In October, I chatted all things women in horror with Bitch Magazine in relation to the Final Girl series I programmed at Nitehawk. Of course, architecture and Carol Clover were discussed…
Below is a text I wrote for Nitehawk on women in horror film in conjunction with the film program, Final Girl…
“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality.” ― Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House
Nitehawk’s Final Girl program celebrates fifty years of women in horror film by highlighting the iconic Final Girl. From Georges Franju’s depiction of beauty obsession in Eyes Without a Face (1960) to Adam Wingard’s role-reversing You’re Next (2011), this series focuses on the depiction of the woman’s role within the fictional realm of horror cinema and its association with the reality of daily life. The series eschews the popular bimbo slasher film stereotype by highlighting iconic female characters who experience a revelatory journey from victim to hero. Her on-screen transformation is hardly ever pretty, brutal by sheer necessity, but it realizes an important power shift: the stereotypical male gaze turns into her gaze and then to ours. Embodying Shirley Jackson’s description of Hill House, the Final Girl’s insane break from an “absolute reality” means that it is up to her, our heroine, to restore order when the familiar world becomes an overwhelming space.
When horror films are in top form they provide an incredible cultural analysis. Historically they’ve dealt with socio-political issues, from racism to capitalism, but gender norms have always been a constant. By addressing the patriarchal culture we live in, horror tells us what the possibilities for change are and, in its own visceral way, adjusts the imbalance. This marriage of women and horror actually traces back to 18th century Gothic novels like The Castle of Otranto and the genre has carried on the tradition all the way up to the self-reflexive postmodern heyday of the 1970s-90s. Because horror has the uncanny ability to simultaneously embrace and explode stereotypes when tackling women’s roles, it reveals a victim-to-survivor figure by depicting the “weaker” sex in a position of power with far superior survival skills and intelligence. This is particularly true when they show the struggle and sublimation of women in/out of domesticity via the haunted or evil house; it’s one constant that pops up in horror films and is the commonality amongst all of the films in our Final Girl series.
The concept of the ‘Final Girl’ put forth by scholar Carol Clover in her book Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film applies directly to Shirley Jackson’s above description of the inherently evil atmosphere that permeates her novel The Haunting of Hill House written more than thirty years earlier. The extreme pressure of coping with an unreal horror that becomes the Final Girl’s reality is a commonality shared amongst many, if not most, cinematic horror heroines and it is an essential part of actually being a true Final Girl. This woman, according to Clover, is the person with whom the audience (regardless of gender) identifies with most because we share in her experience and desire for survival in the very strange land she’s found herself in. And ever since she emerged from the Italian giallo and subsequent American slasher movies of the 1970s and 80s, this Final Girl has become a reliable fixture within horror narratives. That is, of course, until post-post modern horror film tackled our comfortable associations with her head on. Regardless, whether she’s the lone survivor amongst her dead companions or the sacrificial lamb to the monster, the historic representation of women in horror is culturally significant. The two appear to be inextricably bound together.
Quiet, guttural, and violent, Aïda Ruilova’s Goner (2010) is an intimate and full throttle engagement with the unknown. A young woman, clothed in only a long t-shirt and underwear, is covered in blood and alone in a bedroom. Laying face down when we first see her, with gashes at her ankles, the battle between her and the room in which she’s contained plays in an endless loop. Punching, stabbing, screaming, staring; she fights the small world around her. Heightening the sense of unease and inescapable containment are the ambiguities as to whether she is really alone, who or what is assaulting her, or if the room is even hers. Camera perspectives shift from an all-seeing eye to a personal gaze that becomes our own. The perverse imagination runs wild.
From the aesthetics and narrative established in the Italian giallo to the cliche tropes in the American slasher, Aïda Ruilova embodies the cinematic history of the horror film girl in under ten minutes. Goner is a rather forceful gesture towards acknowledging all the cultural and political implications associated with the complicated role of the young woman in horror film (the ‘final girl’, the survivor, the redeemer, the victim). Her evolution of weakness to strength unfolds before us as she becomes unwittingly involved in a landscape of life and death. At once an indulgence in stereotype and a liberation from that stereotype, the horror heroine is a violent and hyperreal representation of what is means to be a woman in the world.
And what better space to pinpoint this disjuncture between the life and death of women than in the architectural realm of the home, the bedroom? With a heart shaped bed, the girl in Goner is in a position of desire and longing but as the room distorts, the idea of pleasure becomes one of intense pain. Here the psychological discord of a woman coming undone in her own home echos the sad intensity of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) in which a beautiful woman loses her insanity when alone and trapped in her apartment. It also makes reference to the physical and sexual assaults inflicted on a young mother by and invisible and ghostly being in 1982’s The Entity. Spanning one hundred years and as many films, from F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) to the current The Conjuring (2013), domesticity is the psychological realm where horror and women confront each other head on. This inextricable link between horror, the home, and women is the structural support of Goner as the mystery between a young girl and a living space rages on.
In addition to focusing on Alice from Friday the 13th and her status as the ultimate final girl (which I will get to later on), Ben Rivers uses the archive of horror cinema as a modifiable object. While the basis for his films is usually self-shot and original, Terror and Alice are his “love letters’ to horror. Sourced entirely from the “giallo” and “slasher” sub-genre (1970-80s) they include Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond, John Carpenter’s Halloween, Dario Argento’s Susperia, and dozens more. By establishing a dialogical relationship between his own work and these movies through montage, Rivers carefully negotiates this particular portion of horror history and by fluently speaking the language of horror cinema he conflates the past with the present to create a new process of looking. This makes for future genre possibilities in what Sergei Einsenstein termed an “intellectual montage” (proposing that a new idea can emerge from a sequence of shots unintended by the original footage). For Rivers this new emergent idea directly involves the audience.
The chosen scenes in Terror build upon a structural frame of familiarity through a progressive sequence that increases in intensity and absorbs the viewer in its rhythm. Rivers’ filmic montage (and homage) to the influential “giallo” and “slasher” movies inverses storylines and audience participation and exemplifies Steven Shaviro’s ‘zombie time’ terminology in his essay Contagious Allegories: George Romero:
‘the slow meanders of zombie time emerge out of the paralysis of the conventional time of progressive narrative. This strangely empty temporality also corresponds to a new way of looking, a vertiginously passive fascination. The usual relation of audience to protagonist is inverted’ (1993, 99).
Rivers establishes linearity by editing similar scenes together: houses in the fog, people calling out for each other, the mysterious opening of doors, shots of keys, and even bits of comedy. Each sequence builds incrementally, simultaneously acknowledging that the audience knows these are “only movies” but still provoking some serious unease. For those who recognize the sources, the suspense becomes palpable and the alternating tension between this conglomeration of references continues just until the moment when the one questions whether or not the violent resolution will ever come. Then Rivers provides a brilliant release with the most fantastic eruption of surplus gore; a bloody violent collage that is completely satisfying and totally thrilling.
Relying on the audience’s knowledge and/or non-knowledge of horror films, Rivers acknowledges that the viewer’s familiarity with the movies determines meaning for Terror and Alice. This is most evident in his new film Alice, a heavily edited piece focusing solely on the main character and “Final Girl” from Friday the 13th.
As with Peter Doig’s Canoe Lake (1997-98), Echo Lake (1999), and Friday the 13th (1998), Rivers has completely omitted any visual expression of the life-threatening encounters Alice endures. What we see is Alice making coffee, putting on her coat, lounging in a canoe on the lake; a rhythmic succession of the benign moments that surround the unseen moments when she is fighting for her life. Those unaware of Friday the 13th could find this a little bit boring but understanding the filmic source makes the friction between what we see and what we know explode brilliantly onscreen. Still, it’s significant that the exclusion of the scary stuff has not pacified the situation – the audience is aware of the narrative tension and feels it when viewing the works.
Rivers’ films purposefully identify with an audience’s relationship to watching a horror movie. A fan himself, Rivers incorporates this passion for the genre into other works containing his own footage, House (2007) and Origin of the Species (2008). He extends his interest onscreen, acknowledging the audience and their expectations of what a “good” horror film should be.
As mentioned in Peter Doig – Friday the 13th, Alice plays into critical debates surrounding feminism in horror movies specifically addressing slasher films where the lone survivor is usually a female who is, generally, victorious over her male counterparts (monster and fellow victims). Carol J. Clover dubbed her the “Final Girl” and while her definition is tenuous at best (I think that the unique differences in each film make such solidified terms near impossible), this “Final Girl” has an enduring legacy in horror that can provide us a framework in which to consider gender roles in society throughout the decades. Friday the 13th is a particularly interesting example because not only is the lone survivor female but the killer is as well (it isn’t until the sequels that Jason becomes the monster). It’s a battle between motherly devotion and the perceived loose morals of teenagers.
Rivers views Alice as the ultimate “Final Girl” and utilizes this process of identification as a structure to creates a contemporary version of the same story. His editing might suggest we question whether women are now safer in society. Have women become more integrated and better shielded from unknown horrors? Or is the perception of equality and safety an illusion – is the past still there, lurking in the background, waiting to grab hold?
Ben Rivers recently exhibited his new film Slow Action at Matt’s Gallery in London and Picture This in Bristol. I have previously written about Rivers for LUX and his film Terror was screened last fall during The Real Horror Symposium.
Furthering the topic of women in horror film as it extends into contemporary art is a discussion on Friday the 13th’s main character Alice in the work of Peter Doig and Ben Rivers. As artists both Doig and Rivers touch upon the famous horror heroine’s status as the ultimate slasher ‘Final Girl’ who Carol Clover describes as, ‘…intelligent, watchful, level headed; the first character to sense something amiss…the only one, in other words, whose perspective approaches our own privileged understanding of the situation’ (Clover 1987, 79). As our portal into the action and into narrative meaning, she is the character with whom the audience most identifies because we have shared in her suffering and she, like us, remains alive.
Peter Doig is well known for his usage of photographic, film, and cultural as image references. What makes his explicit crediting of Friday the 13th in his painting series that includes Canoe Lake and Echo Lake is that it marks the only time he has openly credited a filmic source. Despite this, the influence film has on him creatively is obvious (his ongoing commitment to the Studio Film Club in Trinidad is evidence) and a stylistic composition of horror films can be read throughout much of Doig’s work. For instance, he invests in the unknown with his cabin series Cabin Essence (1993-4), Concrete Cabin (1991-2), and Concrete Cabin II (1992). Architecturally the ‘house’, haunted or otherwise, is prevalent in horror but it is particularly the isolated cabin in the woods often used as a trope; The Old Dark House (Whale, 1932), Evil
Dead (Rami, 1981), Cabin Fever (Roth, 2002), and The Strangers (Bertino, 2008) are but a few examples. The woods themselves are generally areas of the unknown and produce fear in imagining what kind of people inhabit them. Equally Doig’s Hitch Hiker (1989-90) contains an aimless sense of unease and feelings of solitude, calling to mind The Hitcher (Harmon, 1986) and Steven Spielberg’s Duel (1971).
What connects a seemingly miscast Doig to horror cinema is the incredible spatiality created between the captured in-between moment and the conflated relationship between the audience and the scene. Peter Doig encapsulates the entirety of meaning into one image in his works inspired by the camp-counselor killing classic, Friday the 13th. Formally he uses paint to construct this insertive space with linear divisions on the canvas, compiling multiple layers of memories and stories. This reflective image becomes the area where the viewer can insert him/herself and his/her stories into the picture.
Specifically in Echo Lake and Canoe Lake he delineates the crucial point in Friday the 13th when what appears to be resolved is anything but. With these paintings he creates alternate points of view: in Canoe Lake we look onto Alice safely in her canoe but in Echo Lake are viewpoint is through Alice’s eyes, looking onto the policemen on the shore. Viewed in relation to each other, this is similar to different cuts used in film where the audience is simultaneously the eyes of the killer, the victim, and the outsider. Importantly with Doig, who may or may not intend to completely tell the heroine Alice’s tale, he never privileges the audience with resulting action. Instead, he evokes her storyline as a device to hold all tension. By never moving forward or backwards, the girl and the audience are forever held in to this singular moment. It is a beautifully evocative way to frame anticipation and anxiety that will never be released.
Images (top to bottom)
Peter Doig – Canoe Lake (1997-98), oil on canvas
Film still from Friday the 13th (Cunningham, 1980)
Peter Doig – Friday the 13th (1999), oil on linen
Peter Doig – Echo Lake (1998), oil on canvas
As a precursor to their Bloody Women panel discussion tomorrow night, the ICA London asked the Twitter-verse to name our favorite horror ladies (mine: Barbara Steele, Dara Nicoladi, Karen Black), and it sparked thoughts on how the role of the women and even the “Final Girl”often directly manifests in artists’ work too.
Take Gary Simmons frenetic paintings in his 2010 exhibition Midnight Matinee where images from the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Psycho, Amityville Horror, and Burnt Offerings referenced familiar architectural places found in horror films: the house, the gas station, and the cinema. Interestingly the paintings themselves mimic filmstrips, a further collision of art and film. And if you’re wondering how this relates to women…
I’m just beginning research on the role of architecture in visual art stemming from a direct relationship to horror cinema (think of the aforementioned Simmons, Mike Nelson, etc). Amongst other structural functions such as spatiality and establishing a sense of unease within the familiar, the house/home in horror films challenges the forced and/or changing ideas of domesticity throughout the decades. One example of this is also one of the films Simmons references, Burnt Offerings (1976) starring my horror heroine Karen Black. The movie is about a young family who takes care of a mysterious house one summer to escape the city however they wind up as literal house food. The house kills most of family, save Black’s character, who is gradually yet forcibly absorbed into the house becoming its official “mother” and caretaker. The film can be read as a reaction to second wave of feminism in the United States, a return back to traditional and fundamental women/mother/Victorian ideals.
Simmon’s usage of the Burnt Offerings house facade reinforces the notion that we (i.e. the audience, viewer, or visitor) can never really judge a book by its cover; that what lurks behind the front door to an old house or behind the cinema screen curtain can be an unexpected yet real horror. His blurred reflection of the house establishes a visual tension that reminds us that physical and mental ‘interiors’ are infinitely complicated and that there can be a serious danger in the projected appearance of perfection.
Gary Simmons Burnt Grid, 2010 – Pigment and charcoal on paper – 12 panels
Still of Karen Black in Burnt Offerings (Dan Curtis, 1976)
Gary Simmons Between Offerings, 2010 – Pigment, oil paint and cold wax on canvas