Sex Monsters, Rape Revenge, and Trauma - ways movies have affected me as someone with PTSD

A WORK IN PROGRESS. Big trigger warnings for the whole list and the notes for rape and sexual assault.

This is a personal project of mine to try and examine how I've used horror films to explore my own traumas. I spend a lot of time seeking out movies that portray women with mental illnesses or rape victims or what have you because I often find pieces of myself in those stories. Kier-La Janisse's book, House of Psychotic Women was a blessing to me, because her story and her relationship to horror films were something I could relate to so fiercely.

Movies have helped me feel less alone for many reasons, but they have especially helped me put my feelings…

  • It Follows

    It Follows

    ★★★★★

    this movie means so much to me.

    to me, this movie is all about sexual trauma. it follows you everywhere, it creeps up on you slowly, it manifests itself as guilt, it manifests itself as a nightmare, as uncomfortable sexual thoughts. sometimes the horror is so close that you can see every one of its putrid pores; other times it's just waiting and lingering, almost comically distant from where you are, but still utterly inescapable. you feel that it's your responsibility to expel the horror from this world, even though you didn't do anything to deserve it and aren't even doing anything to perpetuate the cycle yourself.

    this film is not only an excellent horror in general, but it especially struck a chord with me because i watched it at a very integral time in my own recovery. i had avoided this film for so long because i was like, "hmm, the scary movie about a girl getting raped and then experiencing a terror that she cannot adequately express to anyone except for the people experiencing the same thing? a terror that, even once she explains it to her friends, they still cannot SEE and fully comprehend the terror and…

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  • The Stendhal Syndrome

    The Stendhal Syndrome

    ★★½

    The notes for this film reportedly contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

    This film is a mixed bag for me. On one hand, it has loooooooooong violent rape scenes that are offensive not only because ew, why are you making me watch this woman (who is your DAUGHTER, Dario!!!) get raped, but they're also so fucking hokey and laughable that it makes rape feel like a joke. An exploitative, shock-value joke. It's also a mess - less "I'm going crazy because paintings make me hallucinate" and more "I'm going crazy because I'VE BEEN VIOLENTLY RAPED TWICE AND NOW I'M BEING STALKED", please.

    On the other hand, the way it explores trauma is really interesting. I...don't think Argento understands how being a rape victim affects the mind, really, but some of the ways Anna reacts to her trauma really struck a chord with me. She self-harms, tries to distance herself from femininity, and even spirals into violent tendencies herself, presumably to try and regain control and not feel "weak" after being attacked. What struck me the most were the parts where she goes on about how her assaulter will "never go away" even after he's obviously died - she states that he is inside her "like an infection" and feels like he's controlling her from within. Now, I'm pretty sure Argento was going for a hokey supernatural thing here, but really, that IS how rape victims often feel - as if they're being haunted by their trauma and as if their every move is being tainted by this horrific thing that happened to them.

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  • Possession

    Possession

    ★★★★★

    There's SO MUCH I could say about this one, but I don't think I "get" enough of it to actually talk about it in a way that makes sense. Instead, I'll focus on the tentacle sex monster thing and how I interpreted it personally.

    Sex, to me, is a bit of a scary thing. Thanks to The Trauma, I had a hard time actually enjoying sex for a long time. It felt like a dirty thing, like something I should avoid, and even when I had it consensually, it felt monsterous. Either I would disassociate during it and experience my own personal nightmare without my partner even realizing, or I would enjoy it during and be overwhelmed with crippling guilt afterwards.

    The idea that Anna is rearranging her life so that she can have sex with a fucking life-sucking tentacle monster...weirdly made sense to me. I rearranged my entire life over trauma from sex. I ruined relationships with friends and boyfriends over an inability to cope with my traumas from sex. The monster of rape/sex permeated every fiber of my being. I wanted to self-harm, too. I didn't, you know, take an electric knife to myself like Anna did, but...I…

  • Strange Circus

    Strange Circus

    ★★★★

    This movie feels like my worst intrusive thought. I love it.

    Everything is about how the sexual abuse of a father has affected his wife and daughter in the most extreme ways. Though the actual abuse that the characters face is way different than the sources of my own PTSD, I can absolutely relate to losing your fucking mind over sexual trauma.

    I'm going to rewatch it soon and write something better, but it's still a bit too fresh of a wound for me to reopen. I'll be back with more to say and maybe a big ol' review.

  • The Perfection

    The Perfection

    ★★★½

    The notes for this film reportedly contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

    like a lot of the things that will end up on this list, I don't think the trauma is adequately explored - here it's just used as more of a cheap plot twist than anything else. this seems like the sort of thing that people might knee-jerk label as some sort of #MeToo hero story or something, when it's...really not. there's a lot to be said about the catharsis of rape revenge movies, but just because a woman gets revenge on their rapist doesn't necessarily make it a feminist masterpiece, you know? I'll have more to say on that later, I'm sure.

    anyways. the revenge our leads exact on their tormentors was so fulfilling to me, mostly because they worked together and formed a trust with each other. they ultimately couldn't overcome their pain without the help of each other, and it made me think of friendships I've had that were strengthened just because we were open and trusting about our traumatic experiences. (they were more than gal pals, obviously but...you get the idea)

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  • Mysterious Skin

    Mysterious Skin

    ★★★★½

    "hey, this isn't a horror movie!" well, no, it's not, but it's a horrific movie none-the-less.

    I was so thoroughly impressed with how this film portrays trauma and abuse. It never feels like an after-school special, it doesn't feel like Araki was trying to disgust its viewers, it never feels exploitative. I expected the movie to be this transgressive beast that solely aimed to make viewers uncomfortable through titillating exploitative shots that were pretending to be art, like so many other things I've seen that tackled similar subject matter. I truly wish every movie about sexual abuse/assault handled the subject as well as this did.

    The dreamy editing style and ambient soundtrack made it feel like I was disassociating and drifting along with the characters. I loved it. Most importantly, I appreciate the honesty of it all. Neil and Brian aren't suddenly fixed at the end, and they're not made to be these one-dimensional trauma victims that are just stuttering and awkwardly twitching through life. I absolutely hate when a film tries to tackle trauma, but the director clearly has never experienced the absolute fucking whirlwind that is PTSD. PTSD makes you do weird, uncomfortable shit, and I'm glad this movie talked about that (mostly via Neil, but through Brian's alien abduction obsession, too), and it talked about that in a way that wasn't judgmental, or worse, patronizing.

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  • Midsommar

    Midsommar

    ★★★★

    I've yet to find a movie that tackles trauma in the exact way I want it to, but surprisingly, this comes pretty close. The gore bits and the weird sexy bits were uncomfortable, sure, but BOY was Dani's grief palpable. What affected me the most was her fear of being "too much," of pushing her mediocre boyfriend away, of having feelings related to an incident that she should very much have some feelings about. I have SO cried like that in the arms of someone who was just along for the ride and just a tiny bit too uncomfortable to leave the room.

    Not all of the cult trauma bonding bits totally landed for me and not all the psychedelic bits did, either - to be honest, if you're that emotionally stunted like Dani, I'm not sure drugs would even be necessary to push you along into complicity. You'd be spacey and dissociating and crying and screaming and high off your own emotional fumes alone...or maybe that's just me?

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  • The Witch Who Came from the Sea

    The Witch Who Came from the Sea

    ★★★★

    The whole "abuse turns you into a murderer" is kinda ew BUT...it is true that sexual trauma will give you some weird kinks. This is like, taking that concept and multiplying it by a hundred. I'm also big into the television escapism to cope angle.

    I want to revisit this one again at a later time (first watched in October 2019) and see what personal parallels I can draw from it. Kier-La Janisse's book has a few sections about this one. I ended up viewing the movie's themes more through her lens instead of my own since I had read the book pretty recently.

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  • Cat People

    Cat People

    ★★★★½

    The notes for this film reportedly contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

    in this one, we have:
    - sexual aversion that pushes a lover away
    - intrusive violent thoughts
    - self-destructive urges (i.e. the psychiatrist saying she has a natural desire to wreak havoc on the world by releasing the panther, but all she ends up doing is wreaking havoc on herself)
    - people not believing her!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! and acting like she's overreacting/not taking her seriously, despite the evidence and her vivid emotional reactions

    ^ all textbook rape victim parallels!

    I mean, DAMN! I wasn't expecting a 1942 movie to give me such strong parallels, honestly. Irena is unable to consummate her marriage -unable to even kiss her husband - because she is afraid it will unlock "evils" within her. It's not unlike the feelings of guilt or fear associated when a sexual assault victim finally meets someone they trust - could their touch just trigger a panic attack, or flood them with an overwhelming feeling of ickiness and uncleanliness?

    the movie doesn't have a happy ending for poor Irena or her love story, but there was something that struck me in a comforting way...around the midway point, Oliver admits that even though their romance is difficult, he still cares about her. "It's…

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  • The Ladies Club

    The Ladies Club

    ★★★

    not perfect by any means, and has a lot of After School Special-y rape victim info dumps. it feels like an upper echelon Lifetime movie. but you know I have some feelings about a movie whose 100% earnest thesis is, “the law won’t help women, so women should cut men’s balls off”

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  • Liquid Sky

    Liquid Sky

    ★★★★

    An unexpected entry! I came to this movie for queer sci-fi and stayed for the queer take on the rape revenge story. as a bisexual woman who has been raped, this story of a bisexual woman constantly being raped was...frightening, BUT also rife with parallels and rife with a certain kind of catharsis.

    Eventually, I want to revisit ALLLLL the movies on this list and write real, formal, in-depth articles about each and every one of them...for now, here, have snippet of the lowercase Letterboxd review that I wrote after watching the movie:

    did you know that bisexual women are more likely to be raped and/or abused? Liquid Sky apparently knows - we see Margret constantly being questioned on her sexuality and called a whore, we see her constantly being told that she loves to fuck, she must love to fuck if she's one of those greedy bisexuals! but we never see her enjoy having sex. she ends up being raped, and only raped, multiple times. little aliens who feed off of orgasms end up up worming their way into her life, but since she doesn't cum once during the whole movie, she ends up "murdering" a series of sexual assailants - ranging from someone who's supposed to be her significant other, to a supposed mentor, to a stranger, etc etc. it manages to address just about every common rape scenario in a pretty powerful way...which is NOT something i was expecting from the gay alien drug movie.

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  • Foxfire

    Foxfire

    ★★★½

    this isn't a horror movie either (oops) but it is a movie about a group of girls (some queer!) who become friends after beating up a creepy teacher together, so you better believe it gave me some feelings

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  • The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover

    The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover

    ★★★★½

    The notes for this film reportedly contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

    at the end of the day, this is a high-brow rape revenge. I absolutely adore this movie, despite all of its violence. even though The Thief is completely disgusting and kind of played for laughs at times, it never once tries to sympathize with him. he's disgusting, he's the worst, and he should be forced to eat a man's penis and then get shot!

    the scene where Helen Mirren describes the years of abuse she's faced to her (now dead) lover is so graphic, yet it's so beautiful. Mirren is fantastic in this. her pain is palpable, and it's specifically her performance that grounds this otherwise over-the-top film. my personal experiences do not mirror her character's (thank god), but I still appreciate the fact that she hasn't been reduced to some poor, tragic caricature OR reduced to a vengeful exploitation character (think I Spit On Your Grave). because of her ~realness~, for lack of a better term (i ain't no critic!!), I can actually connect to her. she's got some fight left in her, but to a more realistic degree - somehow, i can believe that a woman would opt for forced caniballism in a fit of grief and trauma over, like, going on a massive killing spree.

    totally didn't need to have to sit through that car rape scene with the kid, but! other than that, everything seemed...necessary, somehow. idk idk once again, I have been left with a lot to think about! and one day i'll write it out coherently!

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  • Elle

    Elle

    ★★★★

    my actual review goes into my general feelings about this being critically well-received vs other rape revenge - which is something i'll elaborate more on, when i have a bigger brain. i genuinely enjoyed this, but the way it was spoken about...like it was going to be a cathartic revenge story...hoo boy, was it not that!! still, i weirdly appreciate an exploration of rape that isn't just "woman goes into catatonic shock, then sets out to murder him." instead it's, Michele has an absolutely bonkers response to a home invasion, and we explore her denial and difficulty accepting the situation. best of all, she's not even a sympathetic character, necessarily - she's callous, she's shitty, she's dabbling in some sexual assault herself ("show me your dick and maybe i won't fire you), but she's still had this awful thing happen to her, and she's still reacting to it.

    now. i can see it argued that Michele does not react in a realistic way. but things that explore the responses rape in an unpleasant, uncomfortable way - having a bizarrely titillating response to it, for one - is interesting. it's part of why i enjoyed The Piano Teacher so much. i…

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  • Shivers

    Shivers

    ★★★

    i think if i had seen this a few years ago, i would have really latched onto this. this is more of an "evil std movie" than It Follows ever was. while this is far from Cronenberg's best, the concept is pretty interesting. basically, this creepazoid pedo scientist wanted to force his own sex fantasies on the rest of the world by making this phallic parasite that would worm its way into other people. that's scary!

    his "vision," on paper, was to create some sort of hippie dippie free love orgy singularity. what happened was a lot of rape and pedophilia and incest. everyone become unhinged and started making out with their daughters - there's even a slo-mo scene where a little girl goes in to sensually kiss a man. now, given the time period, this feels like more of a goofy send-up of the free love era. but there's something a little more interesting here about how one guy can violate an entire apartment complex by roping them all into his weird sexcapades without permission.

    obviously, this isnt' the same thing, but it made me think about how one of my roommates was very open about their sexuality and…

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  • The Student Nurses

    The Student Nurses

    ★★★★

    this is neither horror nor does it really have a rape scene, but. there is a sex scene where priscilla is having sex on the beach and suddenly becomes very anxious and feels as though everyone she knows - her classmates, the kids she met earlier, the police officer who pulled her over earlier - are watching her. she feels tremendous guilt. i thought this was a really interesting way to show nervousness about sex. having odd bouts of guilt during sex is relatable! i had a really big hang-up about other people knowing literally anything about my sex life for a really long time because i had this weird sense of shame and discomfort about it. so, i add this to my list simply cuz that scene struck a chord.

    later, the dude ends up ditching her and leaving her alone on the beach, so her nervous feelings were validated.

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  • Perfect Blue

    Perfect Blue

    ★★★★★

    thinking, thinking, thinking about one of my favorite movies and why it's one of my favorite movies. my full review is much more in-depth, but here's a lil snippetttttttttt:

    though Perfect Blue is not really a movie centered on sexual assault and its effects – there are plenty of other themes regarding innocence and illusion that are arguably the more prominent themes – this aspect of the film is what continues to stand out to me the most, even upon a second viewing. Since sexual assault has affected me personally, it’s hard not to view various pieces of media through this lens of sexual assault-related PTSD, because it’s such a huge part of my life.

    Still, these parallels with sexual assault and the more-thoughtful-than-usual look at how the threat of sexual assault can affect your mind makes me appreciate Perfect Blue even more than I already would have. To take a terrifying thing and weave into a work of art that dares to tackle the psychological scars that can be inflicted through manipulation of a woman’s sexuality…to me, there’s something strangely beautiful and comforting in that, even amongst all the fear. That is what makes Perfect Blue such a stand-out film, and part of what will make its legacy endure for years to come.

    thx for reading xoxo i actually wrote this a million years ago for my blog but i have been using letterboxd as an excuse to dump personal essays.

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  • Smooth Talk

    Smooth Talk

    ★★★★

    copy of review:

    "He came and asked me for a ride...and I went...you know, uh...maybe I didn't go. Maybe I'm going out of my mind. Listen, I didn't go, don't worry. It didn't even happen."

    there are so many layers of discomfort to this film. the way Connie's family shames her for being pretty and never really warns her of any dangers beyond vague slut shames. the changes in Laura Dern's facial expressions as she tries to shift power dynamics into her favor, or hide her deep discomfort and fear. the inescapable, cloying final act. the way Connie can't admit to the events because her family would blame her.

    now, for a bit of a personal anecdote. this film really hones into the various discomforts of being a pretty young girl out in the world of predatory men, and there's an experience i once had that really, really made that final act hit home even more.

    once, when I was a fresh 18 but still feeling like a child, i went into New York City with my mom. we were in the train station, having just arrived to start our big mother-daughter adventure. after a long train ride and an…

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  • Martin

    Martin

    ★★★★

    bit of a different addition than usual. here's a movie with a sympathetic rapist lead - sounds like it'd be pretty gross, right? and i can certainly understand it if that's a line you're not willing to cross, but it...works?

    it feels slimy to sympathize with the rapist-murderer, but i do and Romero makes it work. it's not just a "boohoo, sad boy has a hard time with girls so feel bad for him and forgive him" type of deal. there's more to it. and while my knee-jerk reaction is that maybe we don't need a movie on the side of a guy who "doesn't do sexy stuff when they're awake," aren't all these other vampire movies rape-y as hell too? but we roll with it because they're hot or something?

    there's a lot going on with this film, but i think one of the most interesting things here (and why i'm throwing it on this list) is that it recontextualizes the whole sexy vampire mythos. most vampire sex comes via some sort of psychic compulsion, right? there's always been a sexual connotation with bloodletting, right? but it usually isn't used as rape imagery, despite the implication. this movie changes that. and i find that really interesting, and i'll likely end up viewing more vampire films through this new lens...

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