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Feminist Horror Film Theory: the 1970s-1980s

The rise of Slasher Horror was originally seen as a backlash against the feminist movement, especially in America. Critical discussion of gender roles within these films were basically discussion on the one-dimensional characters and the subjugation, sexual objectification and brutal murder of female characters.

The theory during the 1970s and 80s was that the motivation for the crazed psycho killer, was the negative feelings that he associated with a relationship with a woman. This woman was most commonly his mother, sister or a romantic interest who has rejected him. This can be seen in films such as Psycho (1960), who has some serious issues with his mother, or Halloween (1978), in which the killer is incited by his sister's neglect. Thus the female (the individual and the gender as a whole) is blamed for his rage, as well as becoming the victim of that rage. The female is thus seen as entirely responsible for the creation of the rage and is punished throughout the film for its creation. She is also indirectly responsible for the death of male characters within the film as they are victims of the rage she incited.

There is also the obvious issue of victimization. But using this argument to claim that horror films repressed women was seen as at worst - incorrect - and at best - simplistic - by most, even in the 70s and 80s horror films were seen to be the enemy of females everywhere. To argue that women are victimized in horror films overlooks the usually equal or proportionate number of males who also meet their, usually grisly, end.

On top of this, many argued that the largely male audience of these films were sexually aroused by the bloody deaths of these women, and that this arousal was caused and/or heightened by cinematic techniques such as camera angles, lighting etc. The film positions women who are sexually active as deserving of punishment. The murder of these women is often shot from the murder's point of view or the "gaze shot" - thus forcing the audience to participate in the murderer's voyeurism. The crime of the female victim is her arousal of the killer and the males in the audience. This theory springs from the perception of the masculine voyeur (whom the viewer identifies with - according to 70s/80s theories) vs. the feminine victim (who is being looked at, by both the murderer and the male gaze of the audience).

The feminist theory around horror films was, at this time, relatively short sighted. It called for positive image of women in from of the camera. It occasionally used psychoanalytical theory to show that women were being subjugated in these films, but did not recognise that it was these underlying patriarchal structures that needed to be changed. In the late 80s and early 90s, feminist theorist started to call upon more than just positive female images to change the patriarchal structure of film narrative. Instead, they realised that the semiotics, narrative structure, and psychoanalysis all must be used in order to confront patriarchal undertones in a film. This was a realisation that came throughout feminist theory - not just in the area of horror theory. Whilst this realisation enabled areas of feminist theory (film and non-film) to advance further, it would soon become irrelevant for horror studies.

Feminist Horror and the 1990s: Carol Clover - A God among Women

In 1992, Carol Clover published Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film - and it revolutionized the landscape of feminist horror film theory. One of her most important contributions was the Final Girl Theory. Clover does not argue that every horror film is a feminist one. Instead, she argues that the genre is not the epitome of misogyny as previously thought. Clover asks not "Is there violence depicted against women?" but why violence is depicted, by whom, against whom, and whom does it create sympathy for? Below, in list format, I have attempted to break down Clover's arguments for the benefit of people who are not film academics.

1. Audience Identification: Clover questioned who the audience identifies with. Previously, it was assumed that the largely male author identified with the male killer. Instead, Clover argues that the audience identifies with the final girl. Whereas a female audience member is seen to be more fluid in her identification, a male audience member usually identifies with the male onscreen. The horror film is able to prevent this as a result of the gender fluidity of both the villian and the Final Girl (aka the Girl-Victim-Hero). Thus, the viewer identifies with the fright of being attacked, as opposed to the gratification or satisfaction of the murderer as he attacks.

2. Gender Fluidity and/or Repressed Sexuality of the Murderer: This links the murderer with the final girl and stops the male audience from identifying with the character.

Psycho (1960) : Norman Bates dresses as his mother to commit his crimes.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) : Leatherface kills women and turns their skin into female masks. His face thus became female.

Nightmare on Elm Street (1984): Freddy Krueger was the result of a brutal rape. In the school where he worked as a janitor he took children down to the basement and molested them.

Halloween (1978): Meyers kills in response to his sister having sex. He uses a phallic weopon to deal with his repressed sexuality. Deleuzian analysis also portrays him as having the mindset of a pre-pubescent girl.

Sleepaway Camp (1991): The killer is biologically male but was raised as a female by his mother who wanted a little girl.

3. Gender Fluidity of the Final Girl: This enables the final girl to be identified with by the male-dominated audience. The final girl is the only one of her friends who has masculine traits and is often similar to an adolescent boy.

"The Final Girl, on reflection, is a congenial double for the adolescent male. She is feminine enough to act out in a gratifying way, a way unapproved for adult males, the terrors and masochistic pleasures of the underlying fantasy, but not so feminine as to disturb the structures of female competence and sexuality" (Clover, pg. 51)
She remains virginal and pure whilst her friends pair off and have sex (anyone who has sex in the woods or a car must die in a horror film). Her name is often androgynous or at least not traditionally feminine (Stretch, Parker, Laurie, Sydney). Essentially, the final girl is the one to make it to the end of the film. She is the bookworm, the mechanic, the non-sexual female, the female who possesses the qualities of Freud's women-as-castrated-male theory.

4. Horror and Homogeneity: In horror films, those who dare to stray outside the bounds of conservatism are the first to be murdered. The slutty female, those who get drunk, those who use drugs, those who have sex before marriage. The final girl escapes because she does not partake in these symbols of adult life. She is stuck in a pre-pubescent state. She does not have sex, get drunk, take drugs. Horror films can be seen as a conservative genre, where the killer is eradicating those who act outside socially acceptable parameters.

5. The Final Girl: Empowered Woman or Damsel in Distress: Pre 90s feminist theorists saw the Sallys, Sydneys and Stretchs of the cinematic world as damsels in distress, women who needed rescuing, victims of masculine rage - essentially unempowered women. Clover argued that the Final Girl fought back. She traced the development of the Final Girl from Lila Crane, her first incarnation in Psycho to Stretch in Texas Chainsaw Massacre II. Clover doesn't argue that these are feminist representations of women, rather that they are not victims of the patriarchy.

Lila Crane, Psycho (1960): Lila figures out the mystery, placing her one step ahead of her male counterparts. When Bates attacks her, she is not given the chance to fight back as she is almost immediately rescued. This is ending A.

Sally Hardesty, Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974): Whilst Sally does very little to actually fight back. Yet she continues to escape death and mutilation for a third of the film. She runs, screams, sustains injuries and escapes her would-be killers for thirty minutes before making it to a highway where she is rescued. As Clover states, "her will to survive is astonishing" (Clover, Pg. 36). (Ending A)

Laurie Strode, Halloween (1978): The first girl to fight back, Laurie stabs her attacker with a knitting needle. Thinking he is dead, she relaxes. When he rises again, she retreats to the closet and lashes the doors closed. Whilst he breaks down the door, she turns a coathanger into a weopon. She stabs him again. She sends the children for help. Meyers (almost unbelievably), rises yet again, when Dr. Loomis, alerted by the children, shoots him in the back. This combines Ending A (she is saved), with Ending B (she fights back).

Ginny Field, Friday 13th Pt II (1981): The Final Girl uses her knowledge of child psychology to convince Jason that she is his mother. She puts on the sweater from Jason's shrine to his mother's decapitated head, and tells him to "Listen to Mother". Once he becomes submissive, she is able to escape.

Nancy Thompson, A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984): Nancy knows Krueger is coming for her, so she sets up an elaborate trap which knocks her killer around. When he comes to, she chases him around the house with a chair.

Vantia (Stretch) Brock, Texas Chainsaw Massacre Pt II (1986): The film ends with Stretch chasing Leatherface up a mountain and slashing him open with his own chainsaw. She then stands, framed by the sunshine, waving the chainsaw overhead in triumph.


Carol Clover, Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender and the Modern Horror Film , (London; BFI Publishing, 1992)

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