Martyrs: Women and Horror

Martyrs (2008) begins with a jarring premise, with the frame of a girl running away from something terrifying. Personally, it reminded me of the first few frames of It Follows (2014), because the audience sees a girl running away from something that’s terrifying as well. For me, it was also one of the most merciless films that was shown in class. What makes Martyrs work as a horror film is the unique perspective that it takes on ‘the monster.’ It also spices up the movie by adding questions about faith here and there.

As a horror film, one of the archetypes that Martyrs adapted is the character of the orphan. Several mainstream horror films work around this trope as well, such as the movie Orphan (2009) featuring the popular Esther. The archetype of the orphan is associated with abandonment and isolation. Martyrs presents us with two orphans – the good orphan and the bad orphan. Obviously, Lucie Jurin is the bad orphan, the one in need of understanding and utmost care because of where she came from. She sees a mother figure (and also, a lover) in the character of Anna, the good orphan. Lucie’s character is built around the orphan concepts of isolation and abandonment. As a victim of an unsolved crime of violence and abuse, she had to deal with the pain and the trauma all by herself because no one understood her, except Anna. Going further into the film, Anna had to face what Lucie tried, all her life, to escape from as well. In the case of Anna, it was even worse because she was able to complete all the stages.

In Williams (2002) article entitled, “Learning to Scream”, she states that the “terrified female victim is the cliché of horror cinema” (p. 167) and that “abject fear is gendered feminine” (p. 167). What Martyrs has in common with most of the movies that we’ve seen in class is that the ‘monster’ is gendered feminine, and the woman is the object of terror and fear. Lucie had to kill the Bellford family because of the ‘monster’ inside her head (whom I personally thought was the evil monster in the movie), and this in turn, makes her a monster as well. Anna, on the other hand, is the feminine victim of fear and terror because the audience is able to completely see the frightening and inhumane process of ‘martyrdom’ that she had to go through.

Martyrdom is a concept that film viewers wouldn’t expect from a horror film, since it mostly has a religious connotation. Martyr comes from the Latin word martur or martir which means “to witness.” On the other hand, the dictionary definition of ‘martyrdom’ states that it is “a display of feigned or exaggerated suffering to obtain sympathy or admiration.” Mademoiselle used Anna as a tool to prove that martyrs can exist in the contemporary sense, and if whether or not there really is an afterlife. Horror comes into play not just in the exhibition of feminized fear and torture but it goes back to one of the most primitive fears of man—the fear of the unknown. Because the unknown remained to be the unknown even after all the extreme measures they have taken to prove something, Mademoiselle ended up killing herself in order to see the ‘unknown’ (or the afterlife) for her own.

Furthermore, as the movie progressed, the real monster is likewise questioned by the audience. In horror movies, monsters are often the ones wreaking havoc and fear. In Martyrs, I think the ‘real’ monsters are the ones in cahoots with Mademoiselle because they are the ones ‘othering’ their fellow human beings and treating them as objects. It seemed like they were grooming Anna to be the monster because of her physical appearance but she really is just the poor victim of an extremist view of martyrdom.

In Cherry’s article entitled “Refusing to Look: Female viewers of the horror film” (2002), she posits the question: “If female viewers do not refuse to look, what kinds of horror film do they attend and what pleasures do they derive from seeing them?”(p. 170). This is in line with the fact that female characters are always the one being victimized by the monster, and also because the monster is often gendered as feminine.

As a woman, Martrys was a painful film to watch just like most of the other horror movies that was shown in class, precisely because of the treatment of the female characters and the feminization of the monster. However, women still continue to watch horror movies, no matter how bloody and disgusting it is. Perhaps, it’s because there is a need to continuously prove to the patriarchy that the women of today are so much more than the stereotypes they are boxed in.

Source: Janovich, M. (2002). Horror, The Film Reader. London: Routledge.

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