By Morgan Roberts
The trope of the ‘Final Girl’ is a hallmark for slasher films. But what hallmark for women is seen in supernatural and possession movies? Oh, haven’t heard of it? There definitely is one, and it is not always the most flattering.
When it comes to demon possession or ghost hauntings, the fear of losing control comes to mind. A sinister presence creeping in. The women of those films tend to have one thing in common: hormones. From “The Conjuring” to “The Exorcist”, women in possession films are at a flux in their own lives, but that vulnerability is weaponized against them.
Let’s take “The Conjuring” for example. Quick recap: the family moves into a new house where the young daughters are terrorized by an evil entity; cut to the matriarch of the family getting full-blown possessed and the saved by a pair of ghost experts. The film has the dichotomy of females – and I mean this in a very heteronormative, cisgender definition of females – at two distinct stages of life.
First, you have the daughters who range from about 10 years of age to 16 years of age. The tween to teenage years are when people begin to experience puberty, deal with the mood swings of hormone shifts, and start to understand their sexuality. All five daughters experience the brunt of the hauntings toward the beginning. At the climax of the film, their mother is possessed by whatever evil spirit haunts that house. She is so unlike herself that the crew of paranormal experts and her family tie her to a chair. Mom happens to be nearing the age of menopause. That is right. So when your own mother goes through ‘the change,’ just tie her to a chair and say she is possessed by a demon.
“Puberty and menopause are not inherently vulnerable. Both are just extremely natural. But the social contexts surrounding both are where the vulnerability stems from. Change is a vulnerable place to exist…Time and again, we put women in horror films, during emotional periods of their lives, in these horrendous situations.”
In both instances, the daughters and the mother, we see two natural stages of existence being used to explain the ‘crazy’ behavior of women during those periods of flux. (Get it? Periods? I digress.) On one end, “The Conjuring” tends to portray the daughters as weak, unsure, unknowing of everything going on around them. But it is their mom who finds herself the weakest link when possessed by evil. Is that how we truly see women? Possessed by evil during instances of vulnerability.
Puberty and menopause are not inherently vulnerable. Both are just extremely natural. But the social contexts surrounding both are where the vulnerability stems from. Change is a vulnerable place to exist. You exist in a confluence between who you once were and who you are going to be. At puberty, your whole life is ahead of you. Your body changes. Your understanding of feelings change. Your perception of yourself changes. At menopause, something that society has thrust upon you as being the most ‘woman’ thing about you is beginning to go away. Women are forced to redefine themselves after their ‘womanhood’ goes away.
Time and again, we put women in horror films, during emotional periods of their lives, in these horrendous situations. ‘Poltergeist’ (1982), a young girl reaching the age of puberty gets sucked into a TV by an evil spirit. ‘Carrie’ (1976), a young woman in the midst of puberty begins harnessing supernatural powers and is then doused in pigs blood at the height of her overcoming every obstacle in her way.
“When we talk about films as of late, we talk about how much representation matters. So, when it comes to the paranormal, the way in which we represent women matters.”
‘Rosemary’s Baby’ (1968), a woman of childbearing age has a child that is, you guessed it, a literal demon. And it is not just from male directors that we see this. Karyn Kusama’s 2009 cult-classic ‘Jennifer’s Body’ – written by Diablo Cody – has some negative stereotypes of women. Jennifer, a popular and hyper-sexual teen, literally uses her sexuality to eat young men. Yes, it is satirical. Yes, it is campy. But the greater issues is, why continue to perpetuate this idea of women without blatantly calling it out?
When we talk about films as of late, we talk about how much representation matters. So, when it comes to the paranormal, the way in which we represent women matters. Not every film with ghosts or possession or monsters highlight women in the same way. Look at ‘It’ (2017) – and its sequel “It Chapter 2” (2019). The female protagonist’s supernatural experiences are centered around trauma. Both films have sequences with bathtubs of blood, symbolizing menstruation, but that growth into womanhood is more about the trauma inflicted upon her as she matures rather than the hormones or changes associated with puberty. ‘The Awakening’ (2011) is a film that is a 100-minute metaphor about childhood trauma and the unresolved feelings or memories haunting us.
When women at pubescent or menopausal stages are portrayed as possessed or demonic, it is not done in an outwardly malicious way. It feels far more subconscious. The way we judge women for having emotions, exploring their sexuality, and aging with grace is an insidious subconscious notion we hold dearly. We just happen to hide really well in our horror films.