Horror fiction takes issue with this stance. In horror stories, victims are frequently dispatched without mercy, violently and with finality, or are allowed to survive only to be further victimized, even more horribly, before they’re killed in some hideous manner or another, at an appropriately climactic moment.
In the past, most horror victims have been women, a fact that many feminists attribute to misogyny. There may be some truth to this charge, as witness the declaration of Edgar Allan Poe, in “The Philosophy of Composition”: “The death. . . of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world.” However, there may be reasons other than simply misogyny. There may be practical considerations.
In American society, women are permitted to cry unashamedly, for pretty much any reason and under pretty much any circumstances, and they tend to do so with regularity, expressing a wide range of emotions that includes both happiness and sorrow as well as anger and fear. In general, women are allowed--indeed, encouraged--to be more emotionally expressive than men, and, again, they tend to do so. This tendency makes them ideal as emotional indicators. In movies (and, indeed, in literary texts), they show the audience (or the readers) how to feel about a situation. The audience, identifying with them, understands that they should feel the same way about what is happening to the characters as the emotive female character, or the emotional indicator, feels.
Although it is not a horror movie, Tank illustrates the use of this technique. At various moments, as circumstances warrant, Jenilee Harrison’s character, Sarah, traveling inside the tank driven by James Garner’s character, Sgt. Zack Carey, at various moments, expresses anxiety, concern, fear, and exultation. Seeing her convey these emotions, the audience understands that they, too, should feel the same way. She’s the film’s emotional indicator.
The same technique is used to good effect in horror films (and literary narratives), although the emotional range tends to be much more limited, restricted, pretty much, to horror and its related feelings, such as anxiety, fear, revulsion, and terror. (That’s why actresses who appear in horror movies are known as "scream queens.") Because American society allows women a freer exercise of emotion, horror fiction often makes women victims. Stalked by a mad killer, abducted by a lovelorn monster, or hunted or attacked by an unspeakable creature, female victims’ expressions of terror, disgust, and panic inspire the same feelings in audiences and readers.
Women are physically weaker than men. Therefore, chivalry demands that men protect them from threats to life, limb, and sanity. In other words, female characters motivate male characters to risk their lives when, otherwise, the men folk might find it more desirable to exercise the better part of valor. In newsreel footage of one of Bob Hope’s USO shows, he brings out a beautiful female celebrity--Ann-Margaret, perhaps--and says to the assembled troops, “I just wanted to remind you of what you’re fighting for.”
The same principle is behind horror fiction’s employment of the weak, but luscious, female victim. Whether she lives or dies, she’s an inspiration to the fighting man. If she survives, he succeeds. If she dies, he fails. Therefore, her survival (or death) is an indicator of the heroic male character’s success (or failure) as a hero as well. The female victim or potential victim, as the case may be, both inspires the protective male and shows the audience that he’s a winner or a loser, depending upon whether his intervention on her behalf merits her trust. If she lives, her trust was merited; if she dies, it was not. If her protector succeeds, and she lives, he earns the audience’s respect and, if he already has their respect, it increases. If the macho man is to triumph, ultimately, over the monster, his doing so will be more believable because he has been able to defend the life of the potential female victim. If he fails, the audience accepts his failure because, earlier, he was unable to protect the female victim. In either case, the question as to whether the female character will live or die (and whether the male character will win or lose) provides suspense.
Not only do women, as victims, suggest how the audience or the readers should feel, motivate male characters, and indicate the manliness (or lack thereof) of their masculine protectors, but, when they meet their doom, they also heighten the horror of the story. This is probably what Poe had in mind when he stated that “the death. . . of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world.” We want to believe that life has purpose, meaning, and value, and that all is not for naught. We want to believe that life is not “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” We feel that beauty indicates an interest on the part of the Creator in his creation, for beauty is not a quality that needs to be present in order for the universe to exist and operate. After all, despite the presence of any number of unattractive people, the universe seems to function according to impersonal “laws of nature.” Although most people would not want to do so, we could, if we had to, get by without beauty.
The death of a beautiful woman is a reminder that something we value highly--beauty (and not just beauty of any sort, but beauty in the flesh, or feminine beauty)--is unnecessary, perhaps even accidental. If it’s accidental, rather than bestowed, there may be no Creator. There may be no God. We may be on our own. If so, the world that seems, at times, at least, to be meaningful and purposeful and valuable may be simply absurd. We may be absurd! The death of a beautiful woman reminds us of this possibility. Therefore, the death of a beautiful woman is horrible, both in itself and beyond itself.
Of course, female victims also add a dimension of sexuality to horror stories, which, in the past and, to a large extent, even now, depict the monstrous as being male. The metaphor is simple: monsters (males) = rapists. The exclusive or primary victims of the creature of the black lagoon, King Kong, the xenomorphs in Alien and its sequels, Freddy Kreuger, Michael Myers, and even the devil in The Exorcist (and many other monsters with male appendages) were female rather than male. The implication is that the monsters were interested in women not solely because they’re good screamers. Critics have also seen the monster-as-disguised rapist as being an embodiment of a racist white patriarchal society’s fear of and revulsion toward miscegenation. It was because Rosemary’s baby is a “half-breed” of sorts, such critics contend, that makes him a devil’s child.
The sexualization of the male body that followed the feminist movement resulted in more than the Chippendales. Men became sexual objects. Therefore, they became potential victims of sexual predators. Not only did female high school teachers begin to sexually assault teenage boys, but female monsters began to rape and kill male victims in movies such as Species and Alien and in television shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer. What had formerly been good only for the goose became good for the gander as well, as victimization became an equal opportunity condition. Likewise, the metaphor of monsters (females) = rapists entered the American and the international psyches. Accompanying this development was another role reversal. If men were now acceptable as victims, women were now acceptable as protective heroines. It is not only the male Marines in Alien and its successors who fight against the monster; Lt. Ripley also protects and defends her crew. The only difference is that she succeeds, whereas her male comrades fail.
The male victim is unsettling because of these role reversals. Sex and gender are basic to the human condition, and it is disturbing when assumptions that are taken for granted as being true are challenged or overturned. In a society that has regarded women as weaker and dependent upon men for protection, the depiction of men as weak and dependent upon women for protection runs counter to convention and is, therefore, distressing. Horror fiction capitalizes upon anything that is disturbing, and the use of the male victim provides another means of effecting disquiet that can, with a shove at the right moment, effect horror.
In horror fiction, weakness of any kind--physical, emotional, spiritual, or even of gender identity--is punished swiftly, violently, and, frequently, lethally. The implication that being a victim is not a good thing and that it does not give one immunity from personal responsibility or the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” whether the universe is of divine origin or not, is a censure to the permissiveness of a society that has come to all-but-idolize victims. In horror fiction, one had better not pout and had better not cry, for the Santa Claus who’s coming to town might just be a sociopathic killer in disguise.