Woman in Horror- A Dichotomy
Woman in Horror- A Dichotomy
By: LB Chambers
I am a big horror fan.
Let me clarify. I am a big horror (anything that isn’t torture porn or slasher) film fan. Which I realize makes me a non-horror fan to many people, but I digress.
I read and watch a lot of horror films, and have throughout my entire life. It all began when I was about eight and my Mother would catch me sneaking into the family room after my bedtime and watching whatever tid-bits of Tales from the Crypt I could scalp from my hidden position (halfway up the stairs).
She told me that under no circumstances would I be allowed to watch horror films (or shows) until I passed the family test; that test that my older siblings had taken and failed horribly and were subsequently banned from horror films in our home.
I said I was ready for the test, she disagreed, and like the pesky little precocious brat I was I persisted for weeks until she finally gave in.
The test was simple, watch The Exorcist, alone, at night.
Afterwards, if you still wanted to watch horror films with my parents you were more than welcome; you’d made it through the hazing ritual and proved you could handle any horror film that entered our home.
So I watched The Exorcist, alone in our blacked out living room after school one day (it was Alaska in winter) and my Mom was of the idea I would get twenty minutes in and run from the room screaming.
But I didn’t. I watched the film all the way through, and while I suffered a few nightmares for it (still do) a love for the horror genre, which had clearly already been there, ignited into a passion. Soon I was watching (and reading) all the classics; Dracula, Gaslight, The Innocents, An American Werewolf in London– this was how my Mother and I really bonded over the years.
Which was why, when I became a feminist (it really was a “became” and not a “was born” sort of thing for me) and began to notice patterns in these horror films, I felt so betrayed by my favorite genre.
This confused betrayal wasn’t a new emotion; I was, after all, a long-time gamer girl and fantasy nerd and was fairly used to that particular brand of stinging disappointment (which can only be fostered from something you truly love).
But horror’s depiction of women is unlike the sexist depictions of women in fantasy, gaming, or any other field of entertainment and storytelling.
Because women in horror occupy two completely opposite ends of the spectrum, and exist nowhere else in-between.
It is rare to find a horror themed…anything…where the female characters aren’t either a victim, romantic interest, or the monster itself.
In fact, some of the most horrifying monsters and villains in horror are women…or cultivated from a woman’s image.
Few know that Bram Stoker’s Dracula was not the first vampire novel of it’s time, and that that honor goes to Le Fanu and his women-centered horror story (featuring a beautiful and friendly female vampire who befriends and then murders her victims), Carmilla; Carmilla was printed in 1872, a full 25 years before Stoker’s Dracula (printed in 1897). In fact many literature scholars wonder at the originality of Stoker’s work, considering Dracula was based off of a previously written short story by Stoker (Dracula’s Guest, not printed until 1914) that greatly resembled Carmilla.
This isn’t even touching on the fact that while Vlad the Impaler is often given all the credit for the basis of vampire lore most of what we consider “vampire behavior” (outside of Twilight) is based off of Hungarian stories of women drinking/bathing in blood to maintain their youth; perhaps the most famous being Erzebet Bathory de Ecsed, who to this day is known as “The Countess of Blood.”
This historical female’s villianous is especially interesting, as it still isn’t certain whether Erzebet Bathory actually bathed in blood and murdered women, or if she was the result of hateful slander from the male royalty in her kingdom (she was an immensely powerful, influential, and wealthy woman- one of the only such women of the time).
Perhaps most damning of these bathing in blood tales is that these accusations ended with Bathory’ arrest and the seizure of all her properties. These extremely valuable properties and income were then dispersed to the very men who accused her of being what today we would call a vampire (one such inheritor being her nephew, the King). Huh.
Which brings me full circle to my point. Women in horror are either the victim/love interest and must be saved, or the horrifyingly unnatural villain.
However, what’s most interesting about these female monsters/villains is that they are rarely motivated by greed, mental deformity, selfishness, or innate evil tendencies (as is with most male villains- thank Dracula, Leather Face, even Jigsaw decides what he thinks is best for others and punishes them for not living up to his expectations); female villains are motivated out of revenge for ill-treatment by men or society.
Think about it, what horror story featuring a female antagonist doesn’t follow this rule? You’d be hard pressed to find one (perhaps the more recent Cabin in the Woods, but under scrutiny this horror film still follows the rule, albeit probably on purpose).
Most female antagonists, if of a supernatural nature, are represented as twisted versions of their former selves; so beaten down and utterly destroyed by their relationships or their society that they return from the spirit world seeking revenge. If they are more realistic (living and breathing) then they are suffering from a mental illness or, again, acting out of revenge. The message being that women cannot be innately evil or make evil decisions, and that when they do go crazy it is the result of someone else’s actions (and to steer clear because a woman spurned is the absolute worst).
Which is downright terrible, it portrays women as empty husks that can only react to what happens to them; that men exist as fully formed human beings capable of detached decision making skills and personalities and women are completely formed by whatever happens to happen to them during their lifetime (with no foundation of personality whatsoever). This is unfair to both genders as we are all really a combination of the two, and while the nature vs. nurture levels of our personalities is yet to be determined, there is no reason to categorize and separate based on gender.
There is one last reoccurring female character throughout horror which I refer to as the “weak-woman assistant.” She exists in many horror films, and is the “ready-to-sacrifice-anything-for-the antagonist-or-protagonist’s-vision” woman. Examples can be found in Thirteen Ghosts, The Saw Series, Army of Darkness, and many more. She is, perhaps, an even worse representation of women than the victim (usually a child or beautiful woman) or the vengeful woman, as she is always represented as being completely submissive, eager-to-please, and (even worse) disposable.
I feel that what scares us says a lot about us, and for this to be such a clear pattern throughout our history of horror tells us that we as a society are terrified of the betrayed woman. Be she lover or mother, for some reason the repercussions of her loss are what we fear. In fact most of these horror films (which feature the betrayed woman as the antagonist) also feature a female romance interest/victim, someone who the (usually male) hero must rescue and prevent from ultimately becoming an antagonist herself.
(As a side note, you will also notice that throughout all written history, patriarchal societies always feature a vengeful female monster whose basis for evil lies in her being the victim of betrayal. Harpies, rusalkas, sirens, jani, etc. Just thought I’d mention it.)
I still love horror, and the horror genre, but what does this say about us?
Does this mean that we as a society fear the wrath of women more than men?
That we don’t understand the bond between mother and child, or loving woman and roving man, and that frightens us?
That an evil woman seems more unnatural to us than an evil man and therefore more terrifying?
Or is it that we lay less blame at the feet of a female antagonist (who couldn’t possibly be acting of her own free will) than a born-evil male antagonist?
Maybe it’s all of them, maybe one more than another…
Or maybe, like an older Shyamalan movie, it’s none of the before mentioned options but something hovering on the edge of our awareness.
What I’m interested in is what do you think? Let us firstname.lastname@example.org