19 And if a woman have an issue, and her issue in her flesh be blood, she shall be put apart seven days: and whosoever toucheth her shall be unclean until the even.
20 And every thing that she lieth upon in her separation shall be unclean: every thing also that she sitteth upon shall be unclean….
- Leviticus 17
It’s funny; sometimes, one sets out to write one thing, thesis at the ready, only to wind up with something altogether different on one’s hands when the smoke clears. This was the case with me recently when I set out to write about horror movies dealing with environmental contamination and/or disease. Along the way, I made a discovery that surprised me – although, given the amount of ambient misogyny present at any given moment in American culture, it shouldn’t have.
In film after film that I watched, issues of contamination, impurity, or contagion were strongly associated with women – in particular, women’s sexuality, and, to be even more specific, sex focusing on female pleasure. This is not a new cultural obsession, to say the least. The Book of Leviticus began to take shape around 500 BC (and, regrettably, it influences law and justice to this day). Saying that Levitical law is obsessed with women’s sex lives and reproductive autonomy would be an understatement, and in much of the text, women’s bodies are treated as essentially and irredeemably corrupt. Given, too, that the concepts of original sin and expulsion from the Garden of Eden are tied to a misogynistic view of women as both corrupt and corrupters, it is not an exaggeration or a mere aspersion to say that the Bible – especially the Old Testament – is a profoundly woman-hating text.
So; this attitude is nothing new. Still, I didn’t set out looking for misogyny in contagion movies, but once I saw it, I started noticing it everywhere. In Color Out of Space, which is a very decent adaptation of a classic Lovecraft tale, alien incursion coincides with the first sex that Nicolas Cage has had with his wife “in six months,” a clear indication of the state of desire in that marriage. Wedded bliss (and the sexy side thereof) is a major plot point in Annihilation, which is primarily about alien contamination of a state park in Florida (if you haven’t read the Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff Van Der Meer, which Annihilation is based on, you owe it to yourself to check out that surreal narrative-collage masterpiece). James Gunn’s magnificent Slither is as much about the sex lives of small-town women as it is about an invasion of brain-sucking alien slugs.
Nowhere, however, is this link between women and corruption more blatant, disgusting, or misogynistic than in the Cabin Fever movies, particularly the first and third installments in the series (the third film, a prequel, is subtitled Patient Zero). Cabin Fever, for the uninitiated, is a pre-COVID disease outbreak movie centering on a virus that acts like a sort of supercharged cross between MRSA (“flesh-eating bacteria”) and Ebola. That premise in and of itself should have had enough gross-out scares and who’s-got-it paranoia baked in to make it compelling, but the filmmakers – Eli Roth in the first film’s case, and Kaare Andrews in the case of Patient Zero – felt the need to ladle a grotesque view of women and female sexuality onto that already-pungent premise. In Cabin Fever one of the big disease reveals takes place during manual sex performed on a woman by her boyfriend. The bloody result leads the woman’s friends to isolate her in a shack near the cabin in which they are staying. This is too unbelievably on-the-nose to be mere coincidence: the Book of Leviticus (and many other dictates from a variety of cultures) stipulates that a menstruating woman live in a separate enclosure from her household during her cycle – a so-called “red shack.” To reproduce this in 2002 is repulsive. Just as repulsive, in Patient Zero, the bloody reveal involves cunnilingus and copious quantities of blood and gore. Classy.
The supposed connection between female sexuality – especially any sex that might focus on the female herself rather than male pleasure – and disease or corruption is ancient, and one of the cornerstones of patriarchy. Films and conceptions of horror that come from an exclusively male perspective can fall into this trap; birth and reproduction, despite the advancement of medical knowledge on the subject, retain much of their mystery and menace for many men. What might seem like an opportunity to “push the envelope” to male filmmakers is, in reality, just a tired rehashing of superstitious ignorance that is about as fresh, relevant, and modern as a 2500-year-old list of sacred hygiene thou-shalt-nots.