Woman as castrator: A psychoanalytic-feminist study of the castrating mother and Final Girl in the American slasher film.

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Name: Liam Stott

English and Film & Media Studies Level Three

Unit Title: AMDFMS399 

Media Dissertation

Unit Tutor: Rob Kurta

Specialist Tutor: Marc O’Day

Course Leaders: Marc O’ Day/Melanie Selfe


Woman as castrator:  

A psychoanalytic-feminist study of the castrating mother and Final Girl in the American slasher film.



The castrating mother…………………………..5

The Final Girl………………………………….19




This dissertation will explore how the woman is portrayed as castrator in the American slasher film using the critical approach of psychoanalytic-feminism. This will be achieved by analysing the female character as castrating mother and Final Girl.

Gregory Waller states that the landscape of the modern American horror film is characterised by displaying pornographic violence against women (Waller, 1987: 8). For example, one of the most emblematic modern American horror sub-genres is the slasher film. The slasher film promotes sexual violence against women by categorically portraying the patriarchal male monster who subjects women to a subordinate and misogynistic position by butchering sexually promiscuous females with his phallic knife, punishing sexually active women who participate in pre-marital intercourse and other transgressive sexual activities (Neale in Schneider, 2004: 4). Thus, a character such as Michael Myers from the Halloween series personifies that ideology of patriarchal masculinity associated with male power, dominance and aggression, perpetuating the primordial patriarchal unconscious governed by the desire to subdue ‘woman’ and the feminine (Neale in Grant, 1996: 342).

Thus, the male monster is represented as the sadist who unconsciously releases sexual repressed desires and castrates the female victim with his phallic weapon. However, the sexually active female victim or ‘bad girl’ could be argued to occupy a masochistic position. Thus, her castration implies that she receives sexual pleasure from unconscious fantasies of domination and torture from the sexually repressed slasher (Williams in Grant, 2004: 150).

Nonetheless, the rise of psychoanalytic-feminist film criticism during the second stage of feminist film theory between 1975 and 1983 (Hayward, 2000: 115), attempted to suggest that women throughout the horror film were not represented as castrated; on the contrary, women were fundamentally empowered and portrayed as castrators. For instance, Barbara Creed challenged the archetypical view that the monsters throughout the modern American horror film were gendered as male. Creed argued that female monsters have populated the horror film since the 1940s including the woman as an animal in the Cat People (dir. , 1942), the mature female psycho (Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? dir. Robert Aldrich, 1962), the female witch in Carrie (dir. Brian De Palma, 1976) and woman as the bleeding gash in Dressed to Kill (dir. Brian De Palma, 1980) (Creed, 1993: 1).

The slasher film illustrates the castrating woman by portraying the female monster as the castrating mother and female heroine known as the Final Girl. The mother’s castrating monstrosity is centred on Xavier Mendik’s suggestion that through Julia Kristeva’s notion of abjection, it is the evil castrating mother who presents an unconscious castrating threat to patriarchal superiority (Kristeva-Mendik in Chandler, 2000). This is echoed by Mark Jancovich’s notion of how at the nucleus of horror cinema is the unconscious patriarchal apprehension of woman’s ‘difference’ and her monstrous and unsettling active and castrating sexuality (Jancovich, 1992: 10).

Although Creed’s argument expresses that the monster is not invariably gendered as male, the adolescent male spectator participates in a sadistic pleasurable experience. This is where the male viewer identifies with the male slasher through the subjective cinematography of the killer and acquires the slasher’s sadistic-voyeuristic ‘controlling gaze’ (Mulvey in Chandler, 2000).

 Nonetheless, this sadistic-voyeuristic relationship between the male slasher and spectator is essentially sabotaged when the male audience are encouraged to identify with the other manifestation of the castrating woman: the Final Girl. Unlike her sexually promiscuous and castrated companions, she is signified by her independence, survival instincts and the active female, yet masculine gaze. The passive, asexual woman essentially manifests into an active and powerful phallic female, releasing her unconscious sexually repressed desires and symbolically castrates the male slasher in an angry fashion (Williams in Grant, 2004: 151). Thus, the gender relationship between the male monster, Final Girl and implied male spectator is confusing and ambiguous. This is where the male audience are essentially encouraged to identify across genders and to adopt, however temporarily, both sadistic and masochistic positions in the horror scenario.

The two particular character types representing the woman as castrator that will be unpicked in the following investigation will be how the woman is portrayed as the castrating mother and Final Girl.

The castrating mother

The discourse of the villainous castrating mother arose throughout the post-war period in American society as a response to the loving and nurturing relationship between father and daughter. This disturbing image of the mother was a prelude to the representative figure of the ‘Mom’ (Gant, 2006: 82). Momism was released into the American public consciousness with the 1943 publication of Philip Wylie’s misogynistic essay of American society entitled Generation of Vipers. Wylie’s central argument was how the depiction of Momism in post-war films was symptomatic of a failure of masculinity and paternalism (Wylie in Gant, 2006: 82). This corresponds to Gorer who recognised that the phobic Mom was illustrative of the ‘clinging mother,’ symptomatic of how American men have a clear fear and uncertain attitude towards American post-war mothers (Gorer in Gant, 2006: 89).

After the Second World War, the fabric of American family life was heavily damaged. Academic commentators including Marynia Farnham and Ferdinand Lundberg describe the change in family attitudes as a result of the fathers at war in the military and the resulting convergence of mother-child relationships. This produced oedipal and disconcerting maternal undertones, contributing to a loss of positive paternal family values through the absent father and the abject Mom (Gant, 2006: 93).

Kenneth Phillips argues that during the 1950s and 1960s, the American suburban Dream was underpinned by maternal separation and the domesticated mother. This ultimately led to the mother’s frustration and loneliness over the child’s health and wealthfare. Thus, the apparent absence of the father and mother’s domestic dominance was reflective of the over-protective nature of Momism (Phillips, 2005: 66-67).

This maternal threat of Momism was exacerbated by other 1970s political events including the reduction of male capitalism as a result of de-industrialisation, the rise of feminism and the decrease in American masculine dominance. Thus, American middle-class motherhood became more actively threatening and unsettling (Genter, 2006: 3). It is this particular alarming representation of motherhood that underpins the portrayal of the castrating mother in the modern slasher film.

The image of the castrating mother throughout the slasher film is rooted in two particular Freudian critiques entitled Little Hans and the Wolf Man. Freud discovered that it was the unconscious mother who acted as the castrator and punished sexually promiscuous women. Melanie Klein expands Freud’s notion of the unconscious mother by theorising two perceptions of the mother. One perspective is the way that the child’s encounter with the mother’s breast is symbolised as the “phallic” and evil unconscious mother (Freud-Klein in Kaplan, 1992: 107). This dominating image of the mother corresponds to her “monstrous” symbolic threat, theorised by Julia Kristeva as the child’s profound abject fear. This monstrosity centred on maternal melancholy is reflective of Hitchcock’s image of mothers, disrupting the unconscious patriarchal order in a violent and disturbing fashion (Kristeva in Kaplan, 1992: 117). The Hitchcock horror film that encapsulates the unconscious threat of the castrating mother is his masterpiece, Psycho.

Psycho (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1960) is simply the ‘quintessential’ horror film (Modleski in Creed, 1993: 140), described by Adam Rockoff as the grandfather of all slasher films (Rockoff, 2002: 26). Psycho was the very first cinematic slasher film, which inspired the American horror film landscape in the late 1970s and early 1980s to become inundated with visceral and violent slasher films (Dika in Waller, 1987: 86). Psycho is also an exemplary slasher film that explicitly illustrates Freud’s notion of the monstrous, castrating mother known as Mrs. Norma Bates.

The threat of the castrating mother is presaged in Psycho’s opening title sequence. Christopher Palmer states that the music ‘inform(s) the audience that something traumatic is going to happen’ (Palmer in Sullivan, 2006: 253). This is emphasised by Spellbound’s composer Miklos Rozsa who suggests that the ‘stark, jagged music, so redolent of Bartók and Stravinsky, is sufficient to grip the spectators in their seats, filling them with a nightmarish apprehension of the terror to come’ (Rozsa in Sullivan, 2006: 253). Thus, Palmer and Rozsa are expressing the appropriateness of the terrifying soundtrack that effectively foreshadows and conveniently interpellates the narrative’s initial equilibrium with a dramatic sense of horror. This prefigures the future arrival of the castrating mother in a shocking and unsettling fashion.

The castrating power of Mrs. Bates is exemplified by her dominating and possessive psychic control over her son, Norman Bates. The omnipotent threat of Norman’s psychological torture from his castrating mother is a perpetual unconscious fear (Modleski, 2005: 109). This is symptomatic of the powers of the horror genre, relating to masculine fears of maternal abjection. Thus, the fear is not just of castration, but of the loss of total self (Kristeva in Modleski, 2005: 109). However, in order to prevent complete castration, Norman becomes mother. Thus, he essentially manifests into the castrator, rather than being castrated (Creed, 1993: 140).

Norman’s transformation from the conscious Norman Bates to his unconscious evil mother is symptomatic of mother’s psychological attachment to Norman. American psychoanalyst Edmund Bergler argues that the unconscious attachment of the mother to Norman carries oedipal undertones, where:

‘The boy considers himself the innocent victim of a witch who is capable of    starving, devouring, poisoning, choking, chopping to pieces, draining, and castrating him’ (Bergler in Genter, 2006: 1).

Although Bergler’s statement is centred on the pre-oedipal child’s over-attachment to the castrating threat of the mother, Robert Genter suggests that this specific psychoanalytic situation of the infant is applicable to the psychotic behaviour of Norman Bates, centred on the victimisation from his castrating mother (Genter, 2006: 1). Moreover, what is particularly verbally castrating to Norman is mother labelling him as ‘boy,’ even though Norman is now an adolescent. This infantilises Norman and also expresses that he will always remain a child from mother’s perspective (Creed, 1993: 142).

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In one of the initial conversations between Norman and ‘his’ first victim Marion Crane, Norman informs her that ‘we’re all in our private trap. We scratch and claw, but only at the air, only at each other, and for all of it we never budge an inch’ (Wood, 2002: 145). Norman is subliminally describing his traumatic, psychotic attachment to his deceased mother, Norma Bates. This produces his psychotic behaviour and a clear sense of converging to the psychoanalytic notion of the Oedipus complex. However, Freud associated the Oedipus complex with ‘falling in love with the mother and jealousy of the ...

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