Women in horror films
Women have come a long way in the genre - but not long enough.Updated: Sep 01, 2010 16:28 IST
The Last Exorcism, which opens on Friday, concerns a young girl who may or may not be possessed by the devil (hence the exorcism). The movie, of course, brings to mind the classic 1973 film The Exorcist, which frankly I don't want to write too much about, lest I lose sleep.
But suffice it to say that older movie also was about a young girl who may or may not be possessed by the devil. You can tell both girls aren't really feeling themselves because they do things like contort their bodies into positions that even master yogis might find a tad uncomfortable.
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But the movies differ in some key ways. In the older film, the 12-year-old Regan starts acting up because, well, she's possessed by the devil, but also because her parents have just divorced and she now lives with her single mom, a working actress, and you know how that goes. The new movie has a somewhat more "mancession"-relevant scenario--16-year-old Nell lives with her single dad, a widower. Apparently the devil prefers not to infiltrate intact nuclear families, but is definitely down with a young girl.
As for why that is, The Last Exorcism producer Eli Roth, who also directed the Hostel movies, says, "With a possessed girl, you instantly feel protective of her. Teenage boys can be violent and dangerous already, so when they're possessed, you don't see much of a difference."
Gender roles have always been crucial in the horror genre. In the old days, women did little more than try to wriggle out of their bonds as a train barreled down on them, or scream as a psycho slashed them in the shower. By the 1970s, with the rise of the feminism, female protagonists were fighting back, and something called the "final girl" archetype emerged--she was last one standing, the girl who escaped the killer.
Also in the 1970s, final girls and victims alike suffered from what Syracuse University professor Kendall Phillips calls "sexualized terror," wherein any woman who was sexually active got axed (or knifed or strangled or garroted). Jamie Lee Curtis' final girl in 1978's Halloween is the most brazen example of this--much is made of her androgyny and undateability.
It wasn't until 20 years later, with Neve Campbell's turn in Scream, that a non-virgin survived. Campbell, whose character has sex in the movie, and is just as pretty and popular as her high school victim-mates, survives her attacker. Her mother, an adulteress, isn't so lucky.
The '90s was a banner decade for female empowerment in the movies in many genres. Think of the smart, independent, buff, ready-to-kill-if-necessary women from Silence of the Lambs, Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Thelma and Louise.
Since then, it's been a bit of a backward slide, say experts. "I would argue that since Scream, we haven't seen any major developments so far as the role of women are concerned in the American horror film," says Carlos Segura, an editor at film site Cinespect. "Horror isn't 'in' right now, so there's not much room for risk taking."
Instead it is action films, where women like Angelina Jolie and Milla Jovovich take names and kick butt, or in the vampire craze, most notably the Twilight films and True Blood series, where women dominate the genre on screen and off.
With so many horror remakes of late--Halloween in 2007, Friday the 13th in 2009, Nightmare on Elm Street in 2010--there's been a reverting to type. Hollywood isn't bothering to upend or transform the female paradigm. This, experts say, is partly Hollywood laziness. Why mess with a successful formula? Plus, most remakes are put in the hands of first-time directors, who don't want to risk screwing up a moneymaker. And female audiences are OK with this method--or at least not abandoning the genre.
"When I started prowling Times Square theaters in the early '70s in search of Euro-horror, I was often the only girl in the house," says Maitland McDonagh, who has written about horror for two decades. While horror films are "still full of shrieking, busty babes taking showers and going for nude midnight swims," McDonagh says there's a "toughness" to the victims that women identify with, and she notices that now women make up half the audiences of movies she attends. Last year's EW.com piece "Horror Films ... and the Women Who Love Them! noticed too: "Today, the genre's biggest constituency of die-hard fans is women. Name any recent horror hit and odds are that female moviegoers bought more tickets than men."
So what is left to upend? Two types are still a certain death sentence for a woman in horror: the bitch and the slut. "The bitch will die bloody," says Andrew Cooper, author of Gothic Realities: The Impact of Horror Fiction on Modern Culture, who points to recent movies like Sorority Row, The Descent and the new Nightmare on Elm Street, where any female who is "unpleasant" gets it in the end. "If a woman mouths off too much, you know she's gone," he says.
And while sex may not necessarily equal death for a woman anymore, too much of it is still a problem. In the current Piranha, says Cooper, two "friendly" girls are murdered, but it's because "they commit the unforgivable sin of being porn stars."
As to the question of whether all of this sexualized terror, not to mention the maiming, killing and possessing of young women in horror in general, is exploitative, Roth has this to say: "I'd say women were far more exploited in [the romantic comedy] Valentine's Day."