I’m reading Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film by Carol Clover, a seminal (in every sense of the word) analysis of the genre published in the early 90s that looks at the way gender and fear of gender plays out in the horror movies of the 70s and 80s. It’s great, and manages (so far, anyway), the delicate task of acknowledging both the obvious subtext playing out in the movies AND the explicit text that is often disregarded or explained away as merely a thin cover for the subtext. She talks about, for example, the way slasher movies use the female Last Girl to stand in for an adolescent male audience but also how that decision to make the protagonist female is meaningful on a literal level. She also talks about medieval notions of slippery gender, which is catnip to me.
Anyway. Last night we watched A Fantastic Fear of Everything, a 2012 flick starring Simon Pegg, and it’s an interesting parallel to what Clover discusses. The second chapter of MW&C talks about possession movies, and how they are generically split into two parts: the female possessed who is narratively underdeveloped and the male in crisis who is forced to confront his own deficient or overdeveloped masculinity due to the possession. Clover says that the female possession, which is usually manifested as a hysterical femininity or a cross-gender machoness, is necessary to allow the man to embrace behaviors that would otherwise be coded as feminine — she is thrust beyond the pale to open the space up for him, emotionally speaking. Typically, in her analysis, the man starts the film off as emotionally closed, and it is the job of the horror to force him open — sometimes cathartically (as in Witchboard), and sometimes destructively (as in The Exorcist).
A Fantastic Fear of Everything, though, collapses the two into one character, Jack, played by Simon Pegg, who starts the movie off in the normally feminine space of the possessed (in this case by a crippling paranoia and agoraphobia triggered by an overdose of Victorian murder research) and as the emotionally shuttered man in crisis: Jack was a successful children’s author, but he resents that part of his career, which he blames for ruining his marriage, and wants to write a more properly masculine series of television shows about Victorian bloodshed called Decades of Death.
The movie plays with his gender throughout: he spends the first major section of the movie in a short robe that reads like a dress from a distance, his hair long and ragged, twitching and shrieking at every little noise. The image at the top is a good example — his knees are even kept decorously together, as a proper lady should keep them! At the end of the movie, after having been harrowed first by a series of domestic catastrophes, then by a traumatic visit to a laundromat, then finally by an actual serial killer with abandonment issues similar to his own, he resolves the major conflicts plaguing him, recognizes how traumatized he was by the loss of his mother, and embraces the unmasculine role of children’s author. At this point his voice deepens, his hair is cropped short, and he is rewarded with a relationship with the attractive women he was kidnapped with; he has relinquished his toxic obsession with masculinity and shed his destructive femininity. His psychiatrist friend, in a bit of metacommentary, congratulates him on how his latest book synthesizes Freudian and Jungian themes in one hedgehog. Despite his newfound gender identity, he is still threatened by relapse, though — his literary agent introduces him to a creepy, ambiguously queer American who is interested in producing Decades of Death (he chides Jack for missing an earlier meeting with him, calling him a “naughty boy,” and claws at the air suggestively), and Jack is washed with the old paranoia, nearly fainting, until his new girlfriend rescues him, both from the literal faint AND from the subtextual gender panic. Jack promises the American to “think about it” and runs away into the credit sequence with her, masculinity redeemed.