Women and Horror
More of an intensification than an aberration, the slasher itself circles back to Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), the film credited with initiating modern American horror’s obsession with the idea of dysfunctional family dynamics (i.e. bad mothers) as the source of a murderous male sexuality. Elsewhere, the destruction of the female body as central spectacle and source of fascination sustained the Italian giallo, the lurid pulp film that peaked in the early 1970s. Films like Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace (1964) kick-started the trend for stylised set pieces devoted to the often highly creative but always horribly violent deaths of attractive young women. When cult giallo director (the ‘Italian Hitchcock’) Dario Argento claimed he ‘would much rather watch [a beautiful woman] being murdered than an ugly girl or man’, he identified the conflation of sex and violence that tends to characterise the horror filmin its slasher film form, as well as the more recent escalation into hyper-violent ‘torture-porn’ when its targets are women.
Arguably, this virulent misogyny isn’t restricted to male monsters and their aficionados. Film scholar Barbara Creed makes a convincing case for understanding what she calls the ‘monstrous-feminine’, the female monsters that have stalked and haunted the horror genre in their many guises - ‘the archaic mother; the monstrous womb; the witch; the vampire; […] the possessed woman’ (1993: 7) and so on - as embodiments of deeply embedded cultural anxieties around the maternal function and the female body as abject, which speak more to male fears than to female empowerment.
Viewed from this perspective, the horror film seems to constitute a disturbing history of aestheticised violence against women, normalised by its persistence in popular culture. However, film genres by their very nature are elastic categories and the horror genre could be considered particularly extensive, encompassing anything from Carl Dreyer’s haunting Vampyr (1932) to The Human Centipede 3 (Tom Six, 2015). As such, there is considerable room for nuance, not least when it comes to a discussion of its gendered dynamics.
Firstly, this doesn’t account for the genre’s significant female fanbase. In 2018, Screen Daily reported that ‘the strongest audience for horror […] is now younger females’ and not young men as is generally assumed (Billson, 2018). Whether it’s to cheer on its ‘final girls’ (Clover, 1992) or simply to experience its visceral thrills, the horror genre seems to offer female audiences something other than merely the spectacle of their own victimisation. In fact, films like Ginger Snaps (John Fawcett, 2000) have acquired a cult female following precisely because they confront the kind of taboos around the female body that Creed identified as problematic in earlier examples.
Similarly, women filmmakers are making an increasingly important contribution to the genre. Ana Lily Amirpour’s debut feature, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014) - the first ‘Iranian vampire western’ - explores issues around intimacy and identity via a stylish restaging of intercultural and cross-genre tropes. At the gorier end of the spectrum, Julia Ducournau’s Raw (2017) - the film ‘where cannibalism meets feminism’ (Brady, 2017) - privileges its young female flesh-eater’s perspective to give us a fresh take on ‘girl eats boy’. Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook (2014), on the other hand, merges elements of the horror film, maternal melodrama and the female gothic to explore an ambivalence towards motherhood that is more typically demonised in mainstream cinema.
Indeed, Kent is not alone in looking to the female gothic for a vocabulary with which to articulate women’s experiences. With its roots deep in literary fiction written by women for women since the late eighteenth century, female gothic provided a template for the ‘women’s horror films’ of the 1930s and ‘40s such as Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940) and Suspicion (1941), where a young woman is manipulated or undermined by an older man, usually her husband (see Jancovich, 2013). George Cukor’s Gaslight (1944), based on Patrick Hamilton’s stage play of the same name (1938), gave us the term much in current usage and variously applied to the behaviour of male contestants on Love Island towards their female counterparts as well as by Taylor Swift to Donald Trump’s ‘gaslighting of the American public’ (Snapes, 2019). The film’s depiction of the systematic silencing of a young woman, only for her to regain her voice in a powerful climax, speaks to our own moment, where young women are not just finding their voice but are leading the conversation.
In short, with a history as diverse as the history of cinema itself, the horror genre resists easy generalisations, especially when it comes to gender. More specifically, women’s relationship to the horror genre - as victims, villains, fans or filmmakers – is even more contested. Nonetheless, recent developments are confronting these difficulties in ways that can perhaps best be understood as part of a larger project to reclaim those spaces that historically have excluded or marginalised a female perspective.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (Ana Lily Amirpour, 2014).
Billson, A. (2018). ‘When did you last see a man begging for his life in a horror movie?’ Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2018/oct/25/when-did-you-last-see-a-man-begging-for-his-life-in-a-horror-movie [Accessed 28 October 2019].
Blood and Black Lace (Mario Bava, 1964).
Blood Feast (Herschell Gordon Lewis, 1963).
Brady, T. (2017). ‘Cannibalism meets feminism in this new horror movie.’ The Irish Times. Available at: https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/film/cannibalism-meets-feminism-in-this-new-horror-movie-1.3028031 [Accessed 28 October 2019].
Clover, C. J. (1992). Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Creed, B. (1993). The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis. London: Routledge.
Dracula (Tod Browning, 1931).
Gaslight (George Cukor, 1944).
Ginger Snaps (John Fawcett, 2000).
Jancovich, M. (2013). ‘Bluebeard’s Wives: Horror, Quality and the Gothic (or Paranoid) Woman’s Film in the 1940s.’ Irish Journal of Gothic and Horror Studies 12: 20-43.
Martyrs (Pascal Laugier, 2008).
Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960).
Raw (Julia Ducournau, 2017).
Rebecca (Alfred Hitchcock, 1940).
Snapes, L. (2019). Taylor Swift: Trump thinks his presidency is an autocracy.’ Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/music/2019/aug/23/taylor-swift-trump-thinks-his-presidency-autocracy [Accessed 28 October 2019].
Suspicion (Alfred Hitchcock, 1941).
Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tope Hooper, 1974).
The Babadook (Jennifer Kent, 2014).
The Human Centipede 3 (Tom Six, 2015).
Vampyr (Carl Dreyer, 1932).
Paula Quigley is Director of Teaching and learning (Postgraduate) and Director of the M.Phil. in Film Studies: Theory, History, Practice, at the School of Creative Arts.
Her research interests include film theory and criticism, genre and gender, and studies of the short film.