The horror genre, with its often abstract storylines and events, may not appear at first glance to mimic reality. However, recent additions to the horror genre (including Hereditary, The Witch and mother!) have indeed proved themselves to reflect reality in one specific area: that is, the mistreatment that many women around the world suffer daily. By writing female leads into their horrific plots, these filmmakers have directed their viewers’ gaze onto the experiences of women. Despite the storylines and events of many of these films being abstract, the conclusion that these female horror protagonists perfectly reflect the ill-experiences of women in our current society, including gaslighting, abuse and trauma, can undoubtedly be drawn.
A common character trope seen throughout these films is that of the ‘irrational’ or ‘crazy’ woman. The first example of this can be seen in Aster’s Hereditary in the form of Annie (Toni Colette), who is the matriarch of the eventually-possessed Graham family. Throughout the film, we see a family unit descend into disarray and chaos as they become wracked with emotional agony following the deaths of several family members due to an ancestral curse of fate. However, despite all of the characters behaving in a way that differs from the ‘norm’, it is Annie who is visually labelled as ‘irrational’ for her personal responses to the emotional agony which she is being subjected to. For example, Annie yells at her son for not only being complicit in the death of his younger sister, but for his lack of facing up to the situation: of course, a perfectly rational response. Instead of being validated for her trauma response, her son and husband simply watch her, distressed and yelling, with faces of disgust and hatred. In turn, suggesting that Annie is irrational for her responses.
To take this scene out of the context of the film and into the context of wider society, this can be interpreted as an example of women being gaslit and labelled as – whether in an outright or a more subtle fashion – mad for simply responding to their trauma and/or surroundings. In the film, Annie is painted as irrational for exhibiting frustration and anger at the lack of male accountability around her, as well as upset in response to the death of her daughter. This is mirrored in our society, as women are often labelled as ‘irrational’ or wrongly labelled as mentally ill for responding to their trauma or general grief by doctors and family members alike. Therefore, Annie’s experiences become more than an accessory to the theme of emotional agony in the film. Instead, they become an allegory for the real-life experiences of many women today.
Building on the visual concept of displaying a range of emotions, both Aster’s Hereditary and Aronofsky’s mother! deploy the age-old trope of pitting male ‘rationality’ and female ‘irrationality’ against each other throughout. In mother! Veronica (Jennifer Lawrence), the female protagonist and wife of the family, is pregnant with her and her husband’s child as they happily live in solitude, unaccustomed to visitors. Yet, this soon changes. Throughout the film, Veronica’s husband lets in several guests as they claim to be fans of his writing. Starting off with one guest, this soon transforms into hundreds of guests cramped into their home who soon become violent as they ruin Veronica’s home furnishings and leak their way into her privacy. As a woman – and especially a pregnant woman – she rightly tells her husband to make them leave as she is rightfully anxious and deeply uncomfortable. Instead, he is titillated by his guest’s praise, and instead chooses his ego over his wife’s comfort as he waves off Veronica’s concerns and continues to cause her emotional suffering (and arguably, abuse) by allowing hordes of strangers to enter their home without considering the detrimental impact this is having on her.
This trope is mirrored in Hereditary. Towards the end of the film, Annie implores her husband Steve to burn her recently deceased daughter’s sketchbook as she, rationally, believes it to be embedded with a malevolent force. Instead of listening to his wife who has been exploring the presence of possession throughout her family, Steve simply assumes she has ‘gone mad’ and refuses to listen to her. Yet, like Veronica’s husband, Steve barely shows emotion throughout the film, instead adopting a passive nature and refusing to enter conflict – traits which starkly contrast to Annie’s.
These are both classic examples of showing a male character who is calm and dismissive, so therefore ‘rational’, in contrast to a female character who is emotional, so by default ‘irrational’ – something which is further perpetuated by the male character as he dismisses the feelings of his female counterpart by gaslighting her. Yet, despite their demeanours, the audience can clearly see that it is the male, surface level ‘rational’ characters who are responding ‘irrationally’ to their surroundings. Now, it is impossible to say whether this is a deliberate parallel, but a conclusion can certainly be drawn here about how women’s emotions are viewed within patriarchal society. Under patriarchy, women are viewed as overly emotional and irrational no matter if they are behaving in a ‘reasonable’ manner or not. So, by implementing these almost sterile, emotionless men who call their partners crazy while simultaneously behaving in an actually irrational way, a strong message shines through that women are often prohibited from expressing themselves emotionally. Also, when they do, these on-screen women parallel women in our society as they do often find themselves subject to gaslighting and emotional abuse simply for expressing their frustration, anger, and rightful upset.
A final way in which the modern horror genre has embodied real-life women’s suffering is by shining a light on how the burden of familial responsibility often falls upon women. Within Egger’s The Witch, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), the eldest daughter of the family, is expected to look after her younger siblings and to act almost as the third parent on their land. Yet, she becomes increasingly unable to do this due to the supernatural presence which wreaks havoc on their home. Instead of her parents believing her protests that something is wrong, they instead label her a ‘witch’ and – like Thomasin’s suffering counterparts Veronica and Annie – she becomes a woman labelled of committing wrongdoings despite there being no real evidence of this. Also, all three of these matriarch’s suffer when they step away from their classical societal role of the subservient, mothering character. Annie, Veronica and Thomasin all become angry in the face of their situations. In turn, they are chastised and labelled crazy, irrational, and even witches for failing to uphold their societal standards of women who are calm and mothering, even in the face of adversity. This bears relevance to the experiences of ‘mothering’ women in our society: they are expected to uphold an impossible standard and when they don’t, they suffer a hundred times more than the men in their lives who are – as seen before – so often seen to be ‘rational’ no matter if their actions reflect this or not.
To conclude, it is clear that – while there are several ways to read these landmark modern horror films – a reading which claims that these films are an allegory for women’s ill-experiences under patriarchal society can definitely be justified. While the horror setting certainly amplifies the suffering of these women, if we were to take them out of their supernatural contexts, we would certainly find that their suffering is not so far removed from the everyday suffering of women around the globe. Serving as a visual memoir of a gaslit woman, these films embody women’s societal and person trauma – hopefully offering a sense of understanding to their audience, as well as bringing attention to women’s experiences in a subtle yet powerful way.
by Susanna Demelas
Susanna is a 19-year-old literature student and writer currently living in Edinburgh. Although she writes about a wide range of topics, she is most passionate about writing about pop culture from a feminist perspective.