Date of Award
MA in English
Horror, as a whole, is preoccupied with madness. How else can one characterize a genre largely based in ambiguity and potential hallucination? So it should come with no surprise that horror is also preoccupied with gender. Mental instability has been associated with femininity from the dawn of Western civilization. The Ancient Greeks coined the term hysteria from their word for uterus, subscribing to the theory that the womb could move about a woman’s body and cause her to behave irrationally. Up until the nineteenth century, hysteria was believed to be an exclusively feminine condition. With potential symptoms comprising a seventy-five page pamphlet, anything a woman did carried the potential of getting her labeled hysterical. Father of psychoanalytic theory Sigmund Freud initially posited his seduction theory as an explanation for hysterical and neurotic symptoms—the idea that psychosexual trauma in childhood that had been repressed was the source of subsequent mental instability. This gendering of trauma goes hand-in-hand with the gendering of the horror film. Horror sees the return of the repressed. The role of the woman in horror is one that has been examined at length. Carol Clover’s Final Girl archetype is often viewed as the epitome of cross-gender identification. Harkening back to the single sex model of gender, the Final Girl is elevated to the status of heroine through the adoption of masculine characteristics. Yet horror’s madwomen do not play with gender in this way. They are always explicitly feminine—their psychosis serves as an extension of this. While the madwoman is often antagonistic—Stephen King’s Carrie being a prime example—she is also sympathetic. She wears many faces and presents herself in many different ways—angry and unhinged, hyper-sexual and violent, traumatized and screaming—yet she is always a manifestation of some sort of societal or interpersonal anxiety and/or trauma, Horror’s madwomen serve as successors to folklore, sharing the menstrual imagery prevalent in the fairy tale. She is both a source and a conversation starter for intergenerational trauma and family violence. She is a way to converse about both gender and blackness, examining America’s history of racial gaslighting. She may even be a more autonomous being than the Final Girl.
Fitzpatrick, Alexandra, "OPHELIA, THE MONSTER: REPRESENTATIONS OF FEMALE MADNESS IN THE WESTERN HORROR FILM" (2021). Theses and Dissertations. 331.