‘Moist caves’ and ‘bloody chambers’ — The adolescent female body and sexuality in modern horror and gothic

Tarn Rodgers Johns
24 min readOct 24, 2016

An abridged version of my BA thesis (University of Sussex, 2015). Written for the class ‘Adolescence in the 21st Century’ with Dr. Pam Thurschwell, I chose to look at some of the tropes used in horror and gothic fiction and film, and how these relate to the adolescent female body.

In the 15th century, Jacob Sprenger and Heinrich Kraemer wrote in the Treatise on the Persecution of Witches that ‘since [women] are feebler both in mind and body, it is not surprising that they should come more under the spell of witchcraft… the natural reason is that she is more carnal than a man, as is clear from her many carnal abominations’. Although we have come a long way since these words were written, superstitions about the unnatural, morally wrong and even evil nature of female sexuality and the female body still manifest themselves in our culture today, notably in the genre of horror and gothic. Adolescence is associated with burgeoning sexuality, and anxieties about female sexuality are often projected onto the body of the adolescent girl in horror and gothic.

Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel The Virgin Suicides employs gothic and uncanny motifs, making it an example of ‘American suburban gothic’ (Dines). In this novel the Lisbon sisters are collectively represented in the boys’ memory as mysterious objects of male desire whilst being simultaneously grotesque and monstrous, thereby providing an example of male impressions of female adolescent sexuality and the female adolescent body. Angela Carter’s short story The Bloody Chamber also considers the topic of adolescent virginity as well issues of sexual power, coming of age and corruption. The Bloody Chamber is based on a French folktale entitled Bluebeard about a young newlywed woman who discovers a secret room filled with the dead bodies of her husband’s ex wives. Bluebeard is often considered to be an allegory about the dangers of female curiosity but Carter’s retelling adds a feminist dimension to the traditional story by extracting ‘the latent content’ (Haffenden). The Bloody Chamber serves as an excellent example of some traditional gothic tropes and themes with a feminist twist. Thirdly, Stephanie Meyer’s hugely popular young adolescent series The Twilight Saga is an example of the reworking of some traditional horror and gothic tropes by taking the gothic figure of the vampire and recasting him as romantic hero. This series has sold 160 million copies worldwide, with an audience of predominantly adolescent girls. Despite many gains towards sexual autonomy for women in the past decades, the novels’ insistence on the protagonist’s virginity has been criticised for promoting abstinence before marriage as ideal. The Twilight Saga consists of four books but for the purpose of this paper I will focus on the first book, Twilight, and two scenes from the last book, Breaking Dawn. Although these texts are very different from each other, they all employ elements of gothic or horror and they all deal with adolescent intercourse and the adolescent body as central themes. For this essay I will consider the ways in which these texts convey anxieties or assumptions about the adolescent female body and sexuality which adhere or allude to hegemonic attitudes, using some relevant comparisons between classic gothic fiction and modern horror films. This essay will use feminist theory as a lens through which to consider these issues, notably Angela Dworkin’s Intercourse, Angela Carter’s The Sadeian Woman and Elizabeth Grosz’s Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism.

In fiction and film, blood can be evoked to signify familial ties or indicate injury and pain. Blood is also symbolic of humanity and mortality, it is both ‘a filthy and vital matter’ (Stephanou, 4) and is used liberally in both horror and gothic to signify ‘the pulsing nexus of vital debates and anxieties around identity and the body’ (Stephanou, 5). Elizabeth Grosz argues that the capacity of bodily fluids to extend outside the boundaries of the body acts as an affront to individual autonomy and self-identity because they are a reminder of the ‘permeability of the body, its necessary dependence on the outside, its liability to collapse into this outside (this is what death implies)’ (193). Biologically speaking, menstruation could be seen as an exception to this rule. Rather than representing death and decay female menstruation is a necessary element to the creation of life. However menstrual blood acts as a reminder of the permeability of the female body, a body ‘which leaks, which bleeds, which is at the mercy of hormonal and reproductive functions’ (Grosz, 204) and menstrual blood has therefore been used to signify feminine inferiority. Patricia Crawford has argued that the construction of female inferiority in the seventeenth century was bound with attitudes to menstruation being dirty and impure, ‘these explanations were in turn used to justify women’s inferior position in society’ (47). Throughout history, female menstruation has been treated with suspicion and disgust and in some cases evidence of supernatural or mysterious power. ‘Never trust something that bleeds for a week and doesn’t die’ is a oft-quoted line from the 1997 film In the Company of Men which attests to the still prevalent patriarchal suspicion of the menstrual cycle. For teenage girls, puberty signifies the first onset of menses and by association the capacity for reproduction. It therefore symbolically marks the transformation of the virginal girl child into the sexualised woman.

The Virgin Suicides opens with the description of thirteen year old Cecilia Lisbon lying in a ‘pink pool’ in the bathtub having slit her wrists in an attempted suicide, ‘her small body giving off the odor of a mature woman’ (3). The reader later discovers that ‘Cecelia had just gotten her period’ (23). Onset of menstruation is an event that is widely considered as a marker of a girls’ entrance into womanhood but Cecelia’s choice method of suicide propels her pubescent body to the other extremity which blood represents — death, as indicated by the odour her body emits. When the Doctor asks Cecilia ‘”What are you doing here honey? You’re not even old enough to know how bad life gets.”’ She replies, ‘”Obviously, Doctor… you’ve never been a thirteen year old girl”’ (7). The implication that being an adolescent girl is an otherworldly experience that transcends normal human experience is implicit throughout the novel. Mr. Lisbon feels ‘at times as though he were living in the bird house at the zoo… so many females roamed the house they forgot he was a male and discussed menstruation in front of him’ (23). In addition to having to hear about menstruation, the girls ‘were all synchronized in their lunar rhythms’ (23) meaning that Mr Lisbon would ‘dispense aspirin as though feeding the ducks’ (23). The association of menstruation with zoo animals creates the impression that menstruation is an un-civilised and non-human experience. Furthermore, the reference to lunar rhythms has a supernatural connotation and could be alluding to the gothic figure of the werewolf, something that reoccurs later on in the novel with descriptions of Lux Lisbon’s sexual body.

The Virgin Suicides film directed by Sofia Coppola

The tone of the novel is intensely eulogic and accordingly mention of the girls’ menstruation is described in eulogic and mysterious terms. When Peter Sissen discovers a tampon ‘still fresh from the insides of one of the Lisbon girls’ the boys are fascinated to have discovered that ‘Lux Lisbon was bleeding between the legs that very instant, while the fish flies made the sky filthy and the streetlamps came on’ (10). The revelation of Lux’s period forms a contrasting parallel with the image of Cecelia’s oozing wrists just a few pages previously. This, combined with the image of the tampon juxtaposed with the sky made ‘filthy’ by the fish flies adds an element of the grotesque. The blood on the tampon is a reminder of the orifices and permeable boundaries of the female body and serves as an external reminder of the mysterious adolescent bodies of the Lisbon girls.

Blood is a crucial trope in all vampire fiction. As blood is a symbol of humanity and death, the undead vampire must satisfy his (or, less often, her) thirst by feeding on the life blood of humans. Perhaps the most famous, archetypal vampire is Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula. In Dracula, the Count’s thirst for blood has sexual and lustful connotations. Angela Dworkin proposes that:

Vampirism is a metaphor for intercourse: the great appetite for using and being used; the annihilation of orgasm; the submission of the female to the great hunter… and with the great wound, the vagina, moved to the throat (119).

While the figure of the vampire is now somewhat anachronistic, Stephanie Meyer updates the figure of the vampire in her Twilight series to a much cleaner representation of vampirism. Meyer’s vampire family the Cullen’s are ‘vegetarians’ — vampires that have forgone the drinking of human blood for animal blood so as to be able to live peacefully amongst humans. Meyer’s heroine Bella Swan is an ‘ordinary’ 17 year old girl who has blood so potent that the 17 going on 107 year old vampire protagonist Edward Cullen is almost overcome with blood lust for her when they first meet, although naturally they eventually fall in love. Edward’s tortured struggle not to kill Bella and consumer her blood is a major feature of the plot, and it means that the two characters cannot engage in physical intimacy without risking the loss of his self control and killing her, ‘“when we hunt… we give ourselves over to your senses, govern less with our minds. Especially our sense of smell. If you were anywhere near me when I lost control in that way…”’ (Meyer, “Twilight” 197). Twilight, therefore, maintains one of the themes of traditional vampire fiction as Edward’s bloodlust acts as a metaphor for sexual lust. Bella is a virgin, and the possibility that Edward might bite and kill her becomes symbolic of virginal penetration, ‘a tiny voice in the back of my mind worried, wondering if it would hurt very much… if it ended badly’ (“Twilight” 220). Edward’s overzealous commitment to the protection of Bella’s physical safety from other vampires throughout the series therefore becomes a symbolic substitute for her virginity. Despite Bella’s blood being Edward’s personal ‘brand of heroin’ (“Twilight” 235), so potent that even a paper cut sends him into a ravenous fury, any mention of menstruation is suspiciously absent throughout the series. When confronted with the question of menstruation in an interview Stephanie Meyer claimed that menstrual blood is ‘dead blood’ therefore not as attractive to Edward (qtd. in Click, 94). The assumption that menstrual blood is dead, dirty and impure is rife throughout medical and literary history, dating back to the Bible where in Leviticus it states ‘whenever a woman has her menstrual period, she will be ceremonially unclean for seven days’. Modern science disproves this myth, but Meyer’s claim demonstrates that it is still alive and well in literature for and about adolescents, ‘menstrual blood when compared to “ordinary blood”: it is understood as something dirty and polluted that is discharged and purged only from the female body’ (Gronnvoll, 104).

Horror film Ginger Snaps provides a contemporary example of the adolescent female body becoming monstrous through menstruation. Set in a suburban Canadian town, this movie focuses mainly on two premenstrual adolescent sisters, Bridgette and Ginger. One night, Ginger gets her first period and is immediately attacked by a wild beast who is attracted to the smell of her menstrual blood, later revealed to be a werewolf. The next scenes of the film show Ginger changing physically and emotionally. She experiences extreme pain, and begins hanging out with high school boys, deviating from the normalcy that her and Bridgitte have established. Bridgitte expresses to the belief that her sister is turning into a werewolf but Ginger berates her for not being sympathetic to what she is experiencing. They go to the school nurse where they are reassured that all of this is ‘normal’, further disgusting them with the feminine transformation and convincing Ginger she is only experiencing puberty. Ginger’s transformation into a woman is analogous to her transformation into the monster and the monstrous feminine. The attack can be read as a punishment for puberty, and a comment on the perversion of the feminine nature. The intensity of her transformation is masked by the turbulent nature of puberty itself. Her mood swings, aggression, pain and hair growth can be explained away as PMS, while in reality she is mutating into a werewolf. Kristeva’s theory of the abject claims that within the boundaries of what one defines as subject (a part of oneself) and object (something that exists independently of oneself) there resides elements that were once categorised as a part of oneself or one’s identity that have since been rejected — the abject. Bodily fluids, excretions and things such as cut hair and nails represent the abject. The abject disgusts and incites discomfort as it ‘disturbs identity, system, order… does not respect borders, positions, rules’ (4). Menstrual blood is abject as it represents corporeal waste, it is a marker of abjection and sexual difference. As abject blood seeps from Ginger’s vagina, she becomes the abject monster herself.

Ginger Snaps

Bella’s musing about whether or not Edward drinking her blood would hurt is reminiscent of the adolescent girl wondering about the pain of losing virginity. In addition to menstruation, the other form of bleeding that is associated with the feminine is the bleeding vagina after the loss of virginity. In The Bloody Chamber, the 17 year old protagonist marries a much older, powerful man who is fascinated with her because of her virginity, ‘it must have been my innocence that captivated him’ (16). In this story, the female adolescent body is presented as physically weak and vulnerable in contrast to the male, ‘he stripped me… as if he were stripping the leaves off an artichoke… and when nothing but my scarlet, palpitating core remained, I saw, in the mirror… the child with her sticklike limbs’ (11). The loss of virginity is presented as a painful and unpleasant experience which involves a clear inequality of power, ‘in the course of that one sided struggle… I had heard him shriek and blaspheme at the orgasm; I had bled… I rolled over on my side, cradling my spent body in my arms’ (14). It is after she has been penetrated sexually that Carter’s protagonist discovers her husband’s bloody chamber of sadistic torture instruments where he keeps the bodies of his dead wives. In this chamber the Romanian Countess has been symbolically penetrated ‘not only by one but by a hundred spikes’ (28), echoing the moment of the protagonists’ loss of virginity, as she sees it in the mirror: ‘a dozen husbands impaled a dozen brides while the mewing gulls swung on invisible trapezes in the empty air outside’ (14). The bloody chamber could be seen as a euphemism of the bleeding vagina after the loss of virginity or during menstruation, ‘the stabbings of erotic violence reawaken the memory of the social fiction of the female wound… born to bleed’ (Carter, “The Sadeian Woman” 23). Andrea Dworkin argues that for women equality requires not ever having been reduced to that ‘subject of sensuality in order to be used as a tool of men’s desire and satisfaction in sex’ (22), she argues that in a patriarchal society the act of heterosexual sex means that women are automatically made subordinate to men and their desires. According to Dworkin, the inherent inequality of men and women during sex means that after the loss of virginity women become socially inferior or ‘worthless’ (102). Using the example of Joan of Arc to illustrate her point, Dworkin argues that Joan’s virginity is what gave her the power to command an army of men. Once captured by the English and raped, Joan’s magic was broken and it is then that she is vulnerable to be killed by burning, ‘once raped, she was nothing… “The common level of women”’ (104). Similarly, once the protagonist in The Bloody Chamber has been corrupted through the loss of her virginity and being witness to the sadistic torture chamber, her purity is lost. She has been ‘reduced to that subject of sensuality’ which is inherently inferior (Dworkin, 22) and so, like Joan of Arc, must ‘prepare [herself] for martydom’ (Carter, “The Bloody Chamber” 36) and join the dead wives in the bloody chamber.

Like Dworkin, Angela Carter also believed that the way gender is constructed in society means that heterosexual sex is inherently unequal, ‘the erotic relationship may seem to exist freely… it is, in fact a direct confrontation of two beings whose actions in bed are wholly determined by their acts when they are out of it’ (“The Sadeian Woman”, 9). Bluebeard, the original folktale by Charles Perrault on which The Bloody Chamber is based is often considered as a warning against female curiosity, but Carter’s retelling interrogates understandings of gender by uncovering latent content that is in fact ‘violently sexual’ (Haffenden). She was influenced by the writing of the Marquis de Sade, known for his erotic works that depicted sexual fantasies with an emphasis on violence. In her book The Sadeian Woman Carter expresses the view that Sade turned ‘the unacknowledged truths of the encounters of sexuality into a cruel festival at which women are the prime sacrificial victims’ (Carter, 1979, 22). She argues that this makes him the unlikely ally of women as he acknowledges the ‘emblematic truth’ of male female relations (23). In The Bloody Chamber Carter wanted to explore the ‘darker side of heterosexuality, in sadomasochism and the idea of fatal passion’ (Simpson). Because of how women are constructed in society as weak and inferior, both Dworkin and Carter believe that passion is fatal as heterosexual sex inevitably leads to violence — literal or symbolic.

Throughout the Twilight series, Edward and Bella are depicted as being dichotomously opposed and inherently physically unequal. Their first sexual experience together happens in Breaking Dawn on their honeymoon. Despite the growing sexual tension throughout the series the experience is described in vague and unspecific terms. Bella wakes up sore, bruised with apparently no memory of the experience, ‘what had happened to me?… large purplish bruises were starting to blossom across the pale skin of my arm. My eyes follow the trail they made up to my shoulder, then down across my ribs’ (81). Despite this, Bella insists that the experience was pleasurable for her, implying that it was so inconceivably mind blowing that she could not discern between pleasure and pain during sex. The sex scene in Breaking Dawn was much anticipated by audiences by the time the book was released, but rather than using her platform to portray sex as the meeting of man and woman as equals, Meyer chooses to imply that her heroine’s loss of virginity was brutal and painful.

In Ginger Snaps, Ginger starts adopting masculine gendered traits like aggression and violence as she transitions into a werewolf. She develops an abnormally heightened sexual appetite and interest in boys and her sexuality becomes so intensified it is threateningly carnal. She admits that she at first thought her ‘ache’ was for sex, but then realises that it is to ‘rip everything to pieces’. This signifies that she has crossed the border between animal and human, intelligent and primal. Kelly Hurley argues that in Victorian Gothic, women were presented as either ‘dangerously defined by their bodies on the one hand, or ethereal essentially disembodied creatures on the other’ (10). In The Virgin Suicides, the Lisbon sisters’ virgin bodies are depicted as mysterious, dreamy figures in the boys’ collective imagination. However once sexed, Lux Lisbon’s body becomes recklessly promiscuous and grotesque. Lux is the only one of her sisters to be sexually active and she sleeps with many boys from the neighbourhood, apparently indiscriminately, something which thrills and fascinates the boys who seek out the stories of those she sleeps with. ‘The grotesque elicits the desire to escape the discomfort it stirs up in us, at the same time it induces fascination and the inability to look away’ (Graves, 100). Lux’s desiring body seems both repulsive and fascinating:

a few boys mentioned the acidic taste of her saliva — the taste of digestive fluids with nothing to do — but none of these signs of malnourishment or illness or grief (the small cold sores at the corners of her mouth, the patch of hair missing above her left ear) detracted from the overall impression of being a carnal angel (Eugenides, 148).

When Lux ‘attacks’ Trip Fontaine in the car after their awkward date in her parents living room, her sexual desire is described as unbounded and animalistic:

With terror he put his finger in the ravenous mouth of the animal leashed below her waist. It was as though he had never touched a girl before; he felt fur and an oily substance like otter insulation (Eugenides, 86).

Female sexuality as being unbounded and uncontrollable is something that resonates strongly throughout the history of the construction of female sexuality. The term nymphomania was originally developed as a medical term in the 19th century as a diagnosis for women who were deemed to exhibit excessive sexual behaviour. Female sexual desire was seen as a symptom, a cause and a disease. Today, the term ‘conjures up an aggressively sexual female who both terrifies and titillates men’ (Groneman, 337). Whereas earlier in the novel the Lisbon girls are described in non-threatening animal terms as birds or ducks, Lux’s sexual body is aggressive and monstrous as well as being sexually exciting, ‘her clammy shins, her hot knees, her bristly thighs… never again were his intestines yanked with such delectable force’ (Eugenides, 86).

Horror/comedy film Jennifer’s Body further illustrates the trope of the adolescent female body becoming monstrous once it is desiring. In this movie the protagonist Jennifer, is sacrificed by an emo rock band hoping that it will make them famous. However, whereas the band think that they are sacrificing a virgin Jennifer is ‘not even a back door virgin’. Jennifer is symbolically killed by a stake through her body, but as her body is not pure and this is not her first penetration the plan backfires leaving Jennifer possessed by a demon. Dworkin argues that through having sex, a woman ‘is possessed: ceases to exist as a discrete individual: is taken over’ (64). Being possessed means that Jennifer’s sexual agency is eliminated as she now seduces, kills and feeds off the bodies of boys that would never have ‘had a chance’ with her before. The film was written by feminist screen writer Diablo Cody, and directed by Karyn Kusama. In her movies, Kusama is interested in ‘physicalizing female power’ (Bette), but although Jennifer’s possessed body breaks some stereotypes of the female body being physically weak and vulnerable, the trope of the sexually desiring woman literally becoming an aggressive, possessed man eater is not new. Angela Dworkin further argues that the possessed woman is metaphorically used in gothic and horror to symbolise the possession that women already experience during sex under patriarchy:

The supernatural possession is a phenomenon on the far end of a continuum: an intensification, an extreme exaggeration of the sexual possession the woman has already experienced at the hands of men… their sexual possession of her has worn her down, left her vulnerable to supernatural possession (Dworkin, 68)

Jennifer’s body is desirable to men, but as it has expressed its own desire it becomes monstrous and vulnerable to possession by an evil force. Similarly, Lux Lisbon’s desiring body is presented as being possessed by an animal force, ‘two beasts lived in the car, one above, snuffling and biting him, and one below, struggling to get out of its damp cage’ (Eugenides, 89).

In Ancient Greece it was thought that the women’s wombs could wander all over their bodies. The movement of the uterus was believed to cause pressure on nerves, arteries and other organs, which in turn created symptoms of illness, such as hysteria (Olsen, 22). The hysterical woman, suffering from anxiety or governed by their emotions is a common element of gothic and horror. Elizabeth Grosz argues that throughout history, the female body has been used as a metaphor for the corporeal pole of the mind-body dualism that pervades Western thought, with women ‘representing nature, emotionality, irrationality and sensuality’ (5). Women are ruled by their bodily urges and functions whereas men are governed by rationality and self-control. In Twilight, Edward is not the only one who experiences strong physical urges. Bella often experiences overpowering urges to touch Edward when she is in his presence:

I was suddenly hyper aware that Edward was sitting less than an inch from me. I was stunned by the unexpected electricity that flowed through me, amazed that it was possible to be more aware of him than I already was. A crazy impulse to reach over and touch him, to stroke his perfect face just once in the darkness, nearly overwhelmed me. I crossed my arms tightly across my chest, my hands balling into fists. I was losing my mind (Meyer, “Twilight” 191)

Bella often sees her strong physical attraction to Edward as being indicative of her losing control of her sanity, ‘”you’re driving me crazy.” I explained’ (“Twilight” 262). Whereas Edward manfully controls both his gory and sexual urges, Bella’s desire is depicted as irrational and uncontrollable. Bella feels strongly sexually attracted to Edward but when she frequently tries to push their physical relationship he rebuffs her, one of the reasons being that he does not believe in sex before marriage. We are told directly that “Edward has spent most of his life rejecting any kind of physical gratification” (“Breaking Dawn” 25). More particularly, he has undergone over one hundred years of virginity because he was not willing to have sex “a very great pleasure, second only to drinking blood” (“Breaking Dawn” 270) until he could engage in it properly. In Twilight, that means within the confines of marriage. Edward, therefore, represents self-control and rationality. Stephanie Meyer is a practising Mormon and the books’ abstinence message has been read as ‘the inversion of abstinence-only/purity ball culture, where girls are told that they must guard themselves against rabid boys, and that they must reign in both their own and their suitors’ impulses’ (Seltzler). Meyer overturns the traditional expectation that women repress their own sexual urges and instead acknowledges female sexual impulse. However, purity is still the goal, and Edward’s denial of his animalistic instinct has been seen to be endorsing an understanding of masculinity is terms of a dualism where ‘good boys’ repudiate their own ‘instinctive predilection for violence, and ‘bad’ boys allow it to go unchecked’ (Durham, 282).

In Twilight, Bella’s teenage body is clumsy and accident-prone and she is frequently injuring herself as a result. ‘Images of the body in popular literature provide insights into how the adolescent female body is social constructed’ (Click, 88), and Bella’s body is frequently depicted as breakable and inferior to Edward’s male body. Upon examining a photo of her and Edward side by side, Bella remarks ‘the contrast between the two of us was painful. He looked like a god. I looked average, even for a human, almost shamefully plain’ (“Breaking Dawn” 89). Throughout the series the human body, specifically the female human body, is represented as clumsy, flawed and inherently insufficient. However Bella’s teenage gawkiness and vulnerability drives the romance plot by fuelling Edward’s desire to be near her at all times,

‘”It makes me… anxious… to be away from you” His eyes were gentle but intense and they seemed to be making my bones turn soft. “I wasn’t joking when I asked you to be careful last Thursday. I was distracted all weekend, worrying about you”’ (“Twilight” 164).

Diana Wallace identifies the stereotypical gothic heroine, ‘a young, attractive woman (virginity required) running in terror… from either a psychotic man or a supernatural demon. She is always terminally helpless, but is inevitably “saved” by the good guy in the nick of time’ (15). Stephanie Meyer uses this same structure in Twilight, except the figure of the vampire is now both Bella’s predator and her ‘good guy’. Rather than choosing to empower the female body in her modern interpretation of the gothic, Meyer ‘goes for the cheap, seductive, thrill of suggesting that ungainly, weak female bodies are the most attractive to men’ (Seltzer), thereby not only indicating that adolescent female bodies are inherently weak and inferior but suggesting that weak and inferior bodies are what young girls should aspire to in order to be attractive to men.

Grosz argues that in Western thought the female body is depicted as leaking and uncontrollable. ‘The metaphorics of uncontrollability’ surrounding the female body are not contained to menstruation, but extend to the ‘undecidability of the limits of the female body with the onset of puberty and during pregnancy’ (Grosz, 203). In classic gothic, the body is often depicted as mutilated and disfigured. ‘The ruination of the human subject… figured in the most violent, absolute, and often repulsive terms, is practiced insistently, almost obsessively, in the pages of British Gothic’ (Hurley, 3). Angela Carter believed that Sade’s work was significant to women because of ‘his refusal to see female sexuality in relation to its reproductive function’ (“The Sadeian Woman” 4). Stephanie Meyer, however, refuses her protagonist sex without consequence as before she is transformed into a vampire, Bella’s adolescent body fulfils the obligation of the human female body by giving birth. In order to give birth to her half human, half vampire child, Bella’s human body must be ripped, broken and mutilated. Unlike the vague descriptions of Bella’s sexual experience, her dying, birthing body is described in vivid detail from the perspective of werewolf Jacob Black. When dying, Bella emits ‘blood curdling shrieks’ (321), her body jerks and thrashes, vomits, cracks, spasms and streams with blood. Bodily fluids attest to the permeability of the body, they ‘confirm the body as uncontainable and permeable’ (Grosz, 193). As Bella dies, her body leaks, flows and becomes so excessively unbounded that she is turned into a ‘broken, bled — out, mangled corpse’ (“Breaking Dawn” 326). It is in this moment that Edward turns her into a vampire. An example of a classic gothic novel that explores the horror of birth and creation is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. In this novel, Dr Frankenstein’s creation of the monster depends on the mutilation of the corpses of others:

Birth is a hideous thing in Frankenstein, even before there is a monster. For Frankenstein’s procedure… is to frequent the vaults and charnel houses and study the human corpse in all its loathsome stages of decay and decomposition (Moers, 127).

Some critics have read Frankenstein as a gothic novel which focuses on anxieties around childbirth, death and creation. Bella’s offspring is described as a monster as it rips its way out of its mother’s body therefore like Frankenstein, The birthing scene in Breaking Dawn betrays pervasive anxieties around the horror of giving birth and the propensity of birth to destroy the wholeness of another, as by giving birth the wholeness of Bella’s human body is literally destroyed.

Kirsten Dunst as Lux Lisbon in the film of The Virgin Suicides

In The Virgin Suicides the maturing, pubescent bodies of the Lisbon girls physically seem to be struggling and pushing against the social and physical entrapment they experience from their parents. The girls are heavily controlled through the clothes they wear, the places they are allowed to go and the things they are allowed to do. Despite this, the reader gets the impression of the girls’ bodies as almost supernaturally expanding outside of their set limits, ‘five glittering daughters in their homemade dresses… bursting with their fructifying flesh’ (Eugenides, 21). Throughout the novel smell is evoked to create a sense of mystery and otherness around the trapped bodies of the adolescent girls, ‘the effluvia of so many young girls becoming women together in the same cramped space’ (9). The boys piece together their own and others’ stories of the sisters to create an impression of the girls’ bodies and their bodily functions. The girls’ shared bathroom, their ‘moist cave’ (50), becomes symbolic of the mysteries and functions of the female body. It is here that Peter Sissen discover’s Lux’s tampon and ‘the depilatory wax that informed us she had a mustache we had never seen’ (11). Later on in the novel, the boys imagine that if the priest Father Moody had had the ‘courage’ to enter the girls’ bathroom ‘he would have seen the throne like toilet where the Lisbon girls defecated publicly’ (50). The girls’ pubescent bodies are romanticised at the same time as they are presented as grotesque and uncontrollably expanding against the boundaries in which they are confined. After the dance in which Lux has sex with her date, Tripp Fontaine, the girls are taken out of school and not allowed to leave the house at all, ‘the old bitch had locked them up again’ (139). The Lisbon house represents the physical boundary to their entrapment and once they are completely locked inside it begins to decay, ‘casting out whiffs of rotten wood and soggy carpets’ (165). The implication is that the girls’ bodies, growing and expanding beyond their parents tight control is the cause of the decaying house, ‘“it’s the smell of trapped beaver” Paul Baldino said, sagely, and we didn’t know enough to disagree… we sucked in the aroma like mother’s milk’ (165). Gothic motifs such as the stench of the local lake covered in a ‘scum of algae’ (233), the beetle infestation and the cemetery workers strike that results in ‘bodies piling up’ (15) mingles with the smell of the maturation of the ‘cooped up girls’ (23) to create a sense of death and decay around the girls’ maturing bodies, foreshadowing their eventual suicides.

At the end of the novel, the boys reflect on the lives of the Lisbon girls whilst for the first time in the novel acknowledging their own ageing bodies, ‘our thinning hair and soft bellies’ (249). Whereas the other girls in the neighbourhood are ‘bound for college, husbands, child-rearing, unhappiness only dimly perceived — bound, in other words, for life.’ (235) the Lisbon sisters have escaped the societal responsibilities of womanhood. Their bodies therefore forever retain the mystery and desirability of adolescence. Even as their physical bodies decay they are forever frozen in memory as teenagers. Similarly, after Bella’s body has fulfilled its womanly duty by giving birth she dies and becomes an immortal and eternally youthful vampire, her eighteen year old body spared the process of ageing. The glorification of youth in these two texts comes at the expense of valuing the body of the normal, functioning, adult woman. Rather than presenting ageing of the body as a natural and empowering process, the female body is monstrous as it grows in puberty and in childbirth and then it is dead. Kathryn James argues that in Western thought ‘death is inexorably linked with femininity — eroticised, sexualised and subject to close inspection’ (12), therefore by avoiding the ageing process in death both the Lisbon girls and Bella Swan are becoming ultimately feminine.

‘A good ghost story is never just about an apparition. It’s about the society that created that ghost, and what that society fears’ (Ruberg). Although women are no longer burned as witches, this essay demonstrates that anxieties about female puberty, menstruation and female sexual agency are still pervasive and are being encoded into gothic and horror for and about adolescents. The popularity of the Twilight franchise can reveal much about how contemporary adolescent girls envision themselves, but too often young, female consumers of culture are dismissed and detested as hysterical and irrational. This means that the cultural connotations of the messages in Twilight have been overlooked as subject for scholarly study because young female audiences are scorned and dismissed, allowing misogynistic discourses about girls and girl culture to reproduce itself both inside and outside the text.



Tarn Rodgers Johns

I am a Berlin-based writer, editor and creator exploring how to create a thriving, just future worth living for. www.tarnrodgersjohns.com