There are few who can deny that horror is a heavily gendered genre. And, oddly enough, it is a genre which is both the most strictly adherent to gender norms and the most subversive, depending on the film.
Werewolves—a classic symbol of masculinity, especially in regards to sexuality—made their mark on the film industry with the 1941 Universal Pictures classic The Wolf Man, and have been fairly pervasive ever since, though their hyper-masculine traits are framed as a monstrous curse. In the 1975 film The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Tim Curry) seems to gain his power from straddling the line between masculinity and femininity. In the 1981 film The Evil Dead and its subsequent sequels, Ash (Bruce Campbell) is a near parody of masculinity, chainsaw hand and all.
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A discussion on masculinity in horror and what that means can—and has—spanned pages upon pages and thousands of words. But for now, let’s take a look at a few angles of the topic which begin to scratch the surface.
Masculinity and aggression
Linked to testosterone, aggression is a masculine trait that comes to mind for many people. It’s certainly a trait that the horror genre loves to exploit—for better or worse.
While the long-held belief that real life serial killers are almost always white men isn’t precisely true—especially in regards to racial diversity—studies do show that white men are still predominantly the demographic of serial murderers. And that’s certainly what you’ll see in slasher flicks.
It is a common belief that violence in movies (as well as television and video games) perpetuates and increases violence in the real world. Multiple studies have proven this false—but that doesn’t mean on-screen violence doesn’t still have an effect on viewers.
For one, the way in which most violence is portrayed desensitizes viewers to victims’ pain and suffering. For another, it can foster anxiety, distress, and antisocial behavior in viewers. And thirdly, if audiences are sitting in theaters seeing a parade of male killers slashing people up left and right, aren’t movies ultimately saying that men are monsters?
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As mentioned above, The Wolf Man turns this practice into a very literal representation. Lawrence Talbot (as portrayed by the iconic Lon Chaney Jr.) changes in appearance as well as temperament—sprouting hair and wreaking havoc on the people of Wales. As such, the film isn't only saying Talbot is cursed with this symbol of heightened masculinity, it's also portraying his masculinity as a curse upon others.
Monsters are one thing, but what of the very human vessels of violence, like Halloween’s Michael Myers (Tony Moran) and Scream’s Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich) and Stu Macher (Matthew Lillard)? While the killers in these films have no qualms about murdering men alongside women, directors tend to give female deaths more screen time with increased depths of visible suffering.
Michael Myers’ endless sequels and reboots can attest to the fact that he’s a nearly invincible villain, lending credence to a belief that suffering under male oppression is an inescapable constant. Master manipulators like Billy and Stu imply the propensity for violence lies within every bored teenage boy who fails to cope with any minor problem.
These broad strokes of masculine influence paint a pretty dire picture. And while these films undoubtedly have great value on a singular basis, an over-saturation of these themes within the genre can lead to adverse emotional effects in viewers of all kinds.
Masculinity and sex
Sex is power, and power is yet another factor of masculinity. And despite what you or anyone else may think of this gendered assignment, the fact is, movies of all genres play into this perception. Horror just manages to do so a little more blatantly.
When women have sex in horror movies, they step into the realm of the masculine. Suddenly, they’re in control—especially if they’re particularly enjoying it or they do it with any frequency. And by supposedly shedding their femininity, they have sealed their fate. In order to maintain the status quo of gender conformity, these sexually active women are almost always the next to die.
It’s one of the most notorious tropes in the horror genre. In fact, it is a trope the aforementioned Scream directly addresses and toys with. But it is also a way in which the performance of masculinity is seen to clearly play a hand in women’s misery, too.
In A Nightmare on Elm Street, Tina (Amanda Wyss) meets her unfortunate end after having sex with her boyfriend. Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) manages to survive the brutal ordeal, coincidentally having turned down sex with her boyfriend. In the more contemporary Sorority Row, it is the promiscuous college girls who get slaughtered, while the virgins survive. In fact, Bay of Blood, Basket Case, and Jason Goes to Hell are just a few of the horror films in which women get killed while having sex.
Of course, men in horror movies are also known to find themselves on the wrong side of death after sharing an excitingly intimate moment. However, the focus on “loss of innocence” is weighted more heavily in female deaths—and, with innocence being a typically femininely-construed trait, it implies death by departure into masculinity.
But it’s not only virgins who get punished for sexual exploration. It’s not only consensual sex that illustrates the masculine-feminine dynamic, either.
In movies like The Hills Have Eyes, The Poughkeepsie Tapes, Don’t Breathe and many, many more, rape is used to portray sex for the purpose of domination—particularly male domination of women, with intent to use or traumatize. In Gerald’s Game, when Jessie (Carla Gugino) attempts to take back control of an uncomfortable sexual situation, she is immediately punished by the death of her husband and the ensuing trauma of her confinement.
On the flip side, films like Species, Ginger Snaps, Jennifer’s Body, and Siren portray women with a high desire for sex—a high desire which, in some cinematic cases, lead them to be rapists themselves—as very literal monsters. Rape as monstrosity is a fair enough comparison to make, given the ramifications it holds for victims, but when societal perceptions of sexual dominance is so highly linked with masculinity, any film which explores the act of violence rather than the psychological repercussions sets up all genders to fail.
Masculinity isn’t experienced the same way by everyone, and it would be irresponsible to gloss over such a fact. While white masculinity is seen as a desirable and admirable trait, black masculinity is often regarded by society as either threatening or a thing to be fetishized. The documentary Horror Noire is a wonderful resource for diving even further into this topic from the perspective of creators and viewers in the Black community.
To take a shallow dip into the pool of portrayals of black masculinity, the earliest depictions of Black men in horror cinema did them no justice. In fact, Black men got their start in horror as something to be feared. For example, The Birth of a Nation—a film once considered a heroic drama by much of the United States—reads as a horror film to Black audiences, depicting Black men (or white actors in blackface) as sexually violent and vile predators determined to defile white women, while the KKK was framed as a force of protective and gallant heroes.
Related: 13 Essential Black Horror Movies
But with the release of the 1968 film Night of the Living Dead, audiences began to see Black men in heroic roles within the horror genre. Unfortunately, this quickly gave way to Black men as sidekicks or sacrificial lambs for their white counterparts.
Marked progress is seen, however, in socially active films like Candyman and Get Out. Candyman depicts a Black villain (Tony Todd) which has been crafted by white violence and hatred, resting on lore of the horrors of slavery and second-class citizenship. The spiritual sequel coming out this August promises even more racial nuance, dipping into themes of police brutality and racial profiling.
Get Out touches on how feelings of white superiority commodify black excellence, particularly of a physical nature. In a bid to reap rewards from Black bodies, the Armitage family and their allies strip the consciousness of Black people to use their bodies as their own.
Toxic masculinity in modern horror
A selection of recent horror movies have focused in on the dangers of toxic masculinity in a remarkable way. Rather than surrounding a movie in a haze of outlandish masculine terror, these films have pointed a finger at precise behaviors that have proven to be harmful in real life.
The 2019 horror film Midsommar offers a cautionary tale against toxic masculinity in several key ways. Firstly, Dani’s (Florence Pugh) boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) is emotionally unavailable and withholding in a fairly major way, given the surrounding circumstances of the death of Dani’s family. Christian holds a clear resentment of Dani’s emotional nature, as if emotional labor is an effort which can be expected only out of women. This attitude manifests in a certain neglect which comes to have rather gruesome consequences.
The film also touches on the toxicity of entitlement, which Christian—as well as his friends—exhibit as they interfere, manipulate, and leech off of a culture not belonging to them. And while many people (namely women) felt a certain amount of vindication when Christian met his comeuppance, this is not a tale of triumphing over toxic masculinity. It is a tale which exemplifies the way manipulators use the hurts left behind by the actions of toxic men to turn victims into weapons and a means to their own end.
The 2020 film The Invisible Man brings a classic science fiction horror story into the modern day in a very real way. Cecilia Kass (Elizabeth Moss) is in a relationship with brilliant scientist Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). But Adrian is an abuser on every level, and his toxic desire to own and control Cecilia completely turns him into one of the most terrifying villains in horror history.
He exerts influence over every aspect of Cecilia’s life, from a decision on when they’ll have kids to how she’ll spend her day to the thoughts she’s allowed to have. And when Cecilia escapes, Adrian does everything he can to frame her as the villain of the story.
Both of these movies utilize abuse in a deeply poignant way. Rather than an unkillable murder machine, the villains in these films portray problems that hang heavy over the heads of many people in the real world. These are tangible terrors. Terrors that are close to home and that can be lessened with a shift in societal thinking and behavior.
Masculinity is not an inherently toxic or harmful thing—just as femininity is not inherently good or healthy. What horror needs more of is portrayals of healthy masculinity, and more films like these which can pinpoint behaviors which illustrate how masculinity can be warped. Portrayals of humanity shape the way we as humans perceive ourselves, and a well-rounded collection of portrayals is essential.