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Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Final Girl: Transsexual? Homoerotic? We Report; You Decide

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

Note: In this and a few subsequent posts, I summarize and comment upon essays concerning horror fiction that appear in Gender, Language, and Myth, edited by Glenwood Irons (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992). Although some of the claims in these essays seem far-fetched (to me, at least), others appear to have some validity and even some practical application. In any case, readers of Chillers and Thrillers are likely to find that these synopses offer unusual takes on the theory and practice of writing horror fiction.

Transgender, especially transsexual, images disturb many because such pictures suggest that not only one’s sexual orientation, but also his or her very gender--and, therefore, a person’s identity as an individual--may be more fluid and flexible than people generally suppose.

Horror fiction plays with notions of both gender and sexual orientation. For example, traditionally, women, not men, have been the victims of the monster’s or the madman’s misogynistic rage, in part as Edgar Allan Poe implied, decades ago, because “the death of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world” (“The Philosophy of Composition”).

In “Her Body, Himself,” Carol J. Clover summarizes a number of loosely related “figurative readings” (283) of “slasher films,” which “present. . . a world in which male and female are at desperate odds with one another but in which, at the same time, masculine and feminine are more states of mind than body” (Gender, Language, and Myth: Essays on Popular Narrative, 252).

When directors film death scenes from the perspective of the monster or the madman, the moviegoer sees what the antagonist sees; arguably, to some degree, the audience also thinks and feels as the monster or the madman thinks and feels. Such a perspective certainly invites the viewer to identify with the killer, but, according to Clover, it also invites the viewer to identify with the killer’s victim: “Just as attacker and attacked are expressions of the same self in nightmares, so they are expressions of the same viewer in horror films. . . . We are both Red Riding Hood and the Wolf; the force of the experience, the horror, comes from ‘knowing’ both sides of the story” (258).

In slasher films, defined by Clover as movies in which “a psycho-killer. . . slashes to death a string of mostly female victims, one by one, until he is himself subdued or killed, usually by the one girl who has survived” (252), the antagonist himself is often a victim of “gender confusion” and arrested development, or “infantile fury” (260-261), and “even killers whose childhood is not immediately at issue and who display no overt gender confusion are often sexually disturbed” (261). It is with this confusion, this arrested development, and this disturbance that horror films are concerned, Clover suggests.

The “gender confusion” that is often at the heart of male slashers is an effect and a reflection, perhaps, of the psychologically, socially, and, indeed, politically plastic, even protean, nature of culture itself, of culture’s own accidental (as opposed to necessary) and constructed (as opposed to given) character. Just as gender, if not sexuality, is not biologically determined but is culturally shaped, so are the other elements of civilization, such as its psychology, social communities and nations, and political structures and institutions.

The protean, variable, mutable, and, above all, synthetic nature of culture allows horror not only to exist but to shift its shape and to take on new forms--in a word, to transform. The transformative nature of culture benefits the fantastic as it is represented in cinema, too: “If the fantastic depends for its effect on an uncertainty of vision, a profusion of perspectives, and a confusion of subjective and objective,” Clover contends, “cinema is pre-eminently suited to the fantastic” (256). The transgender themes discernable in horror fiction, both printed and filmed, dovetail with the transformative nature of culture and fantastic art. Moreover, either sex is able to identify with itself or its opposite because both males and females share the “threat function and the victim function,” which “coexist in the same unconscious, regardless of anatomical sex” (276). Regardless of an individual’s sex, transgender perception, like “gender confusion,” is rooted, it seems, as much in nature as it is in the individual’s nurturing..

With the introduction of the “Final Girl,” who “alone looks death in the face. . . [and] finds the strength either to stay the killer long enough to be rescued (ending A) or to kill him herself (ending B)” (266), Clover sees a transformation, rather than a mere development, of the formula that Alfred Hitchcock established in his 1960 movie Psycho, a forerunner, of sorts, to the slasher genre:

With the introduction of the Final Girl. . . the Psycho formula is radically altered. It is not merely a question of enlarging the figure of Lila [Marion Crane’s sister] but of absorbing into her role, in varying degrees, the functions of Arbogast (investigator) and Sam (the rescuer) and restructuring the narrative action from beginning to end around her progress in relation to the killer. In other words, Psycho’s detective plot, revolving around a revelation, yields in the modern slasher film, to a hero plot, revolving around the main character’s struggle with eventual triumph over evil (270-271).
Like the monster or the madman, the “final girl” is also apt to blend gender. She is, Clover says, “a “boyish” figure (266), and “lest we miss the points,” she adds, “it [her masculinity] is spelled out in her name: Stevie, Marti, Terry. . . Stretch, Will” (270). If the viewer is invited to see him- or herself as both the “attacker and [the] attacked,” as both “Red Riding Hood and the Wolf,” then he or she is also invited to see him- or herself as both masculine and feminine, as both male and female, or, in a word, as transgender. In short, Clover says, “filmmakers seems [sic] to know better than film critics that gender is less a wall than a permeable membrane” (275).

Clover sees a Freudian dynamic at work in the cross-gendering of the final girl. This character, she contends, is a stand-in for the adolescent male who is progressing, via the Oedipal complex, from the latent to the phallic stage of his psychosexual development. The killer represents the father, the final girl the son who fights for both his own life and his emerging manhood:

It is the male killer’s tragedy that his incipient femininity is not reversed but completed (castration) and the Final Girl’s victory that her incipient masculinity is not thwarted but realized (phallicization). . . . The moment at which the Final Girl is effectively phallicized is the moment that the plot halts and the horror ceases. Day breaks, and the community returns to its normal order (279).
Although Clover’s tone, as she summarizes these “figurative readings” of slasher films is objective to the point that the reader may assume that she herself shares these interpretations, she makes it clear, toward the end of her essay, that she finds fault with some of their assertions. She questions whether the basically “homoerotic” interpretation that views the final girl as a surrogate male adolescent struggling to realize her--or his--phallic promise in the Oedipal murder of the killer (father) can account for the enjoyment of these films by female moviegoers. Perhaps some other dynamic accounts for young women’s pleasure in witnessing “a psycho-killer. . . [as he] slashes to death a string of mostly female victims, one by one, until he is himself subdued or killed, usually by the one girl who has survived.” However, Clover’s questions suggest that “gender confusion” is certainly an element of such movies and, probably, among such moviegoers:

Some such notion of differential understanding underlines the homoerotic reading. The silent presupposition is that reading is that there can be no male identification with the female as female, and that the male viewer/reader who adjoins feminine experience does so only by homosexual conversion. But does female identification with male experience then similarly indicate as lesbian conversion? Or are the processes of patriarchy so one-way that the female can identify with the male directly, but the male can identify with the female only by transsexualizing her? Does the Final Girl mean ‘girl’ to her female viewers and ‘boy’ to her male viewers? If her masculine features qualify him as a transformed woman (in which case the homoerotic reading can be maintained only by defining that ‘woman’ as phallic and retransforming her into defining that ‘woman’ as phallic and retransforming her into a male)? (283)
Nevertheless, Clover agrees that slasher films are basically about “gender confusion”: “The gender-identity game. . . is too patterned and too pervasive in the slasher film to be dismissed as supervenient. It seems instead to be an integral element of the particular brand of bodily sensation in which the genre trades” (286). Instead of the transsexual or homoerotic readings that are typical among Freudian film critics in their discussions of slasher films, Clover simply suggests that the final girl’s feminine-masculine characterization reflects the contemporary understanding of sex as being both fixed and determined (“a less-than interesting given,” Clover says) but gender as fluid and flexible (“theater,” Clover says):

Abject fear is still ‘gendered’ feminine. . . . By 1980, however, the male rescuer is either marginal or dispensed with altogether. . . . At the moment that the Final Girl becomes her own saviour, she becomes a hero. . . . [and] the willingness of one immensely popular genre to re-represent the hero as an anatomical female seems to suggest that at least one of the traditional marks of heroism, triumphant self-rescue, is no longer strictly ‘gendered’
masculine . . . .(298)

. . . The fact that we have in the killer a feminine male and in the main character a masculine female--parent and Everyteen, respectively--seems, especially in the latter case, to suggest a loosening of the categories, or at least of the equation ‘sex = gender’ (292).
Moreover, Clover believes that she knows what sociopolitical upheaval has caused the phenomenon of the hermaphroditic final girl; she is the product of the feminism of the 1960s and the societal changes that this movement effected:

The fact that the typical patrons of these films are the sons of marriages contracted in the 1960s or even the early 1970s leads us to speculate that the dire claims of that era--that the women’s movement, the entry of women into the workplace, and the rise of divorce and woman-headed families would yield massive gender confusion in the next generation (292).


lazlo azavaar said...

Fascinating post, Gary.
As an interesting (or maybe not, you be the judge) side-note, I've always thought many slasher films have a strange similarity to the old Pepe Le Pew cartoons, where the girl cat (who Pepe thinks is a female skunk) runs and runs vainly, yet is always caught up by the mildly hopping Pepe.
In the Halloween and Jason movies, the stalker moves at glacial pace, yet always seems to catch up with the running-for-her-life victim or Final Girl.

Gary L. Pullman said...

That's an interesting observation, Lazlo. Sounds like the Pepe Le Pew toons were the original "slasher" films and the female cat the original final girl!

Paranormal vs. Supernatural: What’s the Diff?

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

Sometimes, in demonstrating how to brainstorm about an essay topic, selecting horror movies, I ask students to name the titles of as many such movies as spring to mind (seldom a difficult feat for them, as the genre remains quite popular among young adults). Then, I ask them to identify the monster, or threat--the antagonist, to use the proper terminology--that appears in each of the films they have named. Again, this is usually a quick and easy task. Finally, I ask them to group the films’ adversaries into one of three possible categories: natural, paranormal, or supernatural. This is where the fun begins.

It’s a simple enough matter, usually, to identify the threats which fall under the “natural” label, especially after I supply my students with the scientific definition of “nature”: everything that exists as either matter or energy (which are, of course, the same thing, in different forms--in other words, the universe itself. The supernatural is anything which falls outside, or is beyond, the universe: God, angels, demons, and the like, if they exist. Mad scientists, mutant cannibals (and just plain cannibals), serial killers, and such are examples of natural threats. So far, so simple.

What about borderline creatures, though? Are vampires, werewolves, and zombies, for example, natural or supernatural? And what about Freddy Krueger? In fact, what does the word “paranormal” mean, anyway? If the universe is nature and anything outside or beyond the universe is supernatural, where does the paranormal fit into the scheme of things?

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word “paranormal,” formed of the prefix “para,” meaning alongside, and “normal,” meaning “conforming to common standards, usual,” was coined in 1920. The American Heritage Dictionary defines “paranormal” to mean “beyond the range of normal experience or scientific explanation.” In other words, the paranormal is not supernatural--it is not outside or beyond the universe; it is natural, but, at the present, at least, inexplicable, which is to say that science cannot yet explain its nature. The same dictionary offers, as examples of paranormal phenomena, telepathy and “a medium’s paranormal powers.”

Wikipedia offers a few other examples of such phenomena or of paranormal sciences, including the percentages of the American population which, according to a Gallup poll, believes in each phenomenon, shown here in parentheses: psychic or spiritual healing (54), extrasensory perception (ESP) (50), ghosts (42), demons (41), extraterrestrials (33), clairvoyance and prophecy (32), communication with the dead (28), astrology (28), witchcraft (26), reincarnation (25), and channeling (15); 36 percent believe in telepathy.

As can be seen from this list, which includes demons, ghosts, and witches along with psychics and extraterrestrials, there is a confusion as to which phenomena and which individuals belong to the paranormal and which belong to the supernatural categories. This confusion, I believe, results from the scientism of our age, which makes it fashionable for people who fancy themselves intelligent and educated to dismiss whatever cannot be explained scientifically or, if such phenomena cannot be entirely rejected, to classify them as as-yet inexplicable natural phenomena. That way, the existence of a supernatural realm need not be admitted or even entertained. Scientists tend to be materialists, believing that the real consists only of the twofold unity of matter and energy, not dualists who believe that there is both the material (matter and energy) and the spiritual, or supernatural. If so, everything that was once regarded as having been supernatural will be regarded (if it cannot be dismissed) as paranormal and, maybe, if and when it is explained by science, as natural. Indeed, Sigmund Freud sought to explain even God as but a natural--and in Freud’s opinion, an obsolete--phenomenon.

Meanwhile, among skeptics, there is an ongoing campaign to eliminate the paranormal by explaining them as products of ignorance, misunderstanding, or deceit. Ridicule is also a tactic that skeptics sometimes employ in this campaign. For example, The Skeptics’ Dictionary contends that the perception of some “events” as being of a paranormal nature may be attributed to “ignorance or magical thinking.” The dictionary is equally suspicious of each individual phenomenon or “paranormal science” as well. Concerning psychics’ alleged ability to discern future events, for example, The Skeptic’s Dictionary quotes Jay Leno (“How come you never see a headline like 'Psychic Wins Lottery'?”), following with a number of similar observations:

Psychics don't rely on psychics to warn them of impending disasters. Psychics don't predict their own deaths or diseases. They go to the dentist like the rest of us. They're as surprised and disturbed as the rest of us when they have to call a plumber or an electrician to fix some defect at home. Their planes are delayed without their being able to anticipate the delays. If they want to know something about Abraham Lincoln, they go to the library; they don't try to talk to Abe's spirit. In short, psychics live by the known laws of nature except when they are playing the psychic game with people.
In An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural, James Randi, a magician who exercises a skeptical attitude toward all things alleged to be paranormal or supernatural, takes issue with the notion of such phenomena as well, often employing the same arguments and rhetorical strategies as The Skeptic’s Dictionary.

In short, the difference between the paranormal and the supernatural lies in whether one is a materialist, believing in only the existence of matter and energy, or a dualist, believing in the existence of both matter and energy and spirit. If one maintains a belief in the reality of the spiritual, he or she will classify such entities as angels, demons, ghosts, gods, vampires, and other threats of a spiritual nature as supernatural, rather than paranormal, phenomena. He or she may also include witches (because, although they are human, they are empowered by the devil, who is himself a supernatural entity) and other natural threats that are energized, so to speak, by a power that transcends nature and is, as such, outside or beyond the universe. Otherwise, one is likely to reject the supernatural as a category altogether, identifying every inexplicable phenomenon as paranormal, whether it is dark matter or a teenage werewolf. Indeed, some scientists dedicate at least part of their time to debunking allegedly paranormal phenomena, explaining what natural conditions or processes may explain them, as the author of The Serpent and the Rainbow explains the creation of zombies by voodoo priests.

Based upon my recent reading of Tzvetan Todorov's The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to the Fantastic, I add the following addendum to this essay.

According to Todorov:

The fantastic. . . lasts only as long as a certain hesitation [in deciding] whether or not what they [the reader and the protagonist] perceive derives from "reality" as it exists in the common opinion. . . . If he [the reader] decides that the laws of reality remain intact and permit an explanation of the phenomena described, we can say that the work belongs to the another genre [than the fantastic]: the uncanny. If, on the contrary, he decides that new laws of nature must be entertained to account for the phenomena, we enter the genre of the marvelous (The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, 41).
Todorov further differentiates these two categories by characterizing the uncanny as “the supernatural explained” and the marvelous as “the supernatural accepted” (41-42).

Interestingly, the prejudice against even the possibility of the supernatural’s existence which is implicit in the designation of natural versus paranormal phenomena, which excludes any consideration of the supernatural, suggests that there are no marvelous phenomena; instead, there can be only the uncanny. Consequently, for those who subscribe to this view, the fantastic itself no longer exists in this scheme, for the fantastic depends, as Todorov points out, upon the tension of indecision concerning to which category an incident belongs, the natural or the supernatural. The paranormal is understood, by those who posit it, in lieu of the supernatural, as the natural as yet unexplained.

And now, back to a fate worse than death: grading students’ papers.

My Cup of Blood

Anyone who becomes an aficionado of anything tends, eventually, to develop criteria for elements or features of the person, place, or thing of whom or which he or she has become enamored. Horror fiction--admittedly not everyone’s cuppa blood--is no different (okay, maybe it’s a little different): it, too, appeals to different fans, each for reasons of his or her own. Of course, in general, book reviews, the flyleaves of novels, and movie trailers suggest what many, maybe even most, readers of a particular type of fiction enjoy, but, right here, right now, I’m talking more specifically--one might say, even more eccentrically. In other words, I’m talking what I happen to like, without assuming (assuming makes an “ass” of “u” and “me”) that you also like the same. It’s entirely possible that you will; on the other hand, it’s entirely likely that you won’t.

Anyway, this is what I happen to like in horror fiction:

Small-town settings in which I get to know the townspeople, both the good, the bad, and the ugly. For this reason alone, I’m a sucker for most of Stephen King’s novels. Most of them, from 'Salem's Lot to Under the Dome, are set in small towns that are peopled by the good, the bad, and the ugly. Part of the appeal here, granted, is the sense of community that such settings entail.

Isolated settings, such as caves, desert wastelands, islands, mountaintops, space, swamps, where characters are cut off from civilization and culture and must survive and thrive or die on their own, without assistance, by their wits and other personal resources. Many are the examples of such novels and screenplays, but Alien, The Shining, The Descent, Desperation, and The Island of Dr. Moreau, are some of the ones that come readily to mind.

Total institutions as settings. Camps, hospitals, military installations, nursing homes, prisons, resorts, spaceships, and other worlds unto themselves are examples of such settings, and Sleepaway Camp, Coma, The Green Mile, and Aliens are some of the novels or films that take place in such settings.

Anecdotal scenes--in other words, short scenes that showcase a character--usually, an unusual, even eccentric, character. Both Dean Koontz and the dynamic duo, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, excel at this, so I keep reading their series (although Koontz’s canine companions frequently--indeed, almost always--annoy, as does his relentless optimism).

Atmosphere, mood, and tone. Here, King is king, but so is Bentley Little. In the use of description to terrorize and horrify, both are masters of the craft.

A bit of erotica (okay, okay, sex--are you satisfied?), often of the unusual variety. Sex sells, and, yes, sex whets my reader’s appetite. Bentley Little is the go-to guy for this spicy ingredient, although Koontz has done a bit of seasoning with this spice, too, in such novels as Lightning and Demon Seed (and, some say, Hung).

Believable characters. Stephen King, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, and Dan Simmons are great at creating characters that stick to readers’ ribs.

Innovation. Bram Stoker demonstrates it, especially in his short story “Dracula’s Guest,” as does H. P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, Shirley Jackson, and a host of other, mostly classical, horror novelists and short story writers. For an example, check out my post on Stoker’s story, which is a real stoker, to be sure. Stephen King shows innovation, too, in ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, It, and other novels. One might even argue that Dean Koontz’s something-for-everyone, cross-genre writing is innovative; he seems to have been one of the first, if not the first, to pen such tales.

Technique. Check out Frank Peretti’s use of maps and his allusions to the senses in Monster; my post on this very topic is worth a look, if I do say so myself, which, of course, I do. Opening chapters that accomplish a multitude of narrative purposes (not usually all at once, but successively) are attractive, too, and Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child are as good as anyone, and better than many, at this art.

A connective universe--a mythos, if you will, such as both H. P. Lovecraft and Stephen King, and, to a lesser extent, Dean Koontz, Bentley Little, and even Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child have created through the use of recurring settings, characters, themes, and other elements of fiction.

A lack of pretentiousness. Dean Koontz has it, as do Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, Bentley Little, and (to some extent, although he has become condescending and self-indulgent of late, Stephen King); unfortunately, both Dan Simmons and Robert McCammon have become too self-important in their later works, Simmons almost to the point of becoming unreadable. Come on, people, you’re writing about monsters--you should be humble.

Longevity. Writers who have been around for a while usually get better, Stephen King, Dan Simmons, and Robert McCammon excepted.

Pacing. Neither too fast nor too slow. Dean Koontz is good, maybe the best, here, of contemporary horror writers.

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