BY DEMI MANGLONA
The sexy, dumb blonde girl always dies first.
Without identifying the genre, you can probably narrow it down and attribute this common trope to horror media. Though there are many cliches that define mainstream horror, hypersexualizing a woman that is more than likely bound to die is the most overused and arbitrary of them all.
Bathroom horrors are near the top of the list when it comes to sexualization and horror tropes in general. We have all seen this scene: the lighting is dark, the music gets louder and the bass intensifies. There’s an intruder creeping through the house. He heads straight to the bathroom, where a helpless woman is showering. Sometimes, he rips back the curtain and exposes a wide-eyed girl frantically backing into the bathroom walls. Other times, he reveals a bloody corpse in the tub, blonde hair still perfectly intact despite her violent demise. In either scenario, the woman is naked for obvious reasons, but did the murder have to take place in the bathtub?
Whether you thought of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, or Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street, there is no denying that there are more realistic ways for a horror antagonist to get their gore. It may be argued that there’s a haunting vulnerability when a murderer finds a victim in their most intimate state, but vulnerability should not always be exploited through nudity. There are more effective ways to evoke fear without stripping a female victim.
Think of American Horror Story’s first season, Murder House. In the sixth episode, we see a therapy patient shake with anxiety just talking about his fear of the Pig Man, whose legend takes after the better-known Bloody Mary. By the end of the episode, he learns to conquer his fear and recites “Here piggy, piggy, pig” in front of bathroom mirror three times, hoping to prove to himself that his dread is merely a culmination of his irrational phobia. He laughs while saying the line for the third time; his fears are subsiding. Then, without notice, he is shot dead by a burglar hiding in the bathtub.
This is how directors can deliver a sense of dread while also using a typical trope. The scene bypasses the cliche and avoids unnecessary nudity. The man was not taking a steaming shower while the intruder waited for him. He did not look oddly luxurious with a bullet through his head. The build-up is more interesting than the actual murder. When a director shifts the focus on the dying woman’s naked body, it takes away from the horror that no one wants to experience in their own home. By sexualizing a shower scene that was meant to be eerie, it implies that a woman should always keep one eye open.
The gruesome deaths are only the beginning of horrifying hypersexualization, and American Horror Story is certainly not free of needless erotic moments. In the very next episode, it shows a main character’s explicit fantasies during masturbation, filled with moans and as much skin as American television allows. The intimate scene suddenly cuts to a grim sexual memory, alluding to a traumatic event that happened earlier in the season. Using a woman’s trauma to advance a horror story line is neither helpful to the plot, nor is it helpful for anyone dealing with their own traumas in real life. This theme of sexually abused women are present in popular horror films like Pet Semetary 2, Evil Dead and the remake of The Hills Have Eyes—none of which needed the graphic, hard-to-watch scenes to advance the plot.
In a more subtle sense, the female characters are always attractive at all times. This is common in movies in general, but for horror, it is unrealistic for a woman’s hair to maintain its style when tripping over a fallen branch in the woods. Even when her hair is matted in blood, there’s still an allure behind the disgust. Take any rendition of Carrie, for example. As thick, red liquid pours all over her body, somehow her hair is still perfectly slicked back. Somehow the blood is covering her entire body except her cleavage.
Though it is more of a scary suspense movie than a horror, I Don’t Feel At Home In This Place Anymore shows accurate depictions of how women really look. More importantly to the genre, it shows how women really look while running away from a crazed psychopath. Not only does the female protagonist look filthy and distressed during the climax, but when another woman is shot, her eyes roll to the back of her head as she falls to the floor. There is no close up of her squinted eyes, her wide-open mouth, or any screams that sound unnaturally sexual. The original Netflix film does not shy away from the true ugliness of death, which is what a director should aim for when executing a homicide.
In rare cases, nudity is necessary, but only because there is a deeper meaning behind it. Take It Follows. There is symbolism in a monster disguised as a naked human who stalks a character after they have sex. The film’s nudity had less to do with appealing to the male gaze, and more to do with hollowness of casual promiscuity. The Silence of the Lambs may center around a sexual sadist, but the antagonist’s desires are present for the purpose of visceral, psychological fear — not because a woman’s skin is inherently provocative.
With the plethora of horror media directors have presented to us throughout history, it is nearly impossible to create a movie that escapes the usual formula. Some tropes are effective when used tastefully, but sexualizing women to attract viewers is simply outdated. To put it blatantly, there is an overwhelming presence of sexism in films and television, even in spooky ghost stories where sex isn’t an important aspect to begin with. Leave the nudity to pornography; most of the time it does not fit with the horror genre, nor does it add any substance to the plotlines.
Demi Manglona can be reached at email@example.com