In almost all critical writings on the horror film genre, monsters tend to be defined as male, and women are only conceptualized as victims. It is also believed that women only terrify when represented as man’s castrated other from the Freudian position. However, in her monograph The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis, Barbara Creed challenges this patriarchal view by arguing that the prototype of all definitions of the monstrous is the female reproductive body, and women primarily terrify because of a fear that she might castrate men.
In Creed’s view, all human societies have a conception of the monstrous-feminine—of what it is about woman that is shocking, terrifying, horrific, and abject—which also reflects folklore of “vagina dentata.” The term “monstrous-feminine” not only implies a simple reversal of “male monster,” but also emphasizes the importance of gender in the construction of female monstrosity.
Through appropriating Julia Kristeva’s theory of the abject and the maternal, Creed first presents a detailed discussion of five “faces” of the monstrous-feminine with close reference to a number of classic horror films including Alien, The Exorcist, The Brood, The Hunger and Carrie. In general terms, abjection, as a source of horror, works within patriarchal societies as a means of separating the human from the non-human and the fully constituted subject from the partially formed subject. In other words, the horror film attempts to bring about a confrontation with the abject (the corpse, bodily wastes, the monstrous-feminine) in order finally to exclude the abject and redraw the boundaries between the human and non-human. Creed finds that as an imaginary abjection, when a woman is represented as monstrous it is almost always in relation to her mothering and reproductive functions, and thereby we can see woman as the archaic mother, as the possessed monster, as the monstrous womb, as the vampire, and as the witch. Kristeva draws a distinction between the “maternal authority” and the “paternal law”, between the semiotic/pre-symbolic world of the mother (a universe without shame) and the symbolic world of the father (a universe of shame). And Creed argues that “virtually all horror texts represent the monstrous-feminine in relation to Kristeva’s notion of maternal authority and the mapping of the self’s clean and proper body.” (p. 13) Therefore Regan, the possessed little girl in The Exorcist, becomes a figure of extreme abjection as her body is transformed into a playground for bodily wastes.
Part II of this monograph is about the representation of women as monstrous in relation to Freud’s theory of castration. Here women’s monstrousness is linked more directly to questions of sexual desire than to the area of reproduction. According to Freud, when the infantile male becomes aware of differences between male and female genitalia he assumes that his mother’s penis has been removed, and becomes anxious that his penis will also be cut off by his rival, the father figure, as punishment for desiring the mother figure. Yet in Creed’s view, what leads men to fear is not the fact that the mother/woman has been castrated, but the potential threat that she has the power to castrate him (as well as his father) with her toothed vagina. Therefore, besides images related to mothering and reproductive functions, woman is also constructed as castrator in man’s monstrous phantasy. Creed examines at least three facets of this type of monstrous-feminine: woman as the deadly femme castratrice, the castrating mother and the vagina dentata with reference to horror films such as I Spit on Your Grave, Sisters and Psycho, as well as the folklore of Medusa and other myths concerning the vagina dentata.
Through providing a provocative rereading of classical and contemporary horror films, Creed partially disrupts Freudian and Lacanian theories of sexual difference as well as existing theories of spectatorship and fetishism in relation to the male and female gaze in the cinema. Most of her arguments and conclusions are insightful and convincing, while some of them remain open to debate.
Creed has been fully aware that Freud’s theory of the Oedipus complex is the mechanism by which the symbolic order is instituted, and his theory of woman’s castration has provided the dominant theoretical justification for analyses of woman-as-monster in the horror film. Therefore, Creed’s rereading of Freud’s theory especially his case study of little Hans in the essay “Analysis of a phobia in a five-year-old boy” is a kind of challenge to this dominant patriarchal discourse and the serious misunderstanding of the nature of the monstrous-feminine (that woman terrifies only because she is castrated ) in critical writings on the horror film. However, almost all of Creed’s discussion is still shackled by this theoretical framework. What she tries to prove is that there is always another possibility of Freud’s theories and assumptions in terms of feminist psychoanalysis. In other words, Creed never doubts the validity of the terminology of castration anxiety, the Oedipus complex, and other Freudian theories, but tries to suggest another angle to observe/redefine them. She suggests that the menstrual bleeding of the mother figure does not necessarily signify her wound from castration (as Freud argued); rather, it might suggest the blood of the father figure who is taking the risk in sexual intercourse. In Creed’s view, for Hans, the mother is both the castrator (the role of the father figure as Freud assigned it in terms of the castration anxiety) and the center of his erotic longing (the role of the mother figure as Freud assigned it in terms of the Oedipus complex). The mother has multiple monstrous abilities to castrate him, literally or symbolically, and even has the power to impregnate him in his “plumber phantasy” (p. 103)–a natural ability that the father figure is usually endowed with in the incestuous father-daughter relationship. This challenging interpretation, however, precisely reflects the hegemony of the “patriarchal discourse,” because Creed has to borrow the same pattern to construct her “matriarchal discourse” as a counterpart to the patriarchal discourse. In other words, Creed essentializes this discourse before she can substitute some parts of it with her own observations.
This trend is even more obvious in Creed’s analysis of The Exorcist. While traditional critics usually interpret the monster possessing Regan as a male devil, Creed argues that it is “her” rather than “he” who possesses Regan. “Regan is possessed not by the devil but by her own unsocialized body.” (p. 40) She is monstrous because she breaks the major taboos (such as her incestuous desire for her mother), set down by the laws of the symbolic order, which help to establish and maintain the self’s “clean and proper body.” Therefore, Creed concludes that “woman is constructed as possessed when she attacks the symbolic order…and she demonstrates that the symbolic order is a sham built on sexual repression and the sacrifice of the mother.” (p. 41) It seems that it is Regan herself who asks for the possession by the so-called devil, or we can interpret this possession process as a female liberation movement through which Regan liberates the “unsocialized” self from the patriarchal society and attacks the symbolic order. The problem is, if we accept this interpretation, then how do we interpret Regan’s sexual desire for her mother when she is possessed? Creed argues that it is because Regan always harbors a kind of incestuous lesbian desire for her mother, which is also embodied in her jealousy of her mother’s boyfriend before the possession. But we have to ask, is it necessary to sexualize Regan’s desire for her mother in a counter-Oedipus or anti- Electra way? Cannot her jealousy be simply interpreted as a child’s possessive desire for his/her parent(s)? To put it another way, why should we always sexualize a child’s desire in a Freudian way? Do Freudian theories work well in all cases concerning the parent-child relationship?
Creed’s interpretation of the “vagina dentata” related motif of the vampire film is also problematic. She generally relates all images and icons of the mouth (bloodied lips) and of the teeth to the myth of vagina dentata. For her, the teeth are often threateningly visible and occur as a central motif in the vampire film, “particularly those which deal with the lesbian vampire.” (p. 107) Creed views it as the evidence of “vagina dentata” in this genre film. However, she ignores the fact that the close-up of the teeth as well as the ritualized biting (which indicates the sexual intercourse) is equally important in those vampire films which deal with the male or gay vampire, such as Dracula and Interview with the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles. Should we also interpret the teeth of male vampires as a threat of “vagina dentata”?
Lastly, although the book’s subtitle is “film, feminism, psychoanalysis” in a general sense, Creed only focuses on Western—especially Hollywood—cinema, and does not refer to any Asian/Oriental horror films. In fact, among various supernatural phenomena and spectral images, the female ghost—a special female monster—remains the most popular source of fascination in Asian horror cinema. Almost all Asian horror films are related to the image of the female ghost, except for those semi-documentary slasher films of serial killers and films concerning multiple-personality disorder. If Creed could take the ghost film in Japan, China, Korea and Thailand—such as The Ring, Ju-on: The Grudge, A Chinese Ghost Story, Inner Senses, The Eye, Silk, Bunshinsaba, Shutter, etc.—into account, she might broaden her discussion of monstrous-feminine in terms of cultural differences. As not all western feminist theories can be applied to gender issues in Asian countries, many Asian female ghost films can also not be well interpreted in the phallic/vulvic dichotomy of Freudian theoretical framework or in Kristeva’s theory of the abject.