When Women Look: American Female Horror Fans

Posted by James Morgart on March 15, 2012 in James Morgart tagged with

I had not realized the sort of existing prejudices against horror as a genre until I began to consider what precisely it was that I wanted to study in literature and film as a graduate student. Obviously, I was well aware of horror’s reputation in the mainstream, but I had little idea of how far that reputation carried over into academia. I was astonished when one professor refused to even watch a horror film that was the topic of a discussion panel he was serving on. His grievance was that he had been informed that the film’s subgenre was morally vapid and ethically disturbing, so he boycotted the film on moral grounds. Another professor informed me that they weren’t certain how fruitful a dissertation on slasher films would be, given that their understanding of the horror fan base was that it was largely youthful white males living in their parents’ basement. Neither the boycott nor the assumption registered well with me. As a half-Puerto Rican suburban kid, I loved horror films growing up, and partially because it was cathartic to watch often-spoiled, popular suburban teenagers get pummeled by an unstoppable murdering machine. If you’re a kid who feels “different” or “weak” or “an outcast,” what’s more enjoyable than then seeing that unstoppable machine get taken down by the seemingly most oppressed character in the film? To “own” horror or to “own” the Gothic as one’s identity was to own one’s self.

With my childhood in mind, I reached out to Carol Clover, professor emeritus at University of California, Berkeley and author of Men, Women, and Chainsaws – the book in which Clover proposed the now famous Final Girl Theory. Gracious enough to respond to my correspondence, Clover kindly pointed me in the direction of others in the field. I soon noticed that the indictment made against horror was far from an open and shut case. Moreover, I began to see that to get caught up in the “is horror reactionary or is it progressive?” debate is to cut oneself off from being able to see the more fascinating avenues that intellectual thought could travel when it meets up with the macabre. However, that doesn’t negate the pressures that exist from the “horror is bad” arguments, and one often feels the need (or the unconscious stress) to be working out of a defensive position. That pressure is likely what drove me to consider audience reception when it came to recent horror films as a means to both undermine the white-male-youth-in-their-parents’-basement theory as well as to consider how these films *might* be functioning in socially progressive ways.

Well, it was that, and I soon came across a New York Times article written by Michelle Orange in 2009 that states:

“[R]ecent box office receipts show that women have an even bigger appetite for these films than men. Theories straining to address this particular head scratcher have their work cut out for them. Are female fans of “Saw” ironists? Masochists? Or just dying to get closer to their dates?”

According to one journalist, more women than men are seeing films like this. Why?

To me, the situation seems like the perfect puzzle for scholars to attempt to solve.

Soon, I found myself inspired by Brigid Cherry’s excellent scholarship on British female audience reception. Cherry has effectively argued for a feminine horror aesthetic based on the results of surveys about the favorite horror films of British female horror fans. Emulating her work for one of my graduate seminars, I decided to scour the discussion forums of horror fan sites and to poll social networking sites to tabulate my own survey about the favorite films of American female horror fans. What I found was the following:

    Top Favorite Horror Films from Web-based American Women Horror Fans

– Night of the Living Dead
– The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
– A Nightmare on Elm Street
– Halloween
– The Shining
– Dawn of the Dead
– Ginger Snaps
– Last House on the Left
– House of a 1,000 Corpses
– The Exorcist
– The Evil Dead
– May
– The Thing
– Hellraiser
– Evil Dead 2
– Dead Alive
– Carrie
– Let the Right One In
– The Devil’s Rejects
– I Spit on Your Grave
– Creepshow

NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD remains the most popular horror film among both genders.

Rather than take interest in the aesthetic traits of the films, I was more drawn into the films’ respective themes. (And when one takes into consideration my post last week about how women filmmakers use horror to produce fears unique to the female perspective, it only drives one’s curiosity to wonder what women viewers are engaged by – or, at the very least, what they’re selecting as their “favorite” horror films.)

Several of the films are what one might consider to be part of the “usual suspects” of horror films (or what fans might consider classics or must-sees). The Evil Dead films, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Hellraiser, The Living Dead films, The Exorcist, The Shining, and The Thing are all films that would likely turn up on most horror fan’s lists – male or female. In fact, all but two showed up on the list Cherry utilized as well as on a list of favorite films of American male horror fans that I compiled alongside with the women’s list.

Dropping those films by the wayside (for lack of blog space), the films left include Carrie, Creepshow, Ginger Snaps, House of 1,000 Corpses, I Spit on Your Grave, Last House on the Left, Let the Right One In, May, and The Devil’s Rejects. By grouping these films into theme, I discovered (what I considered to be) intriguing results. That is to say, one could make the argument that the films these women listed as their favorite drew them in due to thematic issues of gender identity. Or, as I worded it in my seminar paper, “American women horror fans are engaging films that deal expressly with the family unit and patriarchal norms set for women” – both of which are often portrayed by these films as oppressive and/or repressive.

Perhaps the films that are the easiest to group together thematically would be Last House on the Left and I Spit on Your Grave as both, arguably, fit into the subgenre of Rape Revenge. I Spit on Your Grave centers on Jennifer Hill, a writer who upon seeking a country getaway from the city is repeatedly gang raped by four locals. After healing herself physically and emotionally, she returns to the town to lure in all four men, torture them, and kill them. Last House takes a slightly different route as the woman who is raped is also killed, and her death is avenged by her parents upon the “family” of ex-convicts and criminals responsible. The film culminates with the mother castrating one of the criminals and the father in a chainsaw showdown with the patriarchal figure of the outlaw family.

Is a chainsaw sometimes not 'just' a chainsaw?

Taking Carrie, May, and Ginger Snaps as a group (one may even tentatively drop Let the Right One In into this group), one notices that these films all feature female protagonists. In Carrie and Ginger Snaps, they are protagonists that just happen to be in that prime of life known as adolescence. Furthermore, all the protagonists in the three films are women who are social outcasts from their peers. In May, the protagonist’s lazy eye leads her to eventually stitching together her own friend using real human parts. In Carrie, the film opens with Carrie White encountering her own menstrual blood for the first time only to be ridiculed by her peers in a now famous tampon tossing scene. In Ginger Snaps, two sisters (Brigitte and Ginger) are ostracized by their peers for being fascinated with the macabre – that is, until Ginger’s own menstrual blood makes its first appearance in the same scene that she is attacked and bitten by a werewolf.

Carrie White discovers womanhood to be less than thrilling.

This theme of social ostracization of teenage women are sometimes coupled with the motif of a “monstrous” mother. In other words, an oppressive matriarchal figure who often stunts their daughter’s emotional, sexual, and psychological growth (sometimes in physically and verbally abusive ways). In fact, the duo of Piper Laurie as Margaret White (Carrie’s mother) and Sissy Spacek as Carrie White was so terrifying and unnerving that their performances gave horror fandom chills and landed them both Oscar nominations. As Stephen King has described his novel:

Carrie is largely about how women find their own channels of sexuality…which is only to say that, writing the book in 1973 and only out of college for three years, I was fully aware of what Women’s Liberation implied for me and others of my sex.”

If Piper Laurie’s portrayal was so unnerving for the sheer violence and verbal onslaught onto her daughter, Mimi Rogers’s performance as Pamela (Ginger and Brigitte’s mother) in Ginger Snaps is equally disturbing for her desperate attempt to push a feminine identity onto her daughters. While the daughters are often associated with the subtly transgressive color purple, Pamela is consistently sporting pink, quaintly dressed in sweaters, and often blames her husband for not fostering a household where her daughters can be more “womanly.” In fact, when Pamela discovers that Ginger has had her first period, she thoroughly embarasses her daughter by presenting her with a cake to celebrate the occassion.

Ginger and Brigitte find sisterhood and solidarity torn apart by sexuality and normativity in GINGER SNAPS.

Finally, the last set of films could arguably be classified as the monstrous family films: Creepshow, The Devil’s Rejects, and House of 1,000 Corpses. Directed by George A. Romero and written by Stephen King, Creepshow is a series of vignettes reminiscent of the mid-20th century E.C. Comics such as Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror. While the vignettes feature various riffs on patriarchal revenge (“Father’s Day” revolves around a father who comes back from the dead after being murdered by his wife and “Something to Tide You Over” features a cuckolded husband taking revenge on his unfaithful wife and her lover), the film is framed by a young boy being scolded by his father in the opening of the film only to have the son turn the tables on the father by the closing credits. Rob Zombie’s House of 1,000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects are slightly less patriarchal in their motifs. Both films feature the Firefly family, a crude, backwards, and twisted familial unit that takes pleasure in torturing and murdering others. In spite of their behavior, Zombie’s portrayal of “normal” people is far less endearing as the teenagers are often obnoxious and the local authorities are just as socially “backwards” and oppressive as the Firefly family thereby painting a very dark portrait of patriarchal institutions.

Return of the patriarch in CREEPSHOW.

Upon recognizing that these themes are centered on family, mother-daughter relationships, and rape-revenge, it only seems obvious that one logical conclusion as to why female audiences are drawn to these films is their ability to identify with them. Rather than simply be “one of the boys” by liking horror, the women engaging social media and discussion forums whom this survey was based are indulging in horror films with themes that pertain to women’s issues. This conclusion appears to have some validity as horror fan and writer Marya Diedrichs has suggested that a thematic understanding of certain horror films hold a unique signficance for female fans:

“I would argue…that an adult female horror fan is…among the most confident of women. While many of us have our triggers in specific films or situations we dutifully avoid, we’re self-aware enough to know the reasons behind our fears. By recognizing the deeper meaning behind slasher and horror films we build a better understanding of ourselves as a gender and our place in the larger culture.”

If Diedrichs is correct, then the next endeavor for scholars may be to consider why horror? Is it the old double standard of sexuality suddenly reaching a peak culturally? Which is to say, are young American women engaging horror because Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Miley Cyrus, et al are portrayed as monsters when they are involved in sexual promiscuity, sexually provocative situations, or drug binges while Charlie Sheen lands a stand-up tour? Or, is it simply because horror uncovers the dark underbelly of patriarchal society and recent horror films are now focusing on the perspective of what it means to be a young woman?

To read a more extensive discussion of these films and the survey I conducted, my old seminar paper was posted on the genre fan site Planet Fury: http://www.planetfury.com/content/finals-week-women-in-horror

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