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Taxidermy, women and horror

2012 September 21

SPOILER ALERT: You really ought to have seen Psycho by now but on the offchance you haven’t I shall be giving away the twist at the end. Likewise Roald Dahl’s superb short story The Landlady, but you can read it quickly here.

My taxidermy adventure

After reading about Amanda’s Autopsies taxidermy workshops on the fabulous Mookychick I signed up for the next one as quick as you could say “lifelong interest in stuffed animals”. Our victims: guinea pigs.

Sarah holds up a stuffed guinea pig in a Boudica costume, looks dubious

Me with Boudica G. Pig

The workshop was fascinating, absorbing, and not as gruesome as I had feared. Having been frozen and bashed about a bit, my subject (who I’ve since named Boudica) didn’t look anything like a live guinea pig when I met it, so its thingness made it surprisingly easy to cut into.

Although I’m a big fan of badly stuffed animals, from the famous Horniman Walrus to the facebook page du jour, following the workshop I have a newfound respect for the taxidermist’s art. Taking the skin off was reasonably straightforward, but my god it’s difficult to get the creature into the right shape.

But I was reasonably pleased with the result, and Boudica G. Pig proudly adorns my mantelpiece. At some point I need to get her a spear, helmet and tiny chariot but that’s a project for another day.

Women wield the scalpel

Interestingly, as well as the glamorous Amanda herself and her assistant on the day I’d estimate that the workshop participants were nearly all women. Taxidermy is clearly kinda fashionable at the moment, and although I can’t say it was at the top of my equality agenda I’m pleased that women are getting stuck in.

As noted on the brilliant website of academic Rachel Poliquin who has just written a book about taxidermy, there are a surprising number of stuffed animals finding their way into contemporary art. I first heard about Polly Morgan‘s work a few years ago, but there’s also Merel Bekking, Claire Morgan, and the incredibly disturbing work of Kate Clark.

There are even signs that the tired old TV trope of taxidermy as a hobby for creepy men is being eroded, with a friendly, sympathetic taxidermist as a central character in Dinner for Schmucks and even a sexy indie flick with a kooky girl taxidermist as the romantic lead.

Creepy cool

That said, no matter how cool it becomes I doubt taxidermy will ever stop being creepy altogether. Firstly because it makes you think of death. Stuffed animals act as a kind of hipster memento mori. Secondly because part of taxidermy’s appeal (particularly as part of an artwork) is its uncanny effect, the ambiguity of animate or inanimate, alive or dead. And finally because taxidermy is so firmly lodged in the symbolic language of horror, where it also takes on a fascinating gendered aspect.

One of the victims in Cabin In The Woods gets friendly with a stuffed wolf head

One of the victims in Cabin In The Woods gets friendly with a stuffed wolf head. Image: MGM

As TV Tropes notes most haunted houses, villain lairs, and cabins in the wood contain a trophy deer head with antlers that cast eerie shadows, or a stuffed owl, wolf or bear with glinting eyes and gleaming teeth. Whether predator or prey these creatures provide a handy visual signal for danger to the audience (and occasionally the protagonist) and get them meditating on the theme of death.

Taxidermy and patriarchy

But there’s also a number of influential horror films that contain some form of human taxidermy as an especially unsettling treat, most of which draw some of their grisly inspiration from the sickening ‘trophies’ of real life serial killer Ed Gein.

In The Horror of Everyday Life: Taxidermy, Aesthetics, and Consumption in Horror Films Jeffrey Niesel argues that taxidermy in horror films is often used as a way to silence feminine subjectivity. He quotes from Jane Caputi’s book The Age of Sex Crime, in which she argues that sexual serial killings, far from being ‘deviant’, represent the logic of patriarchy taken to an especially brutal extreme:

Serial sexual murder is not some inexplicable explosion/epidemic of an extrinsic evil or the domain only of the mysterious psychopath. On the contrary, such murder is an eminently logical step in the procession of patriarchal values, needs, and rule of force.

For Niesel, “taxidermy represents the most literal expression of male violence, and reveals both the violence and the ultimate instability located at the core of a patriarchal system that relies on validation from passive feminine subjects.” He views taxidermy in PsychoTexas Chainsaw Massacre and The Silence of the Lambs as an expression of the crisis of masculinity as Norman Bates, the Sawyer family and Buffalo Bill strive to possess women while silencing their subjectivity, turning them into objects. As Niesel observes, “a stuffed woman is the perfect woman because her male companion can make her say whatever he wants.”

“As harmless as one of these stuffed birds”

Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates with a stuffed owl in the background

Norman Bates with one of his owls. Image: Paramount

I’ll share some of his thoughts on Psycho, because it’s my favourite, and because it features animal and human taxidermy, hooray! In Psycho the connection between women and “stuffed birds” is made pretty clear. Norman tells Marion that “you eat like a bird” and shortly afterwards describes his mother as being “as harmless as one of those stuffed birds”, a comparison ‘she’ herself makes later. He also tells Marion “I think only birds look well stuffed because they’re kind of passive to begin with.” As Niesel points out:

Birds are not really any more or less active or passive than other creatures, but his statement resonates throughout the film because it describes the way women are treated. Women are expected to be stuffed birds, and there is a constant tension involved in trying to enforce their “passivity.” Women pose a threat in the film because they might do something like steal $40,000 (as Marion does)

I particularly like Niesel’s reading of the moment when Lila Crane finally confronts the stuffed Mrs Bates: she is in fact confronting the full horror of violent suppression of female agency and subjectivity. She is facing herself. Well no wonder it always makes me jump.

Turning the tables

Applying Niesel’s analysis to one of my very favourite examples of taxidermy in popular culture, Roald Dahl’s short story The Landlady (published in 1959, a year before Psycho was released) gave me an insight into why it’s so incredibly effective. It’s not just the chill as you realise that the unnamed landlady is a serial killer with a penchant for human taxidermy, but her tremendous gender transgression in being so. She collects handsome young men, and wants the protagonist, Billy, as her latest possession. She even eyes him up in an objectifying gesture that will be familiar to most women on the planet:

“And it is such a pleasure, my dear, such a very great pleasure when now and again I open the door and I see someone standing there who is just exactly right.” She was halfway up the stairs, and she paused with one hand on the stair rail, turning her head and smiling down at him with pale lips. “Like you,” she added, and her blue eyes traveled slowly all the way down the length of Billy’s body, to his feet, and then up again.

Even though he can see she’s a bit unhinged Billy’s mistake is to assume that she is harmless (“there was no question about that”) because she is a middle-aged woman. He is not prepared for such a dramatic reversal in their gender roles, from predator to prey, from subject to object.

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