Several years ago, I wrote a series of papers for a horror and sci-fi class at NYU about the trope of what I called the “haunted feminine” in certain horror/suspense films. In the spirit of the season, I offer my analysis of some seriously scary movies.
“Supposing it is in my imagination: the knocking, the voices, everything. Every cursed bit of the haunting. Suppose the haunting is all in my mind […] I could say all three of you are in my imagination. None of this is real.” –Eleanor (Julie Harris) to Dr. Markway (Richard Johnson) in The Haunting (MGM, 1963).
In her essay ‘Horror and the Monstrous Feminine: An Imaginary Abjection,’ Barbara Creed examines the horror genre’s construction of the feminine as monstrous and abject. While she focuses on the more violent and blood-oriented past and contemporary horror films, she does not particularly address the quieter aspects of horror. Another trope of a sub-genre of horror complicates, perhaps even belies, the concept of the monstrous feminine. It is what I shall call the haunted feminine, a trope most notably present in Robert Wise’s The Haunting and Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (Fox, 1961). It consists of the presence of the haunted subject, always a sexually repressed female, through whom the film is primarily focalized. Eleanor (Julie Harris) in The Haunting is the main target of the ghosts of Hill House, which she interprets as the house ‘wanting’ her. Only the character of Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr) in The Innocents actually sees the ghosts she believes possess the two children under her care. The films do not at all make clear whether the hauntings actually take place in the ‘real’ world. There are numerous indications that the hauntings may be merely projections of hysterical female minds.
Much horror scholarship rightly addresses the alliance between the feminine and the world of the horrific Other, whether as (complicit) victim or actual monster. This concept allows for terror to be located in the physical body of the female—whether the monstrous alien mother in Alien (Fox, 1979) and its sequels, the possessed body of Linda Blair in The Exorcist (Warner Bros, 1973), or the powerful, pubescent body of Carrie (Sissy Spacek) in Carrie (United Artists, 1976) (Creed 44-59). The haunted feminine locates the monstrous in the woman’s mental existence, not her physical one. She may invent for herself ghosts and haunted houses, constructing narcissistic narratives wherein the house ‘wants’ her (The Haunting), or only she can ‘save the children’ from their ghostly possessors (The Innocents). The susceptible mind of the woman becomes the site of monstrous apparitions: faces that spring from walls, banging on doors, cold spots, memories of past murders, ghosts walking along dark corridors, etc, etc. These ‘innocent’ women elucidate their sexual and religious repression in the form of ghosts and possessions; the haunted world quite literally springs from the mind of a woman.
Haunting narratives emphasize female hysteria, connecting them to a sub-genre within film noir, the gothic women’s film, in which a female protagonist suspects her husband/lover of attempting to murder her (Doane 127). The gothic women’s film narratives are usually focalized through the main female protagonist, establishing viewer identification with the woman’s plight. The viewer experiences the same fears and doubts of the central protagonist, uncertain about the sanity of the husband and his possible murderous tendencies. Many of these films show the woman’s terror to be justified. Secret Beyond the Door (Universal, 1948), Love from a Stranger (United Artists, 1937), Gaslight (MGM, 1944),and Midnight Lace (Universal, 1960) all bring to light a monstrous masculinity. Other films prove to be nearly hysterical fantasies in which the husband/lover is innocent of murderous impulses: Suspicion (RKO, 1941) and Lured (United Artists, 1947). The female protagonists are usually active figures who take the initiative to investigate the male psyche, building up evidence for and against their husbands/lovers. They have an advantage over their haunted counterparts, who face the less tangible possibilities of the supernatural world. Most of the gothic women’s films come to a defined conclusion in which the mystery of masculine aggression is solved. (One possible exception is Hitchcock’s Suspicion, depending on how one reads the apparently happy ending). The wife either exonerates the husband/lover and catches the true murderer, or proves him guilty, to be either destroyed or cured.
The films that examine hauntings are typically more ambiguous and give their protagonists less initiative than their counterparts in gothic women’s films. The haunting narrative’s emphasis on a woman’s repressed sexuality, and her subsequent Otherness, contributes to the hysterical nature of the narrative. The main character of Eleanor in The Haunting best represents this repressed, dangerous figure, typing her as Puritanical from the very beginning. Rejected by her sister, terrified of being left out or left alone, desperate for affection and attention, and finally developing a crush on Dr. Markway, Eleanor poses a perfect hysterical subject. Her incipient sexuality, at once repressed, Puritanical and seething to escape, finds expression in the events of the haunting. Freud discusses hysteria in women in Inhibition, Symptom and Fear as a reaction to the sexual act:
In women, direct fear of the sexual function is common. We class this as a form of hysteria, as we also do in the case of the defensive symptom of disgust (Freud 154).
It is possible to read Eleanor’s persistent experience of the haunting as a manifestation of both her fear and desire for sexuality. Eleanor violently rejects the coded lesbian Theo (Claire Bloom), who frightens her in virtue of her sexual status as Other, telling her:
“The world is full of inconsistencies, unnatural things. Nature’s mistakes they’re called. You, for instance.”
Eleanor’s rejection of Theo is a rejection of Otherness, of ‘unnatural’ sexuality. While the film never fully delineates Theo’s sexuality, her appearance, ambiguous name, jealousy of Eleanor’s relationship to Markway, rejection of the advances of Luke (Russ Tamblyn), as well coded references to her ‘partner’ and lack of marital status, establish her as a lesbian figure, or at least a figure outside established bounds of ‘acceptable’ sexuality. Eleanor gravitates towards Theo as one who offers an alternative to bound heterosexuality, but turns to Markway as the hero of her dreams. When Markway turns out to be married, Eleanor shifts sexual allegiance again, expressing a desire to be ‘united’ (read: married or sexually incorporated) with Hill House. Eleanor’s final descent into madness occurs with the appearance of Markway’s wife Grace (Lois Maxwell), whom Eleanor suggests should sleep in the haunted nursery, the ‘cold heart’ of Hill House. When Grace disappears during one of the film’s most frightening set pieces, the physical existence of the house and the haunting come together with Eleanor’s psychic breakdown. Eleanor and the house fall apart together. The haunting reads as a manifestation of Eleanor’s repressed sexuality.
The expressive feminine response to repression that manifests itself in the creation of the monstrous other, whether that other is a physical monster, ghost or a psychic projection induced by hysteria, works both for and against the possibility of claiming these types of films in general, and The Haunting in particular, for feminist or proto-feminist discourse. Most feminist analysis of the horror film postulates the woman as monster, as sexual aberration, or disturbed victim that must be eradicated. Linda Williams even goes so far as to claim that
The horror film may be a rare example of a genre that permits the expression of women’s sexual potency and desire […] but it does so in these more recent examples only to punish her for this very act, only to demonstrate how monstrous female desire can be (Williams 32-33).
Williams typifies horror as a genre that permits expression of female desire only to violently quell it in death and blood. The Haunting and its ilk may fit this discourse to a certain extent: Hill House either kills Eleanor or she commits suicide in order to remain with it. Eleanor can be read as both the victim of the house, and the cause of the haunting. She is certainly complicit in her own destruction, as she desires union with the house that at the same time frightens and horrifies her, just as she is repelled and attracted to the sexual act.
The ambiguity of the haunting itself further complicates such analysis. Director Robert Wise focalizes the majority of the narrative around and through Eleanor, privileging her point of view. The spectator sees, in certain key scenes, more or less what Eleanor sees, hears and experiences. The film creates an interior, psychological fear, heard and felt, but rarely visible. The end leaves the viewer to wonder what was ‘real’ in the world of the film. Was Eleanor simply a mad woman, projecting her fears and desires onto the surface of an uncanny old house? Or, was the house truly evil, haunted, attempting to keep her there as a wandering victim? Because the film never answers all the questions it posits, and refuses to explain the haunting in full, severe doubts are raised in the viewer’s mind about what is seen and what is not, what has been explained and what has not. Because of this very ambiguity, the film fails to easily fit into an anti-feminine discourse about monstrosity. Eleanor is both victim and cause, depending on how one reads the film. She is sympathetic and unsympathetic—sympathetic if the house is really trying to destroy her, unsympathetic if she has narrated herself into a narcissistic tale of being wanted by the other world.
In the middle of the film, the four main characters crowd around a statue of Hugh Crain and his family. Each gives their interpretation of the tableau, bending the narrative in one direction, then another. No narrative construction, however, can fully explain the configuration of the statues. That which remains unseen, pushed to the peripheries of the frame, becomes difficult to deconstruct and force into a paradigm. The Haunting may very well be about a narcissistic, repressed young woman descending into suicidal madness. It may also be about pervasive forces of another world preying on the fears of a susceptible mind. Eleanor is a woman haunted by desire, guilt, fear and loneliness. Like Irena’s obsession over her village’s curse in Cat People (RKO, 1942), Eleanor becomes obsessed with the conception of the haunting. The narrative of Hill House as haunted is both a cinematic reality and a projection of her mind. She wants the haunting to be real because it enables her to belong to something. Hill House exists in a world where ambiguity reigns, where the trope of the haunted feminine is monstrous and pathetic, the cause and victim of things that go bump in the night.
Creed, Barbara. ‘Horror and the Monstrous Feminine: An Imaginary Abjection’ in The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film, ed. Barry Keith Grant, University of Texas Press: 1996.
Doane, Mary Ann. The Desire to Desire, Indiana University Press, Bloomington: 1987.
Freud, Sigmund. ‘Inhibition, Symptom and Fear’ in Beyond the Pleasure Principle and Other Writings, trans. John Reddick, Penguin, New York: 2003.
Williams, Linda. ‘When the Woman Looks’ in The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film, ed. Barry Keith Grant, University of Texas Press: 1996.
Clayton, Jack (dir). The Innocents, Twentieth Century Fox, 1961.
Cukor, George (dir). Gaslight, MGM, 1944.
De Palma, Brian (dir). Carrie, United Artists, 1976.
Friedkin, William (dir). The Exorcist, Warner Brothers, 1973.
Hitchcock, Alfred (dir). Suspicion, RKO Radio Pictures, 1941.
Lang, Fritz (dir). Secret Beyond the Door, Universal Pictures, 1948.
Lee, Rowland V. (dir). Love from a Stranger, United Artists, 1937.
Miller, David (dir). Midnight Lace, Universal Pictures, 1960.
Scott, Ridley (dir). Alien, Twentieth Century Fox, 1979.
Sirk, Douglas (dir). Lured, United Artists, 1947.
Tourneur, Jacques (dir). Cat People, RKO, 1942.
Wise, Robert (dir). The Haunting, MGM, 1963.
*Paper originally written for Horror and Sci-Fi, Prof. Ed Guerrero. Copyright Lauren Humphries-Brooks 2009