Horror movies are allegories for contemporary society, writes Craig Hourihan – what does this mean for those left out of the script?
“Cinema is a matter of what’s in the frame, and what’s out.” – Martin Scorsese
Every year, once the leaves start to turn brown, I prepare myself for the onslaught of upcoming horror movies (pun intended). To be quite frank, I adore horror. Everything about it: the terror, the monsters, the supernatural, everything. But you know what I really don’t like? Bad representation! Anyone can see a movie, so a movie production can and should include these groups in their movies, but they don’t. Horror especially. Since horror was reborn, from traditional folk tales to a contemporary genre, representation has improved – slowly. Slowly but surely, right? Well yes, and no. Representation is far more common in modern horror media, but the question is: is all this representation well-executed? The answer is no, of course not! This doesn’t mean that horror has terrible representation, far from it. What it does mean is, that like any other genre, horror can improve itself to represent a more diverse world in the 21st century.
A main trope of horror fiction is the ‘final girl’ – basically the girl who makes it to the end and defeats the killer. Almost all horror films have them, especially slasher fiction.
Laurie Strodes from John Carpenter’s 1978 classic Halloween, and Sidney Prescott from Wes Craven’s 1996 film Scream are two perfect examples. Both women have similarities, and differences. Both final girls are stalked by their assailant and appear to kill the boogeyman by the films’ end. Naturally, because it’s a horror film, these killers will eventually return in the sequels. Sidney is a modern final girl who knows the tropes prevalent in horror. She understands the references, and appears to be much more physical in her battle with the killers, defeating all of them in the franchise. Laurie, on the other hand, is far more subdued. She represents a more motherly figure, whose main aim is to protect the children in her care. She also shows more emotion throughout the ordeal, making her a more grounded character. Unlike Sidney, Laurie isn’t the one to get the last stab at her assailant. That honor goes to Samuel Loomis, psychiatrist of the film’s antagonist, the now-infamous Michael Myers. This isn’t to say that Laurie doesn’t put up a fight. Throughout the movie we see her stab Myers with a hanger, a sewing needle, and even his own knife.
Laurie and Sidney are very different when it comes to their demeanor and personality. One is more action-focused and the other is more protective. This is good, as it provides more than one type of female representation in the final girl trope alone. The representation of final girls is a good one, in general. The final girls in horror are the heroes, and the men are the monsters upholding the patriarchal norm.
As well as that, the final girls are the lead characters, so us men in the audience are forced to identify with and root for them. In this way, we can read final girls as feminist figures.
On the other hand, the majority of horror films are written and produced by men, so the final girl trope could also be seen as a voyeuristic look into female torture.
Final girls aside, women feature in almost every horror in a variety of stereotypical guises: there’s the cheerleader; the popular girl; the nerd; the virgin; the slut – you get the picture. One female role that is very problematic in horror media is that of the torture victim.
Indeed there is a whole subgenre of horror called “torture porn”, or the splatter film. We all know them. Titles such as Hostel and Saw have been blockbuster hits. Female representation in this genre is problematic at best. Of course men joyfully get brutalised throughout as well, but it’s not as real, is it? Seeing a woman get brutalised in such a horrific manner on the big screen, with the camera lingering on the body longer, is a projection of society’s sexism. Why? Because it feels more real. Men, of course, are subjected to violence in real life as well, but in a world where misogyny permeates into every aspect of society, women are the ones who feel most at risk. Having this excessive violence against women displayed on the big screen equates to displaying a misogynist’s view for the world to see. Take Darren Aronofsky’s Mother!, a biblical allegory with Jennifer Lawrence playing the titular character of Mother (Nature). The film features Lawrence as the perfect housewife, making everything perfect for her husband, ‘Him’. The camera never leaves Lawrence’s face, and we see her make her home into a paradise for her husband. Does he care? No. He lets a strange man and women into the home, and with them he brings horror. Lawrence is subjected to psychological torture, group beatings, and the death of her newborn baby.
Ultimately Mother! is about the women who get left behind due to male egotism. It’s a story that is heard far too often. She gives everything to her husband and he ends up tearing out her heart, in this case literally.
Along with female representation, the representation of the LGBT community in horror is an important one. We may think that this representation is a new one, but many members of the community found solace in early horror cinema. In the early 20th century homosexuality was seen as a sin at best, or monstrous at worst. If the community was labelled monstrous by mainstream society, how then could they have good representation in horror cinema? The 1963 film The Haunting, based on the early novel The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, features timid Eleanor and Theo the outgoing, psychic lesbian. Theo’s lesbianism is hardly brought up in the movie. It’s treated in a normal, sympathetic way. Early cinema as well has gained a strong LGBT following.
As the British Film Institute says, “monstrous transformation or terror from society can serve as a metaphor for the isolation many LGBT viewers have felt”.
Maybe this is one of the reasons the Babadook was leaving us all ‘Babashook’ with his recent foray into the LGBT sphere.
Vampirism and vampire cinema feature overt sexual themes, and many of these films include LGBT characters. One of the earliest vampire stories, in the sense of the modern concept, was Carmilla (1872) by Sheridan Le Fanu. The story centres around the vampire Carmilla preying on a female heroine. Naturally, some people may say they were just ‘gal pals’. Let’s just call a spade a spade: one of the first vampire novels was about a lesbian vampire and homoeroticicism. This translated to the screen with Hammer Horror’s 1970 film The Vampire Lovers. The 1970s brought Anne Rice’s Interview With a Vampire, the story of isolated and brooding Louis and his maker, Lestat. The isolation felt by the vampires in the original novel struck a chord with many gay readers. Indeed, the homoerotic tension between Louis and Lestat, coupled with the two vampires acting as parents to Claudia resonated with gay and lesbian fans. Modern vampire stories continue to include LGBT representation, especially American Horror Story: Hotel and True Blood.
HBO’s True Blood featured many types of representation, including gay characters: the most prominent being short order cook Lafayette Reynolds. Lafayette is an out and proud gay black man. This pride is important, as the show itself is an allegory for prejudice and discrimination in the Deep South. Does the phrase “God hates fangs” sound familiar to anyone? Gay representation in True Blood is far from perfect however, with many stereotypical portrayals haunting the screen. A show obsessed with sex and sexuality revels in the nudity of its straight couples and their sexual promiscuity. Generally in the show those LGBT characters who engage in same-sex activity end up dead. This epidemic of gay death or the ‘bury your lesbian’ trope is apparent in almost all genres, and are tropes that need to end. At least the 2016 “San Junipero” turned this trope on its head by having its central, interracial, lesbian couple spend their digital afterlives together. True Blood never made a secret of comparing LGBT rights with vampire rights. Vampires in that universe are urged to “come out of the coffin”. The vampires are most times violent and murderous – the bigots with backwards views are right to worry. If these vampires are indeed representing the LGBT community, then what message are they trying to portray?
AHS: Hotel continues this representation. One of the main characters in the show is a trans woman of a certain age, Liz Taylor; a representation we don’t usually get in horror media. Liz Taylor is unabashedly proud of who she is. Furthermore, Taylor refuses to get surgery, saying she’s comfortable the way she is. By the final episode of the series, Taylor unites all the ghosts, serial killers, and vampires in the hotel Cortez. In this respect, Liz Taylor becomes the ‘final girl’ of the show. She does die, yes, but so does almost every other character. Liz becomes the face of a fashion brand, and rejuvenates the hotel. There’s only one problem with this portrayal: Liz Taylor is played by a cisgender actor. By having a cis man play a trans woman, Hotel is taking work away from the very group they’re trying to represent: trans women.
Horror as a genre is steadily improving in gender representation and LGBT representation, but one area that horror needs to address as soon is possible is that of race.
In a world where police violence, white supremacy, and fear of immigration mixed with the rise of the far right are increasing daily, it is more important than ever to show that non-white protagonists can stand up to the monster. They’re doing it everyday in the real world. So are women, and members of the LGBT community. Horror can be rightly accused of tokenism with its characters of color. They’re in there for token representation and we know, as audience members, that they will never survive to the end. There are good examples of this in the medium. The 1968 classic film Night of the Living Dead, by the late George A. Romero, featured Duane Jones as the lead character Ben. Ben was a resourceful and calm protagonist who didn’t seem out of place in an otherwise all white cast. Released in the late 60’s, the film caused controversy by having Jones, an African-American man, cast as the lead role. Despite helping characters throughout the film and being resourceful, Ben was eventually shot down in the finale of the film, his body falling next to a pile of ghouls. For black audiences watching this movie, the final scene must have felt like a betrayal to them. They couldn’t have left him survive, and instead Ben faced the same fate that many African Americans experience even today. It was Jordan Peele’s 2017 feature Get Out that saw this narrative turned on its head. Get Out critiques upper middle class, white liberals. These people appear understanding or ‘woke’ on the surface, but their actions continue to make the lives of people of color uncomfortable and fearful. These racists aren’t torch-wielding nazis, but the respectable family one might find in any American suburb. Not only does this movie accurately represent its African American characters, but it also represents a large amount of white horror viewers accurately as well, forcing them to turn their attention inwards for what may be the first time.
All good horror media are usually allegories for contemporary society. It feeds off what we fear. Fear of the Cold War? A rise in science fiction and feral families, a la The Hills Have Eyes. Fear of blood with the onset of the AIDs crisis? A rise in slasher and vampire films a la Scream and Dracula. Representation is important in all genres, but especially horror.
If you don’t represent marginalised groups on screen, you run the risk of these groups being cast as the villains. You’re not showing them as the heroes, so they must be the monsters. The gay teen must be the child murdering clown. The black trans woman must be the evil demon.
Without showing these groups as main characters capable of defeating the evil, horror media is sending the message that straight, white, middle to upper class men – and women, as long as they don’t overstep their boundaries – are the heroes, and everyone else is an evil to be defeated.