Posted on December 03 2020
THE HORROR GENRE HAS ALWAYS HAD A THING FOR ITS FEMALE CHARACTERS. FRAGILE DAMSELS, SCREAM QUEENS AND LAST GIRLS FLOODED THE BIG SCREEN, EVEN IN ITS EARLY DAYS, CREATING A NEW KIND OF HEROINE FOR WOMEN TO IDENTIFY WITH. BUT THESE MOVIES ARE ALSO INHABITED BY A DIFFERENT KIND OF GIRL, ONE THAT LURKS IN ITS CORNERS, POWERFUL, HUNGRY AND MONSTROUS.
Alex A. Bensi
There’s a bit of a paradox when it comes to horror and its relationship with women. It was one of the first genres of film to focus female protagonists, and even though this was done mainly because the image of a girl in danger incited a bigger fear response in the audience, it did mean that the starring women had to be more developed as characters in order to be appealing. Their lives need to be first worth exploring to later be worth saving. It would be naïve, though, to think that horror has always been a positive thing for its female characters, they are after all the ones that, when it comes down to it, have the longest and most brutal death scenes within films they’re in. Not to mention the eroticism and oversexualization that seems to follow them everywhere and that is often times painted as the reason why they must suffer.
Despite the misogyny, women have a rich history with horror, both as audiences and as creators. The supernatural seems to be a useful tool when it comes to representing the issues and pains that come with living in a patriarchal society. When criticizing the depths of misogyny in their own worlds seemed an endless uphill battle, women could look at horror and find the monsters of their pain personified and understandable, maybe they even got to see the evil get defeated. Authors like Mary Shelley and Shirley Jackson, as well as early filmmakers like Alice Blanche and Daphne du Maurier felt the appeal of the genre as a way to express their anxieties as women. And so they produced works filled with the horror and dread that invaded their everyday lives and could not be expressed but through the violence and fear experienced by their characters. It was here that a specific, stranger kind of heroine started to appear: the monstress.
A woman corrupted either by inner or outside forces into something painfully, and often violently, distorted. Driven by new maddening impulses, she would torment the men around her, take revenge on those who had hurt her or simply lose herself to the supernatural forces that now ruled her world, since they offered her comparatively more freedom than her former life. As, professor of film and media Shelley Stamp put it:
“Horror, more than any other film genre, deals openly with questions of gender, sexuality and the body. Yes, femininity, female sexuality, and the female body are often presented as ‘monstrous’. But that doesn’t mean that women aren’t interested in watching and thinking about these issues. In many ways horror films bring to the fore issues that are otherwise unspoken in patriarchal culture – which itself constructs female sexuality as monstrous.”
One of the most iconic monstress characters in the last century may be Carrie White, who finds a surge of unfathomable destructive powers at her hands after getting her first period. The (obviously cis-centric) biologicism of this marks a link between her sexual development and the havoc she will later bring when she unleashes her own pain onto hordes of teenagers. The idea seems to be that she was always doomed to this, because of something that comes inherently with becoming a woman. But Carrie here isn’t only a villainess, she is also the heroine, the monster and her own victim. Possessed by a feminine brutality destroys her from the inside out, bringing the whole school down with her. Ultimately it’s obvious she has lost control and must be stopped before it’s too late. Bringing forth her death is a safety measure for everyone around her, but it’s also a mercy, to save her from the power she created.
The focus of movies like Carrie and Ginger Snaps (another murder rampage kickstarted by the protagonist’s menstruation) on the sexual development of their characters brings forth the message that the destructive force of femininity comes hand in hand with the transition from child to woman. But these girls aren’t really women yet, certainly not because they got their first period. They are still teenagers who are being thrusted into the adult world. People are starting to look at them differently and begin placing certain expectations on them, just because of how their bodies are changing. As audiences we get to sit and witness how the girls' powers grow and distort them while they try to find a way to adapt themselves into the new world they are violently coming into. There’s obvious feelings of fear, confusion or even anger over the lack of control that the protagonists have over what’s happening to them. Their powers, as their womanhood, is thrusted upon them against their will or even their knowledge and because of it, they soon become the target of mockery, manipulation and harassment. The sorrow and pain this inflicts on the girls will not take long to consume them completely. However, these stories don’t seem to take this social aspect of womanhood into too much consideration, preferring to focus on the horror of physical change and the bloodlust that comes with it.
It’s not all negative though. Other films, especially in the last couple of decades, have been taking inspiration in the monstrous feminine to talk about the horrors of transitioning into womanhood, especially at a young age. The inherent trauma of growing up female is transformed into supernatural abilities that will lead the characters to grow into their own. The characters around these girls will come in with some of their own preconceptions, some telling them what they are going through is normal, and others reacting with disgust, fear or even violence. Here however, these reactions say more about them as members of a patriarchal society and how they interpret womanhood in general, than about the female characters themselves.
Some movies like Raw and Thelma use horror as means for the protagonists to grow, discovering themselves and the truths about the society they are in. In both cases the protagonists later discover that their condition is one that has been passed on to them through their family and that learning how to find strength in it is essential for them to thrive in life. While movies like The Fits treat the supernatural more like a rite of passage that none of the young girls really understand. However, they quickly become convinced that the mysterious things that keep happening to them must be normal, and even desirable, although no one can really explain why. The things these characters go through are not reduced to a single monstrous character. Instead they are shared with other characters, showing the possibility that our protagonists may find a guide through their coming of age processes and maybe not be consumed by the things about themselves they cannot control.
The image of the coven is also often used in similar ways. In The Craft or The Witch, we can see magic and horror being presented to women as an alternative to the oppressive societies they live in. The heroines find within themselves strength and power through the esoteric and, more importantly, a way to escape from a patriarchal world into one of female community devoid of the ties that held them back. Here the idea of a cursed femininity is also brought up, but this time it doesn’t come as an objective truth, again its presented as a bigoted and even violent perspective. It’s the sort of attitude that pushes the women in the movie to look for an alternative way of life and finding it dripping with power.
Other times the horror works to represent the fear and trauma that starts haunting the protagonist after they are thrusted into situations of violence or abuse. Perfect Blue shows us an actress-singer whose mental health begins to dwindle as she becomes more and more exposed to the oversexualisation that her work demands of her and to the workings of fans who think they can own her. It Follows, on the other hand, focuses on a teenager being persecuted by an entity only she can see, which represents the trauma of the dubious consent involved in her first sexual experience. These supernatural conflicts are put in a more external position, reflecting how they are ultimately results of the structures the characters find themselves into.
There are a series of ways in which these movies use the supernatural as an expression of the societal issues girls are made aware of far too early in life. Monsters, hallucinations, blood and curses all become different metaphors with which relationships with gender, society, sex, etc. can be explored and experienced through a different lens. The transition through the supernatural works to reflect a common experience in teenagehood: understanding the workings of the hetero-patriarchal world we live in and start the journey to overcome it and strength in oneself despite it all.
It wouldn’t be sincere, though, to try to paint these kinds of stories as ones solely of female empowerment to be taken at face value. Often they are more nuanced than that. Despite the more positive light we can shed on these movies, they are still working within the horror genre, many times with their monstresses harming others and generally being morally reprehensible. Why do we cheer when we see Carrie White wreak havoc on her school? Or when Jennifer Check says she’s not killing people, she’s killing boys? Are these things not harmful things to endorse?
Research done by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media shows that more often than not, seeing female characters in starring roles where they are in positions of power strongly influences women in real life. It can give them a boost in their self-confidence, inspire them to be more assertive or ambitious. In some cases, even giving them strength to leave abusive relationships. Looking at these characters thrive, even in horrible ways, can feel incredibly cathartic. Especially when the horror of it all is so heavily focused on the pain caused by the misogynistic society we are all so used to. Even if we can’t relate to being a violent demonic entity, we certainly relate to feeling like one, and more importantly, to being treated as one.
Women have to endure from a very young age the weight that society inflicts on them and suffer under it as they continue to grow. It is only logical that they will feel drawn to stories where they get to reflect themselves on powerful creatures and experience the thrill that comes with it. The experience becomes much stronger when the powerful creature in question is a woman who’s supernatural abilities come hand in hand with femininity itself. The very thing that society deems undesirable and terrible is what gives these women the power to get revenge on those who hurt them and take their lives back. When men call out the inhumanity of these women on screen, embracing the reverence we feel for their power can be liberating. After all, if society is willing to inherently treat women as monsters, they might as well become them and thrive or die trying.
Alex A. Bensi is a trans writer based in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where he studied film and scriptwriting, with minors in literature, academic and creative writing. His work focuses mainly on the perspective of Queer and Feminist Theory in a contemporary context, aiming to create an open and honest discussion about how film and literature interject with these topics. He has worked in several independent short films, documentaries, a miniseries and is currently developing the script for his first feature film.