When critical analysis gets personal, and creative lenses color life
Art and analysis have always been subjective. There’s no single way to interpret any particular piece of media — despite what your public school English teachers may have tried to make you believe. In fact, it’s been my experience that the more personal your lens, the better and deeper your read. I have encountered no one so willing to flay themselves open for public consumption through the lens of critical analysis as Kier-La Janisse, and her expanded edition of House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror is one of the richest texts out there when it comes to range of film and depth of connection. The approach at work in this text is equal parts fascinating and personally validating for my own writing style.
While I agree there is certainly a limit to the amount of personal detail that should be offered up to the public, I think that limit is an incredibly personal one. Anything you feel comfortable releasing to the wilds of the big, bad, wide world, any mark you feel comfortable leaving is yours to determine. There are things about me the Internet will never know if I have any say in the matter. But even the things we don’t say color the way we interpret media and, whether you’re a fan of the in-depth personal approach or not, every response we have is personal and every piece written holds value.
Kier-La Janisse isn’t just interested in getting personal, though. While House is unapologetically autobiographical, it is also a deep dive into an impressive array of films and what makes the women at the center of them so neuortic, yes, but more importantly so impactful. Messy female characters are some of the strongest around when done properly, at once destroying the prim image of societal construct and allowing audiences to see themselves in a more complete way.
What makes House a seminal work for anyone interested in the portrayal and depiction of women in film is its two-fold approach to analysis. Janisse freely tosses around films she considers to have been formative to her own life amid those we all consider necessary classics of the genre. More than that, she offers insight into what makes each of them work, and what makes them worthy of note. It’s an angle into analysis that cracks the veneer of academic language and gets to the meat of what makes film mean so much to us all: what about this work made us feel something? How did it do that and why did we respond the way we did?
Media analysis is a constantly shifting field, and with so many possible approaches it’s easy to get lost in the forest trying to understand the trees. Breaking down the barrier of needing to constantly sound objective when approaching something so deeply steeped in emotion is one of the ways we get some of the best work done. There is nothing I love more than hearing that something I wrote, formed and connected from my own life to a piece I’m analyzing has made someone approach a piece of art in a new light.
Janisse’s ability to lean into complexities is another of House’s strong suits. She herself is an admittedly and adamantly complex woman seeking out stories that crack her into a million pieces and leave her broken on the floor. Throughout the text and in the expanded film index she offers a wide variety of works running the gamut of all sorts of neuroses for our viewing (dis)pleasure, from the titular House of Psychotic Women (aka Blue Eyes of the Broken Doll) — a film rife not only with a whole range of complex women and relationships but also with an impressive array of disabled central characters — to more recent offers like Paranormal Activity, Sun Choke, Run, and Revenge, all of which rely on making the main female character question her sense of reality in one form or another.
Exploring the full range of films on offer in House is a kind of treasure hunt. On one hand we have our intrepid guide, giving us a tour of wounds real and fictional. On the other, we have an excess of art — some of which has been incredibly difficult to find prior to the release of and tours for this book — to spoil ourselves with. A true embarrassment of riches from beginning to end, House of Psychotic Women’s expanded edition is vital for genre fans and film fans alike.