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Cross Posted at Ms.

When the film industry finds an idea that works, they tend to use it again and again. And again. And again and again. In the realm of horror, once a franchise has spawned seven or so sequels, filmmakers continue to capitalize on name recognition by simply going back to the beginning and starting over. This Halloween season’s Carrie represents the fifth reboot of a successful horror franchise in the last 10 years. The teen-angst turned supernatural-revenge tragedy joins Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003), Halloween (2007), A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010), and Evil Dead (2013) in recycling stories and characters first introduced in the late ’70s and early ’80s.

Love them or hate them–and the ongoing success of these franchises tells us that a lot of people love them–horror movies provide a window into our culture’s deepest fears, drawing from a well of shared anxieties created by both domestic and geopolitical threats. Reboots adapt existing stories to frighten in new contexts by replacing the fears behind the original story with ones of contemporary significance. The changes tell us a lot about what audiences feared then and what they fear now.

The original films Texas Chainsaw Massacre, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Halloween–released between 1974 and 1984–reflect a culture-wide fear of the unknown fed by the Cold War, repeated oil crises, economic stagnation, and changes to family structures. These slasher flicks, as they came to be called, focus on the vulnerability of the victims: They use suspense, generated by the knowledge that the killer might strike at any moment, punctuated occasionally by successful attacks, to keep the audience in a state of terror. The reboots, on the other hand, put the killers themselves–and their violence–front and center.

texas-chainsaw-movie-poster-2The 1974 The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, in which a group of teenagers runs out of gas in the middle of nowhere and is terrorized by unemployed slaughterhouse workers, was being made during the OPEC embargo of 1973, when, for the first time, America realized the danger of it’s dependence on foreign oil. In the film, while a supposedly town-wide gas shortage leaves these all-American kids vulnerable, Leatherface and his family are conspicuously running their generator, drawing the teens to their house. The sound of the generator mirrors the sound of the chainsaw, while repeated shots of a decrepit, unused windmill remind the audience that we have put our fates in the hands of those with access to oil.

The 2003 remake of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, released in the midst of our occupation of Iraq, created a new character in the form of a crooked cop who aids and abets Leatherface. This film relies on the fear that corruption of authority has left us vulnerable to evil, a fear that proved all too real when news broke of torture at Abu Ghraib seven months later. Whereas the original movie relies largely on camera angles and surprise to generate fear, the reboot relishes not in the moments before an attack but in the attacks themselves, and therefore puts as much violence as possible on-screen. The new Texas Chainsaw Massacre arguably marked the beginning of what has been called torture porn–the graphic portrayal of violence perpetrated against imprisoned victims–perfected in such franchises as Saw (2004) and Hostel (2005).

halloween_1_poster_02Of the three rebooted slasher franchises, Rob Zombie’s 2007 remake of Halloween takes its story as far from the original as possible while still featuring characters with the same names. Whereas in the original, Micheal Myers‘s childhood murder of his sister occurs before we know anything about him or his family, the remake spends the entire first half of the film exploring Micheal’s motivations. The audience is presented with every social ill imaginable: Divorce, an evil step-dad, a neglectful sister, an over-sexed mother, the failure of therapy, and a corrupt prison system all serve to turn a loveable child into a serial killer. Whereas the original Halloween (1979) focuses on the vulnerability of teen-aged girls to predators lurking in the bushes, the remake seeks to justify Meyers’ desire to maim and mutilate.

A Nightmare on Elm Street represents more domestic fears. The original, released in 1984, focuses on Nancy, a teen-aged girl whose parents have recently divorced. Her father is therefore absent while her mother is too much of an emotional wreck to protect her daughter from evil. The context? The United States divorce rate had peaked at 5.3% in 1981, leaving unprecedented numbers of “latch-key kids” and an underlying anxiety that the central organizing unit of our society was falling apart. Nancy’s generation–that of X–has even been called “The Divorce Generation.”

MV5BMTMxOTk4NjMzOV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwOTQ3NDAzMg@@._V1._SX325_SY500_In the first film, Freddy‘s original sin (having sexually abused children) is mentioned only as the motivation for the parents’ misdeeds. The 2010 remake turns pedophilia into the primary fear driving the story. This is not surprising, given that from 2001-2009 the Catholic Church publicly faced sex abuse allegations against thousands of priests for acts going back 50 years. The teenagers tasked with taking down Freddy in 2010 are not confronted with their parents’ malfeasance, as they were in 1984; they are confronted with their own suppressed memories of abuse. What makes Nancy vulnerable today is not unfit parents but her sexual attractiveness to predators.

From the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, America feared the things hiding in the dark. The monsters under our beds were the invisible but menacing power of the Soviet Union, stagflation that kept us suspended in economic limbo, the possible disintegration of family structures, and repeated energy crises which undermined our sense of our country as a superpower. Naturally the horror films of those decades were about faceless terrors that might jump out at us at any moment. Though A Nightmare of Elm Street contained more gore than its predecessors, all three originals rely on shadow, suspense, and surprise to frighten us. Today our fears are of the terrible things happening right in front of us–chemical weapons, gun violence, and sexual abuse–over which we seem to have no power. Not surprisingly then, this decade’s horror movies have focused the camera on the act of violence itself.

What has all this meant for women? The original slasher films have been rightly criticized for their killer’s-eye views of mostly-naked women running scared. Theoretically, shifting the camera’s focus to the killer could have disrupted the male gaze. Unfortunately, the emphasis on the psychology of the killers and the focus on torture rather than the chase do just the opposite: The remakes ultimately turn women’s bodies into ever more irrelevant carnage, with the Halloween remake being the most offensive both to horror fans and feminists.

The return of the Evil Dead franchise and the new Carrie join The Conjuring, the Insidious films, The Possession, The Last Exorcism, and other recent movies in embodying contemporary fears not in serial killers but in supernatural forces. Hopefully this trend will mark the end of the torture porn era. The original Carrie (1979), about the daughter of a religious fanatic whose telekinetic powers eventually fulfill her mother’s prophesies of doom, was released in the year that Time Magazine called “The Year of the Evangelical.” Perhaps the Left-Behind philosophy of contemporary evangelicals and their kindred nihilists in politics, The Tea Party, are still enough to frighten us, because the available plot synopsis for the reboot indicates that the story hasn’t been changed at all.

For my own tastes–and I am a huge fan of horror movies–I prefer to be frightened by suspense and the supernatural rather than evisceration. But I’ve no doubt that torture porn stems from unacknowledged guilt about crimes against humanity committed both at home and abroad. These films are the clearest examples yet of John Carpenter’s horror aphorism: “Monsters in movies are us, always us, one way or the other. They’re us with hats on.”

DSC_0045Holly L. Derr is a feminist media critic who writes about theater, film, television, video games, and comics. Follow her @hld6oddblend and on her tumblr, Feminist Fandom. For more of the Feminist Guide to Horror Movies, check out Parts OneTwo, and Three. Tune in next week to see if my predictions about the new Carrie are accurate in Part Five: The Blood of Carrie.

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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

This piece is Part Two in a three-part series. See here for part one.

Since Edward Cullen first graced the pages of a young adult novel in 2005, vampires have been the sexy bad guys du jour. But it’s not just the lingering fear that sex might lead to death that makes these nightmarish manifestations of sexual desire resonate with audiences.

Gothic horror literature–which attracts audiences by allowing them to vicariously transgress sexual and social norms while also reinforcing the punishments that come with such transgressions–is a goldmine for contemporary filmmakers interested in exploring the sexuality of adolescent women. The 2011 film The Moth Diaries, based on the 2002 young adult novel by Rachel Klein (who wrote the screenplay) and directed by Mary Harron, harkens purposefully back to the first vampire novel, Joseph Sheridan le Fanu’s Carmilla, and does little to counter the lesbian exploitation premise of either book. Intimacy between girlfriends–including one hanging out in a nightgown while the other bathes–is bathed in soft light, but two women having sex is a bloody, messy activity that leads to death. The movie also uses the Gothic trope of an innocent woman trapped by a sinister figure within a decaying castle  to great effect: The architecture of the girls’ boarding school creates most of the danger, and the only male figure around is clearly untrustworthy. (Spoiler alert) The heroine triumphs, but if it’s possible, this movie is even more sex-shamey than Twilight.

I am looking forward to Diablo Cody writing her horror movie about going to Catholic school, because in Juno she tenderly treats the ambivalent attitude towards teenage sex that she must have learned in that school. But in Jennifer’s Body (2009), directed by Karyn Kusama, Cody turns teenage sex into a nightmare. The small town of Devil’s Kettle serves the function of castle-in-a-remote-wasteland-imprisoning-young-women, where one of the women breaks free only by virtue of the death of the other. A lesbian kiss that wasn’t in the original script makes this film more exploitative than Cody may have intended it to be, but, like The Moth Diaries, Jennifer’s Body cautions us against trusting female sexuality.

In these two movies, the heroines conspicuously lack father figures, but typical Gothic heroines find themselves at the mercy of the very men they are called upon to trust. Silent House (2011), co-written and co-directed by Laura Lau, returns to the idea that patriarchal authority figures–even within our own families–might be the men who pose the most danger. The plot centers again around the house-as-prison metaphor: Sarah, played by Elizabeth Olsen (the far more talented younger sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley), becomes trapped in her family’s decrepit shoreline house with a sinister figure she assumes to be a homeless squatter. Reflecting the ambivalence with which our culture regards women’s place in the home, the film uses an ancient, secret tragedy to raise questions about whether the heroine is in real danger or is tricked by a tortured mind into believing so.

Gothic novels often dwell upon the fear that the sins of the fathers will be visited on their children. The House at the End of the Street, in theaters now, features  a young man ostracized from his community because of his family. The fatherless woman hero (played by The Hunger GamesJennifer Lawrence), shuns the cool kids and instead pursues this mesmerizing-but-off-kilter boy-next-door. Despite her mother’s attempts to protect her, she finds herself drawn into the characteristic Gothic hallways and secret chambers that contain the enigmatic ancient tragedy from which the boy has yet to recover. Sure enough, her instinctual sexual attraction is offered to titillate the audience, then is violently shut down.

With a little Gothic ambivalence, a feminist can at least enjoy watching the female heroes of these films defend themselves, and not without shedding a little blood. And The Moth Diaries, Jennifer’s Body, and Silent House are all written and directed by women. Perhaps that is why the decrepit hallways, doorways and secret rooms of these Gothic environments betray a cultural attitude that the patriarchy, though still in place, may not actually be good for women, and that isolating them from society might not keep them safe.

Photo courtesy of Patricia.Pictures via Creative Commons 2.0

Cross posted at Ms.

Monsters in movies are us, always us, one way or the other. …

John Carpenter

My love of horror movies is a product of both nature and of nurture. My mother loves them. My older brother says I ended up in theaters as a child watching movies that were definitely not rated for my age group because he convinced Mom, who already wanted to go anyway, that we could handle it. We could, too–despite some interesting nightmares, we didn’t turn into serial killers or become permanently scarred psychologically. Unless you consider our desire to have the crap scared out of us by a good horror movie “scarred.”

Horror movies provide direct access to what Aristotle called catharsis: the release or balancing of pity and fear. They work directly on the deepest reptile parts of our brains to evoke and then resolve fear. Good horror movies also use plot and characters to draw the audience in on an empathetic level, so that where there is pity there is more fear. And all horror movies contain tropes that can tell us about the deepest fears of the society out of which they come.

As an adult, I watch horror movies as what Princeton University professor Jill Dolan calls a “feminist spectator,” which means that I look at what they tell us about how our culture thinks and feels. Recent horror movies focused on families and children, adolescent women and single women reveal an unsettling persistence of patriarchal norms. (But, then again, horror is supposed to be unsettling, no?). They also suggest that changing family structures–even when change is for the better–can scare the bejeezus out of us.

If you are looking for a good scare this Halloween season, cast your feminist eye on this recent rash of family-centered horror movies in which inattentive fathers leave their children vulnerable to being taken by aliens, monsters and demons.

The Possession, currently in theaters, centers on the character of Clyde (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), whose job distracts him from attending to the needs of his daughters in the aftermath of his divorce from their mother, Stephanie (Kyra Sedgwick). He’s so distracted, in fact, that his youngest manages to get herself infected with a Dybbuk. This pre-pubescent girl in possession of an “open box,” “ring,” and “thing growing inside her,” speaks to our lingering cultural discomfort with women becoming sexually active before marriage. To do so is to marry a demon. The takeaway message: No matter the presence or skill of the mother, children can never be safe without their biological fathers around.

In Super 8 (2011), it takes an alien invasion to get distracted father Jackson Lamb (Kyle Chandler) to engage with his son. The mother in this family is out of the picture before the movie even begins: She died in a work-related accident. Literally, the consequence of her working outside of the home was death. Though both father and son are struggling with the loss, Lamb cannot connect with his son until the child’s life is threatened. That the alien has to take the son’s only remaining connection to his mother–a necklace–before it can cease threatening this community speaks to an underlying belief that mothers are expendable and replaceable; fathers are here to stay.

Finally, if you’ve seen Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, you will recognize his trademark trope of turning real childhood fears into metaphorical monsters in Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (2010). The central child of this movie, Sally, has been sent by her mother to live with her disinterested father Alex (Guy Pearce) and his new wife Kim (Katie Holmes). Kim is perfectly clear with her husband that she would not have chosen motherhood at this moment in her life and that she expects him to step up as a father. But, busy with his career, he doesn’t, and Sally’s fear that neither her father nor mother loves her, made manifest by the tiny-but-terrifying creatures that live under the house, threatens to overcome her. Ultimately, it’s up to the only potential mother around, Kim, to do what she can to protect the child–although the consequences of her of taking on this role are dire. The ideology is clear, if not feminist: A mother can be a martyr, but only a father can be a hero.

Stay tuned for more recommendations on how to watch horror movies as a feminist spectator. Who knows, I may even uncover one that is actually feminist. Suggestions welcome!

Photo from Flickr user MamboZ under license from Creative Commons 2.0