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Women In Fear – The [Non?] Evolution of the Female Role in Horror Movies

October 30, 2009
Seven years ago, I watched the original Friday the 13th (1978) with my friend in broad daylight while eating pasta. One startling scene made us fling our plates straight towards the ceiling. Covered in hot noodles, we laughed, and didn’t really think beyond the cleaning up we had to do. Two years later, I watched the Tobe Hooper version of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) with the same friend. Though I didn’t throw food onto myself this time, there was something about the film that defined it as the scariest that I have seen up to date. I couldn’t exactly pin down what it was that made the movie so damn terrifying. Shortly thereafter, I watched the 2003 remake, and figured it all out.
Just one of the spine-chilling scenes from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

Just one of the spine-chilling scenes from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

The new cut was disgusting and gory beyond belief, but lacked the power of its predecessor. Of particular impact in the original is what is known as the “Chase Scene” (begins approximately at 4:44 minutes), in which a girl runs for her life through a thicket of thorny woods. The scene lasts for a couple minutes of real time, and feels like twenty minutes of sickening desperation. Twisting her legs and getting speared by thorny branches from all sides, she screams hoarsely and progresses slowly while the audience sits, helplessly riveted. There wasn’t anything complicated about all this. There were no special effects to cloud the fact that this all about a girl being chased by Leatherface with a chainsaw roaring in his flailing arms. There is no MTV-style edit to whisk us to another scene before we start feeling too uncomfortable.

Then, I noticed the ultimate element that made me so uncomfortable; the victim was a girl, a woman, and she seemed to have no chance of survival.  Subconsciously, I must have wondered how long I would last in her situation, with a man and machine pursuing me through a maze of hard wood. I also thought back to Friday the 13th, and realized how strange it was that the film was all about teens getting axed at summer camp by  a hockey-masked mother who wanted revenge for the accidental drowning of her son a year before. Even stranger, the murders began after two camp counselors had sex in a bunk bed that seemed meant for 10-year-olds, exacerbating the Mommy’s watching creepiness. Her accusation, “Did you know a young boy drowned the year before those two others were killed? The counselors weren’t paying any attention… They were making love while that young boy drowned,” made this hallmark slasher about more than just horror itself. Yes, what ultimately made Friday the 13th so disturbing was undercurrents of social conventions taken to the limit, and how the girls faced the brunt of judgement for crossing the lines of 1970s propriety.

friday 13th 1 ax to face

In the 1980 version of Friday the 13th, the penalty for premarital sex was an axe to the face...

It doesn’t take an expert film critic to intuit the complexities of women’s role in the horror genre.  A forum discussing why women always seem to be the victim invited all sorts of arguments from everyday moviegoers.“Tired Hiker” provided the classic misogynistic explanation for the phenomenon of female victims in horror flicks:  “Yeah, females are good lead roles for horror films, probably because mostly guys go to see horror films, and guys usually want to see hot chicks. Plus, chicks can scream better than guys, they are more vulnerable than guys, and they tend to have nicer breasts and asses than guys.” Hmm, this actually supports the idea that males become excited by seeing women in severe distress. However, “SaTsuJiN” mentions  the value of the unlikely female victor: “I think females do a better job because you dont expect them to defend themselves well against a very strong villain whereas if you see some butch bald dude as the main character you know its gonna take a few good ones to put him out.”

A short history of horror film helps trace the evolution of females in fear in the eyes of expert analysts. Black-and-whites such as Frankenstein (1930) and Dracula (1931) kicked off the genre’s profitability in the 1930s. These classic tales of monsters and freaks drew audience members to the theatres with the plain promises of frightening ticketholders—and they delivered.

franke

The macabre mug that started it all...

After World War II, movie producers moved on to sci-fi and futuristic themes to appeal to a society that “vented fears of nuclear war and expressed a general mistrust of science and technology.” The sunny ‘50s saw the birth of teenage consumers, and with it, the rise of “Horror Teenpics,” which caused money-wielding youth to squirm with glee in their movie chairs. According to one researcher, the gore films spearheaded by the likes of Herschell Gordon Lewis with Blood Feast (1963) dared to mutilate the beautiful, and finally desensitized audiences to the point that “young audiences required that gruesome images become more intense and explicit for them to become scared.” Fatefully enough, film technology was ramping up to help make scenes seem bloodier and more real at the same time.

The ‘60s started ushering in the role of women as big-time victims on the big screen. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) has been analyzed as many times as Janet Leigh’s character was stabbed in the shower scene infamous for the slaughter of a sexually liberated woman by a repressed man with the phallic weapon of a knife.

Making her scream: Janet Leigh's immortal moment before immortality in Psycho (1960)

Making her scream: Janet Leigh's immortal moment before facing mortality in Psycho (1960)

Or how about films like Rosemary’s Baby (1968), in which Mia Farrow’s character is sold out by her husband, literally screwed by Satan himself, and impregnated with the male incarnate of the devil??

The next era of film is still in the recent memory of many members our generation. The ‘70s and ‘80s were the heyday of the “slasher” film,  defined as movies using “graphic violence and sexual titillation to attract audiences.” Slasher critics began to point out that the young girls being killed were usually attacked after an oversexualized nudey scene, and that the scene was usually a gaze shot from the vantage point of the usually male murderer. The idea was that the angle in which the shot was filmed excited the male audience and gave them a moment to revel in the murder of a woman, her sexuality, and her liberation. Psychological scholars such as Linz, Donnerstein, and Adams in a 1989 study even began to worry that the constant mixture of sex and violence would blunt male’s emotional reactions to extreme violence against women. The worry became even more relevant, perhaps, with the emergence of quasi-horror masterpieces of misogyny such as Fatal Attraction (1987) and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1992) in mainstream entertainment.

glenn_close_fatal_attraction

Fatal Attraction (1987): Michael Douglas as victim of certifiable psycho-woman Glenn Close

In 1992 Carol Clover published Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. The book revolutionized the discussion of anti-feminism in horror film by introducing the concept of the Final Girl. While Clover never denied that women were often received the brunt of brutality in slashers, she reminded us about the last girl left standing:

“She is the one who encounters the mutilated bodies of her friends and perceives the full extent of the preceding horror and of her own peril; who is chased, cornered, wounded; whom we see scream, stagger, fall, rise and scream again. She is abject terror personified. … She alone looks death in the face, but she alone also finds the strength either to stay the killer long enough to be rescued … or to kill him herself… But, in either case, from 1974 on, the survivor figure has been female.” (p. 35)

The upshot of Clover’s definition of the Final Girl was the new theory that the audience, whether male or female, does not root for the male killer, but for the girl who escapes death. The Final Girl is the real heroine, only in disguise.

Some interesting things to note about the Final Girl, however, is that she is devoid of sexuality. The heroine or the female survivor is usually masculine, asexual, or is a child. She is the one who does not pair off to have sex. As noted by Feminist Horror Film Theory: 1970s-1980s,  the surviving girl is the one who lives life within the lines, and shuns “the slutty female, those who get drunk, those who use drugs, those who have sex before marriage. The final girl escapes because she does not partake in these symbols of adult life. She is stuck in a pre-pubescent state. She does not have sex, get drunk, take drugs.” Oft-cited heroine Nancy Thompson of Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) gets to keep her femininity, underscored by a bathtub scene in which Freddy Kreuger’s gruesome hand surfaces from between her bare legs. Then again, Nancy is a little girl defending her kid friends from being slayed in their dreams by a child molester who wants revenge for being burned to death by the neighborhood parents.

bathtub

Bathing with the enemy; Freddy Krueger's hand torments the young heroine of Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley from Alien (1979) is one example of an adult female heroine, but alas, her ill-fitting white panties fail to lend femininity to her androgynous presentation, so this is another case of an asexualized Final Girl (or woman). In such films, it is almost as if a woman must become a man in order to not be killed by a man or some other symbolically male entity.

Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley in Alien (1979); barely there underwear, but barely feminine as a heroine

Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley in Alien (1979): Barely-there underwear, but barely feminine heroine

If not overtly patriarchical, slasher films at least seem deathly restrictive towards its women, suggesting that it’s not the female herself, but her sexuality and freedom that must be knifed to death. But wait, how do we even know for sure that women are more frequent victims of movie murder? For most of us, it’s just a feeling we get. An analysis in 1993 by Molitor, F. & Sapolsky, B.S. (1993) entitled Sex, violence and victimization in Slasher Films examined the content of 30 relevant titles and concluded that “women are neither victimized or brutalized more than men in these films, but are shown to be in more fear… the average amount of time males were seen in fear per film was under two minutes; females were seen in terror over nine minutes in the average slasher film.”

Aha! The chase scene from Chainsaw Massacres springs to mind again; that disconcerting, protracted scene of brutality against a vulnerable female. If women were not killed or hurt on screen more than males were during the slasher era, then they were exposed for longer; their pain was drawn out and their fear was exploited in the most sadistic, voyeuristic way.

In a revisit of their first study, Molitor and Sapolsky confirm that ratio of female victims has dropped significantly since the ‘80s. But have things really gotten better for girls on films. My subjective feeling about it is no. Hard core brutality against women seem to have given way to new brands of horror that simply strip female characters of their humanity with meaningless, if mercifully quick deaths. This was especially true of the ‘90s, when the teen-targeted Scream (1996) series and I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997) could be boiled down to a nipply Rose McGowan perishing because her hips couldn’t fit through a hole in the garage door and beauty queen Sarah Michelle Gellar having her hair chopped off in her sleep before being placed on ice a few days later. In these types of movies, the girl was always running up the stairs when she should go down, and so on, eliciting more laughter than screams from the sarcastic audience. In fact, the Scary Movie (2000) parodies were barely funnier than the originals themselves, which could never be taken very seriously.

Rose McGowan - Tatum Riley

The unfortunate demise of Rose McGowan's hard-nippled character in Scream (1996)

During the late ‘90s and the beginning of the  new millennium, some movies began to have avoid gender roles all together by focusing on ghosts (The Sixth Sense, 1999), apocalyptic themes (28 Days Later, 2002) or possessed children (The Ring, 2002).

mischa

A pre-O.C. and prepubescent Mischa Barton in The Sixth Sense (1999)

The ‘00s have also been a decade of remakes, as catalogued in a PhD student’s “Then Versus Now” thesis about the role  of women in slasher films. Among the reissues over the past ten years include a TV version of adolescent trauma masterpiece Carrie (2002), Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003), Halloween (2007), and Prom Night (2008). This way, producers could replay the sketchy horrors of the ‘70s and ‘80s without facing the flak they might get for creating originals with similar themes.

Halloween 2009 is in the air. Current scary movie options include The House of the Devil (young babysitter is lured into a house with no baby and a creepy man who wants to take her life), Paranormal Activity (a couple’s attempt to capture hauntings on film in suburbia), Saw IV (continuation of the sadistic horror games introduced by Saw), and The Stepfather (a suspicious son and his psychopathic criminal stepfather. This seems to be a well-rounded representation of movies that do not necessarily rely on female distress. Then again, we must remember the releases that already died out of the box office, such as Sorority Row, summarized by one Fandango user as being about “stupid sluts getting killed’” and Jennifer’s Body in which Megan Fox plays a literally man-eating teenager). Short-lived though they may be, the persistence of these types of movies (please, let us forget Paris Hilton’s, um, performance in 2005’s House of Wax) show how female horror actresses are always being marketed in a whole new way. Even when supposedly in a position of power, female villains are often touted for their sexy dementia more than any inherent power. After all, the entire premise of Jennifer’s Body is just how badly Megan Fox needs males to nourish her very existence.

megan fox

A man-eating Megan Fox: the new face (and body) of the female villain? Hope not!

It’s interesting how an entire society can be so passive to way that carnage is delivered to us on screen. To be honest, I rather miss the women who, if brutalized, were actually scary and had dimensions. We had Sissy Spacek in Carrie (1976), and Shelley Duvall inThe Shining (1980).

duvall

Shelley Duvall of The Shining (1980) was no Megan Fox, but boy was she scary

These women may have been prisoners of sexist plots and archaic social norms, but at least they were scary as hell. At least their sufferings got enough playing time to chill us right down to the core of our conscience. At least they made us feel like something was dreadful wrong and evil. Their not-hot, fearful faces kept us awake all night long, whereas now the O-faces of young actresses writhing on screen for a few milliseconds probably render teenage boys sleepless for entirely different reasons. The return of audiences every Halloween to bare bones, grainy old favorites of the horror industry suggest that, whether we know it or not, we miss the gritty pathology that once resided in simpler technologies and more seasoned plots.  So in a time when it seems like all the scariest stories may have already been bled out, I say that the final word is not out on the final girl—there’s plenty more challenge for filmmakers to resolve the conflict between the high quality horror of yore and modern day gender equality…and to restore the respectability of the horror genre while they’re at it.

Based in Andover, Massachusetts, Jia H. Jung is a Master of Pacific and International Affairs accounting for an international wholesaler. You can contact her at jia.h.jung@gmail.com

3 Comments
  1. Abigail permalink
    October 31, 2009 10:25 am

    I’m so glad you wrote on this. I’ve been fuming about the crime investigation TV genre that’s so prevalent lately, for the same chronic delectation of female fear. The various CSIs and the Criminal Intent variety especially almost invariably pore over the intricacies of exactly how a male serial killer, etc. determines his victim, what about them attracts him, how he systematically exploits and harms them, etc.

    It seems to me that these shows are heavily gendered, with women as frequent victims and men as frequent perpetrators (I’m so glad this article looked at the actual stats in horror films, though). Although the violence is not always sexualized, it IS always fetishistic — in its devious specificity. The shows are set up for the criminals to be fascinating, subtle, intelligent, and the victims wholly blank.

    But the ‘crime solving’ premise gives audiences an excuse to drink up all those punishable impulses while still feeling on the side of the good guys.

    I have to take issue with your comment on Sigourney Weaver in Alien… You argue that she’s a typical example of the Final Girl, surviving only because she’s asexualized. You evidence that by saying that “her ill-fitting white panties fail to lend femininity to her androgynous presentation,” and therefore she is “asexualized.”

    Hold on. She’s in her underwear for a reason — the appeal of it. Simultaneously, her character is a strong contrast to the typical, crudely written female film character. What we’re seeing is that a female character doesn’t have to be simpering to attract the camera to her “feminine charms.” I think in this way she’s an exception to the Final Girl rule.

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