Come, let me take you by the arm and show you the bed of evil you sprang from.
Let me take you back to when you were a little girl. Let me show you—your
father. Let me show you—your mother. Marked! Marked forever, daughter of
In his essay, “Lady, Beware: Paths through the Female Gothic,” Adrian Martin (2001)identifies Maya Deren’s avant-garde masterpiece Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) as “probably the first film to make the indelible link between a woman’s experience of coming fatally unglued—splintered into multiple personalities, plagued by visions, slipping between alternate realities—and the sunny spaces of a daytime home environment, its every tiny but determining facet magnified, from the slope of the lounge room staircase to the bread knife on the kitchen table.”5 (Arguably, Germaine Dulac’s La Souriante Madame Beudet/The Smiling Madame Beudet  is the true initiator of such cinematic representations.) After looking at some earlier attempts by scholars, such as Thomas Elsaesser, Dana Polan, and Joanna Russ, to define “Female Gothic” cinema—by which they have in mind primarily the 1940s cycle of “wife-in-peril” suspense films and melodramas (beginning with Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca  and including Suspicion , Gaslight ,Experiment Perilous , and Secret beyond the Door )—Martin (2001,11) opts for a more flexible and open-ended formula than his predecessors; namely, “a woman voyages through a menacing, male dreamscape.”
While allowing that “such voyages and dreamscapes can take on starkly different appearances and contents,” Martin (2001,) argues that the variegated genre of Female Gothic depicts “the narrative, psychic and emotional confusions” of women in films where
victimisers and victims, abusers and abused, dream lovers and demon lovers, those who can manipulate hard reality and those who succumb to wild, ravishing fantasy, can find themselves trading places in a hallucinatory, vertiginous instant. The Female Gothic is, at its core, a genre based on instability, ambiguity and ambivalence, in relation to the very status of reality as much as to questions of identity politics.
As Martin delineates it, the Female Gothic overlaps significantly—though not completely—with female psycho-killer films in American horror cinema. On the one hand, like the Female Gothic, female psycho-killer cinema focuses on women who are both “victimisers and victims, abusers and abused”—women whose grasp on reality is tenuous at best and who frequently “succumb to wild, ravishing fantasy.” On the other hand, unlike the Female Gothic, female psycho-killer cinema does not include “persecuted woman” films such as the 1940s wife-in-peril cycle or the late-i98os “intimacy thriller” cycle (including Thief of Hearts , Call Me , Blue Steel , The Silence of the Lambs , and Cape Fear ), in which a “dream-guy (usually a stalker or serial killer).. .simultaneously menaces the heroine and leads her towards higher planes of ecstasy or self-knowledge).”6 Although the lead woman in female psycho-killer films is frequently a victim of male aggression, she is never just a victim, and her murderous acts are never construable simply as self-defence or justifiable (even if only just barely) homicide. Indeed, it is the very excessiveness, irrationality, and/or misdirectedness of the woman’s violence that renders her a monster in psychological terms, regardless of whether the cause of her psychosis is shown to lie primarily in childhood abuse, sexual molestation, or some form of traumatic experience. Finally, situated right at the border between persecuted woman and female psycho-killer films is the late-1970s cycle of American rape-revenge movies (including Lipstick , I Spit on Your Grave , Mother’s Day , and Ms. 45 ), followed by its mid-1980s revival (Savage Streets , Violated , Naked Vengeance , The Ladies Club , Extremities , Shame ) and foreign examples such as Takashi Ishii’s Freeze Me, since in these narratives it is the very fact of persecution in the woman’s adult life that proves productive of psychosis and retaliatory violence.7
In Meshes of the Afternoon, the female protagonist’s violence is ultimately self-directed, the short film ending with Deren’s character apparently dead from a suicide attempt. A similar plot development, in which suicide (whether successful or not) is effectively presented as a distinctly female response to either unrequited heterosexual desire or inescapable male domination, can be found in such later films as Play Misty for Me (1971), The Haunting (UK, 1963), The Damned House ofHajn, and—perhaps most emphatically—in the original, shelved version of Adrian Lyne’s Fatal Attraction (1987).8 In this version’s alternative ending, the obsessive and psychopathic Glenn Close character commits suicide by solemnly running a knife across her neck to the strains of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly playing on the stereo; the male object of her affection, Dan Gallagher (Michael Douglas), is then arrested on suspicion of murder.9
Without wishing to deny for a moment the wide-ranging influence of Meshes of the Afternoon, thematically and historically speaking, it is probably more accurate to label John Parker’s Dementia (1955)—itself clearly indebted to Deren’s work in its focus on conveying female subjectivity and its treatment of domestic spaces as claustrophobic and oppressive10—the foundational text in American female psycho-killer cinema. This independently produced cult film liberally and not always coherently mixes together expressionistic set design, surrealistic symbolism, and an experimental, dreamlike narrative in telling the story of an unnamed “gamine” (Adrienne Barrett) who pushes an obese rich man off a balcony after he forces himself on her sexually; in a thinly veiled castration sequence, she then cuts a hand off the man’s corpse when she realizes that it still clenches the brooch he pulled off her neck on the way down. Although the film’s 1957 re-release under the title Daughter of Horror sporadically inserts male voice-over narration in a misguided and largely unsuccessful effort at making the gamine a figure of disgust and loathing, Dementia (again like Meshes of the Afternoon) has no dialogue. In rendering her, if not literally mute, at least metaphorically silent, the film fixes a key convention for female psycho-killers, whose primary mode of self-expression typically occurs through spontaneous rages and hysterical bodily performances—frequently accompanied by infantile, inarticulate noises (shrieks, screams, squeals, and the like) rather than through words or arguments—hyperbolic gestures and embodied forms of communication that are common to the film melodrama as well).11
This stands in stark contrast to two popular strains of male psycho-killer cinema. In the first (e. g., in Psycho, Prom Night , Angst [Austria, 1983], and the Halloween [1978-] and Friday the 13th [1980-] series), the male murderer’s disconcerting silence during moments of vicious slaughter is, in the end, more indicative of his robotic, inhuman nature than of any psychological deficiency. In the second (e. g., in The Silence of the Lambs , Man Bites Dog [Belgium, 1992], Seven , and The Watcher ), the verbose, often quite witty male serial killer goes to great pains—and is given plenty of screen time—to explain to the hero (and the audience) what he believes, rightly or wrongly, is the motivation behind his crimes. Thus, whereas male psychokillers tend to be depicted as either arational or in some sense hyperrational, female psycho-killers are almost always depicted as irrational. The murders these women commit can usually be interpreted as crimes of either passion or obsession, and their simultaneously frightening and frightened cries while performing spontaneous, messy acts of violence—one thinks of such figures as Evelyn Draper (Jessica Walter) in Play Misty for Me, Danielle Breton (Margot Kidder) in Sisters, Alex Forrest (Glenn Close) in Fatal Attraction, and Hedra Carlson (Jennifer Jason Leigh) in Single White Female (1992)—reveals their status as both empowered victimizers and pathetic victims, and helps us to understand their capacity to shock and disturb viewers.
Not long after Dementia, Robert Aldrich directed a pair of campy but compelling “pseudo” female psycho-killer films, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) and Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964), in both of which male – directed homicidal mania ultimately takes a backseat to the psychological torture inflicted by one woman upon another (although the latter film’s memorably gory opening murder scene is eventually revealed to be a crime of passion committed by a jealous wife against her unfaithful husband, replete with meat cleaver and yet another lopped-off hand). Like Meshes of the Afternoon and Robert Wise’s The Haunting before it, and like Rob Reiner’s Misery (1990) and Bernard Rose’s Candyman (1992) after it, Hush. Hush, Sweet Charlotte in particular seeks to approximate the experiential quality of a distinctly feminine form of psychosis, whereby melodramatic conventions and icons of courtship (flowers, mirrors, swelling music, 360-degree swish pans) metamorphose into lethal weapons (knives, guns) or objects of disgust (body parts, insects). Saccharine dreams of heterosexual union and domestic bliss thus turn into horrible nightmares of spoiled romance and phallicized death symbols, with insanity the assumed or intended cause.
Numerous other female psycho-killer films, including Dementia, Sisters, Office Killer, So Evil, My Sister (aka Psycho Sisters, 1972), Natural Born Killers (1994), and The Sky Is Falling (2002), as well as prominent foreign examples such as Repulsion, Heavenly Creatures, The Stendhal Syndrome, and Tell Me Something, all contain sequences that purport to grant some form of subjective access to the woman psychotic’s “inner life.” For the most part, however, these sequences focus less on romantic fantasies that turn horribly wrong
than on expressionistically (sometimes psychedelically, as in Natural Born Killers) distorted recollections or reconstructions of childhood traumas— sexual molestation, physical abuse, emotional cruelty or neglect—suffered at the hands of a monstrous parent figure.
This finding is at odds with Clover’s (1992,77) analysis of the slasher subgenre, according to which,
Female killers are few and their reasons for killing significantly different from men’s. With the possible exception of the murderous mother in Friday the 13th, they show no gender confusion. Nor is their motive overtly psychosexual; their anger derives in most cases not from childhood experience but from specific moments in their adult lives in which they have been abandoned or cheated on by men (Strait-Jacket , Play Misty for Me…, Attack of the 50-Foot Woman ).
Although Clover’s stated focus is on the slasher movie in particular, and not on horror cinema generally, by parenthetically citing Strait-Jacket, Play Misty for Me, and Attack of the 50-Foot Woman she does appear to be extending her argument to films outside the conventionalized strictures of the slasher subgenre. She thereby opens herself up to a degree of criticism. For example, with respect to the female killer’s “reasons for killing,” Clover misses the significance of Strait-Jacket’s disturbing denouement. Here it is revealed that the madwoman going around chopping people up is not recently released axe murderer Lucy Harbin (Joan Crawford), who went crazy twenty years earlier upon finding her husband in bed with another woman, but, rather, Lucy’s daughter Carol (Diane Baker), who watched her mother slaughter her father when she was just a little girl.
In short, and somewhat surprisingly, there is no firm distinction to be drawn at the level of convention between male and female psycho-killers in American horror cinema when it comes to the suggested motivations for their crimes. Just as plenty of female murderers are shown to act (out) in displaced and possibly unconscious response to childhood traumas experienced at home (e. g., Diane in Strait-Jacket, Dorine in Office Killer, Mallory Knox [Juliette Lewis] in Natural Born Killers, and Angelica [Joanne Verbos] in The Sky Is Falling), a number of male slasher movie killers seek bloody revenge for traumatic events suffered in their adolescent or adult lives (e. g., Kenny Hampson [Derek McKinnon] in Terror Train , Alex Hammond [Michael Tough] in Prom Night, and Adam Carr [David Borneaz] in Valentine). Even in the case of films such as Play Misty for Me, Black Widow (1987), and Basic Instinct (1992), in which the female killer’s history and psychology remain shrouded in mystery throughout—these women may be caught, punished, even tamed (e. g., Basic Instincts Catherine Tramell [Sharon Stone]) in the end, but they always remain enigmas—we cannot conclude that their anger “derives.. .from specific moments in their adult lives in which they have been abandoned or cheated on by men” (Clover 1992, 77). The most we can say is that such moments serve to trigger violent episodes in the present, violence that is just as likely to have its roots in these women’s childhoods as in their recent pasts.
Consider two examples that would seem to offer stronger evidence in support of Clover’s generalized conclusions than either Strait-Jacket or Play Misty for Me; namely, Fatal Attraction and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1992). The backstories in both of these films indicate that miscarriages suffered by the respective female psychopaths, Alex and Peyton (Rebecca De Mornay), in their adult lives play a significant role in the genesis of their current mental and emotional disorders. Upon closer examination, however, both narratives also invite speculation as to the presence of more primitive, quite possibly psychosexual motives as well. Although these motives are not overt (to that extent, Clover is correct), their existence nevertheless serves to complicate and undercut any straightforward understanding of the women as formerly well adjusted, “normal” adults who have cracked under specifically patriarchal pressures.12 In the case of Fatal Attraction, when Dan breaks into Alex’s apartment to try to find some information he can blackmail her with (so that she will leave him alone and not tell his wife of their affair), he sifts through newspaper clippings concerning the unexpected death of Alex’s father from a sudden heart attack several years earlier. There is a clear suggestion here—even if it is left unconfirmed in the narrative—that Alex had something to do with her father’s death. Assuming for the sake of argument that she killed him, and even granting that she would have been an adult at the time of his murder, the very fact of her victim’s identity raises the question of what her father did to Alex (in reality or in her imagination; following Freud, it may not really matter) to warrant such vicious retaliation.13