A Feminist Guide to Horror Movies, Part 4

When the film industry finds an idea that works, they tend to use it again and again. And again. In the realm of horror, once a franchise has spawned seven or so sequels, filmmakers capitalize on name recognition by simply going back to the beginning and starting over.

This Halloween season’s Carrie represents the fifth reboot of a successful horror franchise in the last 10 years. The teen-angst-turned-supernatural-revenge tragedy joins The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003), Halloween (2007), A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010) and Evil Dead (2013) in recycling stories and characters first introduced in the late ’70s and early ’80s.

Love them or hate them–and the ongoing success of these franchises tells us that a lot of people love them–horror movies provide a window into our culture’s deepest fears, drawing from a well of shared anxieties created by both domestic and geopolitical threats. Reboots adapt existing stories to frighten in new contexts by replacing the fears behind the original story with ones of contemporary significance. The changes tell us a lot about what audiences feared then and what they fear now.

The original The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, A Nightmare on Elm Street and Halloween–released between 1974 and 1984–reflected a culture-wide fear of the unknown fed by the Cold War, oil crises, economic stagnation and changes to family structures. These slasher flicks, as they came to be called, focused on the vulnerability of the victims. To keep audiences in a state of terror, they used suspense generated by the knowledge that the killer might strike at any moment–punctuated by occasional successful attacks. The reboots, on the other hand, put the killers themselves–and their violence–front and center.

The 1974 The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, in which a group of teenagers runs out of gas in the middle of nowhere and are terrorized by unemployed slaughterhouse workers, was being made during the OPEC embargo of 1973 when, for the first time, America realized the danger of its dependence on foreign oil. In the film, while a supposedly town-wide gas shortage leaves these all-American kids vulnerable, Leatherface and his family are conspicuously running their generator, drawing the teens to their house. The sound of the generator mirrors the sound of the chainsaw, while repeated shots of a decrepit, unused windmill remind the audience that we have put our fates in the hands of those with access to oil.

The 2003 remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, released in the midst of our occupation of Iraq, created a new character in the form of a crooked cop who aids and abets Leatherface. This film relies on the fear that corruption of authority has left us vulnerable to evil, a fear that proved all too real when news broke of torture at Abu Ghraib seven months later. Whereas the original movie relied largely on camera angles and surprise to generate fear, the reboot relished the attacks themselves, thus putting as much violence as possible on screen. The latest The Texas Chainsaw Massacre arguably marked the beginning of what has been called torture porn–the graphic portrayal of violence perpetrated against imprisoned victims–perfected in such franchises as Saw (2004) and Hostel (2005).

Of the three rebooted slasher franchises, Rob Zombie’s 2007 remake of Halloween takes its story as far from the original as possible while still featuring characters with the same names. In the original, Michael Myers‘s childhood murder of his sister occurs before we know anything about him or his family, but the remake spends the entire first half of the film exploring Michael’s motivations. The audience is presented with a variety of social ills: divorce, an evil stepfather, a neglectful sister, an oversexed mother, the failure of therapy and a corrupt prison system, all serving to turn a loveable child into a serial killer. Whereas the original Halloween (1979) focused on the vulnerability of teenaged girls to predators lurking in the bushes, the remake sought to justify Meyers’ desire to maim and mutilate.

A Nightmare on Elm Street represented more domestic fears. The 1984 original focused on Nancy, a teenager whose parents recently divorced. Her father is therefore absent while her mother is too much of an emotional wreck to protect her daughter from evil. The context? The United States divorce rate had hit an all-time high of 5.3 divorces per 1000 people in 1981, leaving unprecedented numbers of “latch-key kids” and an underlying anxiety that the central organizing unit of our society was falling apart. Nancy’s Generation X has even been called “The Divorce Generation.”

In the first film, Freddy‘s original sin (he sexually abused children) is mentioned only as the motivation for the parents’ misdeeds. The 2010 remake turns pedophilia into the primary fear driving the story. This is not surprising, given that from 2001-2009 the Catholic Church publicly faced sex-abuse allegations against thousands of priests for acts going back 50 years. The teenagers tasked with taking down Freddy in 2010 are not confronted with their parents’ malfeasance as they were in 1984: They are confronted with their own suppressed memories of abuse. What makes Nancy vulnerable today is not unfit parents but her sexual attractiveness to predators.

From the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, America feared the things hiding in the dark. The monsters under our beds were the invisible but menacing power of the Soviet Union, stagflation that kept us suspended in economic limbo, the possible disintegration of family structures and repeated energy crises which undermined our sense of our country as a superpower. Naturally the horror films of those decades were about faceless terrors that might jump out at us at any moment. Though A Nightmare of Elm Street contained more gore than its predecessors, all three originals rely on shadow, suspense and surprise to frighten us.

But today our fears are of the terrible things happening right in front of us–chemical weapons, gun violence and sexual abuse–over which we seem to have no power. Not surprisingly, this decade’s horror movies have focused the camera on the act of violence itself.

What has all this meant for women? The original slasher films have been rightly criticized for their killers’-eye views of mostly naked women running scared. Theoretically, shifting the camera’s focus to the killer could have disrupted the male gaze. Unfortunately, the emphasis on the psychology of the killers and the focus on torture rather than the chase do just the opposite: The remakes ultimately turn women’s bodies into ever-more irrelevant carnage, with the Halloween remake being the most offensive both to horror fans and feminists.

The return of the Evil Dead franchise and the new Carrie (check back later this week for a review) join The Conjuring, the Insidious films, The Possession, The Last Exorcism and other recent movies in embodying contemporary fears not in serial killers but in supernatural forces. Hopefully this trend will mark the end of the torture porn era. For my own tastes–and I am a huge fan of horror movies–I prefer to be frightened by suspense and the supernatural rather than evisceration. But I’ve no doubt that torture porn stems from unacknowledged guilt about crimes against humanity committed both at home and abroad. These films are the clearest examples yet of John Carpenter’s horror aphorism: “Monsters in movies are us, always us, one way or the other. They’re us with hats on.”

Main photo courtesy of TheKrypt via Creative Commons 2.0.



Holly L. Derr is the Head of Graduate Directing at the University of Memphis and a feminist media critic who uses the analytical tools of theater to reflect upon broader issues of culture, race and gender. Follow her @hld6oddblend.