Updated: Mar 10, 2020
Blog post by: Jessica
A few months ago, I watched the stylistic Italian horror film Phenomena directed by Daria Argento and starring a young Jennifer Connelly. It is a beautiful film about a young woman, Jennifer Corvino, who realizes she has the ability to communicate with insects and they help her to solve the various murders that are happening at the Swiss boarding school for girls that she is attending. I took away a few thoughts from watching Phenomena, but my biggest one was how Jennifer’s supernatural abilities and eye witness accounts of the murders are treated as mental illness or delusion. This bothered me significantly and I began to notice that this was a common experience for women in horror films. I am constantly seeing a theme of how women are not believed -- when they sense danger, see something supernatural or horrendous -- and then have their credibility and state of mind questioned. In Phenomena, Jennifer has a history of sleepwalking; this starts up again while attending the boarding school. The Headmistress has her medically tested via EEG and is convinced that Jennifer is physically unwell, impacting what she has seen and has talked to the police about. Eventually, she tries to have Jennifer sent away to a hospital for the criminally insane.
Why is it that women are mistrusted and labeled as unstable? These are the women who end up experiencing something supernatural, witnessing a brutal murder or finding themselves fighting for their lives against the killer, and often when they try to get the support of others they are disregarded as being hysterical or their stories deemed unreliable. When a woman senses something strange in an abandoned home or has weird feelings about a stranger she has encountered, her warnings or requests for help are dismissed. Recurrently in these films, if she speaks about a supernatural experience her sanity is questioned or a remark is made about her past trauma. In the film Suspiria, Susie speaks to the doctor about Sara’s disappearance and her suspicions about the school. He casually disregards her concerns and states that Sara had to undergo lots of therapy after her mother passed away -- a comment indicating that Sara’s state of mind can not necessarily be trusted because of her prior mental health issues. We see the flaws of our female protagonists or secondary characters being highlighted when they try to get people to believe their stories.
Filmmakers in the horror genre have pointed out how women’s fears and instincts are often not taken seriously. For example, if a woman had a weird feeling about a stranger sitting in his car for two hours on a residential street, she is labeled as paranoid or being dramatic. If a mother senses that there is something wrong with her child even though they are at the time not showing physical symptoms and have been examined by doctors, she is seen as being hysterical. When a woman steps forward after being assaulted or even raped, she is either demeaned, ostracized, ridiculed and sometimes even interrogated to the point that she even questions her own experience. This is culturally a real problem for women, and the horror genre continues to bring this narrative to the forefront for us, as viewers, to acknowledge.
Women generally have to fight against men in positions of authority in order for them to be believed. I remember feeling frustrated watching Nancy Thompson’s struggles in Nightmare on Elm Street to get her boyfriend and father -- who is a police officer -- to just believe in her struggle against Freddy. It is not until after both her boyfriend and mother are murdered by Freddy that her father begins to believe, but even then he still doubts her. The idea is that if a man legitimizes a woman’s fears, intuition, or claims, then that is giving her power, making the situation real and not something they can easily control. Because heaven forbid we give women agency in their own lives and experiences.
The other day I had a conversation with a woman who was explaining a situation that she was in with her partner. He was questioning the validity of her intuitive feelings in comparison to what he claimed were the ‘facts’ to a discussion they were having. I was angered by this comment and how quickly he was willing to dismiss her instincts. It reminded me of a time I had a really bad feeling about a situation with one of my partners and a new relationship they were involved in. I wanted so much to believe the reassurances I was being given that everything was okay and our agreements would be adhered to. However, the situation I had a bad feeling about happened that very night, validating my gut feeling and led to a lot of hurt.
Generally, men like to believe that women’s intuition is a myth. That the concept of a woman’s intuition was something made up by women as a means of using our “hysteria” to control them. However, over the years, science has proven that women’s intuition is something that does exist and it is all based around our gender difference in nonverbal communication skills; women just happen to be more attuned to them. Women are known to be better at expressing emotions through facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language, as well as reading these nonverbal cues from others. This is also because women are seen as more empathetic than men, which means women tend to be more open to emotional messages. Historically, women in lower social standings have had to rely on observing and scrutinizing the nonverbal cues of those men and women in roles of power in order to navigate situations that would impact their means of survival. This is what we call “women’s intuition” and this is what is often dismissed by society as a mental illness or a form of manipulation.
Once again, the horror genre brings the audience’s attention to another societal bias that women experience on a regular basis; that a woman’s intuitive feelings are frequently disbelieved. It is not until a woman has some validation from a male authority figure that the situation, or her experience, becomes real. I want to believe that with the current rise of women involved in the genre as writers, directors, and actors, that they will continue to introduce this problem and subvert the trope with challenging film narratives that will begin to see a change in this distrust of the feminine.