The history of horror films is full of screaming women, escaping or succumbing to every torment imaginable, inflicted by masked stalkers, creepy hoteliers, chainsaw-wielding cannibals, and more. But the young women of horror cinema seem to have had enough and are taking up arms against…anyone they choose.
Netflix's new film The Babysitter joins a growing list of movies and shows that put women in the slasher's seat, including Tragedy Girls and FOX's Scream Queens. It's not the first time women have killed, certainly. Friday the 13th's Jason Voorhees famously didn't become the franchise's killer until the sequel, taking over for his mother, who had tormented the teen counsellors at Camp Crystal Lake in the original. Carrie also features a teen girl killing her high school tormentors. From Ginger Snaps, to Ringu, to Jennifer's Body, the list is pretty long.
Likewise, the protagonist 'victims' of classic slasher films were known to turn the tables on their attackers. Carol Clover coined the term 'Final Girl' to refer to the trope of young women outliving their friends to fight off the killer. Be it Halloween's Laurie Strode, Texas Chainsaw Massacre's Sally, or Scream's Sidney Prescott, the Final Girl is never just a victim.
But these new killers are something else. They're something akin to antiheroes, functioning as protagonists or the films' main draw without being good guys. They barely even have a reason to kill. In The Babysitter, we ostensibly follow 14-year old Cole as he discovers that his babysitter Bee is a coldblooded killer, planning to use his house (and his blood) for a cultish human sacrifice. But Bee is the real star here, subverting the typical tropes of the set-up—Cole sneaks downstairs, hoping to catch a glimpse of Bee having sex, but he's shocked to instead find her murdering a boy she lured to the house. (Cole even compares his teen guardian to Mad Men's Don Draper, a subtle nod to the more commonly male antiheroes of recent pop culture, perhaps.)
Compare that to the 1995 film of the same name, in which Alicia Silverstone's babysitter is fetishized by three different men: her boyfriend, his creepy buddy/rival, and the father of her wards. We learn almost nothing about Silverstone's Jennifer, who appears almost exclusively in the men's erotic fantasies (most of which inexplicably end in her accidental death, adding to the film's already voyeuristic premise a touch of domineering creepiness).
Bee's reversal of the power dynamics of the babysitter and her male voyeurs feels like more than a coincidence. Something's up with women in the horror game.
To understand what's going on with the genre, VICE turned to Eugenie Brinkema, an associate professor of contemporary literature and media at MIT whose research focuses on violence, sexuality, and horror, among other things.
For Brinkema, motivation is a key component in this shift to killer women. It's not that women haven't killed before, it's just that their reasons aren't what they used to be. "The idea that women need a reason to kill is a really old trope," she says. "You kill to get revenge on your husband. You kill your children as an act of aggression against your boyfriend or your mother. You kill out of revenge for a society that's not going to punish your rapist." Rape-revenge horror films like I Spit on Your Grave are a great example. Or the feminized vengeance of Carrie or Teeth also fit the bill. "The idea of women causelessly killing, that actually feels much more new," says Brinkema.
Not that Bee has no reason to kill, it's just that her reason is narratively irrelevant. She spills the blood of the innocent as a sacrifice to some unknown higher power, but really it's the pleasure she derives from the kill that stands out. Her friends casually talk about making the sacrifices "go viral," as though a social media boost is all the motivation needed. This same theme carries Tragedy Girls, in which doing it for the likes functions as a comically thin driver for a gruesome killing spree.
"Rooting for female aggression in the 70s slasher cycle— Halloween, Texas Chainsaw Massacre—is always about rooting for young female figures to survive against a predatory world. And here, instead, it feels like a rebellion against more abstract social conventions," says Brinkema. "Instead of a disposition of terror, now there's this disposition of malice. And so the gleefulness of that is just a strict refusal to conform to a perfect stereotype of young female goodness."
And as soon as you start to rethink who can be a killer, you're forced to reconsider who can be a victim. "There's such a tight bond between the two," says Brinkema. "I always think of horror as a kind of structural game. Aggressors and victims. Things that go forward and things that retreat. Imagining new forms of violence means imagining new forms of vulnerability."
So far, we haven't seen too much of a departure from traditional victimhood, though it is tempting to think about who could be targeted next. There's a real potential for radical horror here. As much as subversive, feminist horror exists, these newer themes are now seeping into the mainstream— The Babysitter comes to us courtesy of McG, director of Charlie's Angels and co-creator of The O.C., so not your typical patriarchy-smashing indie artist.
Culturally, it's also not so weird to see women portrayed like this, as men's equals on the level of unprovoked murderousness. Brinkema links this to the very public revelations of abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, where American soldiers—some women—were found to have tortured and sexually degraded prisoners. The soldiers took celebratory photos, the most notoriously well-known of which featured an enthusiastic woman named Lynndie England smiling and giving the thumbs up while posing with the men in her charge.
The traditional images of women in wartime—as nurses, caregivers, grieving wives and mothers—were suddenly replaced in our collective psyche, Brinkema says. "Instead of women being the mouthpieces for the horrors of war, they are the horrors of war."
The old images never go away though. There is no wholly new horror cinema. The genre didn't start as a single, easily definable thing, and it hasn't magically become something else. Bee is still the object of male lust in The Babysitter. Cole creeps downstairs in part because he's in love with her, and McG's camera lingers on women's bodies and girl-on-girl makeout sessions that seem as much for Cole's benefit as for the audience's. But the typical criticisms of gratuitous scenes like this may not fit as well as they used to either.
"I think that a lot of the psychoanalytic models of straight identification like the male gaze or the female gaze…I think they're all too simplistic," says Brinkema. "I think the actual work of spectators often involves shifting positions, adopting multiple positions, contradictory ones."
And the demographics of horror films are changing, or at least filmmakers are coming to realize that they can reach much wider audiences than they ever thought they could. The young straight white males we've traditionally thought of as horror's go-to target audience are now just one of the many groups worth catering to.
"There's been this massive diversification of female fandom, queer fandom, non-white fandom," says Brinkema. "Fans now have the capacity to root for different organizations and arrangements in these films."
"Horror's actually really good at saying You think you have one stable point of view from which to look? Sorry, it can always be undone," she adds.
Now that filmmakers are broadening their perspectives on women in horror, and likely considering the multitudes of audiences who may be sitting in the theatres (or streaming their content), the rulebook doesn't quite make sense anymore. And that unstable footing isn't likely to change.
"I do wonder, in this post-Lena Dunham moment of girl vocality and girl identity, what that's going to look like for the next generation of horror films," says Brinkema. "I think you're seeing part of it now."
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