A recent study might shed some light on why women love horror, and why the genre is actually a frontrunner for on-screen gender equality. Many people have tried to reconcile the seemingly male genre with the significant female fan base but, like most cultural phenomenons, it’s complicated.
Women have a lot of different reasons for watching horror, but watch they do: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake, along with The Conjuring, Purge, and many other recent horror hits, showed to an audience of more women than men. This has been puzzled over by many, since horror has long been associated with misogyny.
In 1982 Janet Maslin called them “hardcore sexual pornography” in a New York Times article: “It goes without saying that these films exploit and brutalize women.” In a similar, more recent criticism, Anna Biller, director of The Love Witch, says of some horror films: “I would argue that the misogyny is not only obvious but that it’s the main appeal of these films to fans.”
But these critics are narrow and usually specific to one sub genre or a handful of films. This oversimplifies a genre known for innovation where even the most enduring tropes are constantly being challenged, upended and reinvented. And the roles for women are no exception.
As a recent article pointed out: “The genre has moved from taking pleasure in victimizing women to focusing on women as survivors and protagonists. It has veered away from slashers and torture porn to more substantive, nuanced films that comment on social issues and possess an aesthetic vision.”
But horror has always had a significant female fanbase. In “Men, Women, and Chainsaws” (1992) Carol J. Clover coined the term “final girl”, explaining that the target audience for slasher films (young and male) were more comfortable watching a woman in peril than a man. According to her, women identifying with the scrappy heroine was a “happy accident”.
To further confound this phenomenon, it might be the same elements that critics call misogynist that attract some female viewers to the genre:
“Horror, more than any other film genre, deals openly with questions of gender, sexuality and the body,” Said Shelly Stamp, a film professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz “Yes, femininity, female sexuality, and the female body are often presented as ‘monstrous’. But that doesn’t mean that women aren’t interested in watching and thinking about these issues. In many ways, horror films bring to the fore issues that are otherwise unspoken in patriarchal culture – which itself constructs female sexuality as monstrous.”
And, as Journalist Brianna Wu pointed out, “Horror is one of the only genre films where women get to be the star and have rich emotional lives.” There also might be an equality in terror that doesn’t exist anywhere else: “Horror movies are a world where money can’t save you, privilege can’t save you, strength can’t save you,” Wu says. “In some ways, it’s a world with real equality.”
The number of female viewers makes it clear that something significant is happening. Especially when you consider recent research that shows women will stop watching a film if it’s too stereotyped or lacking female characters.
A new computer program, designed to watch and calculate screen and speaking time for male and characters found that horror was the only genre in which women were on screen more than men. This data, of course, does not speak to the content of what’s happening to the women on screen which is another issue altogether. The Horror Honeys recently pointed out that a large number of horror films pass the Bechdel-Wallace test, something that very few movies, overall, accomplish.
Although this explanation, like all of them, will be an oversimplification, I argue that simply seeing women on the screen in equal measure might itself be a powerful motivator for women watching horror films.
I call this the “Girl Boss” argument. A male friend asked me why I watched a mediocre Netflix show, with characters I disliked, in its entirety. After considering this carefully I realized something simple and extraordinary: in a world where I have spent a lifetime surrounded by mostly male characters, it’s simply a relief to watch women on screen. Any women. Even women I don’t like. Women making bad decisions, being obnoxious, running up the stairs instead of out of the house.
Horror, to me, means shining a light into the darkest corners of our collective minds. The fact that somehow, in this cultural moment, there might be more room in horror for women on both sides of the camera only makes me more passionate about it, no matter how we unpack the causes.