Why Horror Needs More Women
Horror, like nearly all creative spheres, is dominated by men. Most iconic horror characters are men. Most directors, producers, writers, casting directors, and FX designers are men. And, as would be expected, even the tropes of the genre, which are almost inextricable from the form itself, are based on the male perspective. The Final Girl, the stalking male villain, the virtuous man who dies or is maimed protecting the Final Girl, they’re all vestiges of centuries-old male wish fulfillment. Heck, even the narrative form of horror itself is a sort of metaphorical representation of the male sexual arc: conversation, foreplay, rising tension, and finally release.
The male domination of the genre has necessarily altered its course, steering it into ever more violent territory, with women all too often the victims of the violence. One would be forgiven for assuming that violence, gore, and torture are the bedrock fundamentals of the genre, given the last century of male-dominated horror cinema. Yet, as Stephen King so eloquently wrote in his foreword to Night Shift:
“We are, in our real everyday worlds, often like the masks of Comedy and Tragedy, grinning on the outside, grimacing on the inside. There’s a central switching point somewhere inside, a transformer, maybe, where the wires leading from those two masks connect. And that is the place where the horror story so often hits home.
The horror-story writer is not so different from the Welsh sin-eater, who was supposed to take upon himself the sins of the dear departed by partaking of the dear departed’s food. The tale of monstrosity and terror is a basket loosely packed with phobias; when the writer passes by, you take one of his imaginary horrors out of the basket and put one of your real ones in — at least for a time.”
Horror is, at its most basic, about fear. It’s about sitting down for 2 hours with complete strangers and facing some allegorical terror and screaming it out, knowing in the back of your head that, for the time being, you are safe. But fear comes in many forms, and that the genre has become so inextricably linked to violence — and often sexualized violence — is a direct result of so many years of male domination. It’s a black mark on the genre that we’ve allowed tropes and archetypes to hew so closely to masculine ideas of fear and alienation, while allowing generations of women, people of color, and non-westerners to pass without opportunities to show the world their fears. How much could the genre have grown over the last few decades? What new terrors could have been introduced to the canon if other voices had been allowed to speak?
The tragedy of the last 50 years of horror cinema was laid bare this weekend when I had the fortune of binging back-to-back two of 2017’s most noteworthy horror films, Death Note and the female-only anthology XX. Neither film is perfect by any means, but the psychological freshness of XX calls out the flimsy, rote misogyny of Death Note, proving that it’s beyond time to allow women to tell their stories too.
For all the visual cleverness of Death Note’s chief baddie, Ryuk (voiced brilliantly by Willem Dafoe), the story is nothing more than a limp rehash of Bonnie and Clyde, with an extra dose of witch-burning for good measure. Though Light and Mia are both equally responsible for the murderous rampage of their shared death-god vigilante, Kira, the filmmakers are uncomfortably eager to let Mia take the fall (quite literally in this case) for the consequences of their crimes. Rather than give her a redemptive arc, she spends the first two-thirds of the movie playing a manic-pixie muse for Light, and the last third as the sacrificial villain.
Light, a smarmy, vaguely creepy kid is spared through pluck, intelligence, and a willingness to sacrifice his girlfriend’s life in a bizarre test of fealty. Mia is hardly blameless (after-all, she puts Light’s name in the Death Note as well), but her character isn’t given enough breathing room to be anything more than a mashup of bad Hollywood stereotypes, playing the age-old role of the hypersexualized vixen leading our young hero astray. It says a great deal about the filmmakers that the only solution to Light and Mia’s legal and supernatural pickle is for Light to play games with Mia’s life, instead of giving her the book like she wants and burning his page. Or, better yet, Mia, the only female character of note, doesn’t have to be the villain at all.
Death Note is hardly the most misogynistic horror film on the planet, but it fails the Bechdel Test miserably, and relegates the only female character to a played-out 1990’s trope. It’s a virtual guide on how not to create horror in the 21st century. Give your female characters something to do, redeeming qualities, other females to talk to, and whatever you do, don’t make the only female character the love interest.
Perhaps Death Note suffered a little by proxy because of the fact that I watched XX immediately after. I’m sure just about any standard horror fare would have seemed like weak sauce compared to XX’s haunting, breath of fresh air. But, regardless, if Death Note shows exactly what happens when horror is told from the male perspective, XX proves just how horrifying the results can be when women plumb their depths.
Entirely female-written and helmed, XX is the result of genre aficionados, XYZ Films’, attempt to play in the two underrepresented segments at once: female-driven films, and female-driven horror films. As XYZ’s Todd Brown said, “We believe different perspectives are what keep storytelling fresh and exciting and hope that XX can help to encourage more female writers and directors to explore the genre world.” In other words, representation matters. Not just because it’s inspiring to see others like ourselves in places of authority and creativity, but also because the world of storytelling is better for the diversity. And horror, being one of the most physically upsetting and cathartic genres of storytelling, needs to make space for the fears of everyone, not just white, Western men.
To that effect, XX is a huge step forward for the genre. Not just behind the scenes where women wrote, directed, and starred in every short, but on-screen as well. XX is nothing short of a tantalizing mine field of psychological horror, which ploughs new ground and proves just how fertile the horror soil still is.
Stand-outs, “The Box” (Directed by Jovanka Vuckovic) and “The Birthday Party,” (Directed by Saint Vincent, er Annie Clark) both derive their horror from the alien intimacy of motherhood, the desire to protect and coddle, the giving of oneself to absurd lengths, which largely go unnoticed and unappreciated. Where “The Box” shows how mothers are set apart from their families, the taproot from which everyone else emerges, feeding and nurturing, while remaining buried below the surface, “The Birthday Party” shows the ludicrous heights women are forced to go to maintain order and peace in the eyes of a judging world. The dead husband in his panda suit could be a metaphor for the daily rite of putting on makeup, or wearing high heels, or saying sorry for every little thing. In the end, Mary (played with a straight face by Melanie Lynskey, who’s in the midst of a veritable horror renaissance) can think of nothing else to do but prop up her husband on the other end of the birthday table, and hope it all goes well. The sequences of Mary dragging the dead weight of her husband through the house as she tries desperately to put on a show for the world is a powerful, cutting metaphor for womanhood that could only have come from the lived experience of a woman.
The anthology culminates in two more devastating depictions of femininity, with Karyn Kusama’s “Her Only Living Son,” and the final scenes of the framing sequence, directed by Sofia Carillo. “Her Only Living Son” seems to draw extra power from the stories of failed motherhood in “The Box” and “The Birthday,” where the viewer watches women try and fail to protect their families from the horrors of the world. Where the mothers in the first two films are brutally tested and find they aren’t up to the task, the mother in “Her Only Living Son,” Cora, also fails, but in doing so reveals one of motherhood’s most terrible truths — sometimes succeeding is failing. When the Devil comes to claim Cora’s son, she does what every mother in the history of the world has done, she gives up her body for the sake of her child’s life, and spares both of their souls by clinging so tightly that the Devil himself can’t tear them apart. It’s a haunting, beautiful scene, that says as much about motherhood in a few seconds than most movies have in hours.
The anthology ends with the final scenes of Sofia Carillo’s sad framing sequences, which show a stop motion dollhouse wandering around a broken, abandoned apartment complex, searching among the rubble and playing home to fluttering insects. In the final sequence, the dollhouse finds a dead bird and places it in the open breast of a ragdoll, which immediately comes to life. The dollhouse removes the bird again, and takes it to another room where a catatonic girl with a small compartment in her chest sits on a bench. The dollhouse places the bird in the girl’s chest and she comes to life. The dollhouse smiles, and the anthology ends.
All of these scenes are gorgeous and melancholy, beautiful to watch regardless of their seeming surrealism and anti-narrative, but the final sequence reveals a purpose to the dollhouse’s wandering…finding a way to bring life to this young girl. There’s something apt to the image of a broken dollhouse, that most hallowed of girlhood props, sifting through the detritus of daily life to find something capable of bringing life to the little girl. As the dollhouse looks on the girl’s face she smiles as though to say, “Look around at this broken world, but don’t be too afraid. You have something alive and powerful inside of you, and if you can survive this, you can survive anything.”
XX was greenlit on purpose, with the intention of giving a platform for women to project their voices, their fears, and their wisdom. It succeeds on every level a horror film should: it’s scary, enjoyable, stylish, and thoughtful. And while male-centered stories like Death Note continue to garner the lion’s share of production budgets (Death Note cost $50m to make, XX just $2m), XX proves that in a genre dedicated to fear, women have a few horrifying tales of their own.
Maybe we should stop and listen for awhile.