Goddesses & Monsters: Freud, Creed & the Vagina Dentata

In preparation for this week’s lecture, some of my classmates and I watched ‘Silence of the Lambs’, as recommended by Cath. We equally enjoyed and were disturbed by the film which we had not seen before, and it was easy to see why it had been recommended to us for this study group. Neither serial killers Hannibal Lector or Buffalo Bill fit a classic image of masculinity, though they are both men. Buffalo Bill’s killings seem to be motivated by his identity crisis, as he appears to want to be a woman but is confused about his sexuality and gender, and the way in which he came become the person he feels he is inside. Bill thinks that making a suit out of women’s skin will make him a woman, revealing not only his unhinged mentality but an insight into a view of glamour in society; that it is a suit you can put on and take off as you please. Buffalo Bill believes he can become somebody else by wearing a costume, and this is a basic principal which resonates through celebrity culture. The idea that you can become a different person by putting on a costume is seen every day in the media in characters like Stefani Germinotta and her persona Lady Gaga, Norma Baker more commonly known as Marilyn Monroe and Edda Kathleen van Heemstra Hepburn-Ruston and her screen name Audrey Hepburn. Hannibal, however, ticks all of the boxes of proper masculinity upon meeting him in the film, though he is incarcerated for cannibalism. His cannibalism is what makes him and outcast of society, as it goes against modern sophisticated society and is too much like the animal kingdom which human beings like so much to separate themselves from. Cannibalism by definition is 1: the usually ritualistic eating of human flesh by a human being. 2: the eating of the flesh or the eggs of any animal by its own kind. This very definition of cannibalism is something which is seen everyday in the animal kingdom and is only forbidden amongst human beings. Therefore, cannibalism is a socially condemned activity.

Creed, Freud and the Vagina Dentata

My greatest sexual fear?…the vagina dentata, the vagina with teeth. A story where you were making love to a woman and it just slammed shut and cut your penis off. That’d do it – Stephen King, Bare Bones

The theory of the vagina dentata is one closely related to castration fear in the way that the vagina dentata provokes castration fear. According to Freud, women are victims because they do not possess a penis, as men do, therefore meaning women are lacking something that men have and they are less. Creed believes, however, that Freud has failed to address a theory that was around long before Freud – the mythic concept that the female vagina is both a source of black darkness and a source of a predatory nature. The vagina is not a point of weakness but instead, a source of power, evoking castration fear in men. Freud sees castration fear as being scared that it is the vagina which will cause the castration. As a result of this fear, fetishism takes the focus away from the vagina, making the phallic woman the ultimate fetish fantasy, examples being Lara Croft and Harley Quinn.

We spoke briefly about probably the most famous and successful horror film made; William Friedkin’s 1973 ‘The Exorcist’. As many horrors do, ‘The Exorcist’ taps into subliminal anxieties of the audience and reveal many social anxieties, potentially adding to the fear felt upon viewing of the film. It was mentioned that this popular film is a metaphor for female puberty, a theory which I found intriguing and wanted to expand on. I found a particularly interesting article about female sexuality in ‘The Exorcist’ at http://msmagazine.com/blog/2010/11/11/what-the-ever-popular-exorcist-says-about-female-sexuality/. One of the first points that the article makes is that it is a 12-year-old girl who gets possessed- a girl on the brink of puberty and sexual awakening. Whilst under the influence of the devil she spews language foul enough to shock a sailor and becomes impossible to reason with, qualities which, usually with a humorous undertone are regularly attributed to teenagers. There are shocking scenes eluding to a sexual awakening of the young girl and her appearance changes considerably when possessed. She appears older, face cracked and cankered, a grotesquely vivid image of change and deterioration. This change in the appearance and texture of her skin could be associated with acne and changes in the skin that develop during puberty. Another element of female puberty is menstruation, a topic which most men, particularly in the era of the film being made but also indifferently men now like to act as if doesn’t exist and they do not need or want to know anything about. The article makes an interesting point that when Regan speaks she no longer sounds like herself but, instead, a chorus of sibilant voices issue forth from her. The devil possessing her is not just one being, we learn, but rather a plurality or host of demons. The idea that a multitude of voices now eclipses hers, metaphorically evokes yet another distressing aspect of adolescence–that contradictory time when children individuate from their parents but, ironically, seem to surrender all sense of self to peer pressure. On the surface, the film speaks about the existence of evil in a world which believes in God but also, as the article states, asks the question is there anything more terrifying than a teenage girl? Subliminal or intentional, the themes in ‘The Exorcist’ are alike other defining events through the ’70s. The article describes the film as less of a coming of age tale, but instead…more of a coming of age derailed. It talks about how young girl Regan is neither enlightened nor traumatised by her experience, showing no signs of character development. During the ’70s, there were ideas of a generation gap, as young people resisted the status quo and reached for social justice through student protests etc. The social anxiety that a new rebellious generation might rise up may explain Regan’s seemingly unchanged persona after the ordeal. Another article on http://www.goodtrashmedia.com/the-exorcist-puberty-hell/ drew attention to the fact that the victims in the majority of exorcism films are female, whilst the demons and the priests that exorcise them are always male. The female victim’s agency is taken from her while she is possessed by a male demon, unable to find herself and reclaim her body until he has finished having his way with her body.   This is an interesting take on the film which exposes ideas about gender roles in society and is a concept threaded through many theories and myths throughout history, for example Pygmalion and the control he has over his sculpture.

Phallic Panic 

Phallic panic is categorised as things which destabilise patriarchal control and threaten proper masculinity. The male monster in horror films and books evokes phallic panic and an be a terrifying concept to men because of its association with castration, dismemberment and death. Creed suggests that what contemporary audiences find so frightening about a male monster is the way in which they highlight the anxieties, fears and desires of men, whilst undermining the values of a patriarchal society. Put simply, male monsters remind men of their own weakness as they see themselves reflected in the monsters. The hostility that characters experience is an anxiety that comes from the fact that these monsters aren’t proper men. They are living forms of the flaws, desires and fears that men possess, also often provoking castration fear through the metamorphosis and destroying of the monsters. The transformation of monsters into monsters makes them a liminal being in the process of metamorphosis, when they are neither human nor monster. The unravelling of the monstrous, grotesque body is one which provokes fear in men through castration fear, and the idea that parts of them could disappear or fall off as they do with monsters.








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