NUwitches
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NUwitches

concept art giclee from Disney’s Snow White (1938)

witch watching

what to look for when you’re watching witches

The point of today’s exercise is to introduce you to the basics of film analysis, especially so you’ll have vocabulary and a frame of reference for the movies we’re watching this semester (The Witch, Daughters of the Dust, and Rosemary’s Baby).

What we’re reading/watching

  • Williams, “When the Woman Looks” (Canvas)
  • Yale Film Analysis Guide: basic terms & cinematography
  • Clover, “Carrie and the Boys” (Canvas)
  • Clips: Carrie (1979, 2013); The Witches (1990, 2020)

Keywords

  • gaze
  • final girl / victim-hero
  • mise-en-scene
  • cinematography: shot framing, scale, and movement

Williams, “When the Woman Looks”

The Bride of Frankenstein (dir. James Whale, 1937)

Before I say anything else about this piece, let me strongly encourage you not to get bogged down in the psychoanalytics of Williams’ analysis. We are not getting into castration anxiety. Just move right past that stuff.

With that said: Williams is building on Mulvey’s famous theory that the camera stands in for the male gaze: historically, the camera’s perspective is that of a heterosexual (white, though she doesn’t get into that) cisman. Williams asks us how the story changes when the person watching the film or the person driving the action of that film does not share the camera’s perspective.

  • how does the gaze work in horror films?
  • what is the relationship Williams observes between women & monsters?
  • what role does women’s desire play in these films?

A few quotes and thoughts to get you started:

Woman, like the monster, is also a spectacle, also abject.

“In the rare instance when the cinema permits the woman’s look, she not only sees a monster, she sees a monster that offers a distorted reflection of her own image.” (Williams 1984, 568)

“the female look…shares the male fear of the monster’s freakishness, but also recognizes the sense in which this freakishness is similar to her own difference. For she too has been constituted as an exhibitionist-object by the desiring look of the male.” (ibid.)

Williams proposes that women see their own abjection reflected in the abjection of the monster.

“the adoption of the woman’s point of view…permit[s] a different form of identification and sympathy to take place…between the two objects of the cinematic spectacle who encounter one another in this look — the woman and the monster.” (Williams 1984, 576)

Female sexual desire marks female characters as deserving of punishment, even death.

“Woman’s responsibility for the horror that endangers her.” (Williams 1984, 575)

Horror films permit female sexual agency to punish female sexual agency.

“The horror film…permits the expression of women’s sexual potency and desire, and…associates this desire with the autonomous act of looking, but it does so…only to punish her for this very act, only to demonstrate how monstrous female desire can be.” (Williams 1984, 577)

Or, as Wes Craven’s Scream (1996) puts it:

Williams wrote a follow-up to this piece in 2004, if you’re curious about how her thinking about gender and film changed over time.

Yale Film Analysis Guide

I’m not expecting you to become experts in film analysis for this class, but check out the basic terms and the cinematography section. Part of your media analysis assignments is paying attention to specific scenes and shots; this guide will give you some tools for doing that work.

Clover, “Carrie and the Boys”

from Brian DePalma’s Carrie (1976)

Clover is perhaps most famous for the concept of the Final Girl, the “female victim-hero (the hero part always understood as implying some degree of monstrosity)” with whom horror movies encourage the viewer to identify by the end of the story (1992, 4).

Clover complicates Williams’ analysis by proposing that “male viewers are quite prepared to identify not just with screen females, but with screen females in fear and pain,” (1992, 5). More than that, Clover observes a “slidingness” about gender in such stories; she proposes that gender roles are constituted quite literally through performance in horror films (1992, 16). Those who do gender “wrong” in horror movies — women actively wanting sex, for example; or a father who cannot provide for his family, as we’ll see in The VVitch — are punished for their failures. This punishment of gender insubordination, this resistance to gender play, is part of why Clover argues that horror is culturally conservative (1992, 15).

I don’t love everything about this analysis, but we don’t need to 100% agree with a scholar in order to find their work insightful or useful. Clover’s concept of the Final Girl/victim-hero, her insistence that one needn’t be a woman to identify with women on screen, and what she identifies as the “slippage and fungibility” of gender in these kinds of stories, should all inform how we analyze the films we watch this semester.

Carrie (1976, 2013)

side-by-side covers of two Carries (from this review site)

Brian De Palma’s 1976 adaptation of this Stephen King novel received multiple Academy Award nominations and is among the best horror films ever made.

The 2013 remake is also a movie, technically.

Look, I love Julianne Moore but 2013 Carrie is an abomination. That said, its existence gives us an excellent way to compare how different films approach the same story from different angles and with different intent.

If you haven’t seen De Palma’s Carrie (and you’re the sort of person who can watch horror films), I can’t recommend it enough. For now, it’s enough to know that the film opens with the eponymous main character getting her period for the first time. Her classmates, uh, don’t respond well.

Abjection in action

The context here is that Carrie is from an ultra-conservative Christian household. Her mother thinks of menstruation as part of the “curse of Eve,” and was convinced that if she raised her daughter properly, Carrie would never menstruate. So Carrie doesn’t know what’s happening to her, is convinced she’s dying, freaks out, and is tormented by her classmates. (ABJECTION!!!)

The clips you’re analyzing for today are two different takes on what happens when Carrie arrives at home and confronts her mother for not telling her about menstruation. Spoilers: Carrie is telekinetic; her mother tries to murder her for “being a witch.”

Here’s the scene in King’s novel (starting with “they sat in the living room”).

from the Internet Archive

Once you’ve familiarized yourself with the Yale Film Analysis Guide, watch both clips. Pay attention to how the films frame this scene in different ways. [As Clover says, “horror movies rub our noses in camera work,” (1992, 10).]

How can the mise-en-scene and shot composition in the scene change the work done by this story? Pay particular attention to shot framing, scale, and movement.

“Eve was weak” (Carrie 1976)
“Eve was weak” (Carrie 2013)

What do you think these films are trying to say about gender and religion? How do the mise-en-scene and shot composition contribute to that work?

The Witches (1990, 2020)

This is one of my all-time favorite stories about witches, even though it turns out Roald Dahl was kind of an antisemitic jerk. From Dahl’s The Witches:

The story has been adapted for film twice, in 1990 and 2020. So, two things as you’re watching these clips:

  • How do the different versions try to warn the characters (and the viewers, we assume) about witches? How can you spot a witch?
  • What choices — shown through shot composition, mise-en-scene, etc. — do the different versions make about how to inform the audience?
How to spot a witch (Witches 1990, RIP Erica)

You’ll have to watch the second Witches clip, from the 2020 version, on Canvas. (I cut that one myself and there are copyright issues with posting it publicly.) Pay attention to the similarities and differences in these “how to spot a witch” tutorials. Grandma in the 2020 version is a Conjure woman, by the way — stay tuned for more about Conjure when we read Prof. Chireau’s Black Magic!

Oh hey, don’t forget: we’re watching and livetweeting The VVitch during our scheduled meeting time on Tuesday. This isn’t a particularly gory film, but there are a few jump scares. If you can’t do horror, you’re welcome to analyze the screenplay instead.

There are guides to starting twitter, how to create a thread, and how to live-tweet in the Live-Tweet: The Witch assignment on Canvas. I’ll also be on Canvas chat during our meeting time if you have questions.

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This course uses witches and the idea of the monstrous feminine to introduce foundational concepts in the academic study of religion and gender.

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Megan Goodwin

Megan Goodwin

author of _Abusing Religion_, co-host of “Keeping It 101: A Killjoy’s Introduction to Religion Podcast,” and wikipedia-certified expert on (ugh) cults

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