Menstruation in Horror Movies: Stigma and Stereotypes
Despite being a natural process, menstruation faces stigma and taboo enforced by varied cultures and their prevailing norms. Deeply entrenched in the feeling of shame, it is extended to everything associated with getting your period- be it menstrual blood, menstrual products, or period stains. Hormonal changes and changes in behaviour are deeply symptomatic of aversion towards menstruation (Schooler, Deborah, et al., 2005). Personally and subjectively speaking, growing up meant a sudden introduction to menstruation borne by the implications of facing it directly as it hit me.
Perceptually, it felt like a wave of emotions, followed by a hushed-up basic explanation and secrecy. Menstrual napkins in households are often a hush-hush topic, their existence, use, and disposal. The attitude towards "getting your period" influenced the anxious avoidance of stains and the initial worrying thought of "do I ask my friend" with the additional "how". As the looming threat of shame and judgement burdened the sudden and painful appearance of monthly cramps, a popular description of it would be a "bloodfest" or a "horrific experience" even.
In this juxtaposition, we come across Beverly Marsh from the IT movie franchise, brought to life by Sophia Lillis in the first film, and Jessica Chastain in its sequel, portraying an older Beverly. Beverly's fear stemmed from a very personal coming of age factor. It was the fear of perception in her transitioning from a girl to a woman. Here, adulthood is, again, determined by menstruation. The perspective weighed in on her as a young girl. Afraid of the extent to which her abusive father would take advantage of her. Terrified of men like the leering pharmacist of a drugstore as she attempts to purchase a pad or a tampon. The sexual exploitation seems evident in her father's gaze, characterising an abusive male gaze. And her fears brim to life as we find a secluded Beverly hiding in her bathroom after an almost volcanic eruption of blood coats her wholly. Even more, only the other children hunting Pennywise the Clown could see her in that state, as they were terrorised by their own fears of Pennywise (Muschieti, 2017).
In the sequel, she has since moved out of her paternal home but is still in a highly abusive relationship. Escaping to her childhood town proves the worst, as Pennywise makes her and her friends - a part of the Losers Club - face their fears again. Here, we find Beverly being chased by her father and the leering pharmacist as she locks herself up in a bathroom stall. They bang against the doors attempting to break in, and an eruption of blood fills the stall, drowning her as she tries to break free (Muschieti, 2019).
Horror movies have been tied to bloodlust since their genesis. However, when it comes to an apparent femme character, the bloodlust is often symbolised through menstruation. Looking at another Stephen King adaptation, Carrie, the 1976 movie harps on a similar arc, taking on the period stereotype. Carrie, a teenage student, finds herself bleeding suddenly in her school. While seeking help, she is humiliated with tampons thrown at her as the girls scream, "plug it up". She is bullied to such psychological torture that she finds herself lashing out by activating a telekinetic power. Not knowing why she is bleeding and struggling to grasp what was happening to her, she feels she is bleeding to her death. Thus triggered, she emerges vengeful, seeking retribution, thereby sparking unspeakable horror to all who humiliated her, in what is popular as one of the first mainstream and graphic portrayals of period blood (De Palma, 1976).
Similarly, Ginger Snaps (2000), a Canadian movie from the horror genre, focuses on a supernatural film based on werewolves that again use very repressive discourses of menstruation and sexuality. The movie is centred around two sisters fascinated by death, Ginger and Brigitte Fitzgerald. Set in a town already reporting severe deaths caused by "dog-like" creatures, these creatures sense Ginger menstruating, who is then tracked and attacked. Although Ginger survives, she has been bitten and started showing several changes, including aggressive behaviour, body hair growth, and heavy menstruation, in her transformation into a blood-thirsty werewolf. Thus, Menstruation is again connected to monstrosity (Miller, 2005).
The fact that menstruation in pop culture has been generally omitted or been represented in a way deeming it a hygiene crisis has added to the feeling of shame already attributed to it (Schooler, Deborah, et al., 2005). In her paper titled "Attitudes Towards Menstruation" (1975), E.M Whelan writes about the historical ascription of menstruation as a supernatural event, with menstrual blood and contact with it being closely associated with apparently severe consequences, evil in nature. Whelan writes about how this belief led to someone on their period being viewed as satanically dangerous, leading to social restrictions on menstruators (Whelan, 1975). Menstrual shame progresses into the purity-pollution concept globally, with period blood being treated as a pollutant. While on their period, various cultural norms prescribe a distance from places of religious worship, which is again a so-called structure
defining purity. Again we find the roots that tie menstruation with demonic and monstrous activities.
Aviva Briefel writes in her paper, "Monster Pains: Masochism, Menstruation, and Identification in the Horror Film" (2005), that if horror movies followed gender binaries, the two flip sides of the coin of monstrous suffering would be masochism and menstruation. Gendered in their contrasting ways of portrayal, they attempt to make the conservative and binary audience members uncomfortable in equally gendered ways. Briefel also writes about how gender doesn't escape identification in horror movie tropes. In contrast to the masochist self-mutilation perpetually attributed to apparently male monsters, the femme monster takes a different route of taking revenge for the abuse they faced earlier, or instead, is psychologically motivated. Similarly, Briefel writes about how the apparent femme monster is shown to menstruate before the ultimate rampage- which, even if masochist, is attempted to eliminate their monstrosity, as seen in the final moments of Ginger Snaps (2000) (Briefel, 2005).
Beverly's coming-of-age fear of menstruation in the IT franchise is indirectly visible in movies like The Exorcist (1973), where we see victims being possessed once they reach puberty. Similarly, while it is graphically invisible in Rosemary's Baby, directed by Roman Polanski (1968), Rosemary and her husband carefully map her menstrual cycle while planning her pregnancy, leading to the creation of the monster. These subtle representations of menstruation, too, are impacted by varied cultural enforcements and, in return, profoundly affect attitudes towards it. (Briefel, 2005).
Menstrual representation has been primarily based on misinformed and misleading notions, which it has also propagated in the past. Will the male patriarchal gaze still determine the structures of mass media and production houses as they go by uninformed stereotypes and stigmatise an already stigmatised process? As more feminist voices take the helm of the creation and production of media, one wonders whether these stereotypes can finally be recognised as inherently problematic in the face of defensive cries to retain "goriness" in the genre. Maybe in 2022, it shouldn't be as shocking for period blood to be in its visibility. But with the male gaze still censoring and determining what is attractive and desirable, gender stereotypes fall through the cracks of glaring gender discrimination and binaries that remain insensitive to the changing world around us.
1. Schooler, D., Ward, L. M., Merriwether, A., & Caruthers, A. S. (2005). Cycles of Shame: Menstrual Shame, Body Shame, and Sexual Decision-Making. The Journal of Sex Research, 42(4), 324–334. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3813785
2. Muschietti, A. (Director). (2017). It: Chapter One [Film]. New Line Cinema; RatPac Entertainment; Lin Pictures; Vertigo Entertainment; KatzSmith Productions.
3. Muschietti, A. (Director). (2019). It: Chapter Two [Film]. New Line Cinema; Double Dream; Vertigo Entertainment; Rideback.
4. De Palma, B. R. (Director). (1976). Carrie [Film]. Red Bank Films.
5. Fawcett, J. (Director). (2000). Ginger Snaps [Film]. Motion International; Lionsgate Films.
6. Miller, A. (2005). “The Hair that Wasn’t There Before”: Demystifying Monstrosity and Menstruation in “Ginger Snaps” and “Ginger Snaps Unleashed.” Western Folklore, 64(3/4), 281–303. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25474753
7. Whelan, E. M. (1975). Attitudes toward Menstruation. Studies in Family Planning, 6(4), 106–108. https://doi.org/10.2307/1964817
8. Briefel, A. (2005). Monster Pains: Masochism, Menstruation, and Identification in the Horror Film. Film Quarterly, 58(3), 16–27. https://doi.org/10.1525/fq.2005.58.3.16 1.