A Feminist Guide to Horror Movies Part Three: Worlds Without Patriarchy

Cross posted at Ms.

This is the third post in a three-part series on watching horror movies as a feminist spectator.

Having covered films which reinforce the necessity of the patriarchy and films which question its value while still punishing challenges to patriarchal norms, let’s look at two movies in which the patriarchy is almost entirely irrelevant.

British director Neil Marshall’s 2005 film The Descent is quite honestly the most terrifying movie I have ever seen. Claustrophobes beware: the first half of this movie contains the scariest spellunking you’ll ever see on film, and that’s nothing compared to the ravenous underground creatures–who may have been human once but have evolved over centuries to suit their environment (no sight, super hearing and smell)–that appear in the second half. But I think what scares me most about this film is how perfectly it symbolizes the challenges faced by women who refuse to conform to feminine norms.

The film, in which only one man appears and that very briefly, focuses on a group of professional women with a history of adventuring together who meet up in the Appalachian Mountains for a caving expedition. When things go awry, we learn that the leader of the group tricked her friends into entering an uncharted cave and they are stuck without anyone in the outside world knowing where they are. And oh yeah, there’s monsters: Agile, violent creatures that seem to emerge from the grief-stricken subconscious of the main character. The message is pretty clear: Hamstring your women friends, and be prepared to be hamstrung yourself. (And I mean that literally.) This movie is not about the triumph of the heroine but is rather a gruesome and vivid representation of the double bind: Never has being stuck between a rock and a hard place become so terrifyingly real. Check out Marshall’s film Dog Soldiers for a similar treatment of masculinity.

Though it was shot in 2006, Case 39, featuring Renée Zellweger and Bradley Cooper, was not released in the US until 2010. That combined with its poor reviews make me wonder if I might be on to something here: I believe this film is pro-abortion. Not just pro-choice: Pro-abortion.

Zellweger’s character, Emily, a social worker, begins the movie by telling a moony Doug (Bradley Cooper) that though she likes him, she’s just too devoted to her job right now to have a relationship. (Now that’s devotion.) She takes on an extra case at work and becomes convinced that the new girl under her care, Lilith, is in danger. Emily saves Lilith’s life and attempts to place her in a foster home. When Lilith asks Emily to be her mommy, Emily replies, “I’m just not mom material.” But the persuasive demon child soon finds her way into Emily’s home and from there, things don’t go so well for Emily or for anyone around her. The movie ends with Emily driving her car–with Lilith in it–into a lake and leaving the child, transformed in its last moment into the primordial creature it really is, in it to drown. Reading the lake as a womb, often symbolized by water, Emily essentially enacts a retroactive abortion, killing the child she never should have had. Though obviously killing a child is nothing like aborting a fetus, the horror of the film makes a needed point that when a woman knows she doesn’t want to be a mother, she really shouldn’t have to be a mother.

I haven’t had a chance to see Sinister or Silent Hill: Revelation 3D (now playing), but from their previews it would appear that they have a great deal to say about fathers, adolescent girls, and the ancient curse that is the patriarchy. Some critics are claiming that “horror films have hit a new golden age.” If so, I hope to see more films in which women–win or lose–are free to fight their own battles.

Photo of Shauna Macdonald in The Descent

2 responses to “A Feminist Guide to Horror Movies Part Three: Worlds Without Patriarchy”

  1. I really enjoyed this series. Thanks for writing about feminism and horror. Sometimes I feel like it’s just my partner who hears these compliments and criticisms. Glad to see it reflected in reality elsewhere 🙂

  2. This is an amazing series and very informative, I absolutely love it! Thank you so much for writing this!

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