Women in 1970s Horror Cinema

The 1970s were a time of social unrest. Riding on the backs of the 1960s and the Civil Rights movement, there was a realization that African Americans weren’t the only ones being treated differently. While the struggle of the black community was an unquestionably noble one, by the time the 1970s came around there were other areas that Americans had to force themselves to confront. One of those areas was that of the role of women. While there are many issues to consider when discussing the roles and representation of women in various media outlets, specifically film, attitudes towards women and the presentation of sexuality were one of the first areas to be completely overhauled. Although many of the film makers producing these motion pictures were male, their own understanding of women is reflected through some of their films. One film that explores women as complex and deeply human creatures is Brian DePalma’s 1976 film, Carrie.
One of the first scenes of the film takes place in the women’s locker room as Carrie gets her first period. As she shrieks in pain, the other girls assault her with tampons, refusing to help her but rather taking the opportunity to revel in her pain. An interesting dynamic in this movie is that although it is a horror film, it is never entirely clear who is the true horror in Depalma’s eyes, Carrie and her telekinetic powers or her tormentors. On a subtextual level, it is a statement on all human cruelty, but the relationships between the women, both Carrie and her schoolmates as well as Carrie and her mother, are perhaps the most brutal. One of the most noticeable aspects of the film is the immediate demonization, by other girls, of Carrie’s blossoming sexuality. For instance, in the scene in the bathroom when Carrie becomes a woman, she is assaulted. In a way, the film seems to be suggesting that her classmates have already experienced the pain and almost seem to have been hardened by it. It’s almost as if this rite of passage is his idea of the key as to what makes these girls so evil. Even after Carrie experiences her period, this is when audiences may perceive her descent into “evil”. Her sexualization and in turn, her journey into womanhood is the first thing we see, but it is her use of telekinetic powers to slaughter most everyone at the prom that is one of her final acts and one of the most memorable ones. Even when her mother finds out, she associates it with some sort of sin, Carrie’s being punished. This also stems from her mother’s own past, having a baby out of wedlock and her husband in turn leaving her. Another example of how we see sexualization as the key to downfall. It doesn’t seem that Depalma is agreeing with this perception, but rather, he’s saying that elements in his life such as religion led to this idea that the female body is an object of shame. In other films, and even in male characters, the female figure is worshipped whereas the women in this film are far from accepting of it and even in some instances, downright shameful or hateful of it.
In the 1972 film The Last House on the Left, we see femininity used in a very different way. Whereas women were somewhat demonized and essentially weaponized in Carrie, we see women as instruments of justice. While most of the film centers on what happens to Mari and Phyllis, these characters are designed to elicit emotion. As audience members are forced to watch the rape and torture of these two young girls, the horror, disgust, and eventual rage of the degradation of these two girls leads us to view Mari’s parents as we do. While Dr. Collingwood plays an instrumental role in the unfolding of events once the killers take refuge in their home, his character is diminished in relation to his wife, Estelle. As a movie audience, we accept this without question for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, Estelle is the mother of Mari. While it sounds painfully simple to say, it must be understood what the mother’s typical role is in most films. As the woman who gave birth to Mari, there is an undeniable connection between the two. This is not to say that Dr. Collingwood is cold towards the loss of his daughter, but the emotional response of the character is diminished in comparison to Estelle’s sense of loss. Also, the violence in this film is primarily against women. It’s difficult to watch the rape and torture of any people, but the fact that these are two teenage girls never leaves the forefront of our minds. It almost seems natural that should violence occur against Krug, Junior, Weasel, and Sadie, it would be at the hands of a woman. Once again, while Dr. Collingwood does play a part in the destruction of the gang, he doesn’t assert his masculinity. In fact, it’s only because of Junior’s distraction that Dr. Collingwood is able to kill Krug at all. This plays into the stereotype of most intellectual male figures of film, that they are somehow weaker and/or less manly. However, when it comes down to it, Estelle is the one who really delivers. While Carrie pointed to women’s sexuality as a root of evil, it is Estelle’s sexuality that allows her to get her revenge. She uses her womanly wiles to seduce Weasel and eventually biting off his penis, seriously injuring him while also, effectively rendering him less of a man. She is now in a situation where she has established her dominance over the men who murdered her child using her sexuality as a primary tool. Furthermore, the other act of violence we see her commit pits Estelle against Sadie. In most cases, a man beating and/or killing a woman, no matter the crime she may have committed is unacceptable so the use of the two women against one another is fairly understandable. Also, this further empowers Estelle who throughout the course of the movie has shown her ability to love, but also her ability to strike down both man and woman who have taken her child from her.
Carrie and The Last House on the Left both explore issues of the portrayal of women in film, particularly in the horror genre. While DePalma makes the main focus of the film an evil woman, it is unclear as to whether she herself is evil or the whether the world she lives in has made her so. In Craven’s film, he portrays women as subjects of brutal humiliation, but he also re-asserts their strength by the film’s end. It seems that both pictures are conflicted in which message they’re sending about women. However, the fact that women were being given complexity and depth to their characters is one of the most notable traits about these two films. Their issues of feminine identity are what drive the films and are never more visible than in this period.

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