It’s been 20 years since film theorist Carol J. Clover (literally) wrote the book on horror with her practically seminal text Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film.
Clover’s work was important because it elevated the horror genre to a status it had never really been afforded before – a genre worthy of critical analysis. This is not to say that the horror film hadn’t been examined by critics before 1992 – Linda Williams’ article “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess,” also examined the horror genre’s investment in the body and its status as a lowbrow film genre. Up until then, however, horror had predominantly been portrayed in a negative light; low cultural outputs with a focus on the body, where female characters onscreen were simply objects onto which male audience members could project their violent fantasies.
Clover’s most interesting essay is on the ‘slasher’ film; a genre characterised by its central narrative of a male serial killer brutally murdering a group of teenagers, many of them attractive, sexually active women. Entitled ‘Her Body, Himself: Gender in the ‘Slasher’ film,’ Clover examined depictions of women onscreen and the ways in which men in the audience perceived them.
In one way it can be read as a defence of the male spectator; that rather than delighting in the brutalisation of women on screen, male audience members were able to empathise and identify with the female characters on screen via particular characterisations. What it means for female spectators, on the other hand, is possibly still being determined.
Clover would conclude her work with a lament of the end of the kinds of horror films from the seventies and eighties, films that changed independent cinema and achieved cult status. But the films that have been released in the ensuing decades may suggest that all is not lost. Clover may have underestimated fans of the genre, fans who would go on to make the kinds of films they enjoyed or were terrified of as youngsters. And she may not have foreseen developments in technology that allowed for greater access to resources, namely the Internet.
Iconic horror films of the last twenty years in many ways cover a lot of the same ground as those from Clover’s golden age. But at the same time they have also managed to facilitate the continuation of the horror film’s investment in tackling subjects that are taboo or repressed in society, and in delivering what the genre’s name promises – horror.