The Thread of Ariadne

According to a recent study, horror is the only genre where women have more screen time than men, often having more than double the amount of lines as their male counterparts. In a sense, this is nothing new. Most horror films feature women as the victims of male killers, often sexualising them through the use of what Laura Mulvey calls the “sadistic-voyeuristic gaze.” But Suspiria, released in 1977, is wholly unconcerned with depicting women in this way, featuring a cast of characters that are almost exclusively female. Instead of being presented as little more than unsuspecting victims, in Suspiria they are also the heroes, villains and survivors of the film, all of whom are motivated by their own internal agencies. In addition to this, the women in Suspiria are never sexualised, and it is never once suggested that we, the audience, should consider the characters in this way. Although Argento’s interest in Jungian archetypes mean these women are not particularly three-dimensional, the representation of women in Suspiria sets it apart from other horror films. In Jungian terms, it discloses the wide and complex variety of roles available for women to play.

Suspiria tells the story of Suzy Bannion, an American student who transfers to Frieberg to study at the prestigious Tanz Dance Academy. Already ill-at-ease, Suzy begins to realise that things are not exactly what they seem at the school – maggots fall from the ceiling; strange voices emanate from behind locked doors; and students disappear one by one, never to be heard from again. When her friend Sara leaves the school under suspicious circumstances, Suzy discovers that the academy is actually run by a coven of witches, all of whom desire to turn her into a human sacrifice.

Described as a story that “makes sense only to the eye,” Suspiria is a film that can be read in a variety of different ways, allowing for multiple interpretations. It can be viewed as an adult fairy tale, as a straightforward gothic horror, or as an experiment in Freudian dream-logic; but what ties these things together is the fact that Suspiria is predominantly concerned with the roles of women, exploring the various ways in which feminine power can exert itself. The central cast is all entirely female, and the male characters are largely resigned to the fringes of the narrative, often acting as aides to the women in the film. As such, Suspiria acts as a disquisition on female archetypes, examining the ways these figures engage and interact, whilst also exploring the conventional female journey from innocence to experience.

Suzy, the protagonist of the film, is presented as sweet-natured and kind during the first half of the film; she is friendly to all the staff and students that she meets at the school, even when this behaviour is not reciprocated. But Suzy is also able to assert herself when necessary, praised for being strong-willed by Miss Tanner, one of the instructors at the academy. Similarly, Suzy never relies on intuition to find clues; all of her realisations are borne out of her intelligence and resourcefulness. By deciphering the final words of a murder victim, she is able to gain access to the lair of Helena Markos – the witch-queen of the academy – before defeating her one-on-one. Despite asking for information at a psychiatry convention, Suzy destroys the coven without any assistance whatsoever, causing the witches to see her as an immediate threat. “She must die, die, die!” shouts a witch after realising her power. “Away with her! Away with trouble! Death, death, death!” But Suzy is seemingly unaffected by these curses, and though she is afraid, still manages to kill Markos and end the witches’ reign. The last shot of the film – in which she laughs hysterically as the academy burns down – is symbolic of the journey she has undergone. No longer required to be meek and sweet-natured, Suzy is able to embrace all the sides of herself that she never even knew existed; by defeating the coven, she is able to finally attain actualisation.

Whilst making Suspiria, Argento was inspired by Disney’s Snow White, asking cinematographer Luciano Tovoli to study the film for inspiration. Linda Schulte-Sasse, professor of German Studies at Macalester College, suggests that Suspiria is actually “Disney’s hidden reverse,” subverting many of the themes and images of the studio’s early work. She suggests that “if Disney’s artificiality invites us to share a beautiful fantasy of stability and reassurance, Argento goes for the exact opposite…graphically visualising the bodily violence and dismemberment of many a Grimm fairy tale.” Instead of creating a safe, storybook style for his film, Argento’s use of non-naturalism is employed to create a surreal, nightmarish feel; Goblin’s score only emphasises the film’s oneiric qualities. Unlike Snow White, this is not a film designed to pacify.

But Disney’s influence extends even further than the lighting and music; the entire film follows a conventional fairy tale structure, a journey from light to dark, from innocence into experience. Most fairy tales are centred around a pre-pubescent youth – usually devoid of a parental figure – who travels through a land of temptation and desire before reaching maturation. These tales are often filled with latent sexual metaphors, but typically warn of the dangers of pre-marital sex. Suspiria follows a similar pattern, with Suzy acting as the conventional fairy tale heroine. Dressed all in white in the opening scenes, Suzy is the archetypal image of purity and virtue (much like Snow White in the Disney film), whose innocence is threatened by the witches inside the academy. It is no accident that Suzy’s outfit in the final scenes consists of a snakeskin cardigan, the snake being an ancient symbol of rebirth and renewal. By finding her way into the deepest depths of the academy, (and by defeating Helena Markos), Suzy is able to shed her skin like a snake, reborn as a more complex, fully-rounded adult. Of course, Olga makes this connection herself when she first meets Suzy, telling her and Sara that “names which begin with the letter “S” are the names of snakes!”

In fairy tales, witches are often used as replacement mothers, subverting the typical maternal archetype in the absence of real parents. In Hansel and Gretel, for example, the witch is clearly a reflection of the children’s mother, who leaves them to die at the start of the story. In Suspiria, there is no reference to parents at all, and despite mentioning her aunt in New York, Suzy never clarifies her familial situation. But the academy is also a boarding school, meaning that – for the purpose of the narrative – all of the students are essentially without parents. Because of this, the staff act as surrogate mothers to the girls, even when this attention is unwanted or misdirected. The witches, therefore, are perhaps reflective of the way the girls’ feel about their own mothers, exaggerating the monstrous, overbearing qualities that many teenage girls resent. Similarly, if we consider Freud’s theories on the Oedipus complex, children often exhibit a rivalry with the parent of the same sex as part of their natural development. In this way, Suzy is only able to reach self-actualisation once she has killed the surrogate mother figure, negating her need for direction from an external source.

Another interesting aspect of the film is the academy itself, a building which is often depicted as having dollhouse-like qualities. The exterior is red, a heavily semiotic colour, which signifies – as is often the case in fairy tales – the onset of menstruation. Although the girls in Suspiria are not prepubescent, the original script has them written as twelve or thirteen, later changed to make the film marketable to a mature audience. In spite of this, the proportions of the building are skewed to make the actors seem smaller, a technique often employed in German expressionism. The handles on the doors are placed higher up than normal, making the girls appear to be much younger than they really are, and the dialogue between the students is markedly infantile. While this makes the academy seem more daunting and imposing to the characters, it also reinforces the fairy tale aspect of the film, with young girls trying to navigate the adult world, making sense of a landscape that is filled with danger.

In Freudian theory, the house always represents the self, particularly in relation to feelings of safety and security. The academy, then, may be suggestive of Suzy’s mental state, an expression of the fears and anxieties attached to the transition into adulthood. While the exterior is painted a deep, menstrual red, the rooms inside are either red or blue, signifying a tension between opposing forces. The décor and lighting make each room look dramatic and intense, reflecting the mindset of the students in such a difficult, transitory period of their lives. But if the characters largely operate as Jungian archetypes, the women in the film can be seen as the different sides of Suzy’s personality; like in a dream, the figures around her are actually just fragments of her own psyche. If Suzy is meant to represent a prepubescent idea of innocence and naivete, then the women she interacts with are clearly reflective of her own internal struggles, representing the parts of herself which are inherently dark or cruel. In this way, the witches act as Suzy’s shadow, the repressed, unexplored elements of her unconscious mind. It is common, in mythology, for the hero to defeat the shadow to reach individuation, and this is exactly what Suzy does too. In order to become a fully-functioning adult, she must destroy these dark fragments of her own psyche.

Argento includes a great deal of mythological imagery in Suspiria, all of which is centred around the strength of women in pre-Christian ideology. Madame Blanc – the vice-directress of the academy – has a bronze statue of Diana in her office, a tiny replica of the Diana of Versailles. As well as being the goddess of the hunt and the moon, Diana also has clear connections with witchcraft, being a central figure in Italian Stregheria. But her role as protectress of women is what is most interestingly alluded to in Suspiria – particularly as it features in the office of a central antagonist. Argento never reveals the witches’ motives throughout the film, and it is never clear how many (or if any) of the students practice witchcraft; but it is clear that they respect those who are strong-willed and dominant, qualities dear to the virgin goddess herself. It may also allude to Blanc’s desire to protect the secrets of the coven as well as the physical body of Helena Markos – which, as we know from the finale, is kept in the deepest recesses of the academy, accessed only through a hidden door at the back of her office.

Madame Blanc also has Beardsley’s illustrations for Salome inside her office, filling the panels of an oriental screen. Salome is another interesting choice, largely because she is often seen as a paradigm of female sexual power. After performing the dance of the seven veils, Salome calls for the head of John the Baptist, kissing his dead lips before being dragged away and executed. Because of this, Salome is often placed into the position of the seductress archetype, a symbol of lust, power, and even apostasy. Although Salome has no obvious links to witchcraft, her agency and sexuality tie her to the female characters in the film, particularly to the three antagonists.

Another example of mythology in Suspiria is in relation to the story of Theseus, who was able to find his way through the labyrinth of King Minos using Ariadne’s thread. In Suspiria, a major revelation occurs when Suzy’s friend Sara realises that the teachers don’t go home at night, retiring instead to some place deep inside the school. She resolves to count their footsteps in order to find out where they go, stating that this act in itself is “like the thread of Ariadne.” In Greek mythology, Ariadne rescues the potential sacrifice victims through the use of her thread, an obvious allusion to what Sara attempts to do. More interestingly perhaps is the fact that this reference connects the dance academy with the labyrinth and, therefore, the minotaur with Helena Markos, herself a Greek émigré – both of whom require satiation from human sacrifices.

The final scene of the film, in which Suzy comes face-to-face with Markos in her hidden apartment, takes this idea even further, emphasising the directress’ bestial nature. When she speaks, telling Suzy that “death is coming for [her],” the sound of barking dogs can be heard. In mythology, dogs were sacred to Hecate, the goddess of witchcraft, and Argento clearly establishes a link between her and Markos, who is presumably a disciple of the goddess. It is also interesting to note that Hecate was often linked to Artemis (Diana) in Greek mythology, both of whom were worshipped as mystery goddesses, as symbols of virginity, death and rebirth.

In Thomas De Quincey’s Suspiria de Profundis – on which Suspiria was loosely based –Mater Suspiriorum (Helena Markos) is described at length, though she shares little in common with her on screen counterpart. Here, she is described as “humble to abjectness,” as possessing “a meekness that belongs to the hopeless.” She can be found in desolate places such as ruined cities, and her eyes are “filled with perishing dreams, and with wrecks of forgotten delirium.” According to De Quincy, the Mother of Sighs presides over those who are wallowing in their despair, a kind of patron saint to those resigned to a life of sadness. This is at odds with her depiction in Suspiria, in which Markos is presented as more of a wild and violent force, shouting threats and laughing maniacally as she causes the dead to return to life. Of course, we only see Markos in the final scene, and even then, she is invisible until being stabbed. We hear of her only fleetingly throughout the film, but her presence – cold and oppressive – seems to fill the entire academy. Perhaps the portrayal of Markos is indicative of a violent kind of despair, of the unseen terrors connected to becoming an adult. If Suzy’s narrative arc is one that leads from childhood to maturation (or innocence to experience), then Markos clearly signifies the fears and anxieties attached to the period of pubescence.

Although the themes and ideas in Suspiria are all centred around women, there are a number of male characters in the film, most of which are used to further emphasise the power and dominance of the female characters. We are introduced to Pavlos, a Romanian handyman, when Suzy arrives at the academy, but his narrative function is merely to be servile to the female teachers. Mark – the closest thing we get to a love interest in the film – takes an immediate liking to Suzy, but is mainly presented as being a little pathetic; Suzy never seems to reciprocate his feelings in any serious way. There is also an implication that he may be involved with the coven, as Olga tells us that the last girl he was involved with was Pat, the girl murdered at the start of the film. He also lies about Sara’s disappearance after she is killed by one of the witches.

The two most interesting male characters are Dr Mandel and Professor Mileus, both of whom Suzy meets at a psychiatry convention (one of only a few scenes set outside of the academy). Dr Mandel, to whom Sara was a patient, tells Suzy about the history of the school, explaining how Helena Markos founded the academy after being exiled from various countries. He goes on to tell her that practising witchcraft is a form of mental illness, suggesting that a belief in the occult “isn’t caused by broken mirrors but by broken minds.” Conversely, Professor Mileus is profoundly less sceptical when it comes to modern witchcraft, telling Suzy that “magic is everywhere, and all over the world, it’s a recognised fact, always.” These men, whilst providing necessary exposition to the audience, act as Suzy’s aides in the third act of the film, giving her the tools she needs to defeat Markos once and for all. They take no action themselves, but instead, allow Suzy to achieve actualisation by letting her make up her own mind as to the existence of witches; in the end, she does what they are not able to do themselves.

Suspiria may well be a film that “makes sense only to the eye.” There is a distinct lack of narrative logic, and many of the characters’ motivations are never made clear, meaning that we never get a real understanding of what the witches actually want to achieve. But, like many of Argento’s films, Suspiria is filled with Freudian symbolism and imagery; it makes sense to us on a subconscious level – even if we have remaining questions after the film’s denouement. But Suspiria’s representation of women is what makes it truly unique within the horror genre. The female characters, none of which are ever presented in a sexualised way, refuse to be labelled as victims; they are survivors, witches, heroines and villains, and each one of them has a tremendous amount of agency in terms of driving the story forward. Perhaps Suzy’s transition from innocence to experience is the most important aspect of the film, following a narrative trajectory that can be instructive to a female audience. Like Suzy, believing in your own power – despite all the odds – is the only way to achieve success.

2 thoughts on “The Thread of Ariadne

  1. Wow I never thought Suspiria would have such deep meaning and motifs. I always thought it as ‘style over substance’ and lacking any value other than visual flair. Great insight in your article !

    Liked by 1 person

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