The last few days, I have been immersed in the psychological horrors of yesterday; films with minimal effects, a touch or two of shlock, a great cast and a largely sound story (most based on best-selling novels). They have not been, and in my opinion, cannot be duplicated, bringing us creeping uneasiness and self-doubt, but all of them featured a doomed female protagonist. From The Mephisto Waltz and Let’s Scare Jessica to Death to Rosemary’s Baby and The Sentinel, these sleek films of the late ’60’s and ’70’s deal with the struggles of female intuition, the feminine voice and sanity.
In The Mephisto Waltz (1971), Paula Clarkson (Jacqueline Bisset) is married to failed concert pianist Myles (Alan Alda), who becomes the object of ailing musician and Satanist Duncan Ely’s (Curt Jurgens) desire. Duncan wishes to re-incarnate himself into Myles’s young body so he can carry on being a master pianist. Paula knows there is something amiss, but her instincts are constantly dismissed by friends, colleagues and doctors. The feeling grows throughout the film until she makes the ultimate sacrifice to be with her possessed husband.
Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971) brings us the story of Jessica (Zohra Lampert) who has recovered from a recent breakdown. She moves to the country with her husband Duncan (Barton Heyman) and his buddy Woody (Kevin O’Connor) to live a more peaceful life, but they are met with strange occurrences in the small town surrounding their farm as well as a mysterious guest at their house. She doubts herself constantly, believing she is still mentally ill, but all the while her instincts were right.
Of course we all know the story of Rosemary’s Baby (1968). Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow) knows there is something wrong from the conception of her unborn child to her neighbours and her isolation, but she too suppresses what she feels, believing others when she is labelled silly and emotional, and feels comforted that everyone else knows what’s best for her. Dominated sexually and socially, she is treated like property by her husband Guy (John Cassevetes), who rents out her womb for Satan in exchange for fame. Unfortunately, Rosemary realizes her own power and instinct too late in the game. Cutting her hair, investigating her situation, and trying to plead her case to those in power will not give her the upper hand. Since she can’t beat her oppressors, she reluctantly joins them.
The Sentinel (1977) brings us yet another intuitive woman in Alison Parker (Cristina Raines) who, despite being independent, modern and wanting to wait to get married, becomes a pawn in a supernatural fight for her soul. When she experiences the unbelievable and tells the truth, she is medicated, subdued and her sanity is questioned, especially after two suicide attempts in her past.
All of these women have the same experience: their gut tells them something is wrong. That “wrong” is shrouded in so-called logical explanations, making them doubt their instincts. Even though they know something isn’t right, it is because of traditional gender roles and a history of mental illness or fragility that allows the received rational thought of the time to discredit their natural, or preternatural instincts, intuition and experience. Was this a way for the ruling patriarchy to play out fantasies of repressing the female voice in a time of feminist growth? Second Wave Feminism (1960’s-late 1980’s) was emerging and questioning the status quo at that time. What better way to subconsciously criticize women’s rights than to use popular culture to label women as crazy, fragile or silly for thinking outside of the box. As the heroine feels an uneasiness with her situation, her free will and free thinking is routinely challenged as patriarchal ideologies escalate their self-doubt. These women are penalized for being emotional, intelligent beings and for witnessing the extraordinary. There is no “final girl” here, instead these films illustrate a “what if” scenario as supernatural forces (or society) overtake the rights of our heroines, taking a psychological snapshot in time to illustrate the consequences of defying social conventions. Each woman is either subdued for speaking the truth like Alison and Jessica, or succumb to the pressures of society and their peers like Rosemary and Paula.
One film in particular, The Sentinel (with a star-studded cast including Christopher Walken, Chris Sarandon and Jeff Goldblum), blatantly deals with the emerging female voice and sexuality in the era of ‘Women’s Lib’. Alison wants independence instead of marriage. She is coping with a persistent fiancé-to-be, the death of her promiscuous father, her suicide attempts, and renewed Catholic faith. She moves into an old apartment house owned by the Catholic Church where there is an array of odd neighbours, the most interesting being a lesbian couple Gerde (Sylvia Miles) and Sandra (Beverly D’Angelo). Alison is invited to have coffee with them, and when Gerde leaves Alison alone for a moment with Sandra, she is subjected to Sandra’s bizarre display of masturbation. Alison is shocked and embarrassed, but I think the scene is very important. To me, it illustrates, in a somewhat heavy-handed way, Alison’s confrontation with her own sexuality as she embarks on a journey to find herself. Gerde and Sandra represent Alison’s repressed sexuality trying to emerge in some form, becoming distorted as Alison denies that part of herself. The couple is free to express themselves and this freedom is seen as a perversion, demonizing their lesbian relationship. Since the house is owned by the church, it is a metaphor for Alison’s traditional beliefs that engulfs her as she tries to be independent. Despite her efforts to be her own person, Alison is doomed as she is unable to let go of her ingrained traditional beliefs and be true to herself. She will eventually become a mute and blind servant who no longer has a self or a say in her future.
As we move into the 1980’s, films like The Entity (1982) give us a more literal representation of woman versus the omnipresent oppressor. Carla Moran (Barbara Hershey) is a single mother who is tormented and raped by an unseen demonic presence. She is persuaded to see a therapist who tries to convince her that past trauma is the culprit for her attacks. When she seeks help from a parapsychology team, her skeptics soon realize a bad childhood may not be the answer. What is different here is that our heroine fights back and walks away instead of succumbing. Determined and tenacious, Carla will not let this presence defeat her. This adaptation of a book based on allegedly true events seems to be one of the earlier films that shows the woman as a bruised victor; carrying on despite her oppressor’s constant presence.
It is great to see how female intuition has evolved since these classic films. While we still have work to do, women are continually challenging and changing conventional sexual, cultural and political roles in film and reality. The Descent, Gothika, and The Invasion are great examples of modern psychological horrors featuring women who are strong in their determination and intuition to beat the odds and triumph against evil and those who challenge their sanity (honourable mention goes to the female leads in Doomsday, 28 Days Later and You’re Next for some kick-ass lady power!). So what have I learned from these films? I think it is basic. Horror is a perpetual lesson of how we, especially women, should trust our gut and stick to our guns even in the face of naysayers, slashers and creepy crawlies. As a woman myself, I can remember countless times when I was told I was too sensitive, or that I was overreacting; that I shouldn’t be so upset or emotional. All of these observations made me self-conscious and suppress true emotion when my instincts that told me something wasn’t right. I ended up paying for that in so many ways that now, in my present life, I will never let anyone shame me into hiding my feelings or not trusting my gut. So the next time someone tells you that you are too sensitive, or that you are crazy for what you feel, tell them to get stuffed, stand up for yourself, and carry on. It might save you from the boogeyman one day…