Medusa’s Gaze: The Monstrous Feminine

Oct 18, 2018 by Contributing Writer on The Nickelodeon Blog

In partnership with Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of South Carolina, The Nickelodeon is proud to present Medusa’s Gaze, a three-part series exploring the feminine in horror film. Here, Alice Lilitu takes us on a wickedly good deep dive into the imagery and analysis behind the series.

The Boundary

The witch resides at the edge of the village. Between culture and nature, she works her dread craft. She traffics in perilous medicine, sublime poison, and communion between the living and the dead. She may perform midwifing or abortion. She makes and breaks loves, pacts, and the boundaries of the self. She is at every place of in-between.

In short, she is abject. That which is cast out, cast aside, shut away from the social order so that it may continue to function; never a part but never truly apart. The abject is the monstrous and obscene whose very existence threatens the boundaries of our more coherent sense of self. For inaugural philosopher of the abject Julia Kristeva, a prime figure of the abject is the cadaver. We expel all that is waste and decay from our bodies and seek to place a boundary between ourselves and this inevitability. Until it becomes all that we are: “It is no longer I who expel, it is ‘I’ expelled.” The last laugh of those who traffic with the dead is that we all become the dead.

Horror movies are filled with images of the abject. The boundaries of the body are troubled in every way possible. In the reanimated dead, in animal and supernatural transformation, in possession by unseen spirits, in cutting and biting and vomit; blood, guts, and bile. Every way in which a bit of “I” can be expelled into grotesque and fearful places, up to and beyond the point of death.

Motherhood too troubles boundaries of the body, of where one “I” begins and ends, and how many horror movies are also filled with the innumerable “unnatural” forms of motherhood? For Kristeva, maternity is also a primary site of abjection. One enters what psychoanalysts call “the symbolic,” the world of paternal laws and solid boundaries, by first creating a boundary against the one’s mother and against maternal authority in general. But for the maternal to be abjected means this boundary is always in contest.

Strange Mothers

In The Laugh of the Medusa, one of a constellation of feminist and occult works this series’ title references, Helene Cixous argues for a new women’s writing, the writing of a New Woman yet to be fully expressed, which will break down all established order, all “Laws of the Father.” Breaking down this Law, this new writing would end the ways in which idealized, rigid gendering is forced upon the body.

This writing would have a special relationship to the body, made through and on the body, flowing through it freely. Not to discuss the body abstractly, but to write a myriad ways to be a body. To feel its forces, to become, to laugh, to fly.

Cixous writes, “She doesn’t ‘speak,’ she throws her trembling body forward, she lets go of herself; she flies, all of her passes through her voice…” It is interesting that she uses the figure of “flight,” as this image of the feminine body unencumbered, breaking free of laws and repressions, is very similar to the notion of witches’ flight.

This may at first provoke the image of a cartoonish witch flying on a broomstick, but historically witch’s flight is a very real ritual experience, an ordeal both hallucinatory and embodied, traumatic and ecstatic. It’s a flight to “another” place, but one must always go through the body, and even through the patriarchal laws of our era if only to disrupt them.

In Forging the Body of the Witch, Peter Grey brings up a notable Early Modern account, “… in the witch trials a woman who had undergone strappado told the inquisitors that it was they who had taught her how to fly.” That is the very place where the witch is most abjected, when the social order attempts to shut her out away from view and constrain her with all the force its laws can manage, that she realizes the true power hidden in her body.

Cixious sees a future in which a new women’s writing will liberate the myriad pleasures of the body for everyone. This writing would “give freely to life” and in doing so threaten every boundary of enforced lack and self-definition. It is a writing “of and for women,” but within and through it genders multiply without constraint.

Women and the feminine are associated with the abject not only through connection to motherhood as traditionally conceived but through this other form of mothering; viral, multiplying incessantly, threatening every boundary. We find so many strange mothers in horror, and not only those with wombs. Pregnancy and “biological” mothers are a frequent site of peril in a horror movie, to be sure. But so too does the realm of the demonic often reflect an uncanny mothering. A progeny that cannot be contained.

Triple Goddess

In this series, we begin with Jennifer’s Body, where a “demonic transference” renders the title character “not herself,” between life and death. Adherent to the myth of the succubus, the new Jennifer seduces in order to satiate an endless and deadly hunger. There is certainly Camp value in seeing this horror wrecked upon various teen movie tropes. But what is also of particular interest here is how much of the new demonic Jennifer transfers onto the presumably noble protagonist, placing the “evil” of the movie’s monster in question. What dread powers has “transference” wrought? What happens when the ritual goes wrong, and what if we prefer it that way?

Next, Lyle brilliantly reworks motifs popularized by Rosemary’s Baby. But in place of the somewhat ludicrous Satanic Panic imagery present in the latter, Lyle focuses in on how vulnerable a process motherhood can be and allows the horror to come from very human dangers. There may or may not still be a Deal with the Devil, but the horror does not merely invade from the outside in the guise of clearly sinister actors–– it thoroughly permeates every relationship, every peril of trust or paranoia. I’m being intentionally vague because Lyle’s various twists and turns are so compelling and evocative I’d advise going in with as little plot information as possible. In doing so, its unsettlingly naturalistic lens may give rise to a deeply personal experience of the abject.

We conclude with The Hunger, an 80s goth classic that strips the vampire myth to a core anxiety: the horror of aging itself, but also the horror reworking one’s “internal clock” toward “unnatural” permutations––he horror of natural death and of unnatural living. Here, as with many vampire stories, the breaking of the body in the form of biting and bleeding is most explicitly associated with sexuality. A less desirable form of breaking ends with decay and putrefaction. Unnatural cycles and desires, and their eternal flight from death pervade every wickedly stylish frame.

This three-part series follows the cycle of Maiden, Mother, and Crone respectively, though each movie also contains reflections of the other two, never fully divisible. In psychoanalysis, this is a triad of fears, three ghosts of the abjected feminine that haunt our dreams. In Wicca, not witchcraft in general but the rather conservative modern religion of witchcraft formed in the 1950s, these are idealized forms of the Goddess, celebrated but confined. Both of these conceptions fear to cross the threshold and meet the Goddess in Her true multiplicity. It is true that three-part Goddesses are a recurring motif in various pagan religions of antiquity, but to connect this to a linear narrative of a woman’s reproductive value is a thoroughly modern invention.

We offer this triple Goddess/abjection as a structuring device because it provides a gate, a threshold that may be crossed. Beyond lie monsters.

Medusa’s Children

It is interesting for a number of reasons that Cixous chooses the Medusa to represent the New Woman. Medusa with hair of snakes, gnashing fangs, and the power to turn men to stone with a glance, beheaded in the myth by Perseus, who dares only look at her in the reflection on his shield. Barbara Creed connects the figure of Medusa with vagina dentata and castration anxiety. That is, she evokes patriarchal fears of vulnerability before the feminine, which must be beheaded to reestablish order (beheading also often represents castration in psychoanalysis).

Continuing our psychoanalytic investigation, the importance of the gaze in the Medusa myth is of particular note. Laura Mulvey argues that in classic cinema, identification with the male protagonist shores up a boundary first created in the “mirror stage” of childhood development when we first begin to think of ourselves as bounded entities. In contrast, the objectified female characters often engage the pleasures of voyeurism.

Perseus must use a mirror to look at the Medusa. She can only be viewed in relation to reflections of himself. If she were to be faced directly, if the “male gaze” were met with a “female gaze,” he would have to recognize a subjectivity that his fragile self-concept could not incorporate, and he too would be abjected, cursed, turned to stone. This concept also echoes the magical notion of the “evil eye,” a curse conveyed through the line of sight, an ill-intended gaze.

In some versions of the myth, when Medusa is beheaded her blood, spilled into the earth, births the Pegasus. Medusa’s blood is generative and pluripotent, it births strange creatures on its own. In witchcraft, “Medusa’s Blood” often signifies magic that is performed with menstrual blood. An inversion of the “natural” reproductive cycle to produce “abominations.”

Jake Stratton-Kent notes that the practice of using the image of Medusa as a protective charm is far older than the myth involving Perseus and beheading. He even suggests she may have been syncretized with Hekate, goddess of witchcraft, gates, crossroads, and all the places in-between. She is a three-part Goddess, and in a modern context is often assigned the roles of Maiden, Mother, and Crone. But that is only one more gate, and the mysteries of the crossroads run far deeper.

Kristeva argues that the function of religious ritual and the sacred is to bring forth the abject at a safe distance so it might be staved off a little longer, perhaps forever, like Perseus trembling with his shield. Horror movies provide another such ritual. The threat of the monster is generally quelled, if not in the plot of the movie than at least in the moment the credits roll and we wander back into the realm of the living. But in any ritual that must be repeated so often, as Judith Butler observes, there is always a risk it won’t work the way it’s supposed to. The monster, the abject, can always sneak in and infect us. That’s what it does. In repeating this ritual, so fearfully, so perilously, every horror movie is haunted.

Medusa’s Dance

What does life look like beyond this boundary? Cixous states, “You have to look at the Medusa straight to see her. And she’s not deadly. She’s beautiful and she’s laughing.” She provides some inaugural notions of how such an encounter might proceed, but we don’t yet have a clear image in this text. In part because we must go there ourselves.

Alkistis Dimech, in her work on witchcraft and dance, provides a further hint. She speaks of an “occulted body,” a “body that has been obscured and overwritten” it lurks on or beneath the threshold of sensory awareness, in all the myriad activity that goes on in our body unconsciously. We discover it through “threshing,” through intense pleasure and pain that “rhythmically shake the body – trembling, pulsating, vibrating, undulating.” When I met her recently at a conference, her advice for learning ecstatic dance on my own was to “follow your pain.”

Horror movies too are a ritual attending to this contradiction. To quote Hellraiser, “…such sights to show you; pleasure and pain, indivisible.” We scream and we laugh. We are terrified and excited. We share an experience of seeing viscera, the tearing of flesh, the breaking of body and drinking of blood. Of feeling tension and release. Anxiety and shock. And then hopefully we return to the world with a little better sense of what our occulted body feels like. Of what it’s like to fly.

Flying Further

This series is the result of a partnership with Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of South Carolina, and it will be conducted in collaboration with Dr. Julia Elliott’s class Monstrous Mothers and Femme Fatales: Gender and Monstrosity in Horror Film dealing with feminine abjection in horror movies. The students will provide further material for the series themselves, and you will be hearing more from them in the coming months.

Learning the flight of the witch is a surreptitious, scandalous, but often halting and awkward endeavor. Like Cixous’ new writing, it’s something we can only learn together. I look forward to bringing as much of the abject, in-between, and occult as I can manage to these collaborations. And to seeing you at the movies, where we might just find the courage to face the Medusa’s gaze.

Alice Lilitu is a Satanic witch in the tradition of those who would wander into the forest at night to commune with demons. She performs multi-media spectacles with the occult art collective Devil’s Playground. Find her at the liminal edge of the city for conversation in the Mysteries.