I recently went to see The Woman in Black, and in-between clutching at the arm-rests and groaning and jumping about like the rest of the audience, afterwards I started thinking about ghostly females, and Gothic mothers, and felt myself getting all…feminist.
I then got hold of the book, and while I couldn’t get Daniel Radcliffe’s tortured little face out of my mind as I flicked through the pages; and while I spent most of the time reading it thinking, “well, that wasn’t in the film!”, I thought I’d jot down some thoughts and have a semi-academic, meandering ponder about female ghouls in general, and try and find out why they are so scary.
I came across this article in The Guardian some weeks ago, and while it skims the topic rather than fully exploring it, it does observe that female ghosts often exhibit the same behaviour:
1)“[they]… are often perverted mother figures who exhibit infanticidal tendencies or homicidal jealousy in place of the expected maternal nurturing qualities…Or, like the shades in Stir of Echoes, The Sixth Sense, J-Hôra movies such as Ringu or Ju-On, or the Thai film Shutter, they seek vengeance on the people (usually, but not always, men) who wronged them…”
2)“The ghosts of old women are viewed as particularly repulsive…. Old ladies represent all that's most frightening in a society where youth is viewed at something to be preserved at all costs, especially for women.”
Hmmm. Taking the first point then (and before tackling the issues of birth and maternity and psychoanalysis), ‘expected’ seems to be the key issue here, and a woman who doesn’t conform to ‘expected’ modes of femininity (who isn’t moderate, nurturing, caring, selfless etc) is immediately monstrous before any special effects or floaty, lacy, nightgowns are thrown into the mix.
This argument may seem redundant in 2012 with “career women” the norm now rather than the exception etc, and while we all know that the “bitch” label is still applied to women exhibiting the kind of behaviour that would be deemed ambitious in men (although some of them are just bitches), and we know that the slag/stud divide does still exist (I work in a bar, and I’ve overheard many a “woah, she’s fit!” “Nah, she’s a slag”; the response usually from the women rather than the men, incidentally, as men really aren’t as concerned with a woman’s ‘purity’ as much as other women are); and while most of us can pity the people who still subscribe to these outdated opinions (I hope), these labels only highlight that beneath all the progress, there is still the notion that women should take responsibility for the actions on the basis of their gender.
It’s also the case that when one woman fucks up, then the whole (imaginary) sorority is judged, when men don’t have to, and when they are considered alone. For example, a man driving his car into a kerb wouldn’t warrant the comment “Tssk, male drivers, ban them all!”, nor would a man fucking up the accounts at work prompt his boss to say, “I knew it! I should have listened to my gut, I rue the day I ever employed a, a…man!”
Language and labels, of course, are the foodstuffs of feminist theorists, and while I’m not going to go into that too much here (I’m rusty, and it makes my brain hurt), I will mention the work of Dale Spender, whose study in the eighties considered the ‘male’ bias of language, and the way that language is anything but neutral, and more an instrument through which the patriarchy finds expression (although I hate the term “patriarchy”, as it conjures up images of some complicit Illuminati-type be-cloaked corporation, all hell bent on oppression, but I suppose that’s beside the point).
Spender’s ideas have been expanded upon/challenged by/been an influence upon many successive feminists, including Susan Gubar and Hélène Cixous, as nods to further reading, and she states:
Language is our means of classifying and ordering the world: our means of manipulating reality. In its structure and in its use we bring our world into realisation, and if it is inherently inaccurate, then we are misled. If the rules which underlie our language system, our symbolic order, are invalid, then we are daily deceived.
So how do we classify the world? Structuralist and Post-Structuralist critics alike (feminist ones included) have observed that the world has been culturally broken down into binary oppositions: white/black, good/bad, male/female, yin/yang, alive/dead, and on, and on. The problem is, however,
At the most basic level of meaning the status of the female is derived from the status of the male and on this has been erected many strata of positive and negative classifications.
Man WomanRational IrrationalActive PassiveReason EmotionPublic PrivateMind BodyCulture NatureSpiritual MaternalVirginal idea Sex objectMary EveInspiration SeductressGood Evil
As you can see, even at the level of language, woman is: ruled by emotion, akin to the natural world, beyond reason, a thing a thing apart from any rationale. She is already a ghoul.
Binaries will always have a privileged half, and therefore a shadow is present, its detriment; which is invariably a characteristic aligned to the female.
Freud really didn’t help by calling female sexuality “a dark continent”, either; nor by blaming our unruly wombs for our ‘hysterical’ behaviour; and psychoanalytical theory can also come into play here with regards to Freud’s notions of penis envy.
Not having a willy then means that women are solely defined by what they lack, rather than defined as merely different.
Freud gets on a lot of people’s tits, and there are countless arguments refuting his claims etc, and while he may or may not have been concerned with the actual, physical object, it remains, it seems, that the penis is still the signifier of power, and of social advantage.
But why is this so important? Well, there is no reality outside of language, and once we enter language, we effectively consign ourselves to a prison. Within it, reality is cleaved into these unyielding binary oppositions that would metaphorically divide the dinner hall and see all of the men on one side, getting the access to the pool tables and the phone-calls home and Sky Sports channel; while the female inmates stay on the other, left to stare at the walls and endlessly peel the spuds.
Language leads to representation, which leads to ideologies, which then give credence to the male myth of superiority that although disputed, lingers in our consciousness, as myths are wont to do. Spender notes:
It is a myth which may be attacked but one which is not easy to eradicate…and this one, which is fundamental to our social order, is particularly pervasive and particularly hard to dislodge.
So, to bring it back to The Woman in Black, and ghostly goings-on, what do we have? The story is one of a woman who loses a child, and whose very presence from beyond the grave then causes other people’s children to die.
She is described thus:
She had been a poor, crazed, troubled woman, dead of grief and distress, filled with hatred and desire for revenge. Her bitterness wasunderstandable, the wickedness that led her to take away other women's children because she had lost her own, understandable too but not forgivable.
This works on two levels.
Recall the TV footage of mothers tried in Sudden Infant Death syndrome cases, hustled into police vans under blankets as the mob scream and bang their fists on the side of the departing vehicle; the media frenzy when women do kill, the absolute outrage when they kill children (which I’m not downplaying; and I won’t refer to specific cases here as I don’t want to discuss them in such a sarky tone, nor in this context).
She’d be one of those, for sure, Jennet (the eponymous 'woman' in question), the subject of experts and therapists sitting on the GMTV sofa as they discuss post-natal depression, and those “women who snap.”
Jennet then signifies a female who is completely at the mercy of her emotions, whose instability has overridden even her own maternal instinct; her own ‘natural’ capacity for compassion.
But the reverse is also true. Recall the fierce matriarch, the god-fearing mafia mamma who’ll smuggle drugs for her sons; the Peggy Mitchell type mother who’ll defend her bully boys to the death. Now crank that up until it becomes grotesque, a caricature, and that’s also what you have here.
The Woman in Black then explores the mothering nature taken to the extreme; the “bunny boiler” type, the obsessed femme fatale, the trapdoor spider, the praying mantis, the Medea lurking in us all.
The maternal body provokes both awe and disgust, with the female body a site of both attraction and repulsion with its sly, hidden genitalia and sneaky child-bearing transformative capabilities, and it seems that the maternal instinct does the same.
We just can’t ruddy win! Career women are neglectful; stay-at- home moms miss out on a fulfilling career; baby-killers are vilified, ones that love their children too much appear in haunted mansions and make Harry Potter poo his pants. Sigh.
I can’t even count the amount of times that I’ve heard from my male friends: “she’s fucking nuts” “you’re all mad, all of you etc" when encountering female, shall we say “temperamental” behaviour (that men themselves are often the cause of, and who resort to the “mad” tag to absolve themselves of any blame), and it is this divide between the rational/irrational, and the cerebral and the emotional that allows female ghosts to work so well on our greater anxieties.
The female ghost seems credible; they are a magnification of what we believe is already there. You can't reason with them; they can’t let go, they lurk, passive but deadly, immured in the private sphere; they defy logic.
Consider the male horror monster: lumbering down the street, in public, brandishing a glove full of knives or a chainsaw, hacking/slicing/slashing some dumb college girl with massive tits to pieces. Not phallic, no, not at all. Pah. They’re a magnification of male aggression, of hunt and pursuit, and the gathering of... body parts; all fisticuffs and blood, then over with, done forgotten (well, aside from the sequels). Female forms need to be unlocked, they are the secret rooms, the complex emotions, the elusive g-spot, to rid yourself of them you need to find ways to make amends, to untangle their motivations, their desires, which are bound to be obscure, and dark. This could take centuries, of terror, of cold sweats, of corner-of-the-eye-glimpses and hairs-standing up -on- the -back- of- the- neck…
Whereas female murderers then seem to exist beyond our comprehension; and while they threaten our assumptions and the linguistic constraints that corral them (although they are soon re-categorised accordingly, usually with a punchy media nickname), they are still moving within a patriarchal realm. The vengeful female ghost has escaped this system of control, and is exhibiting all of those worrisome traits ascribed to her, but there’s no chance of reining her back in with that swirling macho lasso of enlightened thought and all that comes with it.
The narrator of The Woman in Black, Arthur Tibbs, is ‘reasonable man’ personified, and throughout the novel he is torn between what he sees and his need to unravel it, to pin it down with logic. He becomes increasingly spooked by the emotions that he picks up from the woman, and states:
It was true that the ghastly sounds I had heard through the fog had greatly upset me but far worse was what emanated from and surrounded these things and arose to unsteady me, an atmosphere, a force - I do not exactly know what to call it -of evil and uncleanness, of terror and suffering, of malevolence and bitter anger. I felt quite at a loss to cope with any of these things.
Moreover, that the intensity of her grief and distress together with her pent-up hatred and desire for revenge permeated the air all around. And it was that which so troubled me, the force of those emotions, for those were what I believed had power to harm. But to harm who?’
This sounds in part like a man daring to ask to watch Match of the Day when his girlfriend has PMT, but it both exemplifies the indecipherability of female emotions to the staunchly male psyche, and highlights the need to keep these binaries apart, as ‘male’ anger and rage mixed with female capriciousness and irrationality is a fearsome cocktail, but it also shows the damage that this system of opposition causes.
Were Mr Kipps to embrace his ‘female’ intuition and empathy rather than seeing the whole thing as superstition or a puzzle that needed to be solved, then maybe the outcome would have been quite different.
Even after all that he endures at Eel Marsh Harsh (a place accessible only when the tide is out, which brings all kind of female/lunar associations that I won’t go into now), his curiosity, his need to figure it out, to bring it back into the rational order, overrides his fear. His curiosity is an unbearable itch, and he vows to solve the mystery of the malevolent woman even if it means enduring black-outs and creaky rocking chairs and the ghostly wail of children. Male logic will prevail, dammit! It will be the Enlightenment freeing us from the Dark Ages, the light saving us from the night (masculine versus feminine, masculine versus feminine...). But she is no longer privy to this type of categorization, and will elude it, over and over.
This also brings us to her appearance.
This also brings us to her appearance.
The Woman is described as looking like:
…she was suffering from some terrible wasting disease, for not only she extremely pale, even more than a contrast with the blackness of her garments could account for, but the skin and, it seemed, only the thinnest layer of flesh was tautly stretched and strained across her bones, so that it gleamed with a curious, blue-white sheen, and her eyes seemed sunken back into her head. Her hands that rested on the pew before her were in a similar state, as though she had been a victim of starvation. Though not any medical expert, I had heard of certain conditions which caused such terrible wasting, such ravages of the flesh, and knew that they were generally regarded as incurable…”
A right hottie, then? In common parlance, she’s let herself go, a little. The disease is seen as a manifestation of her grief, so not only have female emotions run amok, unfettered, worse than that: they’ve smudged her mascara.
Female spirits also always seem to be in some sort of disarray- wild hair, no make-up, shapeless smocks. This ghastly, ghostly female is particularly common in Japanese horror, and with Japanese patriarchs even more patriarchal than the Western patriarchs (apparently), this dishevelled appearance signifies a body free from body politics, and from expected notions of femininity.
The figure is then doubly terrifying, as not only has she side-stepped/revved up expected female behaviour, she is also the dotty old hag in leg-warmers picking fag ends up of the floor, the girl with unruly eyebrows and hairy armpits, the fat one daring to wear tight clothes, so being dead bit is the least of her worries.
In The Beauty Myth, Naomi’s Klein’s attack on the propagation of impossible ideals of beauty in modern society, she states that,
Ideal beauty is ideal because it does not exist; The action lies in the gap between desire and gratification. Women are not perfect beauties without distance. That space, in a consumer culture, is a lucrative one. The beauty myth moves for men as a mirage, its power lies in its ever-receding nature. When the gap is closed, the lover embraces only his own disillusion.”
In this case, however, the seemingly ‘illusory’ figure is the one manifesting a ‘beauty’ that is shorn of cosmetics and make-up and socially accepted constructs of what is or isn’t attractive.
The female ghost is then breaking through this gap, and while her general appearance has been rendered shocking by the movie makers, it’s her substantiality in the midst of the mirage, the fact that she solidly exists, as herself, beyond the facade, that truly has people leaping back into their seats. It is Sadako, crawling out of the television at the end of Ringu, with her hair over her face and on her knees; edging out of her film reel prison and slowly away from all of the media air-brushed, silicone representations of beauty.
As a final point, however, the book was written by a woman, Susan Hill, who follows in a long line of female, Gothic authors. Hill is far from a strident feminist, and the depiction of Jennet is of the "typically" crazy chick who needs to be contained (although the fact that her child was taken due to its his illegitimate status could prompt a feminist reading); but The Gothic tradition has long been associated with female writers. This stems right back to the works of Anne Radcliffe in the 1800s, and has been seen by many theorists as embodying women's attempts to escape, via writing, from firstly their boredom, and frustration at the cloistered lives allocated for them; and also from the impossible ideals of femininity imposed upon them.
Cue lots of visions of Emily Bronte sat out on the moors, polite and sedate, but dying for a shag and frantically penning Wuthering Heights -with all its savagery and cruelty and doors slamming and fires raging- in lieu of any action (elements that were described by one male critic as" the eccentricities of ‘woman's fantasy'); or Mary Shelley, making tea, thinking of exactly how Frankenstein could seek bloody revenge on his maker. These stories then let women transcend their roles, to slip through the walls of their parlours, to vanish into their own imagination, and, as The Woman in Black does, ultimately prevail.