Engendering Fear

menwomenchainsawWe live in fear. At this point in history, it seems, with good reason. Horror films, apart from being considered low art, teach us to deal with some of these fears. I hadn’t been reading about the genre for very long before I began to notice the repeated references to Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. This is Carol J. Clover’s seminal study of gender theory and horror. Probably best known for first identifying the trope of “the final girl,” Clover gives much more than that to the conscientious reader. Her chapter on possession movies is among the most insightful that I’ve read. And yes, she does make a very good case for the final girl.

Using theories of gender, she explores why both boys and girls (the former numerically more obvious) flock to such disturbing movies. Although she suggests masochism has something to do with it, is isn’t simply that boys enjoy seeing girls suffer. Quite the opposite. Boys often see themselves in the place of female victims. As with most things associated with gender, it’s far more complicated than it seems. In that sense, this is a book for our time. We live in what George Banks calls “the age of men,” and while Mary Poppins can hardly be called horror, the underlying narrative bears some warning tones. Men, left to their own devices, will seize what power they can grasp. We’ve spent the last five decades teaching men that this is no longer appropriate, only to have that message wiped away with the final trump. Horror can be remarkably pro-feminine. Business, as we’ve seen over and over, is less so.

Not having ever formally studied gender theory, some of the intricacies of Clover’s argumentation were no doubt lost on me. I was, however, able to gather a remarkable amount of appreciation for the subtexts in many of the movies I’ve watched. Gender, you see, touches everything we do. It behooves us to be aware that careless, or thoughtless support of misogyny does not lead to the results that many men suppose. Some horror movies are truly difficult to watch. Not all conform to the standard expectations. What Clover has shown, however, is that often the women are able to draw from a depth of strength to which the male characters lack access. They don’t do so willingly. In fact, they are often reluctant. When the horror is at its end, however, the final girl emerges triumphant.

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