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Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth

Sexist Disbelief Is Taking Over the Horror Genre

As we suffer through anti-feminist backlash, is it cathartic or retraumatizing to watch more stories portraying this type of gendered terror?

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A still from Barbarian.
A still from Barbarian.
Screenshot: Regency Enterprises

The Greek epics the Iliad and the Odyssey weren’t written as horror stories—but they arguably began that way. All the bloodshed of the Trojan War might have been avoided had the Trojans believed the priestess Cassandra and her warnings of the impending war. But alas, Cassandra had been cursed, subjected to a lifetime of disbelief by the god Apollo for spurning his advances, which sounds… extremely creepy, put lightly. Cassandra’s is a story that’s especially, viscerally haunting for those who know what it’s like to scream at the top of their lungs that some awful outcome is on its way, only to be written off as hysterical. The June overturning of Roe v. Wade was a direct manifestation of this.

There’s something uniquely blood-curdling about knowing, perhaps viscerally feeling in your bones, that something is wrong and not being believed. Horror movies and jump scare-heavy psych thrillers are increasingly channeling this experience, placing audiences in an almost physical, bodily space of discomfort alongside on-screen heroines and then, in the same breath, telling us our discomfort is unfounded.

Gender has always been the crux of the genre, quite literally breeding the trope of the “final girl”: youthful, virginal, but attractive to the male gaze and perennially chased around by monsters armed with giant, phallic knives with which they seek to penetrate her. Unlucky babysitter Laurie Strode exemplified this in Halloween. But as we approach Halloween the holiday, two of the most-talked-about movies of the season are Don’t Worry Darling and Barbarian—respectively, an erotic psych-thriller that strives to perpetuate gendered terror, and a gorier, more classical horror movie—both grounded in the sexist assignment of credibility. The monster is changing.

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Image for article titled Sexist Disbelief Is Taking Over the Horror Genre
Image: A24

In Don’t Worry Darling, disgruntled men hold women captive as blissfully unaware trad-housewives in a 1950s simulation; when Florence Pugh’s Alice senses something is off about her living arrangements, no one believes her warnings, and she’s gaslighted into oblivion by her “husband” Jack (Harry Styles), the project’s unnerving doctor, and its Jordan Peterson-inspired leader, Frank (Chris Pines). Darling falls short in its goal of eliciting terror, however, due to its heavy-handed script, which relies on male characters repeatedly, verbatim telling Alice, “You sound crazy,” or Alice berating her husband for “making me feel crazy.” The most visceral horrors are shown, not told via 2013 Tumblr-esque preaching. We’re deprived of the frightening sense of realness when characters in the midst of experiencing gendered terrors suddenly break out into a feminist oral history on gaslighting in America.

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In contrast with Darling, Barbarian relies on traditional, slasher-y scare tactics: Tess (Georgina Campbell) discovers the Airbnb she accidentally double-booked with Bill Skarsgård’s initially off-putting Keith sits atop a haunted basement, where a monster known as the Mother hunts, imprisons, and kills those who enter. But beneath all the bloodshed and limb-hacking, not unlike Darling, Barbarian’s horrors are rooted in how trust and believability are determined based on gender. The movie’s notably male victims might have been spared if they’d simply heeded Tess’ warnings about the basement; instead, their male hubris is their death sentence, while the movie ends with the Mother revealing her feelings of gender-based solidarity with Tess. The Mother, we learn, only became a monster after surviving rape and imprisonment from a man whose male privilege allowed him to forever evade suspicion.

Earlier in 2022, A24 dropped Men, the nonstop fright-fest about a woman who was abused by her late husband, and is subsequently haunted by the men and boys (all of whom appear to be the same) of the small pastoral village to which she retreats. Up until the movie’s bitter end, locals frequently write off Harper’s (Jessie Buckley) fears about her varying male stalkers as the ravings of a madwoman. Men essentially morphs all the different, everyday male figures you encounter into a singular, gendered evil.

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As we live through the long-prophesized (by women!) erosion of our reproductive rights, and the aftermath of a retraumatizing abuse trial that wrote off a domestic violence victim as crazy, the feminist messaging of these movies is clear: Women are often, to their horror, disbelieved. Perhaps the shift began in 2016, with the genius of Jordan Peele’s Get Out and its acute awareness that the latent white supremacy of performative white liberals is more violent than any amount of gore or paranormal activity. Get Out challenged other creators to wield horror and thriller pieces for social messaging that similarly makes monsters out of oppressive realities—and the market is becoming saturated with its gender-centric imitators.

But scary movies shouldn’t merely reflect reality back at us, subjecting us to cheesy scripts spelling out Gender Studies 101 teachings. With that in mind, there is a simplicity and essentialism with which Barbarian and Men treat gendered relations. At the very least, in Darling, we’re reminded that men aren’t the only patriarchal monsters—another housewife, Bunny, initially gaslights Alice, too. The 2021 Freeform mystery drama Cruel Summer isn’t a horror movie, either, but it similarly stokes terror through toying with gender and credibility—rather than a man and woman, it pits two different teenage girls’ recollections of the truth against each other in a high-stakes situation, prompting us all to participate in its spectacle of misogyny, and question what does and doesn’t make young women more credible.

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The twisted genre of thrillers and horror flicks rooted in sexist disbelief had a relatively busy year in 2021, overall, with Amy Adams’ The Woman in the Window, a classic story of a suburban woman who’s survived unthinkable trauma and is discredited when she says she witnessed something horrifying in the house across the street. False Positive followed a pregnant woman’s (Ilana Glazer) chilling descent into madness as she’s gaslighted by a creepy fertility doctor who nonconsensually impregnated her and hundreds of other women; she’s constantly told everything’s fine, even as she fears for her life, and is subjected to protective, paternalistic treatment that’s actually endangering her.

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In 2020, The Invisible Man introduced a deranged scientist who perfected an invisibility potion, faked his suicide, and is now terrorizing his wife, who’s laughed off as a quack when she seeks help from police. In 2019, Pugh gave us Midsommar, whose main antagonist might appear to be an ancient, blood-thirsty Swedish cult, but is actually, arguably, Pugh’s condescending on-screen boyfriend, who spends the movie making her feel like nothing until he finds himself burning alive inside a disemboweled bear. In 2018, Claire Foy, Juno Temple, and Matt Damon delivered Unsane, a horror story of a woman being stalked by a monstrous male stranger with whom she finds herself locked in an insane asylum, all while doctors and nurses question her sanity when she expresses her fear. In 2017, Darren Aronofsky and Jennifer Lawrence’s camp-horror mother! captured the intrusive violence to which a pregnant woman is subjected when terrifying strangers invade her body and home.

The rise of horror-thrillers hinging on sexist disbelief, in general, is well-timed to present-day realities, like anti-MeToo backlash yielding the public gaslighting and shaming of abuse victims, or the fall of Roe rendering our already fundamentally sexist health system that much deadlier. It’s not a coincidence that women are on average diagnosed years later than men for life-threatening diseases, or that pregnant people experience alarmingly high maternal mortality rates. These outcomes are often a direct result of medical staff refusing to believe women and pregnant patients about their own pain. In 2018, Serena Williams recalled almost dying shortly after giving birth because doctors didn’t believe her when she swore something was wrong.

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Dreadful as these realities may be, there will always be commercial appeal to storytelling that reflects them. The public obsession with true crime, frequently centered around female victims, puts the monetization of our discontents in stark relief: All audiences, but especially women, seem to love a good story about something horrible happening to other women. It stands to reason that a psych-thriller about housewives being imprisoned and gaslighted (by Harry Styles and Chris Pine, no less), or a horror movie about a stalking victim entrapped in an asylum, might attract female viewers. As such, more recent contributions to the horror-psych thriller space feel deeply catered to women audiences. Between Darling’s generous cunniligus scenes topped off with Harry Styles on his knees, and the grisly fates of Barbarian’s disbelieving male characters but not its female protagonist, both movies validate the dread of not being believed as a woman, while sprinkling a treat or three for the female gaze along the way.

In the centuries since Homer scrawled The Iliad on his little tablets, Cassandra’s tale, once a mere footnote in a crowded epic of ostensibly more important stories of men killing each other on the battlefield, has exploded into a rapidly growing genre of its own. Some will find these new works of sexist disbelief validating and comforting; others, exhausting or even triggering. Perhaps the test of whether a movie about women being disbelieved emits the catharsis of Florence Pugh smiling as she watches her emotionally abusive boyfriend burn, or the exhaustion of watching another teen girl get slashed open in Halloween, will depend on how on-screen misogyny is portrayed: as suffocating and inescapable, or as something on-screen heroines (and women audiences) can ultimately triumph over.