The Last Woman Standing
Within this section I will focus on the creation of the Slasher film and why it was conceived. The research will observe the American social and political influences of the time and the evolution of a genre that in today’s society seems mild.
At the time of creation of the Slasher subgenre, which was primarily produced in America, the world was immersed in much social, political and economical dispute and unrest. Within America itself the impact of the 1960s was still apparent not only in terms of change within the film industry, but socially. During the time of Fordism; an economy boom heightened by mass consumption in America, where the country found itself immersed in materialism, combined with the social and feminist revolution of the 1960s, Americans were ready to increase their levels of desensitization. The nation had become that of mass consumerism and commercialism and constant advertising of fast pace living and self indulgence created a stage for the Slasher. Jancovich depicts another reason for the embrace of the subgenre related to America’s sense of self which would force the progression of the genre.
‘Constantly presented with media and advertising images of their inadequacy and the commercialized means of recreating and idealizing themselves, the population felt increasingly insecure, not only in their own abilities, but also in their very sense of self.’ (Jancovich 1992, p.83)
The pressure put on women by men was always apparent within society, however since the rise of feminism of the 1960s, female oppression began to find new creative and subliminal ways of quashing the female and feminist society. Through such outlets as advertising and films, anti-feminism reached great heights exposing its gender-biased views on unsuspecting audiences; the impact of this still resonates within society today. Wood exposed this issue in his writings in which he depicts the post-feminist world and connects this with the Slasher subgenre; or as what he calls ‘violence against women movies’
‘The violence against women movies have generally been explained as a hysterical response to 60s and 70s feminism: the male spectator enjoys a sadistic revenge on women who have begun to refuse to slot neatly and obligingly into his patriarchally predetermined view of the way things should naturally be.’ (Hogan 1986, pg.196)
Wood also indicates that the influence of man within the creative world has impacted heavily on women and the way they are viewed; this being because it is man who controls how they are viewed.
‘In a male-dominated culture, where power, money, law, and social institutions are controlled by past, present, and future patriarchs, women as the other assumes particular significance. The dominant images of women in our culture are entirely male created and male controlled. Women’s autonomy and independence are denied; on to women men project their own innate, repressed femininity in order to disown it as inferior.’ (Wood 1986, p.74)
It has been suggested that the first film in the Slasher movement was Psycho (1960) due to its unprecedented violence, use of a serial killer and a mixed gender of victims. However many theorists suggest that there are crucial variations between this film and others of the Slasher subgenre. When examining critics of the subgenre such as Kim Newman and Robin Wood, Jancovich explains their main issue
“They argue that unlike fictions such as Psycho, where the serial killer is presented as a social product, the stalker movie gives no social explanation for the killer. He is presented as inherently evil. Consequently, there is nothing to do but repress and kill the monster, and no need to change the way we live as a society.” (Jancovich 1992, p.105)
This indicates the general consensus of America at the time, there is no need to stop or slow down the pattern of mass consumerism within society, just point the finger of blame for the flaws which are presenting themselves at someone else, in this case; feminism and women.
Jancovich indicates that Psycho does not fit into the Slasher genre, despite many believing it was in fact the first. On the other hand it would be absurd to discard this film’s credit in setting the foundation of the Slasher subgenre due to the relevant components previously noted which can be seen in almost every Slasher. Although several Slasher style films had been produced in the 1970s, such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) which exhibited high levels of gratuitous violence, it was the 1978 film Halloween which set a standard for every Slasher that would follow it.
Jancovich suggests it was Halloween (1978) and ‘imitations’ that followed it leading to a public moral panic;
‘It was already in existence in the early 1970’s when examples such as Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) were made, but after the phenomenal success of John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), a flood of imitations gave rise to a moral panic.’ (Jancovich 1992, p.104)
Jancovich is referring to public concern with the process of terrorisation depicted in the films where a serial killer methodically murders a group of teenagers one by one through a display of violence and bloodshed; he also refers to the high levels of sexual potency portrayed in Slasher films; where teenage girls are shown to be sexually promiscuous and active whilst still at high school age. Jancovich also indicates that the moral panic that began surrounded the issue of violence targeted primarily at women, which was seen by many as a direct attack on feminism; all of these issues and more lead to a public moral panic surrounding these films and one could suggest this is why many blame the subgenre for the heightened desensitization of an entire generation.
The Slasher movement therefore began in America in the late 1970’s with John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) which portrayed all significant Slasher traits and created the rules that would inspire a decade of filming and narration. The film presented a social critique of the immorality of youth and teenagers in 1970s American culture, with many of the characters and victims being sexually promiscuous and taking part in immoral activities.
This movement portrayed key themes before which had not been explored in such depth within the horror genre, the main element of the Slasher sub-genre is the serial killer and his struggle with the Final Girl..
Throughout this decade mass spending and advertising were key, exposing us to a more consumerist lifestyle. With our labelled society and constant exposure to new things came the Slasher, combining all the key characteristics of the horror film with deeper implications especially on women.
The Final Girl
The Final Girl is the key theory that will be focussed on during this chapter, Carol Clover in her book ‘Men Women and Chainsaws: Gender and the modern Horror Film’ discusses The Final Girl in great detail, she states,
“She alone looks death in the face, but she alone finds the strength either to stay the killer long enough to be rescued (ending A) or to kill him herself (ending B).” (Clover 1992, p.35)
In other words, The Final Girl can either run or scream and be rescued usually by a man or find the courage to kill the murderer herself. This was a key element in Slasher films in the late 1970’s and 1980’s, the Slasher sub-genre revolved around the Final Girl, and her being the object of threat and violence.
Carol Clover describes the Final Girl specifically in her writings,
‘The Final Girl is boyish, in a word. Just as the killer is not fully masculine, she is not fully feminine – not, in any case, feminine in the ways of her friends. Her smartness, gravity, competence in mechanical and other practical matters, and sexual reluctance set her apart from the other girls and ally her, ironically, with the very boys she fears or rejects, not to speak of the killer himself.’ (Clover 1992, p.40)
Carol Clover suggests that the roles have been switched around from the feminine killer to the masculine victim; one could argue that The Final Girl has masculine traits due to the anxiety of the male viewer which is why the masculine female is rescued, escapes or kills the protagonist; ultimately survives. The Final Girl is an important factor within any Slasher narrative; however it is her associates who must fulfil their role in order to contrast with the Final Girl. The depiction of her comrades must appear deserving of death, and therefore feminine. This is generally portrayed through their interests, sexual status, educational status and primarily their sexuality; these are only several of many examples that create the profile of ‘the typical girl’ within the subgenre.
In order to fully understand the importance of the representation of women in these films, one must observe the representation of men and masculinity; for it is the way in which they are represented which amplifies the representation of women and femininity.
Mark Jancovich states
“It is masculinity, not femininity, that is the problem in these films; and this problem is registered in a number of ways. They display an absence of positive or effective male characters. It is the female heroes who engage the killer and defend themselves, usually using a series of practical domestic objects, such as the knitting needles and coathangers used in Halloween.” (Jancovich 1992, p.107)
The characterization of men within the genre could certainly be described as unbalanced; the use of stereotypically feminine weapons are often used in the Slasher horror when the female characters are defending themselves against the killer and the generic male character is normally portrayed as being an immature and sexually driven teenager who guides the main cast of females to where they want to act out their sexual desires. It is the Final Girl who follows this crowd in a social sense and she has all of the characterizations of what in any other genre would be classed as typically male; she is independent, sexually disengaged, intelligent and mature. One could suggest that the characterization of the Final Girl’s peers somewhat merge into one character profile who is driven purely by sexual craving, substance consumption, law breaking and all other typically immoral acts – all staged in an attempt to define the Final Girl as ‘different’ and in fact masculine.
Within any Slasher film it is the ordeal of women that has come under scrutiny for its unbalanced approach and has in fact been accused of being an attack on femininity. Although many describe the Final Girl as typically masculine, the attack on feminism stems from the amount of violence inflicted on women and the terrorisation of the Final Girl. When male characters are killed in these films; their deaths are usually quick or unseen with a limited amount of gratuitous violence. Unlike when female characters are killed, the scene usually depicts a chase and struggle before finally she is killed by the male villain by means of a phallic weapon such as Michael Myers’ butcher knives, Freddie’s knife fingers and Jason’s machete. And before the final release of her role she is tortured and tormented at the hands of the villain; this is not dissimilar to the plight of the Final Girl; the only difference is she survives. In this case one will depict the journey of the character Laurie in Halloween (1978); she is represented throughout the film as an independent, focussed and generally virginal teenage girl, different from her friends, displaying contrasting interests and ideologies. She is mentally tortured by the villain Michael Myers through a series of stalker scenes until finally they have their showdown, during which Michael appears to have been killed by Laurie, although we know from the many sequels that this did not in fact happen. However it is undoubtedly clear that only Laurie can survive this ordeal, although she does so deeply affected by the male villain; it is equally as clear that she the Final Girl is the only one who can. Robin Wood depicts the Final Girls ordeal and suggests that ‘teenagers are punished for promiscuity’; this indicates all of the other characters who fall victim to the villain, and ‘women are punished for being women’; this suggests the Final Girl as her ordeal is never ending, even after she survives she has to live with the implications and consequences of her suffering.
‘The distinction is never clear-cut: the two cycles have common sources in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween (which in turn have a common source in Psycho): the last survivor of the teenie kill movies, endure of the ultimate ordeals, terrors and agonies, is invariably female; the victim in the violence against women films are predominantly young. But the motivation for the slaughter on both the dramatic and ideological levels is somewhat different: in general, the teenagers are punished for promiscuity, while the women are punished for being women.’ (Wood 1986, pg. 195)
Impact on Audiences;
It is important to explore the influence of the exposure to such films as A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), Halloween (1978) and Friday the 13th (1980) and other Slasher films on the audience. Within the section the study will explore the impact of the Slasher subgenre on the audience. The section will observe gender expectations explored through key gender and feminist theory.
The actual style of the Slasher genre is designed to put the viewer in the place of the victim as the suspense builds and in the place of the killer when the violent acts take place, this has not gone unnoticed as the inclusion of the point of view exposure is widely regarded as targeting feminism. Many have found this deliberate style an attack on women, feminism and equality. Jancovich describes this criticism on the subgenre and denotes this particular point as being what many believe is the most concerning attack on femininity.
‘It is argued that rather than identifying with the female victim in these films, the audience is encouraged to identify with the killer and his violence against his female victims. One of the distinctive stylistic features of these films is there use of the subjective camera shot from the killer’s point of view. It is claimed therefore that, in the process of terrorization, the audience is placed in the position of the killer, rather than his victims.’ (Jancovich 1992, p.105)
Many key theorists have explored the horror genre and the messages, themes and ideals such films within this category project onto an audience. This is especially relevant when dissecting horrors gruesome subgenre ‘The Slasher’. The exposure to violence, sexuality and bloodshed are key factors which help separate this genre from any other, and it is this level of exposure which has led to such intensive research. Linda Williams describes the horror film as ‘a rare example’ simply because of its willingness to depict such levels of female sexuality and desire.
‘The horror film may be a rare example of a genre that permits the expression of women’s sexual potency and desire and that associates this desire with the autonomous act of looking, but it does so only to punish her for this very act, only to demonstrate how monstrous female desire can be.’ (Grant 1996, p.32)
Barbara Creed observes the ‘obsession with blood’ as being what detaches this genre from any other again when inflicted on women at the hands of violent male characters.
‘The horror film’s obsession with blood, particularly the bleeding body of woman, were her body is transformed into the “gaping wound,” suggests that castration anxiety is a central concern of the horror film – particularly in the Slasher subgenre. Woman’s body is slashed and mutilated, not only to signify her own castrated state, but the possibility of castration for the male.’ (Grant 1996, p.44)
The castration theory has been heavily linked to the specific violent acts depicted within the genre, as Creed indicates; it is the male’s fear of castration which motivates him to enact such violence on women. This theory relates to Freud’s analysis from which Creed links to the horror film;
‘It is not by accident that Freud linked the sight of the Medusa to the equally horrifying sight of the mother’s genitals, for the concept of the monstrous – feminine, as constructed within/by a patriarchal and phallocentric ideology, is related intimately to the problem of sexual difference and castration.’ (Jancovich 2002, p.67)
Creed goes onto describe how Freud’s analysis can be applied;
‘If we accept Freud’s interpretation, we can see that the Perseus myth is mediated by a narrative about the difference of female sexuality as a difference which is grounded in monstrousness and which invokes castration anxiety in the male spectator. One wonders if the experience of horror – of viewing the horror film – causes similar alterations in the body of the male spectators.’ (Jancovich 2002, p.67)
Another theory which has been applied to the genre is Laura Mulvey’s ‘Male Gaze’, which denotes the way in which men view women and how women are viewed in general. Mulvey describes the process as being both ‘looked at and displayed’ simultaneously; this can most certainly be applied to the Slasher subgenre as women are the main focus of both the violence and the sexuality.
‘In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female figure which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness.’ (Mulvey 1999, p.837)
Mulvey’s theory would indicate that when viewing a horror film, men will see the Final Girl as not only the main character and survivor of the threat but also more specifically as the victim as Mulvey’s theory is combined with Jancovichs’ description of the style of the Slasher and how the camera controls the male’s view and impacts on how men are meant to watch the film.
Rhona J. Berenstein depicts how men are encouraged to behave when viewing a horror in the presence of a female, Berenstein suggests that from some of the first released horror films men were expected to play the role of protector within the cinema as if to prepare them for their future with the opposite sex, she describes a review written by James E Mitchell of the 1932 film, Dr. X, “Take the girlfriend and by the middle of the first reel she’ll have both arms around your neck and holding on for dear life.”
One could suggest that typically men would take either their girlfriend or someone whom they found sexually attractive to view a horror film in the hopes that during seeing such gratuitous violence and grave acts she would seek his embrace as protection as the masculine stereotype as she would not be able to withstand the horror she was viewing; this possibly made plausible due to the horror and violence being aimed mercilessly at the feminine characters. This example could also describe the experience and expectations of those who were first exposed to the Slasher. The representation of women within the Slasher premise is heavily based on the Final Girl and her contrast in representation with every other character; this biased approach inspired an entire subgenre which dominated Horror for almost two decades and created a foundation upon which most Horror’s since its creation are set upon. Therefore the importance of this subgenre, especially its representation of gender, cannot be overstated.
Volume 18, Issues 6-7 / June–July 2014
Issues of Gender in the Horror Genre, Part 1
It would be difficult for horror fans and cinephiles alike to deny that horror films have always been highly gendered. Early scholarship focusing on gender and horror most often interpreted this relationship as one where strict gender binaries and misogynistic patterns were cemented; an example of this, which is cited countless times in this issue, is Carol Clover’s book Men, Women and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (1992) wherein author Clover identifies a limited number of gendered roles available for women in slasher films, and which in turn have created stereotypes around gender and sexuality. While of course acknowledging these seminal texts which emerged out of the convergence of feminist and horror scholarship and using them as frameworks, the essays appearing in this issue extend and combat these arguments to complicate the relationship between gender and horror, consequently identifying unexpected ways that boundaries around gender, sexuality, race, and class can be broken down in the genre.
This special double issue of Offscreen, which will be followed by an additional single issue also focusing on gender within the horror genre, looks closely at the gender representations, confusions, and patterns within horror films. Subverting assumptions around gender roles believed to be assigned to women in both horror films and horror spectatorship, the collective authors in this double issue (and upcoming single issue) have identified places in which female characters and spectators alike have found empowerment within the genre. Furthermore, as well as specifically speaking to roles for women, the essays touch on the ways horror can be a tool to explore the fluidity of gender and sexuality.
The issue begins with those who are small in stature but large in fright potential: the sinister children seen in The Bad Seed (1956), The Innocents (1961), and Poltergeist (1982) discussed in Hans Staats’ opening essay “Pictures of Anxiety: Girlhood and the Modern American Horror Film”. Staats carefully contextualizes these children within the dialectic that has reappeared throughout history between children and the evil/supernatural, as well as within the specific time periods in which these films were released. To compliment Staats’ essay is an artist page by Johanna Householder; her page beautifully amalgamates images of Patty McCormack, playing the murderous Rhoda Penmark in The Bad Seed, and images of herself dressed as Rhoda in a performance she did in collaboration with “The Clichettes,” a performance ensemble based in Toronto.
The next three essays focus on women’s interaction with horror as viewers, fans, students, and filmmakers. Maude Michaud’s piece coins the term “Horror Grrrls” aligning female horror filmmakers with the Riot Grrrl movement, the underground feminist punk rock movement of the 90s; she finds female horror filmmakers to be, similarly, role models for young women who may one day also use horror as a place to play out their feminist convictions. Both Aalya Ahmad and Amy Jane Vosper’s essays focus on the place of women in horror spectatorship. Ahmad’s piece speaks of her feminist horror film class and shows the ways in which the reactions of her female students subverted assumptions around female spectatorship within horror. She uses seminal works by authors such as Brigid Cherry, Carol Clover and Linda Williams as jumping off points for this discussion. Similarly referencing works by Clover and Cherry and also speaking of female spectatorship within the horror genre, Vosper takes the route of situating her own empirical research within these theoretical frameworks, and demonstrates through her research that women can and do appreciate horror just as much as men. All three of these pieces carve out much needed spaces for female horror students, fans and filmmakers, providing refreshing interpretations of the horror genre.
The next couple of essays discuss very specific tropes within horror in relation to issues of gender. The fifth essay to appear in the issue is by Mark Hain and discusses film adaptations of the infamous and “unspeakable” stories of H.P. Lovecraft. Hain points to the ironic way in which these films have taken Lovecraft’s xenophobic stories and turned them into critiques of “contemporary gender relations, sexual mores, and psychosexual angst”. Hain’s piece provides an open-minded lens through which we can enter the strange Lovecraftian world of “tentacles, tendrils” and “claws”. James Newton’s piece on “Nunsploitation” discusses a few films from the 1970’s that use the setting of the convent to explore themes of “religious zealotry and sexual and social oppression”.
Colin Arason’s paper “’Demons to some, angels to others’: Revealing the Hellbound Heart of Clive Barker’s Hellraiser” is a queer reading of the film. Arason reads the protagonist’s journey as a coming out story, which speaks to the alienation that can accompany coming out of the closet.
The next two essays discuss the terrifying and intriguing films of the New French Extremity genre. Elliot Burton’s essay “Control of the Knife” provides a detailed reading of Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury’s Inside (2007) and shows how, similar to other New French Extremity films, Inside opens up new possibilities for gender roles. The piece also acts as an exploration of “reproductive horror”. The essay that follows by Alexandra West discusses Inside as well as High Tension (Alexandre Aja, 2003) and Martyrs (Pascal Laugier, 2008). Her piece provides an excellent context for the genre and shows how these films can be read as “subverting and perverting our notions of the slasher film”.
The final piece in this Issue is centered on the Final Girls of Australia. In “The Final Girl Down Under: Ozploitation Variations on American Horror Archetypes” Ben Kooyman takes a look at four “Ozploitations” films: Patrick (Richard Franklin, 1978), Snapshot (Simon Wincer, 1979), Roadgames (Richard Franklin, 1981), and Fair Game
(Mario Andreacchio, 1986), and discusses the ways they compare to conventional American slasher films.
Covering a wide range of subjects and decades, the authors of this issue have taken what has largely been considered taboo and shown that horror and exploitation films have the ability to open up new and exciting possibilities for men, women …. and monsters.
(Molly Langill, guest ed.)