For decades, horror films have mainly revolved around themes of sexuality and violence. Women’s sexuality which has otherwise been a taboo topic is discussed explicitly throughout the horror genre.
Women are portrayed as sexual props or overtly sexual beings in these plots, who tend to die first as if they were punished for their sexual transgression. Since woman’s sexual freedom still seems unacceptable, their presence on-screen has been limited to the ‘sex symbol’ and the mere victim calling for help. Yes, these movies produce the sexual representation of the damsel in distress. The popular term “Scream Queen” used in the horror genre to the present date, is derived from the representation of women as sufferers, who scream and shout helplessly to be saved from the ‘predator’, more often than not played by a man. Horror movies of the past, involving scenes of violence and gore, were also semi-pornographic in nature containing erotically charged situations which have become normalised elements of our media viewing over time.
In Bollywood, the popularity of Bipasha Basu’s Horror franchise Raaz has continued to attract more viewership due to the sheer appeal to the male gaze. Bipasha Basu’s on-screen presence as the ‘femme fatale’ who entraps men is problematic, shallow and objectifying. Apart from this, these movies tend to turn the woman’s body either into a vessel available for heterosexual men to take and consume or into an object that stands in complete opposition to the phallocentric domination. Most of these films portray the usage of a phallic-shaped weapon, such as a sword, knife, or chainsaw to slay the woman virgin who disavowed her abstinence and innocence. In this way, several metaphors are used to limit her sexual freedom and choices, and ‘slut-shaming’ has persisted throughout the industry.
Going further, many horror movies portray a woman character who is violated and impregnated and then endures an excoriating pregnancy or an almost non-existent one. Thereafter the ‘metaphorical’ child (possessing spirit) is either killed or taken away by an exorcism. Often a woman while being possessed is found sleeping on her bed and is then mystically inseminated. In this way, the constructed “monstrous feminine” horrifies her audience through her sexuality, as she is either depicted as a virgin or a whore. The concept of the monstrous feminine within horror has been said to arise from men’s concerns around female fertility, sexual differences and the fear of castration.
Yet, there has been a major breakthrough in the horror genre; a horror renaissance of sorts. It has veered away from slashers, torture and semi-pornographic horrors to more substantive, nuanced films that are means of social commentary and possess an aesthetic vision from a feminist standpoint. Powerless and chaste women who suffer from sexualised terror have now been empowered through the medium of gynae-horror seeping into conventional film production. These films, while instilling fear, also highlight rampant misogyny and sexism, and the way they shape women’s bodies. They offer a different and essential representational and aesthetic space in which women’s bodies and lives are seen as important.
A movie such as Bulbul represents a progressive supernatural film which luckily spread its wings in mainstream cinema and talks a great deal about sexual agency and society’s control over women. Bulbul is a reflective watch as the audiences question time and again, whether women who need to be tamed and punished are just mere tropes on-screen or reflect the ideas of the society, at large. A wave of similarly emancipatory horror is the Black horror genre. Movies and series like Get Out and Lovecroft Country criticise racist societies with a dominating white upper class and feature Black protagonists. At the same time, the genre has been under attack for exploiting Black trauma
As they said in Scream, “Movies don’t create psychos; movies make psychos more creative”. This may explain the crazily sexist representation of women’s bodies and sexualities.