Supernatural Horror and the Problem with Bioessentialism

This piece was previously posted to ScreenQueens

Something special about the horror genre is the sheer range of characters women play; rarely is a woman relegated to a love interest or a passive, disposable role. Supernatural horror — especially those centring witchcraft — often place women as complex anti-heroes: outcasts ridiculed by society, and using witchcraft as both an empowerment tool and a way to destroy those who’ve wronged them. Unfortunately, recent films revolving around witchcraft still pull heavily from prejudices that remain from the first wave of colonisation; outside of the overt racism that I’m absolutely unqualified to discuss, there parallels a worrisome reliance on outdated linkages between gender and anatomy.

Equating the uterus with instability or evil dates back to Ancient Greece — the term “hysteria” coming from the Greek word for uterus — and the myth of the uterus being some sort of evil sentient tumour persisted in Western society from there. By the time the first wave of colonisation rolled around, the assumption that people with wombs (mostly assumed to be women) were sinful and corrupted was a flourishing idea. Centuries later and the idea that the uterus was inherently evil has thankfully been phased out of regular thought, but the idea that some sort of affirming power given to women radiates from it unfortunately hasn’t in popular media. This is a clear-cut case of bioessentialism or gender essentialism: the idea that gender and biological sex are inextricably linked. Gender essentialism is a passive form of transphobia because it enforces the idea that all men have penises, all women have vaginas, and anything in between is non-existent which is incorrect on all three accounts. In the case of supernatural horror specifically, gender essentialism manifests as either witches deriving their power from their wombs or the womb being something that weakens a woman’s will thus making her more susceptible to the power of the Devil.

The first film to guide my attention to the weird focus on gender essentialism in modern witch movies was Rob Zombie’s The Lords of Salem. While the majority of the film operates under the “no plot, just vibes” mantra, the small narrative that persists centres around Heidi (Sheri Moon Zombie) slowly being molded into a vessel for demon spawn by a coven of witches descended from those burned in the Salem Witch Trials. Heidi isn’t randomly selected to be Satan’s surrogate á la Rosemary’s Baby — she is selected because she’s cursed as a female descendent of the judge that sentenced a particular sect of powerful witches to die. However, like Rosemary’s Baby, the uterus is being associated with stereotypically feminine duties of birthing a child (or weird crawfish from Hell) and raising it. Additionally, the stereotype of women being easily corrupted because of the uterus is a theme along all the female leads in The Lords of Salem: the whole conceit is Heidi is easily available to the remaining coven of Salem’s witches because she’s both a woman and a recovering addict. The gender essentialist bit is a combination of old gender assumptions like women are emotional and thus easier to manipulate (the tried and true PMS narrative) as well as assuming all women have wombs.

Perhaps the more egregious display of gender essentialism in a horror narrative about witches is The Love Witch directed by Anna Biller. The conceit of the film is the titular Love Witch Elaine (Samantha Robinson) luring men to a lusty downfall by using her feminine wiles and sexuality, fuelled by her womanly anatomy. Her anatomy factors into all of her witchcraft from using an old tampon in a love potion to her initiation into her coven; it’s emphatically implied Elaine simply would not have any power to find her true love/permanent servant if it wasn’t for her uterus. The Love Witch’s featured coven goes into extensive detail of the spiritual meanings between what men and their penises do and what women and their vaginas do: this discussion is as cut and dry as a public school sex ed class but with more exciting background visuals. Unlike The Lords of Salem, there’s a much more active association between womanhood and the womb as well as associating men with phallic symbols which is a double hit of gender essentialism when coupled with the aforementioned outlining of gender roles explained by the coven Elaine is a part of. Director Anna Biller has a touchy past with transphobia that factors into her concept of womanhood portrayed in The Love Witch. In 2018 Biller wrote a piece on the final girl trope in slashers admonishing the internalised misogyny rooted in the general plot of men killing women as a form of catharsis. Her argument centred heavily on the forced masculinity of the final girl compared to her feminine slaughtered peers and the surviving men (like Ash Williams in the original Evil Dead or Tommy Jarvis in Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter) as effeminate “men in skirts”: these are both outdated and heavily transphobic ways of viewing and writing about characters that openly bend the gender binary even a smidge. 

However, it is not impossible to use elements of old Western views of corruption and sin as links to witchcraft while not being transphobic; a perfect example is Robert Eggers’ debut feature The Witch. Set in 1630s Puritan territory, the main conflict centres around a heavily religious family exiled to a patch of land within the territory of a witch coven. The paranoia the family feels as their livelihoods are threatened and the children die off focuses on man’s inherent corruptibility combined with their oldest daughter Thomasin’s (Anya-Taylor Joy) burgeoning sexuality: a perfect storm for falling under a witch’s influence. While the titular witch (in her very minimal screen time) is shown to be a woman the actual threat is less on anatomy and more on puberty as a concept; Thomasin is only under the influence of the Devil in the final few scenes because she succumbs to her own repressed needs much as her younger brother did earlier in the film making corruption know no specific gender.

As a horror fan, I love the variety in supernatural horror and I always love seeing how much women get to thrive and have agency in the genre; it’s never dull seeing witchcraft become a device for marginalised characters to regain power in some way. However, as a nonbinary person, it pains me to see such outdated, transphobic narratives continuing to thrive in modern media. It’s possible to make a witch movie without a transphobic narrative undercutting it. This passive association of the womb and whatever energy it possesses with womanhood that allows for the normalisation of transphobia: it’s coding that it’s normal for women to have one type of anatomy and men to have another which is both scientifically inaccurate and a gateway for more overt transphobia. Having empowering movies for women involuntarily include some that don’t identify as women and exclude others that do solely from including a plot point about a mass of tissue time and time again is old; it’s possible to make movies centring women that don’t involve her body as a plot point.

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