasion horror trope is complete.
That two of those movies mentioned include deaf characters is no coincidence, given that I am also deaf, and have been since childhood. I know well how it feels to be excluded or ignored, to feel left out of a group or unable to connect. And although these incidents have occurred most often through misunderstanding, not malice, they are no less painful to experience. Communication with our peers is integral to human nature and to positive mental wellbeing. When our ability to connect with others easily is removed, the individual will suffer. Isolation itself can be disabling.
“If you’re afraid of dying, and you’re holdin’ on, you’ll see devils tearin’ your life away. But if you’ve made your peace, then the devils are really angels, freein’ you from the world. It all depends on how you look at it.” — Louis, JACOB’S LADDER
While a bleak physical location can go a long way to creating those uneasy feeling of isolation, psychological isolation is also extremely powerful. Take, for example, the well-known tagline of ALIEN (1979) “In space, no one can hear you scream.” The horror here is not merely the threat of the terrifying acid-blood Xenomorph, nor even that the characters are trapped with the creature lost in the emptiness of space, but simply that their anguish will not be heard. Their cries for help will go unanswered and their survival is squarely in their own hands. Knowing that you are alone with your fear can be crushing. In some cases, it might even drive you mad.
EVENT HORIZON (1997), another horror-in-space, uses geographical isolation to invoke insanity. In astronomy, the ‘event horizon’ defines the region of space around a black hole from which nothing can escape, not even light. It signifies the point of no return, of a desolation that knows no recovery. On board the (rather insensibly named) starship Event Horizon, the crew experiences distressing hallucinations, including apparitions of people from their past. Such visions drive many of the characters to self-harm and others to acts of violence. There is no hope and no chance for redemption as they succumb to the madness of space.
Madness is also pivotal to the plot of THE SHINING (1980) where a writer and his family move into an isolated, and unfortunately haunted, hotel hoping he can finish his latest manuscript. What Jack Torrance gains in peace and quiet, he loses in sanity and compassion as the evil forces that reside in the hotel compel him to murder his family. Once again, redemption is not forthcoming and Jack is left very much alone.
Perhaps my very favourite example of psychological isolation horror is the original JACOB’S LADDER (1990). It follows the main character, Jacob Singer’s, experiences of war in Vietnam where many of his platoon were killed or wounded. Back home in New York, strange visions and weird hallucinations plague him that lead him to believe the military has experimented on him. As the visions increase in severity and violence, Jacob becomes more desperate to discover the truth. To say here what the truth is would spoil the entire film, but Singer’s anguish, confusion, and distrust of authority are all consequences of his intense mental isolation.
“No one is strong alone. You know, you and your mom, you help each other through, don’t you?” — Nancy, ROOM
Of course, you don’t have to be completely alone to be isolated, especially if that isolation has been thrust upon you by some kind of captor. In MISERY (1990) novelist Paul Sheldon is injured in a car accident and later held captive by obsessive fan and nurse Annie Wilkes. While Annie initially helps Paul recover, she is most upset that Paul plans to kill off her favourite character and demands he write a new book. Paul isn’t keen, so to prevent him from escaping, well, let’s just say in both book and film versions, poor Paul draws a short straw. The isolation horror, however, comes from the knowledge that he is alone and incapacitated with the psychopathic Annie, with none of his loved one’s knowing where he is and his survival will require some hard choices.
A similar feeling of helplessness is invoked in 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE (2016) and ROOM (2015). 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE sees recently single Michelle held captive in an underground bunker by an obviously unstable stranger named Howard. He claims he is protecting her from extra-terrestrial invaders, with the atmosphere outside now toxic and uninhabitable. Whether or not this is true is of less concern to Michelle, who fears for her safety in the bunker. With a fellow captive, Emmett, she makes plans to escape, but such plans never go smoothly. Once again, no one knows where Michelle is and ultimately she is forced to fight for her survival completely on her own.
ROOM is perhaps less of a typical horror and a more psychological thriller, with the main characters held in a tiny shed that they refer to as the Room. For seven years, “Old Nick” has held Joy and her son Jack prisoner in the Room, with Jack only ever knowing a life inside. Isolation envelops them both inside the Room and when they finally get out, as they struggle to re-join society. ROOM is one of those few films that continues to follow the characters after the “inciting incident” and their ongoing bewilderment and declining mental health shows how isolation does not come merely from being alone, but feeling alone as well.
Different from the others, and a precursor to “puzzle horror” movies like SAW (2004), DEVIL (2010) and ESCAPE ROOM (2017), CUBE (1997) puts six strangers in a cube-shaped room and challenges them to escape. Their captor is never revealed and the reason for their incarceration is unclear, but as they escape room after room and encounter trap after trap, their situation grows more dire and their distrust for each other grows. The group discovers that there are 17,576 cube rooms, with each one moving periodically. With no straightforward way to escape the maze, the characters’ desperation grows. Finally, SIGHTLESS (2020) combines both captive isolation with elements of invasion as a newly blind protagonist must come to terms with her disability while seemingly trapped in her own apartment. Or is she?
“Someone in this camp ain’t what he appears to be.” — MacReady, THE THING
In some of the previously given examples, it would be easy to argue that the real threat does not come from isolation, but from a monstrous or human foe. Horror and monsters are the jelly and ice-cream of the genre; they go together perfectly. But in isolation horror, sometimes the monsters cause the loneliness, and other times the loneliness is just as scary as the monsters. THE THING (1982) for example, could only possibly take place in the location it does—a research station in Antarctica—and that seclusion is as integral to the plot as the monstrous Thing. Such remoteness exacerbates the distrust between the characters, even at a time when they need to be united, and this ultimately affects their good sense.
In DOG SOLDIERS (2002) a six-man squad on a training mission is dropped into the Scottish Highlands, miles away from the nearest village. When werewolves attack, the soldiers retreat to the only place they can–an abandoned farmhouse. But with very few weapons, no mobile service, and no way of alerting anyone else to their predicament, the squad must take on the lycanthropes themselves.
Zombies aren’t a common monster to feature in isolation horror, not least because they most commonly travel in large hordes, but 28 DAYS LATER (2003) focused on a depopulated world where the main character wakes up to an uninhabited London. As he walks, somewhat stunned, through a city that is normally bustling with people and traffic, his loneliness and fear are palpable. No surprise, then, that the TV show THE WALKING DEAD (2010-ongoing) paid homage to the scene in its beginning episodes as Sherriff Rick Grimes rides a horse along a deserted highway.
It seems appropriate to end this piece as I began, talking about vampires and isolation horror. For vampires in small spaces, you can’t beat BLOOD RED SKY (2021). Set almost entirely on an aeroplane hijacked by terrorists, the mood is both extremely claustrophobic while emphasising how alone and devoid of help the passengers are. The monsters here are three-fold; Nadja, the vampire who is searching for a cure, the terrorist hijackers who ultimately just want money, and the psychopathic member of their crew, Eightball, who is easily the worst threat of them all. The isolation here is not just that every person on the plane is stranded from home, but also how quickly as a group they shun Nadja for being different, despite her not being the real threat to them.
I AM LEGEND (2007) (of which the film differs somewhat from the book) sees United States Army virologist Robert Neville and his dog, Sam, living in the isolated ruins of Manhattan after a deadly viral plague. Those who don’t die turn into vampiric mutants and Neville spends his days trying to find a cure while searching for food, supplies and fellow survivors. It’s a bleak existence, and one which clearly takes a toll on Neville’s mental health, which becomes even more obvious when he finds himself completely alone. It is Neville’s experiences of isolation, however, that ultimately make him stronger and aids in his final decisions. Sometimes, when you’ve been alone for so long, it’s just too hard to go back into a crowd.
When we answer the question, “What is horror?” we often focus on the fear, the terror and the disgust. We consider the visceral, the shocking and the supernatural. But I think the answer might be much more simple than that. Real-life horror fills us when we are abandoned and made weak. When we are cut off from our communities and our peers. Being alone is incredibly scary. It’s the reason we get frightened of the dark or why staying in a strange place by ourselves makes us so uneasy. Isolation horror forces the protagonist to confront the villain—no matter who, or what, that might be—with limited resources and no place to escape to. Their isolation doesn’t have to be physical to be effective, it can be emotional and psychological too, because at the root of horror is helplessness, and when you feel helpless, you lose hope.
I read and watch horror as a way of escaping, to feel fear in a safe space I can control. It’s as cathartic as it is exciting. As trends in the genre highlight the anxieties of our times, I think we can learn from horror too. While the events of the past couple of years have shown that isolation—in particular, quarantine—can go a long way towards saving lives, horror movies have also taught us that: the monster is rarely despatched by the first hit; never wander off alone from your friends; and a community is far stronger when it works together—unlike the doomed inhabitants of Crockett Island, MacReady’s Antarctic research team, or the Event Horizon crew— and overcomes its mistrust of the Other. Horror has shown us how we can overcome our collective feelings of isolation and helplessness and beat the real monsters in the world.
First published on Kendall Reviews December 2021
Ghosts! Zombies! Body horror! Plus, some unintentional necrophilia. “Sex, Death and Starshine” reminds us the show must go on, even if the audience is undead.
The fifth story in Clive Barker’s BOOKS OF BLOOD, VOLUME 1, “Sex, Death and Starshine” is often much maligned as a weak link in his impressive horror repertoire. Certainly, its tone differs greatly from the blood-spattered “Midnight Meat Train” or the strange, mental health-themed black comedy “The Yattering and Jack.” It moves at an arguably slower pace and includes less gore than others in the collection, but none of that weakens its impact.
While its supernatural elements allow it space in the horror genre, its focus is more on emotions, specifically: passion and desire. It asks us to consider what aspects of life are truly important to us? So important that their discovery and ultimate realisation might even transcend the falling curtain of mortality. “Sex, Death and Starshine” is an exploration of love, art, and the roles that we adopt and play throughout our lives. With a sprinkling of Shakespeare, messy sex and reanimated corpses.
While I am assuming at this point that you have read the story, here’s the plot synopsis as a reminder, or if you have not.
Terry Calloway is directing Shakespeare’s romantic comedy, Twelfth Night, in a dilapidated theatre called the Elysium. Calloway is embroiled in a torrid affair with his leading lady, Diane Duvall, an ex-soap opera actress who he hopes will bring more fame (and punters) to the production. However, while he appreciates her sexual prowess, her skills on stage are sadly lacking.
Enter, the mysterious, theatrical and oddly masked Mr. Lichfield. In a nice bit of foreshadowing, Lichfield informs Calloway that, “the theatre is about to die,” and this is to be its last production before it closes for good. Calloway assumes this means the theatre’s owner, Hammersmith, has sold off the land. Lichfield is also vocal in his dissatisfaction at Diane’s casting as Viola, believing his wife, Constantia, could do far better. It is an interesting assertion, as we later learn from the geriatric trustee, Tallulah, that Constantia is, in fact, long dead.
On the day of the show, Lichfield walks in on Calloway and Diane in the middle of having sex—in her dressing room, no less! How clichéd. He seems far from being embarrassed, however. Instead, he is adamant that he needs to speak with Diane. Calloway leaves (awkwardly) and Lichfield informs Diane that Constantia will play the role of Viola on the opening night. Angry, Diane retaliates by literally unmasking Lichfield. She peels away his latex prosthetics, revealing him to be the walking dead. His face is almost gone and only a skull remains.
Diane is deeply shocked, but Lichfield leaves her little time to process. He tells her that certain choices must be made before he non-consensually kisses her and puts her into a coma. While Diane is taken to intensive care, Constantia is introduced as the replacement Viola, with some minor stage-light adjustments requested. Next, it is the arthritic Tallulah’s turn to receive the kiss of death, although this time Lichfield does at least ask Tallulah if she wants to die, to which she replies she does.
That evening, Diane returns to the Elysium, stating that she has some “unfinished business”. Calloway assumes she has recovered and takes her words to mean she wants more sex. However, in the middle of her fellating him, Calloway realises, his belly… full of terrors, that Diane is not breathing. She is not breathing because she is dead. Her reaction to his terrified realisation is to despatch him by plunging her nail-file in his ear.
The play is performed to an enthusiastic packed house. Unfortunately, when the performance is over, the actors see the audience is a collection of ghosts and corpses in various stages of decay. The deceased-but-now-reanimated Tallulah burns down the theatre and kills everyone in the production who is not already dead, and a zombified, pants-less Calloway confronts Hammersmith and snaps his neck.
The end sees Calloway and a selection of the Elysium actors joining Lichfield and Constantia on the road, devoting their death, as they had their life, to the art of theatre. We are told, The dead. They needed entertainment no less than the living; and they were a sorely neglected market. When asked by a member of his troupe what they should do, Lichfield delivers the closing lines:
[he] turned towards the company, his voice booming in the night: “What do you do?” he said, “Play life, of course! And smile!”
Far from being a weak link in Barker’s writing, I see “Sex, Death and Starshine” as being one of his most personal and ingenious. Born on 5 October 1952, Barker is an incontestable master in multiple creative areas. Whether as a playwright, author, movie director, visual artist or comic book creator, Barker is highly skilled in all formats. While he began writing horror early in his career, his interest and involvement in the theatre began well before then.
Wikipedia states that he “co-founded the avant-garde theatrical troupe The Dog Company in 1978 with former school friends and up-and-coming actors” and he has said himself that, “An incredible amount of what makes me feel I can do whatever the fuck I want has to do with the Dog Company…” No surprise then, that he would honour his theatrical roots and showcase his literary intelligence through a story that explores chaos and emotion, tragedy and elation, and asks “What would you sacrifice for your art?”
In my youth I was a theatre kid (although always lurking in the wings, never performing on stage) and in my twenties I taught English and Drama to high school students in the industrial North East. Being a fan of Shakespeare was both inevitable and a necessary part of my career. I recall my 6th form English Literature teacher declaring old Willy’s stories to be nothing more than 17th century soap operas, albeit perhaps better written than some modern offerings. Despite the over-the-top palaver and farce that he frequently turned to, I always felt many of Shakespeare’s works were much darker than often acknowledged. His plays involve: murder, adultery, magic and the occult, suicide, disfigurement and dismemberment, demonic possession, witchcraft and the supernatural. Hardly fitting subjects for a pious, Christian audience. In fact, one might even go so far to say that Shakespeare was one of the first writers of horror theatre. A notion I suspect Barker was well aware of.
Shakespeare isn’t the only literary influence in “Sex, Death and Starshine”. The story is littered with themes and sub-texts with some friendly nods to Greek mythology, beginning with the theatre’s name. In Classic mythology, Elysium was a place for the blessed dead, separated from Hades or the Underworld, which only heroes and mortals related to the Gods could enter. Later, it became more synonymous with the Christian notion of Heaven, a paradise for the worthy. This concept of paradise itself is referred to in Twelfth Night when Viola, believing her brother to be drowned, declares, “My brother he is in Elysium.”
Continuing the theme of Greek mythology are the multiple references to Apollo and Dionysus, both sons of Zeus. Apollo is the god of the sun; of rational thinking and order. He signifies logic, prudence and purity. Dionysus is the god of wine, theatre and dance; of irrationality and chaos. He oversees emotions and instincts. Interestingly, the two gods are not necessarily opposites or rivals, in fact, they are frequently entwined, but they offer two differing viewpoints.
At the start of the story, Lichfield tells Calloway, “We should never have given up Dionysus for Apollo… We should have had the courage of our depictions, I think. Served poetry and lived under the stars,” by which he asserts his belief that matters of passion and the heart are more powerful motivators of the arts than money.
During the play, Lichfield feels comforted by the idea that Dionysus is with them that night, and afterwards, From the Gods rapturous applause erupted…. The gods usually refers to the highest areas of a theatre such as the upper balconies, but in this context, and the use of a capital G, could easily refer to Dionysus and Apollo themselves.
Lichfield himself hides in plain sight, his true nature evident in his name. A concept more popular in fantasy fiction, the word lich is taken from the Old English līċ, which means corpse. A lich itself is a type of undead creature. Unlike the traditional stereotype of the mindless zombie, liches are supposedly intelligent creatures, often depicted as having the power to control other, less powerful, undead servants. Appropriate for a character who acts as a kind of ringmaster or director for the rest of the undead.
Lichfield was not embalmed like Constantia, and thus his physical form is greatly damaged. His latex mask serves to shield his decomposing face and allows him to walk relatively unremarked upon amongst the living. Such a disguise has echoes of Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera, where the deformed Erik wears a mask to hide his hideous features as he falls in love with soprano Christine. Like Erik, Lichfield’s mask also hides the grief he carries. It allows him to control the face he presents to the world as he embraces the role he plays.
The theatre manager, Hammersmith, is surely a nod to the iconic Lyric Hammersmith theatre in London. Established in 1888, it was due to be demolished in 1966, but was saved, dismantled and rebuilt brick by brick on another site. Calloway, Tallulah and Duvall are all well-known names of persons prominent in the arts. Coincidence or a deliberate choice? We may never know. Constantia is another Classical Greek name, meaning perseverance and harmony. Interestingly, it is also the name of a Greek town that was destroyed by an earthquake soon after its completion but was rebuilt and strengthened anew.
Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is a play of love, loss and desire, of exploring duality (twins and opposites) and temporary subversion of status. On the actual Twelfth Night (as in the twelve days of Christmas) the last celebration of the festive season was celebrated with parties and performances. The Lord of Misrule—generally a peasant appointed to be in charge of the Christmas revelries—could act as if they were a king for the night and tell everyone what to do. Thus follows a night of potential chaos, but it is fun chaos, rather like what Dionysus signifies.
Although the play is a romantic comedy centred around love and passion, many of the characters spend a lot of time miserable, acting irrationally or frequently confused; like the characters in Barker’s tale. While love ultimately triumphs at the end, it drives some characters almost mad.
The first lines of the play uttered by Duke Orsino—possibly some of Shakespeare’s most famous and most often quoted—and referenced in the story are:
“If music be the food of love, play on,
Give me excess of it; that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken and so die…”
Orsino, suffering from unrequited love, asks to be stuffed so full of it that he loses his appetite for it. Yet in “Sex, Death and Starshine,” it seems perhaps the opposite may be true, that an outpouring of love for theatre and music might somehow satiate those players who are already dead and have given their lives to the arts. Constantia, dead before she was twenty, becomes “alive” on the stage as if the part were made for her only. A spell is cast and the actors’ mortal status (or otherwise) is no longer relevant. All that matters is the play. As Lichfield looks on it becomes apparent, They were equals, the living and the dead, and nobody could find just cause to part them.
What of all the sex in the story? Is it added merely to shock or titillate? I would argue, yes, that’s definitely a part of it, but also Calloway and Diane’s actions say a great deal about their true character. Their affair is based on lust and carnal desires rather than love and tenderness. Older than her, and married (like she is) Calloway suspects that even during intercourse Diane is simply acting a part. Their connection is purely physical, their illicit relationship made far more interesting by being forbidden. But both of them know the other is replaceable, and they are merely using each other as a stepladder to greater, brighter things. It is in stark contrast to Lichfield’s relationship with Constantia. While copulation is apparently impossible given their bodily decay, they are connected through the strength of romance and true devotion. Genuine soulmates, even after their death.
“Sex, Death and Starshine,” despite its apparent focus on Calloway and Duvall, is, of course, Lichfield’s story. It is a story of redemption and resurrection as much as it is of love.
Lichfield … had been capable of giving his brilliant beauty everything she desired; fame, money, companionship. Everything but the gift she most required: life itself.
Such pain drives Lichfield to massacre a group of people for the benefit of his wife. His deeds are inarguably heinous and yet also we fully understand his motivation. While murdering Diane is reprehensible, no matter how bad an actress she may be, his killing of Tallulah is almost merciful, as her advanced age and arthritis bring her so much pain. He could not save his wife from cancer in the breast, but he can bring meaning to the unfairness of her death. Embalmed to preserve her physical beauty, it is equally her inner beauty and raw talent that transfixes others and cannot be taken from her, even by death. Lichfield’s role is to ensure her performance can be experienced, so she can bring joy to the stagnating dead, those usually starved of entertainment.
As love triumphs in Twelfth Night, so too does it triumph for Lichfield and his troupe, as they give up their earthly lives for the love of performing, bound together in eternity by their passion. As the Latin poet Virgil says, omnia vincit amor, or love conquers all. More importantly, the show must go on.
Shakespeare was well-known for comparing life to the art of acting. In As You Like It, the character Jacques in his Seven Ages of Man speech declares:
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts…
Lichfield knows that even in death, he must continue to act as if he is alive. As he tells the trustee: “To play life… ah, Tallulah, to play life… what a curious thing it is. Sometimes I wonder, you know, how long I can keep up the illusion.” His life, perhaps our lives too, are merely roles which we play until the show ends and we take our final bows. Art imitates life imitates art. The stage is where we live and beyond that, who knows what awaits us. While our audience is watching, we must perform.
“Sex, Death and Starshine” examines the roles we play throughout our lives, even in the face of abject horrors; the masks we put on to face the world and hide our true faces, or our pain; and the validation we can find in our passions when we embrace what we truly love. More than that, it is Barker’s love letter to the power of the theatre and an understanding that through the art you leave behind, you can experience a little piece of immortality.
“There are lives lived for love,” said Lichfield to his new company, “and lives lived for art. We happy band have chosen the latter persuasion.”
First published February 2020 at The Horror Tree for Women in Horror Month.
This essay won an Australian Shadows Award, 2021, for Nonfiction and was shortlisted for a Sir Julius Vogel Award, 2021, for Best Fan Writing.
As a person who now identifies outside the gender binary I want to acknowledge that this piece uses the word “woman” as synonymous for “a person who menstruates.” This is not meant to be exclusive in any way, and reflects how I saw my personal identity at the time of writing. It is important for me to draw attention to this wording now, as menstruation is not something that happens only to women, and not all women menstruate.
“Aunt Flo’s here.”
“Riding the Crimson Wave.”
There are over 5,000 different slang terms and euphemisms for menstruation, according to an international survey conducted by the people behind period-tracking app, Clue. With over 90,000 people across 190 countries adding to the list, the type of phrases range from the obvious to the ridiculous. And yet, it begs the question: what is it about menstruation that makes some people feel like even the word itself is dirty? That many women feel unable or ashamed to say, “I’m on my period.”
It stands to reason that there will be a woman — or someone of another gender, because it is not only women who menstruate— reading this piece right now who “has the painters in.” The onset of puberty heralds “Mother Nature’s” arrival, and barring illness, pregnancy, some medication or use of certain contraceptives, this monthly visitor brings her scarlet luggage with her up until the time of menopause. The loss of blood is considered emblematic of a young girl’s entry into womanhood. No longer a child, immune from the Male Gaze, but a fertile vessel, sexual, and capable of bringing forth new life. It is a normal and expected part of most cis women’s lives. Except it is rarely talked about unless in hushed tones, and hardly ever in places where men might overhear. It is only very recently, for example, that televised adverts for menstrual products have replaced the colour of the liquid symbolising blood loss from unnatural blue to a more accurate red.
Does horror fiction perpetuate this shame and discomfort, or can writers seek to remove any stigma by normalising menstruation in text and film? You might think that in a genre which delights in exploring themes of the bloody and disturbing, there may be more than a handful of examples that also include menstrual blood. But it appears that the “monthly curse” is often too terrifying a concept, even for horror writers to exploit.
Probably the most famous example of menstruation in a dark fiction novel is in “Carrie” (1974) the debut novel of horror heavyweight Stephen King. A motion picture based on the book was released in 1976, directed by Brian De Palma, and was the first time menstrual blood was depicted on screen.
The eponymous Carrie is a teenaged girl with a background of sustained abuse, both from her peers and her zealot mother. She gets her first period in her high-school shower room, and with it comes a dangerous ability.
“Plug it up!” her classmates yell, as they pelt her merciless with sanitary products. Cowering in fear on the bathroom floor, Carrie’s humiliation and confusion (her mother has never explained menstruation to her) help form the catalyst allowing her to unleash her devastating telekinetic powers. King links the onset of menstruation with Carrie’s outpouring of pent-up rage. Drenched in pig’s blood on her prom night when her classmates attempt to embarrass and belittle her, Carrie’s traumatic passage into womanhood allows her the opportunity to find and unleash her true potential — to destroy all those who would seek to destroy her. No longer a child, nor an impotent victim, she uses her new-found fertile femininity as a deadly weapon of revenge.
Similar stakes are at play in the 2000’s Canadian werewolf horror movie “Ginger Snaps” directed by John Fawcett. Ginger Fitzgerald, a self-styled gothic outsider fascinated with suicide and death, is attacked by a lycanthrope monster, the “Beast of Bailey Downs,” almost at the exact same moment that she experiences menarche. Thus, menstruation and her “monthly change” are unavoidably linked. Ginger grows hair in awkward places, and even starts manifesting a tail. Her behaviour grows inevitably more monstrous and violent, which her sister, Brigitte, points out with alarm. Ginger denies such changes, attributing any differences in her behaviour to normal hormonal reactions.
I’ve got hormones,” she says to Brigitte when confronted. “And they may make me butt-ugly, but they don’t make me a monster.”
Previously uninterested in any of the males at her school, post-bite Ginger is suddenly sexually insatiable, going so far as to engage in risky, unprotected sexual intercourse and infecting her clueless partner. It is implied that although he instigates their initial sexual contact, ultimately she rapes him as she asserts her sexual dominance.
“I get this ache,” Ginger tells her sister later. “I thought it was for sex, but it’s to tear everything to fucking pieces!”
While we might assume that these urges are the result of being bitten, they are also tied to her new-found awareness of her physical body and her burgeoning womanhood. Femininity as a weapon once again.
Typically, as is often the fate of female characters in horror, both Carrie and Ginger meet untimely ends. Their powers are so immense that they become unstable, driven by revenge or desire. It’s a narrative we are told repeatedly in fiction and real life: “That time of the month makes women go crazy.” They are irrational, dangerous, and unhinged. Just like a beast or monster, you cannot reason with them.
King would later revisit the idea of menstruation heralding Very Bad Things in his subsequent novels, “IT” (1986) and “The Tommyknockers” (1987).
In “IT” Beverley’s fear is that of transitioning from childhood to adulthood, and the arrival of her period punctuates this. The book and film versions differ greatly in how menstruation is portrayed. In the movie, Bev’s mother is deceased, and she has no female figure of authority in her life. She is clueless about her changing body and her physically abusive father sees her maturing form as an invitation to sexually molest her. In the book, she says that she and her father create a “smell” between them, which may or may not allude to the aroma of menses. When blood begins to pour out of the drain, it could easily be interpreted as a metaphor for Bev’s monthly flow.
In “Tommyknockers,” Bobbi Gardener begins menstruating so heavily, her repulsed lover wonders if she will need a transfusion to replace the loss. This overly heavy flow is in response to her digging out an alien spaceship, buried for aeons in rural Maine. Her hair and teeth start falling out, and she turns translucent, finally undergoing a metamorphosis where she resembles the blob-like aliens themselves. Is this perhaps some clumsy metaphor showing how menstruation equals youthfulness and fertility, and when it halts, menopause will (allegedly) steal a woman’s youth and beauty? Sadly, King’s writing at this time was much too sloppy for us to be sure.
In many societies, menstruating women are shunned or vilified for being unclean or even sinful. Bleeding women may be banned from places of worship, or excused from performing prayers. Certain religions may prohibit the woman from preparing food for others, or engaging in intercourse.
Conversely, in some historic cultures, menstruating women were seen as powerful and sacred beings; formidable warriors much stronger than men. In pre-colonial Māori communities, for example, menstruation was seen as an honour that represented a oneness with life-flow. A young girl’s menarche was celebrated with rituals and seen as a rite of passage.
Anne Rice uses the notion that menstrual blood might bring strength when she offers it up as an unusual meal for the vampire Lestat, in the fifth book of her Vampire Chronicles series, “Memnoch the Devil” (2000). In an act which some readers thought controversial, and others considered utterly abhorrent, Lestat drinks the menstrual blood of the devoutly Christian Dora so that he may gain necessary sustenance from her blood without hurting the woman. The scene is sometimes referred to, tongue-in-cheek, as “a vampire period drama.” Whatever Rice’s reasons for including this act it does, albeit briefly, suggest the idea that rather than being a dirty, waste product, menstrual discharge could be both nutritious and revitalising. That women could both derive and share power from their bleed.
Not a horror text, but a fantasy series, Alison Croggon’s “Pellinor” books also equate menstruation with power. In “The Gift” (2003) every significant event occurs when the central character Maerad experiences her period. She realises the connection between blood and strength and discovers how powerful she is. This heralds Maerad’s awakening, and understanding of what it means to be a woman. Menstruation signifies a sense of becoming, of maturing and finding strength in herself.
Menstrual blood might indeed be powerful, and life-giving, but in horror, there is very often a dark twist. “The Murders of Molly Southbourne” (2017) is horror novella by Tade Thompson which focuses on the life of the titular character. Molly suffers from an unusual condition; every time she bleeds, a doppelgänger grows from her blood. After three days, the doppelgänger “goes bad” and attempts to kill her. In order to survive, she is forced to kill “herself.” Her situation is somewhat complicated by the onset of puberty and subsequent menstruation, with doppelgängers arriving with every cycle. Thompson’s story is an intriguing, and often violent, allegorical look at what it means to grow up female, and offers an interesting connection between puberty and mental illness — a time when many sufferers may first see their symptoms manifest. Molly’s blood brings life, of a fashion, but it is not good life.
That blood is life is both a philosophical and biological notion: to lose blood from a wound or other orifice usually indicates trauma and possible death. Blood loss from an area which is seen as inherently sexual, and is not in response to trauma or harm, suggests a transcendence from usual biological rules. These bodies are so powerful they can slew the lining of their wombs each month, and be ready to nurture new life inside them a mere two weeks later. A cycle of death and life with each new moon.
Menstruation in horror fiction is frequently used to signify that terrible “Otherness” which the genre seeks to invoke. Either by amplifying the belief that it is sinful or unclean, or as a harbinger of immeasurable and uncontrollable feminine power. As a great deal of horror fiction is often skewed towards men, both as creators and consumers of, what could be more Other than this unrepentant cycle, one over which they have no control? Representation differs between the genders, with female writers offering an (unsurprisingly) more realistic and pragmatic view of “lady time,” while men frequently equate being “on the rag” as an indicator of unexpected violent outbursts or uncontrollable sexual energy — sometimes even both.
In addition to books and film, some examples of menstruation can also be found in horror video game narratives. However, with such games being marketed primarily at male players, menstruation, yet again, most often signifies the monstrous Other. In “Bioshock Infinite”, it is Elizabeth’s menarche at age 13 which incites a spike in power readings on the massive machine, The Siphon. To reach her full potential, however, requires blood, and it is blood which Elizabeth says highlights the difference between a girl and a woman.
In Telltale Games’ “The Walking Dead” even a zombie outbreak can’t stop the onset of puberty, with the motherless Clementine experiencing her first bleed and feeling bewilderment and fear at having no idea what it means. It is up to group leader Javier to do his best to explain it to her; a duty which many men, mostly due to societal conditioning, might indeed find “horrific”.
Menstruation might well be the Last Taboo, and its inclusion in horror fiction is often problematic or dangerously destructive, but unlike in horror, science fiction and fantasy writers do not seem as squeamish about adding menstruation into the mix. Corrine Willis’ short story “Even The Queen” (1992) explores how women who no longer need to endure a monthly bleed due to scientific and medical breakthroughs, opt to experience it by choice, even going so far as to call themselves “Cyclists”. It has been described as a sly and subversive jab at feminism, but also imagines a future where women might have more autonomy over their bodily functions. It notes very clearly the negative aspects of an unwanted bleed, and how much freedom can be regained when it’s no longer necessary. While the young daughter praises the supposed miracle of womanhood, her mother knows much better — that menstruation also brings with it pain, mood changes and a literal bloody mess.
End-of-the-world novels very rarely feature a female protagonist. Stories by Octavia Butler, P.D. James, and Margaret Atwood are some of the few who buck the trend. Add to this list Meg Elison’s “The Book of the Unnamed Midwife” (2014), a post-apocalyptic exploration of how men and women’s experiences of a broken world can differ greatly, especially in times of societal crisis. The book is written primarily in journal format, and follows a female medical worker struggling to help and provide medical care to the women she meets on her journey to find civilisation. Women are scarce in this future, with large numbers killed off by an unknown plague which also makes childbirth deadly. Added to that, most women are raped and enslaved by the remaining men — the protagonist even poses as male to evade capture. Menstruation, pregnancy and sexual assault are all examined in honest detail. This is a violent and harrowing tale which never shies away from the more visceral, bloody parts of being a fertile woman, but also examines their strength and resilience.
Fiction has no shortage of female characters adopting a masculine appearance as a form of defensive camouflage, but David Twohy’s horror sci-fi movie “Pitch Black” (2000) adds menstruation and gender-stereotyping to the mix. While the crew members assume Jack is a boy due to her choice of clothing and hairstyle, she is outed — without her consent — as female by the prisoner Riddick.
“I thought it’d be better if people took me for a guy,” she says. “I thought they might leave me alone instead of always messing with me.”
It’s a powerful statement which offers a scathing commentary of a patriarchal world where girls who have entered puberty may suddenly be seen as sexual objects of desire. An understanding that menarche opens a door not only to womanhood, but also to danger.
Ultimately, despite the suggestion that her monthly bleed may put a kink in the crew’s plan to avoid the deadly creatures that are hunting them, and escape the alien planet, Jack proves to be a strong and capable survivor. Dealing with menstruation while running for your life may be an inconvenience, but it certainly does not indicate weakness.
To conclude, I want to mention the more upbeat (but still deliciously dark) short story “Logistics” (2018) by A.J. Fitzwater. Another post-apocalyptic speculative-fiction tale, this is a first-person account of Enfys and their search for sanitary products at the end of the world. It is as much an exploration of gender as it is the issues and physical trials of menstruation, but acts as a thoughtful reminder that biology does not equate to gender, and the two are sometimes in conflict. Likewise, simply being in possession of a working uterus — whether you want one or not — brings its own unique challenges. “The monthlies” don’t just stop because civilisation is in pieces.
Examples of menstruation in darker genres clearly emphasise the shame, myths and frequent inconveniences that surround it, but they also illuminate, in ways that are often uncommon in fiction, the conflicting emotions felt by menstruating women about their bodies, and of those around them. As well as exploring the societal fear that the menstruating woman is a threat, these stories also show her powerful side, her resilience and sexual strength. The menstruating woman celebrated as a warrior and survivor, not as a monster to be feared.
It would be incredibly difficult to include every instance or example of menstruation in horror & dark fiction. By way of an apology to those I have left out, I offer a list of further reading and watching.
“Some of Your Blood” Theodore Sturgeon (1961)
“Wolf-Alice” short story from The Bloody Chamber, Angela Carter (1979)
“The Handmaid’s Tale” Margaret Atwood (1985)
“Weaveworld” Clive Barker (1987)
“The Crossing” Mandy Hagar (2009)
“Shiftless” Aimee Easterling (2014)
“Man-Eaters” (graphic novel) Chelsey Cain (2018)
The Witch, dir. Robert Eggars (2015)
Jennifer’s Body, dir. Karyn Kusama (2009)
It Stains the Sands Red, dir. Colin Minihan (2016)
A Tale of Two Sisters, dir. Jee-woon Kim (2003)
Excision, dir. Richard Bates, Jr (2012)
Teeth, dir. Mitchell Lichtenstein (2007)
Buffy the Vampire Slayer, dir. Fran Rubel Kuzui (1992)
“Women, Monstrosity and Horror Film: Gynaehorror” Erin Harrington (2018)
“The Vagina as a Bleeding Wound: Monstrous Puberty in Carrie, The Exorcist and Ginger Snaps” Kate Maher
“Writing Horror and the Body: The Fiction of Stephen King, Clive Barker, and Anne Rice” Linda Badley (1996)
“Misfit Sisters: Screen Horror as Female Rites of Passage” Williams, Christy, Marvels & Tales (2006)
First published February 2020 for Women In Horror Month at Ginger Nuts of Horror
Revised and reprinted June 2020 in The Digital Dead magazine
I was fifteen when I first watched Aliens, and twenty-two by the time I saw Alien. Yes, I watched them out of chronological order. Despite being part of the same franchise, I consider both movies to be exceptionally different, albeit underpinned by one amazing, badass character — Ellen Ripley.
According to online fan-site Xenopedia, Ellen Louise Ripley was born on 7th January 2092 and began her career as a warrant officer with Weyland-Yutani commercial freight operations. During her assignment on USCSS Nostromo, she first encountered hostile Xenomorphs on planet LV-426, commonly known as the Archeron.
Later, promoted to Lieutenant First Class and attached to the Colonial Marines as a civilian advisor, she encountered yet more Xenomorphs, while revisiting LV-426 on the USS Sulaco, cumulating with Ripley blowing the Alien Queen out of the Sulaco’s airlock.
Ripley is not a soldier and she is not trained in combat, but she is determined, tough and amazingly resilient. Alien is a slow-burn sci-fi horror story which doesn’t fully kick into action until forty-five minutes has passed. (Director, Ridley Scott himself joked that nothing actually happens in this time.) It has been described as a haunted-house movie, except the old house is a creepy spaceship. You would even be forgiven for assuming Ripley is a mere supporting character after Tom Skerritt’s Captain Dallas. Yet it is Ripley who faces up to the Xenomorph, devises an explosive survival plan, rescues herself, her cat Jonesy, and escapes. She floats away in cryosleep, hoping to be rescued from deep space.
After spending fifty-seven years asleep, Ripley awakens as a main character once more, in the action-packed horror/sci-fi blockbuster Aliens. It’s clear she is suffering from some serious PTSD and anxiety disorder and has no wish to revisit the alien threat. It is her recurring nightmares and concern for the people of Hadley’s Hope (a colony now living on LV-426) that sparks something powerful inside her. A burning need to do the right thing and also to confront her fears.
The first time I watched Aliens was with two friends in their den. Our respective parents had no idea. I remember being totally blown away, and not just because of the impressive action sequences. I’m out and proud as queer these days, but at fifteen I wasn’t fully sure. I just knew Ripley was one of my very first girl crushes, and I longed to have someone like her in my life.
On a superficial level, I was immediately struck by her physical appearance. Sigourney Weaver is a striking woman, but not stereotypically “pretty.” Her beauty comes from her energy and her attitude, and the way she carries herself. In Aliens she is make-up free, wearing typically masculine attire and sporting a rather unfortunate haircut. Yet rough, tough, macho marine Corporal Hicks falls for her pretty much instantly. Forget about any other romantic movie you have ever seen and think about that moment where Hicks shows Ripley how to use a pulse rifle.
Ripley: What’s this?
Hicks: That’s the grenade launcher. I don’t think you want to mess with that.
Ripley: You started this. Show me everything. I can handle myself.
Hicks: [chuckles] Yeah, I noticed.
Screw When Harry Met Sally, I wanted a love like Ripley and Hicks.
As an impressionable teen who also wasn’t traditionally pretty, that affected me in a million positive ways. It’s not about how you look, it’s about who you are, that will attract people to you. Ripley really emphasised that. Stuck in space with a bunch of hard-ass marines, she doesn’t try to lean into any particular angle other than her own. She doesn’t butch herself up to fit in, but she equally doesn’t try to emphasise her femininity so that those big, strong boys will do everything for her. She exudes complete and utter confidence in herself and her abilities. And she is fucking fabulous.
Ripley sparked a love for kick-ass females, and who I will probably always look to as a timeless and indisputable feminist icon. I remember watching her in both movies and thinking how bloody brilliant it was that she gave no apologies to anyone for any part of her. She would not back down and she would never give up, she simply rolled up her sleeves and got on with the damn job.
It would be hard to talk about Ripley without mentioning the theme of The Mother. In Alien, MU-TH-UR 6000 known as MOTHER is the AI mainframe in the Nostromo, and as well as auto-piloting the ship, was responsible for monitoring the crew. A poor guardian, however, MOTHER also ensured the survival of the deadly Xenomorph specimen taken from LV-426. Ultimately, MOTHER is destroyed by Ripley, along with the Nostromo.
In Aliens it is Ripley herself who takes the maternal role. Tormented by the loss of her real daughter while in hyper-sleep, she is quick to adopt and protect orphan Newt. While the Alien Queen attempts to colonise the planet with her own, deplorable offspring, the movie culminates in the ultimate face-off between two strong and determined females, fighting both for themselves and for their children
But Ripley is a mother to everyone, not merely to Newt, as she guides and advises the marines. She sees and anticipates what needs to be done, and her concern for the Hadley’s Hope colony overrides all her fears. She is the epitome of a strong matriarch, leading and protecting her community. She respects those who deserve her respect but has no time for those who give her any shit. She accepts everyone based on their merits and their behaviours, but she also understands that people can change when given the right guidance and support.
Except Burke. Fuck that guy. Right?
Or maybe not. In one of the most famous deleted scenes from Aliens, apparently cut because of a continuity error, we see Burke’s original demise. While searching for Newt inside the Hive, Ripley finds Burke, cocooned to the wall with a Chestburster inside him. He begs Ripley for help. She gives him a hand grenade and moves on. Behind her, Burke apologises for everything he has done. Ripley is a total badass, but she is also kind and fair. She is still a human being filled with surprising amounts of empathy. Even towards a jerk who would have happily killed her, and Newt, for money.
Ripley has no comparable military training to that of the marines. She does not have any obvious special skills or abilities, and she accepts leadership begrudgingly. But she survives due to her determination, her willingness to meet the problem head on, and to take control of her own narrative. She will not allow anyone to control her — not a Xenomorph, not a manipulative male, and most certainly not a corporate company. She’s learned that if she wants to survive, she needs to help herself, but that doesn’t make her selfish or immune to others’ needs, in fact it makes her more empathetic. She walks her own damn path, but she doesn’t need to walk all over others to do so. She knows “a rising tide lifts all boats,” and she works hard to do what’s right.
All of that doesn’t mean she’s not scared. Of course, she’s scared, but real bravery doesn’t mean you’re not frightened, real bravery means you can be scared but manage to overcome it. That you carry on in spite of your fear. All of these aspects of her personality make her an archetypical strong and powerful woman, in many different ways. Above all else, Ellen Ripley is undoubtedly a true badass.
First published January 2021 at Sci-Fi & Scary.
Director, James Cameron is well-known for using themes in his work. The most prevalent of these are:
- the preservation of the nuclear family unit,
- corrupt, capitalist corporations,
- corporations owning and utilizing the military for their own gains,
- advanced future tech managed by blue-collar workers,
- strong, female characters and mother/child relationships.
Unsurprisingly, ALIENS ticks off all of these, and more.
So, let’s begin… Why is ALIENS the Best Movie Ever Made?
Because it begins with a chilling bait-and-switch.
Barely eight minutes into the movie and we see the main character, Ellen Ripley, struggling with what appears to be an internal parasite and begging to be killed. It’s shocking and intense and makes you sit up and take notice. When the Xenomorph finally bursts out of her chest we are reintroduced to the titular monster with terrifying gusto.
Because the clever use of time markers adds to the intensity and pacing.
The script gives us all the necessary pieces of information without ever straying into needless exposition. Fifty-seven years have passed since the events of ALIEN; Ripley spends three, frustrating hours in the boardroom; the team has seventeen days before they can expect a rescue with four hours until LV-426 blows up, and Ripley has only twenty-six minutes to rescue Newt. Thus, we are on the clock from the very first scene.
Because the level of worldbuilding is exceptional with a tight plot straight out of the gate.
James Cameron doesn’t mess around – you are thrown into space while the title credits are still fading, with Ripley positioned like a modern Sleeping Beauty being rescued from her years of slumber. There are very few wide pans or establishing shots, Cameron instead drives the story through his characters making location almost secondary to the plot.
We are given a very claustrophobic view of what Earth looks like in this imagined future; we are restricted to seeing only interior shots, while the outside is a Virtual Reality projection. Through this we can surmise that Earth itself is a ruined shell of itself and the colonization of other planets has become a necessity rather than mere desire.
Because you care about all the characters.
The jokes, the camaraderie and the chemistry between the actors means you can feel a real sense of everyone working together. The Colonial Marines are enlarged by their actions and none of them feels one-dimensional. It enhances their unity, both as a team and against the enemy. Whatever their screen-time or character motivation, you care about them all. No one dies without leaving a mark, even the slimy traitor Carter Burke.
Because Ripley is so incredibly badass but also relatable and human.
Ripley is traumatised and psychologically broken, but still she finds the strength to do what she needs to do. Being all alone in the universe, she is motivated by her desire to reclaim her own life as well as to save the colony. She is unapologetic about who she is as a survivor and how her experiences have shaped her, and yet her empathetic nature means she still manages to put others first.
Because Ripley is a feminist action star and cultural icon.
Ripley is one of the best female characters in a science fiction movie, ever. Superficially, while this movie might appeal to stereotypical, white, cis, testosterone-filled males, in reality it is about compassion, motherhood and survival. Ripley (along with Hicks as a stand-in father) has a fearless, protective, motherly instinct. This movie helps to smash the patriarchy simply by existing.
ALIENS was not marketed as a women’s story, but it is a woman’s story. Ripley is not tough like a man; she is tough like a woman – the indescribable toughness of a mother who has lost her only child, who finds a child who has lost their mother. In a moment of furious determination, Ripley literally uses duct tape to make her ultimate badass weapon – a M240 incinerator unit (flame thrower) attached to a M41A pulse rifle with under-barrel grenade launcher – before setting out to rescue Newt. It shows Ripley’s ingenuity and drive, while being incredibly relatable and human.
Plus, “Get away from her, you bitch!” is the greatest movie line ever.
Because the scene where Hicks shows Ripley how to use a pulse rifle is intensely erotic.
Hicks is attracted to Ripley from the moment she steps into that Power Loader and shows him and Apone what she can do. Unlike the leading ladies in many other movies, Ripley is not here for our viewing pleasure. Her appearance is one of quiet confidence, she shows that she is resilient and in control, yet the intensity and energy she exudes proves that women do not need long, blonde hair and big tits to be sexy. She subverts the usual clichéd tropes and rough, tough Corporal Hicks is completely smitten.
Personally, I feel like it’s a travesty that Hicks never gets to tell Ripley how he feels. Instead, he says it all through his actions; how he places himself physically between her and any danger, his constant checking if she is okay and when he tells her, “Don’t be gone long, Ellen.” It’s a kick in the gut to know that (spoiler) Hicks and Newt are killed off right at the start of ALIEN 3, and Jonathon Clemens is a poor substitute lover.
Because it passes the Bechdel Test.
To pass the test, a movie has to have at least two named female characters who talk to each other about something besides a man. While we might not be able to count Ripley’s heated interaction with the Alien Queen, we can certainly include her conversations with Newt.
Because Burke is such a believable bad guy that you love to hate.
Burke is literally the catalyst for all this carnage. It is on his direct orders that Newt’s parents go to check out the Alien egg-infested derelict spaceship and end up taking a facehugger back to the colony. When confronted he shrugs and says it was a “bad call, that’s all.” Little wonder then that Ripley tells him he will be nailed to the wall for all he’s done. Which in turn, emboldens him to carry out his real plan – to allow an unsuspecting Ripley and Newt to take an Alien embryo back to Earth.
Burke embodies every real bad guy we know in modern society. He highlights how capitalist corporations fuck with us and, perhaps worse, how we let them. Burke is suave, intelligent, reasonably good-looking and acts like he’s on our side, but he’s actually a more terrifying monster than any Xenomorph. Unlike the Alien Queen, whose only real agenda is to ensure the survival of the species, Burke’s motivations are based in financial greed and corporate power, and he will sacrifice anyone to achieve that selfish goal.
Because the Alien monster is a giant, walking sex organ.
Like its predecessor ALIEN, this movie shines a spotlight on sex and body horror by allowing an alien female to gain power by using their sex as a weapon. In a show of patriarchal subversion, the Alien forcibly impregnates the host body – also a glaring analogy of rape and pregnancy – and uses their own body against them. The host is used and later discarded but ultimately kept alive. It flips expected gender roles and exacerbates the vulnerability and fragility of the human body, where everyone can be a victim.
Because Newt has the best scream in any movie, ever.
Seriously, the kid has a stunning pair of lungs on her that even Drew Barrymore and Jamie Lee Curtis cannot match.
Because the special effects are phenomenal.
Not enough is said about the cinematography and visual effects used in this movie, especially the colour palette used. The lighting and tone demand we lean in close, while the ragged, fractured visuals of the soldiers’ shoulder-cams entice us to peer into the shadows and dark spaces with them.
Because ALIENS has a cat in it.
This needs no further explanation.
Because the hardware in this movie is exceptional.
As Private Hudson tells us, “Me and my squad of ultimate badasses will protect you.
Check-it-out… Independently targeting particle-beam phalanx. VWAP! Fry half a city with this puppy. We got tactical smart-missiles, phased-plasma pulse-rifles, R.P.G’s. We got sonic, electronic ballbreakers. We got nukes. We got knives. Sharp sticks…”
Add to this the M577 Armoured Personnel Carrier, the M56 Smart Guns, and the hulking form of the starship Sulaco, and we can see that ALIENS is rocking some serious tech, as Hudson himself might put it.
Because even though it appears to support gun fetishization and militarism it is actually a critique of both.
Other writers greater than me have suggested that ALIENS draws a parallel to the horrors of the Vietnam War, where those in power sent troops on a mission where they had explicit corporate interest in the outcome, but were quite aware that they were sending them to their deaths. It mirrors the time-honoured human tradition of knowingly sacrificing a group of people if it appears to serve the greater good.
ALIENS shows us that while war might seem unavoidable, it comes with a incalculable price. The number of weapons you have and troops you command mean nothing; the real tally of conflict is human lives.
Because it has an important, underlying warning about the human cost of colonialism and imperialism.
One of the reasons why ALIENS is so great is how it paints a terribly depressing yet fully believable future in terms of how human beings behave and how we might colonise space. The Alien Queen has no great master plan. She has no grand illusions or expectations. Her sole aim is to ensure the proliferation of her species with no other agenda but survival.
ALIENS reminds us of how humans frequently try to take what is not rightfully theirs by force while actively repressing the Other. Only in this story, the Alien Other fights back and wins. It gives us a glimpse into a future where our selfish actions have dire consequences. Humans are no longer at the top of the food chain and cannot simply do what they want.
Because James Horner’s original soundtrack is phenomenal.
This macho, science-fiction action movie has a soundtrack written and performed with the prestigious London Symphony Orchestra, and if you don’t think that is incredibly cool, I don’t know what else to say to you.
Because the scene in the director’s cut when Ripley gives a cocooned Burke a grenade will give you chills.
After running away like the coward he is and shutting off a potential escape route for the others, Carter Burke is apparently killed by an Alien. Except, as Ripley tells us earlier in the film, they don’t kill you. Whilst searching for the abducted Newt she comes across Burke, cocooned in the wall. He begs for help; says he can feel it inside him. Silently, she hands him a grenade, wraps his fingers around it and pulls the primer. She moves on. From behind her, we see and hear the blast. Ripley doesn’t even react.
Because it is eminently quotable.
Everyone has a favourite, but here’s some of mine:
“I say we take off and nuke the entire site from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure.”
“Hey, Vasquez, have you ever been mistaken for a man?”
“No. Have you?”
“This little girl survived longer than that with no weapons and no training. Right?”
“Why don’t you put her in charge?!”
And finally, to conclude,
“Game over, man. Game over!”
First published June 2020 for Pride in Horror Month at Divination Hollow Reviews.
This essay was shortlisted for an Australian Shadows Award, 2021, for Nonfiction.
Human society craves the Other – an enemy, a stranger or a scapegoat, against which every individual can define themselves. Any appearance, behaviour or desire which deviates from the culturally accepted norm is considered monstrous, and as a consequence, is avoided or shunned. As a genre, vampiric horror frequently emerges during times of cultural crisis. It serves as a social pacifier, a tool to help negotiate communal anxieties by working through them in a displaced form.
Author Fred Botting (Gothic, 1996) suggests that since the Middle Ages, the fear of vampires originated as fears of the Plague, thought to have emerged from the East. A vampire’s principal companions and alternative forms – rats, wolves and bats etc. – were all associated with this affliction. The vampire was seen principally as a disease-bearing foreigner, thus combining overt racism and the fear of illness and death in one. The 18th century aesthetic of morality and monstrosity added to this further with the spectre of homosexuality. Decadence, corruption and forbidden love; all sins to be avoided.
Ever since their creation, vampires have been associated with sex and deviancy. They are the Monstrous Other and their existence is terrifying and corrupt. By their very undead nature, vampires go against the supposed laws of God and goodness. They embody both physical monster and unclean desires. As any deviation from the expected norm is considered scary, homosexuality has also long been equated with the Monstrous Other. Those who oppose it often cite it as exhibiting “unnatural urges and behaviour” and that it “goes against God.”
Vampires embody homosexual behaviour primarily in the way that they engage in sexual practices without the consequence of reproduction. Their bodily form can shift and become fluid, and all expected physical boundaries can be transgressed, with this fluidity applying to traditional gender norms as well. Lesbian vampires were considered an even greater danger to society. Female-to-female desire was seen as destructive to both natural laws and as a threat to the patriarchal order. L. Andrew Cooper, writing in Gothic Realities: The Impact of Horror Fiction on Modern Culture(2010) suggests that by penetrating the flesh with her fangs, the lesbian vampire emulates the insertion of the phallus, and thus claims masculine power for herself. This subversion of and deviation from patriarchal norms saw such vampires become monstrous “Femme Fatales.”
Legends around vampires have existed for millennia, with many different cultures having their own stories of blood-drinking entities and spirits. While the gothic novel found its heyday in the late 18th century, the cinematic medium has depicted vampires for just shy of a century, beginning with the 1922 release of Nosferatu. Max Schreck donned prosthetics and heavy makeup to play Count Orlok, emphasising the vampire’s monstrous appearance. Yet it didn’t take long before vampires became desirable. Bela Lugosi’s early portrayal of Count Dracula (1931) was unfailingly charming and often sexy, although his victims were always beautiful women. Any queer vampirism was kept to a subtext.
Between 1934 and 1968, all Hollywood projects were required to adhere to the Motion Picture Production Code, known as the Hays Code, a set of rules intended to prohibit the making of any movies that might corrupt the general audience. While not explicitly banned, the Hays Code made sure that any instances of homosexuality or queerness were effectively erased. When they did exist, their sexual preference was usually only vaguely alluded to or they were depicted as villains.
Horror films were one of the few genres unafraid to explore and expose a queer presence in cinema. While many creators used queerness as a trope – the monstrous and predatory queer being unfortunately very common – there was some sense of victory that the queer was at least becoming visible. Movies such as The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) Rebecca (1940) and The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945) certainly included queer characters, even if this was not made explicit or celebrated.
Vampire movies went even further by equating queerness with sexual liberation. In Dracula’s Daughter (1936) the central character, although desperate to cure her vampiric tendencies, seduces both men and women to drink their blood. Blood and Roses (1960) – an updated adaptation of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s gothic novella, Carmilla – was a precursor to the many out-and-proud lesbian vampire movies that would arrive a decade later. Unrequited love sends the unhappy Carmilla to her vampiric ancestor’s tomb where she also becomes a vampire, to then kill and feed on other women.
By the 1970s, feminism was on the rise, and the empowered, lesbian vampire was a powerful symbol for marginalised groups – women and homosexuals alike. The 1960s had ushered in a sexual revolution, and the Stonewall Riots gave LGBTQ characters the room to have a more explicit presence. The end of the Production Code also allowed Hollywood filmmakers greater freedom to tell the stories they really wanted to. Lesbian vampirism became a 20th-century Exploitation trope beginning with Hammer Films release of The Vampire Lovers (1970) which applauded queer, vampiric horror. The Belgian movie Daughters of Darkness (1971), Spanish Vampyros Lesbos (1971) and Blood Spattered Bride (1972), and the British Daughters of Darkness (1974) ensured that queer vampires went international on the big screen. French director Jean Rollin built his career on this trope, releasing a succession of queer-friendly vampire pictures including The Naked Vampire (1970), The Shiver of the Vampires (1971), and Lips of Blood (1975)
In the 1980s, cult erotic-horror classic, The Hunger (1983) gave visibility to an openly bisexual vampire. Catherine Deneuve stars as Miriam Blaylock with David Bowie as her companion, John. When John begins to age, Miriam seeks to replace him with the – at least initially – unwilling Sarah (Susan Sarandon), while John’s undead, mummified body grumbles pitifully in her attic. Fright Night (1985) introduced Chris Sarandon as the posh, gay (possibly bisexual) vampire Jerry Dandridge and his obsessed young neighbour, Charley Brewster; while The Lost Boys (1987) played with physical androgyny and queer sexuality as lead vampire David asks the conflicted Michael, “How far are you willing to go?”
Many filmmakers also realised that vampiric horror was an ideal way of delivering subliminal messages concerning the dangers of sexual liberation, particularly during the 1980s amid the threat of AIDS and HIV. While the characters are not explicitly queer, Near Dark (1987) plays with the themes of ‘infected’ and ‘clean’ blood, as well as clear racial and homosexual metaphors.
Many of the queer vampires of the ’90s and early 2000s moved away from sex and passion to focus on relationships and family. Interview with the Vampire (1994) based on Anne Rice’s novel from 1976, saw Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt as Lestat and Louis, playing father-figures to the plague-ridden Claudia (Kirsten Dunst). The movie explores their complicated – and frequently volatile – relationship over several centuries. The Dracula and Van Helsing families become inexorably intertwined in the vampiric arthouse-style movie, Nadja (1994) which updates the Dracula myth into modern New York. And Let the Right One In (2008) tells the story of Oskar, a bullied young boy, and his relationship with child vampire, Eli. While Eli’s gender is deliberately ambiguous, their relationship transcends this, with the two main characters shown to be both firm friends and romantically connected.
In more recent years, queer vampires seem to have become less popular in the movies. The Sisterhood (2004) is a teen horror B-movie about a vampire who corrupts a college sorority, while German horror film, We Are the Night (2010) focuses on an all-female vampire trio who are being investigated by the police. Unrequited same-sex love features as a motivational plot-point, while exploring the idea of a matriarchal society. However, where the big screen might be lacking, there is still plenty of queer representation in television (True Blood, The Originals, What We Do In The Shadows, BBC’s Dracula) on YouTube (queer, feminist Canadian vampire web series Carmilla) and in low-budget, independent “Gaysploitation” erotic-horror films (Vampire Boys and Bite Marks, both 2011).
Being queer might still be considered by some as the Monstrous Other, but it seems that gay vampires are no longer the shocking entity that they once were. The popularity of Ellen and Ru Paul’s Drag Race has integrated gay culture into the mainstream, and same-sex marriage is legal in twenty-eight countries around the world. Where horror aims to shock and subvert, homosexuality is no longer considered controversial enough.
Yet vampires remain popular regardless of their sexual preferences. Modern vampire stories in cinema and television often focus on their raw strength and immortality, rather than their sexual deviancy. They do not age nor die of natural causes. They can create others like them without a prolonged gestation period. They have increased speed, strength and healing ability, and are apparently immune to disease. Current events have shown us that a large percentage of the human species is woefully unprepared for catastrophic events – vampires show us an Other which we might secretly aspire to be. An impossible, evolutionary advantage, that might also be just a little bit queer.
First published as a Guest Post, May 2019 at Ladies of Horror Fiction.
Women in horror frequently get a very bad deal. They are punished, constantly and consistently, for no other reason than their gender identity. Portrayed either as weak and fragile victims, or gratuitously over-sexualised, often their only purpose is to be assaulted, lusted over or both. Enter: the Monstrous Mother. She may be possessive, narcissistic, overbearing, jealous, abusive, homicidal or sexually oppressed. The very worst kind of monstrous mother is all of these things at once. Horror has a special relationship with its audiences — it relies on emotions and must illicit a reaction. It awakens hidden fears and desires and is frequently the most unsettling when it imagines danger in “safe” places such as the home. Because of this, monstrous mothers make ideal protagonists.
The psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud described motherhood in a highly controversial way. He believed that women’s lives were dominated by their reproductive functions, and a woman’s existence is only given real meaning when she becomes a mother. She serves as a container for her infants’ endogenous drives, and her influence is so powerful that should she fail to successfully realise these drives and desires — especially during their formative years — she may cause irreversible and catastrophic damage to her child’s psyche. Thus, mothers are supposed to be saviours and protectors. Their primary role is to nurture and care. When that is compromised, we are forced to confront a kind of horror which makes us feel vulnerable and confused. The Monstrous Mother trope taps keenly into our primal fears. It fosters distrust in the mother’s role as a worthy protector. The idea that all mothers should be sweet and caring homemakers is undermined by casting them as villains. It is a Freudian nightmare made real.
No other monstrous mother better highlights this Freudian fear than Vera Cosgrove (Elizabeth Moody) in Peter Jackson’s Braindead. After being bitten by a Sumatran rat-monkey, becoming a zombie, and subsequently turning the entire town into the undead, she then mutates into a gigantic and repulsive beast, complete with oversize breasts. That sequence of events could be quite terrifying enough for her nebbish son, Lionel, to cope with, but her warped maternal instincts urge her to go yet further and suck her unwilling offspring back into her womb, along with the line, “No-one will ever love you like your mother!” Lionel escapes by performing his own twisted caesarean and dispatches his creator, running into the waiting arms of his young, female lover. An Oedipal tale this is not, and yet it certainly toys with some of Freud’s controversial ideas on psychosexual development — where the mother is the first true love object of the child, all boys are drawn to and subconsciously desire their mothers until a suitable substitute is found. Lionel has to effectively be re-born and destroy his overbearing mother before he can begin a new sexual chapter in his life.
Women who turn their back on creating offspring are often seen as monstrous, simply for denying what Freud would argue is a woman’s sole purpose for existing. Yet some monstrous mothers most certainly should never have accepted such a role. In Stephen King’s Carrie, Carrie White’s mother Margaret (played by Piper Laurie in the 1976 thematic release) is a fanatical, abusive zealot who brands her telekinetic daughter a witch, throws hot tea in her face and then tries to kill her. The fact that she has traumatised her daughter throughout her entire life, and has been the catalyst for awakening her powers, has apparently not occurred to her. Clearly Mrs. White is not mentally sound and is possibly suffering from a certain amount of unresolved guilt and past trauma, however her unhealthy obsession with Jesus and a fervent revulsion of sex, ensures that Carrie’s life, especially during her formative years, is a constant misery. Carrie has no knowledge of menstruation or what it means to her as a woman; her mother informs her that the onset of her period is due to her entertaining “sinful thoughts” and forces her into a cupboard to pray away the evil. Ultimately, after sustaining years of bullying and abuse from her mother and her peers, and then doused in pig blood as a prom night prank, Carrie herself takes up the mantle of monster and destroys her classmates, her mother, and herself with her telekinetic abilities. Her actions are seen primarily as an act of revenge, but also an act of liberation, as Carrie emancipates herself from a lifetime of matriarchal mistreatment.
Mother’s Day, a Troma Entertainment “exploitation film” from 1980 (and loosely remade in 2010) also takes the idea of an unsuitable mother and runs wild with it. The titular Mother has raised her two sons to be murderers, rapists and thieves and actively encourages their horrible exploits — indeed, they engage in such acts to impress her. Of course, the victims are invariably young and attractive women, and in another warped example of the Oedipal and Jocastacomplexes, Mother ensures she eliminates any competition for her sons’ adoration and maintains total control over their lives. Mother’s background is never revealed, and we are left to assume that her proclivity towards derangement is simply due to some warped enjoyment. The character is eventually dispatched by her sons’ would-be victims wielding a sex-toy, serving to further highlight Mother’s fear that eventually all mothers are replaced by younger, more sexual women in their sons’ lives.
Horror mothers are often angry, and that rage fuels their homicidal urges. In David Cronenburg’s The Brood, Nola Carveth (Samatha Eggar) is abused by her alcoholic mother during childhood. Her unprocessed rage — coupled with a new type of experimental psychotherapy — is so powerful that she is able to parthenogenetically give birth to a brood of homicidal dwarves who physically enact her subconscious desires by murdering everyone who angers her. An obvious physical manifestation of her unresolved psychological pain, Nola’s ability to spawn these children of vengeance is somewhat ironic, given that her sole aim for undergoing therapy is to prove that she is emotionally stable. Thanks to the actions of her supernatural children, her desire to gain custody of her real, human child is a goal which is sadly never reached. Yet, just as alcoholic Monster Mother begat traumatised and unstable Monster Mother, we are shown in the conclusion that Nola’s daughter might also have inherited her mother’s vengeful talents.
One such child who definitely inherited his mother’s temperament was motel owner-manager Norman Bates, he of Psycho fame. The domineering and narcissistic Mrs Norma Bates is equal parts jealous, manipulative, needy and homicidal. She is a mean-tempered and puritanical old woman who raised the seemingly mild-mannered Norman with abject cruelty. She teaches him that all women — except her — are whores, and that any sexual contact is a sin. She controls his entire life and forbids him to leave her or the motel. It is hardly any wonder then that when his mother takes a lover, a confused and jealous Norman dispatches them both. Later, unable to bear the pain of being separated from her, he exhumes and mummifies his mother’s corpse, and keeps her in his fruit cellar. Eventually we discover that Norma’s influence on her son has had terrible consequences, to the point where he not only commits homicide in her name but does so while wearing her clothes. We are led to believe that Norman is not merely pretending to be his mother but has essentially become her: his personality has been split and overcome by the murderous “mother” persona. Norma may not have ever taken up a knife herself, but her terrible parenting certainly made her indirectly responsible for a multitude of deaths, by actively contributing to Norman’s psychological distress.
Horror films are all too happy to pervert the results of a personal tragedy into some form of biblical vengeance and perhaps the most well-known monstrous mother is she who only becomes a monster to avenge the demise of her child. Driven mad by bereavement, Pamela Vorhees (Betsy Palmer) in Friday the 13th, wreaks murderous vengeance on the teenage counsellors of Camp Crystal Lake, who she blames for the accidental drowning of her son, Jason. It is an extreme decision, but it shines a light on a mother’s primal instinct to protect their child, or to make sense of their death. Pamela’s actions are indeed monstrous, but we can also appreciate how the tragic circumstances have influenced her mental state and driven her to pursue lethal reparations.
Other monstrous mothers seeking either homicidal justice include: Mrs Loomis in Scream 2 who wants revenge for the death of Billy, her murderous son; the ghostly Jennet Humfrye from The Woman in Black who seeks to avenge the accidental death of her child by taking the lives of any who dare approach Eel Marsh House; and even the Alien Queen from Aliens who as a six-legged, double-jawed beast with acid for blood becomes even more terrifying when she discovers that Ripley has incinerated her precious eggs. Going back as far back as the Anglo-Saxon era, when Beowulf kills Grendel, it is Grendel’s mother who arrives seeking murderous revenge. Such behaviour is clearly an extreme over-reaction, but these monstrous mothers see their deeds as completely reasonable. And as any real-life mother knows, when the “Momma Lion” has been unleashed in her, woe betide anyone who hurts her child.
Horror mothers don’t always start out as monsters, often they are simply struggling with the responsibilities and pressures of motherhood. Sleep deprivation, physical and mental exhaustion, behavioural difficulties in their offspring or financial worries all have a considerable impact on any new mother. In The Babadook Amelia Vanek (Essie Davis) is an exhausted widow, struggling to raise her troubled and violent son without help. Mentally fragile and clearly gripped by a terrible depression, Amelia voices the unthinkable: she wishes her child were dead. She is subsequently possessed by the Babadook, which urges her to act on her desires, yet through a feat of great emotional strength, she is able to overcome the monster and drive it into the basement of her house. Amelia does not vanquish the beast, but instead she learns to tame and control it. The Babadook serves as a powerful metaphor for the destruction mental illness, and specifically maternal depression, can wreak on a family unit. Director, Jennifer Kent, stated in October 2014 that: “it is a very taboo subject, to say that motherhood is anything but a perfect experience for women.” And yet it is one which many mothers, new and old, readily identify with. Caught in the grip of post-natal depression, for example, real life can feel like real Hell for many women.
Lionel Shriver captures this struggle uniquely in the character of Eva Khatchadourian in her novel, We Need to Talk About Kevin. Some might argue Eva is included unfairly, as after all it is her son who is the real monster, but her indifference and coldness towards her own child and the distance she maintains between them, pushes him down a dark path. It is unclear if Eva herself is suffering from some form of PND, but her ambivalence to motherhood, borne from her struggle to adjust to life with a challenging infant, and perhaps compounded by the fact that having a family meant she had to give up her successful career, drives an already disturbed young child to commit atrocious acts. Why, we wonder, did Eva not seek professional help for her child, and also for herself? Perhaps, to some, a monstrous mother is not only one who commits evil, but one who also quietly distances herself from it and allows it a space to thrive in her own home.
In The Monster the mother herself is not necessarily the titular monster, but she is still a terrible mother, and as such, her behaviour is deemed to be monstrous. A raging alcoholic who is both incompetent and abusive, the relationship between failed mother and neglected daughter is hideously strained, and it is largely Mummy’s fault that they both find themselves in a perilous situation. Only after the introduction of the “real” monster — a stereotypical scary beast with sharp teeth and claws — is the monstrous mother thus able to redeem herself. She acknowledges and apologises for her previous bad mother behaviour and offers herself up as a sacrifice to ensure her daughter can survive. Her selfless sacrifice cannot necessarily negate her prior monstrousness, but it does reassert her role as a protector and saviour and suggests that even the worst mothers can change and rediscover their caring, maternal role.
Horror as a genre is frequently dominated by male writers and directors — out of all the books and films mentioned previously, only three: The Babadook, The Woman in Black, and We Need to Talk About Kevin, were penned by women. Playing heavily on the stereotype of the “hysterical” woman, most other male-written monstrous mothers become shrieking harpies, incapable of expressing themselves rationally or calmly. Perhaps locked in a permanent state of post-menstrual tension or driven mad by unstable hormones, they are seen to be devoid of logic or compassion. Male writers are only able to comment on their perception of motherhood — and one also has to seriously question the relationships they have with their own mothers when looking at their sources of inspiration! Their fictional mothers are frequently zealous, domineering, or seek to emasculate their offspring. They are usually post-menopausal, and if not outright unattractive, they are certainly not depicted as sexual, or sexually active — suggesting that a woman loses all her urges and sensuality once she has given birth. She does not need to be an actual beast, when her behaviour is beastly enough, (excluding Vera Cosgrove of course.) However, all faults aside, Monster Mothers are also frequently strong and formidable characters. It shows an interesting awareness that even when the female horror character has lost her physical allure or her sexual “purpose”, her role as a Mother can offer her a different kind of power as a woman.
In traditional horror literature, when the females are stronger than the males, they are frequently depicted as sexually depraved monsters who indulge in exhibitionism and sadism. Not true in monstrous motherhood. These women have no need for sex or procreation — their work is already done. When the female is able to transcend these predefined gender roles, she has the potential to be both feminine and masculine, and to be as nurturing and protective as she is dominant and aggressive. These females then become a threat by simply proving they can be stronger or more powerful than any male — a concept which Freudian theory claims a man is incapable of enduring — and the mother becomes a monster more frightening than any supernatural beast.
“The mother is the monster” is not a typically common horror trope, at least not when compared to the use of women as victims or sexual objects, but a number of modern horror writers and directors are becoming increasingly aware that it is a chillingly effective one. The bond between a mother and child forms one of the strongest emotional ties in human nature and exploring those feelings through horrific narratives awakens a primal terror within us. An anxiety that suggests that if we cannot even trust our own mothers to nurture and protect us, nothing in our lives is truly safe.