By Madeline Perez
This Halloween season, I want to talk to you about something frightening. Something horrifying. Something that makes you thrash, screaming “the horror, the horror,” put your face in your hands, and weep. As some of you may have already guessed, I’m talking about women. Honestly, I can’t escape them, as they seem to be drawn to me with the same magnetism that attracts my refrigerator letter magnets to my fridge. Females occupy my living space, dance around in my head, and every morning when I look in the mirror I cower in terror as I find one looking back at me (yikes!). It’s terrifying. Frankly, it’s no wonder that the horror genre is dominated by women. A study by the Geena Davis Institute (and Google) found that horror was the only genre where women appear and speak as often as men. This may not seem like much, but comparing it to the average of men having twice as much screen time as women puts things into perspective. Scary movies seem to be the only ones that regularly employ female main characters more than male ones. But wait a second you guys… I was only kidding around before about that “women are terrifying” stuff. Why do we see such a big difference in gender dynamics here?
Some of the most popular movies rely heavily on the projection of the audience onto the main character. This is most apparent in franchises where the main character is bland enough to have a wide range of the audience identify with them, but who is also incredibly unique–chosen by something greater than themselves to save the day. Think of Luke in Star Wars or Harry in Harry Potter. No personality. Like at all. They do this on purpose so that YOU, that’s right, YOU can fulfill your fantasy of saving the day, being special, and having everyone like you. Horror movies are no different. They, too, want you to identify with the main character so that you can empathize with them. By making the main characters in horror movies female, they are forcing you to experience the plot through her. Her fragility and inability to handle things. Her physical weakness. Her lack of independence in her own life to change her situation. Arguably most importantly, the questioning of her own sanity as the people around her refuse to take her seriously.
Think of the stereotypical horror film: family moves into a haunted house; something’s off; the dog dies inexplicably. Suddenly, the stupid woman and/or children start witnessing paranormal activity. Normally, the husband won’t accept that the house is haunted until he sees it for himself, and by that time, it’s already too late. In all of his strong, stubborn denial, he is able to dismiss the rest of his frantic family. But why not believe your wife? Clearly, even if your house isn’t haunted, or that orphan you adopted isn’t some psycho woman in a child’s body, you should still be dealing with the fact that your wife is exhibiting a serious mental break… or maybe, this is just normal. She is a woman after all…
The instability of the female psyche is a common trope in media as well as, dare I say, misogynistic views of today. Women are emotional, hysterical, confusing beings who must be guided through life by a stable man—a lost lamb to a shepherd. In this way, the things they say cannot always be taken at face value. Especially in the past, this was a way to disregard valid societal unrest seen in women with no independence, yellow-wall-paper-style. They called it female hysteria. “Hello, doctor. The fact I cannot leave the house without my husband’s permission and have no purpose other than being a housewife is making me depressed.” The doctor scratches his chin for a moment before answering, “have you tried not being a woman?” and so on and so forth.
Women today still have immense trouble being taken seriously and are consistently accused of making things up for attention. If only there was a controversial 2017 social movement focused on this very subject to use as an example. :(. Anyway, this type of refusal to believe women in horror movies will sometimes travel down a path where a woman must confront her own sanity, believing others dismissals that she must be crazy over her own lived experience. Through a female main character, the audience feels this frustration, this insecurity–this womanly belief that you are one experience away from falling into an insanity so absolute you lose yourself in the process. And that societal gaslighting is an aspect of the horror.
But why not have it the other way around? Could you imagine? The big strong husband tells his wife that he saw a ghost and they need to move immediately. She shuffles her newspaper and removes the pipe from her mouth to speak, not shifting her eyes from the sports section. “Just your imagination, dear. I’m sure you’ll feel better when you’re off your period,” and that’s that. No, men in horror movies are not only taken seriously—they don’t always need to convince others of their experience in order to change their situations. Maybe they would just decide to move houses, or confront that apparition head-to-head in physical combat. There are two sides to this coin: for all the infantilization of women, we see an equal and opposite expectation of men to be the stoic protectors.
A woman is screaming and crying out of fear. Don’t worry, she is completely hypothetical. She exists in your mind when you’re reading this and will cease to exist when you forget about her. Anyway, looking in on that, you may feel empathetic toward her. Maybe you want to help—give her a kiss on the forehead, tuck her in, and tell her a bedtime story. We have been socialized to understand that women deserve care and protection. Now, if a man is screaming and crying because of some demon or spirit, the audience may subconsciously feel embarrassment. Wow, another soyboy, weak and effeminate, who chooses to cry rather than confront this problem head-on. What happened to Real Men?
The horror genre cannot always make effective victims out of men because we have been taught women are allowed to feel fear, but a good man—a man you want your audience to identify with—should not. Obviously, this is wrong, because I know if you guys saw a poltergeist right now throwing dishes across your kitchen you would be shitting your pants, regardless of gender. Men do not often cower or cry in movies except when it’s time to make fun of them. In this way, many horror movies are trapped with a female protagonist in her infinite privilege to cry and be weak without negatively marring her character. The character needs to be weak in comparison to whatever is stalking, hunting, or terrifying her, and it’s imperative that you empathize with that weakness, because helplessness is part of the horror.
In recent years especially, a new type of horror movie monster has stolen the silver screen. We see the subversion of the female victim, and in the process, a transformation from prey to predator. Most apparent in movies like Jennifer’s Body, The Witch, and Carrie, the girls start off as victims of assault and abuse directly tied to their womanhood. As a way of survival, each character in turn becomes the villain their world makes them out to be. We’ve all been there, am I right, ladies? They turn to monstrosity as a way to be heard, taken seriously, and to have the strength to fight back against what’s been done to them. But they’re not just turning to petty violence. In one way or another, her womanhood stays intact, if not morphed into something more dangerous. Girlbossing, if you will. I don’t think there’s any sort of problem here. I actually think it’s quite creative.
Well, now you know my thoughts on why horror flicks often use women as main characters. Obviously, I know this is not always the case. I’m not stupid. I’m just someone who likes thinking a lot about gender, movies, and combination gender inside of movies. My hope is that you can now ruminate on why we see men and women so differently in film, and whether or not you feel it needs to change. If you don’t want to think about it and actually hate this article, fine. I understand. But if you’re not interested in the effect gender roles have had on scary movies, can you even call yourself a horror fan? And that’s Gatekeeping. We’ve come full circle, goodnight everybody,—and Happy Halloween.