Female Characters in Horror Film and Fiction: Victims or Survivors?

WiHM 2013 seal-blackI am, as always, delighted to welcome horror author, Luke Walker, back to my blog. He doesn’t just support women in horror once a year; he supports us ALL THE TIME. He’s a  great guy and an opinionated big lug, so sit back and enjoy his contribution. Feel free to argue with him or call him names in comments. He enjoys that sort of thing *grin*

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The last time Diane participated in Women in Horror Month, I came up with a piece on women in horror films. Since then, I’ve often thought about a particular issue relating to this – women as victims.

Recently, I saw a film from the early eighties which was mostly awful in terms of plot and consistently awful in its treatment of women. Pieces.   pieces-movie-poster-For those who might have missed it (and you haven’t missed much), it’s a fairly bog standard slasher that wouldn’t exist without the obviously superior Halloween or even the not very good Friday 13th. Basically, a serial killer chops up pretty college women with a chainsaw because he has issues with his mother yadda yadda. So far, so ho hum. But here’s the thing – everything about the film is designed to give the viewer a voyeuristic thrill or to connect extreme violence with sex. Take a look at the scene with the victim on the waterbed. Penetration and blood? Yep. Upskirt shots? Yep. And finally an oral stabbing? Yep. Or how about the girl in the lift? Or the woman shaking it while wearing a skimpy leotard? The sexual, victimised connection couldn’t be made clearer unless the film-makers had their actresses carrying signs stating it. But instead, they go for having a screaming woman wet herself in fear before she’s killed. Unpleasant all round.

Basically, Pieces is a piece of crap. But here’s the thing: there are plenty of examples in horror films in which women are not the victims, in which they fight back against their attackers and often succeed in saving the day at least until the sequel comes along. The most famous example from roughly the nightmare on elm street 3same time period as Pieces is of course the Nightmare On Elm Street series.  Out of the five films made in the eighties, all bar one feature one of two female protagonists fighting back against Freddy Kruger. Nancy from the first film returns in the third to stand with a group of institutionalised teenagers, while Alice from part four returns in its follow up to protect her unborn son from Mr Kruger. Ignoring the overall decline in the series, it’s interesting the film-makers went with the whole Final Girl angle instead of putting a male character in their place, especially if you believe teenage boys were the target audience.
JamieLeeCurtisCould it be they took inspiration from Jaime Lee Curtis in the original Halloween? Or maybe the character of Sally in Texas Chainsaw Massacre? Possibly, but let’s not forget that while those two characters do fight back in some respect against Michael Myers and Leatherface’s charming family, they’re also screaming victims for much of their films. At the risk of sally texas chainsaw massacrespoiling the end of TCM, the last we see of Sally is a probably insane, shrieking woman sent over the edge after the film’s horrific events. Survivor and victim, Sally is both.

And of course, there are female victims and survivors in horror fiction just as there are in films. The late Richard Laymon was fond of having human and inhuman monsters rape his female characters  – fond of it enough for me to consider his work on the same level I consider films such as Pieces. But the horror world also has talented writers such as Stephen King who’ve given us women including Dolores Claiborne, Beverley Marsh, Fran grindinghouse-kaaron warrenGoldsmith and Jesse Burlingame who will not bow down and be destroyed by the terrible events of their stories (in order, an abusive husband, a supernatural child killer, the end of the world and being trapped in a house in the middle of nowhere while literally nobody knows where she is). Along with King, we have writers ranging from Alex Adams to Alison Littlewood to Kaaron Warron to Gary McMahon to Tim Lebbon who create female characters who are every bit as fully developed and rounded as all characters, men or women, need to be.

Ultimately, nobody should completely be the victim any more than they should completely be the hero. Fictional characters need to be as flesh and blood as they are in reality. It’s just a shame some people forget that.

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Luke Walker is the author of The Red Girl and the upcoming, ‘Set, both from Musa Publishing’s horror/paranormal line, Thalia.

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About Diane Dooley

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9 Responses to Female Characters in Horror Film and Fiction: Victims or Survivors?

  1. Dale Long says:

    Nicely put, Luke. It’s my opinion that movie directors have a “target” audience, because it’s easier to pander to a stereotypes needs than it is to tell a good story.
    I keep forgetting that Jamie Lee Curtis was a, if you’ll excuse the term, “scream queen”. She is always such a great presence in film. Like Sigourney Weaver, Jamie Lee tends to play such strong characters.

    • Luke Walker says:

      Yep, it’s easier for bad or lazy film-makers to go for the stereotypes. And the interesting thing about Curtis in Halloween is that while she is a terrified teenager (understandably), she still fights back to some extent against Michael Myers and it’s not only in self defence. She’s protecting children against the boogeyman.

  2. Alex says:

    I can see the point you are making, but I’ve been doing a study of this same subject for a feminist scholarly paper I’m doing and must disagree with the image of the “survivor.” Perhaps women are, but why has it become the stock storyline in horror to butcher, torture, and torment women in the first place? From Hostel to the new gore-porn to novels, there is an ever-increasing level of violence against women in horror. I don’t want to see an hour and a half of women being brutalized and then in the last twenty minutes, one “hero” chainsaws the bad guy. What is the real message in something like that? I find it disturbing.

    • Luke Walker says:

      I don’t particuarly disagree with you in that women face a lot of violence in horror although I don’t personally think it’s a stock storyline or that it’s ever increasing. In all genres, there are easy, thoughtless ways of telling the story. Thankfully, that doesn’t mean decent, intelligent and well-written/filmed fiction isn’t out there.

  3. Laurel says:

    Thank you for bringing that up about Richard Laymon–I’d been hearing about him as one of the horror “greats,” so when I read “Beast House” and found it sensationalist, exploitation-style garbage, I was like, “Hm. Okay. What am I missing? What’s ‘great’ about this?” So, thanks. I was starting to think I was all alone over here.

    I have a question though, because it’s been bugging me: This trope of the Final Girl. Does it still apply when the girl in question is the film’s protagonist? I’ve heard it applied to everyone from Ripley to Nancy, and while I get it to a certain extent, I get the same vibe off them as I do from male protagonists in horror films–that they survive not because they’re female, but because it’s their story. Do you know what I mean?

    • Luke Walker says:

      Beast House was one the examples of Laymon’s work I had in mind. I’ve got no problem with his style in terms of schlocky page turners (he was very good at that), but the man had a big rape thing going on and the example in that book is particularly foul.

      Re the Final Girl issue – it’s a tough one. I get the impression with a few examples that they survive because they find strength and resources they didn’t know they had. Or it’s just a case of kill or be killed.

    • Diane Dooley says:

      That’s a good question, Laurel. I’ve often wondered myself what the difference is between a ‘Final Girl’ scenario and a film which has a female protagonist who survives. Doesn’t the ‘Final Girl’ scenario also include that all the other females who die don’t deserve to survive because they’re slutty or stupid or bitchy or something, leaving only the good and pure one at the end? I don’t know if this is the answer. Just a thought.

  4. Sealey says:

    Well, I do have a problem when it feels like the “hero” comes out of nowhere at the end after being the victim the whole movie/book. You can’t undo one message/image that’s been shoved in your face the whole time your viewing/reading in the last couple scenes. But, I do agree with you that in order for the character to feel real, they can’t be just one or the other completely. Otherwise they feel cardboard. Thanks for providing examples of the ones who do it right, too, Luke! My reading list has a couple new additions. :)

    • Luke Walker says:

      Maybe strangely, I’m the opposite. I quite like it when a character who’s been attacked finds whatever it takes to fight back. They don’t have to turn into an action hero; they just need to stand up and say they’re going to survive. Look at Sydney in the first Scream. Watch the last fifteen minutes or so and you can really appreciate the difference in her character from earlier on. She’s angry. She’s standing up for herself. She’s a survivor.

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