Not All Horror Films Have A Woman Problem

Despite its reputation, horror has long been the only genre where audiences can anticipate strong female characters and smart takes on womanhood. Australia's The Babadook is the latest.

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When it comes to horror movies, the theory goes that they have to feature buxom young women getting naked because the predominantly teenage male audience wants to see it.

The Friday The 13th films, for instance, made an entire 12-film franchise (with a lucky thirteenth on the way next year, 25 years after the first) out of finding ways to get female characters to go skinny dipping or take their bras off, despite the very omnipotent danger that lurks around every corner. The very casual misogyny that can be found in these films and others like it – in which maniacs predominantly target sexually-active women — is almost a tradition that, like Jason Voorhees, just won’t die.

And yet it is precisely the deeply-rooted formulas of horror films that keep calling audiences back to the genre.

Horror Doesn’t (Always) Hate Women

Despite this long-held belief that the slasher sub-genre that so dominated the 1980s and later ‘90s predominantly appeals to boys and their boob-obsessed brains, horror has long been the only genre where audiences can anticipate strong female characters, and frequently smart takes on womanhood.

Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976) – and to a lesser extent the 2013 remake with Chloë Grace Moretz – is a heartbreaking look at teen isolation, bullying, and fear of the body, which happens to be a damn scary movie to boot. In the same vein is Ginger Snaps (2000), one hell of a werewolf movie that’s actually about the manifestation of female sexuality at puberty. And then there are the likes of Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others (2001) starring Nicole Kidman, which navigated themes of the lonely life of a woman in a patriarchal society as well as the ravages of post-partum depression and religious servitude. In between all the spooky shifting curtains, shaking chandeliers and ghostly reflections, of course.

That film, which in a rare case for a horror movie received Golden Globe and BAFTA nominations for Kidman’s performance, shares much in common with a new Australian horror film that is out now in limited release (read: only in big cities). The Babadook (2014) has already found ecstatic critical acclaim after screening at Sundance (where I hailed it “the Australian film that will have you shaking in your boots”) and New York’s New Directors/New Films festival, and it won five awards at the Gérardmer Film Festival in France. Like all Australian horror films that aren’t Wolf Creek 2 (2014), Jennifer Kent’s ornate, spine-chilling haunted picture book fable isn’t getting a major release or mainstream publicity — but audiences keen on scares should definitely seek it out.

The Babadook’s themes of maternal unease, domestic unrest, and the oft-unbearable way the talons of grief can dig into a person’s psyche long after society believes they should “get over it” are palpably explored by debut director Jennifer Kent – an actress known for Murder Call and All Saints — and star Essie Davis, famous for popular television series Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries and the miniseries adaptation of The Slap. (The ten-minute short that inspired the feature, simply titled Monster, is available to view online.) The full-length stands out in the local industry not only for its technical mastery, which is evidenced from the design of the characters’ ominous suburban abode to the delicately fraying costumes, and the best fake movie-book since The Evil Dead’s (1981) ‘Necronomicon‘, but also for being a female-centric film.

Amazingly, not one of last year’s AACTA nominees for Best Film was sold on a female lead; a stark contrast to 2012, which had The Sapphires, Wish You Were Here, and Cate Shortland’s exceptional WWII drama Lore. Much of The Babadook’s success doesn’t just hinge on the performance of Davis, but on the very fact that the film is about issues related to being a woman, a mother, and a part of a society that expects certain things out of the two. It’s all too rare to see them discussed this eloquently, albeit as subtext.

Diversity In Horror Films

Earlier this year, with the release of Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones (2014), I looked at how horror was the most racially diverse of genres in terms of on screen representation, as well as ticket-buyer demographics. The statistics also prove that women are the biggest indulgers of horror, with recent horror hits fronted by women including Mama (2013), Orphan (2009), and the Scream franchise, which featured not one, but two tough female leads over its four films (1996, 1997, 2000, 2011), outsmarting killers at every turn. Neve Campbell’s Sidney even famously responded to a query about whether she likes scary movies with the line, “They’re all the same, some stupid killer stalking some big-breasted girl who can’t act who’s always running up the stairs when she should be going out the front door. It’s insulting.” And while there’s truth to it, she obviously wasn’t a connoisseur of the genre, or she wouldn’t be so flippant.

Even unexpected places, like Marcus Nispel’s nasty The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003) remake, appeared to subvert the “final girl” narrative of its original and make Jessica Biel into a smart, resourceful young woman despite wearing minimal attire that appears to float upwards with each run-in with the gruesome Leatherface. In the first A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), Heather Langenkamp was an intuitive survivor of a post-divorce family, something that was revisited in the sixth (and best) sequel, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994), to powerful effect. Sigourney Weaver’s role in Aliens was originally written for a man, but has since gone on to become an iconic representation for women in film. The list goes on.

Local audiences are notoriously fickle with Australian fare, but I hope audiences go and see The Babadook in bigger numbers than greeted other exemplary local horror titles such as Black Water (2007), Lake Mungo (2008), and Patrick (2013), which are also strong female character studies as well as scary and gory good times.

As the genre twists and contorts with fads (remember all those female-lead J-horror remakes of the ‘00s?), this female focus remains a constant. Hollywood has almost given up entirely elsewhere – Maleficent (2014) is the only of this year’s effects-laden blockbusters with a female lead (Angelina Jolie), so it’s best we take it where we can.  

The Babadook is in cinemas now.

Glenn Dunks is a freelance writer, editor and film festival programmer from Melbourne, who is currently based in New York City. He tweets from @glenndunks.