As a horror-film buff, I’ve always had to defend my tastes to other women, particularly those who think the genre begins and ends with the campy ’80s slasher, where bikini-clad teenagers are punished for their sexual exploits.
But the genre is so much more than that. And aside from the “final girl” argument that women are smart and empowered in many of these movies, what I’m drawn to (and what I most identify with) is the trope of the adolescent or teenage girl whose anxieties — or even inner evil — are magnified with disastrous results (i.e. Carrie, May, Scream, It Follows, The Craft, The Bad Seed, The Eyes of My Mother, Sweet Sweet Lonely Girl, etc). Looking at that short list, though, I don’t see a single film written or directed by a woman. So as I’ve watched this year’s best horror releases, I’ve had to ask myself: Why are male horror directors so obsessed with the inner lives of girls?
Think of all the horror movies you know that explore the inner lives of adolescent or teenage boys. If you’re like me, you probably came up with just a few off the top of your head, the most vivid being A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge. (Note: I might also include Lady in White, Sleepaway Camp and Der Samurai in this, but more on that later.)
Actor Mark Patton plays Jesse Walsh, a kid who’s “chosen” by Freddy to enact his revenge as a kind of host body. Written by David Chaskin, the script oozes with homoerotic subtext. Chaskin said he was tapping into the anxieties of teen boys before the AIDS crisis, when only a vague sense of moral decrepitude kept their homosexual thoughts at bay. Now, the Jesse Walsh character has become one of the most prominent, rare male “final girls” in cinematic history. This film is also frequently cited by my male friends and peers as their least favorite in the series, despite it possessing a hilarious Beetlejuice-esque runaway-bus terror sequence that we all agree is top-shelf horror (and which frequently reminds me of this election season). It’s also the only one in the series Netflix has always had available to stream, which also translates to it being the cheapest to license. Hmmmm … wonder why these guys don’t like it!
What a girl character possesses that most horror writers and directors have not deigned to bestow upon their boys is vulnerability. Even when a young woman is a badass alien seductress luring men to their slow and aching deaths like Scarlett Johansson in Under the Skin, females are still somehow vulnerable to men, and this makes them compelling characters. The few boys who are central to the psyche of horror films are feminized and therefore also vulnerable — Jesse Walsh is a closeted homosexual, Jakob of Der Samurai is most likely going through a gay sexual awakening and the samurai is literally wearing a dress, Peter Baker of Sleepaway Camp has been living as a girl for most of his life, and Frankie (Lukas Haas) of Lady in White is a frail child too young to be sexualized or gendered yet.
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So over time, girls and women have come to dominate the thoughts of horror directors. But as much as I absolutely love seeing these alternate chilling versions of myself onscreen, I find we’re doing a disservice to men by not mirroring their own anxieties back to them.
No man is an impenetrable stone castle. Sure, a lot of them might have emotional-defense moats circumnavigating the gates, but whatever’s across that water is rife for the horror genre. And I got a chill just now thinking of a woman needling into those weaknesses to craft a truly great male final girl in the vein of Jesse Walsh, whether gay or straight or in between. The closest we’ve gotten so far in mainstream horror is Mary Harron’s caustically funny American Psycho. But just imagine if you will an iteration of The Babadook, using almost the exact same script, told from a grieving man’s point of view, and tell me that wouldn’t be a gender-bending, original masterpiece. Wanna get more women watching horror? Give them a peek at the weaker stuff inside a man’s skull.