Barbara Creed and Abjection Theory in I Spit On Your Grave (1978)

By Na Ma, Ohio University

Abstract

This article applies Julia Kristeva and Barbara Creed’s abjection theory to the analysis of Meir Zarchi’s movie I Spit On Your Grave (1978). Most critics view this film as ugly, violent and terrifying. This paper addresses four aspects of abjection application: abomination, border, maternal figure and castration crisis. Especially from the maternal figure and border aspects, this paper identifies Jennifer’s doubling and the male’s identity with this female’s victimhood and monstrosity. I will use specific scenes to explain the abjection, the first part from the rape scenes and the second part from the revenge scenes. This paper also examines the characteristics of monstrous feminine in this controversial horror film from the following contents: graphic violence, nudity, obscene language, and lengthy depictions of gang rape.

Keywords: monstrous feminine, abjection, abomination, border, maternal figure

From Kristeva to Creed: Maternal Abjection in I Spit On Your Grave (1978)

I Spit On Your Grave is not a mainstream male-based vision of brutalization and violence, because this film takes the female point of view, casting Jennifer as a feminist heroine. Jennifer is a sympathetic victim during the rape scenes, but her sudden and silent return, brutal acts of vengeance and the determination throughout her revenge are monstrous.

I Spit On Your Grave: Too Ugly?

The plot of I Spit On Your Grave (Meir Zarchi, 1978) runs as follows: a female writer named Jennifer (Camille Keaton) leaves New York City, and escapes to a secluded lakeside cabin near the Housatonic River in Connecticut to spend the summer working on her latest novel. There she attracts the attention of four local men who capture Jennifer, and subject her to a series of brutal rapes over twenty-five minutes. This onslaught of abuse and degradation comprises the film’s first half and the rape itself takes up to twenty-five minutes of screen-time. Matthew (Richard Pace), a mentally challenged virgin, unable to kill her as instructed by the gang’s leader Johnny (Eron Tabor), coats a knife in her blood to lead the others into believing her dead, and leaves her in the cabin. Jennifer slowly recovers from the attack and starts her revenge. She hangs Matthew, castrates Johnny, kills Stanley (Anthony Nichols) with an axe, and Andy (Gunter Kleemann) with a boat propeller. Meanwhile the camcorder footage Stanley (Daniel Franzese) shoots, positions the perspective briefly with the gang and highlights Jennifer’s discomfort by having her effectively address the camera.

Here is the short review on the backcover about I Spit On Your Grave (Meir Zarchi, 1978):

Banned for 17 years by the Australian Office of Film and Literature Classification, the original, uncut version of I Spit On Your Grave has long been called too ugly, too violent and too terrifying to watch. Others have called it powerful and superb cinema. Judge For Yourself.

Film critic Joe Bob Briggs comments on the cult classic rape/revenge film, I Spit On Your Grave (Meir Zarchi,1978): “What we’re going to decide here is whether this is the most disgusting movie ever made or is it the most feminist movie ever made?” He thought that such films, alongside the general trend in slasher films in the early 1980s, would foster a desire in the audience for rape and violence against women, even concluding that the members of the audience around him were nothing more than “vicarious sex criminals.” (Fidler, p. 42).

Roger Ebert writes, “I Spit On Your Grave is sick, reprehensible and contemptible. Attending it was one of the most depressing experiences of my life.” Mick Martin and Marsha Porter wrote: “An utterly reprehensible motion picture with shockingly misplaced values… one of the most tasteless, irresponsible, and disturbing movies ever made.”

Abjection

Kristeva’s notion of the abject defines film’s figuration of woman-as-monster, which “disturbs identity, system, order” and “does not respect borders, positions, rules.” (p. 274). One example is Medusa’s head. According to Freud, Medusa’s decapitated head represents “woman as a being who frightens and repels because she is castrated” (p.74). Generally, her theory discusses abjection relating to her notions of (a) the abomination (b) the border (b) the mother-child relationship.

Barbara Creed thinks the problem with Kristeva’s theory, particularly for feminists, is that she never makes clear her position on the oppression of women. Kristeva’s theory moves uneasily between explanation of, and justification for, the formation of human societies based on the subordination of women. Creed has links to the Australian Women’s Movement, and works within a psychoanalytic framework derived from Sigmund Freud and the semiotic theorist Julia Kristeva.

In one scene in I Spit On Your Grave Jennifer arrives at the lake-house, then wanders around the forest in a red dress and takes her dress off to dip into the water. Such a scene, where the lead actress exposes herself for the camera, is an example of Laura Mulvey’s concept of the male gaze: “A woman performs within the narrative: the gaze of the spectator and that of the male characters in the film are neatly combined without breaking narrative verisimilitude.” When the nude Jennifer wades into the water in long-shot within this gaze, Zarchi describes the scene in the script:

Exterior. River. Day. At last Jennifer has found the heavenly peace she was seeking. At last she feels free from the confinement and commotion of the big city. She has returned to nature’s womb. Awed by the beauty of the place… she eagerly takes her clothes off and goes into the water. (Fidler, p.46)

For Creed (1993), in I Spit on Your Grave, “woman-as-victim” is represented as an abject thing, while “man-as-victim” is not degraded and humiliated.

Creed has extended feminist insights on many aspects of postmodern culture. She has produced an extremely influential analysis of patriarchal ideology in the horror genre, which bonds with visions of woman as the monstrous feminine. In her book The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis (2001), she outlines Kristeva’s theory of abjection and elaborates structures of horror and female monstrosity in films such as The Exorcist (1973), Alien (1979), and The Hunger (1983).

Rape: Feminine Body Abominations

Images of abjection in horror film include the corpse, whole and mutilated, followed by an array of bodily wastes such as blood, vomit, saliva, sweat, tears and putrefying flesh.

In the notions of religious and historical abjection, according to Kristeva, there are several religious ‘abominations’: sexual immorality and perversion; corporeal alteration, decay and death; human sacrifices; murder; the corpse; bodily wastes; the feminine body and incest. In I Spit On Your Grave, the most abominational forms are sexual immorality and the feminine body.

The battered, bruised, and nude Jennifer struggles through the woods where she has been abandoned, walking to the house in a protracted sequence that underlines her weakness and injuries. Crawling on the carpet inside the house, Zarchi springs another surprise when Paul stomps on the phone and it is revealed the quartet of men are also inside, awaiting her return. The third gang-rape involves the retarded Matthew finally submitting to both peer pressure and his own desires, beginning to rape her before halting on account of impotence. When Stanley is about to proceed with his turn at rape, Jennifer finally speaks, begging him not to as she is hurt. While she offers to pleasure him with her hand or mouth, Stanley’s mounting frustration develops as he holds a bottle of wine close to her body (Filder, p. 46).

During the second gang-rape where the gang forces Jennifer down onto a rock, while Andy proceeds to anally penetrates her, Jennifer screams loudly. The screaming sound is also another form of abomination, making the audience uncomfortable.

The director Meir Zarchi has merged the visual abuse with the audio details of this real life case in the third gang-rape of Jennifer. The camera follows the nude and violated Jennifer as she slowly crawls away from each encounter:

She was a young woman, around eighteen or nineteen, totally naked, a walking corpse covered in mud and blood. She was still in shock and struggled to talk through her broken jaw (Filder, p.50).

Various sub-genres of the horror film correspond to religious categories of abjection. For instance, blood as a religious abomination becomes a form of abjection in the ‘splatter’ movie (Texas Chainsaw Massacre); cannibalism, another religious abomination, is central to the ‘meat’ movie (Night of the Living Dead, The Hills Have Eyes); the corpse as abomination becomes the abject of ghoul and zombie movies (The Evil Dead; Zombie Flesheaters); blood as a taboo object within religion is central to the vampire film (The Hunger) as well as the horror film in general (Bloodsucking Freaks); human sacrifice as a religious abomination is constructed as the abject of virtually all horror films; and bodily disfigurement as a religious abomination is also central to the slash movie, particularly those in which woman is slashed, the mark a sign of her difference, her impurity (Dressed to Kill, Psycho).

Revenge: Monstrous Feminine

This film is told from Jennifer’s point of view so that there is no sense of sharing the rapist’s pleasure, particularly during the last of the grisly rapes; as Briggs remarks, I don’t think this scene makes you think of anything except “Castrate those guys immediately” (Filder,p.52).

Jennifer’s revenge is to kill the men in a way similar to how the men had tortured her during the rape scenes. Matthew is seduced into the woods by Jennifer, with a promise that she can give him “a summer to remember for the rest of your life”. Jennifer encourages him to penetrate her before she tightens a noose around his neck when Matthew orgasms. Andy’s face was dunked in a lye bath as revenge for his attempted drowning of Jennifer in a dirty puddle. Voyeur Stanley, who filmed the scene of Jennifer being raped, has his eyelids pulled with fishing hooks and his eyeballs smeared with fish guts to be eaten by crows, while his own camera records his torture.

The shower scene in I Spit On Your Grave is the most brutal scene. Like the shower scene in Psycho, the vulnerability of bathing and being exposed physically to the penetration of a knife, is present.

Zarchi draws out the tension in quick details: a sudden flick of Jennifer’s hand, Jennifer strokes his penis off-screen in the bathtub water, Johnny mistaking the pain for pleasure, the bloody knife being thrown into a sink. In the beginning as Jennifer explains how she has murdered Matthew, Johnny laughs derisively, believing it to be a bad joke. With Johnny’s eyes closed, Zarchi cuts to a close-up of a folded towel on the bathroom floor and to Jennifer picking up a sharp knife with her free hand, and Johnny finally grasping the horror of his situation, screaming, “What have you done to me?” As blood pumps profusely from his crotch, Jennifer walks out and locks the door behind her, letting him bleed to death.

Borders: Vomit, Dichotomy between City and Country, and Ambiguity

Images of blood, vomit, pus, feces, etc., are central to our culturally/ socially constructed notions of the horrific. In terms of Kristeva’s notion of the border, the expression “made me sick” and “scared the shit out of me” foreground the specific horror film as a “work of abjection” or “abjection at work” in both a literal and metaphoric sense. The horror film signifies a desire not only for perverse pleasure (confronting sickening, horrific images being filled with terror/desire for the undifferentiated) but also a desire, having taken pleasure in perversity, to throw up, throw out, eject the abject (from the safety of the spectator’s seat). In this movie, after Matthew rapes Jennifer, we see him throwing up immediately.

Abjection separates the human from the non-human and the fully constituted subject from the partially formed subject. On the one hand, the images of Matthew’s vomit threaten the constituted subject (the other four men who are still torturing Jennifer) in relation to the symbolic “whole and proper” (the pleasure of Matthew completing his masculinity by rape). They fill the subject – Jennifer and the other four men in the movie and the spectator in the cinema–with disgust and loathing. On the other hand, they imply the “fusion between mother and nature” existed (Matthew’s lost virginity); when vomit, while set apart from the body, is not seen as an object of embarrassment and shame.

According to Creed, the concept of a border is central to the construction of the monstrous in the horror film; that which crosses or threatens to cross the border is abject. Although the specific nature of the border is different in different films, the function of the monstrous is to bring about an encounter between the symbolic order and that which threatens its stability.

In this movie, the dichotomy between the city and country is a border. It amplifies the differences between the educated and affluent Jennifer and her hillbilly rapists. This border has become the four men’s insecurities and ultimately used as their excuse for attacking her.

“You’re from an evil place”, Matthew tells Jennifer upon their first meeting, after Hills rewards him with what she refers to as a “big tip from an evil New Yorker” for delivering her groceries. We are reminded of Jennifer’s city status through her internal monologue as she works on her book, and the assumptions that the men draw from this during the harrowing rape scenes, where Andy, mocking her unfinished manuscript as he tears up the pages, exclaims “New York broads sure fuck a lot” (Mee, p.80).

The men think Jennifer’s existence threatens their stability because of her superiority. But Jennifer never thinks herself superior to any of the four men. No scene shows her boasting her “big-city” superior over the small town. Her initial banter with Johnny is friendly. The men, however, believe what they perceive to be snobbishness on Hills’s part: before forcing her to drink liquor during her ordeal, Johnny asks her “you too good to have a drink with us? What are we to you, bunch of dirt?” Therefore, the rapes are the group’s way of teaching the “stuck up city bitch” a lesson and an attempt to put her back in what they see to be her place.

Ambiguity is a very important characteristic in the border experience. In this movie, the difference between fictional narration and true event is very ambiguous. The audience can feel this border, especially during the rape scenes. Reacting to the action in the rape scene, the film has the power to disturb the audience’s ability to tell what is real and what is pretending.

Another ambiguity is the emphasis on pleasure of violence or the pleasure of sex in the rape scenes. In the first rape scene, one technique the film has used to de-eroticize the rape scene is the different angles of close-ups. There are close-ups on the rapist’s face in but medium close-ups on Jennifer’s face, so that the audience can only see the rapists’ evil face instead of Jennifer’s suffering. Assaulting Jennifer to take revenge on Jennifer and step down her confidence/priority as “a city bitch” instead of sex pleasure, as Fielder (2009) states, the audience would take “the side of the rapists against Jennifer” (p.49). In the second rape scene, the film has de-escalated the violence of the rape scene and weakened the monstrous masculine image. The camera follows most of Jennifer’s naked body: walking to the woods with dirty and bloody body, and then being raped with her naked body instead of rapists’ buttocks on top of her body. There is no sympathizing with the gang-rapists, and it is not a “pretty sight” (Fielder, p.50). The naked body is a sexual attraction, but “dirty and bloody” naked body makes Jennifer not an erotic object; her body is for only violence and revenge instead of for sex pleasure, the normal use of female body as Mulvey (1975) always says.

In some horror films the monstrous is produced at different borders: between human and in-human, man and beast (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Creature from the Black Lagoon, King Kong); between the normal and the supernatural, good and evil (Carrie, The Exorcist, The Omen, Rosemary’s Baby); between those who take up their proper gender roles and those who do not (Psycho, Dressed to Kill, Reflection of Fear); or between normal and abnormal sexual desire (Cruising, The Hunger, Cat People).

Maternal Figure

One of the key figures of abjection is the mother who becomes an abject at that moment when the child rejects her for the father who represents the symbolic order. Kristeva refers to the construction of the maternal figure as abject. She argues that all individuals experience abjection during their earliest attempts to break away from the mother. The child struggles to break free, but the mother is reluctant to release it. Thus Kristeva argues that the maternal body becomes a site of conflicting desires.  “The position of the child is rendered more unstable because, while the mother retains a close hold over the child, it can authenticate her existence – an existence which needs validation because of her problematic relation to the symbolic realm” (p.14).

In this movie, Matthew functions as Jennifer’s son and fulfills Jennifer’s maternal figure. During the rape scene, Matthew in some ways is the most sympathetic of the male offenders, continually resistant to the idea of raping Jennifer and merely a product of the gang’s peer pressure. During the revenge scene, Jennifer lures Matthew by ordering groceries to be delivered to her house. We see Matthew take a large butcher’s knife with him to either defend himself or to kill her. Jennifer leads him through the forest and plans to kill him during the sex.  She ties a noose around his neck and eventually hangs him up until he is dead. The scene in which she caresses Mathew is like a mother touching her lovely baby. The way she teaches Matthew to finally orgasm and then kill him is like a maternal mother:

She only wants him to die at the moment of climax. That is how kinky this woman is. This will be his first orgasm and his last. She will take his virginity at the same time she takes his life (Filer, p. 55).  

When Kristeva speaks of the subject who is being constituted, as Creed clarifies, she never distinguishes between the male and female child. The female child’s experience is different from the male’s experience. The mother is aware of the differences between the “masculine” and the “feminine” and might give a male child a more acute sense of pride and pleasure. Thus it is difficult for the child to reject the mother for the father.

Initially refusing to take part in Jennifer’s humiliation, vulnerable Matthew only rapes Jennifer after bullying from the other men and Johnny’s threat to ‘get your clothes off, Matthew, or I’ll slice her from chin to cunt’. His attack on Hills is a direct attempt to save both Jennifer from this fate and himself from a potential beating from Johnny and exclusion from the group. And yet, as we have clearly established that Matthew both knows the act to be wrong (he verbally defends Hills, refuses to participate in her assault until Johnny’s warning, vomits immediately afterward in disgust, and subsequently suffers flashbacks of the attacks) and ultimately – physically, at least – enjoys it regardless of this fact (he orgasms), he must suffer the consequences of his involvement. As Jennifer states before tightening a noose round his neck, in response to his apologetic exclamations: “it’s just not good enough” (Mee, p. 81).

Creed (1993) continues to elaborate that Kristeva also does not distinguish between the relation of the adult male and female subject to rituals of defilement. The following questions should be asked: do women relate to rites of defilement, such as menstruation rites? Is it possible to intervene in the social construction of woman as abject? Is the subject’s relationship to the processes of abjectivity unchangeable? Is the abjection of women a precondition for the continuation of sociality? How do women see themselves in relation to taboos that construct their functions as abject? Therefore Kristeva’s theory of abjection is an “apology for the establishment of sociality at the cost of women’s equality” (p.123).

Castrated and Castrator

In her study The Monstrous Feminine, Creed (1993) discusses Hills as being representative of the “all-powerful, all-destructive, deadly femme Castratrice” (129). In her dual roles of both symbolically castrated (through the act of rape) and literal castrator (with the emphasis on the revenge), Jennifer’s revenge is justifiable and her actions are sympathetic. Yet, Creed argues, the film remains “misogynistic in spirit, due to the eroticized depiction of male torture, and its resulting association of death with masochistic pleasure” (Creed, 1993, p.130).

After having Johnny literally stare down the barrel of her gun, she chooses not to shoot him, instead taking him back to the cabin. She masturbates him in the bath before severing his penis, his initial reaction being to mistake pain for intense pleasure before he looks down to see his arterial blood spurt forth. While the need to first seduce her rapists in order to kill them could be some kind of feminist statement, perhaps the use of her body and sexuality as her ultimate weapons, the way in which Jennifer lures her rapists to their eventual deaths is decisively problematic – not so much in the use of seduction to entrap her tormentors-turned-victims, but in the fact that (and particularly in Matthew’s case) she follows through with the sexual acts offered as allurement (Mee, p. 81).

Mee (2013) also thinks Johnny treats Jennifer like a show horse and commands her to show the teeth and behave like an “ornery stallion” (p.80). Later, Jennifer pulls Johnny’s teeth with pliers and says, “you know what they do to horses that can’t be tamed, Johnny? They geld them”, then she cuts off Johnny’s penis and ultimately castrates him.

Creed discusses the significance of pulling teeth in Freudian dream analysis, concluding that the meaning of such an act, if the tooth represent the penis, could be interpreted as an act of castration, intercourse or masturbation (1993, p. 117–19). This association of castration with sexual gratification again signifies a kind of symbolic masochistic pleasure, an element of the original film that, as stated earlier, caused Creed to ultimately view it as a misogynistic text (Creed 1993, p. 130).

Conclusions

While any potential feminist message in I Spit on Your Grave 1978 is confused by the representation of its abjection as a monster, I would suggest that this is as a result of the need and deliberate attempt to position the film within a contemporary genre context. Furthermore, despite the near demonizing of Jennifer, this film interprets the perceived feminist agenda and enhances the image of Jennifer’s maternal figure. Keaton’s Jennifer is a strong, smart and determined female who survives from the violence and returns to avenge her violations. Julia Kristeva (1982)’s abjection theory and Barbara Creed’s (1993) analyses of the 1978 film remain the most useful in approaching the monstrous feminine issues.

 

 

 

 

 

Annotated Bibliography:

Briggs. J.B, (2002), commentary, I Spit On Your Grave DVD. Directed by Meir Zarchi (Force Entertainment, 2004).

Film critic Joe Bob Briggs describes the cult classic rape/revenge film, I Spit On Your Grave (1978) as either the most disgusting movie or the most feminist movie ever made. He suggests that such films, alongside the general trend in slasher films in the early 1980s, would foster a desire in the audience for rape and violence against women, even concluding that the members of the audience around him were nothing more than “vicarious sex criminals.”

Creed. B. (1986). Horror and The Monstrous-Feminine: An Imaginary Abjection.

Creed has extended feminist insights on many aspects of postmodern culture. She has produced an extremely influential analysis of patriarchal ideology in the horror genre, which bonds with visions of woman as the monstrous feminine.

Chaudhuri, S. (2006). Feminist Film Theorists: Laura Mulvey, Kaja Silverman, Teresa de Lauretis, Barbara Creed.

Chaudhuri analyzes the most popular film feminism theories by Laura Mulvey, Kaja Silverman, Teresa de Lauretis, Barbara Creed and compares the differences.

Cixous, H. (1976). The laugh of the Medusa. Signs, 1(4), 875-893.

Cixous thinks the sight of the Medusa’s head makes the spectator stiff and turns him to stone, and can be a female monster’s weapon.

Fidler, T. (2009). “They don’t call ’em exploitation movies for nothing!”: Joe Bob Briggs and the critical commentary on I Spit on Your Grave. Text Theory Critique 18, 38-58.

Fidler analyze most critical commentary on the movie I Spit on Your Grave and did a comparison between the 1978 version and 2010 version.

Force Entertainment, I Spit On Your Grave (DVD), (Australia: Force Entertainment, 2004, back cover. Freud, S. (1905). Three Essays on Sexuality.

On the back cover of the movie I Spit On Your Grave: Banned for 17 years by the Australian Office of Film and Literature Classification, the original, uncut version of I Spit On Your Grave has long been called too ugly, too violent and too terrifying to watch. Others have called it a powerful and superb cinema. Judge For Yourself.

Freud, S. (1981), Fetishism, On Sexuality, Harmondsworth, Penguin, Pelican Freud Library.

Freud thinks female fetishism is represented within many horror texts-as instances of patriarchal signifying practices-but only in relation to male fears and anxieties about women. The fetishisation of the mother’s genitals could occur in those texts where the maternal figure is represented in her phantasmagoric aspects as the gaping, voracious vagina/womb.

Kristeva, J. (1982). Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection (Leon S. Roudiez trans.) Columbia University Press.

Kristeva proposed the concept of abjection. As a source of horror, abjection works within patriarchal societies, separating the human from the non-human and the fully constituted subject from the partially formed subject. One of the key figures of abjection is the mother who becomes an abject at that moment when the child rejects her for the father who represents the symbolic order.

Mulvey, L. (1975). Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.

Mulvey’s concept of the ‘male gaze’ subsequently became the main talking point of feminist film debate.  Here Mulvey argues that the controlling gaze in cinema is always male. She proposes that narrative cinema produces the male as agent of the look and the female as the object of spectacle through mechanisms of voyeurism and fetishism.

Mick Martin and Marsha Porter, Video Movie Guide: 1987, (New York: Ballantine, 1986), 704.

The authors both find the movie I Spit On Your Grave disgusting, especially Jennifer’s screaming during the second gang-rape. The screaming has made the audience very uncomfortable.

Mee, L. (2013), ‘The re-rape and revenge of Jennifer Hills: Gender and genre in I Spit On Your Grave (2010)’, Horror Studies 4: 1, pp. 75–89, doi: 10.1386/ host.4.1.75_1

Mee mostly compares I Spit On Your Grave between the 1978 version and the 2010 remake, and thinks the 2010 remakes is a more successful one, which has described Jennifer’s feminine monstrosity in a reasonable way.

Roger E. (2011), I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie.

Robert lists several reasons explaining why he does not like the 1978 version of I Spit On Your Grave, and strongly criticizes the director Meir Zarchi.



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