It’s that time of the year again – Halloween, when articles like Top Ten Ghosts, The Spookiest Movies Ever Made and Why Do We Enjoy Being Scared? start crawling out of the woodwork. All this coincides nicely with the horror film du jour, which this year happens to be Jennifer Kent’s genuinely frightening The Babadook, the story of a young widow struggling to cope with bereavement, her problem child and the pop-up storybook that triggers a terrifying crisis in their lives.
Unfortunately, some of the articles are written by people who don’t seem to like horror much. At least, that’s the impression I got from a couple I read last week. ‘In most mainstream horror,’ said one, ‘women are either blonde fodder for rampant serial killers or the petrified victims of supernatural creatures.’ And ‘If you’ve seen any horror movie…’ said another, ‘You know that women play a pretty prominent role: the victim.’
It’s true that it’s not unheard of for women to be victims in horror movies, and you won’t find me rushing to rewatch the frankly rather disturbing French shocker Martyrs any time soon, yet to sum up the entire genre in this way is lazy generalisation, and makes you wonder if the writers have ever even heard of, let alone seen (to cite only a few examples) the original Cat People, The Innocents, The Haunting, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Others or The Woman in Black, where it’s women – or their ghosts – who call the shots.
Even slasher movies, which admittedly feature quite a lot of idiotic cheerleader types being chased by ‘rampant serial killers’, are essentially equal opportunity terrifiers, with the male characters just as likely to die horribly at the hands of Jason or Freddy or Leatherface or Jigsaw as the female ones. Indeed, Carol J. Clover, in her groundbreaking book Men, Women, and Chainsaws, famously coined the term ‘The Final Girl’, reminding us that male as well as female viewers are encouraged to identify with the victim rather than the psycho, and particularly with the women who survive the carnage, whether it’s Marilyn Burns in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Sigourney Weaver in Alien, Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween (and Halloween II, and Prom Night, and Terror Train) or Neve Campbell in Scream and its sequels.
It’s true, also, that female characters in horror movies can be dumb caricatures, but, again, no more so than the male characters, and certainly no more so than in non-horror films. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that horror is more likely than other genres to give actresses the juiciest roles, ones that pass the Bechdel Test with flying colours and allow them to play multi-faceted individuals who aren’t just wives, girlfriends or kidnap fodder, or role models, but who get to wrestle with demons both physical and metaphorical.
And sometimes they are the demons; many of horror’s most memorable monsters are female – Catherine Deneuve going quietly insane in Repulsion, Delphine Seyrig as the soignée Countess Bathory in Daughters of Darkness, Linda Blair (with a little voice-help from Mercedes McCambridge) in The Exorcist, Piper Laurie and Sissy Spacek as the destructive mother-daughter combo in Carrie, Sheila Keith as the cannibal granny in Frightmare, Eihi Shiina as the sweet-faced psycho in Audition and (arguably, as you’ll understand if you’ve seen the film) Lina Leandersson as the centuries-old vampire in Let the Right One In.
And while directors such as Dario Argento (‘If they have a good face or figure I would much prefer to watch them being murdered than an ugly girl or man’) and Brian De Palma have expressed a preference for menacing or killing beautiful women in their films, this doesn’t mean their work is devoid of feisty heroines such as Jessica Harper, who battles witches in Suspiria, Jennifer Connelly mind-melding with creepy-crawlies in Phenomena, Amy Irving using the power of her mind to blow people up in The Fury, or Nancy Allen stripping down to her undies (it’s a vital part of the plot, honest!) in Dressed to Kill.
The scariest ghosts are invariably female – The Uninvited, Black Sabbath, Ringu, The Grudge, Kairo and, of course, The Woman in Black feature the vengeful shades of dead women whose terrified victims are as likely to be men as women. And haunted house scenarios are more often centred on female characters than on male ones. Jack Nicholson in The Shining is the exception rather than the rule. The Babadook‘s Essie Davis is just the latest in a long line of actresses giving stonking great performances as neurotic mothers or spinsters at the mercy of old dark houses not so very far removed from their blueprints in 19th century Gothic literature. Deborah Kerr in The Innocents, Julie Harris in The Haunting, Nicole Kidman in The Others and Belén Rueda in The Orphanage have us guessing as to whether the ghosts haunting them are real or merely figments of their fevered imaginations – though this doesn’t make the apparitions any less frightening for the audience.
Far from consigning women to the role of victims, horror is one of the few genres where men don’t have all the fun, but which can still appeal to male viewers who probably wouldn’t be caught dead at a regular chick flick or rom-com. Look at the Saturday night audiences for any of the Paranormal Activity or Insidious series, and you’ll see it’s pretty much split down the middle along gender lines, and I have no doubt audiences for The Babadook will be the same, because horror films make the best date movies. There will be screaming, and laughter, and maybe even some hand-holding.
Just make sure the hand you’re holding is still attached to someone.
This piece was first posted on the Telegraph website in October, 2014. It has been lightly edited.