As the adaptation of Stephen King's horror classic IT dominated the box office in its first few weeks of release, PostTrak numbers showed that audience attendance was split almost completely evenly along lines of gender, with 51% of ticket buyers being men and 49% being women. This was notable to me only because it confirmed something that we've been harping on about for many years now: women like horror movies. Indeed, by and large, we tend to like them more than men, so set aside all your misconceptions about reluctant girlfriends being dragged to the cinema and hiding their face in their hands at every scene.
There’s an amazing quote attributed to Bela Lugosi that I’ve always loved and bring up every time the question is raised over women and our love of the genre: “It is women who love horror. Gloat over it. Feed on it. Are nourished by it. Shudder and cling and cry out - and come back for more.” It’s a tad self-aggrandizing coming from Dracula himself, but it’s emblematic of something that’s been true for as long as horror has existed. Horror movies come with a guarantee to the audience - place your trust in us and we will scare and thrill you for a couple of hours. A grungy slasher, classic haunted house tale, or visceral gore-fest gives us the ultimate adrenaline rush. It makes your heart jump, your hands shake, your brain question everything that's going on. Romance gives us the happy ending but it's horror that offers the sheer visceral thrill.
From a purely statistical point of view, it's no wonder women flock to horror. While the general trend for gender parity in film has seen a decline in women's representation, horror has been the exception. A recent study by Google and the Geena Davis Institute used technology to recognise patterns in gender, screen time and speaking time in major films. While the results revealed that men are seen and heard twice as much as women, the opposite was true of horror. Women held 53% of the on-screen time and 47% of the speaking time. For comparison, women only held 45% of the on-screen time in romance, a genre that’s meant to be just for us.
Recent classics in the making like It Follows, The Witch and The Babadook put women front and center to critical and commercial acclaim, although historically it’s an undeniably mixed bag of a genre for women. For every screaming girl, half-naked and drenched in blood as she runs from the crazed killer, there would be an Ellen Ripley fighting the greatest evils or a well-dressed villainess indulging in the chaos. Navigating this field as a woman can be tough, but as noted by LinnieSarah Helpern of The Horror Honeys and their official publication Belladonna Magazine:
"I think that, at the end of the day, women have become really adept at sorting out which horror films are, in a way, paying tribute to the legacy of the genre, and which are inherently misogynist. Many films, especially recently, are rather nefarious with their anti-woman undertones, but those of us who have grown up in the genre can spot those a mile away. The reason we keep coming back, in spite of films like that, is for the hidden gems, the surprisingly adept blockbusters, and the indie miracles that remind us how important horror is. Whether it’s a movie like mother! or Get Out, we know that there always something worth wading through the garbage for."
Historically, horror has offered much to women as a creative outlet. Mary Shelley may be credited as the first science-fiction author with Frankenstein but her classic novel also perfectly captures the feverish mania of body horror and the fears of your own creations. Women were such great lovers of the gothic boom in the 1700s that Jane Austen wrote an entire book mocking the fad. As noted by Helpern, women have been pushing the envelope in horror cinema since the early days of silent film. Alice Guy-Blaché, the first ever director of narrative features, also made what could be called the first horror film, an oddly unsettling fairy story called La Fée aux Choux, which wouldn't look out of place as a del Toro or Gilliam movie. Even in films directed by men, horror cinema always made strong use of women: what is Universal Studios' iconic monsters parade without the Bride of Frankenstein, or any Dracula adaptation without the tenacity and bravery of Mina Harker? Even in a film as infamously bleak as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, it's the woman who makes a fool of Leatherface and escapes, laughing at him as the truck outruns him.
Like any good genre, horror is the door through which we can enter and explore our biggest fears and ask the most difficult questions. We use romance to safely interrogate our world’s views on love, and horror is how we delve into death, but it’s used for much more than that. So many things in life that we deal with daily are pretty horrifying when you think about it: The perpetual struggle against misogyny, the gaslighting by the patriarchy, menstruation and fights over reproductive control, questions over relationships, sex and marriage, the fears of child-rearing, and the smothering trappings of society-mandated femininity. Talking about any of these issues in public can be near impossible as the judgement and scorn can shut down the discourse before it’s even started. Women still must contend with the idea that discussing periods, childbirth or opposition to motherhood is considered impolite or unladylike.
It’s no wonder horror becomes our new window into the realities of our world, albeit through a more visceral lens. What is Rosemary’s Baby, if not a heightened exploration of fears of impending motherhood? Or The Stepford Wives and its nightmarish confirmation of the submissiveness a sexist society demands from women? It Follows may be one of the most piercing critiques of rape culture any film has offered in the past decade.
Sexism demands that women ignore their own fears and pain while simultaneously reinforcing them. It tells us to be afraid of sexual desire and treat menstruation as something dirty but to view the difficult and often agonizing process of childbirth as a beautiful gift from nature. It laughs at fears of marriage as a thing of the past while still pushing us into constrictive modes of wifely behavior. It's exhausting to navigate, and it is horror that reminds us it's okay to be afraid. Yes, pregnancy is kind of like a parasitic form feeding off your body before being expelled violently from your insides. Isn't the idea of pledging your life to a man and then taking his name sort of unnerving? Wouldn't it be fun to see what happens when society's worst ideas about women are subverted or confirmed?
So many men, even the more enlightened ones, still view women as wilting flowers who passively take everything thrown at us and hide behind our fingers when the scary scenes happen. Helpern notes that men and women aren't so different when it comes to horror:
"At the end of the day, the reasons that women love horror probably aren’t that different than the reasons men do. But the ways and reasons that we appreciate it can be vastly different. Women usually appreciate the beauty of blood, and the power a woman finds in revenge. Horror inevitably offers different experiences for everyone, but for years, horror fandom has been tilting to favor women."
Horror is a gateway for women to explore that which they cannot control. Denise Gossett, the director and founder of Shriekfest, explains:
"I think women love horror for many of the same reasons men do...we like to be scared, we like to see situations that are horrible, but know that we are safe. It's the same reason people can't help look at a car accident...it's not that we wish someone to be hurt or dead, it's just that it's fascinating...death is not something we have experienced and if we have, we don't remember it, so, it attracts us in a way."
Being a woman in pop culture is to acknowledge the daily struggle of loving things that don’t always treat your gender well. That’s certainly true of horror but it can basically be applied to any genre or field of interest. Horror can be cruel to us but it’s also the perfect melting pot of ideas, thrills and challenges that keeps women returning to the fold time and time again. Right now, there are amazing women using horror to the most exciting results, from Karyn Kusama and Jennifer Kent to the Soska Sisters and Julia Ducournau, and there doesn't seem to be any danger of that stopping. It shouldn’t shock anyone that horror is one of women’s greatest tools for dealing with the weight of the world. Everyone likes to be scared - but for us, there’s a special strength to be found in the visceral experience of fear, violence, and fighting back.