The Female Spectator as an Object in the Horror Cinema

Linda Williams

Linda Williams

Whenever the movie screen holds a particularly effective image of terror, little boys and grown men make it a point of honour to look, while little girls and grown women cover their eyes or hide behind the shoulders of their dates. There are excellent reasons for this refusal of the woman to look, not the least of which is that she is often asked to bear witness to her own powerlessness in the face of rape, mutilation and murder.

Another excellent reason for the refusal to look is the fact that women are given so little to identify with on the screen. Laura Mulvey’s extremely influential article on visual pleasure in narrative cinema has best defined this problem in terms of a dominant male look at the woman that leaves no place for the woman’s own pleasure in seeing: she exists only to be looked at.

Like the female spectator, the female protagonist often fails to look, to return the gaze of the male who desires her. In the classical narrative cinema, to see is to desire. It comes as no surprise, then, that many of the “good girl” heroines of the silent screen were often figuratively, or even literally, blind.

Blindness in this context signifies a perfect absence of desire, allowing the look of the male protagonist to regard the woman at the requisite safe distance necessary to the voyeur’s pleasure, with no danger that she will return that look and in so doing express desires of her own.

The relay of looks within the film thus duplicates the voyeuristic pleasure of the cinematic apparatus itself — a pleasure that Christian Metz and Laura Mulvey have suggested to be one of the primary pleasures of film viewing: the impression of looking in on a private world unaware of the spectator’s own existence.

The bold, smoldering dark eyes of the silent screen vamp offer an obvious example of a powerful female look. But the dubious moral status of such heroines, and the fact that they must be punished in the end, undermine the legitimacy and authentic subjectivity of this look, frequently turning it into a mere parody of the male look.

More instructive are those moments when the “good girl” heroines are granted the power of the look, whether in the woman’s film, as discussed by Mary Ann Doane in this volume, or in the horror film as discussed below. In both cases, as Mary Ann Doane suggests, “the woman’s exercise of an active investigating gaze can only be simultaneous with her own victimization.”

The woman’s gaze is punished, in other words, by narrative processes that transform curiosity and desire into masochistic fantasy.

The horror film offers a particularly interesting example of this punishment in the woman’s terrified look at the horrible body of the monster. In what follows I will examine the various ways the woman is punished for looking in both the classic horror film and in the more recent “psychopathic” forms of the genre. I hope to reveal not only the process of punishment but a surprising (and at times subversive) affinity between monster and woman, the sense in which she looks at the monster recognizes their similar status within patriarchal structures of seeing.

In Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau’s ‘Nosferatu’ (1922), for example, Nina’s ambiguous vigil by the sea is finally rewarded, not by the sight of her returning husband who arrives by land in a carriage, but by the vampire’s ship towards which a wide-eyed Nina in a trance-like state reaches out her arms.

Later, from the windows of facing houses, Nina and the vampire stare at one another until she finally opens the window. When the vampire’s shadow approaches, she again stares at him in wide-eyed terror until he attacks.

There are several initial distinctions to be made between what I have characterized above as the desiring look of the male-voyeur-subject and the woman’s look of horror typified by Nina’s trance-like fascination. First, Nina’s look at the vampire fails to maintain the distance between the observer and observed so essential to the “pleasure” of the voyeur.

For where the (male) voyeur’s properly distanced look safely masters the potential threat of the (female) body it views, the woman’s look of horror paralyzes her in such a way that distance is overcome; the monster or the freak’s own spectacular appearance holds her originally active, curious look in a trance-like passivity that allows him to master her through her look. At the same time, this looks momentarily shifts the iconic centre of the spectacle away from the woman to the monster.

Rupert Julian’s 1925 version of ‘The Phantom of the Opera’, starring Leonidas Frank Chaney and Mary Loretta Philbi, offers another classic example of the woman’s look in the horror film. Christine, an aspiring young opera singer, is seduced by the voice of the Phantom speaking to her through the walls of her dressing room at the Paris Opera.

She follows “her master’s voice” by stepping through the mirror of her dressing room. Her first glimpse of the masked Phantom occurs as she turns to respond to the touch of his hand on her shoulder. Thus her look occurs after the film audience has had its own chance to see him — they are framed in a two-shot that has him standing slightly behind her; only when she turns does she see his masked face.

Similarly, in the famous unmasking scene, Christine first thrills to the sound of the organ music the Phantom plays (‘Don Juan Triumphant’), then sneaks up behind him and hesitates several times before finally pulling the string that will drop his mask. Since both he and Christine face the camera in a two-shot (with Christine situated behind him) we again see the Phantom’s face, this time unmasked before Christine does.

The audience thus receives the first shock of the horror even while it can still see the curiosity and desire to see on Christine’s face.

Everything conspires here to condemn the desire and curiosity of the woman’s look. Our prior knowledge of what she will see encourages us to judge her look as a violation of the Phantom’s privacy. Her unmasking of his face reveals the very wounds, the very lack, that the Phantom had hoped her blind love would heal.

It is as if she has become responsible for the horror that her look reveals, and is punished by not being allowed the safe distance that ensures the voyeur’s pleasure of looking. “Feast your eyes, glut your soul, on my accursed ugliness!” cries the Phantom as he holds her face up close to his.

When the men in this film look at the Phantom, the audience first sees the man looking, then adopts his point of view to see what he sees. The audience’s belated adoption of the Linda Williams woman’s point of view undermines the usual audience identification and sympathy with the look of the cinematic character.

But it may also permit a different form of identification and sympathy to take place, not between the audience and the character who looks, but between the two objects of the cinematic spectacle who encounter one another in this look — the woman and the monster.

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