What to do about violence toward women in horror

Violence Towards Women in Horror

Accepting violence toward women as a fixed-facet of horror, how can creators combat harmful tropes and stereotypes while staying true to the genre?

When I sent my questions to panelists for the #MeToo, #TimesUp and Horror Genre Content panel at Crypticon 2018, I asked whether it would be preferable, or even possible, to exclude violence towards women from horror. Even before entering the panel, I had already concluded that it wouldn’t be possible to extract violence towards women from horror completely. Violence is at the core of most works of horror, whether physical or psychological and can’t be extricated from the genre without the threat of becoming another genre altogether. However, the panel did center around some innovative theories and observations about how violence towards women can be represented or approached “well” in the genre and some of the larger, cultural hurdles standing in the way of having productive representations of women in film of any genre.  

The discussion between the panel and audience flowed freely, bouncing back and forth between questions while certain topics revealed themselves again and again, keeping us grounded in common themes. I’ve distilled those themes as best I could into three questions, and Dr. Frankenstein-ed together this concise version of our hour-long conversation.

Becky Sayers, an independent filmmaker and member of the board of the Reel Grrls organization, launched our conversation straight for the jugular, sharing a statistic that in all films, women typically represent just 20% of speaking characters. Even women with speaking roles are often used as means to a male protagonist’s goals. These observations served as important context for our more granular discussion of violence toward women in horror.

Violence towards Women in Horror
Original image by Jamie E Fulton


Sayers started our genre-specific conversation with a statistic from Molitor and Sapolsky (1993) claiming that women in slasher films from 1980-1993 take twice as long to die as the men in those same movies. Adding a comment about our culture’s voyeuristic attraction to women in peril and noting that even when women and men die at the same speed, filmmakers often use very different devices to capture a woman’s death than a man’s. Musician Jason Weiss, known as Laughing Window, clarified that violence toward women tends to be far more sexualized. Sometimes going beyond sexualizing violence toward women to overtly attacking women’s sexuality, to the extent of cutting breasts, etc. Tony Kay, a film reviewer for CityArts Magazine and various online publications, pointed out that horror films often objectify women long before the physical violence occurs by identifying women as a target.

According to a study Sayers cited from Men, Women and Chainsaws, male audience members typically experienced violence towards women in films as more palatable when accompanied by sexual imagery. We hypothesized that this is likely because of the effects of objectification:

If a woman is reduced to a sexual object prior to having violence inflicted upon her, it will be easier not to empathize with her when she is assaulted.

Creating empathy is a key component to avoiding objectification and something we all agreed is fundamentally missing from much of the horror genre. It’s something that “unfortunately takes a lot for a male artist to put themselves in that place of empathy”, Tony Kay remarked, “…and [to] create something that can address issues of that nature without being exploitative, manipulative or flat-out offensive”.

Jason brought up a counterpoint to our objectification hypothesis from the same book (Men, Women and Chainsaws) that suggested women are shown longer in states of terror because they can express a range of emotions not often allotted to male characters, so the emotional journey is often shown through the female characters. As an audience member previously pointed out, it’s also probably just easier for the men making these films to empathize with the male characters and be more protective of them. To this train of thought, Michelle Nessk, independent filmmaker, SFX artist and owner of The Blood Shed and Gloomy Sunday Productions which showcased their fifth annual Horrors of the PNW at Crypticon this year, highlighted that effeminate men are often shown in prolonged states of terror as well. She made the case that non-traditionally-masculine men were often treated as poorly as the “slut-trope”, making them among the most gratuitously abused characters in horror films (I would note that this also sometimes occurs with men-of-color). This idea prompted my own realization that filmmakers are going further than distancing themselves from these emotions but are placing moral judgments on the characters who emote them.

Carrie Women in Horror
Sissy Spacek as Carrie from Brian de Palma’s 1976 film Carrie


There seemed to be two, main streams of thought about what makes violence towards women in horror films “well done”. Weiss made the first stream most clear and concise when he said, “The good way is when the sex doesn’t matter.” Explaining that to him, violence should be approached in the same way with women as it is with men.

Nessk went even further to suggest that filmmakers abstain from making value judgments on which characters are expendable and instead treat all people as what they are – people. She mentioned an award-winning article she wrote called Why all the women must die where she outlined her thoughts on this topic in greater detail. An audience member brought up the film You’re Next as an example of treating the violence towards both men and women equally. The panelists seemed to unanimously agree with this assessment.

The other stream on this topic was that films which perpetrate or address violence towards women shouldn’t shy away from the trauma and other real, lasting effects violence has on survivors. I pointed out that in Nightmare on Elm Street, Nancy Thompson was not only a full, three-dimensional character but the trauma she dealt with personally was a large part of the horror in the film. There are still mishandlings of the slut-trope, etc. in this film, but Nancy’s character is atypical. Sayers brought up Better Watch Out as being a great example of toxic masculinity as the central theme of horror in a film. Kay talked about his surprise at Lucio Fulci’s Don’t Torture a Duckling and its ability to reflect upon the violence of misogyny while drumming up a profound amount of empathy for the protagonist throughout.

I brought up Under the Skin as a film which tries to explore toxic masculinity but ultimately still objectified its protagonist and sensationalized the violence toward her at the end of the film. I felt the director took on the perspective he was trying to criticize in a way that took away from his message rather than bolstering it. Nessk concurred and added that any “virtue signaling” the director promoted was overridden by the way he made the film. I had not heard about this, but apparently, the director had Scarlett Johansen actually pick up random men (not actors) on the side of the road. The film crew would pack into the back of the van, then jump out and get release forms etc. just before dropping the men off, after the scene had been recorded.

During the panel, Nessk discussed the danger this method put Johansen in. After reading the stories, I felt the director exploited the unassuming men’s sexuality in an unsavory way as well. The men interviewed about it seem fine with the experience, but I still find it exploitative and abusive, especially since none of this was consented to up-front.

Halloween Women in Horror
Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Strode in John Carpenter’s 1978 film Halloween


One audience member brought up a question/comment that didn’t get much play in the panel which was understandable with how much we were covering but also unfortunate because it’s an important aspect of this discussion. The audience member shared that she found something empowering about these tortured and abused women going through “all this shit” and surviving, especially since all the women she knows have been through shit, survived it and thrived.

Despite the prevalence of violence toward women, women are typically better represented in horror than other genres. Sayers cited a study which found that women represented significantly more lines of script in horror than in drama and other similar genres. I know that many of the women in my life connect with elements of horror (witches, vampires, etc.) or are simply bigger fans of horror films and fiction than men. I’m not alone either.

The Conjuring’s theatre audience was 53%, The Purge 56% and Mama 61% women. There’s a great article from The Guardian reflecting on the fortieth anniversary of the movie Carrie and the importance of horror to women (also where the audience percentages came from).  After the panel, I was reminded of two quotes from the article which I had read in preparation for this panel. The first is by Shelley Stamp, a film professor at UC Santa Cruz:

“Yes, femininity, female sexuality, and the female body are often presented as ‘monstrous’. But that doesn’t mean that women aren’t interested in watching and thinking about these issues. In many ways, horror films bring to the fore issues that are otherwise unspoken in patriarchal culture – which itself constructs female sexuality as monstrous.”

And journalist Brianna Wu with:

“Horror movies are a world where money can’t save you, privilege can’t save you, strength can’t save you. In some ways, it’s a world with real equality.”

While it’s positive that women have always had a larger voice in horror than other genres, everyone on the panel agreed that we need more women, and general diversity, behind the camera. We briefly discussed behind-the-scenes behavioral issues, but that’s not the only reason representation matters.

Whether making a film or writing a novel, the writers, producers, directors, directors of photography, etc. are bringing a unique perspective to each project they touch. Including womxn and LGBTQIA voices in the decision-making and creative processes will not only force the behind-the-scenes culture to be safer for everyone but also gives us audience members more interesting, however challenging at times, perspectives in the content we digest which help us grow and progress as individuals and as a society.

Raw Women in Horror
Garance Marillier as Justine in Julia Ducournau’s 2016 film Raw

We all shared exuberance for the direction of horror today and the astonishing number of women breaking the mold and bringing new, innovative ideas to the genre. Look into all the women and films listed below and please share any of your favorites we may have missed in the comments:

THE PANEL RECOMMENDS: Badass Women in Horror

Becky Sayers Recommends:

  •        Karyn Kusama – director of The Invitation
  •        Jen Wexler – a producer with her recent directorial debut, The Ranger
  •        Leigh Janiak – director of Honeymoon

Check out her own film, The Last Buck Hunt, here!

Michelle Nessk Recommends:

Check out the trailer for her own film, O Unilateralis, here! 

Jason Wiess Recommends:

Tony Kay Recommends:

My Addition:

  •        Julia Ducournau – writer and director of Raw

Check out my short film, The Asylum, here!

Dime Store Philosophies Introduction

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