Why is horror like pornography?
Because women do it better.
Hollywood hasn’t realised this yet, so horror is still a massive boy’s club. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of talent out there at the moment; James Wan and Mike Flanagan are redefining the genre (think Oculus, not Ouija), and The Visit was almost enough to restore a shred of M Night Shyamalan’s dignity. But despite all the progress we’ve made since the 70’s and 80’s, it’s still tough to be a woman in horror, both on the screen or behind it. But there’s hope.
The same way that The Twilight Zone and The X-Files hid America’s worst fears in plain sight, directors and writers have been sneaking pro-feminist subtext into their horror movies for years. Some have done it openly, like The Descent, but others slipped it in under the radar.
Now I fucking hate listicles but brevity is the soul of wit. To that end, here are five of the best examples of feminism in horror, starting from the early 70’s right up to the modern day.
Here’s an interesting anecdote about Carrie; it was Stephen King’s first published novel, based on his real-life experiences teaching in a high school. He got a chance to see the reality of how badly teenagers (especially teenage girls) treat each other to climb the social ladder, and decided to use all those hormones, problems and menses.
After a few years developing a story and a crippling alcohol dependency, King gave us a first; a story where being a woman makes you stronger, not weaker. From the opening second, it’s Carrie’s adult womanhood that makes her strong. Her mother tries to deny it, but she meets a grotesque (and phallic) end as a result. But it isn’t until the cruelty of childhood peaks and Carrie is literally dripping with blood that she reaches her full power, killing anyone and everyone that stands in her way.
Alien is a film absolutely teeming with imagery; between the vagina-spider Facehuggers and the suspiciously-shaped Alien heads, Freud would probably shit his lederhosen if he ever watched it.
But the real reason we still love it is Ripley; she’s competent, takes no shit from her male crewmembers and she would never lie down for some giant penis monster. But the imagery goes further than that; the computer, the system keeping the crew alive, is called MOTHER. The Aliens hatch from eggs, a symbol of female reproduction, by BURSTING out of Manly McSpaceman’s chest in the most graphic reverse-rape of all time. Even the name of the spaceship, Nostromo, could be interpreted as a bastardisation of the Italian Nostro Uomo, meaning ‘Our Man’. Even the ship is male, meaning it can’t be allowed to survive the movie either. Viva la feminisation.
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Okay, this one’s a little easy. After all, Joss Whedon went on record saying that the whole reason he made Buffy was to subvert the “little blonde girl who goes into a dark alley and gets killed in every horror movie” trope. But there’s a fantastic example of this right at the beginning of the first episode, when a leather clad date-rapist tricks a pretty young blonde girl into a secluded area. It’s pretty obvious where this is supposed to go, and yet
That’s the great thing about the Buffyverse: Women are almost never the prey. Women are heroes, women are villains and if there’s ever a character in distress you can be sure that there’s a phallus and two testicles attached.
I remember Teeth fondly. I went to a COMPLETELY LEGAL screening with my family in 2007 before it nestled in the back of my brain forever, like a parasite or a tumour.
But I started thinking about it as I studied Feminist Film Theory. You see, the vagina dentate, or ‘toothed vagina’, is actually a pretty big deal. You can see it in Alien’s facehuggers, or the flytrap in Little Shop of Horrors or, more recently, those weird chastity belts in Mad Max: Fury Road. The idea is that films (which are mainly directed and written by men) are terrified of vaginas. The thought of women controlling men is repulsive to them, so they give female sexual organs the characteristics of scary animals. If a woman is ever allowed agency, she will bite your dick off.
And Teeth literalises it. The films protagonist is a young girl named Dawn. Like almost all protagonists that are teenage girls, Dawn is a virgin and spends the first portion of the film being bullied and manipulated by the men in her life. But after losing her virginity, after she chooses her own path, Dawn becomes more powerful than any man. She finds out the boy who took her virginity did it on a dare? Bite his dick off. Rapist? Bite his dick off. Creepy incest brother? You can probably see where this is going.
Since the dawn of film, we’ve been told that men are in charge and women are in the kitchen. Teeth calls bullshit on this by pointing out that no matter how much control men think they have, women can easily take away the thing they love the most.
- Dead Hooker in a Trunk (and the Soska Sisters)
Granted, if you haven’t seen Dead Hooker in a Trunk then it probably doesn’t sound like a feminist masterpiece. But everything, from the soundtrack to the shot selection, is aimed squarely at the faces of a female audience. Let’s deconstruct it a little:
The two protagonists, played by the Soska Sisters themselves, are twins named Badass and Geek. Immediately, we have the roles that women are allowed in film: the kicking ass and taking names femme fatale, and the ‘perfect’ image of virginal femininity. But the sisters are a problem for this because, as twins, it’s basically impossible to tell their faces apart. Clear message number 1: Women can be whoever the fuck they want to be.
As well as this, Geek’s kinda-maybe-boyfriend is given the characteristics that women are usually given in films. He’s weak, indecisive and throws up at the sight of blood, as well as being super uncomfortable when badass hits on him. Point number 2: not all men are stronger than women.
Finally, at the very end of the film (Spoiler Alert), we learn that the eponymous hooker was murdered by a client. Why? Because he had a mutilated penis. The bad guy was so aggrieved at his perceived feminisation that he felt the need to take it out on innocent prostitutes. Point 3: Guys who think their dicks make them important are ASSHOLES.
But it isn’t just the inclusion of these tropes that makes Dead Hooker a great feminist film. It’s because of how deliberately they’re used; for every ‘masculine’ trope that traditional Hollywood narratives force onto women, the Soska Sisters have an equal and opposite. They created a mirror to the ‘realism’ of the suburban woman, showing anyone and everyone that they can be every bit as gory, kick ass and tough as men.
In addition to their writing and direction, the Soska Sisters are also key members of the Women in Horror Month, a month dedicated to promoting all women in the film industry, but in horror films specifically. They hold a blood drive every year as well as writing/directing horror shorts to promote them. Here’s one of my favourite examples: