How Women Have Redefined the Horror Genre

Women Don’t Have to Always Be the Victim

For the longest time the term horror film was synonymous to women being tormented by x threat for 90mins through an intensified predatory male gaze. The entirety of the slasher sub-genre for example being beholden to this ideal even up until present day. This can most likely be attributed to the severe lack of female directed horror movies in the mainstream. Whilst horror has come a long way in the last few years the sexist subtext under the torment of women in these films still lingers.

Fortunately for the genre more women directors have started to emerge. Blumhouse Productions for example, after the outrage directed at founder Jason Blum for his comments regarding the fact that women horror directors didn’t exist [1], have started to hire women to direct upcoming projects. Sophia Takal for example directed recent Blumhouse release Black Christmas, and the trailer just dropped for The Craft Legacy written and directed by Zoe Lister-Jones. Both hopefully signs that Jason Blum learnt his lesson and that women are being welcomed as equals into mainstream horror movie making.

However women have been redefining the horror genre for years before Blumhouse finally realised they existed, so I thought I would walk through some of the key ways the genre is shifting for the better under the female gaze.


Inherently Female Issues

One way women directors have flipped the script in horror is to make films about inherently female identified issues. Whilst women have existed in male horror films for a long time it has taken a while for women to actually own the horror film and by this I mean that the films subject matter actually tackles an underlying theme that can be identified as relating mainly to women. Not that any of these films can only be enjoyed or viewed by women but it’s a breathe of fresh spooky air to finally see the genre delve into deeper and diversified subject matter.

Some examples of this particular redefinition are Prevenge (2017) directed by Alice Lowe which explores the concept of the glowing pregnancy, M.F.A (2017) directed by Natalia Leite and Promising Young Woman (2020) Directed by Emerald Fennell, which looks at the impacts of rape and sexual assault on women, and The Babadook (2014) directed by Jennifer Kent which explores the mother and son bond as well as struggles of single motherhood.

Prevenge Directed by Alice Lowe

Women As The Villain

Whist women have been appearing as villains in Horror and other genres of film for a long time they are often portrayed as garish stereotypes. Either a crazed psychopath who is more often than not obsessed with the male lead in some way or a sexy dominatrix type character whose sexual appeal is less about her being in control and much more about how the camera can objectify her. When a female director gets her hands on a female villain it becomes less about being a stereotype. Female directed villains will often have much more complexity to them and usually end up being better films for it. Particularly in the examples below female villains will have complex motivations or may even appear more like anti-heroines instead as the audience struggles with the moral grey areas of their actions.

Some examples of horror movies directed by women that have complex female villains are Jennifer’s Body directed by Karan Kusama; not only is Jennifer a redefinition of the sexy female villain stereotype but her relationship with best friend Anita also explores inherently female issues making this the epitome of female directed horror. A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (2014) directed by Ana Lily Amirpour; granted is more of an anti-heroine than a villain but this female vampire boasts a demeanour of cool and control. And American Mary (2013) directed by Jen & Sylvia Soska, which again borders the line of villain and anti-hero as this medical student enters the dark world of underground surgery.

American Mary Directed by Jen & Sylvia Soska

Psychologically & Emotionally Complex

Women in general are known for being much more empathetic [2] making us primed for creating tense and terrifying psychological horror as we can insert ourselves into the minds of the characters being plagued by whatever unseen enemy might be plaguing them. Often the sub-genre I find most horrifying as it puts a lens to the issues and themes that we’re most likely to come across in day to day life and holds a mirror up to society so that we discover things we may be uncomfortable to find within ourselves. Mainly psychological stories also leave things open to interesting filmmaking techniques not grounded in reality making these kinds of films affecting not only to your mind but your eyes as well.

Some prime examples of how women directors have owned this horror sub-genre are Always Shine (2016) directed by Sophia Takal, which delves into the psyche of two competitive and judgmental “best friends”, Berlin Syndrome directed by Cate Shortland, which is a terrifying stranger danger/stockholm syndrome story and The Hitch-Hitcher directed by Ida Lupino a psychological noir thriller from the 1950’s where women directors were in short supply and the monster movie was in high demand proving women have been redefining Horror since the very start of cinema.

Always Shine Directed by Sophia Takal

Of course none of what I’ve talked about in this post is mutually exclusive. Not all women directors tackle what I’ve talked about in their films and there are some great male horror directors out there that work with the above and other diverse themes to deliver on some truly terrifying films that are changing the horror genre for the better; Ari Aster and Jordan Peele come to mind. But it is important to acknowledge the women working hard in the horror space to take it from what has been for a long time, a genre with a firm male gaze, to something that can now speak for everyone.

REFERENCES:

[1] – The Verge Article: https://www.theverge.com/2018/10/17/17990502/jason-blum-interview-blumhouse-pictures-women-directors-horror

[2] – UCLA Study: https://newsroom.ucla.edu/stories/womens-brains-show-more-empathy

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