Credit Universal Pictures

Is horror sexist?

By Katherine Prentice

Katherine considers how hysteria shapes the way the horror genre presents women.

When you discuss horror, there are a few subgenres to consider. The slasher: where young women are hunted by a killer. The supernatural: where girls are taunted by a ghost or demon. The revenge flick: where a woman avenges the perpetrator of a crime against her… I think you can see the theme here. But that doesn’t explain why many women nonetheless love horror, so surely there must be something to this pattern other than pure sexism? 

While there is no justification for the slut shaming and voyeuristic narratives of most horror films, in some ways it feels nice not to have your fears downplayed for once: being a woman can be scary. And given that horror relies on the affectivity of its contents, aligning the viewer with the female character is bound to make it scarier, no? The reason why this doesn’t work in practice is that we usually watch violence from the eyes of the killer, not the victim. Rather than making the film scarier, this takes away the element of surprise. But what it does add is ample opportunity for voyeuristic shots of women changing, running, sleeping, or often having sex, while the camera literally assumes the predatory male gaze before the attack.

However, much of the horror genre is also about subverting expectations: evil mothers, creepy children and monsters living in suburban homes are all scary because they represent otherwise comfortable figures in our real lives. So following this logic, shouldn’t we mostly see men as the victims, making Arnold Schwartznegger or Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnston the perfect scream queens? Well, this is another trope, the man killer. While this occurs outside of the revenge genre, there is almost always an element of revenge to this. From Carrie to Jennifer’s Body, for every male slasher, there is a female monster. Usually these characters are teenage girls, particularly girls who have just begun puberty and menstruation, with their murderous tendencies depicted as some sort of internal poltergeist or dangerous manifestation of teen angst. Although mass murder is not treated as an ordinary PMS symptom, many filmmakers see a correlation here. But is the (teenage) female body really that scary? Or is it that the ‘victim’, the young girl, has been corrupted into the killer? Perhaps we are unsure of how to view these girls in this context.

Now don’t get me wrong at all, there are women out there who could absolutely kick the movie villains’ ass. Am I one of them? No, I can’t unlock my front door properly when I need to pee, never mind if Jason Vorhees was behind me. This is why we have the final girl trope I suppose: while in slasher films the villain is outsmarted and defeated by the last girl standing, the final girl is usually the only character who abstains from sex and/or drinking throughout the film. She is therefore painted as a moral hero, another obviously problematic trope.

All of this is not to mention the neurotic mothers, psychopathic girlbosses and damsels in distress across the horror and thriller canon. At least we have a wide choice of sexist characters to choose from, a caricature for all occasions. What underpins each of these character types is a sort of hysteria: a hysterical victim falling, a hysterical mother losing her son, or a hysterical teenage girl destroying her school prom. Rarely do we see female characters in horror as collected as the male characters, whether she is the victim or monster. This is where sexism can be traced most simply. The intricacies of the final girl or pubescent psychopath make for interesting discourse, but the next time you settle down to watch a scary movie this autumn, start off by considering which form of hysteria you are being sold this time.


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