Women Spectators and Horror

A common misconception occurs when discussing certain aspects of genre films, particularly in the suspense/horror field; that men make up most of the spectatorship role. It remains true, however, that there are far more male directors. As per a study conducted in 2017 by the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, male directors outnumber female colleagues in a staggering 24:1 ratio. There’s no other plausible explanation for this gap other than institutionalized sexism and lack of opportunity given to female directors. The same fate is true for minorities, unfortunately. Based on those numbers, one could then assume that the spectatorship role within the cinema is predominantly male as well. However, this is simply untrue, even in the genre of horror.

PostTrak numbers for Andy Muschietti’s 2017 smash hit, It, revealed that both men and women were very responsive to the terrifying killer clown; 51% of attendees were men, with a solid 49% of ticket holders being women. These numbers expose the misconception discussed beforehand and shift the conversation from who’s seeing these flicks to the question of why women are just as interested, perhaps even more so than men. It should ultimately be examined under the scope of horror as fantasy. Alluding to more dream-like elements, and further escaping from reality. Because let’s face it: as much as one would love to indulge in the fantasies of mind control, telekinesis, and shapeshifting, these aren’t common occurrences in our everyday life. If they existed, they would be horribly misused, and we’d all be dead rather quickly.

Raw, Image via Alberni Street Productions

It is horror that often places women in the driver’s seat, whether it be ill intentioned or not. For one, a common trope among 80s slasher flicks is the notion of the “final girl.” This is a female character who is one of the lucky few to survive a truly harrowing experience, typically the sole survivor, or “Final Girl.” Wes Craven’s classic, Scream (1997), deconstructed the slasher film perfectly and put a particularly strong female character, Sidney Prescott, at the forefront. The “rules” that one must abide by in order to survive a horror movie are: never having sex, never doing drugs or consuming alcohol, and never saying, “I’ll be right back.” Most of these rules impact a very specific demographic: teenagers. And in many cases, women are subjected to these rules more than anybody because the main protagonist is typically female, and often deemed “innocent.” What that means, in terms of slasher flicks, is that the character hasn’t experienced certain mature situations (i.e. sex). It’s an odd phenomenon: empowering women while at the same time suggesting how they should live their lives.

The films within this subgenre of horror mainly center around a group of students or friends. By the end, the only characters to survive are the ones who haven’t participated in sexual situations or other nefarious activities. This details the societal expectations that are thrust upon women at an early age, considering that the primary audience for this type of genre is a bit younger. While Scream and other slasher films such as Drew Goddard’s The Cabin in the Woods (2011) are quick to deflect those common tropes, they remain standard practice today, though the tide is shifting with directors such as Julia Ducournau (Raw), Jennifer Kent (The Babadook), and Coralie Fargeat (Revenge). We live in exciting times where more and more women are given access to the means of storytelling, though it’s something that should have been happening all along.

Revenge, Image via New World Pictures

Horror has a history of identifying with women and other outsider groups, and indeed, prides itself with creating a unique space in which the mind can take pleasure in the awful, and often disguising, nature of human beings. From a female spectator perspective, three films highlight this desire to indulge in a fantasy-driven world and connect with women in a way in which most other cinema cannot: Paul Schrader’s Cat People (1942), Brain De Palma’s Carrie (1976), and John Fawcett’s Ginger Snaps (2000). The latter of which brought on a female screenwriter to engage in expressing a feministic perspective, whether that was the intention or not. Varying critical themes from each can be examined in-depth and then analyzed to find a blanket answer to the question of why women, too, love horror.

Cat People, regardless of the time period, communicated the importance of women through the lens of storytelling and spectatorship. Even at the time of the Hays Code, censorship didn’t necessarily extend to either sword and sandal films, due to the historical accuracy depicted on screen, or horror. It was often the case that filmmakers in these genres could avoid flagging the censors by simply implying themes, rather than engaging with them directly. Take the use of fur coats in Schrader’s film. Women wearing these types of coats symbolize fluid sexuality, addressing that a character could potentially reject heterosexuality as a cultural norm. When Irena (Simone Simon) discusses her foreigner background, she talks of a fable in which the women in her town are cat people and mentions that if she sleeps with a man, she will have to kill him shortly thereafter. It is important to recognize that she never mentions what will happen if she has sexual relations with another female. This slight dialogue piece is indicative of this cultural rejection of heterosexuality, and then cemented by the fact that when Irena crosses path with another Serbian women at a restaurant, she’s wearing a fur coat and dressed like a cat.

The male gaze is flipped on its own head by Irena who, while at the zoo, studies a wild cat. Not only is she studying the cat, though; she stencils the outline of the cat in front of visitors, one of whom is Oliver, her love interest for the film. At first, the story focuses on the potential couple, employing a more romantic themed soundtrack rather than creating a dark, foreboding atmosphere. This does occur, but much later: when Irena does transform herself into a cat from having sex with her psychiatrist. She stalks Alice and Oliver, who has now decided that Irena isn’t right for him and would rather pursue Alice. Oliver doesn’t really have a crucial place in the story either, his character is essentially limited to a plot device for the two women to take the mantle. By the end, both Irena and Alice have accepted their fate, and have become more comfortable with themselves in their womanhood. Alice has a few lines of dialogue that drive home the point: “I’m a big girl now,” she claims, “a new type of women.”

Carrie, Image via Red Bank Films

De Palma’s coming-of-age tragedy sees the title character step into her own skin as well, granted in a completely different way. As where Irene slightly takes pleasure in the murder of the doctor and stalking of her former lover, Carrie (Sissy Spacek) willingly murders many people to take control of her situation. Shot compositions are predominantly made up of women, and there is only one scene in which the female perspective isn’t explored, featuring three males. The opening credits are in red, foreshadowing the oncoming menstruation that Carrie will face for the first time, and the slaughter of her classmates. She has her first period while taking a shower after gym class. Not only is she a social outcast, but she also experiences this around the people that treat her the worst. In her lack of knowledge regarding the female body a thematic discovery is made. In a male dominated society, women are supposed to be “innocent.” They become impure at this age according to the culture, the dark-red color of the blood washing out the purest of white (which happens to be Carrie’s last name).

However, this isn’t the only issue raised by Carrie. The lack of sex education for both women and men are highlighted. How are teenagers supposed to differentiate from right and wrong, or learn what is normal without this education? Carrie’s classmates probably only knew about menstruation because it happened to them as well. If schools were able to educate their students, even at the most basic level, she would have been aware of her situation and taken control of it. It falls on the parenting of her mother, too. But again, her mother also believes that menstruation is impure. To quote her: “These are godless times.” Even though Ms. White (Piper Lauire) identifies as a female, she is trapped by a god-bearing, patriarchal society. She inflicts emotional and physical abuse on Carrie. High-angle shots put Carrie in the inferior position to her mother, who is often captured at a low-angle; flexing her power over both her daughter and the audience.

Cat People, Image via RKO Radio Pictures

Even after her gym teacher tells her to “just smile,” which is a common occurrence for women facing trauma and the onset of menstruation, Carrie reaps the strength to destroy her old self; an act symbolized by the shattering of her bedroom mirror. From this point on, she becomes more aware of her telekinesis and her ability to control. Unlike the past, she will have the knowledge to use her body from this point onwards. Chris (Nancy Allen) possesses a different kind of control: she uses her feminine qualities to manipulate men to get what she wants, as evident by her relationship with Billy Nolan (John Travolta). Do note: when Tommy (William Katt) is dropping him and his date off at the prom, there’s a fleeting moment where Carrie opens the car door to get out herself, pauses, and shuts the door to wait for Tommy to open it again. Both are easy to sympathize with, Chris less so, but that doesn’t change the fact that these two women are driving the story forward and exuding female power.

Yet another common thread of women empowerment in the genre comes from Ginger Snaps. In all three of these films, body horror is used to express a woman’s changing body. The main characters in this movie must learn to deal with the threat of turning into a werewolf on the onset of their period, which correlates with lunar patterns. In the opening sequence two sisters pose for grotesque photos, explicitly revealing their love for horror. It shows that it is okay to like these types of things even as a woman. Later, one of the sisters, Ginger (Katharine Isabelle), is attacked, and is subsequently lustful; searching for a partner to devour. But during her reign of terror, she slaughters many dogs and a couple guys. “He barked, and he barked, and he kept fucking barking,” she prattles after killing a neighbor’s dog. But of course, the dialogue was left ambiguous and, in one way, implies that she is talking about a man.

The sisters in Ginger Snaps, Carrie, and Irena are all women, but the appeal of these movies doesn’t just extend to females. Each of these characters are outsiders and anyone can relate to them. Countless narratives, both on the page and on the screen, depict an outsider’s story. However, it is only in these films that women and other ‘outsider spectators’ can take pleasure in the fantasy of revenge. In the pleasure of unapologetically accepting oneself. There’s nothing quite like it, and that is why people keep seeking these stories out.

Scream, Image via Dimension Films

Author: Jared Charles

I am the owner of The Burrow Reviews. Currently studying Film, English, Political Science, and Gender Studies.

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