Feminist Horror Plots Against Patriarachy by Alison Gillmor
Horror and feminism may seem like an unlikely pairing at first. After all, horror is a cinematic genre marked by ugly violence, menaced by masked men and packed with blonde sorority girls who run upstairs when they should be running out of the house. Then there’s the iconic image of the scary movie: the flash of a knife penetrating soft female flesh.
Recently, however, fans, filmmakers and cultural critics have started to re-evaluate horror, not just as a feminist possibility, but as a feminist necessity. Historically, the genre’s great strength has been its ability to explore dark and difficult places. Horror probes the extremities of physical vulnerability, the power of primal emotions, the transgressions and taboos lurking under the surface of ordinary life. Done right, the horror genre is full of subversive possibility, and female audiences, especially young female audiences, seem to be hungry for this promise. In 2009, Entertainment Weekly reported that the majority of the North American audience for horror movies is now female.
It’s interesting to consider how 21st-century female viewers are connecting with horror. In her book House of Psychotic Women, Canadian writer and film programmer Kier-La Janisse examines her obsession with grindhouse exploitation flicks and extreme horror. A childhood scarred by violence and family dysfunction drove her to this disturbing terrain, Janisse writes. But she “stayed there because of something in myself. And that ‘something’ was decidedly female.” Movie blogger Gita Jackson puts it this way: “Horror movies are one of the few places women are told their fears are real.” For many women, the horror genre is profoundly cathartic: It constructs imaginary spaces where they can work through true-life trauma.
Defining feminist horror can be tricky. There are many approaches to feminism, so it follows that there is no single infallible form for a feminist film. The increase in the number of women behind the camera is crucial, but it’s not an automatic guarantee of subversive content. In Jennifer’s Body (2009), written by Juno scripter Diablo Cody and directed by Karyn Kusama (Girlfight), the disembowelling demon is now a hot cheerleader (Megan Fox) and the hapless, helpless victims are now teenage boys. Merely reversing the usual gender roles, in this case, isn’t enough to produce meaningful feminist subtext.
It often requires only a subtle shift in viewpoint to create a subversively feminist fi lm. Take the case of American Psycho (2000), based on a Bret Easton Ellis novel that many critics considered aggressively misogynistic. The 1991 book follows the interior narrative of Patrick Bateman, a Wall Street trader who tortures and murders women and men. Canadian director Mary Harron and scriptwriter
Guinevere Turner transform Ellis’s brutal, deliberately banal prose into a hilarious, weirdly high-spirited satire on male vanity. Patrick Bateman (played with deranged glee by Christian Bale) may be butchering women, but Harron and Turner are taking a scalpel to social conformity, consumer capitalism and toxic masculinity.
Patrick’s fetishization of brand names, his nervous bromances with other men, and his contempt for women all reveal a fatal insecurity lurking under his surface arrogance. Harron and Turner parody alpha-male posturing, as Patrick and his Masters-of-the-Universe colleagues fret about who has the best business cards and who can snag the most exclusive restaurant reservations. By positioning Bateman’s masculinity as a constant, desperate, ultimately hollow performance, the movie becomes a sneaky-smart feminist statement— not to mention a prescient look at the 2008 financial crisis.
Over the last 25 years, feminist horror has received a boost from fi lm theory and cultural studies. The notion of “the feminist spectator” asserts the viewer’s ability to interpret popular culture through a feminist lens, so that canonical works like Night of the Living Dead or The Exorcist can yield new insights into our culture’s social, political and psychological stress points.
Carol Clover’s 1992 study Men, Women, and Chainsaws is an influential reconsideration of the horror genre. Clover points out that the last person standing in the standard slasher fl ick is often a young woman, usually a resourceful, resilient brunette whom she calls “The Final Girl.” In place of a gender-binary reading of horror, in which young males identify sadistically with the killer and women identify masochistically with the victim, Clover argues that the experience of horror fi lms can be complex and fluid.
Recent trends in mainstream horror reflect the fact that postmodern audiences are increasingly savvy and cinematically aware. Wes Craven’s super-meta Scream franchise and producer Joss Whedon’s The Cabin in the Woods upend horror tropes while simultaneously challenging conventional representations of gender, race and sexuality. Scream 3, for example, explicitly delves into the buried history of Hollywood’s mistreatment of women, on- and off-screen. As the horror genre examines itself, gender issues are being brought out into the open.
For the current crop of female filmmakers, the horror genre also provides practical advantages.
Horror can be a place for outsiders, offering cheap and cheerful hospitality to indie voices and fearless first-timers. Vancouver-born Jen and Sylvia Soska, twisty twin sisters with a taste for the perverse, broke onto the scene with a $2,500 debut film, called Dead Hooker in a Trunk. (The 32-year-old siblings originally tried to act in horror films but were so bored with the clichéd female parts that they ended up writing, directing and producing their own stuff.) Horror allows for DIY methods of funding, producing and distributing works. Iranian- American filmmaker Ana Lily Amirpour’s premier feature, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, was financed mostly through the crowdfunding website Indiegogo.
These cinematic developments have sparked a recent spate of woman-led horror movies, and it’s fascinating to see what a feminist version of “the return of the repressed” looks like. The sub-genre of body horror, for example, allows feminist filmmakers to examine the female body as a site of both vulnerability and power. The badass Soska sisters possess an unflinching curiosity about the extremes of human experience, and their second film, American Mary (2012), delves into the underground subculture of body modification.
Katharine Isabelle, a Canadian indie-horror darling with the self-contained coolness of a young
Bette Davis, plays promising medical student Mary Mason, who drops out of school after she is raped by a manipulative professor. Cash-strapped and rage-filled, she ends up performing illegal surgeries for the bod-mod crowd, while planning some non-consensual body modifications for her attacker.
Body modification asserts the individual’s radical control over her own body, with procedures that go way beyond the parameters of fashionable cosmetic surgery to alterations that can appear baffling to straight society (implanted horns, forked tongues, filed teeth). In American Mary, a character named Ruby Realgirl has acquired a Barbie-doll waist and pneumatic breasts that seem to pander to the male gaze. But Ruby goes farther, asking Mary to remove her nipples and sew up her labia, giving her the smooth, impenetrable finish of a plastic doll. Ruby’s quest for inviolability can be viewed as her own unusual form of sexual agency, and it becomes a poignant counterpoint to Mary’s darker story of rape and revenge.
The rape-and-revenge plot has a long history in horror, with ’70s and ’80s films like I Spit on Your Grave and Ms. 45 provoking fraught debates over whether the genre is empowering or merely exploitative. The Soskas respond by treating Mary’s rape with restraint (especially by their usual gonzo standards), while going absolutely bonkers with the revenge story.
Evangeline (2013), a no-budget debut by Canadian Karen Lam, covers some of the same territory, with the Vancouver-based writer and director using muted, evocative imagery to tell the story of a university student (Kat de Lieva) victimized by a gang of frat boys and left for dead in the B.C. wilderness. Empowered by an ancient entity, Evangeline pursues revenge, but her actions exact a spiritual cost. The story is at times clunky, but Lam’s supernatural elements are grounded in the grim realities of violence against girls and women. The film echoes the terror of the Pickton murders, the murdered and missing women of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, and the deaths and disappearances on B.C.’s Highway of Tears.
Female identity is another recurring theme in feminist horror. Mothers in horror can be scary— recall Margaret White, the fanatical Christian mother played by Piper Laurie in Carrie (1976).
The Babadook (2014), an incredibly assured first feature from Australian filmmaker Jennifer Kent, makes the revolutionary suggestion that being a mother can be scary. In this anti-Hallmark Hall of Fame drama, Essie Davis plays Amelia, a woman struggling to raise her troubled six-year-old son.
Her husband has died in an accident on the way to Sam’s birth, and Amelia moves through her days in a fog of financial worry, sleep deprivation and suppressed grief. Kent expertly delineates the son’s constant “Mom, mom, mom” neediness, as well as Amelia’s increasingly exhausted retreat. Trapped in an emotional deadlock, mother and son descend into a spiral of anxiety, isolation and instability.
By the time the titular Babadook arrives, a spiky black fi gure from a mysterious pop-up book, it’s unclear whether the terror involves supernatural attack or mental breakdown.
The Babadook overturns our cultural expectation that a mother’s love—always sweet, always sacrificial, always self-abnegating—will overcome any hardship. So entrenched is this sentimental vision of motherhood that Amelia’s eventual breakdown—a raw, writhing purge of maternal rage—is at once monstrous and deeply human.
The film’s complicated portrayal of Amelia is grounded in the simple feminist acknowledgement that, yes, sometimes motherhood is hard. Really, really hard. Honeymoon (2014), an eerie little debut fi lm from American director Leigh Janiak, also deals with female identity. Paul (Harry Treadaway) and Bea (Rose Leslie of Game of Thrones) are newlyweds who head to Bea’s family’s Ontario cabin in the chilly off-season for an affordable honeymoon. The Brooklyn hipsters are totally in love but a tad surprised that they’ve somehow become married people—you know, like actual grown-ups. Bea, in particular, seems apprehensive about the ramifications of being a Wife—you can almost hear the capital “W”—and, when Paul makes a joking, offhand reference to her “womb,” she starts panicking about whether she’s ready to start a family.
These internal fears find external expression when the couple encounters “something in the woods.” After Paul finds Bea lost and wandering in the middle of the night, she slowly begins to transform into something else. Director Janiak plays deftly with the classic body-snatcher trope, but she uses it to address specifically female fears—about the potential loss of self in a relationship, about the demands of societal roles, about the pull of biology.
Ginger Snaps (2000), scripted by Karen Walton and directed by John Fawcett, is a bitingly feminist Canadian werewolf movie. (Fawcett went on to create the fabulously woman-centric television series Orphan Black.) Katharine Isabelle devours her breakthrough role as Ginger Fitzgerald, a high school girl who gets attacked by a werewolf on the night of her first period, neatly combining two monthly “curses” into one. Ginger may be a potential monster, but the prospect of conventional middle-class womanhood scares her even more. A mordantly funny look at outcast suburban kids and at the spiky, unpredictable power of adolescent female sexuality, Ginger Snaps douses its lycanthropic action in buckets of gore, but it’s the drops of menstrual blood that feel truly taboo-busting.
Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014) is another sideways look at female adolescence, in this case an adolescence stretching toward eternity. The title of this unclassifiably cool film—a black-and-white, Persian-language, vampire spaghetti western—is a bait-and-switch act. Its stock phrase is meant to make us nervous, picturing the vulnerable, isolated girl and the van slowing, the fi gure looming out of the alleyway, the dangerous stretch of scrubby vacant lot. But this particular girl, played with enigmatic eroticism by Sheila Vand, is not prey but predator. The Girl, as she is called, dressed in what seems to be half chador and half vampire cape, prowls the midnight streets of Bad City, a spooky semi-industrial town hovering somewhere between Tehran and southern California. Meting out languid justice to various “bad men,” The Girl seems to be developing her very own odd, dreamy
Take Back the Night project.
Just as The Girl wants to reclaim the night, a new generation of female auteurs is set to take back horror. And why not—it’s too potent a genre to be left to misogyny. By shining a light on our secret terrors, horror can take us past our comfortable convictions to dark, difficult places.
Horror movies aren’t always easy to watch, but, if we look closely, we can see that discomfort often packs a subversive message.
-From the Summer 2015 issue of Herizons. Subscribe now to Herizons and helpl ensure that awesome articles like this have the readership they deserve!