When people tell me they don’t like horror movies, or that horror movies aren’t feminist, I understand where they’re coming from. Some of the genre’s tropes include valuing virgin women and killing the rest or long, drawn out, arguably “sexy” murders of women while their male co-stars get a quick headshot.
That being said, I think horror deserves credit as a space where women and other marginalized groups can exist and explore. The past few years has created an opportunity for exactly that.
The Male Gaze and a look into the fears of 2020
“A New Wave of Horror Films About Women’s Deepest Anxieties Is Perfect Viewing for Our Summer of Discontent” is a Time article published earlier this year. The author explains that the male gaze — a phrase that has transferred into many segments of life — started as a film term. Film theorist Laura Mulvey spoke specifically about men behind the camera, deciding how women are represented.
Horror is a genre that has always had women directing and starring, which has led to some men following their example of compelling characters and ditching the male gaze.
For example, “Shirley” (from January of this year) was written, directed by, and stars a woman. It is a personal favorite of mine because it tackles fears I have that are associated with my gender: Being trapped in a bad relationship and hated by my community for what I chose to create (or not create) are just two of those.
Additionally, “Invisible Man” is from February of this year, and while it was written by and directed by a man, Elizabeth Moss once again plays a compelling lead who experiences a terrifying situation that reflects the fears and realities for many women.
“Women filmmakers have been making horror movies since, well, the beginning of movies — Alice Guy-Blaché and Lois Weber contributed to the genre early on,” according to Time. “But what’s notable now is the growing number of women filmmakers who are exploring expectations and anxieties specific to womanhood, as well as the mysteries of female erotic power.”
Horror is a genre of exploring our fears. Fears related to gender have always belonged in horror, but this year we have seen more scary movies than usual about women. I hope that trend continues, because 2020 has created a unique opportunity for everyone to experience an anxiety many women lived through and many more continue to fear: Being trapped in your house.
Meet CEO of Salt Lake Film Society: A feminist and horror fan
“I was an anthropology major,” said Tori Baker, the president and CEO of Salt Lake Film Society. “Whether it’s a colosseum or horror movies, I think there’s something to processing our fears and our anxieties so we don’t have to internalize them and do damage to ourselves or others.”
Salt Lake Film Society is a local nonprofit, known for its independent films playing at the Broadway and Tower theatres. Baker has been CEO for 16 years.
“I don’t know that the whole genre is feminist,” Baker said. “But I think there is an element feminine ethic and female freedom throughout [the horror genre], ironically, even though it’s exploitative.”
Baker said the horror genre isn’t inherently feminist, but there is room for women, people of color, and the queer community to connect through the fears tied to their identities.
“This genre is actually the genre that can explore anything in society, because it’s about fear.”
Rocky Horror Picture Show is known for its exploration of sexuality. For more than 30 years the Tower Theater has screened it annually.
“It’s a legacy,” she said. “People who don’t understand what ‘Rocky’ is and what it means can underestimate its power. It really amounts to a safe place and a safe haven. In its early days it became the only safe haven. I always say, ‘Rocky Horror’ saves lives.”
Baker said the horror genre has changed a lot during her lifetime. In the 80s, horror was about the effects and the gore. Later on, horror was suppressed as other genres became more mainstream. When horror resurfaced, it was self-aware of the tropes. Then “Get Out” changed the genre, according to Baker.
“What is evolving very fast is social statements in horror,”Baker said. “Exercising our racist demons and our fears about our personal racism. I think that’s fascinating.”
Baker said shows like Stranger Things combine nostalgia with contemporary commentary.
“It’s a genre that reflects society, and it’s very overt,” Baker said. “It can be terrifying to realize there’s darkness in humanity. And you either exercise it through storytelling or you don’t.”
Baker said we need diversity in movie making because different types of people can tell different stories. Once the lights were out in front of the Broadway Theater, and she wanted them fixed because it felt unsafe. Her coworker hadn’t even realized it was an issue.
“Those differences in life experience extract your fears,” she said. “Women live with the fear of being alone in the dark, being followed. Women filmmakers can extract those fears.”
To support SLFS this Halloween, you can pick up curbside concessions for your at-home marathon, visit slfsathome to stream movies or donate directly.
A student perspective: “The real monsters are always human”
“I think feminism is very much necessary,” said Samantha Paredes, a junior at Westminster College studying vocal performance. “It’s ridiculous that people still think feminist means man-hating. It’s about gender equality.”
Paredes said we need to think about who is marginalized and prioritize those people.
“With feminism, with Black Lives Matter, we need those things,” she said.
Paredes identifies as a feminist and loves horror — but recognizes some of the issues with the way women are represented in horror movies.
“I love ‘The Mist,’ but there’s not much to the women characters,” they said. “The females aren’t particularly important to the plot. The wife is bland and sweet, and then she’s fridged. He sleeps with another woman, and she is an even less-developed character than his wife.”
The one exception, according to Paredes, is the villain.
“She is an incredibly interesting character,” she said. “Generally when there is a villain that’s female, people find them scarier. We think of women being naturally more nurturing and kinder. That isn’t true, but that’s how we expect women to be, so when they’re the opposite it’s scary.”
Paredes compared “The Mist” to “Gerald’s Game”: Another Steven King novel which instead stars a woman. In “Gerald’s Game” the lead character is very human, with realistic reactions and a full spectrum of thoughts and emotions, according to Paredes.
“It was cool to see Jessie’s bravery as a normal person pushed to the extremes,” she said. “There’s nothing special about Jessie, she’s a woman who had a choice to make: whether or not she wanted to live. That makes it the scariest of the Steven King books I’ve read, because it feels like it could happen. Jessie is my role model because, damn. She’s got grit.”
Paredes said she hopes the future of horror movies doesn’t use women to advance the leading man’s agenda.
“We’ve been seeing more female protagonists, and there’s so much more to be explored.”
Better representation in general is something Paredes wants from horror.
“I want more representation in horror,” they said. “I can’t remember seeing many LGBT people starring. Jordan Peele is showing us Black leads, and that’s fantastic. Let’s see more. These people exist, they should exist in all of our stories.”
The best part of horror, according to Paredes, is exploring humanity.
“I think the point of horror, and why I love it so much, is ultimately the real monsters are always human,” they said.
This Halloween, give horror a try
This week, Westminster College reported the highest amount of new COVID-19 cases all semester. Utah as a whole keeps setting new records, leading to our hospitals being dangerously close to maximum capacity.
You and I have a direct responsibility to not celebrate this Halloween the way we have in the past. That sucks, but it’s non-negotiable.
Luckily scary movies are a great safe way to celebrate, and both Samantha Paredes and Tori Baker were kind enough to share their suggestions. And of course, they’re all starring women.
Keep Tori Baker’s advice in mind: “Horror is like sushi. You have to start with the California roll before you get to raw octopus.”
- Gerald’s Game
- The VVitch
- Jennifer’s Body
- Train to Busan
- The Babadook
- Invisible Man
- Get Out
By the way, this is the first article in my new feminst series: The Fourth Wave. Be sure to look for my upcoming pieces.