Without thinking for too long, write down your top five horror movies. If that’s too difficult, list your top five movies. Or just do it in your head, if you prefer.
Now look back over your list. How many of them were directed by men? Chances are, your answer will be ‘all of them’. Your horror film list might include The Shining, Hallowe’en, Nightmare on Elm Street, Suspiria, Silence of the Lambs, Psycho, Alien, The Thing, The Exorcist… (or, if you’re like me, it might have included some older classics like Bride of Frankenstein, I Walked with a Zombie or Night of the Hunter). Every single one of them directed by a man.
Chances are your list didn’t include Near Dark, Chained, Pet Sematary, Ravenous or American Psycho, all horror films directed by women.
Why is this?
At this point in the discussion, if you’re a man, you might shrug your shoulders and say, “I guess women don’t make horror films.” If I pushed you as to why, you might say, “well, women don’t like horror. They prefer romantic comedies.” And, if you’re a certain kind of man, you’d probably say the last sentence with a bit of a snigger (a lot of women would probably give the same answer, only without the snigger).
If you answered this way, you’d be wrong on several counts. Click ‘Continue reading’ to find out why.
More women’s bums than men’s
First of all, women do make horror films. The five feature films I listed above represent only a small fraction of the feature films (we’re not even counting shorts here) directed by women. I happened to pick five well-known ones at random – there are other well-known ones, as well as others which are not so well-known (in fact the more I research the subject, the more I find). The horror output by women directors remains dwarfed by the horror output by men, but that’s true in every single genre – yes, even the romantic comedy.
As for women not liking horror: I’m sure we know plenty of women who are actively turned off by the horror genre. “Ooh, no, that’s nasty.” “I’d never watch anything like that.” Doubtless this is true for many women (and a good many men, too). However, it’s bums on seats that tell the story here, and the fact is that female attendees at horror films in the cinema outnumber male attendees. How many of the women are attending because they’re unwillingly accompanying their male partners is uncertain; as is the question of home renters and online downloaders (I don’t have figures on whether they’re predominantly male and, in any case, this wouldn’t tell us exactly who is actually watching the movie). Nevertheless, if your horror film is playing theatrically, you’d better expect more than half the seats to be occupied by women.
[Incidentally, do women really prefer romcoms? Leaving aside that it’s possibly even harder to define what makes a film a ‘romcom’ than a horror, the figures on this aren’t so easy to come by. It’s worth remembering that romantic comedies tend to be about relationships between straight women and straight men – so it’s not too great a leap to surmise that they can appeal just as much to men (and sometimes even more so – There’s Something About Mary, with its male lead and gross-out humour, made $249m at the box office, easily eclipsing other romcoms of the same period). In any case, the romcom seems to have died off in recent years as the superhero franchise gets milked dry.]
Let’s say I convinced you on all the above points. OK, there are a lot of women making horror films – not as many as men, but more than you realised. OK, women do watch horror more than men do. So why weren’t there more women directors on your list?
Sucky horror movies
Is it because women are bad at making horror films? Not if the reviews are anything to go by – Near Dark, for example, scores a respectable 7/10 on the IMDb. American Psycho scores even better. And, in any case, there are so many bad horror films made by men, this kind of generalisation quickly becomes worthless. Here’s an interesting exchange I found on a movie fan site:
“I got nothing against female directors but I just don’t think they can make horror movies as dark or disturbing as male directors can.”
Which elicited a string of responses from both men and women:
“Hon, with the LARGE amount of sucky horror movies I’ve seen that just happen to be directed by men, maybe we need to switch things around just to make sure we ain’t missing anything.”
“Women seem to write some very disturbing horror fiction – they could definitely make some incredible horror movies.”
“It’s not really fair to compare the films made by women and the films made by men, because 99 percent of horror films are made by men, while very few were made by women. Obviously if there is a bigger selection of horror movies made by men, it’s going to be easier to find a dark, disturbing one made by a man than by a woman. I’m sure if there were an equal number made by both sexes, there would be plenty of disturbing genre films made by females.”
“LOL you mere males would be terrified to see what’s in THIS female’s mind…”
“I think that since we are coming out of that whole “Horror movie, MAN’S MOVIES, BOOBIES!!!” phase, in the next 5 to 10 years we are going to see a lot more female horror directors…”
I think that settles that one.
Is it – more likely – that women who want to make horror films just haven’t been given the chance? Research has shown that women are more likely to work as aerospace engineers than to direct a Hollywood movie, and more likely to direct romcoms and romantic dramas than horror or action films. (Source: ‘The Celluloid Ceiling’, Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, San Diego State University) There are various possible reasons for this – lack of pressure on studios to keep tabs on the quota of women working in top positions, the tendency of men to network with other men, or just sheer prejudice – but it’s an uncomfortable truth, whatever’s causing it (if this truth doesn’t make you uncomfortable, chances are you’ve already stopped reading by this point).
But that’s Hollywood – it may surprise some readers to learn that in the independent sector there’s a thriving industry of women making horror films (and sci-fi and fantasy films, for that matter). So much so, that there are film festivals dedicated to showing horror films by women: the Viscera Film Festival in LA was running a couple of weeks ago; the Stranger with My Face Festival in Australia was first held in February 2012; the Stiletto Film Festival in Massachusetts is also heading for its third year; and here in the UK, the Jennifer’s Bodies event has seen more than one incarnation in cities as widely spread as Birmingham and Edinburgh, and the now well-established Bird’s Eye View Film Festival has run at least one ‘Bloody Women’ programme. And these aren’t the only ones.
Keep watching the skies – and the screens
So there are plenty of horror movies out there being made by women. The opportunities for making and showing them are increasing and, even if Hollywood is going backwards, the rest of the industry is striving forwards. We hope The Ditch, written and directed by Sheena Holliday, with an all-female cast, will be a valuable addition to the rapidly growing canon of women’s horror: horror made by women but for everyone. And those horror festivals which have for whatever reason been dragging their heels about featuring films made by women (Sheena will single out FrightFest and Abertoir in a forthcoming article*, but the world’s biggest horror film festival ScreamFest isn’t immune either), might want to expand their perspectives a bit…
[* Sheena’s article is now up. I’ll be expanding on it in my next post on this site.]
If you’re interested in seeking out women horror directors to watch, so you can form your own view – and say you heard about them before anyone else did! – here’s a list to get you started (I’m not guaranteeing you’ll love all these films, of course, just suggesting names and titles worth investigating):
Kathryn Bigelow (Near Dark)
Mary Lambert (Pet Sematary)
Jennifer Chambers Lynch (Chained)
Mary Harron (American Psycho)
Elisabeth Fies (The Commune)
Amy Lynn Best (Severe Injuries)
Laura Lau (Silent House)
Karyn Kusama (Jennifer’s Body)
Lindsey McNeill (Gillian’s Just Right)
Danielle Harris (Among Friends)
Katt Shea (The Rage: Carrie 2, Dance of the Damned, Stripped to Kill)
Rachel Talalay (Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare)
Katie Carman-Lehach (Eat Me!)
Hélène Cattet (Amer)
Ursula Dabrowsky (Family Demons)
Grace Lee (American Zombie)
Katja von Garnier (Blood and Chocolate)
Devi Snively (Trippin’)
Barbara Stepansky (Hurt)
Faye Jackson (Strigoi)
Marina de Van (Don’t Look Back, Dark Touch)
All the above have made feature films, and there are others I’ve not included; for reasons of space, I’m not including the hundreds of women who have made or are in the process of making horror shorts. A Google search will throw up plenty of names if you want to make the time.
Anyway, here’s some further reading (and do read these, because they’re great – most of them are quite short):
The Unfair Business of Being a Woman Director in the Boys’ Club of Horror Filmmaking (OK, this is quite a long article, but it’s worth your time – contains an extended interview with the Soska Twins)
- BRIEF: Viscera Film Festival: Horror movies and the women who direct them (hispanicbusiness.com)
- Slept on It: Movie Review of American Mary (splitid.wordpress.com)
- Exclusive: Danielle Harris Talks Hatchet III and Among Friends (dreadcentral.com)
- Why Are Female Directors Having (Relative) Success in Independent Film, but Not in Hollywood? [Posted from NoFilmSchool] (women-in-film-in-music.com)
- Exclusive: Jen and Sylvia Soska on American Mary, The ABCs of Death 2, and More (dreadcentral.com)