Thank you to Sarah Myles for sharing this excerpt from Feminist Flicker with us, the full selection of articles is available at www.channillo.com.
“From the earliest days of cinema, horror films relegated women to the role of ‘damsel in distress,’ and many of these works remain classics of the era – Dracula, The Phantom Of The Opera, and Frankenstein, for example. The women in these films were generally comely young things who fell foul of some terrible monster that sought to feed upon their perceived innocence and naiveté.
Fast forward to the 1960s, and Alfred Hitchcock appeared to switch things up a little. While his cinematic tales were still dominated by men and the male gaze, his female characters played a much greater role — being allowed to express a more complex sexuality, and some semblance of agency. He also depicted a number of female characters that were ultimately revealed to be villainous or, at the very least, antiheroes, in films such as The Birds and Vertigo. While sexism was still rife in his work, Hitchcock stood apart from the depictions of women contained in Hammer Horror films, or the work of directors such as George A. Romero (1968’s Night Of The Living Dead).
But, then came the 1970s, and the depictions of women in mainstream horror began to change drastically (though not drastically enough to include women of colour in significant roles). With films like The Exorcist (1973), Black Christmas (1974), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Carrie (1976), the beginning of the Halloween film series (1978), and the birth of the Alien franchise (1979), something seemed to be stirring deep in the psyche of filmmakers in the horror genre, and it centred on the nature of the female. We began to see the establishment of a new set of rules and tropes for the mainstream output of the genre – and it was apparently all about women (usually white women) and their levels of endurance.
This new approach continued through the 1980s, with the Friday The 13th film series (1980), He Knows You’re Alone (1980), The Shining (1980), The Evil Dead (1981), Poltergeist (1982), Gremlins (1984), A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984), and The Lost Boys (1987). It led straight into the 1990s, whereupon horror legend Wes Craven promptly staged a ‘reinvention’ of the genre with the Scream franchise – which essentially made fun of historical horror tropes, while simultaneously building upon them. Since then, every mainstream horror film seems to have gone for the ‘reinvention’ mantle – trying to create something new and fresh among tired and worn ideas. Some are successful, while others are most decidedly not but, to understand why that is, we need to look closer at these tropes and trends from the 1970s and 1980s, which have informed the modern age of horror film.
Women as victims
It is very clearly the case that horror films – specifically the ‘slasher’ type, but others, too – feature victims that are predominantly female. This is because in the vast majority, the motivation for the killer, or ‘monster’, is sexual in nature. As with any trope or trend, there are films that are exceptions to the rule — but in the majority of horror films, the person physically perpetrating the crime is a man. He has usually been traumatised earlier in his life by some event involving a woman – whether it is his mother, his sister, or a girlfriend – and he is now working out that associated rage (conveniently, sometimes, laying responsibility at the door of women). This means that he is most often sexualising the women in the film at whom he targets his violence, and many men are killed in the process, as a result of their associations with those women.
The gender difference here is that women are killed regardless of what they are doing, while men are only killed if they are in proximity to the female target, have a romantic history/involvement with the female target, or are threatening the progress of the killer in some way – for example, by investigating the crimes – therefore potentially impeding the killer’s ability to murder the female target.
On the face of it, this feels incredibly sexist but, as I said before, this topic is actually far more complex once we begin to view it in the context of popular culture as a whole, and the wider society within which it operates, and is created. On one level, it can be argued that this horror genre trope actually paints an accurate picture of the fragile male ego that lies behind the majority of male violence in the world. Male violence – that is violence perpetrated by men against anybody – is by far the leading cause of death and destruction across the globe. Male violence against women is responsible for the deaths of thousands of women around the world each year, and also the deaths of men – just as occurs in these horror films. When violence against women occurs in society, women are the target, and men are often ‘collateral damage’.
Then, in horror movies, there is the element of the ‘hunt’. In horror films in which a killer stalks around in the shadows, picking victims off as he goes, this trope arguably speaks to the way in which women can feel besieged by male entitlement in society — constantly objectified and regarded as either trophy or prey. As women attempt to live their lives steeped in a male–centric popular culture that tells them they can never be enough – it can feel very easy to relate to a woman onscreen that is being chased down by a determined male predator.
This sounds like a very profound use of the medium – the depiction of the real struggles of women in everyday life — but, it is made problematic by the glamorisation and sexualisation of the violence. Because most mainstream horror films are largely the work of men, the action and characterisation generally occurs through the male gaze, with the intention of appealing to the male gaze. The women are often caricatures designed to titillate viewers – being written in a one–dimensional fashion, being ‘conventionally attractive’, and usually being scantily–clad. They are easily identifiable as ‘the virgin’, ‘the whore’, ‘the bookworm’, ‘the tom–boy’, among other things – and by virtue of being reduced to such labels, they are easy to abuse and murder.
The exception to this reductive rule is the horror movie trope that has come to be known as ‘The Final Girl’.
The Final Girl
As a descriptive term, ‘The Final Girl’ was first named by Carol J. Clover in Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender In The Modern Horror Film. It refers to those female characters (with whom we are now very familiar) that make it to the final reel of the movie, alive – either by escaping, or killing the ‘monster’. While the last survivor has long been a staple of the horror genre, The Final Girl really came into her own during the 1970s and 1980s, and has left us with some of our most iconic fictional women.
Examples of The Final Girl include Ellen Ripley of the Alien franchise, Laurie Strode of the Halloween films, Nancy Thompson of The Nightmare On Elm Street series, Sally Hardesty of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Erin Harson in You’re Next (2011), and Jess Bradford in Black Christmas (1974). Many instalments of the Friday The 13th franchise also feature a Final Girl. The Scream franchise, being a satirical swipe at horror movie tropes, is unique in that it has two Final Girls – Gale Weathers and Sidney Prescott.
Although The Final Girl is an important part of the film, she does not counteract the male gaze. She is essentially identified to the audience by the killer/monster, and we then view her through the prism of the killer/monster’s perception. All the traits that are a thorn in the side of the predator are, to a certain extent, exaggerated. Again, there are rare exceptions to the rule – and those are often the films that intend to draw attention to the use of tropes in horror films – but The Final Girl is most often sexually unavailable to the killer/monster and has no discernible vices. She is also usually white. Though she is rarely naïve, she has an air of innocence achieved through the choices she has made thus far.
She will often have a unisex name, and is a person that exists on the social periphery – if the social centre is occupied by those engaging in less than wholesome activities. But, we should be under no illusion about The Final Girl. She may well be the female lead in the film and, as such, be required to endure through resourcefulness and courage, but (with the notable exception of Alien’s Ripley, A Nightmare On Elm Street’s Nancy Thompson and, perhaps, Scream’s Gale Weathers) she is almost always nothing more than a plot device. She exists to provide the film with an “investigating consciousness” (to quote Carol J. Clover) and, while this does require intelligence, understanding, and vigilance, it simply provides an avenue through which the killer/monster can explore their rage.
This is where one of the biggest points of contention exists around the topic of women in horror. Many celebrate those films that feature a story where the woman ‘wins’, as if this is some kind of ‘poke in the eye’ to the patriarchal society we live in. Surely, if it’s ‘strong’, leading women we want onscreen, then there are plenty to be found in horror movies, right? Well, yes and no.
On the one hand, yes, if you follow the argument that these films depict the struggle of women in a patriarchal society, then there is much to mined from them. These women usually begin the film as strong–willed characters, clear about the path they intend to take in life – until they are derailed by violence and predatory behaviour. They face the challenge head–on, however, and survive as the hero. That’s empowering, isn’t it?
No – because on the other hand, these women are forever changed by the violence they encounter. They survive, and endure, but they are emotionally and physically scarred. They are traumatised and, in the case of franchise characters, this trauma informs their actions in later instalments. In other words, their entire existence is shaped by the predatory behaviour in a way that it never was before. They may have escaped with their lives, but they are forced to live out their years on a different path to that which they intended, and are therefore still subject to the control of the predator. It can be seen as an allegory for women living in patriarchal societies – but being forced to live a life shaped by an oppressive presence isn’t terribly empowering.
While other characters may have been slaughtered as punishment for their actions (sex, drugs, alcohol), The Final Girl is punished in a very different way – by being forced to live with the reality and knowledge of extreme violence. She is not free of violence, and therefore isn’t free. In the case of franchises, The Final Girl often descends into solitude, too, as a result of her past (and ongoing) experiences. It may not be lethal, but it is punishment nonetheless – and, more often than not, meted out for the crime of being female, because it is her gender that causes her to be selected as a target. To depict this ongoing punishment and extreme violence, it is often the female body that is used as a battleground – and this horror film element also has several aspects to it.
The female body as battleground
As most male monsters in these horror films are sexually motivated, we find that their rage often manifests as a result of a sense of emasculation. This is why women are usually the main target, and is also one of the reasons why the female body becomes a battleground.
This is also a trope that holds true for all kinds of horror movies – even those with great Final Girls, like the Alien franchise. It is a trope that leads to scenes in which the female body is reduced to its bodily functions only – as opposed to the female body encompassing an actual human being. From demonic possessions, to mysterious and gruesome pregnancies, to deep and potentially lethal flesh wounds – the use of the female body in horror almost exclusively speaks to the act of penetration as a means of violence in a way that simply doesn’t happen to male bodies with the same frequency or brutality.
Take demonic possession, for example. While films that feature the possession of a male character do exist (1998’s Fallen, for example), those possessions most often happen to peripheral characters, while the possession of female characters is seen centralised in countless films. The demonic possession of women and girls in films features the removal of all physical sovereignty from the victim, and focuses on the literal fight for control over her body and mind by two competing, external authority figures. It provides a clear explanation for any ‘challenging’ behaviour in a woman, as well as shifting moods. It infantilises the woman, making her entirely a victim in need of saving – usually by old white men from a religion that would ordinarily seek to dictate to that woman what she should do with her body anyway. Isn’t it funny how we don’t see so many possessed boys and men at the centre of horror films?
Then, there’s pregnancy. Speaking from experience, having another person grow inside your abdomen and then claw their way out is pretty horrifying, but it’s depiction in the horror genre is incredibly cliché and tired at this point. We got the message loud and clear with 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby, but horror filmmakers simply can’t resist the idea. The Alien franchise – brilliant though it is – is essentially a rape and childbirth analogy, for example. Face–huggers violate the throats of humans and use them as incubators for their young — which burst forth and kill the host in gruesome fashion, before continuing the cycle of murder and mayhem. The reason the film is so successful in its storytelling is that the monster is indiscriminate in its attacks. It targets men and women equally, and the ‘Big Bad’ (the Queen) is female – creating an effective juxtaposition between her and Ripley. The films still use the concept of pregnancy and childbirth as a horror trope, however, which inevitably feeds into the way in which those things are regarded in society, along with the vast number of other horror films using variations on that theme.
Then there’s puberty. Ah, puberty. Again, there is a vast difference between the depiction of female puberty in horror films, and the depiction of male puberty in horror films. Based on the horror genre as a whole, we would be forgiven for thinking that girls turn into homicidal monsters during puberty, while boys go through no changes at all. From Carrie (1976), to Ginger Snaps (2000), women hitting puberty (and beginning to menstruate) have been depicted by male filmmakers as something potentially lethal, which should be feared, corrected, and most crucially — contained. A lot of this is connected with the female sexual awakening, and the idea that – horror of horrors – a woman might seek to initiate and steer her own sexual experience as she sees fit. This is, again, borne out by the use of the male gaze – where women are only allowed to express sexuality in a way that is stereotypically pleasing to men, as opposed to in a natural, organic, self–determined way. By contrast, the female written and directed Jennifer’s Body (2009), on the other hand, is all about the minefield of female friendships in high school, and women experiencing their sexual awakening for themselves.
What we glean from the way many male filmmakers tend to deal with women’s bodies in the horror genre is that they are fearful of them, and have little understanding of how things actually work beyond the idea of penetration. We also glean that much of this fear comes from the idea of power, and the effect it might have on our male–centric way of life if women simply embraced their feminine power in the same way that men are encouraged to embrace their own, personal power. This is reflected throughout the entire horror genre, and through all tropes – the idea of containing female power, and placing limits and restrictions on the women onscreen. Even those incredibly powerful Final Girls – and yes, even Alien’s Ellen Ripley – are continually limited and restricted by the acts perpetrated against them.
But what about women making horror?
Oh yes, there are women making horror – and they have increased in number greatly over the course of the past decade. Make no mistake, though, it is not a recent phenomenon. Ida Lupino directed The Hitchhiker back in 1953, for example, so it really makes no sense as to why the genre is so male–dominated in terms of directors today. But, the question is, what difference does it really make? If men have dominated the horror genre, and it has largely featured women as victims because men don’t like being rejected and wombs and vaginas are super-scary, then what do women make horror films about?
Women, mostly. And sometimes family. But, it is different.
Take Jennifer Chambers Lynch, for example. She made 1993’s Boxing Helena, which is about a man so desperate to keep a woman to himself that he literally relieves her of her limbs. That’s brutal for the female character, but the story presents a well-defined exploration of that abusive relationship, where the woman is treated as a possession and is subject to physical abuse, and in doing so, he loses the intimacy he craves, because he has removed her ability to touch him. He’s ‘boxing Helena’, but is also simultaneously boxing himself. Or, take Mary Harron, and her 2000 adaptation of the novel American Psycho. Sure, it’s all about a male serial killer who brutally murders many people – including women, for whom he has much contempt – but, as a whole, it is a bitingly satirical exploration of the culture of consumption, and the fragility of the male ego.
In fact, there are a great many horror films, made by women, which address wider, social issues in a similar way to American Psycho. Jen and Sylvia Soska’s American Mary (2012) deals with capitalism and the cosmetic surgery industry; Antonia Bird’s Ravenous (1999) deals with male power struggles and social consumption; Marina de Van’s In My Skin (2002) deals with female loathing of personal image; and Kei Fujiwara’s Organ (1996) deals with black market organ collection and sales – and that is but a small selection.
The point is that, even when weaving horror tales that feature women as victims, horror films made by women do not exclusively adhere to the traditional ‘pursuit of a Final Girl’ in the way that the majority of male–made, mainstream horror films do. There is a broader range of motivation, and a broader variation in crime and violence to be found in female–made horror films. Due to the way in which our male–centric society and male–centric popular culture conditions everyone to have a relationship with violence based on their own gender and sexuality, it is inevitable that a woman filmmaker will bring an entirely fresh perspective to the horror genre – which is something that can only boost the profile of these valuable films as a group.
Also — and most significantly — it is women filmmakers in horror that have proved themselves more likely to introduce significant characters that are women of colour — because women of colour are almost non–existent in mainstream horror films. That mainstream, white–centric status quo is wholly unacceptable, regardless of what you think about the use of women in horror in general.
So, what do we take away from this discussion of women in horror?
1. Women that appear in significant roles in mainstream horror films are almost always white women.
2. Men tend to make horror films about monsters chasing women, and veil the misogyny of this in the illusion of The Final Girl.
3. Lots of men find pregnancy, childbirth and menstruation terrifying.
4. Lots of men are also terrified by the idea of a woman taking charge of her own sexuality.
5. As in all things, and in all movie genres, if you let women in the club, the results are immediately vastly improved.
There is a very simple, revealing way of thinking about horror films as a group, in terms of the way women are represented. Think of the most famous horror films you know of, and ask the question – have I ever seen the things that are happening to this woman perpetrated against a male character in the same way? The answer will invariably be ‘no’ because — unless it’s the Alien franchise — male characters are not sexualised in the same way, nor brutalised in the same way, nor terrorised in the same way. Why do you think that is?
Ultimately, the message that the use of women in horror sends us is that women are living in a world dominated by men with fragile egos, and we must be careful, lest we find one to be a monster (or to have a monstrous, vengeful female relative). Only the strong women will survive, and those that do will be forever changed – because it is simply not possible for a woman to remain herself while besieged by misogyny.”
Sarah Myles is a freelance writer of fiction and non–fiction, and has been writing Feminist Flicker for Channillo since September 2015. Joint winner of the website’s 2016 Best Column award, Feminist Flicker examines tropes and trends, new releases and older movies alike, covering all genres. Sarah can be found on Twitter @sjmyles, on Channillo , on her own website https://sjmyles79.wordpress.com/, and on wegotthiscovered.com