Horror films from the very earliest days of cinema tended to be adaptations of Gothic novels, and as such, shared many of their ideas regarding gender and sexuality. One of the first feature length horror films, 1922’s
serves as a loose German adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (predating the official one by over a decade), that amplifies what the original novel has to say about sexual transgression. During the climax of the film, it’s discovered that the vampiric Count Orlok can only be defeated if distracted by a pure-hearted woman’s beauty, with the added caveat of her allowing him to feed off of her of her own volition. Combined with the notion of bloodsucking as a metaphor for sexual deviancy, and the subtext surrounding race and the Other in interwar Germany – Count Orlok is considered by many to be a antisemitic stereotype with his hooked nose and clawlike fingers – we see a woman who is both a victim and willing participant to nefarious forces outside the realm of societal acceptability in Ellen, the woman this duty falls upon, and who tragically dies in the process. This figure of the ‘woman seduced’ appears in some capacity in other notable horrors of the era. Phantom of the Opera (1925), Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), King Kong (1933), Mad Love (1935), and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) all feature a woman pursued, or perceived as being pursued, by a hideous, inhuman, or immoral figure, in some cases completely rejecting their advances, in others seeming to accept them to some extent.
Due to the fact that a lot of horror films from the 30s to 70s tended to be remakes or sequels to the classic monster movies, or else work off their blueprint, slasher films from the 70s to the early 90s are the next important development when it comes to the history of horror films, with their unprecedented ramp up in shock value, and gorier, grimier aesthetics. However, they are very limited with regards to conversations about female desire due to their overwhelmingly masculine focus. Much has been written and rewritten about how slashers punished their sexually active female characters with suggestive deaths, whilst rewarding the virginal with ‘Final Girl’ status in order to appease the gaze and sensibilities of their adolescent male audience. We might look towards the fact that the vast majority of these films include a female protagonist ultimately defeating the villain as proof that they’re progressive. However, I think of this as slashers wanting to have their cake and eat it too: they follow a female protagonist as fear is only acceptable if experienced by a woman, but only allow her to take on the hero role once she has renounced her sexuality and becomes more identifiable for male audience members – reinforcing patriarchal ideals about gender on both counts. This is not to say that women can’t get any enjoyment out of slasher films, but I think that 70s horror offered us a much more valuable glimpse into female desire in the classic
Carrie is another film that’s been written extensively about when it comes to its portrayal of female sexuality, the power it holds against dominant structures, and how its feared and rendered monstrous, so I won’t beat a dead horse. The reason I mention it is because of its influence on how women, and their desires, are presented in horror, spurring on the idea of the ‘Monstrous-Feminine’ – as coined by Barbara Creed in her 1992 book of the same name. This is not to say that there were no female monsters in horror before Carrie, films like Bride of Frankenstein (1935) Cat People (1942), and The Wasp Woman (1959), would prove that wrong. But Carrie was one of the very first times that a horror film centred that ‘monster’, showcasing her as a victim and villain in equal parts, much akin to how early horror explored the duality of woman as a compliant victim.
Whilst the films that can truly be considered Carrie’s daughters took a long while to materialise, once they did they created a trend of monstrous, complex women in horror that still lives on today. Some are moreso about the horrors of puberty and ‘becoming a woman’ – like Ginger Snaps (2000). Some utilise their female monsters to craft a revenge fantasy in response to the violence against women that’s so abundant in real life – Teeth (2007), Jennifer’s Body (2007), and Under the Skin (2013). And then there are some which, most relevant to the topic of this essay, hone in on the perversities of female desire – including but not limited to May (2002), Excision (2012), Raw (2016), The Love Witch (2016), Saint Maud (2019), Titane (2021), and Pearl (2022). At this point the question is long overdue: why is horror such a fertile ground for exploring female desire?
The obvious, and readily accepted answer, is that the purpose of horror is to differentiate what’s acceptable from what isn’t, and punish that which is not. This is especially true for the pre-Carrie era, where women are punished for engaging with their sexuality. Cast your mind back to the beginning of this essay, and Ellen’s death in Nosferatu. If bloodsucking is a metaphor for sexual activity, then Ellen’s death as a result of it might as well be her dying due to having sex. We can see this basic idea traced to slashers decades later, where the trope of the sexually active woman being one of the first to die in any given film (and often having the most brutal, drawn-out death scene) has been observed, mocked, and commentated on to the high heavens. We could consider the backlash to the sexual revolution and steady rise of hardline conservatism during the 70s as the reason why this was such a staple of horror films at the time.
However, although we have an answer for why horror films are so concerned with female sexuality, we still don’t have an answer for why so many women derive empowerment and enjoyment out of the genre. In the case of the ‘modern-era’ of female-driven horror it’s clear: they showcase complicated and nuanced female protagonists that wield some level of power. They’re compelling and relatable because, not in spite, of their monstrosity. But what about the classic-era of horror films? Why might women be in some way drawn to seeing someone who looks like them being victimised on-screen instead of empowered? And how does this relate to female desire?
As Linda Williams writes in her essay ‘When Women Look: A Sequel’, horror films tended to be analysed from the ‘masculine sadistic point of view’. After all, who would want to identify with the ‘terrified, suffering woman’? Well, as Williams goes onto write, there exists the ‘masochistic and feminine thrill of “opening up”’ to these images, and the pleasure of experiencing such highly charged emotions as fear and terror alongside the woman in question, within the safe space of a cinema (or living room, or bedroom). So then, horror films become an outlet for women to express the fear that their subject position in the real world affords them, also reflecting the experience of female desire which, much like horror, has always been mired as a terrain of fear, uncertainty, denial, and punishment – not just to outsiders, but themselves as well.