Now updated to include contemporary developments in the horror film genre and the critical thinking about it, Barry Keith Grant’s groundbreaking exploration of the cinema of fear has sold over 8,000 copies.
Series: Texas Film and Media Studies
“The Dread of Difference is a classic. Few film studies texts have been so widely read and so influential. It’s rarely on the shelf at my university library, so continuously does it circulate. Now this new edition expands the already comprehensive coverage of gender in the horror film with new essays on recent developments such as the Hostel series and torture porn. Informative and enlightening, this updated classic is an essential reference for fans and students of horror movies.”—Stephen Prince, editor of The Horror Film and author of Digital Visual Effects in Cinema: The Seduction of Reality
“An impressive array of distinguished scholars . . . gazes deeply into the darkness and then forms a Dionysian chorus reaffirming that sexuality and the monstrous are indeed mated in many horror films.”—Choice
“An extremely useful introduction to recent thinking about gender issues within this genre.”—Film Theory
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 Clover)
4. The Monster and the Homosexual (Harry M. Benshoff)
5. “It Will Thrill You, It Will Terrify You, It Might Even Horrify You”: Gender, Reception, and Classic Horror Cinema (Rhona J. Berenstein)
6. Bringing It All Back Home: Family Economy and Generic Exchange (Vivian Sobchack)
7. Trying to Survive on the Darker Side: 1980s Family Horror (Tony Williams)
8. Genre, Gender, and the Aliens Trilogy (Thomas Doherty)
9. Taking Back the Night of the Living Dead: George Romero, Feminism, and the Horror Film. (Barry Keith Grant)
10. Gender, Genre, Argento (Adam Knee)
11. “Beyond the Veil of the Flesh”: David Cronenberg and the Disembodiment of Horror (Lianne McLarty)
12. The Horror Film in Neoconservative Culture (Christopher Sharrett)
13. Torture Porn and Uneasy Feminisms: Rethinking (Wo)men in Eli Roth’s Hostel Films (Maisha Wester)
14. Horror, Femininity, and Carrie’s Monstrous Puberty (Shelley Stamp)
15. The Monster as Woman: Two Generations of Cat People (Karen Hollinger)
16. Here Comes the Bride: Wedding Gender and Race in Bride of Frankenstein (Elizabeth Young)
17. Burying the Undead: The Use and Obsolescence of Count Dracula (Robin Wood)
18. Old Times in Werewolf of London (Robert Spadoni)
19. Daughters of Darkness: The Lesbian Vampire on Film (Bonnie Zimmerman)
20. Birth Traumas: Parturition and Horror in Rosemary’s Baby (Lucy Fischer)
21. The Place of Passion: Reflections on Fatal Attraction (James Conlon)
22. Feminine Horror: The Embodied Surrealism of In My Skin (Adam Lowenstein)
23. Uncanny Horrors: Male Rape in Twentynine Palms (Lisa Coulthard)
Notes on Contributors
Near the beginning of Matinee (1993), Joe Dante’s affectionate homage to B horror movies of the 1950s, the independent horror director Lawrence Woolsey, 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, Woolsey (openly modeled on the period’s self-styled schlockmeister of horror William Castle) immediately begins to muse on the title of his next work: “Man-igator . . . 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, seems 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, from Psycho (1960) to The Silence of the Lambs (1991) to Slaughter Daughter (2012), usually offer at least a vague psychoanalytic explanation locating the cause of madness in the character’s earlier developing sense of sexual identity. Halloween (1978) stands as a paradigmatic example for the numerous slasher films to follow in its wake, with its famous opening tracking shot from young Michael Myers’s point of view as he comes into the house and discovers his sister having sex with her boyfriend, a scene that seems to trigger his murderous spree. As Andrew Tudor has shown, from the 1970s on, “madness” as a kind of transcendent evil is redefined as “psychosis,” secular in origin, and almost always has its roots in “perverse” sexuality.
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 . . . (1972), Woody Allen has his mad scientist, played by the redoubtable John Carradine, terrorize the countryside with a monstrously enlarged breast. Like the presence of the giant breast, the casting of Carradine is a self-conscious gesture on the director’s part to indicate that the sequence is a commentary on the genre’s history; and, indeed, it may be possible to see the entire genre, like this comic sequence, 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 was 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 returned, into our very living rooms in a 1993 made-for-TV version, in the statuesque form of Daryl Hannah.) During the same period, the threats of incorporation and lack of differentiation evinced by such movies 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 male 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, and as hysterical, as those overblown science fiction action movies familiar since the 1980s that, with their excessive display of masculine hard bodies, are the opposite side of the same coin. The contemporary development of New French Extremity, with such films as Baise-moi (2000), Fat Girl (À ma soeur! ), Irreversible (2002), High Tension (Haute Tension ), Twentynine Palms (2003), Frontière(s) (2007), and Martyrs (2008), continues in the same tradition, only more explicitly.
Psychoanalysis has provided the most common critical approach to the horror film, as well as having proven thus far the most profitable. As 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.”Although more recent scholarship has focused on issues of race and class in horror, it is the various forms of repressed sexual energy, particularly within the site of the nuclear family, that have received the most critical attention in analyses of the genre.
In films of monster horror, the most common approach 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).8 And those films that T. J. Ross calls “psychological thrillers” and 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 )—is what Harvey Roy Greenberg, writing on King Kong (1933), 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 scienceor 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 critics have tended to modify such universalizing claims by seeking to connect various cycles of horror and significant individual films to historical contexts. Thus, for example, distinctive turns in the genre have been discerned in horror films in the wake of national trauma, such as 9/11. 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 made by Derry, who relates the rise of the “horror of personality” film to the daily violence that filled the news headlines in the 1960s, or T. J. Ross, who makes the more general claim that “the monster belongs to our age of moral and ecological chaos.”
Such analyses have provided much insight into horror movies, addressing their textual operations, cultural significance, 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 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, as well as in terms of contemporary racial tensions, an approach taken in more recent criticism.Until relatively recently, race emerged as a theme in the genre only occasionally, and more or less implicitly, in such movies as White Zombie (1932), I Walked with a Zombie (1943), and Night of the Living Dead; as in most Hollywood genre movies, race in the horror film has been a decidedly marginal issue. But with movies such as Ganja & Hess (1973) and blaxploitation horror and, later, Nightbreed (1990), The People under the Stairs (1991), Candyman, Tales from the Hood (1995), Vampire in Brooklyn (1995), Bones (2001), and Hood of Horror (2006), among others, race emerged with a new forcefulness in horror. After the Los Angeles riot that followed the Rodney King verdict in 1992, 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). 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 an almost uniformly masculine discourse, just as its audience was presumed to be predominately white and male. Derry 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 tagline of Universal’s The Wolf Man, “even a man who is pure at heart,” unambiguously expressed this assumption, which operated in both the cultural and critical spheres, 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 none had gone before; if women accompanied them, they tended to be represented, as Thomas Doherty puts it in his chapter 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 clearly also holds for female spectators—an appeal that, 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 best sellers of Anne Rice and Stephenie Meyer. 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 on the earlier work of Stephanie Rothman (The Velvet Vampire ; Terminal Island ) and Amy Jones’s take on the slasher film, The Slumber Party Massacre (1982, written by Rita Mae Brown), one might cite 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 Sematary movies (1989, 1992), Kristine Peterson’s Body Chemistry (1990), Fran Rubel Kuzui’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992), Antonia Bird’s Ravenous (1999), Claire Denis’s Trouble Every Day (2001), Mary Harron’s American Psycho (2002), Marina de Van’s Dans ma peau (In My Skin ), Catherine Hardwicke’s Twilight (2008), and Karyn Kusama’s Jennifer’s Body (2009).
It is not surprising, therefore, that the treatment of gender in the horror genre is in fact markedly heterogeneous. Nor is it surprising 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 the genre has always focused so emphatically on the body as sight/site of horror, for it has consistently proven “useful” in addressing the always present but forever shifting dilemmas of difference. Along with the historical epic and the war film, horror is one of the most profitable genres for such analysis.
The writings gathered in this book provide examples of the various theoretical models and critical methods that have gained currency in the analysis of the genre and its relation to and representation of gender. As well, they offer a balance of theoretical generalizations about horror 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 first edition of this book, I am pleased to say, helped to establish the terms of the critical debates involving the horror genre and issues of gender since its publication in 1996. This revised edition, retaining the most important and influential of this work, adds five new chapters that, despite the given and inevitable space constraints involved in updating and expanding an already large book, cover representative and important recent approaches and films that have come about since the book was first published.
The collection begins with four 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 essays, following 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 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, which 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. Harry Benshoff, one of the first to open up the genre to queer theory and analysis, sketches the importance of the homosexual sensibility to the history of horror and suggests how such an approach might be employed.
The essays making up Part Two examine specific periods of horror film production or the work of particular directors. Some of these essays build on the theoretical ideas discussed in the preceding essays while 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 Alien 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 reinstated by Christopher Sharrett, who in his contribution similarly attacks what he calls the neoconservative politics of so many horror movies of the 1980s, the decade immediately following the genre’s all too brief progressive period. The section concludes with Maisha Wester’s examination of the gender dynamics at work in the unfortunately named recent cycle of “torture porn” horror and how, in the contemporary world of the global marketplace, capital trumps gender in the two Hostel films specifically.
Part Three offers a series of readings of important horror films. In her persuasively close reading of Brian De Palma’s original Carrie (1976), Shelley Stamp 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 representations 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. Robin Wood discusses Dracula, perhaps the most overtly sexual of classic movie monsters, as a cultural icon of our sexual fears by comparing the treatment of the monster and female sexuality in Bram Stoker’s source novel and film adaptations directed by F. W. Murnau 1922 and John Badham (1979). Robert Spadoni considers the conflicted representation of homoerotic desire in Werewolf of London (1935), while Bonnie Zimmerman, in a queer reading of female vampire films, seeks to find in them representations of lesbian desire and pleasure that might escape containment by the controlling masculine gaze. Lucy Fischer discusses Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968) in terms of its horrifying representation of the discourses surrounding childbirth. Passion is 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. Next, Adam Lowenstein discusses Marina de Van’s riveting Dans ma peau as depicting the mental breakdown of its female protagonist under the weight of patriarchal pressure, but he also sees it as an example of a significant tradition of feminine surrealism. The section, and the book, concludes with Lisa Coulthard’s examination of the representation of male rather than female rape in film, and the repercussions in Bruno Dumont’s Twentynine Palms of its horrific disturbance of heterosexual mastery.
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.”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.
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 opinions and approaches in this book, despite their similar concerns, 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 have characterized thinking about the horror film for almost half a century. My conclusion to the introduction of the first edition still pertains today: as gender roles continue to be tested, challenged, and redefined everywhere, and until such time as difference is no longer dreaded, this crucial aspect of the horror film will continue to remain very important for us.
“These essays are highly intelligent, yet also highly readable, and because of that, the book comes highly recommended. It’s a fantastic, meaty-thick collection as is, but also a good gateway for cinephiles who haven’t yet dared make the leap into reading film criticism, as opposed to the mere 'movie review.’”
“The Dread of Difference is a classic. Few film studies texts have been so widely read and so influential. It’s rarely on the shelf at my university library, so continuously does it circulate. Now this new edition expands the already comprehensive coverage of gender in the horror film with new essays on recent developments such as the Hostel series and torture porn. Informative and enlightening, this updated classic is an essential reference for fans and students of horror movies.”
Stephen Prince, editor of The Horror Film and author Digital Visual Effects in Cinema: The Seduction of Reality