As a genre, horror focuses overwhelmingly on women. Our bodies are its medium, whether sensuously posed and slathered in gore or twisted into monstrous forms to reflect our fears and anxieties. Think of Dario Argento’s lovingly butchered maidens covered in gallons of vibrant red paint, or the Alien Queen hunkering bloated and distended among her thousands of eggs, a monstrous reflection of Ellen Ripley’s maternal instincts. But for all horror’s fixation on our suffering—sometimes gratuitous, sometimes revelatory—and inner lives, horror films actually written and directed by women are few and far between.
While horror written and directed by men boasts a wealth of insightful roles for women—not to mention blistering, incandescent performances to which actresses like Isabelle Adjani, Betty Gabriel, and Tippi Hedren brought their own thoughts and vision—what it lacks is a cohesive sense of the world as women experience it. The constant threat under which women live, our relationships to the hostility around us and to the danger which persists even in the most intimate parts of our lives generates a creative perspective very difficult to replicate without direct experience.
The body of horror film made by women is comparatively small, but the perspectives these films explore enrich and recontextualize the entire genre. They present not just worlds glimpsed through the eyes of women, but a new visual and dramatic language for the interpretation of film.
Love and Sex
In Anna Biller’s 2016 retro exploitation film The Love Witch, Elaine (Samantha Robinson) is a woman lost in a labyrinth of fairy tale romance and violent self-idealization. Pushed by lifelong abuse at the hands of men to murder her husband, she now hunts for a perfect man while twisting herself into her own image of feminine perfection. Biller pushes through concentric circles of gendered expectation, painting a hypnotic picture of the ways in which men and women construct impossible roles for themselves and one another and then find fault in every failure to measure up.
There’s a quality of self-loathing obliviousness to Elaine’s destructive quest, a sense that her “rebirth” as a witch might be little more than a continuation of her reaction to the trauma of her upbringing and marriage. Her whole self is bent to the arc of masculinity, her world consumed by the men she consumes in turn. Even her initiation into her coven plays out with visible signs of her discomfort as the high priest of the circle “celebrates” her womanhood with corny The Chalice and the Blade-esque iconography and lingering touches. In the end, her childlike visions of fairytale romance and the impossibility of bringing them to be tear her sanity apart.
Mary Harron’s gorily satirical American Psycho—adapted by Harron and Guinevere Turner from the Bret Easton Ellis novel of the same name—takes a different approach to exploring feminine desire. It isn’t hard to guess that a movie in which a naked, blood-covered man trying to murder a woman with a chainsaw shrieks in incandescent fury when that same women claws at his face in self-defense has something to say about the balance of power between men and women, but even in its quieter scenes it dwells insightfully on ideas of attraction and gendered behavior.
Early in the film, serial killer and Wall Street parasite Patrick Bateman’s (Christian Bale) secretary, Jean (Chloe Sevigney), steps into his office wearing a brown pantsuit. The moment Bateman’s schedule for the day is set, he tells Jean, “Don’t wear that again.” His controlling, entitled approach to her body and self-presentation is bad enough, but the gratitude she shows once his little rant about high heels is over is truly stomach-churning. “Come on, Jean,” he says, “you’re prettier than that.” “Thanks, Patrick,” she replies. Later, he’ll hold a nail gun to the back of her head, his finger on the trigger, like she’s a joist he’s thinking about shoring up. Not for nothing, I think, does the film show Bateman killing other men with weapons (a knife, an ax) and women with construction tools (a chainsaw, the aforementioned nail gun, etc).
What Harron’s and Biller’s films share is a sense that gender roles, no matter what one wants out of them or sees in them, are in a sense fundamentally poisonous. From Patrick Bateman’s disinterested consumption of hardcore pornography, grainy images of women writhing wetly in the background of shots in which he chisels his body into a killing weapon or talks to his mistress over the phone, to Elaine’s elaborate lingerie, her eyelash extensions and the luxurious fall of her weave, the trappings of modern sexuality are freighted with pain and the weight of violent expectation.
Pain and Isolation
It’s a difficult thing to acknowledge the fraught nature of raising a child. Jennifer Kent’s 2014 directorial debut The Babadook, a film about grief and the nature and causes of child abuse, finds not just horror but a deep and transformative empathy in its depiction of Amelia Vanek’s (Essie Davis) struggle to raise her emotionally volatile son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman). Singled out for pity and disdain by her wealthier sister’s circle, stuck in a depressing job as a nursing home attendant, and ignored by a school system with neither the resources nor the inclination to help her child, Amelia is fraying.
The film doesn’t sympathize with the viciousness her exhaustion and isolation brings out in her, but it does present an opportunity to understand why a woman might tell her seven-year-old son to eat shit, or put broken glass in his food. How, under such immense pressure to be everything at all times to a helpless little person totally dependent on her nurturing, could she be anything but miserable? We view motherhood not as work, but as a kind of ongoing performance in which the slightest slip is grounds for public humiliation and unending degradation.
Women live this reality every day, toiling alone and unsupported, their emotions and actions ruthlessly policed by the world around them. It isn’t that abuse occurs that should surprise us, but that so little is done to prevent it. If Amelia had a refuge of any sort, had any help or even understanding, how much easier might her life be? Instead she burrows deeper and deeper into restless sleep, losing time as her psyche breaks down under the weight of her responsibilities, calving the worst shards of her personality like a glacier sloughing ice into the sea.
Isolation can also stem from women’s knowledge of the inner lives and behaviors of the men around them. In American Psycho, person after person blithely ignores Patrick’s overt cruelty and madness, mishearing his casual confessions, complimenting the garment bag he uses to haul a dripping corpse across the lobby of his building. The only person, aside from his victims, to gain any insight into his true nature is his secretary, Jean, who finds a sketchbook full of vicious fantasies left carelessly on his desk.
Patrick’s casual misogyny and nit-picking is conflated purposefully here with his vicious sadism, revealing a shared root. Jean’s horror is palpable as she sits alone in his empty, antiseptic office, knowing she has no way to escape what she’s just learned. Imagine the weight of that, and then consider the number of women living in daily forced or coerced contact with men they know are abusers, batterers, and rapists. In the end, for all Patrick complains of the world’s apathetic refusal to let him confess and reveal himself, Jean is the one left truly alone with the reality of his murderous appetites.
Toward a Female Gaze
As more and more horror by women emerges into the public eye, the subjects which occupy it as a discrete body of work are beginning to take shape. In Patrick Bateman’s elaborate skincare routine, Elaine’s painting and baking, Amelia’s fruitless, exhausted cleaning we see a new approach to work and making not just as innovation and struggle but as an expression of emotions and a part of daily life. In Trish’s (Laura Waddell) putting on of Elaine’s clothes and cosmetics and the subsequent struggle between the two women, in Patrick’s relentless and ironically feminized assessment of the women around him, we see women driven into violent competition with each other by the deformed roles into which society forces us.
There can be no real argument as to the lack of women at practically every level of the filmmaking process, but the work we do manage to produce has become a vision of an alternate cinema, a place where contradiction is left unresolved, where struggle is ceaseless and degrading rather than redemptive, where violence frightens rather than amuses. Women’s horror eschews the linear plot in favor of the interior journey. It dwells on living in pain where other bodies of work search for resolution.
What women’s horror gives us is not just insight, but community. In a world where our fantasies are seen as frivolous, our darkest fears as irrational or childish, there is power in baring those things to each other. Through the lens of horror we can make sense of our own fragmented, difficult lives. We can see each other’s nightmares and daydreams flickering huge and undeniable in the darkness of the theater, and perhaps come to realize that we’re not so alone.