Horror has always been female. Since the dawn of the genre, the basic premise has often been monsters and ghouls targeting women and committing horrendous acts on the female body, all for the enjoyment of a popcorn-munching audience. Violence against women has always been up for grabs in terms of entertainment, but horror also packed a mighty punch for female empowerment in the form of the Final Girl, a term coined by a famed author Carol J. Clover in her book Men, Women and Chainsaws.
Whether the Final Girl is truly revolutionary or even feminist is debatable, but it’s hard to ignore just how deep the female form of horror truly goes and what a renaissance it has had of late. Women aren’t just prey anymore, they’re hunters and survivors. More and more female filmmakers have cast their gaze on the genre and used the iconic imagery against itself, creating powerful stories and new icons for generations of women to look up to.
Rape-Revenge & The Female Gaze
Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge smartly guides and subverts the audience’s presumed male gaze by utilising the camera as a weapon against it. Jen, played by Matilda Lutz in a role of a lifetime, is at first presented as a voiceless, almost Lolita-esque figure who is flown to a lavish house in the middle of the desert, owned by her secret boyfriend, the married Richard. Before we hear her speak, we see her seduce and perform fellatio on Richard. This might sound a little icky and submissive, but already Fargeat commands the narrative and allows Jen to have all the power in the situation.
Later, Richard’s friends arrive and one of them rapes Jen. Fargeat never turns the camera away from the horror experienced by Jen, partially dictated by the rules of the genre and partially Fargeat’s own boldness. When Jen refuses to stay quiet of the incident, Richard pushes her off a cliff, seemingly killing her after she is impaled by a large branch. Jen survives and goes after the men.
Revenge is a typical rape-revenge film until it isn’t. Later in the film, the camera that once ogled at Jen’s smooth legs, now gazes her with respect as it shows her bruised, scarred and marked body. While previous rape-revenge films have almost glorified the rape, lingering on the female victim’s face as she is abused and violated several times, Revenge strikes a delicate balance between the necessary and the disturbing.
Similarly, Sophia Takal’s Black Christmas, a loose remake of a 1974 film of the same name, also attempts to reclaim the rape narrative and inject feminist themes into its story. The film’s protagonist Riley not only has to fight against supernatural powers of evil, but also patriarchy in its most blatant form as well as apathetic authority figures who refuse to take her claims of being raped seriously.
Ari Aster has proven himself to be a master of female grief and its horrific consequences in both Hereditary and Midsommar. Both films deal with different types of femininity; motherhood in Hereditary and toxic relationships in Midsommar. Toni Colette’s Annie is a terrible mother, at least if you take her words out of the larger context of the film. She admits to not wanting to be a mother and once dousing her children in gasoline while sleepwalking, only waking up as she lit a match.
Dani, so alone in her relationship, finds female companionship in Hårga. There, she is not only accepted but celebrated and crowned their queen. Once she finds her boyfriend Christian cheating she breaks down in sobs, but instead of being shushed or seen as an inconvenience for having such overwhelmingly consuming emotions as Christian does, the women of Hårga join Dani in her pain, sharing it. Midsommar comes closest to a happy ending, fooling the viewer and Dani herself into believing she has found home but in fact, she has been gaslighted and lied to just as she was by Christian. She has swapped one abusive and toxic relationship for another.
While there’s been a rightful demand for more female representation on-screen as well as behind the camera, horror has always been a sanctuary for women. From Nancy in A Nightmare On Elm Street to Laurie in Halloween, horror has always focused in female protagonists and forced male audience members to relate to a female character rather than a male one, one of the only genres to do so outside of romantic comedies without being labelled ‘a chick-flick’.
The Terror of Being A Woman
Jennifer Kent’s mesmerising debut feature The Babadook was hailed as one of the scariest films of 2014 and rightfully so. Not only does it provide scares related to the titular monster, but it also forces us to examine the ugly side of motherhood, something Hereditary would also do a few years later. Essie Davis’ Amelia is a single mother, grieving the death of her husband and her son Samuel is a handful. When Samuel begins to believe a monster from a storybook is real and strange events begin to occur, Amelia’s already fragile psyche starts to crumble further.
Motherhood has always been something warm and fuzzy, yet powerful. A mother’s purpose in life is to protect her children with the ferociousness of a lion, but The Babadook shows a side to motherhood we never speak of; the late, sleepless nights, the deafening screaming of your child in the back seat of a car, the overwhelming nature of it all. Samuel isn’t a bad child per se, nor is Amelia a bad mother, but Kent bravely associates motherhood with horror, something that feels like a taboo still, although it might be the reality for a lot of women struggling with their identity and maternal responsibilities.
Women haven’t always been the victims. Ginger Snaps, Jennifer’s Body and A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night all feature women as something to be feared, the beast. These films boldly reclaim the damsel in distress trope; even the Final Girls are often helpless until the last moments of the film and almost accidentally defeat the evil. Ginger Snaps and Jennifer’s Body, as well as Excision, also portray their women as unapologetically sexual. However, they must be punished for this and are turned into the villain, who must be slayed for the balance of the film’s world to return to normal.
Julia Ducornau’s Raw presents a different take on the classic coming-of-age story. A hazing ritual causes the strict vegetarian Justine to suddenly crave meat, but raw chicken breast just won’t cut it. Like most of us, Justine finds herself after moving away from home; she questions everything she knows of the world and alongside her new-found hunger, she also finds her sexuality which seems to bring out something almost animalistic in Justine.
Rather than make her the villain in her own story, Justine’s cannibalistic tendencies are treated with the same respect and curiosity as her sexuality. Something has awoken inside of her and she will need to learn to live with it. She has become a hunter, a powerful woman not to be messed with, but unlike her sister, she retains her humanity and mercy, sparing her sister in the end, only to learn she has inherited something that has been passed down for generations of women in her family. C’est grave.
What Dani, Ginger, Justine, Amelia, Jen and all their genre sisters have in common is their gender. They bring forth the female experience in nuanced, yet wildly different ways. Horror has always drawn parallels to real life, specifically finding inspiration from how terrifying being a woman can be. It’s in the opening scene of Scream; a woman is stalked by a masked, male killer while alone in her house. It’s in the countless scenes of women walking to their cars in the dark, clutching their keys, ready to use them as makeshift weapons, but still succumbing to the killer who’s already in the car waiting for her to let her guard down.
Horror exclusively offers a space for women to explore and process trauma and issues specifically related to their gender and has done so for decades. It’s a genre that offers viewers the chance to experience fear in a safe place and explore subject matters in a way that other genres won’t allow them to. A drama about sexual assault would be a harrowing, potentially necessary and an emotional watch, but horror takes things further, allowing the viewer to experience unprecedented catharsis. In the wrong hands, the filmmaker’s assumed male gaze might become too overpowering and turn things ugly, exploiting where it should explore.
Whether it’s moral to still include scenes of sexual assault and sexual violence in films, for effect, remains debatable. Is it necessary to keep creating set pieces where female bodies are violated and mutilated for the sake of entertainment? With more and more female filmmakers behind the camera, perhaps the gaze is finally slowly shifting. Upcoming films such as Relic, Candyman and Saint Maud all offer female takes on something previously controlled and produced by men. Vive la revolution!