Though this year’s Halloween is conspicuously free of any new horror releases, in some ways, there’s never been a better time to be a horror fan. As women filmmakers work to build their resumes in an industry that remains skeptical about the financial viability of women’s stories, the genre has intersected with women’s filmmaking and, by extension, with feminism. The low-cost, high-reward nature of the horror market has provided a gateway to experience and creative expression for many women artists, and recently women filmmakers like Jennifer Kent, Karyn Kusama, and Ana Lily Amirpour, all of whom have used horror as a means to explore women’s roles within the genre and the world at large. But though the market circumstances surrounding these films is unique to our era, women have been making horror for generations, often very well and often with little fanfare. For every Near Dark or Trouble Every Day that made its way to cult popularity, there is a Bedevil or Pet Sematary waiting to to be found. If horror hasn’t traditionally been associated with feminism, what is traditionally seen as feminist horror has oriented itself around locating women’s perspectives, women’s artistry, and women’s power within the genre.
But if the full history of feminist horror has yet to be written, and the work of seeking out women’s work is never done, what is to be made of the mostly male-dominated horror-film canon as it exists now? For newcomers just starting out with the genre, digging a little bit into the histories of the men who built the foundation of modern horror can be daunting. Roman Polanski’s Repulsion is a film made by a rapist about a woman who is paranoid that all men are rapists. Alfred Hitchcock probably stalked Tippi Hedren, but even if he didn’t, he definitely trapped her without her consent in a room to be attacked with live birds for the sake of his movie, The Birds. Klaus Kinski plays a soulfully scary Nosferatu, but the allegations of incest and molestation that recently emerged from his daughters Pola Kinski and Nastassja Kinski don’t exactly make the scenes of him creeping into a woman’s room at night easy to watch. Even Stanley Kubrick — by all accounts a dedicated and loving father and husband — tormented Shelley Duvall on the set of The Shining to get the performance he wanted from her.
Even in films that weren’t made by abusers, there is an element of gendered toxicity that runs through horror history. Carrie and The Exorcist build horror out of girls’ puberty, and scenes like Carrie’s first period and Linda Blair impaling herself with a cross are among the most iconic moments in horror-film history. Rape is a driving force within the genre, and its threat, its execution, and its revenge make the basis for classics like The Last House on the Left, I Spit on Your Grave, and Deliverance — and for every one of the classics, there’s about a thousand exploitative ripoffs. Feminine madness propels films like Possession, promiscuity results in the It of It Follows, and for every Final Girl in the horror film canon, you can find a debilitating pregnancy-by-demon to match.
There is no obligation to watch toxic horror films, no tablet handed from the seventh circle of Hell dictating that, actually, if you want to be one with the horror movie devil, you really must start with Roman Polanski. It’s possible to use film history to contextualize and minimize the outsized reputations of the men at hand. Polanski was just cribbing off of Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast for his famous production designs in Repulsion. Hitchcock made thrillers — but for a taste of real classic Hollywood horror, look for Jacques Tourneur.
But if keeping the work of the actively abusive out of sight and out of mind is maybe the simplest solution as a feminist fan of horror filmmaking, it’s not always the easiest. Sometimes the work of abusers inspires the work of other, more ethical artists, and, more intimately, sometimes films like Rosemary’s Baby or Psycho are what spawned the initial impulse for the fan to seek out horror films in the first place. For feminist-film fans, curiosity creates a perpetual threat of acculturation. When art originates in a culture based around heteronormative reproductivity and its inherent gender imbalances, what is the effect of consuming that art for the person who doesn’t want to accept those underlying structures?
The best of modern horror offers freedom from the familiar structures of power that underpinned the genre as it existed decades ago. Scream subverted its own conventions by drawing attention to the arbitrary and unspoken rules in horror filmmaking, with particular attention to the rule dictating that all characters who have sex must die. The Babadook introduced horror to the sacred bond between mother and child, calling into question the long-held and Rosemary’s Baby–approved horror assumption that a mother’s overriding natural instinct is to protect her child. But sometimes, even worse than the hostility of the past is the neutrality of what’s less than stellar in the present — movies like The Conjuring, that treat the relationships between men and women as perfectly harmonious and entirely devoid of power play. In the new pop-horror tradition, the threat comes from what’s outside the home and the family, not what’s in it, as if the cultural phenomena that produced the once fraught sexual politics of horror have been resolved.
There are times when looking back at a piece of sexist filmmaking causes a visceral response of such active disgust that it’s possible to place the film on the “problematic” pile and never think about it again. But in the case of horror filmmaking, the inherent tensions between fear, power, anger, and violence that define the genre can sometimes have the unexpected effect of redeeming art from its own origins. Watching Rosemary’s Baby with the knowledge of Roman Polanski’s background only adds to the claustrophobic tone of the film, because in 2016, Rosemary is twice trapped. She can’t escape her home, her husband, or her film world, and she also can’t escape the world that produced and continues to support Roman Polanski. It’s infuriating in the final scene to watch Rosemary abdicate her fear, her rage, and her sense of moral righteousness for her maternal instincts, and there’s also an indignancy to watching a gleeful Polanski present Rosemary’s docility as an archetype for womanhood as a whole. But if the infuriation of watching Rosemary’s Baby as a woman manages to skirt outside the realm of that which is personally triggering, does it follow that stoking a sense of infuriation is a bad thing?
Generally, when there is a call to preserve the work of predators, it comes from men, and the request is for the audience to separate the art from the artist. But besides being antithetical to the concept of art itself, these disentangling attempts ignore the potentially galvanizing effects that come from being righteously pissed off as an audience — at the art, the artist, and the culture that produced them both. If part of the goal of feminism is to pursue a women’s utopia, the pursuit of utopia can never begin without the acknowledgment that what existed before utopia is dystopia. For as much as horror can be an opportunity to watch women overcome, watch women kick ass, watch women unhinge their jaws and chomp their lovers to bits, when horror is disempowering, it becomes an opportunity to witness concretely that which is suspected and endured privately. So long as fear of women’s bodies, fear of women’s sexualities, fear of women’s minds, and fear of women’s agency propels our culture, there will always be a feminist purpose to watching that fear propel our movies.