Religion often goes to the horror movies, taking with it a raft of cultural baggage. In 1968, Rosemary’s Baby incorporated the Devil, anxieties over feminism, and the controversy over birth control. A few years later, The Exorcist served up an unsettling combination of religious conservatism, the perceived dangers of single-parent families, and the power of adolescent sexuality. Jennifer’s Body is the latest offering in this genre.
There are plenty of horror fanboys, and a lot of fangirls, who’ve been anxiously waiting to take a peek at Jennifer’s Body. The combination of Megan Fox showing skin and Diablo Cody’s signature dialogue (made famous in Juno and United States of Tara) offers a feast for two usually incompatible groups: adolescent boys and fans who like to see a bit of clever irony upset the conventions of the horror film.
Cody’s tale delivers, serving up both cheese and cheesecake in large portions. Fox plays Jennifer Check, head of the cheerleading squad, who is deeply and sincerely lusted after by every raging hormone in her high school. In a nod to the evangelical paranoia of the 1980s, a “satanic rock band” (who in this 21st-century update is an emo band called “Low Shoulder”) attempts to use Jennifer as their virginal sacrifice. Turns out that bad things happen when you try to sacrifice a non-virgin to the Devil. Jennifer becomes an avatar of Satan and begins killing, and eating, every boy she can seduce. And, it turns out, Jennifer can seduce a lot of boys.
Horror films, even the schlocky ones, draw on lots of cultural and religious anxieties. Panic over both female and male teenage sexuality, and its alleged dangers, is certainly not a new theme in American culture. In 1734, Puritan divine Jonathan Edwards complained (with a thinly-veiled metaphor) that the teens of his parish spent too much time in “company keeping.” After World War II, American car culture increased elder anxieties about adolescent sexual experimentation. By the 1980s, films like Hardbodies and Porky’s suggested that high school and spring break offered unlimited sexual exploration. By the 1990s, a new generation of parents learned from American Pie that not even dessert was safe from the adolescent libido.
Horror films in the “slasher” genre have long played with the connection between fear, eroticism, and youth. Cultural critics have, in fact, often complained that horror director John Carpenter (writer/director of the ur-slasher hit Halloween) actually created a profoundly conservative formula in which randy teens get it on and are promptly murdered in some egregious fashion. So common has this criticism become that Carpenter once jokingly apologized for single-handedly bringing an end to the sexual revolution.
What critics have missed is that Eros and Thanatos are pals from way back, and the connection between them is not necessarily a message of moral judgment. Add some powerful religious symbolism, stir, and you have strong drink indeed. Cody, a serious fan of the genre, understands this connection—which rings true in her take on it, in a script that crackles and pops with her signature dialogue. She tries to do even more, as she makes clear when she recently described the film as a “Trojan horse” meant to sneak a feminist message into the cineplex, subverting the paradigm of horror films in which women are merely the shrieking victims of male violence.
I admire Cody’s effort, but am not sure she has subverted older paradigms as much as made them shiny and new with her irresistible narrative style. Indeed, the film could be read as a fairly simplistic rendering of women as the source of evil; tales that were born among ancient Mediterranean patriarchies, but have had a long and troubled history in the United States as well.
In my work, I have explored the connection between misogyny, American religion, and images of sexuality, horror, and the Devil that emerge again and again in our cultural history. A few highlights:
In Puritan New England, a woman accused of witchcraft appeared before her alleged victim in a red bodice, floating seductively above his bed; During the Great Awakening, a Connecticut River Valley woman named Martha Roberson allegedly became possessed by the Devil during Gilbert Tennant’s revivals (ministers described her frenzy in sexual terms, including her efforts to tear off their clothing); Late nineteenth-century discourses about contraception and abortion regularly made a connection between female sexuality and demonic influence (an image in a book from the National Police Gazette shows a young woman, a scaly demon emerging from her vagina with a caption that reads “The Female Abortionist”); In the early twentieth century, silent film actress Theda Bara became the archetypal “vamp” who used sex to lure men to their deaths while Adele Farrington, in a pre-Code romp called The Devil’s Bondwoman (1916), portrayed a woman whose sexual appetites were so insatiable that she attracted Satan himself.
By the 1940s, a comic book entitled Madame Satan [see image left] told a similar story to adolescents of a seductive woman who, using Satan’s supernatural power, attempted to lead men to destruction. Doesn’t the story of a high school cheerleader who seduces and then devours men more or less replicate this tradition?
I prefer to see powerful religious and cultural paradigms more thoroughly subverted than this. Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer—in which another high school cheerleader is revealed as “the Chosen One” who slays monsters rather than becoming one—provides a good example.
Buffy’s seven seasons did more than simply reverse the formula that makes women the predators rather than the prey. Whedon and his writers and directors created a truly nuanced and complex hero, an archetypal figure in the same sense that Beowulf and Achilles represents the heroic. Rather than perform a parody of female identity (or simple revenge fantasy), Buffy instead embodied both the limitations of human ability and the struggles against darkness that are the price of transcendence.
Sexuality was part of the Buffy mythos as well; but not a sexuality that represented some murky feminine darkness into which men lose their souls (and their penises). Rather, Buffy had a number of sexual partners through the course of the series, relationships that began with bright promise and ended not because she was some insatiable vagina dentata, but for the same reason heroes often find themselves alone in their narratives: none of their prospective partners are really able live in their heroic shadow.
Jennifer’s Body, I would argue, does more to evoke the demons of our cultural past than exorcise them. It’s a fun ride with great lines but unfortunately it harbors unclean spirits from the misogynistic history of American religious life. On the other hand, to borrow a line from Whedon’s series, “Buffy saved the world—a lot.”