Desperately seeking the shape and form of feminist horror, P charts a journey through all the scary stuff she’s watched, stopped watching, is currently watching. #itscomplicated. From Purana Mandir to Bulbbul, from Halloween to Bates Motel, what does the genre say about women and those on the margins of society? Have the decades changed anything, besides the writer herself? Play Truth AND dare with her as she unpacks.
Beware the Bogeyman
In hindsight, the money shot in these films always played like a toss up between the impossible cleavage and a bath-time ritual - some extremely uncomfortable attire and a shower, all bathed in an impossibly scarlet, disturbingly grainy, light.
Often there was both, with the suggestion of fornication thrown in.
And it was always a build-up towards a this.is.the.end. moment. A very, very tall man-like creature with very, very red eyes planted on a perpetually melting face, conveying a general aura of brooding despair, would always be waiting around the corner, ready for the kill. And when the moment arrived in tandem with the music, he would strike.
I’m talking of scenes from Ramsay Brothers movies, memories of forbidden childhood viewings - dare over truth, am I right? - macabre curiosities, finding satisfaction behind parents’ backs, determined as I was to find out, for myself, how scary could scary be. Enough for it to be called what sounded like a distinction - horror.
Purana Mandir (1984), Tahkhana (1986), Veerana (1988, described on Wikipedia as ‘Hindi language erotic supernatural horror thriller film’), Bandh Darwaza (1990), no matter how different each movie was from the other, almost the entire Ramsay oeuvre, which has gained cult status over the decades, had two recurring archetypes down to the formulaic T. The man-like spooky creature and the sexy woman-victim, sexy for a few seconds before turning victim. Sometimes, the tease would run longer, with the woman running (there’s a lot of running) away, escaping, to add to the filmy tension.
(Film still, Tahkhana, YouTube, the ubiquitous “sexy woman” who’ll soon be murdered).
In the moments when the blood would invariably flow - on the bed, on the bathroom floor, and yes, over her cleavage too, with her eyes staring at you, lifeless, the lingering emotion would be, I reckon in hindsight again, not so much a question as a statement.
Surely this must be the famed/notorious buddha baba of the ‘soja varna buddha baba aa jayega’ warnings we’re told as children when the grown-ups want us to “behave”. i.e. sleep on time i.e. do our homework i.e. drink our milk i.e. fall in line, i.e. toe the line, i.e. be generally achcha bachchas.
In hindsight then, the clandestine childhood viewings packed many layers in its signifier of ‘forbidden’. It was only as an adult that I realised how most of the intimacy in Ramsay movies was consensual - making them rare Hindi movie fare to actually portray that ultimate no-no: Girlfriends and boyfriends.
As you grow older and discover more, it could be a parable of the-horror-the-horror of pleasure. And specifically sex, having sex. The lesson is beware! This could happen to you, girl. And only to you, girl. Even IRL, the actresses of the Ramsay movie genre never went onto achieve mainstream success, while many of the men - such as Puneet Issar and Mohnish Bahl - did find work in popular cinema, the latter even going onto become the ultimate achcha beta of 90’s Barjatya cinematic universe, including the supremely successful Hum Aapke Hain Kaun.
Not that this was too unique a takeaway, even culturally. Notions of sins and paying the price - in horror, the ultimate price - are familiar tropes everywhere. Your Bogeyman after all, is my Buddhe Baba.
Take Psycho (1960), for instance. In essence, it is the story, told with legendary flourish, of a young woman on the run; anything but innocent, she embodies temptation and evil to the repressed motel owner. She is massacred in the shower (but of course) - a cult moment that you could say, is the source code for the slasher genre. It picks up on this and plays it up, minus subtlety and with a lot more gore plus titillation. In Halloween, Laurie (played by Jamie Lee Curtis) is the only one among her friends not sneaking in boyfriends at babysitting duties and the only survivor. She is the famed “final girl” of slasher movies, the only virgin among her sexually active friends, while her friends all suffer brutal fates, mostly minutes after having slept with their boyfriends.
(The cult shower scene in Psycho as the source code for the super successful slasher genre to follow, which invariably featured brutal murders of women).
The possession genre, that other favourite, doesn’t play out any differently. These are movies upon movies playing out like cautionary tales, of the young/adolescent girl, pure and devout, possessed by the devil to basically prove a point. It’s even stated as such, plainly, in the terrifying horror-plus-courtroom-drama The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005), allegedly based on true events. Evil is always lurking around the corner, it is always looking to enter and defile the pure female soul.
(Film still, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, the devout female body is always ground for demonic possession).
If stories are powerful, and by effect, storytelling is power, then the medium of horror is arguably, the most powerful of them all. No wonder then that they’re used to reinforce the status quo, working as subliminal inceptions in our brains, haunting us in our nightmares to ensure we do their bidding. It’s what makes us grow up fearing the bogeymans and buddhe babas we then imagine all around us - frantically othering men on the basis of caste, class, religion.
Negotiating with Nightmares
Shall we just dismiss horror as a regressive genre then?
Or is there scope for locating, or attempting to locate, strands of feminism in horror? Is there a genre of feminist horror that has a deeper and larger scope of imagination, beyond an all-female remake of Ghostbusters (2016)? More thought-provoking than a Halloween reboot (2018), which assumes that just a suggestion of ‘agency and an older Jamie Lee Curtis’ is enough?
(Does the imagination of feminist horror stop and end with an all-female reboot of Ghostbusters? Also watch Trump’s infamous rant against it, in a classic portrayal of white male power feeling threatened, again).
The aforementioned dismembering and murdering of “sinful” girls in slasher movies achieved such formulaic fame that they went all meta on it with Scream (1996). Randy, the horror movie fan within the movie lists the “rules” of horror movies - ‘you can never have sex, you can never drink or do drugs,’ even as these rules are reinforced, played out in the next scene.
Scream was most definitely the milestone movie of those formative years I spent renting horror movie DVDs - the short walk at dusk to the local DVD parlour guy in Gurgaon, who ran a basement shop was all part of the ritual that ended with a night’s binge-watch of scary movies. The guy had begun to call my brother & I “the spook kids” - it was a badge of coolth, as I was still revelling in the Dare over Truth.
The subversion in Scream is real in hindsight, and enjoys cult status today. Its radicalization of the genre - sex does not necessarily lead to the brutal murder of young women - was also perhaps one reason why the films found a significant female viewership, an anomaly for slasher movies and also Ramsay Brothers cinema that were primarily made for men. I still remember Sidney (played by Neve Campbell) angsting in the meta moment of referring to the genre - “Some stupid killer stalking some big-breasted girl who can’t act who is always running up the stairs when she should be running out the front door? It’s insulting” - and being riveted, moved by the force of it.
(Scream tried subversive meta storytelling by tweaking the “rules” of horror movies).
If Scream worked with a playful, questioning spirit around the systemic taming of female sexualities, Teeth (2007) pushed the boundaries further. There is something deeply radical enmeshed within its deeply disturbing premise, like a reclamation of the slasher genre by the women it has violated over decades. It is very specific in this case, a decapitation of the perpetrator’s organ at the very site of male desire.
While horror as interrogation (Scream), and horror as disruption, tearing down world orders, a harbinger of chaos (Teeth), can be considered potentially feminist impulses - only destruction can lead to an ushering of the new - the violence of both never sat too well with me, beyond a point. Meta and trite couldn’t be the most effective bedfellows - after all, weren’t big breasted women still running, terrified? And didn’t turning vaginas into weapons of mass destruction only underline the all-pervading anxieties around female desire?
I’d almost given up on my favourite genre as I grew older. In my hunt for identity and identifying politics that embraced all of me, the straightforward narrative of horror stopped speaking to me. As I was navigating my way in the adult world, negotiating with its ideas, forming mine, I found myself resistant to what felt like absolutes in the horror genre. It felt unreal, like a pack of lies. I drifted away, lost touch.
And then I encountered a piece of culture that brought me back into the fold: True Blood. This was messy, complex, funny, sexy, political and supernatural horror! Set in a world where synthetically produced TruBlood has finally let vampires live amongst humans, the series portrayed creator Alan Ball’s cheeky and powerful take on ‘the other’, those who’ve been forced to live on the fringes of the society, and what happens when they begin mingling with the majority. ‘Mainstreaming’, as the True Blood world calls it.
(Maker Bill offers newly turned vampire Jessica TruBlood samples to facilitate her “mainstreaming” amongst humans).
With responses ranging from seething hatred for the non-normative that puts up signs declaring ‘God Hates Fangs’ - which we can very well read as Fa(n)gs - to disgruntled, reluctant acceptances, True Blood’s politics really hit home for me at a time when the world, the country I called home, seemed to polarize across identities in ways more brutal than anything any horror flick could depict.
(Still from True Blood, a play on ‘fags’, as a comment on hardline religious stands and othering).
And what of desire? In the world of True Blood, sex and desire often offered new paths of navigation, newer negotiations we constantly make with the world as women. As the newly turned vampire, erstwhile “good Catholic girl” Jessica Hamby angsts, ‘Is it my fault my fangs come out when I get turned on?’ To me, it felt so real - like what she’s saying is this is me, all of me, my desire is me. Murkiness was so deliciously wrapped up in the Sookie-Bill love saga too, while the southern American vibe lent a flavour not unlike Delhi of the 2000’s.
I call this feminism then, because to me, it’s not a set-in-stone-ism defined by a few good women (or men), a handbook that I can consult when in doubt. It is a living, breathing, shape-shifting, ever-adapting philosophy that forms and respects the journey as much as the destination - a vision of equity and equality we’re all striving for.
In much the same vein, Jennifer’s Body (2009) felt like another force of nature, something about friendships like sisterhoods and how powerful they can be - to the point of demonic destruction. Bates Motel, the series that plays out like a Psycho prequel with stellar performances by Vera Farmiga and Freddie Highmore, packed in so many radical moments of viewing and was above everything else, a subaltern retelling of the Hitchcock classic, because seriously, who was Nora Bates? Who was the woman before she was that stuffed spooky life-sized, lifeless doll in Norman’s basement?
(Megan Fox was the draw but Jennifer’s Body was essentially a story of female friendships).
(The series Bates Motel urged the question that hadn’t been asked in the Hitchcock classic: Who was Nora Bates?).
In the genre as life trajectory, I found myself drawn to truth over dare.
Skin in the Game
And then Covid came along.
It was as if we all re-watched Contagion (2011), even if we didn’t actually re-watch the film. This was unarguably horror redefined, horror anew, all in real time. And, I realized, as I couldn’t stop myself from streaming The Walking Dead, horror was finally too close for comfort. It rendered the whole question of ‘Are you a horror movie fan?’ redundant, irrelevant, even disrespectful.
(Contagion, horror too close for comfort, come 2020).
What does this mean for the genre? Is there a message in all of it, how we’re all ultimately the same? Skin and bones and blood and hearts and a decent pair of lungs, we hope?
Does it render horror banal then?
As I pore over these questions now, for the purposes of this letter, in hindsight, and with the talk of endemic control tactics all around us, I find deeper truths. It is not that life is fleeting, suffering inevitable, and all experience is as blah or as sublime as we want it to be. Or rather, yes it is, but that’s not the point. What’s to be absorbed is that latent in all of us - are tiny antibodies of humanity that prompt expression, philosophical, existential, behavioural.
Horror, I find, is finally demanding what we’ve never understood: Acceptance.
It’s a concept perhaps best understood in classical nritya, which embraces horror as a powerful form, and a communication tool - to drive home stories. Bibhatsya in its affect or rasa, has agency, choice, and it enables a vicarious channeling.
Horror is often Surpanakha, the demon in Ramayana, but also horror is Laxman in the act of cutting off her nose. Lord Shiva’s followers, who accompanied him as baaratis to Parvati’s doorstep, are all kinds of “freaks” - not very different from the horrific creatures who populate scary stories, except the bairagi god assimilates them into his fold. This is horror that is immediate, urgent, familiar - there is no us and them, because it’s all us.
This feels like something akin to an authentic feminist awakening. Where the ghost in the mirror, the shadow in the corner, is actually me, and I’m no longer in denial.
(Bulbbul, a poetic portrayal of the chudail myth reimagined as a revenge saga)
In Bulbbul (2020), this embracing of the self and its inherent horror - the chudail myth as the wronged woman’s revenge saga - is rendered poetic, symbolic, empowering. It reminded me of another (allegedly) very different film - NH10 (2015), which favored the Bride’s yellow jumpsuit from Kill Bill over the witch’s red sari in the closing shot of the avenging angel.
While NH10 wasn’t technically horror, it’s safe to claim that no Indian woman, especially from northern India, would disagree with me in labelling the movie so. For anyone who’s watched it and is not convinced, I’d simply recommend closing your eyes and recalling the moment when Meera (played by Anushka Sharma) finally thinks she’s safe now that she’s in the pradhan’s (who’s a woman) house. And then. I mean, it’s burned onto my brain.
But the pradhan is someone I know, just in a slightly tweaked context, isn’t she? The movie is nerve-wracking and terrifying because it is a reminder of the horror that lives inside us. It is ready to rear its horrific self during the fight-or-flight moment - like that nano second when Meera stabs the cop’s eye.
(Film still, Deepti Naval in NH10, one of the scariest films P’s watched, since it hits home hard for all her anxieties as a woman living in north India).
Perhaps this awareness of self, the post-pandemic world, and one located in the other, is what’s also slowly getting me back full circle. Because I find myself thinking, as I revisit the Ramsay classics, perhaps even showing consensual sex (or let’s be real, the hint of it), is pretty progressive for the ‘80s, isn’t it?
In this phase of life, I’m finally ready for both. Truth and Dare.
More on scare from T
As I watch actors covered in blood and prosthetics take a bite of one another’s neck, suck one another’s blood for relief, salvation, and compulsion in 2021 TV shows like Midnight Mass and Happiness, and somewhat older films like Train to Busan, every scene plays out as an allegory. Everything seems to anticipate or describe the pandemic.
There is something paradoxical about our engagement with the other worldly in stories--we demand fantastic worlds of artists and then enter those worlds in search of the remains of our own. Under our watch Sci Fi, Speculative Fiction, Horror are fated to be allegories. The literary scholar Northrop Frye wrote that critics tend to dislike allegories because they prescribe “the direction of his commentary.” Horror stands out among the genres often read as allegories because it prescribes not only its meaning but also feelings.
Horror feels timely because of the pandemic. The meaning of horror is also the pandemic. I find much of contemporary horror on screen collapsing under the weight of social-political reification.
Midnight Mass, a gorgeously shot Netflix show, directed by Mike Flanagan, seeks to stage the conflicts inside us, tries to understand why we seek out or turn away from religion, how we make sense of the absence of sense--that is, death--but it often lapses into long monologues with no ellipsis for ambiguity to enter the scene. Indeed, the allegorical structure leaves no room for an end but the containing of the spreading disease. This is not a spoiler, if you follow the emotional architecture of the show. Happiness, directed by Ahn Gil Ho, does not try its hand at subtlety. So, it is what it is: an allegory for the monstrosities within us that are unleashed during and after a collective health crisis.
Timeliness, common sense goes, injects fresh blood into a genre. But here’s a thought--maybe it sucks the blood out of genres? As a viewer, what terrifies me is the unidentified, inchoate. While working from home, I watch the recently-produced popular horror shows and films and wait for the ghost that will make me feel what I cannot name.
More from T & P?
T spoke about reading, writing, and her favorite books at Desi Books, following the publication of her book Out of Mind this month.
P played EP on a docu short City Girls, A Chambal Media X The Third Eye production, playing at the 26th IFFK2021 (International Film Festival Kerala).