In Defense Of Lady-Terrorizing Horror Movies

Horror films frequently feature the bloody torture of women, often for such "crimes" as being outspoken or having sex. So why do I love them so much?

Apropos of The Last Exorcism, opening today, Forbes's Kiri Blakeley looks at gender roles in recent horror movies — and isn't too impressed with what she finds. She explains that in the 70s, women in such movies were victims of "what Syracuse University professor Kendall Phillips calls 'sexualized terror,' wherein any woman who was sexually active got axed (or knifed or strangled or garroted)." Things got a little better with the Scream franchise ("[Neve] Campbell, whose character has sex in the movie, and is just as pretty and popular as her high school victim-mates, survives her attacker"), then got worse again. Now, says Blakeley, women still get punished for fucking or talking:

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.

Ah, The Descent. Originally released in the US in 2006, this chicks-in-a-cave flick is one of my favorite films of all time. It's also pretty misogynist. I wasn't fully aware of this until a couple of years ago, when I rewatched it with a dude. "These women die in order of masculinity," he pointed out. "The ones who act the most like men die first. Also, their bodies are horrifically mauled." He continued, aghast, "You actually like this movie? I thought you were a feminist!"

I thought so too. I still think so. But I recognize that certain aspects of The Descent — and many other horror movies I love — are pretty fucked up. Maybe I shouldn't be supporting a genre that basically implies that all but the most submissive virgins will be bloodily punished — and that invites audiences to watch with glee as women are horribly injured or killed. The thing is, I really like these movies. On the one hand, I'd like to defend my right to like what I like, and to have personal tastes that aren't necessarily 100% feminist. On the other, I think there's an argument to be made that horror movies aren't all bad.

Women may be brutally murdered in the genre, but at least they get to do stuff. They get to fight! And strategize! They frequently take charge in ways they don't in other movies. While women are often window-dressing in thrillers or spy movies (think The Departed), in horror films they're often at the very center of a gripping story. I'd be willing to bet that horror actually has other genres beat in terms of passing the Bechdel test — these ladies don't have time to talk about men when they're fighting for their lives. And I'd actually take a horror flick over a romantic comedy anytime — as The Last Exorcism producer Eli Roth tells Blakeley, "I'd say women were far more exploited in Valentine's Day."

Women In Horror Films [Forbes]