American culture and perception of women in horror movies

Essay, 2012

9 Pages, Grade: A


“I think of horror films as art, as films of confrontation. Films that make you confront aspects of your own life that are difficult to face…”

David Cronenberg

The projection of changes in American culture and the perception of women in contemporary horror movies.

Horror genre has its origins in the gothic 19th century novels like Marry Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) or John Polidori’s The Vampire (1819). Even though horror movie is a typical European genre, it has a long history in American cinema dating back to 1915 silent movie Les Vampires by Freuillade and to one of the first sound movies from 1931, Tod Browning’s famous Dracula. Horror movies may be put into three categories: ones that contain the supernatural elements, in which vampires, ghosts, witchcraft appears; psychological horror, which relies on characters’ fears, their guilt or beliefs; and massacre movies, with scenes of slaughter, brutality and rough treatment (Cinema Studies 184).

Although horror movies, as an element of mass culture, may be perceived as simplistic, predictable, lacking depth and simply being an unworthy for analysis, there is a great deal of films that in its content reflect the contemporary problems that occurred in the American society. While many critics consider horror genre as a “low culture,” one must not fail to notice that its significance is enormous. One can sense an inextricable link between film and social concerns, since the role of the film is to project certain fears and concerns of contemporary society as well as to help people to resolve them. As Prawer observed: "If the terror film is thus connected to our social concerns, it also, paradoxically, helps us to cope with our ordinary life by jolting us out of it" (60). A popular opinion has it that the popularity of horror movies increases along with the disturbance experienced by the society. Since the 20th century is perceived as the era of the constant social upheaval, the history of the horror movie equals the history of the anxiety (Wells 3); hence, the time the cultural chaos erupts, the audience turns to horror movies as a means that liberates them from their anxiety. As Phillips asserts, “anxiety tends to promote a sense of helplessness; fear, on the other hand, provides an impetus for change” (9). Thus, the fear evoked by the slasher film, one is forced to invent new ways of coping with his or her difficulties, since a typical way of thinking will occur not only problematic but also troublesome.

To start with, one should examine the possible images of social unrest in Hitchcock’s world-famous Psycho. Numerous critics were representing disapproving reception of the film, calling it "a spectacle of stomach-churning horror," "a reflection of a most unpleasant mind, a mean, sly sadistic little mind," "a blot on an honorable career" (Phillips 62). The film in a way reflects the changing culture of 1950s. At that time Americans experienced the economic development after the World War II; soldiers returning home became workers and by the end of the decade the society was overwhelmed by the consumerism: Americans were compulsorily purchasing goods rather than fulfilling their needs with home-made products. Moreover, the fifties are characterized by the large-scale migration to city outskirts; people moved to suburbs, the area free from minorities and immigrants as well as the wickedness of the city life, in order to provide themselves with comfortable and secure accommodation. It is also an era of the domestication of women and their social isolation. Housewives were spending most of their time at home, performing all kinds of domestic duties, taking care of children etc. Although surrounded by handy household goods, women were unable to rely on their remaining absent husbands or distant members of the family; thus, the loneliness of women finally lead to their frustration. On the other hand, the social isolation forced many women to perform job; hence the clear differences between gender roles were gradually diminishing and in a result the confusion about the differences between sexes arouse.

Returning to Psycho, it is clearly visible that the first part of the story focuses mainly on the question of mass consumption of goods. It is the importance of money that is mostly stressed in one of the first scenes. In her conversation with her lover Sam, Marion reveals that she is no longer satisfied with their informal relationship as she seeks long-term stability. Unfortunately to her, Sam excuses his inability to commit with his lack of ability to provide them with sufficient amount of money that will ensure affluent life. Indeed, it is the necessity of having money and, what is connected with it, leading a comfortable life without being beset by financial worries, that prompts Marion to steal $40.000 from a wealthy Southerner, John Cassidy. Simply, the emphasis on possessing blurs the distinction between the wrong and right. As one can notice, the equality of opportunity ceased to constitute a source of freedom and ; it is the money that will enable Marion and Sam to lead happily live.

Moreover, characters depicted in the movie represent the changes in the gender roles that occurred in the 1950s and shortly afterwards. To start with, the changes in women’s sexuality is indicated by Marion’s presentation as a sexually desirable and attractive woman. Not only does she maintain a sound romantic relationship with Sam (who himself is divorced), but also she is presented in lingerie in the initial scene. However, one must bear in mind that the process of sexual revolution took place mainly in 1960s. The fact of having secret relationship depicts her as an emancipated, aware of her own needs woman. Surely, her behavior constitutes a contrast to the one represented by the passiveness of Sam, who is afraid of taking risk. The act of stealing money may be read as an indicator of Marion’s psychological strength. Taking into consideration that women living in the 1950s were encouraged to marry young, have children and play a role of a busy housewife, Marion only partially fits into this image. In spite of the fact that she maintains extramarital relationship and has her own career, she is willing to set up home – the main source of satisfaction in one’s life – with Sam and appears to be utterly determined in her attempts, as she steals the suitcase full of money. Again, Marion possesses certain masculine features that by many may be perceived as a sufficient sign of changes in gender roles such as her sexual independence or the fact that she is at the peak of her career as a secretary. The sexual characteristics of Lila, Marion’s sister, are even more blended: she is more asexual than Marion as well as more aggressive in her search for missing sister and, unlike Sam, represents unyielding attitude towards their search for Marion. Moreover, whereas the private detective involved in investigation turned out to be unable to solve the riddle of Marion’s missing, it was Lila who managed to sneak into Norman Bates’ house and learn the truth about her sister’s death. As far as Norman’s behavior is concerned, his actions also reveal the shift in gender roles. Since it was the father, male figure connoted with order and discipline, who was constantly absent from house playing the role of breadwinner, a male child was lacking the guiding light. Evidently, without any male figure influencing his behavior, Norman cannot be fully “masculine”; lacking father in his life, Norman dangerously turns into his mother to such a degree that he is able to kill her and her lover driven by the jealousy. Hence, trying to atone for his guilt, mentally distorted Norman begins to bring out for his mother personality and his own becomes even more twisted. As Phillips asserts, the act of Norman’s committing matricide results from the fear of smothering mother: a suburban “mommy” of the fifties that loves her children too much to let them love on their own (75). Undoubtedly, the above-mentioned instanced serve as a clear-cut case of the depiction of the changes in the life of Americans in the 1950s.

The second horror movie, which depicts the social unrest of the 1970s, that seems extremely influential is John Carpenter’s Halloween from 1978. People of the 1970s experienced the decline of the family values as well as sexual revolution that effected in conspicuous changes in human behavior. Society of the “swinging” seventies represented morally lax attitude towards life. Various sexual experiments performed not only amongst youngsters, but also the suburban families were widely popular and acceptable; those were connected with organizing wild orgies or sexual meetings during which married couples could indulge in fantasizing. The society grew even more hedonistic, so that " 'Narcissism' became a loaded word that expressed the sense of chaos and fragmentation that Americans felt" (Slocum-Shaffer 199); experiencing pleasure by individual had priority to the values of the community. The main positive results of this age of permissiveness was the change in perception of women, gays and lesbians who since that time were given more attention as well as caused the acceptance of the diversity in gender.

Carpenter’s horror shaped the formula of slasher film, which was given attention by many critics, including Clover. As she asserts, the slasher film consists certain elements that appeal the audience by its simplicity; those are the appearance of mentally and sexually disturbed killer; the use of simple, usually phallic, weapon; a spooky place, where the killer lives and usually torments his victims; the victims are sexually active young people, however women suffer more; the presence of the final girl – a boyish character who survives the attack of the killer thanks to her smartness and psychological strength.

What is important, the choice of victims of the serial killer seems to be meaningful. The people who fall victim to Michael Myers are usually sexually active teenagers: they are either about to have an intercourse or already had it; Michael’s sister is killed after meeting with her teenage partner, with whom she apparently had sex; Annie, Laurie’s friend, is murdered the moment she is preparing for the encounter with her boyfriend; Linda and her boyfriend Bob are slaughtered after having sex in the Wallace’s house. The implication arisen from the choice of the victims and circumstances is that Myers massacres his victims to convey a certain kind of moral teaching: the sexual liberty and lust is nowhere near being honorable and person immersed in sex deserves to be severely punished. The fact of existing in the era of promiscuousness may have induced Myers to try to re-establish the innocence of the previous decades he experienced in his childhood.


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American culture and perception of women in horror movies
University of Malta
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Emilia Wendykowska (Author), 2012, American culture and perception of women in horror movies, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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