Often for young women just entering the teen years, our first experience with the Horror genre is a summer blockbuster (if not a broken-backed used copy of a Stephen King novel). We are “in it” for the fun, for the thrill ride, for scaring ourselves. We don’t look too closely, we don’t draw comparisons to Real Life; we simply can’t wait to laugh at the way something made us jump, to grab the arm of the guy we came with.
Some of us stick around for years – long enough for the glamour to wear off, to start noticing things that seem to be there intentionally or accidentally, and we remain because we are transfixed by the contradiction of liking something that on its surface seems gratuitously misogynistic – yet being female – also haunts us. What is it about Horror, then, that draws a feminist in? Why do those of us with angst stay with the genre – poking at it, teasing it, dissecting it?
Worse, how is it that even we often fail to notice the little things that speak so very loudly about what is both right and wrong with our genre – the things that seem so obvious when pointed out?
How do we go in, eyes wide open, and still fall for the magic trick?
What Lies Beneath. What Lies.
How did we not-notice when monsters became female, and females became monsters?
One reason is simply that we came to see monsters. We came for the same thrills as when we were younger, but we also start to wake up to the inconsistencies. We are so busy being appalled at some of the more obvious suggestions about our bodies and our morals that we miss the whole subtextual argument that may at times be there…
Girls, you see, are used to being lied to. From I’ll-always-love-you’s to the no-you-don’t-look-fat comments, girls are used to being played… we just don’t always understand the stakes. We certainly aren’t prepared from an early age to be aware of the constant Battle for True Womanhood that come at us from churches, schools, families, and television sets – pretty much anyone who believes themselves qualified to comment. So a few monsters in a summer Horror movies seems like a break from all of that truly scary dialogue. Who wants to be held to piety and wholesomeness when we don’t even know who we are yet?
Yet it seems everyone has to weigh-in on how we should think, feel, and act. Messaging for young girls comes from literally everywhere. Why don’t monsters seem like more of the same? Why do they lure us in?
Because they are monsters… and we paid for the magic trick.
That answer may have to do with the way girls are raised – especially when we are raised to accept and reinforce a larger societal narrative that assures us that our lives are better if we do not question things established by society. When a society is established by white men, then that translates into not-questioning white men. And if white men write and produce our Horror, then we are meant to see the surface and repeat the mantra of what is obvious. We are meant to take away the immediate messaging that bad girls pay for their sins, that all things sexual are either miraculous or monstrous, and the feminine is the lynchpin to monstrosity.
Whether we are looking to the expulsion from the Garden of Eden, fairy tales or Horror movies, in our stories of youth the feminine is the key to perfect lives falling irreparably apart. The message that women are the source of all evil and all failings is assimilated, without our permission, without our understanding.
When we are young, sex in Horror (when pointed out) is typically met with an eye roll. We are (after all) young – not stupid. It is also clear to us as female fans, that the “design” of Hollywood Horror (like most other things) is geared toward the boys, with strong lessons for the girl which include such pearls of wisdom as “promiscuity is punishable by death” and “she who wears the least lasts the longest” and “boys who love you die”…
Still, most of us stay in the dark theater for the scary parts, to figure out how we would escape the circumstances (if not to congratulate ourselves for being too smart to open certain doors in Life). After all, we came with a date we “know” and “trust” and it is all just a movie anyway.
Yet the truth is, a lot of those movie scenes bug us. It’s not just the presence and eventual slaughter of the lauded Perfect Cheerleader and Perfect Jock Boyfriend (who we are all encouraged to emulate despite all of us knowing the shallow picture being peddled and disliking all of the implications), but rather it is also because we are immensely discomfited by the sheer violence – the dehumanization of our gender.
We SEE it. And we hope we are not thought of as deserving of such clear and public disapproval. In fact we immediately start reacting – whether we start dressing and acting more conservatively so as to not draw the “wrong” attention, or if we dress or act how we darn well want to prove it won’t happen to us…
And these messages are like a car accident we cannot avert our eyes from. We often witness real time abuse of ourselves, our friends, even our mothers or strangers at the grocery store… We see that nothing is done to stop the behavior. We see the victim only held accountable; stories we hear women repeat in muted voices reinforce that fact. And on the Big Screen we see it all endorsed.
But why has the change in monster gender started a whole new subtext?
When the monsters are presented as male, isn’t it the more consistent message? Aren’t we expecting that kind of monster to be visited upon us for being so “bad”? Aren’t males our judges and juries? And if the monsters are now female, is the message the same? Or is it…mutating?
Often the subtext holds the answer. And what the subtext in Horror has long shown is the ongoing battle between the sexes.
So isn’t it better that the monsters are now largely female? Doesn’t that mirror a change in our social perspective in modern society?
Sadly, the answer is no. Rather, it shows that the argument has gone to a ground game. But it also means we are starting to see a rebellion against all of the righteous lecturing.
Horror is (and should be) the fun house of young adulthood – it is all about immortality, the vitality of being young, the recklessness of immaturity that becomes Life’s gauntlet that most of us survive in spite of ourselves. But Horror is also about reality… especially the one that says power corrupts and those who have it will always believe they can get away with anything and everything.
Horror, therefore, is about the ones in power. It is a commentary and a condemnation. And it is not a plea – but a demand for justice. And in this genre, we are overflowing with the marginalized. For a very long time, too many of us have been designated “extras” who are both entertainment and expendable.
But maybe the most important thing a person can take away from the Horror genre is the truth that Horror has not always been a place cluttered with cleavage and underwear. Horror comes from much more dignified origins – even if the misogyny cannot be denied. And we are really not so far from the Gothic Romance and Ghost Story that we cannot see the point of diversion – that precarious turn down the dead-end-road of violence against women and minorities where bald-faced, irrational rage is blatantly clear.
This is a dialogue we are having today – the mindless chatter against immigrants, the rationalization of oppression of those we don’t politically agree with, the war on women’s bodies.
We’ve known it. But we aren’t supposed to say it. Because the messaging is that we have been very bad girls – so bad, we need to prove our worthiness for the rest of our lives.
And if you are a girl, that rhetoric gets really old really fast. Why? Because girls continue to be raised as the daughters of Eve, betrayer of Adam. Because everything from world religion to board rooms are used to reinforce the mythology that everything bad that happens did so because of the mere presence of a woman.
What happens when women rebel? And why is it that the rebellion becomes the distraction from the reason FOR all of that anger?
This is how women end up in attics and morgues, discredited and mocked, accused and convicted with or without a courtroom.
Whether we are talking about the creation of an entire institution for the mentally unfit (the asylum) in a blatant attempt to reclaim the attic, or the chants to “lock her up” at political pep rallies, the consequences of gaslighting the gal you love with Yellow Wallpaper, or hosting radio shows that call fed-up and opinionated women “feminazis”… When woman speak men tremble. And then they draw really big women destroying the metropolis men built.
Angry women are scary. They have to be monsters.
Welcome to Feminist Theory. Welcome to New Historicism. Welcome to the complicated yet interesting world of Literary Critical Theory…
The Feminine Mystique & The Making of Monstrous Women
History is a funny thing. We always think of it as what happened in the past in its own little bubble. But history is how we got to now. History is what we do with Now.
Where the 1950s were about fearing invasion from without (aliens, foreigners, communism), the 1960s were about fearing invasion from within (madness, loss of the family unit, loss of religion). When Betty Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique in 1964, conservative America placed the blame for the many and vast social changes happening squarely on women.
And women were not happy in all of this. Women were just trying to follow the zig-zag of rules and watching their identities fade into ungrateful children and equally unhappy husbands. Women were quite often miserable… You do, in fact, get tired of both the blame and the whining after a while. And when it is realized that “taking it” and not-punching back is an option…
Of course, it made no sense. “Happily married” was the moniker of the 1950s and 1960s, was it not? Life was children and cooking and cleaning in heels and pearls. How could any woman be unfulfilled? Surely, she just needed a new Whirlpool range or a pretty hat… Right here, in the wealthiest country in the world where all things were… possible… according to the rhetoric…women talking over the backyard fences were NOT happy.
It did not help being told that there was “something wrong” with the girl or woman who just didn’t want that life, who could not get excited over Jell-O recipes and sewing patterns or the Mr. Clean commercials.
But the truth is, women were not largely happy. Women did not always marry Prince Charming. Kids are hard. Housework is drudgery. And being relegated to tea parties and women’s clubs could be vacuous and mentally suffocating if that was not your idea of bliss or your husband smacked you around for jollies. You think Covid 19 quarantine is hard?
Talk to mom or grandma sometime. About the 1950s and 1960s housewifery – when the world was a more “perfect” place… Or better yet, go back and look in those old photo albums and really look at their faces… How long have we been telling them how happy they were?
By the 1960’s women were more than ready to rebel and things were about to change. In fact, a LOT of folks had just about run out of patience with The System. As a young girl at the time, I remember it being terrifying and somehow exhilarating all at once – perhaps like the lion the first time it spots an open cage door…And men weren’t about to like it much.
Says W. Scott Poole in his book, Monsters in America: Our Historical Obsession with the Hideous and the Haunting:
“The 1960’s, of course, represented a revolutionary period during which the struggle for minority and women’s rights registered significant gains. In 1965 the Voting Rights Act ensured African Americans the franchise, while acts of civil disobedience had crippled, if not destroyed Jim Crow’s hold over public life in much of the nation. In 1966 the National Organization for Women (NOW) became instrumental in defining the political program of second-wave feminism that found expression in struggles for reproductive freedom, economic justice, and attempts to change both laws an attitudes about rape and domestic violence. By 1965, the small but growing gay and lesbian right movement held public political demonstrations for the first time…the American Indian Movement (AIM) used the tactics from the Black freedom struggle combined with the demands that the federal government adhere to its numerous broken treaties…” (154-155)
The times then were different than now, but so very resonant with now. Then it was like the very air was alive – crackling with the threat of change and no promise for tomorrow. Maybe that is the difference lack of technology made – when it felt like everyone was protesting, it was palpable and could be seen in actual faces. Today it all feels like a Hollywood movie framed by iPhones and police cameras and CTV footage… Other people are protesting… something or other. We let social media do the talking instead of “going down there” to see for ourselves, to participate, to “come out” on one side of history or another. Without social media, you had to if you did not trust the news outlets.
And the difference then was that if you got arrested or beat up and assaulted, chances are, no one would know it had happened to you. Except you. There was no Facebook glory, no Selfie “proof” you had been there. You took the risk not for the publicity but for the point.
Add in the turmoil that surrounded college students and the Vietnam War, the Kennedy, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King assassinations and chaos was the general zeitgeist of the moment. There was a constant sense of traditions being under fire, of patriotism evaporating, of growing distrust of government and motivations of others, and the distinctive feeling that someone was going to have to be blamed. It didn’t matter that changes that came of it all were “incremental” or that “many elements of American life remained essentially the same”(155)..
Who were all of these “poorly raised” protest people? Who were these unAmerican rebels marching and burning flags as quickly as underwear?
While we all know that rapid change and profound change is unsettling, most of us know we don’t live in a timeless bubble. And something happens to people (women included) when we wake up and realize things have not gone exactly as planned, assumed, or hoped for.
We start asking not only what when wrong, but how to make a course correction (a thing happening right now in this country with the whole George Floyd/Black Lives Matter protest movement). Yet this is far from the original “boiling point” of our nation. We have had many; we have history. And it might come as a shock to many a protesting millennial that people pushing walkers and passing out breath mints today are the ones who were there making it.
The Tipping Point That Leads to Modern Horror
Things in the 1950s and 1960s were indeed happening – and they spilled over into the 1970s… things that impacted and invaded daily life: bussing, desegregation, divorce, bra-burning, the end of institutionalization of the mentally ill, the sexual revolution and the rise of birth control and the demise of organized religion struck fear into the hearts of those in power. Rises in crime and the emergence of the serial killer with television-structured stardom talks shows, boy bands and the Brady Bunch provided a complex, mixed media picture of anarchy and the destruction of the American family amidst Father Knows Best reruns and The Waltons.
“Suddenly” everything was out of control… we were careening along dangerous new paths which meant leaving the security of older ones, of known evils. We were told we were the “lost” generation, the spoiled ones, the atheists, the anarchists. Even if we were sitting quietly at home with our ankles crossed and our hands in our laps watching the same black-and-white television, it was made clear that in order to fix the damage, we were going to need a “return to family values.”
Someone had allowed all of this to start. And it wasn’t long at all for the blame to be affixed to women… mostly coalescing in the politics of the 1980s.
“In the 1984 Presidential race, Ronald Reagan made an assertion of allegedly traditional moral values central to his campaign. Reagan declared that ‘promiscuity’ had become ‘stylish’ and transformed a ‘sacred expression of love’ into something ‘casual and cheap.’ This claim went hand in hand with Reagan’s rhetorical war on poor single women (he coined the term ‘welfare queen’ and his opposition to abortion. His supporters in the Christian Right, represented by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Falwell [yes, the Left Behind author and the father of the current disgraced Liberty Baptist University president] asserted that America had gone in to social and political decline because of the gains of the social protest movements of the 1960s.” (159)
This is why history is important. Because if you have a strange sense of déjà vu right now, the reason is listed above. We are again at a similar crossroads, and again women are being blamed – the battle currently embodied by the Roe v. Wade tug-of-war with Supreme Court Justices as puppets.
I am very much reminded of the way things felt – that pulse of society – in 1972 surrounding the Equal Rights Amendment, where who you were and would be allowed to be depended heavily on your ability to answer questions (that all too often felt like accusations) “properly.” There was a blatant threat placed upon women who were vocal, and implied threats made to young women who were just arriving at the crossroads of adulthood. Women who were pro-ERA were labeled as lesbians, socialists, communists, unfeminine, forward, sexually “frigid” and emasculating, poor mothers, and anti-Christian.
These were damaging accusations at the time, because even the whiff of impropriety could keep a woman out of work, out of marriage, out of churches, out of friendships, out of family, and IN poverty. Once your reputation was gone in the 1950s, 60s, and even 1970s, it could not be resuscitated. Worse, the accusation had merely to be made to finish you off. No proof was ever needed. Ever.
And it is no small coincidence that we see the same “accusations” and threats being thrown around today (often by those who grew up in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s with that messaging), often combined with terms like “feminazi” as though marrying a woman of strong will to the world’s most hideous of ideologies is in any way historically connected. We have been doing this sort of thing since classical antiquity, making strong women into monsters.
Horror has occupied this space for a very long time. From folklore and fairy tales, the scariest things were the women who ate children, who obliterated the family, fidelity, and flaunted sin or bucked the suffocation of patriarchal rules. This is because women have long been held to be the “keepers of the culture”… the nurturers, the mama grizzly willing to die for her children. Women are “nice” and “soft” and cardboard cut-outs on pedestals. Women are what we say they are.
What does this make a woman who does not like or want children? Who has no need for a husband? Who chooses a career? An abortion? And why is it men who can provide the only acceptable answer?
“Families and kinship networks have, for more than five millennia, served as a central organizing principle in human societies. Powerful patriarchal forces in traditional civilizations, including government, religion, medicine, and education have viewed the family as the first line of defense for male privilege. The combination of intimacy and authority that exists within the household provides the opportunity to inculcate societal conceptions of gender, sexuality and morality as well as to examine and police behaviors deemed abnormal or dangerous…Struggles for the liberation of women and sexual minorities in the 1960s raised numerous questions about the nature of family life in America. Second-wave feminism called for a radical redefinition of family life” that exploded conservative ‘minders’ of the established patriarchy and launched a cultural struggle against the perceived “attack on the family” and provoked new anxieties over the human body.” (178)
Who else but women were responsible for all of this cultural conditioning? For moral guidance and instruction in conformity? As the rebellion began to expose the failings of patriarchy, it became increasingly important to get women back “in line.”
But the genie was out of the bottle. And having “come of age” in those very times, I can tell you there was no way it was going back in. This was one of the first times the words “me, too” began to surface and result in angry defiance, when the groping of bosses and the abuses of fathers or boyfriends instead of intimidating, merely galvanized the anger.
And the Horror genre was very much there.
Poole states: “As the most intimate aspects of Americans’ biological experiences became battlegrounds of the culture war, monstrous images came crawling out of the womb. Fear that the patriarchal family had risen from its grave to wreak terror, or the anxiety that rapid changes to the family would twist and corrupt America, became the basis of both horror films and popular urban legends. The human body itself, especially the female body, came to be seen as a monster or at least a monster-birthing machine.” (179)
Do you feel that? Are you starting to see why Roe v. Wade is such an explosive incendiary point at THIS moment in history?
Do you want to know how women in Horror REALLY feel about that?
Then let’s take a look at the monsters. In Part 2. If there is no Civil War.
Gilbert, Sandra M. and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: the Woman Writer and the Nineteenth Century Literary Imagination. 2nd ed. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, c1984, c1979.
Poole, W. Scott. Monsters in America: Our Historical Obsession with the Hideous and the Haunting. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, c2018.
Tropp, Martin. Images of Fear: How Horror Stories Helped Shape Modern Culture (1818-1918). Jefferson, NC, and London, c1990.
Wilson, Natalie. Willful Monstrosity: Gender and Race in 21st Century Horror. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc, Publishers, c2020.