Discussion of the beginnings of horror film history, in this post looking specifically at gender, race, bugs, and the 1990s.

If 1980s horror situates the monster as a threat to children (and, by extension, the future) in response to anxiety regarding LGBTQ activism, 1990s horror situates that anxiety firmly in the home. Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, published in 1990, challenges stable notions of sex and gender, asserting that both exist as constructed modes of identification. While feminist movements incited their own cultural anxieties and tensions that recur throughout horror, Butler further challenges comfortable normative formations of gender, calling into question the ways in which early feminism constructed “universal” concepts of what it means to be a “woman” that utilize the same exclusionary framework of “universal” patriarchy. This further destabilization, along with corresponding activist work in queer theory and organizing, and emerging notions of gender and sexuality as fluid, accounts for the solidification of the monster in horror films as a distinctively domestic threat. The confluence of these anxieties regarding gender roles, threats to the nuclear/heteropatriarchal family unit, and emerging environmental movements lead to a radical shift in monster movies from the earlier human/oid monsters of the 1950s-80s. Monsters in the 1990s became infestations of bugs[1], particularly those bugs that had been “tampered with” on some level by human intervention.

The primary threat in Frank Marshall’s 1990 film Arachnophobia is, predictably enough, spiders. The film’s monster(s) aren’t your average garden spiders, though, but are a lethal cross-breed between a large, aggressive, and deadly Amazonian spider and a domestic house spider. The new spiders are especially terrifying because they are as small and innocuous-looking as their house spider mother while maintaining the aggression, speed, and lethality of their Amazonian father. The new spider’s characterization and inception, alone, open up multiple analytic paths. First, the racial politics at play in the racialization of the “father” and further classification of the non-white paternal figure as aggressive, violent, and dangerous, fall neatly into 1990s (and 2000s, and present-day) race politics, particularly as they pertain to the Global South. Along these lines, consider the film’s premise if the initiating spider originated in, say, France, Britain, or Sweden?

Part of why the narrative works is because, at its foundation, it is built on the believable notion that anyone/anything the comes from the Amazon (especially anything coded as male) is necessarily already dangerous. The premise further engages with a long history of racialized sexual politics in the United States in which white women (as the house spider is coded in the film) are perpetually figured as prey to violent, aggressive, (monstrous) non-white men[2].

In addition to the spider’s racialization, it also denotes anxiety regarding an impending threat to the family unit in the US in the 1990s. Ross Jennings (played by Jeff Daniels) and his wife, Molly Jennings (played by Harley Jane Kozak) move to the small town of Canaima, CA[3] from San Francisco in order to provide a quieter, less hectic life for their children, Shelley and Tommy (played by Marlene Katz and Garette Patrick Ratliff, respectively). It bears noting that upon the family arriving at their new home Tommy finds a spider in a box he’s unpacking, asks Ross to deal with the spider, at which point Ross and Tommy seek assistance from Molly and Shelley. With the “men” too afraid to kill the spider, it’s left to the women to relocate, rather than kill, the harmless arachnid to their barn. During this exchange Molly claims that it’s bad luck to kill a spider in a new home, invoking the discourse between Black Magic and White Science that Carol Clover discusses at length in Men, Women, and Chain Saws in her discussion of occult horror[4]. It is this house spider that mates with the Amazonian spider, producing the small, lethal breed that will overtake the Jennings home, and Canaima, later in the film.

The film’s discourse regarding human intervention in nature as the source of conflict implies a tacit responsibility—the new breed wouldn’t exist if the original spider hadn’t been brought to Canaima from the Amazon and if Molly and Shelley hadn’t provided it with a suitably innocuous mate—rather than direct responsibility. Guillermo del Torro’s 1997 film Mimic, by contrast, posits that human intervention into natural processes, even with the best intentions, is the primary source of deadly conflict. The film opens with a prologue in which children in Manhattan are suffering from a debilitating and sometimes fatal disease whose primary carrier/cause is the city’s roach infestation. Entomologist Dr. Susan Tyler (Mira Sorvino) genetically engineers the Judas breed (which secretes an enzyme that kills the roaches) and her colleague/husband (who happens to work for the CDC) Dr. Peter Mann (Jeremy Northam) helps her distribute the new insects across the city, thereby destroying the disease. Dr. Tyler is careful in her genetic design, the Judas breed are designed to be infertile with a short lifespan so that they won’t permanently affect the ecosystem. She does note, however, that they haven’t done nearly enough tests and aren’t sure how the species will react/interact in the real-world, a concern that her husband quickly dismisses in the face of their perceived win. But this is a horror movie, so of course her fears come to fruition. Of course.

The film is, on its surface, primarily concerned with the hubris of scientific intervention into natural processes. The disease is terrible, and we’re culturally programed to want to protect children and keep them from illness and death. It’s a classic moral dilemma: the disease evolves/is introduced in order to re-balance the local ecosystem, so while seeing children in pain and dying is horrible, perhaps stopping the disease wasn’t the correct course of action. Which is where Mimic moves from a film about the problems with genetic tampering to a film about threats to children in a broader sense. Like Arachnophobia, the moments of terror in Mimic are primarily those in which children are threatened. If we consider that the new arachnids/insects in these films are, fundamentally, representative of domestic threats, dangerous things that are really only threatening to us where we live, then the films resonate both with emerging environmental concerns and emerging concerns over the sanctity of the nuclear family and stable notions of gender, the latter two precisely because destabilizing notions of gender/family is primarily a threat to the home.

[1] For anyone interested in entomology, I’m using “bug” here as shorthand to encompass both arachnids (in the case of Arachnophobia) and insects (in the case of Mimic).

[2] For more on this, particularly as it pertains to colonialism, slavery, and imperialism see Anne McClintock’s Imperial Leather.

[3] Named after an actual National Park in Venezuela, thus solidifying the linkage between threats to domesticity and South America.

[4] In short, Clover explains that occult horror is particularly concerned with the conflict between Black Magic (coded as feminine and non-white) and White Science (coded as masculine and white/Western) so that the narratives of these films turn on the conversion of men representing science to a more open, feminine, spirituality. See pages 65-113.

Sources, References, and Further Reading:

Bataille, Georges. “The Notion of Expenditure.” Visions of Excess: Selected Writings. 116-29. 1939. Print.

Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan, 1994. Print.

Benshoff, Harry M. Monsters in the Closet: Homosexuality and the Horror Film. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1997. Print.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990. Print.

Butler, Judith. Undoing Gender. New York: Routledge, 2004. Print.

Clover, Carol J. Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1992. Print.

Freud, Sigmund. Beyond the Pleasure Principle. New York: Norton, 1975. Print.

Waller, Gregory A., ed. American Horrors: Essays on the Modern American Horror Film. Chicago: U of Illinois, 1987. Print.

Image Credit: Buena Vista Pictures © 1990

Author: Geneveive Newman