How Female Killers in Horror Movies Offer Representation of Womanhood - VRGyani News and Media

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Friday, September 3, 2021

How Female Killers in Horror Movies Offer Representation of Womanhood

Women have always been a central part of horror, beginning as the terrorized damsel in distress of early monster movies. While the genre has since given a larger focus to strong, capable, and more importantly, realistic final girls, there’s something uniquely interesting about the female killer who slays the stereotype of the “weaker sex”. While some are simply sociopathic killers, born with that instinct to kill, most are a product of trauma and patriarchal society. These women are often targeted, attacked, and then left for dead, often in the wake of sexual or physical assault. Eventually they crack and fight back, thus creating a monster that can more than hold her own against those who would seek to control her. These killers speak to harmful misconceptions about women, all too common crimes against them, and show a certain righteous power within.

The Maternal Murderess

The ‘maternal murderess’ in horror is a key archetype that helped power and inspire future representations of the female killer. One of the most iconic examples of this is Pamela Voorhees (Betsy Palmer) in Friday the 13th as the unstable, vengeful mother who couldn’t bear to let the tragic death of her son go unpaid for. The reveal of Pamela as the killer at the time was shocking and powerful. Among such slaughter, requiring great strength and aptitude, a middle-aged woman is one of the last people you would expect to be capable of such a violent feat. She both served as a warning not to undervalue a woman of any size or stature and spoke to issues of loss and the unwell mind.

Pamela’s maniacal turn isn't only rooted in vengeance for Jason, but a product of the abuse she faced from her own husband, Elias. The comic book series, Friday the 13th: Pamela’s Tale, shows her finally snapping and fighting back, killing her husband before the tragedy at Camp Crystal Lake. In this, Pamela and by extension Jason, were products of the misogynist husband that felt he was in his right to treat the wife and mother of his child so cruelly. Pamela offers a powerful examination that has been a staple of horror, the unique connection of motherhood. She showcases the overwhelming need to protect your child at all costs, especially when it seems like that love is the only thing worth fighting for in this world. This common exploration taps into an inherently intuitive, loving nature in women. Yet it also acknowledges the dark side of what that love and desperation can lead to, the capability to commit great horror when it’s the only service they can do for their child.

There have been many horror films that have since wonderfully explored this, such as the atmospheric vampire film, Grace, which premiered at Sundance in 2009. In Grace, our heroine and first-time mother, Madeline Matheson (Jordan Ladd) becomes a killer out of her desperation to provide for her child. Madeline’s baby initially appeared to have died in the womb, thereafter, miraculously coming back to life, and seeming to be a perfectly healthy and innocent baby. Flies swarm her baby, who is resistant to all forms of typical nutrition and sustenance. Madeline soon realizes that her baby can only be nurtured by blood, preferably human. Initially a vegan, very concerned about humane treatment and the value of the life of all creatures, Madeline proves she is willing to pay any price to protect and care for her child even if that means becoming a killer for her. Madeline is a maternal murderess by necessity rather than being motivated by revenge or as a product of abuse. In her way, she is only trying to care for her child, even if her child is a blood hungry beast. She still chooses this path and is just as desperate and unable to cope with the idea of losing her child as Pamela. Additionally, the maternal murderess also speaks to how, for so long, society told us that a woman’s primary role was to produce children and be a mother. Without this, many lose their identities and will to live completely, thus transforming them into killers to hold on to that protective motherly role.

The Medusa Killer: The Monster of Their Making

Jennifer Check of Jennifer’s Body, the tongue and cheek cult favorite film, offers up a strong example of the modern-day Medusa archetype of the female killer. The film opens on the line, “Hell is a teenage girl”, setting up the unapologetic playful yet satirical tone. Jennifer’s transformation offers hellacious commentary on the horrors of young womanhood from changes in ones’ body to the conniving power of teenage girls to the horrifying reality that as a woman you can be vulnerable to attack at any moment.

After being served up as a virgin sacrifice on a platter to the devil then left for dead, Jennifer becomes an untouchable demonic force of female monstrosity. On the surface, Jennifer’s Body can come across as a cheesy, sexually charged teen horror film, but there’s an enticingly satisfying power in how it turns the tables on gender roles. Jennifer offers a parallel to the story of many rape victims. Her attackers aren’t held accountable for their actions. In fact, they quickly fall into fame and fortune, while the scars that night left her with- a demonic influence and immortal invulnerability in this case- leave a mark that have forever changed her. She takes on a newfound strength and power in her new nature, luring boys in and devouring them in a bloody carnage. Jennifer becomes the unapologetic monster and despite killing and slaughtering mostly innocent people, you can’t help but cheer for her. Her appeal is in how she represents a certain female power- a type of power that is normally reserved for men. She is the sacrificial lamb who utterly turns the tables and becomes a malicious, dark force who relishes in her nature, knowing she will never be a victim again.

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One of the most iconic female killers in modern horror cinema is Asami Yamazaki from Takashi Miike’s utterly brutal revenge film, Audition. Our merciless and gleeful killer, Asami, makes a ferocious transformation from the soft spoken, optimistic, and kind-hearted picture perfect wife to a merciless vengeful killer. Another victim of horrific abuse, including sexual and physical assault as a child, she is the victim who never heals. She sees her abuser in every other man who might have deceived her or sought to hold power over her. Asami feels betrayed by them all and dedicates life to catching them into her web, viciously turning the tables and making sure they feel immense pain and torment while she relishes in their screams and anguish. Petite, seemingly gentle, and completely unsuspecting, on the exterior she embodies the opposition of a brutal killer, but as other female killers have shown us, looks can be deceiving. She is a powerful forewarning against expectations of women falling into the perfect male fantasy of an appealing wife, especially when the woman is lured in under false pretenses. The horrors Asami experienced from such an early age are both heartbreaking and shows how she became a product of her environment. She is a victim whose entire identity became dedicated to being crueler than the man who made her early years a living hell.

Another powerful representation of the medusa killer and one of the strongest examinations of gender perspective in horror is the rape-revenge film. The current statistics from the CDC show that 1 in 5 women have experienced sexual assault in their lifetime. The rape-revenge sub-genre speaks to the trauma and real-world horror many women experience without justice. I Spit on Your Grave, the incredibly disturbing yet satisfying journey of female vengeance, stands out as an equally gut wrenching and ferocious view of both the pain and power that femininity can hold. The highly controversial and heavily banned film is based on an encounter the director, Meir Zarchi, had with a fleeing, naked and brutalized rape victim. Barely able to talk, the police showed her little compassion. Zarchi was disgusted by what she had been put through and that it wasn’t taken more seriously. I Spit on Your Grave is a reaction to the all too prevalent injustices many sexual assault victims’ experience.

Originally titled Day of the Woman, the film was meant to give a voice to the silenced and strength to the victimized. Jennifer Hills (Camille Keaton), a woman who ventures out to a secluded Connecticut cabin to focus on writing her first novel, is brutally raped by four men and left for dead. She feels utterly broken, but her pain and vengeance fuel her strength as she rises stronger. Jennifer turns the table on the predatory males who mocked, belittled, and assaulted her as if she was only something to assert domination over. She lures them back to her, then when they are at their most vulnerable, serves up agonizing justice. The film, particularly the lengthy rape portion, is a difficult watch, as it should be. We are put in the suffocating and painful reality of what it’s like to endure such a dehumanizing violation where there is no escape or compassion. Experiencing this torment through Jennifer makes us cheer for her rising from the ashes to take matters into her own hands, a poetic justice many victims never see in real life. Additionally, it acknowledges the harmful gender norms placed on men, such as exerting dominance and pressures of sex to prove one’s manhood. I Spit on Your Grave depicts the grim, dehumanizing horrors of sexual assault. Yet it also leaves you with the message that women can power through impossible odds and rise from the ashes, wounded but not broken.

The Vigilante Killer

While some rape-revenge films follow the victim seeking revenge on her rapists, some follow the vigilante route to reach a wider set of targets. Touched by sexual abuse or tragedy, either from their own experience or someone they deeply cared about, these female killers see the flaws in justice for rape victims. In most cases allegations aren’t taken seriously so these vigilantes take it upon themselves to go after those who have assaulted women and gotten away with it. Two notable recent films that fall into this category are M.F.A. and Promising Young Woman. Both films showcase the inherent problems, from women and men, in allowing rape culture to flourish, mostly in fear of being ostracized themselves. Our troubled, yet righteous defenders, Noelle of M.F.A. and Cassandra of Promising Young Woman, both offer fierce, honest, and in the end, tragic examinations of how revenge may begin with the best intentions but, in the end, will still ruin you. Through these vigilante heroines, injustice and hypocrisy is called out, prompting important conversations, but they also put to bed any false glorification of the path of revenge beyond a powerful fictional metaphor for resistance.

The vigilante killer is often a woman whose very nature demands she kills. She pays the price for her survival with a judging moral eye, eliminating the most predatory and cruel of mankind who could very well poison many more lives if given the chance. One of the most notable recent examples of this is the unsuspecting vigilante killer known as “The Girl” in the Iranian vampire slow burn, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. Our killer targets those who are guilty of gender-fueled violent acts, particularly towards prostitutes. This vengeful creature of the night can see what is hidden in the darkness and force the violator to pay the price for their manipulation and abuse. Even the title references that most women in this scenario are viewed as an easy target and potential conquest for a man who wishes to do them harm. The film turns gender norms and fears on its head by allowing the young, slender seemingly vulnerable female to have the power to retaliate against cruelty towards women just trying to survive and patriarchal-fueled attitudes.

The French murder mystery miniseries, La Mante, gives us another powerful look at a compelling vigilante killer. The series offers a double dose of damaged, complex, brutal female killers. The Mantis killer, Jeanne Deber (Carole Bouquet), is cooperating with the police to help track down her copycat killer 25 years after her work forcibly ended upon her arrest. She will only aid them in finding the killer if her son, who is now a cop, will work with her on the case. Jeanne gives us a cold, mysterious, and mature killer who keeps the audience guessing, representing both the nurturing, emotional aspect of femininity and a far more deceitful, brutal nature. At times she seems like she is truly trying to redeem herself, rebuild her relationship with her son, and prevent innocent people from being killed. Other times, she appears cold and calculating, playing everyone around her as pawns in her game, exerting her mental dominance. Jeanne recalls details of her vigilante kills fondly, including the satisfaction they gave her, feeling she was doing a service to society. Her first defensive kill- retaliation against her abusive spouse- awakened a darkness in her. Jeanne carefully targeted that darkness, only killing those she felt deserved it. The Mantis is a strong representation of the righteous female killer, targeting abusive individuals, thus fighting for other women and children who can’t defend themselves.

The Rejected Killer

La Mante offers us another type of female killer born of a similar tragic past who had a very different reaction and qualification in who she kills. The copycat Mantis is a transgender woman who knew nothing but torment and belittlement from childhood. The original Mantis saved her from a horrible fate and thus she feels she is honoring her legacy by recreating her kills. The copycat killer simply felt unaccepted by the world and used killing as a defense mechanism to reject and feel the power she was told she would never be capable of. This Mantis reboot represents the wounded and rejected killer, speaking to the importance of transgender women to be seen and accepted as they are.

Not all rejected killers grow up in abusive environments. Some were simply always a bit unusual, morbidly inclined, and essentially misunderstood loners who have had enough with the world discarding them. One fascinating example of this type of killer is May Candy, the self-titled character in Lucky McKee’s offbeat horror character piece, May. May offers a strong statement on the infallibility of human nature and how searching for perfection will only lead you to a maddening, macabre descent. With the tagline, “If you can’t find a friend, make one”, May tells the darkly tantalizing story of a strange woman, tired of being rejected, who goes on a murder spree. She uses admirable body parts of those around her to create the perfect human doll, a true friend who will never leave her. Hearing voices and commands from her childhood doll early on, May shows mental instability from the beginning. After being rejected one time too many, she slowly ignites the murderous nature lying dormant within her, offering a fascinating character examination.

While there are many strong, stimulating films featuring female killers, they are far outweighed by films featuring male killers. Women are typically viewed to be more gentle, compassionate, and physically inferior, thus not the go-to menacing predator. It’s important to challenge this perception and widen the capabilities and limitations of women-fueled stories in the genre. Women can be capable of immense strength and cunning, but like anyone, they can only withstand so much torment before they break and need a release for that pain. Horror is an ideal avenue that acknowledges ugliness and darkness associated with surviving along with the strength. Being a woman doesn’t mean you have experienced anything close to the victimization of the women in these films, but for most women the threat is there that you could be cornered, overpowered, and any number of horrible things could happen from there. The female killer in horror films offers a refreshing change for female viewers and a satisfying gender reversal of roles. Rather than seeing horror happen to women as is the more common scenario, female killer films give us stories where the woman is in control of the horror, even if she was also once a victim. There are horrors in this world that are uniquely female. For all the films that feature female killers in a cheesy way with vain motives, we need stories that tackle them in a serious, interesting way, acknowledging certain realities around the female experience and what it can look like at its most vicious.

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