The representation of women in horror is a thorny issue. Typically they’re either victims or monsters. Since it seems to me that the whole women as victims thing is pretty self-evident as to its meaning, I’m going to be addressing what I think is far more interesting: The female as monster. Even in the most negative, sexist ways, the female monster can be a symbol of a woman’s power and the ways it is misunderstood or embraced.
Misunderstood is why I’m starting with Hammer Film’s The Gorgon.
As a refresher, The Gorgon is about a series of murders that have taken place in the city-state of Vandorf. Each victim, killed at the full moon, was turned to stone. Namaroff, doctor of the city’s hospital (played by my boo Peter Cushing), and Inspector Kanof, head police officer in the area (played by future second Doctor Patrick Troughton), have conspired to cover up the murders: Kanof because he knows how five years worth of unsolved murders will look for him, Namaroff because he knows more about them than he’s telling anyone. When the Heitz family starts falling victim – first son Bruno, then father Jules – the remaining son Paul (Richard Pasco) won’t be dissuaded from finding out what happened, even as he falls in love with confusing nurse Carla Hoffman (the ethereal Barbara Shelley, who, because of this movie was my Hammer Glamour love until I discovered Ingrid Pitt). The answer to the whole puzzle leads Paul and friend Professor Meister (the delightfully bellicose Christopher Lee whose voice tends to enter most scenes he’s in a few seconds before he himself does) down a road that leads to the Greece of 2,000 years ago and heartbreak all around.
If there is any thread I would say unites Hammer’s horror output, it’s conservatism. Now, before you all shout at me about any Hammer film in the 70’s (and The Vampire Lovers in particular) I will point out that the hotter the chick, the more thoroughly evil she was and the more she needed to be killed by whatever old white guy was in that particular movie. The Quatermass and Dracula films are magnum opuses of xenophobia and the Frankenstein films do their damndest to warn us against academic curiosity (and, in one case, transvestism).
It should come as no surprise that The Gorgon is, on the surface, an ode to keeping the little woman under control because she is irrational and dangerous. A woman can’t prosper if she doesn’t have a man who will take her by the hand and tame her and who is willing to risk their lives to do it.
I do not deny that all this is true and probably on some level the intention of the movie. But that’s not what I see when I watch The Gorgon. The surprising depth the story achieves is the reason it’s my favorite Hammer film.
Bluntly put, when I watch The Gorgon, I see two men actively taking away one woman’s right to personal autonomy. They perceive it to be for the right reasons. It may even actually be for the right reasons; Carla does freaking kill people once a month. Setting aside the moral issues here, we have two men who are actively keeping a woman from learning about how her body functions because they think it will protect her. Namaroff knows she transforms and Paul just thinks her head is in a weird place before discovering she transforms. Neither of them include her in the decisions they make about her.
One of the reasons I think this is one of the best of Hammer films is that, aside from Lee’s Professor Meister, the characters in this movie are all shades of gray. Everyone is doing the wrong thing for the right reason – or what they perceive to be the right reason – and everything goes to Hell because of it.
It’s of ultimate importance that when Megaera takes over, Carla faffs off and does whatever she wants. Take the train to Leipzig? Nah, I’m gonna go hang out at the abandoned castle. Stay locked in my room because Namaroff says so? Nah, gonna go see my boyfriend.
There are a couple points where Carla begs Namaroff to explain to her what he obviously knows about her and he flat refuses. She realizes something is wrong and everyone but her knows it but none of them will tell her so she begins to get erratic and lash out.
Paradoxically, the more agitated Carla gets, the closer she gets to being under the sway of Magaera and the more calm and in control she is. This is exemplified by the scene in which Paul enters Castle Borsky in the early morning for a planned rendezvous with Carla. He enters and finds her on a raised dais, sitting on a throne, cape spread over the whole chair, hands on both arms, chin tilted up so that she is looking down on Paul in every respect. She is taking up more space than is necessary, making herself look bigger (it put me in mind of ancient Egyptian art, where you always know Pharaoh because he is in the middle of a wide stride, taking up twice as much space as the other figures). She is calm and her tone is direct and imperious. Megaera is the one ruling here. She tells Paul if they leave now she’ll go with him. Paul refuses and she tells him it’ll be too late if they wait. Carla regains control long enough to run.
She can’t say why it will be too late because the men who know why haven’t bothered to explain it to her. Had they talked to her they might have come up with a solution that didn’t involve, you know, everyone dying.
The Gorgon gives us the images of Carla, who is pushed to conform in order to be granted the love she wants, and Megaera who fits every stereotype of a woman with power: Terrifying, murderous, irrational and deceptively beautiful so that men suffer for her whims. She must be stripped of her power (or have the knowledge that she can wield it actively blocked) because she will just use it to kill people. Power in the hands of a woman only leads to death and suffering.
But Megaera also tried to pull Carla away from the men attempting to control her (I don’t think it was merely plot convenience that drove Megaera to go after Paul at the first sign of affection between he and Carla – though there was some plot convenience) and give her an excuse to control her own actions. It’s simply assumed that a woman’s actions when she is left on her own are sinister and destructive.
So, we see a case where a woman’s self-autonomy it ugly and can destroy everyone around her. Can it ever help people?
The Witch’s Mirror gives a resounding yes.
The Witch’s Mirror (El Espejo de la Bruja) is something of a puzzle at first glance. The movies starts with an opening narration describing the Satan worshipping practices of witches and occultists, the most devout of which are women, and how they eat babies and do all sorts of evil, nasty shit.
Cut to Elena (Dina de Marco, who did mostly television) and her godmother Sara (Isabela Corona) standing before a mirror that is not reflecting the room around them. Sara pronounces that the omens say Elena will be murdered by her husband Eduardo (Armando Calvo, who was also in Hell Of Frankenstein) and that another woman will be indirectly involved.
Right from the beginning, we know Sara is a witch. She invokes the spirits of Hell and uses a flaming pentagram in the first scene. When the panicked Elena begs for help, Sara promises she’ll do what she can. Sara, in turn, begs the evil spirits to help and they refuse. Elena’s death is destined and if Sara interferes, she will be punished and nothing will change. Sara is forced to stand by as her goddaughter is poisoned then bides her time until Eduardo brings home his new wife, Deborah (Rosita Arenas, familiar to fans of The Robot Vs. The Aztec Mummy), the woman Sara saw in the mirror the night Elena died, and the woman whom Eduardo killed his wife to marry. Sara decides her time has come and she begins her revenge.
This is a Mexican film and it seems weird to have a bunch of people from a Catholic country invoking Satan’s generals the way another person would invoke saints.
But then I remembered the Onryou, the revenge ghost of Japanese lore (most commonly known to us in America as your girl with the hair in her face from The Ring). Most Onryou were women because, in a society as traditionally restrictive as Japan, the only way for a woman to fight back is to die and, therefore, be able to work outside the rigid system.
In a similar way, Catholicism traditionally hasn’t been the best at protecting and supporting women, especially from their husbands, so the fact that Elena has to die, and Sara has to call on Satan for assistance makes sense.
Elena’s death scene is very uncomfortable to watch. Eduardo brings her poisoned milk, and her hesitation in drinking it shows she knows exactly what he’s doing. But she’s the obedient wife who is marked by fate. In other words, she has no control over her life, which she acknowledges by drinking the milk and demanding to know why her husband poisoned her before she drops dead.
It’s interesting to note that Sara is Elena’s godmother. Traditionally, the godparents don’t look after a child’s life – that is what the parents are for – they look after the child’s soul and make sure they stay on the religious path. On that level, it makes perfect sense that Sara can do nothing to save Elena’s life, but as soon as Elena has passed, Sara can guide Elena’s soul to fuck up all the shit it wants to.
It is also of note that this woman, who does some very monstrous things and would be considered a monster by people of a certain temperament, does not appear monstrous. She is a dignified, authoritative woman.
As is the case with the Onryou, this ghost’s revenge is not a straight line. It starts with Deborah, Eduardo’s new wife. There’s a discussion that tells us she didn’t have anything directly to do with Elena’s murder, so the revenge that comes her way is actually unfair – another example of a woman with power being irrational (though the filmmakers do ease our guilt by making Deborah one of the nastiest, most selfish, insensitive people ever. There were points when I was thinking she should have been the wife in a William Castle movie she was such a raging bitch).
But Sara did admit the point of the exercise was to force Eduardo to dig his own grave. She could never prove that Elena had been murdered. Uselessly stealing dead bodies and cutting the hands off women who had been buried alive to fix his disfigured wife who wasn’t really disfigured could be proven.
With the help of Satan and his minions, Sara and Elena got justice and Sara dissolved into the night, her work complete. For her, there are no consequences to her evil magic, because she was using her evil magic to correct an injustice.
The Gorgon gives us a conservative picture of the traditional place of women and what happens when men can’t reign them in.
El Espejo de la Bruja gives us a realistic picture of what a woman’s traditional place can cost her and the sometimes unsavory avenues of escape available to her.
The Gorgon says outside power is destructive and dangerous. El Espejo de la Bruja says outside power is the only alternative of the oppressed and, in the right hands, can be a weapon for justice.
Neither portrayal is clear-cut. Megaera only wants the chance to live her life her own way, not be tied to anyone. She longs for Sara’s freedom. But Sara destroys an unnecessarily large number of lives just so Eduardo can keep damning himself, mirroring Megaera’s irrational killing spree.
The point of these characters may not be to represent a nuanced approach to female power, but they unintentionally do. A fresh pair of eyes reveals that these characters mark the progress of women’s struggle for justice autonomy, and the sometimes unconventional routes we have to take to get there. Embracing and exploring the monster can lead to new understandings of ourselves and our world, and, in that respect, women are no different than men.