In what is probably the most on-brand move of my entire life, I recently wrote a 2500-word essay on vulvas in horror films. Then something incredibly cool happened. Rue Morgue (one of the biggest horror magazines in the world) decided to publish an edited version on their blog!
You can find the edited version here: https://www.rue-morgue.com/plug-it-up-the-monstrous-vulva-in-horror/
Or, if you’re brave enough, you can read the essay in full down below…
The unknown is scary. Whether it’s fear of the dark or something far more subtle and uncannily wrong with daily life, the unknown has cropped up in various guises throughout horror history since the beginning of time. The vulva, simultaneously, is something which has also been mislabelled, misunderstood and continues to be something that is in part, unknown. You might be confused by my use of the word “vulva” in place of “vagina” (actually, the vagina is only the canal on the inside of the body, whilst the vulva refers to the whole thing, inside and out). Harriet Lerner described this mislabelling as “psychic genital mutilation” and I would agree that this alone is primarily the perfect example to illustrate how unknown the vulva is in society. This essay will argue that it is this which also makes the vulva frightening.
In our cis-normative 1 and patriarchal society, the vulva represents both physically and metaphorically, something taboo and unknown. It firstly represents female sexuality, a taboo subject in itself since the Enlightenment period when women started to be shamed for their sexual urges. In addition, it was not until 1998 that urologist Helen O’ Connell discovered the actual size of the clitoris. This means that up until this point, the vulva had been rendered physically unknown and undefined for centuries of human history. The result of brushing aside female sexuality and the female body is that the vulva has been manifested as the monstrous in the horror stories we tell. In this essay, I will explore three horror films in which the vulva plays an important role, namely, Carrie and its exploration of periods, Antichrist and the power of female sexuality and Teeth and vaginal power. In today’s patriarchal society, it is becoming increasingly obvious that womenkind has been oppressed for so long because the patriarchs are afraid of the power that we hold. This essay was originally going to be about female sexuality, but I found during my research that the fear of female sexuality is manifested time and again in its physical form – the vulva. Nothing is more terrifying to the straight white male (who the majority of media is made for and by) than the ultimate in what he cannot comprehend about women’s bodies – the vulva itself.
The first of these three examples, Brian de Palma’s Carrie, is one of my favourite films of all time. Having been bullied myself, I got endless sadistic pleasure in watching, again and again, the bloody and cathartic demise of Carrie’s tormentors at the hands of the titular heroine. However, it wasn’t until later in my adult life that I came to realise just how unique Carrie’s rage actually was. As Laura Bogart points out in her essay, ‘The Trouble with Carrie: Strong Female Characters and Onscreen Violence’, Carrie is a rare example of a woman who kills on her own terms, not as a result of protective motherly instincts, or to avenge her lost love, to name but two examples. This sets her apart from many other violent female characters, but also serves to render her monstrous in the eyes of the viewer who has been taught that it is only okay for a woman to commit acts of violence for the sake of others and not for herself. 2
In this film, her power and violence all stem from the advent of Carrie’s first period. A period, in this story, is a representation of the beginning of womanhood and therefore also the beginning of adult female sexuality. It is not much of a stretch, then, to see that the source of terror in the film comes not so much from the acts that are carried out, but from the repression of adult female sexuality and the monstrosity of menstruation. Menstruation signifies the relationship between women, the moon and to spiritual powers, and in ancient times, it was seen as “divine and spiritual powers manifested in the human body”. 3
In today’s patriarchal society, by contrast, periods are by and large something shameful and disgusting, and entirely misunderstood, as “menstrual taboos will arise wherever there is a fear of the mature woman”. 4 The fact that tampons and sanitary items are still subject to tax in a number of countries is more of a problem because we are equally taught that it is completely unthinkable to even consider not using these items. The irony is that it is the same people inflicting this tax as who would be horrified if we all decided to stop buying them and just free bleed. But, I digress. Carrie brings about a straddling of these two opposing attitudes. This film both gives her menstruation association with the divine and simultaneously shows us how terrifying it is. The powers she garners once she reaches the age of biological maturity are not inherently evil. She could just as easily have run away from home and travelled the world, using her powers to help others. But she instead uses them to enact revenge on those who wronged her, and becomes the monstrous (if sympathetically so) heroine of the story. The cathartic nature of Carrie’s revenge can be satisfying to watch, but the overarching message of the film can be read as “be nice to hormonal women”, or simply “bitches be crazy”. That is, until we get to the final, heart-stopping jump scare (which gets me on EVERY. VIEWING) which reveals that however much we may scorn at her memory, dismiss her as a poor, crazy girl who just got pushed too far, the impact she left is here to stay and her power is left unexplained and unique to Carrie alone. Once she taps into the power that her menstruation, and her vulva, has given her, it is everyone else who should be afraid, not her.
The second example that I am going to examine in this essay is a film which I did not enjoy. Antichrist, the epic (or epically over-the-top) horror-drama directed by Lars von Trier tells the story of a couple who are on a cabin-in-the-woods type getaway to reconnect after the death of their son, who falls out of the window while they are preoccupied having sex. However I feel about it, it is an interesting film to discuss since the theme of misogyny, under the guise of “gynocide” (in inverted commas because this word exists in this film and this film only) is something which is explored on screen, but also in the surrounding discussion of Antichrist. Charlotte Gainsbourg’s character, unhelpfully named ‘She’, has been working on a thesis about gynocide, something which etymologically joins women and the reproductive system together. She sees the persecution of women throughout history as a result of the research for her thesis and this develops into self-hatred instead of empowerment and rage against patriarchal oppression. It is almost always the physical aspects of womanhood and female sexuality which are put on trial during this nightmarish film. Once She sees her fears actualised, in the way her own sexual urges ultimately led to the death of her son, she has a mental break and performs genital mutilation on herself, and therefore it is also the physical elements of female sexuality – the vulva – which are punished. 5 Even though it is the woman who commits the act of FGM on herself, we can still read this as an example of man’s fear of women’s power, manifested in his fear of the vulva (in this particular case, the clitoris). Von Trier wrote and directed this film during an intense depressive period. It is just as easily argued that the final horrifying act is the product of the fragile masculinity of the director at a nadir in his emotions as it is the end result of a well-written female character. It’s probably obvious which one I’d put my money on.
To continue the discussion of Antichrist’s context, this essay would be incomplete without mentioning the controversy that was caused upon its release. Whether Antichrist is specifically feminist or misogynist is a debate which crops up again and again in forums and reviews, and opinions are often polar opposites. The film is feminist on the one hand because Charlotte Gainsbourg’s character is the one which is more likeable, and it is, to some extent, She who gets the upper hand by the film’s melancholic and confusing conclusion. The film raises issues of misogyny and gynocide and criticises them, but in my opinion, falls short of the category Feminist. Not merely because She succumbs to the very ideas of misogyny that she is studying and adopts them herself, but because we get to the end of the film with the issue of female sexuality raised but its exploration left unfinished. Instead of providing us with an interesting and relevant commentary on the worldwide issue of “gynocide”, Antichrist illustrates the magnitude of one solitary clitoris and how cutting it off can make your film the most talked about of the season, as well as divide your audience. Female Genital Mutilation, in particular, is a worldwide issue and something which we learn no more about from having watched the scene where it happens, other than it causes a lot of cinema-goers to faint. While it is not surprising that von Trier’s main aim seems to have been causing controversy, it is disappointing from a film which had so much promise.
Finally, we have the infamous Teeth. If you haven’t watched it, I cannot recommend it enough as a film which teeters on the very thin tightrope between being horrifying and hilarious in equal measures. I’m not sure the filmmakers knew they were crafting such an excellent exercise in tonal experimentation but the result is that of a car crash – you cannot look away. Teeth appears to be the ultimate in vaginaphobic (vulvaphobic?) films, before coming full circle into some perversion of the journey towards female self-love and acceptance. The monster is not disguised in layers of metaphor, as in Carrie’s manifested powers, nor in the violent consequences of She’s sexual appetite. In Teeth, the monster is the vulva itself. Suffering from a case of the legendary ailment vagina dentata, Dawn is first horrified by and then learns to control and therefore love, her bizarrely mutated vagina, including the set of teeth it possesses.
The trajectory of Dawn’s character can be said to mirror that of any confused teenage girl who finds herself at a loss with what to do with her newfound sexuality and the unknown entity between her legs. The sex-ed lesson perfectly illustrates the difficulties society places in front of the female adolescent as the textbook perfectly covers the image of the vulva. Dawn is also head of the college’s chastity society. (I didn’t say the film was subtle.) So, at first, she is none the wiser that anything is out of the ordinary. Once she works it out, Dawn does whatever she can to keep her abnormality under control. Ultimately, it becomes her weapon – it’s what she uses to enact revenge on her step-brother (yep, there’s also incest) and it saves her skin at the film’s conclusion. We leave Dawn as she is set onto the irreversible Thelma and Louise trajectory of killing would-be rapists, reclaiming the role of “victim” she was subjected to at the forceful hands of her high school sweetheart. The monstrous power of this film lies unquestionably in her vaginal teeth and the way she controls them to enact violence. It is the fault of her own chastity and the shortcomings of sexual education which leads her to misunderstand her body until it’s too late to change anything, yet it is Dawn alone who is incriminated in the outcomes of this film. Her ending is left ambiguous, yet is implied that she follows her deadly power down a path of destruction from which there is no escape. Whether you see this film as more of a comedy-horror, or just straight-up horror film, often depends on what you have between your legs.
Despite the insincerity of some of the aforementioned uses of vulvas in horror, I would argue that all these are sincere reflections of different ways in which today’s culture is afraid of the feminine physical form. Carrie illustrates the power which comes with the advent of maturity, and womanly sexuality is therefore presented, in more than one way, as a bloodbath. Antichrist shows how female pleasure holds power for evil as well as good, and teaches us to fear the woman who understands this power. Teeth takes this one step further and puts the blame on chastity and the short-comings of sex-ed which hide the truth about female anatomy until it’s too late. In every case, it is the person who possesses the vulva, or the vulva itself, who is the (somewhat sympathetic) monster of the tale. It’s important to note that all three films had male directors and writers, and that Carrie was based on a book written by a male author. This fear of the vulva transcends the boundaries of fiction – casting the vulva as the monster was done by men every single time. All three women also each have their own unhappy ending (ambiguously so, in Dawn’s case), which may be each male director’s way of reassuring himself and the audience that “it’s okay, she doesn’t succeed”. Showing the futility of women taking charge of their own sexuality and power does little to detract from the unquestionable message that this power is terrifying. What you do with this power is up to you.
- This essay is unfortunately rooted in a cis-normative society, and therefore the horror films which this society produces are also cis-normative. I hope in the future to be able to write an essay about gender which is more inclusive, but for the most part, this essay will equate having a vulva with being a woman, since that is how society works at present.
- If you are interested in this idea of how and when women are ‘allowed’ to commit on-screen violence, I really recommend watching Innuendo Studio’s ‘Bringing Back What’s Stolen’ on YouTube.
- Liv Stromquist, Fruit of Knowledge: The Vulva vs The Patriarchy
- Phillip E. Slater, in The Wise Wound.
- The real-world implications of this action are something which the film completely glosses over. We learn nothing new about FGM as a result of this action, illustrating my frustration with a film which tackles so many fantastically interesting themes yet fails to follow them through to anything resembling a satisfying conclusion. Had it explored the issue of FGM within the film, we would have seen a culture which is so terrified of the power that the clitoris holds and the censorship of female pleasure is a result of this terror. Instead, we get a much-discussed and very specific scene which is predominantly talked about in conjunction with how many people fainted during it in the initial screenings.