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The making of a monster girl

Oct. 26, 2017
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What is a monster girl? The origin(al) of the species.

Women are always monsters: good monsters, bad monsters, ugly, grotesque or concealed by beautiful faces, festering pools of blood and desire beneath a thin surface—a skin over a saucer of milk. Monstrous women: seductive, supernatural creatures, morphing beasts, possessed vessels, constants in film and culture.

Of course, instead of repulsion with a side of fascination, many of us feel entranced. And then, perhaps, confused at that entrancement. Perhaps, we may think, we are somehow monstrous ourselves. 

This starts early, in most cases, just as monster women often start as monster-girls. 

I had to have been only about 10 or so when I first saw Claudia in Interview with a Vampire. My first monster mirror was the sweet face of vampire-child Claudia, eyes wide and yearning "I want some more" after drinking the blood of her first victim. I knew that feeling in her eyes instantly. I knew her anger and her desires. Little girls’ first desires are fleshy and intense—you could eat something up, you "love it so"—and this precise desire is the reason I love the image of the monster girl so much. As little girls we are monsters ourselves, free and wild, before we learn to cleverly hide it in language, gesture and self-consciousness. 

Because, what is monstrous is what transgresses boundaries—boundaries of both nature and society. Monster girls let their power run rampant and are often made even more powerful by those seeking to confine them. And little girls in particular are confined in the smallest of spaces, to be possessed and controlled by those who know better. Many of my favorite monster girls are naturally occurring monsters, those born as beasts, or else they are girls made monstrous by their parents or their surroundings: a violent revolt of the body. 

Case in point: Claudia, made a monster by her bad dad(s). She craves, screams, revolts inside her tiny ageless body as her mind grows into adulthood. What a fitting metaphor for the life of a girl-woman, stuck performing girlhood but seething within at this circumstance.

The threat of monstrousness transforms as girls grow older. The titular character of Carrie is made monstrous by peers and by her wicked mother (whom one could argue is also a monster). Carrie’s own body is cast as grotesque, a body that bleeds and is dirty. I remember that specific terror of being stuck in a body that had to suddenly be constantly contained—the immense anxiety that everyone everywhere knows you are now a monster.

But not all monster girls are fantastical. Take the main character of Carlos Saura's Cria Cuervos (1976). The title itself comes from the saying "If you raise ravens they will peck out your eyes": if you make me a monster, I will eventually destroy you. In the film, the little girl fantasizes and eventually comes to believe that she killed her father, whom she blames for her mother’s death and for the theft of her happiness. She is made to feel like a monster by her bad dad, and she finds both guilt and pride in what she thinks is her murder of him.

The young girl in Cria Cuervos is played by the actress Ana Torrent, who is also the star of Victor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive (1975). This film takes place during the Spanish Civil War and is about a little girl who sees the movie Frankenstein and becomes obsessed with it. A child with a fierce inner mind, she imagines the monster coming for her—either to save her or harm her. Once again, Torrent represents defiance within trauma: her sweet face glaring back, eyes dark and angry.  

This theme of raising ravens that will one day peck out your eyes is also echoed in Chan-Wook Park's Stoker (2013). In this movie, India Stoker crosses that invisible threshold from girlhood to womanhood, her carefully arranged saddle shoes now replaced by stiletto heels, and this change breeds others: her mother is now threatened by her, and men like her uncle start behaving inappropriately towards her. The scene where she sits at the piano with her uncle and he starts to touch her is so instantly, sickeningly familiar. Her subsequent rage and revenge is triumphant: a defiance of her loved ones’ demands that she be smaller and more pure, or older and more open.  At the end we see her with a riflescope at her eye, finally free from her wicked family, blood dripping from the tall flowers in the distance. India Stoker's refusal to be "torn apart" by the world, her choice to instead embrace her otherness, was wonderful and familiar. 

In The VVitch (2015), the character of Thomasin experiences a similar triumph: in refusing the puritan denial of the fleshiness of the world, she embraces her monstrousness. She murders her pious and oppressive father, then walks straight on into the darkness of the woods to dance and consume everything in life. These kinds of monster girls are my favorites because of what they represent: as a girl, you are always told that you must never be seen wanting, that modesty and the denial of desire are virtuous and "pure". Monstrous women like India and Thomasin shut down that concept entirely, choosing instead to embrace desire and squeeze at the heart of something so hard it bursts. "To live deliciously" is the ultimate drive of a monster girl.

I don’t know if you ever stop feeling like a monster girl, even when you are older and understand more about how or why you feel different. That difference is always walking next to you, like a tiny, sweet-faced demon. In many people’s eyes, anything that looks like a sweet girl is meant to behave a certain way, to need protection and guidance—and that ferociousness, the full-armed embrace of every thing in this world, the blood and guts of it, only makes her all the more monstrous. That’s against what a timid small girls is meant to be. Monster girls, in their own way, are transgression as transcendence. And if you love these girls, if you feel like you too are a monster—you are powerful.