B Movie Reflections: Women and Spiders

A guilty pleasure that Brandon and I both share is watching bad movies, courtesy of MST3K and Rifftrax. I’m talking movies like Manos: The Hands of Fate, or Birdemic.

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One of the more recent offerings we watched was Kiss of the Tarantula, a 1976 movie about a young woman and her special arachnid friends.

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This is Susan. Her dad runs a mortuary, and her best friends are the tarantulas that she raises. When she’s antagonized by different people, whether it’s her spiteful mother, her cruel classmates, or her pervy uncle, she sics her spider friends on them for revenge. Death comes not from the spiders biting them or anything that graphic, but from people hyperventilating and having heart attacks from fright, I guess. I wasn’t entirely sure how it worked. I mean, tarantulas move slowly and are generally timid of humans, so it’s not exactly hard to get away from them.

Critics have remarked on the movie’s similarities to other films from the time. Blonde-haired, shy Susan is reminiscent of Sissy Spacek’s Carrie, for instance (though to be fair this film was released first), and the idea of a loner befriending equally outcast animals is right out of Willard, with tarantulas instead of rats.

Kiss of the Tarantula reminded me of a different movie, however, though initially, I couldn’t remember which one. After racking my brain about it, the film finally occurred to me while I was cleaning one night: Madhouse (1974).

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Starring Vincent Price and Peter Cushing, this film is both bonkers and meta. Price and Cushing play horror actors and writers who developed an iconic film character named Dr. Death. After Price’s fiance is found murdered, he is institutionalized for years, and when he is released, the murders resume, all of them inspired by Dr. Death movies. Did he do them, or is someone else to blame? It’s one weird movie, especially when the film takes a random left turn right into the Twilight Zone during the last ten minutes, but hey, it’s Price and Cushing together.

That wasn’t what made me think of it though. I was remembering the main female character, Fay, unhappy wife of Cushing’s character. Originally one of their beautiful costars, she became disfigured after a car accident (honestly I thought she looked fine, but plot point, right?), and spent most of her time in the basement playing with, you guessed it, pet spiders. Like Susan, she experienced a stronger emotional bond with spiders than she did with people.

Two outcast women who identify with spiders. Let’s take a closer look at the web that connects these two characters.

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Why are so many of us afraid of spiders? Part of it might be their alien appearance. When it comes to animals, spiders are about as different from us as they come. With their multiple legs and eyes, they’re excessive, with so many moving parts.

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Jumping spider wearing a water drop as a hat, proving that spiders can be cute.

Yet there’s more than anatomical differences going on here. After all, cephalopods like cuttlefish and octopi have multiple limbs, and with their ability to change colors or stuff their invertebrate bodies into tight spaces, they’re even more different than we are. Maybe the fact that they only have two eyes is a sufficient connection back to us, but I think it’s more than that. The major difference is that we’re taught to be afraid of them.

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Recent studies have suggested that women, in particular, are culturally conditioned to fear spiders. Whether it’s nursery rhymes such as Little Miss Muffet, or the more general association between spiders and dirty or dark places like sheds or out-of-reach corners, spaces that contain the unknown, and by extension, danger, we’re taught to fear spiders.

Having two women characters such as Fay and Susan be attracted to animals that they’ve been conditioned to fear then, demarcates their aberrance. They are quite literally drawn to the thing toward which they’re supposed to experience revulsion.

What’s rather ironic about all this is that the tarantulas we see in movies, and the ones we own as pets, are all female. You see, male tarantulas go into a frenzy during the mating season, to the point that they will kill themselves trying to escape a cage or other enclosure in search of a female. It’s not unlike what male Vulcans experience during Pon Farr, if you’re at all familiar with Star Trek.

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Female tarantulas, by contrast, don’t go into that kind of sexual frenzy, so they make for more stable pets, or in the case of movies, actors. As Brandon puts it, if anything, female tarantulas should be considered feminist icons because they can go through life just fine without a man. If they meet, great, they’ll propagate, but if not, that’s totally fine too.

Of course, Fay and Susan aren’t the first instances of women being associated with spiders. The most famous instance is probably Arachne from Greek mythology, transformed by Athena into a spider when she boasted that her weaving skills surpassed those of the goddess. She is literally cast out of human society by being transformed into an animal.

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Gustave Dore, Arachne, ca. 1867.

During the Victorian era, in particular, you have a lot of what I call sexy macabre floating around in the visual culture, with women portrayed as witches, bats, and other dangerous creatures. Personifying the duality of Eros and Thanatos, sex and death, these women are uncontrolled, potentially lethal, and dangerously sensual. In contrast to Victorian propriety, they are aberrant in their uninhibited sexuality and autonomy, a quality that, to their male Victorian viewers, is enticing and repulsive at the same time.

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Albert Joseph Penot, The Batwoman, ca. 1890, oil on canvas, 39.3″ x 23.6″. Private collection.

The association between dangerous, outcast women and vermin continued in film too. In B movies like The Wasp Woman, the association is literal, with the protagonist periodically turning into a wasp-like creature after ingesting a beauty serum made from queen jelly. The key to her enduring beauty is also what makes her monstrous.

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With Fay and Susan, however, the link is behavioral rather than literal. Sure, Fay is supposedly disfigured, and the white streaks in her curly hair are evocative of webs, but that stems from the trauma of living in isolation after a horrific accident with an abusive spouse rather than literally being a human/spider hybrid. Instead, I’d argue that both women channel spiders not only through their friendships with them, but also in their emulation of spider behavior as rendered in popular culture, particularly the black widow.

In popular culture, female black widows consume their mates after copulation. It’s an elegant enactment of the Eros/Thanatos duality, except it’s largely untrue. Sure, it’s been observed in three species in the United States, but under laboratory conditions, where escape was impossible. It hasn’t been observed in the wild. Still, the idea of the female killing and consuming her partner after copulation is a persistent one that encapsulates all the dangerous qualities of aberrant women, and we see that kind of behavior enacted in both Madhouse and Kiss of the Tarantula.

In the case of Madhouse, Fay takes out the Peter Cushing character with that most phallic of killing instruments, the butcher knife. It turns out he was the killer all along, and was trying to gaslight Vincent Price into killing himself. During the climactic fight between Cushing and Price, Fay intercedes and stabs her murderous husband to death. After years of living in isolation and neglect, she fought back and took the bastard out.

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Susan also takes out a murderous, would-be mate in the form of her pervy uncle Walter (who also happens to be sheriff or something like that). Susan pushes her uncle down the stairs after he tries to rape her, paralyzing him. She then drags him down to her father’s funeral parlor in the basement. Once there, she approaches the coffin containing the body of a girl Walter had murdered (the poor gal had figured out it was Susan’s spiders who had killed her friends, and threatened to blow the whole story. Walter responded by strangling her because of his incestuous infatuation with Susan). Susan then opens the coffins, hoists out the girl’s body, cuts open the coffin lining, lowers Walter into it, replaces the girl, closes the coffin (which is hermetically sealed, by the way), and leaves her uncle to suffocate. Oh yes, and he’s suffocating under the corpse of the girl he murdered. It’s a deeply unsettling synthesis of “The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax” and “The Cask of Amontillado.” Brandon and I agreed that for a Rifftrax movie, the last 20 minutes were pretty disturbing and, unlike the laughably over-the-top sequences earlier in the movie, not at all humorous. Susan means business.

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What’s so disturbing about the scene is how coolly calculated Susan is. She’s purposeful with her movements, carefully but confidently loading the body into the sling and raising it, efficiently cutting through the lining, and finally placing Walter into it. There’s nothing frantic or panicked about her work; she knows exactly what to do. And most chilling of all, she doesn’t say a word. Walter is pleading, begging the whole time, but Susan continues her work unphased. Only when she’s about to cover her pervy uncle with the fabric does she quietly say two words to him: “Goodbye, Walter.” Just as a spider skillfully encases its victim in a cocoon of webbing so that it can later feed off its liquified organs, so Susan dispenses with her pervy uncle by encasing him in a hermetically sealed cocoon of cloth, where he will rot in his own body fluids.

That’s the other commonality between Fay and Susan. The corpses of their male antagonists remain unidentified. After Fay takes out Cushing, she lets her spiders feast on his corpse, which reduce his body to bones over the next few months. Price, meanwhile, whose face was scarred in a fire, uses his skills as a makeup artist to recreate Cushing’s features on his own, thus assuming his identity (I told you this movie was bonkers, and I’m not even telling you the strangest parts). Cushing’s character is not only murdered, but effaced, with his rival appropriating his identity.

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Similarly, Walter’s death remains an unconfirmed one. Buried under the corpse of his victim, he will presumably decompose in anonymity, with only his killer knowing his outcome. For everyone else who knew him, there will only be the uncertainty that comes with disappearances. For Walter, there can be no closure, and given the significance of closure to the grieving process, it’s another sinister aberration from accepted social norms.

So there you have it, two ostracized women who found companionship in spiders, who took out their antagonists in aberrant ways that reflected their characterizations as outcasts.

Either that, or I spend way too much time thinking about B movies.

The Ongoing Saga of Seal and Polar Bear

Art was always one of my favorite classes in elementary school. Compared to the rote memorization of multiplication tables or spellings words, drawing was a pleasant, creative diversion. I also remember the art teacher being a very nice lady who encouraged everyone’s work. She had long hair and wore long, flowy dresses or shawls with a vaguely New Age vibe.

My sole unpleasant experience with elementary school art occurred around the third grade, when this New Agey teacher asked me to change a landscape I’d been working on. The subject was a dog chasing after a duck that had just been shot. In all honesty, it was probably inspired by watching my sister and her friends play Duck Hunt.

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Classic gaming right here.

The teacher didn’t like it because she thought it wasn’t nice. She believed children my age should draw happy pictures of trees or puppies, not ducks getting shot. I changed it, but was always a little chagrined about it afterward. I wasn’t an especially morbid kid; I just knew nature could be dangerous. I’d seen enough dead deer hanging off of people’s porches during hunting season, and seen enough documentaries about crocodiles hunting wildebeest, to know that nature isn’t always nice. Heck, my favorite Disney movie at the time, Fantasia, featured all kinds of hunting in its Rite of Spring segment, most famously with a T-Rex throttling a Stegosaurus (and yes, I know they lived millions of years apart, but it looks cool). I knew that hunting was as integral to nature as blooming flowers or hatching ducklings, and thought it should be rendered as such.

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Forget Disney Princesses, give me dinosaurs!

Perhaps that chagrin was one of the reasons why, many years later as a curatorial fellow at Shelburne Museum, I was immediately drawn to this painting:

This is Seal and Polar, painted around 1877 by Massachusetts-based artist Charles Sidney Raleigh. Originally an English seaman, Raleigh had a mid-life career change when he decided to become an artist and settled in Massachusetts. Self-taught, he painted signs, murals, and other projects. Of all his paintings, however, this one stood out to me. I’d seen plenty of Victorian paintings of animals hunting, Landseer being one of the more famous examples, but these were academic paintings, highly refined in execution. Seal and Polar Bear, by contrast, almost appears gleeful in its rendering, not unlike children when they play with their dinosaurs. The bear almost seems to be grinning as it raises its paw for a fatal blow, but that snarling seal, teeth bared, is also a dangerous hunter, the red of its mouth echoing the blood oozing from its tail. With its abstracted animals and almost cartoonish rendering of Arctic violence, I found it an engaging work of folk art and made it the centerpiece of an exhibition I was working on at the time, How Extraordinary! Travel, Novelty, and Time.

That exhibition would only be the beginning of my ongoing, meandering adventure with Seal and Polar bear as an image though. While I was researching the painting for the show, I learned that Raleigh painted at least two other versions.

The first was The Law of the Wild, from 1881, at the National Gallery in DC:

Law of the Wild, 1881, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

Compositionally it’s similar to the Shelburne version, though it could probably use a cleaning at some point.

The other was Seal and Polar Bear from 1886, on view at the Bourne Historical Society.

Seal and Polar Bear, 1886

This is the grimmest of the three. The polar bear isn’t grinning anymore, and the ice floes have become more jagged and detailed, underscoring the harshness of the surroundings. The ship that was in the background of the other two works is also gone, further emphasizing the isolation of these two predators.

How Extraordinary! came and went, but Seal and Polar Bear always remained in the back of my mind. Why did Raleigh paint so many versions, and where did he get the idea to paint it in the first place? I knew from his biography that he never ventured to the Arctic, so I started wondering whether there was an image that Raleigh and seen and decided to reinterpret.

The magic of living in the Internet Age is that more material on every topic is always becoming available. Over the years then, I’ve casually done some online research on Seal and Polar Bear, and each time I do, I find more material on it.

First I found these business cards around 2013:

Business card for Martin’s, a furrier.

Victorian businesses, along with individuals, often used calling cards to help circulate their name among consumers. Many of these cards included illustrations, often associated with the goods purveyed. The best-known or wealthiest companies usually often commissioned their own images, but smaller businesses could have their name and address printed on blank, generic images. Sometimes these images reflected their products, but a lot of the time they were based on pop culture.

Same business card image, different product, now for wigs.

Such was the case with these two calling cards featuring the very same seal and polar bear image. The top one is for a furrier based in Utica, New York, while the second one is a Boston company that specialized in hair products. I don’t know what hair products have to do with polar bears, but Victorians were fascinated with polar exploration, so it was floating around in the visual ether.

Perhaps Raleigh saw one of these business cards and decided to do his own painterly interpretation. Considering that they were in circulation in Boston as well as New York, if not other places, it’s entirely possible. I always suspected there was another image behind the calling cards, however, so I continued looking around.

I made my next break around 2016, when I found this wood engraving for sale on Etsy.

Now I felt like I was getting somewhere. This print was much more detailed than the Raleigh paintings or the calling cards, and had the look and feel of an academic painting. It turns out it was a page from a French magazine that specialized in hunting. Still, a couple of things still needled at me. As a wood engraving, the print was likely based on yet another drawing and sketch: who could have done that? As a magazine that circulated primarily in Europe, moreover, it seemed unlikely, though not impossible, for Raleigh to have seen it. I wondered, however, whether it might have appeared in more than one publication.

Which brings us to 2019, when I found this image on Ebay:

From Harper’s Weekly, 1871

Here we are again, with another wood engraving of Seal and Polar Bear, but this time it’s a page from an American publication, Harper’s Weekly. A little online searching revealed that it appeared in the July 1, 1871 edition. The caption underneath the prints reads “A Polar Bear Catching A Seal On the Ice,” and what’s more, it’s based on a drawing from Ludwig Beckmann. A little more searching told me that Beckmann was an animalier based in Germany, which would explain the more academic look of the drawing in comparison to the Raleigh paintings. Whether this was in turn based on observation or yet another source is yet to be determined, but that’s what keeps the journey going, right?

So here’s what I imagine: Beckmann does the sketch, which is turned into a wood engraving. From there it appears in different periodicals such as Harper’s. Somebody sees the print and adapts it into a business card. Meanwhile. Raleigh sees the business card or the print, and does his own interpretation.

And that’s the emphasis, interpretation. Raleigh didn’t copy the image, but added his own artistic license to each painting. From the abstraction of the animals to the changing treatment of the ice floes, what we have is an artist taking inspiration from the visual culture around him, and reinterpreting it through his own brush.

I don’t know what I’ll do with these findings in the long term, maybe they’ll become a conference paper or an article in the future, but if nothing else, Seal and Polar Bear remains as intriguing as ever.

And if I ever run into that art teacher again, I’ll be sure to introduce her to these paintings.

My Writing Process

Like a lot of graduate students, I write regularly. Whether it’s a discussion post, a research paper, or even a blog entry like this one, I’m usually writing something in one form or another every day. Today then, I’d like to tell you about my writing processes. I say processes because I go about my assignments differently.

For shorter or more informal pieces like this one, I usually get straight to the draft. For blog posts, I’ll often write a short sentence summarizing each of the paragraphs I want to include, and then go back and flesh them out. If it’s an image-heavy post, I’ll insert my pictures first, and organize my paragraphs around them. There’s definitely preplanning in terms of figuring out the general layout, but aside from having a rough narrative in mind, I typically jump into the draft itself.

Research papers, by contrast, are an entirely different animal. I usually start with some freeform writing, where I list ideas, phrases, thought bubbles or anything that I think could be pertinent to the essay. I then take these ideas and organize them into a preliminary outline. This isn’t the final one I’ll use, but it gets my argument into order.

Once I have the basic structure down, I then create what I call my full outline. This is where I plot out every section, every paragraph, and every citation. I include my sources, page numbers, and direct quotations, even if I don’t intend to use them, so that I have everything in one place. With this outline, it’s my goal to have everything in one document so that I’m not scrambling for quotes or sources down the line. I still usually do end up looking up at least a few sources later on, but putting them in an outline ahead of time significantly cuts down on how much time I spend doing that.

Once I have this outline, I then write the draft. Depending on the essay length, I’ll try to get the full draft in one session, though I have experimented with dividing them up as well. If I’m having a focused morning session, I can usually write a 20-25 paper draft in about four hours.

All of this, however, is just the setup for what I consider the heart of my writing process: rewriting. I once had a professor tell me that the key to good writing was good editing, and I take that advice very seriously. I write my drafts knowing that I’ll never get it right the first time, and that I will need to rework and massage it multiple times. Over the course of my editing process, I probably end up rewriting a work several times, and the first draft ends up bearing little resemblance to the finished piece. Yet for me, this part is the most fun. You get to see how many ways you can say something, and then decide which one works best for you.

Even my blog posts and discussion posts get edited in one form or another. If you’re reading any of my posts, they’ve probably gone through at least one round of revising. Not to the extent of formal essays, but they’re still edited.

And what about those pesky typos? After all, with so much editing, you’re bound to hit a few wrong keys, and I most certainly do. I started using Grammarly last year, which helps me catch a lot of those mistakes. I don’t rely exclusively on software though, so for all my academic work, I make sure to read the final draft out loud at least once, if not more. Another professor of mine suggested this to all her undergraduate students, and I’ve never found a better way to test the flow of my writing and catch stray grammatical errors.

I personally consider my writing workmanlike. I treat writing like a job that you work consistently (albeit a more fun and creative one, if I’m in the right mood), and for academic writing in particular, I try to work in the morning when I’m most focused. Given my propensity for rewriting, it’s easy to get sucked into editing forever, but that’s why deadlines are so important for me. If I have a cutoff date, I can keep myself from getting trapped in an endless editing cycle.

So that’s my writing process. The thing about graduate school, however, is that no two students work the same, so everyone approaches writing differently. My process isn’t necessarily right for everyone, and indeed some would probably find it stifling. It works for me though, and that’s what matters.

Taking Charge of My Schedule

Want a sense of control over your life, or at least the illusion of it? Write things down, do them, and cross them off.

I don’t know about anyone else out there is academia, but this semester has felt particularly busy to me so far. Even though I’m technically taking two classes instead of three, and am working on campus rather than driving to Newport News twice a week for my assistantship, I still feel like my days are fuller than ever. Between finalizing reading lists, TAing, and gearing up for semester research projects, I feel like I’m as loaded down as ever with work in one form or another.

Based on conversations I’d had with other students, I suspected this semester was going to be especially hectic, so during the first weeks of school, I implemented a more regimented schedule.

Last year was a bit experimental for me. After working in an office for several years where I was expected to be on-site from 8:00-5:00, I was open to trying different types of working styles and habits. Over the summer in particular, I had lots of time to play around with my schedule, and determine what worked best for me in terms of writing and reading. While I already had a good sense of how I worked, my summer of experimentation verified the following:

  1. I’m most focused in the mornings.
  2. Unless I’m writing a draft of a long essay, I work best in smaller chunks with short breaks rather than long stretches
  3. If the weather is beautiful, I won’t get anything done until I go outside.
  4. I get as distracted as anybody else, especially when it comes to cat videos.

That last point was particularly humbling, as I’d always prided myself on what I considered my especially focused attention span. As I’d already learned from an online writing workshop, however, I’ve always worked better when I set time limits, I just didn’t realize it when I was younger because I timed it to music.

So when the fall semester approached, I decided to try out something I haven’t done before: set a schedule for myself. I did this partly to reinstate the formality that I’d lost when I left the museum, as I always managed to get a lot done within those hours and had gotten used to the evening being dedicated to free time. Knowing that I’ll be finished with classes this semester, I thought it would be a good idea to start following a schedule now so that I’ll stay on-track when I’m reading for comps next semester, and the dissertation after that. I also figured that following a formal schedule will make my transition back to the working world easier whenever I’m finished at William and Mary.

I’ve broken down the schedule by semester, month, week, and day. I set my writing time in the morning, when I’m most focused. During the rest of the week, I have specific days set aside for homework in different classes. Wednesdays through Fridays I read for my Mobility seminar, for instance, while I dedicate Friday afternoons and Saturdays to my Religion to 1900 seminar. Mondays are spent working on reading lists and research, while Tuesdays and Thursday evenings are my prep days for TAing. Naturally, there’s some give and take to this setup, after all, no schedule should be so procrustean that you can’t make any adjustments, but this is what I’ve been following for the last few weeks.

Most radically of all, I try to take Sundays off so that I can spend time with Brandon and work on other interests. After years of having the weekends off consistently, I know I need time to myself, devoid of school work, if I’m going to successfully finish this program. For me, it’s no longer about pushing myself 200% and burning out, because I’ve already done that and it’s not worth it. Instead, I aim for working steadily and consistently, and that includes taking downtime.

So how do I keep track of all this? I actually use a variety of methods. I’ve used Google Calendar to map out my entire semester, so that I can keep track of the big picture in terms of upcoming assignments and tasks. For weekly schedules, I have an ongoing Word doc where I write down what I need to accomplish on which days. And for my daily schedule, I’ve been writing things down on a little chalkboard I got from Colonial Williamsburg and keep in my desk, mostly because it’s satisfying to cross things off as I complete them. I probably got that from the Frog and Toad story about the list (and yes, I know Toad loses the list and feels bereft without it, but I don’t write mine on scrap paper and let them get blown away by the wind either). Through these three methods, I can keep track of both immediate tasks and plan ahead for longer-term objectives.

Would this schedule work for everyone? Probably not, I imagine a lot of folks would find it a bit rigid. It work for me though, and that’s what matters.