I am an avid viewer of horror films. Well, fairly avid (I can only handle so much traumatizing material in a day). Something about the displays of the darker side of humanity, the unnerving portrayals of the power of chaos and the unknown keep me coming back for more. But you don’t have to watch a lot of horror films to know of the genre’s reputation in regards to women.
Arguably, there is, and always has been, a fixation of the female role in the realm of horror. I was watching the 2003 remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre recently, and what I noticed above all else was the ratio of Jessica Biel’s breasts bouncing wildly in relation to the actual violence in the film. That, and the sheer amount of terror she is subjected to. The actual on-screen gore as opposed to the suggested violence isn’t as frequent or as severe as you would imagine, especially in comparison to a lot of other films out there (consider Martyrs or Hostel, neither of which are for the faint of heart). In fact in a great deal of horror films the attention paid to the female body and experience rivals the violence. I am surprised to see a horror film without at least one titty shot.
I know the claims that horror films are notorious for their sexism, exploitation and objectification of women. I certainly am not going to dispute the existence of these things in this genre when they can be so blatantly apparent. However that’s not always the case. Nor are these things exclusively qualities found in the horror genre (action movies come to mind, even comedy films). I think the real cause of the extra attention on portrayals of women in horror films is that they juxtapose women and sexuality directly with violence and helplessness. It appears gratuitous on the surface, but underneath that it exposes a disturbing truth about society. Horror films are surprisingly insightful and allegorical, even when it’s not necessarily intentional. In the real world, violence against women is terrifyingly frequent, and most often related to sexual assault. Violence against a woman by an unknown predator lurking just beyond view isn’t just a horror movie trope, it is a serious threat that could happen to any woman at any time, regardless of the clothes she wears or the time of day she’s out. This is something that every woman is rightfully concerned about at one time or another. Horror films just highlight the very real ties between women, sex and violence in ways that most other genres tip toe around (if they tackle that issue at all).
Even the films where the women stand up and fight back (think Laurie Strode in Halloween or Sidney Prescott in Scream) still have explicit implications about women’s fluctuating role in the western world. There’s even an academic community out there discussing the concept of ‘The Final Girl’ and ‘Scream Queens’ in the horror film industry. This alone should signify the cultural significance of horror, considering the fact that this genre has a history of not being taken seriously by the scholarly world. I’d also like to point out the increase in films where a female takes violent vengeance (I Spit On Your Grave) or is the centre of decimation herself (High Tension). These films symbolize the ever changing responses women have to violence, victimization, social hierarchies and gender.
There is so much more I could say about the value and meaning of horror films, if I had the space and time. The key thing about horror is that it reflects the society we live in. From culture to current events, it affects what goes into theatres. This genre is particularly sensitive to the deeper anxieties and outright fears we as a society experience. Horror seeks to explore and interrogate those things, pointing out the very real possibility for chaos in our own everyday lives, and the fragility of many social constructs. If you don’t like ‘torture porn’, you don’t have to watch it. But don’t dismiss it as nothing more than excessive gore for a small, penis wielding crowd. If that were the truth, Hostel wouldn’t have earned $80 million at the box office.