Girls, Women, and Enjoyment of the Horror Genre
By Marya Diederichs
Over the years I have had countless conversations about film with women in my family and workplace. More often than not the majority claimed a strong dislike for the horror genre in particular. A horror buff myself, I never gave much thought to other women and their predilections. I chalked it up to a matter of taste. It never occurred to me that perhaps these women had not always felt this way. I assumed they had always harbored a distaste for the genre. That was my assumption until a profound change developed in a good friend. Lynn and I attended high school together in the early nineties. On a weekend night at the local mom and pop video store we were interested in nothing less than the most appalling entertainment we could find. Every trip to the mall bookstore included scanning through the most recent issue of Fangoria. We bonded in front of blood soaked screens the way other girls did at clothing boutiques. Lynn and I lost touch for more than a decade after graduation but finally met up again. It didn’t take long for me to invite Lynn to see a newly released DVD. She turned me down, saying that she hated horror films. I was surprised, but did not press the issue. Upon deciding to write this article however, Lynn was one of the first women I called.
“I just can’t stand them anymore,” she said. “I can’t watch any kind of horror movie. They really scare me now. It isn’t the gore or the blood. That doesn’t bother me. I don’t like the killing. I don’t like to think about people coming after me. My younger sister [14 years old] is into them. She loves a scary movie. She’ll watch anything.” I asked Lynn if she felt that becoming a mother had any role in her changing attitude. She answered: “I suppose it might have something to do with that but if it does, I don’t think about it much.”
Lynn was the first of several women I questioned over the following few months, trying to unravel why they abandoned horror. She was also the first to shatter two assumptions I made before beginning this article. The first of which was that women either don’t like or feel that they can’t handle the graphic violence on display in many genre films. Lynn’s answer, like others I was to hear, had nothing to do with witnessing bloodshed or dismemberment. In her case this makes particular sense. Before having children she was employed as both a veterinary surgical technician and as a lab assistant performing autopsies on livestock. Obviously the slicing and dicing aspect of horror wouldn’t phase her. My second assumption was that women with children, especially infants and small children, might grow uncomfortable with ugly acts committed on-screen because of the ever-present real-life fear of harm to their own offspring. Again, in Lynn’s answer as well as in the answers of other mothers I was to speak with, this was not a deciding issue (at least not on a conscious level).
In addition having the aforementioned face to face conversations with women, I emailed my queries to a number of female friends. Little by little answers trickled in. The freedom and privacy of a typed reply allows for more introspection and I received the most thought-out and in-depth answers this way. Some excerpts from replies:
“…When I was a kid I was susceptible to nightmares, and it just carried on to adulthood. So, the teenage slumber party chainsaw massacre is right out. …But I do enjoy the mindfuck suspense/thriller type.”
“[Something] that deters me (because it invokes fright as opposed to thrill) is brainwashing or trauma, like the girls from the cell that are in the patient’s mind, or the survivor from the first Jeepers Creepers.”
“I cannot stand the thought that we are not in control of ourselves or our lives. The concept of fate and absolute destiny is something that has always frightened me on a very deep level in fiction. Related is the concept that nowhere is safe, that there is nowhere to hide.”
“I tend to avoid films that have been categorized as having violent rape scenes. Being one who has gone through “uncomfortable” situations like that in the past, I dislike watching someone else go through the same even if it is ‘Hollyweird’ fakery. I’ve still yet to see Last House on the Left and I know it’s considered a classic, but I’m not sure I can quite push myself to watch the rape that is in it and I’m also not sure I’d ever REALLY want to push myself to watch it, either.”
An interesting detail covered by email respondents yet not mentioned by any of the women interviewed in person is the differentiation between types of films within the genre, for example, the acceptance or enjoyment of ghost stories while refusing to watch slasher or serial killer films. More important however was the admission by several respondents that horror films, exploitation and slasher films in particular, trigger feelings of unease or fear stemming from an identification with and empathy for the victim. Results from a Kansas State University study supported that women are more likely than men to form a bond with the brutalized central character of horror films. This admission offers one possible suggestion for why so many girls leave horror behind as they begin their adult lives. Although many certainly do, by the simple element of less time spent in society young girls are less likely to have experienced threats or assault or to know someone close to them who has experienced these things than adult women. As girls grow and their circle of experience widens, these issues become less the stuff of movies and more a part of harsh reality. Those of us who are adult females and yet remain fans of horror can site clear examples of female empowerment in genre films, but even the most diehard among us recognize the potential triggering effects of some images and situations.
Excerpted from Ax Wound