Gendered Tension in ‘Black Christmas’

Black Christmas represents women in horror in a manner that is, arguably, most similar to the dominant depiction of women in horror in modern horror films. They are illustrated as both objects of desire and victims of pent up male aggression. The 1974 Bob Clark film chronicles a horrific night in a sorority house as the girls prepare to celebrate the holiday. Throughout the night a series of obscene phone calls from a mysterious male caller unnerve the girls as they begin disappearing one by one. Since this original incarnation, the story has become a cliché, but the gender dynamics on display in this film continue to resonate throughout the years as they are still used in certain horror films.

The most recognized interpretation of the characters in these types of films is the victimized woman. This is demonstrated in two ways. The first method of victimizing the female is through the dialogue itself. These instances of verbal aggression are not as striking as the images, but they serve an undeniable function in establishing the danger. From the first instance that the girls are threatened by the villain, Billy’s, phone call, the object of disdain is explicitly female. Most of the call is unintelligible, but a few things can be made out such as, “Let me lick it. Let me lick your pretty pink cunt!” He then goes on to command to girls to “Suck [his] juicy cock!” which upsets some of the girls. As previously stated, these sexual obscenities serve not only as a scare, but they also inform the audience about the overtly male and sexual threat. These instances of verbal threats where male sexuality is overwhelmingly aggressive are not a common occurrence as Billy’s lines are somewhat limited, but it still showcases an inherent male aggression.

Another notable example of the film communicating with the politics of the time takes place later in the film and seems to suggest a dialogue with second wave feminism. Jess has just found out that she is pregnant by her boyfriend, Peter, but has decided to abort the fetus much to his distress. When Peter calls her, he tells her, “You can’t kill the baby.” After that conversation, Billy calls back and reiterates these sentiments. The similarity in lines is meant to suggest that Peter actually is Billy, but these lines do more than provide a red herring (Paszylk 136). This calls into question one of the main issues of second wave feminism: reproductive rights. This movie takes place less than a year after the controversial ruling in Roe v. Wade was passed down, which is crucial to contextualizing the film. This assertion of female power over men’s desires speaks to what was going on in the time period, but is secondary to the brutalization of women in the film. Although these two examples provide conflicting accounts of the male presence, they both highlight the male in relation to femininity. The strictly sexual level is one element, but as the film progresses, it explores the male dominant ideology’s grip on women themselves. Although the dialogue effectively demonstrates the struggle between men and women, Black Christmas illustrates this conflict in another way.

The second method Black Christmas uses to establish the women as victims of a male presence is through the camerawork itself. For instance, the film opens with a serene scene of the sorority house, but the safety and objectivity of the shot is compromised when it shifts to a point-of-view shot. This helps to establish the voyeuristic tone, as the camera’s perspective effectively confines the girls inside the house. Furthermore, they are at the mercy of the camera, which the audience later finds out is Billy’s point of view, the unseen but unquestionably male threat. This brings to mind film theorist, Laura Mulvey, who addresses gender identity in her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” In this essay, Mulvey discusses masculinity in filmmaking and film watching. She describes movies as an activity designed for the heterosexual male spectator as an inherently sexual ritual. Black Christmas never fully sexualizes its female characters, but it does speak to Mulvey’s idea of a primarily straight male perspective.

It is also noteworthy that the more graphic deaths of Black Christmas, both involving stabbing, are seen from the point of view of Billy. This inadvertently makes the audience complicit in these killings. One of these more memorable kills, the death of “party girl” Barb, takes place in the privacy of her room. Billy repeatedly stabs Barb with a unicorn figurine as he whispers, “Don’t tell what we did, Agnes.” This demonstrates Billy asserting his dominance over Barb/Agnes, as the man once again dominates the woman. On a more symbolic level, the horn of the unicorn could be perceived as a phallic object. The possession of the phallus allows Billy to “punish” the female figure. While the film never explores what Agnes did that was worthy of punishment, Black Christmas has taken the time to illustrate what Barb has done to warrant such a bloody end. Throughout the film, she smokes and drinks. Her humor is crass and several times she clearly offends a father and a policeman, both symbols of authority. Barb seems to stand in for the “new” women of the time, who no longer adheres to “ladylike” behavior. This is not to say that men wanted to kill second wave feminists, but these films allowed men to deal with their frustration and aggression through an outlet. Billy allowed men to live vicariously through his actions without the punishment of any wrongdoing. It was a safe way of projecting the frustration and anxiety of the general male public onto the movie screen. This is evidence of Black Christmas reflecting a gender tension in this time period and a possible backlash of the women’s rights movements.

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2 thoughts on “Gendered Tension in ‘Black Christmas’

  1. Very much agree with this interpretation – we discussed this movie on our podcast (Gill & Roscoe’s Bodacious Horror Podcast) this week and I thought I’d maybe read too much into it, so thought I’d do a search! Glad you noted much of the same stuff. We also commented on the use of the glass unicorn, but I read that as also being a nod to Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie”. The glass unicorn in that book represented Laura’s uniqueness, and I think the female characters here are almost being punished as a result of their “deviance” and divergence from the expected norms placed upon them. Interesting movie.

  2. Excellent reading, I enjoyed your observations about this film. “Black Christmas” and “Halloween” always stand out to me because although they are both slasher films with women as the main targets of the killer, they also present the female characters in ways that are atypical of what we usually saw in that genre. They’re two of the best examples of horror films where the characters matter as much as the murders themselves. Having only seen “Black Christmas” in more recent years, I can’t imagine what audiences in 1974 thought of the way the film portrayed the sorority sisters.

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