Black Christmas and the ever-looming patriarchy

Wherever I sat - on the deck of a ship or at a street café in Paris or Bangkok - I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air. ~Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar, Chapter 15

Introduction: Facefulness 

Some find werewolves the most terrifying, some vampires. Others cannot stand the sight of zombies, or ghosts, or mummies. But these are just imaginary things. As the creature feature era drew to a close in the mid 1950’s, after audiences had enjoyed every brand of old-time monster, robot, alien, and animal imaginable, the bitter taste of true terror piqued up again and audiences focused on the worthiest monster of all.

Films did not deny audience’s their desire to see human treachery, human madness and psychopathy at its darkest, such early films as Night of the Hunter (1955) and Peeping Tom (1960) provided excellent, profound and probing explorations of serial murdering antiheroes. These films were popular, and hinted at the dark horse on the horizon that was to dominate the horror films of the later 20th century. The small difference between these thrillers and the later solidification of the “slasher” genre is the known aspect of the killer’s identity, or rather, should I say, the facefulness of the killers. There they are for you in plain view, Harry Powell, Mark Lewis, bright white faces, dark eyebrows. Monster’s are never as scary when you see them in daylight.

And so, on the road to the evolution of the slasher, killer-centric psychological horror-dramas reached out for symbiosis with the old murder mystery formula. Something in the hiddenness, unspoken faces and friend’s betraying, gave these old beast’s a strong new shadow. Films like Thirteen Women (1932) and And then there were none (1945) had established an exciting premise that had delighted audiences time and again. A group of people dropping off like flies, a mystery killer, and a final, shocking identity and motive revelation. Horror quickly espoused with this formula and held on all the way through to the 1990’s, when it was simplified and satirized by Wes Craven’s Scream(1996).

Psycho (1960) and Dementia 13 (1963) are the first in this series of thrillers to delve into a degree of mystery, they forestall the killer’s identity til the very end, suggesting different culprits and motives.

This game had been played before by Dario Argento. His early mystery film The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) is a slasher film avant la lettre, hiding the face of the raincoat clad killer (see Dressed to Kill (1980) for later use of this image) until the end and then, in the spirit of Psycho and Dementia 13, revealing a complex psychological reason for the killer’s mania.

This coupling of murder mystery with psycho killer (replacing the more standard mystery motives of money, vengeance, all rooted in sanity) matched well, but the slasher had not yet been born. Director’s took a page out of the popular exploitation films of the time, and from the splatter genre being refined by Herschell Gordon Lewis. Gore suited well this new genre, Argento himself adopted more blood into his films and they gained popularity, as did Hitchcock.

And so the slasher slid from the womb.

Slasher! The very onomatopoeia of the word suggests a knife entering flesh, a jarring, violent, sexual noise. Where did it begin? In the attic, the woman cannot breathe, a faceless creature has invaded our bodies.

Here there be spoilers.

Many people get frustrated with Black Christmas (1974),  the first true slasher, because the film has no solution. No motive or identity is ever ascribed to the killer. Sure there is one integral red herring in Jess’s boyfriend, but the last shot is of the attic window, the rocking, suffocated woman, ever frozen in her maidenhood while the terrifying voice of the killer croons on. But if one took the time to view the film more closely, one might see that the film is actually quite clear about whom the killer is, and its solution is so beautifully horrific, so spectrally ubiquitous that it has been the killer in every slasher film since.

Part 1: An Obscene Performance

No film has topped Black Christmas’ signature feature, namely the obsecene phone calls. Now obscene phone calls were a lot more common back in the 70’s, before Caller ID was on every single cellphone screen. My mother and aunts always talk about getting a “breather” now and again when they were young. Therefore obscene phone calls, especially in this time, represent one of the earliest and most commonly understood experiences of fear for one’s body and safety. It is the most basic kind of threat, that one can reach out from behind your door and connect through the phone line to express violent desire. The most rudimentary nature of a breather or moaner phone call is a male voice threatening sexual violence against a female. Of course this is the nature of the Black Christmas phone call, at first, but the caller, the killer, taunts the girls not only with a harrowing caricature of a lusty violent male, but also with grotesque feminine caricatures of pain and suffering, as though playing out the subtextual gender war in a single voice.

Judith Butler writes about the performance inherent in the very constitution of gender.

“gender is in no way a stable identity or locus of agency from which
various acts proceed; rather, it is an identity tenuously constituted in time—an identity, instituted through a stylized repetition of acts. Further, gender is instituted through the stylization of the body and, hence, must be understood as the mundane way in which bodily gestures, movements,
and enactments of various kinds constitute the illusion of an abiding gendered self. This formulation moves the conception of gender off the ground of a substantial model of identity to one that requires a conception of a constituted social temporality. Significantly, if gender is instituted through acts which are internally discontinuous, then the appearance of substance is
precisely that, a constructed identity, a performative accomplishment which the mundane social audience, including the actors themselves, come to believe and to perform in the mode of belief. If the ground of gender identity is the stylized repetition of acts through time, and not a seemingly seamless identity, then the possibilities of gender transformation are to be found in the
arbitrary relation between such acts, in the possibility of a different sort of repeating, in the breaking or subversive repetition of that style.” (Judith Butler, “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology
and Feminist Theory” 1988)

What we see in Black Christmas is the latter of these underminings, a subversive repetition of the gender binary. Though it is hard to make sense of the gargled, intensely eery, and schizophrenic voice on the other end of the line, a few key phrases can be gleaned. It starts with Jess’ declaration that it is “him again, the moaner,” demonstrating that this is not the first incidence, placing the narrative appropriately in media res of the historic gender war. The call starts off sounding barely human, the moaning is that of a dying animal, a struggling ape. This noise sets the stage in an almost primal way, for out of this garbled animal suffering and desire emerges Adam and Eve, Agnes & Billy. “Could that be one person?” asks Claire, a fitting question indeed, what is the nature of this multiplying voice that at first sounds male but then out comes the rib and a second suffering marries itself along? The duality is then expanded upon, explained and made true in the performance. The garbled noise is broken by the crying of an infant, the creature born, followed immediately by the typical, expected voice, the deep male voice threatening sexual violence. This varies in pitch throughout the sophmoric sexual threats, sounding at once like a child, then a pig, then an old woman, and finally, in the terminal iteration “I’m going to kill you,” like a mature, adult male, as though this is the conclusion, the culmination of the previous violent evolution. Out of animality, through birth comes the boyish and confused male voice, textured with gender uncertainty finally cemented in the calm declaration that he will kill the woman attempting to undermine his sexual control. It is as though against her retorts he steels himself into the truest predator. It is in the duologue of their twin performances that he develops his own tokenly masculine violence and seeks to exact it throughout the remainder of the film. Who is he? Well he was no one when he first crawled up into the sorority house attic from a POV shot in the opening of the film, a being without gender, without firm identity, with the unformed animalistic tendencies expressed at the start of the phone call. It was against the overwhelming femininity of the sorority house that his masculinity became the foil performance. The creature in the attic is like a virus that adapted into male to more perfectly destroy its host.

In this sense the sorority house functions not only as a setting but as a character, much like Poe’s House of Usher or DuMaurier’s Manderley. The very sight of it, the first image in the film, is like a living beast, breathing in Christmas Carols.

I’ll come back to this point in part 3.

Part 2: Black Christ Mass

Now perhaps we should get to the root of the film’s title. Now obviously it is a simple, darkly comical inversion of the standard ideal Christmas, namely a white Christmas.

In this classic song all of the iconic, loving, generous aspects of Christmas are highlighted, days merry and bright. Black Christmas is simply an inversion of that because bad things are happening during Christmas, a time that is meant to be about family and giving and the spirit of joy. But the actual mythology of Christmas is often overlooked in the context of this film, and its inversion is far more harrowing, and far more pertinent.

For you see, quite simply, Christmas is the celebration of a holy birth. It is a fusion of the ancient pre-Christian tradition of Yule, or the Winter Solstice (a day representing death for it’s lack of sunlight, and then new birth with the remergence of the sun to one point higher the next day) with the Myth of Christ’s birth to a virgin as the Son of God beneath a Holy Star. Christmas is the night that the most divine of births is celebrated.

And so let us view our Nativity. As the mother we have Jess, who has just learned that she is pregnant. The baby in her stomach is Christ. But she doesn’t want it, and the dark voice on the other end of the phone, the conciever. That is God. That is her boyfriend. And he insists that she keep it.

And so basically the Black Christ Mass, is Christ’s abortion, and God, the proverbial He, is enraged.

Black Christmas and the ensuing slasher genre which it establishes are about parallel lines of obvious and subtle violence. the visible blood plays a duet with the subtler abuse, synthesizing in a final crescendo.

This scene clearly hints at pre-existing abuse in Jess and Peter’s relationship. Her downcast eyes, her quick nervous movements. Though abuse is executed throughout the film on a very obvious level (i.e murder), we see here not only the subtler abuse of mere assault,  but of specifically furtive assault. Most domestic and/or relationship abuse is identified by bruised arms and black eyes, but sometimes, as on this black Christmas, pregnancy, and the male control exerted in response, is a sign of serious abuse in itself.

In Lynn Harris’s article When partner abuse isn’t a bruise but a pregnant belly, such violent relationships are outlined, with examples provided:

Sexual coercion and “reproductive control,” including contraceptive sabotage, are a common, and devastating, facet of dating and domestic abuse. A growing number of studies, experts and young women themselves are testifying to boyfriends demanding unprotected sex, lying about “pulling out,” hiding or destroying birth control — flushing pills down the toilet, say — and preventing (or, in some cases, forcing) abortion. 

In Peter’s case we see abortion prevention as a means of control. Jess informs him that she is going to get an abortion and he replies “you haven’t even asked me yet.” He sees her body as his, to mangle and slash, to control. He has slashed her long before Billy, or Agnes, whomever it is that holds the knife. “I wasn’t even going to tell you,” she appropriately replies, reasserting her control of her own body. A different fear presents. This subplot is not random.

It is no coincidence that the image that carries us into this exchange is that of a suffocated, dead woman. All well-developed slasher films artfully contrast obvious violence with more insidious and discrete abuse.

Later Peter breaks down. “Dont treat it like getting a wart removed,” Peter insists, a phrase that later echoes in another obsence phone call, first establishing Peter as the potential killer, a solution the local police, all men, seem satisfied with.

But the real solution lies within.

Part 3: The Calls are coming from inside the house

Now it would be silly not to point out the obvious parallel between the intruder/killer and the baby in Jess. In both cases there is something that has found its way into a feminine structure and is violating from within (not that the baby is directly violating Jess but the insistence of its presence on Peter’s behalf echoes back to the killer in the attic, with whom he is eventually “confused.”)

Of course this roots back to a classic scary urban legend, the gist of which is that scary phone calls expected to be coming from a distant stranger are actually within the very house in which you believe you are safe. Many films have played to this classic trope, some far more loyally:

A unique feature of this archetypal tale, often referred to as The Babysitter and the Man Upstairs, is that the climax of the danger doesn’t come from the danger increasing, as many scary stories do. The danger is constant throughout the entire tale, the climax of the thrill is when awareness is granted, when the protagonist learns that “the calls are coming from inside the house!” Just as Jess’ earlier statement that “it’s him again, the moaner,” places us in the middle of an ongoing trend of harassment, “the calls are coming from inside the house!” reveals that the danger has always been present, it has been sitting on top of them since Christmas, waiting like the dark messiah to be birthed. Indeed, Black Christmas is unique to this day for the fact that the killer remains stationary throughout the majority of the film. Save a few strange, moments, the killer is always within the sorority house, waiting to catch one of the sisters alone. In this way it is more in the tradition of such previous films as Rosemary’s Baby (1968), playing off of the parasitic nature of gestation. The killer in the attic is like an unwanted pregnancy, a Christ child that this Mary refuses to birth, and the ensuing deaths naught but the wrath of Him.

Conclusion: Agnes, it’s me Billy

Throughout the many garbled and strange phrases we hear the killer utter either over the phone or in person, as the vague figure brings down the phallic knife, one that comes through repeatedly is “Agnes.” The killer mutters this twice before killing women, and is heard more clearly saying “Agnes, it’s me Billy,” in one murder scene. No back story is ever offered, but this strange line ends up being the film’s concluding sentiment.

Further frustrating fans of certainty, the ending is one of the most beautifully elusive in slasher history. We see Jess cowering in the basement of the sorority house, Peter coming towards her with a smile as she shivers, further hinting at preexisting abuse in addition to her suspicion that he is the killer. Once the police arrive Peter is lying dead in Jess’ lap, she has killed him in self-defense, all is well. The police put Jess to sleep and leave, the camera pulls back through the cadaverous, haunting corridors of the sorority house, finally up to the attic where the bodies of the brutalized women still rot, the phrase is uttered again, this time clearer than ever “Agnes, it’s me Billy,” and then the camera comes into clear focus on the suffocated woman reiterated throughout the entirety of the narrative, the suffocated woman who is on every poster for the film. We hold on this image as the camera pulls back, away from the house, into the winter night. The phone begins to ring.

As stated earlier, it is against the overwhelming femininity of the sorority house that the killer comes to perform as a violent He. The statement “Agnes, it’s me Billy,” perfectly represents a simple binary, the first two letters of the alphabet, the female is addressed by the male. Whatever origin story is here implied is unimportant though the most obvious hypothesis would be that Billy was once wronged by Agnes or vice versa and now this duality must be expressed between the unending binary maintained by gender performance, but this does not hurt all of humanity equally, it is the woman who is suffocated, the woman who is preyed upon for she is the one that has been controlled, abused and infested. She is the one who has been slashed.

In this sense it is not quite so horrific that Jess “incorrectly” murdered her boyfriend, or rather that the suspicion that he was the killer is no more than a red herring, rather he is the killer, just as much as any man, but doing away with him is not enough, it is the deadly phallis in the attic, the ever-looming patriarchy that slashes these young women apart.

P.S. I have not seen the 2006 remake of Black Christmas nor do I ever intend to, though I understand that It provides a backstory and identity to the killer, invalidating all points made above. What a pity, this remake madness really must end.

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