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Horror Film 101: Surviving the Male Gaze


What makes scary movies keep us awake at night? Maybe it is the fear of the unknown, maybe it is the subtle Shepard’s tone, which gives us unconscious goosebumps, or maybe it is the theme music of the dreaded monster. There is no one answer to explain why people are drawn to horror, but if it were not for the sound, or lack of it, the mise-en-scène, the male gaze, or the infamous antagonist, we would not lie awake in the dark thinking something might be lurking outside our windows. This series examines the psychology behind what makes horror films so successful in terrifying people and the benefits of watching these anxiety-driven films. Plus, why do these films stick with us, especially when we are alone?

Horror Film 101: What Makes Horror Movies So Scary is divided into the following chapters of content:

3. Horror Film 101: Surviving the Male Gaze

4. Horror Film 101: Behind the Mise-en-scène

5. Horror Film 101: How Horror Affects Mental Health

6. Horror Film 101: The Psychology of Terror

Horror Film 101: Surviving the Male Gaze

When watching a horror film, people get a brief glimpse into other people's lives. Viewers are omniscient witnesses in the film characters' world. Watching a film is a unique experience because the audience get to know someone without really knowing them at all, but from what lens are people viewing these lives? While people may wish to be part of the spectacle, they are still spectators at heart. This article aims to look at the patriarchal lens most slashers have been observed through, the power dynamics of the final girl, and how horror is constantly evolving away from this paradigm.

The Male Gaze in Slashers

In a majority of slashers, the male gaze depicts women as objects for the pleasure of the male viewer, through the eye of the camera (Bertling, 2016, p. 3). The male gaze became popularized through slasher movies. Slasher films are "characterized by a psychotic human [...] that kills or stalks a succession of people, usually teenagers, and predominantly female[s] [...] using a variety of mainly penetrative (i.e., stabbing) weapons for each killing" (Christensen, 2011, pp. 23-24). Women observing these films may have a completely different viewing experience than men. While the men in the audience have an active watching role, women identify with the victims on screen (Bertling, 2016, p. 3). Just as the men viewing gain a feeling of power through this lens, women watching have "a certain amount of passivity and vulnerability. [...] [O]n average, female characters were depicted in fear three times as often as their male counterparts" (Bertling, 2016, p. 3). The slasher film is a sub-genre of horror, known for degrading women through violence at the hands of a man. Women watching this kind of movie become the fatalities on screen, as they sympathize with and relate to the "other". Additionally, specific sexualities, ages, classes, and races can be deemed as "other", which is often oppressed or marginalized people within society. This makes anyone who falls into the category of other, "shar[e] a certain 'victim' status" (Freeland, 1996, p. 748). This victim status can be harmful to the viewer who watches the film, as people share emotional states when observing, especially in movies (Nummenmaa, 2021, p. 8). For this reason, women and others may find it hard to watch these films as they are "asked to bear witness to [their] own powerlessness in the face of rape, mutilation, and murder. Another excellent reason for the refusal to look is the fact that women are given so little to identify with on the screen. [...] [When] a dominant male look[s] at the woman, that leaves no place for the woman's own pleasure in seeing: she exists only to be looked at" (Williams, 2021, p. 17). Damien Leone's Terrifier (2016) is an example of this argument, as it features a clown who saws the woman protagonist's flirtatious best friend in half, from the bottom half of her torso up. This is not only hard to watch because of the gore, but also as a woman identifying with the victim on screen. Her death is visceral and a deeper metaphor for her sexuality being punished, as the phallic object of the saw mutilates her sex organs. Part of the slasher films' trope is to chastise promiscuous teens who are sexually active, and this is especially present for non-virgin women (Williams, 2021, pp. 32-33). The friend is punished for being coquettish, which gives women little autonomy over their bodies and sexual desires. Women in horror movies have little freedom, as "the expression of women's desires is directly proportional to the violence perpetrated against women" (Williams, 2021, pp. 34-35). While the women on screen are objectified and tortured, some viewers cannot look away. Research suggests aggressive individuals and viewers with a lack of empathy enjoy films that depict violence and scares; however, this may evolve in adulthood as with aging comes frequent emotional regulation (Nummenmaa, 2021, p. 7). These films, unintentionally, strip away the autonomy of women and even the independence of the final girl.

Figure 1: Catherine Corcoran and David Howard Thornton as Dawn and Art the Clown in "Terrifier" (Leone, 2016).

The Final Girl & the Male Gaze

The male gaze is especially present when the directors of the films are men, like in John Carpenter's Halloween (1978). Carpenter introduced the male killer's shaky point of view through an unmounted camera (Clover, 2015, p. 187). This "I-camera" technique allows the viewers to see through the killer's eyes and gain his point of view through the male gaze (Christensen, 2011, pp. 25-26). The most lifelike murderers depicted in films are men, like Michael Myers, while the passive victims are often women and final girls. That is not to say final girls do not gain some power through these films when they choose to fight back. The final girl is a staple of the slasher film, often defined as "a virtuous character distinguishable from the rest of the film cast because she possesses several exceptional traits: her avoidance of sexual activity, her watchful 'paranoia', which allows her to be 'resourceful in a pinch' when danger strikes, and her 'boyish' [...] nature" (Christensen, 2011, p. 25). The final girl is pure, submissive, and has the ability to outlast the villain (Christensen, 2011, p. 29). The killer is targeting the girls that have rejected traditional norms (not having premarital sex), and the girl that gets away is the one who still holds purity in her (Christensen, 2011, p. 31). However, not all women can identify with this specific girl, which is limiting. Subsequently, "black women in American Horror films featured their integrity, strength and sexuality on their terms and would later present an unspoken conundrum pitting the black women against the widely known and popular 'Final Girl' feminist horror theory" (Leath-Malin, 2016, p. 7). It is not fair to only have one woman survivor on screen, especially when it is predominantly a pure white domestic girl, which leaves no room for others to identify with the protagonist.

The lead character of Halloween (1978), Laurie, reflects this depiction as she is a virgin and obeys authority. This can be seen when she is hesitant to smoke marijuana with her friend Annie, but when a police officer appears, she immediately feels guilty. Laurie gains her title of final girl after defending her life and the kids she babysits by stabbing the killer, Michael Myers. In juxtaposition to this role is Wes Craven's A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), in which the final girl, Nancy, defeats the villain, Freddy Krueger, without a weapon. Instead, she rejects Freddy's gaze by turning her back toward him and not allowing him to degrade her (Christensen, 2011, p. 30). While Laurie and Michael use a phallic object to suggest who has greater power, Nancy and Freddy use the gaze to determine superiority (Christensen, 2011, p. 25). The underlying difference between how these final girls gain their power is based in female politics because "to participate in 'the phallic struggle,' the Final Girl is doomed to 'accept sexuality on heterosexual and phallic terms', acquiescing to the 'hierarchy of [gender] hegemony' and never rejecting gender stratification that is centered on the privileging of (phallic) masculinity" (Christensen, 2011, p. 27). This causes female viewers to further identify with the victims on the screen instead of the heroines, who preserve the gendered dichotomy (Christensen, 2011, p. 27). While both Laurie and Nancy are viewed as strong women, Laurie perpetuates harmful standards and uses a phallic object against the killer, which further strays women from identifying with anyone on screen (Bertling, 2016, pp. 20-21). Additionally, Nancy understands the monster through her eyes, and "women, who possess the gaze in horror and who become aligned with monsters, are typically shown themselves to represent threats to patriarchy and hence to require punishment" (Freeland, 1996, p. 744). It seems that whether the final girl gains power by becoming like the man or the monster, she is still chastised.

Figure 2: Jamie Lee Curtis and Nick Castle as Laurie Strode and Michael Myers in "Halloween" (Carpenter, 1978).

Female Gaze

In her article, "When the Woman Looks", Linda Williams discusses three key aspects in horror movies between the woman and male gaze. The first is when a woman intentionally gazes and she is punished for doing so (Williams, 2021, p. 19). This can be seen in the horror film Candyman (Rose, 1992), when the protagonist, Helen, looks upon the supernatural monster Candyman himself. She obtains the punishment of disbelief and is also blamed for his murders, including her friend's, because no one else can see the Candyman. Although she first thought he was a legend, she repeats his name three times in a mirror, and for looking at him, she is unable to escape the punishment of being deemed "crazy". As she continues to see him, she is further tortured by being sent to an insane asylum and later burned in a fire for this gaze.

The second aspect correlating women and the male gaze is when the "good girl" is transformed after seeing the monster into a paralyzing state (Williams, 2021, p. 20). This is evident in the movie Silence of the Lambs (Demme, 1991). The protagonist, Clarice, is a cop in training, who discovers where the serial killer, Buffalo Bill, is living. At first, she does not know he is the killer, but after seeing clues in his house, like the moths that were found in a victim's body, she pulls out her gun on him. Buffalo Bill turns out the lights, making his house completely dark, and puts night vision goggles on, ultimately blinding Clarice. Now that she is aware he is the monster, she is put into the trance of being blinded. She only escapes this blind spell by trusting her gut and taking a shot in the dark. Williams says, "even when the heroine is not literally blind, the failure and frustration of her vision can be the most important mark of her sexual purity" (Williams, 2021, p. 18). Clarice is the "good girl" by the stereotypical standards that imply women who are not having sex or being provocative are "pure". She is innocent and good, fighting to save one of Buffalo Bill's victims, and is therefore, in a sense, blinded by this purity. This could also be seen as naive because Clarice is a new cop. It is important that she gains sight on her own and destroys the male gaze with her bullet.

The last component of Williams' article is the close relationship between the girl and the monster. Williams states, "[i]n the more recent psychopathic horror films, [...] the identification between woman and monster becomes greater, the nature of the identification is more negatively charged, and women are increasingly punished for the threatening nature of their sexuality" (Williams, 2021, p. 33). In Silence of the Lambs (1991), Clarice trusts another monster, Hannibal Lecter. He has an immediate affinity for her because she looks similar to one of the victims he ate. When Clarice first meets Hannibal, they have a shared respect for one another because he is deemed an outcast as a murderer and Clarice is isolated due to being a woman cop in a field predominated by men. Hannibal gets inside her head, but she tries to do the same. They are similar because they are rejected by society. Both Candyman (1992) and Silence of the Lambs (1991) are led by strong women protagonists who are punished for looking at the monster and for their sexual purity, plus they both sympathize with the villain.

Figure 3: Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins as Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter in "Silence of the Lambs" (Demme, 1991).


Slashers use phallic objects wielded by men characters, the male gaze, a damaging final girl standard, and the monster as a vessel of violence against women. Women who watch these films internalize these messages and become fearful of the horror on screen as they identify predominantly with the victims. However, writers have begun to change that norm since the dawn of slashers. Indeed, there are a lot more women directing and giving a different lens than the male gaze (McCollum, 2022, p. 40). Even the term "final girl" has fewer constraints as she is no longer required to be a virgin or be deemed "good" (Bertling, 2016, p. 21). This allows perfectly flawed women to be seen on screen and provides the "other", someone in the movie to relate to.

Bibliographical References

Bertling, J. (2016). Modern Horror Film and the Evolution of the “Final Girl”. California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obsipo.


Briefel, A. (2005). Monster Pains: Masochism, Menstruation, and Identification in the Horror Film. Film Quarterly, 58 (3), 16–27.

Christensen, K. (2011). The Final Girl versus Wes Craven’s “A Nightmare on Elm Street”: Proposing a Stronger Model of Feminism in Slasher Horror Cinema. Studies in Popular Culture, 34 (1), 23–47.

Clasen, M. (2017). Why Horror Seduces. New York: Oxford University Press, Oxford Scholarship Online. 001.0001/oso-9780190666507.

Clover, C. J. (2015). Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. Princeton University Press.

Freeland, C. A. (1996). Feminist Frameworks for Horror Films.

Leath-Malin, K. (2016). My Final Girl: The Black Women in American Horror Cinema (Order No. 10125751). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (1805321598).

McCollum, V. & Aislinn C. (2022). Bloody Women: Women Directors of Horror. Lehigh University Press.

Nummenmaa, L. (2021, March 4). Psychology and Neurobiology of Horror Movies. PsyArXiv, Web.

Williams, L. (2021). When the Woman Looks. In The Dread of Difference, 2nd ed. (pp. 17–36). University of Texas Press.

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Melanie Rose Gazvoda

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