The Rise of Women in Horror Fandom and Film

Essay, 2010

20 Pages

James Morgat (Author)

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Finals Week: The Rise of Women in Horror Fandom and Film

Mon, December 20 2010 By James Morgart

“There is no pleasure. There is no pain. There is only skin.” - Pinhead, Hellraiser III

“Women tend to be more tolerant about visceral things because they have more direct personal experience with them. They cope with periods once a month, they go through childbirth and they are usually the ones who look after the bleeding and battered limbs when the kids take a tumble. They can put blood and gore in context and generally cope better than men.” - Bela Lugosi

Most scholarship on the horror film has assumed that males are the primary spectators of horror; however, there have been developments, both in scholarship as well as in mainstream media, to contradict this point. In 2009, journalist Michelle Orange pointed out, in an article written for the New York Times, “Recent box office receipts show that women have an even bigger appetite for these [horror] films than men.” Furthermore, Brigid Cherry has continually underscored the point that horror has its roots in the Gothic, a traditionally female genre whose roots are traced back to the sexually transgressive Horace Walpole and female writer Mary Shelley. Cherry also points out that a 1996 market survey “found that Madame Tussaud’s Chamber of Horrors was ‘more popular with women than men, with over twice as many women than men liking it,’” and that despite claims by Linda Williams that women “refuse to look” at scenes of horror, the gratuitous shows played at the renown Grand Guignol often resulted in women assisting men from walking out of the theater after the men had fainted at the scenes of blood and gore. Cherry’s implication, obviously, is that women have always enjoyed horror, but their enjoyment of the genre has gone unnoticed, and perhaps this is true, however, both Cherry and Orange have missed an even more significant emergent trend in horror.

Over the last decade, women have developed their own horror fandom and are more heavily involved in the production and promotion of horror films and horror culture than in the past. For example, two of the largest horror film festivals in the country were founded by women. The largest horror film festival in the country, Screamfest, founded by film producers Rachel Belofsky and Ross Martin in 2001, has been responsible for the catapulting of films such as Paranormal Activity, 28 Days Later, Hatchet, and Wolf Creek into the American mainstream. Prior to Screamfest, Denise Gossett and Kimberly Beeson founded Shriekfest in 2001, and have focused primarily on promoting low-budget independent horror films since its inception.

The creation of these two festivals and the emergence of the Internet ultimately sprung a leak in the male-dominated genre that has resulted in a surge of women involvement. In 2003, Jovanka Vukovic was named the editor-in-chief of the popular horror fanzine and website Rue Morgue – a post she remained at until 2009, when she stepped down to publish a book on zombies as well as to direct her first film, a horror titled The Captured Bird that will be produced by Guillermo del Toro. A year after Vuckovic took her post at Rue Morgue, journalist Heidi Martinuzzi founded the website Pretty/, literally creating a space for women in horror fandom. Martinuzzi has since changed the site’s name to, and encourages women and men on the fan forums to discuss not just horror films, but to also discuss celebrities, women’s rights, political figures, and even academic work, as Martinuzzi often posts, and encourages others to post, graduate papers in progress – papers that are normally focused on questions of gender with Marxist and cultural studies frameworks; thereby providing an opportunity for fans to see what is being discussed in academia as well as for the writers of these papers to gain feedback from fans and from one another. Though Martinuzzi continues to run her website, she, too, has embarked on a film career including a documentary that focuses on the wives of influential horror filmmakers titled Brides of Horror. The effect of these women has been a virtual explosion of women themed horror sites such as Sarah Jahier’s Fatally-Yours, Stacie Ponder’s blog Final Girl, the blog Day of the Woman, Hannah Neurotica’s fanzine Ax Wound, and has culminated with Neurotica spearheading Women In Horror Recognition Month. Moreover, in 2010, Martinuzzi and filmmaker Shannon Lark unveiled the Viscera Film Festival, the first horror film festival whose mission is to “expand opportunities for contemporary female horror filmmakers and educate the public by raising awareness of the changing roles for women in the film industry.” It comes as no surprise then that when in October 2010, as a response to the website Horror Society hosting Women of Horror 2 Film Festival in Chicago, Marcus Leshock of the news blog Chicago Now identified the Top 13 Most Influential Women in Horror, three of the aforementioned women were included on the list (italics are my emphasis): Anne Rice, Kathryn Bigelow, Debbie Rochon, Debrah Hill, Denise Gossett, Devi Snively, Heidi Martinuzzi, Ida Lupino, Jovanka Vuckovic, Karen Walton, Vampirella, Mary Shelley, and Stephanie Meyer.

In spite of the fact that Michelle Orange’s article focuses on teenage women attending recent horror films, and misses the larger scope of the emergent trend of women involvement in horror, she raises important questions about the movement – questions that academia may help to solve: Theories straining to address this particular head scratcher have their work cut out for them: Are female fans of “Saw” ironists? Masochists? Or just dying to get close to their dates?

Although these questions are interesting, they are also myopic. Her line of questioning suggests only three options. First, women are theoretically watching films because they are sadistic – thereby inhabiting the role of male viewer . Second, they are watching films because they are masochistic – thereby inhabiting the role of female viewer. Or, finally, they are watching films because they simply want to please their dates – thereby falling into a normative role of potential housewife seeking to please her “man.” All of these are viable possibilities, however, they ignore the possibility that women are simply displeased with normative structures and have taken pleasure in watching a genre that both uncovers and critiques these structures. Therefore, it could be that women are falling into normal patriarchal roles or they could be engaging in an activity that allows them a space to critique the restrictive boundaries of normative society.

In other words, is this trend of women going to see these films and participating in the promotion and production of them an act that film theorist Laura Mulvey would call donning “transvestite clothes” in order to indulge in a male pleasure? That is, are women watching and making horror films in order to escape femininity thereby participating in a cultural act that is as reactionary as Sarah Palin arming herself with a rifle and killing a caribou while television cameras bear witness to it? Or, has the feminist discourse that emerged in the 70s been so marginalized within American society that it has driven women to a genre that has only ever been surpassed in its critique of social norms by the inquiries and critiques of academia?

The answer to these questions, as I will argue, is that the emergent trend of women is a reflection of both ideas. As my essay will show through the analysis of favorite films listed by women horror fans, the emergent trend is a result of women being attracted to horror films that often feature female protagonists and address women’s issues. In some cases, these films merely invert the patriarchal order and allow for a cathartic sadistic pleasure of dominance while in others they address issues of sexuality, gender, and identity in far more interesting ways. In order to prove this thesis, this article will first discuss the various theories scholars have offered to analyze horror films. Second, it will examine what horror films women within this emergent group have listed as their favorite films by presenting a list I compiled from women horror fans on fan forums as well as social networking sites. And finally, the paper examine the differences and similarities between the films on the list compiled in relation to a list compiled by Cherry from female horror fans in Edinburgh, while also interpreting the possible pleasures women horror fans could be indulging in by watching these films. In doing so, it will make clear these films sometimes articulate a possible sadistic pleasures of dominance as well as provide intriguing critiques about normative society and patriarchal constructs of gender.

The Academic Gaze: Scholarship on Horror

The academic response to the emergent trend of women in horror fandom and the aforementioned questions has been practically nonexistent and not particularly fruitful. Only one scholar, Brigid Cherry, has addressed the influx of women in horror fandom, however, her studies have not been indicative of the community mentioned above. In studying the Internet community in an article titled “Stalking the Web: Celebration, Chat and Horror Film Marketing on the Internet,” Cherry limited her study to “Yahoo!Group” pages and mainstream websites like SciFi Channel’s bulletin boards as well as websites created by major production studios such as New Line Cinema. Furthermore, as a British scholar, it appears that she has largely focused on British-based fans and acknowledged that the lists she looked at contained “a high number of fans working in libraries and universities and many have studied in higher education.” Her article is only made all the more problematic in that even though it was published in 2010, the research seems to have been conducted in 2002, just prior to the influx of activity by women in horror fandom, however, two previous publications of hers did attempt to decipher the influx of women she has witnessed. In a 1999 publication “Refusing to Refuse to Look: Female Viewers of the Horror Film,” and later revisited in a 2008 article titled “Gothics and Grand Guignols: Violence and the Gendered Aesthetics of Cinematic Horror,” Cherry surveyed 107 British women horror fans in an attempt to ascertain what it was that women liked about horror. Although the survey covered a wide age demographic, 18 to 50, Cherry identifies these participants as predominantly “white and well-educated.” Furthermore, it appears that the women she surveyed were largely British as the survey was conducted in Edinburgh, thereby ignoring the American market. In fact, Cherry acknowledges that she is “not claiming that this sample is a statistically accurate representation of habitual female viewers of horror films. Though her findings are interesting, her results are more of a reflection of those she polled rather than of the emerging trend within fandom identified earlier. That is to say, Cherry’s results has led her to argue for a “feminine aesthetic” existent within horror that appeals specifically to women as her “white, well-educated” participants often displayed a “morbid fascination with horror, death, and monstrosity” as they described what drew them to the films in visual terms such as “striking,” “beautiful,” “atmospheric,” and “wonderful” – terms that an art history student might use to describe what draws them to Van Gogh or what a creative writing student might use to describe Faulkner. Not only does this conclusion not take into consideration the nationality and education level of her participants, it also ignores the possibility that male audiences with a similar educational background and knowledge base might be drawn to horror films for similar “aesthetic” reasons. Moreover, this approach also ignores the thematic elements and plot devices of the films that may attract women audiences without them necessarily realizing it, or wanting to admit to it. Prior to Cherry’s work and the emergence of women’s heightened involvement in horror fandom and horror film production, most scholars seemed to believe that there was little attraction for women within what has been called the “modern horror film” – generally a term that refers to post-1960 horror films that, arguably, have their roots in Hitchcock’s Psycho and Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom – although the first surge of American modern horror films would sometimes carry heavily politicized subtexts.

In fact, the modern horror film originally became of interest to academics after several independent filmmakers began to gain recognition for what scholar Matt Becker has identified as “hippie horror.” Although Becker limits his identification of these filmmakers to Wes Craven, Sean S. Cunningham, George A. Romero, and Tobe Hooper, his list of “hippie horror” filmmakers could be expanded to include several other filmmakers from this generation such as John Carpenter, Stuart Gordon, Mick Garris, and S.F. Brownrigg. Generally speaking, these filmmakers consider their work to go beyond the normally accepted boundaries of horror to simply frighten, and is also intended to critique society. As Stuart Gordon points out, “The 70s were a time of us realizing that all art is political.” In fact, not long after Gordon and his wife were arrested for their involvement at the protests of 1968 Democratic National Convention, he found himself behind bars yet again for having adapted Peter Pan into an allegory for what happened in Chicago – his play contained all of the original dialogue, but featured Captain Hook as Mayor Daley, the pirates as the Chicago police, Peter Pan and the Lost Boys as hippies, and Wendy and her siblings as straight-laced suburban kids. Similarly, Craven asserts that his first films Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes are critiques of patriarchal society, and when Craven began stating that the latter film is an allegory for the Vietnam War, it did not take long for academics to notice.

This surge in socially-aware horror filmmakers ultimately resulted in a group of scholars – Andrew Britton, Richard Lippe, Tony Williams, and Robin Wood – publishing the work American Nightmare: Essays on the Horror Film which has laid the groundwork for much of the horror film criticism and scholarship that has occurred in its wake. Wood’s introductory essay, “Introduction to the American Horror Film,” has since been recognized a landmark work as it uses Marxist and psychoanalytic theory, specifically invoking Gad Horowitz’s notion of “surplus repression,” to identify what Wood refers to as “apocalyptic horror films.”

Wood’s mixed formula of Marxism and psychoanalysis in relation to monsters in the horror film is particularly useful in interpreting horror films. Horowitz, according to Wood, suggests that there are two forms of repression in society: “basic” and “surplus.” Basic repression is supposedly “universal, necessary, and inescapable;” furthermore, “it is what makes possible our development from an uncoordinated animal capable of little beyond screaming and convulsions into a human being.” Surplus repression is what “makes us into monogamous bourgeois patriarchal capitalists even if we are born into the proletariat,” and Wood identifies “sexual energy,” “bisexuality,” “female sexuality/creativity,” and the “sexuality of children” as examples of surplus repression as Wood sees it that “none of these forms of repression is necessary for the existence of civilization. To complicate matters further, Wood suggests that it in order to understand modern horror films it is important to combine Horowitz’s understanding of surplus repression with the concept of “the Other: that which bourgeois ideology cannot recognize or accept but must deal with.” Furthermore, Wood identifies “other people,” “woman,” “the proletariat,” “ethnic groups within culture,” “alternative ideologies or political systems,” and “children” as potential forms of the Other. Therefore, it becomes of the utmost importance to recognize what is being portrayed as the Other as well as how the Other is being portrayed in the horror film in order to understand whether or not the film is progressive or reactionary. In other words, by understanding that the monster in horror films usually represents the Other, we can begin to recognize what is being repressed and/or who is being oppressed if the monster is being portrayed as sympathetic or innately evil – all of which is usually mediated by the narrative.

For example, in applying his formula to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, a film directed by one of the aforementioned hippie horror directors, Tobe Hooper, Wood recognizes that unlike previous horror films the monster does not represent the Other, but instead represents the bourgeois patriarchal family unit while normality is depicted as “quasi-liberated,” progressive youth. It is significant to note that though the film itself is progressive in its condemnation and critique of patriarchal society tearing apart youth and progression with a chainsaw, Wood’s experience watching the film with a theater full of teenagers who cheered at Leatherface destroying their counterparts was not a hopeful one. As he put it, the youth’s adulation of Leatherface’s actions:

expresses, with unique aspect of what the horror film has come to signify, the sense of a civilization condemning itself, through its popular culture, to ultimate disintegration, and ambivalently (with the simultaneous horror/wish fulfillment of nightmare) celebrating the fact.

As we move forward, it is important to recognize that two possible conflicting pleasures can emerge from even films with “progressive potential”: an indulgence in seeing socially restrictive norms or forces critiqued and/or an indulgence in sheer sadistic violence (sometimes in the form of revenge). Although Wood does not address female audiences, these conflicting possibilities are worth noting early and keeping in mind. there

Linda Williams addresses the issue of female viewership of the modern horror film directly, and though she does not cite Wood as an influence, she does make use of monsters in combination with Laura Mulvey’s theory of the “male gaze.” In Mulvey’s seminal essay, “Narrative Cinema and Visual Pleasure,” the feminist film theorist used psychoanalysis to argue that patriarchal narrative cinema is constructed exclusively for male audiences and their pleasure. As the Freudian argument goes, the female form and her absence, or lack of a penis, creates a castration anxiety for the male viewer. In order to “master” this anxiety, the cinema makes woman an object in one of two ways (as paraphrased by Williams): “a sadistic voyeurism which punishes or endangers woman through the agency of an active and powerful male character” or a “fetishistic overvaluation [scopophilia] which masters the threat of castration by investing the womanly body with an excess of aesthetic perfection.” Williams suggests then that in the early Universal monster films of the 1930s, which predate the modern horror film, women audiences are ultimately made privy to seeing their own lack or absence on the screen by recognizing the monster as a mirror to female monstrosity. The monster, like the woman, slows down time and disrupts the narrative as their introduction into the film regularly results in “show-stopping” entrances onto the screen. Furthermore, the monster threatens normative male power just as woman does in evoking castration anxiety. In fact, Williams points out that this parallel is literalized in the case of The Phantom of the Opera where the monster appears in a mirror image of Christine Daae.

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The Rise of Women in Horror Fandom and Film
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