Horror films and feminism don’t tend to go together. There’s nothing inherently misogynistic about horror if you simply go by its technical description: a film genre seeking to elicit a negative emotional reaction from viewers by playing on the audience’s primal fears. What’s misogynistic about scary things happening? However, in practice horror films reinforce gender stereotypes and punish nonconformity.
But why should this be so? Why are horror films full of sexually licentious women being murdered as karmic punishment for their sins? Why is emasculation and violence such a large part of horror movies? Why do horror movies inevitably begin with a stereotypically peaceful and content nuclear family as a representation of the normal before having this singular perfection disordered by outsiders? Because at their core, most horror movies are based on what horrifies men.
I could go into a long screed about how Hollywood is male-dominated and how the male perspective is the default and unmarked viewpoint in most mainstream cinema. However, you should already know this, and if you don’t, then I’m telling you now that this is how it is. That isn’t what interests me right now.
Instead, I simply want to assert that this hegemony cannot apply everywhere. Surely there must be horror films where women are not mere victims. Surely there are horror films which a feminist can watch.
Of course, to have redeeming value it’s not enough for a horror film to simply have Strong Female Characters. They’re everywhere nowadays, which is rather tiresome. More importantly, they’re all the same. So what if a woman is good at violence? Is this something that’s necessarily positive? They’re not so much characters as stereotypes, and boring ones as well.
So what follows herewith is my own attempt at making a list of feminist horror, omitting those with Strong Female Characters. In no particular order:
- Ginger Snaps
- The first example that springs to mind because it was specifically made to meet the challenge of making a horror film that wasn’t misogynistic. It succeeded, in spades. Briefly, it’s a werewolf movie that explicitly compares the monthly cycle to menstruation, a premise which in retrospect seems rather obvious.
- The Descent
- An all-female group of spelunkers encounters monsters underground. The characters are strong and female, but they’re not Strong Female Characters. They have private griefs and unvoiced guilt and burning drives and passions. In short, they have inner universes and human feelings. I liked how subtle the movie is regarding the motivations of the women.
- The Company of Wolves
- The movie is about the Little Red Riding Hood story but foregrounding the sexual terror, which to be fair is so prominent in the original that it’s barely subtext. The film ends with an admonishment towards girls to beware of men, just to remind the audience exactly what the whole thing was about.
- “Little girls, this seems to say
- Never stop upon your way,
- Never trust a stranger friend,
- No-one knows how it will end,
- As you’re pretty, so be wise,
- Wolves may lurk in every guise.
- Now, as then, ’tis simple truth:
- Sweetest tongue has sharpest tooth.”
- A mother and daughter pair of immortal vampires in hiding make their way to a small English town on the beach. Like the previous movie, this one was also directed by Neil Jordan, though it has a more straightforward narrative and is less in the camp of magical realism. Sadly, the movie sunk into nowhere when it was released, but hopefully it’ll be discovered by more people over time.
- Jennifer’s Body
- A girl is murdered by a rock band and comes back to take her revenge. It wasn’t the greatest thing ever but it wasn’t as terrible as the online consensus was saying. Probably it’s some kind of latent nerd antipathy toward Megan Fox’s presence in the cast. I’d say the movie was solid enough.
- This has an actual strong female character but is otherwise a monster movie about an alien stalking the working class crew of a starship. It doesn’t have any specific examination of feminist concerns but Ellen Ripley is now a classic character as far as female horror protagonists go so this movie gets a pass.
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer
- A stereotypically vain and vapid cheerleader becomes a champion against the supernatural. The movie is explicitly about female empowerment but of a specifically white and middle class type of female empowerment. Still, the attempt was made, so here it is on the list.
- This last example I’m iffy on because I haven’t seen the original or the remake. However, I feel it would be remiss of me not to at least mention this movie. I even know the gist of the story: bullied girl with psychic powers takes a bloody revenge on her tormentors. Thinking on it now, the story doesn’t seem to address specifically feminist concerns. I’ll have to make this listing provisional until I’ve actually seen the movie.
Anyway, this list should be a good starting point for a marathon. One of these days I’ll try watching these all back-to-back and see how I am come out on the other end.