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a bloody good scare [A&C]

on menstruation & female sensuality in horror

“It is women who love horror. Gloat over it. Feed over it. Are nourished by it. Shudder and cling and cry out and come back for more.” – Bela Lugosi 

The portrayal of female characters in horror has often been confined to an oppressively binary spectrum, depicting women as either the virginal heroine or a sexually voracious villain. Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the horror genre is its inability to perceive women as more than the sum of their parts—as evidenced by aggressively voyeuristic camera angles and limited, hyper-feminine portrayals of girlhood. 


Yet there is an element of complexity regarding the supernatural or monstrous depiction of female puberty and sexuality within horror films. We can look at famous examples within film and television, such as Carrie, The Exorcist, or Ginger Snaps which highlight the inherent evil of female puberty and sexuality, resulting in the birth of the female monster. For once, women are portrayed in a way that is dangerous, sexually liberated, and powerful. Instead of running from monsters, women are allowed to become them, embodying characteristics that are often reserved for their male counterparts such as Freddy Krueger from Nightmare on Elm Street or Patrick Bateman in American Psycho

This portrayal of womanhood can be satisfying for female viewers due to its deviation from the societal norm and underlying themes of female empowerment. However, the characterization of the female monster begs several questions: What exactly is so monstrous about female menstruation and sexuality? What does Hollywood’s depiction of the female monster represent within general society? 

As film historian Shelley Stamps argues in her paper “Horror, Femininity, and Carrie’s Monstrous Puberty,” “The monster introduces a threatening diversity into the category of the human. Non-human and non-male are confused as equivalent threats to human identity; bodily differences become, in both cases, the locus of the non-human.” To male viewers, the female form is akin to a monstrous identity due to a woman's sexually different anatomy. Anything outside the masculine mold is unfamiliar, dangerous, or otherworldly, allowing filmmakers to use female sensuality and puberty as a basis for horror. The transition from girlhood to womanhood is a medium for public spectacle; men view women’s development as both sexually inviting and dangerous to masculinity. 

A strong example of the application of horror juxtaposed with female menstruation is within Carrie’s infamous period scene—viewers are subjected to an invasive shot of Carrie sensually cleaning her body within the girl’s locker room. The camera pans deliberately over Carrie’s silhouette, paying particular attention to her stomach and legs as she washes herself. The music is intentionally soft and pleasant. However, the tranquil scene soon turns sinister once a small trickle of blood runs down Carrie’s legs and onto her hands. There is fear in Carrie’s eyes as she looks down at her body, and her movements become frantic and desperate as she runs to her classmates for aid, almost as if she is an injured, feral animal.

The scene is extraordinarily uncomfortable for viewers due to King’s violent depiction of Carrie’s menstruation. Yet, the scene is merely evidence that Carrie has a functioning female body. Her naked, injured form is not that of a monster or animal but simply a girl without a towel. The blood on Carrie’s hands is not from any act of violence or injury but a sign of healthy puberty. Carrie’s form is reduced to something disgusting and animalistic. The scene plays as if it is within a horror sequence, with Carrie, our victim and also monster, crouched against the floor. Her lack of bodily knowledge induces public fear and humiliation. Carrie is punished and ostracized for the mere crime of womanhood. 

However, a mere 30 seconds prior, viewers were encouraged to perceive Carrie through a sexually provocative lens, as evidenced by the tantalizing camera angles and body shots. This is the same woman with the same body as before, yet the moment in which Carrie’s body performs a service that is non-desirable is the moment viewers are encouraged to view her as disgusting and horrific. This is the same scene in which Carrie's telekinetic powers are also introduced, as evidenced by the breaking light bulb above Coach Collins’s head. As Stamps emphasizes,Carrie’s adolescent body becomes the site upon which monster and victim converge, and we are encouraged to postulate that a monster resides within her.” With Carrie’s emerging puberty comes the emergence of sexual and monstrous awakenings. Thus, King subtly conveys the patriarchal fear that men possess towards female puberty, as it serves as a period for naive, pure young girls to transform into powerful, destructive women. 



Stephen King’s 1976 film Carrie was produced at the height of second wave feminism, a time when more complex feminist issues were brought to the United States’s attention, including the pink tax, abortion, and access to emergency contraceptives. Perhaps such movements were indicative of a larger fear that the male patriarchy held towards women at the time: unregulated feminine passion and power. For what is left for men to control if women are able to enact complete autonomy of both their bodies and minds? 

As film critic Robin Wood asserts, “Monsters represent a return of the repressed.” In the case of women, the suppression of sensuality leads to the emergence of a sexually-liberated female monster as a form of female rebellion against heteronormative societal expectations. She is different from her male monsters because her powers revolve around her seduction; as a femme fatale but also a killer, the female monster represents both the unrestrained, wild sexuality that women desire to possess and the underlying bloodlust towards men. The phrase “maneater” comes to mind because the female monster serves to literally consume men—both physically and socioeconomically.  

A prime example of this female monster is Jennifer Check, the secondary protagonist in Diablo Cody’s Jennifer’s Body. Jennifer, played by early 2000s sex symbol Megan Fox, reads as a social commentary on society’s obsession with purity and virginity. In the movie, high school “queen bee” Jennifer is brutally killed in the woods by indie rock band, Low Shoulder. The sadistic band performs a demonic ritual with the devil, believing that by sacrificing Jennifer as a virgin, they will obtain eternal fame and wealth. Unbeknownst to the band, Jennifer is not a virgin; thus, she resurrects after her murder, transforming into a teenage succubus determined to enact revenge on men. Jennifer’s demonic possession grants her the physical strength to manipulate and conquer male forces, as Jennifer already had full confidence and control of her own sexuality. Although the story ultimately ends in Jennifer’s demise at the hands of her best friend, Anita, Jennifer’s sexual liberation inadvertently saved her life—a distinct departure from common purity themes within horror. 

Thus, Jennifer’s Body is a direct contrast to the madonna-whore archetype frequently observed in film, in which one’s sexual repression is the key to survival. 

Women within horror will always maintain an integral role in story development and film. It’s a compelling medium in which women are given the opportunity to enact violence, rage, guilt, and sexuality without aggressive censorship or moral qualm. The female monster provides a cleansing sense of relief to female viewers due to her aversion to social normalcy and domination against male oppression. 

If the world tells women they are less than men and their desire must be repressed, a generation of female monsters will be produced in cathartic retaliation. Perhaps that is where the real horror lies. 

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