The Others: Why Women Are Shut Out of Horror

Horror movies give more screen time to strong female characters and attract a large female audience. But few female filmmakers get to work on them.

In the shower scene from the film Psycho, Marion Crane (played by Janet Leigh) screams in terror as Norman Bates tears open her shower curtain. (Photo: Bettman/Getty Images)

He’s coming. Hide. No, not there. Oh god. No. No! *Fade to black* “What’s happening? WHAT’S HAPPENING?! IS SHE DEAD? DID HE KILL HER?” I hear my boyfriend sigh. This is how I watch horror movies, with my hands mostly over my eyes. I watch through my fingers, obscuring all the scary parts. It’s like being a prisoner, nose to the bars of my cell. I miss a lot, or sometimes nothing at all. Sometimes I’m not fast enough. Like with Hereditary, that moment provoking a collective gasp from the entire theatre, or, more recently, with “The Haunting of Hill House,” where ghosts drop into the scene with the phantom grace of house spiders. I jump and scream and laugh, but as sure as this is the sense of injustice — I know that at night I will have to keep my light on, check under my bed, shut the doors until they click. I know that every shadow, every sound, every movement will terrorize me. But even though I know this, I will do it again and again and again. This torture, I will welcome it.

There is no genre I enjoy more than horror even though, as a woman, it seems that I shouldn’t. There’s Don’t Breathe, in which an old blind man who started out as the victim actually ends up trying to artificially inseminate the young woman who burgled him; It Follows, in which a young woman is haunted by the sentient STD her boyfriend gave her; The Innkeepers, in which a young woman is trapped in a cellar with the ghost of an ancient bride who was jilted by her groom; Drag Me to Hell, in which a young woman who refuses an old woman a loan ends up cursed, her face gnawed by a toothless demon. These are the horror movies in the past 10 years that I have been unable to get out of my mind, that I have loved — despite the nightmares — four movies about young women who are tormented, none of them written or directed by women. What does that say about me? What does that say about horror?

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In 1992, the year Tony Todd’s Candyman stalked Virginia Madsen’s grad student, the seminal book on women in horror shed some blood of its own. Carol J. Clover’s Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film had been written after a sudden rush of low-budget horror movies, starting in the mid-70s, which newly revolved around young women; specifically, young women whose perspective became that of the audience. Cinemagoers of both genders thus became female prey fleeing male predators. “Taken together, these films offer variant imaginings of what it is, or might be, like to be a woman,” Clover wrote, “to menstruate and be pregnant, to be vulnerable and endure male violence, to be sexually violated.”

Sissy Spacek in “Carrie.” (Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

It was the book’s first chapter, however, “Her Body, Himself,” that seeped into the cultural conversation. Clover had noticed a trope in slashers, a female character — androgynous, virginal, studious — that acted as both victim and hero, who was menaced, but ultimately became empowered to the point of vanquishing the man in question. Clover called this character the Final Girl. In Carrie (1976), for instance, the eponymous high schooler internally immolated by her bullying female classmates, uses telekinesis to literally immolate them at prom. “The women’s movement has given many things to popular culture, some more savory than others,” Clover wrote. “One of its main donations to horror, I think, is the image of an angry woman – a woman so angry that she can be imagined as a credible perpetrator (I stress ‘credible’) of the kind of violence on which, in the low-mythic universe, the status of full protagonist rests.”

The first modern horror movie, Psycho (1960), had already introduced the emasculated male killer (cross-dressing Norman Bates) and his sexually transgressive female victim (Marion Crane). Alfred Hitchcock’s appetite for torturing women only became further fodder for a more socially aware generation with the addition of the Final Girl, the young woman who claims her power through conservatively sanctioned purity. “The Final Girl is, on reflection, a congenial double for the adolescent male,” wrote Clover. “She is feminine enough to act out in a gratifying way, a way unapproved for adult males, the terrors and masochistic pleasures of the underlying fantasy, but not so feminine as to disturb the structures of male competence and sexuality.” Clover believed adolescent males were the predominant audience for horror movies, which, when you consider the stereotypical view of boys (they are gross, violent, even misogynistic) follows. But these two ideas — young women are empowered by virginity and young men prefer to watch them suffer — helped turn the public perception of horror movies into a guy thing, a specious claim so insidious it persists to this day, even among people who know the genre better than that.

Jason Blum, the producer who founded Blumhouse, which specializes in horror budgeted at around $5 million, has in less than 10 years been responsible for rejuvenating a middling genre with franchises like Paranormal Activity, The Purge and Ouija, not to mention the ones I preferred: Dark Skies, The Lazarus Effect and Happy Death Day. His latest release, Halloween, is the sequel to John Carpenter’s original of the same name, one of the films Clover used to exemplify the Final Girl. Except that now survivor Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) is a middle-aged grandmother, a basket case who only stops shaking when she is confronted with killer Michael Myers. “The first movie I was running more, and in this movie I’m hunting more,” Curtis recently told Entertainment Weekly. “[You] watch this woman take back the narrative of her life.”


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Though Halloween was co-written by a woman in 1978, in 2018 its follow-up is both directed and written by men. In a widely circulated interview published last week, Polygon’s Matt Patches asked Blum why none of the horror movies he has produced have been directed by women. “There are not a lot of female directors period, and even less who are inclined to do horror,” Blum responded (he’s not wrong: film researcher Stephen Follows analysed every feature film in American cinemas between 1988 and 2017 and found that only 9.9% of the directors were women). It could have been generously considered an off the cuff misstatement, particularly considering Blum was promoting a highly feminist horror, one in which three women starred and Curtis had producing credit for the first time. But women have little generosity left (if any) for an industry that has not only been negligent of them, but detrimental.

On Twitter they responded by sending Blum lists of the women he had failed to consider —  Julia Ducourneau, Ana Lily Amirpour, Jenn Wexler, The Soska Sisters — underscoring the truth, which is not that women are disinclined to direct horror, but that they aren’t hired to do it. In fact, women have an affinity for horror, they always have.

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Robert Englund attacks Heather Langenkamp in a scene from the film ‘A Nightmare On Elm Street’, 1984. (Photo by New Line Cinema/Getty Images)

The earliest horror films were inspired by gothic literature, a genre pioneered by writers like Ann Radcliffe who used it to rattle the shackles of gender norms in the Victorian era, their heroines rejecting claustrophobic roles they had been bequeathed by a patriarchal society. Horror has acted as a similar outlet for contemporary women. “Horror, more than any other film genre, deals openly with questions of gender, sexuality and the body,” film historian Shelley Stamp observed in The Guardian. “In many ways horror films bring to the fore issues that are otherwise unspoken in patriarchal culture — which itself constructs female sexuality as monstrous.” As popular as Radcliffe was, so too became the films built on her legacy. In a 2011 article in Cinema Journal, Richard Nowell disproved Clover’s claim that adolescent males were the primary horror audience. He discovered that not only were the genders equally represented in youth audiences in the ’70s and ‘80s, producers and distributors, believing girls chose horror movies as date movies, actually skewed their projects and their marketing to young women by highlighting romance, friendship and the kind of powerful heroines that “Wonder Woman” and “Charlie’s Angels” had turned into idols. “Largely jettisoned were images of women in jeopardy-partially dressed, cowering, screaming, and vulnerable,” wrote Nowell of the ad campaigns, “and in their place came, for the most part, images of strong, focused female characters.”

Even today, horror movies lean more XX than XY. In 2017, Google and the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media reported that this was the only genre where women appear on screen more than men (53 percent) and the one in which they are heard the most (47 percent). “When I watched movies like The Goonies and E.T., it was boys having adventures,” Diablo Cody, who wrote 2009’s Jennifer’s Body, told The New York Times. “When I watched Nightmare on Elm Street, it was Nancy beating up Freddy. It was that simple.” Though it has never seemed to occur to Hollywood to actually hire women to make the movies they want to appeal to women, Debra Hill, producer and co-writer of Halloween, is an early rare example. She was responsible for choosing Jamie Lee Curtis to play Laurie Strode (a nod to Curtis’ family legacy, her mother Janet Leigh having starred in Psycho) as well as for the girls’ sparkly teen-speak. “I was a babysitter and I knew what it was like to be, you know, all those characters,” she said in the 2003 documentary Halloween: A Cut Above the Rest. But where women proliferated in front of the camera, their presence behind it was unexpected. “I was never assumed to be the writer or producer,” Hill said, according to The New York Times. “I took a look around and realized there weren’t many women, so I had to carve a niche for myself.”

Almost 40 years later, Honeymoon director Leigh Janiak, the horror filmmaker whose name Blum struggled to remember in the Polygon interview, echoed Hill’s feelings of gendered isolation. “I didn’t think a lot about ‘oh, I’m a female filmmaker,’ it really didn’t sink in until I got to SXSW and I did a horror panel there,” she told AMFM Magazine in 2014, explaining “it was all dudes and me!” Karyn Kusama, director of Jennifer’s Body and The Invitation, blames the gender disparity on the gatekeepers, who include men like Jason Blum. “You just need more people at the top who make it a priority to hire women,” she told MTV last year while promoting the female-centric horror anthology, XX, which filmmaker Jovanka Vuckovic co-created as a response to the lack of opportunities for women. “And I don’t think there are enough people yet who have that track record…”

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The Descent (Celador Films)

The day after the Polygon interview was published, Jason Blum issued an apology on Twitter for his “dumb comments.” “Over 50 percent of our audience is female. Over 50 percent of Blumhouse execs are women,” he wrote, with the caveat, “we have not done a good enough job working with female directors and it is not because they don’t exist. I heard from many today.” Three days later Jamie Lee Curtis tweeted a “BOAST post” about Halloween’s $76 million debut weekend, with the notes, “Biggest horror movie opening with a female lead. Biggest movie opening with a female lead over 55.” She deployed the hashtag #womengetthingsdone, which was reminiscent of the final moment in her film. Three generations of Strode women carrying three generations of trauma stare through bars at Michael Myers as he bursts into flames in the basement that is now his prison. The room that was thought to be a cage for the women has been revealed to be a trap for this man. As Laurie said: “Forty years ago, he came to my home to kill. He killed my friends, and now he’s back to finish what he started, with me. The one person who’s ready to stop him.”

I liked Halloween well enough, but my favorite horror movie will always be The Descent. I own two copies of Neil Marshall’s 2005 spelunking nightmare (cut and uncut) and I have seen it dozens of times. In it six women go caving in the Appalachian Mountains only to find themselves lost and, worse, fighting a population of blind humanoid bottom-feeders covered in K-Y (or something). The “Final Girl” is not a girl at all, but a woman (Shauna Macdonald) whose husband and daughter were killed in a car wreck and who uses the memory of her child to empower her to single-handedly battle a horde you already know she can’t defeat. The original ending — the U.S. released a “happier” version — has her facing the ghost of her child, smiling despite her impending death. There is no romance here, the friendships are broken, the power is an illusion, but you know this woman will not fold. What does that say about me? Everything.

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Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.