For Christmas, Bechdel The Dog, Queen of all Dogs, Pope of Poop, gifted me with a book: Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film by Carol J. Clover (pub. 1992). Just what I wanted! This was very generous of her, since Bechdel:
- rejects Freud (an oft-cited source in the book) on the basis of his contributions to patriarchy, and also
- can’t read.
Clover is at least partially responsible for a number of now-widespread ideas about horror, including the idea that there is no appreciable difference between “highbrow” and “lowbrow” horror. She also originated the term Final Girl.
While I have to agree with my dog that Freud and psychoanalysis in general are over-used and often-unconvincing tools of critical theory, I’m still finding this book very enlightening. One of Clover’s central questions is: why are horror audiences mostly young men when popular wisdom of the time says that male viewers will only identify with male characters? (Unsurprisingly, nobody thought it was weird for female viewers to identify with male characters.) Spoiler: people can identify with characters of any gender. Boys can relate to the Final Girl!
This may not be news in the third wave of intersectional feminism, but in the 90s it’s clearly a radical idea, and Clover uses it as a jumping-off point to talk about the semiotics of a lot of different horror tropes. She also spends an absolutely immense amount of time talking about the ways horror treats gender as performance rather than as an extension of biological sex. Here’s a little excerpt I’m into:
THANK YOU CAROL!
Reading this book has also led me to the grudging conclusion that my horror education is patchy. I haven’t watched many of the films that Clover examines in her book. Clover is primarily focused on a very specific swath of the horror genre: slashers, possession films, and rape-revenge movies from the 1970s-1992. Despite the fact that it seems like that encompasses most horror, it really doesn’t. I’ve managed to miss nearly all the major players in all three of these subcategories!
In general I’ve never been that spooked by possession films. Maybe because I’m a superstition-less atheist; maybe because deep down I’ve always seen possession films as movies where a (possessed) woman is the monster and I don’t like to always be the monster in my horror. I also try to avoid watching ladies get raped onscreen, so I’ve pretty much skipped rape-revenge movies entirely. I’ll watch a slasher now and again but when I do I prefer clever or campy (CABIN IN THE WOODS, 2011; SAW, 2004 ) over the slim story structure that many a slasher uses as a frame for a (seemingly) meaningless blood-bath.
Men, Women, and Chainsaws has convinced me that, to be an educated viewer watching movies in the context of canon, I need to go watch FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980) already.
Also HALLOWEEN (1978), A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984), WITCHBOARD (1986), I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE (1978)…you get the idea.
Of course, virtually none of these movies were directed by women, so I’ve decided to make one exception to my #LadyHorror 2021 resolution: in addition to horror movies directed by women, I will also be watching “foundational” classics from prior to 1996. I picked 1996 somewhat arbitrarily because that’s the year SCREAM came out. I feel like the historical moment when a mainstream flick parodies horror tropes is a turning point, from “foundational” to “building upon a” (foundation that already exists).
So, coming soon to an Instagram Story near you:
Do you agree with my cutoff date for “classic?” Would you pick a different year? What are the can’t-miss classics I should check out ASAP?