The Women of Lovecraft
Blog Post by: Jessica
It is widely discussed that H.P. Lovecraft's work lacks female representation. There are no female protagonists and there are only three female characters written throughout his entire catalogue - Lavinia Whateley (The Dunwich Horror), Lilith (The Horror at Red Hook) and Asenath Waite (The Thing on the Doorstep). It was something I recognized as problematic - alongside the racism and xenophobia - but felt better about when screenwriters would include female characters in their film adaptations in order to close that gap. Often these women are brand new characters that add a humanizing element and who connect with the audience. What is nice about this inclusion of women in Lovecraft's tales is that they are strong and independent characters, despite ending up as victims in the wake of unstoppable cosmic terror. With this addition, we are also introduced to new talents such as Barbara Crampton and Ashley Laurence.
However, in a recent rewatch of my favourite Lovecraft adaptations for another article, there was something I began to realize that I just could not ignore. While I still appreciated their tales of chaos, the occult, and the inclusion of women, I couldn't help but see just how misogynistic these women were portrayed at certain points in the films. They still adhered to the patriarchal representation of women in horror cinema; they don’t challenge the norms but uphold them. And unfortunately, these films fall prey to the horror stereotype which is that the genre is inherently misogynistic. I know that a lot of these movies came out during an era of horror where “blood, guts, and boobs” were what sold the audiences and that they are products of their time, but that does not mean they get a free pass. While they made the big step of including women in Lovecraft’s stories, they inadvertently adhered to Lovecraft’s own discriminatory attitude towards women.
Re-Animator (1985) is a cult classic among horror fans and started/solidified the careers of director Stuart Gordon, producer Brian Yuzna, and actors Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton in the horror world. Despite how much Lovecraft hated his Herbert West: The Reanimator series, it has become one of his most well-known works because of the success of the film. However, only once throughout the short story is a woman mentioned, and this is a patient who dies of heart failure because her son went missing. This shows that women are so frail in body and mind that they can’t even sustain the possible loss of their offspring. Whereas in the film Re-Animator we are introduced to the medical grad student Megan Halsey (Barbara Crampton). She is the daughter of Miskatonic University’s Dean Alan Halsey (Robert Sampŝon) and girlfriend to Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott) who becomes Herbert’s (Jeffrey Combs) assistant. From the time we meet Megan, we see that she is smart, driven, sexually active, establishes boundaries and trusts her instincts about Herbert and his intentions. Yes, while she does discuss that she will help Dan get through medical school, she makes it clear to him that she will not marry him before that and refuses to stay the night out of respect for her father. She even senses that Dr. Hill (David Gale) has an inappropriate attraction to her and she tries to make herself scarce when he is over for dinner. The character of Megan Halsey is a wonderful addition to such a story of reanimation and Barbara Crampton does a wonderful job.
Inevitably, Megan falls victim to the male drive for power, sexual objectification, and control. She becomes our damsel in distress. Meg’s father denies her agency by forbidding her to speak to Dan, treating her like she is a ten-year-old girl. Dan proclaims to love Meg but continues to involve himself in unethical work that jeopardizes his education and their future together. He dismisses her observations and concerns about Herbert’s odd behaviour and what he had done to Dan’s cat Rufus. His drive to be famous and work with West not only endangers Meg but also takes her father away from her when he is accidentally murdered by one of the reanimated corpses.
Then we get Dr. Hill and his obsession with Meg; he is overt about his attraction and inappropriate lust for his colleague’s daughter. We find out further into the film that he has a file of pictures, hair clippings, and pieces of Meg’s clothing, keeping it as treasures like the stalker he is. At one point he even kidnaps Meg to set a trap for both Dan and Herbert. From his actions we get one of the most uncomfortable scenes in the movie: Meg is strapped down, stripped naked and the decapitated head of Dr. Hill is shown performing oral sex. Her attempts to stop him fail. This scene caused controversy for the film as the original actress set to play Megan was pulled when her mother discovered plans for this scene. Also, David Gale’s (actor who portrayed Dr. Hill) wife left the premiere when the scene started. Ask yourself: was this scene even necessary?
NO! This scene is completely unnecessary in the film. It is purely for shock value and viewer titillation. All it does is reinforce the misogynistic portrayal of women in horror and perpetuates violence against them. For the first half of the film, Meg is a complex character and it is refreshing to see a woman in a Lovecraft story. But then the film falls apart and Meg’s character goes from being interesting to an object for the men to fight over, violate, and literally break. Sadly, Meg dies at the end of Re-Animator, murdered by one of the reanimated corpses. As if it was cosmic payback for messing with the finality of death, the one thing Dan cherished in the world was taken from him. Once again, women are seen as possessions that need to be put on display.
Things only get worse in the follow-up sequel Bride of Re-Animator (1989) where Dan and Herbert are back to their old reanimation shenanigans. Only this time they have discovered how to reanimate body parts. They decide to bring Meg back to life by using her heart as a starting point to build the perfect woman. In this film, women are literally broken down to the importance of their body parts for sex. When West talks about each of the pieces collected, he describes them with a sexual connotation - feet (dancer), legs (prostitute), vaginal (virgin girl), hands (the murderer) and face (Gloria, a patient of Dan’s). This upholds the idea that women are only sexual objects, and that they are just a sum of their body parts. It is their body that is important, not their minds or personalities. The only other woman in the film is Francesca Danelli (Fabiana Udenio) who falls in love with Dan and becomes another victim of his and Herbert’s obsession for fresh corpses and experimentation. It is unfortunate because the material that this story is based on is interesting and would make for a good horror movie. By adding female characters via film it can give it further depth, however, when women are just inserted to be a love interest or sexual object it diminishes the film's impact.
This trend continues in From Beyond (1986). Barbara Crampton returns as Dr. Katherine McMichaels, a leading physician in schizophrenia research, and once again her character is sexually objectified, this time by Dr. Pretorius. She even dons a dominatrix-style outfit for the remainder of the film to show how the machine is creating a sexual awakening for her. In Lurking Fear (1994), Ashley Laurence’s character, Cathryn Farrell, a leader of a small resistance group to fight the humanoid creatures, ends up in a very unnecessary mud wrestling scene and becomes the love interest for our protagonist.
This concept of objectifying women is also seen in other films such as The Unnamable (1988), Necronomicon (1993), The Dunwich Horror (1970) and Dagon (2001). I understand that these films were trying to convey to the audience what is dark and terrible about the horror in Lovecraft’s work, and at times this may require the vulnerability of naked women in occult rituals. Which again, is not necessary as nudity in ritual practices is a choice, not a requirement. With the film Colour out of Space (2019), I thought we were going to correct this narrative and add women to Lovecraftian stories without discriminating or objectifying them. Though the film is refreshing in this progressive space, it has been overshadowed by the recent charges against director Richard Stanley for domestic abuse against his former wife and other partners. So it looks like we still have a ways to go to address the problematic elements in Lovecraft’s work, inside and outside of the films themselves.
Fans, like myself, of Lovecraft and the fictional worlds he created, are aware of his life philosophies that make his work controversial. We look towards the cinematic adaptations to work to address these issues - identifying how they are problematic but extracting from it what humans truly fear - the unknown. This fear itself transcends race and gender, but it also unites us. That is why I see that there is hope in films inspired by the Cthulhu Mythos and horrors from beyond, films that employ Lovecraft’s atmosphere of cosmic terror and dread. Films that fall into this category are Prince of Darkness (1987), At The Mouth of Madness (1994), The Void (2016), Annihilation (2018), Event Horizon (1997), and Pandorum (2009). While they are not direct adaptations of Lovecraft’s literary works, they do include female characters and give them depth. These women are more than just sexual objects and love interests, but explorers, scientists, and doctors who will put themselves in harm’s way to understand the terror threatening humanity, and at times themselves become transformed into monsters, which is a fate that Lovecraft kept only for his male protagonists.
As well, fiction based on the Lovecraftian atmosphere of dread is growing, especially among women writers. Women are taking feminist approaches to Lovecraft’s work and using the worlds he created to explore new narratives. The anthology Cthulhu’s Daughters: Stories of Lovecraftian Horror edited by Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Paula R. Stiles is a collection of stories that explores what they call “Cthulhu’s daughters''. They expand upon women in his tales or add new female characters, and they are seen as monsters and mothers, heroes and devourers.
When it comes to the fear of the unknown or the feelings of existential dread, women have a unique perspective on this. Hello, our bodies are regularly undergoing unique transformations as we age, which are more often than naught depicted as monstrous by society at large. Women can definitely relate to poor Lavinia Whately who gives birth to a monstrous being hellbent on destroying the world. We are seen as being too much, or too small, being selfish when we aren’t being completely selfless. We are in a constant struggle as humans to figure out our own identities. We also have to deal with the dread of inciting the unwanted attention of a predator just because we decided to speak up and put ourselves out there. Some women live in fear of their lives living with a partner who is manipulative and/or abusive and feel like they are unable to escape such daily horror.
What I would love to see is a film adaptation of one of these particular short stories, or have a female director or screenwriter tackle one of Lovecraft’s stories to challenge the misogynistic and patriarchal portrayal of women that have come prior. Women are also interested and fear the unknown, and we experience the same, if not more, horror than men.