Fear in the Feminine: 1970s Horror’s Complex Relationship with Gender Identity

Horror, much like the rest of film, is a product of its time. Despite its formulaic nature, it explores a very specific time and place. In order to scare people, filmmakers tap into the American subconscious to find what audiences fear most and find a way to exploit it. The characters, situations, and even the villains themselves speak to a dominant ideology of fear. In the 1950s it was the fear of communism in Invasion of the Body Snatchers or the fear of science and nuclear power in Them!. However, this practice has become commonplace since its introduction in early horror films. One of the decades that best explores the fears of the American public is the 1970s. It gave movie-going audiences the slasher and it brought fear into unassuming all-American towns. More importantly, it engaged movie-goers with thinly veiled depictions of real issues, such as the women’s rights movement, that directly affected everyday people. While horror is often critically reviled, these pop culture artifacts, such as the 1970s horror films Black Christmas, Carrie, and The Exorcist, present a unique view of the time period in which they were produced.
Although horror films had existed long before the 70s, some of the conventions of the scary movie that modern audiences tend to take for granted were established then. One example is the birth of the widely recognized slasher sub-genre. Many American film critics, such as Roger Ebert, cite John Carpenter’s 1978 film Halloween as the first slasher. However, the definition has come under scrutiny in recent years. Bob Clark’s sorority massacre masterpiece, Black Christmas, establishes many of the trademarks of the slasher that Carpenter’s film uses and pre-dates Halloween by four years (Rockoff 2002). Regardless of which of these two films began the craze, the slasher plays an important role in tying modern horror to its origins in the 70s. Still, to characterize the 1970s as the golden age of the slasher movie only is dismissive of the other diverse horror films that this era had to offer. Before diving into the variety of horror films that the 1970s produced, it is important to understand how the events leading up to this influx of scary movies played a role in 1970s horror.
In deconstructing horror, it is crucial to recognize the myriad of forces at work in this particular time period. Some theorists, such as Royal Brown or Barbara Creed, suggest that the horror films of the 1970s are an adverse reaction to “a very American brand of Judeo-Christian mythology” (Creed 1993, 123); however, that begs the question, why then? The time period was not characterized by religious zealotry. However, Brown’s musings on a religious reading of horror must be given tribute as it presents a strong school of thought in the academic study of horror films. Nevertheless, a more contextual inspection might be more fitting. For instance, as much as the 1950s was about the nuclear family, the 1960s saw a complete rebellion against those ideals. There was the distress of an unwinnable war in Vietnam, which began in the 60s and continued into the next decade.
The threat of war on the home front loomed overhead as well. The civil rights movement was an element of this time period, and, the struggle for racial equality gave way to the fight for equal rights for women (Inness 2003, 4). This era, often referred to as second wave feminism, came about in the 1960s, but gained force in the 70s. During this movement, a variety of women’s issues came to light. Issues that had been confined to the privacy of one’s own home became issues of public concern. One area of focus in second wave feminism was a woman’s right to have an abortion. This was a controversial topic that came to a head in the landmark decision of the Roe V. Wade case in 1973. Women’s rights in the workplace also gained national attention in 1970s second wave feminism (Wolbrecht 2000, 140). Although it may not be apparent on the surface of the horror films of the 70s, these issues of national concern carried over into the realm of horror.
As necessary as it is to contextualize the political attitudes of the time, it is equally crucial to understand Hollywood. Much like the rest of Middle America, the power in Hollywood belonged to men. In fact, in examining Black Christmas, The Exorcist, and Carrie, the only women involved in the behind the scenes production were relegated to casting, costume, or makeup. Laura Mulvey explains the phenomenon in her assertion that women are perceived as “bearers of meaning, not makers of meaning.” (Mulvey 2009, 712) Women were presented for the camera, but rarely did they participate in manufacturing the feminine identity behind the camera. Once again, they were subjected to a male understanding of what it meant to be a woman.
The horrors of these films can be seen as particularly telling of the ideology that produced them. Whether filmmakers were aware of this trend or not is debatable, horror began to respond indirectly to the women’s rights movements. 1970s horror speaks to the unique fears of mankind in this era, which tended to be rooted in the explicitly feminine. Hollywood producers channeled the threat of womanhood in these films by establishing men as punishers of these newly liberated women or by portraying women as evil waiting to be conquered. This re-asserted the male as conqueror as well as victim in a time where men’s roles, at home and at the cinema, were shifting.
At this point, the politics of fear and Hollywood itself collided. These newly invigorated women were rarely the centerpieces of these films. They were instruments male directors utilized in order to illustrate the frustration of the blue-collar male public. Natasha Zaretsky explores this phenomenon in No Direction Home: the American Family and the Fear of National Decline 1968-1980. In this book she states that the changes occurring in the representation of men and women in horror can be seen as “a deeper cultural anxiety that an expanding world of service work made up of an increasingly feminized workforce [that] was eroding the nation.” (Zaretsky 2007, 111). Whether it was because of fear or anger, 1970s horror was unabashedly brutal towards women. This can be seen as a reflection of male desires to see women subjugated for the upheaval created by second wave feminism.
To credit these horror films solely as an act of vengeance in Hollywood is to ignore another crucial aspect of 1970s horror. As a result of this irrational fear of feminism, Hollywood began to produce an overwhelming number of films which portrayed women in a new light. The 1970s gave birth to the idea of womanhood as something to be feared. This idea had been addressed in previous films, but 70s horror attacked femininity explicitly and violently. Where the real world was seeing women make progress, horror was doing everything it could to push women back down. 1970s horror films predominantly saw women in somewhat limited roles: as the victim such as Black Christmas, as inherently evil in films like Carrie, or as an instrument of evil in The Exorcist.
Black Christmas represents women in horror in a manner that is most similar to the depiction of women in horror in modern slasher 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. From the first instance that the girls are verbally threatened by 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!” 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 suggests a direct dialogue with second wave feminism. The film’s protagonist, Jess, has just found out that she is pregnant by her boyfriend, Peter, but has decided to abort the fetus. 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 2009, 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, 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 also illustrates this conflict in a visual way.
It is noteworthy that the more graphic deaths of Black Christmas, both stabbings, are seen from the point of view of Billy. One of them is the death of “party girl” Barb. 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. 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 the authority figures of the film. 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. It was a way of projecting the frustration and anxiety of the male public onto the movie screen. This is evidence Black Christmas reflects a gender tension in its time and a backlash against the women’s rights movements.
While the strongest presence in the film, in terms of numbers, is female, it is crucial not to define the male only in the role of the killer. Black Christmas also defines men in relation to the central female characters. In fact, the women of the film, indirectly and directly bring about the only instances of violence against men in the film. Throughout the film as sorority sister after sorority sister is butchered, only two men are killed: both are secondary characters. Furthermore, neither man is killed onscreen. This presents a very different understanding of violence against men in Black Christmas.
Jennings, the cop assigned to protect the girls, is the first male death of the film. At some point over the course of the movie, he is killed and discovered dead. If it were not for Jess and the other girls at the sorority house, he would have had no reason to be there. In a roundabout way, the female leads the male to his death. However, the second male death more directly involves the threat of the female. Jess believes that Peter is the killer, so when she is threatened, she kills him. It is made clear only a few minutes later that Peter is not the killer and that Billy is still at large. Peter as a red herring is effective for Clark’s purpose, but more importantly, he is killed by Jess. This suggests more explicitly that the female poses a potential threat to the male.
Once again, Black Christmas presents a tension between male and female, but never explicitly engages this idea. Instead, Clark dances around the gender politics of the 70s. In hindsight, his decision to present liberated women at the mercy of an unseen male presence speaks to the gender clash of the time period. The victimized woman implies a male aggression, but there is also a sense of fear about the threat of womankind. While most of the deaths of female characters, with the exception of one that takes place before the film, play out for the camera, neither of the male deaths do. Jennings’ murder is not shown and the camera cuts before Jess strikes Peter. Clark spares his audience the horror of the deaths of these men, while delighting in the murder of these women. This privileges the male perspective, but also lends credence to the idea that men were watching from the viewpoint of a desire to punish the female for her newfound freedom, while examining the fear of the second wave feminist. However, Black Christmas’s ambiguous ending indicates that all traces of female identity are endangered by a male presence but the only threat to the men is in relation to women. This sets a dangerous precedent for slasher films, while examining tension in the women’s rights movement.
Although Black Christmas’s violence towards women is more overt, other movies at the time suggested a similar fear of female empowerment, but exploited the issue in a different way. One such film is Brian DePalma’s 1976 classic, Carrie, based on a Stephen King story. King’s story itself stemmed from the complaint of a female reader that King writes “all these macho things, but [he] can’t write about women.” (Grant 1996, 18) Once again, the film suggests a dialogue about the nature of the women’s rights. While Black Christmas deals with the male versus the female, Carrie finds women at odds with themselves. The film problematizes feminism, while exploring the next step in the feminist movement.
The clash between feminism and anti-feminism gained publicity in 1975, when Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum, an interest group opposed to abortion and the Equal Rights Amendment, brought the discussion of feminism to new territory (Critchlow 2007). Until this point, feminism had always been an active choice. Women that disagreed with feminist stances simply did not subscribe to feminist beliefs, but Schlafly brought anti-feminism to national headlines a year before Carrie’s release. Carrie can be seen as a cinematic representation of the same struggle that feminists, like Betty Friedan, faced when confronting Schlafly’s politics. The film gives voice to both sides of the argument but suggests a more fatalistic approach to the end of feminism.
Carrie follows a misfit teenage girl who discovers that she has telekinetic powers. Abused by her mother and the other girls, Carrie uses her telekinetic powers to get her revenge on prom night after she is humiliated. At the heart of Carrie are varying displays of female power. A variety of contextual clues are made available to the audience that indicate a reverence for the female visually, but also an inherent fear of her power. Carrie suggests that it will not be an outside male influence that leads to the collapse of the women’s rights movement, but women themselves will bring it down.
Carrie has one of the most telling opening scenes. The camera explores the women’s locker room as the girls bounce around naked in slow motion. It almost reads like a fantasy sequence. Reality is imposed again as Carrie has her first period in the gym room showers. As she screams, DePalma suggests an established relationship between femininity and pain. Carrie’s physical pain can be read as emotional pain as well. Matters are only made worse as Carrie cries out for help and the other girls throw tampons at her. All of this takes place within the first ten minutes of the movie. DePalma wastes no time in both victimizing and demonizing the women of his film.
As the film continues, Carrie concerns itself with a number of women, each evil in her own right. Chris Hargensen, one of Carrie’s classmates and tormentors, is one recognizable example of femininity and evil being intertwined.. As the movie develops, her cruelty worsens. In a sense, she represents the duality of female sexuality. She is classically beautiful, but she is also vicious. Although instances of her cruelty are numerous, it is her influence and her beauty that gives her the real power. In fact, aside from Carrie’s massacre at the end, the main perpetrator of violence is Chris. Not only is she verbally abusive to a number of people, she slaps her boyfriend in almost every scene between the two. Particularly in regards to Chris’s influence, the camera framing plays a role in demonizing her. While forcing her boyfriend, Billy, to kill a pig the camera focuses on Chris as she yells, “Do it!”. Although Billy is performing the explicitly violent action, the camera opts for Chris.
Chris’s evilness throughout the film is unquestionable, but until her final scene when she attempts to run Carrie over, Chris has asked Billy to do her dirty work. As the film progresses, her malevolence becomes more visible to other characters in the film. In contextualizing this, Carrie suggests that women’s inherent cruelty towards one another will be their downfall. No explicit evidence suggests this reading, but the fact that the inciting act of cruelty in the women’s locker room is directly related to a rite of passage into womanhood suggests sexuality is an undeniable element of Carrie.
Although Chris represents the evil of adolescence, Margaret White presents a different kind of evil. Her religious zealotry leads to the emotional and even physical abuse of Carrie. The film demonstrates throughout what kind of woman Margaret is, but she is never fully fleshed out until close to the end of the film. As she describes the night that she got pregnant with her daughter, she confesses that she enjoyed the sex and that having Carrie was her punishment for enjoying sex (Cusac 2010, 116). Although Margaret’s punishment is a self-imposed one, it informs her stunted relationship with her daughter, returning to the concept of femininity at odds with itself. While Chris utilizes her sexuality to get Billy to do things for her, Margaret represents the other side of the camp, downplaying her own sexuality.
This idea of Carrie’s mother as the militant man-hating feminist while denying her femininity is demonstrated in a number of ways. First and foremost, Margaret explicitly espouses the message that men are evil and not to be trusted multiple times in the movie. This is one element of the film’s complexity. While Margaret’s distrust of men isn’t inherently feminist or anti-feminist, it concerns itself with an outside understanding of feminism, which some opponents characterized as anti-male. DePalma addresses this, but does not suggest it is the only way to understand feminism. Instead, he offers it as a lens that the audience may choose to see Margaret through. This is expanded in the movie as Margaret attempts to shield Carrie from any male influence, again insisting that men are evil. Furthermore, it adds an interesting dimension to the character that Margaret is never seen with a man onscreen. In the end, where Chris represented the traditional feminine wiles, Margaret’s abrasive and militant stance against men presents a counter that serves as another conflict for Carrie.
Finally, Carrie as “evil” is difficult to describe. Her powers seem to be genetic, evidenced by her powers manifesting as she comes into womanhood. This could be interpreted as suggesting that women are inherently evil, which Depalma certainly depicts, but in all of this, Carrie is the victim (Clover 1993, 4). Torn between the cruelty of Chris and the zealotry of her mother, Carrie is hopeless; she is doomed to collapse from the start. In fact, it seems odd that Carrie is portrayed as the evil of the movie because her wrongdoing is a result of others’ wrongdoing. In the climactic scene where Carrie uses her powers to kill, she does so as a result of Chris and Billy pouring the pig’s blood on her. This does not excuse her, but it is important to understand that her rampage is a result of other’s actions. Furthermore, in the confrontation between Carrie and Margaret, once again, Carrie is forced to act because of the actions of others. It is only after her mother stabs her that Carrie resorts to violence. Although it is certainly arguable that Carrie is the monster of the piece, she embodies the struggle between the two extremes of feminism. As a result, Carrie is torn between the two and collapses inward. The clash between the two extremes eliminates any hope for the success of the moderates that fall in between.
The 1973 William Friedkin film, The Exorcist, represents the earliest and the most complicated examination of gender. It is crucial to understand the politics of 1973 and how it relates to The Exorcist’s treatment of its female characters. 1973 was a pivotal year in the women’s rights movement as the Roe V. Wade ruling came down on January 22, 1973. Although The Exorcist does not specifically mention abortion or a woman’s right to choose, the film does make use of the cultural implications. The court decision seemed to alter the idea of a “modern woman” and forced Americans to look at women differently. This represents an ideological shift in America’s understanding of gender roles. Women were no longer confined to the roles of the doting wife and mother. This new type of woman is the focus of the film while also providing a horrific allegory for a young woman’s journey through puberty.
The film centers on Chris, an actress living in Georgetown with her daughter, Regan. Both of their lives are thrown into chaos when Regan becomes possessed. Although it primarily tackles theological issues, it also reflects the general attitudes towards young girls and their mothers. It suggests how women behaved, but also dictates how women should behave. Before delving into how horror is reflected through a deviation from the norms in The Exorcist, it is crucial to see what is “normal” for Chris and Regan. Chris is the “new” woman that the 1970s promised. She is a successful career woman, but she is also a mother. Although the film never directly confronts the topic of how Chris’s career leads to her failing as a mother, Anne-Marie Cusac investigates this in her book, Cruel and Unusual: the Culture of Punishment in America. Cusac suggests, “In her beliefs, her marital status, and her career, Chris belongs to the disobedient generation.” (Cusac 2010, 115). While The Exorcist explores Chris’s redemption as she desperately searches for a way to cure her daughter of her affliction, for most of the movie, Chris’s career as an actress is equated with negligence as a mother. This is achieved in the scene where Regan comes downstairs to the party and urinates on the floor. She responds with embarrassment and concern for her daughter is secondary. As the film progresses, Chris is forced into the motherly role.
An argument could be made for Regan’s father’s negligence in this film, but his absence is recognized. This re-asserts Chris’s status as an independent woman, but refuses to place blame on the father. In fact, his absence is only afforded a few lines and one scene in which Chris is yelling at an operator to get her husband. While this demonstrates that the father is a source of tension, it does little else. The reasons for his absence are never explained, but it is inferred that Chris’s career, or possibly her success, has driven a wedge between the two. This does not give Regan’s father an excuse for his absence, but once again, points to the dissolution of the family by the successful and career-driven woman.
However, The Exorcist’s relationships with its female characters are more complicated than mere victimization. Friedkin suggests that they are all something to be feared. This can be seen in the representation of Regan. Her puberty, as depicted in the movie, transforms her, literally, into a hellish creature. She is no longer a sweet innocent girl, but she transforms into a manifestation of a male fear of womanhood. This horror is communicated most notably through Regan’s behavior, such as her use of obscenities or when she begins to masturbate using a crucifix. These images seem to want to elicit a discomfort from the audience from this behavior and the abuse of this young girl’s body, an idea that Barbara Creed explores in The Monstrous-Feminine. However, the effectiveness of this is directly related to the ideals of what was “ladylike” at the time. It is not just the use of the crucifix that upsets the viewer, but this young girl as a sexual being. Most of the horror of The Exorcist is derived from the common ideas of how girls should act. In this sense, the horror of The Exorcist is derived just as much from Regan’s actions and her transformation into a young woman, as it is how the audience expects her to act.
However, The Exorcist also portrays women as instruments of terror themselves. This is demonstrated as the movie develops and the few deaths of the film are male. For instance, when the exorcism takes place, Father Merrin dies from a heart attack. Although not seen on screen, it is clear that Regan caused the heart attack. This reiterates the fear of the female. However, it is crucial to take notice of the final male death of the film as a form of redemption for the men of The Exorcist. As Father Karras invites the demon into his own body to save Regan, he kills himself. Clover suggests his willingness “to commit spiritual or literal suicide” (Clover 1993, 97) is his power. By committing suicide, Karras re-asserts the typical gender roles of the young girl as victim and the male as the hero. These struggles with gender throughout The Exorcist suggest a male fear of loss of control as well as the fear of women themselves.
Although the 1970s saw the birth of the new woman, it can also be seen as a period of backlash by the pop culture artifacts of the decade, most notably in the horror films of the decade. With Black Christmas in 1974, audiences saw a reinforcement of previously established gender roles. The female characters remained victims at the hand of an aggressive male, but it also demonstrated women as a threat. Through a gendered reading of Black Christmas it seems evident that Bob Clark taps into a male aggression, but also a fear of the female form as women off the screen called for change. Brian DePalma’s 1976 classic, Carrie, shows women in a different light. It shows the cruelty of women through a variety of characters, but indicates that the problems with the women’s rights movement are a result of women themselves. While DePalma appreciates their beauty, he equates Carrie’s sexual awakening with an unspecified evil. Finally, The Exorcist returns to this idea of the new woman, but illustrates her as negligent, and deserving punishment. It continues its debasement of women by transforming a young girl going through puberty into a hellish creature that can only be saved by the sacrifice of a male figure. Although each film is politically charged with its own meaning, they seem to indicate an overwhelmingly male fear of the potential for what an empowered woman could become. Through the exploration of a society’s fear at large, each of these films demonstrates a palpable backlash to the freedom women had fought for politically and socially, but had not yet received cinematically.

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