Category ArchiveWomen in Horror Week

‘Ouija: Origin of Evil’: Grief, Motherhood, and Spirit Possession

This guest post written by Gareth Evans appears as part of our theme week on Women in Horror.

A common question that is asked of horror movies is why? Why don’t any of the leads think to go to the police? Why do they not stop messing around with dark forces before it is too late? Not only does Ouija: Origin of Evil have an answer to such questions, it answers them in a way that serves to make its cast more sympathetic.
Directed and co-written by Mike Flanagan, Ouija: Origin of Evil — the prequel to the 2014 film Ouija — stars Elizabeth Reaser as Alice Zander, a fake psychic who enlists her daughters in order to convince people that she can communicate with the dead. Since the death of Alice’s husband, this has become how she earns money. The film opens with Alice performing a séance with her daughters and a client. They are able to pull off the illusion, but Alice declines the customer’s money because she wants to save him from a possibly fraudulent business venture. Alice justifies lying to clients as she believes that she’s providing a service that meets their emotional needs. But her refusal here conveys that there are limits she won’t cross when it comes to dealing with her customers.
This scene serves three important functions. It establishes why the Zander family would choose to experiment with a Ouija board. Alice turns away her customer’s money, proving that she is invested in her job for more than monetary gain. Finally, it reinforces how easy it is for someone to believe that a medium can allow them to contact a deceased loved one, as many people yearn to reconnect with those they have lost.
By this point, the audience is familiar with the aspects of Alice’s character that will inform her actions for the rest of the film. She still mourns the loss of her husband. She honestly believes that her job helps people; she says as much while talking with Father Hogan (Henry Thomas), a priest at her daughters’ school. Alice is passionate about what she does and sees in herself as akin to a therapist. Because Alice is a widow, she’s in a similar position to the people who seek her help. This makes it easier for her to view her actions as helping others grieve, and not the actions of an emotional predator. She feels what they feel. Alice longs for the closure that she believes she gives others through her work.

When her younger daughter, Doris (Lulu Wilson) displays the ability to use a Ouija board for real and actually connect with spirits, it makes perfect sense that Alice jumps at the opportunity. In her eyes, she is finally able to do what she has been pretending to do all this time and make a real difference in the world. In doing so, Alice fails to see both the danger to Doris and other warning signs that suggest the spirits she speaks to aren’t who they claim to be.
When Doris first uses the Ouija board, it doesn’t appear to cause her any harm. During the course of the film, however, she displays signs that she is being possessed: she starts writing in Polish despite not speaking the language,she uses strange powers to fight back against two boys bullying her. Father Hogan notices that something is amiss, but Alice doesn’t. She is too focused on the great work she thinks her daughter is doing. Alice doesn’t even think to question the spirits beyond a basic test, as she is too wrapped up in what she thinks her daughter has to offer people. The fervor with which she encourages her daughter’s talents shines a light on Alice’s own grief. Through Doris’ gift, Alice has found a purpose for herself. She is still mourning her husband, and being able to heal the pain of others gives her something to strive for. It’s also possible that despite statements to the contrary, Alice felt guilt over lying to the people who sought her help. Now that she can genuinely contact the dead through her daughter, it would make sense for Alice to see this as a redemption of sorts — a way for her to make amends for her earlier lies.
Towards the end of the film, Alice’s older daughter, Paulina “Lina” (Annalise Basso), points out something rather alarming: the answers the ghosts have been giving are the same answers that Alice used to give clients when she pretended to commune with the dead. The ghosts have been manipulating Alice with her own con.

The film comes full circle, connecting back to the very first scene. Everything that was true of Alice’s customer in that scene is true of Alice at this point in the film. She desperately wants to believe that she is talking to the deceased, and whomever she is speaking to knows exactly what to say to get what they want from her. The difference is that these spirits don’t have Alice’s best interests in mind.
Ouija: Origin of Evil subverts the conventions of the horror genre with a sympathetic main character with a relatable motivation. The spirits tempt Alice with her heart’s desire and this keeps her invested in doing what they want, even when it becomes increasingly clear that something is wrong. Alice makes mistakes, ignoring Doris’ needs in favor of her own being chief among them. This is successfully portrayed as tragic because Alice is shown to be an otherwise good mother. She is involved in both her daughters’ lives, to the extent that she has multiple scenes with Father Hogan to discuss Doris’ well-being. When Lina brings her doubts to Alice, she is frustrated by her mother’s inability to really listen to what she is saying because she is used to her mother being more willing to listen. It was Lina who suggested incorporating the Ouija board into her mother’s act. That her mother followed this advice serves as evidence that Alice is usually willing to take Lina’s ideas. In the film’s first scene, the whole family works together to pull off the séance, showing that they normally function well together as a unit. Influenced by The Changeling (1980), Flanagan wanted to create a period piece exploring the dangers of grief within a family, as he views “family as the safest place in the world.”
Because the film takes the time to examine Alice’s motivation, these are truly mistakes and not plot holes. Instead of undermining the film, they serve to contribute to its depth of character. Ouija: Origin of Evil may be a prequel, but it is first and foremost a tragic character piece. One in which a previously strong family dynamic is torn apart when malicious forces use Alice’s grief to manipulate her.

Gareth Evans is a writer from Godalming, a small town in south England. He currently writes for Starburst Magazine and Ink Magazine.

Why Skittles’ ‘Bite-Size Horror’ Is the Perfect Metaphor for American Society

This guest post written by Lisette Voytko appears as part of our theme week on Women in Horror.

If you’re anything like me and millions of Americans, you tuned into the Yankees v. Indians ALDS game on Wednesday evening, October 11th. Despite the Yankees’ incredible comeback win, one commercial break might have left you fraught with tension.
Skittles, a brand that’s no stranger to oddball advertising, chose that night to debut the latest in Mars’ #BiteSizeHorror campaign, called “Floor 9.5.”

Skittles TV Commercial, ‘FOX: Bite Size Horror’

Running a full two minutes, instead of the usual 30-second slot reserved for commercials, viewers follow an unnamed female office worker on her way home from the office. Did you watch it? Good.
Because, broken down, frame by frame, the two-minute spot is a microcosm of what it’s like to live in the U.S. today. Here’s how it works: We open on our protagonist (Georgina Campbell, “the first Black actress to win a BAFTA“), a 20-something Black woman. It’s nighttime; she’s on her way home from a long day at the office. The clock strikes midnight.
We get a full-body glimpse of our protagonist, getting into the elevator. She’s carrying a heavy tote bag, and an office-appropriate trench coat. Notable here are her shoes: athletic trainers indicative of commuters everywhere. Judging by her lack of blazer, high heels, or other “power” attire, it’s safe to assume she’s a lower-level corporate denizen. She’s probably ambitious, given that she put in a ridiculously long day, and her exhaustion clearly shows.
Our protagonist steps into the elevator, and we get a good look at her haircut and blouse. Her hair is the kind of bob made popular by Taylor Swift. Her blouse is buttoned to the top button, a common styling choice for young urbanites. You could easily picture her hanging out at Coachella, or having after-work drinks at a hip bar. You can imagine she’s still paying off her student loans, having obtained a degree at a pricey private university in order to land her current job.
The elevator goes haywire, stranding our protagonist onto a Being John Malkovich-ish floor existing between levels 9 and 10. The doors open. A bald white man, dressed in a black suit, faces away from the camera.
“I need your help,” he says in a low voice. “I need your help.”
“What?” asks the protagonist, stepping out of the elevator.
This exchange, although quite basic, is reminiscent of the existing power dynamic between American men and women at work. But let’s go back to what the man is wearing. His suit is considered power attire, and by its formal nature, indicates he’s higher up on the corporate ladder than the protagonist. His baldness indicates that he’s probably older, which typically means he’s higher-ranking. And men are more likely to be promoted at work, and to sit in the C-suite. 30% more likely, in fact.
Keeping all of this in mind, the protagonist gets out of the elevator to help. Because it’s in her nature to do so. And the man directly asks for her help, because it’s in his nature do so, too. Although there are always exceptions to the rule, of course. And these gendered behaviors may be a result of socialization, or socialization in conjunction with nature. Here, she’s trying to help him. She wants to see his face, and understand why he’s here, and why he’s acting so strangely. He asks her to turn around, and she complies. Because, again, she wants to help (and get the hell out of there, too.) But the difference between these two people never becomes more apparent than this frame of their legs, turning in tandem. Her commuter shoes and cropped slacks are in contrast with the man’s suit trousers and highly-polished loafers. Those loafers look expensive, don’t you think?
A study conducted by the University of Zürich found “women were more likely to get a dopamine rush when doing something for others, while men are more likely to do so when they are acting in their own self-interest.” We cut to a wide shot of the man, having successfully convinced the protagonist to turn around, dashing towards the elevator – towards his presumed freedom. “I’m sorry!” he shouts, before the elevator doors close in the protagonist’s face. She’s stranded. And she looks terrified.
Women tend to apologize more than men, although the impetus behind each gender’s mea culpas are quite different. Women say sorry in an attempt to appear more likable, while men will do so in recognition of inconveniencing another. The man, by stranding our protagonist, has certainly inconvenienced her by acting in his own self-interest. That’s an apology well-warranted. And, you have to wonder: why didn’t he grab her hand on his run back to the elevator? Perhaps, even in dire circumstances, white male privilege still reigns.
Our final frame leaves our protagonist where the bald man started. “I need your help,” she says to the next victim: a bespectacled white man in shirt sleeves and a tie. Due to the gender wage gap, which especially impedes Black women and Latina women, he probably earns more money than our protagonist and he may have a higher position, too. And we know that she’s about to have her revenge, perpetuating the cycle on floor 9.5. Or maybe she won’t? Who’s to say the bespectacled man won’t just leave her there, standing still, frozen in perpetuity?
And why is this happening, in this specific office building? What is the purpose? Where is this sort of demonic possession coming from? And what happens to each victim after they screw over their successor?
There are many circumstances, specific to American culture in 2017’s place and time, that allegorize this story. For example:

Why this office building? Well, Americans are working longer hours than ever. Perhaps this is the price you pay for giving your life away to a corporation.
What’s the purpose of this? Americans are scientifically proven to be selfish.
Because of the gender wage gap in the U.S., women are paid 80% of what men make. Black women are paid 63% and Latina women are paid 54% of what white men make.
What happens to each victim? Assuming the elevator returns victims to their normal, 9-to-5 life, it’s not hard to believe they would go about their days with a higher degree of distrust and isolation than before. It’s symptomatic of the divisive political atmosphere permeating the U.S. since the 2016 election.

 
Director Toby Meakins told AdWeek that the concept of the “loop/hell,” that he and writer Simon Allen collaborated on, is “intended to be a metaphor for modern working life.” Meakins said that they wanted the ad to evoke Black Mirror as well as a “short Kafkaesque nightmare.”
But the “Kakfaesque nightmare” is the reality of social, political, and economic issues affecting society, imprinted on Americans’ collective unconscious. This commercial illustrates how deep the nightmare goes; that inequalities exist in the most dire, uncertain circumstances. And women are suffering the most for it. If our protagonist can’t be saved by her colleagues from an everlasting loop of hell, how can our entire gender at large expect fair, equitable treatment? Like it or not, #BiteSizeHorror is a bite-size slice of the current turbulence in American society.

Lisette Voytko is a freelance journalist living in Brooklyn, New York. Her work has appeared in Thrillist, The Video Game History Foundation, xoJane, Femsplain, and Task & Purpose. Find her on Twitter @lisettevoytko.

‘Hush’: A Resourceful Heroine with Disabilities for the Horror Genre

This guest post written by Cassandra A. Clarke appears as part of our theme week on Women in Horror. | Spoilers ahead (in the last paragraph).

Horror films thrive on powerlessness, on weaving tales that create vicarious feelings of hope and dread. Many horror movies follow a type of formula: restrict a character’s capability over time as external risks and dangers increase. Films that stick too closely to this pattern become formulaic. Audiences know what to expect, which is usually counterintuitive to manifesting fear, as the very idea that we do not know what is coming or why or how to stop it typically provokes fear. Insert obstacle here: friends travel to rural area and nearby families are out of town sounds like The Strangers or the home invasion sub-genre. Insert physical limitation: protagonist broke their collar-bone and can’t protect themselves which is a common mid-way tactic of horror to increase the plot’s driving sense of inescapability, like in Halloween or the teen slasher sub-genre.
What’s interesting about this formula, however, is its side effect when the same film stars a woman protagonist. Introducing insurmountable obstacles comes at the cost of disempowering its woman lead literally. While horror films in the past five years have started to come to terms with this consequence and spin survivor tales with resourceful, complex female protagonists (The Babadook, It Follows, Raw) it still begs the question: Why are women always the ones having to fight for their safety? Is a survivor’s tale that different than a chase story?
What’s brilliant about Hush, written by Mike Flanagan and Kate Siegel (who stars as the lead), is it pushes the envelope of the survivor’s tale further through its main character, Madison “Maddie” Young: a woman who is deaf, mute, and lives alone in a rural area. In addition to featuring a female protagonist with disabilities, Hush crafts a home-invasion story that isn’t about her “problems” or obstacles or the attacker at all, but rather it focuses on the tactful solutions she chooses along the way. The film challenges the horror genre to be more inventive with escape. Flanagan initially wanted to make a film with the challenge of no dialogue. He and Siegel thought having a deaf and mute protagonist would be “a real benefit to character development.” If this trend of female characters leading their way out of danger is growing, why not see these women as fuller characters who are masters of their own experiences and use their brains as much as brawn to escape?

Flanagan and Siegel use Hush’s opening moments and other scenes of heightened tension to play with sound by turning off the score and diegetic sound and using sound design, such as “audio from ultrasounds,” at certain points for extended time periods in order to acclimate the hearing viewer into Maddie’s world. The film also shows how she adapted to becoming deaf and mute as a child and how she shaped her life as a successful mystery writer. We see a burned dinner that culminates in her strobe-flashing smoke detector going off, Maddie text on her synced Apple devices with her sister who playfully rebukes her for being single, and a conversation with her neighbor Sarah who is learning to sign; we see enough of Maddie’s life to know that she is content and a master of her surroundings. Of course this peaceful life is challenged as Sarah is stabbed violently outside of Maddie’s house while Maddie unknowingly paces around her kitchen, trying to finish a new story she’s writing.
The film cleverly depicts the killer as a faceless man, an interchangeable slasher. He has no name nor back-story. Through this approach, we care less about him as the film cares less about him, opening up room instead to focus on Maddie and her choices. After not seeing Maddie turn around from Sarah’s screams, the man realizes she is deaf and appears aroused by the idea of killing her. Flanagan and Siegel approach his stalking of Maddie in a way that is new and also true to her experiences. Since Maddie cannot hear him, the killer has to find new ways to be known, so he steals Sarah’s phone and sends photos of Maddie to her. As soon as she realizes she’s being watched, Maddie attempts to bargain with the stalker-killer by writing a message backwards in lipstick on the locked glass door that he’s standing in front of, saying that she would never tell anyone that he was here. Her delivery is tongue in cheek. There’s even a flash of what could be called a smirk on Maddie’s lips. The man finds no humor in this; however, the audience can appreciate this moment as this odd display further develops Maddie as a character who even in grim circumstances finds a way to be resilient and playful.
After Sarah’s death, the plot quickly revs up to focus on Maddie’s escape. Hush does not hold back on the gore to accomplish this cat-and-mouse reversal. A crossbow, knives, shattered glass, and a cork-screw are some of the tools used to torture the man and Maddie. Both are injured and both attack, causing the film to feel less like cat and mouse and more like cat and cat, which helps to counteract the fact that it is still, at its core, a film about a woman being hunted. Setting the film in Maddie’s house creates a sense of claustrophobia that mimics not only Maddie’s initial fear but also the growing frustration and rage of her failing assailant.

To its credit, Hush brings Maddie’s career into the story, which she utilizes as a unique resource to help her survive. As a writer, she can look ahead of the story, see the possible outcomes of actions, and weigh the consequences. This decision to make her writing a part of her method to save herself does wonders for the film as it prevents it from relying too heavily on Maddie’s disabilities as a plot device and gives her more things to do, besides run or fight. In between moments of chase and bloody fighting, viewers follow along as Maddie (and the film) literally retreats into her head in imagined scenes, watching her play out possible choices of escape: Should she climb out the window? Does she hide in the bathtub? We see the failures of these fictional choices that lead Maddie to move in another direction. Horror fans can delight in these scenes as the writing becomes a meta-commentary on the formula of home invasion stories — we know this situation well and we know how we would act, and so, Hush invites us to play with choice, and to watch Maddie do the same. She is like us; she knows this story well and so she is desperate to find a better way out, a smarter way out. We’re engaged because we too want Maddie’s story to be different.
While I won’t say Hush soars in its depiction of Maddie as a deaf and mute woman, I think it’s a worthwhile progression to have a disabled character as a fully developed protagonist. Actress-co-writer Siegel is hearing and speaking in real life and I can see some viewers being disheartened that they didn’t cast someone who is deaf or mute. Maddie’s signing doesn’t appear natural or nuanced (using slang gestures, for instance). She might have been more sensitive to seeing motion if this was really happening to her. That being said, I think its depiction of Maddie as a full, engaging character who fends for herself and thrives alone is an asset to adding more characters with disabilities in films, especially horror, as not victims but stars.
I would even go as far to say that the ending suggests this even more. Much like Maddie does in previous scenes, after the final fight, she sits on her porch, closes her eyes, and smiles. Her demeanor is shockingly similar to how she was in imagined moments earlier, not necessarily indicative of someone who just survived a harrowing ordeal. What this suggests to me is that there is a possibility that the ending didn’t happen, that actually, the plot we watched was a story but it wasn’t true in the film’s narrative. Earlier in the film, before Sarah is killed, we see Maddie struggling to write the end to a new thriller. She rewrites the ending multiple times and visualizes how it could go, and is dissatisfied. Sarah’s death ultimately interrupts her and one can imagine that her death, and everything that follows, is of Maddie’s creation. What’s wonderful about this interpretation of the film is that it doesn’t just become a survivor’s tale, it becomes Maddie’s tale and invention and she exists as both the killer and the chased. She is given a duality that has yet to grace horror films that seem to position women as either the kill-or-be-killed model. Hush thrives in knowing what it is and what it is not; it is a tale of the formulas we play with, and it is asking us to play more, to think more.

See also at Bitch Flicks:
How Home Invasion Films Reinforce Gender Stereotypes and Portray Domestic Violence
The Strangers: The Horror of Home Invasion and the Power of the Final Girl

Cassandra A. Clarke is a writer, martial artist, and non-profit professional lady. Her work’s been previously published in Electric Literature, Word Riot, Entropy, other places that love a taste of the weird. In her spare time, she runs the literary magazine Spectator & Spooks. Follow her misadventures @cass__clarke and @spec_ta_tor_mag.

“You Can’t Sit with Us”: Witchy Girl Gangs and Covens

This guest post written by Michelle Mastro appears as part of our theme week on Women in Horror.

The volume of films exploring the hazards of “girl world” is quite robust. Before the comedy Mean Girls there was cult classic Heathers, a darker satirical vision of teenage girl strife. Rounding out the cinematic landscape between these pillars of classic girl-on-girl warfare set in the average American high school are numerous other examples from Never Been Kissed to Jawbreaker. In fact, so hackneyed is the trope of female-centered cliques that if it isn’t treated as part and parcel of teen comedies as a genre, it is almost always at least a minor plot point. Yet horror films and television series grapple with themes inspired by catty drama and gossip as well, only the aesthetics are different to align better with their genre. In these iterations of the girl clique trope, girl gangs become covens, and the power of gossip is transformed into charms and incantations.
Swapping out girl gangs and cliques for covens is as easily done as replacing “witch” with that other not so nice pejorative term for women. In the TV series American Horror Story: Coven, for example, Fiona Goode (Jessica Lange) toys with both words, calling one of the school’s meaner pupils a “little witch bitch.” In that same episode, she takes the band of squabbling girls on a field trip through New Orleans, telling them all beforehand to “wear something black.” The show aired on Wednesdays, prompting fans to coin the phrase, “On Wednesdays we wear black,” another play on words, only this time in reference to Mean Girls. One of the frequently quoted lines from the film includes the “Plastics”’ rules about hump day association and uniformity: “On Wednesdays we wear pink.” The writers of AHS: Coven and fans alike got the joke: girls in groups can be mean — mean like witches.
This, of course, might seem like a sexist reading of girl friendships — and it would be even more understandable to question the show’s depiction of gender given how female sexuality is portrayed and its problematic depiction of race. Yet, given that women, historically, could only maintain their social status through heteronormative marriage — through their connections to men — it would make sense that the young women might begin to view each other as competition. In high school, who dates whom really matters, and thus the high schools of the films are more or less stuck in a time warp. Their cafeterias, the place of social gathering, are where romantic attachments are forged. The dining hall perfectly figures as a sort of Regency court of King George III, where marriages mattered to one’s social superiority. Social status dictated how close courtiers got to sit near the king. Terrifyingly, the king’s friendship could help produce advantageous marriages or dissolve them entirely. Thus, the more popular the girl in Mean Girls, the closer she resides near Regina George. She usually forbids more readily than she grants unions, however, and her despotic rule feeds much of the clique’s cattiness.

Which begs the question: why would these characters hang around each other at all? On the surface, each school clique offers a certain amount of protection. In AHS: Coven’s case, if the girls don’t band together, they will face assaults from outsiders. “If witches don’t fight, we burn,” says Fiona to the students. In Mean Girls (written by Tina Fey), the point of being in the Plastics is somewhat similar, though obviously not nearly as dire. For protagonist Cady Heron (Lindsay Lohan), lunchtime at the cafeteria posed as a minefield full of aggressive cliques, and not being a member of any group at first, she found herself the butt of jokes, a social outcast forced to eat alone in a women’s bathroom stall. Better to have fun at the expense of others with the Plastics in their “Burn Book” than get burned oneself. The same conclusion is proposed near the beginning of The Craft and Heathers. Sarah (Robin Tunney) in the former joins her clique more out of necessity than anything else, whereas Veronica (Winona Ryder) in the latter participates in spiteful pranks on fellow students, even though she questions the group’s methods and is quick to claim her own name in a gaggle of Heathers, stridently affirming: “I’m a Veronica.”
Underwritten in this claim of selfhood, however, is a larger message. Each of the films and the TV series, to varying degrees, promote individuality over conformity. Eventually, each teaches viewers the importance of being true to yourself and avoiding the pitfalls of group mentality.
In The Craft, when the girls catch a bus together, they all wear dark sun-glasses and nearly identical fashions, precursors of the pink Plastics and black-draped New Orleans witches, not to mention references to the shoulder-pad loving Heathers of the 1980s. Each group of young women has made their own clique, but within each group, conformity is essential. What’s worse, the supposed protection proffered by The Craft’s coven in the form of casting spells is as spiteful as participating in any girl gang gossip. Both hurt and have unforeseen consequences. Sarah learns to be careful about what energy she puts out. “Whatever you send out, you get back threefold,” she is counselled. She casts a spell to get back at football player Chris Hooker (Skeet Ulrich) for spreading lies that the pair had sex. After the spell, he becomes her lapdog, but his obsession quickly turns violent. Apparently, her intention behind the spell was wicked, and the results matched. Although Sarah was right to seek justice, her spell was framed in a way that could only elicit revenge, a much more volatile act that inflicts a cost on both parties, although this in no way means that she deserved nor brought on herself slut-shaming or attempted rape. In AHS: Coven, one of the girls, Madison (Emma Roberts), is gang raped. She uses her magic to kill the boys, but also murders an innocent guy in the process. Her actions will come back to haunt her, as all the witches’ poor decisions inevitably do. Madison becomes more and more heartless as the series progresses, symbolized by an actual heart condition preventing her from ever serving as the coven’s leader. “The only good or bad is in the heart of the witch,” Lirio (Assumpta Serna) tells the girls in The Craft. Cady in Mean Girls arrives at a similar realization. The Burn Book of the Plastics is photocopied and dispersed among the students, and Cady will have to find a way to take back her words. It is too late, of course, just like in Sarah’s case. In The Craft, Lyrio tells her: “When you open a flood gate, how can you undo it? You unleash something with a spell. There is no undoing; it must run its course.” The mistake each of the girls all made was attempting a kind of vigilante justice — really a type of revenge.

The Craft is a cult classic that impacted many women due to its representation and messages of empowerment and “taking back the threat of female power.” In the oral history of The Craft at Entertainment Weekly, producer Douglas Wick said he “was curious about the phenomenon of girls marginalized in a man’s world who suddenly come into their sexuality and have this enormous power.” Actress Robin Tunney said, “Somehow it still speaks to everybody’s inner teenage girl.” In her Vulture article on The Craft‘s legacy, Angelica Jade Bastien writes:
“Witchcraft is more than mere teenage rebellion for these young girls. It’s a means to attain what at first glance appears unattainable: power, control, autonomy, the ability to live beyond the various oppressive forces that govern their lives. […] These girls, each in their own way, is calling out for something women learn early and often is hard to attain: the power to control your own life.”
Yet the girls’ friendship ultimately turns toxic and destructive, demanding conformity over individuality.
Sarah, Veronica, Cady, and the girls from AHS: Coven learn painful lessons. Words and spells cannot be taken back and cannot be undone, and the girls prove more powerful in their individuality. In The Craft, Sarah realizes her friends’ coven is organized more like a petty club and her fellow witches are just as spiteful as the young women and men they sought vengeance against. Veronica realizes she cannot undue the harm she has caused; she cannot bring back the kids she helped to murder. And Cady learns that being “personally victimized by Regina George” does not give her license to become another queen bee. Each of the protagonists find strength in themselves. Sarah is called a natural witch, for unlike the other girls, her “power comes from within.” After Sarah’s coven disperses, all the girls lose their magical powers except Sarah. Veronica and Cady, meanwhile, end their films with the promise of never allowing any future cliques to form in their respective high schools ever again. Or at the very least, they won’t conform to what others say; they will listen to their own moral compass. In AHS: Coven, the ruling mean girls Madison and Fiona have been ousted as well. And the rise of a new headmistress, Cordelia (Sarah Paulson) brings with her the promise of beginning the school afresh. Past mistakes will not be repeated, she informs the press, revealing the school to the world.
In this way, each manifestation of the girl group trope proposes an affirmation of self-esteem, non-conformity, independence, and individuality. The chilling and ominous tales about teenage witches invoke and summon the moral of their comedic cousins, warning female viewers against resentment and revenge, while encouraging them to always “do unto others as they would have done unto them.” What might seem like an allusion to Christian doctrine is, in fact, the basis of many beliefs, even Wiccan practices. “[I]t’s part of a basic spiritual truth. Said in many ways in many faiths,” Lirio says matter-of-factly. Spells, like gossip, will come back “threefold.” 

See also at Bitch Flicks:
Girl Gangs Are Mean: Teenage Girl Gang Movies Through the Years 
20 Years of The Craft: Why We Needed More of Rochelle
American Horror Story: Coven: Gabourey Sidibe’s Queenie as an Embodiment of the “Strong Black Woman” Stereotype
Exploring Bodily Autonomy on American Horror Story: Coven
I’m a Veronica: Power and Transformation Through Female Friendships in Heathers
Veronica Decides Not to Die — Heathers: The Proto-Mean Girls
How Should a Show about Witches Be?

Michelle Mastro is a graduate student at Indiana University, Bloomington’s English PhD program. She loves all things horror, and to her, autumn is the greatest season not just for Starbucks pumpkin spice but for the availability of horror film marathons on TV — of which she watches plenty.

Motherhood and Monsters in ‘Under The Shadow’

This guest post written by Becky Kukla appears as part of our theme week on Women in Horror.

Set in the midst of the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, Under the Shadow focuses on the lives of Shideh (Narges Rashidi) and her young daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) living in in a small apartment in the middle of Tehran. Early on, Shideh’s husband, Iraj (Bobby Naderi), is conscripted to the frontline of the fighting, leaving Shideh and Dorsa alone. As the bombing becomes worse, and their own apartment building is struck, both of them begin to experience ghostly apparitions within the apartments, categorized by their neighbors, and by Dorsa, as jinn.
The title, Under the Shadow, refers to both the literal shadow of war that Shideh and Dora live underneath on a daily basis and the ghostly souls which begin to haunt them. With regular bombings being an everyday part of their lives, and a warhead landing in the apartment above them, the two of them live under the “shadow of war” in a very real sense. The spiritual shadows known as jinn — supernatural creatures that exist in Arab folklore and Islamic mythology and theology — lurk in doorways and in the corners of rooms, never existing as more than a ghostly figure in the corner of one’s eye. These shadows descend on Shideh and Dorsa, aggressively destroying their lives.
The jinn in Under the Shadow have a basis in myth and legend. Like ghouls and ghosts, they are fantasy figures that may or may not exist. For most of the film it’s hard to know whether the jinn are really haunting Dorsa and Shideh or whether they are manifestations of their fear concerning their current situation. Dorsa, after being told about the jinn by a young neighbor, claims that they are in the apartment several days before Shideh begins to have any experiences with them. This could be Dorsa’s grief at her father leaving and her fears about being killed — as a child she has even less control of the situation than her mother does. When Dorsa loses her beloved doll, she explains to Shideh that the spirits have taken it. Again, this could easily be attributed to Dorsa’s fear of abandonment and death.

Under the Shadow straddles a very thin line between fantasy and reality. Writer-director Babak Anvari never explicitly reveals whether the haunting of Shideh and Dorsa is real or imagined, which means that the audience is kept in confusing uncertainty as well. Anvari based his debut film on his personal experiences as a child living in Iran during the war, as well as his own childhood fears about “the ancient myth.” Contextualizing the mayhem that Dorsa and Shideh are going through (they are living in a literal war zone) helps the audience to rationalize their heightened states of fear. On the other hand, some of the events that take place cannot be explained away logically, and we (like Dorsa and Shideh) are forced to confront the terrifying thought that not only has their city been invaded, but their home may be too.
The jinn, and the hauntings, also serve as a metaphor for Shideh’s own insecurities about motherhood. In the first scene of Under the Shadow, Shideh is at university in Tehran to find out whether she will be able to return to finish her medical studies. It is revealed that she was part of the Iranian Revolution before the war, and because of her liberal attitudes, the university will not permit her to come back and graduate. She leaves, deflated and angry. Later, in the film Shideh and Iraj have a heated conversation about why Shideh wants to return to her studies, and why she cannot be satisfied with looking after her daughter. Though Dorsa and Shideh get on well for most of the film, there are moments of tension between the two. The film’s themes of motherhood, hauntings, and trauma drew comparisons to The Babadook. Shideh, as someone who used to want to be a doctor and was actively involved in the revolution, is now trapped inside her apartment building. It’s a huge shift for her, and though she doesn’t blame the birth of Dorsa outright, there seems to be some resentment there. This resentment is only worsened when Iraj leaves — he is a doctor and his skills are needed. His departure partly serves as a reminder to Shideh that she is not qualified and due to the changing role of women in Iranian society post-revolution, she may only hold the title of “mother” for the rest of her life.

Shideh is also living at a cultural crossroads. In her apartment, she exercises to Jane Fonda workout tapes, wears Western clothing, and allows her daughter to watch videos. Outside, she must dress conservatively, predominantly in a chador. At one point she reminds Dorsa not to tell the neighbors that they own a video player, as they are banned. Her life is lived in secrecy, under a different type of shadow. These inner conflicts (mother/doctor, traditional/modern) all contribute to Shideh’s frustration and assist in her slow descent into the depths of fear in her current situation.
Ultimately, Shideh feels incapable of doing what it is widely believed that mothers are supposed to do: protect their children. She is unable to protect Dorsa from the war raging in their country just as she is unable to protect her from the spirits raging in their apartment. During the height of their haunting, Shideh receives a phone call from Iraj, who begins to berate her for being a bad mother, telling her that he knew she wouldn’t be able to protect their daughter. Of course, the phone call is attributed to the jinn playing games with Shideh, but they deliberately tap into Shideh’s biggest insecurity.
Real horror is difficult to convey in film; it needs the audience to truly identify with the main characters, to feel their fear as though it is their own. Under the Shadow is a film which bleeds horror from every frame. Not only does it have a strong narrative with an excellent cast, Under the Shadow succeeds in transforming our own self-doubt into horrifying experiences. We identify with Shideh as someone who is struggling, frustrated, and fearful for the future. Whether Shideh’s fears have manifested themselves as a haunted house of horror, or whether the jinn really do exist, is almost irrelevant by the end. All we want is for Shideh and Dorsa to be safe — from both the war and the jinn. 

Becky Kukla works in factual TV by day, and by night she writes about representation in film and television, and rants about politics on twitter. You can find her at Femphile or at Film Inquiry.

Suturing Selfhood: ‘American Mary’ and the Unconventional Feminine Repossession of Self

Written by Eva Phillips, this article is part of our theme week on Women in Horror.
[Trigger warning: discussion of rape]

Suturing, as an act, sanguinely carves its way throughout Jen and Sylvia Soska’s 2012 body-modification-centric horror film American Mary. Before we ever see a face or hear a word of dialogue, we watch sinewy, achromatic flesh being sliced open, spread apart, and methodically stitched with black thread by blacked gloved fingers. We watch this, stunned by the juxtaposition between the very focused, dotingly nimble work of the gloved fingers and the grotesquely wrinkled and malleable flesh. We watch this also jarred by the ethereally doleful rendition of “Ave Maria” — importantly and perspicaciously, a hymn that beseeches a female savior to ward off earthly demons and evils — that sonically sutures into the slicing and massaging of the flesh. Before we ever see a face or hear a word, we are informed that this suturing is an act of salvation, not something to be reduced to a simple barbarism. As it is portrayed in the first few moments of the film, suturing is a complex extension of the two selves involved in the act.
These first scenes of suturing — which, as we are shown in an almost whimsical reveal, involve dead turkey flesh rather than human flesh — introduce us to the proclivities of the film’s protagonist, Mary (an unequivocally cool as hell Katharine Isabelle), a profoundly bright and profoundly broke medical student in her final stages of schooling before becoming a surgeon. Before understanding Mary as an individual, we are introduced to the presences in Mary’s life which vex and threaten her in strikingly insidious ways. Specifically, her sniveling, vitriolically brooding professor, Dr. Grant (David Lovgren), is presented moments after we watch Mary carefully and gleefully “operate” on her turkey patient as a direct contrast to the joy she derives from her chosen field. During a slideshow presentation in class, in which Mary’s phone is bombarded with messages and calls from debt collectors for defaulting on her loans, Dr. Grant lashes out at Mary in the middle of class, barking that having her phone out is “fucking rude” and later admonishing her to “stop fucking up.” This violence through language establishes a paradigm that persists throughout the film in which female expression, female control over their anatomy/body and others’ is aggressively and oppressively impugned upon and violated by male domination. Mary’s passion and talent — and thus selfhood — exists imperiled and impeached by the overtures of men.

To juxtapose this, the Soska Sisters brilliantly introduce, through their own masterful process of directorial and narrative suturing, the world of underground body modification and Mary’s unexpectedly intimate and empowering relationship with it. Body modification, which has longstanding cultural values and implications, has emerged as a prominent subculture in which individuals seek to perfect and alter their form to their vision using techniques such as implants, scarification, surgical reconfiguration of particular body parts, and more. The culture is known for a wide array of widely sought after artists — like this guy — and informs many films and television shows, particularly those examining transcendentalism in scientific-modification communities — think Orphan Black — and the multidimensionality of the culture has permeated the filmic consciousness in significant ways.
In American Mary, Mary is thrust into the belly of the beast rather unceremoniously and under non-consensual pretexts: in her interview at a beyond-grimy strip club to secure a job to make more fast cash, Mary is implored by her potential future employer to stitch together an identity-less man who has been brutalized and ripped stem-to-stern by the club’s bouncer. Mary sutures the man’s wound in exchange for five thousand dollars cash, violently vomiting afterword, and in turn imbricates herself into a world which will challenge her to re-conceptualize her notions of autonomy and self-governed craft.
What is significant about Mary’s consequential immersion into the world of body modification is that it is engaged by (very) willing, consenting participants who are firstly and predominantly women. As pertinacious as they are distinct in their appearance, the women who help to “launch” Mary’s body-mod specific surgical career — Beatress (Tristan Risk) and Ruby Realgirl (Paula Lindberg), who seek to surgically modify their appearances to resemble Betty Boop and a human doll — value body mod and surgical transformation as a distinct form of sovereign self-possession that reclaims bodies otherwise controlled or possessed by external forces. Grandiosely, Ruby summarizes the allure and the empowerment of body mod, stating “I don’t think it’s really fair that God gets to choose what we look like on the outside, do you?”
This sort of direct control over one’s physical features, particularly when enacted by women/for women, this craven need for specific suturing that allows Mary to not only hone her craft, but define herself through her knack for flawlessly changing skin and bodies. She articulates her selfhood with each stitch while simultaneously allowing those she operates on to attain their purest selves. It is certainly no coincidence that during Mary’s operation on Ruby, the rendition of “Ave Maria” we hear in the opening scene is woven in to the scene just as effortlessly as Mary’s surgical tools carve and reshape Ruby’s flesh. Both women are symbiotically asserting selfhood through an act often thought to barbarously or carnally be “just for men.”
Themes of feminine self-expression and self-possession take on another dimension in turns of representation when the disturbing element of bodily violation (through rape) is jarringly introduced into the film’s narrative. Mary, who has purchased a new car and clothes with the exorbitant gobs of under-the-operating-room-table money she makes through body mod, attends a party hosted by the repulsively skeevy Dr. Grant, where she is a lone female presence surrounded by lecherous men in her desired field. Already coded as a predator, we are not shocked but nevertheless paralyzingly appalled as Dr. Grant drugs and rapes Mary, all while filming the violent transgression. It would almost seem this act, and the Soska’s directorial choice to unflinchingly present the violation in its entirety (often from Mary’s “perspective”) betrays the trenchant themes of female self-possession and autonomous expression established in the film, and falls into the triggering and tiresome trend of rape and sexual assault in other films. However, keeping with the Soska’s own sentiments conveyed in their 2014 interview with Bitch Flicks, the inclusion of the graphic assault scene is reflective of the prevalence of violence against women — sexual, physical, emotional, and so on — that is often ignored, disputed, or monetized. The violence that is acted upon Mary is not a plot device nor a gratuitous exploitation of the female body — and the ensuing violence she enacts as either retribution or psychological processing is not portrayed as erotic or glamorous. Rather, it is seen as coping — tasteless, merciless, and often directionless coping to contend with an act that defied explanation. What is critical, though, is that Mary never loses nor surrenders her mastery over suturing and the identity she consecrates through that (though, she does relinquish from the male-dominated “legitimate” surgeons’ realm). Even down to her final moments, she is in control of her craft and identity.

I found myself oddly calling upon a seemingly unrelated text during my viewings of American Mary. With each scene, moments from English novelist Frances Burney’s agonizing epistolary non-fiction piece, “Letter to Esther Burney,” began to suture themselves, as it were, to the action of the film. Burney’s groundbreaking and painfully vivid description of her diagnosis with cancer, the complete deprivation of her voice and autonomy over her own body at the hands of countless male physicians both before and during the mastectomy, and gruesome accounts of the gore and pain of the surgery, are eerily connected to the work done in American Mary.
While both the film and text depict outlandish trauma acted on bodies — whether it be Mary’s rape or Burney’s invasive cancer and equally invasive and debasing procedure to remove it — both reinstate women’s voices and female autonomies in unconventional means. Burney is able to champion her suffering by authorially disseminating her trauma in text, and thus re-transcribes herself into the surgical act which initially strips her of her selfhood. Mary, an author in her own right through her magisterial surgical prowess that defies the parameters of her patriarchal field, literally carves out her own voice and her own sense of control (for better and for worse) through modifying the bodies of others (which in turn allows those individuals to inhabit empowered identities) and altering the man who violated her. Both women confront their trauma, the desecration their bodies endure, by refusing to relinquish the crafts which define them and allow them to reclaim their bodies.
The ethics in American Mary are often dubious at best, but as in Burney’s letter the empowerment of the text — as is often the case with what little room women are allowed to articulate themselves in — lies in ferocious audacity sutured in each line or each layer of flesh.

See also at Bitch Flicks:
American Mary: In Praise of the Amoral Final Girl
Talking with Horror’s Twisted Twins: An Interview with the Soska Sisters

Eva Phillips is a relatively recent import to Pittsburgh, PA. She relocated from the crust of Virginia after receiving her BA in English at the University of Virginia to complete her Masters at Carnegie Mellon University. Her interests include: representations of femininity and violence in film, refusing to quell her excitement over The Fast and the Furious franchise; having every cat; queer representations in horror and melodrama (both film and television); queer sexuality and religion; and finally getting to meet Sia and maybe wear her wig. In addition to Bitch Flicks, she writes for the good folks at Indie Film Minute, and has appeared in Another Gaze Journal. Her various disintegrations can be viewed at https://www.instagram.com/menzingers2/.

‘Antibirth’ Continues the Cinematic Tradition of Pregnancy Being Icky

This guest post written by Deirdre Crimmins originally appeared at Film Thrills and appears here as part of our theme week on Women in Horror. It is cross-posted with permission.

Pregnancy is weird. Outside of my cat obsession, I consider myself an entirely non-maternal woman, so the thought of having another parasitic organism living inside of me for a full 40 week freaks me out. But beyond my own hang-ups, horror has a strong tradition of using pregnancy to creep-out audiences too. From Rosemary’s Baby to Inside we can see that this notion is pervasive. (Don’t even get me started on the horror after the child arrives, but I digress.)
Antibirth is an interesting new slant on the horror of pregnancy. Lou (Natasha Lyonne) is a hard-partying loser who has little aim in life. She lives on the edges of her crummy town in her deceased father’s nearly abandoned trailer. Hey, it’s free! She has a few glimmers of wanting to make more of herself, or make more money at least, but as soon as she realizes those aspirations involve setting an alarm clock, she rips on her bong and lets the impulse pass. Lou cleans the rooms at the local motels — when she feels like showing up to work — and spends her nights stoned, drunk, or both. After a doozy of a party one night, Lou wakes up bloated and blacked-out. She can’t remember anything after a certain point the night before, but this does not seem particularly alarming or irregular to her. When her health takes a turn for the worse and her belly grows to nearly full-term pregnant overnight, she knows that something is up.
Always nearby Lou and helping her keep the party going is her best friend Sadie (Chloë Sevigny). To the casual observer Sadie has it together slightly more than Lou. She drinks and smokes less, and even owns a car. But Sadie’s involvement with their local drug trafficker, who may be involved in more nefarious ventures too, makes Lou look like the level-headed half of the duo.
Just as Lou is coming to terms with the fact that something may seriously be wrong with her a mysterious stranger shows up. Lorna (Meg Tilly) seeks out Lou and inexplicably knows more about Lou’s condition than Lou herself. What on Earth could be causing Lou’s rapidly swelling belly and bleeding nipples? Perhaps the cause is not of this Earth…
The first two thirds of Antibirth are excellent. The indulgent party scenes are richly shot and are reminiscent of the lush visuals from Spring Breakers and #Horror (which coincidentally features both Lyonne and Sevigny). Brilliantly, Lou’s character is far more complex than she seems on the surface. Though she is a partier, she is also smarter than she appears. It is clear, through Lyonne’s nuanced performance, that her self-medication is to cover familial issues and that she is well-aware of the repercussions of her actions. The body horror that takes place within Lou’s womb adds depth to her already multifaceted character.
The plot boogies along at a fairly good pace, that is, until Lou meets Lorna. At this point the film transitions from being a mix of partying and physical transformation to an overly articulated, plot-preoccupied conspiracy film. While I do appreciate the filmmaker’s intention behind creating an inventive and clearly explained plot, a little ambiguity and some heavy visuals could have taken Antibirth much further.
Not a flawless film, Antibirth is still an interesting look at unwanted and unintentional pregnancy through the eyes of horror. The practical effects, subtle performances and interesting characters keep the film afloat, despite the plot’s best efforts to weigh it down.

See also at Bitch Flicks:
Inside: French Pregnant Body Horror at Its Finest
Rosemary’s Baby, Prevenge, and the Evils of the Trump Administration

Deirdre Crimmins is a Cleveland-based film critic who lives with two black cats, and her eternal optimism that the next film she watches might be her new favorite. She wrote her Master’s thesis on George Romero and still loves a good musical.