Embracing the Monstrous Feminine
I didn't have positive female role models in my life growing up, starting with my mother, stepmother, grandmother, aunts, and so forth. When I needed strong women during some of the hardest times in my life, they were not there for me. I got to see the ugly side of womanhood and it was full of victimhood, manipulation and hatred. That womanhood is hard and not pretty. This is a part of what I would eventually come to know as the monstrous feminine, but I did not see strength in it because I didn’t see how that darkness could be used as inner strength.
I eventually found these role models in fiction, and they were in the form of Xena, Morticia, Vampirella, Buffy, Ripley, etc. These were all women who were flawed and their dark sides made them monstrous in the public's eye, despite their strengths and confidence. I looked towards the figure of the monstrous woman because she represented to me what womanhood was. These newly found role models were women who found strength in being a woman, both the good and the bad of it. They were intelligent, beautiful, self-assured, and they didn’t define themselves by other people’s standards or expectations of them. And this spoke to me.
Women in horror films are often portrayed as victims or monsters based upon their sexuality and biology. Barbara Creed introduced us to the term ‘the Monstrous Feminine’ in her book, The Monstrous Feminine: Film, Feminism and Psychoanalysis, as a means to accentuate the significance of gender in relation to the construction of monstrosity. All of this rising out of male fears and their desire to control female sexuality. So what is the best way to do this? Depict faucets of womanhood as monstrous, abject and separate from what the patriarchal society deems as human and good. These women are the witches, vampires, werewolves, possessed, insane, archaic mothers, lesbians, monstrous wombs, the murderer, castrator and so much more.
I think one of the main reasons why I am attracted and inspired by the archetype of the monstrous feminine is because I can relate to them. This archetype shows me the truth of what being a woman is in opposition to the lies Disney and its princesses fed to me at an early age. I see how being a woman can be wonderfully delicious as well as horribly messy at times. I can now see that it's how you approach womanhood, and not how womanhood is “supposed” to be; deciding if you want to become the victim and live in self-pity, or take charge of your life and go out on your terms. Because this is you living your life, being your AUTHENTIC self.
I was introduced to the concept of the monstrous feminine by none other than The Faculty of Horror I had just started listening to their podcast a year prior to my divorce, and it was where my interest in the horror genre grew, but in particular, the place for women in horror and what it means to them. I finally decided to explore my interest in the horror genre further when the Faculty of Horror talked about the academic themes and interpretations of various films such as Anti-Christ, Shivers, Drag Me to Hell (and so much more), as I knew I would enjoy this. This spoke to my own academic background and interests. Prior to this, I was more into the fantasy/sci-fi genre, as it was where I felt I was able to find representations of complicated women and relationships. So, in these films I saw what I had been looking for so long: strong females living through a horrific situation - screaming, cursing, fighting, poisoning, and murdering their way through to a resolution.
When my now ex-husband asked for a divorce, I felt like a failure as a wife because I did not want to have children, own my own home and, frankly, because he was leaving me. I felt lost and scared as I looked for a new apartment for myself and six cats. This was when I dived deeper into the horror genre, spending evenings watching films like The Witch and Ginger Snaps while drinking a glass of red after a long day of work and packing. I was scared of what was unknown, the very fear that the horror genre excels at. I would listen to episodes of the Faculty of Horror and make a watchlist of films that represented the Monstrous Feminine, along with ordering Barbara Creed’s book to understand this concept further. I read Rue Morgue’s Women with Guts, and Men, Women and Chainsaws by Carol Clover to help round out my understanding. From these books I would watch even more movies like The Autopsy of Jane Doe, Black Christmas, Jennifer’s Body, and want to talk to people - mostly Kelly - about them. I found strength in these films and the women portrayed. Most importantly, I found the ability to confidently live on my own, speak my mind, and connect with other women in the horror community, some who had experienced similar trauma and anxieties as me. I was able to begin the process of dealing with my past sexual trauma, and years of familial emotional and mental abuse.
In July of 2018, I started Spinsters of Horror with my best friend and met more women who explored and celebrated the monstrous feminine. This helped give me the confidence to start a feminist horror podcast, write about horror, start actively dating and fully embrace my sexuality and now polyamorous life. I went into everything with a newfound confidence and I loved it. I fell hard for this Jessica and the people she brought into her life. Working through my years of trauma and mental health through exploring themes in beloved horror films, and discussing them with others with the same passion, helped me find strength. I started to become my own role model.
However, heteronormative and societal standards would rear their ugly head and challenge this new narrative for me. As much as I celebrate my polyamorous life, it has not been easy. As someone with a past of sexual and childhood trauma resulting in mental health issues, this way of life has challenged every norm I had learned about myself and intimate relationships. I had to learn about communication, boundaries, intense emotions such as jealousy, and most importantly, I had to deal with my old feelings of self-worth. The journey has been hard and there were a lot of ups and downs with infidelity, miscommunication, drama, breakups and then a pandemic.
Trying to figure out how to make my new relationships work in a poly context, build my Spinsters presence, maintain my job, take care of my mental health and deal with the sudden loss of Caesar (my beloved cat of 19 years), there was also the added pressure to my mental health of the pandemic. All of this started to crash down on me and I felt myself drowning in a sea of insecurities, fears of abandonment, imposter syndrome and lack of self-worth. Old wounds opened up and I felt vulnerable. My partners talked about how much they missed my self-confidence and so did I.
Until I watched the movie Spring (2014). It made me furious! I had gone into the film wanting that empowering monstrous feminine energy and I got the opposite. I saw in the character Lousie (Nadia Hilker) the strong woman I wanted to be, but transformed into the feminine identity I had escaped from, and was slowly creeping back in. I realized what I had been doing and where I had been putting my energy: I had been putting myself down to try and fit into the mould society wants of me. To be the perfect girlfriend - accommodating, have my shit together and be part of the competitive world where other women are my enemies. The very thing I had been fighting against this whole time. It was also the very thing I wanted absolutely no part of.
I realized that it was in the monstrous feminine that I found my confidence. In these women I see complex role models. I see women who know what they want, don't define who they are by their relationships and mental health situation. They are unabashedly themselves. They are confident and when they are not, are willing to admit it. They show how messy it is to be a woman. The monstrous woman knows what she wants - screams and yells for it - she doesn't explain herself to others and when she does it is by her choice. She knows her boundaries and will take care of you if you violate them. They are strong as well as weak, ugly as well as beautiful. They remind me that I define who I am and I am not lesser because a challenge has appeared in life and it is not going the way I want. That doesn't make me lesser. It makes me ME.
This was how “Not Your Stepford: Exploration of the Monstrous Feminine” was born. It will be a series of articles exploring the various archetypes of the monstrous feminine as outlined by Barbara Creed in her book The Monstrous-Feminine through various horror films. As well as drawing from other resources that explore women in horror such as House of Psychotic Women, Men, Women and Chainsaws, Dead Girls, Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers, Women Make Horror, and more.
So come with me as I venture further into the world of the monstrous feminine and see what sights these women have to show us.