Monday, June 29, 2015

The female villain in horror fiction: random thoughts

My short story “Whatever” contains one of my favorite types of villains: the female villain. 

“Whatever” is a story about a young woman who is a sociopath—and quite possibly a homicidal sociopath. 

But more about that later. First we need to talk about the traditional roles of the female villain in a broader sense—especially as she appears in horror fiction. (I am going to discuss some films here, as well.)

I first became aware of the potential of the female villain in horror fiction back in 1987, when I watched Fatal Attraction. This is the movie that stars Glenn Close as Alex Forrest, the seductress turned stalker. Michael Douglas was cast as a happily married attorney, Dan Gallagher, who gives in to an all-to-common temptation: He decides to have an illicit extramarital affair, believing that it would be a “no strings attached” encounter.

Alex, however, is playing by a different set of rules. When Dan attempts to leave and go home to his family, she slits her wrists in a bid for sympathy. Dan patches her up; but there is much more awry with Alex besides a couple of razor cuts. She begins showing up at the most inopportune moments and places. Her obsession escalates, finally turning violent. One of the creepiest scenes of the movie occurs when Alex furtively enters Dan’s home and boils the family’s pet rabbit.

Fatal Attraction turned out to be one of the highest grossing films of 1987, striking a unique chord with audiences as well as critics. 

From one perspective, the premise of Fatal Attraction was by no means unique. There are plenty of movies about stalkers, and spurned lovers who become enraged, and then violent. 

But most of these movies have a common characteristic: The villains in most stalker movies are men.

Can a male stalker be scary? Sure he can—especially if you happen to be the woman who is the object of his obsession. About twenty years ago, Julia Roberts starred in a particularly suspenseful stalker movie called Sleeping with the Enemy (1991). This film was tense, filled with edge-of-your-seat scenes like the famous “bathtub scene” that is depicted on the movie’s theatrical release poster.

Sleeping with the Enemy was another high-grossing film; but audiences tended to remember the tense scenarios and the emotions of the victim more vividly than they recalled the performance of Patrick Bergin, who was cast as Roberts’ abusive ex-husband. This wasn’t because Bergin did a poor job of the role, nor can the reason be attributed to a weak script.

The problem, as I see it, is that the male stalker has become something of a stock character. He almost always falls into one of two prototypical categories: The first is the socially inept male loner who develops an obsession for an acquaintance or stranger. This was the real-life John Hinckley Jr., who stalked Jodie Foster for months before shooting President Reagan in a bid to “impress” her.

The second is the charming, more socially adept man who is a hyper-egotistical control freak. Many women find him more frightening: Until he shows his abusive and manipulative side, this sort of stalker might have the skills to win a lady over. Depending on what you believe about the truth behind the most famous celebrity trial of the 1990s, this sort of stalker might be an O.J. Simpson.

O.J. and John Hinckley Jr. might be scary under the wrong circumstances; but the mere idea of either man isn’t going to keep anyone awake at night. The male stalker’s basis in cold, hard reality limits his potential for becoming a truly effective horror movie/fiction antagonist. He is kind of like a car crash: A car crash is frightening enough in real life; but it makes mundane material for horror fiction (unless the car crash happens to take place in the middle of a zombie apocalypse, as was the case during the opening scene of Dawn of the Dead (2004).)

A female stalker, conversely, is extraordinarily frightening because she is doing what women are not supposed to do. The rules of courtship ordain that men do most of the pursuing, while women do most of the choosing, rejecting, and “playing hard to get.” The overly aggressive pursuit of a love object is a distinctly male form of misbehavior. When a woman won’t take “no” for an answer, it is disorienting. It contradicts our paradigms regarding gender roles. (Even though the role of stalker is decidedly negative, it is still a “role;” and it has usually been associated with men.)

Another suspenseful movie that shows the dark side of obsessive female desire is The Hole (2001). This movie stars Thora Birch (the teenaged daughter in American Beauty) as a private school coed who orchestrates a devious—and ultimately deadly—deception in an attempt to place herself in the arms of the popular boy on whom she has a crush. The female antagonist in this film is less immediately threatening than Glenn Close’s obsessive Alex character. However, the fundamentally mundane nature of her motivation is in some ways even scarier. Many young people (including young women) are capable of engaging in darkly manipulative behavior when hormones and adolescent crushes are involved. Some of this behavior has the potential to turn deadly.

There are only a handful of movies about female serial killers. Among these, Monster (2003) is the one that most often comes to mind. Monster stars Charlize Theron as an unattractive, drug-addicted, mentally ill streetwalker who murders her clients. Based on the real-life case of Aileen Wournos, Monster is disturbing enough. 

But a better job was done by James Patterson in his 2005 novel Honeymoon. Patterson’s female serial killer, Nora, is drop-dead gorgeous and methodical. Her victims are not the patrons of low-priced prostitutes, but highly successful men who believe their lives to be safe and secure.

Thus far we have talked about worldly female villains—evil female characters that technically could exist. Now we’re going to delve unto the otherworldly. Supernatural films and literature provide additional possibilities for the female villain, because she can be endowed with extraordinary powers and a deeper level of evil. A female murderer is bad enough; but what about a female murderer sent from Satan himself?

The supernatural female villain is a construct that storytellers have recognized since time immemorial. 

One of the secondary supernatural villains in Beowulf is Grendel’s mother. An Anglo-Saxon heroic poem composed in Old English, Beowulf was conceived for a pre-Norman society that afforded women a relatively high status by the standards of pre-modern times. 

Women, however, were not expected to be warriors in Anglo-Saxon England; and the original audience for Beowulf may have had their imaginations stretched by the notion of a creature that was a woman, a mother, and also a monster

In addition, this female creature is one of the first examples in English literature of the sympathetic villain. Although the narrator of Beowulf is clearly against her, it is not difficult to understand her desire to kill the tale’s eponymous hero. After all, Beowulf has killed her son.

Even older than Grendel’s mother is the demonic creature known as Lilith. Her legend can be traced back to ancient Mesopotamia. Like the story of the Great Flood, Lilith’s precise nature was transmuted as she was adopted by different cultures in the region.

Lilith likely originated with the Assyrians. The Assyrians described female demons known as lilitu. These had the basic body of a woman, but also the talons and wings of a bird. The lilitu were believed to sexually prey upon men.

The concept of the lilitu was subsequently adopted by the Hebrews, who combined multiple demons into a single entity. Lilith is referred to in a number of ancient Jewish texts, including the Dead Sea Scrolls. 

In a Jewish legend that serves as an alternative twist on the traditional story of Genesis, Lilith is Adam’s first wife. She was created at the same time as Adam. Unlike the subsequent Eve, Lilith was not created from Adam’s rib. She is a completely independent person in her own right.

Adam wanted Lilith to be subservient to him, but she refused. She then left Adam, and took up with the archangel Samael, who is usually depicted in the Talmud as “the angel of death.” 

In this way, Lilith was an early, malevolent version of the willful feminist.

Lilith later assumed her place in early Christian lore. The sexual anxieties of the European Middle Ages gave rise to the succubus, a female demon who tempts men (especially priests) with the promise of illicit sexual intercourse. Lilith, the wayward first wife of Adam, was associated with the succubi, and believed to be one of their number.

In more recent times, Lilith has appeared as a demonic antagonist in various horror movies and novels. The HBO series True Blood even cast Lilith as "the mother of all vampires.”

The ancient Greeks also had their share of supernaturally endowed and fearsome women. Medusa is the best known of these; but she is by no means the only mythological lady in this category. As ancient Greece was a pre-Christian society, many of these figures are supernatural femme fatales rather than more blatantly demonic creatures. In one leg of the journey of The Odyssey, Odysseus must be lashed to the mast of his ship in order to resist the song of the sirens, a group of female entities who lured (male) sailors to their deaths on the rocks that surrounded their home island.

Women have always had sexual power, and men have always been uneasy about it. The ancient Greeks considered feminine temptations to be a distraction; the Victorians of the late nineteenth century viewed them more darkly. During this period, the view of femininity was sharply split along the lines of the old whore-Madonna dichotomy.

In Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the motherly Mina Murray Harker is the personification of the Madonna. Mina is devout, prudish, and platonically admired by Dr. Abraham Van Helsing. In the novel’s closing paragraph, Van Helsing reflects on Mina’s goodness while bouncing her young son on his knee:
“’This boy will some day know what a brave and gallant woman his mother is. Already he knows her sweetness and loving care. Later on he will understand how some men so loved her, that they did dare much for her sake.’”
Attacked by Dracula, Mina is threatened with the horrible prospect of becoming a vampire herself. But she is able to resist with the help of Van Helsing. 

Another female character of Stoker’s famous vampire novel is not so fortunate. Juxtaposed against Mina is the flirtatious and flighty Lucy Westenra. Only nineteen years old, Lucy attracts more than her share of male attention. She is as sexy as it is possible for a young woman to be within the constraints of Victorian morality. Lucy has three suitors, who find themselves hopelessly drawn to her. For a while she frustrates all of them, before finally agreeing to marry Arthur Holmwood, the dashing son of a British lord.

But Arthur is not to have Lucy, either. Before the two can marry, Lucy succumbs to the darkness of Count Dracula. Unlike Mina, Lucy is transformed into a female vampire. Her fiancĂ©, Arthur, is compelled to drive a stake into her heart, lest Lucy suffer eternal damnation.     

The link between unchecked feminine sexuality and damnation is established more overtly in one of Dracula’s earlier scenes. Jonathan Harker, the love interest of the pure and motherly Mina, encounters three female vampires while staying in Castle Dracula during his journey to Transylvania. One does not have to be a professor of English Literature in order to detect the sensual undertones in the following passage:

“They whispered together, and then they all three laughed, such a silvery, musical laugh, but as hard as though the sound never could have come through the softness of human lips. It was like the intolerable, tingling sweetness of water glasses when played on by a cunning hand. The fair girl shook her head coquettishly, and the other two urged her on. 

One said, ‘Go on! You are first, and we shall follow. Yours is the right to begin.’
The other added, ‘He is young and strong. There are kisses for us all.’

I lay quiet, looking out from under my eyelashes in an agony of delightful anticipation. The fair girl advanced and bent over me till I could feel the movement of her breath upon me. Sweet it was in one sense, honey-sweet, and sent the same tingling through the nerves as her voice, but with a bitter underlying the sweet, a bitter offensiveness, as one smells in blood.”

This is one of the creepiest and most memorable scenes of Dracula, and it retains its power a century after the book’s original publication. 

I liked the scene so much that I adapted elements of it for my own vampire story, “The Vampires of Wallachia.” (My female vampires, however, are more modern; and they appear in a Chinese restaurant rather than in a European castle.)