So I'm going to be spending a month in Granada, Spain, at the end of the year and I am kinda psyched about it. The trip is enabled by the awesomeness that is Tara x aka One Man Nation and Marta Moreno Muñoz; together, they run The Unifiedfield, the residency I'm going to be at.
My month-in-residence is going to kickstart a new project I'll be working on over the coming year called Devils Un-Dressed. It is basically an ongoing visual arts project that re-imaginines the Monstrous Feminine in (primarily Eastern) Asian horror films. I'm going to be using visual and narrative content from existing films as departure points to create new visual works. I plan to work with ink, paper, fabric, thread and possibly hair.
The upside to this is of course, that I'll be visiting a country I've never been to and spending a month obsessing over a topic I obsess over in any sliver of spare time I have anyway.
The one possible downside to this (as if there could really be a downside this!) is that what I spend all my slivers of free time obsessing over are these lovely ladies right here...
... which of course means that I am going to be spending a month with them, by myself, in a room, in an unfamiliar place. Someone please tell me why did I not devise a proposal that revolves around rainbows and unicorns?
Unwise (and possibly masochistic) decisions aside, I've always been fascinated with how female horror figures are constructed, and in particular how the construction of the female villain in Asian horror often revolves around tensions between agency and oppression: On one hand, the typical female ghost is an autonomous character who seeks justice on her own terms; on another, agency is only granted in death and in the demonization of her person as villain. Visually and narratively, elements of the “horrific” are also derived from the woman’s failings in traditional gender roles: Virgin, wife, daughter, sister, mother, sex object.
Even in the "Western" archetypes learned as a kid -The Vampire, The Werewolf, The Zombie, The Mummy - in no character was the element of horror so rooted in gender than in the The Witch. While fear of all the other villains was cultivated through a general defiance of the the laws of Life vs. Death and Human vs. Animal, fear of The Witch seemed to be derived precisely from her perversion of traditional femininity: (1) She is not a sex object: By normative standards, she is considered "old" and "ugly" and the opposite of sexually appealing. (2) She is not a homemaker: In fact, she uses tools of domesticity for evil, riding a broomstick and cooking up potions over her stove. (3) She is not a mother: She does not have children, she eats them. Ho ho ho. And of course extensions and variations of how traditional roles of woman/girl have been destroyed in order to create monstrosity is evident in classics such as the Alien trilogy, The Exorcist (which was actually based on the story Roland Doe, who was a boy and not a girl) and Psycho.
Gender aside, I've been obsessed with the paranormal since I was a kid. When I was 9, I decided that I would grow up to be a parapsychologist. When I was 10, I received book vouchers and bought myself a huge book that dealt with the supernatural and the occult. Secondary school consisted of Christopher Pike and Stephen King. When I was in college, I was ghostwriting ghost stories to put myself through school. At some point in college, I took a class called Monstrosities. However, despite all the aspects of horror that I'd indulged in till then, it was all fascination and no fear. And then one night, I went to watch a horror film with a friend, simply because tickets to the film we'd actually wanted were not available. We'd thought it be funny and full of cheesy special effects.
It turned out to be Hideo Nakata's Ringu.
I was traumatised for weeks. The fear was potent. And because it was also extremely foreign to me, I had no idea how to overcome it. I thought that watching the film another time in the cinema would help me get some distance from it. So I watched it a second time. And then a third. By the end of that fortnight, scratchy sounds scared me, home appliances scared me, electronics scared me. But most of all, this genre was different from what I was used to - American horror, which usually drew upon either Biblical binaries of good and evil, demon possession, zombies back from the dead, or serial killings that involved lots of gore.
There was none of this in Ringu, which was minimal, quiet and inconclusive. The aesthetic and concept was completely foreign (to me). There was no way to fight the "evil" that Sadako seemed intent on spreading without remorse. There was no explanation to why she crawled out of televisions or created static in the phone. You don't even actually know how Sadako's victims actually die, even though you watch them die. There was no logic to it and yet there was perfect logic to it. She was the perfect villain.
Many Asian films I've watched since then - particularly from Japan, Korea and Thailand- have utilised tropes similar to the ones I discovered via Ringu. Learning the phrase "dead,wet girls" was fascinating. Reading about the use of hair in Japanese horror completely sucked me in. Learning the word "onnen" inspired this poem and after watching numerous clips from Ju-On (both the Japanese film as well as the original telemovie that inspired it), I actually started feeling a little pissed off on behalf on these fictitious women. I mean, quite jialat right? You are beaten/raped/murdered and then after your death, you kena demonised as an evil villain. I mean yes, you get your revenge (on everyone - not just on your killer), but I'm not sure that freedom (only) in death is a great deal.
So yeah, maybe, at the end of the day, being with these women everyday is not going to be so scary after all. And while I have not quite gotten over my fear of Sadako, I have empathy for her more than anything else. And either way, I am excited about this new project and about the fact that I will get a whole month to obssess over it. By the time I come home, I will have grown my hair down to my waist and will wear only white dresses. Haha.
Thanks again to The Unifiedfield for giving me the chance to indulge in one of my favourite topics :)
I do not own any of the images used. They are attributed to (L to R) Takashi Shimizu’s Ju-On (Japan), The Mo Brother’s Rumah Dara (Indonesia), Banjong Pisanthnakun’s Shutter, Fruit Chan’s Dumplings (China), Hideo Nakata’s Ringu (Japan) and Banjong Pisanthnakun’s Alone (Thailand).