I enjoy a good horror movie now and then. And, much like your grandpa, I also hate everything that has been invented post-Cold War. Twas a simpler time! When men were men, women were women, and children were sometimes possessed vomit-spouting demons!
Some of my all-time favorite classic horror films feature women in a big way. Examining these movies is a great way to think, not only about horror tropes, but about psychoanalysis and sexuality. So grab a thunder buddy and a blanket fort and let’s take a look, shall we?
1) Peeping Tom (1960)
This film caused huge amounts of controversy at the time of its release, probably because people in 1960 were about as sexually liberated as omelets, but also because it is a truly disturbing way to pass 101 minutes.
The main character, Mark, has a very specific hobby – murdering women and filming their deaths so he can rewatch them at his leisure. He also has installed a mirror above his camera, so that his victims can see themselves dying. By day, Mark works as a crew member at a film studio, but by night, he prowls around, watching women through their windows so he can pick his next victim.
The film is all about the male gaze, a concept expounded upon by Laura Mulvey in her seminal work, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. In this essay, Mulvey details how, in cinema, and particularly in horror movies, the female takes the role of “object,” something to be looked at or acted upon, and the male takes the role of the subject, that which acts upon the object. Thus, the female is the object of The Gaze, or the element of being looked at by the male. In Peeping Tom, there is a sort of fetishistic looking – dividing the female body into parts. Mulvey posits (to wildly summarize) that fetishization of the female body is born of the male desire to make her less threatening. To the male psyche, the female is just a castrated male, which is a totally gross and scary idea, so they compartmentalize her anatomy to make her appearance less frighteningly familiar.
Mark is a classic example of a scopophile – one who takes pleasure in looking. We all have a little scopophile in us; we like to look at things. Peeping Tom examines this urge that lies within all of us – the urge to watch celebrities cry on reality TV, the urge to slow down to look at a car accident, the urge to see and examine the pain of human existence. That is what makes the film so scary – we are all Mark, and Mark is us.
2) Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
You may be familiar with the story of this classic movie, starring the indomitable Mia Farrow. A woman and her husband move into a New York City apartment, where they are surrounded by eccentric neighbors. The couple decides to have a baby (well, really the husband decides they should have a baby). On the night they want to conceive, Rosemary is drugged by one of their neighbors and has a “dream” that she is being raped by a demonic figure while her husband and neighbors watch. The pregnant Rosemary begins to crave raw meat, have terrible stomach pains, etc. When the baby is born, she is told that it died… but she quickly finds out the truth.
Rosemary’s Baby was one of the first films to introduce the now-well-known horror trope of rape or invasion. Many films after it (Evil Dead, Videodrome, etc.) have further explored the notion of possession or intrusion by an outside force. Julia Kristeva, an authority on this concept, mentions in her essay, The Powers of Horror, that the reason this idea is so frightening to us is because we have a very clear notion of our body as an entity. It has borders. We understand the concept of “me” as opposed to “not me,” and an intersection of the two is uncanny, even unnatural. When Rosemary is raped, the border between herself and her attacker is breached, and her sense of self is no longer safe – not to mention, she is having a tryst with Satan himself.
A warning: the “conception” scene is A LOT more graphic in the full movie than in the version they show on TV. Make sure you know which version you want to watch.
3) The Brood (1979)
In her essay “Horror and the Monstrous Feminine,” the brilliant Barbara Creed brings up Freud’s analysis of the fear of the womb. Freud states that we fear the womb because it is at the same time both jarringly familiar – after all, we have each and every one of us been there before – and utterly unknowable, being hidden away from the world. We fear it because we never know what’s going to spring from its depths.
It is precisely this fear that gives The Brood its terrible potency. In the film, a woman, Nola, is received psychoanalysis from Dr. Raglan in order to overcome her childhood trauma. Through the therapy he provides, she begins to change physiologically, eventually becoming capable of asexual reproduction. She produces a litter (I can’t make this up) of murderous children who proceed to go after the people who have hurt her.
Part of the terrifying aspect of the film is our revulsion toward the womb itself. There is a scene in which Nola’s husband discovers her in a state of partial undress, with an external uterus protruding from her body, incubating her next child. This scene is not only visually repellent, but implies that Nola’s womb goes beyond natural human reproduction; it reproduces independently, making her capable of godlike creation. Nola has utter control over her minions, and utter control over herself. Her subjectivity is threatening to those around her.
This is just a straight up scary movie, y’all. Do not take my words lightly. Do not watch this movie alone, and do not watch it while babysitting, or you may accidentally roundhouse kick a child who has snuck up on you from behind.