WIHM: Allegory and the Female Experience in Horror Films
By: Carolyn Drake
(TW: Violence, sexual assault, forced pregnancy, abortion).
I’m not hard to please. When it comes to horror movies, I want three things: Terrifying visuals, a killer score, and a brilliant hidden meaning woven into the tapestry of the plot for me to pick apart and obsess over and debate my film-loving dad about.
That’s it. I’m easy.
Fortunately for me, there’s a current revival of psychological horror that seeks to use allegory as a part of deeper storytelling. Even luckier, horror movies historically love to interweave female-centric metaphors into their narratives. That’s right, the genre that gave us The Final Girl and Death By Sex tropes is also the best genre for strong women conquering smoking hot revenge demons, cave-dwelling madness monsters, and facehugging symbolism aliens.
So without further ado, please enjoy some of my favorite bloody, gory, brilliant horror films that explore the female experience through allegory.
Jennifer’s Body (2009) by Karyn Kusama
Look, this movie? I promise, it’s not as bad as you remember. Its biggest crime was being released in 2009.
At its core, Jennifer’s Body is a darkly comedic slasher/creature feature. The plot revolves around the titular Jennifer who is sacrificed to Satan by a desperate indie band striving to make it big. But the ritual goes wrong due to Jennifer’s status as a non-virgin, and Jennifer winds up possessed by an evil flesh-hungry demon. Needy – Jennifer’s best gal pal – realizes that Jennifer is satisfying her new monstrous appetite by eating their male classmates and is forced to put a stop to it.
If you’re like me, you vaguely remember that plot from when you were nineteen and went to see Jennifer’s Body to watch Megan Fox and Amanda Seyfried make out, but were confused when the movie turned into a cross between Juno (2007) and Feast (2005).
Here’s what you don’t remember: Jennifer’s Body is an allegory for the devastating effects of sexual assault and the desire for vengeance.
Yup, you heard me! Jennifer’s Body is a rape-and-revenge fantasy.
Don’t believe me? How’s that whole demonic man-eater thing start again? Oh, yeah: ‘A drunk teenage girl is shoved into a windowless van by a group of men who take advantage of her body for their own desires.’
Coming back to you now, right?
Jennifer’s Body was originally marketed as a sexy succubus movie for straight teenage boys, which many point to as the reason it flopped at the box office. Watching this film post-#MeToo, however, gives the storyline new context.
Rape-and-revenge flicks have been a thing since the 70s, but unlike I Spit On Your Grave (1978) and Last House on the Left (1972), Jennifer’s Body doesn’t exploit its victim’s graphic trauma for the viewer’s eyes. While we watch the band mates mock Jennifer’s terror just before they murder her, we never see the full extent of the gore involved. Instead of focusing on the violence done to Jennifer’s body, the film chooses to focus on the violence Jennifer’s body inflicts on her victims.
In a twist on the genre, Jennifer’s possession by a demon turns her into a sexual predator. Jennifer’s hunger for flesh leads to her seducing victims, taking them to an isolated location, and then eviscerating them. She targets men, but she never kills anyone who actually seems to deserve it (i.e., the men who sacrificed Jennifer). Her victims include a lost transfer student, a kind Goth kid, and a football captain mourning the death of his best friend. Their only offense is the fact that they’re attracted to the gorgeous Jennifer. As the audience, even though we sympathize with the trauma that caused Jennifer’s demonic transformation, we soon come to see her as a monster, and strongly pity the victims of her misdirected wrath.
Further, Jennifer’s indifference to the murders implies that she doesn’t think what she’s doing is wrong, possibly due to her traumatic experience. In a deleted scene, Jennifer’s best friend, Needy, confronts Jennifer and says, “You are killing people,” to which Jennifer replies with chilling nonchalance: “No. I’m killing boys.” Her victims seem to be clumped together in her mind with the men who symbolically raped her, which indicates how she views the otherwise innocent men who ogle her body.
While Jennifer doesn’t avenge herself by killing the men who turned her into a monster, Needy does. The movie ends with Needy hitchhiking and telling the driver that she’s seeing a band, but tonight is their “last show.” The scene cuts to the credits, during which the band that sacrificed Jennifer is seen happily basking in their fame. Seconds later, however, bloody handprints cover the walls and a series of stills show the band murdered in their hotel room.
While the entire soundtrack for this movie is great (and oh so nostalgic), my favorite use of the non-diegetic score occurs during this scene, when Needy kills the band. In the moments leading up to the murders, Hole’s “Violet” plays in the background; this song notably alludes to sexual violence done to the female singer, but has also been praised as a woman asserting control over her body and reclaiming it from men who seek to possess her. In the context of this film as a rape-and-revenge work, this song playing while leading up to the moment when Needy destroys the men who figuratively raped Jennifer fits perfectly.
So in summary…give Jennifer’s Body another chance, guys. You won’t regret it.
The Descent (2005) by Neil Marshall
Let’s talk about madness.
The Descent is a gory bloodbath that expertly balances psychological-horror with monster-horror. This isn’t your average cheesy creature feature, though; the visuals are beyond incredible. Marshall transmits the claustrophobia of the underground caverns by shooting his subjects in tight shots, usually composing them so that the actors are framed by the imposing cave walls. He also makes the brilliant choice to limit set lighting to the sources the characters bring with them into the cave, such as helmet lamps, an infrared camcorder, and garish red flares. This creates a dark, realistic, and certifiably creepy ambiance that bolsters the storyline.
The plot follows six adventurous women on a spelunking expedition, but a cave-in traps them underground…and it soon becomes clear that they aren’t alone.
While this is a terrifying premise, the true horror of The Descent comes from the allegory that is one woman’s downward spiral into utter madness.
The woman in question is Sarah, the protagonist. Her descent into madness begins when her husband (Paul) and daughter (Jessie) perish in a violent car accident. Immediately after the accident, Sarah dreams that Jessie – who was about to have a birthday – sits before her with a birthday cake. Six birthday candles are lit, but Jessie blows them out until obscurity consumes the screen.
This vision of Jessie sitting in darkness with a birthday cake reoccurs throughout the film, reappearing whenever Sarah’s hold on reality slips a little more.
Eventually, after being forced to descend further into the cavern to search for an exit, the women encounter the movie’s monsters: The cave-dwelling “crawlers.” These creatures appear humanoid, but are truly animals, killing and consuming whatever they can catch.
In short, the crawlers are uncanny and represent the opposite of a logical, sane human. More on that soon.
The crawler attack separates the group. Sarah later reunites with her closest friend, Beth, but is devastated to find her gravely injured. Beth reveals two things to Sarah that send her mental state even further south: 1. One of the other women (Juno) caused Beth’s terminal injuries (note: the audience knows this was done accidentally, but Sarah does not), and 2. Juno was having an affair with Sarah’s husband, Paul, before he died.
As though this wasn’t enough to ruin a gal’s day, Beth then asks Sarah to kill her so the crawlers won’t eat her alive. Sarah tearfully obliges.
After killing Beth, the emotionally wrecked Sarah attempts to find an exit from the caves, but is accosted by three crawlers. She viciously kills them all.
The sequence in which Sarah slaughters the crawlers is when she transforms from the Old Sarah – mentally fragile, traumatized, and terrified – to the New Sarah. The New Sarah is…well, she’s a crawler.
The film draws visual comparisons between Sarah and the crawlers by having her kill a blood-covered female crawler and then emerge from a literal pool of blood, making her almost indistinguishable from the crawler she just killed. Further, in a clever sound bridge, Sarah releases a harrowing primal howl, but when the scene cuts to Juno in a different part of the cave, she hears the screech of a crawler echoing off the cavern’s walls.
After Sarah’s transformation scene, her fighting techniques are no longer human, either; she uses her teeth to rip the crawler’s throats out in the same manner that the monsters killed her friends, and mercilessly shoves her thumbs into the crawler’s eye sockets, grimacing with dark satisfaction as the crawler dies painfully beneath her.
After betraying Juno and leaving her to die, Sarah runs through the dark cave but slips and falls down a shaft, tumbling even further into the abyss of the caverns until she hits absolute bottom, knocking herself out. Sarah awakens some time later and sees daylight atop an incline that leads out of the caves. The incline, however, is covered in the skeletal remains of the crawler’s victims. The scarlet blood drenching Sarah is stark against the white bones as she frantically scrambles up the slope. In one brilliantly framed long shot, the camera shows the diagonal slant of the thin beam of light cutting through the darkness, and Sarah ascending for the first time in the film. The score swells triumphantly as Sarah bursts through the mossy grass covering the cave’s opening and emerges topside, bathed in sunlight. Bloodied and wide-eyed, she at last escapes the caves and regains her sanity, running away from the darkness and madness, leaving it behind her and moving forward with her life…
…except, she doesn’t. The camera cuts back to the dark cave, where Sarah opens her eyes for real this time. There is no beam of sunlight cutting through the darkness. Her escape was a hopeless dream. But before her, one last time, is her daughter’s birthday cake topped with flaming candles. The camera shows Jessie sitting on the other side of the cake, then pans to a smiling Sarah gazing happily at her daughter, and then finally pulls back to show that Sarah is alone on a ledge in the cave, staring into nothingness. The firelight comes from her torch, not birthday candles. Around her, the howls of crawlers echo off the cave walls. Sarah’s descent into madness is complete. She will never get out of the cave. She is trapped forever in the darkness of her mind.
An argument can be made that The Descent’s analogy of losing one’s mind following personal tragedy is universal and not defined by gender. On a writing level, I agree; the female characters of the film are so well written that you could easily replace Sarah with a male protagonist and the story would be exactly the same.
But where I disagree is this: If The Descent becomes an allegory for a man losing his mind and turning into a vicious feral killer, well…it’s no longer groundbreaking.
Think of every “descent into madness” movie starring a man: Taxi Driver (1976), The Shining (1980), Joker (2019)…Guy loses his mind and kills people in a brutal manner.
Now think of every “descent into madness” movie starring a woman: The Others (2001), Swimfan (2002), Black Swan (2010)…Girl loses her mind and kills…herself? Yikes, that’s a depressingly common trope. But hey, sometimes she’s a murderer too! Sometimes she attempts to kill an ex-lover or the new romantic competition or her own kids, sometimes she succeeds, although she almost always dies in the end. And besides, even if she is a murderer, golly, she looks so pretty doing it!
In reality, women can be as “crazy,” vicious, and murderous as men. But that version of a woman’s potential for spiraling savage insanity never seems to translate into the film world. We don’t get to see the ugly side of a woman’s unraveling mind. Even when a woman is beyond rational thought, her lipstick is still perfect, and should a mad woman kill herself, rest assured we’ll only ever see her gently swinging feet, never her brutalized face.
The only “mad” woman in film who comes close to being as savage as Sarah is Sissy Spacek’s portrayal of the killer prom queen herself in Carrie. There is even a moment in The Descent that is reminiscent of Carrie: Sarah’s bulging eyes are shockingly white against her crimson-coated skin as she stands among the crawlers she’s killed, bringing to mind a pig-blood drenched Carrie surveying the carnage she’s created at prom.
But even Carrie had telekinesis to do her dirty work. Sarah? Sarah’s got teeth.
Alien (1979) by Ridley Scott, Aliens (1986) by James Cameron, and Prometheus (2012) by Ridley Scott
[Note: We’re going to pretend Alien 3, Alien: Resurrection, and Alien: Covenant don’t exist, cool? Cool.]
The feminism of the Alien franchise has been discussed and dissected extensively, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t include a brief rundown, seeing as they are the OG horror films that interweave the female experience into the plot as allegory.
Let’s start with the first and best film in the franchise, Alien.
We all know the story: A futuristic crew of space-truckers gets a distress signal from a nearby planet and goes to check it out. One of the men is attacked, though, by an alien species. The alien forcefully impregnates the man with a, ah…phallic appendage, and then his alien baby bursts through his chest, quickly growing into a dangerous monster that hunts and kills the crew until only one woman (Ripley) remains.
Even from that short synopsis, it’s clear what the allegory is in this film: Sexual assault and unwanted pregnancy.
Screenwriter Dan O’Bannon brilliantly creates a story and atmosphere in which the male audience is forced to empathize with their female counterparts in their fear of sexual violation and unwanted pregnancy. In the 2002 commentary on the special edition DVD, O’Bannon said that his plan for writing the script was to, “attack [the male audience] sexually,” and make them feel every bit as repulsed and terrified by the act of the alien’s violent intrusion as women would be in reality with a sexually abusive man. Naturally, that fear would extend to the potential unwanted consequence (i.e., pregnancy) of such a violation.
While Alien is the allegory of a woman’s fear of forced reproduction, however, the second film in the franchise – Aliens – is the reversal.
The film opens with Ripley being discovered floating through space in her escape pod, but it’s 57 years after she put herself into cryosleep following the events of the previous film. A colony has since been established on the very planet that Ripley’s crew found the alien. When the colony fails to communicate with base, Ripley is sent to discover what’s happened to them. Naturally, Ripley finds that everyone has been killed by the aliens, except for one little girl (Newt).
Newt is central to the allegory of Aliens, which is about motherhood. A deleted scene at the start of Aliens reveals that Ripley had a young daughter when she left Earth in the first film, but the girl died during Ripley’s 57 years in cryosleep. An emotionally devastated Ripley then finds Newt, a motherless young girl, and the two instantly connect. When Newt is stolen by the Queen Xenomorph, Ripley goes after her, gearing up in an elevator plummeting down to the Queen’s lair in one of the most badass ‘getting ready for a fight’ scenes in any movie.
Ripley is only successful in rescuing Newt, however, because she threatens to destroy the Queen Xenomorph’s eggs if she doesn’t let Ripley and Newt leave alive. Ripley recognizes that even though the alien is a monster, she’s still a mother, just like Ripley.
When the Xenomorph once again threatens Newt’s safety, Ripley calls out one of the greatest lines of the film: “Get away from her, you bitch!” and the two wage fierce battle, mother-a-mother. The film ends with Ripley jettisoning the Queen out an airlock and escaping the planet safely with Newt, her adopted daughter.
Both of these films are powerful and raw in their exploration of the female experience of pregnancy and motherhood. In an interesting twist, the maybe prequel to Alien – Prometheus – is a blend of both allegories.
Prometheus’s plot is pretty standard: Archeologists go to a planet, find some alien eggs, yada yada yada, a bunch of people die until there’s only one “good gal” crewmember still alive (Shaw). Fast-forward to David, the male-presenting robot responsible for providing the crew with medical care, informing his female patient, Shaw, that she is “pregnant.” Shaw, however, knows this to be impossible, because even though Shaw desperately wants to be a mother, she is infertile. David then implies that Shaw is infected with one of the alien invaders. Shaw, now terrified of the thing in her womb, insists that David “get it out” of her, but he refuses. He tries to force his patient to remain “pregnant” in the interest of preserving the alien life inside of Shaw, knowing it will most likely kill her while being “birthed.”
I know, I know, there’s a lot to be said here about the horror of a man trying to strip a woman of her bodily autonomy…but I digress.
Shaw fights and escapes David, and then manages to get into a surgical pod.
Here’s where some interesting controversy kicks in: Instead of programming the pod for an ‘abortion,’ Shaw tries to program it for a ‘caesarean.’ Further, this action of removing the alien invader from Shaw’s body is never referenced by other characters as anything but a ‘procedure.’ True, the alien is still very much alive when it is removed from Shaw’s body, but Shaw quickly kills it once it’s outside of her uterus.
So is this an abortion scene, or a C-section scene? Is Shaw a mother, a victim, or both? Was Ripley not the baddest mother ever when she kicked the Queen’s whole-ass out that airlock?
The Internet argues to this day.
That about sums up my thoughts on the subject! Well, for now. There are many, many, many amazing horror films that explore the female experience through allegory – Teeth (2007) = The Purity Myth; The Babadook (2014) = Grief and Motherhood; The Witch (2015) = Society’s Fear of Female Sexuality, etc. – but smoking hot revenge demons, cave-dwelling madness monsters, and facehugging symbolism aliens will always hold a special place in my heart.
Happy Women in Horror Month!
Carolyn A. Drake
Carolyn is a writer from the Jersey Shore currently living her best East-Coast-transplant life in Denver. She’s had a number of short fiction works published by small press publications and podcasts, including Mad Scientist Journal and the NoSleep Podcast. You can read/listen to some of her work online at CarolynADrake.com, and follow her on Twitter and Instagram @Carolyn_A_Drake.