About the Author:
I am currently studying Cinema and Communications in the ALC program. This essay was written in the context of my Explorations in Cinema class where we got the freedom to write about any type of media that resonated with us. AFAB individuals have always been overlooked in film and media studies, which is why I wanted to write about them and their contribution to film, and especially, to the horror genre. I plan to continue my studies in either film theory or film production.
Prof. Justine McLellan
Cinema/Communications 113: Explorations in Cinema and Communications
The Rise of Feminist Horror
It is a well-known fact that the horror genre has never been particularly kind to women. In the past, horror films have often offered tropes that seem to shame and belittle women such as the Final Girl or the Damsel in Distress tropes. However, in the last few years, women filmmakers have started to reclaim the horror genre to represent the anxieties and fantasies that often come with womanhood. Concepts and themes such as the monstrous feminine or sexuality have started to hold an important place in these women’s films. There are many that offer this new perspective of women in horror, but these three films are the ones who have already claimed their cult classic status: Jennifer’s Body (2009), Raw (2016) and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014).
Firstly, Jennifer’s Body is a 2009 dark comedy horror film directed by Karyn Kusama and written by Diablo Cody. The film follows Jennifer, a student, as she gets possessed after a traumatic event and starts to kill and eat her male classmates. The film had a terrible reception when it first came out due to the misleading marketing that promoted it, because of the casting of Megan Fox, as a sexy horror movie made for straight teenage boys. However, Jennifer’s Body did something that many horror films at the time did not: it offered an interesting perspective on rape culture and deviated from certain horror tropes. In Meaghan Allen’s essay “Her Body, Herself Rape-Revenge and the Desire for Catharsis,” she explains this perspective:“Jennifer’s Body is about Jennifer the person coping with her extreme violation by using her sexuality to trap and consume those who once ‘consumed’ or objectified her body” (3). Many critics would describe Jennifer’s Body as a fantasy for straight men when in fact it is a fantasy for women who suffered from the objectification and the sexual violence of men (Grady). The film also criticizes many film tropes. Usually in many classic horror tropes, purity and virginity are praised. Jennifer’s sexuality, however, is not a weakness, but a strength (The Take 5:20).
Secondly, the 2016 French film Raw, directed and written by Palmes d’Or winner Julia Ducournau, is a body horror film that also, through its violent imagery, explores feminist themes. The story revolves around Justine, a teenage girl from a vegetarian family, as she goes to veterinary school and is forced to eat raw meat for the first time. This leads to her craving human flesh. The cannibalism in the film is used as a metaphor for Justine’s sexual awakening. The film explores sexuality in an interesting way as it shows how she tries to hide and bury her sexual feelings (which is shown in the film through her cannibalistic urges). Female sexuality has always been seen as taboo on screen. It is rare to see a healthy portrayal of it, especially with teenage girls, even in modern day media. In the Dazed article “Is Female Sexuality Taboo on Screen?” written by Alex Denney, director Carol Morney explains why it is so taboo: “Girlhood, and young female sexuality, has been so colonized by certain images and an unhealthy dose of voyeurism that it can become uncomfortable viewing, so it’s important that female directors and directors of photography get more chances to present insights into female subjectivity”. Raw is then an exploration and a visual showing of the fears of female sexuality and how much it can affect young girls.
Thirdly, Ana Lily Amirpour’s 2014 horror romance film A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night also offers a female fantasy. In the story, a lonely vampire stalks the people of an Iranian ghost town called Bad City and explores the development of her relationship with a man called Arash. One of the many things explored in the film is the concept of the monstrous feminine. This term was coined by Barbara Creed in her book of the same name. It explores the reversal of women as victims in horror films to women as monsters and how it often uses monsters that reflect female sexuality. In A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, that monster is the vampire. Like Creed mentions in her book, the monstrous feminine is also linked to abjection:
Although her study is concerned with psychoanalysis and literature, it nevertheless suggests a way of situating the monstrous-feminine in the horror film in relation to the maternal figure and what Kristeva terms ‘abjection’, that which does not ‘respect borders, positions, rules’, that which ‘disturbs identity, system, order’ (Kristeva, 1982, 4).
Ana Lily Amirpour portrays this abjection with her female vampire character in the film as she feels alone in her abnormity and monstrosity. The film also explores a fantasy that all women have: the ability, like the title of the film says, to walk home alone at night. Throughout the film, we see the main female character roaming through the streets without a care in the world. She explores the ghost town and instead of fearing danger, she ignites that fear in others. In situations of predatory men, because she is a vampire, she is then able to defend herself, something a lot of women cannot do.
In conclusion, Jennifer’s Body, Raw, and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night are films that showcase many feminist ideas, anxieties, and fantasies through their use of horrific imagery and concepts. These movies are proof that women filmmakers can bring a new and important voice to cinema that male filmmakers are not necessarily capable of. While many still fail to recognize women’s talent in film, this talent is slowly being listened to which we can see in recent award shows like the Academy Awards with Chloe Zhao and the Cannes Festival with Julia Ducournau.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. Directed by Ana Lily Amirpour, Kino Lorber, 2014.
Allen, Meaghan. “Her Body, Herself: Rape-Revenge and the Desire for Catharsis.” Bloody Women – A Horror Film Journal by The Final Girls (2021) https://www.academia.edu/49525885/Her_Body_Herself_Rape_Revenge_and_the_Desire_for_Catharsis
Creed, Barbara. The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis. Taylor & Francis, 2015.
Denney, Alex. “Is Female Sexuality Taboo on Screen?” Dazed, 24 Apr. 2015, https://www.dazeddigital.com/artsandculture/article/24538/1/is-female-sexuality-taboo-on-screen.
Grady, Constance. “How Jennifer’s Body Went from a Flop in 2009 to a Feminist Cult Classic Today.” Vox, 31 Oct. 2018, https://www.vox.com/culture/2018/10/31/18037996/jennifers-body-flop-cult-classic-feminist-horror
Jennifer’s Body. Directed by Karyn Kusama, 20th Century Fox, 2009.
Raw. Directed by Julia Ducournau, Wild Bunch, 2016.
The Take, “Jennifer’s Body and the Horrific Female Gaze” Youtube, 27 Jul 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X7Twg8rG2HI&t=724s