The Victimisation of Women in the Horror Genre: The Fear of Crime
By Libbie Nicklin
Whilst I am no film analyst, I recently watched the new Scream film and it triggered some thoughts about the victimisation of women. While it covers all bases of your typical slasher movie, I began to think more critically about how women are portrayed and victimised, and how this ties in with my own fears.
Women in Horror and the Male Gaze
When watching the opening scene of a girl home alone being taunted by ghost face, I recognised how the vulnerability and violence toward women has been a recurring image in popular media for decades. If you think of any of your classic horror movies the woman is always, with a few exceptions, at the heart of the horrifying. Think of Psycho and the famous shower scene, think of Michael Myers on the hunt for Laurie, and think of the “here’s Johnny” scene in The Shining. These films are considered highly in the horror movie world, and have set the precedent for horror movies since.
Not only do these films put women at the centre of the violence, they are attacked by men and are used to fulfil the male gaze. Drawing on the concept created by John Berger, Laura Mulvey (1975) critiqued the patriarchal structure operating in horror-thriller films. Men write and make the films, they are the protagonists and they are ultimately the target audience. This therefore creates a heterosexual male perspective of characters that are women. Because the male viewer is the target audience, their needs are met first, which leaves women often depicted as sexual objects for men to receive pleasure from. Examples of the male gaze include close-up shots of a woman’s body, like the scenes of Marion’s naked body in Psycho and scenes that frequently show a man actively observing a passive woman, such as Joe stalking Beck in the YOU TV series.
What is clear, is that the victimisation of women in the horror genre has gained incredible critique from feminist and film scholars. Whilst they are most often fictional, film and media are incredibly powerful as they can shape cultural attitudes and customs. As suggested in media studies, the recurring images of women as sexualised victims impacts the way we view women in the real world. Therefore, not only does film fulfil the patriarchy through its creation, it also helps to strengthen our patriarchal society!
Women’s Fear of Crime
Whilst it is hard to measure if men’s attitudes toward women is due to their depiction in horror movies, what has been measured, by sociologists and criminologists, is that women have a high fear of crime. Specifically, women’s fear of crime is three times higher than men’s. This is despite women being less likely to be targets than men. Studies have identified that this fear is often due to exposure to news, film and television that portray violence and victimisation to women. As a result of these media outlets portraying women as victims of violence, many women are fearful of strangers and consequently engage in activities to prevent themselves becoming a victim of crime. Such as carrying a rape alarm or pepper spray for protection. What is clear from this data then, is that film, and other media outlets, by consistently portraying women as victims to violence, successfully creates fear among women about becoming a real life victim.
My Own Fears
As I reflected on this data, I thought about my own fear of crime. My own fears definitely match up with the data and the other women’s experiences in the studies. From a very young age, I have had a fear of being home alone or even more generally just being outside alone, especially at night. When I try and rationalise why it is that I’m so fearful of being home alone it always comes down to someone breaking in. I am fearful that a man will break in and violently hurt me. And when I think, why does this scare me so much? It’s because of what I’ve viewed in the media! If the phone starts ringing I think that must be someone like ghost face, if I hear the slightest noise I just assume someone is in the house, maybe its a Michael Myers lookalike?
While my fear of being outside alone stems from some of my own experiences, I ask myself why do I feel so unsafe walking by myself at night? Again, I am worried that a man is prying on me and is going to violently hurt me. This is despite the fact that I’m aware that the chances of me getting hurt by a stranger are very slim. In fact, women are more likely to be victims of crimes, like sexual violence, from people they know. Ultimately, I know I am not alone in this feeling, as indicated from the studies above. But this really does show how much the media can create unnecessary fear and feelings of anxiety in women. And it is incredibly important that these portrayals in cinema begin to change, as these feelings of fear and anxiety can seriously affect women’s mental health.
To end this blog on a more positive note, feminist horror is now considered a core sub-genre! Feminist horror often shows the struggles women face; struggles which often make us invisible in society. Feminist horror makes a conscious effort to amplify and externalise women’s fears, trauma and pain, and uses the gruesome fantasy of horror to show the reality of what its like to be a woman. Feminist horror explores themes such as mental illness, sexuality, motherhood, and sexual violence, and deliberately engages with these themes to demonstrate how damaging the patriarchal society is on feminine bodies.
Examples of this sub-genre include Midsommar, a film preoccupied with relationships and grief, and which leads to Dani’s freedom and final revenge from her cheating and overall crappy boyfriend. Troubles within relationships is a theme many women relate to. The film also cleverly subverts the male gaze, where Maja takes a liking to Christian and spikes his drink so he pursues sex with her. The scene ends with him fleeing their sex ritual with his naked body on show, which completely turns the male gaze on its head by showing a vulnerable man’s body rather than a woman’s.
The Babadook is another example of feminist horror, which displays the brutal reality of motherhood, mental illness and grief. Representing Amelia’s struggles through a monster, the audience is able to go through a unnerving journey where they see the monster gain more and more control over Amelia. A stand out theme is definitely that of motherhood, a theme rarely explored within horror. It shows the audience the struggles of motherhood, espeically as a single and widowed mother, and unites other women in what is often a taboo subject.
Overall, this blog has explored the horror genre with a particular focus on women’s victimisation and its consequential creation of a fear of crime for many women in the real world. This blog showed how powerful film is in creating these fears and how it can shape and fuel our patriarchal culture. Whilst feminist horror isn’t without critique, due to its lack of representation of marginalised groups, it is a first step in representing women’s struggles through the horror genre, as well as the problems with our patriarchal society in fuelling some of these struggles. With feminist horror gaining more and more significance, perhaps it will help to diffuse women’s fear of crime.
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