Spooky Women You Should Support

I wanted to celebrate International Women’s Day on this blog but I’ve struggled to come up with an idea for how to do so in a way which fits the ethos and theme of Jude And The Obscure. Finally, inspiration struck. This blog post is a tribute to women whose blogs, YouTube channels and published works I follow and who have inspired me to embrace my weird interests. Of course, I can’t list every woman who ticks those boxes – there are so many fantastic female activists, writers and content creators out there –  but this is a selection of those who have really changed the way I think.

Caitlin Doughty

Owner of Undertaking LA, Founder of The Order of the Good Death, Death-Positive Activist and Author

I’ve mentioned Caitlin’s work multiple times on this blog (specifically here and here). Her YouTube videos on the Ask A Mortician channel deal with death from all angles, and it’s never insensitive but always fun. She examines the relationships between death and race, gender and class in a way I find necessary and relevant.

She’s seriously had an enormous impact on the way I feel about death and mortality. Watching Caitlin’s videos and reading her fabulous debut book Smoke Gets In Your Eyes helped me realise that grief is a process rather than a singular emotion; she taught me that bereavement is not something you “should just get over”. It’s not morbid to engage with our death and mourning traditions – if anything, it’s deeply cathartic and healthy. I love Death Mom and you should too.

Her Instagram is here.

caitlin doughty

Lucia Peters

Writer and Editor

Lucia Peters is the brains behind my favourite blog of all time, The Ghost In My Machine. TGIMM is a hub for spooky stories and creepy cases from history; I’m especially fond of her Most Dangerous Games series. I’ve never done any research into this, but it often seems like online communities which focus on the paranormal or on topics we perceive as “spooky”/”creepy” are dominated by men. All the popular storytellers on YouTube (the likes of Lazy Masquerade and Mr Nightmare) are men. It’s incredibly cool to see a woman find success in this field and, as with all the women on this list, I’d urge you to support her work.

lucia peters

Sarah Chavez

Director of The Order of the Good Death, Founder of Death & The Maiden and Blogger at Nourishing Death

Through engaging with Caitlin Doughty’s work, I discovered Sarah Chavez’s fantastic blog posts which are available across multiple platforms. I particularly admire her work around the decolonisation of death – she posts such interesting and beautiful photos on her Instagram (@sarah_calavera) which provide insight into ancient and contemporary Mexican funerary traditions. I really liked this post she wrote about the Disney film Coco (Oscar-winning Disney film, might I add!). Much of her writing deals with the “reclaiming” of death and, by extension, our own bodies. Whenever I read something of hers, I always find it thought-provoking.

sarah chavez

Amber Carvaly

Director at Undertaking LA, Death-Positive Activist and Artist

Amber is part of the all-female team at Undertaking LA, alongside Caitlin Doughty and funeral arranger Susana Alba. Like Caitlin, she advocates for more open discussions about death and greater involvement of families in the preparation of their deceased loved ones for burial or cremation. I particularly enjoyed this piece she wrote for Dead Maidens in 2016 about planning ahead for funerals – plenty of food for thought!

You can find Amber on Instagram as @yoshimidreams.

amber carvaly

Kelly-Ann Maddox

Spiritual Counsellor and YouTube Content Creator

I mentioned Kelly-Ann briefly in my post about tarot – I discovered her while trying to find YouTube videos with tarot tips – but I’ve come to appreciate her for much more than that. She’s a witchy heroine of mine. I said that she “exudes warmth” in that blog post and I think that’s largely why I subscribed to her channel; she’s laidback and candid in a style many other pagan channels seem to shy away from. She’s completely changed my view of how my spiritual practice is “supposed” to be. I spent a long time convinced I was doing it wrong: I didn’t understand all the New Age terminology and felt stupid, and the witchy Instagram craze made me feel fake because I don’t dress or decorate in a particularly spooky way. Kelly-Ann’s work has taught me to own all of it and just set out on a voyage of discovery without worrying what other people think.

kelly ann maddox

HAPPY INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S DAY!!!!

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Why Do Women Love Witches?

[Feminism] encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practise witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians. – Pat Robertson in an Iowa fundraising letter opposing a state equal-rights amendment, 1992

Witches or an equivalent figure can be found in folklore all over the world. To some, the witch is and has always been a benevolent figure: she is a healer, a wise or “cunning” woman with secret knowledge of tinctures and poultices. In many cultures, it is difficult to draw a distinction between witchcraft practices and natural medicine. To others, the witch is symbolic of Earth’s greatest evils. The witch serves the Devil; she turns from God and claims metaphysical power – both miracle-working and devastatingly destructive – on her own terms. Furthermore, to many people in contemporary society, the witch is symbolic simply of personal power, of a force outside the norm. The word “witch” has numerous connotations and, although the idea of witches is ancient and common to cultures worldwide, the term itself means something different to everyone. The image you visualise when someone says the word “witch” is informed by the media and the traditions you have been exposed to, whether this is with regard to literature, cinema, art, religion or folklore and folk traditions.

I think you can tell a lot about a culture from the way it perceives and depicts its witches – thematically, it’s often an extension of that culture’s views regarding women and power –  so I want to delve into the evolution of the witch in popular thought. Why are so many women, myself included, claiming the label? What does it mean to be a witch in the modern world?

First and foremost, I think it’s important to draw a distinction between the “witchy” aesthetic and the actual practice of witchcraft. Of course there are women who engage with both, but just because someone has crafted a particularly spooky Instagram feed, it doesn’t necessarily mean she practises witchcraft. However, I do feel that the two are linked and have their roots in the same central issue: the subversion of our expectations about women. Witches are associated with darkness and with the macabre but, on a more general level, with all the things that make us uncomfortable. Utilising witchcraft and the symbolism of the witch as part of an aesthetic or style grants a certain power. A witchy woman can be intimidating; even if she does not participate in witchcraft practices, she can cultivate an untouchable persona in a society which seeks to make her vulnerable, to convince her that she is flawed and to prey upon her self-doubt.

I wanted to address that stylistic aspect before digging into the juicy historical and spiritual stuff (which are the areas in which I’m most interested).

In an article for The Guardian this April, the author Madeline Miller explored the relationship between witchcraft and perceptions of women: “In the late 19th century, the suffragette Matilda Joslyn Gage asserted something revolutionary. The persecution of witches, she said, had nothing to do with fighting evil or resisting the devil. It was simply entrenched social misogyny, the goal of which was to repress the intellect of women. A witch, she said, wasn’t wicked. She didn’t fly on a broomstick naked in the dark, or consort with demons. She was, instead, likely to be a woman “of superior knowledge”. As a thought experiment, she suggested that for “witches” we should read instead “women”. Their histories, she intimated, run hand in hand.” According to Miller, Gage was onto something. She argues that words used to describe male practitioners of magic, such as “warlock”, “wizard” or “magus”, don’t carry the same negative connotations we associate with the term “witch”. The cultural context of witchcraft is inherently gendered.

The word “witch” is still used to describe women in the public sphere who are disliked; Miller gives the example of Hillary Clinton’s portrayal by her detractors during the 2016 presidential election, demonstrating that “witch” has often been a stick with which to beat women, especially vulnerable women and social outcasts. A witch is unnatural and dangerous, posing a threat to the most fundamental unit of our society: the family. Able to blight crops, cause friction in the family and burden a home with illness, the witch is a direct threat to the integrity of the household. I find this particularly interesting because, throughout much of feminist theory, the household is also the frontline of misogynist oppression. We measure a lot of feminist progress by how women live within their own homes: for example, how evenly housework is shared between couples, how much husbands and male partners contribute to childcare, how women are treated and whether their personal autonomy is respected. We have been (rightly) preoccupied with how accessible it is for women to leave the domestic sphere, if this is what they want. The implication of calling a powerful woman in politics – like Hillary Clinton –  a “witch” is that she represents an erasure of the values people want to impose upon their households, families and on society in general. During the US election of 2016, there was much emphasis on patriotism and a very prominent pushback against anything perceived to be “unAmerican” or “anti-American”, of which “traditional family values” forms a significant part.

tito mouraz

(c) Tito Mouraz (2016)

Witchcraft and magick have been perceived solely as the domain of women in many cultures. In Norse society in the Late Iron Age, a female shaman was known as a völva and these women practised a type of ritual magic called seiðr. Although men practised it too, it was considered “unmanly” for them to do so, bringing a specific dishonour called ergi (roughly translated as “effeminacy”). Ergi and its adjectival form argr are also associated with Viking taboos around homosexuality, about which you can read more here. With women’s history and the history of witchcraft so intimately bound together, it’s no wonder that women have sought to reclaim the word “witch”. Our fascination with the world of the witch is certainly a product of our collective feelings about powerful women and the way we talk about them. However, I think there’s something deeper, something in the subconscious, which draws women to witchcraft long before we’re able to comprehend this socio-historical link.

Anne Theriault, writing for The Establishment in 2016, described her childhood brushes with magic. Having spoken to other women who recall performing rituals at sleepovers – all in the spirit of fun, of course – she considers these attempts at witchcraft as almost “… like a girlhood rite of passage…” and I would agree with her. I had those experiences too. I was an odd child anyway – I saw a ghost when I was about six years old and, since then, have been invested in anything paranormal. When I was in primary school, I and one of my friends would say we had magical powers. We were only pretending, but we would sit together and “practise” our magic. This intensified as I got older. In secondary school, we played games like light as a feather, stiff as a board and talked for hours about the mysteries of the universe at sleepovers. I can remember one incident in particular when I was about 13. A group of us were at one girl’s house watching Eurovision (ha!) and went out into the garden while the boring voting bit was happening. We sat in a circle with a stick of incense poked into the ground and a friend suggested we “try something”. Each of us cupped our hands together and, one by one, she went round the circle, rubbed her hands together and held her hands above ours for a minute or two. Then we looked into our hands and could “see” a ball of coloured light. (Mine was blue, by the way.)

Having done more research into New Age and witchcraft practices, I realise now that my friend was probably inspired by the idea of auras, an energy field which surrounds a person and appears a certain colour, indicating something about the health or the traits of that person. The colours we saw were likely perceptual distortions; however, it was harmless fun at the time. This was by no means a sophisticated ritual, but it straddled the line between being scary and exciting.

coven

(c) unknown

I have a great love of witches in folklore and in fiction; for me, they symbolise something very profound and complex about the role of women in society.

Note: there are, of course, plenty of men who call themselves “witches” and there is certainly a good article to be written about them. I just don’t think I’m the one to write it; I happen to be most interested in witchcraft within the lives of women.

Further reading

Goddess Remembered: The Burning Times (1990) (documentary, National Film Board of Canada)

Lisa Bonos, Vulnerable women used to be suspected of witchcraft. Now witchiness is a sign of strength. (Washington Post)

Matilda Hill-Jenkins, Meet The Women In Modern Covens (The Debrief)

Stevie Martin, Are More 20 Something Women Turning To Witchcraft? We Asked An Expert (The Debrief)

Madeline Miller, From Circe to Clinton: why powerful women are cast as witches
(The Guardian)

Ania Rybak, How Did Witchcraft Empower Women In 2017? (Mookychick)

Anne Theriault, The Real Reason Women Love Witches (The Establishment)

 

 

Why “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991) Is Powerful

Warning: this article contains mild spoilers regarding The Silence of the Lambs. I’ve done my best to talk about the film in general and avoid discussing specific plot points, but some may have slipped through the net.

I don’t say this lightly, but I think The Silence of the Lambs is the greatest film ever made. It won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture (it’s the only Best Picture winner, as of 2018, considered a horror film). It’s also one of the most iconic films of Western culture, quoted and parodied so often that many people recognise its dialogue instantly without having watched it themselves.

Loving it as I do, I can’t help but question: just why did it resonate so strongly with me? Why has it endured? And has it really aged as well as we might like to believe?

clarice 2

I believe Silence is still as chilling today as it was 27 years ago. Much of this is owed to the cinematography: it is, above all else, a highly intelligent piece of film-making. More than that, it’s a very empathetic film which is a difficult thing to achieve with a crime thriller. There’s the potential for lurid fetishisation of femicide and, while I’m not suggesting Silence doesn’t occasionally fall into that trap, it’s a much more sensitive film than you might expect. If you’ve seen Silence before, I challenge you to watch it again and take note of every close-up on Clarice’s face throughout the film. You might be surprised by how often it occurs if you keep a tally. If you haven’t seen the film, I highly recommend watching it and trying the same exercise. Really look at her expression and think about how it makes you feel. Something else to watch out for is the focus on how male characters treat Clarice. Another active-watching exercise to try is to make a note of every time a male character flirts with, harasses, dismisses or ogles Clarice. The film makes it clear that the manner in which “ordinary” “good” men talk about and treat women directly enables acts of violence against women, linking them thematically. All the men in the film – even the “good” men like Jack Crawford – reinforce sexist stereotypes in some way and they have ulterior (often sexual) motives. One of the things I love about this film is that we are encouraged, if not forced, to engage with misogyny and the objectification of women. You’re never allowed to see the murdered women as simply bodies; you’re never allowed to see Clarice or any other women as eye-candy. Every time you slip, Silence reminds you. This is what you’re enabling. This is the progression of your attitudes about women. I think it’s ingenious that the film-makers managed to weave this analysis of the male gaze – first posited by Laura Mulvey in the 1970s – into the narrative and makes us aware of the voyeurism inherent across cinema.

Although Lecter is superficially the star of the show – and I don’t wish to take away from Anthony Hopkins’ performance here, because it is stellar on every level – it’s Clarice who is the more interesting character. For all that Lecter is hyped up, a creature of monstrous intellect and appetites, he has the same base sexual motivations as every other man in the film. Writing for BBC Culture in 2017, Nicholas Barber argued that “… Lecter is so electrifying, in fact, that it’s easy to overlook what a preening, immature bore he soon reveals himself to be. He is, of course, a snob who wants everyone to know about his taste in fine wines and expensive shoes, but he also has the grubby one-track mind of an adolescent schoolboy… He may not have seen a women in his eight years of incarceration, but that’s no excuse for his behaving like a tabloid gossip columnist.” The film doesn’t present Lecter’s harassment of Agent Starling as titillating; she’s evidently disgusted but she doesn’t let it faze her. Silence manages to trick the audience effectively. It’s not just a crime thriller revolving around the mind of a genius psychopath and using women as sexy, lifeless props. It deals with what it’s like to be the sexy, lifeless prop. It’s a reflection on what it’s like to be stared at, every day of your life, from the moment you start maturing into a woman.

clarice 3

Despite being a triumphant work of cinema in terms of its representation of women, the film was not without its detractors upon release. Much of the controversy hinges on the film’s portrayal of its antagonist, Jame Gumb, a serial killer known by the moniker Buffalo Bill. Some have argued that Buffalo Bill is a homophobic caricature, although I don’t think this was deliberate and, as with anything, gay men will have their personal opinion on whether it’s offensive or not. It’s worth noting, though, that Jonathan Demme went on to direct Philadelphia (1993) which deals with the AIDS crisis and homophobia. He took the criticism of the film by organisations like ACT-UP and Queer Nation personally and very seriously: “At first, Demme was defiant of the protests. In 1991, he told Film Comment, “We knew it was tremendously important to not have Gumb misinterpreted by the audience as being homosexual. That would be a complete betrayal of the themes of the movie. And a disservice to gay people.” He described the killer as “someone who is so completely, completely horrified by who he is that his desperation to become someone completely other is manifested in his ill-guided attempts at transvestism[…]” To be fair, Demme is correct—in the movie, Hannibal Lecter posits that Gumb apes qu**r and trans people because they’re the most outré, far-off identities he can imagine—the ultimate escape.” (Bloomer, Slate: 2017) One could argue the film makes use of homophobic stereotypes and tropes, but only insofar that Bill is making use of those cliches in order to cultivate this “other” identity. Dennis Stone wrote an interesting article for New Millenial Gay Experience and I thought this was a particularly incisive quote: “I did not see a gay character. Rather, I saw a psychopath, someone whose entire being was warped by his past, someone who was so outside the realm of decency and “humanity” that every action and attribute were beyond conventional interpretation. Even in 1991 I was aware of fluidity and context in relation to sexuality. Bill may have had one or more male lovers, but for me that did not make him gay in any meaningful sense.

Many modern analyses of the film criticise its “dated” perspective on trans issues, something I’ve always found a bit baffling. It is established during a conversation between Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter that Bill is not a “transsexual” (this was the 90s, remember) but only believes he is. Instead, he has been pathologised to hate himself and is uncomfortable with his own identity, whatever that may truly be. I’ve always interpreted the idea of Buffalo Bill being trans as something of a red herring when, in fact, the issue at hand is male violence and male entitlement to the use of women’s bodies. I see Bill’s skinning of women as an extension of other men’s sexist attitudes in the film, taken right to the extreme – not just using women’s bodies for sex or for visual pleasure but physically making use of their body parts. Bill doesn’t see women as fully human – he’s not cutting up men in order to try on their skins and be someone different – and nor do men in general. If anything, I think it demonstrates a lack of understanding of the film as a whole if you consider Buffalo Bill to be a comment on or a reflection of gay men or the trans community. I find the accusations of transphobia especially bizarre when it’s explicitly stated that Gumb isn’t transgender. Stone went on to argue in his review that we are only concerned about how gay and trans people are represented in the film because we have not progressed into full acceptance of LGBT people: We are still too sensitive and too insecure and too reactive for what I would consider a “correct” understanding of the movie.I don’t think we should let our own knee-jerk reactions to a film made almost 30 years ago get in the way of its important message about sex-based oppression.

clarice

Despite the emphasis on the impact of misogyny on women, Clarice Starling has so much agency in Silence and that’s what makes it brilliant. She’s no rebel, sticking to the protocol she’s been taught, but she speaks up and she fights back in every way she can. In “The Silence of the Lambs” and the Intuitive Feminism of Jonathan Demme, Willow McClay states: “The Silence of the Lambs is essentially about one woman trying to save another woman and the lengths she will go to push herself along the way to be the best FBI agent she can possibly be even with society at large pressing down on her at all times due to her gender.” (McClay, The Film Stage: 2017) Clarice is a feminist heroine, an ordinary working-class woman who battles her way into a man’s world and yet never loses her compassion. In an environment in which she’s treated like shit for being female, Clarice’s existence as a woman is her greatest strength. And that’s what thrilled me most about The Silence of the Lambs.

clarice 4

Further reading

Controversial Opinions: Round 1 of ???

Oh, you already know this is gonna be a good one. Get ready to nod your head or throw your laptop/mobile phone/iPad/other technological device pushed on you by capitalist brainwashing out of the window. You’re either going to love me or hate me by the end of this.

Unsolved Mysteries

  1. A number of conspiracy theories – especially those to do with the Illuminati and the New World Order – are just an excuse for racism and especially for anti-Semitism. Think a powerful global force is conspiring to enslave you? According to an unfortunately large proportion of conspiracy theorists, it’s probably the Jews.

This is, of course, utter nonsense, but the Jewish diaspora have been a convenient scapegoat for hundreds of years. Jewish communities have been marginalised and segregated, they have been exiled and persecuted, and now purported “truth-seekers” are wheeling out the same old tired stereotypes to justify their ill-founded theories. The stereotype that Jewish people are money-grabbing Shylocks is sadly still prevalent. There is a historical basis for the association between Jewish communities and finance: “Jews have long been well-represented in the fields of finance and business. This is commonly attributed to the fact that for centuries, Jews were excluded from professional guilds and denied the right to own land, forcing them to work as merchants and financiers. However some academics contend that the historical evidence does not support this thesis and that Jewish financial success is instead due to the community’s high literacy rates.” (My Jewish Learning) However, it is the idea of some modern corporate entity which we can handily label “The Jews” (capital letters intentional) controlling the planet’s economy that is so bigoted and unpleasant. The Jewish population is not manipulating your bank account, dumbo, and they aren’t conspiring to take over the world.

2. 9/11 wasn’t an inside job. I know, I know – it’s a cardinal sin not to parrot that timeless adage: “Jet fuel can’t melt steel beams!” But I’ve never felt the need to assert that the 2001 tragedy was a controlled demolition, a warmongering tactic by the American government or actually done by the Israelis (it was not). Is the US government corrupt and withholding information from the public? Yes in all likelihood, as are most other governments on the face of the planet, including my own. 9/11 is a terrifying piece of collective trauma as it is.

Dick Cheney definitely made money off the Iraq War, though. (NY Times, 2004)

3. The cryptozoology community on Tumblr isn’t an inherently negative thing. Yes, Tumblr is full of cringey, pretentious teenagers with made-up genders and bad haircuts, but I was one of those teenagers once upon a time. Believe it or not, if you wade through the shitposting, there are some wonderful young cryptozoologists active on there who I admire very much, like cryptid-wendigo and cryptozoologygirls. They work hard and they seem like lovely people.

And even the shitposting serves a purpose. I’m part of a whole new generation of people invested in the field of cryptozoology and fascinated by what could be out there. Isn’t that beautiful?

4. I’ll call out racism in this community till the day I die (see this article), but I don’t think the ancient astronaut/ancient alien theory is racist. I’ve seen a fair bit of criticism recently – although it’s been going on for years – arguing that ancient astronaut theorists are racist for positing that our ancestors might have made contact and received help from extra-terrestrials. Whether you wholeheartedly believe in the AA theory or think it’s a crock of shit, I think it’s ludicrous to imply it is inherently prejudiced. AA theorists don’t believe that extra-terrestrials might have built the Giza pyramid complex because Egyptians weren’t white, but because the pyramids were built nearly 5,000 years ago and yet they align with the stars perfectly. Another oft-cited example is the prehistoric structure of Stonehenge in Wiltshire, England. It is clearly a matter of age and technology, not race and technology.

Horror

  1. I don’t like torture porn or excessive gore in horror films. It’s why I never “got” the Saw franchise or The Human Centipede sequence. I know people bang on and on about how “crazy” and “revolutionary” they are, but films of that type are rarely saying anything intelligent, in my humble opinion. That’s not to say I’m opposed to violence in the horror genre; I just think it needs to serve a purpose.

It’s why I object less to Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975) than I do to A Serbian Film (2010). Salò is transgressive and never loses sight of its message. It is a pessimistic reaction to the sexual revolution, depicted through its setting in fascist Italy: “[Pasolini] was especially contemptuous of the sexual liberation movement undertaken by late-60s international youth, viewing that aspiration as a bourgeois indulgence already compromised by capitalism…” (Sharrett, 2013) It is cruel and you should feel uncomfortable watching it, but it is a well-made, thoughtful piece of cinema. A Serbian Film is just nasty, with a bit of political commentary about post-Milošević Serbia tacked on the end for good measure.

I’d love to say nothing is off-limits in horror – I wish I was one of those people, but I simply am not. I have to draw a line.

2. The horror genre has a massive sexism problem. I’m going to get shit for saying this, because horror fans are some of the most zealous in the world and we can’t cope with criticism. Women’s bodies are still used like sexy props in horror films. We see women die in the most brutal of ways – as do men – but men’s deaths are rarely, if ever, sexualised to the same extent as women’s.

This is not to say female characters should never die on-screen. However, I would like to see some acknowledgement that women are murdered in their thousands in real life. Around 66,000 women are killed every year globally (Small Arms Survey on Femicide, 2017) and four women die every single day in the US, simply for being female. The lurid portrayal of femicide in horror films trivialises and fetishises this.

Truly great horror films have strong messages and speak to our deepest fears, and I think a talented horror filmmaker should be able to do this without commodifying women’s bodies. There have been some fantastic films over the course of the genre’s history which have utilised aspects of the female experience to create horror and have done so in a sensitive, smart way. We need more of that.

 

So there we go! I’m going to go and hide in the bunker until everything blows over. Feel free to boo and hiss in the comments.

 

I’m A Feminist And I’m Scared Of Dying

Hooked you in with that title, didn’t I?

Something interesting often comes up in conversations about my hobbies and passions. The fact that I’m a feminist and a leftist is generally accepted with little more than sought-after reassurance that I’m “not one of the preachy ones” (spoiler: I am). People are equally comfortable with my other passions – ghost hunting, tarot and horror films – and are usually quite enthusiastic (or at least happily indifferent) about them. A small minority of the people I’ve met have been ghost hunting and still fewer have ever attempted to learn tarot, so I get to be the “expert” in the room despite being no such thing.

The interesting point that arises is often expressed like this: “For someone so political, it’s odd that you’d be into such illogical things.”

It’s a fair statement to make. I’m very serious about my politics, but conversely I’ve participated in an activity – namely ghost hunting – which is not widely considered to be a “serious” endeavour. Despite this contrast, I find myself feeling self-conscious about both of these passions. I portray them as something they are not when I talk about them, something frivolous and silly. Ghost hunting is my “weird little hobby”; feminism is “just me being a hairy bra-burner, haha”. Neither of those things really represent how I feel, because I take them both very seriously indeed. There’s also plenty of crossover between the two, because the personal is political for me. I think about feminism in the context of my life every day – for example, my love of horror films has led me to analyse them more deeply and ask myself: how are women depicted in these films and why? How do horror films handle feminist themes? I can combine my “serious” interest with my “silly” interest, and that works for me.

But if we properly psychoanalyse me, if we strip my flag-waving, marching politics and my love of anything spooky back to the barest bones, what do we find?

Someone who has a really weird relationship with the concept of death.

I am not consciously scared of dying. I joke about what I want done at my funeral, I love crypts and cemeteries, and I especially love mummies. I don’t find myself squeamish at corpses in particularly nasty crime documentaries.  I’m relatively comfortable at the top end of exposure – at least as much exposure as an average person who doesn’t have to deal with dead bodies in person can possibly have (perhaps I would change my mind in the presence of an actual cadaver).

It is not physical death that scares me. Like anyone else, I would like to go painlessly one day and, on a more personal level, I like the idea that I could greet Death warmly as a friend like a folk hero might. I think it is the death of my drive, if you like, that unsettles me. The idea that I might pop off one day and leave the cause forever. As someone who wants to make a difference, I am deeply afraid of being cut off and leaving nothing behind. What if all the writing and arguing and campaigning just never pay off? What if I can change nothing about the inequality rampant in our society? You might instead describe that as a fear of impotence or inferiority (and, damn, have I got a lot going on where inferiority complexes are concerned) but that’s what is truly frightening for me.

The relationship between ghost hunting and death is more obvious – who doesn’t want to know if our consciousness can remain on this mortal plane? – although I think politics has a lot to do with death as well. Where you stand on politics has a lot to do with what you consider to be “surviving” and what you consider to be “living”. Feminism and socialism are both movements devoted to improving people’s quality of life. Socialists object to a world in which you (and your labour) are exploited until you die. Feminists object to a world in which women are treated as willing bodies rather than human beings. Women and girls are murdered on our TV screens, over the pages of our crime thrillers and all over the world in real life, and I find that far more upsetting and scary than any amount of standing around in dark tunnels and damp caves, calling out to spirits.

As strange as you might find it, I can comfortably sit in the grey area between “serious” politics and “silly” paranormal pursuits.

Magic and Misunderstandings: Why Tarot Isn’t What You Think

Tarot.

An ancient tradition shrouded in mystery, passed down through time from the court of the pharaoh to the occultists of the Victorian era. The darkest of arts, a sinister outlet for communing with malevolent spirits…

Hold up. Nope.

Firstly, the earliest recorded tarot cards were produced in Italy in the 15th century. It was originally a style of playing cards, developing into a type of divination in the 18th century. Secondly, modern tarot is not the same as fortune-telling or predicting the future. Instead, it is a way of helping the querent (the person asking questions) – although sometimes a tarot reader may read for themselves – think more deeply about their life and their choices.

The image of the “average” tarot reader that you have in your mind is likely influenced by the (largely sensationalised) books and films which deal with this practice. In the popular imagination, tarot readings are carried out by wizened crones in velvet tents, travelling up and down the country to have their palm crossed with silver. Alternatively, maybe you’re picturing a New Age woman with dreadlocks down to her hips and a tie-dye tunic. Or you’re picturing Miss Cleo. One of those three.

In fact, tarot readers come in all shapes and sizes. Some tarot readers are young students (like me); some have 30 years or more of tarot reading expertise under their belt. Tarot does not belong to any particular faith either: some readers are Neopagan or Wiccan, some are Christian and some are atheist. I know people who casually read for their friends, people who read professionally and people who read from an academic, analytical viewpoint. There really is no “stereotypical” tarot reader. We’re all doing it for different reasons.

I think this is due to tarot’s wide appeal. You don’t need special qualifications and you can quite comfortably teach yourself. Of course there are people drawn to it purely because of its (somewhat sinister) reputation, but those aren’t the people who end up fully committing to it. Learning the tarot is not something you can accomplish in an evening. Some readers are intuitive – rather than learning the individual meanings of the cards from the traditional tarot system, they glean the message from the images on the cards. But even for intuitive readers, their craft takes a long time to perfect.

So why was I drawn to tarot?

You’ve probably gathered from this blog that I like spooky stuff, I surround myself with spooky stuff, I wallow in spooky stuff. Initially, tarot was something I was fascinated by – for the wrong reasons. I didn’t think it would ever be something I could do myself because it was so mysterious and so mystical. But, over the last couple of years, I’ve become interested in the reconstruction of ancient witchcraft practices, as well as in modern Neopaganism and in Wicca. As I started reading and watching material from Pagan creators – many of whom used tarot as part of their spiritual practice – I began to understand that it wasn’t sinister or strange. It could be a really important part of someone’s faith, or it could even be a kind of self-help tool. I’ve come across plenty of YouTube pagans and witches who focus on tarot card images during meditation or place specific tarot cards on their altars to draw in a certain vibe, especially if they’re involved in shadow work and want to hone in on a particular problem in their life.

As far as I’m concerned, tarot is a crucial aspect of my spiritual practice and my feminism. It’s incredible how many powerful women are creating content about tarot – it’s beautiful to see that and profound to learn from them.

Let’s close with a classic from Miss Cleo:

Recommended reading

Kelly-Ann Maddox (YouTube, website) – my favourite witchy creator. Kelly-Ann just exudes warmth and I’m so glad I discovered her YouTube channel.

Jack of Wands (WordPress blog)

Harmony Nice (YouTube) – only problem I have with Harmony’s video on tarot is that she implies that you can only connect with one tarot deck. Most tarot readers and enthusiasts I know will have more than one deck and may use multiple decks in one reading. Obviously that’s Harmony’s personal opinion and she’s entitled to it, but I just thought I’d clarify that for any potential tarot readers who might be confused.

Biddy Tarot (website)

New Age Hipster (YouTube, website)

Veronica Varlow (Instagram, website)

 

World of Weird: “My Monster Boyfriend”

Lindsay Ellis – formerly known as Nostalgia Chick if you were into Channel Awesome a few years ago – has posted a new video essay on YouTube. I’m a big fan of her video essays, but this one was particularly interesting to me and also relevant to this blog so I thought I’d share it. My Monster Boyfriend delves into animal/monstrous bridegrooms, a feature of folklore around the world, and how they’ve been portrayed in fiction. She charts the development of this motif from 18th-century literary versions of Beauty and the Beast (and earlier variants of this story) all the way up to Guillermo del Toro’s Oscar-nominated The Shape of Water.

The Curse: Womanhood and Horror

Spoiler warning: this article contains spoilers for the films Carrie (1976), Ginger Snaps (2000), The Company of Wolves (1984) and briefly for Teeth (2007).

In many horror films, there are underlying themes of the exoticisation (and often, demonisation) of puberty, sex and womanhood. Slasher films are particularly guilty of this. Especially in early examples of slasher films, the “final girl” survives to the end of the movie and defeats the killer. Usually, she survives because she is a virgin and the other female characters – normally sexually active women – are punished by the narrative for their promiscuity.

It’s true that women are often the victims in horror films that treat puberty as a cause for alarm, as a step into a world of violence and fear. However, there’s certainly no shortage of women who commit violence within the genre and, equally often, such violence is presented as a coming-of-age ritual for the female protagonist. Either as a victim or as a perpetrator, her experiences with fear and with conflict are integral to her “growing up.”

Bearing all these questionable implications and complex history in mind, it’s a small miracle that any “feminist” horror films exist at all.

Motifs which crop up a lot are menarche and menstruation. The most recognisable example is in Carrie (1976), as the film opens with the protagonist Carrie White experiencing her first period in the school gym showers.  Her fanatically religious mother had never taught her about menstruation, so she initially believes she is bleeding to death and has to be consoled by her teacher. This is a pivotal moment for shy 16-year-old Carrie, who is already bullied by her classmates, and from then on, she begins to wield incredible telekinetic powers. Although the origin of Carrie’s power is never directly explained in the film, her emotions appear to be what drives her telekinesis, becoming a strength rather than a weakness. As with Carrie, it’s easy to see why menstruation makes its way into so many female-centric horror films. Menstruation is cyclical, linking it to curses and prophecies within horror – you know the one, “Every 20 years, the great god Cthulhu demands a virgin sacrifice.” Furthermore, menstruation is the only entirely natural process by which blood is excreted from the body. Despite being an absolutely normal and non-threatening experience, it lends itself to narratives that treat menstrual bleeding as equivalent to violent injury like stabbing or mutilation. The point of the horror genre is to unsettle and unnerve us. Body horror is fairly common in female-centred horror films, with notable examples including the black comedy horror Teeth (2007) which deals with the myth of vagina dentata (toothed vagina). What better way to scare us than to convince us (at least for roughly 90 minutes) that our own bodies might turn against us?

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Carrie (1976, dir. Brian De Palma)

It is for this reason that menstruation makes a frequent appearance in films that explore lycanthropy (werewolfism!), which in most myths is dependent on the lunar cycle. A good example is the film Ginger Snaps (2000). In the film, Ginger Fitzgerald, a 16-year-old girl, starts her period. On the same day that she receives “the curse”, as she refers to it, she is attacked and bitten by a werewolf. Her younger sister Brigitte must find a way to cure her before Ginger is completely transformed into a monstrous creature. There’s very much a conflict between the girls’ mother’s romanticised idea of menarche, the school nurse’s calm explanations and Ginger’s own experiences. Her transformation is marked by exaggerated indications of puberty – we see her struggling to shave off thick hair, her period seems to go on for weeks and her sexual awakening results in a near-death experience for her boyfriend, who contracts lycanthropy like an STD and has a period of his own. Of course, the film is hyperbolic, but when you go through menarche as a teenager, these new and often painful experiences can feel very much like a nightmare.

At its heart, Ginger Snaps is a film about sisterhood. It explores the complex bonds between young women, related by blood or not, by candidly depicting internalised misogyny. The Fitzgerald sisters frequently denounce their arch-enemy Trina Sinclair as a “slut” and she responds in kind, but all the teenage girls in the film are a united front when it comes to boys and their tenuous, uncertain interactions with them. In fact, Trina’s death scene and her conversation with Brigitte prior to her death is particularly fascinating. In reference to seeing Brigitte hanging out with Trina’s ex-boyfriend, Sam (who helps Brigitte find the cure), Trina says to her: “If you’re so f*cking smart, you won’t give him the satisfaction. Somebody, just once, shouldn’t give that f*cker the satisfaction!” That doesn’t strike me as something a nemesis would say. To me, that sounds like Trina trying – if haphazardly – to protect Brigitte from Sam and from earning a reputation like hers. The girls show awareness of the sexual double standard earlier in the film. Lamenting her bad experience with her boyfriend, Ginger remarks to Brigitte: “A girl can only be a slut, a bitch, a tease or the virgin next door.”

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Ginger Snaps (2000, dir. John Fawcett)

Along those same lines, menarche is undoubtedly linked with the onset of fertility and sex. It’s fairly archaic symbolism and bears less relevance in the modern era, as obviously not all women want to or are able to have children. However, I still find it interesting. Take the film  The Company of Wolves (1984), for example, based on the short story of the same name from the 1979 anthology The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter. All the stories in the anthology deal with womanhood in some way – whether it’s through menarche, marriage or sex. The film is no different. While it is admittedly not an easy film to understand, due to heavy use of surrealism, ambiguous symbolism and a blurred boundary between the real world and the “dream” world, it is essentially a coming-of-age story. It’s a beautiful film, but it does take a few repeat viewings to take in everything. There’s so much symbolism in every frame and it can be a bit perplexing initially.

The Company of Wolves also features werewolves, although they are portrayed differently to the lycanthropes of Ginger Snaps. Here, although the film makes it clear that anyone can become a wolf, the werewolves serve primarily as stand-ins for men. This stems from the morals of early fairy tales, which Carter extrapolates in The Bloody Chamber. The original tale Red Riding Hood, which inspired several stories in the anthology and also the film, can be interpreted as a treatise on virginity. The wolf is a predator, out to steal away Red Riding Hood’s innocence and “devour” her, but she must be vigilant and stick to the path. The Red Riding Hood character – named Rosaleen in the film – is caught between two perspectives: that of her grandmother, who tells her stories of the wickedness of men, and that of her mother. Rosaleen’s mother responds to the grandmother’s influence on Rosaleen with this: “If there’s a beast in men, it meets its match in women.” At the end of the short story and the film, Rosaleen chooses to stay with the wolf who has tricked her and eaten her grandmother, who represents the old traditions as well as Rosaleen’s childhood. Leaving behind her parents, the village and the expectations that they had for her life, she transforms into a wolf herself and they flee into the forest together. The Company of Wolves is a much less cynical film than Ginger Snaps; it’s whimsical in many ways. When Rosaleen escapes the stifling morality of her village, there’s a note of hope, in contrast to the bloody culmination of Ginger’s struggle.

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The Company of Wolves
(1984, dir. Neil Jordan)

Perhaps the choice that Rosaleen makes at the end of The Company of Wolves – the choices that all the women in these films make – holds the secret to making a horror film that treats women’s experiences sensitively while still being, well, horrifying. Strip the protagonist of her autonomy, prevent her from being the focus of her own narrative, and you’re guaranteed to make a film with sexist subtext, if not an overt misogynist message. This is the case in many of those slasher movies I mentioned (it’s no secret that it’s a genre for which I don’t particularly care). Giving agency and a voice to women in horror doesn’t reduce the terror, but it does stop the film from contributing to real life attitudes and stigma.

Author’s note: I’m aware that this article doesn’t cover the full extent of how women are portrayed in horror, but I’d need to write something the length of a PhD thesis in order to analyse it properly! I’ve chosen to keep it (relatively) concise by focusing mostly on the representation in horror films of women’s physicality and of women’s social experiences during puberty.  This particular post is already almost 1500 words and I’m wary of letting it meander.