Can horror films be feminist? Filmmaker Rémy Bennett answers.
Someone recently asked me, “Can I be a horror movie fan and a feminist at the same time?” My first thought was well yeah of course, you can be whatever the fuck you want to be…and ALSO be a feminist. And my second thought was that horror is actually pretty synonymous with feminism when you look back at the classics. The genre tends to get a bad rap for representing women in degrading ways, but conversely this is something I see across the board in the majority of other kinds of films out there. In my opinion, if you want to be offended as a female viewer, then watch a mainstream romantic comedy. If you want to be inspired…watch a horror movie. I’d like to take Pretty Woman out of the hands of our children and give them I Spit On Your Grave. Teach ’em some real life lessons! But seriously, besides the fact that you can’t find sex, violence, and humor played out together in such entertaining ways anywhere else, in no other genre are there so many complex female protagonists driving, and at the centre of, each story told.
Something seemingly obvious struck me recently after reading up on some classic Gothic literature in an anthology a friend gave me as an early Halloween present. Would we even have monster movies as we know them today, were it not for a woman? In the year 1818 at the startlingly young age of 19, Mary Shelley completed her novel, Frankenstein. Not that it’s a competition or anything… but Bram Stoker was a 50-year-old man when he wrote Dracula, and that novel was published decades after Frankenstein was released. Mary Shelley truly paved the way; without a doubt, the single most complex and influential monster story of all time sprang from the mind of a teenage girl. Suddenly, it occurred to me that the teenage girl being the defining trope of the modern horror movie wasn’t a device born from the imagination of a man – and I could see a deeper meaning behind that pattern. The origin of all these iconic movie monsters came from inside the bedroom of an adolescent girl.
Consider all the mysteries and complexities present during that moment in a woman’s development: the morphing of one’s body, the expansion of the mind, the inevitable existential conundrums that bring the idea of death into focus for the first time (an image of Stephen King’s Carrie White practicing her telekinesis in her attic room suddenly popped into my mind). With an astounding mastery of her craft at such a young age, Shelley captured the sense of abandonment, alienation, and inadequacy when one is a victim of their upbringing or circumstance. She depicted the horror of a life without reason: the infinite sorrow of someone deformed through a systematic exposure to evil, hatred, and mistreatment, and the eventual hardening of self that becomes monstrous. These ideas about inherent vs. learned evil and what shapes the making of a monster are the foundation of the horror genre. Would there even be a Leatherface, Michael Myers, Jason Vorhees, or Freddy Krueger if it wasn’t for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein? The term “Master of Horror” gets thrown around a lot when discussing the greats, and upon whom to bestow that coveted title. George Romero or Clive Barker? Bram Stoker or HP Lovecraft? Carpenter or Craven? I think if we’re going to get real about it, the only person truly deserving of that title would have to be Mary Shelley.
The bold choice of casting an unconventionally beautiful actress (unlike the classic Hollywood ingénues of the time) in the lead role of John Carpenter’s Halloween was primarily the decision of Debra Hill. Hill was Carpenter’s long time collaborator and the co-writer and producer of Halloween as well as The Fog, Escape from New York, and the Halloween sequels. Someone with the idiosyncrasies and slight androgyny of Jamie Lee Curtis was not at the top of any Hollywood studio lists at the time, but Debra Hill said about the writing and casting of the character of Laurie Strode, that she “was not going to have a weeping violet type as [her] heroine, no way.” Hill described Laurie as “a strong character who was very willful and feared nothing. Here was a woman who didn’t run from danger but stepped up to it.” Debra Hill herself could be described as a heroine in a male dominated industry – and the mother of the slasher film. Jamie Lee Curtis has said of Debra Hill that she was “the most influential woman in my professional life” and “that she represented the independent Hollywood woman’s spirit." After Hill’s death, John Carpenter described her as “a real pioneer in this business, who opened the road for women” Debra Hill produced Halloween from the ground up and injected it with a sensibility through her writing that illuminated the strength and intelligence of a young-woman-in-peril-turned-warrior in a way that hadn’t been seen before.
The late great (feminist) director Wes Craven famously said, “horror films don’t create fear; they release it." With his controversial Last House On The Left, the audience witnesses a brutally violent sexual assault on a woman as well as the equally brutal revenge for that crime. Craven described the harrowing events in the film as “…a cruel shock of realism meant to showcase any human’s capacity for pointless evil.” As an audience, by vicariously enacting our revenge on the sexual assailant we are able to experience some form of a catharsis. We are given an outlet through fantasy to express our frustration and rage. Meir Zarchi, director of the rape revenge film I Spit On Your Grave, has said that his inspiration for that film came from stumbling upon a recently attacked woman in Central Park and seeing how she was mistreated by the police which resulted in her never receiving justice. He then wrote the screenplay as a re-imagining of the situation, allowing that rape survivor to get her revenge. The original title of the film was, fittingly, Day Of The Woman.
There have been countless strong and victorious "final girls" in horror movies who are warriors and survivors. Sally from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Kirsty Cotton from Hellraiser, Laurie Strode from Halloween, and the feisty camp counsellor Alice from Friday the 13th (who ultimately decapitates Mrs. Vorhees) but the one heroine who I find the most affecting is Nancy from A Nightmare On Elm Street. Nancy did not simply endure and survive torture or manage to outrun a killer and defend herself in the moment of attack as other ‘final girls’ have done. She was the master of her own destiny; proactive and strategic in her approach to destroying Freddy Krueger.
Freddy was a sexual predator, a rapist and abuser of children, a taker of innocence, a paedophile, and a murderer . His crimes were dirty secrets that Nancy brought back into the light. "Elm street" is code for “Anywhere, USA," and the nightmare is the child abuse ubiquitous in any suburban town and its cycle of violence that haunts a community. Nancy is the hero of this story. She fights not only for the lives of her friends and family, but for the memories of those abused. In her final stand off with Freddy during the climax of the film, after a physical show down where she is taunted and attacked, she collects herself with stoicism, turns her back to him and says with utter strength and conviction, “You are nothing. You are shit. I take back every bit of energy I ever gave to you.” With her strength of character and those few words, his power is taken away and the monster dissolves along with the cycle of violence he perpetuated.
The depiction of motherhood (and specifically the single working mother) in the classic horror film is something that has always struck me. Nowhere else are the maternal qualities of strength, bravery, and love displayed more truthfully than in the ‘scary movie’ and specifically in the ‘possession’ film. Ellen Burstyn’s character, Chris, in The Exorcist is a single mother who is successful in her own right as a working actress, a woman’s rights activist in her spare time, and a devoted mother. Even before the plot turns to the demonic possession of Regan, the audience is shown an unflinchingly realistic portrayal of a mother and daughter, and we gain a unique insight into the dynamics between a single mother and her child that hadn’t been portrayed in American cinema up to that point. Chris believes in the purity and goodness of her daughter: her love for her is so strong that even when Reagan is disfigured and possessed by the devil himself and Chris is abused by the demon and pushed to the limits of sanity, she never gives up on her. No amount of darkness can diminish her maternal love, and in the end Regan is saved.
In the supernatural film The Entity Barbara Hershey plays Carla Moran, a single mother of three struggling financially who is the victim of sexual assaults by an unknown entity haunting her home. Aside from the poltergeist element of the movie, we are once again being shown the everyday trials of a woman who is a breadwinner and caregiver dealing with mental and physical anguish while maintaining strength and control over her family. Various men enter her life attempting to save her, but in the end her salvation is of her own making and the focus remains on her own resilience as a woman and mother.
In the 1982 classic Poltergeist the female characters (Carol Anne’s mother Diane Freeling, Dr. Lesh the parapsychologist, and the psychic Tangina) are ultimately the characters who effect change and save the supernaturally snatched daughter Carol Anne from the clutches of the undead. When the time comes to jump through the portal to “the other side” in the children’s bedroom to retrieve their daughter, it is Diane who takes the plunge…not her husband.
In Child’s Play a widowed working single mother trying to make ends meet and despite her financial struggle is still dead set on providing her only little boy with the season’s must have toy craze, The Good Guy Doll. By a stroke of bad luck she buys the one doll that also happens to be possessed by some psychotic murdering asshole who goes on to terrorize them in the form of a grotesque killer doll. This mother doesn’t have the financial cushion or the emotional support of a partner to see her through any of this, and protects her son independently. These women are fighters. They aren’t fearless in the face of horror (as no genuine person can be) but they overcome their fears in order to protect themselves and their families.
So yes there are amazingly strong, multi-dimensional female figures everywhere in horror – and interesting role models…admittedly also a lot of tits and blood and hot, awkward teenage sex. I guess that much sexiness coupled with violence may offend some, or be misinterpreted as pure misogyny. But can I remind you that both the original The Slumber Party Massacre and its sequel were written and directed by women? Not to mention some of the most infamously controversial and salacious exploitation films like Snuff, or the work of Doris Wishman and Stephanie Rothman – all pioneers of the female exploitation genre. These ladies had a lot to say about sex and violence and gender in modern society, but they also had a sense of humor…and it was dark.
Are horror movies ever going to be PC? No fucking way. And please kill me before that ever happens. Horror films are an exercise in the extreme. They encompass all the horniness of puberty in a fever pitch of absurdity covered in blood and guts, while still serving as a mirror to hold up to our times. The impulse to laugh and scream at once is not too far from reaching orgasm, which is a pleasure that should be experienced by both men and women alike. These films are garish and funny…poignant and terrifying all at the same time. Is it so bad to see hot chicks run around in lacy lingerie? I don’t think so. Can it be exploitative? Sure. But isn’t all art – movies in particular? For the camera’s lens or the viewer to linger on the female form is primal. There is a power there for the woman that shouldn’t be belittled. If people assume that women aren’t capable of having a dark sense of humor, perhaps a twisted sensibility, and the same anarchic carnal impulses that teenage boys do, then I think that speaks more of their own sheltered mentality than of anything else. And if anyone tells you what you can or can’t like or be if you want to be a feminist then you should tell them to fuck off, and know that they’ve kind of missed the point.
This is a guest post by Rémy Bennet that originally appeared on altmagazine.co.uk.
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