Victims or Monsters: Women, Horror and Religious Reaction in the Age of #MeToo

By: Scott Poole

November 8, 2018

Religion and Gender in Horror Films

Horror film holds the reputation for being at best escapist, an embrace of nihilism instead of political engagement. At times, horror films have, for good reason, been seen as explicitly reactionary. In the classic 1974 The Exorcist, only the power of the Catholic Church can save Regan McNeil, a young girl on the edge of adolescence. She becomes the first of many young women in possession/exorcism dramas seemingly modeled on the misogynist assumptions of the Malleus Malificarum.

But such ideas are hardly at the root of horror. F.W. Murnau’s 1922 Nosferatu gave the world a vampire that, rather than selecting his victims neck by neck, brought a plague and das grosse sterben—the “Great Death,” or perhaps more literally, “the great die-off.” War veteran Albin Grau, the film’s art director who contributed much to the creation of plot and mise-en-scène, frequently described Nosferatu as a film that asked audiences to consider the horror of war as “the cosmic vampire that has sucked the blood of millions.”

The female lead of Nosferatu, Ellen, becomes both the monster’s victim and monster slayer. She offers herself to the vampire so that he feasts on her until the sun rises, exterminating him.

Some may read Ellen’s sacrifice through the lens of Christian models of devotion, paradigms often specifically gendered in gory and sexualized representations of the suffering of female saints and martyrs. However, it’s notable that the male figures we meet in the film are incredibly passive victims of the vampire or are simply ineffectual.

Perhaps more interesting, given the perennial patriarchal need to control female sexuality, Ellen feels drawn to the vampire throughout the film. The narrative allows a woman not only to show desire but also to direct it toward an image of alterity, the inhuman face and form of Nosferatu.

This one example, although enormously influential, obviously does not tell the whole story of horror. The phenomenon of the scream queen begins in the 1930s with film ranging from Universal’s Dracula to RKO’s King Kong telling narratives of women in sexual danger.

The appearance and popularity of the slasher film in the 1970s and 1980s appeared to make women, especially young women enjoying the fruits of the sexual revolution, into sacrificial victims for the vengeful gods Michael, Freddy, Jason, and their numerous imitators. These films have sometimes been seen as part of the religious and political backlash against women’s liberation. Their continuing popularity, some would argue, represents a manifestation of heteronormative male rage in the era of #MeToo.

The classic slasher films are actually doing something much more interesting than this. Laurie Strode in Halloween, Nancy Thompson in Nightmare on Elm Street, and Alice in Friday the 13th are unwilling to become anyone’s victim and indeed defeat their attackers. Religious conventions are almost completely absent in these narratives. Filmmakers chose instead to explode the notion of the safety of the suburbs and the summer camp in the post-1960s age of white flight.

It’s also important for those who do not loosely follow the genre to recall that not all horror films are slashers or possession/exorcism dramas. Robert Eggers’ The Witch (2015) functions as well-crafted feminist agitprop. There’s probably never been a film that, while making use of a misogynistic religious tradition’s ideas about women, sin, and the Devil, so completely upends audience expectations and sympathies.

Critics who take a global perspective on horror films, many of them produced outside a Christian framework, make any simplistic statement about the role of women in horror highly problematic. In Japan, as Linnie Blake has pointed out in her brilliant book The Wounds of Nations, the shadow of war haunts the present through the tradition of onryou, vengeful spirits, usually female, who elicit our sympathy in their search for retribution. The 2014 Iranian film A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night gives us an empathetic female monster and presents youth culture, especially the culture of a new generation of women in Iran, as both vibrant and under threat.

Of course, production companies will continue to churn out tales of demonic possession that employ the dark elements of the Christian tradition. But this sub-genre does not stand-in for the horror tradition. Seen in a global perspective, women are not portrayed in horror simply as victims of the monster. They appear just as often as powerful, supernatural forces or as warriors who slay murderous male maniacs. We have to look no farther than the 2018 remake of the classic Halloween to see that horror films are having a lively conversation about agency, assault, and the power of women to fight back in the age of #MeToo.

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