I’ve always thought that one of the primary characteristics of horror is destabilisation. It’s taking the ordinary and presenting it skewed, so that the normal methods of interaction, of amelioration, don’t work.
It up-ends expectation. This is not to say that horror always up-ends expectation and this is especially apparent with regard to gender. Last month I talked about how often the woman-as-object-of-consumption trope is used, and how it can mirror expected social behaviour. This month I’m looking at it from the other end: what horror has to say about women who are the consumers, who are the monsters that hunt down and devour, or who use food as a weapon to enforce their own desires.
We’ve seen inklings of this before, in such fairy tales as “The Juniper Tree”, where the stepmother serves up her stepson to his father in a stew. There are a number of ways to interpret such an act. It’s using food as a tool of vengeance, yes, but it’s also using it within the context of a power relationship, with the stepmother clearing the board in favour of her own daughter and that daughter’s future inheritance.
But there’s a third interpretation, and it’s destabilisation: the undermining of the family unit, the fracturing of cohesion. As I said above, I find destabilisation to be a frequently occurring facet of horror, and how the female-consumer can cause – or emphasise – destabilisation is the subject of this month’s piece.
This undermining of expectation can occur on a number of levels: social, familial, environmental… even scientific. What is primarily undermines, though, is worldview. As humans, we tend to organise our experiences, to catalogue them and string them together in order to find a way to make sense of the universe. This is something that helps us learn, and is a valuable tool for survival. Up-end that understanding by introducing a threat – and in horror, there’s always a threat – and the chances for survival materially diminish.
In some ways destabilisation of an existing social model can be interpreted as a subversive good. I talked about this last month, but part of the reason that women are so often dish of the day in horror is the perception of them as passive and exploitable as compared to, for instance, the male heroic figure. Perception of consumability crosses over: if your main role in a story is to wear a flimsy nightdress and have a fetching neck for sucking on, you’re well into the food-as-sex-substitute territory.
Constant portrayal of feminine victimhood gets old, however. It’s a power relationship that in today’s world becomes less and less satisfactory, and modern culture consumers (at least half of whom are women) have a vested interested in branching out. If consumption is a power relationship, and if gender is a power relationship, why not flip the two together?
Such flips don’t have to be subtle. Sometimes the appeal of a horror story doesn’t come within screaming distance of subtle. Consider the film Teeth, for instance, which updates the vagina dentata image to repeated and bloody effect. Teenage protagonist Dawn is both virginal and abstinent, but then a date goes bad and she’s raped by her boyfriend. Neither the rape nor the boyfriend last long, however, as Dawn discovers a previously unknown ability and bites down with a different set of teeth than the ones above her neck. Young Tobey subsequently bleeds to death and good riddance to him.
Unfortunately for Dawn, she lives in a world where all men are rapists. Alright, not all men, but the movie is one long repetition of sexual assault, one after the other, where other people try to take away Dawn’s right to control her own body and promptly discover she has more control than anyone ever gave her credit for.
This is an over-the-top, in-your-face revenge horror fantasy, but it means to be over-the-top. There’s no subtlety here, and no mining for hidden messages. Rapists get chewed up –or at least part of them does – and the film has no sympathy for them. This is consumption turned around and made deadly to those who thought that consumption was primarily made for them. Think women are consumable? Think again… while you can. And make sure you do your thinking with the right head, because it’s easy enough to lose the other one.
This is consumption updated, nature red in tooth and cunt but it’s not the nature that Tennyson had in mind. Horror lives on the boundary of the natural and unnatural, and destabilisation is apparent on either side. In truth, though, I’ve always thought it more apparent on the side of the unnatural.
One reason why horror is so successful in destabilisation is the increasing rationalism of daily life. A population familiar with evolution, with the science of biology, needs to rely on the suspension of disbelief when it comes to giant predatory animals that would collapse under their own weight if they actually turned up on the nearest street-corner.
Audiences are often prepared to suspend their disbelief, however, especially if they know going in that they’re entering a book set fast in unreality. It’s one thing to take Shelob seriously and shudder; I know in advance that The Lord of the Rings is a fantasy work. A spider her size turning up in a non-speculative context, however, and my tolerance comes to a screaming halt.
That being said, there are work-arounds, especially if the monstrous female consumer exists in a science fiction setting – low gravity might improve the odds of supporting that weight, for instance, or it could be a robot in the form of a spider. I’m prepared to go along with that, especially when it’s couched in somewhat familiar terms.
Just look at the Alien films. There’s a lot that’s familiar in them: eusocial creatures, the deadly maternal figure, parasitoid larvae eating up the resources of their hosts. What’s unfamiliar is the setting and the size. Even if the crew of the Nostromo were all working biologists familiar with similar traits in other organisms, they’d still be both dumbfounded and horrified at the introduction of the actual Alien. That creature is so far out of their experience that even processing its existence is a challenge, let alone cataloguing its weaknesses and looking for some way to stop the thing. The Alien is in fact so very alien that at the beginning of the first sequel, Aliens, Ripley is having some trouble convincing the Corporation of the veracity of her story – and that’s when that story is of a natural predator, being told to men from a world full of natural predators. How much more destabilising would a ghost have been for their collective worldview?
There’s a lot of cross-over in horror. Fantasy and sci-fi and literary gothic all contribute, and saying that horror exists on another borderline – that of the natural and the unnatural – while marginally adequate as a descriptor, can also I think miss the point. That boundary is a particularly permeable one.
Look at Beowulf, at Grendel’s mother. When Grendel is killed, she clambers out of her pool to avenge him. It’s made clear, though, that her son came by his habits honestly, for Grendel’s mother “had scavenged and gone her gluttonous rounds for a hundred seasons”. She cuts through Hrothgar’s Hall like a knife through butter, making off with the corpse of Aeschere. “Where she is hiding, glutting on the corpse and glorying in her escape, I cannot tell” laments Hrothgar, but Beowulf tracks her down to the pool anyway and dives on down.
Now clearly Grendel’s mother (and her child, for that matter) are fantasy creatures. Horrifying creatures, to be sure, but they’re not human and they’re not animal either. One could call them unnatural, or supernatural, but they may as well not be for, as Heaney notes in the Introduction to his translation, Beowulf beats them both by sheer physical strength.
The same thing happens in Bram Stoker’s The Lair of the White Worm, where the vampiric Lady Arabella (who lunches on local children) along with the white worm, is exploded by dynamite. It’s a technological solution, and in fairness the hero has derived an ingenious method of setting off the dynamite, but what it comes down to is physical force.
In both cases the monstrous feminine is a destabilising force, and in both cases she is taken out by what are perceived as traditionally masculine qualities, at which the world returns to normal and the ground is again solid beneath the feet of Our Hero. Granted, physical force is also used against Grendel himself but it’s the maternal capacity of the women in question that elevates their monster-hood. A mother avenging her son is one thing, a noble lady showing interest in the local children another… but when they start eating them, well. We expect ladies to be nicer than that.
But this physical response to supernatural entities isn’t unknown in horror. A shotgun blast to the head can take out a zombie, no matter how much it wants to eat you, but this sort of boundary-blurring does limit classification. Does a realist response to a supernatural threat render supernaturalism moot? It’s one thing to shoot a zombie, quite another to try wrestling with a ghost. If one could kill a ghost by shooting at it, there must be something in that incorporeal, supernatural form that is anchored in the natural, in physics and mass.
Perhaps, then, a different way of looking at a horror threat derives from the response to that horror. Does one fight with strength or with symbols? It’s tempting to shove the strength solution at the natural consumers and the symbolic at the supernatural ones, but as has been shown above this is too clean a dichotomy.
What happens, then, with a type of feeding that is interpreted in both natural and symbolic ways? Does this emphasise destabilisation within a horrific narrative, or do the consumptions balance each other out?
It’s interesting to examine this possibility in a single text – We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson – but before I do this I’d like to talk more generally, as a sort of introduction, about the idea of “home” in horror.
Where destabilisation really comes into play, is (unsurprisingly) in the place often perceived as being the most stable of them all: the home. The constructed home, that is – a built home so different from the natural home in its possibilities. It’s not just nature in all its red-toothed glory; there’s storms and hail and mud to think about, the threat of hypothermia, of too-strong suns and dehydration. And a dwelling is a structured thing. It’s built on mathematics and architecture, materials science and engineering. It’s a construct of reason and sanity, the manipulative capacity put to good use for once.
It’s what’s inside the house that causes trouble. People, sure, and in the world of horror that’s often enough, but there’s also ghosts and possessions and manic echoes as the house builds up and births, well… hysteria, frankly. I don’t know what else you’d call all the panic and screaming and the sudden loss of anything remotely resembling common sense from people who should be making for the nearest door but don’t as the house eats up their fear and synthesises it into often bloody disaster.
We know when the house goes bad, it takes everything inside down with it. We know from the first paragraph that Hill House, for example, is a place where bad things happen.
No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.
It’s the reference to insanity that does it, the intimation that in this very rationally-built house, in the firm floors and the neat bricks, is a rottenness that undermines – that turns this place of potential home to horror.
I’m not arguing that haunted houses are part of the food and horror narrative; not in the same way as I argued for the exorcism stories last month at any rate, though there is a point of comparison that I’ll get to later. But haunted houses are a stepping stone, a signpost towards consumption if nothing else. There’s a shared foundation to the horror house and the horror meal, and it comes with the same concept of home.
Home as a place of rest, a place of nurture. As the saying goes, it’s the place where they have to take you in when you go there. It’s this nurturing capacity, the haven within the ruthless (often natural) world, that’s so often undermined and subverted by the haunted house narrative. And the kitchen, so often referred to as the heart of the home, is certainly no place of safety in a story of this type.
I’m thinking here of the first season episode of Supernatural, the one that’s usefully – and providentially! – called “Home”. (It’s a total coincidence; I remembered the scene I’m about to describe before coming back in to add the name of the episode, which I had to look up.) Creepy things are going on in Sam and Dean’s old house. Moving chairs, flying knives, a small child tempted by juice and trapped in the fridge. But however juice-obsessed little Richie is, his toddling towards the cold and open door isn’t the worst of the horror-consumption of that disturbed (and disturbing) kitchen.
No. The worst of it, the most horrifying bit, is the result every single viewer sees coming, hands tucked in close to their chests. Because the sink is blocked, the garbage disposal unit jammed, and some poor unhappy plumber dispatched to get it all going again. Now the plumber’s not a fool. He makes sure the power’s switched off before he sticks his hand down there. But the viewers aren’t fools either, and we all know that in a house where the furniture moves by itself that lack of power isn’t the problem. And so, inevitably, the kitchen appliance designed to chew up discarded food chews on something else, and the plumber gets his hand eaten up and his blood spattered over the walls.
And yeah, we all saw it coming but horror plays on expectation, on hideous anticipation. The haunted house narrative has so successfully undermined the social idea of home as a place of safety, of security, that when presented with such a house, an audience knows that safety and security is the last thing they can reasonably expect.
Homes are important. They’re meant to protect, and expulsion is damage. And because it’s women who so often get tasked with the role of home-maker over men, their relationship with the home is often of visceral importance. (Note that in the “Home” episode, it’s the ghost of Sam and Dean’s mother, Mary, who exorcises the house of the intruding evil – and she does it from the kitchen.)
If I tended towards the psychoanalytic (and I don’t, much) I’d argue that there’s something of womb-imagery about the idea of home – which is why when houses go bad, they go very bad indeed. (A bad mother tends to get more condemnation that a bad father.)
So: onto the horror narrative that combines both natural and symbolic feminine consumption. We Have Always Lived in the Castle is less overtly horrific than The Haunting of Hill House, if more thorough with it, but the castle itself – not actually a castle, but a large and imposing house – is similarly isolated. Living in this home is the remnants of the Blackwood family. Merricat, her elder sister Constance and their uncle Julian are the only survivors of a family catastrophe: a mass poisoning that took out all the rest of their relatives at dinner.
Constance is blamed by the wider community. No conviction was successfully achieved, but society tends to frown on family murders so the house and its familial residents are isolated and mocked, though that mockery is at base a fearful thing for no-one wants to get too close. A girl who could poison her parents would have little inclination to desist from doing away with lesser irritations, after all, and the Blackwood sisters are let rather severely alone. Their isolation is fertile ground for superstition and legend: witch sisters kept apart, and dangerous to know.
The house suffers by association. An Englishman’s home is his castle, and when the castle defences fail and that man and his family are poisoned to death within its walls then it can only be because the defences are undermined. That they’re undermined from within, from the decisions of a disturbed daughter, is almost irrelevant. The local community may shun and sneer at the sisters, but it’s the house they come to destroy – and not in the white heat of reaction, either. It takes years for social repulsion to reach its peak, the house looming over the countryside and infecting all those that live around it. There’s nothing quite like a symbol for provoking hatred in its failure. Symbols are supposed to be signs of other strengths, of spiritual or emotional organisation. They pin universes in place; they keep predators at bay. The right symbol can stop a monster in its tracks, can save an innocent party from consumption. Homes are part of that – a cross might stop a vampire, for instance, but so can a threshold.
Not that Merricat and her sister are vampires (or even werewolves, to Merricat’s great disappointment). It’s the symbolism of home that I’m underlining here. Crack that and everything falls down afterwards, and in short order.
There’s three different consumption narratives going on in We Have Always Lived in the Castle, laying and overlaying each other until the final picture is one of fractures and old bones, of mouths all covered up.
The first is both the simplest – and the first, brutal, fatal indication that not all was well in the House of Blackwood. The family is poisoned at the dinner table, as the disaffected distaff slips arsenic into the dessert. Blackberries and poisoned sugar, the sugar disguising the poison and the both of them mixed together in the silver sugar bowl that is the father’s particular prize, a family heirloom. All the imagery here is homely, and all of it is feminine. Constance, cooking dinner and setting the table, feeding her family as so many women have done before. Constance scrubbing out the sugar bowl afterwards, that pretty, artful sugar bowl, because, she says afterwards, spinning her tale like Arachne, there was a spider in it. The delicate sweetness of the dessert. The berries themselves: soft fleshy fruits come from the ovaries of plants. All these domestic, harmless details are subverted, made threatening, and Constance’s special domains, the kitchen and dining rooms, take on unsavoury trappings. Poison is traditionally thought of as a woman’s weapon, but couching it in such determined domesticity destabilises the idea of home, of feminine food-and-nurture.
All this is fairly obvious, but it’s not the only consumption going on. As we read through the book we discover that Constance isn’t the culprit and never has been. It’s her little sister Merricat, the narrator of the novel, who’s really the one responsible and Merricat is, for want of a better word, barking. It’s a subtle form of insanity, camouflaged by quirk and imagination and loyalty but Merricat is bone-deep crazy – within specific limits. Constance is one of those limits, for Merricat loves her deeply. The one reason she chose to poison the sugar at dessert was because she knew Constance wouldn’t eat it while everyone else would. And when, despite all the ostracising odds, a suitor comes for her sister, Merricat is even less impressed – because in the end, what Merricat mostly wants to eat is space. Constance-space: she wants her sister all to herself, wants to be the most important person in her life, to eat up everything around her until Merricat’s the only one left. It’s a selfish kind of love – if Constance had been wrongly convicted, Merricat might well have stayed silent – and it’s displayed in a twisted way, with Merricat using the things her sister loves to isolate her further in the castle. It’s notable that she chooses food to get rid of annoyances, when food is Constance’s calling card. You’d almost think she were trying to bond.
The creepiest thing about this determined consumption of another’s mental space (similar in a way to possession narratives) is that it works. Readers find, at the end of the book, that Constance has always known that her little sister murdered the family. She’s quite aware that Merricat is profoundly unbalanced – she’s just decided not to care. She loves her sister, treats her kindly, refuses to implicate her and – with one exception – prioritises their relationship. Merricat, then, has essentially succeeded: using consumption as a tool for murder has allowed her to practice a secondary, metaphorical form of consumption: essentially eating up every part of Constance’s world that doesn’t have Merricat as the foundation.
This is very much a possession narrative. Not in the spiritual sense, as perhaps happens in films like The Exorcist, but in a mental and emotional one. And as with possession narratives, the potential for exorcism exists. Merricat can indeed be ousted from her position at the centre of the world, and she nearly is. The arrival of an estranged cousin, Charles, and his subsequent courtship of Constance gives Constance the chance to have another centre, to prioritise another relationship.
Naturally Merricat is furious, and her own relationship with the intruding cousin quickly falls into a cold war. In one sense she’s right to treat him badly, for Charles isn’t interested in her sister as much as he’s interested in her money. Constance herself means nothing to him. But Merricat’s hatred can also be explained by her accusations. “You are a ghost and a demon,” she says to him, completely convinced that he is a ghost. And why wouldn’t he be? She thought she’d gotten rid of family, fed them all to death and up one has popped again, as if the arsenic wasn’t good enough. Her consumption is failing on both levels, because she can’t feed him poison this time, and she can’t stop him feeding off Constance and her attention either. With the arrival of this blast from a blasted past, there’s less of her sister to bite on and that’s when Merricat’s attention turns from flesh and into symbol.
Simply put, she burns down the house, ushering in the last of the consumption images. Symbols are frequently more powerful than reality, and by bypassing a second murder-solution Merricat goes straight for destabilising the core of the narrative, the house-of-horrors, the-home-that-was-meant-to-be-safe. All eaten up by flame, and then by the resentment of the local people, who trash what the flames didn’t destroy, so consumed have they been by the prevailing narrative of food and the fruits of a poisoned (family) tree.
Now, had Merricat been Martin, he could have acted in the same way, could also have been a destabilising influence on the family structure. But would it have had the same effect? Part of Merricat’s horror is that she comes across as an engaging young girl. Her madness inhabits a form that society at large tends to see as inoffensive, and as carrying the potential for inoffensiveness. This last part is important. Young girls are often stereotyped, and their future potential as women is stereotyped further: mothers, nurturers, feeders. Home-makers. Such broad bases of expectation are what society as a whole rests upon, and even though women now are astronauts and brain surgeons and prime ministers, they’re still expected to fulfil all roles. You can’t fight biology. It’s as good as destiny for pinning down, so it is.
Except horror, as a genre, isn’t all that fond of destiny either. It smacks too much of stable points and too little of chaos.
This leads to an interesting juxtaposition. On the one hand, biology pushes women at the horror-consumers, as things to be eaten up. On the other it makes them those consumers – to be worse, or to fight back.
There’s the potential for subversion in each, and in the gap between. And that’s what I’ll be looking at next month: subversive stories of women and food, with an especial focus on recent short stories. Partly because shorts are my preference, and partly because we’re entering the golden age of science fiction for women now, I think, and those women have brought a plate.