Exploration of Gender in Horror Movies

The “Final Girl”: The Exploration of Gender in Slasher/Horror Movies Much is made of the anti-female sentiments expressed in slasher/horror films. The classic scenario or formula used in most slasher movies includes the psycho-killer who slashes to death a string of mostly female victims, one-by one, until he himself is killed or subdued by the final survivor, usually the female lead character. The slasher film is rife with forbidden sexual overtones and graphic bloody violence, making it disregarded as great film by most critics or audiences (Clover, 1). However, it has become one of the top grossing film genres to come out of Hollywood.

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During the mid 1970’s to 1980’s, audiences saw the return of the slasher film with the release of movies like, Halloween and later, Scream. The first slasher film was arguably Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Most slasher films post dating Psycho keep true to many of the original “formulas” used in the making of Psycho. The introduction of the “final girl” shows a departure from many original Hollywood horror film formulas. Benshoff and Griffin define the final girl as, “A hero who is often able to defeat the killer. Yet the ‘final girl’ is usually a sweet, virginal character – one who represents an old-fashioned model of proper womanhood. Some of the elements that add to the formula of producing a slasher film include the use of sound, photography, and movement. With the added drama and effects each of these elements help to illicit in the film, the slasher film genre gives a clear picture of current cultural attitudes toward sex and gender. This theme of gender and sexuality will be explored in the slasher movies, Psycho, Halloween and Scream, through the elements of sound, photography, and movement. Without sound, the fear factor of almost any horror film would decrease dramatically, if not completely vanish.

Sure, monsters look scary, and masked men wielding a knife can be terrifying, but without sound, much of the fear these images evoke is negated. Composer Simon Boswell, who is involved in composing for a number of horror films, states, “Music in horror film is probably more powerful than in any other genre, so it’s good for a composer to do them because he can be very influential on the action. ” Most would agree that the eerie or sometimes frenetic music that begins when the killer is near adds a great deal of tension and suspense to a movie.

The music acts as an alert warning for the audience. It is saying “The killer is near, get ready to scream! ” It is the very dramatic nature and shifting pace of a horror film that the sound adds so much to. If the main purpose of a horror film is to scare the audience, then it is imperative that horror is achieved not merely through visuals but by sound alike. Photography within the slasher film is very important as well. Often, the two points of views expressed are through the monster/killer’s eyes or through the female protagonist’s eyes.

Horror films often use point of view shots to suggest a menacing or unseen presence in the scene, for example, a shot that is looking out of the dark woods directly at a lone, young woman inside a well lit house. A shot like this alerts the audience that something bad is going to happen to that young woman. Point of view is one of the means by which audiences are encouraged to identify with characters in the film. The photography in horror films also employs the use of contrast to denote good and evil. High contrast is often used in the horror film genre because often times a lot of the scenes are very dark and menacing.

The idea behind this may be playing to the fear of the dark that many individuals carry with them into adulthood. The movement within the slasher film often includes a downward movement in relation of the monster/killer to the protagonist. In so many horror films, the killer takes on unusually huge proportions, and seemingly towers over the female protagonist. When trying to escape the killer, the female’s movements are often jerky and stumbling, while the killer moves at a constant pace, without running, and seemingly always manages to catch up. The movement within slasher movies is used to reinforce dramatic events.

The idea of the male killer always having the top to bottom view and movement denotes power, while the female, either stumbling away below him, or crouching in a corner hiding from him, denotes weakness. One of the earliest slasher films is Psycho, directed by film legend Alfred Hitchcock. The film opens up with a wide angle shot of Phoenix, Arizona. The shot pans across many skyscraper buildings and after a series of numerous dissolves, randomly chooses to descend and penetrate deeper into one of many windows in a cheaper, high-rise hotel building. The window’s Venetian blinds narrowly conceal the dingy interior.

There, the camera pauses at the half-open window – and then voyeuristically intrudes into the darkness of the drab room. The camera takes a moment to adjust to the black interior – and then pans to expose a couple who had obviously just had a daytime tryst. The use of the camera in this way suggests a sense of intimacy to the audience. They are seeing something that is secret and private, yet they are allowed to bear witness to it. By showing Marion, the female lead, played by Janet Leigh, in this manner, the film attempts to sexualize her character while at the same time demoralize her character.

This is the start of the victimization of her character, which would ultimately lead to her death at the hands of Norman Bates. The use of photography in Psycho was manipulated in such a way that gory scenes didn’t need to be shown in full, in the way that most of them are in modern slasher films, but in a way to suggest the outcome without actually seeing it. For example, during the shower stabbing scene, only a quick shot shows Marion actually being stabbed. The scenes are a jumble of a knife wielding hand, parts of Marion’s body, parts of the shower, and shots of the bloody water gurgling down the drain.

By seeing this melange of images, the audience can deduce for themselves what is happening and what the final outcome will be. Many horror films after Psycho did not contend with showing so little gore. Many went in for the gross factor, pushing the audiences to new limits of disgust, thereby keeping audiences enthralled. It is said that, “No matter how much Hitchcock trusted his composer and sound mixer, he always dictated detailed notes for the dubbing of sound effects and the placement of music (Rebello, 3). Hitchcock realized the importance of sound in the horror film. In Psycho, he uses exaggerated sounds in places to instil fear or trepidation in the audience. For example, as Marion drives to what ends up being the Bate’s Motel, the sounds of passing cars are exaggerated as their headlights beam into her face. Also, during the famous shower scene stabbing, the sound of the shower is loud and monotonous, only to be broken by Marion’s screams, accompanied by screeching violins. One is very aware of sounds in Psycho, and this is just as Hitchcock wanted it to be.

The sounds were often what the audience expected to hear, regardless of the fact that specific sounds may not have sounded that particular way. For example, Hitchcock supposedly chose the sound of a knife stabbing into a melon to emulate the sound of a knife piercing into human flesh. Hitchcock manipulated sound within Psycho in order to dramatize certain events or have certain feelings invoked in the audiences minds. The movie Halloween came out in 1978. In it, a psychotic killer, Michael, stalks a small town on Halloween night. He kills a string of teenaged friends, one-by-one, until only Laurie, played by Jamie Lee Curtis, survives.

Michael has escaped from the asylum, in which he has been held since the age of six, after killing his sister. A flashback showing the murder opens up the film. In it, Michael murders his sister directly following a sexual interlude she has with her boyfriend, in her parent’s bed. This scene is shot totally from the killer’s first person perspective. The camera acts as the killer’s eyes. Only later is the identity of the killer revealed to be Michael. Now, fifteen years later, Michael returns to town to kill Laurie, who he perceives as his sister that he previously killed.

Before he can kill Laurie, he proceeds to kill each of her friends, just after or before each has been perceived to be involved in a sexual act. Laurie’s friend Linda is killed, just after having sex with her boyfriend Bob, while on the phone with Laurie. Michael kills Bob when he goes to the kitchen to get a beer and then returns to the bedroom with a sheet on and with Bob’s glasses on as well. Linda, thinking it is Bob, is shocked when she discovers it is not and Michael proceeds to strangle her with the phone cord, with Laurie all the while listening in.

In the movie, the sounds coming out of the phone can be perceived almost as orgasmic. In this way, Michael’s act of murder becomes sexually charged. The killing of Linda can be viewed as the sexual fulfillment of Michael. Halloween is one of those movies where a certain melody or sound actually serves as a symbol for the killer in the film. A specific musical score (in this case, a three note piano melody) is assigned to Michael and it is played every time he is approaching or every time he is present in the scene.

This creates a very tight bond between the auditory and the visuals of a film. The audience is alerted that he is coming or that he is there and that something horrible is about to happen. In relation, the female is known for her blood curdling screams of horror. Whereas sound is actually empowering the male and surrounding him in an aura of strength and fear, it is demoralizing the female lead as nothing but a scared, screaming girl, making her “fear personified. ” In Halloween, Laurie manages to elude Michael over and over again.

She stabs him with a knitting needle, and thinking him dead runs off, only to see him rise up again and chase after her. She locks herself in a closet, and we see from her perspective, Michael’s knife slashing at her through the door cracks. When he breaks the door down, she stabs him in the eye. Thinking he is dead again, she sinks to the floor in pain and fatigue, only to see Michael rise yet again. Just as Michael is about to stab her, Dr. Loomis of the asylum rushes in and shoots him. It can be argued that the killer/monster figure in this movie was outplayed by the lead female.

However, though resilient, it took the help of a man, Dr. Loomis, to finally vanquish Michael. Films after Halloween began to have something unique. They had “final girls” who not only fought back but did so with enough strength and determination to kill the killer on their own, without help from a male. One such character was Sydney Prescott, played by Neve Campbell in the movie Scream. Scream was also unique in that it started the craze for the teen horror movie. Although Scream used the male killer and the female “final girl” protagonist, it did so with a bit of irony.

It literally took horror movie cliches and talked about them in the movie. The characters took the cliches and talked about what would happen if they were in a slasher film. The movie Scream took the idea of the killer not being this outside “other” but being one of them, hidden amongst the group. This added a new dimension to the film, that of paranoia and not being able to trust anyone. In the movie, Sydney’s mother is brutally raped and murdered. The killer is supposedly locked up, but not everyone believes that he was in fact the killer.

One year later, two of Sydney’s classmates are murdered. This is prefaced with Casey Becker, played by Drew Barrymore, receiving a phone call where the caller asks her what her favorite scary movie is. Casey is disconcerted, but takes this lightly at first. The phone call becomes horrifying when Casey is told that she must answer questions about scary movies or her boyfriend Steve will be murdered. When Casey gets one wrong, the unseen killer murders Steve in Casey’s back yard and eventually catches her and murders her too.

After this horrible double murder, it is brought into question whether the accused murderer of Sydney’s mother is really guilty. Scream is not different from Halloween when it comes to a scary soundtrack. It differs in that there is not a specific melody for the killer. There is scary, foreboding music but unlike Halloween it is not constantly played when the killer is present or near. In Scream, the director limits the use of sound to the noises of the killer’s shoes creaking as he walks across the floor in search of victims.

There is no music during certain parts of the film, with some of the more horrifying parts of the movie intensified with more abstract sounds of knives going into flesh, for example. Movement in Scream also plays along with traditional horror story stereotypes. The chase scenes between the monster/killer are fast paced and frenetic. Unlike Halloween, however, the killer in Scream moves very quickly and is seemingly able to be in two places at once. Another observation about movement in horror films is that the killer often has an uncanny sense of where the protagonist will run to or hide.

In Scream, because of the fact that there are two killers, although the audience does not know that until the end, the killer can achieve this more easily. Scream uses photography in order to capture the essence of who Sydney is. She is not just the scared girl she is the victorious girl at the end of the movie. Although Sidney’s character does feed into many of the stereotypes in the beginning of the movie, by the end she breaks the mold and finds the strength to overcome her demons, both literally and figuratively.

Sydney is depicted as intelligent and resourceful and she becomes stronger and stronger throughout the movie. At one point in the movie, she remarks upon the representation of women in horror films and how she doesn’t see the point in watching them because women are always represented in the same way. She states, “What’s the point? They’re all the same, some stupid killer stalking some big-breasted girl who can’t act who is always running up the stairs when she should be running out the front door. It’s insulting. With this statement, the audience is clued into the fact that Sydney is not one of these kinds of female victims. In the end, Sidney uses her strength of character to help save her dad and her friends and help vanquish the two killers in the movie, Billy and Stu (one of whom was her boyfriend. ) Sidney is the true victor at the end of the movie, not some male lead or supporting character. Through the use of various techniques, slasher films explore the realms of sexuality and of gender. The use of the “final girl” within these films is indicative of the fact that society bases certain characteristics of females s being virtuous and others as not. In the movie Psycho, Marion played the antithesis of the “final girl”. She was sexually active and her image and character were tarnished because of her illicit affair. In the slasher films following Psycho, the “final girl” is presented at the very beginning as the main character. She is smart and often almost girlscout like, and she is not sexually active. She is watchful and notices even small details that are out of place, unlike other characters in the movie. She is also very resourceful in the face of danger.

She is represented as a victim throughout much of the movie, but she is an unwilling victim who is able to overcome the monster/killer in the end. Perhaps the “final girl” scenario is a rehash of the age-old virgin-whore complex, however, one can not help but argue that the “final girl” is able to overcome what all of the other characters in the horror/slasher film (both male and female) have been unable to do. She has survived what has come to seem un-survivable. She has looked death in the face and she has triumphed. Works Cited “Bafta: Screen Variations. Www. simonboswell. com. Web. 26 Apr. 2011. Benshoff, Harry M. , and Sean Griffin. America on Film: Representing Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality at the Movies. Malden, MA, USA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2004. Print. Clover, Carol J. Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1992. Print. Halloween. Dir. John Carpenter. 1978. Psycho. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. 1960. Rebello, Stephen. Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho. New York: Dembner, 1990. Print. Scream. Dir. Wes Craven. Buena Vista Pictures Distribution, 1996.