Feminism and horror are not often associated topics, but we found more than a few movies with both frights and feminists to discuss. Catch up on Part I of our roundtable from last week, where we left our discussion surrounding the compelling mother figures in classic horror films.
Trigger Warning: Discussions of murder, sexual assault, and other gruesome acts depicted in horror films are discussed.
Megan B: There really are a ton of bad-ass mothers in horror. Ripley is a fascinating case since her role in Alien was written as gender neutral. But then you get to Aliens and James “loves his badass mamas” Cameron doesn’t hesitate to use her role as a mother to drive the story. Her urge to protect both humanity (by agreeing to go on this ill-advised mission), and to save Newt when it seemed a lost cause, are essential story elements that are driven by her maternal side and the loss of her child. She’s no longer just trying to survive, she is trying to keep everyone else alive, too. On top of that, the idea that no one listens to Ripley when she warns them about the alien, dismiss her concerns about the colony, these represent challenges many women face when trying to convey their own fears and general opinions in male dominated spaces.
Catie: Two other mothers of horror that I find interesting are those in The Ring and Silent Hill, especially considering they were both men in their original source material, too. The Ring is based on the Japanese film Ringu, which was itself based on a book of the same name by Koji Suzuki. In the novel, the lead character is a male journalist who, like the women in the films, discovers a creepy videotape and yada yada yada girl in the well etc. Likewise, in the original Silent Hill game that is an inspiration for the film, Harry Mason gets into a car accident and has to find his daughter Cheryl in the ultra-creepy town of Silent Hill. For the film, we get Rose, who takes her daughter to Silent Hill in the hopes of discovering the cause behind her violent dreams but instead has to travel through all sorts of weird hell dimensions to try to get her daughter back.
Maybe the filmmakers for both projects were drawing on that final girl tradition in horror, which is one of the few genres where audiences expect to see and root for female main characters. Certainly there’s a thriving ‘dad has to get his daughter back from kidnappers’ genre that’s comparable and mostly seems to involve Liam Neeson scowling. Maybe if your kid’s kidnapped by ghosts you call mom, but if it’s terrorists you call dad? But I think there’s a hint of unpleasant patriarchy about the whole thing; as if we are so used to mother = caretaker that we can’t imagine a father suffering through ghosts and madness to search for his child. I am glad to see that with recent movies like Insidious and The Conjuring that hauntings have become a family affair with both fathers and mothers getting in on the action. Creepy ghosts and potential murder, truly fun for the whole family!
Jamie: Men fight because they’re men. Women (like the mom in Poltergeist while we’re on the subject of horror movie moms) fight through madness, ghosts, and stuff because society has put women in the “hysterical, illogical, emotional, screaming, crying” cubby hole. Hollywood thinks nobody wants to see a man in that state of emotional upheaval. And women are already considered a hair’s breadth from histrionics at any given moment.
Megan B: I’d like to add that Craig T. Nelson’s meltdown near the end of Poltergeist where he confronts his real estate developer boss is one of my all-time favorite “loses their shit” moments in horror. Spielberg is no stranger to fathers losing their shit in his stories, but like you say Jamie, Hollywood in general is content with giving the ladies these moments.
Claire: Thinking about mothers in horror is a new way to approach three films I always want to push on everyone: Ginger Snaps, Jennifer’s Body, and The Woman. None of the mothers in these films are protagonists, and none end victorious. They all lose their children. One is disempowered to protect her child, one unexpectedly goes full den mother but loses, and one has no idea there’s anything wrong in her daughter’s life until it’s too late and she’s demon dead. The fathers, in these films, are nowhere or worse — there’s one never mentioned, one entirely ineffectual, and one intensely sinister and the source of the film’s horror. These are all films about relationships between young women (the protagonist and her mirror, to over simplify); they’re all about how the patriarchy ruins things, and they’re all actively “feminist horror”. It’s interesting to recognize that in horror — especially horror for and about girls? — parents are present, where they’re often absent in romantic or adventure fiction.
Megan B: Interestingly as well, the mothers when present often serve as a reminder that the protagonist(s) is facing their enemies alone. Like in Ginger Snaps, the sisters face the double threat of puberty and lycanthropy, tackling each with less trepidation than the prospect of talking to their mother about sex.
Claire: In a more general way, let me point you all to this feedback on a recent episode of the Isometric podcast on horror
I love pretty much all horror movies.
— Brianna Wu aka L3 (@Spacekatgal) October 7, 2014
Claire: In my opinion, horror works best when it’s based in hurt feelings. Like raw, angry pain. So people who are socially disempowered are pretty obviously going to make the best protagonists. Unfortunately at this point my knowledge doesn’t go too far beyond white woman horror — Blacula is excellent, and Scream Blacula Scream is pretty good too, there’s some nice stuff in The Beast Must Die and Hammer’s Seven Golden Vampires. All of these have men and women of colour in engaging and moving roles. I’ve been after Sugar Hill (1974), where a woman uses zombies against the white gangsters who killed her boyfriend, for ages. But on the whole I’m hungry for recs and knowledge! Throw me a bone, anyone?
Kayleigh: Sugar Hill is a lot of fun, Claire. I try to catch at least a few minutes of it whenever it’s on cable.
Catie: I am also not anywhere near as good as I should be on horror focusing on characters of color. Most of my experience is with Asian horror, things like Noroi: The Curse from Japan and A Tale of Two Sisters from Korea. While it’s still very white female protagonist, I really like Candyman and it’s explicit dealing with racial politics. It’s not always GOOD when it comes to race (the WoC friend character dies quickly and uselessly etc.) it’s still interesting to see a mainstream horror movie actually touching on this stuff. Also, while I haven’t seen it, Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones centers on Latino characters and is actually supposed to be pretty good.
Megan B: 28 Days Later has a wonderful lead character of color in Naomie Harris’ character Selena, but I feel she is underutilized in the film’s final act, relegated to the damsel in distress. How did they get their from machete-wielding-chemist?
Claire: Does Hausu count as horror? Is that a horror film? I guess it must be. Hausu is EXCELLENT, and everybody should watch it, probably right now. I watched it at midnight in the bath, which is also a +10 idea. It is entirely about girls, and girls’ responses to various bonkers shit… which is all very allegorical. Plus: great outfits, and a man turns into a pile of bananas.
Kayleigh: Hausu definitely counts as a horror film–it’s a haunted house story after all, with a lot of familiar horror tropes. I don’t know if people are scared by it so much as bemused, since it’s a very strange but entertaining flick. I think of it as “the girls from Azumanga Daioh go to the house from The Evil Dead.”
My favorite female horror icon is the Bride of Frankenstein. Elsa Lanchester is absolutely riveting as the Bride (and Frankenstein author Mary Shelley, in the film’s prologue) in her scant minutes of screentime. That hiss! That hair! Once you see her, you never forget her.
Bride of Frankenstein also had a quasi-remake in 1985, The Bride, in which Sting’s Dr. Frankenstein creates Jennifer Beals to be his perfect mate. It’s not a particularly good film (again, STING is playing Dr. Frankenstein) but is notable for giving a feminist spin on the old story. The now-educated Bride rebels against the paternalistic FrankenSting and runs away with the original Monster to Venice. Romance!
Megan B: I think I need FrankenSting’s Bride in my life. I just checked Netflix and it is totally available for streaming in the U.S.!
Kayleigh: Bouncing back to classic horror films, it’s interesting to note the feminist trajectory of George A. Romero’s zombie films. The original trilogy is loaded with social commentary about racism, class, the military, consumerism, etc. and it’s interesting to see how the portrayal of women changes over 20 years. Night of the Living Dead has been criticized for the character of Barbra, the female lead who escapes the graveyard zombie in the very first scene but spends the rest of the movie in a catatonic state. I actually don’t have a problem with Barbra, but the other, non-catatonic female characters are depressingly useless. Judy and her boyfriend die because her jacket gets caught in a exploding car, one of the stupidest deaths in horror film history.
Francine, the female lead in Dawn of the Dead (I shan’t speak of the Zack Snyder remake) is much more proactive. At first she has to fight to be taken seriously by the male members of the shopping mall survivors (“I’m not gonna be a den mother to you guys”), but ultimately her ability to defend herself and fly a helicopter saves the day–er, dawn. And finally Sarah, the protagonist of Day of the Dead, is a level-headed scientist who holds her own among both zombies and hostile soldiers–all while being maybe the last living woman on Earth. The films evolved instead of sticking to the same shambling, screaming “damsel in distress” cliches.