How Hollywood's best horror movies are empowering women
The Witch — Robert Eggers' self-described "New England folktale," which plays more like a waking nightmare — arrives in theaters today. The film, which became an instant sensation after premiering at the Sundance Film Festival in 2015, is a bold and unsettling indie horror flick that feels nothing like anything you've seen lately.
But while this 1630-set drama about a religious family beset by a malevolent witch doesn't look like your average horror movie, its themes point to a greater trend in the genre. Like many of the truly great horror movies released over the past few years, The Witch thrives because its narrative is specifically rooted in tackling traditional expectations for women.
A witch is unique among horror icons in its female malevolence. Dracula set the modern (male) standard for the vampire. Frankenstein's monster existed long before his bride. A zombie's gender is totally irrelevant. And the franchise-spawning slasher killers of the 1980s — Michael Myers, Freddy Krueger, Jason Vorhees, et al. — are invariably male. (Okay, okay, the killer in the original Friday the 13th is Jason Vorhees' mother — but the 10 subsequent films fall back on Jason himself.)
Horror films have long been attacked by detractors for their perceived misogyny — sometimes justly, sometimes unjustly. But the ongoing renaissance of top-tier horror movies represents a new kind of vanguard for the genre. Today's great horror movies are uniquely female in both perspective and theme, pushing Hollywood to explore subjects that other, less extreme genres rarely make room to tackle.
Take 2010's Black Swan, a mesmerizing nightmare about the horrific downward spiral of a young woman who society expects to be both unquestionably, girlishly chaste and darkly sexual. It's the madonna/whore complex filtered through the lens of horror, in which the protagonist's desperate attempt to live up to competing feminine ideals end up literally pushing her past the boundaries of humanity. (Black Swan eventually earned a Best Picture nomination — which meant, in a classic case of genre snobbery, that everybody in Hollywood stopped acknowledging it was a horror movie.)
Or take two recent movies that are already beginning to amass cult followings: The Cabin in the Woods and You're Next, a pair of horror-comedies that explicitly challenge the "Final Girl" slasher trope: the former by openly challenging the genre's insistence that a pure-hearted virgin be the sole survivor, and the latter by ensuring that the ostensible female victim is way, way more competent than her would-be killers.
Or consider two of the most widely acclaimed films released in any genre over the past few years: The Babadook and It Follows, which overcame minuscule budgets, untested writer/directors, and virtually unknown casts to become buzzy crossover hits. It's no coincidence that both The Babadook and It Follows have feminism built into their DNA. The Babadook's supernatural horror stems from a very real taboo: the idea that a mother could resent, or even hate, her child. It Follows, which centers on a teenage girl stalked by a kind of sexually transmitted monster passed to her by a new boyfriend, draws on its own real-life horror: the loss of innocence that comes with being betrayed by someone with whom you've been truly intimate.
And that brings us back to The Witch, which contains elements of the same themes that drive both The Babadook and It Follows, and also hails from a first-time writer/director and a virtually unknown cast. Our most sympathetic protagonist is Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), a teenager living on a remote farmstead with her mother, father, and younger siblings. Stuck between girlhood and adulthood, Thomasin is beset on all sides: by a mother who distrusts her growing independence; by a father who meekly fails to stand up for her; by a pubescent brother whose loyalty is somewhat complicated by his tendency to sneak glances down her dress; and, of course, by a witch.
If The Babadook hints at the darker side of motherhood, The Witch wastes no time bringing it to the forefront. The film's primary action begins when Thomasin's infant brother is abducted while under her care. Deep in the woods, the witch tenderly caresses the baby before drawing a knife and killing him with emotionless efficiency. It's an early hint that The Witch will use its period setting to interrogate traditional cultural expectations for women, which manifests in ways human (the deep vein of resentment that develops between Thomasin and her mother), supernatural (the witch's predatory brand of womanhood, which repeatedly manifests itself in perversions of conventional feminine ideals), and visceral (a breastfeeding scene so singularly horrifying I couldn't possibly spoil it by describing it here).
I suspect The Witch's conclusion will prove divisive, even among viewers who love the rest of the film — but the more I've reflected on it, the more I respect Eggers' refusal to put a bow on the narrative's convoluted morality, or Thomasin's ultimate fate. She's a young woman in an impossible situation; all her choices are bad, and she makes one anyway, because there's nothing else to be done. It's a conclusion that manages to be both horrifying and empowering — and above all, understandable. The Witch may be set centuries in America's past, but like the best and most potent movies in the midst of this stellar time for cinematic horror, its concerns could hardly be more modern.