by Michael Williams and Caroline McMillan, B.A.
My friend Caroline and I spend a lot of time watching, enjoying, analyzing, and discussing films. Although she has not seen Rabid (1977), her insight and additions were invaluable to this article. She has often helped edit my writing, but this feels much more like a collaboration to which I am grateful to have been a part.
I am a horror film fanatic. I love how they are both exciting and thought-provoking, as well as their capacity to be so weird! Having spent so much of my life watching, enjoying, analyzing, and discussing horror films, my worldview has been undeniably influenced by them. Last year, I set myself to the task of reading more, not only to broaden my understanding of the world I live in, but also to seek understanding of the world through the eyes of others. So, when the Faculty of Horror podcast recommended Sady Doyle’s Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers: Monstrosity, Patriarchy, and the Fear of Female Power, my interest was piqued.
In her incisive examination of the horror genre, Sady Doyle examines the psychological underpinnings of horror in media and how patriarchy has influenced its very foundations. At under 300 pages, Dead Blondes is a quick read. It’s informative, even funny. Doyle provides a fascinating look at the rocky relationship between men and women through the lens of the genre I love so much. She explores what underlies the archetypal role of woman as monster in mythology, true crime, folklore, and literature. Doyle posits that these monsters have come about and persist in our culture to this day due to the types of fears that flourish in a patriarchal society. By definition, a patriarchal society is one in which all power is held by men and therefore cannot exist without the subjugation of women. With power comes the fear of its loss; the minds of men have created these monsters which have been shaped by their fear of loss of the status quo, as well as their need to control women in order to maintain it.
Doyle’s opinion, as a feminist author who seeks equality between the sexes, is that women should embrace the archetype of the Female Monster. Her reasoning is that, by creating monsters, men give up power, and “… by constructing patriarchy, men make monsters … A monster is a supposed-to-be-subjugated body that has become threatening and voracious — a woman who is, in the most basic sense, out of (men’s) control” (xix). Doyle’s purpose in writing Dead Blondes was to find “something powerful and important buried underneath what we think we know” (ibid).
Dead Blondes begins with a ghastly, true story of ritual corpse defilement and cannibalism from 19th century New England. The citizens of a Rhode Island town exhumed the corpse of a girl to consume her organs. She had, they thought, become a vampire who rose from her grave to drain the life force of her family. Feeding her organs to a surviving family member, they believed, would prevent her emergence from the grave. Doyle uses this story to illustrate how powerful the widespread patriarchal fear of the destructive power of young females is.
She builds upon this appalling anecdote to illustrate how parents, husbands, and clergy in society continue to torture, abuse, and kill women, spuriously justifying their violent attempts to control women with excuses based not in fact, but in fear and oppressive rhetoric. Doyle tells stories of strong-minded women murdered by husbands and family members who act in the belief that their independent spirit results from a supernatural force that has kidnapped the wife and replaced her with this disobedient imitation. While the roots of many of the fearful creatures recounted are ancient, the stories of murder by botched exorcism or other failed corrective attempts are all recent. Patriarchy still uses ancient ghost stories and folk tales to justify violent attempts at control. It was with this last point in mind that I revisited one of my favorite films, David Cronenberg’s Rabid (1977).
The last time I watched and wrote about Rabid was in 2010, very early in my career as a horror blogger. At the time, I felt clever for treating the movie as a metaphor for the potential devastation caused by a sexually transmitted epidemic disease. After reading Dead Blondes, I found that my changed perceptions greatly deepened my appreciation of Rabid.
While comparing the epidemic in Rabid to the burgeoning AIDS epidemic of the coming decade, I had missed the significance of their origin stories. This time, I saw that, ironically, in Cronenberg’s world, a woman named Rose (Marilyn Chambers) is patient zero — the person identified as the first carrier of a communicable disease in an outbreak. AIDS gained its foothold in America because the men in charge refused to accept that the “gay flu” ravaging the gay population posed a threat to heterosexuals as well. They framed the illness as God’s punishment to gay communities for what was framed as deviant, sinful behavior.
After hearing author Amanda Reyes in Eli Roth’s History of Horror (2018) discuss how representative the fear of violence against women in slasher movies is to women in real life, I began to understand how a woman’s experience of horror films was different than a man’s. She states, “… as a matter of fact, I feel, as a woman, it really represents a realism to me … it’s like a cathartic experience in a way, because women live in that sort of world every day, where we have to be hyper-aware of who’s around us and what could happen” (History of Horror, Slashers Part 1).
For example, a man watching a horror film in the theater may be gripped by suspense over whether or not the female character is going to make it through the dark place to safety. A woman in the same theater may perceive it through the lens past experiences, having felt vulnerable and frightened while walking alone at night. She might even be reminded that such an experience awaits her after the movie is over, when it’s time to walk through the parking lot or down the block to get to her car.
Male violence is widespread across all demographics, even against other men. Doyle cites multiple studies that confirm young women are vastly more likely to experience violent incidents such as rape, sexual assault, or domestic violence than any other measured demographic group (pp. 37-38).
In Rabid, Rose is a victim of patriarchal attempts at control to reduce her to a manageable person. Throughout the film, she encounters men who hurt her, want sex, or strive to “protect” her. Their interference changes her damaged and dying body into a lovely, desirable, and dangerous object possessing enormous power with which she unleashes a plague of violence and death upon a large metropolitan area.
Rose’s life is a mystery prior to the start of of Rabid. She and her lover, Hart (Frank Moore), start the film on a motorcycle trip in the country when they are injured in a horrific crash. Interestingly, a nuclear family arguing over directions precipitates the accident. We see how Rose’s injuries are caused when a husband, trying to assert his control over his family, ignores the danger of stopping his vehicle in the middle of the road.
Against the advice of his wife and colleagues, a plastic surgeon, Dr. Keloid (Howard Ryshpan), uses a new skin graft technique to save Rose’s life. The medical intervention causes unpredictable mutation. Awakening from her coma, Rose emerges with a hunger for human blood. She has become a modern changeling, kidnapped by men of science instead of fairies. Dr. Keloid’s treatment has turned her into a siren who lures men to their deaths with her sexual charms.
Rose penetrates her victims and drains their blood through a phallic proboscis that emerges from a new, yonic orifice in the graft area. While her female victims die, the men become infected, transformed into ugly, bloodthirsty creatures that foam at the mouth as they spread the epidemic.
Escaping the clinic, she returns to the city in search of Hart. There, she uses men’s desire for her to feed — again, another slasher inversion — to her advantage. This time, it is men — not women — who are punished for wanting sex. Because she is a predator, she has nothing to fear. Rose locates her victims in places that women seldom go alone, such as an adult movie theater, an empty lobby at night, and even the mall, where her victims readily approach her. Chaos ensues as the city, a stand-in for patriarchy, declares martial law.
Doyle writes, “Stories about deceptive, frightening, all-powerful female sexuality were created to justify male violence” (p. 82). The male victims in Rabid have already created a relationship with Rose in their minds wherein she is their prey to catch and subdue on the basis of her gender and solitary presence in their territory. Rose is never given a chance to make any choices about what happens to her — and yet, the men, who have never experienced negative repercussions for making unilateral decisions about a woman’s bodily autonomy, now face the consequences for their dismissal of her personhood. In effect, they become victims themselves. This hypocritical dichotomy is borne out of the fear of strong, sexually empowered women, causing them to demonize the women they are attracted to because of their own feelings of vulnerability.
Doyle writes, “Monsters haunt powerful men with the knowledge that their control is only temporary; that women are canny creatures, and the cage of patriarchy is flimsier than it looks, and it is only a matter of time until we find our way out” (xx). Rabid is the fable of such a creature whose life was indelibly altered by haunted men, escaping the flimsy cage and terrorizing the ones who put her in it.
Reading Sady Doyle’s Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers lent me a new perspective on privileges I didn’t realize I had, showing me how we pay for them at a terrible price. From the perspective of a man, Rose was a monster. However, maybe from a woman’s perspective, Rose was a victim who became her own savior — and the fact that the tools Rose used to free herself and exact revenge were imposed upon her by those who oppressed, hurt, and victimized her made her revenge all the sweeter. It is more complicated in real life; one choice men could make is to stop trying to maintain that flimsy cage. Not only does it fail in its purpose, but it also enslaves the would-be masters.