CU Boulder sociology instructor Laura Patterson details how feminism is influencing female roles in horror films, expanding them far beyond the ‘damsel in distress’ trope
Halloween may be over, but it’s still not safe to return to Camp Crystal Lake.
Even as we put away the costumes and pack up the skeleton decorations, things are still going bump in the night. It’s a spooky time of year and a scary time to be at the movie theater, with It’s a Wonderful Knife opening last Friday and Thanksgiving opening Friday (don’t be fooled by the title—it involves a brutal murderer dressed as a pilgrim).
And what about the women in horror circa 2023? Are they still tripping through the woods in impractical shoes, screaming for the help that may or may not come? Whimpering behind flimsy doors and hoping to be saved by a man? Or has horror finally discovered feminism?
In recent years, the genre has become a place to explore feminist themes and redefine the roles of women within its narratives, revealing its potential to challenge, reinforce or even redefine traditional gender roles, says University of Colorado Boulder researcher Laura Patterson.
It is this potential that has fascinated Patterson, an instructor in the Department of Sociology who has long been interested in the sociology of horror. She even co-hosts a podcast examining the sociological implications of horror films called Collective Nightmares.
Patterson recently spoke with Colorado Arts and Sciences Magazine about feminist tropes in horror movies, how female characters have evolved beyond screaming and crying for help and the recent uptick in feminist representation throughout the genre.
Question: What got you into horror movies?
Patterson: I've loved horror as far back as I can remember, but my favorite thing about horror films, and why I really like to watch them, is because it's an art form that's devoted to looking at how we as a collective navigate the worst parts of our lives. I think there's a need for a space to artistically express the worst things that happen to us.
We have plenty of movies about happy, wonderful things, but that doesn't do a whole lot to help us deal with the deepest, darkest things that we must face in our lives. Horror is a great place to play around with these ideas, and to give us some place for cultural conversation about some of the hardest stuff that we must face. Through looking at these issues, horror movies can do a really great job of making us feel empathy and realize what it's like for people going through situations that are very difficult.
On that same note, the visceral reaction that the genre evokes in us can be helpful for making moral arguments. If we watch something and we're aghast at what's happening on the screen, that can really be a good emotional place to come from if you're trying to have a conversation about actual injustice that’s happening in our society.
Question: Does this make horror movies controversial?
Patterson: Horror often skirts the boundaries of what we find acceptable to talk about. There’s this dual idea that we're aghast at seeing something, and yet at the same time it's a very real problem that we’re facing in our society, is what makes horror sit at an interesting place in being able to address those sensitive issues.
Rape-revenge is a really great example of a corner of the genre because it’s a very prevalent cultural problem that we face. In some cases, rape-revenge horror films can be done well and make strong moral arguments to try and shine a light on a situation that's negatively impacting our society on a vast scale, but it's also something that can be done as exploitation.
By digging into topics that are the types of things we like to tend to look away from in our society, there's a lot of room for very meaningful conversation, but there's also room for very harmful conversation as well.
Question: How has feminism influenced the evolution of female portrayal in horror?
Patterson: We can look at two female character tropes: the victim-turned-final-girl and the villain.
When you're looking at gender, according to Carol Clover, the character you're watching in the film doesn't cry and cower and run because they’re a woman—but rather, because the character is going to cry and cower and run, that character is made a woman. Gender gets imposed in certain roles. If you're watching a film where you've got a victim and the victim is going to be fleeing the monster, our society is more comfortable seeing a woman in that role because we don't want to see a man crying and cowering and running.
If you look at some of the early final girls, such as Laurie Strode in Halloween, there's a very classic ending to that film in that she can't quite save herself. She's the last one standing; she’s fighting and taking on this monster but in the last second needs a man to step in to kill the villain.
When slasher films really started to emerge in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, you see the final girl shift from that to someone who can save herself. She doesn't need a man to step in and save her. Carol Clover, who coined the notion of the final girl, made a point to say that the final girl is not some sort of feminist icon. The final girl came at a time when our society was ready to see a woman taking care of herself in film, and that is at least somewhat a result of feminist movements. To some extent, the final girl represents a society that’s able to see a woman as a self-savior.
Question: You mentioned women as villains; can feminism inform that role, too?
Patterson: I think the way that we villainize women is important to look at. Women tend to be villainized in horror films in very stereotypical ways that usually revolves around their sexuality, puberty or reproductive functioning.
You could think about something like Monster, where Charlize Theron plays a serial killer. It's done differently because you don't just take what would have been a male serial killer and put a woman there. I think that film presents her differently; it doesn't just recreate that old trope, but also, it's not this sort of monstrous feminine portrayal that we see.
On some level, you can look at female villains as some kind of feminist progress. At the same time, the way that's done, it's often been done very stereotypically and that reflects problematic aspects of the patriarchy. For more on this, see Barbara Creed’s notion of the monstrous feminine.
Question: Should people continue watching these movies that perpetuate a patriarchal perspective?
Patterson: I don't think it means we shouldn't watch them, but I think it means we should watch them with our eyes open. Horror films in general give us a space to talk about the bad things that are going on in our society. Horror serves, at some level, as a mirror; it reflects to us what our society thinks is good and bad, and how our society characterizes people as victims and villains. That can be useful to think about. If we look in that mirror and we see something that we don’t like—we see that monstrous feminine portrayal, or women being victimized in a way that feels like exploitation—I think that it’s important that we look at our society and think about how we could do this differently.
I think it can be problematic when these films are consumed without thought going into that, because this messaging is getting into your brain whether you’re paying attention to it or not. You’ve got to be careful and think about what sort of messaging is being sent, and what does that say in the broader sense.
Oftentimes students in my class who don't like horror films but are interested in the topic, sometimes they come back to me and say that they’re no longer scared of the villain of the film but instead fear what the film is telling us about the society we live in.
Question: Now more than ever we've been seeing more filmmakers on the forefront of this feminist movement; what would be some names or recommendations of movies to keep an eye out for?
Patterson: Here’s a short list of recommendations for you:
Promising Young Woman–Emerald Fennell
Black Christmas (2019)–Sophia Takal