February 6 2014
Note: all meditations not directly related to examining art in horror are included on this blog–intertexting with related fictions.
Rupophobia, or fear of filth, it has been established, is the basic premise of most horror of this generation. Fear of filth, and fear of filth in homes, and fear of filth as it might get on clean bodies, and especially into private areas of clean bodies, this seems to be the underlying elemental fear that drives most contemporary horror. The broader reasons for this I leave to a later time. But, to mention, this new paradigm does resituate the bathroom as a site of somewhat different rituals.
In previous horror, the bathroom was the site of one primary convention, the shower scene. In it, a naked girl bathed, showing herself, and then she hears something, and often is killed in the shower. It was a symbol of the ultimate vulnerability, likely grounded in an innate sense of vulnerability had in standing naked in a flimsy enclosure with one’s blind spot open and back and undercarriage exposed. The other site of horror in traditional bathrooms was the bathroom mirror, as it would seem that the degree of concentration combined with a bending of body to attend to an issue of hygiene, whether brushing teeth, washing face, or shaving, left one with an unconscious fear of something or someone coming up behind one (as, indeed, Dracula does, at the very beginning of modern horror), or from below you. This then translated into the sudden jarring dislocation of space, amounting almost to a dizzy spell, of the bathroom mirror opening and closing and moving the walls about so quickly in such a small space.
It would seem from The Possession (2012) that even preteen girls now, standing in their underwear at clean sinks, now feel an anxiety, here as she attends to a hygiene duty, brushing her teeth, a moth comes up and gets in her hair,
This then triggers a sequence in which they discover that her whole bedroom is infested with moths
Later still she again convenes at the bathroom mirror, and something goes wrong with the bath or the mirror, either way, the whole of the clean bathroom, and expectations of its cleanliness, means that anything in the bathroom can trigger a rupophobic start
Which then would trigger an outbreak of horror. It is also to be noted that the weird lockedupness of the grieving daughter in Stoker was signified early on not by bathroomplay, but by the fact that a spider is seen to crawl up her leg and, later, up into her private area, certainly, then, a primal fear for a gender with an opening down there. In this regard, the bathroom as a whole to a body standing and attending to its hygiene as the bed and the bedclothes and the bedroom as a whole is to a body that is reclining in bed. Just as hag attacks and sightings of shadow people and such are the end result of the sleeping body sensing the presence of things around it, and starting, as for example, seeing things in the pillow, as you lie on your side, and open your eyes (a device used in The Innkeepers and in The Haunting), so the bathroom is the place for attacks by creepy crawlers because one’s body is exposed and, worse, exposed in indelicate ways as one attends to its cleanliness.
The only traditional trope of horror that derives from this role of the bathroom is the bathroom as a sight of either purification, or purging of emotions. According to this lore, a shower solves all problems. If you have been raped, or abused in any way, then a good hot shower, not unlike a nice Aryan fire to solve any horror problem, will wash it all away. This goes way back, we see it in Rosemary’s Baby (1969) for example. And then too there is the crying shower, where one goes to make use of the double veil of the shower curtain and the spray and then too the sound of the spray to hide tears, so one can have a good cry (this from a twistedly bad shower sequence in a movie only watchable for its shower sequence, Mangler 2).
It is odd that moths play a part in horror, as they did in Mama (2013), as all rupophobic horror: they represent the motheaten, the old, the moldy, the dusty and dirty, the attics and the basements, they are the infesting agent of the rupophobic nightmare, a dirty place. For that, they have become newly demonized. In The Possesssion as, ala Silence of the Lambs, a moth ends up down the girl’s throat. In the non-horror movie that giallo-like exploits horror, The Moth Diaries (2011), a nightmare ledge crawl, in bare feet and gown, to see what’s in Ernessa’s room, brings up an infested room of moths (this, in infesting the whole room, oddly, also takes off on The Anmityville movies and their flies).
But The Moth Diaries is surprising for not including any bathroom scenes involving the haunted girls, only the memories of two former suicides, first her father, then the memory of Ernessa’s in 1905
This, in this regard, we are reminded that the bath, not the shower, has another whole vocabulary in horror, often related to suicide. With many examples.
There is one theme that sometimes came out in these scenes, usually in B movies, and that was sexual awakening. In having to deal with one’s bodies, one is likely to have to face up to one’s sexuality. Sexual awakening likely first occurs in the context of the bathroom. The potential for this has been exploited in the worst sort of horror, such as the Toolbox Murders (1981). It is also true that in classic modern horror masturbation is linked to an altered state of consciousness, leading to madness. But normally the two devices did not overlap, well, no, they did, in Peter Proud. In any case, this raises the issue with regard to two recent examples where the meanings of the bathroom and the shower had been twisted about in interesting ways to reiterate traditional values in a slightly modernized form.
In the largely unsuccessful ghost story The Awakening, the lovely Rebecca Hall plays uptight oh so repressed super educated nonwomanly if extremely bookily sexy Florence Cathcart, come to a country house to solve a ghost story. As she enters the house, mention is made of a copy on the stairway of Artemischi Gentileschi’s Judith and Holofernes, she knows the picture, presumably because she is educated
But then she looks through a peephole and sees the male teacher get up out of the bath naked, and this seems to turn her on. She then has a bad experience that gets her all dirty out in the woods so she comes back to bathe it away. Here, then, the bath is a purification bath, washing it away, she is at peace,
But then she feels more comfortable, and, musing on what she has seen and experienced, seems to have more awareness of her body and its desires. At this point, the hand drops down her body, under the water, we see it linger there below the surface for a bit, and then it drops out of sight, so that she can begin to masturbate. So, it turns into that kind of bath: a bath of awakening. But at just that point, in keeping with a rather English sense of sexual guilt, she hears a noise on the other side of the peep hole. She instinctively sits up (which is rather odd, because in doing so, she exposes herself, but she is getting up and out fast)
But then, realizing that there are only three people in the whole house at this point, she puts him in her former position and now thinks he is peeping on her, she talks to him, and turns, to show herself, so it is that kind of thing (going way back in my memory to at least the Garden of the Finzi Contini, except to say that when Dominique Sanda showed herself there it was to signify to the peeper look what you can’t have: this is clearly to interest him, to entice him, it is a show for the purposes of seduction. Interesting enough, this sort of show is signified, in contemporary movies, by a side show of one nipple, it is even a half a nipple, an almost not showing of it, it being tastefully done, it is an odd convention that is developing
But now she goes toward the hole. If you are in the other side of the whole, you get a full on view, if this was a 70s exploitation movie, same thing, but here, we follow her, as she approaches the discrete gloryhole
but then when she crouches down, remember she is naked, to look through, rather than get a dick in the eye, she falls back, she sees a ghost with a twisted face (which does not make sense, really)
This then causes her to start, run get her robe, throw it on, run after the ghost, and run through the house. She is barefoot, robed, so this is another one of those fragile walks. She ends up coming into an empty room that only has one item in it, a strange stately dollhouse, she looks through the windows, and these are the next peepholes, as she sees in it set up scenes of the drama being played out, in doll form
Even to the point of seeing her in her robe, just a few seconds before, looking through the peephole,
And even into the house
Such dolls, such scenes, at small scale, in theaters or dollhouses, in traditional horror, such as in The Creeping Flesh, they mean madness, and they more or less mean that same thing here as later on she finds the real dollhouse in the basement and the scenes in it bring back her blocked out memory of witnessing her father kill her mother etc.
In any case, it is the bathtub that triggers all this: there is even still a whisper that it was masturbation, and the need during it to more intensely imagine something so that it will be strong enough to physically turn one on, that leads to the altered or expanded state of consciousness that then unlocks her, and leads to the awakening of the title. It’s odd, to see such an old fashioned convention woven in.
Then, even odder, the same device showed up in another orchestration of the same devices in the thriller Stoker. This too in some ways stinks of indie movie plotting, as in the indie universe, the only sure thing in life, and the only meaning in life is got from, sex, sexual awakening, and being who you are sexually, that is all that counts. No matter how arty you get, no matter what the movie is about, it always, in the indie universe, comes down to the God sex. In this one, also, as in all the other movies mentioned, a very uptight 17 year old girl, just turning 18, who is mourning the death of her father (same plot, oddly, as in The Moth Diaries, how does this happen?). She is decidedly odd, and very weird. And then one night she sees her Uncle Charlie making out with her mother and that somehow gets her going so she goes out and picks up local nice biker Whip and takes him into the woods. When he begins to make a move on her she at first responds but then rejects so Whip will not take a no and goes after her, at which point Uncle Charlie comes in over the top and takes care of Whip. It is quite a traumatic event. She returns then to her bathroom. Because she was in the mud, and because a murder was committed on top of her, she is covered in mud and blood
She stands on a superclean towel, and strips it all off, everything on her, she leaves it all in the pile, then steps off the towel, naked
And so commences a shower sequence: a standard shot, repeated for the millionth time, a naked girl behind a patterned blurry shower door or curtain
The conventional expectation, if this was a horror movie, would be that we would now get a POV shot from the outer hall, and perhaps Uncle Charlie would be seen coming in against her, to either join her or kill her, because she now knows wha’ts up with him. But this is not a horror movie, and the convention does not play out like that. We now go inside the shower, and she is not even bathing, ie no soaping, no raising arms, so sudsing, etc. she is crying. So, it is a crying shower, a shower of silent suffering
But then the movie surprises us a bit, the camera drops down her body, this is the first time, in this extremely buttoned up girl, we are acknowledging that she has a body
And then we see that she is masturbating: this is a shower of masturbation, likely more common in real life than a masturbation bath. (but in a horror movie this would then set up for a quick curtain pull at right this moment, and punishment from God in the form of a Psycho style slash
But it doesn’t go that way either. Once again, a surprise, the camera goes up to the spray head level, and looks down on her. We see her enjoy her episode of self arousal, her discovery of her sexuality,
We stay with it,
this now turns into an almost “pornographic” depiction of the build up to an orgasm, in masturbation, as registered by her noises and her face makings. And then we see some dissolve and overlay, nurtured by the spray, we see what is turning her on, and what is turning her on is not sex, is not having had or almost had sex with Whip, but murder, the tightening of the belt, the pull of the belt, the throttle, the jolt of death in his body, on her, and that, that is, that, murder, not sex, is what causes her to come
And the really fascinating thing is, introducing us to this conflicted sequence, is, just as in The Awakening, when Hall tossed her hat into the ring, by instigating a complication, signified by showing a nipple,
So here, exact same convention,
Very strange indeed: partly attributable to the mandates of artiness, the distributor hesitation to get too explicit in sexual matters anymore, at least in terms of show, but likely a new convention emerges, the nipple, the signifier of twist coming, a purple moment, when things will twist. And the twist here is that she is a sadist, she has that problem (lust murder, or erotophonophilia. frequent among serial killers) that the woman in Deviation (1971) has, she gets turned on only by murder, not by sex. She now will, it is presumed for a bit, become Charlie’s love interest, not the mother, but then she also finds out that Charlie is mad and kills him and goes off to begin a career as a killer. Thus, what started as a bathroom scene of purification, what appeared for a moment to be a scene of silent suffering, turned into a scene of sexual discovery and arousal, but, then, the final twist, revealed itself as a the complete solution, the full revelation of what she really is. While I thought the movie Stoker as a whole was impossibly arty and overly obtuse this at least was an interesting twist on a well-worn horror movie tradition, and even exploited recent rupophobic uses of the bathroom to twist out of it a surprising outcome.
In the mythology. TBA.