I 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. 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 same 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.
Could 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 spoiling 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 Goldsmith 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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