Tag Archives: Jamie Lee Curtis

When A Woman Screams: Examining Gender in Horror

The genre of horror films has been part of film culture ever since the invention of the medium itself, from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to Psycho to The Silence of the Lambs, horror movies are an ever present representation of our society.  While many films are critically acclaimed, many fall into the underground cult status, maintaining their popularity and continually reviving the genre.  When John Carpenter’s Halloween was released in 1978, it created a new branch in the genre of horror most often referred to as “slasher” films.  Halloween became the bases for countless other slasher movies that flooded the theatres throughout the eighties and are continually made to this day (the eighth sequel to Halloween was released this year, aptly titled Halloween Resurrection).  Although slasher films (and especially sequels) have had the ill-fated luck of bombing at the box office and being slandered by critics, they still hold an important place within the genre.  They speak to the young, repressed generation who are looking for a site to release adolescent angst and confusion, those who feel as though they too, are the misunderstood underdogs of modern society.  Some of the harsher critics were feminist film theorists, who found that the slasher genre depended upon its outright exploitation of the victimized leading lady. Two such film theorists who examine woman in horror films are Linda Williams who wrote “When The Woman Looks” and Carol J. Clover with her article: “Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film”. When the film Scream by Wes Craven was released in 1997, it was considered a breakthrough in the genre of slasher films because of the way Sydney, the female heroine “breaks the rules” of horror movies. By using these two articles to compare Sydney from Scream and Laurie from Halloween, one will be able to determine whether or not the female horror heroine has evolved since the birth of the slasher film genre, or if she is still unable to break free of her stereotypical role and is still punished for looking.

In her article “When The Woman Looks” Linda Williams discusses the meaning of the woman’s gaze in film and this can be applied in particular to the way a woman “looks” in slasher movies.  The major trait in slasher films is a lead female character, who is not only the victim but often the hero as well.  By analyzing the way Sydney and Laurie look we can understand their relations and reactions and why they can be seen as a threat.  Williams analyzes the relationship between gender through the look.   The female exists only to be gazed at by the dominant male.  She refuses to look for she will only be subject to brutality and horror proving her own weakness.[1] This leaves very little for woman to identify with on screen, as Sydney points out in Scream (when she is asked why she doesn’t watch scary movies): “Because they’re all the same. It’s always some stupid killer stalking some big breasted girl-who can’t act-who always runs up the stairs when she should be going out the front door. It’s insulting.”[2] This statement defines the very climax of Halloween.  Initially when Laurie goes over to her friend’s house to investigate, we congratulate her, for although she goes upstairs to the bedroom, she escapes Michael Myers by running out of the house.  Unfortunately, in the final scene, Laurie falls into the cliché when she runs back into her own house, and when Michael Myers comes after her, she fails to escape him again by running upstairs and hiding in the closet. Ironically, when Sydney is being chased by the Ghostfaced killer a couple of minutes after her statement, she runs up the stairs instead of going out the front door.  At first it seems as though Sydney allows identification by revealing the female slasher heroine stereotype, yet by reacting in the same way only a couple of minutes later, she immediately disowns any power she had previously gained.  By “failing to return the gaze of the male who desires her”, the woman suffers a sort of blindness, and it allows the man the “voyeur’s pleasure” for he is not threatened by her returning his gaze.[3] As a spectator watching Halloween we are thrusted into the point of view of Michael Myers and into this position of the male voyeur’s pleasure.  This “displaces what was once the subjective point of view of the female victim onto an audience that is now asked to view the body of the woman victim as the only visible monster in the film”[4].  By literally looking through his eyes and hearing only his breathing when he first kills his sister, to when he stalks Laurie, we are forced to stare at the helpless female. When Michael Myers is gazing at Laurie, we not only see her from his point of view, but we also observe her “looking” for him.  Many times she sees his distant figure in the background, only to do a double take after he vanishes.  Her friends call her “crazy” and that she is “losing her mind” in believing that she is being stalked.  The female spectator is denied the pleasure of viewing, while Laurie is accused of seeing things, or being “blind”.  Similarly in Scream, Sydney is also the victim of voyeuristic male pleasure when the killer torments her over the phone.  He can see her, yet she can’t see him.  Sydney is also the characteristic “blind” female.  She mistakenly identifies Cotton Weary as the person who killed her mother a year earlier.  At the end of the film she must live with the fact that she almost sent an innocent man to prison, as well as the fact that the real killer was her boyfriend, Billy.  The frustration of Laurie’s inability to see clearly as well as Sydney’s failure to see the truth are, according to Williams, indications of their sexual purity.[5] This “good girl” status is one adopted by both Laurie and Sydney.  Laurie’s friends imply that she never goes out and call her a “girl scout”.  She can’t smoke a cigarette properly, and during the course of the night she gets stuck babysitting the children while her friends take off with their boyfriends.  Sydney is also shown to be sexually inactive.  When Billy discusses having a more “rated R” relationship, we find out that ever since the death of her mother, she has not been emotionally ready to consummate their relationship, and Sydney says that he will have to settle for a “PG-13” rating.

Williams states that when the “good girl” is allowed the power of the gaze, her look is punished.  For when the woman looks at the monster, she recognizes that they both have something in common; they both pose a threat towards the male.[6] The monster is threatening for he is generally more sexually interesting than the male, and is an exaggerated reminder of what the male lacks.  Whereas the woman, according to Lurie, is the site of trauma for the male for she represents the mother who is not castrated; the weak male lacking a penis[7].  Both the monster and the woman have a similar power, that of sexual difference, for they are both looked upon as freakish objects of the male gaze.[8] Therefore when the woman and monster share a gaze, they’re connection is twice as threatening to the male and thus the woman must be punished and the monster destroyed.  When Laurie is finally allowed to gaze at Michael Myers near the end of Halloween, she is greatly punished.  After she investigates her friend’s home and discovers them to be dead, she is then attacked by Michael Myers and must start fighting for her life.  When Michael Myers gazes at Laurie, she becomes the site of trauma for both the male and the monster.  Myers originally killed his sister after witnessing her having sex with her boyfriend, therefore Myers is not only the monster, but the traumatized male.  Whenever he sees a girl that resembles his sister he is not only reminded of the image of his sister’s non-castrated body, but also with the image of the sexually active male, which is his lack.  This explains why both of Laurie’s friends are killed, for not only are they sexually active but their half-naked bodies all the more provoke Myers.  Thus, Laurie survives in the end because of her sexual inactivity, and because she has a “sympathetic identification”[9] with the monster.  She has the power to resist Michael Myers, for it is “directly proportional to her absence of sexual desire”[10].  Her sexual purity is treated as a symbol of her own freakishness, which is similar to that of the monster and in the sequels we discover that she is actually Michael Myers’ younger sister.  Halloween created the myth of the virgin surviving in the end, and is referenced in Scream (when a group of teenagers are watching Halloween): “That’s why she always lived. Only virgins can outsmart the killer in the big chase scene in the end. Don’t you know the rules? “[11] Once again in Scream, the film breaks the rules that it swears by.  While the teenagers are watching Halloween at this house party, Sydney decides to sleep with Billy, who is not only the dominant male but is revealed to be the killer.  Billy wants to kill Sydney because her mother slept with his father and destroyed his family. Billy sees Sydney as the non-castrated mother, or rather a reminder of his own “weak” father. When Sydney looks at the monster, she recognizes their similar status in that they both pose a threat to each other, and that by sleeping together their sexual difference is seen as monstrous.  Sydney survives in the end despite having sex with Billy because of their mutual sexual desire, which protects her because she doesn’t resist him.  Although Sydney breaks the rules of slasher films and lives to kill the monster at the end despite not being a virgin, she is still forever punished knowing that she slept with the killer; the son of the father that her mother was having an affair with.  Sydney didn’t want to have sex with Billy because she didn’t want a reputation like her mother, but in the end she gives up her power when she sleeps him.  Since Sydney “looked” incorrectly and accused the wrong man of murder, the killer was still free to come after her and her friends, and she is therefore punished.

Carol J. Clover further examines women in slasher movies in her article: “Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film”.  She discusses several different elements of the slasher movie, such as the killer, weapons, victims and the Final Girl and how they reflect “cultural attitudes toward sex and gender”[12].  The first aspect that she analyzes is the killer.  The monster must kill any women who arouse him sexually, and this is linked with the trauma of the absent mother[13].  There is a lack of any mother figure in Halloween.  Michael Myers is an escapee from an asylum who is pursued by his male psychiatrist, and we only briefly see the father of Laurie and her friend Annie.  This absence of a mother figure in the film draws even more attention to the female victims, and controls the gaze of both spectator and male characters onto Laurie and her girlfriends without distraction.  Since Michael Myers has been without a mother figure to guide him, his own outlook of sexuality has been greatly disturbed because of his lack of understanding.  Whenever he sees a female who resembles his sister, it immediately triggers the memory of when he saw his sister and her boyfriend in bed, and this is a trauma for him because he sees her as an object of arousal and as a threat.  Therefore, he must kill any female who arouses or threatens him in the same manner to stop his confusion and release his sexual frustration.  Similarly in Scream there is no mother figure, which is the cause of much sexual angst and violence.  Sydney’s mother was murdered and raped a year before, and because of this she is experiencing sexual anxiety.  Billy is also lacking a mother figure because of the affair his father had with Sydney’s mother, therefore his motivation to kill stems from his desire and anger that he feels towards her.  It is also interesting to note that the other female victims were murdered because they also aroused the monster sexually.  At the end of the film, we learn that Billy as well as his friend Stu, are the killers.  In the beginning of the movie, someone mentions that Stu had dated the first victim, Casey, and later his girlfriend Tatem is murdered, thus showing that they were both killed because of their sexual relationship with the monster.

The common trait of the monster/killer is to represent the hyper masculine image.  Clover describes the traditional slasher killer as being an outsider or misfit from society, large and overweight, masked yet recognizably human and virtually indestructible[14].  Michael Myers represents the super dominant male in his overtly large figure, his white mask and his invincibility, which is shown at the end when he is shot and falls out of a window, yet he vanishes a moment later and lives on.  In comparison to the helpless, half dressed, stereotypical female victims, he is the image of the ever powerful, controlling patriarchy.  With Scream, the killers break this traditional description.  The killers, although masked when attacking their victims, are also unmasked throughout the course of the film.  Billy and Stu are even more threatening to Sydney because they are her friends.  They are not alienated outsiders, and at the end of the film they are not even in disguise when they try to kill her, and they prove to be destructible.  Though they are not the formulaic killer, they are still a threat to the feminist power because they mock and flaunt they’re control in front of her face.  The fact that they do not have to remain masked or be indestructible to torture Sydney is even more insulting to women.

Weapons are also important symbols of patriarchal control in slasher films.  Clover notes that the preferred weapons of killers are not guns, but “pretechnological” weapons such as knives, hammers, and axes because they are “personal, extensions of the body that bring attacker and attacked into primitive, animalistic embrace”[15].  Both Michael Myers and the Ghostface killer in Scream use knives, but it is also important to examine the weapons that the females use in both movies.  Knives can be seen as a phallic symbol, a way of entering the woman’s body as opposed to a gun, which presents less of a challenge.  Michael Myers knife is super phallisized when he stabs his female victims, for the woman are all half dressed with their breasts exposed or simply wearing a male shirt with just their underwear, and this contrasts his powerful masculinity with a weakened femininity. Even when he kills the boyfriend and leaves him hanging from the knife in the door, the outline of the body and protruding knife resembles an erect penis, the image of the ideal man, which further commemorates his power.   When Laurie tries to defend herself against Michael Myers, her weapons are very feminine.  She stabs his neck with a knitting needle, then pokes him in the eye with a hanger, and both times she is unable to kill him.  When she finally gets control of his knife, she fails to kill him again and this shows that she cannot handle the male weapon.  After failing to defy Michael Myers using weak “feminine” weapons and the phallic knife, she is saved by Dr. Loomis who shoots Michael with a gun.  In the end Laurie is but a helpless woman who cannot defend herself and must turn to a superior man to be saved.  Scream allows its victims to have more power, yet it still not a complete breakthrough.  Both Casey and Tatem are allowed to defend themselves with masculine weapons, a knife and beer bottles, however they are still unsuccessful and their deaths are more brutalized; Casey has her intestines ripped out and Tatem’s neck is broken in the garage door.  Sydney, however, does defy the rules of the slasher film.  At the ending, she becomes the Ghostface killer for a moment, disguising her voice, masking her face and dressing up in the robe.  In that instant, she is a female killer, which according to Clover, are rare in slasher films and have very different motives than male killers.  Their reasons are not psychosexual and their anger does not stem from childhood experiences, but “from specific moments in their adult lives in which they have been abandoned or cheated on by men”[16].  Only after Sydney’s boyfriend betrays her is she allowed any access to the male power.  However in the final scene, the only way she can save herself is by using a “technological” weapon.  There is a small rise in female power at the end when Gale Weathers (a reporter) saves Sydney by shooting Billy.  Sydney then shoots Billy a few more times and avoids failing like Laurie who assumed the killer to be dead.  Yet the gun is an easy access weapon, and is not as satisfying nor as challenging as the weapons used by the killer, therefore allowing the woman a certain distance from the male as opposed to the “hands on” experience enjoyed by the men.

Both Laurie and Sydney are defined as “Final Girls” according to Clover and are the epitome of what defines a slasher film[17]Halloween and Scream depend on the distressed female in order to be a successful slasher movie for she is the “abject terror personified”[18].  The Final Girl is the soul survivor in the end, who has witnessed the death of all her friends and has been chased, wounded and altogether victimized throughout the plot.  Although the Final Girl appears to be the strongest character in the movie and is under the illusion of female dominance, she is merely a subject for masochistic male pleasure.  The fact that there is a “final girl” and that the survivor is “inevitably female”[19] in every film of this genre reflects the patriarchal need to control, victimize, and create a site to unleash repressed sexual anxieties over and over again.  Laurie and Sydney represent the two different types of Final Girls.  Laurie is the Final Girl for ending A, who stays with the killer long enough to be rescued[20] and Sydney symbolizes the Final Girl for ending B, she kills the monster herself.  Sydney, however, is not the soul survivor in Scream, and she not only defies two killers, but she also saves her father and some of her friends (both male and female) without any help from a male counterpart.  This allows her to hold some male power for a moment, but does not necessarily mean that she has completely broken down any barriers for the female horror heroine.

Scream is a breakthrough in the slasher genre because it was the first film to recognize the rules and in doing so, the film abides by them.  Although Sydney tries to evolve the image of the Final Girl, she is only able to briefly step out of her stereotypical role; such as her use of weapons and defying the myth of virgins surviving, and she must suffer the consequences.  She is still the object of the male gaze and is punished for her blindness. The connection that she has with the monster is more deadly and threatening, and the killers have evolved to a point where they have greater control over their female victims. We can only identify with Sydney to a certain extent, for like her, we are under the illusion that the woman has regained some status, when in the end Scream is more of a success for patriarchal power.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Grant, Barry Keith. Dread of Difference. University of Texas Press: 1996
Clover, Carol J. “Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film”. University of California Press: 1987
Williams, Linda. “When The Woman Looks”.  American Film Institute:1993

FILMOGRAPHY

John Carpenter. dir. Halloween. Falcon International Pictures: 1978. Screenplay by John Carpenter and Debra Hill.

Wes Craven. dir. Scream. Dimension Films: 1997.  Screenplay by Kevin Williamson.


[1] Linda Williams “When The Woman Looks” p. 15

[2] Kevin Williamson Scream

[3] Linda Williams “When The Woman Looks” p. 15

[4] Linda Williams “When The Woman Looks” p. 31

[5] Linda Williams “When The Woman Looks” p. 16

[6] Linda Williams “When The Woman Looks” p. 18

[7] Linda Williams “When The Woman Looks” p. 23

[8] Linda Williams “When The Woman Looks” p. 21

[9] Linda Williams “When The Woman Looks” p. 21

[10] Linda Williams “When The Woman Looks” p. 27

[11] Kevin Williamson  Scream

[12] Carol J. Clover “Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film” p.67

[13] Carol J. Clover “Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film” p.75

[14] Carol J. Clover “Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film” p.77

[15] Carol J. Clover “Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film” p.79

[16] Carol J. Clover “Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film” p.77

[17] Carol J. Clover “Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film” p.82

[18] Carol J. Clover “Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film” p.82

[19] Carol J. Clover “Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film” p.83

[20] Carol J. Clover “Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film” p.83

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