Friday, April 9, 1999
Houston, Texas
Volume 64, Issue 127

Repeated TV outages bring static to dorms

Biannual UH program brings law to masses


About the Cougar

Discussion focuses on female role in horror films
Women are both victimized and vicious, but they get long death scenes, prof says

By Teresa Tingle
News Reporter

A pretty girl in the woods has a sexual encounter with her boyfriend. He goes on a nature call, and she gets shot. It's trite, but it sells horror films, first in the Nightmare on Elm Street series and again, more recently, with Scream.

UH philosophy Professor Cynthia Freeland spoke about women in horror films as part of the Women's Resource Center's "Brown Bag Discussion" on Wednesday. Freeland also discussed the October release of her book The Naked and the Undead: Evil and the Appeal of Horror.

Freeland, a horror-film fan who holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Pittsburgh, focused on three different types of horror movies: those with a monster, those with a female monster and "slasher" films.

Courteney Cox was the victem of a time-honored plot development in Scream.

Photo courtesy of Dimension

Monsters, like Frankenstein's monster or the vampire Dracula, victimize females, Freeland said. For example, in the movie Frankenstein, the monster kills the scientist's bride.

"Victor (Frankenstein, the creator of the monster) gets punished for toying with the forces of nature, but ultimately it's the woman who dies," Freeland said.

Dracula, the classic vampire, preys upon his victim a little differently. "The vampire is different in that he is very needy and infantile," Freeland explained. "He sucks to sustain life. Vampires have a gender-bending sexuality. Very often, there are these intense, semi-erotic relationships with the victim, regardless of gender."

Heterosexual icons Tom Cruise (left) and Brad Pitt (below-left) shared a semi-erotic relationship in Interview with the Vampire.

Photos courtesy of Geffen and Columbia.

She used novelist Anne Rice's Interview with the Vampire as an example.

"Interview with the Vampire takes three sexy heterosexual icons -- Antonio Banderas, Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt 
-- and has them kiss and stare into each other's eyes," she said.

"There's a scene where Lestat (Cruise) says, 'What a vampire I was, Louis. No one could resist me, not even you.' And Louis (Pitt) says, 'Yes, but I tried.'"

Female monsters, Freeland said, tend to be portrayed as the most vicious. A few examples she used are Reagan in The Exorcist, the mother alien in Aliens and the mother in The Brood.

In The Exorcist, the female monster depicts a prepubescent girl gone demonic, while the mother alien in Aliens shows the horrors of female reproduction states Freeland.

Her third classification, "slasher" films, deals mainly with modern horror. Freeland focused on the killer who attacks women just when they are engaging in sexual acts or sexual thoughts, like the villains in the Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween or Friday the 13th films.

Though Freeland noted that it's typically a female character who stops the slasher in the end, "it's never the sexy girl that has to vanquish the killer," she said.

"Nancy in Nightmare on Elm Street is not sexy," she said. "She can rig bombs and jump-start cars. This is a calculated cross-gender identification to appeal to adolescent boys. They feel fear because they identify with the girl."

But, Freeland states, slashers are not always disfigured monsters. They can also be psychologically disturbed, but handsome, male characters -- for example, the murderer in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.

"This is particularly disturbing because it suggests a woman finds the killer attractive, or it suggests male sexuality is inherently aggressive and violent." 

However, Freeland believes that the male killer receives a certain amount of sympathy, as if his actions might be justified. For example, in Psycho Norman Bates' actions are his mother's fault, not his own.

All the subtleties of horror films combine to manipulate female emotions, Freeland explained. She said the body count for women in movies is actually lower than it is for men, but the women's death scenes are longer and more violent.

"How many women don't take showers as a result of Psycho?" she asked.

She said films that prey on women's fears mold gender roles. In the book Horror Films: Current Research on Audience Preferences and Reactions, the authors discuss the "horror-film date" in which the woman falls into the role of being afraid and grabbing her partner's arm.

The man is supposed to be strong, brave and comforting to his date which, the authors say, is actually healthy for the female. Because she is "acting" scared as a conscious strategy, they say, she is much more in touch with her emotions than her male partner is.

Nevertheless, Freeland said she believes the horror genre might have a very different face if women had more control over the entertainment industry.

"We know with Mary Shelley and Anne Rice that women have a lot to offer in the horror genre," Freeland states. "Horror might look a lot different if more women were involved in positions of economic power in the film industry. We need more woman writers, producers and directors."

Freeland will take the floor to discuss films again Tuesday with "Women and Bugs: Female Agency in Film," a discussion in which she will analyze the movies Mimic and Aliens. The discussion, sponsored by the Women's Studies Program, will be held at noon in the Brown Room, M.D. Anderson Memorial Library, and is free and open to the public.


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