Horror: The Infallible Source of Traditionalistic Gender Roles

As opposed to burning cats alive in plazas or watching gladiators fight for their lives while undefeatable obstacles are being thrown their way, today we enjoy the more ethical and fictional horror genre as a form of entertainment. Many seem to regard this genre with joyful or fearful eyes – depending on one’s taste – with very few taking it seriously. Slasher movies, for example, typically have a very systematic plot whereby a group of young adults get attacked by a source of evil. What can be so insightful? Essentially, there are values which are conserved and are frequently repeated in most of these plot lines. In N by Stephen King, for instance, the characters that show curiosity, a discredited trait, are punished by inheriting a supernatural virus, driving them to insanity. In this essay however, the focus will be on gender and how the horror genre maintains conventional norms for women.

It is through women’s sexuality that horror often bequeaths conformist messages. The focus is on women as opposed to men because norms are stricter for women. A female’s traditional role is to convey purity and modesty. In most horror stories, if one does not uphold this image, there are serious consequences. By way of illustration, in the adaptation of The Exorcist (1973) Reagan, a young, innocent child, begins to act vulgar. One of the many cases is when she screams “Fuck me!” repeatedly to the priest. In moderation, this attitude can be interpreted as a hormonal transition from childhood to adolescence. However, her failure to conform as a proper girl was grounds for her possession.  In other words, a girl who uses utter profanities and acts in an explicitly sexual way is inevitably a demon.  Furthermore, she is a demon that needs to be tamed through, in this case, an exorcism – a role that curiously falls on the shoulders of men. Therefore, girls who show off their sexuality are demons, or morally wrong beings by nature, and it is a man’s job to rehabilitate their behaviour. In this interpretation, traditionalistic norms are clearly being upheld through the man’s role as the oppressor, and the woman as the oppressed. How about slasher movies, which I mentioned earlier? How does a woman’s sexuality relate? In movies like Friday the 13th (1980), a killing spree starts with two young adults having sex. From a conformist point of view, having premarital sex is a sin that will be punished by a higher force, which represents the killer.  Gloria Cowan and Margaret O’Brien described such a trend in their case study appearing in “Gender and Survival vs. Death in Slasher Films: A Content Analysis”. In “Violence against Women in Slasher Films”, Tori interprets this trend, writing, “The female victims tend to be sexy, dress provocatively and have sex more often than the survivors.” This essentially supports the notion that sexualized women are targets. On the other hand, the last person to live or to escape is the one that Carol Clover calls the “final girl” in Men, Woman and Chainsaws: Gender and the Modern Horror Film. This girl often stays behind as her friends drink and take drugs, and she does not indulge in sexual activities. In other words, she represents the ideal image of a proper woman. Thus, the fact that those who sin are brutally punished, and that the female with the highest morals often lives encourages this conventional view of women’s sexuality.

Female independence is yet another way the horror genre diffuses stigmatized gender roles. It can be perceived as a positive trait, like in feminist stories, or as a negative trait, which is common to ‘traditional’ stories. Interpretations of Angela Carter’s Little Red Riding Hood serve as ideal examples of horror tales where strong-willed females prevail. Whether Red defeats the werewolf in The Werewolf, or she seduces the beast in The Company of Wolves, this girl does not show fear as she takes on the creature, nor does she need male assistance. This goes against all conventional gender roles. Nevertheless, stories like Carter’s are the exception to the usual rule; independent women are often reprimanded for going against gender norms. Once again, The Exorcist serves as a perfect example. Chris, Reagan’s mother, is a divorced, career woman. In the article “A Single Woman: Rebellion Against and Reinforcement of Traditional Gender Roles in The Exorcist”, Bianca Marcus explains: “Although [Chris] still keeps one foot strongly in her role as mother, this is not enough to absolve her of her moral transgression; by stepping out of her traditional role, the damage has already been done” (1). In other words, in trying to fulfill the role of both the mother and the father and working outside the home – not as a stay-at-home mother – she goes against social standards, and punishment, according to the traditional view, is inevitable. Her punishment in this case is that her daughter is possessed by the devil. During the rest of the film, viewers watch as her strong-will is slowly broken down and her need to depend on men (doctors, psychologists, scientists) increases. Therefore, The Exorcist criticizes the ability of females to raise their children while holding a full time job, which is traditionally the man’s responsibility. Marion Crane in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) is also an important, unconventional character. This movie broke many social barriers as far as story lines went at the time, yet it did not challenge established norms regarding gender roles. In fact, if one was to adopt a categorical thinking, Marion dies as a result of her immorality. Not only does she have premarital sex, but she has it with a married man. In addition, women her age are expected to settle down and start a family, while she still lives alone in an apartment. When she steals money from a wealthy associate and runs away, she assumes a male role and takes charge of her life. Independence in a woman being a negative trait, the story continues with Marion in the hands of a mentally dysfunctional man who ultimately kills her. Once again, a message rooted in stereotypes is being presented and not conforming has its consequences. As a contrast, in The Shining (1980), Wendy, the wife, is submissive and constantly at the mercy of her husband, Jack. She consults with him on every decision – even leaving him – demonstrating her extreme dependence. However, in this film, it is the man who fails to adequately provide for his family. In the end, Wendy manages to escape with her son, and Jack dies. Those who fulfill their respective responsibilities in the family thus tend to survive, while the others fall.

Stephen King claims in Danse Macabre that the “… main purpose [of a horror story] is to reaffirm the virtues of the norm by showing us what awful things happen to people who venture into taboo lands” (232). In other words, King is saying that the horror genre encompasses stigmatized views in that it endorses traditional, social norms by frightening the observers with the horrible outcomes of inappropriate behaviour. Such is true in most of the stories mentioned. When it comes to female gender norms, if a woman showcases her sexuality or displays independence, she often dies or reverts to the proper female role. On the other hand, moral women survive the threat and continue on with their lives. If one were to adopt a consequentialist approach, seeing as the result of not conforming is very much negative, one may even be compelled to completely conform. So if infringement of traditionalistic values is punished by death or suffering, what is being implied through these films or books is that one must stay in the little box that society provides. Therefore, in some ways, the horror genre contributes to keeping us civilized and proper. That being said, norms change as society evolves. All the films and stories featured were written over 30 years ago and the simplicity of their plots no longer strike fear into the desensitized youth of today, whose values as a whole are less traditional. We will then have to expect a thrilling new side of the horror genre to keep us entertained.

Work Cited

Fictional Sources:

Adaptation of “The Exorcist” (1973), by William Peter Blatty

Adaptation of “The Shining”(1980), by Stanley Kubrick

“Friday the 13th” (1980), by Victor Miller

“Psycho” (1960), by Alfred Hitchcock

“The Werewolf”, by Angela Carter

“The Company of Wolves”, by Angela Carter

Non-Fictional Sources:

CLOVER, Carol J. “Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film” (1993) http://books.google.ca/books?id=x4fLaCLD11MC&q=Final+Girl&source=gbs_word_cloud_r&cad=5#v=snippet&q=Final%20Girl&f=false

KING, Stephen. Danse Macabre (1981)

MARCUS, Bianca. “A Single Woman: Rebellion Against and Reinforcement of Traditional Gender Roles in The Exorcist”. Kino: The Western Undergraduate Journal of Film Studies – University of Western Ontario. http://ir.lib.uwo.ca/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1007&context=kino

Tori. “Violence Against Women in Slasher Films”. The Not-So feminist – WordPress. http://notsoangryfeminist.wordpress.com/2010/11/14/violence-against-women-in-slasher-films/