Octavia Cade is the author of Book Smugglers Publishing’s The Mussel Eater. Food & Horror is the monthly food-and-horror series by Octavia that will be appearing on The Book Smugglers over the year ahead.
Recently I was discussing with another writer the possibility of an anthology of dark fantasy and horror themed around food. I made a joke about the title. It involved “Putting the Kitchen Sink back into your Speculative Fiction”.
“I’m not sure it ever left,” was the response. Food is a big part of her stories.
It’s also frequently occurring in mine, albeit in various nasty ways usually ending up in death. But I’ve an interest in food and horror and gender, so the next three months of this column are going to be about that. This month I’ll be focusing on, well, victimhood I suppose. If someone’s going to be faced with a flesh-eating monster, they’ll have a much better chance of survival if they’re not sweet and plump and female.
Food is often associated with femininity. With mothers and grandmothers in the kitchen, with herb gardens and apple orchards and milk. A close association with food, however, doesn’t automatically mean a close association with all aspects of food preparation, of all meals and general dining experiences. But because there’s not a lot of horror in peeling potatoes or making up a ginger lemon syrup, the genre tends to look more closely at the toothy end of things.
At consumption, in other words, and what it’s a metaphor for.
The most obvious answer, especially when you factor in gender, is sex. Those gardens and apple orchards and milk come with connotations of fertility, of sexual awakening and reproduction. And food, like sex, is a sensual experience. It engages the senses: taste, smell, touch. No surprise then that in narratives where sex is, if not forbidden, then very heavily veiled, food steps in as substitute.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula, for instance, has been variously interpreted in a number of different adaptations, and it’s interesting to look at the character of Lucy Westenra. Mina Harker’s best friend, Lucy is young and beautiful and has a number of suitors when she’s attacked and fed on by Dracula. Ultimately she dies (at least the first time) from blood loss.
In Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 version of Dracula, Lucy is highly eroticised – much more so than in the book – even before she meets the vampire. She’s a flirty, seductive figure and when the title character has her by the throat, or when she’s writhing on the bed awaiting his presence, the sexual element of their relationship is brought to the forefront. In possibly one of the least subtle choices in the film, Lucy is actually raped by Dracula in the garden. It’s sexuality and death, a prelude to consumption. He feels entitled to her body on a number of levels; she is there purely to sate appetites – implicitly with the multitude of suitors awaiting acceptance and explicitly with the vampire.
Earlier versions of Lucy were not so obvious. In the 1931 film version starring Bela Lugosi, the portrayal of Lucy was much more restrained. She’s still attacked in her bedroom, a passive, pretty creature as the bat at the window transforms into a dark figure looming over the bed – but the message is the same, even if the wrapping is less gaudy.
Although really, what else can you expect from a monster that only comes out at night?
If there’s ever an excuse to sidle into a young woman’s bedroom – preferably a young woman who’s wrapped in a pale thin nightdress, all ready to be opened up – then this is it. These women are young, on the brink of active sexuality because there’s that underlying association with food, with having liquid sucked out of their bodies as a consequence penetration.
This element of romance tends to be heightened when it takes place with an attractive, or at least magnetic, vampire. The bald, long-nailed horror of Count Orlok may be able to mesmerise his victim but no-one can blame Ellen for fainting, not really. Orlok’s hideous in a way to make the skin crawl, but at least he doesn’t overpower horror so much as to make Ellen complicit in her own consumption. She invites him in, plans to use her own body to distract him until sunrise but there’s agency in that, no matter how badly it turns out for her. It’s the vampires who eat up your sense of self as much as your haemoglobin that are the worst.
In contrast, from the moment the Coppola-Lucy feels fangs sink into her flesh it’s only a matter of time – not just until her body fails, but until her own volition does. There aren’t many vampires following Count Orlok who share his repulsive exterior – or who aren’t able to hide their own ugliness in order to better pass for a romantic, compelling figure: one that’s at home in bedrooms, one that could pass for a lover instead of a monster.
The most successful vampires are lovers as well as monsters. It is, and has always been, a question of appetite – and one that shares the small unsavoury notion of blame. (Did you invite him in? Wearing that? Couldn’t you have covered up a bit more… all that exposed flesh, the long column of throat. How can he resist, when you have what he needs? Such an attractive creature, all dark and dangerous and you did invite him in, to your bedroom without a chaperone. What did you expect would happen? He’ll ruin you, don’t you know. Make you unfit for polite company, the big bad wolf come to eat you up, come to lick your neck, come to kiss and bite and feed…)
Horror frequently comes wrapped in temptation, because temptation comes with choices and the possibility of bad ones. And women are frequently associated with temptation, their bodies causing men to lose control and act like monsters.
No wonder they’re so often eaten up.
But if sex is related to consumption, it’s a relationship that can be implicit, or subsequently taken to extremes. Meredith Ann Pierce’s The Darkangel is a good illustration here, for the vampiric title creature consumes not with sex, but with the sex-proxy of marriage.
Granted, Pierce’s novel (the first in a trilogy of the same name) is directed at young adults, so the connections between sex and horror, between sex and consumption, are perhaps a little more downplayed than they might be in an adult treatment of the same. Yet in The Darkangel, it’s marriage that’s the death-knell for over a dozen young women, and for each of them the marriage is essentially asexual.
The darkangel, previously human, requires 14 brides before his transformation into monstrosity becomes permanent. (This is food as transformative tool again.) The girls are kidnapped at the rate of one per year, and taken to the remote and forbidding castle of the vampyre where a marriage ceremony is performed. Upon the completion of that ceremony, each girl is consumed in three different ways. The vampyre drinks their blood, tears out their hearts to feed to his gargoyle pets, and removes their souls.
The souls are kept in little vials on a necklace. When all 14 vials are filled, the darkangel is to take the souls to his adopted mother, the one who turned him from human to (temporary) monster in the first place. When she drinks the souls as he has drunk the blood, his transformation becomes permanent.
Each of the three consumptions is significant. The vampyre himself has no blood (it was drunk by his witch-mother when she began his transformation) and so he seeks to replenish what he lost through the drinking his wives’ blood in turn. One of the wives comments that “he drinks blood trying to replenish his bloodlessness”, but it’s not any old blood that the darkangel is guzzling down. Marriage has connotations of unity, of separate individuals coming together as one, and so his consumption of their blood can be interpreted as the reclamation of his own, through bodily resources that have become, through marriage, his own flesh. It’s notable that this single act of consumption is the only one the darkangel performs in a year: draining one body of blood is enough to sustain him until his next wedding.
But Aerial, his final wife, concludes that “without blood, nothing heals”. Blood, in The Darkangel, both encourages transformation and arrests it. Blood is used both to transform a child into a darkangel, to maintain that transformation – and it’s hard to consider the brief fluttering of humanity present in the darkangel without wondering if the child-part of him, in its way, is trying to heal what the transformation has made of him.
The tearing out of the hearts is equally significant. The darkangel is heartless himself, at least metaphorically – his own heart remains in his chest, coated with inedible and poisonous lead – for compassion is not one of his characteristics. The torn out hearts are fed to the gargoyles. These creatures keep watch on the castle, and warn of any attempts by the brides or their servant-women to escape, as well as any potential intrusion.
But the gargoyles are trapped themselves, and not truly gargoyles. Rather, they are transformed warden-creatures, originally designed to protect their own countries and act as kindly guardians of the people that live therein. Captured, transformed, and ignorant of their prior state they not only help to keep captive the young girls it would have been their remit to protect – they also eat their hearts. If food has the power to transform, it can also be an instrument of vengeance. Remember the story of The Juniper Tree, where a jealous stepmother fed her stepson to his father in a stew? A malicious, spiteful act – one carried out by a heartless creature. The warden-animals, implacable enemies of the darkangel and his kind, are forced to collude in the consumption of his victims… in the consumption of their wards. No wonder they cannot remember. As the father in The Juniper Tree is transformed through vengeance into a cannibal, so the wardens are transformed into gargoyles, into a nastily subversive rewrite of their former role. They keep their purpose – watchers and protectors – but the subject of their watchfulness and protection has changed. It’s difficult to imagine, for them, a more horrifying fate.
The final consumption, that of the soul, recalls another fairy tale. “Bring me her lungs and liver,” says the Evil Queen of Snow White fame, wanting to wipe her rival off the map completely by consuming her soul along with her flesh. The destruction of souls in The Darkangel signifies the same: the complete absence of life, the impossibility of resurrection. “Our souls will not ascend as others’ do,” says one of the wives, anticipating their consumption. “They will sink into the witch’s dark and be nothing.”
Perhaps the most horrifying part of The Darkangel is those wives. Their souls, ripped out on their wedding night and stored in the darkangel’s necklace, keep them tethered to their ruined bodies. Without blood or heart, each of them becomes a wraith… a thin and desiccated monstrosity, unable to die and unable to heal. Aerial’s first confrontation with these once-women shows how pathetic and hideous their marriage has made them:
“Some stood in corners or crouched, leaning back against the walls. Some crawled slowly on hands and knees; one sat and tore her hair and sobbed. Another paced, paced along a little of the far wall. All screamed and cowered at the entrance of the vampyre. …. The women looked at Aerial with caverns where their eyes should have been. Their starved cheeks were translucent in the lamplight, the skin of their faces pulled so tight Aerial could see the imprint of their teeth through their lips. Their arms looked like bird’s legs – skin on bones with no flesh in between. They cringed; they trembled. One of them moaned: her voice was hollow. Their hair was all coarse and dry as blighted marshgrass.”
So it’s bad enough on a physical level: these young beautiful girls (because it’s only the most beautiful girls who get chosen as brides, naturally) eaten at until they’re withered old hags. But having their souls taken away for provender has also done something to their minds. The wraith-wives only have the tiniest fraction of brain-power left to them. All they really know is what’s been done to them, and that fraction of knowledge eats away at them so that all they can do is relive the horror, over and over.
None of them remember how long they’ve been in the castle, although they know that it’s been less than 14 years. They don’t remember which of them was first: “Our memories fade, then come back again. None of us can now remember back much farther than a day-month, and there were always many of us a day-month ago”.
They don’t even remember their names.
It’s at this last point that The Darkangel really skews the connection between sex and food so often illustrated by many of the vampire narratives. The wraiths aren’t shy when it comes to complaining about what’s been done to them – but there’s never any mention of rape. All their food-horror is related to marriage itself, and not the marriage bed. (Even though the marriage takes place in the bedchamber, the imagery Pierce focuses on are the children’s toys at the foot of the bed.)
It’s not sex that’s the prelude to being eaten up here, it’s marriage. It’s losing your name and your identity along with the right to control your own body. The wraiths have no names. When others refer to them, it’s in the form of their relationships: the darkangel’s brides, the darkangel’s wives. Their identity has been subsumed by his. They are entirely a reflection of their husband. It’s a narrative born out of expected gender roles, as well as expected sexual ones.
Vampires may eat humans as a substitute for sex, but consumption in horror can come from other substitutions, and other expected roles.
One obvious alternative is the human sacrifice. If you want to bring sex back into it (or not, as the case may be) then it’s news to no-one that virgin sacrifices often appear to have a higher value. And these, note, are rarely the sacrifice of some awkward, adolescent boy with a face full of pimples. They’re far more likely to be a young woman, preferably beautiful, preferably well-brought up. I don’t know why dragons give extra points for noble birth (perhaps they’re looking for high calcium content in the bones, and milk is expensive?) but when they’re about to flame their sacrificial dinner, they seem to like it looking fetching. Even in cases like that of the Minotaur, allowed seven young men and seven young maidens to devour every year, it’s youth and nobility that are offered up.
One assumes it’s because of value. Not just value to the dragon, but value to those doing the sacrificing. Or, I should more accurately say, it’s a question of limited value.
Consider: if you’ve a monstrous creature ravaging your borders, and said creature can be kept within clearly defined limits (geographic or otherwise) by giving it someone to chomp on, what do you do? It’s a terrible death – burning first, perhaps, or just being ripped apart limb by limb – but the anticipation is the worst of it. The sacrificed party knows what lies ahead and it’s sharp-toothed and smells of rotting meat. The breath of carnivores, and the whole community behind – parents, friends… – pushing them into the jaws of doom.
Yes, it’s pretty terrible for that poor person. But it’s also a terrible choice for those who have to decide which lucky person gets to be eaten. One can do it by lot, as with the Minotaur… but even lotteries have standards of eligibility and reasons why not.
Consider the very dark choices faced by the British government in the series Torchwood: Children of Earth. To prevent total destruction, they must give up 10% of the nation’s children to alien invaders. These children are to undergo what amounts to endless torture in order that their bodies produce a chemical that acts as a recreational drug for said aliens. The procedures that allow the children to be fed off turn them into withered husks not very much different from that of the darkangel’s wives.
A lottery is considered. It would be the fairest way – but good luck convincing the people in power to risk their own children. The solution comes down to choice – to the bottom 10% of the school league tables. The children most likely to grow up poor and uneducated; the children most likely to be social misfits. Stone cold logic has its own horror, and in this case the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, so off to misery those little failures will go because horror is choice as much as it is inevitability. Having your children taken from you is tragedy. Making them go yourself is a far darker thing.
Especially as these choices can be a pretty balancing act. Send a victim that’s too low-value and there’s a risk of upsetting the monster by not showing it sufficient respect. (The Torchwood aliens don’t care. A dragon might.) Keep sacrificing your most valuable individuals and you materially damage the well-being of the community you’re trying to protect. So what’s left?
The young and pure and pretty, that’s who. The ones who don’t have enough knowledge or experience or talent (or power) to be materially useful. Pretty isn’t useful. Virginal isn’t useful. They are socially well thought of, however, and that’s the main thing. It’s easy to shed tears over the pretty young thing chained to a rock. Those tears signify value, of a sort.
They don’t signify respect.
And that’s really the most horrifying thing about the offering up of flesh to monsters. It’s not the being eaten that’s the scary part. It’s knowing that you’re only being eaten because you’re minimally relevant. If you’re really lucky, the prospect of your passive, dreadful death might motivate someone with power to come along and either save or avenge you (see: fridging) but really, disposability wins the day.
It’s this sort of half-arsed valuation that turns up so often in possession narratives – and if you think that possession stories aren’t a form of consumption, then think again.
Picture your garden variety possession story, whether it’s ghost or demon or what-have-you. It’s body horror of a singular type, when conscious control over your own body is given over to something other than you. This isn’t the result of viruses or flesh-eating bacteria. There’s sentience at work here, and what it eats is space. Mental space, emotional space, spiritual if you believe in that sort of thing, and it’s fairly hard to take possession narratives seriously without some suspension in that area.
Consider how Regan is presented in William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist. When Father Karras first comes to see her, the little girl (or what is passing for her) is deep in the grip of possession, strapped to a bed. There are still fragments of Regan, of the Regan-personality able to be shown, but her physical state shows her as both consumer and consumed. Her “wasted arms and legs”, her “hollow sockets”, her “face shaped into a skeletal, hideous mask” – Regan’s body is losing substantial amounts of weight. She’s being eaten up from the inside, her fleshy, puppy-fat body whittled down in order to sustain the demonic personality inside her. This is very well depicted in the film, although it prioritises the imagery of decay, of rotting. In the film Regan’s wounds are unhealthy-looking, as if she has already begun to decompose – to be digested by the demon.
That demon feeds on her body as well as her mind – in all respects but one. For the Regan strapped to the bed is the demon-personality even more than the little girl, and the physical manifestation of this is apparent in a single area: Regan’s stomach.
For all that Karras can see the rest of her body wasting away he can also see the “distended stomach jutting up so grotesquely”. This clearly isn’t a literal interpretation of the possession – the demon hasn’t actually swallowed Regan, hasn’t eaten her up and stored her in her own stomach in a horrid play against her own emaciation. It is however indicative of the devouring relationship between demon and girl: the physical body contains both the girl being eaten away by the demon, and the demon who is eating up the girl.
This last devouring imagery is reinforced later in the book (and the film) by the appearance of writing on Regan’s torso – on the chest just above her stomach. “Help me”, Karras observes, the “bas-relief script rising up in clear letters of blood-red skin”. And it’s Regan’s handwriting, pressing up against her own flesh as if she was locked inside, swallowed by a larger entity and pressing to get out, a little freckled Jonah swallowed up by the whale.
The Exorcist is fairly psychoanalytic – if deliberately so – in its gender roles. The little girl is still a female presence, still paired with monstrosity, and there are undertones that she is as troubled as she is because of the breakdown of her family – especially the presence of a career-minded, not very domestic mother. I have to admit I don’t have a whole lot of sympathy with this approach, but the contrast with the paternal figures, the rescuing Fathers of the church, is clear. On one side the monstrous (eaten up, eating up) feminine, on the other order in the shape of ordinated men.
The text flat out states that this is the most common gender narrative in exorcism: Karras “believed the majority of cases he had studied had been caused by precisely those two factors [suggestion and hysteria]. Sure. For one thing, it mostly hits women.”
While I haven’t seen every exorcism horror film ever made, I’ve seen a damn lot of them and, from a horror narrative perspective at least, Karras isn’t wrong. It’s nearly always women who are the victims of horror possession – women or children, anyway. The point is that neither of them are men. At least, as victims they’re not associated with active masculinity in the same way as the various exorcists of these narratives are.
Why is this? When it’s time to pick a character to be eaten up, to be swallowed up by a demon, why is that character so often a woman?
Perhaps it’s the influence of The Exorcist. It’s the giant in the genre, the one all other horror possessions are compared to. And Hollywood is known for regurgitation, of more than just the pea-soup kind.
But it’s hard not to look at the overall pattern and draw another conclusion. The same conclusion that one draws when they look at who the vampire tends to bite, and who gets sacrificed to the monsters and why. If horror uses food as a substitute for sex, it also uses it as a substitute for power.
It’s alright for women (and children) to get eaten up by the demon possessor. They’re passive characters anyway – and besides, it’s heroic to rescue them, to save them from the jaws of a monster. Women are there to be overpowered, to be consumed, and they’re consistently emotional – a perfect body for a demon to slip into. Watching little Regan McNeil fuck herself with a crucifix under the influence is horrible. Replay that scene in any cinema, with, for example, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau in the same role and I’m prepared to bet money that there’d be as much smirking in the audience as there would be shivers.
That says something about the expectations of horror and power and eating up your victim’s meat suit, and I’m not sure that what it says is good.
But, in fairness, women aren’t only for eating in food and horror. They are also horrifying consumers, which is what I’ll be looking at next month with Grendel’s mother and The Lair of the White Worm and more…