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Despite horror films proving to be some of the most popular and profitable of all cinematic genres, there are many who still see it as a form of lowbrow entertainment. In the late 1960s/early 1970s, this mindset changed with films like Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist. In both of these films, women are used as a vessel in which horror can reside, inhabited without their consent and meant to serve as a host for evil. At this same time, the women’s liberation movement was entering what is known as the “second wave.” The first wave of feminism at the start of the 20th century was largely centered around suffrage and voting rights, while the second wave brought to light issues regarding sexuality, reproductive rights, and workplace equality. It’s only fitting that the focus of the second wave of feminism would align with the horror films both audiences and the Oscars agreed were superior.
Towards the 1980s, the women’s liberation movement felt a sense of push back in the start of the Reagan Era. The shift in horror films was prominent, as slasher films began to dominate the genre. While many argue that slasher films and the advent of the final girl were a positive push for women, there are many (myself included) that disagree. In slasher films, we commonly see women who act upon their own accord punished for doing so. The final girl survives because she has been deemed worthy as being a “type” of woman deserving to live. This was a problematic misstep that the women’s liberation movement experienced in the 1980s. Instead of fighting for ALL women, there seemed to be focus on fighting for a TYPE of woman (namely, white and straight women.) Slasher films of the 1980s exemplified this problem in spades. Carol J. Clover argued in her landmark book Men, Women, and Chainsaws that horror films don’t hate women, they encourage the Madonna/whore dichotomy we unfortunately still struggle with as a society today. Rape culture and slut shaming are still prominent in our media and the constant push of determining women’s value with their representation in the most prolific genre of cinema in the 1980s and 1990s didn’t help.
The '00s revisited the exorcism craze of the '70s with films like The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Exorcism: The Possession of Gail Bowers, and The Last Exorcism. As the third wave of feminism kicked into high gear, we again revisited the ultimate terror for many women: a force beyond our control inhabiting our bodies without our consent… and having no one believe what had happened to us. It’s easy to draw the religious parallels as most exorcism films follow a Catholic mythology, but considering most of the Western world is at the very least familiar with the Judeo-Christian belief system, it makes complete sense that the political and cultural climate would reflect the cinematic language.
But now, we’re in a time unlike any other. It’s a time when an openly misogynistic man somehow still gets elected President, a time when women’s reproductive rights are threatened to be stripped away and a time where trans women have a 1-in-12 chance of being murdered simply for existing. And our horror? Our horror is biting back. Literally. Female-driven horror films are premiering at an increasing rate, telling stories of women destroying everything around them. Werewolf and vampire films like Ginger Snaps, Let The Right One In, and When Animals Dream focus on young girls, namely around puberty, awakening to realize they have to destroy in order to survive.
Most recently, we’ve seen a direct inverse of the exorcism film with female driven cannibal films. Rather than women allowing themselves to be filled by a presence beyond their control, they’re taking control of their consumption by eating it alive. Jim Mickle’s We Are What We Are gender-bent the patriarchial Mexican film of the same name and presented a cannibal story about two sisters responsible for preparing and feeding their family a human sacrifice after the loss of their mother. The women spend a majority of the film under the strict rules of their father, only to devour him when they reach their breaking point. Netflix’s series The Santa Clarita Diet took a humorous approach to the subject matter, but showcased a newly cannibalistic female character finally embracing and loving herself as she is. Currently, the female directed French cannibal film Raw is painting a portrait of cannibalism as not only a bonding agent between two women, but also a powerful realization that accepting your true self is something worthy of celebration. Raw is an unflinching look at the female awakening, presented with the real sadness many women face of never being seen as an equal for who they are, and being unable to help why they are the way they are. If these films are foreshadowing anything, it’s that women are stronger and more assertive than ever before… and there’s nothing more dangerous than women who love themselves more than they feel the need to appease others.