Female horror fans have always been lurking about, searching the aisles of Blockbuster for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and sneaking dog-eared copies of Stephen King’s oeuvre from the library. Some of us started even earlier than that, with Bunnicula and the works of Zilpha Keatley Snyder as gateway drugs to the dark side. There are a million different reasons why we come to love horror, from something as incidental as bonding with a parent over late-night reruns of Universal monster movies to a slumber party that got ghoulish. There was (and still is) a lot of dreck out there, but the few that managed to move us were enough to make sitting through garbage somehow worthwhile.
Luckily, many of those same female horror fans have grown up to make scary stuff that’s more inclusive (though we’ve still got a ways to go when it comes to LGBTQ fans and people of color). Although movies like I Spit on Your Grave have fans of all stripes and genders — some survivors even find rape revenge movies extremely empowering — many modern filmmakers are more careful about exploiting sexual assault or gore just for the sake of shock value. There are also plenty of men making more feminist-minded movies that play with horror tropes in new, cool ways, like You’re Next’s surprising heroine and the new take on STDs from It Follows.
Karyn Kusama’s credits span genres, from the beloved Sundance indie Girlfight to the big-budget sci-fi/actioner Aeon Flux, but her film Jennifer’s Body is a particular standout in the sub-genre of body horror. The female body and the changes we go through over the course of our lives are perfect subjects for this type of horror film, which focuses on the terrifying ways our bodies can mutate (The Fly, Videodrome), become unwilling hosts for foreign bodies (Alien, Shivers), succumb to disease and decay (Under the Skin), or otherwise transform in a multitude of unpleasant ways.
Kusama remarked, “I think horror as a genre is something we keep returning to in order to give ourselves a sense of control in an out-of-control world. Ultimately, the reason any of us, including men and boys, are so interested in horror is that it gives us a window into our own vulnerability, our own frailty.”
Jen and Sylvia Soska are twin sisters whose love and knowledge of the genre is no joke: They’ve written and directed a number of fairly hard-core horror films, including American Mary, about a medical student who goes into the body-modification underground to provide her scalpel services to paying patients. They also host the reality show Hellevator, which Jen describes as “a horror movie experience,” and they’re attached to direct a remake of Rabid, one of David Cronenberg’s earliest forays into body horror.
“I think horror is a very safe place to examine issues that are out of our control,” Jen said. “When something horrible happens in reality, whether it be war or kidnapping or murder or assault or any of those things, there’s unfortunately no censorship. When you watch a movie, you can deal with those issues. You can come as close as you can to experiencing what the characters are experiencing from the safety of your own seat.”
And then there’s the catharsis of experiencing horror onscreen and the way it can help relieve the pain of reality. Jen revealed that their grandmother’s terminal illness inspired a detail in American Mary. “That’s why ‘Mary’ had a nana who was ailing. That was the way that we were able to deal with that issue,” she explained, later adding, “As a kid growing up, you don’t think you’re ever going to die. You don’t think anyone you love could ever die. You don’t think any of these things could ever possibly happen. Then you start seeing it and then you start pulling back from horror, or as you watch it it’s more real for you.”
Female fetuses can be a real pain in the uterus, as the protagonist of Alice Lowe’s Prevenge learns the hard way. Pregnant women are themselves great sources of horror in film and literature, whether they’re losing control over their bodies to an invading force (Rosemary’s Baby) or being victimized by a jealous stalker (Inside). Lowe wrote, directed, and starred in Prevenge when she was seven months pregnant; she was frustrated by the feeling of not being able to work, as well as being bombarded by stereotypes of chipper, wholesome pregnant women.
Lowe’s Ruth is an enormously pregnant serial killer who’s on a major pre-birth revenge bender. It’s not a horror movie per se, but it has horrific elements, especially once the viewer realizes just who is instigating Ruth’s murderous acts. Lowe, who co-wrote and co-starred in the extremely dark comedy Sightseers, shatters the concept of how a pregnant woman can and should act, both onscreen and off — the latter, simply by making the movie at all.
“Obviously I’m not advocating pregnant women being violent,” Lowe said. “It’s more of a taboo-shattering thing where someone feels like, ‘Yeah, I’m allowed to feel angry if I’m pregnant, or I’m allowed to shatter the stereotype.’ If I’m a pregnant woman, I don’t have to feel confined by all the representations I see of what I’m supposed to be like.”
Julia Ducournau’s full-length narrative debut, Raw, stunned audiences at Cannes, where it won the FIPRESCI Prize, and at the Toronto Film Festival, where a handful of hardened Midnight Madness attendees reportedly fainted. Young Justine (Garance Marillier) is a lifelong vegetarian and a virgin when she arrives at vet school, but a weird hazing ritual involving raw meat triggers an alarming change in her body, which suddenly craves all sorts of things it’s never wanted before. It’s a powerful metaphor for primal desires and the wildness of female sexuality.
Ducournau said her attraction to horror movies began when she was little. “These kinds of movies gave me answers about the meaning of life and mortality,” she says. Her main interest lies not so much in the female experience of horror or why the female body is the site of such fascination — despite the rich fodder her film offers — but “a reflection about [the] human condition and the dark side in humanity.”
Ducournau added that part of the pleasure of filmmaking is expressing these taboo feelings. “Women aren’t supposed to feel this kind of violence, and they’re certainly not encouraged to act upon it. But violence has become a part our daily lives. I’m happy that we’re moving toward a general acknowledgment that women can [explore] these dark places and express them with as much violence as anyone else.”
Seeing women be the perpetrators of violence rather than the victims can have a cathartic effect on both the viewer and the filmmaker. “I like making men suffer in my films. I think it evens the playing field,” Jen Soska said.
“Jen, don’t be silly,” her twin quipped. “Everyone suffers in our films.”