A Book Review Essay by Tanja Bresan.
Women’s screen presence is the most striking in the horror genre. To be gazed upon is in part to be possessed, consumed or at the least, threatened with commodification. From silent era vampire’s desire Ellen in 1922 Nosferatu by F.W. Murnau, to Fay Wray in King Kong, to Hitchcock’s beleaguered Rebecca, to Polanski’s Carol in Repulsion, to Antonioni’s Giuliana in Red Desert, the case of female weakness, hysteria, paranoia, delusion and despair have been some of the main narrative trajectories of the horror heroine. Christopher Sharrett’s analysis of the film Haunting by Robert Wise makes up for a concise analysis of the female issue and the ultimate struggle that ensued in genre filmmaking:
The film seems to recognize, in 1963, the frustrations of women under bourgeois patriarchal society, while also arguing that there is no way out. Even while offering the option of same-sex relations, the male and his property interests (symbolized by the immense Hill House) ultimately triumph. In this view, the film takes back what it offers. The Haunting is nihilist and defeatist in outlook, but understanding of the struggles to come. (1)
Women Make Horror – Filmmaking, Feminism, Genre (Rutgers University Press, 2020) edited by Alison Peirse and a Finalist for a 2020 Bram Stoker Award, tackles these well-defined “struggles to come” and sets out to investigate the genre that ultimately failed women and slighted or subverted their issues. The book addresses films that are not solely focused on women’s screen presences, but on the women behind the camera addressing women onscreen. As Robin Wood pointed out, the struggle for liberation was not only utopian, but a practical necessity; here the writers and film scholars are taking the latter at face value and placing it within the horror genre as a place for radical political, gender, and social change. (2)
Eighteen written essays presented in the book, by scholars Valeria Villegas Lindvall, Dahlia Schweitzer, Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, and others, had three questions to answer in order to assess the needs of the contemporary audience: can horror cinema be women’s cinema, why women make the kinds of horror films that they do, and what kind of stories are told in the women made horror films. We can argue that the questions have been answered in their unique fashion, with each essay ultimately claiming that yes, women can make horror films and have been making them. The reasons why they make them are usually where the theses come together unanimously: the genre explores and deconstructs the preconceived notions of gender, sexuality, and identity and the female body.
The book also offers an overview of the number of female filmmakers working in the horror genre, aligning their personal experiences within the choices they have made in filmmaking. Essays explore women’s filmmaking from the 1970s up to the present time, ranging from exploitation movement, questions of authorship in horror female filmmaking in the 70s, to more expanding research on female horror filmmaking in Europe, Iran and Mexico. The book also deals with the emergence of horror film festivals, the formation of various female-run podcasts, blogs, and female-run magazines (Diabolique Magazine) that helped women to dominate the genre in the new millennium. The book also notes screenwriting work from 1930s and 1940s, acknowledging writers such as Ruth Rose (King Kong) and Leigh Brackett (The Long Goodbye) who worked at the intersection of horror, crime, noir and mystery, as to point the to everlasting female presence beyond the classical horror genre.
The book displays the ways in which female filmmakers make work that aligns with their personal experience, allowing the making of a horror film to be a kind of catharsis, and providing (temporary) control over chaos. Female issues on screen are re-enacted and often achieve closure, which cannot always be said of everyday life; personal trauma can be observed from a distance and re-enacted on screen for cathartic purposes.
Female horror films offer a different, more personal reading of “what is like to be a woman” and characters do more than get chased and hacked to pieces. Instead they endure various forms of (sexual) violence and misinterpretation and endure challenges ranging from menstrual pain to post-natal depression. These issues are often taken as motifs in films made by woman, but not necessarily; most of the essays cover this ground rather comprehensively, building on the insights of the essays from the past and challenging their conclusions.
The essay by Laura Mee on the film adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho (2000) directed by Mary Harron makes up for a dark, comic, and provocative social satire screen adaptation, tackling neoliberalism, consumerism, and protagonist male identity in crisis as seen trough women’s perspective. The approach the director took often made it hard to classify the film as purely horror (slasher). In the DVD commentary of the film, the director calls it social satire meets horror film, where horror, satire and comedy are not mutually exclusive forms (99). American Psycho is the most critically acclaimed and commercially successful film made by a woman. The film was told from the female point of view which brings us back to the common feature of female horror filmmaking: female experience. In the case of American Psycho, the focus is on a 1980 yuppie male culture in crisis and its repercussions. The essay successfully defines the subgenre of the film’s horror with its satirical, psychological, and social range. Women can write horror that doesn’t necessarily fit the feminist box and that writing is not the same as endorsing the acts and behavior of the protagonists.
Interesting conflicts emerge within feminist art horror and The New French Extremity movement in filmmaking. An essay by Maddi McGillvray examines extreme violence and sexual brutality in French cinema. Films discussed in the book are Claire Denis’s Trouble Every Day (2001) and Marina de Van’s In My Skin (Dans ma peau, 2002). The conflict emerges considering the classification of the horror genre as being “lowbrow” and art film as being the “higher” form of art. The two films in question tackle rigid cultural hierarchies, though ultimately, both films are more about the questions of desire and exploration, female fantasy, endurance, and surreality, the meditation on body horror (124,128). These are less horror perhaps than simply unusual love stories, where kisses and affection are filled with terror.
Heller-Nicholas’ excellent essay on The Mafu Cage (1978) is a groundbreaking horror love story of sisterly codependence, directed by Karen Arthur. The Mafu Cage makes her a crucial figure in genre filmmaking, together with her director contemporaries such as Kathryn Bigelow (Near Dark and The Loveless) all the way to a pioneer in genre filmmaking, Stephanie Rothman. The directors mentioned paved the path for newcomers in the field of genre filmmaking by breaking the norms and conventions and facing challenges in filmmaking, such as questions of authorship, and their refusal to address female issues in the traditional way. They have fought for more creative autonomy and financial stability. Essays on these directors are giving a certain historical overview as well as historical corrective of the marginalized (26).
The closing chapter pays homage to female fandom, stating that women make up for an important and vital part of a horror users and viewers. Kier-La Janisse’s excellent book House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films (FAB Press, 2012), which has been quoted several times throughout several essays, makes an excellent and personal psychological study of female horror fandom through various horror and exploitation films. Janisse is more than just a fan; the horror movies she grew up with, and the ones she later worked on and wrote on, helped her to compensate, empower, purify, cleanse, cry, scream, and escape. Horror films allow fans to “exercise, rather than exorcise, emotions of tremendous importance that were otherwise denied legitimate expression” (225). Carol J. Clover, in her book Men, Women and Chainsaws (Princeton University Press, 1992) makes an interesting point regarding the audience, particularly the male audience, in relation to women on (and behind) the screens of horror movies, stating that the sex of the character is no object. (3) She elaborates the following in the case of the film Carrie (Brian de Palma,1976), whose painful story of not fitting in can be equally targeted at high school boys who endured pulled up pants and had their coke-bottle glasses messed with: the point is fear and pain, hers and by proxy, ours. Carrie’s female revenge is the revenge of all humans faced with anger, resentment and misunderstanding.
The aim and the encouragement of the book is clear. It points out the potential of the female voice in genre filmmaking and horror as a means of expression and as a challenge to the status quo, a possible path towards gender equality and resistance.
1. Sharrett, Christopher. 2014. “The Horror Film as Social Allegory (And How it Comes Undone).” In A Companion to the Horror Film, edited by Harry Behshoff. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 60.
2. Wood, Robin. 2018. “An Introduction to the American Horror Film.” In Robin Wood on the Horror Film, edited by Barry Keith Grant. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press.
3. Clover, Carol J. 1992. Men, Women, and Chainsaws. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.