Editor’s Note: This piece contains graphic imagery.
“Emotional.” The word refers not to the experience of having emotions, but to being overwhelmed by them, to becoming a vector for their messy, difficult expression. It conjures up images of puffy red eyes, snot oozing over trembling lips, voices twisted by grief into unintelligible squeaking.
It’s also a word used almost exclusively to refer to women. Our culture has a deep aversion to the uglier aspects of women’s inner lives—not just tears and anger, but the things that fester inside us from our girlhoods to our deathbeds. Our deepest resentments, our smothered dreams, our cruelly cultivated hatred for our own bodies.
The outlets through which women can release these impulses are few and far between, and virtually none of them escape the stifling censure of our taboos around feminine transgression. Think of the somber, moralistic “how did this happen?” disgust with which news anchors report on women who drown their toddlers in the bath or poison themselves and their families at the dinner table. There’s no attempt to understand what awful pressures might deform a mind to such a great extent, or how the bedrock institutions of our culture—marriage, parenthood, sex—can be torture for the women expected to participate in them.
The answers lie not in sad-eyed condemnation, but in horror. By plumbing the inner lives of women in horror films and analyzing the ways in which their repressed emotions emerge from their unconscious minds into reality, we can start to understand the shape of their suffering.
Blood and Fantasy
In Andrzej Żuławski’s 1981 horror masterpiece Possession, repressed housewife Anna’s (Isabelle Adjani) inner turmoil begins to swallow the collapsing wreckage of her domestic life. At the crux of the film, her marriage to Mark—a whining, infantile Sam Neill—dissolves into apologetic apathy on her part and helpless, grasping rage on his.
The couple sits together on a couch as Mark drones endlessly about his petty needs. As he does, Anna withdraws into a daydream, envisioning herself carrying groceries through an empty subway station. Her footsteps echo in the gloom. Her face twitches, a manic smile blooming as she steps off of the escalator and waltzes past an indifferent ticket taker in his booth. She thumps against the tiled walls, swinging her mesh bag full of milk and produce, as a wild laugh bubbles up from somewhere deep within her.
Isabelle Adjani in Possession, Andrzej Żuławski. 1981
By the scene’s end she kneels crumpled on the terminal floor, a puddle of milk and blood spreading from between her legs, her whole body bent and shivering with the force of her screams. When the spectacle of her mental disintegration merges into the tail end of Mark’s monologue, the whole thing snaps into focus—this is Anna’s daily life. Her existence is so bounded and oppressive that the most vital and powerful elements of her personality have been reduced to shrieking incoherence, a dark flame burning hot and furious inside the empty husk of the self she manufactured to survive as a wife and mother. It’s so virulent it makes you recoil from the very sight of it.
In this year’s breakout horror hit Hereditary, Annie Graham (Toni Collette) laments to her friend Joan that an incident for which she was responsible while sleepwalking damaged her relationship with her children, perhaps irreparably. The incident she’s referring to, which she downplays irritably at every opportunity, was the dousing of herself and her son and daughter in paint thinner.
“I woke up the instant, I mean the instant I struck the match,” she scoffs, as though it should have been obvious to her children that the whole thing was just a harmless accident. It’s hard to imagine, though, that no subconscious emotions backed an act of near-infanticide so deliberate and violent.
It becomes even harder once we see her—deep in the throes of her own dream—admit to her son that she never wanted to be his mother, that on some level she resents and dislikes him. Later, this resentment boils out at the dinner table in a toxic, narcissistic rant, and by the film’s end it dissolves into wordless rage and the desire to pull her son’s very soul out of his body and consign it to oblivion.
Toni Collette in Hereditary, Ari Aster. 2018
This is what horror tells us—that in the collective unconscious of all women are psychic wounds so deep and raw that even to brush against them is to become a conduit for their primal violence.
Consider the grueling, marathon-length contest of gendered brutality that unfolds between Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg’s nameless husband and wife characters in Lars von Trier’s Antichrist. After Dafoe’s condescending therapist subjects his own grief-stricken wife to unethical and boundary-breaking therapy—attempting to shove and manipulate her through her heartbreak over the death of their son—she becomes a kind of avatar of mutilated womanhood as around her the earth itself is haunted by the faceless phantoms of countless other women lost to time.
This isolation and magnification of femininity finds a recent echo in Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, which employs the seminal image of a mirrored black surface in an endless plane of darkness as a way to let us glimpse the unknowable, alien nature of repressed and ravenous womanhood. The men who follow the Female (Scarlett Johansson) into the void sink beneath its surface and are consumed, their eyes still locked on her retreating figure. Only the image has the power to move them, even as the reality beneath it rips their bodies apart.
But if this wellspring of hurt and thwarted personhood can find purchase in dreams and other liminal spaces before emerging in the form of violence, it can also channel formative forces such as sexual desire.
Sex and Violence
Richard Bates Jr’s 2012 teen horror flick Excision gives us an ugly illustration of how emotional abuse and repression interact with sexual awakening. Pauline’s (AnnaLynne McCord) baroque visions of herself as a god empress-like figure range from daydreams of plucking a lifeless fetus from her body and inspecting it with clinical detachment to fantasies of explosive menstruation during sex. Denied therapy by her abusive mother (Traci Lords), Pauline digs deeper into the muck of her unhealthy surgical fixation until delusion and reality merge.
AnnaLynne McCord in Excision, Richard Bates, Jr. 2012
Likewise, the overwhelming sexual fantasies experienced by Sister Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave) in Ken Russell’s infamous The Devils prove virulent on contact with the world around her. Her lust for Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed) is so intertwined with her frustration at her life of cloistered prayer and the deep self-loathing she feels over her deformity as a hunchback that, unable to contain this toxic cocktail, she becomes the catalyst for a wave of perverse psychosexual chaos culminating in Grandier’s torture and execution. Her wet dreams of his sexualized crucifixion, of lapping blood from the spear wound in his side, exulting in his mortality as much as in his body, are brought into being by the sheer strength of her repressed and malformed appetites.
Repression and Desire
Women’s interior lives labor under the two-headed curse of societal and internalized repression. We self-censor our every reaction, debating endlessly with ourselves over which thoughts are permitted and which are forbidden or unclean. Our dreams, or the dreamlike realm of psychosis, are the only spaces in which we can be truly honest with ourselves, our filters and obsessive self-monitoring falling away to reveal the truth of our wants. They’re seldom pretty.
And so, a common thread runs through horror’s visions of female destruction and abandon. Each expresses in some way an unfulfilled desire, an urge to transgress—to violate taboos around what womanhood is and is not.
For men, uninhibited by repressive cultural norms around feminine anger, dissatisfaction, and lust, the line from forbidden impulse to action is as short as it is brutal. For women, transgression inevitably requires a period of gestation in the realm of fantasy. Perhaps that’s why, after so long spent boiling within us under such terrible and unrelenting pressure, women’s desires hold such power to fascinate and terrify.