While I was watching The Loved Ones tonight, a question kept nagging at me: why do so many horror movies begin with a hero or heroine who is already broken in some way? Why take a person who has already been traumatized and subject him/her to even more terror? Without a good reason, this trope just seems mean-spirited on the part of the filmmakers.
Brent, the main character in the Australian flick The Loved Ones, is a teenaged boy who accidentally caused his father’s death six months earlier in a car wreck. He struggles with his guilt over the tragedy, isolating himself, practicing self-harm, and only half-heartedly taking solace in trysts with his sympathetic girlfriend. Then, he is kidnapped and tortured by Lola, a quiet and obsessive classmate who he had rejected when she asked him to the school dance, accompanied by her equally deranged father.
Because horror movies often have a moral component, I found myself asking, What did he do to deserve all of this? Brent was polite when he said he couldn’t go to the dance with her. And we’re clearly not meant to sympathize with Lola. There’s no implication that she is crazy because she has been victimized in some way — she appears to be pure evil. I know I probably shouldn’t ask those kinds of questions — not everything has to have a moral — but horror flicks so often do that I’ve learned to seek it out. When bad things happen in real life, they don’t always happen for a reason. Life is chaotic and unpredictable; tragedy is often unexplained. But no matter how much a filmmaker might try to mimic the unexplained nature of reality, a plot point is still a creative choice with an underlying intention. Bad things often happen to characters because they have done something to “deserve” it, whether it’s being unchaste, unkind, or arrogant. We’ve been conditioned to expect this kind of punishment in horror movies.
So what to make of the relatively innocent character who is victimized once (prior to the film’s timeline) and then re-traumatized in the course of events?
In certain contexts, it makes sense. Most protagonists of ghost stories are already haunted by loss and grief, making them more susceptible to communion with the spirit world. In revenge movies, prior trauma can provide the characters with a partial catalyst for their vengeance. In films that deal with the supernatural or conspiracies, survivors have to deal with being discredited, dismissed, and further alienated because of their grief — other people believe that they are simply paranoid as a result of past experiences, and therefore unreliable, the boy who cried wolf.
But then there are the cases where the prior trauma doesn’t appear to have an immediate purpose, either as an origin story, catalyst, or cause for punishment. The tragedy just serves to make the survivor even more of a victim. I’m thinking of Sidney from the Scream series (murdered mother) and Sara from The Descent (husband and child died in a car wreck, best friend was having an affair with her husband) and it seems like the usual moral principle of “punishment” doesn’t apply anymore. Ghost Face starts slashing and cave monsters attack and it seems like the whole universe is ganging up on these poor women for no real reason. These two examples suggest that recovering from prior trauma gives the heroines greater strength to face the current tribulations. When Sara is nearly trapped in a collapsing tunnel, her friend tells her, “The worst thing that could have happened to you has already happened,” meaning, rock slides and cannibalistic creatures are a breeze compared to the death of a child. Sara taps into a reserve of hidden strength and escapes certain death. Sidney, too, eventually finds empowerment, refusing to be made a victim once again.
Brent’s situation in The Loved Ones is slightly different. He was the driver in the wreck that killed his father. Although it was an accident, he naturally feels guilty. But neither the accident nor his guilt have anything to do with the nightmarish situation he currently finds himself in: Lola seeks revenge for an unrelated slight; Brent does not use the memory of his father as a talisman for staying alive; his abduction did not happen as the result of poor decision-making.
I worried for awhile that the movie was going to pull a bait-and-switch: that Lola, her father, and their sadistic games were a figment of Brent’s guilty conscience, or a manifestation of his personal demons (I was relieved when things did not go this way). He doesn’t have much dialogue after the torture begins, but I wondered if ever he felt like he deserved what was happening. Maybe he felt that way at first — the film doesn’t indicate — but maybe the pain he suffers helps him rediscover his will to live, despite everything. Fortunately, the movie never answers the question of why, beyond “Lola is a crazy bitch.” That still doesn’t explain why he had to suffer to loss of his father — does it just make him a more sympathetic character? Does it make his suffering more profound in some way?
I don’t know. But I thought The Loved Ones was an interesting, well-crafted movie that managed to shock me and make me squirm. Does anyone have any thoughts on the issue?
I made the mistake about halfway through watching Ginger Snaps of reading what Brian Collins of Horror Movie A Day had to say about it, and, boy, it got me fired up! He said the movie wasn’t “great,” which, fair enough, maybe it isn’t, but he also dismissed the main characters (two Goth sisters from Canada who battle with lycanthropy and puberty) as unlikable. Even worse, he commented on the unattractiveness of the younger sister and the hotness of the older sister. Way to react like a typical bro-dude.
Horror as a genre typically panders to the male gaze by serving up tits (and lots of them), but part of the whole point of this movie is that the girls, at least up to a point, don’t want the attention of boys and do everything they can to avoid it. When the older sister does finally have her sexual awakening, it’s horrific and doesn’t turn out well for the boys who objectified her. And the younger sister hasn’t even had her period yet, for fuck’s sake! Commenting on her attractiveness, or lack thereof, epically and ironically misses the point.
And so what if the sisters are unlikable? Of course they are. Teenage girls are The Worst. You know who else is The Worst? Teenage boys, but somehow we’ve spent decades – millennia, really – glorifying The Worst tendencies of teenage boys and nobody complains that it isn’t fun to watch. It was nice, in a way, to see teen girl characters that didn’t fit the stereotypes of either the “plucky female heroine” or “bitchy popular girl.” They were unpleasant in a realistic way that actually served a function: to cover up the fears and uncertainties of adolescence.
I know Collins’ attitude isn’t exactly an egregious example of sexism, and it’s perfectly valid for someone to find the movie lacking in various ways, but it still really bummed me out. The failure of a male viewer to understand how much it could mean to girls who love horror but seldom see anything they can identify with bummed me out. I don’t want to turn everything into some kind of feminist issue, but there’s such a dearth of good, female-centric horror with emphasis on feminine anxieties that, in the rare case where a horror film handles these anxieties honestly, I think it’s worth having a conversation. The existence of the Final Girl does very little to make a horror film female-centric and exploiting the (too obvious) fear of vulnerability and rape is just as much about male titillation as it is about a woman’s anxiety. I’m interested to see more about the everyday terror of being a girl, which I thought Ginger Snaps delivered on very well.
Puberty is scary for everyone, but at least boys get cool deep voices, fun erections to play with and a newfound sense of camaraderie. For girls, everything fractures. Formerly close bonds between friends fall apart as secrets become currency and insecurity deepens into an all-encompassing paranoia. Before puberty, you had an identity: a tomboy, a storyteller, a trouble-maker; but after puberty everything that you are is reduced to your sex. You’re either an ugly freak like Bridget or a dirty slut-bitch like Ginger, and there’s no real in-between, unless being invisible counts.
I imagine when a boy is told, “You’re a man, now,” there’s a sense of pride in hearing that. But when you get your first period and someone says that godawful fucking line about being a woman, part of your soul dies because there’s no implication of exciting possibilities or new discoveries. It’s about the crushing responsibility of being a woman, of one day being a mother, of keeping your body safe and your reputation clean. Instead of boners, you get a bloody crotch. Instead of thinking about all the sexy sex you want to have, you think about getting pregnant and turning into a walking cliché – losing your figure, losing your identity.
Being a woman (or a mother) isn’t that miserable, really, but everything feels more dramatic when you’re thirteen. I cringed so hard when Ginger’s mother reminded her she would be getting her period for the next 30 years or so. When I was that age, thinking about those things, I could feel imaginary chains wrapping around me. And I cringed for Bridget, too, watching her older sister cross that line and knowing that the horrors of growing up were waiting for her, lurking around the corner.
No wonder the sisters in Ginger Snaps are so obsessed with suicide. I thought about death a lot when I was that age, too, not because I was truly suicidal but because it seemed so much cleaner than the messy, slow-moving tragedy of life. No wonder they, like all teenage girls, are so sour and unpleasant most of the time. The end of every single day felt like a miracle of endurance, and that is really terrifying.
Horror for Girls
Making a distinction between horror about girls and horror for girls can be a little difficult. A lot of critics cite Carrie when talking about Ginger Snaps; I don’t know if Carrie is really “for girls” the way Ginger Snaps is, but sexual awakening certainly causes anxiety that can be exploited for horror. A recent example is Teeth, a movie about a young girl who discovers that she has a literal vagina dentata. The film touches on many of the conflicting fears a girl can have about her body: sexual assault, sexual prowess, and sexual rejection.
A horror movie doesn’t even necessarily have to be about “women’s issues” to be female-centric; one of my favorite movies is The Descent, about a group of friends who go on a caving trip and discover that they are not alone. The movie doesn’t force a conspicuous “Girls kick ass!” message. The characters happen to be women and they happen to like adventures – this empowers the characters by not making an issue out of it. There’s friendship, betrayal, and loss. Also, monsters.
Another movie I enjoyed was May, about an isolated, socially awkward woman who is more than a little deranged and so starved for companionship that she turns into a clingy mess at any sign of affection. She’s creepy and overbearing, but I sympathized with her, too. I wanted her to make a friend, to have a boyfriend, to maintain any kind of healthy connection that might pull her out of her pathetic weirdness. But I wanted her to still be a little weird. The movie also seemed to comment on what we now call the Manic Pixie Dream Girl phenomenon; other characters in the film see May as quirky and interesting, even though she is clearly insane. People see her as they want to, instead of seeing her as she is – and when they finally have a moment of clarity, they reject her. This is a good example of how women sometimes get trapped in roles they don’t choose for themselves, and punished when they don’t conform to the lie.
May was directed by Lucky McKee, who made another interesting specimen of seemingly “feminist” horror, The Woman. In the film, a man finds a feral woman in the woods and captures her, keeping her tied up in a shed. He tortures the woman in order to “civilize” her and, as he recruits his wife and children to help out, it becomes clear that he terrorizes his family in equal measure. At first, The Woman could seem like another exploitation film, using the blunt instruments of rape and torture to shock the audience, but when the wife and teenage daughter look at the wild girl with empathy in their eyes, the movie becomes an interesting comment on misogyny and how certain men still can’t stand to see a liberated woman. Not exactly a subtle film, but definitely interesting.
This is all to say that I am a woman and I like horror movies. I can get down with the slashing, the damsels who need saving, and the gratuitous boobage of the 80s, but every once in awhile I like my dismemberment with a little feminism.
In honor of October and Halloween, I’ve started watching a lot of horror movies. “A lot” of horror movies for me is pretty relative, considering I watch them any time of year and, in my mind, the Halloween season started at least a month ago. I get really excited about fall.
For a while, I’ve been mulling over the question of whether there is some “ultimate” fear, some fundamental, primal trigger that unites us all in terror, and whether that ultimate fear is manifested in all horror films. Of course, “death” seems to be the obvious answer since it’s always a prominent feature of horror, either in the form of ghosts or actual corpses. But not all horror films rely on death (or threat of death) as the main source of tension; in some cases, characters are afraid of what they can or can’t see, afraid of living with a terrible guilt, or afraid of being permanently maimed. One could argue that all of those things connect back to death at some point, and I believe they do; but I also want to go one step further to argue that fear of death might actually represent an even greater, deeper fear.
To start with, let’s quickly go over what I see as the four most common fears represented across the many genres of horror. First, we have fear of the end of civilization (zombies, vampires, plague, apocalypse). Second, we have fear of pain and mutilation (torture porn, body horror, rape/revenge). Third, we have fear of people who are evil or crazy (slashers, possession, home invasion), which may overlap with fear numero dos considering that crazy/evil people are often responsible for a fair amount of mutilation. And fourth, we have fear of loss and uncertainty (ghosts, monsters, general supernatural).
For me, what all of these things have in common is loss of control. Nothing scares us more than feeling like we don’t have control over our own destinies, actions, desires, or physical agency. Helplessness.
Even worse, there are the situations where you do have control at the start, but a wrong choice suddenly takes the outcome out of your hands. The horror comes in knowing, on some level, what’s happening to you is your fault, that somewhere along the way you made a tiny mistake that set horrific events into motion.
Nothing is more terrifying than the moment you can’t take back. The left turn you made before realizing how close the oncoming traffic was. You can see your doom coming but it’s too late to stop it. Scream all you want, but it won’t make the seconds tick backward to undo what you’ve done.
Those are the twin fears that underlie all horror: powerlessness and regret. They don’t always co-exist, but stakes (and tension) are higher when they are found in combination.
In horror films, it goes like this: you say Bloody Mary three times into the mirror; you watch a video tape and wait seven days; you run up the stairs to escape a killer even though there’s nowhere to go but down; you ignored the warnings not to go into the woods; because you weren’t paying attention, a zombie bit you and now you’re infected.
Not only do you die, you know you’re dead before it even happens and there’s nothing you can do except watch yourself die. Live your final moments with the knowledge this could have been prevented.
If only you weren’t the way you are: too stubborn, too curious, too brash or arrogant or oblivious or skeptical.
Maybe horror films are our Greek tragedies, catharsis through pity and fear in situations created by a character’s fatal flaw. The horror and tragedy of Oedipus wasn’t that he killed his father or entered an incestuous marriage unknowingly; the horror was the realization that he was not in control of his destiny and that his actions, while predetermined, exposed the lie of free will and destroyed his life.
The people who make genuinely scary horror films understand the potent cocktail of helplessness and regret. All horror deals with the things we can’t fight.
When the end of humanity comes, the threat is too big; the infection spreads too quickly, the undead rise in numbers too great, the desperation of survivors turns everything to chaos. A character’s every decision becomes weighted with life or death significance.
When a character falls into a trap (which may or may not be of her own making), she is bound, hobbled, and mutilated. She is physically overpowered and intellectually outwitted. Assuming she makes it out alive, she is psychically wounded; she also has no control over the traumatic memories that haunt her in the aftermath.
When confronted with true evil or true insanity, the character fails because he has mistakenly believed all humans to be rational. He has prided himself on his empathy and ability to reason with other people. But evil resists. Crazy does not find him charming and does not care that he has a wife and three kids.
And lastly, when confronted with the supernatural, the character finds that, having released the vengeful spirit into the world, it’s simply not possible to fight a ghost. She can’t fight the unknowable and the unseen. The uncertainty. What she can never really comprehend is loss, absence, or grief. By the time it’s all over, she is afraid of being afraid.
So could the ultimate fear be powerlessness, mixed with regret? Sounds a lot like death, after all. Dying is scary because of those things, because it silences us and takes away our agency. No more body, no more mind.
It’s also possible that loss of power is my personal deepest fear, and thus influences the things I find scary or compelling in horror films. It would be potentially foolish for me to assume that my ultimate fear is something primal and universal to all of humanity. Fear is one of the most personal things in the world. I tried to explain to my mother once why The Ring got under my skin so much. I told her that the seven day window o’ death scared the hell out of me because I couldn’t stand the idea of knowing that something terrible was going to happen to me, and that I didn’t know what, and there was nothing I could do but just sit and wait for it to happen.
She just laughed at me and said, “Oh, Candice. You’re such a control freak.”