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.
It’s October, which means I’ve been watching horror movies almost non-stop for the last three weeks. In fact, I think my Netflix account is starting to judge me a little, each day coming closer to the conclusion that I’m a psychopath. Everyone’s familiar with horror tropes by now, but those genre conventions are brought into even sharper relief when you watch movies back to back to back. I’ve put together a few suggested double features based on the noticeable parallels.
The “She’s a Real Sweet Girl” Double Feature: May and Audition
The female leads in both films are shy, sweet, soft spoken, and endearingly off-kilter. But you’d better run like hell, because they have a penchant for dismemberment.
The “Location, Location, Location” Double Feature: Session 9 and The Descent
The Danvers State Mental Hospital in Session 9 and the caverns in The Descent are both monsters in their own right, even before the spooky shit starts to happen. The characters, already damaged by personal trauma, begin to unravel in claustrophobic spaces. The Descent throws in literal monsters for good measure, but both films have a haunted, melancholy atmosphere that would have been frightening enough without things that go bump in the night.
The “You’re Not From Around Here” Double Feature: Don’t Look Now and The Wicker Man
Donald Sutherland and Edward Woodward both search frantically for a lost little girl (one dead, the other imaginary) in unfamiliar places (Venice/Summerisle). Stymied at every turn by creepy old ladies and local authorities, they struggle to take power into their own hands. Little do they know that a mysterious plot is tightening its noose around them. See also: Antichrist vs. Don’t Look Now. Explicit married sex. Death of a child. Restorative vacation turned destructive.
The “Let’s Go to the Mall” Double Feature: Return of the Living Dead and Night of the Comet
Teenagers! 80s Music! 80s Fashion! Talking Zombies! The government ruins everything! See also: Dawn of the Dead.
The “My Girlfriend is a Corpse” Double Feature: Deadgirl and Make-Out with Violence
Make-Out with Violence is a much sweeter and more subdued film, but both are twisted coming of age tales about teenage boys and their friendships. Plus an undead girl tied to the bed. Deadgirl seems to be about impotence (or misogyny, or something), while Make-Out with Violence is more about coping with grief, but both films are creepy parables about playing house with a girl too zonked to even participate in the relationship. See also: Doghouse vs. Deadgirl, on the zombie chauvinism front. Alternately, Lake Mungo vs. Make-Out with Violence, from the “ghosts and zombies are a metaphor for not letting go of loved ones” angle.
The “Shit’s All Freaky” Double Feature: Poltergeist and Insidious
Haunted houses. Creepy children. Malevolent spirits. Objects that move around by themselves. Alternate dimensions. Psychics and hapless ghost hunters. Insidious even features a subtle homage to Poltergeist when one of the embattled ghost hunters soothes his bruises with a steak to the face. Sadly, the steak does not crawl across the table. See also: House of the Devil, another straight-faced modern film with a loving callback to spooky 80s movies.
The “Vampires Are So 2010” Double Feature: Cronos and Thirst
Two directors known for daring and originality: Guillermo Del Toro and Chan-Wook Park (Oldboy). Two takes on vampire mythology so radical that the classic creatures of the night are barely even recognizable.
Here are the other movies I’ve watched in the last few weeks, even though I couldn’t quite pair them up for an effective double feature:
Dario Argento’s Inferno (probably best with any other Argento film, especially Suspiria)
Peeping Tom (pair with another moody classic, like Eyes Without a Face, Diabolique, or something by Hitchcock)
Them (suggested with atmospheric European thrillers, like The Vanishing or another home invasion story, The Strangers.)
October isn’t over yet. More to come.