Horror films have never shied away from resorting to gendered stereotypes, biases, cliches and more. To appease the pervading male gaze, they often dabble with the archetypal roles inflicted on the woman who is either the helpless virgin who falls victim to the advance of the killer in slasher films or the seductress who meets her untimely end. Over the years, the portrayal of women in horror has more or less remained rooted in fear of the abject. According to Julia Kristeva, the abject refers to the uncanny that disgusts us yet is an inherent part of us. Films use women and the female body as a seat of horror to explore similar tropes and constantly misportray the same as the abject.
Besides jumpscares and ominous music, screams constitute an important part of horror films. Spine-chilling screams often have the power to heighten the overall atmospheric tension. However, it is never the men that cry but only the women in gory slasher films. Often, their names remain unknown, and they are reduced to the identity of a screamer where the screams are their only agency to communicate fear. They are shown to be weak, docile and easily frightened. Fear is the only emotion that they feel, and their speech is reduced to screams. A good example of the same would be Stanley Kubrick’s portrayal of Wendy Torrance in the 1980 horror flick, The Shining, where Wendy’s character arc undergoes no development; she screeches and screams as her husband Jack descends into chaotic madness. Even Stephen King himself criticised the misogynistic portrayal of Wendy talking about how Kubrick made Shelley Duvall bring down such a carefully constructed character to dust.
The fear of the unknown also stays rooted in the inherent alienation from the female body and sexuality. Hyper-sexualised via a perverse lens, it remains somewhat oddly grotesque as the film inherently insinuates the female body to be monstrous. Menstruation is an inherent divide between the male and female anatomy, and it is therefore seen as violent and grotesque. A great example of this would be Brian De Palma’s 1976 film Carrie where her devout mother convinced the titular protagonist about how sinful sex and menstruation is. By inherently instilling prejudices against sexual intercourse, the films somehow rob the female body of pleasure while holding it monstrous and scary — Carrie’s physical and sexual repression results in chaotic telekinetic outbursts.
The genre of horror is inherently phallocentric, and the ‘final girl’ is somehow masculinised. Most of the films under the genre banner comprise sexualised violence where the virginal beauty gets battered while the sultry woman is often the first one to be killed. In films like The Hills Have Eyes, sex and violence somehow exist hand in hand and the aspect of torturing the woman adds extra oomph to the film. While viewers are inherently sadistic and revel in various torture methods in films like Saw and The Wrong Turn, violating the female body and taking control of the female sexuality seems to be the focal point.
Even in Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, the woman’s body is violated without her consent, and she is shown nurturing the son of Satan. The horror does not emanate from the concept of the devil’s baby but from how effortlessly the loving husband willingly lets his wife’s body be violated in return for a burgeoning career. Rosemary’s body births evil, adding to the notion of fear surrounding the womb and female body.
The figure of ‘the mother’ also becomes a point of common conflict in films like The Conjuring, The Babadook, Ouija and Hereditary, to name a few. Usually, motherhood is perceived as a nurturing and delicate seat in films. Darren Aronofsky’s mother! Tried to uphold the sanctity of the same while delving deeper into the horrifying yet allegorical references to motherhood and other religious mysticism. However, in the films mentioned above, the mother becomes the seat of possession and often engages in unfathomable and transgressive acts that also include harming her own children. The dysfunctional matriarch and the subsequent maternal horror is deeply personal and often result from immense repression. The demonic possession of the maternal figure is a very common trope that has incited deep fears and insecurities for generations.
More often than not, women in horror films are killed while in compromising positions, whether in a tent or an isolated cabin. The man is killed almost instantaneously, but the camera takes its own sweet time to pan over the woman’s curves, showing her trying to escape fearfully before documenting her brutal slaughter. The female body is maligned, vilified and violated. The victimisation of women, whose roles are extremely restrictive, is, however, undergoing certain changes. Recent films like Midsommar, It Follows, The Witch and more all portray a different vision. The woman is no longer a whimpering victim but a strong protagonist who survives the ordeal.
In It Follows, the filmmaker deals with an important topic. While the film is indeed quite scary, it starts an important conversation about consent and safe sex without driving in the fear regarding the same. The Witch and Midsommar see extremely strong female protagonists who are both jilted by their family and lover, respectively. A victim of pagan rituals and sacrifices, both the women in the films are bogged down by the patriarchal elements like the father and the boyfriend figures, respectively.
Despite being confined to respective claustrophobic environments, the way Dani from Midsommar and Thomasin from The Witch seek control over their bodies is the ultimate societal transgression. Thomasin basks in her womanhood and chooses to be the titular witch- a considered nefarious and villainous figure. Her ultimate rejection of the Puritan ideals. Thomasin’s wanton sexuality is tempting; she uses her position to prove a point and subvert the roles that have been imposed on her.
Similarly, Dani’s escape from the toxic relationship is cathartic. The pagan Harga girl takes control of her body, and the film in itself subverts the idea of communions and cults as matriarchs drive the Harga community. Sinister and disturbing yet brilliantly shot, the dazzling climax where Dani revels in the ecstasy and glory of her revenge is highly symbolic.
The problem of representation and diversity still plagues the cinema industry at large. Horror films have been extraordinarily misogynistic and reductive in their portrayal of women, but with the help of the likes of Ari Aster and Jordan Peele, the landscape is gradually changing. While people of colour still need far greater representation in horror films where they remain more or less forgotten, no longer do female viewers have to witness the terrifying and flawed representation of their image on-screen. No longer must they suffer the masochism of watching a film where the female body is either possessed, betrayed, stalked or killed.
Gradually, female characters are reclaiming agency and are no longer seen as the screamer virgin or the final girl. Instead, they are carving out their own niche, advancing towards subverting the male gaze and empowerment.