Gender and Contemporary Horror in Film

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(18 chapters)


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Part I Bodies


The horror genre is and always has been populated by women, who can be seen to be at once both objectified and empowered. Building off the preexisting gender hierarchies and dynamics embedded in the history of horror cinema, this chapter looks at a number of New French Extremity films that assault audiences with unrelenting scenes of violence, torture and self-mutilation, which are performed almost exclusively upon or by women. Although the films of the New French Extremity have been dismissed as exploitative in their representations of wounded and suffering female bodies, their narratives also offer internal criticisms of the misogynistic portals of victimhood that are prevalent in the genre. Through a close analysis of the films Inside (Bustillo & Maury, 2007) (French title: À L’intérieur) and Martyrs (Laugier, 2008), this chapter will examine how both films deviate from the male monster/female victim dichotomy. Although the women of these films may start off vulnerable, they take charge of their situations, while also compacting the nature of feminine identity.


Traditional visions of masculinity are inextricably linked to some tropes believed as ‘essential’ in men such as valour or strength. If a man fails in comply with these ‘essences’, then he fits into a form of deviant masculinity that transforms him into an Other.

Now, what happens with the issues of ageing in masculinity? The ageing man slowly but naturally loses all the aspects that made him ‘manly’ enough, becoming instead a double of himself. Men are doomed to fail as their bodies start to malfunction.

Two horror films highlight ageing and failed masculinity as a way to engage with these new concerns. Bubba Ho-Tep (Don Coscarelli, 2012) and Late Phases (Adrián García Bogliano, 2014) revolves around two aged heroes (Elvis Presley in the former, an ageing war veteran in the latter) who live within retirement communities. There, in the last years of their life, both men must face supernatural menaces: a walking mummy and a werewolf respectively. Facing supernatural horror, the ageing heroes must compensate their failing masculinity – a body that does not work as well as it used to do – with new forms of empathy and manliness.

Uniting film studies with investigations on masculinity and ageing, we propose to read these two films to point the ways in which both stories engage with the cultural politics of ageing masculinity.


The Spanish lycanthrope arrived successfully to Spanish screens with The Mark of the Wolfman (Eguiluz, 1968), introducing iconic actor and scriptwriter Paul Naschy as werewolf Waldemar Daninsky. This persona would be later developed in more depth in The Werewolf Versus the Vampire Woman (Klimovsky, 1970) and Curse of the Devil (Aured, 1972). Furthermore, Daninsky’s construction responded to the historical repressive context of Francoist Spain, and the strong ideal of masculinity imposed and promoted under the fascist regime (Pulido, 2012).

After a long hiatus in the horror genre, the more recent film Game of Werewolves (Martínez Moreno, 2011) revisits the figure of the Spanish lycanthrope by introducing two different sets of characters embodying two different types of masculinity and, more significantly, by linking the strong, traditional male identity to the myth of the werewolf, paying homage to Waldemar Daninsky.

Thus, through the film’s historically contextualized textual analysis, the chapter seeks to study the myth of the werewolf in twenty-first-century Spain, in relation to the changes in the masculine identity and the historical context to which it refers, exploring the struggle of men to move from the traditional male identity imposed during the dictatorship to a more progressive one.


Grave (English title: Raw), the 2016 feature film debut from French writer/director Julia Ducournau, is a body horror that explores cannibalism in a contemporary setting. A vegetarian student, Justine, develops cannibalistic desires after she is forced to eat rabbit kidneys in a hazing ritual at a veterinarian school.

This film portrays the female cannibal as having lost control of her bodily impulses. Justine displays a loss of cognition that results in involuntary actions when confronted with raw flesh. One can observe parallels in this portrayal and that featured in earlier films Dans ma peau (In my Skin, 2002, dir. Marina de Van) and Trouble Every Day (2001, dir. Claire Denis). These two films are identified with the early twenty-first-century French ‘cinema of the body’ trend, which involves disturbing and horrific portrayals of alienated protagonists, sexual debasement and transgressive urges.

In my exploration of the mind/body divide featured in Grave, I’ll argue that the film moves away from portrayals of the cannibal in the two earlier films, as we now observe a female protagonist who is actively engaged in meaningful relationships with others. As such, Justine seeks connection rather than disconnection from those around her, with varying levels of success.


In this chapter, I discuss the development of the cannibal picking up from Jennifer Brown’s (2013) study, Cannibalism in Literature and Film. Brown (2013, p. 7) argued that the cannibal is a sign of ultimate difference who ‘reappears in various guises at times when popular culture needs to express real fears and anxieties’. I argue that the most recent version of the cannibal is gendered female and that this coincides with a postfeminist media culture. I explore how the cannibal is positioned as an ambiguous figure which questions both humanity and monstrosity. I argue that this is complicated by gendering it female as women have traditionally straddled the line between human and less-than human in popular culture. I discuss three films: 301/302 (Park, 1995), The Woman (Torino, Van Den Houten, & McKee, 2011) and Raw (De Forêts & Ducournau, 2016) and explore how they use incest, objectification and dehumanization as well as cannibalism to explore the ambiguities of postfeminist subjecthood. I will argue that by performing acts of cannibalism the female cannibals in these films reclaim their subjectivity both by objectifying others and by identifying with their victims. The cannibalism also presents the opportunity for female-oriented families through shared consumption which ironically embraces patriarchal ideals of feminine feeding roles and challenges the patriarchal basis of the family.

Part II Boundaries


This chapter investigates the recent surge of social media (mis)use in horror films including The Cabin in the Woods (2012), Unfriended (2015) and #Horror (2015) and how young women’s relationship to social media in these films often pillories females for existing under, and delighting in, an anonymous, ubiquitous gaze. In these narratives, women are slut shamed both in the plot and through the threat of social media’s panoply of screens, sur- and selfveillance. In my discussion, I will utilize feminist film theory including the writings of Laura Mulvey, Linda Williams and Barbara Creed, while also including contemporary cultural criticism from writers and journalists like Nancy Jo Sales and Leora Tanenbaum to explore the horror genre from a more contemporary, multi-discourse perspective. The technology in these films serve as harbingers, intimating the figurative and literal dangers to come for their female protagonists, ultimately suggesting that the horror in these films is the medium itself and the patriarchal social media culture that these devices cultivate.


This chapter considers the influence of horror on the production of commercial gay pornography. I see this influence reflected especially in the production and popularity of gay pornographic films inspired by horror franchises from the slasher and ‘torture porn’ cycles that have been remade in recent decades. Nine texts are selected for analysis – from the slasher genre: Bryan Kenny’s 2010 A Nightmare on Twink Street (inspired by the A Nightmare on Elm Street series), Andy Kay’s 2012 Black XXXmas (inspired by Black Christmas), Frank Fuder and Angel Skye’s 2009 Halloweiner: Friday the Fuckteenth and Chi Chi LaRue’s 2016 Scared Stiff (both inspired by the Friday the 13th series), Bromo’s 2017 Cream for Me (Scream series); and from the torture porn genre: Jett Blakk’s 2006 Bonesaw, John Bruno’s 2006 Rammer and Bryan Kenny’s 2010 Raw I and 2011 (with Andy Kay) Raw II (inspired by the Saw franchise). The specificity of the horror genre is addressed, as is the importance of gender. But particular focus is directed toward the structural aspects of gay porn parodies and the degree to which horror parodies in particular have the potential to blend pornographic homosex with graphic violence, perhaps most extreme in the slasher and torture porn horror variants. Other potentialities are also explored, such as for the easing of narrative/sex porn tensions.


This chapter explores the role of postmodern intertextuality in Neil Jordan’s 2012 vampire film Byzantium. This intertextuality serves to place the film in dialogue with earlier vampire fiction, in particular the 1970s cycle of British and European erotic vampire films such as Daughters of Darkness and The Vampire Lovers from Hammer Films. Byzantium recalls these earlier texts structurally and thematically, both through direct reference and more oblique allusions.

While Fredric Jameson characterizes postmodern intertextuality as mere nostalgia and the imitation of ‘dead styles’, feminist postmodern theorists such as Linda Hutcheon contend argue for the political potential of postmodernism. This chapter proposes that the postmodern intertextuality of Byzantium is a critical intertextuality, and that the foregrounding of storytelling, writing, and rewriting in the film draws attention to the ways in which the intertextuality of Byzantium is not merely a return to past forms but also a reworking of them.

Taking up the work of Linda Hutcheon and Catherine Constable, this chapter demonstrates the ways in which Byzantium critically reworks aspects of earlier vampire fiction in order to critique and expand the representation of the female vampire and through this explore issues relating to female subjectivity and community.


David Punter and Glennis Byron note how the Gothic novel has been divided into two categories: the ‘Male’ and ‘Female’ Gothic. Where the former emphasizes violence and ghosts, the latter focuses on female representation and the disavowal of the supernatural. The Hollywood Gothic films of the 1940s can be said to translate this aspect of the Female Gothic onto the cinema screen: Rebecca (1940), Gaslight (1944) and Secret Beyond the Door (1947) all feature narratives stressing the haunting nature of domestic spaces but there are no actual ghosts present. Robert Zemeckis’s What Lies Beneath (2000) breaks this convention. The film clearly draws on the Female Gothic lineage, situating Claire as a Gothic heroine, and yet there is an important difference: the supernatural is now an integral – and acknowledged – part of the story. This chapter explores this twenty-first century change, arguing that whilst the inclusion of the supernatural can be said to break with previous definitions of the Female Gothic, What Lies Beneath’s depiction of a ghost actually re-imagines and re-emphasizes the concerns at the centre of this tradition: the dramatization of marital and domestic experiences; an interrogation of feminine perception; and the reality of male violence against women.


Since 2004, Turkish cinema has been witnessing an emergence of horror genre, now flooded with stories of possession by malevolent jinn, as transgressive, volatile figures of abjection. These female-centred narratives rely both on Islamic cosmology and myths and folktales of pre-Islamic Anatolian oral culture. The chapter will first explore the reasons horror has been neglected in the century-long history of cinema in Turkey and move on to highlight the socio-economic, cultural, and political contexts that were catalysts for the horror genre’s emergence. Then, the chapter will discuss the codes and conventions of the genre and explore the unique place of Alper Mestçi’s 2007 film Haunted (Musallat), among its contemporaries in terms of the ways in which the film challenges these established codes and conventions. In analysing Haunted, the chapter will use the theoretical framework of Barbara Creed, Carol J. Clover and Julia Kristeva to discuss the monstrous-feminine and masculinity as abjection.

Part III Captivity


While horror film is hardly new to Latin America, film scholars have largely emphasized the paradigms of socially engaged, ‘serious cinema’ over exploring how genre, cult or other transgressive film-making modes have developed in and reflect the region (Tierney, 2014). To characterize Latin American horror, it is typified by the supernatural, which indeed contradicts serious cinema. Since about 2010, however, Latin American film-makers have revisited the ‘abduction’ subgenre of horror film. This chapter analyses three such films – Scherzo Diabolico (García Bogliano, 2015), Luna de Miel (Cohen, 2015) and Sudor Frío (García Bogliano, 2010) – to suggest how their representations of gender and class complicate assumptions about everyday life in the region. The chapter also interrogates how this revived mode of horror film-making reconfigures gender ideologies to challenge the Latin American sociopolitical structures of machismo and patriarchy. By integrating conceptualizations of hybridity with transnational views on horror film-making and Freeland’s (1996) reworked feminist strategy for analysing horror texts, this chapter argues that, in tandem with new means of accessing and viewing Latin American horror globally, we should rethink how the abduction subgenre reflects new realities of Latin American society.


Roland Joffé, the film-maker behind the significant critical hits The Killing Fields (1984) and The Mission (1986), employed a hypnotic aesthetic, which unflinchingly depicted violence and brutality within different cultural contexts. In 2007, he used a no less impressive aesthetic in a similar way, although this film, Captivity, was met with public outcry, including from self-proclaimed feminist film-maker Joss Whedon. This was based upon the depiction, in advertisements, of gendered violence in the popularly termed ‘torture porn’ subgenre, which itself has negative gendered connotations.

We aim to revisit the critical reception of Captivity in light of this public controversy, looking at the gendered tensions within considerations of genre, narration and aesthetics. Critics assumed Captivity was an attempt to capitalize on the popularity of the torture horror subgenre, and there is evidence that the film-makers inserted scenes of gore throughout the narrative to encourage this affiliation. However, this chapter will consider how the film works as both an example of post-peak torture horror and an interesting precursor to more overtly feminist horror, such as A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014) and Raw (2017). This is seen through the aesthetic and narrative centralizing of a knowing conflict between genders, which, while not entirely successful, does uniquely aim to provide commentary on the gender roles which genre criticism of horror has long considered implicit to the genre’s structures and pleasures.


Up until the turn of the millennium, there had been very little positive representation of women and women in action characters in the action film genre. Two notable exceptions were Ellen Ripley in the Alien movies and Sarah Connor in the Terminator franchise. Whilst this has certainly changed over the last 20 years, one action/horror/science fiction heroine remains neglected: Project Alice in the six Resident Evil films. Portrayed by Milla Jovovich, and loosely based on the platform game character, Project Alice is strong, driven, motivated and tough. This chapter will, through detailed analysis of character, her physical presence through the clothing she wears, psychogeographical aspects, her use of weapons and narrative arc, clearly demonstrate the importance of Project Alice to the horror genre.


The Final Girls (Todd Strauss-Schulson, 2015) is the story of a group of teenage friends that, during the screening of a Friday the 13th-like 1980s slasher horror, happen to be sucked into the film. Trapped in the gruesome narrative, they have to survive the deranged killer that haunts the premises of the campsite by applying their knowledge of the rules and cliches of the slasher genre. The film is of interest not only because it mixes horror and comedy and exaggerates the horror genre’s conventions – as Scream and other neo-slashers already did. By employing the device of the screen rupture, the film constructs a complex network of self-reflexive moments and intertextual references. The metalinguistic play involves in particular the notoriously sexophobic and gender-led dynamics of the 1980s slashers – those more emancipated girls who have sex are killed; the most prudish girl is the one that eventually manages to defeat the monster, the ‘Final Girl’. In this sense, the film is almost like a video essay that reprises and illustrates one of the most seminal study of the slasher genre, Carol Clover’s 1992 Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. The chapter presents the defining elements of the slasher subgenre as theorized by Clover and then focusses on the analysis of the metalinguistic elements of The Final Girls vis-à-vis Clover’s classic text.


Jordan Peele’s critically acclaimed directorial debut Get Out (2017) highlights the issues regarding racism and Black identity that have seldom been the subject of horror film. More specifically, Get Out offers representations of Black masculinity that push against the stereotypical and reductive ways that Black men have often been depicted in horror cinema. The portrayal of Black men in Get Out takes shape in ways influenced by a range of relationships featured in the film. Amongst these is the dynamic between the leading character Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) and his white girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams), in addition to Chris’s interactions with Rose’s mother Missy (Catherine Keener), as well as his best friend Rod (Lil Rel Howery). As such, scrutiny of Get Out yields insight into the construction of Black masculinity in horror film, including how on-screen inter- and intra-racial relations are implicated in this. The writing that follows focuses on how Get Out offers complex and scarcely featured representations of Black masculinity, and boyhood, in horror. As part of such discussion, there is analysis of the entanglements of on-screen gender and racial politics, which contribute to the nuances of depictions of Black masculinity in Get Out.


Pages 251-261
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Cover of Gender and Contemporary Horror in Film
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Emerald Studies in Popular Culture and Gender
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Emerald Publishing Limited