If there’s something that horror films have taught me is that coming back from the dead makes you an instant badass. Take for example the character of the wronged woman that comes back as a vengeful ghost, originating in Japanese horror. This character is a specific type of yōkai (supernatural Japanese monster), called onryō. It’s originally found in Japanese folklore stories, which found their way into Japanese horror. However, the onryō, has gone farther than its original roots and has spread over other Asian countries (Korea, Thailand, Hong Kong and Singapore), even invading American films (although it is mainly through remakes).
In these films, the female ghost represents the gendered position of women in Asian countries, but also refers to a bigger anxiety. According to Laura Mulvey, a recognized British film theorist, female monstrosity reflects the repressed anxieties of a patriarchal society that fear the rise of women and her detachment to her socially constructed gender role. I know, a bit of a mouthful. Let me explain.
Take for example 2004’s Thai horror Shutter. Natre was mistreated her by boyfriend Tun who ignored her and did nothing after finding out that two of his friends raped her. She commits suicide and returns as a ghost, hunting Tun. Take also 2002’s Japanese horror Ju-On (or, you may be more familiar with the 2004’s The Grudge), the story of a woman who was murdered by her husband, also returning as a vengeful ghost, consuming any family that entered her home.
However, it’s a bit more complicated than that. These stories start out as a challenge to stereotypes: the monster’s origin is a consequence of her stray from what is socially accepted and expected of her, so she also defies them in the afterlife. The ghost makes use of her new and supernatural powers to claim justice for the unfair treatment she received in her life. However, the ghost’s challenge to patriarchy is undermined by the immanent submission of the ghost to gender roles.
Let’s go back to Shutter. Natre’s ghost hunts Tun forever, hanging on his back. This creepy reveal illustrates the punishment he will have to endure all his life. Sounds like he got it pretty bad huh? However, when the female ghost gets her revenge, her only function in the film is subjected to Tun. When we see the flashbacks, we only see her in relation to Tun, as a heartbroken ex-girlfriend.
In a similar fashion, Korean female ghosts would hunt their families because they never had the chance to continue their familial lives; only a posthumous marriage will fulfill them and allow them to rest in peace.
Even in American films, such as The Conjuring (2013) and Drag Me to Hell (2009), the female ghost is depicted as very old, disgustingly wrinkled, greedy and vain. These monsters hunt young, beautiful women because the ghost can’t accept that their beauty has faded. By doing so, they reinforce stereotypical ideals of beauty. I’m not saying that the female ghost character doesn’t challenge the status quo at all, but rather, that its power is undermined by these strong social and cultural representations. The female ghost monster is ambivalent, dangling between reinforcing and challenging the ideological women’s gender role in society. It is up to us, the audience, to recognize the voice behind all that long and wet hair in front of their face (I’m looking at you, Samara). Maybe next time we’re out to root for the ghost.
This piece is part of Galloween, Cinefilles’ month of all-girl horror coverage. Click the image to read more.