The supernatural and the female body: How the portrayal of women has changed in horror films

The depiction of the female physique and psyche in horror films has come a long way from slasher films as more and more women get involved in the production and promotion of this genre of cinema

Updated - October 28, 2022 02:47 pm IST

Published - October 28, 2022 10:30 am IST

Lupita Nyong’o in a scene from Us written and directed by Jordan Peele.

Lupita Nyong’o in a scene from Us written and directed by Jordan Peele. | Photo Credit: AP

Across the globe, the treatment of women in cinema has been cosmetic for the most part. Women are often objectified, their characters are underwritten, they are stereotyped, pushed to the margins of the story, and even turned into caricatures. In many films, women play the damsel in distress, the femme fatale, or the girl next door. More often than not, these characters merely supplement the lead protagonist's journey.

Slasher films

For a long time, women in horror films were victims of male fantasies. Slasher films — a genre of crime and horror involving a killer terrorising, stalking, sexualising and murdering women — are a great example of this phenomenon. Slasher films use sex and gore (often inflicted on women) to lure the audience (mainly male). Famous examples of this genre include Halloween (1978) and Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). These films almost always juxtapose violent and erotic scenes. However, they also have a ‘final girl’ who survives the killer. While on the surface this might seem like a win for women, on deeper inspection, we come to understand that the ‘final girl’ is the most ‘morally upright’ character. She abstains from sex and drugs and alcohol, is androgynous in her sense of style and, for the most part, embodies conventionally masculine stereotypes.

The 1996 cult classic Scream played a pivotal role in steering the sub-genre away from this style by breaking one simple convention: the woman has sex, is unwilling to give up and is given a chance to save herself. This made way for bolder films like Jennifer’s Body (2009), which dismantled all the older conventions associated with the genre. Jennifer, who is preyed upon by satanists, transforms into a demon-like creature to exact revenge. In Jennifer’s Body, women are not victims; they are given agency, albeit in the supernatural sphere.

Teenage horror

Body horror is a popular sub-genre of horror films. For girls, the transition from girlhood to adulthood can be filled with angst and pain. Physical body changes can cause mood swings and even evoke horror. Unlike boys, for whom puberty is about long limbs and pimples, puberty for girls is centred around more. This is amplified best in Carrie (1976), a coming-of-age horror film, which launched a sub-genre of films around the problems of puberty. Carrie White has a typical teenager's journey: she is embarrassed by her first period, has a controlling mother, and is humiliated at the prom after being drenched in pigs’ blood. As her body develops, her powers also develop: she proceeds to use her power of telekinesis to destroy her school and the people trapped in it. Carrie shows rage that women did not show in horror films for the most part of the 20th century.

How we frame women, to a large extent determines how they perceive themselves. Women’s bodies appear in fragments on the screen to get a reaction out of the audience and the camera plays a big role in this portrayal. In the 2002 French film In My Skin, we see the protagonist, Esther, harming her body in an attempt to establish her connection with it. After an accident, she hallucinates that parts of her body have been cut away from her and even goes as far as asking a pharmacist if she can preserve her skin. Marina de Van, the director and actor of the movie, does not consider this as a case study in self-harm, but as a woman trying to integrate herself with her body. While it is feminist in its exploration of the female psyche, we notice that at the end Esther fails to integrate her body with herself.

The conventions of the female body horror genre are being rewritten through films like Teeth (2007). In this, a high school girl, Dawn, has a vagina armed with teeth. Boys who take advantage of her have to bear the consequences of this.

The portrayal of race

Of late, Black women have been taking the centre stage in the horror genre, which, until now, cast only white women. Female rage complemented with psychological elements seems to be a significant element in the genre as evident in Ma (2019) and Jordan Peele’s Us (2019). Almost all the horror hits in 2022 have been feminist at their core from the Daisy Edgar-Jones starrer Fresh to Mia Goth’s Pearl and X.

As the portrayal of women on screen has changed in various genres so has the idea of womanhood on screen also changed with respect to the genre of horror. It also helps that more women are involved in the production and promotion of this genre.

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