"Something beneath the flesh": Music, Gender, and Medical Discourse in the 1940s Female Gothic Film

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Closely related to both film noir and the woman's film, 1940s female gothic pictures combine suspense and mystery with a focus on the subjective experience of the female protagonist. This article discusses the use of music and sound in the cinematic female gothic tradition, focusing upon two historically located films that form part of its gaslight subgenre: Experiment Perilous (dir. Tourneur; comp. Webb, 1944) and The Spiral Staircase (dir. Siodmak; comp. Webb, 1946). In both films, the positioning of the female lead is mediated by the presence of a medical discourse revolving around her professional and romantic relationship with a male doctor, whose knowledge and authority also allows him to function as an unofficial investigator into the woman's persecution at the hands of a serial murderer. The female gothic soundtrack is a crucial element in the creation and communication of this gendered discourse, articulating the shifting position of characters in relation to issues of crime, criminality, and romance. Musical and vocal control reinforce the doctor's dominance whilst allying his presentation with that of an emasculated killer, and create and contain agency within complex constructions of female victimhood.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)338-370
Number of pages33
JournalJournal of the Society for American Music
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 1 Aug 2014


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