Abjection of the Female Body as Maternal Authority :The Brood

Horror film often focuses conservatively on family trauma from Freudian position to point to the corruption in a society. Responsible of this corruption, women is represented as monstrous whose social and physical identity is constructed in paralel with her behaviors that disturb the social order in a society, the Father’s Law. Barbara Creed exemplifies these representations as “the archaic mother; the monstrous womb; the witch; the vampire; and the possessed woman” (7) . One of the films that mysogynically constructs such a representation is David Cronenberg’s 1979 film The Brood which is a Body Horror written by himself.

Nola, represented as “the monstrous womb” in the film, is a mother and a wife who is a patient in a psychiatric institution called Somefree Institution of Psychoplasmics where Dr. Reglan uses psychoplasmics to have his patients reveal their psychological troubles physically. As a consequence of psychoplasmics, Nola literally gives birth to her rage in forms of child-like creatures. This brood is motivated by Nola’s anger to kill or hurt the ones whom Nola is angry with.

She had been abused by her alcoholic mother and was not protected by her father who used to pretend that nothing abusive had been happening. As a result of physical violence that was too painful to face and the extreme psychological pain which is repressed, “she would wake up and she would be covered by with big, ugly bumps” when she was a child, which was what happened to Candice at the end of the movie. The suggested idea in the film is obvious that ‘bad mothers’ are responsible for the corruption of society as this is a linear process which cause the new generation to inherit the inevitable maternal monstrosity.

The film starts with Dr. Ragan acting as one of his patients’ father who uses his power of language to turn his son back to the Father’s Law. This patient is psychologically damaged because he somehow could not enter the Symbolic Order through which he should have identified with his father. Rather, he acts like “daddy’s liittle girl” so the father had always insulted him to ‘make a man’ of him. The opening of the film assures that the roles and behaviors that are attributed to women are problematic and need to be corrected for healthier individuals.

Some critics argue that fathers in the film (both the grandfather Barton and the father Frank) are also incapable or slow when they should protect their children from the monstrosity of the mothers and this, for them, should be given some credit while labeling the film as anti-female. While Dr. Raglan acts like Nola’s father in therapy, she yells him over and over again saying “You should have protected me. You should have!You should have! You should have!” and starts hitting him after which the brood kill Barton. In this sense, arguing that the film is not that anti-female since there are impotent farhers who fail would be very optimistic. Because the film prepares its audience to the idea that being like women causeses great damage psychologically with the opening scene where we see Mike acting like “daddy’s little girl”. So, impotent male characters are constructed to make sure the audience decode the assembled meanings to these characters as being abnormal and a man should be like a man; a father should be like a father who should not attempt to disturb the order.


Nola, the carrier of a monstrous womb; Nola who licks her newborn creature like a wild animal is a character to disgust and terrorize the audience. She does not fit into any category in the viewer’s mind. She is abjectified to show what happens when the boundaries are ignored by a woman, she becomes so powerful that it turns her into an abject maternal. Barbara Creed comments on such situations reminding Kristeva’s notion of maternal authority. She argues that “Virtually all horror texts represent the monstrous feminine in relation to Kristeva’s notion of maternal authority and the mapping of the self’s clean and proper body. Images of blood, vomit, pus, shit, etc. are central to our culturally and socially constructed nootions of the horrific. They signify a split between two orders: the maternal authority and the law of the father” (The Monstrous- Feminine) .

Frank’s recognition of the bruises in Candice’s back happens when he occupies the maternal authority as he bathes her. Frank’s accusing of Nola for this abuse shows how “the male fears women” because she is in possession oh her power which means she is not castrated of her phallus at all” (Creed, 6) . She has the phallic power which is attributed to the male. This situation shows the collapse of the meanings as Nola interrupts male authority causing the split between the father’s and the mother’s sphere. She proves her authority being the reason of all abject moments in the film. Bruises, blood, dead bodies, giving birth parthenogenetically, etc. She does not even need a male for reproduction since she has the power to do it herself so she is not sexually dependent, too.

Freud argued that men fears women because women are castrated. However, Nola has the phallic power which makes her fearful. Kristeva states that abjection “disturbs identity, system, order” (4) . Nola is a mother who “failed” in her maternal authority and interrupted the law of the father. Bearer of a “monstrous womb”, her body signifies a revolt against the order which is constructed by male authority. While she is alive, the Symbolic Order is threatened so she has to be killed by a rightful defender of this order: the father.

Candice’s physical appearance is absolutely the same of her mother’s when she was a child which is shown through photographs in the film and the resemblance of Candice to the brood indicate that who is produced by the women in this family will cause terror because of what they had been through psychologically in the hands of the mothers. Nola is a monster who produces monsters to damage. The victim is victimized because of her mother and now the victim victimizes. Dr. Raglan marks that “in a way Candy is one of them”. She is a child who was born by the same mother just like the brood.

The brood kills the grandfather and attempts to kill Frank too but dies before it can. It has the same hair, the same height and weight, and the same coat as Candy. We, as audience, watch her die from Frank’s eyes while the camera shows the action from high angle which makes the audience to identify with the father seeing a creature that looks extremely alike with his daughther. Thus, after coming home finding Candy behind him on the ground scares him. Later, he will learn that his wife is the “queen bee” taking care of these children.

Nola as a reproducing monstrous womb produces children who are outside of the symbolic order. They are abject bodies who do not carry the meanings that the audience carry. Kristeva states that “abjection is elaborated through a failure to recognize its bin; nothing is familiar, not even the shadow of a memory” (5) . Nola’s womb which should normally be a symbol of motherhood, reproduces children with eyes without retinas whose “vision of the world is very distorted”, the tongue is too thick for proper speech, the lack of sexual organs, and no navel which means that it was not born naturally. These are the children of her active anger who fit into no categories and she does not need sex to produce the brood-children. All the meanings collapse with Nola’s existence.

After killing Candy’s teacher who made Nola extremely angry, which was caused by a stereotypical jealousy of Nola, two of these children and Candy walks together to Somafree hand-in-hand and the camera tracks them from behind, which makes the audience think that the three are all brood since the audience can not distinguish Candy from them. Candy is also a product of her rage because of the psychological damage she endures.

Desperately looking for his lost daughter, Frank goes to Somafree to bring Candy back home. There he learns that Candy is their sister since they were born from the same mother. And there is a telapathic bond between them so they are motivated consciously or unconsciously by Nola’s anger. Thus, he has a challenge that in order for Dr. Raglan to take Candy from the attic where the brood live he has to keep Nola happy so that the brood will not be aggressive. Otherwise they would kill both Dr. Raglan and Candy.

Following, Frank goes in the cabin where Nola is seated as if she sits in her own kingdom. There is a higher platform on the ground which is her bad and she sits there having worn a pure white dress which symbolizes the grace of motherhood. He tries to persuade that he wants her back and want them to understand each other. She does not believe him wishing “it were true”. The camera shoots from low angle to magnify her against a desperate father who struggles to save her daughter from her monstrosity. After his convincing explanations about how ready he is to embrace her new life, she says, “I seem to be a very special person. I am in the middle of a strange adventure.” He accepts saying he wants to go with her wherever she goes.

By the time, the camera still shoots from below and with the help of Nola’s gestures and body movements, she gradually seems more and more sublime, which will be horrific too when she shows her body.

She shows herself after him assuring her but whether she believes him or not is not certain since she looks too powerfull to care his approval. She opens the sides of his dress then the camera shows it after shooting Frank’s reaction. Thus, the audience being identified with him, feel disgust before seeing her body. Her lower body has developed outside wombs triggered by her anger which are totally abject. These things that can not be defined in words look sickly which triggle a physical nausea.

To make matters worse, the Cronenberg makes her tear one of them which is ready for birth withher teeth and lick the baby she takes out animalistically to clean the bodily fluids of blood and other undefinable provoking plasma. Meanwhile, Frank closes his mouth to prevent throwing out. Holding her baby in her arms, she sees his reaction and pushes him to accept that he is disgusted. She says, “I sicken you. You hate me.” In Kristevan view, it can be said that he is disgusted because he was seperated from his mother’s sphere when material bodily images were taught to be horrific since they are not “clean”. He excludes them to “establish himself” in the law of the father.

An interview with Samantha Eggar who played Nola in the film proves the abjection of this scene as she recalled that they “used to have rushes in those days…. I never went to the rushes, but the male crew- well, when they saw that scene, apparently two or three of them just threw up” (July 2014) . Kristeva argues in this respect that:

“To save himself, rejects and throws up everything that is given to him- all gifts, all objects. He has, he could have, a sense of the abject. Even before things for him are– hence before they are signifiable- he drives them out, dominated by drive as he is, and constitutes his own territory, edged by the abject. A sacred configuration. Fear cements his compound, conjoined to another world,thrown up, driven out, forfeited. What he has swallowed up instead of maternal love is an emptiness, or rather a eternal hatred without a word for the words of the father; that is what he tries to cleanse himself of, tirelessly” (6) .

Meanwhile, motivated by her anger, the brood kills Dr. Ragan and attempts to kill Candy, too. She does not stop to trigger them. The brood punches the door that Candy was behind to break it and they attack her with their bloody hands. Frank threatens to kill her if she does not stop then starts to throttle her. Hearing Candy’s scream he pushes hard and kills her. Depending on Nola’s consciousness, the brood dies, too. Finally, Frank takes collapsed Candy, wraps her with his coat and gets in the car saying “We are going home”. But when they are on their way, we see Nola’s arm “covered with big ugly bumps” like her mother’s used to be.

Even if William Beard says in The Artist as a Monster that there is no cathartic release at the end since there is no relief in past, present and the future, the audience has a catharctic moment when the climactic scene of killing Nola is succeeded because of the emotional intensity of the scene (76) .

Candy has always been so calm repressing her emotions. She sleeps after witnessing her grandmother’s death and forgets everything. The psychologist of the police department in the film explains this as “abnormal deep sleep which a lot of people, even children, will use to escape something that is too powerfull to face”. She does what her mother did as she represses bad memories to her unconsciouss which results in bodily reactions like bumps that appeared on her arm at the end of the film.

There are off-screen reasons for Cronenberg to make a film about a destructive mother and a protector father of her little daughter that has only him to take her away from the psychological damages caused by her failed mother. William Beard metions that Cronenberg made a very personal movie depicting his private life. He says: “reasons for the project’s special intensity came from the filmmaker’s own testimony: Cronenberg has volunteered that it is a version of the traumatic experience of divorce from his first wife and anxieties over the custody of his daughter Cassandra” (71) .

Cronenberg, who located horror in the family, selected female abusive characters to create an anti-female perception against the corruption in the family. He avoided social causes by the very system that was constructed by males. Killing Nola at the end of the film, make everything settled in the symbolic order which excludes female power to exercise male power over female body. The intention of this film is to make sure to “seperate out the symbolic order from all that threatens its stability, particularly the mother and all that her universe signifies” (Creed, 14) .

Works Cited

Beard, William. The Artist as Monster: The Cinema of David Cronenberg. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. 2006. Print.

Creed, Barbara. The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis. New York: Routledge. 1994.Print.

Eggar, Samantha. Interview. Collecting Life: An Interview with Samantha Eggar. The Terror Trap. July 2014. Web. 2 Jan. 2016.

Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. New York: Columbia University Press. 1982. Print.

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Hacettepe Üniversitesi'nde Amerikan Kültürü ve Edebiyatı bölümünde lisans eğitimi aldı, aynı üniversitede Kültürel Çalışmalar ve Medya programında master yapıyor ve Düşünbil Dergisi'nde çeviri editörü olarak çalışıyor.

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