Simon Bacon on Female Identity in Purgatorial Worlds
Female Identity in Purgatorial Worlds was inspired by the film Silent Hill (2006). It’s one of those cinematic adaptations that differs dramatically from its source material yet manages to create a believable and engaging film that is much better than it has any right to be. It is rare in that it all it’s major characters are women and much of the action involves their arrival into the purgatorial town of Silent Hill and their, inevitably failed, attempts to leave it. It is also very much a film about women’s roles in a patriarchal world, the impossibility of escaping them, and their removal from the agentic space of men.
In the film we see Rose (Radha Mitchell) who is so bewitched by the lure of motherhood that she and her husband Chris (Sean Bean), adopt a young girl Sharon (Jodelle Ferland). The girl is deeply troubled — itself a reflection of the troubling nature of the necessity of the maternal to a woman’s sense of identity within a patriarchal society — and one day she vanishes. Chris, who is anchored in the world of men, cannot leave to find her and so Rose, to prove she is worthy of motherhood and has an acceptable role in male society, goes in search of her “daughter.”
In doing so she removes herself (did she jump or was she pushed?) from the agentic space allowed to men and enters a world, that can be described as, the monstrous feminine — monstrous being a term imposed by the masculine fear of female agency beyond the required roles of patriarchal society. Here then, Silent Hill becomes a purgatorial space that, while seemingly created by the monstrous, feminine trauma of Alessa, is one created by the patriarchal world to contain all female behaviours that it finds threatening. Hence, at the end of the film when Rose has rescued Sharon from her own monstrous self, she remains excluded from Chris as her actions in Silent Hill have made her too dangerous, too agentic, to return to the world of men (see figure 1).
The exclusion of the heroine from agentic space is something that never occurs in films with male leads, not least as in surviving and “winning” they confirm to the norms of the world they are returning to, but with female figures the purgatory of exclusion is one that is ongoing. Roses plight is almost metaphorical in nature as her purgatorial, non-agentic, space is separate to the “real world” and only takes place in one film. Other horror-themed films incorporate the idea of non-agentic spaces into their “real world” environments, and more importantly show this is not a singular event but one that is truly purgatorial and more closely representing actual female experience. This is best expressed in the context of a franchise which features many sequels featuring the same female lead, and most appropriately that features a final girl as, not unlike real life, even though she survives at the end of each instalment the horror inevitably resumes — there is much here that mirrors the “winning” of the #MeToo movement that quickly encountered a series of patriarchal backlashes that return things to as they were before or even worse (see the repeal of Roe vs Wade). The franchise is that of Halloween (1978-2022) and it’s central and purgatorial figure of Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis).
Laurie is born into an environment of patriarchal violence as her brother, Michael Myers, kills her older sister Judith. Although she manages to escape him in the first film, Halloween (1978) he removes her from any form of agentic space in her positioning as a woman and as a victim — victimhood being an inherently feminine space within the franchises narrative. He continually returns over 11 subsequent films and 44 years to take away any kind of self-determining life that Laurie tries to establish for herself forcing her back into her purgatory of helplessness and victimhood. Of particular note is the most recent film in the series Halloween Ends (2022) where once again Laurie is attempting to re-enter and be part of the real world in the town of Haddonfield, yet is repeatedly excluded from do so, though not just by Michael — at this point he is only a ghostly presence on the edges of the narrative — but the environment itself which is haunted by the spectre of male aggression and gaslighting.
Here Lauries’s attempts to be herself are quashed by the society around her, and often other women, that refuse to see her as nothing other than a victim who invited in, and therefore caused, the male violence visited on their respective lives (see figure 2) — a common response to male violence on women being that she “asked for it” in some way and that collateral damage caused is therefore her fault.
In this sense, even though Laurie is allowed to live within the real world she is denied access to its agentic space, and can only exist as the patriarchal society around her allows her to. Michael on the other hand, as a known serial killer, still has access to, and presence within, the real world, not only influencing the behaviour of others but actively causing them to attack and try to kill Laurie’s sense of self — female agency within male space can only ever be an allowance and never on her own terms.
At film’s end Laurie has once again “survived” with Michael killed and smashed through an industrial shredder as an act of public spectacle and collective purging seemingly leaving her to re-enter agentic space on her own terms in a way that was denied Rose, yet even here she knows the chances of it being what it seems are very unlikely as she has been here many, many, many times before (see figure 3). As a 60+ year old final girl Laurie understands that it is the system that creates bogeymen and until that is put through an industrial shredder the fight will never truly be over.
Simon Bacon, editor of Female Identity in Purgatorial Worlds, is an independent scholar working in Poland. He has previously edited works such as Gothic: A Reader, Horror: A Companion and Monsters: A Companion. Previous monographs include Becoming Vampire, Dracula as Absolute Other, Eco-Vampires, Vampires From Another World, and Unhallowed Ground.