Women and chainsaws: Feminism and horror films


By: Max Liebel

NIAGARA UNIVERSITY, N.Y.-  With halloween fast approaching, many of us will head to the theatre or put our favorite horror films on to celebrate the holiday season. Now the first thing may you think of when sitting down to watch a horror film probably is not that it may have a feminist subtext. Film scholars for decades have dissected how female representation, in slasher films specifically, deal with female oppression and empowerment. 

To understand feminism in horror, we must first look at the common tropes of horror through a critical lens. Slasher films generally are the most consistent in their tropes. The monster or killer is usually a male with a phallic-like weapon and his victims are usually, but not always, promiscuous teenage girls. These antagonists tend to be sub-textually sexually frustrated or deviant, and are typically defeated by what film theorists have deemed “the final girl.”

This notion of “the final girl” has become a staple in feminist film theory. This girl is usually the main protagonist of the film, she is the most intelligent, and most aware of the present danger throughout the film. She will ultimately be the undoing of the monster or serial killer by outsmarting him or using his own weapon against him. The original “final girl” is usually pointed towards Jamie Lee Curtis’ character, Laurie Strode in the classic slasher “Halloween.” Curtis plays an all-American girl, who doesn’t drink, smoke and presumably not as promiscuous as her friends in the film. Throughout the film she is stalked by a masked figure, Michael Myers, who was incarcerated for murdering his sister at the age of six. Laurie manages to consistently outsmart Myers and not fall victim to him like her friends.

However, feminist film theory is not reserved only for slasher films. Usually haunted house films, or possession films deal with similar subtexts. In poltergeist films, we tend to see a female lead being possessed by some form of demonic entity. Or a family’s house is haunted by an evil entity, challenging the matriarch of the family to fight for her household and regain control. A perfect example of this is “The Exorcist,” where we see a young Regan possessed by a demon named “Mr. Howdy,” leaving her single mother to find a way to save her daughter from this grotesque oppressive male entity. The sexual oppression and male deviancy is blatant and graphic in this film. I highly recommend it if you have an interest in dissecting feminist film theory, but viewer discretion is advised.   

The horror genre has often been ahead of the game when it comes to social commentary. It seems to be in its very nature. Regardless of medium, when you have an entity of any sort stalking, oppressing or attacking a certain demographic of victims, the social commentary is always just below the surface. So the next time you head to the theater to catch the latest horror movie, keep these notes in mind. 

Feature Image: “Knife In Pumpkin” by chauvi is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 

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