It seemed like the right time for my roommates and me to trade in red roses and getaway destinations for decapitated heads and satanic children.
That is, our weekly watch parties needed a shake-up — we had been dedicated fans of “The Bachelor” franchise since our freshman year, but the formula was growing tired. For me personally, it was getting harder to watch men and women humiliate themselves on national TV for a chance at love, ruthlessly shamed for emotional vulnerability (regardless of whether or not it was feigned). And that’s not to say that I don’t still harbor a love for the absurd television franchise, but it was definitely time for a break.
And so we transitioned into horror. It was an untapped frontier for the majority of us, as we had all imagined it to be too frightening of an experience to be entertaining. But, as I grappled with my own fears related to my impending graduation, it seemed like an opportune time to distract myself with things actually worth being frightened over — such as demonic possession.
As a newbie to horror, what immediately struck me was the genre’s portrayal of women, particularly mothers. The movies that my roommates and I watched Thursday nights — including “The Conjuring,” “The Babadook” and “Orphan” — were fixated on the same fear factor: the terror induced by a woman who fails to sufficiently fulfill her role as a maternal figure. Over and over again, I watched these inadequate moms descend into hysteria; their screams and sobs were often as blood-chilling as the demons themselves, especially in contrast to their husbands, who were, while behaving emotionlessly and in denial, rewarded for appearing calm, collected and rational.
“Hereditary,” Ari Aster’s A24 horror release from earlier this year, captured this well. Remarkable performances from Toni Collette and Milly Shapiro as Annie and her daughter Charlie, respectively, anchor the film in place, and yet the narrative is inherently male-obsessed, with a patriarchal fixation that subverts the importance of the film’s dynamic female leads. Our horror over Annie’s confession that she never wanted to have children is as intense as it is during the film’s more grotesque moments, and we are at once discomforted by the horrific tragedies that ensue when male characters fail to believe Annie or respect Charlie’s wishes. When Annie is seen hysterically sobbing on her bedroom floor, comforted by her wordless and expressionless husband, the audience is practically begging for the agonizingly lengthy shot to end.
The role of gender in horror flicks is hardly a new subject to the landscape of film analysis, but I didn’t expect it to strike such a personal chord. In some ways, I’m not sure I would have made it through my fall semester without movies such as “Hereditary.” It was validating to watch the narrative of an accursed emotional woman and sensibly passive man play out on screen in a critical manner; placing this dynamic in the context of a horror story pointed to a large argument — these roles are fundamentally problematic and can induce tremendous misery.
That type of validation was much-needed in 2018 and particularly this semester when I was inundated with my own feelings of confusion, panic and sadness. Whether it was making a complete 180 switch from biology to law or having to quit clubs when I became too busy or being unable to invest myself more in personal relationships, I was constantly feeling that I wasn’t fulfilling the roles that I had intended to fill as a woman, scientist, friend and leader.
While my instinct was to penalize myself for outwardly becoming emotional, losing control of my thoughts and for questioning who I was in every capacity, horror films promised me that I wasn’t alone in those fears, especially as a woman, and that it was, more often than not, in the denial of these experiences — not allowing yourself to struggle with your emotions and work things out — that the trouble started.
Additionally, horror movies were the vehicle through which I formed close relationships with the other women around me. My roommates’ weekly watch parties are treasured bonding moments, made all the more valuable given that we only have a handful of months left together. And, as a bonus, I found out for the first time that my mom was an aficionado of the horror genre, and I relished in her excitedly sharing with me her recommendations for spooky classics.
There was a lot to be afraid of in 2018, and plenty more jumpscares are awaiting just around the corner in 2019. But by now, I’m well-versed in house-hauntings and family curses, so my own apprehension toward rejection, loneliness and saying goodbye don’t seem quite so daunting. And it’s a lot easier to face your fears when you know you aren’t alone in them.