Women in Horror

Words by Lottie Skala
Art by Lottie Skala

2018 has been the year of remakes and sequels, with the likes of A Star Is Born, Creed II and The Grinchto name but a few. Two stand-outs, solely for their genre, are Luca Guadagnino’s remake of Dario Argento’s classic Suspiria(1977) and David Gordon Green’s sequel to John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978).

Horror movies have proven to be subtle indicators of the changing state of society throughout history: think the rise of body invasion movies that came with the rise of paranoia over communism and how growth in technology saw a growth in ghouls, demons and zombies emerging from their victims’ very TV screens. A remake of a classic horror film, therefore, may suggest some key differences or similarities between society then and now. In particular, the changes in portrayals of – yep, you guessed it – women on screen.

Other genres have also explored the phenomenon of the reboot, notably 2016’s Ghostbusters and this year’s Ocean’s 8. Although undoubtedly inferior to their originals (fight me), their respective directors chose to replace an all-male cast with an all-female one, mirroring the fourth-wave of feminism that’s taken hold in the last ten years and the rise in female perspective in the media thanks to the #metoo movement. But to what extent have the directors of the horror reboots been influenced by these specific societal changes, if at all?

Along a similar vein, 10 Cloverfield Lane gave us the strong female lead in horror that 2008’s Cloverfield didn’t. Although the character of Michelle isn’t a replacement for any of the original’s male characters, she is is arguably one of the most underrated female protagonists in horror for her relentlessness in spite of being injured, then kidnapped and then forced to fight both human and inhuman evils. She embodied the small yet growing sector of society that desires to see fewer heroes and more heroines in cinema.

At the heart of the original Suspiria is a plot about femininity and female solidarity, represented by both the dance company and the coven of witches, which slowly revealed. The film subtly alludes to the conflict between hysteria and intuition, both of which are portrayed as female attributes, yet this neither empowers nor offends its female viewers as, although the women must fight against one another’s strengths, we are given a competent heroine in Susie, the naïve American dancer who comes to Berlin to train.

In Guadagnino’s version of the film, the implied feminism is far more clear and consistent, particularly with the addition of two key plot points: firstly, the revelation that Susie is in fact the embodiment of Mother Suspiriorum. Not only does she complete the task of killing Markos, the head witch, just as well as her 1977 predecessor does, but she becomes a powerful and reasonable leader who both punishes and forgives when deemed necessary; she performs the role of a leader that we are used to seeing male actors perform. Then there is the character of Josef: he represents guilt, the patriarchy and the context of post-war Germany. The inclusion of his character (who does not appear in the original film), I believe, is to symbolise the scepticism of the patriarchy towards ‘hysterical’ women. He fails to follow his wife in her attempt to escape the Holocaust and also fails to save Patricia, his patient and Markos’ first victim, who he initially deems as mad. Josef is punished by the witches for his misogyny and, on a larger scale, for being a symbol of post-war guilt in Germany. However, in the final scene we see Susie erasing his memory, perhaps even forgiving him. This reminds us of his many sympathetic character traits, arguably nodding to a growing female perspective in cinema. Although Argento may have delivered a gory, majestically seventies, mostly-female horror classic with an equally terrifying score, Guadagnino’s film demonstrates the immorality of abuse of power, whether that person is male or female, whilst simultaneously empowering the image of the woman who knows more than she should.

John Carpenter’s Halloween was one of the first slasher films to premier the ‘Final Girl’ in the form of Laurie Strode: the female protagonist who outsmarts her antagonist and survives. However, much like Sally in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, she is only a survivor due to male intervention – essentially she is always ‘saved’. Slasher films like Halloween also suggest that being a cunning, subtle and courageous heroine must come hand-in-hand with virginity; her less fortunate friends are stupid enough to have sex and are suitably punished in the way of death by telephone wire.

When watching Gordon Green’s sequel, I was mostly looking out for any subverting of the Final Girl stereotypes; Laurie, now a grandmother, is satisfyingly badass with her guns and her mad combat skills and the final shot of the three generations of surviving Strode women is an empowering image. Despite this, there are still fundamental flaws of the slasher sub-genre that Green’s version hasn’t overcome. For starters, Laurie remains to be a figure of suffering even in the scenes before Michael Myers has escaped prison. The tortured female is a classic trope of horror films and can still be seen in modern slashers like Happy Death Day where, much like Halloween, we get our empowered female lead, yet three quarters of the film still depicts the protagonist being terrorised. Carol J Clover’s description of the Final Girl as being “abject terror personified” (1992, p. 35) sums up the imbalance in the picture of a strong and powerful woman who must spend the majority of her onscreen presence being chased before her achievements are validated.

On reflection, 2018 appears to be a year of progression. A remake of Suspiria turned Susie, the once timid victim, into an ancient force of invincible power. Whilst the witches remain a symbol of the hidden hysteria in post-war Germany, Guadagnino focuses in on the patriarchy’s denial of clever women. The sequel to Halloween relieves Laurie of her ‘boyish’, chaste bullshit and instead she is the grandma you never knew you needed.

The depiction of women in film is improving- although the evil ‘Mothers’, crazed witches and older women living in fear of their past shows us we still have a long way to go. I’ll still long for a slasher film that doesn’t include an hour and a half of women screaming, running and being tortured before they’re saved by a male policeman/doctor/boyfriend. In the meantime, when are we gonna get an all-female reboot of The Thing?

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