Horror Films and Women
by Phil Boatwright

“Listen to them – Children of the night – What music they make.”  Count Dracula.
It’s interesting that during times of unrest and financial unease, horror films seem to thrive.  In 1931, during the height of the Depression, Bela Lugosi’s definitive Count Dracula became a major hit.  Moviegoers had never seen a sound version of a supernatural story set to themes meant to unnerve.  The CEO of Universal Studios wasn’t sure he wanted to make a horror film, but with the success of Dracula, Frankenstein was soon being constructed.  Universal Studios then filled up the genre with The Old Dark House, The Mummy, The Invisible Man, and many others.  The fright flick has since remained with us, giving viewers an adrenaline rush or taking our minds off clear and present dangers.  What’s more, tales of conflicted wolfmen, alien space monsters, zombie flesh-eaters, and other vile things that go bump in the night have found a new following – women.  Why do scary movies sooth the savage breast? And what’s the draw for women?
“There is enough violence/horror in our world, why would anyone call those type of movies entertaining is beyond me.  Garbage in garbage out.”  So said an emailer responding to my query.  Though the communiqué ended with a non sequitur Bible verse, her point was well taken.  It is, however, not shared by all.
Jane Almirall (contributing writer for Frothygirlz) recently voiced her appreciation for scary movies.   “My favorite ones illicit a wide range of complex emotions from me though I think that the sensation of being, for lack of a better word, ‘thrilled’ is part of the draw of horror for me.”
Ms. Almirall is not a singular feminine voice amid horror movie fans.  Studies confirm women and teen girls are attending horror movies more so than boys and men.  It is reported in a recent article posted on EW.com that the 2003 remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre made $81 at the box office and that tally was female-driven.  And while men seem to outgrow this genre, according to the article, women are steadfastly loyal.
Christine Spines stated in her article, “Horror Films and the Women Who Love Them,” (posted Jul 24, 2009 | Published in issue #1058 Jul 31, 2009), “For decades, it seemed the sole purpose of movies in which masked and or disfigured men hunted down lusty young damsels was to give guys a 90-minute outlet for their own aggression and hormones. Today, however, the genre's biggest constituency of die-hard fans is women. Name any recent horror hit and odds are that female moviegoers bought more tickets than men. And we're not just talking about psychological spookfests like 2002's The Ring (60 percent female), 2004's The Grudge (65 percent female), and 2005's The Exorcism of Emily Rose (51 percent female). We're also talking about all the slice-and-dice remakes and sequels that Hollywood churns out.”
Jennifer’s Body,written by Diablo Cody (Juno), an acclaimed screenwriter who admits to having been fascinated by horror films while growing up, features the most demonic take on the girl-empowerment theme to date.  It’s a supernatural tongue-in-cheek spookfest concerning a self-absorbed cheerleader who becomes a demonic blood drinker after being sacrificed to Satan by a band seeking the Devil’s blessing.
Orphan star Vera Farmiga is quoted in the same article: “I grew up loving to scare and be scared; it elicits this surge of adrenaline you don't get with any other genre.  Maybe women are so drawn to it because we're more emotional creatures and it's such a visceral experience.”
The article’s author finally theorizes, “The truth is that if you look beneath horror's gory surface you'll often find a stealth empowerment message, thanks to some canny ingénue who claws her way out of danger.”
“Horror films tap into the most primal fears,'' says Orphan producer Susan Downey. ''And when we put a woman through this mythological journey and have her come out at the end kicking a--, the guys get the eye candy they want and the girls get the sense of ‘I can face my demon.’”
Shannon Hood, a colleague in Kansas City, responded to my bewilderment as to why spooky movies were becoming so hypnotic to women and girls.  “I seek out an interesting story, and if the torture porn happens to be a part of it, so be it.  A good example of this is the French film Martyr (2008).  I kept hearing early buzz that the movie would just blow your mind, and no one would spoil it in their reviews, which is rare.  I couldn’t wait to see it.  It was incredibly disturbing, and there was torture in it (which I did not know prior to seeing it), but it had a very original and compelling story, so I just see the torture as part of the movie.”
Shannon, the editor of the website frothygirls.com, and a writer for theflickcast.com, continued, “Also, I have to tell you that I disagree with that whole ‘empowerment’ conclusion that EW came to.  I would still go to horror movies if there were no women in them at all.  I guess the only way that I feel empowered is each time I make it through a scary movie I see it as a badge of honor, so to speak.  Everyone thinks this movie is too scary, but I made it through.  That’s my empowerment.”
Asked if she felt the excess of crime and horror thrillers is feeding the psyches of the sick people who do such things, or if they are just some kind of release for frustrations and tensions, my friend Shannon reiterated that she does not look for films containing scenes of torture. “I think you have some people who are inherently evil, but I don’t believe the movie/medium causes a person to become violent. That personal trait is inborn.  What I do worry about, is a lack of parental supervision.  I’m greatly upset when I see a toddler in a screening of say, Halloween 2.  That is sick and wrong.  What the parent is doing is far worse than the movie.  I do believe movies/games, etc., are used as a scapegoat far too often in our society.  Personal responsibility and parental responsibility are sadly missing in today’s society.”

So what about the sub-genre dubbed “torture porn,” films that show men and women being subjected to physical pain and mental abuse?    
Jane Almirall:  “It's true that there are films in this genre that are exploitative of women, though many storylines feature a "Final Girl" (a popular theme in some horror movies in which a woman is the lone survivor of the film) which can be interpreted as empowering.  I think that when a female character is portrayed in an admirable light (does she survive the film because of her intelligence, resourcefulness, her ability to reason, bravery, compassion for others etc.?) it can be an empowering experience.  Of course, it can be a mixed bag - if the movie is sub par and handled poorly, Whiteout being a recent example of both.  In it, the Final Girl is smart, courageous and resourceful - all positive traits - and the audience is treated to a long, unnecessary shot of her in her panties.”

Shannon Hood:  “As far as these movies offending women, I think the torture porn genre is an equal opportunity offender.  I don’t really feel like most of them have more violence toward women than men.”
Between the ‘30s and the ‘50s, horror films were either good vs. evil parables about right defeating wrong or simply entertainment with groundbreaking, if now cheesy-looking effects.  Later, however, certain themes proved more sinister than the films’ grotesque antagonists.  Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 remake of Dracula is humanism in its most monstrous form.  Where Lugosi’s Count recoils in defeat at the sight of the cross, Coppola’s version has the vampire burning up the crucifix with his icy stare.  This image is a statement, denying the supremacy of God and perhaps His existence all together.

Many of you have read my appreciative critique of M. Night Shyamalan’s psychological thriller, Signs, about alien beings coming to take over Earth.  In it suspenseful Hitchcockian elements serve to unnerve the audience. Added to the unsettling atmosphere, the story’s subtext concerns a man losing then regaining his faith.  The film also has an intriguing take concerning coincidence in our daily lives.  Do things happen by chance or do they serve to develop our nature?  Shyamalan’s film is about finding our way – or finding our way back.  I guess you could say it’s a thinking man’s (or woman’s) horror movie.

Thought-provoking horror movies are few and far between. And while the opinions above explain much, I’m not sure any of us realize the true purpose or effect of horror movies on our psyches. I come back to the garbage-in/garbage-out theory presented earlier. Though that declaration may seem strident, it does deserve consideration. We are bombarded by a great deal of media influence, much of which doesn’t feed the soul. Some will defend the escapism value of the horror film, while others steadfastly maintain that it is a genre with a demonic impact. Here’s something we should consider: like all living things, the spirit of man needs to be nourished.  

I couldn’t possibly say it any better than the following quote.  And it came from a movie.  You might keep it in mind when attending any new release.  “Your head is like a gas tank.  You have to be really careful about what you put in it, because it might just affect the whole system” (I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing, Miramax Films).