Bright Lights Film Journal

What It Says About <em>The New Republic</em> If They Don’t Understand Horror Films

Jennifer Kent's The Babadook

The continuing attention being showered on Jennifer Kent’s 2014 The Babadook from horror luminaries such as Stephen King and William Friedkin has prompted some impressive critical writing, while simultaneously anchoring some of the Internet’s sloppier exercises of frantic clickbait “journalism.” Alice Robb’s “What It Says About You If You Enjoy Horror Movies” at The New Republic is at present the top contender for the worst instance of the latter, a hastily constructed listicle regurgitating the tiresome, lazy assumption that horror movies are inherently regressive, dangerous and – most of all – decidedly male. The piece has been met with an avalanche of derision, of which feminist horror critic BJ Colangelo‘s response is one of the most passionate and eloquent.

Apart from ignoring the profound and complex gender politics of The Babadook itself, Robb’s article appears to reflect broader issues that have plagued The New Republic over the past year. Wikipedia documents the upheavals that saw a temporary suspension of its print publication in late 2014, and this provides important context for what can best be understood as a panicked article published by a panicked magazine. This bizarre, misogynistic piece only makes sense when assessed as revenue-hungry clickbait. To be fair, this has worked. The coverage the article has received in the short term suggests Robb’s article has paid off, but there is a long-term catch: for the many readers who visited The New Republic for the first time because of it, The New Republic is not so much a 100-year-strong progressive magazine as it is yet another tacky forum for link-hungry, intellectually-stunted fluff.

The article falls flat in its first paragraph with claims that horror films are literally dangerous because people literally died while watching Avatar and The Passion of the Christ (neither of which, of course, is a horror film). As the point from which she launches her argument, Robb may have been better served by choosing more obvious and appropriate examples of the genre: The Exorcist alone had everything her argument wanted and more, a film linked – however erroneously – to vomiting, fainting, crying, and even suicides, murders, and miscarriages.1 She continues by dusting off some old research papers (some 15 to 17 years old) to support her claims that horror film audiences lack empathy and are aggressive thrill-seekers. Together, these construct her central premise that “horror-movie junkies (have) something to worry about,” an attitude that permeates her broad dismissal of the entire fan demographic as little more than monstrous deviants.

To be fair, there are no doubt some disgusting people who have identified as horror movie fans: one need only recall the “Otaku Killer” Tsutomu Miyazaki or the Australian Port Arthur Massacre gunman Martin Bryant and their obsessions with horror movies to support this grim reality. But as the 2012 Aurora shootings so tragically demonstrate, this is not specific to horror. After all, the attempted assassination of Ronald Regan in 1981 by John Hinkley Jr. resulted from the latter’s belief that he was Travis Bickle from Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. And fans of romantic comedies aren’t off the hook, either: the remarkable story of a bullied New Jersey teen who was inspired by Wedding Crashers (David Dobkins, 2005) to use eyedrops to poison his tormentor in 2011 likewise suggests these tragic cases have less to do with issues of film genre and reception than they do the mental health issues of specific individuals.

In short, to disparage the ethics of an entire fan demographic based on a few out-of-date articles (not to mention an obvious unaddressed personal dislike of the genre as a whole) is offensive for no other reason than it denies the diversity of the cultural and social experience of film spectatorship. Although she almost begrudgingly acknowledges near the end of her article that women horror film fans are not wholly unheard of, one of the more fascinating elements of Robb’s article – perhaps subconsciously, or perhaps because they were the first things a cursory Google search spat out – is that she is drawn to the performative nature of horror spectatorship in terms of how men and women behave in front of each other when watching horror.

A further look might have revealed that this interest has a wider critical history. Filmmaker Maude Michaud is the ideological secret weapon of feminist horror criticism, and her recent article “Horror Grrrls Feminist Horror Filmmakers and Agency“ includes an impressive synopsis of research into horror spectatorship and gender. This is an essential read that immediately counteracts the ignorance and negativity of Robb’s bizarre word-burp. At the other end of the intellectual and ideological spectrum to The New Republic piece, Michaud champions horror film as a subversive space to articulate the politics of gender difference, particularly for women filmmakers. For further verification, one need only look at directors like Jovanka Vuckovic, Jen and Sylvia Soska, and of course Jennifer Kent and Michaud themselves.

Michaud is not alone in the conscious upending of the kind of narrow vision of horror fans and filmmakers as knuckle-dragging human phalluses typified by Robb. Carol J. Clover is effectively the patron saint of the feminist horror movement – and a movement it very much is – based on her book Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (1992). Challenging Laura Mulvey’s foundational claim of a dominant and sadistic male gaze active in classical Hollywood cinema, Clover uses horror film as her basis for a more dynamic model of feminist film criticism predicated on the fluidity of gender identification. Over 20 years old itself now, Clover’s work is today just as important as Mulvey’s.

But as Robb’s article illustrates, there is still a long way to go in convincing the world that horror offers a potentially powerful and positive discursive forum for gender politics. Like Colangelo, I point to Women In Horror Month, an international movement that champions women working in the field of horror film established by US writer and activist Hannah Neurotica. Its mission is as simple as it is ultimately paradoxical: to make the very need for events like Women In Horror Month unnecessary (as Rose McGowan recently said, “I ask you to take up the hand of the female director until we no longer say ‘female director’”).

From this perspective, the weaknesses of Robb’s article and the backlash against it can ultimately be seen as a step forward. What becomes inescapably apparent in its outrageous gaps and omissions is the reality that horror offers a broad spectrum of pleasures, modes of reception, and – for filmmakers – creative opportunities, and these are as diverse as the individuals that make up its audience. Visions of horror film fandom as purely the domain of regressive masculinity are obsolete: we are here, we are many, and we learnt how to have our screams heard from the best in the business.

  1. McDannell, Colleen. “Catholic Horror: The Exorcist (1973).” Catholics in the Movies. Ed. Colleen McDannell. Oxford UP, 2008. p.202. []