Featured Image: Grotesque Female, by William Hogarth. Wikimedia.
Review: Anatomy [Spoilers]. I recommend playing the game, as it’s only short, before returning to this article.
As a medical humanities student, a game called Anatomy is likely to immediately pique my attention, particularly if it’s followed with the phrases ‘architecture’, ‘psychological horror’, and ‘scary cassette tapes’.
In my recent foray into the world of indie video games, more of which you can find out about on my post for The F Word UK website, I’ve been pointed in the direction of darker, more mysterious examples by people who clearly know me too well – Gone Home, The Trace, and The Room, to name a few – but not, however, directly into to world of video game horror.
Apart from tales of friends of friends unintentionally screaming at games like Amnesia: The Dark Descent, anecdotes perhaps unfairly retold while sniggering in the safety of broad daylight and in company, and a very brief moment left in charge of the controller to play Slender: The Eight Pages, I was mostly unaware of the genre of horror video games.
Anatomy was not only a total delight to play (and by delight, I mean actually, literally scary, even whilst played with the lights on and with a friend), but is a fantastic example of why video games deserve the same critical discussion as other media more traditionally examined through a theoretical lens, such as fine art, cinema, or literature.
I’m not going to discuss the mechanics of the game, or how well it’s been made, or even go too far into discussing the experience of playing it. If that’s what you’re interested in, have a look at Cane and Rinse’s interesting review here. This is a game that lends itself very succinctly to an established theoretical discourse about the female body, which is what I will explore here.
Anatomy‘s links to ideas within the concept of body horror are directly clear, but it is easy to develop this interpretation further by exploring the game’s invoking of discourses around the specifically (biologically) female body.
The house, of course, as domestic space, is automatically delineated as female.
As Thad Logan discusses in The Victorian Parlour, the domestic space is delineated as female as a result of a shifting of ‘the scene of feminine work and transposing it into the key of personal relationships’. As a result of which, ‘the home is gendered feminine’.
Beyond this cultural association, however, with every play-through of the game, the house begins to evolve into a manifestation theoretically aligned with a darker cultural interpretation of the female body.
Throughout historical representations of women, Mary Russo suggests in her book The Female Grotesque, depictions of the female body is specifically associated with the ‘low, hidden, earthly, dark, material, immanent, visceral’, a description which embodies the ambiance of the house in which the player is trapped in Anatomy.
This not the House on the Haunted Hill, where, Hammer Horror style, blood drips from the walls and skeletons emerge from trapdoors. There is no Jaws heartbeat-inspired backing music.
This is a house which, over the course of several play-throughs, degenerates from a building into an architecturally hybridised body.
Lara Glenum, in her brilliant essay ‘Notes on Women and the Grotesque’, says: “The historical styling of women is particularly ironclad in its prescriptions: whalebone and catgut laces, bound feet, gagged mouths, inserted silicon sacs […] the styling of female flesh entails the manufacture of monsters.”
In Anatomy, the deconstruction and decompartmentalisation of the female body results in the creation of the monstrous, inescapable house.
Organs appear inexplicably in the slowly deconstructing upstairs rooms. Walls turn fleshly. The female voice on Anatomy‘s numerous cassettes which you rely on to navigate the house degenerates into incomprehensible, panicked, guttural screaming.
This game, therefore, creates a environment in which the horror which accompanies the player’s experience of the house is gendered.
To explore this idea in more depth, we can turn to the foundations of the house, because in Anatomy, as in all good horror sories, the cellar represents the crux of fear.
Russo emphasises the theoretical link between the monstrous ‘below’ and the vagina, stating: “As bodily metaphor, the grotesque cave tends to look like (and in most gross metaphorical sense be identified with) the cavernous female body.”
Like Shakespeare’s bloody pit in Titus Andronicus, the female body becomes a space of unknowability and thus terror, and aside from the literal, painfully obvious visual echoing of the space itself, the deep dark cellar more than any other space in the house generates this sense of fear.
As Russo states, all that which is is placed “with the terror and revulsion on the side of the feminine […] are down there in that cave of abjection”, and although nothing crawls up the stairs after you, nothing leaps out at you from the dark, and there is nothing horrifying waiting for you as you descend into the depths of the house, you cannot help but feel distinct fear about descending into the dark, unnavigable spaces below the body of the house.
The horror that the house communicates harkens back to the fear of the vaginal ‘cave of abjection’, the unknowable and cavernous female body – and yet although the body of the house is monstrous, it could be argued that this is actually a subversive and counter-cultural response to the notion of the female grotesque.
It’s pretty cool that this game utilises these concepts within a medium which is constantly undermining its own authenticity by reminding the player that it is a video taped recording within a video game, because it encourages the player to think reflexively.
Discussions I’ve seen other people having, and discussions I’ve had myself about Anatomy, often touch on the fact that we all know this is a game, that, as a player, we are not in an abandoned house and the lines delineating the walls are not really beginning to move – but we still have to convince ourselves to put that tape in the cassette player, to open that closed door, to turn that corner, and to enter the cellar.
As we begin to critically pull apart our fairly visceral responses to the game, we are also able to think more analytically about the messages concerning the female body communicated by the game.
Within this sense, invoking the concept of the female grotesque within Anatomy undermines the discourse by turning critical attention upon itself, and instead empowers the actual experience of possessing such a body.
Russo states, at the beginning of her book, that: ‘To live with the grotesque as I have done is claustrophobic’, indicating the negativity of self that comes with analysis of the female grotesque.
Because of the self reflexivity encouraged by Anatomy, the player’s entrapment within this house necessitates a confrontation with this negativity and could be asking one of two questions – does this house represent the experience of living with a female body? Or does this house instead represent the claustrophobic experience of having one’s female body delineated as monstrous?
Texts referenced in article (and highly recommended!):
The Female Grotesque, by Mary Russo
The Victorian Parlour, by Thad Logan
Notes on Women and the Grotesque, by Laura Glenum
Why was it necessary to implicitly delineate the house depicted as that of a ‘female’ body? Far as I remember there’s no mention of strictly female body parts in the entire game. Seems pretty hamfisted tbh.
Hi Xdee, thanks for your comment! Rather than analysing specifically ‘female’ body parts in Anatomy, this post focuses more on Russo’s theory of the Female Grotesque and how Anatomy mirrors many of her arguments in its depiction of ‘house’ as ‘body’. It’s an entirely subjective blog post, reflecting on my own experience of playing the game – other players will of course interpret Anatomy differently. Hope this clarifies any confusion.