The thrillingly modern horror film grapples with age-old concerns. But its exploration of autonomy of the body and self, and its examination of the internal wrestle between fitting in and standing out, have particular relevance for our contemporary age.

Still from Raw, 2016. Directed by Julia Ducournau

In the contemporary era, the horror genre has come to have a credible position within the category of high art, with films creating terror through atmosphere and style rather than relying on jump scares. These films leave the audience with more to think about once the film has ended than whether there could be a monster lurking under the bed. Julia Ducournau’s 2016 film Raw (Grave in French) is evidence of this, showing how far we’ve come from slasher films and gratuitous gore.

In the film, new university student, Justine, leaves home to begin studying veterinary science. Her parents have brought her up to be strictly vegetarian and, deeply enmeshed in the desire for familial approval, the college she is attending is also that of her sister, as well as the alma mater of her parents. However, as part of a hazing event during freshers’ week, the new vet students have buckets of pigs’ blood dropped on their heads. It is a scene reminiscent of that iconic Carrie (1976) scene, where red paint is poured over her as she stands on stage, just as she had thought she was finally accepted by her peers.

Still from Raw, 2016. Directed by Julia Ducournau

A metaphor for the horror that can be felt by girls as they enter puberty, this is made explicit in Carrie, when she sobs at discovering blood in her knickers for the first time, convinced that it is a sign that she is dying. However, while more subtle, the journey from innocent young girl to a force to be reckoned with is evident also in Raw. When the students are told to eat rabbit liver as a continuation of the hazing process, Justine thinks she will find an ally in her sister, but her sister betrays her, forcing the liver into Justine’s mouth. The eventual results of Justine’s forced abandonment of her vegetarianism are… not good.

“The most terrifying thing about Raw is that this horror lives inside all of us”

Surprisingly low in gore factor, Raw is, at its most basic, a film about people eating people. This is not a new topic—the barrage of zombie and vampire films can attest to that. Most recently there is the Santa Clarita diet, a Netflix original series, which follows flesh-eating Sheila and her husband, just trying to make things work in suburban California. And yet all of these other people-eaters are just that: other. Even Sheila is pronounced undead, and somehow that makes her less scary, less uncanny as she is missing the undefinable something that makes our fellow humans feel safe and familiar.

  • Still from Raw (2016), Directed by Julia Ducournau
  • Still from Raw, 2016. Directed by Julia Ducournau

It is this lack of otherness that makes Justine so terrifying. Ducournau said, “You have this feeling when you bite someone’s arm for fun, that you want to go a bit further, but you don’t because you have a moral canvas. This thing is in us, we just don’t want to see it… we are all monsters, really.” Justine remains, disconcerting drunken canine impressions aside, firmly human. The most terrifying thing about Raw is that this horror lives inside all of us. 

But this isn’t a film about how we might all one day start eating each other. The film is undeniably feminist, with many interpreting it as a message about female sexuality. However, Ducournau herself has said that she resents being reduced to a woman making women’s films for women, and there’s so much more to this film than that. It asks the universally applicable question of whether it is better to stand out or to blend in—to find acceptance or to stand up as an individual and fight (or bite) for what you believe in. A classic teen movie concern perhaps, but one that, these days, has much wider ramifications for our world.

Still from Raw, 2016. Directed by Julia Ducournau

“How do you see yourself?” asks the doctor when Justine visits him with the rash she develops after eating the raw rabbit liver. “Average,” she replies. She is someone who tries to fit in, whether that be with parental expectation or, ultimately, with her peers, as she tolerates the blood and liver that will see her accepted within her new faculty. Mocked by her sister for being young looking and overly innocent, it is hard not to compare Justine with the teenagers and young people in our own reality who are fighting to get the adults to pay attention to the effects of climate change. They too are ridiculed for being inexperienced and idealistic and therefore apparently incompetent.

Belittling others for being unsophisticated or just a plain old weirdo is a common tactic of those who fear what the underdogs might rise up and do if they gain the confidence to stand up for themselves. Eventually, Justine asserts herself, denying parental pressure and societal approval, and while we may not laud her methods, once she stops worrying about trying to fit in, she becomes an opponent worthy of serious consideration. A message for us all perhaps, but maybe it is acknowledging our own potential power to make change that is the scariest thing of all.

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