The horror genre's treatment of female directors and characters has long been a fraught topic. Deputy Arts & Culture Editor Paola Córdova Zelinski reflects on the problematic tropes that have long dominated the genre, and the female filmmakers pushing against them.
When it comes to horror films – we’re all very accustomed to seeing the same things. There’s always some overly extended, gory scene where a woman gets brutally assassinated, stabbed, beaten, tortured, etc. (I could go on describing but, frankly, the Saw movie series gives me too many options to list here). From the first time I saw Halloween I knew that’s how the formula works: a blonde with large breasts who is (mostly) naked runs until she clumsily trips and helplessly, orgasmically gives into the horrific violence she squirms through – almost as if for the male viewer’s pleasure.
The male gaze is something that I can pretty confidently say exists in every film genre, which is not something that surprises the majority of people, I’m sure, when I mention it. It flexibly works as its own set of mechanisms to incorporate itself into the most basic ways in which women characters are treated when they’re given screen time at all. It’s funny how something as basic as the Bechdel Test (whether two named female characters talk to each other about something other than a man) hardly befits the majority of movies that we talk about, making it a rarity for women as characters to have any autonomy, let alone dignity, in the worlds imagined by filmmakers historically speaking.
It is specifically because of this that I find the presence and awareness of women filmmakers so crucial in both the general cinematic canon, but also in our day-to-day viewing. I, for one, was not very aware of just how much women are under-credited in the field until recently, when I decided to dedicate myself personally to view as many films made, written, and directed with the influence of other women as much as I possibly could. As soon as I realized just how many films were available, I was shocked. I came to realize just how many women were making films, and how truly underrated and underseen these films have been so far.
The horror films I had seen until this point had left me rather numb to the trope of the overly tortured woman. Men who are widely hailed as geniuses personally caused the suffering of actresses to a sadistically unnecessary degree – think of Stanley Kubrick on the set of The Shining making Shelley Duvall shoot a scene 127 times until her pain was as emotionally traumatising as it was physically unbearable. Seeing the way that these two factors connected and informed one another, it suddenly clicked- the idea that this causing and observing of pain was as misogynistic as it was needlessly horrifying and messy when it developed onscreen. It’s about controlling women’s bodies in their imagined forms as much as in real life.
Women filmmakers have a hard time becoming recognized everywhere, but the horror genre can be said to be specifically exclusionary of women creatives, where the lack of the female gaze is particularly evident. Producer James Blum, well known for his work with the acclaimed and famed horror giants Insidious and Paranormal Activity has himself openly claimed that women appear to simply have no interest in the genre- a statement he would come to retract in face of controversy. Women have been historically present as creators in the genre, but not with the popular (and critical) recognition received by their male counterparts. If anything, however, the changes we have seen in the amount of involvement by women in famed horror films have been rather significant, with movies like Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook and Julia Ducournau’s Raw and becoming widely popular and successful in the mainstream. The problem is that we don’t talk about the difference that this presence of women creatives makes.
Karyn Kusama and Diablo Cody’s work, for example, in the film Jennifer’s Body was one that was dragged through the mud by the critics. It was advertised as a film made by men, for men- a sexualized advertisement of Megan Fox and her sex appeal meant to exude effortlessness and the classic “cool girl” trope about her people were so ready to box her inside. When I reluctantly watched the film (11 years after it was made mind you), I was very pleasantly surprised to find that it was anything but. Not only is the film a powerful allegory on the legacy of trauma in relation to sexual assault- it is written to speak to a sexually fluid generation of young women trying to understand themselves, their potential, and their friendships in a way I have rarely seen onscreen. It uses the horror genre, subverts its tropes, and portrays women as autonomous beings in a context within which they are usually dehumanized and reduced to an objectifiable gory spectacle. Megan Fox is not reduced to a body and an archetype under the male gaze’s magnifying glass- she becomes a (literal) man eating monster as a consequence of a group of men taking violent advantage of a teenage girl.
More recently released was Rose Glass’s debut film Saint Maud in 2019 – a movie that very differently explores this concept of the tortured woman through the female gaze. The concept of “body horror” that is popularized in the horror genre is elevated to a new level, following the story of a woman exploring her relationship to a higher power and to her past trauma, and the self-harm she inflicts as a result. The protagonist, Maud (Morfydd Clark), is a nuanced and conflicted figure caught between different versions of who she is. She is hardly two dimensional, not the helpless screaming Shelley Duvall of Kubrick’s The Shining, but rather an independent figure who seeks to control her pain and in turn find a sense of spiritual peace. Her self-destructiveness makes her a powerful force to reckon with, a complex character, and also a person to sympathize with. The viewer hardly savors her pain, but rather cringes in response to the way that Maud does the deeper she descends into madness. Saint Maud criticizes the encouraged self-flagellation widely observed in certain traditions of the Catholic faith in the past, exploring masochism (an internal matter) as opposed to the imposition of external desire upon the body (an anxiety explored and often taken out on women in the horror genre). In this “body horror” story, Maud is granted agency unlike many of the other women who have formed part of the genre’s historical canon.
The way that women creatives have fundamentally affected the films they make has changed the presence of women characters onscreen, and ergo affected the way they are conceptualized in the mainstream in general. The question of inclusivity being pushed to the center of popular concerns has allowed for unprecedented forms of innovation and growth, breaking traditions and formulas that, let’s be honest, were getting a bit old anyways. Granting female filmmakers attention and support in the horror genre as much as everywhere else is important – to break with archaic tropes, to make way for new (and more interesting) ways of conceptualising stories, and to continue bettering the art form to make it more comprehensive and holistic.