As a director who recently showed a short horror film in the Birds Eye View Film Festival’s Bloody Women programme, I found the question most often asked of me was, ‘Do women prefer psychological horror?’ The most accurate answer would be that I have no idea. Personally I know women who love to be scared and so seek out the creepy atmospheric tension of films such as The Changeling (1980), The Haunting (1963) and The Orphanage (2007). I also know women who can’t stand the emotional manipulations of psychological horror and favour the more superficial nature of gore-fests like The Evil Dead (1981) or the numerous 80s slasher flicks. And then, of course, there are the women (myself included) who are simply horror fans, and who find something to appreciate in most or all of the subgenres.
But my anecdotal experiences don’t answer the question satisfactorily – far from it, in fact – and the more I was asked the question, the more I realised I couldn’t possibly answer it, though valiant attempts were made. During the fourth or fifth time I found myself rambling on about the history of horror and women’s involvement in it, I came to an epiphany, possibly born of sheer self-defence, but important nonetheless: it’s not the answer to the question that deserves further scrutiny, but rather the question itself.
Namely, why is it assumed that women would prefer psychological horror?
I do believe that this question stems from certain assumptions about women’s relation to the horror genre, though I doubt intentionally or even consciously. Historically, women have not been the target audience for horror films – that distinction has been held exclusively by men. Women are largely not even expected to enjoy horror. One need only to look to John Landis’s fantastic and ground-breaking music video for Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ (1983) to find a summary of the popular stereotype regarding women and horror films: men take their girlfriends to horror films not because women might enjoy horror, but specifically because they don’t. Eventually, bowing under the weight of terror and revulsion caused by the monster on screen, the girlfriend will be forced to cuddle up to her boyfriend for support while shielding her innocent eyes. The boyfriend, of course, is not bothered at all by the shock horror (he is, in fact, entertained by it) and slips easily into the hero’s role, protecting his woman and possibly getting to cop a feel.
These days, the horror genre in film has a tendency to be regarded as synonymous with monsters and graphic gore, which in itself is an unjust stereotype. Psychological horror, on the other hand, by virtue of its subtlety, has an ability to hide in plain sight in the guise of a thriller, or even a drama, label. Is it possible that we assume female horror filmmakers would prefer to make psychological horror films because it’s not really horror, at least not in the current layman’s definition, which seems to require graphic sex and gore and blood and innards? Well, yes, but do the facts really bear out the assumption that women prefer psychological horror?
Women have been involved in horror since the conception of the genre, back when horror stories only appeared in writing and were given labels such as ‘Gothic fiction’ and ‘ghost stories’. Mary Shelley published her seminal Frankenstein in 1818, and it has become one of the most famous and iconic monster stories of modern times. Women such as Pulitzer Prize-winner Edith Wharton, children’s book author Edith Nesbit and many, many others were heavily involved in and lauded during the modern ghost story boom of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the stories they wrote could be called mostly psychological. But so were the stories that men wrote. It was simply a sign of the times. Censorship and propriety meant that graphic detail was impossible, so most horror stories of that time could be lumped under the ‘psychological’ banner.
Moving forward in time and looking specifically at film, we don’t find very many horror films written and/or directed by women – but then there aren’t very many films in general by women. However, just a sample of the available horror films with major female involvement shows us Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark (1987), which is as graphic and nasty as any male-directed horror; Mary Lambert, who directed an adaptation of Stephen King’s Pet Sematary (1989); Debra Hill, co-writer of John Carpenter’s serial-killer film Halloween (1978), among others; and more recently, the Soska sisters’ Dead Hooker in a Trunk (2009), which I haven’t yet seen, but something tells me it’s not going to feature a lot of quiet introspection.
Men are capable of making and have made a range of horror films encompassing all subgenres, from psychological horror dominated by female characters to torture porn. Though the sample for women in film is much, much smaller, we know that women are capable of the same range and have been active and instrumental in the horror genre for hundreds of years. So do women prefer psychological horror? Frankly, I can’t answer that question, nor do I want to, because I feel it’s limiting to assume that female filmmakers could or would overwhelmingly make psychological horror films when they have so much more to offer the genre as a whole.
Jennifer Eiss is the writer and co-director of the short horror film Short Lease (2010), which screened in the Horror Shorts, part of the Bloody Women strand at the Birds Eye View Film Festival. She is also the author of The 500 Essential Cult Movies (2010) and contributing author to Jovanka Vuckovic’s Zombies!: An Illustrated History of the Undead (2011).