From ax-wielding psychos to she-devils

Why are female audiences flocking to horror films?

By Mary Elizabeth Williams
July 27, 2009 10:28PM (UTC)
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Pass the popcorn and don’t spare the carnage -- the new issue of Entertainment Weekly reveals that women have now become the primary audience for horror flicks. Why are females flocking not just to tight psychological thrillers but even so-called “torture porn” like the “Saw” movies? Journalist Christine Spines talks to filmmakers, stars, and writers including “Jennifer’s Body” scribe Diablo Cody and finds a variety of surprisingly warm and fuzzy explanations.

Orphan" star Vera Farmiga postulates that “we’re more emotional creatures and it’s such an emotional experience,” while Spines observers that young girls “like to cuddle” and that horror offers girls “an excuse to inch a little closer to their beloved.”


Not everybody’s buying the snuggle theory, though. “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” remake producer Brad Fuller points out that women have more ticket buying clout in general, while “Orphan” producer Susan Downey cuts to the female empowerment angle: “Girls get the sense ‘I can face my demon.”

While that doesn’t let any of the tackier, more exploitative examples of the genre off the proverbial meat hook, it does get at something interesting. Horror movies almost always rely on a female protagonist. While it never hurts the box office that she’s inevitably a hot babe, the enduring allure of these films hinges on the girl in jeopardy’s ultimate heroism. Contrast the ass kicking women do in horror with the window dressing role they provide in most superhero-driven action films as a reference point. And speaking of opening up the whupass, what the EW story failed to address is how often women in horror are the antagonists as well. From creepy kids to she-devils to run-of-the-mill ax-wielding psychos, horror lets women be very, very bad. However you slice it, scary movies offer cathartic respite, a world where a female who possesses ingenuity and physical prowess isn’t regarded as a domineering bitch. For women looking for strong role modes, sometimes the safest place in the world is the chamber of horrors.

Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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