5 Surprisingly Feminist Horror Movies
Horror movies aren't typically where you go for progressive politics, seeing as how many of them are about helpless girls screaming at things, often while naked. Still, a lot of the classics in the genre do a better job of tackling women's issues than most, even if they rarely get credit for it. Like how ...
The Shining Is About A Woman Trapped In An Abusive Situation
Stephen King famously disliked the portrayal of Wendy Torrance in Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of The Shining. Along with hating pretty much everything else in the movie, he kind of hilariously called her a "screaming dishrag" and said she was "the most misogynistic character ever put on film" due to her meekness, shouting, and crying.
But while I'm loath to argue with the guy who invented the damn character, Wendy's "meekness" is actually quite realistic for a victim of domestic abuse. We have this fantasy of a "tough" woman who immediately storms out rather than put up with her abuser's nonsense. The reality is a whole lot of women who, like Wendy, are trapped by circumstance.
At the beginning of the film, Wendy generally avoids doing anything to upset her husband. She makes excuses for Jack's violence against their son Danny, and is the only one who actually takes care of the Overlook Hotel, so that Jack can spend time on writing and his new hobby of slowly getting possessed by ghosts.
When Jack yells at her, Wendy accepts it without fighting back. She clings to her faith in the idea of a traditional marriage, wherein the man makes decisions and provides for the family. Who is she to question him? Meanwhile, Jack takes out his shame for his decisions on Wendy, and blames her for preventing him from being successful. You could take the ghosts, telepathy, and haunted hotel out of the story, and it'd probably be scarier.
In the end, the movie is terrifying because it puts us in Wendy and Danny's shoes, making us feel trapped in a way that so many abuse victims do, with Wendy throwing herself in between the abuser and their child when all outside help fails. She's not Hollywood's idea of a "strong woman" (a sassy expert in martial arts and/or bladed combat). Instead she's a regular person who tries desperately to maintain some sense of normalcy, right up until it's time to risk everything and get the hell out of there.
The Silence Of The Lambs' Subplots Are All About Institutional Sexism
At the end of Silence Of The Lambs, Hannibal Lecter calls Special Agent Clarice Starling to tell her that he's "having an old friend for dinner." The entree in question is Dr. Chilton, his condescending psychiatrist. And even though cannibalism and Lecter's puns are horrific, this scene doesn't elicit the response of "Oh nooooo," because Dr. Chilton is probably the least likable character in the movie, including the other serial killer and the guy who throws semen at people.
From the beginning, Dr. Chilton is smarmy and gross. He immediately hits on Starling when he meets her, and insinuates that her job is to elicit Lecter's sexual attraction. He even tries to take credit for her work after the Buffalo Bill case is closed. This is a running theme throughout the movie, even if what people primarily remember is Hannibal pressing his face to the glass to talk about fava beans and Chianti.
The very first time we see Clarice, she's pulling herself up an obstacle course designed for men, then hustling through the halls of FBI headquarters, heading into an elevator to go meet her boss. This is the shot:
Hey, I didn't say the symbolism was subtle. Dr. Chilton isn't the only person who hits on Starling at work. The moth expert guy does it too, and even Crawford, her mentor, has a strange protective approach that seems to go beyond the professional (Dr. Lecter taunts Clarice with this, asking if she thinks Crawford fantasizes about her). Everywhere the two of them go, Clarice is made acutely aware that she doesn't belong.
"Don't you feel eyes moving over your body, Clarice?" Dr. Lecter asks her, knowing damn well that she does. He suggests that people will think that the pair of them are in love, then creepily caresses her finger when he passes her a case file. She endures all of this -- including the aforementioned semen-throwing -- in the name of saving another woman who's been kidnapped and faces death.
There is plenty to criticize about the story featuring a serial killer who is seemingly driven to murder by gender identity issues, and the franchise as a whole leans into the idea that people with mental illnesses are terrifying and dangerous. Still, it's hard to find a movie in the "Guy Wears A Severed Human Face As A Mask" genre in which the real antagonist is sexism.
The Witch Is About How Women Get Turned Into Outcasts
When we see the first witch in The Witch, she isn't what many would call a "role model." She kidnaps and slaughters a baby, so it's not exactly a #careergoals situation. The main character is a young woman who (spoiler) eventually joins the witch out in the woods, and the film is dedicated to showing how the suffocatingly strict Puritan society makes such a life seem appealing.
For Thomasin, who lives with her outcast family on the edge of the woods, the guilt-trippy, rigidly patriarchal structure sucks. Her days consist of hard physical labor, and she's also expected to take care of her three younger siblings, some of whom are almost comically awful. If they step out of line or get kidnapped by witches (equal chance of both), she's the one who gets blamed.
She also has no agency, as her parents are considering marrying her into a family of complete strangers. Her father William can't do anything helpful besides chop endless piles of wood, and it's implied that his stubborn, manly pride is what's to blame for the family's misfortunes. He's like a sitcom dad who refuses to ask for directions, only instead of a laugh track you get the bleats of a demonic goat.
Meanwhile, Thomasin's mother Katherine has internalized a whole bunch of toxic ideas that keep her from being much help. She's clearly a bit threatened by Thomasin, and believes that her daughter is entirely responsible for the sexual urges of the men in her family. So when her eldest son Caleb starts getting boners all over the place and begins staring down his sister's shirt, she blames it on Thomasin as well.
All of this culminates in a representation of the Devil approaching Thomasin and asking her to sign her name in his book. And based on all the shit Thomasin has had to put up with so far, it's kind of hard for her to refuse. When the goat asks her, "Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?" her answer is amazingly not "Nope, I'm living my best life." The film ends with Thomasin dancing naked in the woods with her new witch friends, and as a viewer, it's hard not to say, "Yeah, this is a substantial improvement for her."
We Need To Talk About Kevin Portrays The Guilt Of Raising A Troubled Child
In We Need To Talk About Kevin, main character Eva has to cope with the aftermath of her teenage son going on a killing spree. The film shows us incidents from the psychotic Kevin's entire upbringing, portraying him as spiteful and violent almost from birth. And even though Kevin is the kind of kid who will deliberately shit his pants just to spite his mother, Eva -- and the community -- all seem to agree that his crimes are ultimately her fault.
This is because Eva doesn't particularly enjoy mothering Kevin, turning every scene in the movie into a masterclass on guilt. She never really bonds with him, and her frustration leads her to do some pretty sketchy stuff, like taking him to a construction site as a baby to drown out his screaming. After Kevin goes on his rampage, the blame is laid squarely on Eva. Her home gets vandalized and she quietly scrubs away the paint. When a stranger literally slaps her in the face, she doesn't even get angry -- it's clear that she feels like she earned it.
At every turn, Eva is utterly alone in this struggle. Kevin is spiteful and relishes his own cruelty. He gleefully rejects every attempt by his mother to get on good terms with him. He's constantly manipulative, and knows that if his mom loses control, he can suck up to his clueless dad (played by John C. Reilly, a man who has turned being a clueless middle-aged dude into an art form).
So when Eva screams at Kevin that she'd rather be in France than be his mother, most audience members can't keep from thinking, "You know what? Fair." Yet when Kevin does the unthinkable, Eva can't help but think back on every time she lost patience with him, reliving every failure to be the perfect nurturing mother that society demands.
Side note: This film could scientifically be classified as birth control.
Rosemary's Baby Explores How Women Are Conditioned To Doubt Themselves
Rosemary's Baby is a classic horror film about a pregnant woman who (spoiler) finds out the father of the baby is the Devil himself. But the creepiest thing about the film isn't the threat of the demon baby. It isn't even the cult of badly dressed old people whose only hobby is impregnating random women with the bringer of the apocalypse. No, the creepiest thing about the film is actually Rosemary's husband, Guy.
Although he's supposed to be the one she can trust the most, Guy actively manipulates Rosemary into literally doubting her senses. He and the Satan Crew gaslight her until they have total control, and are even disturbingly successful in convincing her to disregard her instincts about her own pregnancy. They're the second-worst things to ever happen to advice about childcare, after the internet.
This begins the very night Rosemary gets satanically knocked up. She eats a totally-not-suspicious dessert prepared by her sinister neighbors, and doesn't want to finish it because of the bad aftertaste (it's laced with drugs intended to incapacitate her). But instead of going "OK, more for me," Guy gets unreasonably annoyed and tries to argue with her, insisting that she can't taste anything. The attempt to convince Rosemary that she didn't detect something on her own tongue foreshadows her treatment for the remainder of the film.
When Rosemary becomes pregnant, it only gets worse. She's constantly in pain, and loses weight rather than gaining it. But every time she expresses concern, she's told she's being paranoid. She's told to stop reading books, to stop talking to her friends -- basically, to stop trying to have any opinion at all about her own body.
So Rosemary suffers for months, and it isn't until she actually reads a book and gets to talk to her female friends that she realizes that duh, she doesn't actually have to ask her doctor's permission to have control over herself. It's a study in the confidence gap in women, and how even non-Satanic people can assume women are always crazy or hysterical. It a portrait of how easy it is for women to lose control over their own bodies.
For more, check out 4 Terrifying Psychology Lessons Behind Famous Movie Monsters - After Hours:
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