Written by: Erik Myers, special to CC2k
One of the recurring images in horror cinema is that of the Evil Mother, or “Monstrous-Feminine.” This concept can be traced backwards throughout our cultural myths, with the female appearing as a castrating force that threatens male supremacy in a patriarchal world. Because this serves as a base form of horror, the aforementioned idea has manifested in our contemporary mythologies via 35mm explorations of gender roles, archetypes, and destructive female empowerment.
While the most popular form of horror film is arguably the “Slasher” in which “Good Girls” are rewarded for their chastity by surviving male punishment while “Bad Girls” are murdered in particularly gruesome ways, the late 1970s offered two examples of the Monstrous-Feminine—the non-subservient maternal figure who threatens all sense of borders, of positions, and rules (Kristeva, 287). These films—Alien and Friday the 13th—present the maternal figure as one who refuses to bend to the stereotypical distinctions of the “weaker sex,” and seek to overcome the men who stand in their way for the sake of their child. Essentially, the female acts as a castrated male who then becomes the castrator. In addition, we receive classic iconography of cinematic abjection: blood, dismemberment, and cannibalism—sometimes figurative, often literal (Creed, 40).
The notion of the Monstrous Feminine comes from Julia Kristeva and Barbara Creed, feminist writers who sought a deeper meaning in cinema via the concept of the abject. According to these ideas, a child exists first in a Semiotic phase, one that is pre-Oedipal, in which the child sees no differentiation between itself, its mother, or its surroundings. It is the move toward the Symbolic—patriarchal—that distances the child from the mother, thus leading to Creed’s notion that the maternal figure is linked to horror films. The mother’s need is to maintain control over the child, refusing to allow it to move on to the Symbolic (Psycho), and if this is challenged, she becomes the “Evil Mother,” who cannot seem to justify her own existence beyond the maternal concept (Kristeva, 72).
Much has been written about the blurring of gender in Alien. The film, which deals with a group of deep space explorers who stumble upon a nest of unborn creatures nursed by their violent, protective mother, is one of the better examples of the Monstrous-Feminine. We are treated to the notion of the so-called “archaic maternal,” or pre-phallic mother, who exists prior to the understanding of the penis as a symbol. Consequently, the alien exists as both mother and father, straddling both genders and acting accordingly. It’s physical form is large and brutal (masculine) but sleek and graceful in movement (feminine), just as its head is blunt and concaved (the penis) with a large, gaping maw (the vagina). Clearly, the creature in question has embraced its gender while stealing from its other. (As Aristotle wrote: "The female is as it were a deformed male" (Anderson, 2004).)
Creed argues that in Alien:
“Although the ‘mother’ as a figure does not appear in…the entire film, her presence forms a vast backdrop for the enactment of all the events. She is there in the images of birth, the representations of the primal scene, the womblike imagery, the long winding tunnels leading to inner chambers, the rows of hatching eggs…” (Creed, 50)
Because the alien in question concentrates solely on the reproductive process and positions herself outside the law, she becomes a threat to patriarchal order and must be destroyed.
One can make the same argument about the role of Pamela Voorhees in Friday the 13th, which, despite its sensationalist tone, borrows freely from ancient myth. (The basic story of Friday the 13th is rarely acknowledged as a reworking of Beowulf, though whether this connection was by design or unintentional remains open to debate. Jason (who appears only during the climax of the original film) is essentially a modern interpretation of the monstrous Grendel, who rises from his watery home to seek revenge for the beheading of his mother, which is more or less how Friday the 13th is played out. As always, mythologies endure, though the names and faces change to reflect contemporary cultures and society.) More than a decade after the drowning of her developmentally challenged son Jason at a summer camp on the outskirts of New Jersey, Mrs. Voorhees—presented as a single and altogether asexual parent—takes it upon herself to punish anyone working at the newly-reopened Camp Crystal Lake. There’s nothing remotely feminine about her appearance: she wears a frumpy sweater that removes any trace of sexuality, and sports a haircut that’s short and unappealing. Couple this with her tendency to commit her crimes with blunt or phallic objects—knives, arrows, axes and hatchets—and you have a woman who embraces her sex without ever seeming to understand its implications beyond the base notion of motherhood.
All the while, Mrs. Voorhees seems obsessed with protecting the ideals of parenting, while punishing those who approach sex—the act preceding parenting—lightly. Tania Modleski notes, "In Friday the 13th (1980), a group of young people are brought together to staff a summer camp and are randomly murdered whenever they go off to make love" (Modleski, 161). Mrs. Voorhees may also be equally fixated on what the act of sex represents: the dominance of the male figure (who symbolically stabs, cuts, or rapes the female), and reacts by killing both the male and the female—the former for committing the act, and the latter for allowing it to happen. The girl who gives herself willingly (and submissively) is at odds with the notion of the Monstrous Feminine, and stands as a figure to be removed for lack of personal responsibility to her gender, as well as denying the responsibility of potential motherhood. Why not stab her to death when she’s already allowed the male to stab her through the sexual act…?
Equally important to both films is the notion of birth. Alien presents two such sequences, juxtaposing the stereotypical (and very romantic) idea of the beauty of this moment with the horror and revulsion men find within it. In the case of the former, we’re treated to an opening sequence of our space explorers emerging from cryogenic slumber, rising naked from pods set within a sterile, warm environment. (Not coincidentally, the ship’s artificial intelligence—codenamed “Mother”—activates the awakening.) The imagery and tonal qualities of this setpiece corresponds to the previously noted sense of idealism attached to birth: that it is something wondrous and magical. Later on, however, we’re treated to a far more visceral scene, one in which an infected cosmonaut (John Hurt) gives birth to one of the alien spawn, a creature that enters via his mouth, gestates in his stomach, and then rips itself from the man’s chest. This latter sequence blurs the line of gender roles, as we witness a male figure who has been symbolically castrated and produces a child in a way that is the very antithesis of beauty—there is blood, there is pain, and there are screams. In many ways, one can make the argument that this version of childbirth is the more “real” of the two, and is an experience the male can never truly understand. Within these films, the female, however, seems to re-enact the process through her violent tendencies.
In the case of Friday the 13th, childbirth is only hinted at, but its corresponding sequence is the best-remembered (if least understood) of the entire film. After beheading the murderous Mrs. Voorhees and escaping onto the lake in a boat, Alice (Adrienne King), after a shock-induced sleep, awakens the following morning to a beautiful sight: the lake at dawn, the trees full of color, and her rescuers, the patriarchal police force, waiting for her on the shore. However, as order seems restored, she is attacked from behind, as Jason, the long-dead inhabitant of the lake, emerges from the water to pull Alice down with him. Jason, as presented in the film, is a hairless man-child, covered in placenta-like mud, who bursts forth from a watery womb after a night of sexually oriented deaths via phallic objects. (While Friday the 13th went on to spawn ten sequels, most dropped the notion of the Monstrous Feminine in favor of Jason’s redundant exploits as a one-dimensional killer. Friday the 13th Part 2 was the only film in the series to continue the original’s motif, presenting us with Jason as a “mama’s boy” who has kept his mother’s head and clothing in an abandoned cabin, bringing her his victims in order to make his mother proud. ) Following this, Jason is reborn to continue his mother’s work, but is incomplete in development, trapped in a perpetual Semiotic phase without a father figure to lead him toward the Symbolic. In effect, he becomes the mother, carrying on with the process of castration. (It’s interesting to note that this bond is hinted at earlier in Friday the 13th, where Mrs. Voorhees actually holds conversations with Jason, but speaks both voices. One can further the argument that he is reborn at the end of the film by implying that this repeated dialogue exchange represents the singular bond between a pregnant mother and her unborn fetus.)
In both films, the maternal figure seeks to protect her offspring—in the case of Alien, these children are unborn, while in Friday the 13th, they the child is already dead. However, despite these opposing extremes, the ideologies remain the same: innocence must be governed by a female who takes a male stance. However, unlike the patriarchal notions of a ruling class, the Monstrous-Feminine lurks in the shadows, committing her crimes offscreen, as if consciously aware that the “stronger sex” still possesses the power to prevent her actions. It is only when she is forced to reveal herself that she does so, choosing instead to eliminate her obstacles one by one until the option is removed. The men, however, are never the ones to force her final appearance.
Interestingly, it is a female—the “Final Girl”—who survives and ultimately triumphs over the Monstrous-Feminine, and yet the message these films sends is unclear at best. The “Final Girl” serves as nemesis and counterpart to the killer/monster, and is described by Trencansky thusly:
“After all her friends have been eliminated by the film's monster, this girl is the one who recognizes the horror surrounding her and fights back against her attacker and defeats him, typically single-handedly. She is the undisputed main character, both because of increased character development afforded to her throughout the film and because of her early discovery of the killer, evident to the viewing audience from the beginning of the film” (2001).
Inverting Mulvey’s notion of the male gaze, the “Final Girl” serves as the viewer’s chief identification within the narrative. Clover states that her "perspective approaches our own privileged understanding of the situation" (Clover 44), and therefore gives us a lifeline to the film. However, in both Alien and Friday the 13th, the “Final Girl” inhabits the physical characteristics of the Monstrous-Feminine, in that both Ripley and Alice are capable of using their fists rather than simply screaming. Neither is a passive character, and neither is particularly feminine in the classical sense of the word, choosing to wear clothing that downplays their sexuality and wearing hairstyles that border on masculine. Both have moments where their physicality is hinted at—Creed makes much of the fact that Ripley strips down to her underwear, and Alice initiates a game of Strip Poker—but neither fully inhabits the full-blown characteristics of a sexually-aware woman. For this reason, they triumph over the Monstrous-Feminine, by inhabiting similar characteristics they don’t seem aware that they share with their adversary. (While the initial confrontation is survived, both females meet grisly deaths later in their respective franchises. Ripley is forced to commit suicide when impregnated by an alien face-hugger in Alien3 (though she returns, albeit as a clone, in Alien: Resurrection), and Alice is dispatched by Jason during the opening sequence of Friday the 13th Part 2. While the “Final Girl” always manages to escape, she is never truly free, and eventually falls victim to the monster.)
The notion of the Monstrous-Feminine is apparent is other horror or suspense films (most notably Psycho, IT, and Dressed to Kill), but it’s a concept that has been only touched on within the genre. Typically, “slasher films” are dominated by male killers enacting female punishment fantasies via decidedly phallic weapons, but the notion of the “Bad Mother” is one that appears in surprisingly few films. While it has endured thousands of years and repeated retellings, it surfaces rarely now, perhaps because of the uncomfortable implications inherent within the concept.
Anderson, Duana R. “The Abject Body vs. The Neurotic Mind.” http://www.morbidoutlook.com/nonfiction/articles/2004_08_cronenberg.html
Creed, Barbara, "Horror and the Monstrous-Feminine," Dread of Difference, ed. Barry Grant, 35-65. Texas: U of T, 1996
Creed, Barbara, "Feminist Film Theory: Reading the Text," Don't Shoot Darling!, ed. Annette Blensky et al, 280-313. Greenhouse: Melbourne, 1987
Kristeva, Julia. The Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection (New York: Columbia UP, 1982), originally published as Pouvoir de l'horreur. Essai sur l'abjection (Paris, 1980).
Modleski, Tania. "The Terror of Pleasure: The Contemporary Horror Film and Postmodern Theory." In Studies in Entertainment: Critical Approaches to Mass Culture. Ed. Tania Modleski. Bloomington: Indian, UP, 1986, 155-66.
Trencansky, Sarah. “Final Girls and Terrible Youth: Transgression in 1980s Slasher Horror.” Journal of Popular Film and Television, Summer, 2001.