Sex, Death, and Horror Movies

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Confession: I really, really, really don’t like horror movies. I’ve never liked them. As a child I got scared really easily and would hang out in my room reading Sweet Valley High books while my dad and brother watched something that involved lots of screaming — screams that I heard all the way upstairs thanks to my dad’s love for surround sound. When I was 11 I saw my first horror movie: Scream. I loved it. I watched it again and again up until the point that I had entire scenes of dialogue memorized. But my interest in horror movies came to an end when I was 16. I watched Red Dragon (from the Silence of the Lambs trilogy) and was never the same. I had a really difficult time sleeping at night and became so terrified that I slept in my childhood bed that was stored in my parents’ room. When I went to bed at night I had to have my dad walk in front of me and my brother behind. This lasted for a couple of months. Eventually I realized that paranoia is one of the symptoms of my anxiety and that horror movies just fuelled that symptom. So I stopped watching horror movies altogether. The closest I’ve come to watching horror movies since then is The Sixth Sense (it’s got freaky ghosts, so maybe horror?) and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (which didn’t feel all that scary to me. Also, just let me take a second to say that this movie is SO SO SO GOOD!).

With Halloween just around the corner and Bitch Magazine posting so many sweet articles and podcasts about horror movies and feminism, I realized that I wanted to know more about the genre and what feminists thought about it (I highly recommend “The Feminist Power of Female Ghosts,” “Vampires, Psychics, and Ghosts: A Look at Queer Women in Horror,”  and the Popaganda Episode: “Oh the Horror!“). I found myself google searching “are horror movies feminist?” and found that despite the fact that the horror genre is fraught with misogyny and the oversexualization and objectification of women, there are actually some pretty feminist horror films out there. In her article “6 Modern Horror Films with Compelling Female Protagonists,” Rachel Catlett offers a list of some badass women fighting to stay alive. Going through the lists compiled online, one trend that I noticed was that these more feminist horror films were defined by a single note: strong female protagonist. Another phrase used by horror movie buffs is “the final girl,” a term coined by Carol J. Clover in her book Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Movie (published in 1992).


Famous final girls: Olivia Hussey in “Black Christmas”; Marilyn Burns in “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”; Jamie Lee Curtis in “Halloween”; Amy Steel in “Friday the 13th, Part 2”; and Jan Jensen in “The Last Slumber Party.” Images taken from the New York Times (From left: Bev Rockett/World Pictures Corporation/Warner Bros. Pictures, via Photofest; Bryanston Distributing Company, via Photofest; Trancas International Films/Anchor Bay Entertainment; Paramount Pictures, via Photofest; B. and S. Productions).

So what is the “final girl”? Well, as you can guess by the name, she’s the only girl left alive at the end of the movie. She might even be the only human left alive at the end of the movie. And she’s left alive in order to confront and face the killer. The New York Times writes: “Her friends are dead; she looks like hell; the guy with the knife won’t let up. Meet the final girl. Rooted in grindhouse cinema, the final girl, as she’s known to fans, is the feisty character who’s left to face the killer in a horror movie. To cheers from the audience, she usually wins the climactic combat with weapons and wit, providing a cathartic end to the gore and gloom.”

I’m not quite sure if I’m ready to jump on the final girl train. Buzzfeed does a great job of capturing my ambivalence: “Slasher films love their Final Girls, but rarely bother with what happens to them in the aftermath of their terrible experiences. The fact that Amy has survived her assault isn’t in question — what’s at stake is what her life is going to be like in the afterwards.” While I want to agree with Dahlia Grossman-Heinz’s statement that the “Final Girl shows us that fear is survivable and conquerable,” I also want to make space for the trauma that survival entails. And I also want to ask: what if you don’t want to or don’t feel able to conquer your fear? In horror movies, conquering your fear can and often is a matter of life or death. But when I think about my own relationship to horror movies, I’ve realized that I can feel okay with my decision to just not watch them.

As I started to read more about horror films and feminism, I decided that I wanted to talk to some feminists in my life who watch these movies and love the genre. I wanted to know more about how they found pleasure in something that has been anything but for me. I wanted to know if they agreed with this statement from the New Yorker that horror can have “a strange therapeutic quality for any woman, a ritualistic confrontation with fear.” When I found out that the Royal Cinema was having a free screening of Scream, I thought that this would be the perfect opportunity to talk not just about the genre but about the first horror movie I ever saw. So here are Jenna, Dani, Christina, and myself talking about sex, death, and horror films.


Me: What was the first horror movie you saw and how old were you?

Christina: I think that “Scream” was the first horror movie that I saw. I was pretty young. Like 10 or 11.

Dani: Mine was a movie called “Bats.” And I don’t remember anything else about it except that there were giant exotic bats and they escaped from the zoo. I don’t know how old I was…maybe 10.

Jenna: Mine was “Sleepaway Camp.” I think I told you about the burgeoning queerness that was happening for me at that time. I was probably around 8-10.

Me: What is your favourite horror movie and why?

Dani: As long as we’re thinking about suspense and horror together, mine is probably “Rope,” this weird Hitchcock movie where they murder someone at the beginning and then they have to have a dinner party and they put the body in this box and they serve dinner on the box. And they’re talking about the guy that’s in the box the whole time. Hitchcock tried to shoot it in one long shot but before he could technologically do so. So he zoomed in on the back of someone and then changes the reel and zooms back out again. It’s the most wonderful scary and messed up thing in the world.

Christina: Mine would probably have to be “Psycho”. It just masters the creep factor with full on terror. But when I was younger, and even still, I prefer ghost movies to, like, slasher flickers. So I really liked A Stir of Echoes. It’s with Kevin Bacon. I saw it when I was really young but I liked it. And what was that one with Nicole Kidman? The Others! I really liked that one. It’s really scary.

Jenna: I think mine would probably have to be in the teenage horror genre. It would probably be around Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer, and the original Buffy movie. All of the teenage ones that not only hold nostalgic feelings for me but capture this moment where I was starting to question how I felt or should feel in relation to horror movies. Like, am I too young to be watching this? Should I be watching this? Why do I find her fear so exciting?


Jenna and her Scream ghost-face boyfriend are pretty cute if you ask me.

Me: In real life what are you the most afraid and can you watch that in movies? What horror movies are more difficult for you to watch because of those fears?

Christina: Home invasion. Definitely can’t watch those. Too freaked out by people climbing in my window.

Me: That’s mine too.

Dani: I have two. The first one is bats – probably because of that first movie. And some of them are carnivorous and have these flesh wings. It’s fucked. But the other is confined spaces, spaces that are closing in on you. Whenever someone is stuck in a small room, box, coffin situation: awful.

Jenna: Mine would probably be babysitter type movies and the idea of being in someone’s home that I don’t know. And then I think of wilderness movies, where you’re alone or abandoned and you don’t know where you are. And you can’t control your circumstances.

Me: Linked to that is this question of pleasure and how horror movies allow us to experience pleasure in something that in real life would be super terrifying. For me, there’s very little pleasure in watching horror movies, which is why I’ve seen so few. It really has to be detached from reality in a big way for me to be able to handle it. And there’s no sense of catharsis for me. So I’d love to hear about where the pleasure from horror movies comes from for you. Have you ever interrogated your own pleasure in relation to horror movies?

Jenna: I think for me it’s about the survival. I can relate to the fear in the way that when it comes to female embodiment, it’s really scary to walk down the street and feel someone behind you following you. That’s a reality and something that many if not all of us have experienced. But the pleasure comes from the notion that you’re cheering for that person; you want them to survive. And yet at the same time, there are those teen horror movies where there’s that annoying character and you’re like, “I don’t really care if he dies.” In those cases you get to experience what it feels like to be a little ruthless.

Christina: I think I’m drawn to movies about ghosts because I want to believe in them. And also I like this idea that in movie about ghosts, the ghosts have been oppressed or they’ve got something that they need to say and they articulate those needs in ways that can be hard to understand sometimes.


Christina isn’t sure how she feels about Scream’s ghost-face killer

Me: Do you get pleasure from other movies that aren’t about ghosts?

Christina: Yeah, I think there’s a weird visceral cathartic fear that draws me to those kinds of movies. Hitchcock in particular.

Dani: So now I feel like a really horrible person, hearing those answers. I really think that the reason I’m drawn to horror films and like them so much is because of the real fucked-up-ness of the characters. I like watching someone enact the worst parts of who they are and watch them carry out these awful acts. I think what really appeals to me about Scream is that there are no motives anymore. We don’t need motives and there’s something really lovely about a psychopath on a really well thought out out murdering spree. There’s something really cathartic about that. I think I root for the psychos more than the survivors. I don’t know if that’s a good thing.

Me: I remember seeing Žižek’s Perverts Guide to Cinema and he’s talking about Psycho and how you’re rooting for the killer because you get to live vicariously through him. Because Žižek loves psychoanalysis, he argues that there’s this innate desire within us all to kill…fuck shit up royally, that we work so hard to repress. We get to live that desire vicariously through the psycho killer. And I think that in some ways that’s not fucked up at all. We’ve figured out the avenues for being able to have that vicarious experience so that we don’t actually go out and do it. It’s interesting to think of our expectations around who we should be rooting for. Cause even Jenna you brought up how sometimes there’s a character that you just don’t care whether they live or die. Sometimes you want them to die.

Jenna: Which comes back to that pleasure in ruthlessness.

Dani: And having madness win for once. Have you guys seen a movie called Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer? You see him trying to live a normal life and at the end of the movie he’s got a girlfriend and he’s got an apartment and you’re a little bit bummed out by it and then in the last scene he drops a suitcase of her body parts – you don’t even see the murder – and there’s a victory in that. You’re like, “he is still crazy.” You want madness to win in a strange way.


Dani really dressed the part for her date with Scream

Me: I’m curious to know what you guys remember about Scream. What you liked or didn’t liked, things that frustrated you.

Jenna: What I liked the most was that it took place in a small town and I grew up in a small town. I felt that the “towniness of it” was really relatable and was easier to transport myself there. Now that I’ve lived in the city for so long, I feel that my subject position is very different than it was then. To be honest, one of the things I really loved about the movie was the soundtrack and some weird stuff I found out was that Moby did one of the last credit songs and it’s so good.

Dani: I mean it’s kind of cheating because I saw it so recently, but what I loved then and still love now is the whole thing about how Sidney hates that girls always run up stairs in horror movies and then there are so many scenes of her running up stairs. It’s kind of hilarious but it also saves her. And the stairs are really weird and labyrinth-like.


Christina: Since I was so young when I saw Scream, I had no expectations of what the genre did and how it worked and so I remember just being so horrified. It’ll be really interesting to watch it again as someone who spends a lot of time pulling texts apart and compare that to my earlier experience that was like pure affect.

Me: I just really love the bromance between Matthew Lillard and Skeet Ulrich and their lover’s quarrel when shit starts to hit the fan. I love their dynamic.

mattandskeetJenna: And Courtney Cox!

Me: She’s such a badass woman getting what she wants. Okay, one more question: have you had any moments as a feminist who watches horror movies where you’ve thought that this is a really complex or contradictory love that you have. In preparation for this event I did a lot of google searching of questions like “are horror movies feminist?” and I was wondering if you’ve ever asked yourself that question.

Christina: Sometimes I find that I’ll return to things that I enjoyed as a teenager and I have to turn off that critical part of my brain and sometimes I find that I just can’t enjoy something anymore. I’m of two minds. I do feel like there are some things that shouldn’t be promoted in the world. But as a private person who watches things on her computer at home, I feel like I should be able to do what I want.

Dani: I think what I always like about horror films is that they’re both awful and interesting in terms of what they do with gender. Like a feminist critique of a horror film is sometimes grabbing at the low hanging fruit. I think that there have been awful objectification and gaze issues in horror films. But there are also women who are doing all sorts of murdering and the last girl as a trope is fantastic. I think that the misogyny of horror films has always been a project against itself. It’s as conflicted as I feel about the films.

Me: I’m super curious to hear your guys thoughts on what we just witnessed on the screen.

Christina: Well, I think I really like Scream. That was my 4th time seeing it. It works on multiple levels. When I saw it as a 10 year old I didn’t pick up on the meta-film elements, which is highly entertaining to me. But it also works as a good slasher movie.

Dani: One thing that struck me this time was how little of the actual gore you see. You don’t really see people die. If there’s a scene where you see someone die, it’s kind of an angle. And even in the sex scenes. It’s really self-aware of that. So maybe there’s something about the film in that it realizes that there is something about the gaze and objectification that is inherently misogynistic.

Me: I wonder how I’d feel about it if I saw the blood and guts of every character. You see it so much in the opening scene.

Christina: It’s interesting what the host was saying about the opening scene being it’s own kind of short movie and it almost feels separate from the rest of the movie. That scene feels actaully scary. But then after that scene, the female characters are very aware of the roles that they’re playing. Like in the scene where Tatum gets killed and she’s like “am I the helpless victim?” But in the first scene, she is the terrified girl in the house.


Dani: Scream sets it up to be this feminist slasher film. But they’re all so inept. Like Sidney criticizes girls for running up the stairs and then she runs up the stairs. Courtney Cox forgets to take the safety off on the gun. They’re kind of fumbling through it. It’s not a narrative of this evil genius serial killer. They’re idiot teenage boys.

Christina: Although the ladies do fight back. Casie Becker fights back.

Me: I’ve always felt a bit bad for the judgments made…so my big thing with the Casey Becker scene is 1) run through the effin corn field and get to the car or 2) bang your hands on the porch. And I always feel those two things and get so irritated. But then I have to be like, “Okay Margeaux, if a serial killer was chasing you, what would your mind do? Where does your survival instinct go for you? At what point do you stop thinking and just start doing? I feel that in some ways, the fact that Sidney fails to do the thing that she makes fun of other girls for doing is maybe actually be the moving critiquing the ways that we judge people’s decision-making skills in those situations.


One thing that really stood out to me this time watching the movie was how much effed up stuff was being said about post-traumatic stress disorder. Like as though there’s an acceptable amount of time for you to grieve your mother’s death – especially when you watched her get killed.

Dani: A year is too long for her to do that. And yet he has been harboring this anger about his mother leaving, which he somehow holds Sidney responsible for, for longer than that. And that’s okay for him to go on a murderous rampage for that reason.

Me: Also, he’s the one who’s telling her that it’s not okay and he’s the one who killed her mother!!! So you’re just like…

Christina: It’s a weird circle. Do you think that the movie is aware of that? I want the movie to be aware of that.

Me: I definitely think that the movie wants you to cringe in those moments. And the people in the audience totally did. “Sorry that my grief has made me selfish and self-absorbed and I won’t have sex with you.” Seeing that when I was 11, I didn’t register that as being a problematic narrative. And the fact that the PTSD narrative is tied up with narratives of consent…I don’t know what to do with that. He’s like, “I don’t want to pressure you, but also you’re a tease.” It’s so insidious. “I respect you, but you know, it’s been a year.” I like that Sidney more or less makes the choice that she wants to make. Maybe partially influenced by the fact that she feels like she needs to make things up to him after accusing him of being a psycho killer.


Dani: And that’s the narrative of sex-ed that I remember that gets repeated again and again: a boyfriend that pressures you to go too far. I guess that shows how conversations around consent have changed in the last 20…holy crap…20 years. Now I feel really old. I was too young at that time to understand what that meant. But what I continue to remember is that story that boys are going to try to convince you to have sex and your job is to fight them off for as long as you can. And that’s where that apologetic narrative comes from.

Christina: Billy pressures her and then he winds up being a psycho. So then you can contribute the fact that he was pressuring her to the fact that he is actually a psycho. That pressuring girls is something that psycho boys do.

Dani: What’s troubling me about all of this is what he says at the end. When Sidney says, “fuck you,” and he says, “we already played that game, remember? And you lost.” This feels like another warning against giving it up.


Christina: I feel like the movie doubles back on itself. It’s critiquing on the one hand and then makes it seem like she got duped and isn’t a full agent.

Me: If you even think about the ways that we talk about virginity, it’s “you lost your virginity.” I don’t know if the movie is smartly playing on this language of loss and losing – that might be giving it too much credit. But the sense of it being a game is really perverse. I’m always really compelled by moments when people equate sex and death…because I love psychoanalysis and those two things are intimately linked. You have this sex game and this death game and they find some way to recuperate or hold onto that narrative of sex and death being linked. Like I love the scene where Billy licks the corn syrup/blood off of his fingers.


Dani: I like the part when he puts the knife in his mouth and is kind of picking his teeth with it.

Me: Sex and death guys. Sex. And. Death.

I feel like that was the perfect note for our conversation to end on. Carol J. Clover argues that in horror films, “violence and sex are not concomitants but alternatives, the one as much a substitute for and a prelude to the other.” And if we want to get all Freudian, as I always want to do, we’d need to acknowledge that sex (pleasure or Eros) is inextricably linked to violence (death or Thanatos). Horror movies bring this relationship to its gory peak. But maybe the relationship between sex and death could be a bit more playful than scary. So I’ll end this post with a video made by my friend Lauren Fournier called “Sex and Death.”

And here’s one last photo that captures the horror and the pleasure of Scream:


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This post was written by Margeaux

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