There are some phrases that are repeated in horror films. It’s just your imagination. There’s nothing there. Have you taken your pills? And the last one, you need help. The last phrase is particularly infuriating. It is usually spoken in a patronizing tone because it is just what the protagonist is seeking, but can’t seem to find from others. The notion of the existence of monsters, serial killers targeting fellow classmates, naturally seems far-fetched to characters in films. It’s only logical and human to shun the belief of the supernatural or to express disbelief out of fear of something terrible happening to someone we know or love. After all, no one wanted to believe Charlie Brewster’s neighbor was a vampire in Fright Night while Nurse Alex reduced David Kessler’s fear of turning into a werewolf to post -traumatic stress in An American Werewolf in London.
However, one cannot help but draw parallels between society’s hesitance to believe victims of insidious crimes and the situations presented in horror films. Just this week, the jury reached their verdicts for Harvey Weinstein. He has been accused of raping women for decades and the most frequently asked question in cases like this is why did it take so long to come forward? The answer is both simple and complex. It’s a cocktail of shock, trauma, fear of retaliation, and fear of not being heard. The treatment of women in society has been written about in literature for centuries and books have certainly paved the way for film. There have been countless horror movies where the target is a woman who is struggling to find help due to the disbelief of her companions. This is where the expansive collection of women in horror shine. Heartbreaking and maddening, women in horror give the most powerful performances when they are fighting for their lives and sanity. This real world struggle amplifies the horror of the film, which is probably why it’s so satisfying when a final girl escapes with her life.
The term hysteria is female in its etymology, with its root deriving from the anatomy of a woman. The protagonist is usually described as hysterical or childish for having fears. In Rosemary’s Baby, Rosemary Woodhouse ( Mia Farrow) is new to town and suspicious of her new overbearing neighbors. She later becomes convinced that something is strange with her pregnancy, but she is assured that it’s just hormones. She is unaware her husband has offered up their first born to Satan and his coven. She searches for answers on her own, but is betrayed by her husband who has aided in drugging and raping her. Rosemary eventually succumbs to her new life as Satan’s baby mama.
Farrow’s performance is chilling, making Rosemary’s Baby memorable decades after its premiere. The meta aspect of this is that Roman Polanski, director of Rosemary’s Baby, fled the country after pleading guilty to rape in 1978 and has continued to have a successful film career. The grim ending of Rosemary’s Baby aligns more with the realities of life. The resolution is not always satisfactory, and the villain often wins.
Rosemary was already dealing with the stress of new surroundings when she became pregnant and fell victim to the designs of a cult. Often times, the victim or target in films already has hardships stacked against her. Imagination and insecurities can be a powerful enemy to the human psyche. Fast forward twenty-eight years to Sidney Prescott in the 1996 slasher Scream.
It is well known that a killer is on the loose, but what remains dubious to the rest of the cast is whether or not Sidney Prescott, played by Neve Campbell, is next on the killer’s list. Sidney calls the police on a masked intruder in her house and they arrest her boyfriend Billy Loomis, who just happened to be crawling through her window at the wrong time. Sidney is already a well known person in town. Her mother had been brutally killed the year before and it was Sidney’s testimony that sent the killer to prison.
The shadow of disbelief has already been cast on her because news anchor Gail Weathers, played by Courtney Cox, wrote a best selling book arguing that the killer was wrongfully convicted. Throughout the film, Sidney is accused of being a bad girlfriend, a liar in court, an attention seeker, and a girl who is just too caught up in her grief to see reality. It is Sidney’s ability to believe her own eyes and admit mistakes that saves her life. Scream is often credited with introducing a new generation to the slasher genre. However, Neve Campbell’s Sidney brought updates to the final girl. The final girl of the 90’s stops adhering to the convention that only good girls get saved. Sidney Prescott has sex and gains confidence and bravery that lead to her survival.
A reputation can have severe ramifications for young women. Double standards and gender roles have an impact in the way a person is heard. Cut to 2017 and the introduction to Tree Gelbman, played by Jessica Rothe, in Happy Death Day. How do you convince people who barely know you that you are stuck in a time loop reliving your death? Happy Death Day is a slasher comedy and Rothe’s portrayal of Tree is charming and memorable. Tree must contend with her reputation as well as a killer. While Happy Death Day is a funny film, it can be looked at as a parable for the misconceptions that attach themselves to reputation and society’s avoidance of troubling situations. Tree learns to be a better person as her appreciation for life grows, but people turn a blind eye to her odd behavior. No one reaches out until she forces someone to believe her.
Women have been killing it (no pun intended) in horror for decades. Strong performances leave their mark on cinema history and on the brain. From Marilyn Burns laughing maniacally in the back of a pickup truck to Florence Pugh sobbing until she is gasping for air, women in horror have brought light to the issues that plague society today.