As this blog grows, I’ve decided to designate at least one day a month as Scary Scholarly Saturday…or something like that…perhaps a catchier name will come to mind.
Speaking of disturbed minds, this month’s featured academic book is House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films by Kier-La Janisse. This isn’t your typical film criticism book, but rather an analysis of selected films through an autobiographical lens. As the title suggests, it’s an examination of neurotic, psychotic, and otherwise “crazy” women in horror and exploitation films. It’s a book that works my nerves on a number of levels, but also has a lot on its favor. So let’s get the perceived negatives out of the way first.
To foreground this discussion, I must point out that I’ve become so disgusted with people casually using the term “crazy” in reference to women. The term itself is rather lazy, and stigmatizes mental illness, but also tends to be used to silence and discredit women in particular. As discussed in an article by Harris O’Malley, men usually don’t label women as crazy in reference to an actual diagnosis, but usually to delegitimize any behavior or emotion that is merely perceived as inconvenient or annoying. This labeling is also often brilliantly mocked and satirized satirized in the spoof women’s magazine Reductress.
So imagine how irked I was with Kier-La Janisse’s statement in the introduction, “every woman I have ever met in my entire life is completely crazy, in one way or another.” Like so many men who use this label to describe women, she often does not refer to any formal diagnosis. In this book as in common parlance, “crazy” is a catch-all term for anything from mere eccentricity to debilitating psychosis. The rest of the book involves relating her own craziness to the on-screen craziness of various female characters. She never does offer a definition of what constitutes craziness, or its elusive opposite, sanity. Likewise, she never posits whether she views women as crazy in an essentialist sense, or that all women are crazy due to the pressures of patriarchal society. Given her description of her horrifically abusive childhood, I was saddened that she constantly labels herself crazy as well. Most of the evidence she presents for her self-described craziness runs along the lines of maladaptive coping behaviors that seem perfectly understandable given her dysfunctional upbringing.
My final criticism is that while horror films do depict a great deal of ” craziness” of different types and degrees, it isn’t a genre specifically about that nebulous category of women’s “craziness.” While I haven’t done a quantitative analysis of the subject, my viewing of thousands of horror films seems to indicate that depictions of mentally ill men are at least as prevalent as those of women, if not more so. Focusing exclusively on “crazy” women excludes their male equivalents. What about Jack Torrence, Norman Bates, and Michael Myers, not to mention scores of mad scientists, serial killers, and cultists? Male craziness is a staple of horror literature. Just ask any of Lovecraft’s protagonists. Janisse even discusses her affinity for the “neurotic” music of Alice Cooper, who has coopted “craziness” and mental illness as part of his personal brand following his treatment at a psychiatric facility. However, she doesn’t explore representations (or self-representations) of male “craziness.” At some point, I would love to see someone compare and contrast gendered constructs of “craziness” within the horror genre. Furthermore, I would eventually like to see a discussion of the perceived benefit of owning “craziness” as a personal brand or label.
On the positive side, Janisse does provide in-depth and thoughtful commentary on many overlooked movies, which are presented alongside her autobiography, and separately in a lengthy appendix. There are also many beautiful black-and-white and full color movie stills and poster reproductions throughout the book. Even though I had issues with the premise, House of Psychotic Women was fun to read. Janisse’s autobiography is interesting in its own right, and it’s fascinating how horror films can resonate with people on so many different levels. Clearly, depictions of “crazy” women serve a cathartic function for Janisse. I am constantly amazed at how many varied readings arise from the horror genre, and this was an aspect I hadn’t previously considered.