Written by: Kristen Lopez, Editor in Chief
Every genre in moviemaking has its own set of clichés that can be found in most cases. In action movies for example, there is usually a tough-as-nails hero, often just trying to get through his day, who somehow gets drawn into all the craziness. And just when he starts to get the situation under control, some fraction of his nuclear family unit (or love interest, or hot chick he banged the night before) will find their way into enemy hands. Movies like these tend to cater to men, since they have everything the male fantasy requires: explosions, violence without repercussions, and the hot buxom woman on his arm at the end.
The opposite end of the spectrum is the romance flick (or “chick flick”) wherein you’ll find one of two formulas.
Formula One: Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy repents and wins girl back. Formula Two: Awkward girl meets amazing boy, amazing boy has bitchy girlfriend, amazing boy and awkward girl hook up then break up, bitchy girlfriend is discovered to be somehow unworthy of boy, amazing boy and awkward girl end up together. In both these cases, the elements of the female fantasy are as clear as day: true love, valuing inner beauty over shallowness, and commitment without sacrifice. With these two genres and hundreds more like it, Hollywood has created clear gender lines for us all to follow. We immediately know which movies we should like, and which we probably won’t relate to.
One genre that has proven iteself above this dilineation is horror. Horror movies are more universal, because no matter what makes us all different, the things we see in horror movies scare us all equally. And for every element thrown in specifically for one gender (topless women for the males, for instance), there is as often as not another element thrown in to balance it out (like a woman ultimately saving the day). A good piece of horror has thrills and scares that can connect with any audience, regardless of demographic and gender.
Or at least, that’s what I always thought.
Recently, despite my cozy just-mentioned thesis to the contrary, it’s come to my attention that some scary movies are clearly skewed toward a particular sex. What really surprised me is that these gender-specific horror films are catering to women! These are the movies that don’t deal with murder, gore and other extreme methods of violence but focus on simpler situations like family and motherhood. Axes and chainsaws are replaced psychological fears related to the loss of what we value most. In these cases, the terror comes from the woman viewer being able to place herself in the situation, and as such the movie resonates at a far deeper level.
Here are some movies that meet the requirements of Female Horror:
Rosemary’s Baby – This classic begins with a theme that all women have either experienced, or have dreamed about: new motherhood. The movie begins with the happy couple Rosemary (Mia Farrow) and Guy Woodhouse (John Cassavetes). They are expecting their first baby and have just moved into a new house in a building called The Bramford. After meeting their incredibly creepy neighbors, various other incidents occur (involving one very trippy rape scene), and we learn that Guy has sold his soul to Satan, leaving Rosemary to bear the son of the Devil. The look of utter horror on Mia Farrow’s face as she says “What’s wrong with his eyes?” is classic. I know many a mother who has nightmares during their pregnancy of there being something wrong with their child, and this iconic scene from Rosemary’s Baby perfectly conveys that message.
New motherhood is also a time of great vulnerability, and Rosemary’s Baby plays this up beautifully as well. Young Rosemary is constantly being told what is “normal” for her – like when she doesn’t gain a lot of baby weight – even though we all know it’s not. Her doctor even advises her to take certain pills and tells her that she’s simply paranoid for thinking anything might be wrong. This concept that a woman, who has no idea of what is normal, can be so easily misled is incredibly heightened with this film.
The Astronaut’s Wife – In The Astronaut’s Wife we have another movie that preys on the fears associated with motherhood. The movie follows Spencer Armacost (Johnny Depp), an astronaut set to go into space and his wife Jillian (Charlize Theron). When Spencer loses radio contact for two minutes, he comes back to Earth a changed man, to the point where he quits his job and moves his wife to New York. Jillian ends up becoming pregnant with twins, and learns through a series of events that she might possibly be carrying aliens bent on taking over the globe.
While the premise could perhaps come off as silly, The Astronaut’s Wife is nonetheless very much like the previous film in many ways. It involves a vulnerable young lady who is emotionally scarred after events in her childhood, and is therefore easily taken advantage of. As the movie progresses you start to wonder if Jillian is simply losing her mind, and that the pregnancy is just too emotionally overwhelming for her. Through her, we identify with the very real stress that pregnancy can bring, both physically and mentally, and how this isolating feeling can alienate (no pun intended) the ones you love. The sense of loneliness that Theron’s character feels is a very real feeling to women in the throes of having a child.
The Omen (the original, not the shitty remake) – This movie is a classic, and it raises some great thoughts on what someone goes through in raising a child. The film follows the lives of Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck) and his wife Katherine (Lee Remick). Katherine ends up losing her baby in childbirth and Robert does a quickie adoption to replace the dead child. He finds himself with a lovely little boy named Damien, who also turns out to be the spawn of Satan.
Most people cite The Omen as one of Gregory Peck’s great late-life cinematic achievements, but I feel a lot of what makes this a female horror movie goes to Lee Remick. The poor girl has just lost a child, and without her knowledge her husband has brought in a duplicate, who just happens to be the Antichrist. How do you think a first-time mother would feel knowing that she raised the Devil’s spawn; it brings up all sorts of discussion on the idea of nature vs. nurture, a theme that runs rampant in similar fare like The Bad Seed.
The Hand That Rocks the Cradle – This movie is to me it is a smart thriller, and the benchmark by which all other female horror movies should be measured. The story follows the picturesque Bartel family consisting of Claire (Annabella Sciorra) and Michael (Matt McCoy) and their daughter Emma (Madeline Zima). The greeting card family is expecting a second child, but all goes sour when Claire presses charges against her doctor for sexual assault. After the doctor offs himself things seem to go back to normal, at least until the couple decides to hire a nanny.
Enter Peyton Flanders (Rebecca De Mornay), a beautiful lady claims to be looking to enter a family and bring some happiness and joy. Peyton is nothing like she appears, and is in fact the widow of Claire’s doctor, now hell-bent on revenge. Slowly the nanny starts to ingrain herself in Claire’s life, turning her little girl against her and even going so far as to breast-feed Claire’s son. As Claire starts to put the pieces together, her family starts to think she is losing her grip…because as the slogan of the movie says “The hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world.”
The truly creepy theme of this movie is that of having an intruder come into your home and change everything about your life, only this particular intruder is raising your offspring. Peyton is able to accomplish all her goals in this movie, turning a family to her line of thinking and making herself the alpha female. Claire starts to notice that her baby won’t let anybody hold him but Peyton; Emma doesn’t tell her own mother her secrets anymore. The fear that comes from realizing that your children are slipping away, confiding in someone else is a scary thought for a mother, just ask mine.
The other idea that is conveyed in this movie is how far envy can go. Peyton is so incredibly jealous of what Claire has; to her it’s everything that should have been given to hers, and so she has to take it for herself. The roots of obsession run deep and it all plays out beautifully in this movie. It all culminates when Claire comes home to see her husband, daughter and Peyton playing a board game and the mother notices Peyton wearing her jewelry. It’s a great moment and shows the ultimate feeling that the mother is no longer needed.
Having said all this, I am not implying that men can not enjoy, or even be frightened by, any of these movies. What I AM saying is that each of these movies picks at specific aspects of femininity that can’t be controlled, and uses it to great effect. Horror movies scare us, but these movies terrify. It takes horror to a whole new level.
Author: Kristen Lopez, Editor in Chief
Kristen Lopez is the editor-in-chief of CC2K and a freelance pop culture essayist. Her work has appeared on Roger Ebert, The Hollywood Reporter, and The Daily Beast. When she’s not burning down Film Twitter she runs two podcasts, the female-centric film show Citizen Dame, and the classic film-themed Ticklish Business.