Polina Zelmanova — ‘Horrible Bodies: The (new) Politics of Horror’

A video essay that is densely textured visually and aurally, intellectually sophisticated, in dialogue with a rich body of feminist theory that leads to a brilliant analysis of Julia Ducournau´s Raw

 

Horrible Bodies: The (new) body politics of horror

In an interview, Tom Sherak once said, “Film is a reflection of society, both present and past.”[1] Indeed, by watching a film one can gauge a lot about its time – current events, social relations, structures, but also anxieties. This video essay focuses on the latter by looking at the horror genre which has been discussed as a metaphorization for social fears, permeating through its literal and metaphorical monsters.[2] While the cause of fears evolves as seen in some of the opening examples in the video, death and the human condition is always at the forefront. However, as Cruz convincingly writes, even more than death horror evokes anxieties surrounding the body.[3] Its autonomous, uncontrollable nature evokes fear, furthered by how much of our identity is associated with our body and what consequently happens to our understanding of who we are when our bodies are compromised. Despite this fear being common amongst all humans, when it comes to the representation of the bodies in horror the potential unity and identification with different bodies, evoked by the genre’s physical nature,[4] is replaced by the prominence of their difference. It controls who we can identify with, and ultimately reflects which bodies are socially positioned as the ideal human subject.[5]

The essay focuses on the female body as an example of a body that is othered in horror. The example is particularly interesting in that in film men are seen and heard twice as often as women with the exception of horror,[6] demonstrating their strong presence in the genre. Ironically, it is also the genre that has been most cruel to them. The history of women in horror has had an increasing interest amongst feminist academics in film and there have been several key texts published on the various tropes.[7] The essay narrows down the focus by concentrating on the female monster, due to the double-othering she experiences. While most postmodern horror explores the body as monstrous, tapping into aforementioned anxieties, feminist critique suggests that there is “a tendency…to generate paranoia about the social world around constructions of monstrous women”.[8] This is charted in the video-essay through the ways her body is presented as horrifically different in opposition to the white heterosexual male subject considered to be the ideal.[9] The video-essay concludes with a case study of a feminist horror film Raw (Julia Ducournau, 2016) as an example of a film that draws on the history of representation in horror to offer a progressive take on body politics, paving a way to enforcing identification with the female body.

The first section of the video-essay is divided into three parts, demonstrating the othering at play in the female monster. It draws on Laura Mulvey’s male gaze theory[10] to explain the emphasis on difference. This concept is first applied to female victims in slasher films, one of the most literal examples of disavowal. It then draws a comparison of the female’s difference to the monster who is equally responsible for castration anxiety in horror in that he is “a biological freak with the impossible and threatening appetites that suggest a frightening potency”.[11] However, while the male perceives a threat of difference, as Linda Williams argues, “the female look…shares the male fear of the monster’s freakishness but also recognises the sense in which this freakishness is similar to her own difference.”[12] In the Phantom of the Opera (Chaney, 1925) example, the first mid-shot demonstrates Christine’s active look. This look is then punished through the horror she faces when the Phantom is unmasked, revealing his ‘freakishness’. The example emphasises their mirroring facial expressions which underlines their similarity within the genre.

The third part brings the two together in the ultimate iteration of castration anxiety seen in the female monster, or what Barbara Creed famously calls the monstrous feminine.[13] The term implies “the importance of gender in the construction of her monstrosity”[14] seen in the examples demonstrating a link of monstrosity to her sex difference through puberty, sexuality or the female sex organ.

The essay goes on to use Kristeva’s theory of abjection as another way of othering the female body. She characterizes the abject as that which “disturbs identity, system, order […and] does not respect borders, positions, rules.”[15] It works within patriarchal structures to separate the human from the other, the fully constituted subject from the partially formed one.[16] The essay draws on Creed’s application of abjection to monsters showing their disturbance of social systems through transforming monsters which are both man and beast, non-human monsters[17] or have a non-heteronormative identity.[18] The culmination of the two shows the monstrous feminine as doubly abject and therefore doubly other. The essay uses Carrie (De Palma, 1976) as a key example to demonstrate the connection. It begins with a strong male gaze embodied by the camera; however, with the sign of menstruation (a sign of abjection and difference) the tone shifts. The violence that erupts, evoked in the hand-held shaking camera, frames both Carrie and the previously sexualized girls as monstrous revealing “the horror of what might be seen when the penetrative camera glimpses the sight of sexual difference the male voyeur can’t acknowledge”[19] further distancing the female body. The video essay parallels Carrie’s realization of her monstrosity to the shower scene in Psycho (Hitchcock, 1960) emphasizing the parallel of the two monsters – a literal one (Psycho) versus the woman’s body (Carrie).

The emphasis on the female sex as a cause or link to her monstrosity others her, making her unrelatable for any audience: for men she is the threatening Other, and for women she is distanced by the male gaze. What Raw does then is use narrative and visual strategies to enable a female gaze, creating audience identification with the woman and monster, simultaneously shifting horror’s body politics as seen in the second part of the video essay.

The film follows Justine, an aspiring vet struggling to fit in to her new environment. After being force-fed a raw rabbit kidney during an aggressive hazing ritual, the life-long vegetarian awakens to unknowingly suppressed desires for human flesh. The film does several things to de-other the female protagonist’s body and re-instate her as an identifiable subject, challenging horror traditions shown in the first half of the video-essay. This is particularly done by taking the female body out of the patriarchal context, transforming it into a universally human one. The first is Ducournau’s choice of monstrosity as cannibal rather than anything supernatural, grounding her as a human. The essay shows several comparative examples of the othering of cannibals in films such as presenting them as scientific experiments (Rabid[20]), non-human (grandfather or distancing mask in Texas Chainsaw Massacre[21]) or primitive savages (Cannibal Holocaust[22]). As evident in the latter two examples, the shots frame them as a group whom which the human is pitted against.[23] In opposition, Justine’s cannibalism is presented as more natural – a biological reaction to meat consumption and unlike the traditional monstrous feminine not linked to her female difference.[24]

Identification with her body is furthered by Justine’s positioning as a victim of injustice and a violent environment, echoed in Rappis’s commentary on the film: “[its] absurdity is not found in a woman discovering she has an appetite for flesh, but in the disorienting environment she is forced to navigate before she can begin to understand what is happening to her”.[25] Additionally, Raw eliminates the male gaze by making the male protagonist a homosexual. The examples of his point of view shots demonstrate a neutral gaze, lacking Mulvey’s characteristics of the male gaze.

This close identification means that when Justine’s ‘transformation’ occurs, her body becomes relatable despite it being a female one and can consequently be used as a ground for the exploration of non-gendered bodily anxieties. This is furthered as seen in the examples of its trivial struggles which in themselves are more relatable. The video essay visually lists examples such as her rash, shivers, throwing up hair, hair pulling and need to climax, the close-ups and shallow focus of the shots enhancing the horror of the body, raising issues of anxiety of its uncontrollable nature. These images inspire “raw, unmediated reaction”[26] typical to the physicality of body horror.

By challenging traditional identification by creating a connection with a body that is other (both as monster and woman), the film questions the boundaries dominant power structures create in privileging certain bodies over others. The video-essay demonstrates parallels throughout the film between human bodies (including white, male subjects) and animal bodies, the similarities evoking abjection in the former, challenging traditions of the fully formed white, male subject. By the end of the film, Justine becomes more human than ever before, not because of her body but by placing her human identity into her moral choice of deciding not to kill, rather than relying on an uncontrollable body to justify her subjectivity. This is highlighted through one of the end images of Justine and Alexia’s faces merging in the glass between them – a symbolic crossing of the border between the abject and subject, emphasizing Creed’s point that “abjection is not something of which the subject can ever be free.”[27] The essay prompts how this progressive example necessitates a shift in the relationship of bodies with subjectivity, which can have wider implications regarding representation, identity and equality beyond the genre.

Filmography (In order of appearance)

Nosferatu (F.W. Murnau, 1922)

Frankenstein (James Whale, 1931)

Ring (Hideo Nakata, 1998)

Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979)

The Strangers (Bryan Bertino, 2008)

In a Quiet Place (John Krasinski, 2018)

The Wicker Man (Robin Hardy, 1973)

The Shining (Stanley Kubrik, 1980)

Final Destination (David R. Ellis, 2000)

Hereditary (Ari Aster, 2018)

The Human Centipede 3 (Tom Six, 2015)

Rabid (The Soska Sisters, 2019)

Saw (James Wan, 2004)

Night of the Living Dead (George A. Romero, 1968)

Dracula’s Daughter (Lambert Hillyer, 1936)

Spider Baby (Jack Hill, 1967)

Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960)

Un Chien Andalou (Luis Bubuel, 1929)

The Slumber Party Massacre (Amy Holden Jones, 1982)

My Bloody Valentine (George Mihalka, 1981)

Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978)

It (Andres Muschietti, 2017)

Scream (Wes Craven, 1996)

The Phantom of the Opera (Lon Chaney, 1925)

American Werewolf in London (John Landis, 1981)

The Fly (David Cronenberg, 1987)

A Nightmare on Elm Street (Samuel Bayer, 2010)

Jennifer’s Body (Karyn Kusama, 2009)

Cat People (Paul Schrader, 1982)

Teeth (Mitchell Lichtenstein, 2007)

Alien Resurrection (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 1997)

Ginger Snaps (John Fawcett, 2000)

Contracted (Eric England, 2013)

Carrie (Brian De Palma, 1976)

Get Out (Jordan Peele, 2017)

The Babadook (Jennifer Kent, 2014)

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (Ana Lily Amirpour, 2014)

The Love Witch (Anna Biller, 2017)

Raw (Julia Ducournau, 2016)

Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991)

Rabid (David Cronenberg, 1977)

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1998)

Cannibal Holocaust (Ruggero Deodato, 1980)

Thelma (Joachim Trier, 2017)

 

Bibliography:

Anon, ‘Julia Ducournau: Cannibalism, Feminism & Growing Up’, 52-Insights 30 March 2017, accessed 19/11/2019

Anne Billson, ‘Does the ‘female gaze’ make sexual violence on film any less repugnant?’, The Guardian 2 August 2019, accessed 10/11/2019

Barnes Kateryna, ‘Monsters in Modern Horror Culture Reflect Social Anxieties’, Folio 30 October 2017, accessed 6/1/2020 https://www.folio.ca/monsters-in-modern-horror-culture-reflect-social-anxieties/

Beth Younger, ‘Women in Horror: Victims no More’, The Conversation June 26 2017, accessed 10/11/2019 https://theconversation.com/women-in-horror-victims-no-more-78711

Clover Carol, Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (Princeton, NJ : Princeton University Press, 2015)

Cowan Gloria & O’Brien Margaret, ‘Gender and survival vs. death in slasher films: A content analysis’, Sex Roles Volume 23, Issue 3-4 pp187-196 (see also Donnerstein et al. 1987)

Cruz Ronald Allan Lopez, ‘Mutations and Metamorphoses: Body Horror is Biological Horror’, Journal of Popular Film and Television, Volume 40, 2012, Issue 4

Donnerstein, E., Linz, D., & Penrod, S. The question of pornography: Research findings and policy implications (Free Press, 1987)

Erin Harrington, Women Monstrosity and Horror Film: Gynaehorror (New York: Routledge, 2018)

GD-IQ results https://seejane.org/wp-content/uploads/geena-benchmark-report-2007-2017-2-12-19.pdf

Horeck Tanya & Kendall Tina, The new extremism in cinema: from France to Europe (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, c2011)

Jenkins David, ‘Julia Ducournau: ‘The way losing your virginity is portrayed in most movies is very outdated’’, Little White Lies 2 Apr 2017, accessed 18/11/2019 https://lwlies.com/interviews/julia-ducournau-raw/

Kristeva Julia, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection (New York City: Columbia University Press, 1980)

Lindsey Shelley Stamp, ‘Horror, Femininity and Carrie’s Monstrous Puberty’, Journal of Film and Video Vol. 43, No. 4 (Winter 1991)

Kernode Mark, ‘Raw review – cannibal fantasy makes for a tender dish’, The Guardian 9 April 2017, accessed 18/11/2019 https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/apr/09/raw-julia-ducournau-cannibal-fantasy-review-kermode

Kernode Mark, ‘The female directors bringing new blood to horror films’, The Guardian 19 March 2017, accessed 20/11/2019 https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/mar/19/the-female-directors-bringing-new-blood-horror-films-babadook-raw-prevenge

David Macdougall, The corporeal image: film, ethnography, and the senses (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2006)

Mulvey Laura, Visual and Other Pleasures 2nd edition (Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009)

Grant Barry Keith (Ed.) The dread of difference: gender and the horror film (Texas: University of Texas Press, 2015)

Palmer Tim, ‘Style and Sensation in the Contemporary French Cinema of the Body’, Journal of Film and Video Vol. 58, No. 3 (FALL 2006)

Rappis Sydney, ‘’Raw’ gnaws trough expectations of female sexuality’, Washington Square News, March 6 2017, accessed 9/12/2019 https://nyunews.com/2017/03/06/raw-gnaws-through-expectations-of-female-sexuality/

Rebecca Pahle, ‘Female Sexuality Has always been monstrous at the movies’, MashablaUK June 07 2018, accessed 17/11/2019 https://mashable.com/2018/06/07/female-sexuality-horror-movies/?europe=true

Shah Mbe Vikas, ‘The Role of Film in Society’, Thought Economics 19th June 2011, accessed 6/1/2020 https://thoughteconomics.com/the-role-of-film-in-society/

 

Shepherd Jack, ‘Raw director Julia Ducournau talks cannibals, humanity, and fainting’, The Independent 30 March 2017 accessed 14/11/2019 https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/features/julia-ducournau-interview-raw-director-cannibalism-humanity-fainting-sick-a7658651.html

Subissati Andrea, Films of the new French extremity : visceral horror and national identity (Jefferson, North Carolina : McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2016)

Thomas Lou, ‘Raw director Julia Ducournau: ‘I’m fed up with the way women’s sexuality is portrayed on screen’’, BFI April 6 2017, accessed 15/11/2019 https://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/news-bfi/interviews/raw-director-julia-ducournau

Thompson David, ‘Pleasures of the Flesh’, Film Comment 42(6): 42-45

Quandt, James, ‘Flesh & blood: Sex and violence in recent French cinema’, Artforum Print Issue: February 2004 https://www.artforum.com/print/200402/flesh-blood-sex-and-violence-in-recent-french-cinema-6199

Interviews:

Build Series, ‘Julia Ducournau Discusses “Raw”’, March 9 2017 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b62YWx8xy0w

Film at Lincoln Centre, ‘’Raw’ Q&A | Julia Ducournau & Garance Marillier | Rendez-Vous with French Cinema’, 21 March 2017 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nz-jba7x_JE

HeyUGuys, ‘Exclusive Interview: Julia Ducournau on the cinematic taboo of Raw’ April 6 2017 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wrbUcmMmDkk

Tiff Originals, ‘JULIA DUCOURNAU — Creating the disturbing world of RAW | TIFF 2016’ Oct 28 2016 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vJyXT3ArC64

[1] Vikas Shah Mbe, ‘The Role of Film in Society’, Thought Economics 19th June 2011, accessed 6/1/2020 https://thoughteconomics.com/the-role-of-film-in-society/

[2] Jason Wallin quoted in Kateryna Barnes, ‘Monsters in Modern Horror Culture Reflect Social Anxieties’, Folio 30 October 2017, accessed 6/1/2020 https://www.folio.ca/monsters-in-modern-horror-culture-reflect-social-anxieties/

[3] Ronald Allan Lopez Cruz, ‘Mutations and Metamorphoses: Body Horror is Biological Horror’, Journal of Popular Film and Television, Volume 40, 2012, Issue 4

[4] On the physicality of the genre see David Macdougall, The corporeal image : film, ethnography, and the senses (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2006)

[5] Macdougall referencing Barbara Creed talks about how horror’s bodily monstrosities are “at once the threatened body of the spectator, exploded or invaded or defiled by abject substances” but depending on what kind of body it is, it could also be “a reaffirmation of the spectator’s purity and bodily integrity.” (Macdougall 2006, p16)

[6] GD-IQ results https://seejane.org/wp-content/uploads/geena-benchmark-report-2007-2017-2-12-19.pdf

[7] Examples include Clover 1992; Williams 1996; Creed 1993

[8] Lianne McLarty, ‘Beyond the veil of Flesh’ in The dread of difference : gender and the horror film (Texas: University of Texas Press, 2015) p262

[9] This stems back to ancient Western philosophy (see Plato Republic)

[10] Mulvey draws this term in her description of a phallocentric society where the man holds the plce as ‘bearer of the look’ (Hill and Gibson, 1998; p119)

[11] Linda Williams, ‘When the Woman Looks’ in The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film (Texas: Univeristy of Texas Press, 2015) p22

[12] Ibid. p22-23

[13] Barbara Creed, ‘Horror and the Monstrous Feminine: An Imaginary Abjection’ in The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film (Texas: University of Texas Press, 2015) p65

[14] Ibid. p3

[15] Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection (New York City: Columbia University Press, 1980) p4

[16] Barbara Creed, ‘Horror and the Monstrous Feminine: An Imaginary Abjection’ in The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film (Texas: University of Texas Press, 2015) p8

[17] The example in the video essay is of the alien child which although is non human, disturbingly shares characteristics of a human creating an uncanny effect.

[18] Barbara Creed, ‘Horror and the Monstrous Feminine: An Imaginary Abjection’ in The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film (Texas: University of Texas Press, 2015) p11

[19] Shelley Stamp Lindsey, ‘Horror, Femininity and Carrie’s Monstrous Puberty’, Journal of Film and Video

Vol. 43, No. 4 (Winter 1991), p35

[20] Cronenberg, 1977

[21] Hooper, 1974

[22] Deodato, 1980

[23] In Cannibal Holocaust an actual POV shot is used from the ‘documentarian’s’ perspective, and in Texas Chainsaw the long-shot of the cannibal family makes them the threatening force against their victim (the shot is also POV-esque as it frames them the way she sees them).

[24] Although there are two points when her cannibalism is triggered by a sexual interaction, I would argue that it is not inherently sexual. Instead the cannibalism in these incidents is merely reactionary to being so close in proximity to her hunger’s desire. Further evidence to this is Alexia’s road kill scene which has no sexual connotations.

[25] Sydney Rappis, ‘’Raw’ gnaws trough expectations of female sexuality’, Washington Square News, March 6 2017, accessed 9/12/2019 https://nyunews.com/2017/03/06/raw-gnaws-through-expectations-of-female-sexuality/

[26] Tim Palmer, ‘Style and Sensation in the Contemporary French Cinema of the Body’, Journal of Film and Video

Vol. 58, No. 3 (FALL 2006), p22

[27] Barbara Creed, ‘Horror and the Monstrous Feminine: An Imaginary Abjection’ in The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film (Texas: University of Texas Press, 2015) p10

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