GeekGirlCon ’15 Panel Recap: Nah, Babe, It’s Just the Wind
I live for panels where I can walk away with a mile-long list of recommendations, and GeekGirlCon 15’s panel “Nah, Babe, It’s Just the Wind: Validating Women’s Fears in Horror” was one of the best of those I’ve been to in a while.
With a panel made up of Grace Moore (@bonecrusherjenk), Evan Peterson (@evanjpeterson), Adrienne Fox (@catatoniccutie), and Elsa Henry (@snarkbat), this feminist horrorshow talked about some of the best movies out there, some of the worst, and what’s coming next.
The panel’s title refers to gaslighting, which Moore described like this: “It’s when a character questions another character’s understanding of a situation–it’s also a real psychological term. ‘Are you sure you remember it that way? Are you being a little hysterical?’ It’s when someone is made to question the validity of their own memories or knowledge.”
The term “hysterical” and its mate “irrational” are often used to describe women in horror stories. “Hysterical dames are what brings us here today,” said Moore. Women who “don’t deserve to have emotions or feelings or be scared. Gaslighting discredits what you’re feeling, along with other dismissive terms and other ways to undermine the feelings of women in horror movies.
“This is especially effective in very women-focused movies,” Moore said, introducing some examples. “Babadook, Stepford Wives: women are treated as secondary when it comes to opinions, even when they’re the primary source material.”
Other gaslighting examples from the panel and audience were The Others, The Innocent (which Moore pointed out was based on The Turn of the Screw, a classic gaslighting film), Alien, and Contracted—an especially problematic story, seeing as how the female protagonist was not only questioned due to her gender, but also because of her history of drug addiction and bisexuality, which we all know is the least trustworthy sexuality.
“We definitely see a continuing theme in a lot of movies about people who are differently abled,” Moore said. “People being talked down to by authority figures, being told their feelings are moot. We specifically see those with medical situations, really female-based ones, like The Omen and Rosemary’s Baby.” Both classic movies, Rosemary’s Baby is perhaps the quintessential gaslighting horror film; Rosemary slowly realizes throughout the film that her husband has made a pact with a religious cult and that not only was she forcibly impregnated, but the child’s true father is the devil. (It’s much better than it sounds.)
Peterson pointed out: “Dr. Sapirstein, her OB/GYN [in Rosemary’s Baby], the first thing he tells her on-camera is ‘Don’t read books.’”
Moore agreed, adding, “If that doesn’t send a chill up your spine, hearing about it, that constant recurring theme of ‘don’t worry your pretty little head about it.’ Your experiences are less-than.”
Grace: if that doesn’t send a chill up your spine, hearing about it, that constant recurring theme of
“In Jezebel, the lead character is a woman who is at least temporarily in a wheelchair,” brought up Henry. “She keeps saying there’s something wrong in the house. Part of what’s frightening to her is the isolation of using the chair in a house that isn’t hers. Disability becomes one of the villains in the movie. It’s one of the few times you see a woman using an adaptive device in a horror movie to try to take control, but [spoiler alert!] it also ends up turning against her and causes her to die.
“It fulfills all her fears about being disabled.”
“The first Nightmare on Elm Street,” Fox brought up as a formative piece, “I was a teenager when I saw it, and of course you see all these teenagers have their opinions being negated by parents, who possibly actually knew what was happening to them.”
Moore agreed, adding: “I especially liked how she had to get these tests done, saying she saw this man with claws and a hat, and all the adults look at each other knowingly, but also tell her, no, no, you’re wrong, it’s fine, you saw nothing. And of course women, especially teenagers, being told and taught by authority figures and even their peers that their intuition isn’t trustworthy. You see that happening so much to teenage girls in slasher movies.”
Mothers, too, are often told in movies that their life experiences are not to be trusted. “Oh, this is what you’re experiencing with your child,” Moore said, playing the part of a doctor, probably male, in hundreds of movies, “But you’re experiencing it wrong, so let me tell you how it actually is.”
Rosemary’s Baby was, of course, brought up again, along with The Conjuring, The Omen, Changeling, and The Bad Seed.
In looking at movies with slightly happier endings, Fox asked, “Anyone have examples of women coming out of the ‘hysterical’ phase to a ‘middling’ end? Other than Babadook?”
Henry suggested The Others as a good inversion of the theme: “In a way, she gets proved right and she manages to get rid of the people who are in the house with her who are trying to keep her from the truth. In a way, she does get redemption of having the truth be known.”
Moore brought up, “I think you get redemption in The Orphanage’s twisted ending.”
“In a way, the first season of American Horror Story, that ending is a little bit of redemption, of peace,” said Henry. “‘We’ve been doing all these horrible hauntings, and now we’re hanging things on a Christmas tree!’”
Peterson mocked, “And now the happy family is reunited, because the only way to have a happy ending is to be heteronormative.” Okay, so AHS isn’t the best example of a happy ending for anyone: all of its seasons are a little off. A horror-themed show with a rotating cast and a new storyline each season, American Horror Story so far has had plots about a cursed, haunted house; a corrupt insane asylum; a New Orleans–based coven; a freak show in the mid 1950s; and a haunted retro hotel.
American Horror Story came up again a little later, in talking about female-heavy horror stories tending toward lady-on-lady hate, instead of more feminist themes.
“I feel like there’s a bit of a balance,” said Henry. “Normal teenage characters can be awful toward each other (Carrie is an example of it working) but it can go to extreme lengths; I’m thinking of even going into college years, like Scream Queens. This is just boring girls hating each other.”
Moore agreed: That’s a good way to alienate your female audience, if you’re writing your characters under the assumption that all female characters just hate each other.” To be honest, I had been watching Scream Queens off and on before this panel, but Moore and Henry’s discussion helped me realize what was bugging me about it: all of the female characters existed just to push each other down, never to help each other up.
Peterson said, “Ryan Murphy [writer and creator of both AHS and Scream Queens] is getting notorious at that, like in season 3 of AHS. Every main character is female; the most important male character is a Frankenstein monster who doesn’t even talk until halfway through the season and even then he doesn’t have much to say. It’s always the women ganging up and attacking each other, and Ryan Murphy had the audacity to say it was the feminist season because they had all these strong female characters, but they all had the same urges: lust for power, lust for revenge, or lust for men.”
“There’s this idea of a clique and coven dichotomy, where covens are supposed to help women get stronger together, versus a clique that’s the opposite,” Moore said.
“Although at the end of the season, the coven is revamped and made open,” Peterson agreed, “they tear down the characters who are in it for themselves.”
Henry was eager to talk about AHS: “I do want to talk about American Horror Story and disability. As a disabled horror writer, I’m fighting against a lot of stereotypes. In Coven, a woman blinds herself and that made me really uncomfortable as a blind woman. I also love Jamie Brewer, she’s amazing, and every time she has been in AHS she’s my favorite character: she’s the only good disability representation in anything Ryan Murphy has ever done, other than Seal Boy in season 4.
“I’m going to address Freak Show because I think it will cover a lot of my feelings. Freak Show wanted to be about coming together and having a community of people who are like each other even though they’re all different. But when you have an able-bodied character making all these speeches about people coming together, you’re screwing it up. You have a ton of people with disabilities in your cast and they didn’t use them to talk about these things.
Henry concluded, “In horror usually if you are disabled, it means you’re evil. If you’re watching a horror movie and someone has a cataract, they’re (a) evil, (b) can see the dead or, (c) a witch.”
Moore agreed: “We need to stop using disability as negative shorthands in horror. It’s tacky, overdone and stupid.”
A few decent examples of disability in horror were brought up: Red Dragon, Wait Until Dark, and Spiral Staircase.
Fox said, though, that was exactly the problem. “You can always pointed to one or two good examples. Every panel I’m on, someone brings up Ellen Ripley, and, yes, that’s a good example of a great female character, but how is she still the best this many years later?”
Turning the conversation more toward good examples, though, Moore asked the panelists what sorts of movies they’d like to see. More films like The Awakening or You’re Next were asked for, plus women with agency and curiosity and more women creating the stories.
When questions were opened up to the audience, more themes in movies and recommendations came out. One audience member brought up the Pandora Box trope, where a girl is to blame for everything going wrong. Fox put it well: “I love how a woman is supposed to save everyone, but she’s also the reason it’s all happening.”
Another audience member went a little meta, saying what was so frustrating is that the women being gaslit in the films are always right. Are the movies themselves commentary so that the audience reacts to that? Or are the films too subtle in that theme, or are they not even intending to bring the issues up?
Henry said, “I think to an extent, it’s an issue with the genre. We’re dealing with something that to make it scary, we need something to be unknown, but we need a lightning rod of someone. It’s a problem of the genre that we as a community need to solve.”
One example of this was Oculus. Moore said, “She’s super competent, but the whole thing is wrecked because no one believes her.”
Peterson said, “In that way, we do see confirmation over and over again that women are not ‘just’ hysterical; they’re the first ones to say hey there are people in that big wooden horse! But there are definitely missteps; yes, the women’s right, but the misfire is how it’s presented to us.”
One question went right to the basics: what horror movie has absolutely terrified you?
Fox admitted to being terrified of Jaws, while Peterson was freaked out by House of the Devil. Moore said she loved Suspiria, which she described as a total splatter-fest, beautiful but there’s at least one scene she always has to watch through her fingers. Henry said Ju-On: “I can’t ever watch that movie again because I spent a month throwing my bed covers off my bed to make sure there was nothing in the bed with me.”
The last few questions delved into how to create horror and what sort of horror the panelists thought would emerge soon, from trope-defying films like Cabin in the Woods to cosmic horror inspired by Lovecraft.
Henry had one thing to say to that: “Be the horror you want to see in the world — I mean, write the horror!”