For most of his life, Evan Dossey has generally avoided horror films. The genre makes him profoundly uncomfortable. This means he has enormous gaps in his cinematic knowledge. Each year, he asks friends and family which essential horror movies he needs to see in order to fill those gaps and spends the better part of October agonizing over them, tossing and turning over them … and writing about them. Once again, he’s sharing the month with those friends and family — letting them offer their own thoughts about the tales that terrify (or perhaps just titillate) them. This is our No Sleep October.
There are certain life experiences that you don’t talk about.
You just don’t.
We’ve always heard about the stories we’ve never heard.
We’ve heard about the soldiers who’ve gone off to war only to return home a shell of their former being, their post-traumatic souls often never quite able to assemble the words publicly to describe the horrors they’ve experienced.
The same is true for survivors of the Holocaust. We’ve read stories and seen photographs and we know the basic facts that it was a state-sponsored annihilation of some six million European Jews and millions of others. For many survivors, some would say most, the details have stayed locked inside for a lifetime.
We know that there are people who experience horrific abuse. We don’t really know their stories.
There are life experiences that create so much darkness that it is virtually impossible for even a speck of light to pierce it.
It is likely a fair statement that a good majority of human beings will never experience such soul-shattering darkness. For those who do, life will never be the same — whether they lock that darkness away deep inside and throw away the key, experience some variation of cellular destruction, fumble toward some semblance of healing, or simply implode.
If you have followed my writing for any length of time, you’ve been witness to my personal testimonies of surviving childhood sexual abuse and adult sexual violence. You’ve heard me talk about a fear of touch. You’ve experienced my struggles to emotionally cope with medical care and physical assistance and caring for a body that I still struggle to call “my” body.
But, this is my darkness and you haven’t really heard my stories. You know they’re there. But, I survive and even thrive mostly owing to the fact that I’ve spent my lifetime locking the darkness away and working my damndest to keep others from experiencing similar darkness.
I will sacrifice my soul if it will protect a child.
I will. I simply will. It is the greatest revenge I have.
There is seldom a day when I don’t remember what it was like to look up into the faces of the taunting, teasing boys who surrounded me and remember their expressions as they laughed and poked and prodded and penetrated. And raped. I remember it when I am in a group, especially of men. I remember it when I am in photos or videos. I remember it when I require medical care or personal assistance. I remember it when I struggle to erase the visions while touching or hugging or making love.
It’s always there, but it’s a darkness so inexplicable I dare not try to explain it.
It was into this indescribable world that I introduced Meir Zarchi’s 1978 horror anti-classic I Spit On Your Grave, an often banned and frequently loathed horror film depicting, in graphic detail, the horrific rape of Manhattan short story writer Jennifer Hills, played with stunning bravery and unforgettable vulnerability by Camille Keaton, and Jennifer’s subsequent, and equally graphic, vengeance on the men who gang-raped her at an isolated cabinet in Kent, Connecticut, where she had been working on her next book.
There are myriad reasons for the loathing and banning of I Spit On Your Grave, and it would be absurd to wholly reject them. Approximately 30 minutes of the film’s 102-minute running time is spent immersed in the vividly realized violation of Jennifer, who is initially targeted as the forced recipient of the virginity of Matthew, a young man with a mild intellectual disability who initially refuses to participate but who will, eventually and once intoxicated, join his “friends” in their seemingly relentless violation of Jennifer.
Few films, at least among those that have ever seen distribution, have ever portrayed such a lengthy, brutal assault.
I certainly will not, and do not, attempt to justify it. I dare not call this aspect — or for that matter any aspect — of I Spit On Your Grave entertaining.
I Spit On Your Grave is not entertaining. I Spit On Your Grave is not social commentary. I Spit On Your Grave is not true feminist cinema, though some have tried to view it through this lens because, in the end, Keaton’s Jennifer exacts her revenge and is, I suppose one could say, the last one left standing.
I Spit On Your Grave first saw the light after Zarchi and a friend stumbled across a young woman in 1974 who had been raped by two assailants while taking a shortcut on the way to her boyfriend’s apartment. Zarchi has spoken of the trauma she experienced yet again when they took her to a nearby police station, the humiliation added upon humiliation.
The rape in I Spit On Your Grave is not based upon that rape, but you can feel it looming in the way Zarchi focuses his camera not on Jennifer throughout the film’s 30-minute sexual assault scene but on the faces of the perpetrators and on the evil they are perpetrating. You can also feel it when the lens begins to focus on Jennifer, not as a victim but as she takes her body and her sexuality and even her writing back from those who sought to destroy it.
Originally titled Day of the Woman, I Spit On Your Grave recognizes both truths — that Jennifer has been left with an unspeakable darkness inside her but also that she has not been destroyed.
I remember watching I Spit On Your Grave and believing, perhaps for the first time, that someone understood the darkness I held within. I remember being repulsed by Jennifer’s assault, an assault I watched with my hands over my eyes and my fingers separated ever so slightly — as if I needed to be aware of this darkness yet not dare to give it my full attention. This was not simply a horror film.
It was horrifying.
Siskel and Ebert would call I Spit On Your Grave the worst film of the year — understandably so, I suppose, given lower-than-average production quality that remains as gritty as Jennifer’s assault is guttural and raw.
There is no justification, really, for a film such as I Spit On Your Grave. However, there is even less justification for the myriad ways in which we objectify, harass and sexually assault women in our society on a daily basis in ways that we consider “normal” and, at times, ways that are even institutionalized.
I believe with every fiber of my being that Zarchi understands this basic truth.
Keaton, whom many do not realize is the granddaughter of the great Buster Keaton, would, in fact, marry Zarchi in 1979. By 1982, their marriage had ended. She has returned to the role of Jennifer Hills twice, first in 1993’s Savage Vengeance and most recently in 2019’s I Spit On Your Grave: Deja Vu.
I don’t talk about my sexual assaults a lot anymore, although they are a constantly looming presence that impacts nearly every aspect of my daily life in ways big and small. In the early 1990s, I wrote a collection of poetry containing perhaps my one attempt at opening the door into my experiences. The collection was graphic, resonating deeply with survivors of childhood abuse and sexual assault who sensed a kindred spirit and who felt permission to share their own stories.
I read. I listened. I held space.
Yet I had other experiences as well. I was called a liar, at times by those closest to me. I received laughter and rejection, humiliation and threats. I received used condoms on the mail and vile letters from men who let me know they’d jacked off to my poetry.
My body, left in many ways broken by these experiences, has likely experienced abuse more than it has love. My heart and my mind, somewhat miraculously, have learned how to love by creating a patchwork tapestry of awkward, ill-fitting life experiences that have allowed me to redefine words like love and hope and intimacy and faith. I have dedicated my life to ensuring that no others share the stories I carry deep within me, a truth that I share with Jennifer Hills even if she carried out her vengeful resolutions in decidedly more violent ways.
I wouldn’t dare say that I Spit On Your Grave healed me, though I absolutely would say that it gave me a place to put unspeakable darkness until I could find the safe places and safe faces that would teach me how to survive. There were other films and stories as well, films that portrayed an unspeakable truth with which I identified and gave me a space in which I could feel less alone and feel as if somehow I could survive.
Tim Roth’s The War Zone. Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin. Marek Kanievska’s Less Than Zero. There are others.
The world of indie horror is filled with myriad unique voices, some of whom exploit the darkness while others dare to speak to it.
Zarchi’s I Spit On Your Grave dares to speak to the extraordinary darkness of sexual assault in ways that violate our senses and ways that resonate deeply within as honest, authentic and forever unforgettable. I Spit On Your Grave is most assuredly not a film for everyone and I’d dare not recommend it to a single soul. But it is a film that exists in its own special place and it is a film for which I remain grateful for the ways it held space for me to begin the journey of naming my darkness and reclaiming my soul.
The journey continues.