no. 9: The Female Gaze in Horror Films

in which Sydney gives a lesson on film theory, Andres discusses uncomfortable camera work in The Slumber Party Massacre, and Kati recommends reading from who might be the greatest sci-fi author ever.

no. 9: The Female Gaze in Horror Films

Was this supposed to be released on October 28th? Yes. Is it now November 4th? Also yes. October was a busy, busy month y’all, so I’m doing what I can! Still, I hope you enjoy this (forever timely) issue on the female gaze/male gaze/general gaze in horror films.

Understanding male gaze

Grayscale photo of Laura Mulvey, who coined the term "male gaze" speaking at a podium.
Laura Mulvey is known for coining the term “male gaze” and developing the theory behind the idea.

The phrases “male gaze” and “female gaze” are thrown around quite a bit lately. There’s even the “I stopped dressing for the male gaze” TikTok trend, which doesn’t really seem to understand exactly where the term “male gaze” came from (but good for the women who started dressing for themselves!). The idea of male gaze, though, originates with Laura Mulvey—yes, we’re diving into some film theory! In “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Mulvey lays out the male gaze.

In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, please in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female figure which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness.

In plain language, women in film often serve as visual pleasure—and are costumed and filmed accordingly. In the horror genre, especially, the trappings of male gaze on screen are ubiquitous; many people characterize horror by its gore, scares, and hot girls.

Horror has a long tradition as an expansive genre, encompassing everything from arthouse darlings (Saint Maud, Midsommar) to grindhouse/exploitation films (A Bay of Blood, Texas Chainsaw Massacre). The genre has also typically been a “boys club” on the outside—though people of all genders are fans of horror. Though horror films in recent years have directly challenged the idea of male gaze, this is a deep-rooted problem in filmmaking of all genres. Recently, though, filmmakers, especially women, have been making feminist horror and sometimes using parody, feminist themes, or “female gaze”—which center queer women.

Slumber Party Massacre (2021) parodies the male gaze in horror

One of my favorite releases of the year is definitely Slumber Party Massacre. Following in the footsteps of the original Slumber Party Massacre (SPM) trilogy, this rendition is also written and directed by women. Director Danishka Esterhazy and writer Suzanne Keilly use the film to parody parts of the classic slashers and subvert the expectations of the 80s direct-to-video slasher genre as a whole.

The foundation of the film’s story is similar to that of the other SPM films. The girls are alone at a rental lake house for a slumber party and become terrorized by the Driller Killer, who had attacked another group of girls in the 90s. This group of girls, however, seeks out the Driller Killer, led by Dana (Hannah Gonera), whose mother was the only survivor of the 1990s attack. They plan to counterattack the Driller Killer to finally end his reign of terror.

Hanna Gonera as Dana, a young woman who seeks revenge on her mother’s killer

Throughout the film, Esterhazy and Keilly mock the male gaze in horror films by gender-flipping the roles. Suddenly, the group of boys—who are renting a cabin on the other side of the lake—are behaving like the traditional women of these films. We watch the girls watch the boys have a pillow fight, unnoticed. The pillow fight isn’t meant to arouse the girls—it’s too ridiculous. Though the men are fighting, Esterhazy frames the scene in the male gaze, playing back what is often a trope for women in film. Later, we watch as one of the teenage boys showers, complete with shots looking up and down his body, sexy soap suds, and music to put the viewer in the mood. Again, the scene is played for laughs with the intent to exhibit just how ridiculous—and unnatural—portrayals of women in horror films often are.

Exploring female gaze in Jennifer’s Body

Needy lays on top of Jennifer, kissing her
Can you believe that I went into this film on my first watch not knowing it was gay?

Much of recent conversation of the “female gaze” has been surrounding Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, a film about queer women, made by queer women, and...for queer women. That film lays out the “female gaze” and what women seek out and notice in their partners. In explaining this, the idea of female gaze has been more popular in recent years.

Female gaze, though, didn’t start with Portrait. It probably didn’t start with Jennifer’s Body either, but Jennifer’s Body is a specific case because of that abysmal marketing campaign I mentioned in the last issue. When the film was being advertised before it’s release, the marketers geared the film to an audience of teenage boys, who would see the film because Megan Fox was involved, and at the time she was almost exclusively seen as a sex object, rather than a woman, or even an actress. Of course, when these teenage boys went to see the film, they were not watching what they thought they were. Jennifer’s Body is a masterpiece from director Karyn Kusama and writer Diablo Cody that focuses on female friendship and uses the female gaze when Jennifer (Megan Fox) and Needy (Amanda Seyfried) are on screen together.

Best friends… or soulmates?

Their attraction isn’t just defined by their physical attraction to each other; Needy isn’t trying to get with Jennifer for her tits. The pair have a deeply emotional connection, predicated on their understanding of one another and companionship despite not sharing interests. During the scene where the two act on their (obvious) attraction for one another, Jennifer’s interactions with Needy are tender and sweet. When they lean in to kiss, the camera focuses on the moments before their lips meet, carefully highlighting when Jennifer touches Needy’s lip with her thumb. Even when Needy chooses to join Jennifer on the bed, the camera does not try to highlight any of their “assets.” Clothes aren’t being ripped off. Naked women aren’t on display. It’s the antithesis to sex in horror.

Horror isn’t a boys club anymore—and it’s not wholly straight either. Directors and writers are making films that deal with a wide range of subjects and often have complicated not-only-sexual-object people of diverse genders at the forefront.

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I am not the creep you think I am

by Andres Guzman

Valerie stands in the lockers showers with a towel wrapped around her hair looking longingly off camera.

Okay, so I know what it sounds like. I am not one of those fools on Twitter who believes there shouldn’t be sex scenes in films. It’s needed when there’s a purpose. Also, I’d much rather have a sensuous non-sexual sex scene any day of the week (looking at you, Stoker). Still, there’s something significantly different going on when we look at the nudity inside The Slumber Party Massacre. I need to stop and talk about why some of the nudity in this film made me uncomfortable compared to other slashers at the same time.

During the 80s, we were bombarded with slashers of varying degrees of quality. They all were attempting to do something different, stand out on their own. That being said, they often followed a sense of rules and standards that horror audiences started to expect (Scream laid down the facts for those unaware), and one of those expectations was they had to include nudity, specifically and usually female nudity. Topless women killed moments after (or hell, even during) sex.  It made audiences cheer, or at least, typically the teenage boys who went to see the films just for moments like this. The reason the scenes continued to pop up even as critics (professionally and not) complained was because these women were often at their most vulnerable. Alone, without any clothes on their skin to somewhat protect them. As if a bra or a shirt could stop a machete.

There’s a moment early in The Slumber Party Massacre when gym class is over after playing basketball, and the entire class goes to shower. The camera pans across the group of women showering, showing their backs, hiding everything, and then the camera stops and tilts down. It happens for a moment and then tilts up and continues to pan left. The moment was entirely unnecessary, the camera wasn’t following a movement or anything, but instead was used to show off the actress’ body. It feels intrusive.

Horror films, and specifically slasher films, have a tradition of showcasing nudity. Every filmmaker was mandated to include nudity in their movies, regardless of the gender of the director. The Slumber Party Massacre was directed by Amy Holden Jones and was financed by Roger Corman, who asked for nudity. Jones wasn’t happy about the criticism of the usage in the film, but I think it’s used extremely well to prove how uncomfortable it’s supposed to be.

Jones and cinematographer Stephen L. Posey give us a moment to understand how women are used as objects, and that the audience and the killers enjoy these voyeuristic moments.  The camera is questioning us, “Is this what you wanted?” It comes as no surprise that our murderer’s weapon of choice is a giant drill used to penetrate each of his victims, and in his last moments of being alive, it’s losing part of the length of it that hurts him more than losing his hand.

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Screen Break

by Kati Bowden

While many may separate Science Fiction and Horror from one another, plenty of fantastic, horrific stories have been told in the space where the two genres overlap. This is where we've found many of the most beloved films—the Alien franchise, Resident Evil, even the original Frankenstein—and some of the most heart-pounding stories. It's one thing to be haunted by demons or spirits that we can't logically explain; the concept of there being an "other" that is both scientifically probable and more advanced than human understanding instills an altogether different form of fear, a stronger strain of terror, in most audiences.

In Octavia Butler's Dawn, the first installment in her Xenogenesis series, humanity has ruined itself completely, and must rely on something more advanced than themselves if they hope to avoid extinction. The main character, Lilith Iyapo, wakes up on the spacecraft-community of the Oankali species beholden to their intellectual and evolutionary superiority. The Oankali are not cruel, but inquisitive. They tell Lilith that she and a handful of other humans were saved from the atomic fires of Earth's final war before being put into a centuries-long sleep. In this time, the Oankali have studied the resting humans, learning about their cultures and their functions so that they can do their best to save humanity and return Lilith and the others to a newly healed Earth.

But the humans will not be going back alone.

The Oankali are an adaptive species of alien, merging with primitive civilizations (such as the humans) to ensure that both they and their partner species do not disappear from the universe. For Lilith and her fellow survivors, this means that they and the Earth get another chance. Grass will grow, animals will frolic, rivers will run, and humans and Oankali will populate the planet together—with their new, unique, decidedly-not-human progeny.

Can Lilith and the other humans risk not working with the Oankali? Can they carry the responsibility of repopulating a planet with something strange and unlike themselves? Or will human nature, the very concept of which Butler dissects and studies in the Xenogenesis trilogy, prove too violent and narcissistic to save itself through self-sacrifice?

Dawn chronicles the start of humanity's second chance, and the founding of a new race superior to our own. Octavia Butler captures the true horror of change and loss in her writing. Whether you've read any of Butler's other works or you've never delved into her branch of Sci-Fi/Horror before, Dawn should be the next book you pick up, if only to answer the following question: When humanity inevitably destroys itself, will you be willing to help whoever comes to our rescue?

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