Abjection & the Monstrous Feminine in AMER & POSSESSION
"The abject has only one quality of the object - that of being opposed to I. If the object, through its opposition, settles me within the fragile texture of a desire for meaning, makes me ceaselessly and infinitely homologous to it, what is abject, on the contrary, the jettisoned object, is radically excluded and draws me towards the place where meaning collapses"
Writing for the Australian magazine TATGIRL, author Ghill De Rosario posits the question "Are horror movies inherently misogynistic?" While, on one hand, an endless stream of attractive, usually scantily clad female flesh, are essentially Horror's stock-in-trade, there's a bit more to it than that. Horror also serves as an essential window into women's experiences, looking at how different society interpret femininity through Horror's dark lens.
As Rosario points out, rather than necessarily exploiting women's suffering, Horror often takes a cold, steely look at the harsh reality many women face. I Spit On Your Grave, for example, was initially inspired by the director discovering a rape victim in a park. He stopped to lend a hand, getting her help at a hospital and deciding her story needed to be told. This negates many of the feminist critiques of the Rape Revenge genre, as a whole. Horror is also one of the only genres that routinely passes the Bechdel Test.
Finally, Rosario's essay points out that women can be so much more than just victims in the Horror genre. As Final Girls, women tend to be the living embodiment of the virtuous and pure, quite literally good triumphing over evil. What this says of Horror's depictions of masculinity, however, is an entirely different matter, and one for another essay.
Not all women and femininity is good, chaste, and pure, of course. Horror also peels back the epidermis, performing a necessary autopsy on the dark sides of femininity. The Monstrous-Feminine, as put forth by film analyst Barbara Creed dissects the fear and repulsion that femininity seems to inherently instill in patriarchal systems.
Creed breaks the Monstrous-Feminine into 7 major categories:
Order vs. Chaos may be the oldest literary trope in the world, dating all the way back to the story of Marduk slaying Tiamat. This is an example of the mind/body dialectic that has plagued the Western world since before there was a Western world. In this dichotomy, under patriarchy, women/femininity gets code as "earthy," a reflection of the Dionysian current, as opposed to the more clinical, cerebral Apollonian current, as commented on in The New York Times' original review of Camille Paglia's influential, if controversial, look at gender and sexuality in the Western World, Sexual Personae.
As noted in the New York Times review, this reading of the Dionysian currents is problematic on various levels, while the currents themselves are perfectly pristine.
As the author notes, "The argument of ''Sexual Personae'' runs roughly as follows: Nature is barbarous and violent, though people choose to pretend that it is benevolent rather than succumb to utter despair. Art can be either Apollonian, camouflaging the ''dehumanizing brutality'' of nature, or Dionysian, accepting and celebrating it. The Apollonian striving for order is central to the Judeo-Christian tradition, which is responsible for ''western personality and western achievement.'' Western culture nonetheless contains a Dionysian dimension (Ms. Paglia prefers the term ''chthonic'') that liberal humanists prefer not to acknowledge. In art, the chthonic realities of nature are typically represented by sexual symbolism, which is usually violent and compulsive. ''The amorality, aggression, sadism, voyeurism, and pornography in great art,'' Ms. Paglia argues, ''have been ignored or glossed over by most academic critics.'' To this end, ''Sexual Personae'' serves as an illustrated catalogue of the pagan sexual symbolism that Ms. Paglia believes to be omnipresent in Western art."
By looking at the monstrous feminine, feminist horror, and Horror's relation, in general, to gender, in general, and women, in particular, not only do we restore some of these Pagan currents Ms. Paglia's talking about, we also return (or, even more sadly, give for the first time) women their own agency.
Under the old dialectic, under the umbrella of patriarchy, women are always The Other. They are ineffable, unknowable. As symbols and gatekeepers of the natural, earthy world, they are a reminder of humanity's mortality, the quick rush to the grave in our mayfly lives. Women, as representatives of the chthonic, remind us of our abjection, of our ultimate materiality, the mystery of what lies outside our imaginary egos, the frailty of our autonomy, the composite nature of our personalities, and the power of nature.
To illustrate these topics, we'll be taking a look at two feminist horror films which touch on abjection and the monstrous feminine in Horror genre. We'll be taking a look at the psychosexual bildungsroman giallo Amer and the earthy sexual obsession of Possession.
Amer, Abjection, Liminality, Giallo and the Gaze
Quoting Julia Kristeva's Powers Of Horror, commenting on the anthology film Holidays, author Lee Houle discusses female sexuality in Horror.
"From Julia Kristeva’s Power of Horror, abjection is the “threatened breakdown of meaning caused by the the loss of distinction between subject and object or between self and other.” Abjection is something experienced before entering the mirror stage of psychosexual development, as in the establishment of boundaries between self and other and human and animal. In horror films, this is usually induced through hybrid monsters like werewolves, or the corpse which reminds the viewer of their own materiality, their own ‘objectness’ while being a gazing subject."
The subject, object, female autonomy, sexuality, and both the male and female gaze are impossible to ignore in Amer, a surreal neo-Giallo from French-born/Belgian-based directors Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani. While sub-genres like Slashers and Giallo are tailor made for psychoanalysis, with their obsession with penetration, for instance, Amer is the most on-the-nose psychological deconstruction you're likely to see; so much so that it's more like you're watching some lysergic Jungian dream sequence play out universal archetypes in vibrant crimson and canary yellow than any kind of narrative or plot.
Amer follows Ana, a young girl, through three stages of her life. It starts out with her, as a child, approaching a sprawling Mediterranean gothic villa. They're there to visit a body, perhaps her grandfather's. From the start, Ana is terrorized by the shrouded figure of her grandmother, standing in for the looming specter of death. Ana locks herself in her room, then sneaks out to visit the body. Along the way, she catches a glimpse of her parents making love, her mother seemingly somewhere between ecstasy and agony, with her father playing the role of penetrator. The Freudian overtones are present from the start.
So are the Jungian, however. Already, the film is heavily laced with objects highly symbolic in meaning - skeleton keys, rosary beads, a dead sparrow. Keys represent the liminal, the state between thing, showing Ana at the threshold between being a child and womanhood. Dead birds are known to symbolize frozen female sexuality, the feminine orgasm unable to take flight - an omen of things to come.
Ana has a vision of her grandfather returning to life after prying a hefty sterling pocket watch from his cold, dead fingers. This vision; the presence of the corpse, as a reminder of the abject; the earthy, chthonic symbolism; and her parent's love making make for a perfect storm of repressed female sexuality.
The scene abruptly shifts to a few years later, with Ana perched on the precipice of womanhood. She and her mother walk to town, dressed in thin cotton dresses, while being caressed by the soft sea air. All eyes are on the pair of beautiful, elegant women. Ana seems to enjoy the attention and begin to be aware of the power she can wield while simultaneously being wary and afraid. She is beginning to individuate, to become her own person and accept her own agency, symbolized by her removing her hand from her mother's, no longer accepting the role of infant. Her mother notices and finds an excuse to retake her hand, putting Ana back in her place.
Suddenly, there is a world of men out there and Ana is the prey.
As her mother gets her hair done, Ana sneaks away to tease a local young boy, as another expression of her individuation and sexual autonomy. She comes across a motorcycle gang, rough and tumble in black leather, dangerous in their chains and stubble. The camera lingers lovingly, almost psychedelically, on these details. Ana is discovering the world of men, the world of men is discovering Ana, and the associations with danger are further reinforced.
Finally, the third triptych finds Ana returning to the villa as a young woman. She's grown up to be neurotic, sexually repressed. Nonetheless, she luxuriates in the natural details, the sea air caressing her almost orgasmically. As she explores the villa, she is terrorized by a spectral figure, the iconic black-gloved Giallo slasher. Here, as before, sex and death are forever linked. Ana seems to have internalized that to have sex is to die. This rushes to the final conclusion, when Ana is finally penetrated, but by a stiletto instead of an organ.
Again, Giallos and Slashers can be psychoanalyzed to death in any number of ways, but few are so overt, and so psychotropic, as Amer. It's a fascinating, subterranean descent into the mind of a young woman unable to fully take flight, like the dead bird in the first few minutes.
Possession, the Chthonic, and Women's Sexual Obsession
In his infamous, influential essay "Why We Crave Horror," Stephen King speculates on some of the moral and emotional impetuses behind watching Horror.
"Our emotions and our fears form their own body, and we recognize that it demands its own exercise to maintain proper muscle tone. Certain of these emotional muscles are accepted – even exalted – in civilized society; they are, of course, the emotions that tend to maintain the status quo of civilization itself. Love, friendship, loyalty, kindness -- these are all the emotions that we applaud, emotions that have been immortalized in the couplets of Hallmark cards and in the verses (I don’t dare call it poetry) of Leonard Nimoy."
Stephen King is not the only one who's noticed the morality and gatekeeping of the Horror genre. For much mainstream Horror, the message is clear. Break the taboos and pay the price. In Slashers, especially, the message is clear - if you have sex, you die. Those who step outside of the society's boundaries get sliced, diced, and slit from ear-to-ear. Clearly, you need society's bright lights to protect you from the boogieman and the Deep, Dark Woods.
Of course, few things in this society are as heavily policed as women's sexuality. And few things are as frowned upon as a woman stepping out on her partner, especially if she's a mom.
This tension sets the stage for Andrzej Żuławski's Possession, the ultimate chthonic headfuck softcore plant porn fable. It starts out with Anna, in a legendary, award-performance performance from Isabelle Adjani, informing her husband Mark, played by a very young Sam Neill, that she is having an affair. At first, it is with an older gentleman, Heinrich, every husband's worst nightmare - a sensuous, sexually-fluid tantric yoga instructor. A bizarre series of melodramas occur, with everything played over-the-top like a Soap Opera, culminating in Anna leaving to find her own flat.
Suddenly, Mark and Heinrich are both the second men. They start following Anna, discovering her pleasure flat, and a mind-blowing secret that unfurls Possession's truly nutso third act.
If you've not seen Possession, I'd suggest you stop reading here. The following will discuss a bit of a spoiler, as a lynch pin of the film's ultimate plot. This is a detailed analysis, so we're going to assume you've seen the film from here on out. You've been warned!
Anna is stepping out on both Heinrich and Mark, it's true. But in a way that no one could see coming. It seems that Anna is keeping some tentacled, vegetoid beast in a squalid bedroom as both a pet and a lover. She lures men home, where she murders them, becoming victims for the tentacled beast.
It's all worth it, judging from Anna's ecstatic, orgiastic response, as fleshy tentacles explore her every nook and cranny. Mark witnesses their carnality and becomes unhinged.
From here, it seems that both Mark and Anna are replaced with some kind of doppelgangers while the originals die in a bloody pile. The film ends with the two, immaculate, beautiful, and perfect, watch as armageddon is initiated.
Possession is about more than just obsessive sexuality in women, although that is a major plot point, which is why the film works so well. Everything seems to serve double-duty, acting as open-ended metaphysical symbol. But the vegetal-squid creature is undeniably chthonic, seemingly both animal and vegetable. Writing on the role of the chthonic in the women of D. H. Lawrence's novels, Derek Hawthorne talks about the psychoanalysis of the chthonic and how it relates to femininity.
"The “pull” in women is towards the earth, and this means several things. First, the earth is the source of chthonic powers, and so, as poetic metaphor, it represents the primal, pre-mental, animal aspect in human beings. In a literal sense, however, Lawrence believes that women are more in tune than men with chthonic powers: with the rhythms of nature and the cycle of seasons. Further, the “downward flow” refers to Lawrence’s belief that the lower “centres” of the body are, in a sense, more primitive, more instinctual than the upper, and that women tend to live and act from these centers more than men do."
Despite its gender essentialism, this analysis yields some interesting takes on feminine psychology, psychoanalysis, and film studies. First of all, as the arbiters and gatekeepers of the chthonic realm, women represent a return to the pre-Oedipal/pre-conscious state, a realm with no rules, barring the law of nature, no strict lines, no clear definitions. It is a fluid state where subject and object are difficult, if not impossible, to differentiate.
In defying her expected roles as both mother and wife, Anna assumes the mantle of the monstrous feminine, the monstrous mother. When the womb is no longer meant to bear life, it quickly assumes its other association, waiting for us at the other end of this mortal coil. The womb becomes the grave, with orgasms becoming little ego-annihilating deaths. For the 'solidified ego,' - that stuck in Lacan's 'mirror phase', holding on to the illusion of unity - this is an unpardonable sin.
This monstrous motherhood can be seen in Possession's most memorable scene - an interpretive dance freakout/meltdown in the Paris Metro underground. Anna is performing her feminine duty, running errands, bringing home groceries. Finally, she can take it no longer. She begins to whirl and spin; spiralling, smashing, and writhing until she is a filthy, frothing pile on the floor. Spilled milk, dark fluid, spittle, and sweat all combine into some sort of runoff, like some form of blighted amniotic fluid.
As we've seen, Horror movies offer an insightful, piercing gaze into the experience and psychology of girls and women in the Western world. Similar studies could be done for every other culture on Earth, no doubt. And probably should, no doubt. Learning to pass through the horned and ivory gates, to transcend the prison of Ego, is a valid and valuable pursuit, always.
J Simpson lives in the interzone between criticism and creation. An independent music journalist, cultural critic, and academic writer, J peers into the darker realms of life, the strange, the looked over, specializing in the horror genre, the supernatural, and the occult. He lives and works in Portland, Or.