Image via Warner Bros.
You wanna know what baffles me?
Why is it that–according to pop culture–anytime a demon has some free time on its hands and decides to pop into a human’s body for a spell, little girls are always the target?
Are we, as audience members, not totally and utterly sick of this trope yet? Why do we continue to find the idea of a young woman bound by the grips of evil so alluring?
And furthermore, just what is so unsettling about female children? Why do writers and showrunners and filmmakers often feel compelled to twist and pervert them into something inhuman? To play on archetypes of purity and sweetness as a means of terrifying an audience?
Allow me to point you in the direction of author and scholar Barbara Creed, whose phenomenal book The Monstrous Feminine makes an incredible effort to answer some of these questions. Within the text, she analyzes tropes and depictions of femininity as presented in horror movies. I’ll be referencing it frequently within this article.
Creed separates the standard archetypes of female monstrousness into seven different categories: Archaic Mother, Possessed Monster, Monstrous Womb, Vampire, Witch, Femme Castratrice, and Castrating Mother.
The granddaddy of all Creepy-Ass Girl Films, The Exorcist, spawned a series of copycats and redefined the genre to what we understand it to be today. So, naturally, it’s ripe for the taking when exploring the Possessed Monster trope.
In describing the basis of fear upon which films centered around possessed women are built, Creed says: “Possession becomes the excuse for legitimizing a display of aberrant feminine behaviour which is depicted as depraved, monstrous, abject – and perversely appealing.”
Essentially, the idea here is that femininity is seen as monolithic, and, by its very nature, repressed. “Good girls” are quiet, unassuming. They are buttoned up, keep to themselves, never ask questions, and always do what they’re told. And in the case of any woman who dares to challenge this ideology, Creed is positing that pop culture demands an explanation for it. After all–surely women aren’t capable of such brazen, wild behavior of their own accord, right? It’s gotta be somethin’ else. Seriously, there’s gotta be a demon in there.
Creed also makes the compelling argument that these films are disturbing because they’re essentially presentations of women co-opting male personalities, or the male form. This creates terror or confusion within us. In particular, in male audiences, perhaps it triggers a latent fear of loss of power or control. Creed, Freud, and Jung might refer to this as a subtle expression of castration anxiety (I know. Please hold the eye-rolling).
“In films depicting invasion by the devil,” she writes, “the victim is almost always a young girl, the invader the male devil. One of the major boundaries traversed is that between innocence and corruption, purity and impurity.”
Expanding on this idea of fear of loss of control, particularly over female subjects, Creed goes on to consider the conditions of poor little Regan’s home. Her father is nowhere to be found. Her mother is an actress, constantly working and not devoting enough time to being the perfect, doting parent. Clearly, the house is in a state of total lawlessness! Where is the structure? Where are those good ol’ fashioned, traditional family values?
“What better ground for the forces of evil to take root than the household of a family in which the father is absent and where the mother continually utters profanities, particularly in relation to her husband?” Creed asks.
“…the central struggle is between men and women, the ‘fathers’ and the ‘mothers’… constructing monstrosity’s source as the failure of paternal order… a refusal of the mother and child to recognize the paternal order, is what produces the monstrous.”
It may seem like I wrote this entire piece just to dunk on The Exorcist, but I’d like to stress that this is not the case. At all. This remains one of my favorite horror movies of all time, and I am firmly in the camp that it’s still the most frightening ever made. And Creed’s analysis tells us precisely why.
The Exorcist taps into societal fears in a way that many other horror films have attempted to, but none have hit the mark in quite the same way. When it was released in theaters in 1973, “satanic panic” and resulting fears surrounding sex, drugs, hippies, cults, and rock ‘n roll were at the forefront of American consciousness. The idea of a youth that was constantly teetering on the fringes of corruption was spooky as hell. And we could argue that little has changed in the last forty years, because The Exorcist still mystifies us, and the Creepy Little Girl continues to be a centerpiece of pop culture.
I think the core nugget that Creed was hitting on–“the failure of paternal order”–is the source of prevailing terror within our society. Perhaps it’s not the allure of incomprehensible monsters from beyond the veil that has captured our imaginations for so many decades, but how they’re employed. Maybe it’s the idea of a lawless home without masculinized order, beginning in the early stages of a young woman’s development. Perhaps it’s the war between perceived purity vs. repressed reality that scares the shit out of us.
But if this is the case, then could we, like…not?
I’m just as much of a nut for metaphors and symbolism as the next English major, but isn’t there a better way to tell female-driven stories within this genre without perverting them? Themes of puberty, identity, and sexuality offer a wide array of space for filmmakers to play in, but maybe the key to doing so with empathy is to allow more women into these spaces.
Imagine a film about demonic possession written and directed by women. Just think of all the new avenues a simple shift in perspective might open up, all the varied, uncharted enclaves to explore. Or perhaps this movie does exist, and I’m just not privy to it. And if so, all the better! I hope that, as the horror genre continues to stretch its legs within its Golden Age and tell new, fresh, grown-up stories, women will increasingly become part of the narrative behind the scenes.
And who knows? Maybe in another forty years, the Creepy Little Girl will have been unpackaged so thoroughly that she no longer frightens us. Perhaps in the process, we’ll grow beyond what made her so incomprehensibly scary in the first place.