Woman as castrator: A psychoanalytic-feminist study of the castrating mother and Final Girl in the American slasher film.
This dissertation will explore how the woman is portrayed as castrator in the American slasher film using the critical approach of psychoanalytic-feminism. This will be achieved by analysing the female character as castrating mother and Final Girl.
Gregory Waller states that the landscape of the modern American horror film is characterised by displaying pornographic violence against women (Waller, 1987: 8). For example, one of the most emblematic modern American horror sub-genres is the slasher film. The slasher film promotes sexual violence against women by categorically portraying the patriarchal male monster who subjects women to a subordinate and misogynistic position by butchering sexually promiscuous females with his phallic knife, punishing sexually active women who participate in pre-marital intercourse and other transgressive sexual activities (Neale in Schneider, 2004: 4). Thus, a character such as Michael Myers from the Halloween series personifies that ideology of patriarchal masculinity associated with male power, dominance and aggression, perpetuating the primordial patriarchal unconscious governed by the desire to subdue ‘woman’ and the feminine (Neale in Grant, 1996: 342).
Thus, the male monster is represented as the sadist who unconsciously releases sexual repressed desires and castrates the female victim with his phallic weapon. However, the sexually active female victim or ‘bad girl’ could be argued to occupy a masochistic position. Thus, her castration implies that she receives sexual pleasure from unconscious fantasies of domination and torture from the sexually repressed slasher (Williams in Grant, 2004: 150).
Nonetheless, the rise of psychoanalytic-feminist film criticism during the second stage of feminist film theory between 1975 and 1983 (Hayward, 2000: 115), attempted to suggest that women throughout the horror film were not represented as castrated; on the contrary, women were fundamentally empowered and portrayed as castrators. For instance, Barbara Creed challenged the archetypical view that the monsters throughout the modern American horror film were gendered as male. Creed argued that female monsters have populated the horror film since the 1940s including the woman as an animal in the Cat People (dir. Jacques Tourneur, 1942), the mature female psycho (Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? dir. Robert Aldrich, 1962), the female witch in Carrie (dir. Brian De Palma, 1976) and woman as the bleeding gash in Dressed to Kill (dir. Brian De Palma, 1980) (Creed, 1993: 1).
The slasher film illustrates the castrating woman by portraying the female monster as the castrating mother and female heroine known as the Final Girl. The mother’s castrating monstrosity is centred on Xavier Mendik’s suggestion that through Julia Kristeva’s notion of abjection, it is the evil castrating mother who presents an unconscious castrating threat to patriarchal superiority (Kristeva-Mendik in Chandler, 2000). This is echoed by Mark Jancovich’s notion of how at the nucleus of horror cinema is the unconscious patriarchal apprehension of woman’s ‘difference’ and her monstrous and unsettling active and castrating sexuality (Jancovich, 1992: 10).
Although Creed’s argument expresses that the monster is not invariably gendered as male, the adolescent male spectator participates in a sadistic pleasurable experience. This is where the male viewer identifies with the male slasher through the subjective cinematography of the killer and acquires the slasher’s sadistic-voyeuristic ‘controlling gaze’ (Mulvey in Chandler, 2000).
Nonetheless, this sadistic-voyeuristic relationship between the male slasher and spectator is essentially sabotaged when the male audience are encouraged to identify with the other manifestation of the castrating woman: the Final Girl. Unlike her sexually promiscuous and castrated companions, she is signified by her independence, survival instincts and the active female, yet masculine gaze. The passive, asexual woman essentially manifests into an active and powerful phallic female, releasing her unconscious sexually repressed desires and symbolically castrates the male slasher in an angry fashion (Williams in Grant, 2004: 151). Thus, the gender relationship between the male monster, Final Girl and implied male spectator is confusing and ambiguous. This is where the male audience are essentially encouraged to identify across genders and to adopt, however temporarily, both sadistic and masochistic positions in the horror scenario.
The two particular character types representing the woman as castrator that will be unpicked in the following investigation will be how the woman is portrayed as the castrating mother and Final Girl.
The castrating mother
The discourse of the villainous castrating mother arose throughout the post-war period in American society as a response to the loving and nurturing relationship between father and daughter. This disturbing image of the mother was a prelude to the representative figure of the ‘Mom’ (Gant, 2006: 82).
Momism was released into the American public consciousness with the 1943 publication of Philip Wylie’s misogynistic essay of American society entitled Generation of Vipers. Wylie’s central argument was how the depiction of Momism in post-war films was symptomatic of a failure of masculinity and paternalism (Wylie in Gant, 2006: 82). This corresponds to Gorer who recognised that the phobic Mom was illustrative of the ‘clinging mother,’ symptomatic of how American men have a clear fear and uncertain attitude towards American post-war mothers (Gorer in Gant, 2006: 89).
After the Second World War, the fabric of American family life was heavily damaged. Academic commentators including Marynia Farnham and Ferdinand Lundberg describe the change in family attitudes as a result of the fathers at war in the military and the resulting convergence of mother-child relationships. This produced oedipal and disconcerting maternal undertones, contributing to a loss of positive paternal family values through the absent father and the abject Mom (Gant, 2006: 93).
Kenneth Phillips argues that during the 1950s and 1960s, the American suburban Dream was underpinned by maternal separation and the domesticated mother. This ultimately led to the mother’s frustration and loneliness over the child’s health and wealthfare. Thus, the apparent absence of the father and mother’s domestic dominance was reflective of the over-protective nature of Momism (Phillips, 2005: 66-67).
This maternal threat of Momism was exacerbated by other 1970s political events including the reduction of male capitalism as a result of de-industrialisation, the rise of feminism and the decrease in American masculine dominance. Thus, American middle-class motherhood became more actively threatening and unsettling (Genter, 2006: 3). It is this particular alarming representation of motherhood that underpins the portrayal of the castrating mother in the modern slasher film.
The image of the castrating mother throughout the slasher film is rooted in two particular Freudian critiques entitled Little Hans and the Wolf Man. Freud discovered that it was the unconscious mother who acted as the castrator and punished sexually promiscuous women. Melanie Klein expands Freud’s notion of the unconscious mother by theorising two perceptions of the mother. One perspective is the way that the child’s encounter with the mother’s breast is symbolised as the “phallic” and evil unconscious mother (Freud-Klein in Kaplan, 1992: 107).
This dominating image of the mother corresponds to her “monstrous” symbolic threat, theorised by Julia Kristeva as the child’s profound abject fear. This monstrosity centred on maternal melancholy is reflective of Hitchcock’s image of mothers, disrupting the unconscious patriarchal order in a violent and disturbing fashion (Kristeva in Kaplan, 1992: 117). The Hitchcock horror film that encapsulates the unconscious threat of the castrating mother is his masterpiece, Psycho.
Psycho (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1960) is simply the ‘quintessential’ horror film (Modleski in Creed, 1993: 140), described by Adam Rockoff as the grandfather of all slasher films (Rockoff, 2002: 26). Psycho was the very first cinematic slasher film, which inspired the American horror film landscape in the late 1970s and early 1980s to become inundated with visceral and violent slasher films (Dika in Waller, 1987: 86). Psycho is also an exemplary slasher film that explicitly illustrates Freud’s notion of the monstrous, castrating mother known as Mrs. Norma Bates.
The threat of the castrating mother is presaged in Psycho’s opening title sequence. Christopher Palmer states that the music ‘inform(s) the audience that something traumatic is going to happen’ (Palmer in Sullivan, 2006: 253). This is emphasised by Spellbound’s composer Miklos Rozsa who suggests that the ‘stark, jagged music, so redolent of Bartók and Stravinsky, is sufficient to grip the spectators in their seats, filling them with a nightmarish apprehension of the terror to come’ (Rozsa in Sullivan, 2006: 253). Thus, Palmer and Rozsa are expressing the appropriateness of the terrifying soundtrack that effectively foreshadows and conveniently interpellates the narrative’s initial equilibrium with a dramatic sense of horror. This prefigures the future arrival of the castrating mother in a shocking and unsettling fashion.
The castrating power of Mrs. Bates is exemplified by her dominating and possessive psychic control over her son, Norman Bates. The omnipotent threat of Norman’s psychological torture from his castrating mother is a perpetual unconscious fear (Modleski, 2005: 109). This is symptomatic of the powers of the horror genre, relating to masculine fears of maternal abjection. Thus, the fear is not just of castration, but of the loss of total self (Kristeva in Modleski, 2005: 109). However, in order to prevent complete castration, Norman becomes mother. Thus, he essentially manifests into the castrator, rather than being castrated (Creed, 1993: 140).
Norman’s transformation from the conscious Norman Bates to his unconscious evil mother is symptomatic of mother’s psychological attachment to Norman. American psychoanalyst Edmund Bergler argues that the unconscious attachment of the mother to Norman carries oedipal undertones, where:
‘The boy considers himself the innocent victim of a witch who is capable of starving, devouring, poisoning, choking, chopping to pieces, draining, and castrating him’ (Bergler in Genter, 2006: 1).
Although Bergler’s statement is centred on the pre-oedipal child’s over-attachment to the castrating threat of the mother, Robert Genter suggests that this specific psychoanalytic situation of the infant is applicable to the psychotic behaviour of Norman Bates, centred on the victimisation from his castrating mother (Genter, 2006: 1). Moreover, what is particularly verbally castrating to Norman is mother labelling him as ‘boy,’ even though Norman is now an adolescent. This infantilises Norman and also expresses that he will always remain a child from mother’s perspective (Creed, 1993: 142).
In one of the initial conversations between Norman and ‘his’ first victim Marion Crane, Norman informs her that ‘we’re all in our private trap. We scratch and claw, but only at the air, only at each other, and for all of it we never budge an inch’ (Wood, 2002: 145). Norman is subliminally describing his traumatic, psychotic attachment to his deceased mother, Norma Bates. This produces his psychotic behaviour and a clear sense of converging to the psychoanalytic notion of the Oedipus complex. However, Freud associated the Oedipus complex with ‘falling in love with the mother and jealousy of the father’ (Freud in Mitchell, 2000: 61). Thus, the mother-child relationship that is depicted in Psycho is not totally indicative of the Oedipus complex, since Norman’s father is fundamentally absent. This creates an omnipotent maternal relationship between Norman and mother. Thus, the oedipal metaphor is only realised through mother’s attachment to Norman, an entrapment where there is no escape for Norman.
The castrating Mrs. Bates is illustrated in a variety of ways. For example, she is explicitly portrayed as a rotting skeleton corpse that surveys and watches Norman from the window on the top floor of the Victorian mansion. Thus, Mrs. Bates embodies Kristeva’s notion of mother as abject, fearful object (Kristeva in Kaplan, 1992: 117). This demonstrates that Norman is somewhat trapped in the Oedipus complex and also expresses mother’s evil and apprehensive power over Norman. This also symbolises the inferior and apparently absent paternal role of the father.
Mother’s dominance is also symbolised by the large, gothic, Freudian-like mansion that towers and essentially gazes down on the smaller Bates’ motel. The motel symbolises Norman, which is the location of promiscuous sexual activity. Norman is the proverbial voyeur, peeping through a tiny hole in the wall to spy on the naked bodies of his next victims.
However, the walls of his office are filled with a range of stuffed birds of prey. The birds act as the voyeuristic ominous mother, featuring their piercing, threatening eyes. They have also been conveniently murdered by Norman at the precise moment of attack. This symbolises mother’s alert, observant presence and her perpetual internal attack on Norman’s psyche (Creed, 1993: 143). Furthermore, the beak of the black crow in Norman’s office is also symbolic of the evil castrating mother. The projection of the crow’s shadow and stabbing the picture on the wall is illustrative of mother’s demonic phallus. This is symbolic of mother’s phallic, castrating and devouring power (Creed, 1993: 144).
These mummified birds of prey also represent the predatory castrating mother, ready to strike, where Norman and mother are voyeuristically spying on their prey. Thus, this could suggest that mother punishes Norman by forcing him to dress up as mother and kill with the phallic knife, for gaining scopophilic sexual pleasure from peering at sexually active women (Creed, 1993: 146).
However, Elizabeth Bronfen suggests that the character of Norman Bates:
‘Is and is not mother, both is and is not dead, is neither masculine nor feminine, mother nor son, fetish, corpse, nor living body. Rather it is all these states amalgamated into one phantastic body, into whose presence Hitchcock has drawn us’ (Bronfen in Wells, 2000: 74).
Thus, Bronfen is arguing that Norman Bates is a paradoxical character, whose psychotic behaviour as mother and the domesticated male who manages the Bates’ motel produces a character of contradictions, mystification, sudden horror and extreme rage (Wells, 2000: 76).
The first instance of Norman’s sudden intense fury as the castrating mother is during the shower scene, described by Frederic Jameson as the most ‘horrific and immediate scene in motion picture history’ (Jameson in Creed, 1993: 148). The way that Bernard Herrman’s non-diegetic soundtrack functions is particularly significant to Hitchcock’s divergence from classic cinema sound conventions of placing music in the background and instead using it beneficially in the foreground (Sullivan, 2006: 244).
When the shower curtain is pulled back, the non-diegetic soundtrack bursts into a violin screech bird-like sound. This high pitched screech intensifies the atmosphere and enhances the image of Norman as the castrating mother with even more phallic power and terror. Thus, the ‘beaked’ mother has arrived with her phallic knife, as a fetishistic phallic mother (Bellour in Creed, 1993: 147). Marion’s symbolically sexual enjoyment of the hot cleansing water mirrors the initial sexual intercourse scene at the beginning of Psycho. Thus, mother punishes Marion for performing unconscious sexual activity whilst in the shower (Bellour in Creed, 1993: 146-147).
However, Roger Dadoun argues that the all-powerful and controlling castrating power is explicitly realised at the film’s finale. The penultimate scene occurs in the cellar. Lila has apparently discovered the location of the mummified Mrs. Bates. However, when she turns the chair around, it reveals the hideous, rotting skeleton face with piercing black holes that is essentially captured in close-up shot. Thus, Hitchcock’s cinematography illustrates mother’s devilish, castrating omnipresence, expressing her invulnerability and abject undying nature (Dadoun in Creed, 1993: 150). This also reveals Psycho’s sexist subtext of what happens to mother when she is left alone without father. This is her failure to exert appropriate moral and wise maternal authority towards Norman. When Norman attacks Lila dressed as his mother in the cellar, the camera jump cuts to a close-up shot of mother’s grinning yet lifeless skull. Thus, Norman’s attempted assault is symbolic of mother’s psychic active participation with the castrating attack. This also conforms to Norman’s schizophrenic conflict as associated with life and death: the conscious, sexually repressed mind of Norman and the psychotic, unconscious phallic power of his mother (Creed, 1993: 150).
Nevertheless, the closure of Psycho confirms that Norman’s contradictory and conflicting character manifests into one defining persona, a metamorphosis into the unconscious castrating mother. Mrs. Bates’s symbolic castration of Norman strips him of all sense of patriarchal masculinity. Gorer expresses that Norman ‘carries around, as it were, encapsulated inside him, an ethical, admonitory, censorious mother (Gorer in Gant, 2006: 91). Thus, Norman essentially manifests into mother, a severe psychological disease that eventually devours and pollutes all areas of his conscious mind. When Norman-mother utters ‘It’s sad when a mother has to speak the words that condemn her own son’ (Williams, 1996: 77), it implies that mother has supernaturally internalised her evil, devouring spirit inside Norman. This signifies her spiritual and psychic possession of Norman’s mind, dominating his internal psychological structure and influencing his castrating behaviour. This is externally portrayed by the momentary superimposition of mother’s perturbed smile over Norman’s face.
This theory of mother’s total unconscious possession of Norman is echoed by Michael Chion, suggesting that the threatening disembodied voice of mother has finally found what he labels its acousmatic (Chion in Zizek, 1992: 233-234). Thus, the abject spirit of mother has located a body, which is conveniently her son Norman. The perturbing smile from Norman-mother confirms the attachment of mother’s voice to Norman’s body. This manifests Norman into a definite Other, where the terrifying voice of mother emanating from Norman’s body creates a zombified figure. This symbolic zombie is the production of the superego. The unconscious maternal power of mother has magically entered the conscious mind of Norman. Thus, he has essentially become the unconscious castrating mother to prevent his own castration (Zizek, 1992: 234).
The closure of Psycho II (dir. Richard Franklin, 1983) also indicates the dominating presence of the castrating mother. Norman murders his supposedly real mother, Norma Bates’ sister Emma Spool. He carries her upstairs acting as a substitute for Norma’s body, which was buried in a coffin at the end of Psycho. The final image is a long empowering shot of the Victorian house with a silhouette image of mother looking down at Norman as he looks up to her, waiting for the next visitors. The cloudy and thundery conditions and the chilling non-diegetic soundtrack not only create a horrifying closure; however, this also symbolically reveals a deep cultural view of American suburban mundanity, centred on the oedipal relationship between Norman and mother. Mother’s castrating presence is also portrayed by the cinematography. For instance, the dominating house and mother looking down at Norman on the left side of the frame juxtaposes with just Norman standing outside to the right side of the frame. Symbolically, Norman is still just a ‘boy,’ belittled, infantilised and essentially dominated by his watchful, castrating mother.
Mother’s castrating threat is still apparent throughout the dénouement of Psycho III (dir. Anthony Perkins, 1986). Upon discovering from a journalist that Emma Spool was actually Norman’s aunt who killed Norman’s father in a jealous frenzy since Norman’s mother intercepted Norman’s father, Norman, dressed as mother, was about to butcher the reporter when he instead castrated the mummified corpse of Emma Spool with his butchers knife. Norman’s sexually phallic actions psychoanalytically suggest his release of sexual energies from his repressed sexuality and liberation from his oedipal relationship with his mother. Thus, Norman is re-phallicised and his castration of mother deems patriarchy as victorious.
However, this patriarchal victory is only temporary. Mother’s castrating threat is realised in the final scene where Norman is taken back to prison. In the back seat of the police car, he pulls out mother’s arm and begins stroking her hand. Simultaneously, he stares into the camera with a perturbed grin, which is a clear intertextual echo to the end of the first Psycho. Thus, this portrayal of the castrating mother is not as visually threatening as the end of Psycho and Psycho II. However, although mother has been castrated, she returns unconsciously as re-phallicised. Thus, this is still significantly suggestive of Norman’s entrapment within the Oedipus complex and his perennial psychological attachment to the castrating mother.
The symbolic incestuous desire of their relationship is represented during Psycho IV: The Beginning (dir. Mick Garris, 1990). One particular scene features young Norman Bates and mother on a hot summer’s night. Mother suddenly asks Norman to block her with skin oil. She instructs Norman to begin at the legs and slowly work his way up. This is symbolically sexually stimulating for mother as she receives satisfaction, releasing repressed sexual gratifications. Unexpectedly, she pushes Norman to the floor and they frolic and roll around together. Whilst this may denote innocent adolescent love, mother’s actions connote her sexual domination of Norman. Thus, mother is unconsciously using and imagining Norman as her fantasised boyfriend or sexual ‘toy boy.’ Her sexual desires also correspond with Freud’s theory of ‘mother-in-love-action,’ an illustration of an incestuous perversion of normal instinct (Freud in Kaplan, 1992: 115).
However, mother’s unconscious incestuous sexual desires for Norman are disrupted when Norman is inadvertently lying on top of his mother, positioned symbolically for sexual intercourse. This phallically stimulates Norman. At the point of incest, mother is immediately angry and recognises his erection. Thus, she instantly acts to castrate Norman by forcing him to wear her clothes, putting on her make-up, claiming that his phallus is restricted only to urination and calls him Norma. This is the ultimate masculine insult, symptomatic of mother’s castrating control and dominance over Norman.
However, the narrative closure of Psycho IV: The Beginning signifies the psychoanalytic significance of the American dream. The finale begins in an unsettling fashion when Norman instructs his fiancé Fran to meet him at his mother’s house. Norman’s castrating thoughts return as he threatens to stab her because he wishes not to become a father. In the cellar, Norman attempts to kill Fran with his phallic knife. However, for the very first time, his conscious feelings of love and compassion overpower his unconscious thoughts of the menacing evil mother. Norman eventually relinquishes the knife and hugs Fran, confirming his personal liberation from his castrating mother.
Nevertheless, Norman is determined to completely exorcise his castrating mother. Thus, he decides to burn the old Victorian house. He manages to escape and utters “I am free.” His new heterosexual relationship with Fran not only signifies the American Dream and a new chapter in Norman’s life, it also conforms to the positive new equilibrium associated with classical narrative cinema (Blandford et al, 2001: 47), an uplifting resolution from his oedipal anxieties. This sense of positivity is finally confirmed with a baby’s scream, a crucial aural signifier that expresses a new era in Norman’s life. This new relationship liberates Norman from the spirit of his dominating, castrating mother.
Thus, the closure of Psycho IV: The Beginning represents Kristeva’s statement where ‘that other sex, the feminine, becomes synonymous with a radical evil that is to be suppressed’ (Kristeva in Kaplan, 1992: 117). Kristeva’s notion of the suppressed feminine evil monster applies to the closure of Psycho IV: The Beginning as the evil mother is ultimately suppressed to the unconscious. The fact that Norman burned the house symbolically sentenced mother to an eternal imprisonment in the evil depths of hell. Patriarchal masculinity is finally restored and paternalism is also victorious over motherhood. Thus, Norman has fundamentally become the one entity that has been absent throughout the entire Psycho series: a father.
Although the central figure of evil in Halloween (dir. John Carpenter, 1978) is the implied male monster Michael Myers, Steve Neale argues that Myers is also unconsciously indicative of the castrating mother, reasserting the fantasy of the mother-child relationship. However, the concrete absence of the maternal figure throughout Halloween’s opening sequence suggests that the relationship between Michael and mother is essentially fragmented. This sense of detachment manifests the image of mother into an unconscious object of threat and menace (Neale in Grant, 1996: 345). Thus, the horrific symbolic image of the mother is inherently internalised into Michael as he has been endowed with castrating supremacy. This positions the infantile Michael as an overtly aggressive and all-powerful slasher, modelling is new omnipotence from his mother. Myers’ image as unconscious castrating mother mirrors the character of Norman Bates, due to his phallicisation with the butcher’s knife to prevent his own castration. Thus, Michael’s castrating and phallic power originates from the locus of all abject phallic power, the castrating mother.
The alien mother in Alien (dir. Ridley Scott, 1979) is portrayed as the dehumanised castrating mother. The metaphor of the ‘mother alien’ inscribed into the alien has the indiscriminating killing power of destroying humanity and producing alien offspring (Creed, 1993: 22). This castrating power is apparent when Dallas experiences the alien in the womb-like air corridors, where the alien’s razor-sharp teeth and oceanic, over-domination, creates an ‘all-incorporating’ phallic, fetishistic power; a metaphor of the all-dominant mother. The mother is also portrayed by the life-support voice of the Nostromo ‘mother’ ship and appropriately ignores Ripley’s instructions of deactivating the ship’s self-destruct system, during the climax. This results in Ripley shouting at mother saying ‘mother, you bitch!’ (Kavanagh in Kuhn, 1990: 76-77). Thus, the mother figure that is signified through the images of the alien and computer voice represents a deviant, mechanised and somewhat evil castrating figure that is devoid of humanised emotions.
In A Nightmare on Elm Street (dir. Wes Craven, 1984), Marge Thompson acts as the castrating mother, where upon participating in the burning of the child murderer Freddie Krueger, she stole and is now the owner of Krueger’s metallic fingered glove. Marge is symbolically phallicised and has thus castrated Krueger. Marge also infantilises and somewhat castrates her daughter Nancy by providing her with warm milk, ironic tender mother care and also imprisons Nancy and herself in their house, placing iron bars across the windows and front door. This connotes a possessive maternal relationship between mother and daughter (Genter, 2006: 3).
During the dénouement of A Nightmare on Elm Street, Krueger castrates Marge and she is subsequently transformed into a corpse that descends symbolically into the unconscious. Moreover, the mummified carcass of Leatherface’s mother is symbolically positioned as a threatening castrating presence, crowned on the chair at the family’s house in Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part II (dir. Tobe Hooper, 1986). The tombstone of Judith Myers also acts metaphorically as an abject dead corpse, after her murder by her brother Michael Myers in Halloween (Genter, 2006: 3).
The male monster throughout the Friday the 13th series is the psychotic madman named Jason Voorhees. However, the slasher in Friday the 13th Part I (dir. Sean S. Cunningham, 1980) is his mother Mrs. Voorhees, where Jason is permanently psychically attached to his castrating mother. Richard Genter states that Mrs. Voorhees is the embodiment of traditional Freudian psychoanalysis in Friday the 13th Part I. For instance, she alleviates her own penis envy through phallicising herself with various phallic weapons such as screwdrivers and a butcher’s knife. She also suppresses her own acceptance of losing her son Jason by allowing his spirit to speak to her through her mouth (Genter, 2006: 4).
However, the representation of Jason’s deceased and castrating mother Mrs. Voorhees is depicted in an abject horrifying manner in Friday the 13th Part II (dir. Steve Miner, 1981). When Ginny is being chased by Jason and approaches his lair, the non-diegetic piano refrained soundtrack is disconcerting and eerie. Thus, the soundtrack enhances the representation of the isolated, derelict and death-like rural hut as the central location of unconscious threat and terror. When Ginny arrives at the hut in an attempt to escape from the slasher, she inadvertently arrives in an area far more terrifying. The image of the decaying head of Jason’s castrating mother is symbolically illustrated as a shrine, with Mrs. Voorhees’s head depicting an unholy object of abjection and evil, surrounded by candles. This demonstrates the demonic castrating power of Mrs. Voorhees.
When Ginny slashes Jason on his shoulder with the machete, she perceives that he is dead. However, his dramatic crash through the window at the film’s closure not only restores Jason’s patriarchal masculinity, but also indicates a symbolic victory for the castrating mother. This is highlighted by the final close-up shot of Mrs. Voorhees’ putrid head, revealing her subliminally active and castrating participation. Thus, this is also an allusion to the revengeful castrating spirit of Mrs. Bates, the quintessential castrating abject mother (Genter, 2006: 4).
The Final Girl
The woman is also portrayed as castrator in the American slasher film as the Final Girl. She is denoted as the female survivor who usually does not die. Throughout the era of the slasher film, there have been numerous Final Girls including Sally from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Marti (Hell Night), Valerie (Slumber Party Massacre), Laurie (Halloween) and Nancy (A Nightmare on Elm Street) (Humphries, 2002: 150). Reynold Humphries explains that one theory suggesting her invariable survival from the menacing slasher is because she is asexual and not sexually active (Humphries, 2002: 150). Marti, the female sole survivor in Hell Night (dir. Tom DeSimone, 1981) has a high degree of feminine honour and is also a car mechanic that connotes her as a masculine female.
This is juxtaposed by one of the sexually active females who actually invites the slasher to kill her, where the victim’s promiscuity is denoted by her erotic lingerie (Clover, 1992: 151). Thus, she is positioned as masochistic. The victim’s masochism is signified by her symbolic orgasmic screech. This aural diegetic element not only demonstrates her submission to unconscious fantasies of pain and torment; it also reveals the occurrence of the slasher’s sexual sadistic attack, where the adolescent male spectator engages in sadistic-voyeuristic participation. Thus, through her masochistic depiction, she is also the misogynistic object of the slasher’s sadistic-voyeuristic gaze, encouraging his phallic threat (Chion in Conrich and Woods, 2004: 58).
While it is clearly the sexually active females who are murdered, the Final Girl is also subject to misogyny by being chased, stalked and even injured by the slasher. Thus, although the Final Girl survives the slasher’s murderous rampage, it could be argued that the Final Girl’s emotional victimisation and her embodiment of abject terror towards the slasher is just as misogynistic as the death of the promiscuous women (Clover, 1992: 35).
However, the Final Girl’s victory over the slasher indicates a triumph for feminism. This could be coded as masculine, where the slasher’s inability and lack of masculine determination to kill the final female throughout the dénouement depicts the slasher has castrated and somewhat feminised. This is due to the Final Girl’s courage to survive the slasher’s onslaught. Her implied masculinity is also indicated by her boyish name such as Stevie, Marti, Laurie, Stretch and Max (Clover, 1992: 40).
Thus, the Final Girl’s masculinised nature could also be symptomatic of the male spectator identifying with the Final Girl’s masculinity. This is due to the male audience’s unconscious refusal of accepting the social stereotypical view of passive, inferior females and active, responsible males. Rather, the adolescent male spectator is diverging from the sadistic-voyeuristic relationship between the slasher and male viewer, participating with the Final Girl in a desirable shared experience of masculinity and self-importance (Clover, 1992: 151-152).
An example of the Final Girl’s implicit masculinity is Alice’s heroism during the finale of Friday the 13th Part I. Although Alice is traditionally a feminised name, her symbolic castration of the castrating mother Mrs. Voorhees could be coded as a masculine victory. She is phallicised through being armed with the phallic pick axe and decapitates the mother, punishing her as the conscious mass murderer and unconsciously for acting in a masculine fashion. Thus, these actions could be symptomatic of masculinity, especially as afterwards Alice returns to her usual role in society as a typical feminine female (Clover, 1992: 152).
Nancy from A Nightmare on Elm Street also conforms to the masculinised Final Girl. She acquires the ‘active investigating gaze,’ searching for the killer Freddy Krueger with initial trepidation and ultimately bringing him aggressively back into reality, where she can castrate Krueger at the films finale (Clover, 1992: 48).
The dénouement of A Nightmare on Elm Street begins when Nancy sets various phallic booby traps around her house for Krueger. These include a sledgehammer that she ties to the door, so that when Krueger opens it, the phallic hammer will symbolically castrate him. She has her alarm set to go off at a particular point and envisages that in her dream, she can successfully bring Krueger back into reality and ultimately kill the slasher. Whilst in her dream, she acquires the active investigating gaze of the Final Girl, searching for Krueger in his boiler room. Although primarily the subjective cinematography indicates Krueger’s omnipresence, her locating gaze signifies focus and determination. Eventually she discovers Krueger and with only seconds remaining until the alarm goes off; she expresses no fear and launches herself on him in an animalistic fashion. This symbolically releases her sexually repressed desires on Krueger, as she manages to transfer him from the unconscious back into reality.
Once Krueger returns to reality, the chase begins between Nancy and Krueger. However, he is struck in the lower abdomen by the sledgehammer, acting as symbolic castration. Nevertheless, she finally castrates Krueger by not being terrified and denying his existence. However, Krueger still attempts to butcher Nancy. He is unsuccessful and instantly disintegrates, symbolically returning to the depths of the unconscious. Thus, the active investigating gaze emitting from the Final Girl contravenes the characterisation of the typical male gaze and manifests it into an active female gaze. This also flouts the notion from traditional cinema that it is not the man that maintains narrative direction and pace; it is the Final Girl who drives the narrative resolution to its cathartic new equilibrium (Mulvey in Clover, 1992: 60).
However, the slasher invariably returns as re-phallicised and masculinised at the film’s closure. Thus, the Final Girl’s victory is only temporary. Either the slasher returns in the sequel and is unsuccessful in killing the Final Girl such as the survival of Laurie in Halloween II (dir. Rick Rosenthal, 1981) or the demise of the Final Girl in another film including Alice, the Final Girl of Friday the 13th Part I, who is instantly murdered by Jason at the beginning of Friday the 13th Part II, the killing of Nancy in A Nightmare on Elm Street Part III: Dream Warriors (dir. Chuck Russell, 1987), Ripley’s death in Alien III (dir. David Fincher, 1992) and Laurie’s eventual demise in Halloween Resurrection (dir. Rick Rosenthal, 2002) (Pinedo, 1997: 86).
Thus, this initially suggests that the image of the Final Girl is a positive portrayal of feminism. However, this sense of positivity is only momentary and could even be symptomatic that her emotional and physical misogyny is no less misogynistic than the victimisation of the sexually promiscuous females. This may also state that it does not matter whether you are promiscuous or asexual; you are still eventually going to be subjected to misogyny and ultimately murdered.
However, although the Final Girl’s masculine victory is only temporary and somewhat misogynistic, her implied masculine character expresses that the female heroine symbolically manifests into the masculine hero. Thus, the equation of feminine equal’s heroine has been fundamentally replaced with hero equals masculine. For example, Ripley, the Final Girl from Alien is appropriately titled as Lieutenant. Her ability to survive and blast the Alien into space implies masculine skill, courage and determination. This demonstrates that Ripley’s victory is a triumph for feminism. However, her heroism also implicitly indicates a fundamental convergence with masculinity (Clover, 1992: 152).
Ripley’s masculine character is also highlighted significantly throughout the Alien sequels. For instance, the dénouement of Aliens (dir. James Cameron, 1986) begins with Ripley’s quest to kill the alien queen and locate Newt before the space station explodes. Ripley is coded as overtly masculine as the other male character is wounded and unable to fight. Her masculinity is phallicised as she is equipped with many large guns and also adopts the active investigative gaze. This indicates her determination to discover Newt and destroy the alien queen. However, after saving Newt, Ripley’s masculinity is visually emphasised in spectacular fashion during the final battle between Ripley and the alien queen. She confronts and eventually kills the alien wearing a metallic robot costume. Thus, Ripley has manifested from the implied masculinised Final Girl into an explicitly aggressive, powerful and robotised masculine hero.
John Carpenter states that the killer and the Final Girl also have a symbolic sexually repressed connection (Carpenter in Clover, 1992: 49), complying with Carol Clover’s notion of a ‘shared masculinity’ (Clover, 1992: 49). However, it is clear during the dénouement that the slasher’s inherent masculinity begins to diminish as the Final Girl’s masculinity, phallic threat and unfeminine behaviour increases. The complete phallicisation of the survivor is when the horror of the slasher ceases to exist, with a cathartic closure. For example, Stretch, the Final Girl from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre II escapes from the evil maniacs of Saw, Knife and Hammer. The concluding battle between Stretch and the final antagonist ensues only momentarily as she tears open his lower abdomen with her chain saw and throws him off the cliff’s edge. Thus, Stretch acquires potent phallic masculinity acting as an explicit form of castration to the antagonists (Clover, 1992: 49).
Thus, the Final Girl’s internalised masculinity within a female body expresses a convergence between masculinity and femininity, where the identities of male and female are amalgamated into one figure. The Final Girl is unconsciously coded masculine for her active gaze and castrating thwarting strength of the slasher. This creates a phallic killer. However, she is still consciously physically feminine, which is indicated by her screaming and abject fear of the slasher (Clover, 1992: 58). Furthermore, her characteristics of masculinity and femininity create an oppositional character. For instance, she is subordinated and portrayed as vulnerable whilst being chased by the monster. However, the Final Girl is empowered by either surviving or killing the slasher. The stabbings and injuries she suffers connote her anger and frustration; however, this also simultaneously displays fear and apprehension.
Thus, she is what Clover labels the ‘characterological androgyne’ (Clover, 1992: 63). She is neither entirely masculine nor feminine. She is a combination of both genders. This also partly conforms to Marc O’Day’s notion of the ‘action babe heroine’ (O’Day in Tasker, 2004: 205). Although the Final Girl is fundamentally asexual, her combination of both masculine and feminine elements mirrors the hyperbolic-heroine representations of, for example, Lara Croft from Tomb Raider (dir. Simon West, 2001) and Sarah Conner from Terminator (dir. James Cameron, 1984). This creates a symbolic masculine killer essentially emanating from a female body (O’Day in Tasker, 2004: 201, 204). Her gender during the final battle between the survivor and slasher is thus ambiguous, contradictory and continually in dynamic flux.
The final conflict between the masculine Final Girl and feminised slasher is clearly a battle between two separate characters. However, Vera Dika describes the opposition between the heroine and killer as ego/id (Dika, 1987: 92). The ego demonstrates the controlled and judicious conscious mind of the female survivor and the id represents the slasher’s instinctive and unconscious desire to kill (Arrowsmith, 2001). Thus, Dika suggests that this combat between heroine and slasher is symbolically a Freudian-charged internal battle between one single self.
For example, the dénouement of Halloween H20 (dir. Steve Miner, 1998) features the killer Michael Myers and the Final Girl Laurie Strode. Michael and Laurie are involved in a van accident that sends the van falling off a cliff with Michael and Laurie inside. Laurie survives and Michael unfortunately lands on a tree and the van crashes onto his back. The close-up shot of Michael and Laurie stretching their hands to barely touch each other signifies the intimate convergence of the conscious ego and unconscious id. However, Laurie is armed with an axe and castrates Michael by beheading him. Thus, the Final Girl’s invariable success demonstrates the cathartic resolution of the ‘masculine’ conscious mind over the ‘feminine’ unconscious instinct.
Nevertheless, if the assumption is made that the image of the masculinised Final Girl is an appropriate way of describing her gender identity, Clover also suggests that future slasher films should also feature Final Boys and Final Girls. For example, Scream (dir. Wes Craven, 1996) initiated the postmodernist cycle of the slasher film and also represents the progressive representation of the Final Girl. Sidney as the Final Girl is not only sexually attractive; she also experiences sexual intercourse with one of the killers, her boyfriend Billy. During the finale, Sidney becomes aggressively masculine and kills the other killer Stu by pushing a television on his head. She also symbolically transforms into the slasher by wearing the mask and black gown to castrate Billy with the phallic umbrella rod. Sidney ultimately castrates him when he magically resurrects and shoots him in the forehead. However, Sidney is not the only Final Girl. The television reporter Gail Weathers also survives with the Final Boys named Sheriff Dewie and Randy.
This particular multiple survival pattern is intertextually echoed in future slasher films. For example Scream 2 (dir. Wes Craven, 1997) also features two Final Boys and Final Girls, where Sidney, Gail, Dewie and Cotton all survive. In Scream 3 (dir. Wes Craven, 2000), both Dewie and Gail survive along with the ultimate Final Girl Sidney. Ray and Julie survive in I Know What You Did Last Summer (dir. Jim Gillespie, 1997), Carla, Julie and Ray all remain alive in I Still Know What You Did Last Summer (dir. Danny Cannon, 1998) and there is a Final Boy and Final Girl in Jason X (dir. James Isaac, 2001), Freddy Vs. Jason (dir. Ronny Yu, 2003), Halloween Resurrection, I’ll Always Know What You Did Last Summer (dir. Sylvain White, 2006) and the remake of Friday the 13th (dir. Marcus Nispel, 2009). Although there are two physical Final Girls in Alien Resurrection (dir. Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 1997), it could be argued that Ripley’s masculine portrayal symbolises one Final ‘Boy’ and Final Girl.
Thus, this confirms that Clover’s suggestion of the masculine Final Girl and future Final Boys was correct. Since Scream, the slasher film has progressed within the postmodern era. There have been multiple survivors of both girls and boys. Thus, there has been a progressive explicit convergence to a masculinised vision of the final female survivor. This would seem appropriate as in order to survive, you have to be tenacious and determined not to die, which is a cultural masculine trait.
The Scream trilogy also encapsulates the postmodernisation of the slasher film by breaching the generic conventions associated with the traditional slasher narrative formula (Phillips, 2005: 166). Initially, Scream features two adolescent killers named Billy and Stu instead of one chief male monster. Billy is the primary implied slasher, who is seeking revenge on Sidney because her sexually promiscuous mother had an affair with his father, which led Billy’s parent’s marriage to fragment. Billy claims that he murdered Sidney’s mother and now intends on killing Sidney to complete his vengeance. Thus, this could suggest that Sidney’s sexually active phallic mother is the central catalyst that initiates the unsettling relationship between Sidney and Billy, and also influences the psychotic behaviour of Billy, which reaches terrifying heights at the film’s closure.
Another example of the postmodern fashion of Scream is the sadomasochistic representation of the two teenage slashers (Genter, 2006: 11). Throughout the finale, Billy and Stu stab and symbolically castrate each other to provide the impression that it was Sidney’s father who victimised them in a violent and bloody attack.
However, their unconscious sadomasochistic desires overthrow their conscious commitment of surviving and not losing copious amounts of blood. Rather than the archetypal portrayal of the sadistic male slasher, Billy and Stu are collectively the postmodern emblem of not just experiencing pleasure when stabbing other individuals; they are also slashers that are victims of their own castration and masochistic fantasies of torture and self-suffering. Thus, the masochistic position and the castrating threat of the sexually promiscuous female has fundamentally shifted to the sadomasochistic and self-castrating postmodern slasher.
Another exemplary example of the progressive and postmodern representation of the Final Girl is depicted throughout the climax of Scream 3. Although Scream demonstrates Sidney’s aggressive and phallic power when she metaphorically becomes the slasher and castrates both Billy and Stu, her portrayal during the closure of Scream 3 is far more visually significant.
It is realised during the dénouement of Scream 3 that the slasher is discovered as Sidney’s brother Roman, claiming to be disowned by Sidney’s mother. When she initially shot Rowan after tricking him to believe that she only possessed one gun, Sidney only shot him in the chest. It was later revealed that he was wearing a bulletproof vest. Thus, because of Roman’s survival, the fight continues between Roman and Sidney. Just as it seems that Sidney is going to castrate Roman with her phallic knife, he shoots her twice. Nonetheless, he only shoots her in the chest.
When Rowan believes that Sidney is dead, his celebration is interrupted by the other two survivors, Gail and Dewie. However, when he stares back at the fallen Sidney, she has mysteriously disappeared. Thus, this empowers the position of Sidney and subordinates the role of Roman, who is now the object of Sidney’s and the male spectator’s sadistic-voyeuristic gaze. Sidney has now symbolically manifested into the all-powerful castrating masculine slasher and Rowan is now the feminised victim. The cinematography also indicates the castrating power of Sidney by presenting a close-up shot of Sidney’s hand slowly grabbing another phallic knife. She ultimately castrates Roman by stabbing him numerous times and once more in the heart. She reveals to Roman that she tenaciously acted in reciprocal preservation by also wearing a bulletproof vest when she was shot twice in the chest by Roman.
Sidney’s hyperbolic and symbolic and transformation into the phallic, castrating slasher implies an amalgamation of the character types of the Final Girl and male slasher. However, this may also indicate the unconscious maternal presence of the monstrous castrating mother. This is where the deceased and ultra liberated spirit of Sidney’s active phallic mother Maureen Prescott becomes internalised in Sidney’s psyche, which influences her castrating and evil behaviour over Rowan.
Thus, Sidney as a blend of Final Girl and castrating mother represents a powerful postmodern representation of the female masculine survivor. This injection of the castrating mother is also a revolutionary way of portraying feminine masculinity in order to provide a positive, cathartic and essentially closed narrative closure. Thus, unlike the ending of the vast majority of slasher films, the slasher has finally departed.
Thus, the postmodern slasher film depicts a progressive portrayal of the Final Girl with the addition of Final Boy(s) and the Final Girl. Her masculine and phallic power is further emphasised by the sadomasochistic, feminine slasher and is also enhanced by amalgamating her masculine aspects with the unconscious castrating mother-slasher.
In conclusion, this psychoanalytic-feminist critique of the American slasher film demonstrates that the woman is not the masochistic, castrated victim and object of the sadistic, patriarchal slasher’s and male spectator’s voyeuristic, predatory gaze. The woman is fundamentally positioned as a powerful castrating entity and this is illustrated by the dominating image of the castrating mother and the masculinised hero known as the Final Girl. Thus, this demonstrates that the representation of the castrating mother and Final Girl in the slasher film contravenes the widespread notion of the victimised and castrated female in the modern American horror film and portrays the woman as castrator.
However, this notion of woman as castrator is essentially contradicted by the devious and conniving nature of the patriarchal unconscious. The image of the castrating mother reveals a profound ‘dark side’ of the patriarchal unconscious (Creed, 1993: 165-166). This is where patriarchy represents an intense unconscious fear of the phallic mother. The slasher film responds to this unconscious patriarchal peril by abjectifying the woman in a misogynistic fashion as the ‘monstrous-feminine,’ in order to maintain patriarchal power and restore the patriarchal unconscious (Creed, 1993: 166).
The patriarchal unconscious relating to the Final Girl is centred on gender power warfare between the male slasher and Final Girl throughout the archetypal slasher film. The patriarchal dominance of the slasher is portrayed at the beginning of the film, which is usually governed by an unconscious maternal, castrating menace. However, during the dénouement, the patriarchal masculinity and symbolic castrating maternal power of the slasher fundamentally shifts to the Final Girl. She is represented symbolically as the male castrating Other; phallicised and masculinised through her investigative and active masculine gaze and competent and successful use of various phallic weapons to either survive or ‘kill’ the slasher herself.
However, the male slasher’s patriarchal superiority is restored at the film’s finale. Although the Final Girl’s ego castrates the slasher’s id and subliminally indicates a feminist triumph, her victory is only momentary. The patriarchal unconscious is ultimately re-established at the film’s closure when the slasher magically returns from the unconscious as re-phallicised and reveals his devilish terror and masculine dominance. The Final Girl is thus represented as the terrified feminine female once again.
Thus, the castrating mother and Final Girl throughout the slasher film may essentially express the woman as castrator. However, lurking underneath these powerfully castrating images is the deceitful notion of the patriarchal unconscious; centred on subordinating feminism by ultimately restoring patriarchy as a symbolic misogynistic counterattack and anti-feminist backlash to the phallic threat of the castrating mother and Final Girl.
Arrowsmith, A (2001) Critical Concepts some literary/cultural theory keywords. Available at: http://royal-holloway.org.uk/ltsn/english/events/past/staffs/Holland_Arrowsmith/Critical%20Concepts%20edit.htm. Date accessed: 2nd March 2009.
Blandford, S et al (2001) The Film Studies Dictionary (London: Hodder)
Chandler, D (2000) ‘Notes on ‘The Gaze’: Laura Mulvey on film spectatorship.’ Available at:
Clover, J.C (1992) Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (London: BFI)
Conrich, I and Woods, D (2004) The Cinema of John Carpenter: the technique of terror (London: Wallflower Press)
Creed, B (1993) The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis (London: Routledge)
Dika, V ‘The Stalker Film, 1978-81’ in Waller, A.G (1987) American Horrors: Essays on the modern American horror film (Chicago: University of Illinois Press)
Gant, C.M (2006) Hollywood genres and post-war America: Masculinity, Family and Nation in Popular Movies and Film Noir (London: I.B. Tauris)
Genter, R (2006) ‘Imagining murderous mothers: male spectatorship and the American slasher film.’ Available at
Hayward, S (2000) Cinema Studies: The Key Concepts 2nd Edition (Oxon: Routledge)
Humphries, R (2002) The American Horror Film: An Introduction (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press)
Jancovich, M (1992) Horror (London: B.T. Batsford Ltd)
Kaplan, A.E (1992) Motherhood and Representation: The Mother in Popular Culture and Melodrama (London: Routledge)
Kavanagh, H. J ‘Feminism, Humanism and Science in Alien’ in Kuhn, A (1990) Alien Zone: Cultural Theory and Contemporary Science Fiction Cinema (London: Verso)
Modleski, T (2005) The women who knew too much 2nd edition: Hitchcock and Feminist Theory (Oxon: Routledge)
Mitchell, J (2000) Psychoanalysis and Feminism: A Radical Reassessment of Freudian Psychoanalysis (London: Penguin Books Ltd)
Neale, S ‘Halloween: Suspense, Aggression and the Look’ in Grant, K.B (1996) Planks of reason: Essays on the Horror Film (London: Scarecrow Press)
O’Day, M ‘Beauty in Motion: Gender, spectacle and action babe cinema’ in Tasker, Y (2004) Action and Adventure Cinema (Oxon: Routledge)
Pinedo, C.I (1997) Recreational Terror: Women and the Pleasures of Horror Film Viewing (Albany: State University of New York Press)
Phillips, R.K (2005) Projected Fears: Horror Films and American Culture (Westport: Praeger)
Rockoff, A (2002) Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film, 1978-1986 (London: McFarland & Company Inc)
Schneider, J.S (2004) Horror film and Psychoanalysis: Freud’s worst nightmare (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)
Sullivan, J (2006) Hitchcock’s Music (London: Yale University Press)
Waller, A.G (1987) American Horrors: Essays on the modern American horror film (Chicago: University of Illinois Press)
Wells, P (2000) The Horror Genre: From Beelzebub to Blair Witch (London: Wallflower Publishing)
Williams, L ‘Film Bodies: gender, genre and excess’ in Grant, B.K (2004) Film Genre Reader 3rd Edition (Austin: University of Texas Press)
Williams, T (1996) Hearths of Darkness: The Family in the American Horror Film (London: Associated University Press)
Wood, R (2002) Hitchcock’s Film’s Revisited: Revised Edition (New York: Columbia University Press)
Zizek, S (1992) Everything you’ve always wanted to know about Lacan: But were afraid to ask Hitchcock (London: Verso)