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Monday, July 13, 2009

Women in Horror

Delving through the many sub-genres of horror, an almost unifying trait seems that horror loves female leads. Be it Alison Lohman in this year's exceptional Drag Me To Hell, or Mia Farrow in the classic Rosemary's Baby, women are more often than not at the forefront of the scary and the disturbing. From The Exorcist to Halloween, Blair Witch Project to Hellraiser, we delight at scary movies with female leads, and this is something that's true across the world. [Rec], The Orphanage, Ring, A Tale Of Two Sisters--they all feature women as the focal point. I get myself to thinking, why is this? Let me give you my perspective.

Some people would have you believe that Horror hates women. That the depiction of a male killer dominating female victims is a misogynistic expression of what young male audiences feel. Now, that's not something I believe for a second. It's a fallacy to think that the depiction of a woman's death in film is attacking women as a whole, when a film like Die Hard kills off an entirely male cast yet isn't believed to make any anti-male statements.

No, I find that the opposite is in fact true. Horror has brought us the idea of the Final Girl, the Scream Queen. A Nightmare on Elm Street features Nancy defeating Freddy, Halloween has Laurie overcoming Michael, and while often enough horror films can be more bleak in their endings, I do think that girls fare better than the boys a lot of the time. Johnny Depp didn't fare so well against Freddy, for example.

With that said, I do find that there are gender roles at play. Why, with Horror having such a huge male following, do women make such compelling leads? Action is another genre aimed towards the boys, and that still features predominantly male characters kicking the crap out of other males. I'm of the opinion that for a horror film to work, it needs to have a lead character that engages us, we need to connect with them and to feel afraid for them, and if we're not emotionally invested in them, the film loses it's power to scare us. I think that it's easier for us to be sympathetic towards and to feel afraid for a female lead than a male one. When watching Rosemary's Baby, we as an audience are concerned for Mia Farrow, and through her character's fear, the film affects us.

In the Korean horror A Tale of Two Sisters, our lead is a mentally unbalanced young girl who is deeply haunted by a past trauma. She seems so troubled and fragile, so vulnerable that she has our every sympathy and we do feel for her. It's perhaps this vulnerability that makes this female archetype so compelling for us as horror fans, and by comparison, it seems rare to find a male lead that we feel for. Donald Sutherland in Don't Look Now and George C. Scott in The Changeling are two that I would say exemplify male leads that we connect to. They've both suffered horrendous losses at the beginning of both films, so we are sympathetic to them because they have had a part of their lives shattered.

In Satoshi Kon's deeply psychological animated film Perfect Blue, the main character is a young woman whose sense of reality and sense of self is falling apart piece by piece. She's a pop star turned actress who's having to deal with threats against her, a mysterious stalker, and a website that describes her life with frightening detail. It's a film that works so well because of how strong a character she is, continuing to push forward with her career, but she is under a lot of strain and we can't help but feel threatened for her. I don't think I would've felt as strongly had it been a male character in her place.

Now, that's not to say that having a female lead is the sure-fire way to success in Horror. There's been plenty of terrible pieces of fluff like the awful Lindsey Lohan vehicle I Know Who Killed Me, or the spectacularly bad Captivity with Elisha Cuthbert. You still need a good film, and well written characters in order for it to engage the audience, and the fact that there's plenty of throwaway fluff in the horror genre is a testament to that. But an awful lot of the best Horror films, the ones that do engage us and make us genuinely frightened for the characters, are the ones with female leads.

This is something I find equally true with children. The Shining or The Sixth Sense for example, part of why we're afraid is because of how concerned we are for the child characters. The Exorcist is rather disturbing because of how sweet and innocent Linda Blair is. Guillermo del Toro's films The Devil's Backbone and Pan's Labyrinth work extremely well because both child leads are placed in a dangerous place where they're scared, and we feel great sympathy for them.

Now, that's probably not true of everyone, but I do find that the characters I engage with the most personally are often women and children. What do you think? After all, there's no doubting female leads are a popular archetype in horror, what do you feel is the reason? Be sure to leave a comment and let my know your thoughts.

This is Karl Hungus, last survivor of the Nostromo, signing off.

[Editor's Note: For more on the feminine side of fear, be sure and check out another Vault affiliate, Day of the Woman.]


BJ Colangelo said...

This entry made my heart sing, for obvious reasons. Good Ups Karl.

Karl Hungus said...

Your heart sang because I mentioned Satoshi Kon? Yeah, he's incredible. :)

B-Sol said...

Thanks once again Karl, for another standout effort. Welcome back to the Vault!

Anthony Hogg said...

I'd say that they engage you more because they represent vulnerability. This probably appeals to your protective side.

Maybe they represent something wholesome to you: something to be preserved. Take the "Final Girl" angle. They're generally "pure" (Laurie Strode doesn't engage in the type of behaviour her friends do).

RayRay said...

Nice piece. I often consider the dynamic which you have examined. I think part of the reason woman are often the focus is their perceived vulnerability, and part and parcel of this is the overcoming of the adversity. Sort of like David v. Goliath.

But also part of this dynamic might have to do with the defiling of what is pure, the female heroine/final girl representing society's concept of purity. That heroines like Laurie Strode didn't have sex and drink like her friends demonstrates hre purity, and therefore, perhaps her power to defend against the boogie man hunting the impure. The defilement of children and/or their innocence, like in the Omen, is a similar thing.

Also, there is a dynamic of the unlikeliness of a poor, little, weak female [for the sake of argument, don't judge me] overcoming such tremendous odds against such an implacable foe. Going into it, and judging by present day horror movie rules, who was going to be the final girl in Alien? It had nothing to do with who was nicest, or didn't smoke or cuss. It just ended up Ripley was a) lucky, and b) an unrevealed badass.

And while it is not a given that a comely woman would survive - The Hills Have Eyes is a good example, more often than not women almost certainly win out over their male counterparts. And this is true in the recent movies where a couple is attacked, like Vacancy or The Strangers. In both films the male lead bears the brunt of the assault.

Perhaps this is so because men are expendable?

MacReady said...

I've always felt that that the men (usually presented as the stronger of the sexes, in horror films) is generally attacked first to establish that the situation is serious. If the "strong-alpha-male-type" is bested right away by the monster/killer/evil/what have you, then how could the "weaker-girlfriend-type" hope to survive?
Because it makes for a good story arch. Perceived weakness becoming full-fledged badass is a tried and true character arch that works and that is interesting to watch (when done effectively of course).
Honestly, I'm always kind of surprised when ANY of the male characters are alive at the end of a horror film. Especially slasher flicks.

Anonymous said...

Women acts really good..especially Horror one..

Thanks for sharing...

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