This story was originally published on 20th August 2015.
Girls like gore. Despite cultural misconceptions, women have often been the majority of horror film ticket-holders in recent years.
I’m one of these women.
As a kid, scary was my favourite thing. I stayed up late to watch films that made my heart pound. I loved the blood-soaked rabbits in Watership Down and the clown with the tear-away face in The Nightmare Before Christmas. I fantasised that Maurice Sendak’s Wild Things would come take me away in the night, and I made my poor little sister cry telling her stories before we fell asleep. I started prepping for Halloween on 5th July.
Horror films spoke to my experience as a relatively sheltered young woman, because every new experience was overwhelming. I thought of the transformation scene in An American Werewolf in London when I realised I needed a training bra. I relished Regan as she spewed profanities in The Exorcist, taunting adult men with sexual language and scaring her mother. Carrie hit too close to home, with its heroine tormented by classmates and by a mother who didn’t quite understand her.
When I began middle school, something changed. Kids who liked scary things weren’t kids I wanted to hang out with. The boys at school saw female characters in horror films as dumb, although many of them were apt survivors. No one seemed to have a sense of humour or feel any joy in watching horror films; the popular ones of my teenager years were of the Hostel variety, in which half-naked women plead for their lives and are sliced open anyway. In fact, when Shaun of the Dead premiered, I was in seventh grade, and on a group date (you know, one of those “dates” where you don’t know who’s out with whom?), I was the only one of my friends to laugh when nerdy David died. I remember distinctly that I had misinterpreted the moment and had embarrassed myself. My Brundlefly shirt wasn’t getting me any dates, so I stopped wearing it. (That didn’t work either, FYI.)
I continued to think my enjoyment of gore meant something was wrong with me because I was a girl. The only kids at my high school who enjoyed films like Cannibal Holocaust were the ones who wrote Eminem lyrics on their Converse sneakers. I couldn’t talk about my favourite films with the straight guys at school because I suspected they all wanted to lock me in a trunk, Slim Shady-style. I had fun, intelligent, unusual friends who seemed open-minded about pop culture, but they were vehemently against watching scary movies. So I wondered why I was the weird one. Did loving gory, tense films make me a bad feminist?
In high school, I remember a group of boys recounting the torture scenarios in Saw during gym class, and I followed them around the track, listening but not feeling ready to butt in. What could I say? That certain scenes in Suspiria had reminded me of a really heavy period, like the one that comes a few days late and soaks your favourite jeans right through? I was, like many teenage girls, obsessed with looking attractive rather than looking like myself, and I kept my passion for splatter quiet. When The Ring opened, I was blown away by the female-centric story arc: A woman (Naomi Watts) discovers how a young girl was murdered by her adoptive mother. Even better, everyone at my high school loved the film, including the more aggressive boys.
When I went to college and began studying horror films as literature, I realised how bothered I’d been when scary films resorted to stale pandering to adolescent boys. Women in slasher films were often victimised with more gusto than men, and they were often in their underwear. Like any Introduction to Film student, I wrote my papers on Laura Mulvey and the male gaze, trying to pinpoint why I enjoyed watching characters who were stalked and hunted. Had I become too accustomed to employing a male gaze watching '80s slashers? These films linger on women’s bodies and only provide backstories for male protagonists. Why did I feel like the sensation of being spooked by a ghost film had been hijacked by violent porn?
Before I get into how horror could please female fans, I’d better point out what the genre doesn’t need. It’s a popular theory that women who love horror films want to see “strong female protagonists” who wear bandanas and are excellent marks(wo)men. Those aren’t horror films, though; they’re action films. Don’t get me wrong. Charlize Theron in Mad Max: Fury Road was a dream, but there’s a reason we don’t call Mad Max a horror film. People like me buy tickets to watch characters reach their breaking point, and to revel in how a director can control information in the frame. We want to see women react honestly to scary situations, just as any other character would, and we want to see them fail in a way that has us sleeping with the lights on. That’s why I’d take shrill, trembling Shelley Duval in The Shining over dead-eyed, sexy Milla Jovovich in Resident Evil any day, because the only thing scarier than zombie dogs is the fear that you might be in danger because you married the wrong guy. Alien’s Ripley works because she carries a huge gun, but she also cries when the alien gets too close. She’s real, and we feel what she feels.
Horror films centred around women are always more effective when they’re in tune with what really terrifies women. Consider the most critically successful horror films in the last few years; they all follow this logic. On paper, The Descent is about a group of female spelunkers hunted by mutants, but the crux of the story’s terror is realising your BFF is a sociopath. Sam Raimi returned to horror with Drag Me to Hell, a scary (and hilarious) tale of struggle between a young woman and a witch. You’re Next is just the story of a girl being played for a fool by a loser boyfriend. Housebound is about rebuilding a damaged relationship with your mother, and It Follows (2014) explores the anxiety of STDs and choosing the wrong sexual partner. The Babadook (2014) is a gorgeous and chilling look at maternal guilt. The film’s antagonist is simply a ghoul that creeps into a woman’s subconscious when she’s expected to constantly value her child’s needs over her own.
We’ve even seen the birth-horror story become more complex since Rosemary’s Baby. In Splice, a female doctor regrets inserting her own DNA into her mutant child, and the lead in the French horror film Inside struggles to protect her unborn baby from a female evil.
This progressive work is carried out primarily in independent and art house horror, though big-budget franchises have begun to catch on. Sinister 2 has moved its plot away from the stale father-saves-helpless-family storyline to feature Shannyn Sossamon as a single mother. It would be refreshing to see the genre’s most beloved films evolve similarly and use female characters to the height of their potential: Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Child’s Play, Friday the 13th, and Halloween all have reboots and prequels planned for 2016, and most of these franchises have only used women in the boring, same-old manner. Meaning, they've been used as minor characters, nameless extras, or naked blow-up dolls without any motivation or agency.
Maybe better horror films don’t need what the Hollywood suits consider “compelling” or “strong” female protagonists. Maybe the genre needs a different way of looking at gender. What scares men and women equally and what scares women about men? Honesty in horror filmmaking offers us powerful explorations of the scary parts of real life, as in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. What does gore look and feel like through the eyes of a woman, one who has experienced biologically specific rites like menstruation or childbirth? What does a female-centric slasher film look like, and can a female villain be as scary and iconic as Michael Myers or Freddy Krueger? Though more of a sci-fi thriller than a straight-up horror movie, Under the Skin gave us a complicated, sexual female monster. Can we get more dynamic experiments of that type?
It’s my hope that progressive horror films featuring women will create a safer space for girls like me — girls who want to see characters like Ripley take charge while also wanting to see somebody (male or female) get their guts torn out by a zombie.