Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Paradox of the Female Horror Fan

For the longest time, it was a common stereotype that your average horror enthusiast had to be male. Women had their chick flicks and assorted weepy dramas, so the generalization went--but when it came to good old slice-and-dice cinema, it was, much like the action movie, strictly the domain of those with XY chromosomes. But more and more, we find this stereotype to be woefully false (blogs like this one being among the prime indicators).

The truth is, women love horror. Lots of them. It is no longer solely the domain of the dudes--in fact, perhaps it never was to begin with.

A study conducted by Kansas State University in 2000 found some interesting results that bear directly on this phenomenon. It found, among other things, that women enjoy being scared by horror films. Part of the reason for this, the study found, is that women tend to identify with the victim in the movie more strongly than men.

A recent article in The Times of India reported that two-thirds of the audience for the 2005 Jennifer Connelly shocker Dark Water were women. Now, perhaps this can be chalked up to the fact that the main character was a women, but that doesn't explain why 37% of the audience for Hostel was female, as well as 35% of the audience for Wolf Creek. The first season of True Blood boasted two million viewers--60% of which were woman. That's more than for Sex in the City, incidentally.

It cannot be denied that women like to be scared. At least the women who make up these interesting percentages do.

"I believe women have an edge," says horror filmmaker Kiran Ramsay. "Nowadays, horror needs a psychological twist, and women are great at showcasing such dilemmas. Originally it was men who loved horror movies, it was a sign of machismo, but now women seem to be catching up fast."

There seems to be a growing interest in horror films amongst women. However, there's an important caveat here that needs to be discussed. Because there is a possibility that this interest may be tied to age, as well. For example, the participants in the aforementioned KSU study were of an average age of 19. And, as was pointed out recently in AxWound, an excellent online journal on gender in horror, it seems very often that women tend to abandon their horror proclivities as they get older. Is there any truth to this?

Marya Diederichs of AxWound points to the common phenomenon of teenage girls out at horror movies with their dates. In her article, she suggests that this affinity for horror may be, for some, more of a rite of passage than a genuine passion. In other words, young women of this sort will gravitate toward horror more for the date experience than the experience of the movie itself--i.e. screaming, jumping, clinging to your male companion, etc. While I find this assessment to be a bit stereotypical in and of itself, it certainly does make up at least a portion of the female horror audience--a portion usually reviled/ridiculed by the "true" female horror fan, who takes pride in her knowledge of and interest in the genre.

Diedrichs, herself a 30-something female horror fanatic, postulates, after discussions with family, co-workers and friends (some of whom once were fans with her, but are no longer), that there are women who abandon horror as they get older for the precise reason found to be of such importance in the KSU survey. Namely, that because female viewers tend to identify more with the victims in horror movies, that as they get older and attain more life experience of true victimization and brutality, it becomes a much more painful and less enjoyable experience to watch a horror movie.

While an interesting premise, it also makes the assumption that any female horror fan under the age of 21 has led a life of lollipops and rainbows, which unfortunately, is far from the truth. So, how to explain those horror fans among the female gender who are attracted to the genre purely and simply for what it is, rather than for some obtuse psychological reason?

Diedrichs has an interesting take on this, as well:

Certainly there are those who would find some way to assign negativity to our passions. Are we hiding feelings of insecurity which prompt us to relive those teenage rites of passage, trying to prove ourselves again and again? Is there an internal self-hatred at work? I would argue instead that an adult female horror fan is instead among the most confident of women. While many of us may have our triggers in specific films or situations which we dutifully avoid, we’re self-aware enough to know the reasons behind our fear. By recognizing the deeper meaning behind slasher and horror films we build a better understanding of ourselves as a gender and our place in the larger culture.

I find this to be a pretty sound assessment. Although tempted to do it with myself when trying to determine the origins of my horror fixation, I tend to distrust the over-psychoanalysis of things like that. Maybe that's why I like Diedrich's conclusion.

One thing is for sure, and that is that the stereotype of the all-male horror audience, and the stereotype of the woman who is repulsed by all things horrific, are things of the past. More than ever, the female horror fan is becoming the norm--and I think the rise of the web has also played a big part in this, giving people male and female a greater outlet than ever to express themselves and connect to others with similar interests. Just as it's cool to be a geek these days, it's also cool for women to enjoy a good scare.

And while this may tend to bring out the posers and phonies, you can bet that for every chick who pretends to like Saw so she can jump in her boyfriend's lap, there's a hardcore gal who can recite the entire screenplay to all three Evil Dead flicks on command.

4 comment(s):

Ms Harker said...

Interesting, I have been a horror fan since my teens, more so literature than film. However started getting more into the films in my mid-late twenties. Am now a self-confessed horror fan, interesting the comment re: women in their 30's who are horror fans being more self-confident. Scanning through my female friends who love horror I would say they are a pretty savvy, assured bunch. Psychoanalysis a side, women are stepping up in the horror game.

Monster Scholar said...

Marya Diederichs’ point that young women go to horror movies on dates brings up the concept of horror cinema as an arena for gender performance. The man is supposed to put on a brave front to prove how masculine he is while the woman is supposed to scream (and as you put it) cling to her male companion for comfort. But as Diederichs points out just because we women like to be scared, doesn’t mean it’s a form of “internal self hatred” Instead I like to be scared not b/c I enjoy the victim role, but because I see it as a journey of self exploration. Horror movies are a journey into the primal unconscious and as Carol Clover said those journeys aren’t supposed to be nice.

My interest in horror like Ms. Harker’s comes from a literary source. The Gothic novels of Radcliffe and the Victorian thrillers of Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Dracula have been the basis for my interest in the horror genre that has flowered into now watching the films in my mid-twenties.

And while you make the point that women are up and coming as fans of the horror genre, I do feel when I mention to people that horror films are on my list of academic specialties they look at me as if I’ve just sprouted another head. My dilemma is mirrored by other women in the genre including Chantal Bourgault du Coudray author of The Curse of the Werewolf. When people asked her what she was working on instead of werewolves she tried to excuse her work by calling it a study in “folklore”.

I know there are probably a lot more female horror fans out there who might be conflicted about their affinity for the horror genre. In that case I urge them “come out of the closet” so to speak and enjoy out in the open what horror has to offer.

OllieMugwump said...

The large female (and homosexual male) audience for 'True Blood' is no doubt due to the excessive display of tight, bouncing male ass.

Robyn O'Neill said...

I am a 48 year old horror fan. I don't care if it is in the form of movies, books, music, or any other media. I don't hate myself. I am also way to fat to jump in my husbands lap at the scary parts. I would break him! In short, I don't know what draws me to horror. I just know that I have always loved it since I was small.

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