I've talked loads (and could keep going indefinitely, to be honest) on the fascinating way women villains are portrayed in the horror genre. But as much as I enjoy hearing myself talk, I'm just one culture critic. What's far more important is how the people who make horror movies feel on topics like women in horror.
From very early on, writer/director Adam Egypt Mortimer and I talked about how women are portrayed in horror. The more we talked, the more we mutually discovered about this ghastly genre that we're both so preoccupied with. And now that I've written, and written, and written on the topic myself, I wanted you to hear from Adam directly. So after months of emailing back and forth, I asked Adam to try and sum up his feelings. And he really delivered.
So I'm just going to get out of his way and let Adam's words do the talking.
“When I first got on this picture, I was an actor. Now I feel like I’m just the bearer of the slit.” And she said, “Now you know what it feels like.’” - David Cronenberg describing a conversation between James Woods and Debbie Harry during the production of Videodrome.
By Adam Egypt Mortimer
The origin point for sympathetic monsters, and women in horror, is the origin point of horror, itself. The modern horror genre – and science-fiction in general – was invented by a teenage girl, and starred a broken hearted, talkative monster. Frankenstein’s monster is erudite and soulful – but he’s also ugly and weird and strong, so he blows it.
The DNA of horror and the DNA of feminism are coiled around each other. Mary Shelley's MOTHER is a foundational figure of philosophical feminism. It's been RIGHT THERE, all along! That connection was part of the first moment: horror, feminism, teenage geniuses.
Shelley’s language of the monster’s reanimation mirrors her own experience of pregnancy (Her first child, who she had at the age of 17, was already dead by the time she wrote Frankenstein two years later. The Romantics, man — they lived faster, died faster, and wrote BETTER).
Something that recurs in horror, which is uniquely possible in the genre, is the use of non-human characters as a metaphor for the experience of women. I want to return to the idea in Under the Skin that the alien has a point of view ABOUT women's bodies. This is powerful, and something that is part of the bone and sinew of horror. In fact, I would maybe make my thesis that:
In all horror movies THE MONSTER has a point of view about the use of women's bodies.
In vast majority of horror movies and throughout entire sub-genres, the monster’s point of view is that a woman’s body is for gratification through violence. Psycho, Peeping Tom, Texas Chainsaw, on and on, the movies are about a monster who wants to do something to women’s bodies. Even the xenomorph in Alien has a POV about women’s bodies – it sees all humans as women in the sense that they are all potential carriers for its babies. As if the alien is the ultimate Republican misogynist in a world where everyone else is a female.
But in other films, such as Under the Skin, or Trouble Every Day, or The Fly -- that point of view becomes more complex.
When I made my film, Some Kind of Hate, the core idea was to make a slasher character completely in line with everything that genre suggests, but who has a full emotional life with a range of expression. And so, if we pulled it off, the audience will have a kind of sympathy for her. We $#@ed with the point of view: The monster is a woman and she is using her OWN body in a way that is violent and aggressive and empowering, and she is driven entirely by impulses of self destruction and violence and emotional intensity.
She is a monster who SPEAKS — a lot. More than most of the other characters, even — she intervenes into a world of teenage boys whose only real language is violence and oppression – and she #$@s them up. This turned out to be the core concept of the movie — that, like Candyman, and totally UNLIKE Jason or Michael, she would be verbal. And unlike Freddy, she’s using her words not only as a weapon but also in order to make an emotional connection. Before shooting, I spent time with Sierra (who plays Moira) doing improvisations where she would be Moira years before the movie started — years before she had DIED and become a MONSTER — so that we could experience her as a real person.
Two movies that suggest SO MUCH about why we do what we do to women’s bodies in horror films are MARTYRS and CABIN IN THE WOODS. Two tonal sides of the same meta-narrative destruction of the slasher genre. In both movies, the stories take the image of a young beautiful woman being destroyed and present it as a kind of SACRIFICE.
Martyrs is harsh and bleak, but also exhilarating. When you take away the horrific violence and in particular the grueling last sequence, it’s a great thriller with a brilliant structure, full of surprises, made by a filmmaker at the top of his game (His follow-up film, The Tall Man, was just as twisty but without any of the graphic violence). So, on the one hand, it is entertaining, but on the other, the level of graphic violence it depicts is hard for almost anyone to enjoy -- in fact, it challenges a viewer to enjoy it. It maybe even critiques you for attempting to see it as entertainment.
Martyrs begins where a horror movie would typically end – a victimized girl escapes her tormentor/would-be murderer. She runs screaming and crying from a terrifying secluded lair, leaving behind a trauma that she has survived, that has transformed her.
The core of the story is that the friendship between to the two young women, Anna and Lucie. For this alone, it’s a special and spectacular film, readable as a movie about love and about the way that these two young women communicate friendship through action, loyalty, and empathy.
It’s a strange, fierce friendship, one whose tender depiction signals to us that this movie is not exploitation -- that although the characters are exploited and objectified by the bad guy, the movie itself does not exploit them. That there is a separation between the cause of the horror and the movie about the horror.
Alongside Anna, we the audience can never quite be sure if Lucie is crazy, if her motivation to kill the suburban family is founded, if the things she sees are even really there. For a portion of the movie, we might experience HER to be the slasher. The monster. But, like Anna, we stick empathetically close to her.
When then the truth is finally revealed to Anna, when the character known only as Mademoiselle shows up to explain the motivations of her horrific organization, it is framed in a kind of Kubrickian approach that calls to mind Jack Torrance meeting Delbert Grady in the red bathroom, Dave Bowman meeting the monolith, or even Neo meeting God at the end of Matrix: Reloaded. Anna is told that this endlessly powerful, endlessly cruel organization torture and murders women because Mademoiselle wants to find a martyr who can translate to her the truth about death. She wants to solve the ultimate metaphysical problem.
And it is here that the film moves from the trauma of the body to an obsession with the soul, and blends them together through a painful, systematic sequence of torture. And it culminates in a secret – Anna glimpses a metaphysical truth and finds an answer about life after death. But it’s an answer the audience cannot hear. The sacrifice was meaningless.
In Cabin in the Woods, the violence of horror movies must be enacted so that the human race can be temporarily spared total cosmic annihilation. Again, we move from crude rusty knives on flesh into the realm of total metaphysical horror.
When we watch young women get torn apart, and occasionally survive, we are relieving our own anxieties about death, seeing them splattered on the screen in a form that helps us feel connected to life and transcended, momentarily, from death.
After Martyrs and Cabin in the Woods, it's no longer possible to follow the same kind of slasher structure. Everything about that form has been flayed to the bone. So, in Some Kind of Hate, we gave a voice to the slasher, we let her experience all the levels of human emotion and we let her express that with a razor blade.
When we had finished the script to SKOH I started to imagine what the movie would really be and who it would be for. Of course, all kinds of different people who love horror would be into it, because it's cinematic and scary. But I had this idea of an imaginary person that would REALLY love it -- like, it would be her favorite movie. That was a teenage girl who is into horror, and who had gone through some kind of abuse in her life, who had maybe thought about suicide, or self harm, or had an eating disorder, or who had experienced a #$%ed up family growing up. I imagined this girl getting a vibe from the atmosphere and violence of SKOH and recognizing something there that would make her feel elevated, connected, inspired, in that weird way that super dark stories can appeal to us. I kept that idea of an imaginary person in my head when working with the actors and all the aspects of the movie.
What is it we celebrate when we put on a replica Jason hockey mask, or wear a Freddy Krueger sweater (I have one that my mom knit me years ago)? We’re not claiming we love murder in real life, but we are processing a sort of energizing nihilistic feeling, the outrunning of death, the atmosphere of these movies we love that turns death into a creature we can fight.
We love the slasher because, yes we sympathize, but also because we get to use them as a totem. Jason ain’t afraid of s***. Freddy can kill in ways you haven’t even imagined yet. We love the characters because even though the movies themselves are scary, our identification with the slasher makes us feel momentarily FEARLESS.
But what the $#@ is art for these days, anyway? At least narrative art, where we can experience life in the head — and flesh — of someone else: it’s an EMPATHY MACHINE. Like Scarlet wearing the skin of a woman, we are able, through narrative, through an intense slasher film, to feel someone else’s pain. Whether we are the one cutting or the one getting cut, in a best case scenario we are building an internal library of empathy. DESPITE a world that increasingly tries to pull us apart to make us EACH a lone sacrifice to the gods of the VOID.