Women in Horror

by Emily Henson (age 17)

Horror has always been a genre that has fascinated me. When I think of horror films, I think of a psychopathic killer, of the adrenaline rushes, of the hiding behind cushions, and, more recently, I’ve started to think about the representation of women in these horror films. I started to question whether the representation was accurate, and if it’s not, why.

Tenebre  (1987)directed by Dario Argento 

Tenebre (1987)directed by Dario Argento 

In recent films, a slight shift has occurred when it comes to this representation. More female directors means less male gaze but it’s important to remember that film tends to reflect society, allowing us to look into our dark side of the mirror as well as playing on our everyday fears. Keeping this in mind, the role of women within horror films, must be a key indicator of the role of women within today's society. I want to note that the majority of the women I will be referencing are white, cis women. Although many of the points could also apply to WOC or trans women, it’s important to remember that these women have an extra layer of mis/underrepresentation to battle with in horror films and the film industry in general. 

Carla Brait in  Torso  (1973) directed by Sergio Martino

Carla Brait in Torso (1973) directed by Sergio Martino

Grace Jones in  Vamp  (1986) directed by Richard Wenk

Grace Jones in Vamp (1986) directed by Richard Wenk

The theme most pick up on when looking at women in horror is the blatant sex shaming. The girls who are more promiscuous or partake in sexual activities are often the girls who are punished, usually by being the first to be killed. A recent horror film, It Follows (2014) dir. David Robert Mitchell uses this trope in a very interesting way. The premise of the film is the fear of sex, the horror begins for the protagonist as soon as she sleeps with someone. However, unlike many horror films, Jay, the main character in It Follows, doesn’t die. The film suggests she will be followed indefinitely, the feeling of someone following her perhaps until the day she dies, a constant punishment for one sexual encounter.  With sex shaming in a fictional horror film in mind, what does this reflect about modern society? It shows us that, despite feminism making leaps and bounds in the last few years, society still has a tendency, whether intentionally or not to punish young women for engaging in sexual activities. The blaming of sexually active women in horror goes further in It Follows, the “follower” (aka the bad guy) could arguably be a metaphorical representation of sexually transmitted diseases; this playing into the shame and blaming of people with STDs.

It Follows does not only reflect a fear of sex and sexually transmitted diseases, but of feminine sexuality itself. The first time we see the “follower”, it’s a fully naked woman, walking through an empty car park. It’s nakedness isn’t pivotal to the film’s plot, the fact that a possessed like creature is now going to follow the main character with an intention to kill is eerie enough. However, the sheer nakedness of the follower gives this particular scene shock value, as stark nakedness isn’t a trait that the enemy of horror film usually possesses.

It Follows definitely isn’t the only film that uses female sexuality as the enemy. Carrie (1976) dir. Brian De Palma, a film made 41 years ago also uses women’s bodies as gore horror to gain some more shock value points, what feels like a cheap, misogynistic tactic to draw in more watchers: the type of people who see menstrual blood and feel a different sense of shock than when they witness a gory, bloody murder scene. And menstrual blood is definitely more natural than seeing a swimming pool fill up with blood after the physical manifestation of a sexually transmitted disease is shot in the head, an actual scene in It Follows. The sight of blood is common in the horror genre, particularly slasher films, but by using menstrual blood as the fear inducing symbol reinforces the idea that female sexuality is something to be feared. It could be argued that this is a result of the ingrained misogyny that everyday people experience. The hidden messages of “body horror” and the underlying fear of a woman’s biology reflects the dominant patriarchal attitudes of society. Perhaps this is a result of ingrained misogyny and the taboo feeling we are all taught. “Seventy five percent women in India buy sanitary napkins wrapped in a brown bag or newspaper, because of the shame associated with menstruation. They also never ask a male member of the family to buy sanitary towels or tampons.” Diksha Madhok writes for QUARTZ India.

Sissy Spacek in  Carrie  (1976)   directed by Brian De Palma

Sissy Spacek in Carrie (1976) directed by Brian De Palma

Filmmakers tend to use the idea of motherhood as a very common theme in their work.  The mother character seems to be the easy target for them to use as the root of all evil. However, when we come to ask ourselves where the horror-mum trope comes from, it's not as obvious as the other tropes that often appear in this genre. It's not easily associated with blatant misogyny, and rather than playing into stereotypical mother roles, horror-mums fight back, they're not passive or ones to be walked all over. Horror mums are often the ones to be feared, their anger stemming from bereavement or mistreatment. Take Rebecca De Mornay from The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1992) dir. Curtis Hanson, for example. De Mornay, raises her sons to be rapists, bank robbers, and killers. It’s easy to ask whether her sons would have become such monsters had their mother not had been. More recently, The Babadook (2014) dir. Jennifer Kent showed Amelia, a single mother still mourning the loss of her husband. Although The Babadook, a dark, male figure is the monster in the film, Amelia’s character is arguably a far scarier force. What Amelia in The Babadook, and other matriarchal monsters show us is the reality of motherhood. Perhaps filmmakers use the element of motherhood in horror films so regularly because it's a relatable topic for their a female audience, maybe even allowing their films to appeal to a wider audience. Motherhood is difficult: any mother knows that, but horror films tend to take the stress of the responsibility of raising a child to the max, and amp up the pressure to an immense degree. Unlike many female characters that have stemmed from ingrained misogyny and sexism, I feel as though this horror trope isn't one that plays on stereotypes. Whether intentionally or not, horror-mums often fights stereotypical "mum roles". Rather than the mum staying passively at home, they often have a horrifically proactive purpose, even if that purpose involves murder. How does this mirror mums in society? Maybe the worst thing a woman can do is be a “bad mum”.

The Babadook  (2014) directed by Jennifer Kent

The Babadook (2014) directed by Jennifer Kent

Horror films don’t necessarily have a target audience, the genre overall is not specifically targeted at a certain gender, age group, or race. If you ignore people’s individual views, anyone can enjoy any type of horror movie to an extent. As old as the “final girl” trope is (the idea that the last girl standing exhibits traits such as a unisex name and innocence, often becoming masculinised through her use of a weapon. The final girl being a character for a male audience to identify with, playing into the idea of male gaze from a non-sexualised point of view and raises interesting questions about feminism), it’s still used today. Perhaps women watch horror films because they often star a strong female character who is smart enough to make it to end of the movie. Female characters in horror are three dimensional, productive women.
In order to fully sympathise with female characters, we have to fully understand what they’re afraid of and those fears go deeper than just broken bones and a killer with a knife.  As flawed as the accuracy and boundaries that are given to women in horror are, at least some women are taken somewhat seriously.

A Girl Walks Home at Night  (2014) directed by Ana Lily Amirpour

A Girl Walks Home at Night (2014) directed by Ana Lily Amirpour

So why hasn’t this trend of allowing female characters in horror films to be productive and kill like Carrie White from Carrie (1976) to The Girl in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014) dir. Ana Lily Amirpour? Genre theory states that genres are not simple and stable categories and they are constantly changing for example, making dialogue more like the 'real world' and introducing social-issue controversies. With this in mind, why haven’t horror films picked up on today’s social issues, for example sex shaming, rape culture, and our attitudes towards menstruation? Perhaps because, as genre theory states, genres mirror “real world” dialog and the majority of the world hasn’t picked up on these either. As I talked about before, sex shaming is still incredibly prominent all over the world, rape “jokes” are still only seen as “locker room talk”, and menstruation, although talked about more openly between women and female targeted audiences, still is deemed taboo and dirty. Horror films will only start changing their attitudes towards social issues when the majority of society does.

Blood and Black Lace  (1965) directed by Mario Bava

Blood and Black Lace (1965) directed by Mario Bava

I don’t think representation of women in horror is as good as it could be. The horror genre is still riddled with society’s misogynistic views and ideas, even when the film is directed by a woman. Horror mirrors our society, film makers use our fears and sense of catharsis to make their films hit that much closer to home. But maybe society has to change before horror does. Will directors take the risk of dropping the misogynistic traits that appeal so nicely to an audience, in turn making money and profit, in order to question society’s morals and eventually change our ideas, and can something as simple as a horror film change them?



Women directed horror films to add to your watchlist and continue the conversation:

Trouble Every Day  directed by Claire Denis

Trouble Every Day directed by Claire Denis

The Love Witch  directed by Anna Biller

The Love Witch directed by Anna Biller

Jennifer's Body  directed by Karyn Kusama

Jennifer's Body directed by Karyn Kusama

Office Killer  directed by Cindy Sherman

Office Killer directed by Cindy Sherman

Kiss of the Damned  directed by Xan Cassavettes

Kiss of the Damned directed by Xan Cassavettes

The Countess  directed by Julie Delpy

The Countess directed by Julie Delpy

The Mafu  Cage directed by Karen Arthur

The Mafu Cage directed by Karen Arthur