You wouldn’t know it from the amount of time I spend thinking, talking, and writing about horror cinema, but I’m actually not a huge horror fan. I’ll spend hours falling through a TV Tropes or Wikipedia rabbit hole reading plot summary after plot summary, but what I’m looking for are spoilers and someone else to do the work. I want reassurances that the vampires have been staked and the aliens have been nuked from orbit. I’m rarely interested in going through the psychological labor it requires to actually…you know, sit through a horror movie myself. Not because I think horror films are bad, or somehow unworthy of my time; but because I am mentally weak. I am more than half convinced that if I watch too many scary movies, I will be more susceptible to demonic possession. I saw The Ring. I know how Samara works. She ain’t slick!
NEVERTHELESS, there are some horror films I love and will rewatch over and over again (if “love” is the right word for the overwhelming dread that insinuates itself into my brain until I exorcise it with old episodes of What’s Happening). The boundaries and expectations of certain genre films — Westerns, romantic comedies, and yes, horror — can be very comforting in their predictability. We know, roughly, what the characters will say and want and do (and all too often, what they will look like). The pleasure of consuming these texts relies as much, if not more, on finding our expectations met as delighting in their subversion.
One of the compelling ways in which this “visceral” delight manifests itself is in the horror genre’s ever-evolving evocation of unsettling bodies. Modern horror films offer up a host of creepy, terrifying, gross figures, but one of the most fascinating is the character of “the hag.”
The hag, or the crone, is that beckoning, frightening, wizened figure of fear that hobbles through so many cautionary folktales across cultures. She lurks along dark pathways to terrorize children and grab wary travelers from out-of-the-way forest clearings. She lives alone, away from the safety and order of the village — or shuts herself up in a decaying abode that wise neighbors skirt in wariness. She may be called “Grandmother” or “Old Mother,” but if she ever had any children, they are long gone. Part of the revulsion lies in the way she makes her own way in the world. How does she survive: without a man, without children, without family? Surely, she must be up to something nefarious.
And yet, the fear of the crone is not of a scary old woman who will inappropriately insert herself into a domestic space where she does not belong — rather, the fear is that she will pull the unwary person out.
It is with this understanding of the role of the crone in horror that we can explore an interesting phenomenon in films like [REC], Mama, or even horror-adjacent films like Crimson Peak or Legend. Each of these films features, to a greater or lesser narrative extent, the spectre of a sick, decaying, monstrous woman — and in each case, said figure is portrayed by a cisgender man.
The physical manifestation of feminine decay that these films delight in is dependent upon a certain physical form (e.g. lankiness to the point of emaciation, spindly limbs) that filmmakers are choosing to find among cisgender men – and we should be mindful that some of the actors who are drafted to play these parts may or may not exhibit “infirmity” themselves (actor Javier Botet is responsible for [REC]’s beleaguered Tristana Medeiros, a Crimson Peak ghost and the titular Mama from Andrés Muschietti‘s 2008 film; he has Marfan syndrome). There is a certain model of feminine decay that’s been ramping up in horror films over the last 20 or so years, and it is increasingly embodied not via CGI, but instead via cis male bodies, transformed by latex and costume.
Actors like Botet or the ubiquitous Doug Jones, (or Robert Picardo, if we include his turn as “Meg Mucklebones” in Ridley Scott’s Legend) offer visually arresting models of threatening, supernatural feminine decay characterized by extreme pallidness of skin, wrinkles and rotten teeth, and dank clumps of hair.
In many ways, the horror of these figures is of women who have somehow failed out of an approved [white] femininity — or aged out of fecundity. These figures exist within a nexus in which their gender has become a liability; and in its very exaggeration, it ceases to be viable and fixed. Our insistence upon a dual understanding of sex and gender means that if they are not truly women, then they must be…what, exactly? Surely it’s no accident that cisgender male actors are called upon, time and again, to portray this monstrous femininity. Witness the shrunken or sagging breasts; the angular features; the irresistible physical strength. These are not, and cannot be, nurturing mothers or seductive objections of sexual fascination — and therefore, they have no cultural use except as a figure of revulsion. What is left for a woman who has no point, other than to frighten and terrorize?
The way that the crone figures as a metaphor of a dying order also bears more investigation. The Spanish horror film [REC] caused a minor global sensation when it was released in 2007, and to date is considered to be one of the best examples of the “found footage” genre. [REC]’s success spawned three sequels, but it’s hard to beat the first film’s incredible evocation of creeping dread as a young reporter and her unseen cameraman move from filming a “behind the scenes” documentary about firemen to fighting for their lives in an old apartment building against some sort of “infection” that turns victims into ravening, mindless, undead killers. The horror is unleashed when the firemen and a feckless young cop enter the apartment of an old woman, Mrs. Izquierdo, to check on her after her neighbors hear screaming and fear she has hurt herself. They enter her apartment, she shambles forward and then attacks with bloodcurdling screams and berserk energy. Her ferocious attack is shocking and, at least initially, received with dark comedy: look at this pathetic, sick, fat old woman in her nightgown lurching at these robust men.
[REC] starts with an aggressively banal peek into a working civic infrastructure with all its tools deployed: the press (the reporter, Angela Vidal); social services (the firemen); law enforcement (the federal authorities and police who swoop in to contain the threat); and later the church. In fact, apart from Angela herself, all representatives of this civic authority are male — which makes the attack upon that authority by Mrs. Iziguerdo that much more striking. This rabid, nearly-nude old woman has no place in this current order. Tucked up in this ancient edifice, alone, she represents an old order brutally lashing out at the forces of a new order which seeks to help, then to subdue her. She is almost a cliche of a crazy old cat lady; but to be fair, the movie spares little sympathy for the other elderly members of the movie: the bickering and confused older couple who can’t quite remember what apartment they live in, the vain and effeminate older gay man who lives with his mother and is quick to express racist suspicions of the Asian family living in the building. These people are liabilities, and we are unsurprised that the film finds a way to dispense with them quickly.
When [REC] was remade as Quarantine for American audiences, the figure of poor, possessed Tristana Medeiros became simply The Infected Man (played by the absolutely wonderful Doug Jones, who is no stranger to these kinds of roles).
There are physical expectations imposed on all bodies, masculine and feminine; and penalties levied upon people whose appearances are perceived as aberrations. In horror films, those penalties become literal and tangible. “Deviant” bodies are forcefully and physically expelled to ensure the safety (and sanity) of “normal” people. Horror vibrates with a hysteria over monstrous bodies who threaten the unspoken assumptions behind ageism, ableism, and misogyny. Filmmakers shower talented cis male actors like Javier Botet with work, but at the same time use these actors to underline a profound dis-ease with deviant bodies (the elderly, people with disabilities, the gender non-conforming, among others). In the end, the true terror of horror films might not be about the monsters they contain, but about what they reveal about the people who create and consume them.
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