Fear is Female: How Women Like Horror Movies

by Rosamund Lannin

The typical horror movie fan is often portrayed as a young, black-clad, white dude watching Saw on loop in his parents’ basement. Composite Horror Movie Fan is thrill-seeking at best, sociopathic at worst, and always a he. But I love horror movies. I’m a 30-something woman, who frequently receives blank looks when I wax poetic about The Devil’s Backbone.

But I am typical: a substantial number of women love horror movies, despite and sometimes because of their problematic executions.

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Sometime in late 2009, mainstream outlets realized women liked horror films. Diablo Cody’s campy and delightful Jennifer’s Body was making its way onto the screen, and with it came a collective dawning: “Name any recent horror hit and odds are that female moviegoers bought more tickets than men,” wrote Entertainment Weekly’s Christina Spines. [1] “And we’re not just talking about psychological spookfests like 2002’s The Ring (60 percent female), 2004’s The Grudge (65 percent female), and 2005’s The Exorcism of Emily Rose (51 percent female).” The New York Times concurred: “And yet recent box office receipts show that women have an even bigger appetite for these films than men.”[2]

And yet. There’s something legitimate behind that caveat. Horror movies are not kind to female bodies. Nubile young women are tied down, sliced up, chased across shadowy lawns in their underwear. You don’t really have to do much to be a casualty, either. Simply being a woman is innately fraught: Puberty is monstrous, pregnancy is demonic, and sexuality is punishable by death.

This essay examines horror from the perspective of gender; even a shallow dive into scary movies reveals serious sexism behind the pantheon of dead sluts, virginal Final Girls, and blonde body piles that populate many horror movies. And yet women love horror movies, warts and all. I wanted to know why, and how, and did anyone else pick up on the twist ending of Goodnight Mommy? I surveyed a group of women who love horror movies, looking for answers. The respondents did not disappoint, showing a fandom consuming the genre in a way not dictated by gender, yet unavoidably informed by it.

Neither this essay or my survey delves into the troubling racial dynamics in horror, but it is important to acknowledge them; even the casual horror fan knows people of color are the first to go.

The Survey

I surveyed a group of female horror fans to learn more from others like me. I’ve loved horror movies (and books, and comics, and the otherworldly The Nightmare Before Christmas soundtrack I played on repeat until my sister took the cassette to college) since I was very young, and despite perplexed reactions never saw it as irreconcilable with being a woman.

However, being a woman absolutely informs how I appreciate horror, and to some degree why I love it in the first place. Real-life experiences and research proved that I was not alone: Horror fans are often female. These facts made me hungry for a deeper understanding. I knew why my eyes flicked to the cover of Tremors in Blockbuster at age five (underground monsters!), or why I have trouble with Hostel now (the gore).

I am not everyone, but I knew I wasn’t alone. I wanted to get a sense of others’ experiences, in order to better understand the genre and its audience. Talking to other women seemed to be the logical next step. While gender identity, sexual orientation, and racial and ethnic status can make a difference in fandom of horror, I wanted to focus solely on one aspect of the fandom experience, capturing the experiences of women across the gender, sexual identity, and racial/ethnic spectrum.

Survey questions included:

  • What is your full name?
  • What is your age?
  • What is your occupation?
  • Can I quote you in the piece?
  • If I can quote you, what information can I use?
  • When did you start liking horror movies?
  • Why do you like horror movies?
  • As a woman, have you ever experienced a negative or confused reaction to being a horror movie fan?
  • Let’s be real – horror movies can be sexist. How do you reconcile your love of them with this?
  • Do you feel viewing horror movies as a woman/non-binary person provides a different perspective?
  • Any academic resources on this topic you’d recommend?
  • What’s your favorite scary movie?

I surveyed 44 women. Survey responses were sourced through Twitter, Facebook, and word of mouth, and are shared (sometimes with names) with their express permission. The survey was conducted online, using Google Forms. Respondents’ average age was 35.6. Occupations ranged from office manager to attorney to stay-at-home mother. All information, including quotes, was used with explicit permission.

Answers to the questions were equally varied, but spoke to a common truth: Women horror fans are legion, we pack box offices, and we are watching a genre not made for us and enjoying it in our own way.

The Heart and Guts of Loving Horror

Searching for the appeal behind films that traverse in boobs and blood, I explored popular theories behind horror movie love as well as common tropes, walking through how a female fanbase reacts and responds. To get to the core of this relationship, it made the most sense to start at the beginning: the love.

There are many theories behind horror movies’ appeal. A 2004 paper in the Journal of Media Psychology by Glenn Walters states that the three primary factors that make horror films alluring are tension, relevance, and unrealism. [3] Tension was the biggest reason for survey respondents, many of whom answered “Why do you like horror movies?” with variations on this theme:

“I like the tension that the mystery creates. What will happen? How will they get out of the situation? Oh, at the beginning there was a photo of a little girl holding a teddy bear, and now the ghost is attracted to teddy bears? Hmmm I wonder what that means?” (Juliana)

“The thrill and the anticipation are addicting. It gives me the same butterflies and excitement as if I am going on a roller coaster ride.” (Yana)

“It’s a way to deal with daily life struggles without any harm inflicted. It’s tension relief. Excitement. Allure!” (Kristin)

The last answer also plays into another common theme: catharsis, the rush you get from “surviving” a scary situation. Running parallel to this are the “daily struggles” referenced by Kristin and backed up by others such as Sarah, for whom horror movies are practice for real life:

“I think horror movies can act as a sort of rehearsal for truly frightening situations. You never really know how you’re going to react in the face of fear or danger until something horrible happens, and watching a scary movie is a way to walk up to the edge of the precipice and gaze into the depths without actually jumping.”

Sarah is not alone. Kirsten echoes similar sentiments: “…at its base, it’s a safe thrill; it assists with facing fears in a comfortable and non-threatening way.”

For Ingo, the fear rehearsal is specific:

“They let me experience fear outside of the everyday type of panic of wondering if every man I encounter will rape and kill me.”

Not all answers were so specific – some women were simply fascinated by dark and odd, channeling Beetlejuice’s Lydia Deetz with “a morbid fascination with strange things” (Andrea), “a curiosity for dark or unusual things” (Nicki), and “finding the beauty in darkness” (Heather). Neither were they strictly psychological: Respondents were often attracted to the artfulness of horror movies, citing special effects, visual appeal, and the flexibility and originality for which they are often praised. Laura summed it up well:

“Horror can be gory, or no gore at all. It can take place in a house, or the woods, under the sea, or in space. It can be funny, it can break your heart. There are rules yes, but breaking those rules is encouraged. More than any other genre, it seems to provide the most opportunities for creativity.”

Focusing on the primary answer of tension, one cannot help but look to the role less enjoyable forms of apprehension play in women’s daily life: increased stress levels [4], higher instances of anxiety disorders [5], Impostor Syndrome [6], fear of assault or rape. Why does a gender taught be hyperaware of real life fears choose to be frightened?

Perhaps for the same reason most people like horror movies, regardless of gender: It’s fun to be scared, even when (and maybe because) the world can be scary. A deeper answer may be found in the question itself: Fear is familiar to women, and because of that accessible. Women know what it’s like to scan for danger, to be cautious, to wait in the dark, if not literally then emotionally: to be female is to have intimate and daily experience with the fears that play out watching zombies, slashers, or little girls crawling out of sinks. Women can appreciate fear in both senses of the word: Fear is something we recognize, and something some of us choose. Watching a horror movie is an exercise in power – we choose and control that fear. We know fear better than most and are along for the ride, however bumpy.

Girls on Film: Misogyny in Scary Movies

I didn’t mince around horror’s misogyny with my core question: “Let’s be real – horror movies can be sexist. How do you reconcile your love of them with this?” The sexism in horror movies is well-established territory. Less explored is the half of the audience (or more) who watch their gender get murdered, raped, and more recently, triumph.

In recent decades, the concept of the Final Girl – the last woman to make it through the movie alive – has made it clear that women play a role beyond victim or scenery – the last woman alive is the hero.

In her book Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, author Carol Clover shows that men are here for the badass: she blows up the idea of the male viewer “sadistically watching the plight of a female victim”, acknowledging the gender-bending Final Girl as someone with whom young males (Clover’s assumed horror movie audience) can identify. [7] But what about the women watching Ripley take down the alien?

Per Donato Totaro, writing for film journal Offscreen, “Much auto-feminist criticism points to the fact that there is no pleasurable room for female spectatorship, or more directly, does not address how the horror film may speak to female empowerment.” [8] Clover seconds this:

“To applaud the Final Girl as a feminist development, as some reviews of Aliens have done with Ripley is, in light of her figurative meaning, a particularly grotesque expression of wishful thinking.”[9]

When examining horror movies, academics have traditionally left out the possibility of an interested female audience. Hollywood concurs: Debbie Liebling, former president for production at Fox Atomic (Turistas, Jennifer’s Body, The Hills Have Eyes 2) stated, “I’m not sure what the attraction is, psychologically, for females,” she said “I would love to know why girls are going to see Saw, because I have no idea.”[10]

Jennifer’s Body Director Diablo Cody had an answer similar to many survey respondents: it’s thrilling to see yourself not only represented, but winning. More specifically: “When I watched movies like The Goonies and E.T., it was boys having adventures. When I watched Nightmare on Elm Street, it was Nancy beating Freddy. It was that simple.” [2]

Less simple is the sexism. Respondents’ motives for enjoying horror were fairly clear; how they dealt with or ignored gender representation less so. Almost no one pushed back on the idea that horror movies were sexist, though a few stated that they were just like any other movie or form of media, saying, “[Horror movies are] no different than other movies,” and “They’re just entertainment.”

These women were the minority. In general, respondents did feel their experiences as their gender played into watching habits. When asked whether they felt viewing horror movies as a woman provided a different perspective, only two out of the 44 gave a definitive “No.”

Debbie Liebling of Fox Atomic understood one thing: a substantial number of the women surveyed were less likely to seek out Saw, The Human Centipede, Hostel, or other movies with graphic depictions with a distinct mixture of torture and sexual violence. Laura, 30, was blunt: “I hate the [those types of] movies. That’s just gross.”

Others echoed similar sentiments. Rape, violence, gratuitous nudity, and punishment for sexuality were also cited as reasons to not see specific films. However, avoidance was not the only strategy – and sometimes, not even the only strategy for the same person.

Beyond the Final Girl: Representation and Expectations of Women in Horror

Laura may not want to watch Jigsaw’s trap-laced palace of pain, but also stated:

“And yes, horror movies are totally sexist, but I’d also argue you often have a strong female lead who outlasts the killer. They often pass the Bechdel test, and a woman survives a mass murderer/psycho/whatever.”

“Horror can be empowering for women,” said Andrea. “For every female victim, there’s a female fighter — sometimes they are one in the same (take I Spit on Your Grave for example).”

Laura had similar feelings: “There are so many classic examples of the lone survivor being female, often not a badass, trained or imbued with supernatural powers. An ordinary girl, who somehow survived and beats the odds. I really like that.”

Although some researchers were perplexed the Final Girl’s allure, it cannot be denied: throughout responses, she was recognized again and again. Carol Clover coined the term, but the Final Girl existed both before and after Men, Women, and Chainsaws. Erik Pipenburg summarizes her history:

“Originating in the early 1970s as a sexless ‘good’ girl, usually with a masculine name like Chris, she survived more by luck than by aggression. Fast forward to 1984, when “A Nightmare on Elm Street” introduced a proactive final girl who booby-trapped her home to catch Freddy Krueger. A game changer arrived in 1996, when the winking “Scream” featured an in-control final girl who knew what a final girl was.” [11]

The Final Girl takes out the bad guys. She’s brave and smart, or at the very least tough. The Final Girl is a pivotal development for gender roles in horror: a woman is no longer a passive victim, but the hero. The audience roots for her. She gets a lot of screen time and makes good use of it, punching through doors, jumping off roofs, and after taking out Chop Top, wielding a chainsaw over her head in a primal, bloody victory dance. A woman is the focus of the film, and she’s winning. Her appeal is understandable–and for Laura and many others, undeniable.  But not everyone felt this way. Although familiar, the Final Girl was not always loved.

The Final Girl is powerful, but she’s also usually young, attractive, presumably heterosexual (demonstrated via boyfriend or male love interest), and white. She’s not only stereotypical but also one-dimensional, skipping over many realities of being female.

Nicki was quick to point out the often-cited downsides of this trope:

“If you don’t have sex, you’re probably a bookworm and will have a chance at being the ‘final girl’. As a woman watching, I know that myself and other women are way more complex than that, and therefore, there are other ways to navigate through a horror film.”

According to many responses, those “other ways” are grounded in awareness and analysis – in accepting the sexism as a part of the genre, but not something acceptable overall. More simply put, some women will enjoy movies that are imperfect, and use the problematic elements as opportunity for reflection, discussion, and perspective. They know what they’re getting into, the absurdity and misogyny: a respondent who loves older films called out the common “cowering young blonde, about to be raped by boyfriend — and often, that trope is a total non sequitur from the actual ‘horror’ plot!”

And yet, that does not stop them. “As a woman, you always have to approach horror movies knowing there’s a possibility that mean, slutty girl (truly, my fave archetype) is going to get a pole through her head for not being more virginal,” said Hale. “Sexism drips into literally every movie genre, but the conversations you have around pieces are what allows them to grow.”

In examining the ways women accept, reject, or work around horror’s sexism, another theme began to emerge: a new breed of scary movie, and with it a new type of girl.

A Changing Lens: Women Take the Camera

Babadook. Babadook. Babadook.

Survey responses were peppered with nods to 2014’s The Babadook, which centers on a single mother, her young son, and The Babadook, a monster summoned through a children’s book. Psychological, emotional, and clever, it blurs the line between fantasy and reality, monsters mental and supernatural. Critically acclaimed by both reviewers and audiences, it holds steady at 98% on RottenTomatoes.com. It has been dubbed a new horror classic  – the director of The Exorcist declared it “the most terrifying film I’ve ever seen.” [12] The Babadook is notable for something else, too: it was directed by Jennifer Kent and features heroine Amelia Vanek, played by Essie Davis.

Jennifer and Amelia are rarities. Jennifer is a woman directing a horror film, and Amelia is core to the plot without wielding a bloody axe. A mere 13% of all American movie directors are female. [13] Even being generous, it’s safe to say the number of female horror directors is very low. The lead is emotional, vulnerable, and traditionally feminine, neither Final Girl nor dead bombshell. Without spoiling the plot, it is safe to say she triumphs.

Given horror’s the genre’s treatment of women on- and off-camera, the scarcity of Jennifers and Amelias may not come as a surprise. Respondents’ answers confirmed that fandom and being female are still considered an odd pairing. When asked, whether they had ever experienced a negative or confused reaction to being a horror movie fan, responses were mixed.

Negative feedback took different forms. Aimee called out that it wasn’t just being female: “Yes, some of them treat women and minorities pretty badly.”

Sometimes fans were treated like Fake Geek Girls – women pretending to have an interest for male attention – and because of this their fandom was suspect. Jaclyn explained:

“Like I don’t know enough or…this director’s first film, things like that. If you are a woman who is a fan of something traditionally male oriented, you better know everything you can otherwise you will be dismissed as a fake or a phony.”

Other times negative reactions were based in role confusion – that one couldn’t be a caregiver and enjoy Hellraiser. Andrea describes how motherhood intensified reactions: “Sure, especially now that I have kids.” she said. “A lot of people ask if I am going to let my kids watch ‘stuff like that.’ I just laugh it off, as I do most commentary regarding my parenting style.”

It is not uncommon for women interested in horror to be viewed as a curiosity. The same can be said about being a horror movie director – or indeed, a director of any kind. Horror shoehorns women at both ends, sending a message about who women are, and by extension, who should make things.

Fortunately, outsider status doesn’t stop women from liking horror, or from making it. The Babadook is not an isolated incident so much as a natural progression. Well before Jennifer’s Body, women have been directing, writing, and producing films with complex female characters, fresh stories, and new takes on old legends. From the werewolf-menstruation mythology in Ginger Snaps (screenplay by Karen Walton) and the terrifying journey of the body In My Skin (directed by Marina de Van), to the black comedy Ravenous (directed by Antonia Bird), female-led horror has paved the way for Amelia to battle the grief-demon that is Mister Babadook – and women to love her for it.

Male directors are also exploring a diversity of female experience within a horror framework. Along with The Babadook, titles like The Witch, It Follows, The Orphanage came back as answers to “What’s your favorite scary movie?” The Witch follows the story of a young Puritan girl that turns to the devil, tells a story that occurred in the past, and continues to inform the future. In her essay, “The Real Horror at the Heart of ‘The Witch,” Anne Helen Petersen states: “It might be a period piece, with accents and ways of speech and superstitions seemingly alien to our own, but the mythologization and misunderstanding that surrounds the maturing female body — somehow that hasn’t changed in more than 300 years.” Lauded by critics as “deeply unsettling,” “stimulating and rewarding,” and “sticky with tangible detail and numinous with suggestion,” the feminine appeal of The Witch is clear: by delving into the reality of women’s experiences, horror becomes scary in a way that is new, thrilling, and real.

Final Question

Answers to “What’s your favorite scary movie?” varied. Not all chose modern, female-centric horror. In fact, most didn’t. Answers ran the gamut, citing everything from The Witch, to The Blair Witch Project, and to The Thing, to The Haunting, to Hellraiser to, and Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Hellraiser came up more than once, as did such classics as Suspiria, Nightmare on Elm Street, and Evil Dead. Interestingly, women in these films are Final Girls at best, victims at worst, or sometimes not a consideration at all. But as previous questions revealed, sexism is often intertwined with the thrill, the beauty, the risk – what draws women to horror in the first place.

It’s possible to love something that doesn’t always treat you fairly. For some women, that meant accepting horror’s treatment of female characters for what it is. For others, it means avoiding watching certain movies. But for many, it means staring the sexism in the face like the killer inside the house, and unpacking the meaning behind the messages. As horror movies move slowly towards female creatorship and nuanced portrayals of girls and women, it will be fascinating to see how the audience relationship develops – how women respond to the new face of fear.

 

Sources

[1] Spines, Christine. “Chicks Dig Scary Movies.” EW.com. July 24, 2009. http://www.ew.com/article/2009/07/24/chicks-dig-scary-movies

[2] Orange, Michelle. “Taking Back the Knife: Girls Gone Gory.” The New York Times. September 03, 2009. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/06/movies/06oran.html

[3] Griffiths, Mark D. “Why Do We Like Watching Scary Films?” Psychology Today. October 29, 2015. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/in-excess/201510/why-do-we-watching-scary-films

[4] “Gender and Stress.” American Psychological Association. 2010. http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2010/gender-stress.aspx.

[5] Pigott, Teresa A. “Anxiety Disorders in Women.” Psychiatric Clinics of North America 26, no. 3 (2003): 621-72. doi:10.1016/s0193-953x(03)00040-6.

[6] Clance, Pauline R., and Suzanne A. Imes. “The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention.” Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice 15, no. 3 (2003): 241+. doi:10.1037/h0086006.

[7] “Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film Paperback – March 22, 1993.” Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film: Carol J. Clover: 9780691006208

[8] Totaro, Donato. “The Final Girl: A Few Thoughts on Feminism and Horror.” Offscreen. January 2002. http://offscreen.com/view/feminism_and_horror. Volume 6, Issue 1

[9] Clover, Carol J. Men Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. London: BFI, 1992. p. 53

[10] Stewart, Dodai. “Why Do Women Like Horror Movies?” Jezebel. September 08, 2009. http://jezebel.com/5354757/why-do-women-like-horror-movies.

[11] Piepenburg, Erik. “In Horror Films, the ‘Final Girl’ Is a Survivor to the Core.” New York Times. October 22, 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/25/movies/in-horror-films-the-final-girl-is-a-survivor-to-the-core.html.

[12] Child, Ben. “The Babadook Is the Scariest Film I’ve Ever Seen, Says Exorcist Director.” The Guardian. December 02, 2014.  https://www.theguardian.com/film/2014/dec/02/the-babadook-scariest-film-exorcist-william-friedkin.

[13] PostOpinions. com. “At the Multiplex, It’s Still Overwhelmingly a Man’s World.” The Washington Post. 2014. HighBeam Research. (October 9, 2016). https://www.highbeam.com/doc/1P2-35795481.html

[14] Petersen, Anne Helen. “The Real Horror At The Heart Of “The Witch”” BuzzFeed. February 24, 2016. https://www.buzzfeed.com/annehelenpetersen/teen-girls-are-terrifying

 

Rosamund Lannin reads and writes in Chicago. When not hosting lady live lit show Miss Spoken, she’s over at HelloGiggles, Extra Crispy, and everywhere pancakes and essays intersect. Daily dispatches @rosamundlannin.