There’s Nothing Scarier Than a Hungry Woman
The true horror in horror films is women's unconstrained appetite
Rosemary Woodhouse has unwrapped a piece of steak from its waxy brown paper. She cuts it in half and drops it into a hot pan. It sizzles. She flips it. She takes it out after a few seconds and places it on a floral plate. Slicing a corner, she eats quickly, happily.
When I first watched this scene in Rosemary’s Baby (1968) I had been a vegetarian for two years, but was oddly compelled by it: the yellow kitchen, the rose-red of the meat, the graceful ease with which Mia Farrow plunges into the steak’s fleshy center with a fork. I woke up craving steak the next day: blood pooling against the lip of a plate, the tangy taste of metal against my teeth. I was ravenous and repulsed by my own appetite.
But maybe what I was feeling was not so much the desire to eat steak, but the desire to be allowed to desire. The desire being met, being recognized, something clearly being given in to. An appetite satiated, without complication.
Horror is a genre of excess, of abundance—and food is the perfect metaphor in its narratives because it holds so many meanings at once. Food, from the grotesque to the delicious, populates the screen: the raw steak crawling across the kitchen counter in Poltergeist (1982); a distracted Drew Barrymore burning her popcorn in the opening scene of Scream (1999); the chocolate bars Charlie routinely snaps with her teeth in Hereditary (2018). Hunger is everywhere in horror: from werewolves to zombies to cannibals, the protagonists we find on screen are either devouring or being devoured. But what I’m interested in is not the readings of food as metaphors for capitalist consumption, the disintegration of the American family unit, or sexual taboos—but simply in the act of eating itself.
When I first began watching horror, I was drawn in by the display of appetite—specifically female appetite—in all its forms: not only the way Rosemary slices into her steak, but also the way Ginger Fitzgerald begins eating human flesh in Ginger Snaps (2000), her eyes a disturbing jolt of light; the way Justine tears into uncooked chicken with her teeth in Raw (2016); the way Rose and Iris Parker steadily eat their father’s body at the dining table in We Are What We Are (2013), the remake of the 2010 Mexican film Somos lo que hay.
Food-based metaphor in horror is so often visceral and tacky and overwrought, so why does our delight still stand? As a woman, to say that you have found eating uncomfortable at times is not particularly groundbreaking. The anxiety has become mundane because it is so common for women, but isn’t that in itself noteworthy? Horror invites us to sit with this disgust, this anxiety, to acknowledge our appetite, to refuse to let us suppress it. There is something uncomfortable and enthralling about watching a woman devour what she likes with intent. It was the kind of eating I longed for. I looked on with jealousy, with desire, with newly-found resolve.
Food is everywhere in Darren Aronofsky’s 2017 film mother!—the kitchen table is covered at different points throughout the film with grapes, cheese, cake, lemonade, tea—and yet the focus is not on Mother’s consumption but the suppression of her appetite. The film follows a couple, played by Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem as two guests arrive unannounced at their house in the country, and Mother finds herself catering to their demands: cooking for them, cleaning up after them, unfailingly accommodating and generous. Mother makes her discomfort at their presence in the house clear, but her husband encourages them to stay.
On the guests’ first morning in the house, Mother lays the table with food. We watch her guests and her husband pluck grapes, sip tea. She blinks at him in shock when he invites their guests to stay as long as they like. Discomfort spreads across her face. When they leave the room, without thanking her for breakfast, she asks him: why would you do that without asking me? He replies, Do what? She says, Invite them to stay. He seems unfazed. I didn’t think it was a big deal. After he walks away, she is left alone in the kitchen with the dirty plates, cups, cutlery, leftover breakfast—one of many instances in which she finds herself clearing up after other people. Toward the film’s mid-point, her guests are clustered around the table at a wake, eating and drinking, dressed in black. Somebody knocks over a glass of red wine. I got it, Mother says, frantically mopping the table with dishcloths.
The final instance of food is the elaborate feast she cooks to celebrate her husband’s book publication. She draws a cake from the oven, pokes a cocktail stick into its spongy centre. The table is covered with food she has prepared: cheese boards, fruit, pastries. She has carefully laid the dining table with candles and crockery. When her husband’s guests crowd the porch, she is visibly crushed. He is more compelled by them than he is by her—and no amount of work, of food, of devotion can convince him to respect her. Keep everything warm, he tells her, I’ll be right in. Her effort is for nothing. She waits for him inside the house and does not touch the food. Later, she watches in horror as one of the guests cuts into the cake with a spoon. We overhear one man direct the others: take the fruit and the cheese and the pickles. Her hard is work undone, unraveled, consumed by others while she eats nothing. Throughout the film she has suppressed her own desires—for love, respect, privacy—and it is still not enough.
On first viewing, I didn’t notice that Mother barely eats, while her husband and guests devour the food she has prepared. Unsurprisingly, my attention was captured by the violent brutality instead. But, on second viewing, I was struck by the abundance of food—and her lack of consumption. It’s clear why critics focused on the film’s other themes—its violence and misogyny garnered most of the attention, and rightly so—but reviews seemed to have missed the central role of food in the film. The feast Mother prepares for her husband is so full—the table overflowing with cheese, cakes, pastries—and yet she doesn’t have a chance to enjoy it. Her appetite goes unsatiated, and it slips under the film’s layers unnoticed. This is, I think, deliberate: her lack of nourishment is designed to be unremarkable. Not something we would look to, but something to look away from.
The denial of appetite is threaded throughout Leslie Jamison’s The Recovering. It is as much about recovery from alcohol dependency as it is other forms of addiction: love, desire, food. “In addition to my calorie-counting notebook,” Jamison writes, “I kept another journal, full of fantasy meals I copied from restaurant menus: pumpkin-ricotta ravioli; vanilla-bean cheesecake with raspberry-mango coulis; goat cheese and Swiss chard tartlets. This journal was the truth of me: I wanted to spend every single moment of my life eating everything. The journal that recorded what I actually ate was just a mask—the impossible person I wanted to be, someone who didn’t need anything at all.”
I think about Jamison’s phrase—the impossible person I wanted to be, someone who didn’t need anything at all—a lot. Throughout the book we see Jamison’s struggle to allow herself to need, to know when to resist, to know when to give in. So much of her shame circles this question of desire, of appetite: of wanting, of wanting too much, of succumbing to the want when she thinks she should have resisted, and vice versa. This passage—diligently copying elaborate meals from restaurant menus while consuming nothing, desiring to be a person who needs nothing—confronts something I recognize: that beneath the resistance and suppression of appetite is something wild, something demanding, something terrifying. This desperate wanting—and the denial of this wanting—seeps through the book, painful and illuminating.
Throughout The Recovering, Jamison grapples with traditional narratives of alcohol addiction, with unexceptional stories of recovery, with avoiding or submitting to cliché. Writing about food as a woman can be subject to the same narrative difficulties: the desire to comb the story for something that separates it from the others. But these stories of recovery do, by definition, follow a similar trajectory: as Jamison listens to one woman describe her experiences in a meeting, she writes that she tells her story “not because it distinguishes her, but because it doesn’t.” I was so reluctant to write about my own discomfort with food because I found myself bristling at the unoriginality of it, how unremarkable it seemed. When I read The Recovering, I began to look at these narratives—disordered eating, addiction, recovery—through a less skeptical lens, one that did not conflate noteworthy with wholly unique. The narrative that I was struggling with—a discomfort with food, shame at the discomfort, shame at expressing it, and then exhaustion with the topic altogether—became remarkable precisely because it was familiar to so many other women.
My reluctance to write about my discomfort with food stemmed, too, from an exhaustion with narratives centered on the same discomfort, similar to the one Jamison articulates in “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain” in The Empathy Exams. She writes, “I’m tired of female pain, and also tired of people who are tired of it.” The essay speaks to the desire to let two truths exist at once: that a woman can be exhausted by the discourse surrounding women’s pain and also exhausted by attempts to erase that discourse. My own feeling stemmed from a similar place: an exhaustion with narratives that framed women’s hunger as either pitiful failing or epic triumph—as well as with the argument that narratives about women’s hunger were overdone and obsolete. I was uncomfortable with the idea that a woman eating was seen as somehow radical—and I would not make any claims that it is—but the truth was that I was affected by watching women devouring their food on screen.
Like Jamison, I want it to be possible to acknowledge these two truths at once, to make space for a conversation in which the exhaustion with both sides of a narrative might produce something more nuanced. Horror makes this space: it’s a genre designed to engineer our shock and repulsion, as well as our desire and our compulsion to engage—a genre, in other words, uniquely placed to mirror the contradictory ways we might think about food. In horror, women’s hunger so often overrides the moral attributes ascribed to her food. Her hunger is neither inherently good or inherently bad, and her seemingly opposing emotions—both shame and desire—are allowed to sit side by side.
A predictable combination of bullying and teenage angst meant my most important friendships disintegrated at school, and so there was a period of roughly half a year when I found myself alone at lunch. I either skipped food entirely to avoid the embarrassment of eating alone, or ate quickly in the corners of the room, so that nobody could watch me.
Eating alone was shameful because it couldn’t be disguised by anything else. I didn’t have company, so the attention couldn’t be diverted from me. If I was eating alone, it was the result of two mortifying facts: because I had nobody to eat with, and because I was hungry. I couldn’t pretend I was eating for the social experience, or because I was keeping somebody else company. I had to claim the desire as my own. It was my appetite—raw, exposed—and nothing else, and soon appetite itself began to carry the shame.
If I ate alone it was because I had to—it seemed to me to be admitting a need, confronting the fact that something was missing. It made me visible in a way I hated: it highlighted my hunger, not just for food, but for company. I remember the hot panic at eating something I found difficult—something not able to be neatly or quickly eaten, or broken up into small pieces—while other people watched me from all sides of the room. I became so used to other people watching me eat with a look of pity or judgement that I couldn’t shake it loose for years. I found myself ricocheting constantly between two desires I had: the desire to eat, and the desire to hide the fact that I did. On the way home each day, I too composed lists of meals I wanted to eat, imagined working my way through a fantasy menu: chocolate mousse, cheese on toast, ginger snap biscuits.
When I began watching horror regularly, I found its relationship with food satisfying because it often spoke to those dual desires at once: hunger and disgust. It was the same split sensation I had seeing Rosemary plunge into the steak with a fork. I was disgusted, but the disgust arrived with the ignition of my own appetite. The task was to let the hunger override the disgust. To let appetite overwrite the shame.
Unsurprisingly, considering that it is in many ways the spiritual predecessor of mother!, Rosemary’s Baby is also full of food. There’s Rosemary’s steak, but also: she and Guy eating tuna sandwiches on the floor of their new apartment; the kitchen table covered with prawns, eggs, lemons, chicken for their dinner party; Minnie’s fluffy chocolate mousse with the chalky undertaste that Guy denies; red wine sipped by the fireplace—and, of course, the milky vitamin drink that Minnie brings across the hall in a glass each day.
The most memorable, though, is Rosemary’s craving for meat. From the side of the kitchen counter, Rosemary picks up a piece of chicken heart with her fingers, raises it to her mouth, and begins to chew. It is uncomfortable, nauseous viewing—not least because Farrow was a strict vegetarian at the time of filming. Rosemary is tentative and methodical, nothing driving her but desire—simple and unapologetic. Appetite, and nothing else. She catches sight of herself in the reflective side of the toaster, and, suddenly confronted with the image of what she is doing, she retches into the sink. The shame of being caught desiring, even by herself. Being caught wanting, being caught with an appetite.
And, really, wasn’t my shame at eating alone about the shame of being witnessed, being caught desiring, too? To be witnessed wanting, and then to witness the capacity of your own appetite.
This journal was the truth of me.
As Grace Lee states in her video essay, From Zombies to Cannibalism: Finding Humanity in Julia Ducournau’s Raw, horror is “a genre that eats itself”—and there are several scenes in Raw that resonate with Rosemary’s shame and shock at the stretches of her own appetite. After eating rabbit kidney as part of a university initiation, Justine—a strict vegetarian—develops a sudden craving for meat, and then for human flesh. Jamison writes I wanted to spend every single moment of my life eating everything; in Raw, that struggle is made literal.
Eating the kidney sparks Justine’s appetite, and whatever she eats, she devours. But this devouring—or desire to—is also accompanied by the shame of being witnessed. Sitting on a car bonnet in a petrol station, Justine and her classmate Adrien eat meat-filled sandwiches. She holds hers in both hands, raises it to her mouth. She tells him, I can’t if you watch. As if being witnessed satisfying hunger is a source of shame. In another scene, we see Justine’s reluctance to be seen again. She is crouching by the fridge, bathed in neon white light, clutching a packet of raw chicken. Interrupted by Adrien, she hides what she is doing from him. Once he leaves, she holds the chicken to her nose, inhales its smell, closing her eyes to the pleasure. She tears the flesh messily with her teeth, alone and satisfied.
The first time she tastes human flesh is also reliant on privacy, the pleasure of eating something shameful without an audience. Her sister Alex has accidentally severed her finger with scissors, and Justine is sitting by the fridge, holding it, weighing up a decision, tentative and curious. She lets the blood drip steadily into her cupped palm. She looks over at her sister passed out on the floor, as if to check for surveillance, for witnesses. Then she lifts her palm greedily to her mouth, licking the blood, fast and ravenous, feral with hunger. She stops, suddenly, guilt and panic spreading across her face—not unlike Rosemary watching herself eating liver in her reflection. Slowly, Justine lifts Alex’s finger to her mouth and begins to chew on the skin. She switches deftly between shame and desire, looking over to Alex, and then back at what she is doing, as if she can’t settle on one sensation. Each second she looks ready to change her mind. The scene speaks so well both to the illogical desire-driven forms of hunger, and the anxious guilt of giving into it.
Alex slowly sits up, catches Justine and widens her eyes, a single tear dripping down her cheek. But, as what we realize later, this apparent look of horror is actually one of recognition, of looking her own desire in the eye. In Raw’s final scene, it is revealed that Justine and Alex both inherited their hunger for human flesh from their mother. Alex is horrified, then, not because of what Justine is doing, but because she sees her own capacity for it reflected back at her. “[Justine’s] fear”, Lee tells us in her video essay, “is only of her own desires and urges, of her own body”—but I think this is also true of her sister. What if you allowed yourself to want what you want? What wonderful, terrifying things would happen then? There are dual horrors here: the horror of recognizing your capacity for desire in another person, and where it can drive you—and the horror of being observed in this primal state, unedited and unfiltered, acting on what you want.
The first time I ate alone in a restaurant was the summer I travelled to Edinburgh. I had watched Raw for the first time earlier that month, and felt desperate to override the shame I recognised in Justine on screen. Her anxiety—of being seen, alone, made feral with her hunger—was the mirror of my own. I sought the source of the shame to try to unravel it, and sat down in the restaurant by the window. I watched the other people there—couples, families, friends—and as they looked up at me I felt my chest knot itself in panic. I plucked at the menu corners with my fingers and ordered anyway: steak frites (a temporary vegetarian break), a glass of port, a ginger cheesecake. I was hungry. When the food arrived, I ate everything.
That summer, and the summers after, I spent time eating in front of other people. I ate with friends in restaurants and at their houses. I ate on dates. I ate on my own in public: twirling spaghetti messily around a fork; collecting pastry flakes in the fabric of my jumper; tomato sauce lining my mouth like smudged lipstick; plucking ramen from the bowl with chopsticks. I let my hands shake with nerves, let my chest knot itself. Sometimes I would put the fork down, and wait until the shame felt manageable to begin again. Sometimes the knot still tightened, but it happened less frequently, with a lower intensity.
I thought I was tired of the narrative that tells us women’s hunger is radical, but what I was really tired of, I think, was the culture that has generated the necessity of these narratives in the first place. It wasn’t my exhaustion with women’s hunger itself, but with the binary way conversations about it are so often framed, as if a woman eating can only be pitiful failing or epic victory. Horror offers a place where conversations about appetite might be more nuanced, able to hold both shame and desire at once, both repulsion and delight. In horror, a woman’s hunger exists caught up in her shame, her curiosity, her anger, her desire, but that hunger falls on neither side of a moral dichotomy—not even in Raw’s gory depiction of cannibalism, which encourages us to view Justine, before anything else, as a young woman grappling with her desires. Women’s hunger in horror is presented as neither failure nor victory, as neither inherently shameful nor a source of pride. It is allowed, instead, to exist in its complexity.
Sitting in the restaurant that afternoon, I thought of Justine bundling the chicken into her mouth. Her desire wrestles with her shame, but she eats anyway—guzzling, greedy, ravenous.