Mouldy Matriarchs and Dangerous Daughters

An Ecofeminist Look at Resident Evil Antagonists

Authors

DOI:

https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.2832

How to Cite

Pinder, M. (2021). Mouldy Matriarchs and Dangerous Daughters : An Ecofeminist Look at <em>Resident Evil</em> Antagonists . M/C Journal, 24(5). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.2832
Vol. 24 No. 5 (2021): monster
Published 2021-10-05
Articles

The Resident Evil video game series is especially notable for engaging with uncanny nature and monstrous reproduction, often facilitated through viral contamination. These third-person games usually feature an outbreak of some kind, instigated by a shadowy organisation, and star a member of law enforcement or the military as the protagonist. However, the seventh and eighth games of the franchise were different. While they explored many of the same themes and conventions as their predecessors, the technologies by which they evoked fear and suspense had become further immersed in the survival horror genre and ecoGothic affect. Survival horror video games, which often exploit anxieties surrounding uncanny motherhood to produce feelings of dread, use the processes and spectacle of reproduction, gestation, and childbirth as the locus of player fear. The ecoGothic, that is the non-human ecology rendered uncanny, monstrous, and sublime, permeates survival horror spaces and has the potential to empower these malevolent matriarchs.

In Resident Evil 7: Biohazard (Nakanishi) and Resident Evil VIII: Village (Sato), player-protagonist Ethan Winters is under constant attack from female antagonists. From unexpected onslaughts from his rapidly transforming wife Mia at the beginning of Resident Evil 7: Biohazard, to his heart being wrenched from his body by the overarching villain Mother Miranda in Resident Evil VIII: Village, Ethan’s life is under constant threat from women and girls infected by a parasitic fungus. These monstrous females, through their corporeal forms and means of control, blur the boundaries between the human and the non-human. Furthermore, they represent the perceived degradation of the human form and delegitimisation of man's dominion over nature. These women—who have merged with the non-human ecosystem—have become creatures that challenge our conception of what it is to be human. It is this intersection of ecophobia and the perceived transgression of gender roles that make up the anatomy of the female and non-cis-masculine presenting videoludic monster. Using Resident Evil 7: Biohazard and Resident Evil VIII: Village as my primary examples, in this article I unpack the implications of these fungus-infested women, and explore how family and trauma play a role in their narratives.

EcoGothic Origins

In defining the ecoGothic it is important to acknowledge its origins as a response to the idealised ecologies of the nature writing of the Romantic period (Smith and Hughes 2). Rather than sweeping through the green pastoral valleys of the Romantic novel, the ecoGothic lurks in the shadows of labyrinthine forests and stands awestruck before sublime wonders. The ecoGothic shatters the illusion of human control, confronting the audience with their fears and anxieties. The ecoGothic monsters of Resident Evil 7: Biohazard (referred to here as Resident Evil 7) and Resident Evil VIII: Village (referred to here as Village) represent deep-seated anxieties about the boundaries between the human and the non-human. Whilst Gothic narratives have traditionally expressed fears about the loss of control to nature, Estok notes that this loss of control is a real and present threat in the environmental crisis of the Anthropocene (Estok 29), lending these modern ecoGothic monsters additional relevance and potency. The ecoGothic challenges human corporeality through transformation, hybridity, and invasion, destabilising our ideas of the human as separate from, and superior to, the greater ecology. It is vital to interrogate assumptions associated with the false dichotomy between humans and nature to demonstrate the anxieties at play within these manifestations of female eco-monstrosity. As Tidwell notes, ecohorror narratives are “fundamentally predicated upon a relationship between humanity and nature that does not allow for their interconnectedness” (539). These games, through the compromised, infected form of the protagonist, problematise the dichotomy between the good of humanity and the evil of the non-human. However, they still weaponise anxieties about human specificity and depict hybridity as monstrous and unstable.

The patriarchal fear of transgressive female power is similarly weaponised through the female antagonists. These monstrous female antagonists are used to police boundaries of acceptable womanhood and their fates demonstrate the dangers of transgressing those boundaries. Through an ecofeminist lens we can examine the interplay between anxieties surrounding gender and anxieties surrounding the wildness and unpredictability of the ecology. As the intersection between ecocriticism, which is interested in the interconnectedness of ecologies, and feminism, which is interested in the “social analysis” of power structures and systems of domination (Carr 160), ecofeminism allows us to analyse the subjugation, exploitation, and demonisation of the feminine and the broader ecology. Part of what makes a female monster so threatening is that she transgresses two societal modes of categorisation. She is a predator rather than prey, no longer fitting the submissive female archetype, and she has become a hybrid form closely associated with the animal. Krzywinska highlights the role of this altered power relationship as being a potent manifestation of the Gothic in video games (33). This common expression of transgressive and monstrous female power draws on the traditional role of the Gothic in facilitating the male experience of fear and vulnerability with impunity (Krzywinska 33).

Resident Evil as a video game series has an inconsistent history of depicting women and female-presenting entities, both antagonists and protagonists alike. MacCallum-Stewart asserts that the series’ shift towards more problematic and monstrous female representation coincides with a move from action-adventure to survival horror (170). The series has long been preoccupied with monstrous inheritance and legacy, but Resident Evil 7 and Village represent a new move towards female villains, abandoning patriarchal dynasties like the Weskers. The female ecoGothic monsters of Resident Evil 7 and Village transgress gender and species norms, signifying a move further into the ecoGothic realm of the uncanny.

The Technology of Ecohorror

The Resident Evil series uses science fiction conventions to explain the mystery that lies at the centre of its horrific spectacles. Despite the distinctly ecoGothic affect of Resident Evil 7 and Village, the ’scientific’ explanation provided in-game for these supernatural occurrences is a mutated fungus with psychotropic and self-replicating properties. The Cadou (Romanian for “gift”) is a fictional fungus developed from a fungal root under the village, and altered to create bioweapons by a shadowy organisation, The Connections. Known as the megamycete in the English script (not used in the Japanese script), the fungus has various effects including controlling its host, retaining and replicating genetic information, and rapid growths capable of focussed movement. A second fungal root was established in Louisiana, under the Baker House of Resident Evil 7.

As a locus of human anxiety, fungal bodies are inherently unstable and defy characterisation, thus queering ideas of the corporeal body (Bishop et al. 220). Bishop posits that in the human consciousness fungus is closely linked to the animal as they live on “dead or decomposing matter”. Some fungal species reproduce asexually “through the release of spores that produces new organisms that are genetically identical to the parent organism” (Bishop et al. 204). This asexual reproduction means that fictional fungal bodies are representative of a reproductive process that runs contrary to the human-sanctioned sexual reproduction and established gendered power dynamics. Reproduction through tiny spores allows the site of reproduction to go undetected, opening the possibility within the human imagination for the invasion and violation of the human form. Bishop also notes that fungal bodies “are hardly contained organisms; they form complex systems of mycorrhizae, symbiotic underground relationships with other fungal and vegetal life” (Bishop et al. 204). It is this resistance to categorisation is an emergent theme as we define the parameters of these female eco-monsters.

Whilst the fungal properties of the Cadou are behind the malevolent forces at work within Resident Evil 7 and Village, the mould and associated slime are a looming presence in the bulk of the gameplay. It clings to the walls in the Baker house and lurks in the shadows of the Village. It exists within the interior and exterior of the human body, threatening to control, corrupt, and engulf. The invasive presence of the mould in the Old House places the phenomenon firmly in the domestic sphere, in the space to which the matriarch of the family, Marguerite, is bound (McGreevy et al. 254). Hurley notes that slime “constitutes a threat to the integrity of the human subject” (35), due to its lack of fixed identity and form. Slime represents a challenge to the human understanding of the body as a closed system that is impenetrable and self-contained. Estok posits that slime’s resistance to categorisation and refusal to fit within male delineated boundaries creates an association with the feminine (33). Slime is unstable and resists control, making it a culturally pervasive expression of fears about the loss of established systems of power that reinforce sexism and misogyny (Estok 31). This theory of the gendered significance of slime brings new meaning to use of the mould and slime forms of the Cadou for the purposes of unnatural reproduction and the exercising of psychological control.

The abhuman, or not-quite-human (Hurley 3), spectacles of Resident Evil’s Cadou infected antagonists are able to be at once tragic and disposable. While the player is required to kill vast hordes of amorphous “molded”, emaciated “thralls” and degenerated “lycans”, the humanoid bosses or key antagonists complicate human claims to exceptionalism and specificity. Tidwell notes that “this breakdown of the animacy hierarchy and of separations between human and nonhuman emphasizes materiality itself and de-emphasizes consciousness or sentience” (546). It is implied that we are to think of the zombie-like hordes of non-player combatants as non-sentient, as under the complete control of the non-human, therefore entirely expendable. This othering of non-player combatant is a staple of the survival horror genre as it offers monstrosity as both motive and mitigation. As Perron notes, the monsters of videoludic horror are constructed from “mundane” player anxieties, allowing the player to kill that which they fear (11).

The Scientist and the ‘Broodmother’

The dangerous potential of the grieving mother is demonstrated in the actions of Mother Miranda, whose loss of her daughter Eva serves as the catalyst for the Cadou narrative arc of Resident Evil 7 and Village. Miranda, through her experimentation with the mould and her pathological determination to resurrect her child, becomes a monstrous maternal spectacle. Miranda forces both children and adults to become infantilised, deferential hosts to the Cadou, attempting to create a “vessel” to carry her daughter’s DNA and consciousness. As Paxton notes, such monstrous and destructive maternal behaviour is “pathologized as unnatural and identified as the seamy underside of woman’s nature” (170). This depiction of unnatural maternal behaviour is compounded by her means of reproduction and the multitudes of “children” she has produced. Stang notes that “the monster polices the borders of what is permissible” and Miranda’s status as the “Broodmother”, through her complex combination of asexual reproduction and infection, represents transgressions of those borders that circumvent patriarchal processes (235).

Killing Miranda is the culmination of a two-game arc that requires the player-character to kill her “false children”. The similarities between the unnatural birth of Frankenstein’s creature and the unnatural birth of Miranda’s children are significant. Facilitated by science and societal transgression, they are constructed from death and ultimately result in parental rejection. Miranda cements her status as the monstrous mother by revealing that the player has been doing her bidding in killing her children: "you've fulfilled your purpose, Mr. Winters. You disposed of my false children and awakened the glorious Megamycete” (Sato).

In creating these “children” and then casting them aside, Mother Miranda fashions a hierarchy of hybrid entities, desperate for her approval and under her thrall due to the controlling properties of the Cadou. The player-character’s mission to kill Miranda as the monstrous maternal figure expresses a “revulsion and fear towards female fecundity” and a “potent fear” of “female reproduction without male input” (Stang 238). The damage perpetuated by Miranda’s unnatural motherhood is far reaching, with one of her “failed vessels”, Eveline, becoming the source of the Louisiana Cadou infestation from Resident Evil 7. Eveline was originally created as a bioweapon (or B.O.W.) using the DNA of Miranda’s dead daughter and a sample of the Cadou mould. Manifesting as a ten-year old girl, Eveline has an insatiable drive to create a family which motivates her manipulation and infection of the Bakers, Mia, and the play-character Ethan. "I don't want to live at the lab anymore. I want a house. And I want you to be my mommy" says Eveline to Mia (Nakanishi).

Eveline’s ability to reproduce and infect is even more monstrous and abject than that of her “Broodmother” as she is ostensibly a young girl. Her status as an uncanny, abhuman “mother” is not a means of empowerment and comes at a tremendous cost. As Stang writes the ecoGothic mother’s reproductive power “is often the result of infection, contamination, or mutation and causes abject transformations, madness, and, eventually, death at the hands of the protagonist” (238). Therefore, with each one of these abject mothers Ethan kills he is completing the patriarchal narrative of the dangers of unnatural reproduction and matriarchal power structures.

The Abhuman Mother

Resident Evil 7 antagonist Marguerite Baker is already a mother when the Cadou, brought into her home by Eveline, establishes fungal growths on her brain. She and Jack take in Eveline and Mia out of a genuine human concern and compassion which has completely disappeared by the time Ethan arrives in the home. Soon Eveline’s drive for a family kicks in and she begins to insidiously control the Bakers, worming her way into their psyche and infecting them with the mould. From this point on Marguerite begins to mutate into a maternal monster, referring to spiders and insects as her babies. Not only does her nurturing begin to transgress species, but she begins to feed her human family human flesh, creating grotesque parodies of the nurturing and nourishing mother: "I'll feed you to my babies and fertilize the garden with what was left" Marguerite to Ethan (Nakanishi).

As Marguerite begins her homicidal pursuit of Ethan, the ecohorror of her monstrous body is revealed. She transforms becoming progressively less human. Her “monster” form, with its elongated limbs and mutated vulva, becomes more closely aligned with a female arthropod or arachnid. McGreevy et al notes that “Marguerite’s transformation mirrors the impact of mycoestrogens, such as zearalenone, which the body treats as a high dose of estrogen … . The infection thus amplifies feminine traits to a dangerous level, as the female body is abject: horrific and alluring” (261). The insects that are birthed from her genitals have an intrinsic association with death and decomposition, playing a key role in the process of disarticulating the human form (Shelomi 31). From this association we might infer that the fear and disgust the player feels at Marguerite’s association with insects and her mutated arachnid form goes beyond anxieties of ambiguity between the human and the non-human.

The Eastern European castle and snow-capped peaks of Village offer a different type of female monstrosity to that found on the bayou in Louisiana. Whilst not a vampire through the traditional transmission mode of Dracula and his ilk, Alcina Dimitrescu’s vampirism is necessitated by an inherited blood condition and invites discussion of matriarchal lines of reproduction. The inhabitants of the Castle Dimitrescu play into the same ecoGothic conventions as that have been employed in female vampire narratives. These narratives play into anxieties about unnatural reproduction, in this case reproduction without the men or masculine forces. Paxton in their exploration of Le Fanu’s Carmilla draws connections between female vampirism and parasitic ichneumon wasps, resonating with the depiction of Cadou infestation in Resident Evil (170). Like fungus vampirism is depicted as parasitic and a disruption to the patriarchal lineage through its potential for asexual reproduction. Not unlike the structure of infection, psychic control, and reproduction that we see in vampire fiction, Mother Miranda operates as matriarchal head of an expansive hivemind that mimics a family like structure.

Alcina Dimitrescu is a sexualised spectacle whose rejection and suspicion of men reinforces her role as a transgressive woman. Alcina and her daughters determine the fates of their victims by gender, with men being consumed and women being enslaved and drained of blood for the production of wine.  She further transgresses normative expectations of the mother through the animalism associated with vampirism (Paxton 178) and her stature. She is an imposing nine feet tall with rapidly growing claws due to the effects of the Cadou, making her difficult to dominate through brute strength. Further compounding her threat to patriarchal power structures, she explicitly expresses hatred for men during her attacks. Her voice lines demonstrate a powerful drive to protect her daughters from patriarchal power and masculine violence: “You ungrateful, selfish wretch! You come into MY house—You lay your filthy man-hands on MY daughters”—Alcina Dimetrescu to Ethan (Sato). Depicted as a beautiful, elegant lady, the vampiric body of Alcina Dimitrescu, transforms into a grotesque dragon-like creature, providing visual confirmation of her underlying status as non-human. The abhuman as the covert and deceptive non-human monstrosity plays into her late-stage transformation reinforces her disconnect from the human, legitimising her death.

Mother Miranda’s daughter Donna Beneviento poses a deeper psychological threat to the player, stepping further away from the action-adventure genre with which Resident Evil has previously been associated. Like Marguerite, her house manifests her psychological state, reflecting her trauma and implied mental illness. This trauma manifests externally, turning the Beneviento mansion into an extension of her psychic agency. She achieves this through the use of secreted fungal hallucinogens activated by pollen allowing her to manifest and prey on the anxieties of her victims. Donna Beneviento’s relationship to her Cadou infested and their uncanny animation echoes the unnatural reproduction of Mother Miranda. Throughout the Beneviento mansion motifs of parenthood and childbirth play out in increasingly grotesque forms, culminating in a giant foetus monster emerging from the shadows, wailing and giggling. Donna Beneviento is playing with Ethan expressing her status as child, despite the reality of her adulthood. Donna is infantilised, crafting dolls in an expression her loneliness and desire for family in a manner similar to Eveline’s misguided attempts to construct a family.

The Sanctioned Mother and the Good Daughter

The counterpoint to these spectacles of female monstrosity are female characters who manage to maintain the appearance of human specificity and adherence to societal norms. Marguerite’s daughter Zoe remains relatively unaffected by the Cadou and retains her humanity, aligning herself with the player-character. She is the good daughter, the sanctioned and acceptable human daughter. Ethan’s wife Mia is intermittently affected by the same fungal infestation as Marguerite, yet her initial monstrous manifestation and frenzied chainsaw attack on Ethan at the beginning of the game is all but forgotten through her subsequent ability to maintain the appearance of human specificity. By the beginning of Village Mia is depicted as an ideal picture of rehabilitated motherhood and femininity. Positioning herself as the “good” in the good/bad mother dichotomy, she is cooking, wearing soft fabrics and colours, and is nurturing her baby (Digioia 15-16). But this figure of the socially sanctioned mother has been replaced by the “bad” Mother Miranda. This raises further questions about the illusory and performative qualities of maternal affection in the Resident Evil series.

After being kidnapped, Ethan’s baby Rose is dissected into four parts and given to four main antagonists of Village. It is only through her integration with the Cadou and the resurrection procedure of Mother Miranda that she is revived. Rose’s resurrection is an obscured and noncorporeal affair, unlike the resurrection of Alcina Dimatrescu’s daughters Bela, Daniela, and Cassandra, which is documented in scientific detail. As a discarded “Insect observation journal” notes, their corpses became covered in carnivorous insects that “vigorously consume meat”, morphing and mutating to recreate their resurrected human forms (Sato). The visceral descriptions of this process and their subsequent ability to control hordes of insects are reminiscent Marguerite’s monster form. Like Mia and Zoe, Rose’s acceptability and status as the good daughter is predicated on her ability to adhere to societal norms and patriarchal categorisations.

Conclusion

In depicting female antagonists as ecoGothic monstrosities, Resident Evil 7: Biohazard and Resident Evil VIII: Village position the player character in vain defence of human specificity and supremacy. It is telling that, as a figure who has been unknowingly infected with the Cadou, Ethan Winters has already lost the battle against the parasitic invasion of his own corporeal form. By tapping into ecophobic anxieties about fungus and slime that defy categorisation, Resident Evil is able to challenge the player’s human specificity and agency. This lack of specificity and agency is only accentuated by the monstrous and transgressive presence of the unnatural mother and the dangerous female. It is this loss of control and vulnerability that is common to both the ecoGothic and the survival horror genre.

By contrasting examples of the monstrous feminine with sanctioned feminine figures like Mia, Rose, and Zoe, Resident Evil 7: BioHazard and Resident Evil VIII: Village establish policeable boundaries for female behaviour and a means of justifying the killing of abhuman bodies. While the powerful monstrous female antagonists of the games are able to exert a phenomenal amount of agency when compared to their monstrous peers, their construction still plays into destructive misogynist and ecophobic ideas of the female and the non-human world.

References

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