The Final Girls Club is a column posting every 1st, 3rd and 4th Monday of the month. It aims to take an analytical and retrospective look at female-led horror cinema and how these films hold up in the context of current issues surrounding gender, sexuality and politics.
In the past few years there has been a resurgence of the white male auteur horror film — and yes, that mostly refers to Ari Aster — but there have been a few other art house style horrors, and all of them are focused on a female lead character. Though these movies are incredible, the stories of what I call “The Big Three”: The Witch, Hereditary, and Midsommar, all come to the same conclusion:that women are, at the end of the day, evil. This is however not a new concept and the primary example that comes to mind is Dario Argento’s Suspiria. Suspiria perhaps set the precedent for movies made by white male directors that claim to follow the struggles of the female protagonist in order for us to understand the lives of women better, but then ends with the woman causing a ruckus and maybe joining a cult.
Suspiria follows an American named Suzy Banyon (Jessica Harper) who travels to Germany to train at a prestigious ballet school. What she doesn’t know is that the ballet school is secretly run by witches who are murdering other students. The violence of the film begins just ten minutes in at the school while Suzy is told to stay off campus for the night. A girl named Pat is grabbed through her window, stabbed, and hung from the balcony of their apartment building. There is a close-up shot of her heart, bleeding and tearing as it is stabbed, leading to her body being covered in dripping blood as it falls through the glass ceiling. Her roommate is then killed by the falling debris. These murders are swift and brutal, with all of the action happening on screen and accompanied by flashing coloured lights and the iconic surreal music. All of this, but we do not see the murderer. An air of mystery is established with this shot, leaving the audience to discover the truth along with Suzy as she descends into the madness of the school.
The setting of the ballet academy is an intriguing pick: it is one that is both a community of primarily women, but it is also one that also exploits them through the extreme demands and expectations from the women running it. Ballerinas are expected to be thin and beautiful, no matter the cost. This metaphor Argento sets up of a ballet school where the women experience incredible violence makes sense: it is taking what is happening below the surface of a beautiful art form and exposing it through extreme circumstances. The violence that the women put themselves through in order to maintain perfection is heightened in severity and represented by these visceral murders.
Once it is revealed that these murders are being committed by the women in power at the academy, that’s when the tone shifts from a critique of ballet culture to a critique of women. Argento makes a pretty strong argument that women are more easily susceptible to evil and the lure of cults. When the head of the school Madame Blanc announces the murder to Suzy, she blames “some madman,” purposefully invoking the learned fear of violent men, all while knowing that the witches are the ones who killed Pat. The witches of the school use emotional manipulation to keep the students off their track as they continue to plot and execute murders of ballerinas who are not living up to their standard.
The website for the Salem Witch Museum in Massachusetts provides a direct formula to the nature of historical witch hunts: fear + a trigger = a scapegoat. A witch hunt is placing the blame of a mass fear onto one specific group of people. The scapegoats in Suspiria are, yes, the students, but this is only according to the witches who make them the target of their violence. The teachers, on the other hand, are the scapegoat of the zeitgeist, and Argento himself. The idea of the witch leads back to early Pagans who were accused of doing work of the devil by Christians, when really they were just natural healers performing rituals. This thought evolved, putting the blame for hysteria and “madness” onto any group of women acting any way out of line from the prescribed expectations laid out in the Bible. Within Suspiria, women are given positions of power, setting them up to be the scapegoat of the film’s fear of women gaining agency during the 1970s.
An argument can be made that Argento is showcasing the full humanity of women by allowing them to be evil, but that feels like maybe giving him too much credit. Though it is exciting to see women throughout a spectrum in Suspiria, the audience is still taught that women who hold any authority are seeking to harm the young, when in reality, this is mostly the case with male authority figures in the entertainment industry. The film creates a competitive environment, leading us to believe that no matter the industry, women are catty and ruthless and will do whatever it takes to remain in power. Considering this school exists in a matriarchal unit — a very rare occurrence within any community— we are told that if it happens within a group where women are supposed to find solidarity with each other, then it must be happening everywhere. Argento believes that women are like this anywhere, warning against their thirst for power and their destructive paths.
In the end, Suzy defeats the witches and escapes the school, leaving them to burn alive in the building. She smiles and laughs while walking away to safety. We are left with the impression that the only way to be free of the evil of women is to destroy them before they destroy you. What could have been an enriching environment for women artists to grow and learn from each other is shown as a toxic danger to anyone. The message Argento leaves with is: don’t allow women to have positions of power, or they will murder each other. Though it is a rambunctious good time, the thesis does remain questionable.
by Taylor Hunsberger
Taylor Hunsberger is an essayist, poet, comedian, and writer of children’s theater who resides in Brooklyn. During the day she works as a Site Assistant for an afterschool arts program where she teaches music classes to elementary school students. She has previously written for Manor Vellum and The Broadway Beat. You can find her work here and on social media @tayparade. Taylor is also an avid Carly Rae Jepsen fan and really needs you to know this.