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women and horror, some thoughts and numbers

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Sep. 20th, 2009 | 12:13 pm

Ok, this article is a few months old and it's from Entertainment Weekly and I read it in a hair salon, but that doesn't mean it doesn't raise an interesting point.
Name any recent horror hit and odds are that female moviegoers bought more tickets than men. And we're not just talking about psychological spookfests like 2002's The Ring (60 percent female), 2004's The Grudge (65 percent female), and 2005's The Exorcism of Emily Rose (51 percent female). We're also talking about all the slice-and-dice remakes and sequels that Hollywood churns out.

''I don't think there was anyone who expected that women would gravitate toward a movie called The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,'' says Chainsaw producer Brad Fuller of the 2003 remake, which became a female-driven $81 million hit. ''For us, the issue now is that it's harder for us to get young men into the theater than women.'' And female audiences stay loyal. ''I've seen married women who are, like, 35 years old at horror movies and they're like, 'Oh, our husbands are with the kids and we all came out together,''' says Clint Culpepper, the president of Screen Gems, which is releasing a remake of the 1987 slasher film The Stepfather in October. ''Men stop seeing horror at a certain age, but women continue to go.''
The article goes on to give some pretty ridiculous, flat-footed reasons for this: 1) oh, it's about the empowerment of the final girl!  2) it's an excuse to cuddle up with the boyfriend.  The second explanation contradicts the data presented; the first explanation is old news.  As a woman who goes to horror movies, I don't think either has got anything to do with anything, but all I can really say is "I like horror!" 

I've always thought there's something more bizarre going on, whatever it is.  Like, does it matter that The Ring, The Grudge, and The Exorcism of Emily Rose all feature female "monsters"?  Nobody seems to talk about that aspect of "women and horror" because we're so stuck on the protagonists, but it's an interesting thing to look at.  The Exorcist is a classic example (I read a reasonably good analysis about that one for class, but then the analysis concluded that what made Reagan horrific/powerful was that she was masculinizing/masculinized, and I was like, *groan*).  So is Carrie.  The really scary ghosts in The Shining are female.  The really scary ghost in The Sixth Sense is little Mischa Barton.  Even Rosemary's Baby features evil within Rosemary (and personified by the nosy female neighbor).  The Omen is one of the few horror movies where the evil is totally masculine, although of course it's a little boy.  The Descent featured a bunch of fairly gender-neutral subhumans, but there was a lot of bloody women killing other bloody women in that movie, IIRC.  Regardless of what drives writers and producers to fill their movies with female monsters (I think for the most part that's a different issue), I wonder what these monsters reflect about the female audience. 

Then of course there's the serial killers, the last refuge of the male "monster."  For all their apparent immortality, these guys are not metaphysical, horrifying, all-powerful and all-present ghosts that seem to kill by the sheer fear they inflict.  Like zombies, they're beatable.  Serial killers also aren't demonic in any frightening way - the jury is out on Freddy Krueger, I suppose, but he's not literally summoning Satan like Reagan.  I personally don't find serial killer movies very scary, but more importantly, I frequently root for the serial killer.  For all this talk of empowerment, a lot of people go to serial killer movies to watch annoying teenagers get killed.  Sure, you'll say "don't open the door!" but it's to protect yourself from the jump, not because you give a shit about Girl In Halter Top.  No one goes to see horror movies for the protagonists.  They go for the monsters, for the slow creeping death, for the fear. 

It's terribly ironic that the article mentions Lars von Trier's new Antichrist as another horror movie with a female protagonist - for many reasons, not the least of which is that Charlotte Gainsbourg is "the Antichrist."  Listen to a bunch of male studio execs trying to figure out why women want to see their movies and they conclude meekly that "The appeal is in watching women in jeopardy and, most importantly, fighting back" - all I can do is laugh.  That's like seriously arguing that rape/revenge is feminism in disguise.  It's a fundamentally dishonest assessment of the horror experience.  What made The Descent phenomenal was that no one survived.  Is Naomi Watts really fighting back in The Ring?  Remember, Samara/Sadako "never sleeps." 

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Comments {20}

Paul G. Tremblay

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from: pgtremblay
date: Sep. 21st, 2009 02:03 am (UTC)
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The article goes on to give some pretty ridiculous, flat-footed reasons for this: 1) oh, it's about the empowerment of the final girl! 2) it's an excuse to cuddle up with the boyfriend. The second explanation contradicts the data presented; the first explanation is old news. As a woman who goes to horror movies, I don't think either has got anything to do with anything

I agree completely. (Without having read Carol Clover's book) I can't buy that teen male neanderthals (speaking as a former teen male neanderthal; like a pokemon, I evolved...) watching Friday the 13th part 56 consciously or subconsciously identify with bare-chested female victims nor with the "final girl."

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Paul G. Tremblay

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from: pgtremblay
date: Sep. 21st, 2009 12:48 pm (UTC)
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I should've added that I can't imagine women identifying with the victims/protags either.

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Nadia Louise

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from: intertribal
date: Sep. 21st, 2009 01:43 pm (UTC)
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Yeah, I don't think the genre encourages that much "identification." More like observation and objectification.

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royinpink

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from: royinpink
date: Sep. 21st, 2009 09:49 am (UTC)
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The female has pretty much always been aligned (cross-culturally, to some extent) with the more magical, more wild, less human, less civilized, less social power, etc. Which is why she needs to be tamed and protected, haha.

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royinpink

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from: royinpink
date: Sep. 21st, 2009 09:53 am (UTC)
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i guess it makes more sense that women would want to see that, particularly the ugly side rather than the mute and magical side, than men? idk.

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Nadia Louise

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from: intertribal
date: Sep. 21st, 2009 01:14 pm (UTC)
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Does it? I think that's part of why I go, but I've always thought I was in the minority. It seems too subversive.

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royinpink

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from: royinpink
date: Sep. 21st, 2009 01:17 pm (UTC)
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I don't think it's subversive. I think it reinforces femininity as defined by patriarchy.

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Nadia Louise

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from: intertribal
date: Sep. 21st, 2009 01:24 pm (UTC)
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Wow, really? I totally disagree. I can see how that would describe the authorial intent, but I don't think that's how they're experienced.

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royinpink

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from: royinpink
date: Sep. 21st, 2009 01:28 pm (UTC)
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Well, considering that I think the desire for revenge stems from patriarchy rather than subverting it.

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Nadia Louise

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from: intertribal
date: Sep. 21st, 2009 02:03 pm (UTC)
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Yeah, I wasn't thinking of that. But I still disagree. I'd say that the desire for revenge is caused - and well, maybe even encouraged - by the patriarchy, but I also think the patriarchy (or whatever) puts the female lead there as the good alternative, and that's what's rejected by female audiences. I also think that horror is doing something different than typical revenge of the powerless fare, although I can't quite articulate how. Maybe something to do with the endings.

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royinpink

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from: royinpink
date: Nov. 22nd, 2009 06:08 pm (UTC)
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What if it has more to do with the men's reaction than the women's?

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Nadia Louise

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from: intertribal
date: Sep. 21st, 2009 01:12 pm (UTC)
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Yeah, that's why producers and writers create female monsters. My question was why female audiences want to see them, esp. in the cases where the monster isn't defeated by the end of the movie (or is only defeated through sacrifice of a man... Exorcist).

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royinpink

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from: royinpink
date: Sep. 21st, 2009 01:26 pm (UTC)
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I know what your question was, but you seemed to suggest that it was somehow unusual or heretofore unrealized that there's a huge theme of femininity and monsters--especially ghosts and the supernatural, and I don't think that's true. It's been the case from Japanese ghosts to witches to female shamen... You say, "Nobody seems to talk about that aspect of "women and horror,'" but maybe you're just reading the wrong things or something, b/c it's pretty well-documented, I think.

Also, there's a whole article by Sherry Ortner about how various cultures have all typed women as 'nature' and men as 'culture'--anything requiring skill, power, cultivation goes to the men; anything base, animalistic, wild, uncontrollable, or simply related to natural cycles of childbirth, etc. goes to the women. I don't think it's empowering for women. The nearest it gets to subversion is revenge, lashing out, and you know how I feel about that, stemming from weakness and domination and all. At the other extreme, it's the feminine ideal--a woman who can't speak her mind, who needs to be tamed and kept and protected because she is wilder, sweeter, finer than men. Men are tainted by culture, but women are pure in their childlike naivety and wild emotions.

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royinpink

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from: royinpink
date: Sep. 21st, 2009 01:31 pm (UTC)
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I should say, though, that I'm mixing cultural backgrounds here. You need a society that isn't nomadic for some of the 'taming' stuff. Women look hella different in nomadic societies where they aren't the housekeepers. Gender roles are always largely defined by the way marriage and families are organized.

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royinpink

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from: royinpink
date: Sep. 21st, 2009 01:31 pm (UTC)
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Blah blah blah as if i know what i'm talking about.

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Nadia Louise

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from: intertribal
date: Sep. 21st, 2009 01:38 pm (UTC)
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Well, by "nobody" I mean nobody in the popular American press. There did seem to be a realization of that, say, in the literature we read in Japanese Monsters class, but thematically it was pretty under-developed, at least in our discussions/readings. But I could be reading the wrong academic things, that's true. I've only ever been pointed toward "the final girl" in re: women and horror as a subject.

The empowerment argument is about female protagonists, who are usually pretty cultured/civilized by comparison to everybody else. But, I do take your point about subversion and revenge, because that is exactly what it is, and I agree that that's not empowering either. But I was still surprised that female audiences - in general - want to partake in lashing out. And I think it's telling that everybody says they're going because they're being empowered through identification with the female lead.

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royinpink

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from: royinpink
date: Nov. 22nd, 2009 08:17 pm (UTC)
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But I was still surprised that female audiences - in general - want to partake in lashing out.

I dunno, have you ever listened to girls/women bitch about men? It's pretty nasty. Be it Abbey or my mother or Whitney or Keri... though to be fair Whitney probably wouldn't like horror movies so much.

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royinpink

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from: royinpink
date: Nov. 22nd, 2009 08:18 pm (UTC)
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It seems like a bit of a jump, though to go from 'like watching horror movies' to 'want to partake in lashing out'.

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Nadia Louise

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from: intertribal
date: Nov. 22nd, 2009 08:26 pm (UTC)
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I agree. It would be nice to see a survey or something about what women like about horror movies (or what parts they most enjoy, or something).

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Nadia Louise

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from: intertribal
date: Nov. 22nd, 2009 08:25 pm (UTC)
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I've never been around women that bitch about men at all, actually.

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