Laurie Clarke takes a look at the role of women in horror, from ‘final girls’ to exploitation cinema
Content warning: this article contains references to sexual violence
Horror cinema has long taken female experience as its focal point. Consider classic horror: Halloween, Psycho, Carrie, Alien, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, The Exorcist, The Ring, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Rosemary’s Baby. The list goes on. From Laurie Strode to Sidney Prescott, Ellen Ripley to Regan MacNeil, Marion Crane to Carrie White, women have dominated the screen when it comes to horror. In an industry where mainstream female leads are a rarity, this disparity is crucial.
While the scope of female experience on the horror screen may be massive, this doesn’t mean it’s good. In fact, for most classic horror flicks, a heroine isn’t enough to save them. Arguably, the precedence of women in the genre has only emboldened filmmakers to capitalise on the very worst the industry has to offer. It may be more accurate to say that horror takes female trauma as its centre point.
Of course, the violation of the female body is nothing new, The Exorcist being probably the most infamous example of boundary-crossing in mainstream western cinema. Who could forget twelve-year-old Reagan raped with a crucifix? Or Rosemary Woodhouse as the unwilling host for the devil’s baby? Of course, extreme violence is by no means unique to women in horror, but the precedence of explicit sexual violence is nothing if not revealing.
Contemporary horror is no stranger to exploitation, but recent standouts such as It Follows, Raw and Hereditary have reclaimed the female narrative and triumphed. In derivative horror, women typically fall into three categories: pretty, screaming face; gory, naked victim; and the conveniently fuckable “strong female character”. In the hands of capable writers and directors, however, women aren’t employed merely as props, but as the focal point for exploration into real, lived experiences.
Coming of age films with a twist, It Follows and Raw, delve into a downright unsettling discussion of bodily autonomy and sexuality. Hereditary is somewhat unique in centring around a middle-aged character (played by 45-year-old Toni Collette) and pursues themes of female hysteria, male cynicism, and the gender imbalance of credibility. It’s clear that horror has the power to be a heavyweight of social commentary that should stand up against critically acclaimed cinema. But in this respect, the genre is its own worst enemy.
It’s no secret that horror is a genre that continually contorts itself to breathe new life into cliches that were better off dead. If you’re a diehard fan you’ll already know how much crap you have to wade through before you find something actually worth watching. Well, the female-directed Raw changed the game in terms of what it means to be a woman on the horror screen. For all its strangeness and gore, Raw is a coming of age story that lends an unheard-of authenticity to the story of a girl growing up. Writer-director Julia Ducournau takes the female body and turns it inside out: in her hands, it becomes something destructive, disgusting, vulnerable but indestructible. The viewer bears witness to all things from botched Brazilians to ill-advised first fucks to a college hazing that would do Carrie proud. In a manner befitting A Clockwork Orange, Raw takes the male gaze and makes them watch until they squirm.
It would be fair to say that the horror genre is most notorious for its powers of transgression. If Raw proved anything, it’s that as long as women remain on one side of the camera, this can only ever go so far. Female fans are only too aware of the problems the industry poses. Local film collective She’s En Scene is dedicated to screenings of films made by women, and they’ll be celebrating this Halloween with a viewing of Anna Biller’s The Love Witch on 25 October. Released in 2016, the 70s styled Love Witch is a masterclass in mimicry, depicting a classic screen aesthetic through a new – and crucially female – lens. The Love Witch demands to be considered not just as an act of imitation, but of regeneration.
Historically, however, “transgressive” horror has only ever served to fetishize the victimisation of women. Films like Cannibal Holocaust and I Spit on Your Grave created shockwaves as instalments in a genre that would become known as torture porn – and with good reason. But does this automatically mean that it’s “good”? There’s nothing big or clever about capitalising off of sexual violence for shock effect. This idea of transgression is an absolute fallacy when it only serves to replicate real-world goings-on: a male-dominated industry exploiting explicit sexual violence against women – there’s nothing transgressive about that because it’s nothing new. It only serves to shock women and real-life victims of sexual violence. If these directors were truly committed to utilising the horror genre as a means of transgressing societal norms and expectations, they would tackle the issues that make themselves uncomfortable or even unseat their own positions of security in a deeply flawed industry.
The crimes of male directors are too many to number, and worst of all, they’re perpetuated both on and off screen. Looking behind the scenes on films like The Shining, The Birds and The Exorcist, it’s clear that the real-life counterparts of some of horror’s most iconic heroines have long been considered collateral.
Well, let me tell you something – male directors are ten a penny, and their days might just be numbered.