Jul. 29th, 2013

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One of the most common conversations I get into with friends who discover that I really like horror movies is this: "Why are the ghosts/demons always women?"  It's an age-old question, one that I've probably talked about already, but once you point it out to someone you can't stop noticing it.  I've even noticed it in my own writing: I'm way more likely to write a female ghost than a male one, even though when you watch those shitty ghost re-enactment shows, the ratio seems to be about 50-50.  If these little testimonials are any indication, you're just as likely to be haunted by Great-Uncle Bob as Great-Aunt Millie.*

I have a few theories that I offer when asked the aforementioned question:

  • Women are more likely to be disenfranchised with limited options in real life, so their only recourse for the plethora of wrongs done to them is supernatural vengeance (c.f. the rape-and-revenge ghost movies like Shutter and Rose Red, or even that old samurai ghost story retold in Kwaidan, as well as the occasional slow-burner like Lake Mungo or Ghost Story)

  • Women are considered closer to wilderness, savagery, evil, insanity, magic, so they are either explicitly more susceptible to the supernatural or just the quicker, lazier, easier option for the creator (c.f. a whole bunch of stuff, from Evil Dead and Infection to The Ring and Noroi and The Haunting of Hill House)

  • Women are more likely to die a violent death - this goes with #1 (c.f. Ju-On, Silent Hill, What Lies Beneath, Retribution, all them Korean Whispering Corridors movies)

Demon possession movies are an extreme version of Theory #2, because demon possession in real life tends to be colored by the perception that young women are: 1) walking potential demon vessels, because they are the weaker/fairer sex, or further from God, or natural followers, or something - I really don't know, but something about Eve?; 2) really tasty demon food, sometimes because they can potentially bear the anti-Christ; 3) more likely to give in to temptation?; 4) so sweet and innocent and virginal and protected that it's more tragic and horrifying all-around (the same reason some Christians say believers are more likely to be attacked by demons: they're a more impressive conquest); 5) NO ONE EXPECTS THE LITTLE GIRL.

If you look at movies like Emily Rose, The Exorcist, and The Last Exorcism, wherein you've got a pretty teenaged girl writhing around in her nightgown and talking dirty to stiff, straight-backed male priests - and of course, the implication that the Devil has literally invaded this girl's body - you've got to conclude that there's some psycho-sexual shit going on, like the Devil is mocking and showing off our society's sexualization of young women who are, nonetheless, still absolutely required to be good girls (a lady in the street but a freak in the bed, and all that).  Like we are so used to ogling and objectifying young women, well look at her now.  Like the most grotesque and disturbing thing we can think of, as a culture, is a wicked, furious, enraged sixteen-year-old girl - precisely because they are supposed to be pliant, happy, vulnerable, something for Liam Neeson to rescue.  The irony is that she's still all those things, of course, because as the Paranormal Activity trilogy sadly reminds us, it's the demonic spirit acting through her body.

The Conjuring is all about all this stuff, but also highlights a couple less common, but still pervasive themes:

  • Ghosts and demons and poltergeists alike attack families when the father is out of town.  Strangely, this actually does correspond to those ghost re-enactment shows.  I always assume it's because the malevolent entity thinks the father is the alpha.**  The father also tends to be the disbeliever/skeptic, compared to the histrionic mother.

  • The truly most horrifying thing we can think of is an evil mother: a mother who kills her own children.  I'm torn on whether this is seen as worse than or equally as bad as an evil father, because there are fathers-gone-rotten: Amityville, The Shining, Insidious.  I think if you look at the news media, you get the sense that child-killing mothers are worse, because maternal instinct is assumed to be stronger, and men are assumed to be violent anyway.  "Mother is God in the eyes of a child," as they say in Silent Hill, so naturally the topsy-turvy version of that Good Mother is going to be pure evil.

Put in this perspective, The Conjuring isn't really especially right-wing.  It falls right into place in a very old-fashioned, very Christian rendering of the supernatural genre.  "God brought us together for a reason," Lorraine Warren says to her husband, who admonishes the besieged family for not baptizing their daughters.  Note that it's also a very American Christianity here: the Catholic Church is no help because it's tied up in red tape, so if you want an exorcism done right you gotta do it yourself, Signs & Wonders style.  It occurred to me last night that it's really quite incredible how much American demon possession movies align with the world view of a very fringe faction of Protestantism along with other people who take exorcism and "spiritual warfare" into their own hands and are thus most likely to accidentally kill somebody in an exorcism.  The most disturbing part of the movie for me comes near the end, when the demon is breaking the possessee's bones and Lorraine says, "We are now fighting for her soul!"  This is in other exorcism movies too and I gotta say, few sentiments in horror movies seem as likely to lead to the deaths of actual people.

But I guess I've grown weary of movies like this - The Conjuring even comes complete with a creepy haunted (girl) doll that needs to be kept in a glass case, how much more retrograde can you get? - especially when even Hollywood seemed for a while to be churning out new, different types of supernatural horror movies, like Insidious, Sinister, Cabin in the Woods, Mama - not to mention the indies, like the extremely creepy and highly-recommended Lovely Molly, problematic V/H/S, Absentia, The Moth Diaries, Hollow.  I like to think that we can be more interesting.

* Speaking of Bob, David Lynch deserves credit for making one of the most frightening supernatural men ever, and one that clearly hates women, at that.
** Yeah, "malevolent entity thinks"... I know.  Can never be too careful!

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