Jeff Lambert is a retired journalist and aspiring librarian living in Philadelphia, PA.
I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with horror films. I remember vividly the first time I saw Candyman – or really, just the first five minutes. A babysitter invites her boyfriend over for a little second-base action (breaking rule number one of “how not to get killed in a horror movie”), only to have his blood drip through the heating vent all over her when he goes up to the second-floor bathroom and is quickly dispatched by the movie’s Baddie. I ran out of the room and had recurring nightmares of blood-dripping vents for a year (okay, really I still have these nightmares).
And, even more than horror movies scaring me, the reason I hate them is because they offend my sensibilities as a feminist. Horror is the male gaze at its worst: sadistic voyeurism. In a genre with a target audience of adolescent boys, what else do I really expect to see besides patriarchy played out on screen? But I keep coming back. This Halloween week, I picked up a copy of Carol Clover’s Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film to better understand why.
Clover’s main contribution to film criticism is the idea of a Final Girl. I quote Clover at length:
She is abject terror personified. If her friends knew they were about to die only seconds before the event, the Final Girl lives with the knowledge for long minutes or hours. She alone looks death in the face, but she alone also finds the strength to stay the killer long enough to be rescued (ending A) or to kill him herself (ending B). But in either case, from 1974 on, the survivor figure has always been female.
Clover gives us some qualifiers for the Final Girl: virginal, boyish (“just as the killer is not fully masculine, she is not fully feminine”), smarter than her co-stars (both male and female), and often given a male, or at least ambiguous, name (Terri, Stretch, even Ripley of the Alien franchise). The Final Girl, like the killer, occupies a liminal gender space – the boyish girl doing battle with the somehow emasculated or transgressive killer (Psycho‘s Bates, Friday the Thirteenth‘s Mrs. Vorhees-as-Jason, Sleepaway Camp‘s MTF transperson Angela).
Mystery solved, right? Horror movies are liberating! They, like so many other modes of popular culture, have been impacted by feminism! That’s why I like them so much!
Wrong. Or at least, not wholly right. Because really, in defeating the Baddie, the final girl is losing her gender (however limited it was to begin with). Clover writes that in “purging” herself of her femininity – often through phallic appropriation of a weapon – the Final Girl becomes male enough for the largely male audience to identify with her. And the fact that so many slashers became sprawling franchises – leprechauns in the hood, Jasons in space – shows not only that we as a culture love this shit – watching women (okay, and men) get butchered by silent, masked male killers – but also that the Final Girl never really beats the killer. Any illusion of female power or escape from fixed gender categories that is created by the climax of one film is destroyed by the return of the killer in the next one. You won this round, but guess what: you’re still a girl.
Enter Scream (1996) and New Nightmare (1994), Wes Craven’s meta-horror couplet which did a reasonable job of interrogating horror tropes by self-consciously exploiting them. Sure, there’s the scene in Scream where the girl gets her breasts caught in the doggie door, but now we as viewers are in on the joke. And in New Nightmare, Craven gets his from Freddy himself for being a horror-pusher. These movies gave us the vocabulary to watch horror critically – we can see the virgin/whore paradigm at work in slashers, we can read Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and Demon Seed (1977) as abortion politics narratives, where the female protagonists’ wombs literally become the domain of satanic cults and evil robots, respectively. Horror film as critique of pornography? Check out the 1983 body horror/mindfuck Videodrome.
So let’s say horror pushes boundaries, but is still displaying patriarchal narratives. In its over-the-top presentation, the genre displays the absurdity of the gendered society (because who really wants to live in a world where transpeople are pushed to murder everyone at their summer camp?). And with that vocabulary, it’s up to us to pull the plug on the patriarchy franchise.