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Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film

Carol J. Clover

Princeton University Press, 1992; Pages: 260

Review © 2001 Branislav L. Slantchev

I bought this book because I thought it would be at least a tad above the usual drivel that passes for film criticism, especially its feminist variety. I was very disappointed, and heartily annoyed, to find out that the book is little more than a predictable unholy combination of Freudian pop psychoanalysis, feminist distortion, and purposeful obfuscation.

First, let's begin with the writing itself. The book is poorly organized, it is very hard to follow the argument (where one exists), and it is difficult to distinguish the relevant points from running commentary. The prose is turgid and replete with verbal monsters like "disambiguation", "monstrification", "urbanoia", "imbricated", "cognomina", "pronunciamento", "unpleasure", "invaginated", and "hypostasizes". These words do violence both to English and the reader; they do not add anything to our understanding of the argument, and certainly make the prose seem weightier than it actually is. The pictures are very poor screen caps, one wonders what they depict or how PUP allowed them in. Quite annoying.

Second, one of the foundations of the entire argument is the author's reading of Freud. As such, most of the problems with interpretation stem from this reading. Freud's work has done more to damage healthy sexuality than all Puritans combined, and its influence manifests here to the detriment of the entire book. I do not know how it is possible to draw conclusions about the functioning of healthy normal human beings from the examination of deviant cases. Freudism is a mockery of analytical thinking.

Third, the fact that the author approaches horror from a position of superiority, her posturing to the contrary notwithstanding, mars the proposed objectivity of the endeavor and certainly makes her conclusions suspect. She states that "horror is a marginal genre that appeals to marginal people," and if that is not deeply offensive, I do not know what is. She also regards horror as "low art" (as opposed to the "high" and very stupid art produced for the masses by Hollywood, I suppose). Finally, the author purports to provide us with deep analysis of horror after watching a dozen films (see her own admission on page 19). This is preposterous.

Now, for the argument that Clover seems to make. It appears that she has but two main points to state: (i) the main attraction of horror films is their catering to masochistic fantasies of the audience, and (ii) these fantasies are inherently of the one-sex variety, or, more bluntly, they are an expression of the latent homosexuality of all male viewers. Yes, folks, that's it: all men are gay wanna-bes. Clover fundamentally misreads the purpose of horror films (something I will return to in greater detail) and that misunderstanding leads her to further contortions. The entire book is filled with ridiculous assertions: "if an object is protruding, it is phallic; if it is not, it is vaginal" is the leitmotif. The author apparently labors under the misconception that if you repeat something false long enough, it will become true.

Let's take Clover's analysis of slasher films. She (correctly) identifies the Final Girl as the center of attention for these movies. The Final Girl starts out as a non-sexual outcast to emerge as a heroine who triumphs over the perversity of her tormentor, and in the process undergoes a change from passive acceptance to active dominance. Clover sees the Final Girl as a "double for the adolescent male... a homoerotic stand-in" that is, the Final Girl is an embodiment of male masochistic fantasies, which are represented by a female so that the masculinity of male viewers is not threatened.

This, of course, is pure speculation, and a bad one at that. If one looks at horror (or any) films, the first thing that pops out, is the use of the female form. It is mostly women who get beaten, raped, tortured, or mutilated in great detail (men seem to die inconspicuously, off-camera). Why? Feminism says it's male sadism, Clover says it's male masochism. I beg to differ. Why do critics ignore the directors when they say that the only way to elicit a response in the audience is to have a female suffer? There are two mechanisms at work here: (i) the destruction of beauty, the aesthetic level; and (ii) the direction of sympathy, the cultural level.

That female beauty is central to this and many other cultures goes without saying. It is not just the leering males that are responsible, but, judging from what many women seem to find beautiful, it is something about the female body that is different from the male body, and far more attractive to both sexes. The step then is simple: the destruction of something beautiful is painful. As Poe remarked, there is nothing more poetic than the death of a beautiful woman, an insight that finds expression in films of many directors. Thus, choosing a beautiful woman for the subject of violence works on the aesthetical level: killing a man is just not as horrific in those terms.

There is a second reason for that choice: the direction of sympathy. In this culture (and again, many others), men are associated with active response. That is, when a man is threatened, or brutalized, the audience does not feel sympathy for the victim: we expect the victim to rise, fight back, and die in the attempt. Whimpering males are intolerable both to male and female viewers. When a man begs for his life, the reaction is contempt, not sympathy. The situation is reversed when a woman screams in terror: the sympathies of the audience are unmistakeably with the woman. For better or worse, the cultural model that presupposes this reaction is deeply ingrained in this society. Thus, if directors want to elicit horror, which is predicated on evoking sympathy, they better cast a woman as the victim.

These two factors combine to practically ensure that the female form will be violated disproportionately, and that horror films will tend to feature women as the subject of aggression.

Let's now answer the question that Clover poses: why is the Final Girl in slasher films not really female? Clover correctly observes that most such heroines tend to be tomboys, with no interest in sex, and generally outcasts. Conversely, most of the women that die throughout the film are babes in the common sense of the word: usually busty, and always attractive, women. The author thinks this is because the Final Girl is really a stand-in for a boy. She is wrong.

One does not need to resort to psychoanalysis here: it's not that the Final Girl isn't really female, it's that she is an outcast that matters. One of the defining traits of American culture is the notion that the underdog can succeed through his/her own efforts. It is remarkable that the underdog never really succeeds in European or Japanese horror films, which is perhaps simply a reflection that these cultures lack that notion. Going back to high school, the way to define an outcast was through his/her unattractiveness and lack of sexual experience. It is not surprising then that horror movies borrow that definition for their Final Girl. The contrast with the beautiful other victims then is telling. Note that in European horror films the triumphant protagonists are always beautiful, unlike the American ones, which are somewhat less so.

Finally, let's answer the other question: why are horror movies regularly watched by predominantly male audiences? Clover really can't answer this: her reply is sort of a muddied "explanation" that simply reiterates that males are drawn to homoerotic masochism. Nonsense.

The basic plot of these films is a variation on the ancient hero myth. We have a protagonist who, through no fault or will of his own, is drawn into a sequence of trials, where at the end he emerges triumphant against the odds. This is precisely the structure of horror films and this is precisely the sort of a story that would appeal to a male but rarely to a female. That's why men tend to watch these films: there's little for women to enjoy.

This, however, brings me to the most glaring and egregious omission in Clover's analysis. In her attempt to identify the Final Girl with a hidden male, she misses the crucial fact that THE FINAL GIRL IS A GIRL. This simple fact is a testament to the changing values in our society: men have no problem seeing and believing a strong woman. The success of Xena among male and female viewers can attest to this as well (and the cartoonish violence in these series is probably the reason why they appeal to women as well). Placing a woman in a terrifying situation, having her face the killer alone after all her inept (fe)male companions are duly dispatched by him, and letting her rise to the occasion and destroy her tormentor, is believable, and an achievement of the movement for gender equality. By missing the point, Clover misses the big picture.

Thus, even though the female form is overdetermined as the point of suffering and destruction (by the arguments above), the role of the triumphant woman is a distinctly new development. There is no longer any need for male intervention, there is no need for a male savior. Women can take care of themselves on their own, once they overcome the passivity they are taught by society and become active agents of their own destiny.

I can go into detail about Clover's distorted interpretation of possession, rape-revenge, and voyeurism films, but doing so would make the exposition long. The point I want to make is clear: Clover does not understand horror movies and her misunderstanding is no less pernicious than the rabid critics she challenges.

February 28, 2001. BLS

    TITLE     = {Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film},
    AUTHOR    = {Carol J. Clover},
    YEAR      = {1992},
    PUBLISHER = {Princeton University Press},
    ADDRESS   = {Princeton},
    ISBN      = {0-691-00620-2 (pbk.)},
    NOTE      = {Pp. 260, bibliography, index}