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The Dread of Difference

The Dread of Difference
Gender and the Horror Film

(An updated version of this book is now available here.)
In this pioneering exploration of the cinema of fear, Barry Keith Grant and twenty other film critics posit that horror is always rooted in gender, particularly in anxieties about sexual difference and gender politics.

Series: Texas Film and Media Studies, Thomas Schatz, Editor

January 1996
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476 pages | 6 x 9 | 59 b&w photos |

An undying procession of sons of Dracula and daughters of darkness has animated the horror film genre from the beginning. Indeed, in this pioneering exploration of the cinema of fear, Barry Keith Grant and twenty other film critics posit that horror is always rooted in gender, particularly in anxieties about sexual difference and gender politics.

The book opens with the influential theoretical works of Linda Williams, Carol J. Clover, and Barbara Creed. Subsequent essays explore the history of the genre, from classic horror such as King Kong and Bride of Frankenstein to the more recent Fatal Attraction and Bram Stoker's Dracula. Other topics covered include the work of horror auteurs David Cronenberg, Dario Argento, and George Romero; the Aliens trilogy; and the importance of gender in relation to horror marketing and reception.

Other contributors include Vera Dika, Thomas Doherty, Lucy Fischer, Christopher
Sharrett, Vivian Sobchack, Tony Williams, and Robin Wood. Writing across
a full range of critical methods from classic psychoanalysis to feminism
and postmodernism, they balance theoretical generalizations with close readings
of films and discussions of figures associated with the genre.

The Dread of Difference demonstrates that horror is hardly a uniformly masculine discourse. As these essays persuasively show, not only are horror movies about patriarchy and its fear of the feminine, but they also offer feminist critique and pleasure.

  • Introduction
  • Part One
    • 1. When the Woman Looks (Linda Williams)
    • 2. Horror and the Monstrous-Feminine: An Imaginary Abjection (Barbara Creed)
    • 3. Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film (Carol J. Clover)
  • Part Two
    • 4. "It Will Thrill You, It May Shock You, It Might Even Horrify You": Gender, Reception, and Classic Horror Cinema (Rhona J. Berenstein)
    • 5. Bringing It All Back Home: Family Economy and Generic Exchange (Vivian Sobchack)
    • 6. Trying to Survive on the Darker Side: 1980s Family Horror (Tony Williams)
    • 7. Genre, Gender, and the Aliens Trilogy (Thomas Doherty)
    • 8. Taking Back the Night of the Living Dead: George Romero, Feminism, and the Horror Film (Barry Keith Grant)
    • 9. Gender, Genre, Argento (Adam Knee)
    • 10. "Beyond the Veil of the Flesh": Cronenberg and the Disembodiment of Horror (Lianne McLarty)
    • 11. The Horror Film in Neoconservative Culture (Christopher Sharrett)
  • Part Three
    • 12. Horror, Femininity, and Carrie's Monstrous Puberty (Shelley Stamp Lindsey)
    • 13. The Monster as Woman: Two Generations of Cat People (Karen Hollinger)
    • 14. Here Comes the Bride: Wedding Gender and Race in Bride of Frankenstein (Elizabeth Young)
    • 15. King Kong: The Beast in the Boudoir or, "You Can't Marry That Girl, You're a Gorilla!" (Harvey Roy Greenberg)
    • 16. The Stepfather: Father as Monster in the Contemporary Horror Film (Patricia Brett Erens)
    • 17. Burying the Undead: The Use and Obsolescence of Count Dracula (Robin Wood)
    • 18. Daughters of Darkness: The Lesbian Vampire on Film (Bonnie Zimmerman)
    • 19. From Dracula—with Love (Vera Dika)
    • 20. The Place of Passion: Reflections on Fatal Attraction (James Conlon)
    • 21. Birth Traumas: Parturition and Horror in Rosemary's Baby (Lucy Fischer)
  • Selected Bibliography
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Index

Editor Barry Keith Grant is Director of the Film Studies Program at Brock
University in St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada.


Near the beginning of Matinee (1993), Joe Dante's affectionate homage to B horror movies of the 1950s, independent horror director Lawrence Woollsey, pausing for a rest while driving through Florida on a promotional tour for his newest movie, unexpectedly finds inspiration in a small roadside sculpture of an alligator. Always looking for an angle to exploit, Woollsey (openly modeled on the period's self-styled schlockmeister of horror, William Castle) immediately begins to muse on the title of his next work: "Manigator ... ali-man; she-gator ... gatorgirl." Then, after a pause, he announces triumphantly, as if this constituted a significant improvement, "Gal-igator!" The scene, like all good comedy, is at once witty and wise, for it acknowledges an essential truth about the genre of the horror film: the extent to which it is preoccupied with issues of sexual difference and gender.

Even a casual glance at the titles of actual horror movies reveals the genre's marked emphasis on gender. There are, to be sure, some genderless monsters—the blobs, parasites, gremlins, and so forth—but gender-specific monsters clearly predominate: Weird Woman (1944) and She Freak (1966); The Wolf Man (1941) and The Ape Man (1943); and, of course, the legions of Dracula's sons and daughters of darkness. In many horror movies the politics of sexual difference is immediately signaled as an issue by the title, as in Bride of Frankenstein (1935), The Monster and the Girl (1941), Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter (1966), and Jack's Wife (1972). Think of He Knows You're Alone (1980) with a feminine pronoun instead of the masculine, and the importance of gender to the genre becomes clear.

Of course, many of the horror films that do not foreground difference explicitly, either in their names or in the physical design of the monster, also share the same concerns. The Entity (1982), to take an oft-cited example, would seem to be a genderless monster, but as a supernatural force that sexually victimizes a female character, it clearly embodies a monstrous masculinity. Horror movies of psychological disturbance, such as Psycho (1960) and Homicidal (1961), usually offer a vague psychoanalytic explanation locating the cause of madness in the character's earlier developing sense of sexual identity. One subgenre, the rape revenge film, more often than not hinges on sexual difference. So, too, does another clearly delineated subgenre, the lesbian vampire film. (And let us remember that during the cinema's silent period the term "vamp," shortened from "vampire," referring to a woman who exploited her sexual allure, escaped the confines of the genre and entered common discourse.) It is not insignificant that in another cannily humorous look at the genre, the horror parody episode of Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex... (1973), Woody Allen has his mad scientist, played by the redoubtable John Carradine, terrorize the countryside with a monstrously enlarged breast. The casting of Carradine is a self-conscious gesture on the director's part to indicate that the sequence is intended as a commentary on the genre's history; and, indeed, it may be possible to see the entire genre on one level as about patriarchy and the challenges to it.

In 1986 Constance Penley wrote that "science fiction film as a genre—along with its evil twin, the horror film—is now more hyperbolically concerned than ever with the question of difference." Certainly she is correct in her observation about the genre's concerns, although her use of the temporal qualifier ("now") is perhaps somewhat misleading, for such a treatment has tended to characterize the genre throughout its history. Most obvious are the horror movies made in the postwar 1950s, a period when popular culture was emphatically repositioning women within domestic space. The threat to masculinity in movies like The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) and Attack of the 50-Foot Woman (1958) is graphically clear. (It is hardly surprising that in the 1970s the shrinking person is reinterpreted as a female who, instead of fighting a spider over territory, is caught in the kitchen drain along with the garbage that swamps her domestic existence, or that in the backlash of the 1990s the fifty-foot woman returns, into our very living rooms in a made-for-TV version, in the statuesque form of Darryl Hannah.) During the same period, the threats of incorporation and lack of differentiation evinced by such movies of the period as Them! (1954), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), and The Blob (1958), although they have most often been discussed as articulating fears of communism, late capitalism, or both, also address these anxieties.

Indeed, perhaps the most frightening moment in any of these films—for heterosexual male viewers, at least—is the close-up of Dana Wynter's face in Invasion of the Body Snatchers as she responds dispassionately to Kevin McCarthy's ardent kiss. Director Don Siegel has pinpointed the nature of the fear expressed in this scene in his observation that McCarthy tries "to kiss her awake in a delicious non-pod way but she's a limp fish and he knows immediately that she is a pod. In my life, I am sorry to say, I have kissed many pods." Here the director, like so much of horror cinema generally, disavows the possibility of his own inadequacy and projects it onto the woman as Other. But of course the images these movies conjure are hardly subtle; indeed, they verily shout the fact that men were, in the apposite words of Peter Lehman, "running scared. " Surely these movies are as hyperbolic, if not as hysterical, as any of today's overblown science fiction action movies which, with their excessive display of masculine hardbodies, are the opposite side of the same coin.

Psychoanalysis has provided the most common critical approach to the horror film, as well as having proven thus far the most profitable. As Andrew Tudor puts it, the genre is most often conceived "as a kind of collective dreamworld requiring analysis by methods derived from one or another tradition of psychoanalysis." For Robin Wood, who has been so influential in defining the terms by which we have come to understand the horror film, "the true subject of the horror genre is the struggle for recognition of all that our civilization represses or oppresses. " As Tudor has shown, from the 1970s on, "madness" as a kind of transcendent evil is redefined as "psychosis," secular in origin, and almost always having its roots in "perverse" sexuality. While this approach also involves issues of race and class, it is the various forms of repressed sexual energy, particularly within the site of the nuclear family, that has received the most critical attention.

In films of monster horror, the common interpretation has been an orthodox Freudianism. The monster is usually understood as, in Wood's terms, the "return of the repressed," the outward, distorted projection as Other of the protagonist's unacknowledged desire. Both Margaret Tarratt and Frank McConnell, for example, explain the conventional narrative of so many of these movies as ideological endorsements of patriarchal, heterosexual monogamy wherein the monster (desire) must be defeated (negotiated through the superego) by the male hero in order for him to succeed in winning the hand (metonymically speaking) of the attractive daughter of the scientist (the Father). And those films that T. J. Ross calls the "psychological thriller" and that Charles Derry dubs "horror of personality" movies are most frequently understood as variations of the Jekyll-Hyde paradigm of the beast within, often defined in terms of desire.

Some critics have extended the psychoanalytic approach beyond the texts themselves to account for the spectatorial pleasures of watching horror. Walter Evans, for example, interprets the classic monsters of the Universal films of the 1930s as addressing issues of sexual identity in ways that are "uniquely tailored to the psyches of troubled adolescents," particularly in their coded concerns with the "rites of initiation" involving puberty—masturbation and menstruation. James Twitchell, similarly, sees horror as a ritualistic form that serves to conduct the viewer through the passage from adolescent onanism to mature reproductive sexuality.

Probably the most common image in horror movies, whatever the subgenre—from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) to Candyman (1992), and even before that in Gothic art (perhaps most notably Henry Fuseli's The Nightmare [1781])—is what Harvey Roy Greenberg, in his essay on King Kong (1933) in this volume, calls the beast in the boudoir. Most often in such scenes (but not always—a point to which I shall return shortly), the monster is coded as male, the victim female. Typically, her vulnerability and sexuality are heightened because she is a comely maiden "wearing a night-gown or a wedding-dress or some other light-coloured garment." Steve Neale, building on John Ellis's notion of an individual film's "narrative image," discusses what he terms "the generic image" that helps to set the "labels, terms and expectations which will come to characterize the genre as a whole." Surely the beast in the boudoir constitutes this image for horror, for the sexual tensions that resonate in this scenario vividly evoke the genre's dominant themes.

Of course, the horror evoked by such images of monstrous penetration of the bedroom also articulates, on one level, the generalized fear, at least in western culture, that monsters are bred by the sleep of reason. To be in the state of sleep is, in effect, to surrender one's identity—a fundamental fear exploited by the horror film (consider, again, that memorable scene in Invasion of the Body Snatchers)—and hence to be in a position of extreme vulnerability, as in the shower. Such fears have informed many of the sweeping assertions made about the genre. Horror films have been seen as nothing less than grand metaphysical morality plays that embody the residual manifestation of ancient religious thinking in the age of science or that bring us to an acceptance of the inevitability of death. Certainly horror films are about such great themes, but the experience of horror in the cinema is almost always grounded in the visual representation of bodily difference.

Some contemporary critics have tended to modify such universalizing claims by seeking to connect various cycles of horror and significant individual films to historical contexts. This approach begins, of course, with Siegfried Kracauer, who argued in his famous "From Caligari to Hitler" thesis in 1947 that the collapse of the Weimar Republic and the German people's disposition toward authority was both anticipated by and reflected in Caligari and subsequent German expressionist films, many of which employed elements of horror. The premises of his argument can be detected in such later assertions as those of T. J. Ross, who makes the more general claim that "the monster belongs to our age of moral and ecological chaos" or the more specific explanation of the rise of the "horror of personality" film in the context of the violent events, including a number of widely publicized multiple murders, that filled the news headlines in the early 1960s.

Such analyses have provided much insight into horror movies, both their textual operations and spectatorial appeal. Critics such as James Twitchell and Mark Jancovich, for example, have persuasively linked the development of horror to the rise of the bourgeoisie and the dialectic of class. Certainly it is true that one cannot fear the violation of the boudoir's privacy until one has attained the capital to acquire a room of one's own. Similarly, it makes perfect sense to understand a film such as, say, King Kong in the context of the Great Depression," or Night of the Living Dead (1968) in terms of the social unrest in the United States in the 1960s. Yet whether one prefers to examine horror films in terms of universal fears or historically determined cultural anxieties, issues of gender remain central to the genre. For gender, as recent theory has argued, is, like horror itself, both universal and historical, biological and cultural.

Until recently, though, the genre was assumed to be a uniformly masculine discourse, just as its audience was said to be predominantly male. Derry, for example, emphasizes the importance in classic horror of the physical form of the monster as something "abstracted from man"—and he employs the masculine form here not simply as a linguistic convention to mean "human beings," for all his examples clearly refer to the masculine. The tag line of Universal's The Wolf Man, "even a man who is pure at heart," unambiguously expressed this assumption that operated in both the cultural and critical sphere, much like the tautological "a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do" has served for the western and various subgenres of the (male) action/adventure film. Similarly, the overlapping genre of science fiction, until recently, almost always centered on men going where no one had gone before; if women accompanied them, they tended to be represented, as Thomas Doherty puts it in his article on the Aliens trilogy, as "space bimbos." Even while Steve Neale concurs that the horror film is "centrally concerned with the fact and the effects of difference," he nevertheless argues that the genre's discourse, particularly in its depiction of the monster, is structured around the disavowal of castration anxiety. However, in making this claim he fails to account for the interest the genre holds for female spectators—an appeal which, as Rhona Berenstein demonstrates here in her essay on the marketing strategies of classic horror films, is quite pronounced. Indeed, women have been central to the production of horror as well as its consumption, from the Gothic novel to the contemporary bestsellers of Anne Rice. Significantly, while women have found it difficult throughout the history of the cinema to become directors, they are noticeably prominent in contemporary horror film production. Following upon the earlier work of Stephanie Rothman (The Velvet Vampire [1971], Terminal Island [1973]) and Amy Jones's take on the slasher film, Slumber Party Massacre (1982, written by Rita Mae Brown), more recent examples include Kathryn Bigelow's Near Dark (1987), Katt Shea Ruben's two Stripped to Kill movies (1987, 1989) and Poison Ivy (1992), Mary Lambert's two Pet Semetary movies (1989, 1992), Kristine Peterson's Body Chemistry (1990), and Fran Rubel Kuzui's Buffy, the Vampire Slayer (1992).

It is not surprising, therefore, that the treatment of gender in the horror genre is in fact markedly heterogenous. Nor that, consequently, the genre has been of such consistent concern to film theory and criticism—for horror texts possess great potential for widely divergent readings. The generic image of the beast in the boudoir may offer a startlingly vivid representation of patriarchal control, or a critique of it. Horror is hardly the simplistic, limited genre Andrew Tudor claims it to be. Indeed, quite the contrary, it is simply too versatile and complex to be contained by any one theory or interpretation. As Stephen King aptly puts it, "the horror genre is extremely limber, extremely adaptable, extremely useful." It is no accident, then, that today, in the age of political correctness, the genre should focus so emphatically on the body as sight/site of horror. The genre, now more than ever, is proving "useful" in addressing the dilemmas of difference, dilemmas so consciously acute that films like the recent thriller Disclosure (1995) would wish us to escape our bodies entirely in favor of virtual reality. Like the epic and the war film, horror is currently one of the most profitable genres for such analysis.

Thus a collection of essays on the horror film focusing specifically on issues of gender is both likely and timely. The writings gathered here provide examples of the various theoretical models and critical methods that have gained currency in the analysis of the genre. As well, they offer a balance of theoretical generalizations about the genre with close readings of particular films. Collectively they include discussions of many of the important films and directors known for their work in the genre.

The book begins with three landmark accounts of the horror film in the context of gender that have influenced the scope of contemporary critical debate, including much of the subsequent work included in this volume. Collected in Part One, these three essays, following upon Laura Mulvey's groundbreaking 1975 essay "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," share a concern with the gendered dynamics of looking in the horror film. Linda Williams's "When the Woman Looks" examines Mulvey's notion of narrative film as articulating a controlling male gaze in the context of the horror film specifically. Her suggestion that there is a sympathetic alignment between the monster's gaze and that of the female spectator is echoed by Barbara Creed, who employs Julia Kristeva's notion of abjection as it relates to the horror film, especially in terms of monstrous images of the maternal. Carol Clover reexamines those assumptions concerning the supposed masculine essence of horror in the context of the slasher subgenre. Her emphasis on the fluidity of point of view and spectator identification is informed by more recent theory that has moved beyond the binary gender determinism of Mulvey's model and argues that these movies, which previously had been understood as particularly misogynist, might indeed hold some value for feminism.

The essays comprising Part Two examine specific periods of horror film production or the work of particular directors. Some of these essays build upon the theoretical ideas discussed in the preceding essays, others take issue with them. The section begins with Rhona Berenstein's analysis of the gendered marketing strategies of 1930s horror. Next, in her examination of modern horror cinema, Vivian Sobchack focuses on the representation of the child in relation to patriarchy and considers horror's connections with the related genres of science fiction and melodrama. Tony Williams, in his overview of family horror films in the 1980s, argues that these movies generally articulate a forceful conservatism and patriarchal backlash, to the extent that they cannot be theorized as possessing any politically progressive potential. Thomas Doherty's analysis of the first three Aliens movies shows how the series engages with the changing boundaries of gender representations that characterized the 1980s. My own contribution applies a feminist analysis within an auteurist framework, examining the pronounced critique of patriarchy in the work of George Romero, one of the most important directors of modern horror. Adam Knee claims that the films of Dario Argento problematize the conventional representations of gender in the horror genre, embodying a kind of postmodern rejection of traditional binary oppositions. Lianne McLarty approaches the work of David Cronenberg (a contentious figure ever since Robin Wood placed him squarely within the genre's "reactionary wing") from a similar perspective, showing how the director's work has evolved from the conventional yoking of the monstrous with the feminine to a critique of the masculine worldview that is responsible for generating such representations in the first place. McLarty's critique of postmodernism's avoidance of political commitment is forcefully reiterated in this section's final essay by Christopher Sharrett, who similarly attacks what he calls the neoconservative politics of so many recent horror movies.

Part Three offers a series of readings of important horror films. In her persuasively close reading of Carrie (1976), Shelley Stamp Lindsey examines the female monster within the constraints of patriarchy. Karen Hollinger compares both versions of Cat People (1942, 1982) within the context of feminist gaze theory. Her consideration of the different representation of the female monster in the two films places them within the historical and cultural constraints that informed their production, an approach explored in greater detail by Elizabeth Young in her analysis of Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Young's further yoking of issues of racial representation with those of gender and sexuality is also addressed in Harvey Roy Greenberg's classic Freudian analysis of King Kong. Patricia Brett Erens, in her feminist reading of The Stepfather (1987), extends the analysis of masculine sexuality to a deliberate critique of patriarchy that is only implicit in Greenberg's much earlier essay. Then follow three takes on the vampire, perhaps the most overtly sexual of classic movie monsters. In one of his lesser-known pieces on horror, Robin Wood discusses Dracula as a cultural icon of our sexual fears by comparing the treatment of the monster and female sexuality in Brain Stoker's source novel and two important film adaptations—by F. W. Murnau (1922) and John Badham (1979). In an early instance of queer reading, Bonnie Zimmerman seeks to find in female vampire films representations of lesbian desire and pleasure that might escape containment by the controlling masculine gaze. If Wood finds the undead aristocratic vampire, at this historical moment, to be an inappropriate embodiment of the return of the repressed, Vera Dika reads him anew, arguing that in Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992) Francis Coppola and Gary Oldman have created a postmodern "neomythification" of Dracula that subverts the classic vampire story's traditional ideology of sexuality and gender. Passion is also central to James Conlon's reading of Fatal Attraction (1987). He argues that the film is a fable about western culture's traditional fear of desire, wherein the independent woman becomes, in effect, the man's monstrous Other. The section concludes with Lucy Fischer's discussion of Rosemary's Baby (1968) and its horrifying representation of the discourses surrounding childbirth.

Together, the readings collected in this volume attest to the central importance that themes of gender have had in the horror film. However, it is not my intention to suggest that all horror films must be read in the context of issues of sexuality and gender. I would agree with Noel Carroll who, even while seeking to establish universal principles of horror, emphasizes that no single approach can accommodate the range of horror narratives. As he notes specifically about gender in the genre, "There are horror fictions that will elude charges of sexism insofar as they have neither women characters, nor are the monsters characterized by means of (culturally derived) feminine imagery nor is their lack of women characters worked into any detectable derogation of women."

There are, for example, signs that issues of race—another kind of difference—are becoming increasingly important in horror. Race had emerged as a theme in the genre only occasionally, in such movies as White Zombie (1932), I Walked with a Zombie (1943), and, more recently, Night of the Living Dead; as in most Hollywood genre movies, race in the horror film has been a decidedly marginal issue. Just as the genre film (with melodrama and the musical as the exceptions that proved the rule) was assumed to be masculine in form and content, so it was, again like most popular movie genres, understood as made by and addressed to white viewers. But with movies such as Nightbreed (1990), The People under the Stairs (1991), and Candyman, race has emerged with a new forcefulness in horror. After the Los Angeles riot that followed upon the Rodney King verdict, action thrillers such as Trespass (1993) exploited the white middle-class fear of the inner city, often presented as a hellish landscape. Judgment Night (1994) employs the metaphor of the mobile home as lack of bourgeois stability, an idea borrowed directly from the earlier supernatural horror film Race with the Devil (1975).

Nevertheless, as several of the contributions in this volume insist, gender is central to the horror film, in large part because it inevitably involves other ideological issues as well. But the very adaptability that has given the genre such durability and made it so interesting for theorists and fans alike also exacerbates the difficulties of critical understanding—a state of affairs reflected by the internal disagreements the reader will find within this collection. So, for example, Clover's attempt to read films positively for women spectators, while central to the developing dialogue on the relations of horror and gender, is challenged here by Tony Williams. At the more specific level of textual interpretation, Dika and Sharrett offer directly opposing views about Bram Stoker's Dracula. The discerning reader will find many such tensions in this collection.

Bruce Kawin tells us that "A good horror film takes you down into the depths and shows you something about the landscape. " Landscape, of course, accommodates multiple perspectives. In the end, the differences of critical opinion in this book mirror the confusion over difference itself that informs our culture at this point in history. Yet at the same time this critical difference reveals the health and vitality that has been characteristic of the horror film and our thinking about it for the last thirty years. Today gender roles are being tested, challenged, and redefined everywhere, and until such time as difference is no longer dreaded, this crucial aspect of the horror film will remain very important for us.