Female Creatures and Science Experiments Gone Amiss

Poster for The Wasp Woman

Films about disastrous science experiments follow a familiar format: well-meaning scientists searching for immortality or age-defying cosmetics, for instance, step a little too far into the unknown. The result is a contortion of human life that is uncontainable unless, usually, it is killed. An initial moral dilemma about manipulating ‘nature’ is followed by extreme guilt and a perverse fluctuation between the pleasure of controlling new discoveries and the knowledge that what might surface from the void might escape your control. An interesting sub-genre features monstrous women at the centre of these crises. They include Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958) directed by Nathan Juran, The Wasp Woman (1959), directed by Roger Corman, and Firestarter (1984), directed by Mark L. Lester and written by Stephen King. So what happens when the female of the species enters the equation? Girl sci-fi creatures in cinema are very enigmatic, and, to me, there is nothing more reassuring than a celluloid lady running riot.

In the language of conservative, mainstream film women are already unknowable, ineffable, irrational so they perfectly fit with stories about scientific experiments that venture into unknown territory. Often, the female characters are already presented as monsters in some way from the beginning. ‘Just who do they think they are?’ the filmmakers seem to ask. In two of the films mentioned, the narrative world of the film centres around women who are economically powerful. Janice Starlin in The Wasp Woman owns and directs a successful cosmetics company, Nancy Fowler Archer in Attack of the 50 Foot Woman supports her husband with her personal riches. Their ambition is presented as ruthless, they are outlawed for denying a ‘maternal instinct’. They are obsessive, jealous, neurotic and can’t be contained.

Then the mutations begin: traditionally, women are abducted by aliens or they get involved with hybrid experiments involving the ingestion of insect extracts, their DNA is spliced with an animal’s, or parts of their brain become overactive, and so on. The narratives of this sub-genre seem to suggest that this is the women’s comeuppance for their failings. Male scientists, doctors and those acting for the moral good see the monsters as a threat to national security. But this is intricately tied up with a general anxiety about the female body and the way it changes and develops. It is the non-human that impacts on these women’s already ‘unknowable’ and shifting bodies. In Firestarter, Charlie McGee is the lovechild of a couple involved in a drug test. The test left them with psychic abilities and Charlie’s quirk is pyrokinesis – she can think people and things on fire. The original doctor who held the test is convinced that her powers are caused by her overactive pituitary gland. They are due to get stronger with the onset of puberty. This ‘sleeping gland’ is about to wake up and she could be used to create explosions that may reach nuclear strength. Indeed, Charlie does erupt and avenges her parents’ death. Cue big fires, horses being released, fathers dying and other Freudian symbology.

Interestingly, the initial drug that Charlie’s parents were injected with was a synthetic copy of pituitary extract, something that re-appears in the other films. In Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, Nancy Fowler Archer has an extraterrestrial encounter that involves being exposed to radiation. She later grows to 50 feet tall. Although it is muttered in the film, the doctor who treats Nancy says that while her condition is undiagnosed it can be related to an ‘overactive forward lobe of the pituitary process’ or something similar. Not quite so specifically, in The Wasp Woman, Janice Starlin enjoys a miracle preparation derived from wasp enzymes. This affords her temporary regeneration and seeming youth. She ODs, becomes psychotic and grows a hairy wasp head. But essentially she messes around with the natural ageing process.

So here’s the science: the pituitary gland is involved in homeostasis, the regulation of processes such as growth and sexual development. This gland is the epicentre for a scientific understanding of all the flux that women’s bodies present. The references are made in the films, I think, to indicate efforts to control and understand female bodies and the ultimate fear of a loss of that control. So in these films, women, monstrous by nature, are attacked by monsters that turn them into even scarier monsters: there does seem to be a glaring anxiety about women’s power here. The film’s narratives would have it that these aberrant women are out of control, but it’s also possible to read their extreme gestures as acting out a process of ‘taking control’. It’s this that might particularly appeal to a female audience.

The scenes where women are seen to do this are the most spectacular and entertaining in the films. Charlie McGee, in a trance with her hair flying around, appears to be in control of unearthly forces. She causes phenomenal explosions, cars burst into flame, three-pronged fireballs take out secret agents, brick walls are reduced to dust. She is allowed a certain amount of screen cool that is usually reserved for boys. The scenes are transporting and magical, and all the more because a nine-year-old girl, who would usually be largely invisible or performing a cutesy role, is the puppet master. When Nancy Fowler Archer decides to use her size to show her cheating husband just what she thinks of him she never looked so glamorous. She is suddenly blond, presumably from the radiation, and her clothes have been torn off her back to create a burlesque corset and mini skirt. She strides across the desert, glowing, to gloriously pull the roof of a hotel. Finally, perhaps when watching The Wasp Woman we can ask, ‘Who wouldn’t want to stay looking young, when this is viewed as one of the measure of success and power?’ Male CEOs can grow old gracefully but women in charge and in the public eye have a very different treatment. Although I personally think her killer queen look is fantastic, it’s ultimately a true manifestation of the monster within.

Nicola Woodham