Picture a film. It takes place in a ballet school, with a cast predominantly made of teenaged girls and their teachers. It opens with a sequence wherein one of these girls is brutally murdered, which is rendered in a series of striking, painterly images that seem to invite the viewer to gawk at their beauty – to treat the girl’s body as an object. It’s also a story of witchcraft, one keyed into ideas of female power and agency, and that ends with its young heroine quite gleefully embracing those qualities. Quick answer: is this film feminist for its themes and narrative focus, or misogynist for its imagery?
The film fans among us will recognise that description as Dario Argento’s Suspiria, a stylish, dreamlike 1977 Italian horror film that has remained iconic for many reasons – not least by the way it seems to crystalise the contradictory gender politics of the genre. Give any two people the prompt, ‘gender in horror films – discuss’, and expect to get two radically different responses. Depending on who you ask, horror is either nakedly regressive, relying on lurid images of female suffering for entertainment, or a vehicle for empowerment, presenting resonant stories of women conquering internal and external demons, sometimes actually turning the lens back on its male spectators. The range of takes on horror’s relationship with gender is as wide-ranging and seemingly contradictory as the genre itself. So, ahead of Halloween, let’s follow in the genre’s spirit and venture into the dark woods of horror’s gender politics – which, naturally, is just as murky, multivalent and fascinating as everything else associated with the genre.
It is of course unavoidable that certain horror films and cycles have indulged in shamelessly retrograde tendencies, and that circles in horror fandom have been too happy to reward them for doing so. Slasher films like the Friday the 13th sequels and the delightfully titled likes of New Year’s Evil and Don’t Answer The Phone! engaged in a particularly pernicious hypocrisy, mining their female characters’ sexuality for potential prurience, then ‘punishing’ them for it with equally prurient death scenes. Grindhouse staples like The Evil Dead and The Last House On The Left centre spectacularised sequences of sexual violence that are unnecessarily cruel at best and outright exploitative at worst, and seem to be there for little reason beyond the thrill of violating taboo. At its laziest, the genre throws around loaded imagery of gendered violence with a carelessness that feels distinctly adolescent. The prevalence of such aspects has arguably helped create a tiresomely macho culture in certain circles of horror spectatorship, where the genre is essentially treated as an endurance test: it’s all about proving your manhood by establishing who can watch the most sequences of degrading, misogynistic cruelty without feeling uneasy or sickened. To treat such imagery as ‘cool’ or ‘funny’ is the expected standard, and to react with empathy is seen as the ultimate proof of weakness – or worse, effeminacy. All this means that the genre’s reputation as the milieu of mouth-breathing teenaged male nerds frightened by and contemptuous of women, as a receptacle for outdated archetypes, is not exactly unearned.
And yet, if there’s anything scholars of horror know it’s that nothing is ever black and white, and that surface impressions never tell the full story; beneath every visage lurks something darker and more contradictory. And indeed, if you look throughout horror’s history (not just its recent history, as some would tell you), you’ll find plenty of proof that horror isn’t always a misogynist fanboy’s game: in fact, its very nature gives it a uniquely subversive potential.
Horror, as it exists today, has its roots in Gothic fiction, a method of storytelling often keyed into female fears and desires and concerned with the sub-altern and the oppressed – in stories like Dracula and Rebecca, the dreads of the female lead are what drive the plot, while the theme of darkness lurking beneath the establishment’s pleasant surfaces predominates. Many of the best and richest horror films remember their roots in this tradition. Think of Jennifer Kent’s chilling The Babadook, which stood as a shadowy, anxious articulation of taboo anxieties about motherhood long before its title monster became an unlikely gay icon, or how Robert Eggers’ The Witch dives deep into the psychological suffocation of a teenaged girl growing up under religious patriarchy. Think of the mythic, primal imagery of female power woven throughout Luca Guadagnino’s baroquely brutal remake of the aforementioned Suspiria, the (quite literal) evisceration of double standards surrounding sexual behaviour in Julia Decornau’s brilliant, uncompromising debut Raw, or the haunting expression of satisfaction worn by Florence Pugh’s Dani in the climax of Midsommar. If you were so inclined, you could also count Lynne Ramsay’s elliptical maternity nightmare We Need To Talk About Kevin – which may or may not be a horror film but is certainly more than viscerally distressing enough. Not only do the female characters in these films defy stereotypes, but they also explore themes related to gender norms in a challenging fashion. But such subversion isn’t a recent development – it’s woven into the very fabric of the genre.
Horror is built on disruption of the status quo, the unearthing of that which we try to bury. Accepted truisms are shattered, monsters lurk in places where we’re supposed to feel comfortable, and nothing is ever as it seems. Not for nothing is horror’s most iconic location, the haunted house, a twisted spoof of domestic normality – horror is all about taking that which we accept as commonplace and making it unsettling, revealing a darkness that was perhaps there all along. Done correctly, it takes expectations of all kinds, including ones surrounding gender, and shatters them right before our eyes. Mighty heroes and damsels in distress are for stories of certainty and comfort, but horror is (or ought to be) about discomfort, about subverting the familiar, about the unhomely, to borrow a term from Freud. It takes place in worlds that run on the logic of a fairy tale or nightmare rather than real life or more conventional drama. Empirical reason and brute force, the conventional weapons of the male pulp hero, are useless against intangible forces of darkness, while intuition, superstition and other traits mocked as the stuff of ‘old wives’ tales’ are the key to understanding the things lurking in the shadows. In horror, it’s ‘old wives’ tales’ that are true and ‘objectivity’ – the favourite term of both the Victorian phrenologist and the Reddit would-be debater – is a delusion. The genre’s history is rife with tales wherein men dismiss women’s warnings of danger only to realise too late that they should have listened, or where female characters possess a unique knowledge of, or connection to, the threat which evades the male characters (Us recently put a particularly interesting spin on this).
Furthermore, there is something about the genre’s heightened nature and fondness for the grotesque that can make it a uniquely appropriate venue for social satire and the expression of female anxieties. While the dynamic of female survivor vs. male monster can be trite, at its best it can tap into existing power dynamics and fears in much the same cathartic manner as dreams or psychodrama. There’s a reason that four decades later, the image of Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley fighting off H.R Giger’s distinctly phallic, forced-reproduction-minded monster in Alien remains so hauntingly effective. In both academic and fan circles, one can find many insightful, articulate pieces from female writers on the emotional release they found in the survival narratives of films like Halloween and A Nightmare On Elm Street (which makes the crass chauvinism of their aforementioned imitators all the more irritating). Sometimes it’s comforting to be told that not only are your fears valid, but you might be capable of kicking their asses – and no genre offers that quite like horror. And even before Jordan Peele popularised the term ‘social thriller’, the genre has never been a stranger to potent and cutting social commentary – has there ever been a more on-the-money takedown of toxic masculinity than the narcissistic, insecure, Trump-worshipping Patrick Bateman of Mary Harron’s film of American Psycho?
The question of horror’s gender politics is not a simple or straightforward one. Even beyond the futility of trying to prove a whole genre to be feminist or misogynist, horror presents a particularly challenging case: the very traits that may make, say, The Exorcist read as feminist to one viewer but cement it as chauvinist for another. It’s a genre with a history of centring women and their anxieties, and also one of nasty stereotypes, featuring many films where the two overlap. But if subversive feminist works like Raw or Jennifer’s Body don’t erase the frequent quasi-pornographic murders of the slasher cycle, then we shouldn’t let the toxic fanboy crowd overlook the genre’s capacity for nuance and the challenging of expectations. Like any student of the genre knows, you need to look beneath the masks, into the darkness below, to find the full, fascinating truth.