Disavowing Transgressive Pleasures: Christina Ricci, Stardom, and the Margins of the Horror Genre
1. The Shape of Stardom: Death and the Maiden
Christina Ricci is not exactly a contender for the most obvious choice when it comes to iconic actresses working in the horror genre. Defying categories frequently applied to star status within the genre, Ricci neither rates among horror cinema’s iconic final girls and scream queens, along with such luminaries as Fay Wray, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Sarah Michelle Gellar; nor does she qualify as a horror action heroine on a par with Sigourney Weaver and Milla Jovovich; nor does she rank among the monstrous females with the likes of Barbara Steele or Natasha Henstridge; nor has she appeared in a single genre-re/defining canonical horror film like Heather Langenkamp or Linda Blair. Still, though, Ricci has consistently positioned herself in regard to horror, and those who have worked with her have often aided in this construction. Tim Burton, for example, placed her in a long tradition of “classy” horror film stars with unique facial features: “She reminds me of Peter Lorre’s daughter […] It’s like if Peter Lorre and Bette Davis had a child, it would be like Christina. She’s just got a mysterious quality […] She’s like a silent movie actor” (Burton on Burton 180).
If, however, it remains difficult to pinpoint what Ricci’s position vis a vis horror exactly is remains difficult to pinpoint, then this might be because Ricci is too young an actress to have built up a body of work—inside or outside the horror genre—substantial and consistent enough to warrant critical analysis of her star and on-screen persona. More likely, though, it is because Ricci’s position keeps changing—an argument that sustains itself on the basis of her considerable overall output and the opportunities each new film provides, as well as the variety of genres her career so far has covered. At the time of writing, IMDb lists an impressive fifty-eight entries among an acting career that has lasted roughly twenty years—more than enough to constitute what one might call a substantial body of work compiled by a hard-working professional.
If age tends to come up in deliberations about Ricci’s star persona, however, it does so because age, in one respect or another, does play an important role in her audience’s perception of her. At thirty-one years of age, Ricci appears perpetually linked to the image of the child star as which she made her entrance into the film industry; so much so that journalist Thomas Beller states, “Even at 18 […] Ricci can still seem like a hurt, angry child” (80). One might argue that her round face, large eyes, and prominent forehead—features her face has retained through puberty into adulthood—make her cute rather than beautiful.  That is, despite the characters she plays, she has always retained an essential girlishness rather than a fully mature femininity. More importantly, however, the choices Ricci has made in steering her career have explored this physique and facial profile and developed its malleability, predominantly by positing a female persona in which the little girl is strongly sexualized. 
Having started as an actual child actress at the age of ten in Richard Benjamin’s Mermaids (1990), Ricci delivered her first notable performance a year later playing Wednesday Addams in Barry Sonnenfeld’s The Addams Family, a role she was to reprise two years later in the sequel, Addams Family Values (Sonnenfeld, 1993). With this early link to horror, complicated by the two films’ camp approach to the genre as well as her status as a child star, Ricci went on to a period of similar roles, only to break with her image as a cute pre-/adolescent around 1998 when she appeared in a strongly sexual performance in Don Roos’ The Opposite of Sex. Since then, she has alternated between Hollywood mainstream productions (like the ill-fated Speed Racer [Wachowski Bothers, 2008]) and independent films (like Vincent Gallo’s Buffalo 66  or John Waters’ Pecker ), sustaining a relatively stable star persona not as an A-list mainstream star or an “indie queen” but in the balancing act between the two.
Though horror did—and does—not feature as the most prominent genre on her resume, essential films in her body of work serve as defining statements in the service of creating and sustaining a star persona that entertains a highly complex and shifting relationship to this particular genre. My choices for exploring this argument are idiosyncratic, but will appear clearer in the course of the discussion; they revolve around Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow (1999) and, more centrally, Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo’s After.Life (2009). I would also like to include Craig Brewer’s Black Snake Moan (2006) among the more recent examples of Ricci’s work, because Brewer’s film entertains a somewhat more complicated relationship to the horror genre than, for example, Wes Craven’s Cursed (2009), in which Ricci also played a starring role. While a mainstream horror film like Craven’s place the performance of genre and, in this specific case, the director’s star persona before the performance of its major stars, Brewer’s film—despite its Southern gothic flavour—creates a more complex space Ricci can own and in which she can work the tropes of horror.
The themes Ricci explores in these films revolve around a pathological psycho-sexual nexus that cinema might address in any number of manifestations but that feels like the birthright of the horror film. It is the articulation of two highly transgressive forms of eroticism, both converging in the performance of Ricci’s body—one pedophilic, which reaches back all the way to the starting phase of her career; the other necrophilic, either implicitly so, from pale little Goth girl Wednesday Addams to Rae, the immobilized, corpse-like heroine of Black Snake Moan, or explicitly so, as in the role of Anna Taylor, the dead woman in After.Life. Both forms of erotic desire are not necessarily connected, and yet Ricci’s star persona at its most intensely focused merges the two, creating, in the process, a psycho-sexual dynamic that appears to be entirely outside the bounds of socially sanctioned norms of identity and behaviour and its representation in popular culture.
Though mainstream filmmakers might scoff at the idea of representing themes as transgressive as, for example, necrophilia, there are well-respected examples of such films. Hitchcock’s Vertigo, for example, depicts its main character’s internal conflicts as the trigger for his voyeurism, fetishism, and, ultimately, his necrophilic desire to consummate a sexual relationship with a woman whose death has made her permanently (and practically) inaccessible to him (Srebnick and Raubicheck 60). In her discussion of the film, Susan Fellman emphasizes, like Srebnick and Raubicheck, that Vertigo stages the confluence of necrophilia and fetishism; necrophilia applies only in the limited sense that the protagonist’s desire is not actually directed at a dead body but that a living body substitutes for a dead one (25). To suggest that Vertigo is not an isolated example of necrophilia in the mainstream, Fellman adds a list of films that includes canonical films like Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, together with its remake by Steven Soderbergh, side by side with horror films like Michele Soavi’s Dellamorte/Dellamore (26).
In contrast to the logic of fetishistic substitution in mainstream films like Vertigo or Solaris, horror cinema is capable of approaching necrophilia more literally, having at its disposal a set of ironic figures to embody aspects of this nexus of troubling transgressive themes. Undead characters populate horror films in the form of ghosts, of vampires, of zombies. Each iconic figure comes with a different thematic emphasis on the tension between corporeality and spirituality, with different cultural and religious connotations, and with a unique mythology and intertextuality. Necrophilia enters with the eroticization of the vampire, just as pedophilia enters with the invalidation of age and age-specific cultural norms in characters that mark the distance between bodies and experience (like the ghost and the vampire). Traditionally, this pantheon of iconic monsters and the genre-specific conventions that regulate their morphology and agency has served as a form of containing their necrophilic and pedophilic potential. To the degree that Ricci is clearly not an iconic horror film actress—that, in other words, her relationship to the horror film is more complicated than, for example, that of Curtis, Gellar, Langenkamp, or Blair—her embodiment of these transgressive themes comes without the genre’s conventional forms of containment as well.
What makes Ricci’s star persona a rewarding object of critical examination is not only its complex relationship to genre, but also the fact that, despite the highly transgressive nature of the constituent elements of her star persona, none of the films in which she played these kinds of characters have caused noticeable controversy or backlash. Apparently, Ricci has created a space for herself, or discovered one that was already there, that is located within the cinematic and cultural mainstream—which, despite her indie film credentials, is where she clearly belongs—and that seems strangely at odds with the fact that she has played, time and again, highly eroticized women whose appeal reside in the fact that they are either children, or dead, or both. To situate Ricci’s star persona within the dynamics of genre cinema, and read her as symptomatic of social and classificatory mechanisms that register, articulate, and/or repress transgressive psychosexual content—these are the goals of this discussion.
A brief preliminary comment on the method of analysis is necessary at this point. Writing about Ricci in this manner is part of an attempt to define genre not as a set of conventions, circumscribed by their historical or national origins, or as a set of production and consumption practices—both approaches that come with their own advantages and problems. Instead, it is an attempt to approach genre from the direction of its practitioners, its personnel, and, more narrowly, its investment and participation in the cinematic star system.  The expectation is not to produce a definition of genres that, in its comprehensive reach and integrity, is to replace already existing definitions, or even to compete with them. It is not a panacea that resolves the fundamental hermeneutical problems of defining genres. Rather, the intended result of such an approach, exemplified by this discussion of one particular actress, is to produce a form of discourse that can serve as an appendix, a corrective, or a complement to already existing ones. To some degree, it is likely to reproduce the argumentative shortcomings of similar critical writing that takes on. And yet, just like the critical work done in this vein, it is just as likely to shed light on how a cinematic genre is held together—among other things—by the practice of, and the discourse on, stardom.
Furthermore, the objective of this discussion is not to perform an exhaustive analysis of all of Ricci’s films to date. For reasons of brevity alone, it is impossible to incorporate every single film in which Ricci has ever appeared into a single argument; despite her star status, she is, after all, also a working character actress. Hence, it is necessary to acknowledge the possibility that, in a text as complex and overdetermined as a Hollywood star’s career spanning two decades, multiple and even contradictory readings are likely to emerge. Beyond that concession, however, reading a selection of films—with an eye on, respectively, a few central recurring themes, as well as on a larger framework of popular genres, the demarcation lines separating them from each other, and the heavy traffic in creative exchanges that, nonetheless, takes place among them—promises to produce a coherent narrative that sheds more light on all divergent factors involved in the discussion than the mere admission of complexity. Taken together as a single coherent text, Ricci’s films may mean different things to different people; to those, however, scanning the margins of horror film—the places from where genres tend to rejuvenate themselves—they provide a singular view of how, first and foremost, American popular culture deals with its most unspeakable preoccupations.
2. Assembling the Persona: From Child Actress to Femme Fatale
Since Ricci was not the first child actress to play little Wednesday Addams—that honour goes to Lisa Loring, who played the character for thirty-seven episodes on the ABC television series (1964-66)—it makes less sense to read her performance in terms of its originality and more in the terms circumscribed by that character herself. In other words, since a child actress does not yet have a fully formed star persona to bring to a role, which would then enter into the full significance of that specific performance, Ricci as an actress is more fully subjugated to the characters she plays than, vice versa, appropriating that character to her own persona. In starting her career by playing Wednesday Addams (1991/1993), she is, nonetheless, setting up some of the thematic parameters of what that career is to be about.
As with all other members of Charles Addams’ idiosyncratic “pre-Freudian, sexually innocent” family (Badley 61), Wednesday is preoccupied with the darker things in life, accepting and treating them with a casual maturity well beyond her tender age. Like her fellow family members, she is “more than half in love with easeful death, embracing necrophilia in a nearly literal sense” (Badley 61). The humour inherent in her characters develops largely from this precociousness regarding matters of death, expressed in a lack of affect. This deadpan demeanour, which operates separately from the culturally marked areas of a “cool” reserved for adults in the counterculture, still registers as “adult” in contrast to Ricci’s diminutive size.
Though Charles Addams’ original character does not bear any marks of sexualization—despite its transgressiveness, it is still a product of 1930s American mainstream culture, just as its manifestation in the television series bears the mark of the medium’s standards and practices during the early 1960s—there is an argument to be made that the Wednesday character participates obliquely in the sexuality projected by her mother, Morticia, whom she resembles and who serves as a projection of her own future self once she is to grow up. To the degree that Morticia incorporates a wide variety of cinematic and literary references into a single character (from Keatsian belle dames sans merci, fin de siècle maidens of death, and female corruptors of the Lulu and Nana type, to silent film vamps like Theda Bara, film noir femme fatales, and Universal horror film vampires), her character links these qualities of morbid sexuality, by way of iconographic consistency as much as by heredity, to her daughter. If any further evidence is needed for the link between childhood, death, and—rerouted through the character of Morticia—sexuality, which animates the character of Wednesday, one need not look further than the iconic status of Wednesday Addams within Goth subculture, where she has been reincarnated in pop culture icons like Emily the Strange or Banshees singer Siouxie Sioux.
In a manner of speaking, Ricci reprised the part of Wednesday Addams, with one slight modification, in Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow (1999). Providing the romantic love interest for Ichabod Crane, the film’s central character played by Johnny Depp, Ricci’s performance in the film is subjugated to a variety of factors that, again, diminish unhindered development of her star persona. For one, there is Depp’s absolute centrality to the film, interacting with Burton’s own auteurist persona and its thematic and tonal preoccupations. Most importantly, Ricci is subjected to the visual stylization that, as a hallmark of Burton’s signature style, runs through the entire film. The film’s overall production design gives the images a stark pallor bordering on black and white, depleting colours to suggest the curse under which the hamlet of Sleepy Hollow has withered away. As part of this larger design, actors’ faces are invariably covered in whitish make-up, photographed in an desaturated palette that elides grey tones in favour of differentiating blacks and whites more starkly. The idiosyncrasies of Ricci’s face, as well as her period costumes and her hair, dyed a dirty blond for the role, are subsumed under this visual regimen.
Though Ricci’s performance renders her character, Katrina van Tassel, as a lively and intelligent young woman endowed with the potential to redeem the male protagonist at the end of the film, her character’s origins in the town of Sleepy Hollow render her as infected and contaminated by the curse haunting the village as all the other inhabitants of the town. Just as the cloud that hangs over the landscape—a pallor Burton melodramatically reverses once the curse has been lifted by plunging the landscape into vivid warm autumnal colours—the characters are dwelling in a zone between life and death as well. Doomed to die at the hands of the supernatural avenger, the Headless Horseman killing off villagers one by one, characters like Katrina carry the visual marks of this morbid predestination. Though Sleepy Hollow does not explicitly reference Ricci’s status as a childhood star—her availability to the male protagonist as a romantic and sexual partner comes without the markers of a pedophilic attachment insinuated by Ricci’s appearance in the Addams Family films—there is a clear continuation of one thematic element attached to Ricci from her role as Wednesday Addams written on her body: a languid paleness suggesting a knowing intimacy with death.
For Ricci to add an explicit articulation of sexuality to this star persona, audiences had to wait until The Opposite of Sex, a film that strengthened her indie credentials but lacked the element of morbidity that had already become a trademark throughout her earlier work. For this element to make an appearance in full force, Craig Brewer’s Black Snake Moan (2006) cast Ricci in the role of Rae, a nymphomaniac, survivor of childhood sexual abuse, small town slut, and all-around white trash train wreck, who is taken in by Samuel L. Jackson’s character Lazarus. Having found her beaten up by the side of the road, Lazarus chains her to a radiator in his house to give redemption an opportunity to catch up with her. Rife with tropes of the Southern gothic, the film may not be the first to give Ricci the opportunity of distancing herself from films dominated by production design (like Sleepy Hollow and, later, Speed Racer) and step up to a conspicuous display of her actorly range of skills. Yet it is the first film in her career in which just this actorly self-fashioning goes hand in hand with the sexualization of her star persona that, consciously or not, reaches back to the elements of morbidity that were so prominent in her early work. 
Though director Craig Brewer imposes a coherent visual, thematic, and narrative vision upon his film, Black Snake Moan also gives his two lead actors—Ricci and Jackson—an opportunity to strut their stuff (unlike, I would argue, Tim Burton, in whose films actors ultimately rank below décor and design). Ricci’s role is written as an invitation to give full play to histrionics: the film opens with a fairly explicit sex scene, followed by two others, each one with strong implications of violence, within the first fifteen minutes. It also features a violent confrontation between Rae, Ricci’s character, and her mother; Ricci gets to perform a live song on camera; and the film’s central visual and thematic conceit—that of her character chained around the waist with Jackson’s character holding the end of the chain—provides space for the physical acting out of the chain as a metaphor both for confinement and connection. With the narrative more or less evenly split between Jackson’s and Ricci’s narrative arcs—first parallel, then converging, then proceeding as one—Ricci carries more than half of the film, the camera incessantly upon her.
There are two crucial aspects to this observation of Ricci’s character by Brewer’s camera. On the one hand, it is important to note that Ricci has lost weight for the role. As she herself has noted in interviews, the character she plays comes with a body that bears the mark of alcohol and drug abuse, of bad nutrition, neglect, and physical and psychological abuse. Though it remains difficult to say how drastic exactly the weight loss has been that Ricci induced or accepted as part of the preparation for the role, the constant ostentatious display of her body—for most of the film, Ricci appears in shorts, a tank top barely covering her chest, and a pair of white panties—raises that question any time we can see, for example, her rib cage pressing against her skin when she stretches, her hip bones sticking out when she tilts her pelvis, or the ligaments on her legs being visible when she walks past the camera barefoot. 
As much as this manipulation of Ricci’s body is justified by the film’s diegesis, it also serves as evidence of an extra-diegetic commitment by the actress to the part, a testimony to the idea that actors commit to a demanding work ethic that commands and marshals their bodies to the tasks of the role (from Robert de Niro’s weight gain for Raging Bull to Christian Bale’s staggering weight loss for The Machinist). Display of the body honed down purposefully to a fraction of its former weight provides—just as its opposite, the bulking up of the actor’s body at the gym or with a personal trainer—powerful evidence of acting as labour, with rewards calculated in measured exchange with investments. Against the background narrative of Ricci as a (former) child actress maturing, emancipating herself from outside control, and actively shaping her adult star persona, the weight loss demanded by playing Rae also functions as an illustration that Ricci has taken control of her body in the service of her craft and career.
To the degree that star discourse construes the actors’ body both literally and figuratively as one of the spaces in which the star persona is created, shaped, and refined, Ricci’s weight loss for playing Rae in Black Snake Moan also foregrounds the second aspect of the way in which Brewer’s camera observes Ricci’s performance—as a sexualized female body. Though the diegesis ultimately condemns this vision of Rae serving exclusively as an object of men’s sexual desire, and, consequently, constructs her story as a dramatic narrative of psychological (and not physical) self-discovery, the film’s visual language belies this explicit thematic agenda. Throughout Black Snake Moan, Ricci’s body, clad in revealing outfits, is shot in ways that invite extended voyeuristic contemplation. One fairly typical scene shows Rae trying to go to sleep on the sofa she can reach comfortably despite the chain around her midriff; without the comfort of human touch, she twists and turns repeatedly, winding the chain around her arms and legs, and finally coming to rest beneath its coils as if under a blanket. The shot is beautifully lit, diegetically from left frame by a lamp on a table, aided by non-diegetic lighting that isolates Ricci’s body, raising her pale limbs from the darker fabric of the sofa behind them. Brewer keeps the camera, which is not attached to the perspective of any one character, at Ricci’s eye level in a medium long shot fit to the length of Ricci’s horizontal body. As her contortions begin, he zooms in for greater visibility of the body in motion, breaking up the sequence through a number of quick insert close-ups that show individual body parts in their struggle with the chain. Only when Rae has found a comfortable position does Brewer reverse the zoom-in, ending the sequence on the opening’s erotic tableau of Ricci’s body in repose on the sofa.
Though the film is rife with scenes like this one, in which a voyeuristic contemplation of Ricci’s body is actively encouraged, it also features a few scenes in which the erotic charge invested in Ricci’s semi-nude body is reined in by a counter-movement that contrasts the emaciated, damaged, compromised state of Rae’s body with her actively assuming a seductive erotic pose.  In one scene, as Jackson’s Lazarus takes the chained-up Rae for a walk in the fields behind his house, she turns to her captor and, trying to provoke him into a sexual response that might lead to an exchange freeing her, strikes a pose cocking her hip, pushing out her chest, stretching her arms so that her tank top rides up on her upper body. At this point in the story, her left eye is still swollen shut from the beating she received earlier, both eyes are smudged with heavy dark rings that testify to her bad health, and the hip she cocks sticks out from beneath her skin a little too sharply to be fully convincing as a sexual come-on. Accordingly, Jackson’s Lazarus fails to respond in the expected manner.
Moments like these throughout the film raise the question whether Rae comes across as physically attractive or repulsive. From her sordid acts of promiscuity and drug and alcohol abuse we witness during the opening of the film to the hacking cough wracking it for more than halfway through the film, to the beating that leaves it dumped at the side of the road more dead than alive, Rae’s body is expressively and consistently construed as a site of abjection, inspiring not lust but disgust. After the opening sequence, which chronicles Rae’s sexual and pharmaceutical excesses that land her beaten to a bloody pulp at the side of the road, the film’s middle part shows her in a physical and psychological netherworld, which she only manages to leave when, during the final third of the film, she begins her journey toward redemption with the help of Lazarus. In other words, for most of the film, Ricci’s body needs to project a unique pathology, a horror, an abjection more than someone endowed (quite yet) with full personhood. Especially, it seems, when Rae is actively projecting sexuality, Brewer denies Ricci’s body the same degree of visual care he lavishes upon it when his camera is serving as the origin of a disembodied voyeuristic gaze.
One might make an argument here about the film’s sexual politics, which does not allow the female character active participation in the sexualization of her own body but construes it exclusively as an object of anonymous contemplation (by a, one might suspect, male viewer). More important for the purpose of this argument, however, is the fact that Brewer’s manipulations of the erotic gaze and of the body that provides the object for this gaze lead to a strange ambiguity when it comes to the question whether Ricci, the actress providing the body for Rae and the sexual politics enacted through her character, is physically attractive or physically repulsive—a body intended to arouse sexual desire or disgust. On the commentary track to the film’s DVD release, Brewer himself explicitly discusses the image of Ricci half-clad in chain being intended as an iconic image (of what, though?), a cheesecake shot destined to enter film history that combines an element of the shocking, the scandalous, and transgressive, with an element of strong sexualization. The fact that this same image was chosen as the central image for the film’s advertising campaign—though it oversimplifies the film’s plot and the evolving relationship between the two central characters—also suggests that it carries a degree of sexuality useful for attracting audiences.
3. “Why do I look like a corpse?”: After.Life
Instead of settling on an argument that decides whether Ricci’s performance weighs in on the erotic more than the abject, or vice versa, I would like to suggest that it does both at the same time, and do so in the context of Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo’s debut feature After.Life (2009), Ricci’s most recent feature film at the time of writing. At the heart of After.Life is an image that bears a striking resemblance to that from Black Snake Moan I already discussed in some detail: the young woman’s body, visually coded by local markings or general pallor to suggest physical decay, scantily clad, in a reclining horizontal pose, with one leg pulled up both to accentuate the line of waist and pelvis and to conceal the upper inner thigh, the entire composition precariously balanced between eroticism and abjection, the camera, not attached to any character’s subjective point of view, voyeuristically inviting the viewer’s gaze to linger in erotic contemplation. Despite minor stylistic differences, the recurrence of this image across two separate films suggests thematic continuity between the films and their respective use of Ricci as an actress and star.
The plot of After.Life revolves around the main character Anna, played by Ricci in a starring role, and her cognitive uncertainty whether she is alive or dead.  Having suffered a catastrophic car accident, Anna wakes up on the mortuary slab being cared for by undertaker Eliot Deacon (Liam Neeson), who tells her that she has died and that he alone is able to communicate with her solely by virtue of his unique ability to sense and connect with the recently departed—a conceit the film initially appears to take entirely at face value. Confined to the prep room in the mortuary’s vast basement for the process of her preparation for burial, Anna begins to suspect, however, that she is not dead after all and that Deacon is trying to deceive her, with the help of psychological and pharmacological manipulation, in pursuit of his own pathological agenda—to murder her, in effect, by burying her alive, as he has with dozens, if not hundreds of prior victims.
The audience shares Anna’s cognitive uncertainty, as the film carefully assembles small clues that shed light upon Anna’s ontological status as either dead or alive—a set of vials in Deacon’s office containing a drug later identified as causing bodily conditions indistinguishable from death, a white delivery truck which first causes Anna’s car accident and then resurfaces as Deacon’s vehicle of choice, the condensation of Anna’s breath upon a mirror, which comes as the final piece of evidence to Anna herself proving that she cannot possibly be dead. The gradual disambiguation of the film’s basic ontological impasse determines its diegesis, with Anna’s fiancé Paul Coleman (Justin Long) serving, alongside Anna herself, as the narrative’s central detective figure. Incidentally, it is Paul’s fate to end up helplessly in Deacon’s hands in the closing sequence of the film, just as Anna, who ends up dead having been buried alive by Deacon, did herself at the outset of the story.
While the film eventually reaches a state of nearly complete disambiguation—as director Wojtovicz-Vosloo puts it on the commentary track of the film’s DVD release, “Both stories are plausible, but there’s obviously only one reality”—it nonetheless manages to sustain its diegetic ambiguity in the form of a thematic concern expressed through the metaphors of, respectively its title, “after life,” as well as the concept of being “undead,” a psychological or existential description for all those who go through life unappreciative of its local pleasures and grand significance. An early scene, in which Anna fails to derive any pleasure from a sexual encounter with Paul, illustrates this condition, just as a references to Anna’s mother does, who embodies the bitterness, emotional dissociation, and existential emptiness Anna has inherited but fails to recognize within herself until it is too late (“I am nothing like my mother,” she responds to Paul’s suggestion to that effect, right before she embarks on the car ride that is to end with the accident that is to deliver her into Deacon’s hands). If Anna, in her dealing with Deacon, is finally to give in to his suggestion to turn away from life and embrace the death he is going to mete out to her, it is because she is, in terms of the film’s own thematic logic, “already dead.” If, conversely, she is to rebel against going gently into that good night, it is because her ruminations and memories on her life, her choices, and mistakes, which the prolonged wait cooped up in Deacon’s basement affords her, have finally taken her to the point where she recognizes her condition. Her struggle between yielding to death and resisting it are aligned with the plot twists moving viewers back and forth between the two rivalling cognitive choices. Meanwhile, her fiancé Paul is racing against time to rescue her, first from Deacon, then from being buried alive—a mission that fails on both counts.
At the centre of the film’s thematic agenda is Christina Ricci’s body, providing the object for the male characters’ rivalry over its control—from Paul to Deacon, and on to the disembodied masculine gaze the director affords her viewers. The opening credits assemble a series of close-ups of a nude female body, which then gives way to a close-up of Ricci’s large eyes. From the opening scene on, in which Anna and her fiancé are shown in bed together, the film begins to add to this rather conventional eroticization of Anna’s body elements suggesting a more macabre subtext. The sexual congress of the two bodies, of which Anna’s is shown in far more detail than that of her fiancé, represents the only instance of normative sexuality in the entire film—two attractive bodies, white, middle class, heterosexual, in the missionary position. The scene also registers that this coupling is not a source of pleasure but of either ennui or malaise, since Anna fails to register sexual excitement and Paul registers frustration with Anna’s lack of engagement. Though she is not entirely inert, there is a disturbing hint of dissociation in her demeanour. For the rest of the film, we will get to see Anna repeatedly in a similar state of undress, but as that macabre subtext is brought to the fore, there will be no more scenes depicting socially normative forms of sexual congress.
While Anna will go through the rest of the film deprived of any sexual agency of her own, the film progresses to scenes that invite voyeuristic contemplation of her eroticized body. Early on, as she is lying on the mortuary table, she is being undressed by Deacon—a scene that is assembled, in classic Hollywood fashion, from partial close-ups and extreme close-ups of her body, processing from and/or arriving at an establishing long- or medium long shot that displays the body as an integrated whole, rewarding the viewer’s scopophilia. This process of eroticization also comes with fetishistic overtones, as Deacon uses a pair of scissors that is shown sliding along the contours not only of Anna’s body but also of the red slip she is wearing—an item of clothing which also serves as a clue in the diegesis, as Paul, in his efforts to discover the true fate of his fiancée, recognizes the garment and begins to track down the clue it provides.
Apart from this specifically diegetic use of the piece of clothing, however, the scenes in which Anna is wearing the red slip are clearly marked for the erotic visual pleasure they provide. Ricci moves through the film dressed solely in this piece of underwear, overinvested with fetishistic significance and, accordingly, shot and lit and blocked as to reveal as much of her body as permitted by the film’s R rating. For the final third of the film, when Anna has accepted Deacon’s suggestion that she is communicating with him from beyond death, Ricci’s body is stripped of this piece of clothing as well. Shedding this somewhat clichéd item of clothing, which reveals as much as it conceals, Anna abandons one incarnation of the gothic heroine (the slasher film’s “final girl” in wild flight from the Byronic hero’s sinister incarceration) and begins to assume another, more radical one in which she functions as what Poe has called “unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world,” a beautiful female corpse. In preparation for her burial, Deacon has undressed her altogether, and so Ricci performs in a state of carefully blocked R-rated nudity. Though she ostensibly performs acts devoid of sexual content—running, hiding, banging on doors, etc.—the film never abandons its voyeuristic stance toward Ricci’s body. Beyond the dictate of the R-rating, it never allows her to look undignified, ungraceful, or less than erotically available.
One specific scene deserves special mention in this context. In a nightmarish hallucination, Anna’s fiancé Paul has a vision of Anna in his bathroom, replaying the post-coital shower following the film’s opening scene. In a medium long shot, the camera gazes first at Anna’s upper body from behind, then stays on her as she turns around and, posing with one arm raised while holding her own pulsing, bloody heart, faces the camera revealing a large vertical gash between her breasts pouring blood all over her whitened torso. Aside from the conspicuous nudity aiding in the construction of what is clearly intended as an “iconic” horror film image, the scene also epitomizes a larger visual strategy by which it signals Anna’s sexuality by means of wounds placed upon her body. From the first moment we see Anna on Deacon’s slab, the car accident has left on her forehead a vertical gash, all the bloodier and deeper for the pallor of the skin surrounding it. To the same degree that Deacon’s suturing of that gash as part of his preparations for her funeral signifies his own erotic indifference to Anna’s body, the gash itself functions, fairly obviously, as a vaginal metaphor, repeating itself in Paul’s nightmare as well as in the display of a similar gash on her ribcage, revealed for the first time when Deacon cuts off the red slip and renders Anna fully nude. Since the film’s rating precludes shots of Ricci’s naked body that would feature the part of her anatomy suggested by the gash, the metaphor will have to do. 
Apart from its purely substitutive function, however, the metaphor of the gash as surrogate genitalia also establishes the link between sex and violence, between wounds and sex, by which the film aligns itself with Ricci’s star persona. For one, there is the film’s overarching thematic conceit that Anna’s condition is ambiguously situated between being alive and being dead—a conceit the film visually belabours through lighting and make-up, adding superficial markers of mortality so as not to disqualify Ricci’s otherwise uncompromised body as an object of voyeuristic pleasure. In this broad sense, After.Life is reminiscent of Black Snake Moan, both in its thematic conceit—i.e. that Ricci’s character is, figuratively speaking, already dead even while she is still physically alive—and in its visual expression of this notion, which literalizes the thematic metaphor by accessorizing her body with markers of physical mortality. Beyond the scope of Black Snake Moan, After.Life also adds the more specific conceit of the wound as surrogate vagina, which redirects “proper” genital sexuality into festishistic substitution. Among countless alternative possibilities for concretizing possible substitutes in this economy of fetishistic exchanges, the film then selects a metaphor that links sex and violence and eroticism with mortality, transforming Ricci’s body into a spectacular object of necrophilic desire.
4. Necrophilia for the Squeamish: The Mechanics of Disavowal
In order to understand why this deliberate construction of necrophilia in a piece of mainstream cinema fails to register as scandalous, it is necessary to read a discursive level, present throughout After.Life, in which transgressive desire—as vividly as it might be evoked—is systematically disavowed. On the most readily available level, this disavowal is taking place by way of the philosophical underpinnings that translate Anna’s eroticized dead body into a metaphor for a life unappreciated and wasted. The opportunity for disavowal written into the concept of the film is the cognitive uncertainty regarding Anna’s status as either dead or alive. As long as the viewer does not know with any degree of certainty that Anna is, in fact, dead, contemplating her body as erotic spectacle does not, properly speaking, constitute necrophilia. In fact, as the plot unravels, the film’s ending finally provides the postponed disambiguation, which, as it turns out, marks Anna as having been alive throughout the entire duration of the film, allowing viewers to dismiss the visual representation of her body that, hitherto, was convincing enough to cast doubt on what is delivered as the final truth about her ontological status in the end.
Consequently, to the same degree that Anna is, throughout the film, not literally dead, the systematic visual strategies by which her body is rendered abject, and concretely so, too—from skin-tone make-up and lighting to prosthetic effects and digital enhancements—are disavowed. Either, these concrete visual markers of Anna’s mortality register as representations of her subjective perception of her own body as dead, which, it turns out, is erroneous (e.g. a scene in which Anna sees herself in the mirror features a mirror image that is digitally altered to suggest the physical decay that Anna’s body in front of that same mirror fails to show). Or they register as stylistic devices for the benefit of the viewer to literalize the metaphor of Anna as one of the “walking dead”; in other words, they merely concretize the abstract idea that Anna, though biologically alive, has squandered life’s pleasures and opportunities, directing attention away from the concrete signifier to the abstract signified. Either way, Anna’s body is not really a corpse, which is why any erotic significance viewers might project upon it is not really necrophilic in nature.
More specifically, it is important to note that Deacon—the one character actively interacting with Anna throughout her undead existence who knows that she is alive—never displays any sexual interest in her, never casts his glance at her in the manner in which the camera avails itself of her body throughout. Given his peculiar pathology of burying unwilling customers alive, Deacon may not be the single identificatory focus of the film, but, aside from sharing that privilege with only Anna and Paul, his perspective eventually turns out to be the one that prevails. In the film’s oedipal trajectory, his desires trump those of the younger man, Anna’s fiancé, with whom he competes for control over Anna’s body; Paul ends up among his victims just as Anna did. Foreclosing the heteronormative apotheosis of Paul and Anna jointly triumphing over him, Deacon reproduces himself non-sexually across generations by recruiting a young boy he has corrupted into sharing his pathology. To the degree that Deacon is the origin of the film’s masculine gaze, that gaze is neither aggressive nor conducive to necrophilic contact. Its function is to enable voyeurism.
To emphasize the prevalence of voyeuristic pleasure, the film provides minor characters that serve to separate an actively necrophilic pathology from the encouraged voyeuristic one. In one important scene, a police officer Deacon has allowed into the mortuary basement to view his deceased brother, when left alone for a moment, moves over to Anna’s supine body and, in an obvious state of sexual arousal, touches her breast. He is immediately discovered when Deacon re-enters the room, shamed by his action, and dismissed from the room.  During the physical contact between the man and what he presumes to be a corpse, the scene is composed almost exclusively of two-shots, leaving the man in the frame as well as the background from which embarrassing discovery is threatening to occur at any second. The absence of POV shots discourages scopophilic identification with the character, while his necrophilia is put on display as a pathological aberration contrasted negatively in its aggressiveness with Deacon’s mild-mannered, polite, and considerate display of necrophilic indifference to Anna.
On the commentary track to After.Life, director Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo points out that her film frequently “uses the genre staples” of the thriller or horror film but consistently subverts them rather than surrendering to their persuasive and, one must assume, compromising power. As evidence, she cites a scene in which Anna has briefly escaped from the prep room in the basement and is now hiding from Deacon in a hallway after grabbing a kitchen knife. The fact that Anna is waiting for Deacon behind a corner, her back pressed to the wall, clutching the knife ready to strike, but then never gets the chance to attack and stab him, is evidence to Wojtowicz-Vosloo for such genre subversion; a “real” horror film would follow the moment of anticipation with the payoff of actual violence instead of letting the moment pass. However, one might argue against the director that it is, in fact, the shot of Anna clutching the knife that is the cliché, and not her subsequent action or lack thereof; that, to use another example, it is the desperate heroine’s barely understood or aborted or dismissed phone call to an outsider to come and rescue her, that is the cliché, and not the fact that this outsider will never be able to act on the phone call and save the day. In other words, one might want to point out that After.Life—from the damsel in distress to her premature burial—is, in fact, very much informed by the gothic conventions that regulate both the thriller and the horror film.
In fact, not only does After.Life follow the conventions of the horror film more faithfully than its director wants us to believe; it also happens to be a better horror film than the psychological drama as which Wojtowicz-Vosloo wants to pass it off. Were we to follow the director’s preferred reading, then After.Life, as an allegory of female self-discovery, would hinge entirely on Anna’s crucial moment of emotional self-recognition—that her failure in life has consisted of rejecting the love of others out of fear of rejection, a behavior installed in her by her unpleasant mother during childhood. The predictability and, worse, the sheer banality of this denouement, its glib pop psychological shallowness, can compete neither with the visual pleasure provided by the voyeuristic contemplation of Ricci’s body, nor the affective pleasure of following her progress through the twists and turns of violence and abjection that horror films do so well.  Given the fact that After.Life turns out to be much better as a horror film than a psychological drama, the director’s misrecognition of her own accomplishment appears driven by something other than artistic intention. What else then? 
What is more important than the relative veracity of Wojtowicz-Vosloo’s claims about her film is the fact that she feels compelled to distance herself from genre by asserting authorial autonomy and originality in the form of non-compliance with the very genre conventions she herself skilfully and competently cited and implemented. This denial of the film’s allegiance to the horror genre on the part of the director functions, I would argue, as yet another strategy by which the necrophilic content of the film is being disavowed. Horror films, as this argument would have it, are literally about necrophilia, whereas psychological drama is only figuratively so. A film that revolves around the naked body of a beautiful young dead woman, so the director would have us believe, is not about necrophilia when it is not a horror film.
Interestingly enough, this strategy of disavowing necrophilic content by shifting the locus of viewer perception also recurs in director Craig Brewer’s commentary on his film Black Snake Moan—another film in which Ricci’s body marks the confluence of mortality and eroticism. The difference here is that Brewer does not want to shift our perception of genre but of his film’s locus of controversy. Much of Brewer’s and his collaborators’ discourse on the film, which is presented on the commentary track and in the “Making Of” featurette included in the DVD release of Black Snake Moan, revolves around what they themselves explicitly discuss as their film’s transgressiveness.12 Brewer shows little inclination to discuss Ricci’s cadaverous appearance and its oddly erotic appeal. Instead, he dwells at length on the film’s emblematic image of Ricci, half clad, chained around the waist, sitting demurely at the feet of Samuel L. Jackson, who holds the end of her chain. More than the necrophilic subtext, this particular image, which aligns itself fairly obviously with its sexual politics, determines the film’s ability to speak controversy. At first glance, the image could very well be considered controversial because of the age difference between these two characters, an age difference that is inscribed more in Ricci’s star persona than in the film’s actual narrative (which concludes its oedipal trajectory, unlike After.Life, with Samuel Jackson’s character willingly ceding control over the young woman he has held captive to a younger man of her own generation). But as much as the film recognizes and utilizes the pedophilic aspects of Ricci’s persona (by exploiting, for example, their considerable difference in height and weight when framing them in a two-shot), pedophilia is not where Brewer sees Black Snake Moan’s potential to provoke. For Brewer, race is where it’s at: the fact that Jackson is black and Ricci is white overrides all other concerns. According to its makers, it is the interracial coupling that renders the film controversial.
As in the case of After.Life, this director also seems to be his own movie’s worst judge. It is exactly the racial and sexual politics that give rise to doubts about the degree to which Black Snake Moan does indeed steer toward cultural controversy. Given the fact that the film, with smoothly self-assured predictability, reaches a conclusion in which, all differences between the age and race of Ricci’s Rae and Jackson’s Lazarus aside, the two main characters are, respectively, paired up with a member of their own race—Ricci, the white girl, with boyfriend Ronnie, played by Justin Timberlake, and Jackson, the black man, with Angela, an acquaintance working in the town’s pharmacy, played by S. Epatha Merkerson, a black woman—viewers might not be as impressed with the film’s willingness to transgress unwritten laws of mainstream American filmmaking as its makers are. Furthermore, unlike necrophilia and pedophilia, the depiction of Ricci and Lazarus as an interracial couple apparently does not require mechanisms of disavowal: how transgressive can it be if it is featured on the film’s poster?
If viewers suspect Brewer of talking tongue-in-cheek about his film’s racial politics, they would be well advised to focus on the film’s meticulously calibrated tone between melodrama and camp—laced with a heavy dose of exploitation cinema announced beautifully by the poster and the preposterousness of its central image. Perhaps by way of this tone, Black Snake Moan might be citing American attitudes toward race without subscribing to them, playing on the idea of the interracial couple as “scandalous” within the confines of cinematic discourse only, producing merely a simulacrum of scandalous miscegenation instead of genuine transgressiveness. No matter if Brewer’s comments are in good faith or not, they do shift attention away from the fact that Ricci’s body in this film is sexy and cadaverous, and toward the fact that Ricci’s body is white. Whatever else this body might represent vanishes in the glare of the racial issue—or so Brewer would have it. No matter if Brewer’s assessment of American culture is right or not, like Wojtowicz-Vosloo’s comments about After.Life, his efforts of identifying his film’s agenda seem driven mostly by a desire to disavow its necrophiliac and, to a lesser degree, pedophilic subtext.
5. Disavowing Disavowal: Christina Ricci, Hollywood Darling
While a more thorough analysis might trace similar mechanisms of disavowal in the earlier films that helped shape Christina Ricci’s star persona, to do so in the case of, for example, the two Addams Family films strikes me as redundant. The very fact that general audiences have considered these films beyond the pale of suspicion—a reputation reflected in their inclusive PG-13 rating—demonstrates that the pedophilic and necrophilic undertones surrounding Wednesday Addams’ character, which I tried to highlight earlier, are so deeply embedded as to be virtually unnoticeable to these films’ intended audience. Perhaps these unsavoury aspects even begin to emerge clearly only for those viewers reading the films backwards through the lens of Ricci’s subsequent career, especially with a recent film like After.Life making explicit what tended to be present only in latent form in Ricci’s earlier work. This is not to say that hind sight is always 20/20; it is to say that larger formations within a career stand out more clearly against a wider horizon of expectation. Suffice it to say that, in a brief scene in After.Life, Ricci’s character Anna Taylor encounters herself, in a hallucination, as a young girl, and that young girl bears a striking, and hardly coincidental, similarity to little Wednesday Addams. How could we ever look at Wednesday again knowing what we know about Anna?
The fact that Ricci’s career has hardly suffered from constructing a star persona around transgressive themes could be due to a number of reasons. It could be proof of the efficiency with which the mechanisms of disavowal I have charted above suppress transgressiveness for all those whose investment in these films does not allow recognizing its presence. However, there is a fundamental problem with this argument. To the degree that each gestures of disavowal—whether in good faith or, tongue in cheek, in the spirit of deliberate camp—refers back to the scandal it aims to avert, it inevitably also invokes the scandalous material that forms the basis for such scandal. This is especially true for cases in which the disavowal is unprompted, i.e. cases in which the disavowal is written into a text prior to its actually having provoked any outrage upon reception.  While one might argue that such forms of disavowal are merely pre-emptive efforts informed by an awareness on the author’s part of the discursive framework into which the text is about to be delivered, anticipating the scandal that surely is to follow once the text is released, it is particularly in their pre-emptive form that they function ambiguously: not either/or (a desire to prevent transgression and avert scandal/a desire to evoke and include transgressive material while trying to appear not to) but both/and. Even, or especially, in this double function, mechanisms of pre-emptive disavowal always insist on the transgressive nature of the material they are aiming to suppress. Whatever the material might be, a mechanism for its disavowal, by its very existence, posits its transgressiveness, constructs it as transgressive. Bad faith only comes into play to the extent that this material is included at all. No such mechanisms were even necessary had the author decided simply to omit the transgressive material altogether.
To the degree that disavowal follows a logic analogous to that determining the Freudian notion of the fetish—something which, simultaneously, bestows comfort over the absence of the object it replaces, and evokes anxiety as it serves as an irrepressible reminder of just that absence—Ricci’s star persona participates in what one might call a fetishization of necrophilia as transgressive. This is not to argue the relative degree to which necrophilia and/or pedophilia are, in fact, socially taboo, and then to measure individual films against this extratextual standard—a highly problematic procedure, to say the least. More interestingly, the latency of necrophilic content Ricci’s star persona enables—its simultaneous presence and absence construed as a result of (insufficient) repression—stands in stark contrast to cinematic representations that take on this subject matter more directly, i.e. without such fetishistic treatment.14German director Joerg Buttgereit’s two groundbreaking NekRomantik films (1987/1991) come to mind—films which, unlike Ricci’s, “have been maligned as offensive” and “remain banned in many countries, including [fairly liberal countries like] Finland, Norway, Singapore, Australia, and the United Kingdom” (McCormack 200). Notable about those films is the fact that—again, unlike Ricci’s films—Buttgereit’s films focus on the corpse in the context of “domestic banality and emphasize practicalities of death and necrophilia, such as preservation, decomposition, and abject fluid by-products” (McCormack 200). Compared to Buttgereit’s films and their insistent indifference to the transgressiveness of their necrophilic content, the mechanics of disavowal in Ricci’s films produce necrophilia not only as transgressive but also as a kind of cinematic fetish that stands for everything cinema wants to talk about but fears it cannot. Overinvested with festishistic representational significance, necrophilia (and, to a similar extent, pedophilia) must bear the burden of representing the desire for, and the anxiety about, transgression.
Considering the fact that the two lead actors appearing in Buttgereit’s NekRomantik films are listed only under pseudonyms (e.g. Daktari Lorenz and Beatrice M.), Ricci’s star persona and its deliberate and explicit use in films like After.Life would appear to be in direct conflict with that film’s transgressiveness. But then Ricci does not express transgressiveness—she expresses the complex negotiation of the desire for, and the anxiety of, transgressiveness. Given the dual function of all mechanisms of disavowal, especially the ones brought into play pre-emptively, Ricci does not only embody and thus articulate necrophilic and pedophilic desire; she also suppresses it. This is the niche she has created for herself; this is what she will bring to projects for directors willing to flirt with breaking taboos but unwilling to incur the full cost.
Finally, one might be tempted to see the two complementary aspects of this dual function as being aligned with the simultaneous participation of Ricci’s persona in mainstream cinema on the one hand, and in independent cinema on the other. In this regard, Ricci’s profile may not be so unique; other actresses whose careers have taken a similar path—one might think of, among others, Fairuza Balk and Angela Bettis—also deserve attention for working the margins of the horror genre. At a time when critics are bemoaning how little innovation is coming from the “hard core” of the horror film, it may be the margins of the genre—and, in the margins, actresses freed from exclusive allegiance to its expressive arsenal—where horror film is remaking itself by deploying female stars in roles other than that of scream queens and final girls.
1 Beller reads these facial features as signals of Ricci’s outsider status in the Hollywood star system. “There’s some palpable energy,” he describes her, “emanating from her forehead—the broad, white forehead that makes her look like an alien, or a baby, or a genius, or a Japanese anime character” (80).
2 Evidence is provided by Terry Richardson’s photographs that accompany Beller’s article on Ricci in Spin, one of which features Ricci in a girlish dress holding a chainsaw (81), the other in a reclining pose with partly unbuttoned blouse emphasizing simultaneously her disproportionately large dark eyes and decidedly un-girlish chest (issue cover).
3 Previous work in this vein has privileged canonical figures (e.g. Gary Rhodes’ Bela Lugosi—Dreams and Nightmares [Collectable Press, 2007], Lucy Chase Williams’ The Complete Films of Vincent Price [Citadel, 2000], or, to cite one example of a director appropriated to star discourse, Tony Williams’ The Cinema of George Romero: Knight of the Living Dead [Wallflower Press, 2003]), opening critical discourse toward the analysis of less canonical, more contemporary, though none the less interesting, actors and actresses whose relationship to the genre might be more complicated and ambiguous.
4 Ricci has followed this path with other films in which her performance is dedicated to the idea of the actress “stretching herself.” From playing Aileen Wuornos’ lesbian lover in Monster (2003) to appearing in a role that required the prosthetic alteration of her face in Penelope (2006), Ricci’s choices often privilege parts that are perceived as extreme, signaling actorly accomplishment.
5 There are a variety of cognitive problems in making this determination: can the actress be trusted when she is making statements about her weight loss? Can the audience be trusted in assessing the actress’s body when cultural norms about what constitutes, e.g. the difference between “attractively slender” and “disgustingly haggard” are highly dependent on whose norms exactly are being applied? And, finally, how much of the image of that body on screen is the result of camera, lighting, etc.?
fn6. Prior to the film’s release, tabloid media read Ricci’s weight loss and overall physical transformation not as signs of the working actress’s committed work ethic but of the star’s eating disorder.
7 Among the influences on the film are similar recent horror films like M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense (1999) and Alejandro Amenabar’s The Others (2001), in which cognitive ambiguity is not assumed as a narrative premise but revealed as a retrospective gesture of disambiguation.
8 To highlight the film’s conservative sexual politics, one might also consider that, in the symmetry between first, Anna’s and then Paul’s victimization by Deacon, it is only Paul whose body suffers traumatic penetration when Deacon inserts a steel tool into his chest cavity. The c