It is an unfortunate reality that there are a number of misogynistic conventions which exist within the genre of horror. While a few voices have emerged over the years, there is still a significant gender gap in the film industry as a whole. Horror in particular is interesting to analyze in the context of this gender gap because it is a genre which often makes use of a number of sexist tropes.
Andrea Subissati is a co-founder of The Black Museum, an organization which puts on a series of horror-related lectures and screenings. Along with journalist and playwright Alexandra West, she runs the Faculty of Horror podcast. To celebrate the month of October and all the horror-related happenings which it brings to the industry, we spoke to Subissati and West about their thoughts on the genre, misogyny, their inspirations, and more.
West first started writing about horror when she was working on completing her Masters degree, as she researched representations of violence and realism in theatre. “I was talking to a professor and mentioned the Texas Chainsaw Massacre and how the film keeps telling you it’s based on true events but it’s very loosely based on the killer Ed Gein,” she explains. “The professor got very excited by that idea and encouraged me to work TCM and films like it into my paper which I did. Writing about horror films came scarily easy to me.” She says that from this time onwards, reading and writing about horror felt vital to her, and she has been involved in the field ever since.
Subissati has a background in sociology, which ties into her desire to critique popular culture. She noticed from an early age that girls were mocked or dismissed in popular media, and she was drawn to horror “because it felt more honest. It wasn’t trying to brainwash me into wearing couture, losing weight or having the sole ambition to marry a rich businessman. I think that kind of stuff is truly more horrific than the gore we see in horror films!” She explains the relationship between sociology and horror, saying, “horror is so packed with ideology and morality tales that sociological criticism works really well with it, and I wrote my Masters thesis on the subversive themes in George A. Romero’s zombie films. From there, I became involved with Rue Morgue magazine which led to meeting like-minded people, like Alex [West] and Paul Corupe [of The Black Museum].”
When asked about their thoughts on common tropes in the genre – particularly the Final Girl trope and whether it is more harmful or helpful to feminism as a whole – West and Subissati explain that it is not necessarily a black-and-white issue. West suggests that tropes are generally helpful. “Conventions are a huge part of horror films,” she says. “We look for the jumps, clues and survivors through them – they’re a coded part of our understanding of the building blocks of a horror narrative. With each new generation of films and filmmakers, these tropes are subverted to throw off our expectations. Whether it’s something like the Final Girl trope which I thought was brilliantly re-explored by Adam Wingard in his film You’re Next, or the twisted narrative of Oculus, filmmakers are finding ways to continually shock us by turning the familiar into the unfamiliar which is the very definition of horror.”
West also explains that she has been drawn to Final Girls in horror films since the mid-90s because it is inspiring to see “a young woman make decisions in dire circumstances, fight and survive on her own.”
Subissati adds that whether or not a particular Final Girl portrayal is offensive is dependent on the circumstances and on the viewer. “You might be impressed by her heroism and resourcefulness but you might also feel alienated by her anti-sex/anti-drug piety,” she says. “These are all part of the trope. That said, the Final Girl trope is useful tool for analyzing the slasher subgenre, which is certainly more helpful to film critique in general than it is hurtful. I agree with Alex that these tropes have their place in our codified understandings of the horror genre but when it comes to the Final Girl, I’m happier to see it challenged and subverted rather than upheld as horror canon.”
When asked for their thoughts on whether there has been any sort of positive trend towards women in the genre, and whether more female voices are coming to the forefront, West says that she does see a positive change. “There was an increased awareness around the issue with the founding of Women in Horror Month in 2010,” she explains. “I had just started writing my blog about horror films and writing for Heidi Honeycutt’s site Planet Fury. I had always gravitated towards female writers and critics and writing for Heidi was a huge step forward for me. Through events like Women in Horror Month, I became aware of so many other talented female writers, directors, producers and actors in the horror genre that the whole world opened up for me. It was a great way to make connections and network. It’s been like a support system.”
Subissati, drawing on her background in sociology, suggests that part of the reason that horror has lacked female voices is because the genre was not presented as a tangible option for female creative output. “I think on some level, everyone who watched horror understood that the films were largely designed for the heterosexual, white male gaze so why would women want to watch horror movies, much less make them? That perception is changing with the realization that horror’s audience is largely gender-balanced, but when it comes to production and opportunities in the industry, it’s still very much a boy’s club. If you need evidence of that, just look at the negative reactions to Women in Horror month when it first started! The opposition to it was so heated and hateful, especially online…it was like Gamergate for horror movies. The emergence of Women in Horror Month actually pushed the misogyny of the fandom to the forefront. It’s important that things like this happen to elicit change, but it was also very hard for me to watch and not feel alienated by it.”
West and Subissati have both experienced instances in which they have had to explain why they work in horror. West explains, “It just wasn’t expected of me to like horror films, and I don’t think it’s expected of women to have a direct hand in filmmaking unless they’re acting in it. There were so few popularized examples of female filmmakers in the industry and it seemed like they almost had to keep their femininity under wraps and be one of the boys to get by. When I started writing about horror, the people I loved reading were women and there was a growing community and interactions with those writers. We were able to find a community that was supportive and inspirational so there’s been more support and celebration of women taking the helm on projects, whether it’s an article or a feature film.”
Subissati adds, “Like Alex, I’ve often been called upon to defend my love of the genre so I can only imagine what an uphill battle it must be for women who want to create within it. I have the utmost respect for female artists in the industry who have the courage to tell their stories the way they want to. I’d like to add that there are many male writers, directors and producers in the industry who make great feminist stories and characters and they also play an important role in breaking down walls and giving women creative space in horror.”
Finally, with the abundance of misogynistic tropes which exist within the genre, we asked West and Subissati what they think is key to pulling off horror effectively, without the use of such conventions.
“I think it’s allowing characters to be full and complete which allows the narratives and situations in a film to surprise and affect an audience,” says West. “The moment a character is reduced to a standard notion of humanity, the films loses its appeal to me. A great example is Mary from American Mary, she starts off as a recognizable young woman and through a series of events we follow her transformation into something startling and new. Similarly, a character like Hannibal Lecter (particularly in Silence of the Lambs) intrigues me because he’s terrifyingly violent and threatening but he has a moral code.”
Subissati says that the key to pulling off horror effectively is characterization: “Write women with as much complexity, variety and agency as you’d write a man. Take gender into account, sure, but don’t dwell on it. I think there are filmmakers out there who try to make feminist films with lead protagonists that are overly wrathful, or masculine, but that actually contributes to the problem because it perpetuates the binary. If you treat female characters with the same humanity that you treat male characters, you’re doing it right.”
One cannot know for sure whether misogyny will always exist within horror, and within the film industry as a whole; however, with voices like West and Subissati at the forefront, it is at least encouraging to see a positive trend emerge. As the genre continues to evolve, so do perceptions of female characters, directors, writers, and actors.