I was reading a Fear Street book in the sixth grade, when my teacher asked me why I read “that stuff”. Because all the female main characters made them more feminist than other novels, I smugly argued. My teacher had a counterpoint: the main characters were always girls because “women are easy targets”. It was harsh and I was embarrassed, but I didn’t stop consuming everything horror-related. Nevertheless, what my teacher said stuck with me. With each passing horror film I watched, I wondered whether the women were characters I could relate to or easy victims. Was it feminist or exploitative?
It’s a complicated feeling to love a genre and be occasionally offended by it. The older I get, the more I see how women are sexualized as they’re killed. It can be campy objectification like in the Friday the 13th series, where girls are killed for having sex (or sometimes during sex). But it can also be much more aggressive. For example, the marketing for the I Spit on Your Grave remake – the poster showcased the lead character in torn underwear designed to look like a thong, transforming a rape revenge movie into a sexy Calvin Klein ad.
But this wasn’t always the case. Black Christmas (1974) is the first North American slasher and also one of the most expressly feminist horror movies. It explores the horror of being a modern woman in an outdated, patriarchal society that harbours resentment against women and their sexuality. It’s a film that shows how a male-controlled culture makes it practically impossible for women to express their bodily autonomy, independence and sexuality safely.
In 1968, the Canadian federal government passed the Criminal Law Amendment Act that helped legalize abortion and contraception. Being made only 5 years after this breakthrough, the sorority sisters of Pi Kappa Sig are examples of this cultural shift – they’re sexually active, they drink, they laugh at dirty jokes, they have free love posters hanging up in their bedrooms. That they’re living together in a sorority house off-campus also signifies their freedom and independence. But their home is invaded both physically and psychologically. After peeping at them through their windows, the killer (climbs a lattice and hides in their attic. Shortly afterward, they receive a lewd phone call, presumably from the killer but it’s hard to say because they’ve been getting regular calls from someone they refer to as “the moaner”. The call is vile; the unseen speaker sexually harasses them, telling Barb (Margot Kidder) that he’s going to kill her before he hangs up. Clare (Lynne Griffin) is unsettled by it because of a recent rape in the area. The call is like any other form of sexual harassment, used to intimidate them with the threat of rape and violence.
After this call, the killer murders Clare and hides her body in the attic, showing that with this type of pervasive and permissive threat in the outside world, women aren’t even safe in their homes. Even with a recent rape, the local authorities don’t take these types of threats seriously. In the film, housemates Jess (Olivia Hussey), Barb, and Phyl (Andrea Martin) go to the police to report Clare missing and are brushed off by an inept police officer (Doug McGrath). He says that a lot of “missing” girls end up being shacked up with a boy, using women’s newfound sexual independence against them. It’s telling that only when Clare’s boyfriend Chris (Art Hindle) shows up and makes a scene that the police take the case seriously. But only a few moments before this happens, another officer, Lt. Ken Fuller (John Saxon), is dismissive of a mother worried about her thirteen-year-old daughter who didn’t come home after school. And he’s not entirely convinced that Clare is missing either, implying to her roommates that she has a secret that explains her whereabouts.
The other patriarchal figure in the film, Clare’s father Mr. Harrison (James Edmond), also subtly judges the women and their choices, including his own daughter. When she doesn’t show up to meet him, he makes his way to the sorority house and inspects Clare’s room. He disapproves of the “environment” based on her posters – one of an old woman in a rocking chair standing up to flip off the camera and a free love poster with the naked bodies of a man and woman forming a peace sign – and a picture of Chris. “I didn’t send my daughter here to be drinking and picking up boys,” he says disdainfully after scrutinizing Clare’s private space – the place where she can express herself freely.
Men aren’t the only ones with sexist attitudes towards women that perpetuate this violence. In the film, other women can be just as cruel. The Pi Kappa Sig housemother, Mrs. Mac (Marian Waldman), is largely uninterested in the girls. However, when Mr. Harrison judges her for how she takes care of them, she becomes just as judgemental. Instead of defending her wards, she slurs that they “would hump the Leaning Tower of Pisa if they could get up there”. Similarly, Barb hits back with misogynistic comments when she feels criticized. After her inciting of the unknown caller, Clare admonishes Barb for provoking someone like that, considering the recent rape. Barb shoots back with “everyone knows you can’t rape a townie”. When Clare gets upset, Barb calls her a “professional virgin”. Clare isolates herself in her room and becomes the first victim in the house, highlighting how maligning other women and making them feel excluded makes them vulnerable.
As the Final Girl, Jess gets the most blatant storyline about bodily autonomy – she’s pregnant and she doesn’t want to keep the baby. Despite intimidation from her boyfriend, Peter (Keir Dullea), she stands her ground – she doesn’t want to marry Peter and having the baby means giving up her dreams. While this is a blatant feminist statement by being so pro-choice, it also makes Jess a target for both the killer and her controlling boyfriend. Perhaps it’s because she’s so self-assured that she makes it to the end. But even then, she’s not safe. The killer is never caught and she’s left alone in the house while he waits for his opportunity. The women in Pi Kapp Sig are failed at every turn when they look for help, a metaphor for how society, in general, turns a blind eye to the violence that happens to women when they can’t be controlled.
To a modern eye, the film can be seen as lacking nuance – all of the women are cisgender and heterosexual, so there isn’t an inclusive representation of women and female sexuality. But I still think that modern slashers can take a cue from this trailblazing film. Instead of representing women as a series of sexualized body parts, make their victimization about something more – about the daily horrors women face in a culture that refuses to allow us to express autonomy and individuality without harassment and violence. Sometimes my feminist values get in the way of enjoying media, but I’m okay with that as long as it leads us towards a path of making slashers feminist again.
Want to chat with the AOAS team (and special guest Alison Lang) about Holiday Horror and watch Chris Peckover’s modern holiday classic Better Watch Out? Join us at Fright School on Thursday, November 29th!