The Ritual Act of Transformation
A ritual is the ‘fixed actions and sometimes words performed regularly, especially as part of a ceremony’(Cambridge). Normally people associate performing a ritual with big events such as weddings, birthdays or funerals. However, ritual is a part of our everyday life; from drinking our morning coffee while scrolling through our phone, to a glass of wine or cup of tea in the evening. All people perform acts of ritual when they get ready to go to work, out for a night or a date. Through the act of showering, applying makeup, and selecting just the right outfit to enhance the mood, this is a ritual. It can be powerful as it helps to set the tone for the day or night. It is a moment of transformation into whoever we decide we want to be that day. We use instruments (makeup brushes/hair product), herbs (tobacco/weed), and cloth (clothing or costume) to create the glamour we want to present to the world - whether it is being a student, career woman, wife, mother, cat lady, queer, goth, metalhead, etc.
Witches have always been known to be involved in performing rituals. Whether it was to supposedly summon Satan to participate in dark congress (as accusers would say) or prepare their home for a New Moon Ceremony, ritual is an important part of a witch’s practice. It helps bring the witch to a state of mind that allows her to get in touch with her feminine instinct or energy. In the performance of ritual, an intention (the act of setting or accomplishing a goal) is set, which has often been shown in media through a spell or curse to take revenge on those who have hurt or wronged them. We all remember that classic scene in 1996’s The Craft when Sarah, Bonnie, Nancy, and Rochelle perform a bonding ritual among and including the elements (earth, air, fire and water) to solidify their coven and to strengthen their powers as they cast love spells and hexes. This was all ritual; in each of these moments, they channelled a power within themselves to seek revenge. This is called ritual magick and while it may be blatant in films about witches, ritual magick can also be seen by our female avengers who seek justice against the men who harmed them in rape-revenge films.
In Barbara Creed’s book, The Monstrous Feminine, the femme-castrice are two different women. She is either the woman who is symbolically castrated in slasher films because she is the victim who is stabbed repeatedly leaving an open gaping wound (Creed) or she is the woman who turns into the castrator by becoming psychotic and delivering justice that would ultimately be robbed from her. However, even under this distinction, it is further broken down into the female psychotic or the woman who seeks revenge on the men who raped or abused her (Creed). These are our rape-revenge films, where the heroine takes revenge either for herself, a friend, or a family member who has been linked to some form of male exploitation (Creed).
I recently watched Savage Streets (1984) for the first time. It stars Linda Blair as Brenda, a young woman who enacts revenge against a group of men who gang rape her disabled sister Heather (Linnea Quigley). Before she seeks vengeance, I couldn’t help but be fascinated by the act in which she takes the time to transform herself and get in touch with the dark feminine energy inside of her. She partakes in a ritual to summon the monstrous feminine, the figure of the femme-castrice, to have her will be done. Brenda partakes in a cleansing bath while she smokes a cigarette, devising her plan. In witchcraft, water is considered an element that helps to purify and cleanse, the same as with fire. While Brenda may not have been beaten and raped, she needs to remove from herself any empathy or doubt that would impact her plan. After finishing her bath, she continues the ritual by styling her hair big (and bigger than we have seen it in the movie thus far), applying dark red lipstick, and adorns a stylish black jumpsuit symbolizing her transformation into the dark feminine.
In Coralie Fargeat’s 2017 film Revenge, our protagonist Jen (Matilda Lutz) is a young socialite who is comfortable in her sexuality and is also in a secret affair with a married man, Richard (Kevin Janssens). When they are joined by Richard’s business associates, Stan (Vincent Colombe) and Dimitri (Guillaume Bouchede), to hunt wild game in the desert, it is clear from the onset that Stan and Dimitri desire Jen, and when Stan takes her casual flirting as an invitation for sex -- and when she denies him -- he proceeds to rape her while Dimitri ignores her screams. When Richard discovers what happened he tries to pay her off to cover up the assault. But when Jen decides not to leave quietly, like sweeping dirt under a rug, he pushes her off a cliff and leaves her for dead.
From this point in the film is when Jen undergoes the ritual act of transformation to summon not only within herself the strength to live but to get revenge on the men who treated her like trash. The ritual begins when she, in order to free herself, sets fire to the bottom of the tree that had impaled her. The fire symbolizes her desire to live as she frees herself from this vulnerable position and as well it symbolizes the destruction she will enact on these men’s lives. When she has to hide from Dimitri in her first attempt to escape, she dunks herself in the water in an act of further cleansing herself for the inevitable transformation she is about to undergo. Then when she is recovering from her first kill, Jen ingests some peyote that she had been given by Richard. The act of taking a psychedelic drug is also considered ritualistic as often natural drugs like peyote, and even shrooms would be used by witches brewed in concoctions with other herbs to traverse other planes of existence and commune with spirits.
On the drug, she has visions and reaches beyond her bodily limits in order to perform self-surgery to remove the piece of the tree still implanted in her abdomen. Like the medicine women/witches of old, she performs healing magic as she cauterizes the wound by branding herself with animal symbolism, the eagle. The eagle has been known to be symbolic of strength, dignity, magic and intuition. They are powerful and true predators who help keep nature in balance by capturing the weak and the sick to prevent the spread of disease (Spirit Animal). Jen has transformed herself into the predator who will take out these weak men to keep their dark secrets from spreading and destroying other women’s lives. The burns and scars, a symbol of her monstrosity, shows the sacrifice she performed to help her in her transformation to become the hunter and not the hunted. This is her new glamour. This is what she had to summon forth to reach the level of brutality needed to hurt the men who raped and tried to murder her.
In the 1981 American exploitation thriller Ms .45, our femme-castrice Thana (Zoe Tamerlis) transforms into a gun-toting vigilante after she is viciously raped. Thana is a mute and demure seamstress working in New York City’s Garment District, who on her way home after work is raped at gunpoint in a back alley. As she stumbles home in shock, she is again attacked by a burglar and he rapes her. Thana kills him and hides the body. While disoriented, she figures out a way to get rid of the body without raising any suspicion - dismemberment and disposing of the pieces throughout the city. She keeps the .45 calibre pistol that belonged to the burglar and arms herself with it. On one of her “package” drop-offs, a young man who had been leering at her follows and corners her. In fear of another attack, Thana shoots and kills him. Her transformation has begun.
In the act of shooting the gun, Thana employed the element of air in her ritual of transformation. In squeezing the trigger, the spark of the primer causes the gunpowder to ignite and explode, forcing the bullet through the barrel to fly through the air and strike fear into the hearts of the men who harm women. While the moment frightens Thana, she has had a taste of vengeance and continues to transform herself into an avenging dark angel. She changes from wearing simple, beige outfits that were supposed to cloak her and make her invisible, into daring red and black outfits with bold hair and makeup that would intentionally lure her victims to her. The gun has given her power, not only to avenge the wrongs against her but to protect other women from lecherous and dangerous men.
Thana’s transformation to seek vengeance is dramatic. When she dresses like a nun with the seductive touch of red lips for her company's Halloween party, one can think Thana is mocking religion by making a direct commentary on how men view women. Under what is supposed to be the plain garb of a saintly woman, is a human being who can be sexualized as well as weaponized. She kisses her bullets as if giving final blessings. Thana has completed the ritual and it is now ready to take back the vulnerability that had been stolen from her.
In the remake of I Spit on Your Grave from 2010, Jennifer Hills (Sarah Butler) is a novelist who travels from New York City to the woods of Louisiana. She rents an isolated cabin in the woods for some solitude to write - an activity that people who live in the city do to relax and rejuvenate. It is natural for people to disconnect from the hustle of the city to the tranquillity of nature to find some sense of self. It has been said that women have an earthly connection to nature; they find within a power that is often inherent in the witch. She is part of the natural elements around her and uses that to her advantage for crafting and protection.
When Jennifer is violently assaulted by local men and a police officer, she runs into the woods as a means to escape. When she is captured and assaulted again in the dirt and the mud of the forest floor, she uses the river to escape - in what can be seen as “faking” her death. But at that moment, the old Jennifer Hills finds release and emerges from the water to use the natural elements of the forest to have her vengeance. She stalks and haunts her prey - she becomes the witch of the woods.
The abandoned cabin covered in overgrown trees and moss becomes her sanctuary. This is the place where she will enact her revenge on the men who violated her safe space and took from her what she had not wanted to lose - her innocence. Jennifer transforms herself into the witch that historically men feared and would seek to burn alive. She becomes the embodiment of the acts of brutality that were used against her. Jennifer uses a cauldron of water and poison to boil her victim alive and calls upon birds of prey to gouge out the eyes of one of her assaulters. She uses rituals to become a judge and executioner. Women of the past accused of witchcraft would often endure torture at the hands of the men who would have harmed them. Jennifer channels a centuries-old rage of injustice to see it rectified.
The ritual of bathing, smoking, taking drugs, kissing a bullet, setting traps and dressing up or dressing a wound allows for our femme-castrice to become someone in which she can channel her rage. With it being completed, the wronged woman or avenging witch is able to use her skills/magic to punish others. When I saw these patterns of ritual in Savage Streets, I couldn’t help but see this as an important act to be depicted in other rape-revenge films. It takes a lot of emotional energy for a woman to makeover herself after such a vicious and violating attack to become the calculating femme-castrice, whose revenge is meticulously planned whether it takes a year to enact or on the spot. This transformation will see her become a new woman and this happens in blood. This can also be considered an important element to completing ritual magick; like the witch adding a drop of her blood to increase her spells potency. I call these moments the Ritual Act of Transformation, and I see them as an essential part of the fantastical element of the rape-revenge genre because it allows for women to experience the catharsis that we are often denied in reality.
Creed, Barbara. The Monstrous Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis Routledge, 1st edition (Nov/ 15 1993).
Harris, Elena. “Eagle Spirit Animal”. Spirit Animal. 2021. https://www.spiritanimal.info/eagle-spirit-animal/ Accessed 3 September 2021