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Women in Western Horror from Romanticism to the Modern Age

Women in Western Horror from Romanticism to the Modern Age
© Photograph by Margarita Eliseeva

The Western horror genre has undergone many changes over the years, reflecting and adapting to the changes in Western society. While many of the standard plots of horror stories remain largely unchanged, the portrayals of characters of different races, genders, and backgrounds have undergone many alterations, some for the better, some not.

In this article, works from various time periods will be examined, including the early nineteenth-century, the 1980s and 1990s, and the modern era. Several sub-genres of horror will be examined, including science fiction horror, vampire stories, teen horror, slasher films, and action horror.

Though the general portrayal of women in the Western horror genre appears to have changed since the Romantic era, in truth, the same sexist tropes have been constantly present in Western horror, they have just been expressed in more insidious ways.

First, a brief overview of definitions for terms that will be used. “First wave feminism” refers to the portion of the feminist movement that started in the nineteenth-century and ended between the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries, with the exact year depending on the country. One of the primary goals of first wave feminism was getting women the right to vote.

Second, the term “second wave feminism” refers to the part of the feminist movement that reached its peak during the 1970s and 1980s. The primary issues of the second wave were reproductive rights and employment opportunities.

Third, the term “third wave feminism” refers to the part of the feminist movement spanning from the mid-1990s to the present day. Several works of horror fiction will be examined, with each of them being representative of the time period in which.

The nineteenth-century work examined is Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus’, published in 1818. Works published during the second wave include Stephen Edwin King’s ‘Carrie’ (1974), Wesley Earl Craven’s ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’ (1984), Sean Sexton Cunningham’s ‘Friday the 13th’ (1980), and William Friedkin’s ‘The Exorcist’ (1973). The third wave works that will be examined include John Fawcett’s ‘Ginger Snaps’ (2000), Joseph Hill Whedon’s ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ (1997-2003) and ‘Angel’ (1999-2004), and Eric Kripke’s ‘Supernatural’ (2005- present).

The above named fictional works are all products of the time and places in which they were written. To understand how these works portray women, we must examine the cultural climates that produced them, as well as the backgrounds of the people who created them. When ‘Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus’ was first published in 1818, the world was full of feminist thought, however, there was not yet a solidified feminist movement. The word “feminist” did not even exist at this point, and would not exist until near the end of the century. As early as the eighteenth-century, feminist writers such as Mary Astell and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu had gained recognition for their opposition to male dominance in society (Taylor 205).

In 1792, Mary Wollstonecraft published her famous work, ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Woman’, in which she expressed her outrage that women had been trapped in “a state of ‘ignorance and slavish dependence’” (Gordon 144). The general public’s reaction to these early feminist writers was not good. According to Barbara Taylor, a professor of history at the University of East London, “by 1791 [Mary] Wollstonecraft already had a reputation as an insurrectionist, the English equivalent of the ‘revolutionary harpies of France, sprung from night and hell’” (Taylor 202). Over 150 years later, in 1974, another famous work of horror fiction was published. Carrie was the first published novel of the now well-known writer Stephen King. When King was born in 1947, World War II had recently ended. During this time, women had filled many jobs that had been left by men serving in the military. However, once the war was over, women were expected to leave their jobs and return to their previous roles as homemakers. The often-romanticized era of the 1950s was an era of emptiness and depression for many North American women (Friedan 19). In her revolutionary 1963 book, ‘The Feminine Mystique’, feminist writer Betty Friedan termed this “the problem that has no name” (Friedan 15). This name was fitting, as mental health professionals at the time had no term for this phenomenon (Friedan 19). This book is largely credited with sparking the second wave of North America’s feminist movement. This movement was largely concerned with actually getting women equal treatment under the law in practice, as opposed to just in theory.

Given the feminist ideals emerging at this time, the way Stephen Edwin King conceived of the idea of ‘Carrie’ deserves special attention. In a 1981 interview for Twilight Zone Magazine, Stephen Edwin King stated that he wrote ‘Carrie’ because “Some woman said, ‘You write all these macho things, but you can’t write about women.’ I said, ‘I’m not scared of women. I could write about them if I wanted to.’ So I got an idea for a story about this incident in a girls’ shower room, and the girl would be telekinetic. The other girls would pelt her with sanitary napkins when she got her period. The period would release the right hormones and she would rain down destruction on them […] I did the shower scene, but I hated it and threw it away” (Grant). Stephen Edwin King’s decision to focus on a female character came not from a belief in equal representation in media, but from what he viewed as a challenge and an accusation of fear. It is also worth noting that, despite this story being written at the height of the second wave of feminism, when women were making every effort to erase the seemingly-inherent connection between womanhood and motherhood, Stephen Edwin King’s only idea for a story focusing on a female character was centred around the character’s reproductive abilities. Another notable thing about the formation of the idea that would become ‘Carrie’ is that Stephen Edwin King hated the story. In his essay ‘On Becoming a Brand Name,’ he wrote that “I persisted because I was dry and had no better ideas […] my considered opinion was that I had written the world’s all-time loser” (King).

The 1980s saw the advent of what would become one of the most well-known subgenres of horror: the slasher film. By the 1980s, many of the goals of the second wave of feminism had been met or were well on their way to being met. The Roe v. Wade case had been won, giving women more reproductive freedom, women had more opportunities for employment, and several anti-discrimination laws had been passed. However, many of the horror films of the time still contained sexist narratives that foreshadow the later backlash against women’s progress. “Possessed girl” stories and “black and white” morality permeated the horror genre at this time.

The mid-1990s saw the beginning of the third wave of feminism. One of the most famous works of horror fiction from this era is Joseph Hill Whedon’s television series ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’, which ran from 1997 to 2003. Its popularity and cultural impact created the term “The Buffy Era” as a nickname for this time period. This era marks the beginning of what has been termed “backlash broadcasting.”

On the subject of the backlash against women’s rights, journalist Susan Charlotte Faludi writes “it is a recurring phenomenon: it returns every time women begin to make some headway toward equality” (Faludi 46). Though backlash is not unique to the modern era, the prominence of media in everyday life makes the backlash extremely visible.

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