In recent conversation surrounding the Weinstein controversy, there has been widespread criticism on challenging sexism in Hollywood. While I was reflecting on the role of purity tropes in white womanhood for political analysis for my patreon, I also began to question if these tropes persist in horror. I quickly began reflecting on ideals stemming from previous portrayals, as well as the subversion of those tropes in some of my favorite films. In this piece I will expand upon that and provide examples through various narratives and films.
The most recent example I could think of that really depicts puritan associations of "purity" was the Salem witch trials. I described the irony of the ways that settlers use the colloquialism “witch hunt” to stir up criticisms of any collective societal introspection of hegemony.
A film example that quickly reminded me of the hysteria that fueled the Salem Witch trials, was The Witch (2005) As this review parallels my interpretation of the film “it is about women, and the patriarchal stresses that lead to their disenfranchisement.”
While the film on the surface may appear to be about some colonials having delusions in their transition to the new world, it also reflected societal anxiety associated with witches that go back to patriarchal ideals of primitivism contrasting purity. The scene specifically which depicted witches floating around a campfire, and other snippets such as witches talking to goats, while spooky, also alluded to a fear and classifications of “witch craft” that goes back for centuries. In American Horror Story Coven, the witches spoke of keeping their powers secret for being hunted, in Hocus Pocus the film begins with a flashback to the three witches execution. While many of these films reflect on the power of sister hood, (In The Craft they referred to Sarah completing their circle and being their fourth, in Coven they talked of a "supreme" to lead the coven) ultimately Witches still have to fear the societal stigmatization and ultimate violence.
Other films have cleverly capitalized on the anxiety of witchcraft with other fears. Upon first viewing the Tim Burton rendition of Sleepy Hollow, the plot seems to be a story about the headless horseman ghost, but takes a turn to depict sanctioning and anxiety of witchcraft, ultimately the film plays on the viewer's fear and anticipation of what would be expected. Scenes alternated between flashbacks of Icabod's mother practicing witchcraft to her entrapment in torture devices after she disobeyed. The ending of the film featured Lady VanTassel having affairs, practicing witch craft in the woods at night and using the horseman's skull for her bidding. One could see how the plot extended beyond the fears of magic, to power dynamics and magic as a means for individuals to attain vengeance and power.
I remember when learning about the Salem Witch trials the fear that was initially instilled by the ideal of people getting naked and retreating to the woods to practice “devil worship”. I was later disappointed to learn that the Witch Trials were debunked as a result of fermented rye grain or ergot which gave people hallucinations which lead the hysteria that was later leveraged for political motives (hence the popular associations with the colloquialism “witch hunt”). While this trope can be used to make a point about political motives, many people still miss the settler patriarchal associations of primitivism and barbarity that is implied with paganism.
Settlers were wrong in labeling Native people as pagans, because they interpreted their traditions as anti religion. Those associations relate to many savage tropes of Native people that still persist, (such as war whooping and dancing around a fire) pan indianism even prompts complicity of erasing Celtic and other european traditions of paganism. (Which was largely my criticism of the depiction of Lady Gaga’s role as a witch in American Horror Story Roanoke where her power supposedly was formed after she occupied Native land in the “New World”.) The whole plot of mystery surrounding the disappearance of the lost colony also plays into savage anxieties given the large speculation that disappearance of the colony came as a result of an “Indian massacre”. For as much fear settlers had at the time of being massacred when they encroached upon Native territories it is no surprise that much writing about the Salem Witch Trials coincides with the context of fear of Indian massacres at the time.
Witch craft wasn’t the only trope that was fueled by constrictions of puritan ideals of purity. Werewolves were also symbol of hysteria. One tumblr post explains how the role of the werewolf was changed after they were recognized in English lore. Could the difference of depiction relate to the fact that Irish traditions aligned with pagan ideals which the english later denounced? I wouldnt say its that far of a stretch when considering the erasure of celtic traditions that are rooted in fears of primitivism and religious extremism. Im sure many reading this will also say “dont forget about skin walkers!” but conversation about those narratives should be led by Indigenous communities that hold those beliefs.
One of my favorite films Ginger Snaps, was a film which subverted the stigma around werewolves while also addressing themes of puberty, gender and sexuality. I interpret this as a challenge to societal notions of patriarchy. Upon googling ginger snaps and sexuality many results appear that outline the film as a metaphor for female adolescence and sexuality.
I have also heard others draw comparisons between this film and other classics like Carrie (1976) specifically the scene where her period starts and she screams because she feels she is dying. In Ginger Snaps they refer to menstruation as "the curse".
Both films tend to shine a light on the negative associations with menstruation and the way puberty with womanhood is treated as taboo. These film as well as The Witch, seem to build up tension throughout the film which may be an allusion to progression into womanhood. Ginger Snaps subverts the patriarchal gaze by centering Ginger’s agency in her transformation of being a werewolf. Ginger even goes as far as to speak about male imposed archetypes:
This quote immediately made me think of this video speaking on male imposed archetypes on the modern day woman.
Venturing further into archetypes I have also entertained the idea of this in black and white silent film classic “Metropolis” where it was the “whore of babylon”a robot prophet Maria, who ultimately led the lower class uprising. In many descriptions of the film her sexuality is described as the temptation and chaos that leads the cities downfall. As depicted in the scene of the men ogling her while she danced. It could be these underlying symbols and archetypes and the ways they are aligned to illustrate societal hierarchies of power that led the film to be so iconic. The creation of Maria also mirroring feminist classic, and one of the classic monsters of horror, Frankenstein.
Another representation of male anxieties and the idea of purity and sin is the succubus, which originates from the bibilical story of Lilith, who was exiled from heaven after refusing to submit to Adam’s will. Jennifer’s Body was a film that seemed to put a modern metaphorical twist on this legend. The plot around “virgin sacrifice” beckons back to patriarchal and puritan ideas of purity. It was only after the violation of the perceived purity that Jennifer’s new evil form manifested. I also perceive Jennifer’s personality in this role as the typical “mean girl” trope to be a challenge of girlhood“princess” tropes, in which perceived innocence often excuses the wrongdoing of girlhood perpetrators can hide behind fragility and remain unsuspected. Jennifers acts of murder while violent, in her mind were sanctioned by subverting the hypocrisy of boyhood societal norms.
In both Jennifer’s Body and Gingersnaps the women embrace their new forms by self deifying. While this is an extreme of the spectrum of self love, it seems an allegory to the ways that self love is repressed to the point that one must go through extreme self transformations to finally be empowered. I myself have questioned why i feel empowered by such women characters in morbid roles, and I think it can be summed up simply by the idea that they have the freedom to break through societal molds and expectations. Perhaps many of us feel retribution by any representation that subverts patriarchy and imposed and societal constructs. Perhaps matriarchy is easier to digest for a male gaze when painted in gorey circumstance.