Witches. Changelings. Possessed girls. These monsters are familiar to pop culture and staples of the horror genre. In Sady Doyle’s comprehensive and necessary Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers: Monstrosity, Patriarchy, and the Fear of Female Power (Melville House), the author unpacks some of the history behind these well-known myths and explores how they were constructed to maintain patriarchy. In doing so, Doyle has created a must-read for the current political climate, a book that shows how the horror genre has always had a political and social subtext and how female
monsters represent threats to the power structure.
Broken into three sections, Daughters, Wives, and Mothers, Doyle gives resounding analysis of systemic physical and mental violence inflicted upon women and how certain monstrosities were created to keep women in line. Additionally, Doyle addresses why certain aspects of the horror genre, including slasher movies, resonate so much with women because they highlight female anxieties and the persistent threat of violence against women. From the outset, it’s clear that Doyle conducted thorough research on gender power relations before writing this book. In the intro, she looks at the ways in which famous male thinkers, including Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, and Freud, reduced and stereotyped women. “Women have always been monsters, too, in the minds of great men; in philosophy, medicine, and psychology, the inherent freakishness of women has always been a baseline assumption,” she writes. She adds that women are threatening because female power is the greatest danger to patriarchy. “If women as a whole – not some women, or a particular privileged class of women, but all of us, en masse—refuse to cede our sexual or personal autonomy, the whole thing falls apart,” she says.
From there, Doyle analyzes the monstrous aspects of female power, including puberty/sexual awakening and the ability to give birth. Each chapter analyzes a different aspect of either female power or traditional gender roles, such marriage and parenting. The chapters are generally structured the same in that Doyle introduces a historical account of the female as a monster and then seamlessly weaves in female representation in horror literature and/or film. For instance, in the chapter on puberty, she begins by recounting the 1892 case of Edwin Brown, a Rhode Island resident who ate his teenage sister’s heart. This occurred after illness and death decimated the town. The sickness, he thought, was because his sister Mercy returned as a vampire. So of course, he had to eat the heart and destroy the corpse. Doyle writes, “Mercy became the last known corpse defiled in the great New England vampire panic; American history’s most theatrical example of the madness that ensues when a society locates the threat to its own existence in the body of a young girl.” The point of this story is to show how societies have often feared young women. Doyle also notes that paranormal investigators have often linked poltergeists to female puberty. These historical anecdotes are fascinating, eye-opening, and a nice juxtaposition to the pop culture segments.
The author then gives a deep analysis of The Exorcist, which she reads as a conservative film whose legacy has had serious repercussions. The film linked sexual violence with spiritual violence, thus causing women to believe that their trauma could be a sign of spiritual pollution. Doyle asks, “But in a culture that tells women that merely feeling our own anger will summon the forces of hell, what else would they believe?” She then underscores several tales of botched exorcisms that had a profound negative impact on young women, most famously the case of Anneliese Michel, who died because of an exorcism gone wrong. Her story was the focus of The Exorcism of Emily Rose, but the film whitewashes the story. “A woman with a disability died because her parents didn’t give her medicine, and this chain of events is being recreated for audiences as fun, spooky popcorn fare, complete with bug-eating gross-outs and a rape-by-invisible-forces scene stolen straight from Poltergeist. You might as well let a bunch of anti-vaxxers make a movie in which a diabolical doctor really does inject poison into children,” she says. Through her writing and research, Doyle gives voice to stories like Michel’s.
Yet, Doyle’s book also shows how female monsters have been able to transcend and challenge patriarchy. For instance, she mentions the appeal of The Craft and its story of outcast girls finding each other and discovering their power. Doyle adds that she and her friends wanted to be Nancy (Fairuza Balk), who kills her abusive stepfather. Witches, according to Doyle, have social and economic clout, get what they want, and allow us to imagine female power by showing us the ways in which ruthless power is practiced in the world. Witches are older than patriarchal systems, she reminds us, and though they are healers, they can’t fix our society unless we admit it’s sick.
There are other female monstrosities given their due space on the page, including Lucy’s sexual transgressions in Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as a cautionary tale about men controlling reproduction. By the conclusion, Doyle urges women to step forward and claim their power, where it awaits in forbidden spaces, “beyond the world of men.” Doyle’s book is a much-needed rallying cry in this current climate. It envisions a much fairer world, while acknowledging patriarchy’s deep and historical roots.
Brian Fanelli is a poet and educator who also enjoys writing about the horror genre. His work has been published in The LA Times, World Literature Today, Schuylkill Valley Journal, Horror Homeroom, and elsewhere. On weekends, he enjoys going to the local drive-in theater with his wife or curling up on the couch, and binge-watching movies with their cat, Giselle.