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Rebecca Hall in The Awakening

Originally posted at Women and Hollywood

Much has been made by media critics of the propensity of horror movies to fetishize the murder of women – to make them victims, suffering at the hands of brutal forces for their sexual sins. The slasher films of the ’70s and ’80s as well as their ’90s sequels allowed audiences the killer’s-eye-view of mostly naked women fleeing attack.

In the last few years, horror films have returned to the home as the site of terror. Some of these films, like Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, The Possession, and Insidious, feature children in danger. Some, such as The Conjuring and Sinister, focus on a threat to the whole family.

Others are specifically about women, and in them the supernatural force to be contended with is often a manifestation of the central character’s repressed memories of trauma. Rather than emphasizing the killer’s perspective, the best of these films are structured so as to provoke sympathy for the victims and to celebrate the strength of women who overcome abuse.

(Trigger warning: Two of the examples offered below deal with sexual abuse, and though the offenses do not happen on camera, the psychological pain of the victims is pretty intense.)

The best of these films is Silent House, co-written and co-directed by Laura Lau. Elizabeth Olsen plays Sarah, who has returned to her family’s summer home to prepare it for sale. She becomes trapped in the house (which has doors that lock from the inside, natch) and is terrorized by a shadowy figure she assumes to be an intruder. Who or what this is saved for a late reveal, but as the film progresses it becomes clear to the audience that something evil happened here when Sarah was young and that despite her denial of it, that evil lives on. The camera work manufactures a one-shot/real-time experience, often from Sarah’s point of view, allowing the viewer to share her sense of claustrophobia and disorientation.

It can be hard to find a horror movie that features really good acting, but The Awakening, a British film set in post-World-War-I England, pulls it off.Rebecca Hall, known in the U.S. as Ben Affleck’s love interest in The Town, plays Florence Cathcart, an investigator of paranormal phenomena who travels the world disproving the existence of an after-life. The caretakers of a private boarding school, played by Dominic West ( The Wire) and Imelda Staunton (Dolores Umbridge), bring Cathcart to their campus to get to the bottom of a haunting. There she faces seemingly inexplicable phenomenon that ultimately lead back to her own past. Cathcart’s recovered memories are not of sexual abuse, but the story warns against the danger of denying the past just the same.

The most difficult to watch of these three examples, Lovely Molly, directed and co-written by Eduardo Sánchez (The Blair Witch Project), is noteworthy mainly for its rejection of the ultimately redemptive narrative structure of the other two. Molly, who has moved back into her childhood home with her husband, isn’t just dealing with the effects of childhood abuse; she’s also a drug user. The distinction between what in her harrowing experience is caused by the supernatural manifestation of her past trauma and what is caused by drugs is never really made clear, making it too easy for the audience to blame the victim. Characterized by the same kind of camera work Sánchez used in Blair Witch, Lovely Molly provides a visceral, up-close experience of the main character’s suffering, but ultimately it relies more on blood, gore, and nudity than psychology, suspense or surprise. Given the progress the genre has made in allowing audience’s to identify with the victim instead of the killer, Lovely Molly feels like a step backward.

Most of this century’s horror movies have been gore-fest remakes (a la Rob Zombie’s Halloween) without any real cinematic storytelling. Independent films like Silent House and The Awakening, on the other hand, focus the story on the woman’s point of view, relying on a suspenseful unfolding of story and character more than shock. These films even go so far as to empower female characters with the psychological strength to overcome the worst kinds of victimization, and for the not-faint-of-heart, they can provide a welcome catharsis.

Holly L. Derr is a director, professor, and feminist media critic who writes about theater, film, television, video games and comics. Follow her@hld6oddblend or on her tumblr, Feminist Fandom.

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