Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Horror and Feminism: Taking a look at The Yellow Wallpaper and The Witch

I wanted my first substantial post here at this blog to be about a work I really loved. I considered all sorts of contemporary works, but in the end, the choice was obvious. As a student at Ohio State, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892) had a tremendous impact on me not only as a reader, but as a writer. Some readers who are familiar with the story may have some problems with me featuring it on a blog about horror and paranormal writing; while there are no ghosts or monsters in this story, I promise I have good reason for featuring it!

But first, a little background: the story was first published in The New England Magazine in 1892 (Wikipedia). It follows the sad tale of a woman who suffers from postpartum depression. Her physician husband attempts to treat her while they stay at an old house for the season, but the narrator--forbidden from any labor and unable to care for her child--becomes obsessed not only with the disgusting yellow wallpaper in the upstairs nursery but also the woman she believes is trapped inside of it.

The story is hailed as a distinctly feminist work, commenting on the sexism which was (and some might argue still is) inherent in medicine and also commenting on the misunderstanding of women’s issues. Indeed, it is a thought-provoking piece of social commentary, but its language and atmosphere have caused readers to see shades of gothic horror in the story.

Most prominent is the woman trapped in the wall, representative of the narrator’s own oppression and desire to overcome it but conjuring the idea of a spirit. Perkins Gilman uses the word “creeping” to describe the way the woman moves about the wallpaper. In the eyes of more modern readers, this description provokes images of the sorts of spirits we see in films such as The Ring or The Grudge, crawling and creeping in a jarring way through the use of camera tricks. The narrator sees the images of people being hanged within the pattern of the wallpaper, and her ceaseless obsession with the hideous wallpaper is reminiscent of the works of Poe (Perkins Gilman).

So, what do we make of this feminist tale which is written like a horror story? We make the conclusion that it is an extremely effective angle and one we still see today.

We need look no further than Robert Eggers’s film The Witch. The tremendously atmospheric and terrifying tale of a 17th century Puritan family haunted by what appears to be the work of an evil witch in the wood has been hailed by many as one of the greatest horror films ever made.

But is it a horror film? Much like “The Yellow Wallpaper,” it blurs the line between supernatural horror and the horrors of reality. Both use oppressive atmospheres to drive their points home. Interestingly, both also focus on women’s issues. The Witch uses the idea of witchcraft and the coming-of-age of the family’s oldest daughter Thomasin to comment on the condemnation of women’s independence not only in the time period during which the movie takes place, but arguably today as well. Horror is often criticized for being a misogynistic genre, but here we see themes which combat that stereotype.

I highly recommend both “The Yellow Wallpaper” and The Witch for those who aren’t familiar with them. I love horror and the supernatural, and there’s nothing wrong with fun and spooky stories that are nothing but that: a great time! But I love it even more when writers and directors use these genres to talk about something more, to make you think. Of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” writer Alan Ryan once said, “It may be a ghost story. Worse yet, it may not.” (Wikipedia) There are things in this world which are far scarier than anything in fiction, but fiction helps us to educate and to combat.

Until next time, stay spooky!

Cited: PERKINS GILMAN, CHARLOTTE. The Yellow Wallpaper. Project Gutenberg, 25 Nov. 2008. Web. 12 Apr. 2016.

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