The Vulnerability of the Female Corpse
Editorial by Kelly
CONTENT & TRIGGER WARNINGS....
In the horror genre, we are not strangers to violence inflicted upon human bodies; they often pile up, bloodied and marred, while we watch in anticipation, munching on our popcorn, titillated. The sub-genre of the slasher is our main culprit, but humans die at the hands of many other spooktacular things like ghosts, demons, creatures, aliens, and more. But, what really gets under a lot of people’s skin is the murder at the hands of other human beings, men to be exact. Rarely do we find people slain by the well manicured hands of women. And these victims of attacks perpetrated by men are often women; women who have been stalked, chased, and then murdered. Women seem particularly at risk in horror films, but what really interests me is what happens to the body of said murdered women; the vulnerability of the female corpse.
Female bodies have been the object of the ‘male gaze’ since the beginning of film, a topic that’s further discussed through Laura Mulvey’s seminal piece Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. She projected that the woman was something to be looked at and that men/the audience were the ones doing the looking. Not only does this apply to living women, but to the dead as well. We have been ogling at dead female bodies -- and forming the trope of the Beautiful Dead Girl -- since Laura was found decomposing and wrapped in plastic on the beach in Twin Peaks (1990). In Twin Peaks: Why Laura May Not Be Female Corpse Exploitation by Elizabeth Erwin, Erwin states that “This trope not only deifies female passivity (corpses are often shown being manipulated by law enforcement, usually men) but it also subtextually elevates the notion of young women as inherently more pristine (lingering camera shots on unblemished skin). Compounding the issue is that these bodies, almost without exception, are white.” The films I will be discussing fall into this realm: The Corpse of Anna Fritz (2015), Deadgirl (2008), Aftermath (1994) and The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016). The corpses in these films are mostly white women who appear visually/physically unharmed by their deaths, and unable to tell their own stories. They are physically violated, and -- with the exception of Jane Doe -- are sexually assaulted and raped.
Part 1: We See Them
The corpses in question here are Jane Doe (The Autopsy of Jane Doe), Marta (Aftermath), Anna (The Corpse of Anna Fritz) and Dead Girl (Deadgirl). All but Dead Girl are found in a morgue, with Dead Girl being discovered in the basement of an abandoned hospital. Although their cause of death (or perceived death) may vary, they remain naked to the world on cold steel tables. They are motionless, nonverbal, beautiful women who are passive, horizontal and unconsenting.
In Over Her Dead Body: Death, Femininity and the Aesthetic, Elias Canetti postulates that “the gendering of death and the idea of patriarchal control in culture, explaining that the dead female body assumes a lying, horizontal, passive body and the spectator being the upright onlooker, gains a dominant position.” The dominant figures in the four films mentioned are all identifying as (generally white) males. They are representative of masculinity and the concept of control, enforcing the ever resounding power dynamics that exists between men and women. In death, these women/bodies are powerless. Once a woman is on the slab, immobilized, the men can turn their gaze upon them. They are the “beautiful object and the anatomist the active bearer of the gaze and the corpses destruction, as he will ultimately deface her perfect, immaculate and whole body” (Elisabeth Bronfen - Over Her Dead Body: Death, Femininity and the Aesthetic). The Coroner in Aftermath photographs himself with Marta, while JT in Deadgirl bring friends to view the spectacle, to bear witness to their new “fuck slave”. The female corpse not only becomes an object of fascination, but a repulsion, to the men and they just can’t stop from touching them. Though Jane Doe isn’t sexualized, the fact that her body is without physical signs of abuse could be seen as erotic. She is a white, slender, pretty young woman, or the “ideal” feminine body.
Marta -- the woman in Aftermath -- is not an unidentified Jane Doe. She is a woman with a grieving family who is then reduced to mere fragments (or parts) of a woman - mouth, breasts and vagina. Marta is “not represented as a subject but as a spectacular display of her sex. As such, she contributes to the legacy of masculinist representations of female genitalia, fragmented from the rest of the body and easily penetrated”. And such, “a violent, fetishized fragmentation of the female figure that disallows her any imagined sense of agency (that associated with, for example, the look or the voice)” (Reconsidering the Dead in Andres Serrano's "The Morgue": Identity, Agency, Subjectivity by Andrea D. Fitzpatrick). Anna’s breasts are immediately leered at and groped while Javi and his friends nonchalantly discuss what the vagina of Anna (a corpse) is like (IE: is there lubrication?). Marta, Jane Doe and Anna started out as untouched, flawless corpses which isn’t authentic as there would be signs of trauma. Dead Girl is initially fairly clean/untouched, but then deteriorates further into the film. Although dead, they look alive, which is what keeps them familiar/untouched yet touchable.
In her book The Monstrous-feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis, Barbara Creed states that “the ultimate in abjection is the corpse”, referring to Julia Kristeva’s Powers of Horror, An Essay on Abjection. Kristeva thinks that a corpse is “the most sickening of wastes, is a border that has encroached upon everything. It is no longer I who expel. ‘I’ is expelled”. Abjection, like the monstrous feminine, is often linked back to a woman’s reproductive system, something that is truly by definition a site of abjection - some of us menstruate, discharge fetuses from our wombs which comes with the amniotic sac/fluids/placenta, and we all expel a variety of fluids due to just being human (sweat, pus, urine, feces, vomit). As corpses, women produce even more wastes as we deteriorate, releasing gases, sloughing our skin and we become a victim of our own bacteria. In death, our identity is lost, the power of who we are is removed, leaving behind a literal shell of a human being. Yet, even though death is pollution of the body -- death is the end of life as we comprehend it -- there is a revulsion and curiosity, which can weave into desire. Kristeva relays her concept of abjection to horror films, which are often transgressive (by nature) and that abjection is “that which does not respect borders, positions, rules, that which disturbs identity, system, order”. Horror films cross many boundaries, many borders, and the biggest one is necrophilia.
Part 2: We Fuck Them
In death, Marta, Anna, and Dead Girl are sexualized by (perceived) cis white men; a necrophilic fantasy bound to the taboo with deeper nudgings of dominance, sadism, and the need for control. They are defiled, used, “abused”, and ejaculated into (over and over). According to Joseph J. Berest (Report on a Case of Sadism), the desire to have sex with a corpse originates from a “sexual pleasure [derived] from inflicting physical or mental pain on others (namely the living relatives of the deceased).” But in these films, it’s deformed, going beyond sadistic and into pure, unadulterated misogyny as the men are not related to these women. Our female corpses are objects (not subjects), they can not reject these men, nor can they give consent (they can’t even speak). The sadism in the sexual acts could be seen as excessive in their “expression of ... domination, perhaps mixed with hatred, fear, and other negative attitudes” (Sexual Paradigms by Rovert Solomon). The Coroner in Aftermath is seeking revenge for the death of his beloved canine companion and he can only obtain this in Marta’s death (who, in her car crash, killed the dog); brutalizing her body with a knife vaginally and having jack-hammer sex with it on camera (the ultimate perversion). In Deadgirl, JT believes that down in the basement, where Dead Girl is shackled, is where the boys are “in control” and that “you don’t have to be a nice guy”. The boys frustrations of courting a woman before sex are removed when you have your very own “fuck slave” where you can get sex “whenever you want it”. It’s easy as Dead Girl can’t say no. And for Anna, all you need to do is “pretend like she’s drunk”, and you can fuck her, no problem, thus continuing the perpetuation of rape culture.
In Porn of the Dead: Necrophilia, Feminism, and Gendering the Undead by Steve Jones he goes on to say that for Dead Girl, who is the only zombie of our four female corpses, that “necrophilic fetishization of the corpse, enjoyment of a lack of consent or of power exploitation, and perhaps even the desire for assent of the person/body being fucked.” For her, she at least provides some animation, albeit growling/biting/staring. There is movement and signs of discontent, but she is a mere (undead) object of lust. As dead women, Marta, Anna, Jane Doe and Dead Girl are viewed as “safe”. And for Beatriz E. Dujovne (Disavowal and the Culture of Deadening), “necrophiliacs view the corpse as a safe object that offers neither resistance nor opposition, eliminates all risks of rejection and retaliation, and enhances their sense of being alive because the dread of annihilation is projected onto the corpse”. In life Anna was a big time celebrity and viewed as a woman on a pedestal who never gave her body/time to the “plebs” of society. However in death, anyone can have her - she can be fondled, peered at, and penetrated. As Ivan says “they never say no here”, meaning that in the morgue, they never will be turned away for their sexual advances. Jane Doe, though the Coroner says there is “no external signs of semen” thinks it’s best practice to swab her vagina anyways, just in case they miss something.
Besides the inherent “ickiness” of screwing a corpse, why else does it unnerve us? Does a corpse have agency? Are they rapeable? If the woman is dead, can they be a victim of misogyny? What if it’s a zombie? Once dead, we are no longer subjects, but objects, so does consent matter? An unidentified biologically female body is always labeled as a Jane Doe, as giving them a name suggests subjectivity (and engenders them). Marta and Anna’s bodies are called by their living names, and the zombie female is given the pet name of Dead Girl. They are gendered even in death, which is important to note when they are being fucked as “Deadgirl’s plot makes it clear that Deadgirl’s gender cannot be ignored. Not only is her sex prioritized in the title of the film, it is the label that defines her. She is only ever referred to as “Deadgirl.” Moreover, the protagonists rape her because she is female” (Gender Monstrosity: Deadgirl and the Sexual Politics of Zombie-Rape by Steve Jones). The men can finally have sex with Anna Fritz, someone they wouldn’t of had a chance with in life. None of the men would of had sex with a dead male identifying body, so it’s less about the necrophilia as it is about power. It’s less gross if they give the corpse an identity, a name, because then there can be some form of relationship, a power dynamic where they are in charge of what happens and the women remain silent.
In The Poetics of Female Death: the Fetishization and Reclaiming of the Female Corpse in Modern and Contemporary Art by Costanza Bergo, she says that “....her passive accessibility a magnet rather than a repellent, her abject qualities strangely aphrodisiac, in a dialectic of attraction-repulsion that is unique to the female corpse. The dead woman’s passivity - and the inherent passivity of death - seems to increase her eroticism….” and that “Female corpses by male artists rather, are frequently erotically beautiful, not in spite of but rather because they are dead.” Female corpses don’t speak so they can’t voice their grievances, can’t argue or cry; they can’t reject and deject, but they sure are tempting. Again, by giving these corpses (inanimate bodies without consciousness) a name, and a visible sexuality, it begs the question of “can a corpse be raped” back into the fold. A corpse will never be able to report the rape and the perpetrator can go unpunished. The corpses are turned back into subjects, so that they can be objectified again.
Marta can never seek revenge for the intrusion onto her body, but Jane Doe, Anna and Dead Girl sure can (and do) in a thrilling turn of events.
Part 3: They Fight Back
In an act of catharsis, Anna, Jane Doe, and Dead Girl manifest their rage onto the men who desecrated their bodies with bloody accuracy. There are very few left standing by the end of the films, and perhaps for good reason. Anna Fritz isn’t actually dead and wakes up in the middle of one of her rapes and seeks to escape. When she is chased by her rapists to keep her from talking, Anna is able to get the justice she wouldn’t have been given outside of the morgue. Jane Doe, though paralyzed by death and nonverbal (her tongue was cut), seeks to warn the Coroner and his son, Sam, to stop what they are doing before it’s too late. Sam says “when we cut into her she tried to stop us” and he realizes that all the supernatural events happening in the building started when the autopsy was initiated - “you can’t say she’s just a body”. Jane Doe has extensive injuries done to her body - “her wrists and ankles have been fractured (to control her and prevent escape), her tongue has been torn out (to silence her), she has been burned and buried (to eliminate her existence), her waist is shrunken from corsets (to mould her into societal body expectations) and her genitals have been mutilated” (Beddows). Jane Doe was meant to suffer and die in the most horrific of ways due to her femininity, and the perception that she was a witch (the ultimate in female Otherness).
Dead Girl is a zombie, a monster, being restrained only by the ropes and chains around her wrists and ankles. If free, her monstrous self would rain on the rapists parade and that she does; Dead Girl terrorizes the boys as they did her, biting and tearing her way out of the confinement of the basement. The abject and the monstrous feminine join forces within Dead Girl as once she was reduced to only her reproductive organs, and now she is a killing machine. It seems “that the representation of death and femininity is a symptom of culture and an attempt to contain the unruly nature of the feminine. The beautiful dead woman is thus elevated to an object of desire in an attempt to relieve the anxiety of the monstrous feminine and death” (Bronfen). Though afraid of what Dead Girl can do, the boys straddled between life and death for their sexual release only to end up becoming what they feared - dead. Men’s centuries long fear of female sexuality is seen in Dead Girl, that desire/disgust dichotomy is strong, and her monstrous sexuality is something to tame (to rule over) - “Since "they" lack rational control, if "they" are permitted power and freedom, "they" will become unstoppable” (Jones). They tried to make Dead Girl powerless, but they lost. Anna won, Jane Doe won; these revenge fantasies give the viewer a sense of justice, our own release. All “suffered” from patriarchal abuse and now they will make them pay, just like in the subgenre of rape-revenge.
The True Horror
The unfortunate reality of Aftermath, The Corpse of Anna Fritz, The Autopsy of Jane Doe, and Deadgirl is that these films aren’t really about the women at all - it’s about the men. The true horror is masculinity and how these films can be seen as true-to-life rape analogies. Jane Doe’s vagina is still swabbed even though there is evidence of physical trauma; Dead Girl is said not to be “a real human being” and that she is “unwilling, but able”; a photo is taken of Anna’s body for her to become more of a spectacle in death than she was in life; The Coroner obliterates Marta’s body for the sake of revenge.
When Anna is shown to actually be alive, the men attempt to silence her (by murder) so that she can’t tell anyone what has occurred - “She could tell people!”, “What do you think would happen to us?”. The reputations of the men would be ruined if the story got out and they weren't going to allow that to happen. It’s better to be known as a murderer than a necrophiliac rapist. In Deadgirl, a few of the high school bullies show up in the basement and eventually, after being egged on by JT, fornicate with Dead Girl, and one of them gets their dick bitten. JT reminds them that they “can’t go to the cops” because what could they tell them? What would everyone think of them? They couldn’t tell them they tried to spit roast a corpse! Their lives would be ruined! JT in Deadgirl “is thus aware that she suffers, and justifies his own desire and lack of empathy by deeming that her inability to “say no” signals her consent. Notably, this is a prevalent defense evoked in rape rhetoric” (Jones). How many times do we hear about these scenarios in real life? Rapists are on the news, god forbid their college careers are over, not ONCE mentioning the life that they have actually ruined. Anna, Jane Doe, and Dead Girl will never be the same, even if Dead Girl has (perceived) limited autonomy.
There are very few female characters in these films beside our main four, and all narratives revolve around the lives, feelings, and perceptions of the men. It’s about the relationships of these men with themselves and other men; the Coroner (Aftermath), the Coroner and his son Sam (The Autopsy of Jane Doe), the teenage boys (Deadgirl), and the three men (The Corpse of Anna Fritz). With all of this, and specifically in Deadgirl, “The fact that all of the film’s central male teens engage in zombie-rape suggests that they are not a perverse minority, but the logical product of prevalent social pressures.” If a woman is dead in the presence of men, they will be groped and taken advantage of. Steve Jones says “....the discursive history of sexualization, passivity and monstrosity that has been used to subjugate women. The male teens represent the parallel strand of that history: men are portrayed as callous rapists, defined by the violence they do to women.”
To be dead is to be female, and even in death we can’t escape our femininity or our inherent penetrable body; our ability to be violated and objectified remains even after we have left our mortal coil.