As one of the resident feminists here at Man, I Love Films, I always feel it my bound duty to point out when male-dominated cinema goes to far. But also as a resident feminist, I am sometimes at odds with my own love of certain genres: horror is among my favorite genres, and horror, with few exceptions, is extraordinarily dominated by a very male and oft-hysterical perspective.
While we often perceive horror as a male-dominated genre in both literature and cinema, it should be noted that literary horror actually has a more expansive history than that. One of the seminal horror (and sci-fi) novels was written by a young woman perhaps exhausted by the men who surrounded her: Mary Shelley probably found greater comfort in describing a man who sewed corpses together than in listening to Byron praise himself. Some of the finest past and contemporary horror writers were women: Emily Bronte, Anne Radcliffe, Shirley Jackson, Anne Rice, Patricia Highsmith, Angela Carter, Joyce Carol Oates. Meanwhile, women indulged in murder and mayhem as well, with the golden age of the detective/thriller genre essentially dominated by Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers. Women are at the center of horror, either as the creators, the victims, or, occasionally, the monsters.
Horror filmmaking, no doubt, has been dominated by men. Hollywood of the 1930s and 40s saw producers and directors including Val Lewton, Alfred Hitchcock, Tod Browning, and James Whale (among many others) as the leaders in horror. Even in the more permissive and independent days of the 1970s and 80s, male directors like Dario Argento, John Carpenter, and Wes Craven formulated contemporary horror standards, many of them including the creation of the “Final Girl,” and a reinforcement of the virgin/whore dichotomy that rescues the virgin and punishes the whore for her transgressions. Feminist film critics have routinely used horror as a prime indicator of current dialogues about gender and sexuality, but they are (almost) always told from the perspective of the white male mainstream.
Horror is a strange genre, a combination that is at once conservative and transgressive. The creation of the monstrous Other, at the center of so many horror narratives, permits a certain recognition of repression. When females become the monsters, there is a tacit acknowledgment that the suppression of the feminine results in a chaotic eruption elsewhere. Some films make this into a sense of liberation: in Val Lewton/Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People, suppression of feminine power by the male scientific establishment literally transforms a woman into a panther. She becomes a symbol of rampant feminine violence that attempts to destroy the society that has forced her to suppress her sexual and emotional instincts. Paul Schrader’s subsequent remake of the film turned the concept into a kinky fantasy of bondage and incest. The liberation becomes colonization, the hero controlling the woman’s sexuality and imposing his masculine prerogative over it. But Cat People (both versions) is indicative of the genre’s relationship to female transgression and power and the way that society is both fascinated by and fears feminine power.
The horror genre is full of female monsters, to a degree that we even have the “monstrous feminine” as a critical and theoretical term. The Alien series typifies its alien monsters as female; vampires in films like Bram Stoker’s Dracula makes women into the corrupters of male virtue. Women play the victims in slasher films, revenge dramas, and monster movies, but they’re also the feared and repressed Other that comes to take revenge on mainstream society for their repression or, occasionally, their blatant violation.
Given horror’s bizarre and confused relationship to the feminine, it is interesting now to see the successful films that take on the feminine relationship to horror from a female perspective. One of the most successful of these in the past year was The Babadook, the Australian horror film that featured a vengeful spirit coming after a mother and her son. While the Babadook is depicted as male, the spirit springs directly from the mother’s extreme depression and suppressed hatred of her son, whom she blames for the death of her husband. The film features the monstrous feminine as an essentially sympathetic evil: the Babadook has to be tamed, but cannot be destroyed.
As female directors and feminine perspectives move ever deeper into mainstream filmmaking, it should come as no surprise that they’re gravitating towards the horror genre. Horror allows for the perspectives of repressed minorities to come to the surface; while male-directed horror films usually come around to punishing the transgression of the Other, expressing a fear of upheaval rather than a celebration of it, current trends in horror can provide an outlet for the historically oppressed. Already we’re seeing female-directed films featuring women as leads: The Babadook, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, and The Falling. As women come to greater control within the horror genre, I think we can see this bleeding over into new and more mainstream avenues. No longer will it simply be about a masculine perspective on the female monster, but a female perspective. The Other is beginning to take control of its own narrative, fashioning terror in its own image. I really can’t wait to see what those monstrous women do next.