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Halloween, Horror Movies and Violence Against Women

Wow… really? This sort of sums up the role for women in a lot of horror films in a nutshell–victims of violence, rape… or both. And while this character in Prometheus is ultimately a survivor, her “adventure” still encompasses so many horror film stereotypes.

So, I am sitting here working on this blog post.  It’s Halloween night and I am on-shift at our domestic violence shelter.  It has gotten me to thinking in general terms about Halloween–because, well… it’s Halloween and I am working  instead of handing out candy to neighborhood kids or dressing up funny myself and going to a party.

Halloween is associated inextricably in my mind with horror movies.  For years, friends and I have watched horror films on Halloween night.  It’s sort of a tradition and I’m sure it’s not one particular just to us.  Tons of people do it.  So as I work at the shelter, I mentally review horror films I could watch when I get off-shift.  I’ve got time to fit at least one movie in before bed on a work night, don’t I?

And this leads me inevitably to thinking about the role of violence against women in horror films.  There’s a LOT of it.  In fact, in most horror films, the designated victim is a woman.  Or women.  Or women and kids.  Scary things just seem SCARIER when the victim is young or female or both.  Thinking about this prompted me to go searching for articles online about this topic.  It turns out I am far from the first person to think about this–no surprise there!  There are lots and lots of articles, discussing all aspects of this phenomenon.

There are articles discussing the evolution of women’s roles in horror (or lackthereof).  There are articles talking about how horror films often punish women for stepping outside society’s roles for women:

Men are often praised and revered for their sexual prowess; however, women are often punished for sexual promiscuity. In slasher films, the final girls who survive at the end of the film always remain virgins. Those that engage in sexual behavior often die at the hands of the killer. Evidence produced from the Molitor and Sapolsky study on Slasher films from 1980 to 1993 shows that “it takes women twice as long to die as men in these films” and “females are shown in terror for obviously longer periods of time than males”.[

There are articles about pretty much any aspect of horror films and women you can think of.  The more I dug into this — and trust me, there is a ton more digging I could have done! — the more I wondered, “Is there some documented effect (or lack thereof) on viewers?  What does all this cinematic violence against women DO to the viewer?  Anything?  Nothing?”

Well, there are a lot of studies about that as well.  There is a time-honored tradition of blaming the media for all sorts of societal ills and we blame all sorts of media, from TV to popular music to video games.  Some of this is backed up with studies.  Some of it less so.  But I can’t help but believe that seeing repeated images of torture, terror, violence, sexual violence and atrocities committed primarily (not completely, but primarily) against female victims must have some effect.  It certainly must reflect some societal stereotypes and beliefs.

According to Gloria Cowan and Margaret O’Brien, experimental studies have been done to show the effects of viewing R-rated violent films have found “increased acceptance of interpersonal violence and rape mythology”. These studies have also found desensitization with “carry-over attitude effects” towards victims of violence. These studies have shown, that after viewing slasher films, college male students have less sympathy for rape victim, see her as less injured, and are more likely to endorse the myth that women enjoy rape.[6]“Watching horror films is said to offer viewers a socially sanctioned opportunity to perform behaviors consistent with traditional gender stereotypes and early work on this topic found that males exposed to a sexually violent slasher film increased their acceptance of beliefs that some violence against women is justified and that it may have positive consequences”.[8]

The thing that gives me hope for the horror genre is that there are–here and there–gems of movies or TV series that have a “horror” theme… and strong women characters.  The obvious go-to choice (and it has been for years) is Ripley from the Aliens series of films.  I’m sure you can think of others too–Buffy, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for instance.

If you had to pick a list of good horror films or TV shows that featured strong women… films that did not rely on terrorizing or brutalizing female characters as their sole “gimmick” for freaking us out… what would you pick?  What would be on your list for a Halloween movie-thon tonight?

If you were with a bunch of friends and you were going to pick a “scary movie night” list of films and some of the more ultra-violent slasher films were brought up, would you feel comfortable taking a stand against films that glorify that sort of violence?  Would you have some good, scary alternatives in mind?

Just some thoughts while here at the domestic violence shelter on Halloween night.  Because the sad truth of it is… the women staying in shelters across the country have already had to live in their own horror films.  Do we really need to make it into entertainment too?

Leave a comment


  1. What would I pick?
    – Resident Evil (2002)
    – Ginger Snaps (2000)
    – The Silence of the Lambs
    – Halloween

    All of those have ridiculously strong female characters that survive.

    I’m also not sure that terrorising or brutalising women in horror is necessarily a concern. The point of a horror film is to brutalise and terrorise all of the characters. This does not make a horror film inherently misogynistic. What might make a horror film misogynistic is if only males were to survive; if women constantly needed rescuing or if the women were consistently brutalised more than the men.

    As for making that entertainment? I feel that the place of horror films is to explore those awful parts of human nature. Granted Hollywood often does gratuitous gore in the mistaken belief that blood = scary but that does not invalidate the role of the horror film.

    • I’ve not seen Ginger Snaps, although I have now seen it come up a couple times in reference to “strong females” in horror films. I will have to check it out.

      I agree that the point of a horror film is to terrorize all of the characters–but I would submit that women are more often terrorized in a way that is inherently rape-oriented or sexually oriented, which is definitely different than the ways men are treated and can run the risk of sexualizing the brutalization of women. Thoughts?

      Actually, I just re-watched the remake/prequel of The Thing last night and was impressed by the fact that the main character is female and while she is scared and pursued and terrorized equally with the men, there was no particular sexualization of her nor rape motif–which is not often the case. So, I’d submit that as an entry to the list as well.

      On a personal note? I love horror films, myself. So not trying to invalidate their role–just got to thinking about them whilst on shift. Thank you so much for your thoughtful reply! I will have to check out Ginger Snaps. And Resident Evil, for that matter. I don’t know how I managed to not ever see that one!

      • I think Hostel II might be a good example of a horror film which sexualises the brutalisation of women (to date I actually haven’t been able to make it through the movie), I thought that was a fairly poor movie overall since it seemed to purely belong to the gore subgenre of horror.

        However when you talk about rape motifs are we talking about things like weapons which are shaped like phallic symbols (which I’ve heard some argue sexualises women in horror) or are we talking about a movie like Hostel II? I think both the movie and the motif have their place as long as it’s not gratuitous or out of context (which I might make the argument that Hostel II was gratuitous).

        I thought this was an interesting take on rape in horror films: http://www.horror-movies.ca/horror_11366.html . Although it deals with actual rape rather than metaphorical rape.

        If you haven’t seen it yet you should check out Cabin in the Woods. Best horror movie ever.

  2. I LOVE Cabin in the Woods. It was just brilliant in the way it played with all the stereotypes – the virginal girl who lives the longest, the slut-girl who gets it first (because sexual women must be punished, apparently), the jock guy, the stoner… it was awesome.

    As far as rape motifs, I think one could take that in a number of directions. When you go into the phallic symbol direction, one can think of knives, I suppose. Or using a weapon in a sexual way — can’t remember the film offhand but I remember one where a woman was raped/assaulted with a gun stuck up her vagina as a threat. Or for instance, the tail of the Alien in the movie Alien, that moves up the female victim’s legs toward her crotch in a very phallic/rape sort of way. Lots of stuff out there like that which one does not see directed at male victims, who usually are just killed outright and not sexually tortured or threatened beforehand.

    Or yeah, we can talk about a movie like Hostel II, although since I’ve not seen that one I can’t speak to it directly. But there is definitely a whole subgenre of horror–slasher-type horror–that was most popular in late 70s and 80s that really focused on sexualized female victims… lots of revealing clothing, bad/sexual-girl-gets-hurt-first-or-worst… stuff like that.

    Like I said, I actually really love horror films… at least, a fair number of them. So I’m not trying to slam on the whole genre or say that they are inherently bad. But I do think that when you break down the “tropes” as they say of horror, a lot of it involves the idea that violence against women is inextricably bound with sex, and that violence against women when bound with sex is titillating to the (theoretical) main audience of horror films, which is teenaged guys.

    Thanks for the article link! I actually saw that when I was looking at stuff for the post I did, but I did not read it as thoroughly as I wanted to (since I was sneaking it in between crisis calls at our shelter!). So it’s good to have the link so I can peruse it more thoroughly!

  3. Linda

     /  November 7, 2012

    What an interesting topic ! I’m too frightened by that photo to say anything intelligent- I’ll need to think about it! Thanks for all these thought provoking issues! Keep it up!

  4. I do agree with this: that was most popular in late 70s and 80s that really focused on sexualized female victims… lots of revealing clothing, bad/sexual-girl-gets-hurt-first-or-worst… stuff like that.

    I often wonder how much these films are influenced by the social mores of the times and how often a director makes a conscious decision to move with or flow against them.

    I found Hostel II to be gratuitous because Hostel originally explored the concept so I actually couldn’t see the merit in making a film which was exactly the same concept/plotline with a predominately female victim cast (from memory I think the only male victim was the protagonist from the first hostel). It was very basically torture porn.

    Also I was trying to think up weapons that weren’t phallic shaped in some way and came up with a poison, pillows and rocks. I think the most ‘sexualised’ horror scene I’ve seen (in a movie outside of Hostel II) would be the one where Freddy in Freddy v Jason had his butterknife fingers up inside a girl. However, unless its something obvious like that, I tend not to notice it (possibly thanks to growing up on horror films).


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