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|Written by Siouxzi Mernagh|
|Tuesday, 13 October 2009 00:00|
"More than anything else, cinema consists of the eye for the magic - that which perceives and reveals the marvellous in whatsoever it looks upon."- Maya Deren (avant-garde filmmaker)
Cinema's fascination with magic and the Uncanny -- and filmmakers' attribution of these properties on female characters -- has existed since its early days. Magic and the Uncanny provide the filmmaker an almost guaranteed peak emotional reaction in their audience: the Uncanny provokes fear and sometimes sexual arousal: two very important reactions for keeping an audience entertained.
Cinema's predecessors combined experimental scientific techniques of their time such as hypnosis, electro-shock treatments, and moving image projections with extreme theatrical spectacle, paving the way for that first shocking and 'magical' cinematic screening by the Lumière brothers in Paris in 1895. The success of cinema's theatrical forerunners relied heavily on the role of shock value, often in the form of provoking the audience with the spectacle of the hysterical woman.
Many of the experimental scientific techniques on display in the 18th century were used to treat 'hysteria' in women. A notoriously difficult to define 'malady,' hysteria was first attributed in both women and men to supernatural possession. Toward the 18th and 19th centuries, the malady became thought of as purely a 'women's disease,' restricted to the upper echelons of society and was likened to a fervid animal taking over the womb. Symptoms of patients from the mid-1700s included 'irregularities in menstruation,' 'religious devotional violence,' and 'excessive sexual desire,' accompanied by 'convulsions.' Physicians attributed these 'women's problems' with 'excessive consumption of coffee and chocolate,' 'excitation of the imagination by reading,' a 'sedentary lifestyle removed from nature,' 'excessive dancing,' and 'unfilled desire brought on by unspoken love.' Mostly, it sounds like a lot of fun.
Naturally, there's quite a difference between the 'hysteric' woman in film and the 'Uncanny' woman in film. Uncanny spectres in cinema usually take the form of women in control, often in a very cold and calculating way such as a witch (George A. Romero's Season of the Witch is a good example) or a ghost, but the most powerful and physically threatening is the female vampire (think Catherine Deneuve in The Hunger). Rather than repressing sexual desire, the female vampire usually very sexually satisfied or at least knows how to be.
The non-horror film version of the female vampire is her mortal counterpart, the vamp. Actresses such as Theda Bara (1885-1955) and Clara Bow (1905-1965) made their names playing 'vamps,' precursors of the femme fatale of film noir, the notoriously independent and sexually aware creature able to leech a man's will and virility. She entranced male and female audiences alike. These screen seductresses offered a stark alternative to conventions of female desire and sexuality and flourished even within the morally restricted cinema of the Production Code era.
Interestingly, the current popularity of Twilight and True Blood, particularly with young female audiences, may indicate a move away from this fascination with the helpless hysteric to a love of both the vamp and her Uncanny sister, the vampire. It could be said that this shift is one towards the pleasure of watching a character get what she wants and reach her desired 'peak.' Recent Swedish vampire film Let the Right One In is a perfect example of a strong female character being completely aware of what she needs and going after it. The difference with this particular (and brilliant) film is that this vampire has compassion and seems able to feel love (it should be mentioned that although Eli is played by a female, the character is actually a castrated male. Most audience members would watch the film completely oblivious to this fact). Eli is a great crossover character between a powerful girl in control of her desires and one that also considers the lives of others around her.
It's no modern phenomenon to watch or read about female vamps and vampires getting what they want (Louise Brooks in Pandora's Box is a classic example), but the fact that this phenomenon in film and literature continues rising in popularity is of great cultural significance. The next steps in the evolution of this female character will be interesting to watch. As to whether film will revive the helpless hysteric again (sans clichéd white nightgown or not) and once more place her as a spectacle on stage only time will tell.