The Scary Undertones of Horror Movies

Understanding Horror Movies and Misogyny

Illustrator: Stevie Lacher

It’s a common sight in horror movies: the teenage girl, skimpily dressed and running from a crazed maniac with a kitchen knife. The girl keeps up a good pace at first, until she trips or enters a car and frantically tries to start it, but to no avail. The maniac catches up with knife held high, the girl screams, cut to the title card.

Latent themes of misogyny and sexual violence are a prevailing idea in horror movies, particularly the B-grade slasher type. Typically in slasher movies, the main characters die in very gruesome detail. This is no different for female characters, except they have the misfortune of being much more sexualized or victimized in their torture/death. They are either caught up doing the dirty with someone or screaming helplessly as the main antagonist draws near. The killers in these films are typically male, and they relentlessly pursue and assault their victims, something that is bound to cause unease in viewers who have suffered abuse before. Although this trope has been subverted in some films (see the first “Friday the 13th” for a decent example), it is usually few and far between. There is usually one female survivor, deemed the “final girl,” who stops the killer by the end, possibly to have the movie not come off as “too” insensitive to women as opposed to having the movie end with a male survivor instead. This character is also usually the virgin, as opposed to the other, more sexually active women in the movie, making an empty and vapid illusion to feminism. The “Friday the 13th” films are arguably the most guilty of this trope, as well as several others. It got to a point where even famed movie critics, Siskel and Ebert, lashed out against the rampant misogyny in trashy slasher movies during the time.

Granted, it isn’t just slashers that give women this sort of treatment. One of the major horror films that is criticized for its stereotyping of women in the media is “Carrie.” In this movie, the main character gets both verbally and physically abused by her peers and her mother, which can make for an uncomfortable watch in some instances. Unlike most slasher movies, however, the abuse on display serves the narrative in “Carrie,” and it’s the same for movies like “Rosemary’s Baby,” “The Exorcist,” and “I Spit on Your Grave.” However, these movies contain some unsettling undertones as well (though not as obvious or explicit as your typical slasher). Films like “Carrie” feature a socially awkward teen who is then associated with dangerous psychic powers. Sexual or verbal abuse are the themes in plenty of horror movies and if played right, they can be effective, even while being uncomfortable.

The trend of female characters in horror movies seems to continue to this very day, with movies like “It” having its main female character suffer from implied verbal and sexual abuse. In addition, the misogyny in horror films has been satirized in movies like “Cabin in the Woods” and the “Scream” franchise. So why does this matter, you may ask? Are these really just dumb horror movies that teens will go to regardless of quality? Well, not only does this alienate audiences who have suffered from traumatic abuse such as is featured in these films, but this is also a theme that has permeated horror movies for decades. Not all horror movies are intrinsically misogynistic. The classic sci-fi horror film “Alien” features a predominately strong and well-written female protagonist (at least until “Alien 3” took most of that away). However, there are some unsettling undertones that plenty of horror movies still share to this day. Sure, it may not be as bad as it was in the 80s, but the stench of misogyny still remains. They coated the horror house with Febreze, but they didn’t remove the source of the smell, and that is the true terror.