Scream Queens: Is Horror the New Sanctuary for Women?


Let’s set the scene. A spooky forest, 1980-something. A bodacious blonde teenage girl (let’s call her Tammy) clomps through the thrush, calling for her lost boyfriend Trey who is so annoying and isn’t answering her calls. Not cool, Trey! Suddenly, a horrifying masked maniac leaps from the bushes, holding Trey’s severed head in one hand and a bloody machete in the other. The music swells dramatically, and Tammy lets out a horrified shriek. The killer makes a grab for her, missing Tammy by inches but “accidentally” ripping off her skimpy floral sundress, leaving her to escape in her undergarments. Tammy sprints through the woods, continuously screaming while her perfect hair flies behind her and her disturbingly large breasts bounce comically. Tammy now faces only two separate endings that this chase can finish with. One, she’ll trip over a blade of grass, and lie there for a good five minutes until the killer catches up and slices her to pieces. Or two, Tammy will hide, sneak up behind the machete-wielding maniac, and slay the villain with his own weapon, finishing with a close up of her wiping her brow and returning home safely.

Sound familiar?

The “Final Girl” trope in horror movies is a classic one, using the formula of the “good girl” making it to the end of the film, while all her horny, dopey friends meet their untimely demise at the hands of a sinister force. The Final Girl then either gets axed as well, despite her best efforts, or outsmarts the psycho and walks away scot-free. For a horror movie fanatic like me, it’s a move that never grows old. Sometimes the glaringly obvious depiction of the sweet, virginal Final Girl gets a little too on the nose (“Guys, we really shouldn’t go into that house!” or “I’m just waiting for the right guy to come along”) and sometimes a classic slasher flick tricks the audience into thinking the film has chosen their heroine, only to have her quickly bumped off in an iconic kill (like Marion Crane’s shower scene in Psycho, or Tina Gray in A Nightmare on Elm Street). I remember at a young age, stealing my cousin’s VHS tapes of several different scary movies like Halloween, Friday the 13th and Scream. There was something just so damn satisfying about watching a boring movie bimbo turn into this Amazonian warrior princess. Maybe my girl-crazy phase helped feed this infatuation, or maybe it was the influence of hanging out with my older sister and her friends while growing up. Come to think of it, they did beat me up a lot.

[pullquote]Coming into an age of equal representation (I use that term lightly), it’s not hard to find feminist takedowns of the sexist horror films of the past, and it’s one hundred per cent justified.[/pullquote] A large percentage of women in the horror genre were put there for thirsty men to ogle at, which can turn a lot of women off from the genre. Most horror films, from the start, usually had a woman getting to the end, but she also needed a man’s help to vanquish the antagonist. I remember watching Psycho for the first time, and getting increasingly excited as Lila Crane descends into the creepy Norman Bates’ basement to find her missing sister (you’re out of luck there, Lila). Lila finds Norman’s mom sitting around downstairs, probably sucking on hard candies or violently petting cats, as most seniors do, then suddenly: shocker! Mrs. Bates is an old, rotten corpse! Then Norman appears in drag, dressed up like mom! Everyone screams! How will Lila get out of this mess? Then, in a climax killer, Marion’s boyfriend Sam appears, and easily takes down Norman in a quick second. Roll credits. It’s a boring denouement to an otherwise fantastic film, but luckily, the helpless damsels slowly began to start standing up for themselves as more horror films were released.

Soon, scream queens were killing the competition (literally) in the horror genre, and kicking ass while doing so. Jamie Lee Curtis escaped Michael Myers, Heather Langenkamp survived Freddy Krueger’s nightmare, and Sigourney Weaver fought and won against a face-sucking alien beast (that always gives me flashbacks of my high school dances). Even today, women are absolutely ruling horror, menopause be damned! Last year’s critically successful Australian horror flick, The Babadook, portrays a single mother protecting her son from a terrifying boogeyman of sorts, while the excellent home invasion film You’re Next showcased a simple girl who’s boyfriend’s family gets targeted by a trio of killers, and surprises everyone with her unique talent at killing her enemies. Even on the small screen, the horror anthology series American Horror Story is crushing the ratings, all while being led by killer women like Jessica Lange, Sarah Paulson, and Angela Bassett. The men of the show are all either evil masochistic brutes who get their just deserts or simpering love interests for the ladies to toy with.

It’s almost odd that a terrifying, campy television show like American Horror Story is becoming one of the most watched shows on television. The show’s network, FX, renewed the show for a fifth season instantly after its season four premiere, which pulled in over 10 million viewers. Years ago, a violent show filled with evil clowns, Emma Roberts, and haunted vaginas would have tanked in the ratings, so what could be bringing in the audience to such a female-driven horror show? Madeleine Davies of the feminist blog Jezebel posted an interesting article titled “American Horror Story treats women like shit, so why do I love it?”, where she criticized the show for putting almost every female character through hell (a very true statement). But its popularity may have something to do with its issues as well. As mentioned before, the women are tough as nails. Yes, they get treated horribly, but they fight back with everything they have.

One of the more disturbing scenes is one where the reporter Lana (played by the superhuman Sarah Paulson) is sexually assaulted by the same serial killer who murdered her girlfriend, but ultimately (spoilers!) gets her revenge by stabbing him with a needle and shooting him in the head. When a police officer calls her a tough cookie, she calmly states, “I am tough. But I’m no cookie.” Cue the fans screaming in triumph. Davies states in her article that she keeps watching the show not to see these women brutalized, but that it’s so satisfying to watch them fight back. Television needs more women fighting the good fight, and if American Horror Story is going to provide them in spades, the fans are evidently going to keep flocking in.

It’s funny that women are the ruling queens of such a brutal genre, especially since they’re being chased out of the video game community like vermin. If you haven’t heard of the idiotically titled “Gamergate,” be glad you haven’t. It first started when feminist media critic Anita Sarkeesian was booked to give a speech at Utah State University on how female characters in video games are treated basically like blow-up dolls wearing shiny armor. This prompted male gamers to fly into a rage, terrified of the horrific gender witch swooping in, wanting to destroy their sexy, digital walking vaginas. In short, Sarkeesian was sent death threats, and had to cancel her speech. Actress Felicia Day had to remove her opinion on Gamergate from her Tumblr due to terrifying threats on Twitter as well. Even women who try to chat in online RPG games get verbally harassed so frequently, they need to log off. So this proves a depressing yet valid question: in the media world that’s flooded with misogyny, have horror movies become the safe haven for women? In a word, yes, but “safe haven” is used lightly. It’s still hard to find a good thriller where there isn’t an unnamed naked lady who gets laid then axed. 

Sure, there is a healthy amount of strong female protagonists, but what about female directors? Who better to tell a woman’s story correctly than a woman? If one were to look at the big budget horror films released in theatres, you would find a large collection of middle-aged white guys. But that doesn’t mean women are shut out completely. In fact, women are emerging victorious in the independent horror category, and have shined quite a few times in the past. As mentioned before, The Babadook was top of the list for many critics’ best horror flicks of 2014. The film was Jennifer Kent’s first time in the directing and writing chair. Other fantastic horror films directed by women include American Psycho, Jennifer’s Body, Pet Sematary, and the recent Carrie remake. These films are insanely diverse in their plots and themes, ranging from a murderous telepath, evil incarnated children, a teenage girl possessed by a demon, and a psychopath who loves to kill women in his underwear. So once again, we’re brought to another aspect in the horror spectrum that’s giving women more to do much more than others.

Another fantastic example of badass female horror directors are the enigmatic Soska Sisters. Fed up with the lack of jobs for women in the film industry, these Vancouver-born identical twins run their own film company titled Twisted Twins Productions. The twins have released a few horror films in the past few years, including American Mary (starring the fantastic Katharine Isabelle) being the crown jewel among them, having earned a small cult following from its bizarre take on body modification. The twins are set to release more scary films in the future, and are also booked to produced an adaptation of the indie superhero comic Painkiller Jane, a woman with regenerative powers who wreaks havoc on crime lords. 

[pullquote]Hollywood seems to be terrified that female-directed films will corrupt the impressionable minds of the youth by making them believe in equal rights and proper hygiene.[/pullquote]

Now try to think about how many superhero films in the past decade have been directed by women. If you decide to visit the Marvel movies Wikipedia page, you’ll see a list of 46 directors who have directed a Marvel movie. Out of the 46, one is a woman: Lexi Alexander, who directed Punisher: War Zone. Surprised you’ve never heard of it? Don’t be. War Zone had a limited release in 2008 and was met with negative reviews and was named the lowest grossing Marvel film ever, rating below Marvel stinkers like Elektra and Howard the Duck. Alexander wasn’t even the first choice of director for Punisher: War Zone, and signed on after the first male director dropped out due to “not believing in the movie.” Marvel is just one of the many major movie studios not giving enough women a chance to direct. Jezebel posted a grim statistics chart, stating that female directors are more likely to direct a documentary than an actual narrative film, with a demographic of 34.5 per cent to 16.9 per cent. It’s just not enough. Hollywood seems to be terrified that female-directed films will corrupt the impressionable minds of the youth by making them believe in equal rights and proper hygiene. This brings us all back to the sad fact about horror films: women are more likely to be better represented in a film about flesh-eating zombies and serial killers than in a film about world history or heroes.    

So what does this all tell us? Firstly, it’s hard out there in the media for women, with so many industries demanding some skin if you want to fulfill the barbaric ritual of fame. But, if women can take over such a violent ‘boys club’ of a genre like horror, who says it can’t happen again with a different one? Soon we’ll be getting a Wonder Woman film, as well as Captain Marvel, both led by females. Maybe in a few years, the superhero world will be taken over by badass females crushing pipsqueaks with their mighty yoga thighs. I’m kidding, but I wouldn’t even be surprised if that was shown. The women of horror are a force to be reckoned with, so it’s only a matter of time before they break into the big leagues, and break some bones. One thing is for sure: there will definitely be lots of screaming.