When my dad asked me to watch the sci-fi horror classic “Alien” with him years ago, he must have known I would love it. He was my age when it was released back in 1979, but to this day, the ill-fated adventure in outer space is still highly regarded by contemporary critics and young film aficionados alike. “Alien” is intensely terrifying because the threat of danger cannot be outrun — there is no place to go in space.
What makes the horror genre scary is that characters with limited information about their surroundings are watched by an omnipotent audience. From the theater seats, audience members simultaneously make judgements and feel dread for the vulnerable characters who appear supernaturally inept at avoiding obvious signs of danger.
“Don’t make camp in an abandoned house!”
“Don’t volunteer to scope out the creepy cellar!”
…and so on.
Until recently, young girls were at a loss to find gritty characters of the same gender. When I was a young girl I did not know that I needed them. Instead, I identified with male characters, both young and old, who were unafraid and commanding. I regret that such heroines are rare in film history, but their scarcity makes such roles more memorable. Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley in “Alien” is one of those unforgettable roles.
Perhaps no film genre contains more inequality in artistic expression than horror does. Horror does not garner the same respect that dramas and thrillers do, because so many of the scares are no more than cheap camera tricks and gory slaughters. I’m not here to give my judgment of the appetite for those types of horrors, but as a loyal fan of the genre, it makes me sad to see it misrepresented by B-rated movies.
Feminists routinely criticize the horror industry for exploiting women through violence. Beautiful, promiscuous teenage girls are common victims in slasher flicks. When I first came to love cinema, I avoided horror entirely for this very reason. As a young woman, I was annoyed by the wealth of ineptness shown by those who produce and watch movies glorifying violence against women for entertainment. It appeals to the public’s lowest common denominator and is vacant of any significant meaning — or so I thought.
It was during a screening of one of these gimmicky movies, just after a young woman was murdered by the hero, that I realized the power and beauty of the genre. The laughter that came from the crowd during this scene was unsettling because, other than the fact that a woman had been bested by the opposite lead, there was nothing novel about the scene. It was uncomfortable to sit in a dark room with an audience so amused by a woman’s death.
I believe that the popularity of these films demonstrates the latent misogyny still lurking in polite society. Horror’s subject matter — gore, violence, paranormal, spiritual, etc. — is a critical example of what entertains us. Therefore, the critical reception of the story becomes more significant than the story itself. Given that so many horror films brutalize scantily-clad women, this is an alarming observation because it’s violent scenes point to the appetite society has for violence against women.
Horror is my favorite genre because it reveals who we are. It has overwhelmingly shown us bad things about our misogynist delights, but if society changes, horror will be the first to reflect the progress. Films like “The Babadook” (2014), an Australian horror film about a woman overwhelmed by depression and the responsibilities of motherhood, indicate that viewers and filmmakers are edging their way out of stories that condense women to victims. In the same way that slasher films indicate decay, new horror films rich with full-bodied stories about women serve as evidence that society has changed too. As dismaying as the history of the genre is, look to horror for indication that women are beginning to speak over the grim horror traditions and wasted opportunity for intelligent stories involving women.