31 Days of Feminist Horror Films: THE BABADOOK


Not wanting to be a mother, or worse yet, being a mother and not loving the experience is still one of the biggest taboos for women in modern society. The Babadook’s greatest frights come not from Mister Babadook himself, but from the terror of being an isolated, broke, single mother with a problem child and no support system.

Essie Davis turns in what should have been an Oscar-nominated performance as Amelia, a single mother to Sam (Noah Wiseman), whose erratic behavior and temper tantrums only intensify after the mysterious storybook of Mister Babadook shows up on their doorstep. Sam becomes convinced that Mister Babadook has taken up residence in their home, and in one of the film’s key scenes, he interrupts Amelia with this knowledge while she tries to masturbate. Female masturbation in film is still fairly rare, and writer-director Jennifer Kent provides a really empathetic beat for Amelia with this scene. Sam has stolen Amelia’s privacy and personal autonomy in every area of her life, as children often do. When Sam invades this incredibly private moment, it’s easy to understand why Amelia has lost all patience with her son. Kent uses this scene to explore how being a mother has neutered Amelia sexually, which mirrors common sentiments about how women lose their sexual agency after becoming mothers. 


Already at the end of her rope and feeling like a madwoman when local authorities intervene (Kent certainly highlights the fact that women are usually put off as paranoid or delusional when dealing with danger, as is the case when Amelia tries to convince police of Mister Babadook’s existence), things only get worse for Amelia when Sam breaks the nose of a young friend after she teases him for not having a father, totally isolating them from their support system. The absence of Amelia’s husband, who died driving Amelia to the hospital for Sam’s birth, looms large for mother and son, and Amelia places a lot of undue blame on her son for his death. Most of Amelia’s characterization stems from the resentment and anger she carries for her son for his role in her husband’s death, when of course he had actually had nothing to do with it — it’s an unlikable stance, but certainly a believable one. When Mister Bababook possesses Amelia, it definitely seems as if she might murder her own child in an attempt to get her husband back, something Mister Babadook has promised. It’s an incredibly bold choice to portray Amelia as ready to kill her son in an attempt to get her husband back, but given Sam’s behavior throughout the film, the audience is able to see where Amelia is coming from, even if they can’t fully empathize with her.



Sam’s love ultimately helps Amelia rid herself of Mister Babadook (though not before she tries to strangle him in another maternal taboo-busting scene), but as the storybook promises: you can’t get rid of the Babadook. So, Amelia and Sam learn to live with Mister Babadook in their basement, and the film’s message is ultimately that you can’t ever really get rid of grief or darkness, but you can learn to live with it. Amelia learns to live with her resentment of her son for his inadvertent role in her husband’s death, and can finally reflect on how her own grief-based failings as a mother have impacted Sam’s development. The Babadook is ultimately a horror film about growing through grief, and how the bond between mother and child, even when pushed to the very limits of sanity, can supersede anything that goes bump in the night.

31 Days of Feminist Horror Films: POLTERGEIST



Poltergeist is one of the all-time great cable horror movie staples, and has just enough of the Spielberg touch that it’s not too scary for kids to watch. But like a number of other films on this list, its feminist undertones may not be instantly apparent. Throughout the film, it’s the women who are the agents of change — they’re the ones who are able to stare down the malevolent spirits attacking the Freeling family home, and win. When Carol-Anne gets pulled to the dark side, it’s Papa Freeling (Craig T. Nelson) who crumbles and mopes while Mama Freeling (JoBeth Williams, one of the most badass movie moms ever) refuses to take Carol-Anne’s abduction lying down. While many of the films on this list are about the horrors of motherhood, Poltergeist is about the incredible lengths most moms will go to in order to protect their family against anything, even ghosts.



The initial team of parapsychologists brought into the home are led by a woman (Beatrice Straight), and it’s the violent hallucinations of the male members of the team that force them to slow their research with Carol-Anne still stuck in the phantom zone. It takes another woman, the medium Tangina (the late, great Zelda Rubinstein), to figure out how to bring Carol-Anne to safety. When tasked with deciding who will go after Carol-Anne on the other side, Mrs. Freeling is chosen after her husband, who is often stern towards his daughter, declines the offer. Mrs. Freeling succeeds in rescuing Carol-Anne, and sports a new white streak in her hair after the encounter — sacrificing her own beauty and youth to save her child. It’s tough to imagine a contemporary horror film that would feature three women in various stages of middle-age as the heroines, the ones who are able to buckle down and get the job done when the men around them fail.  


Once Carol-Anne has been safely returned and things appear to be back to normal, Mr. Freeling is again nowhere to be found (he’s off fighting with his lazy boss, who of course caused the whole mess by not moving Native American grave sites) when the spirits start waging an all out war on the family home. Yet again, it’s up to Mrs. Freeling (interrupted while trying to fix that pesky grey streak during a bath) to save her children, muddy pool full of corpses and possessed clowns be damned. 

The debate over whether Poltergeist was a Tobe Hooper film or a Steven Spielberg film has been up widely discussed since the film’s release, but there’s little doubt that Diane Freeling was a Spielberg creation. She joins ET’s Dee Wallace and Close Encounters of the Third Kind’s Melinda Dillon in the trifecta of Spielberg’s badass moms who refuse to cave when strange phenomena threatens the lives of their children. Diane Freeling is the platonic ideal of middle-class motherhood: she’s fun but knows when blunt talk is necessary; she solves crises without breaking a sweat; she’s a great mother and a great partner; and when the going gets tough, she rises to the occasion every time. There’s nothing outwardly radical about her (except for maybe smoking the occasional joint) but her commitment to her family will not be stopped.  The very fact that Poltergeist achieves gender parity among its cast makes it one of the more progressive horror films of the 1980s, and today. There’s no power like a mother’s fierce love and dedication to her children, and Poltergeist shows that even the underworld is no match for a determined mom.

31 Days of Feminist Horror Films: REPULSION



It’s impossible to discuss Roman Polanski without bringing up his incredibly troubling personal life, he created two of the most singular depictions of female madness – madness sprung forth from the violence that men allow and perpetuate –  in his horror features Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby, just before the emergence of second-wave feminism in the early 1970s. The latter film (based on Ira Levin’s bestseller) follows a more traditional structure and has a more sensational narrative hook, but Repulsion, Polanski’s first English language film, is devoted to occupying one woman’s fractured point of view and deteriorating mental state as the horrors of modern sexuality, dating, and the male species as a whole overwhelm her entire existence, an existence that soon becomes confined to the four walls of her empty London apartment.

The focus on a female protagonist who is completely paralyzed by her fears of progressive 1960s sexuality provides this film with a cultural viewpoint that reflects the changing of the guard for 1960s women headed into the sexual revolution: for Carol’s swinging sister, relaxed, changing attitudes about sexuality and dating are liberating, but for Carol, they’re absolutely debilitating. Horror allowed Polanski and co-writer Gerald Brach to explore these female fears of progressive sexuality when other genres, especially in the late 1960s, may not have offered the same opportunity.

Carol, played with distant, doe-eyed restraint by Catherine Deneuve, is a protagonist steeped in contradiction of the “right” ways a woman should look and behave: she’s a manicurist who can’t stop biting her nails and struggles to feign interest in the dating woes of her co-workers. She’s a rare beauty who could have any man she wants, but can barely make eye contact during a lunch date with a potential suitor. Trappings of the traditional feminine – preparing a meal, having a spa day, being kissed in a convertible – are transformed into grotesque tableaus of rotting rabbit and potato skins, a distorted reflection in a silver tea kettle, a thick white face mask flaking off, compulsive teeth-brushing following the kiss. The kitchen, traditional domesticity personified, is a place of particular horror for Carol, as flies gather on the aforementioned rotting rabbit, a faucet (one of many phallic symbols in the film) leaks relentlessly, dirty dishes pile up.

Roman Polanski working with Catherine Deneuve on the set of Repulsion


It’s one thing to present a female character who is a stark-raving lunatic and monstrous to those around her, but it’s a much more impressive trick to create a protagonist like Carol, who is her own antagonist throughout the film. Predatory men like a faux-paternal, lecherous landlord come into play in a major way in the film’s third act, but it’s Carol’s own fractured psyche and perception of those around her that create the most believable obstacles for Carol, especially, as with the landlord, when the imagined, nebulous horrors become personified and must be destroyed.

Repulsion is all about sexual symbolism: a tear in a bedside wall Carol can’t stop fingering, a candlestick used as a blunt murder weapon, a platter of that persistently decaying rabbit with a man’s straight razor in its blood, the rabbit’s heart carried in Carol’s handbag, potatoes that have sprouted, seeping bathroom walls. This sort of symbolism may seem a bit obvious today, but to present such an imagistic look at a modern London woman’s fear of sexuality and men in 1965 was truly radical. When bludgeoning one suitor with a candlestick or taking a razor to another, Polanski places the camera in the POV of the suitor, and we feel each desperate, trapped strike from Carol.



As the film draws to its inevitable conclusion in the last fifteen minutes, Carol’s apartment becomes a full-on grotesque tableau of trashed furniture, a kitchen in total squalor, and two pesky corpses Carol has no way of disposing of. Repulsion’s most famous shot – Carol moving down a hallway filled with outstretched male hands coming from inside the walls – occurs in this stretch of the film, as she’s literally pulled into the apartment in her state of extreme, male-driven paranoia. Polanski chooses not to dwell on the murder that happens on the third act, but rather its aftermath, as Carol’s sister Helene and her lover Michael return from holiday, and must deal with the results and consequences of Carol’s time alone in the apartment. Deneuve is remarkable in these final moments, as we see her lie catatonic in a room full of neighbors and family. Finally, after Carol is taken away, we end on an old photo of Carol as a child, blankly staring down an older man who we can assume is her father. It’s of course easy to assume that all of Carol’s issues regarding men and sexuality likely stemmed from an abusive father, and Polanski leaves the audience with the message that the madness of women doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and is often the product of violence that has been perpetrated against them by men. Repulsion is one of the very best psychological horror films, and deals with female fears in a totally progressive way that most mainstream films still haven’t caught up with.

This essay also ran on Go Into the Story as a part of their series on 1960s Movies earlier this year.

31 Days of Feminist Horror Films: NEAR DARK


Kathryn Bigelow is often criticized for making testosterone-filled films that don’t focus on women, but I don’t think any man could construct action thrillers the way she does. Near Dark, her second feature after the biker picture The Loveless, is a vampire western with a spooky synth score from Tangerine Dream, and Bigelow lets this unique fusion guide her unconventional choices throughout the film. It’s these unconventional choices that allow Near Dark to stand apart from almost every other vampire film — the word “vampire” is never even said, Bigelow trusts her audience to keep up.

Young cowboy Caleb (Adrian Pasdar) is absorbed into a centuries-old gang of vampires after he’s seduced by the mysterious Mae (Jenny Wright). This is an immediate subversion of the male predator/female prey vampire narrative, and Caleb’s tender turning into bloodsucker predates Twilight by 20 years. Bigelow really nails the eroticism of vampire bites throughout the film with a slowing down of the score, and a soft, sensual focus on blood, fangs, and the licking of lips when Caleb and Mae are together. The surrogate family dynamic that develops as Caleb tries to assimilate with the vampire clan (which also includes Lance Henriksen, Jenette Goldstein, and the film’s true star, Bill Paxton) while they travel through the American Southwest is a total delight to watch. Henriksen and Goldstein assume parental roles as the clan’s longterm patriarch and matriarch, and they fight like only an eternally bound together couple can. It’s worth considering if their relationship as vampires guiding their group from massacre to massacre is Bigelow’s reflection the institution of long-term coupling as a whole (Bigelow was of course once married to James Cameron, but that marriage didn’t begin until 1989) and the ensuing difficulties that follow when you really are stuck with someone forever.

(Henriksen and Bigelow while filming) 

The film’s standout scene takes place at a roadside biker bar where the vampires decide they’ll have a hearty feast. Paxton, as the appropriately named Severen, becomes the alpha in this moment, full of sexy, cocksure swagger. Bigelow’s smoky, flattering lighting of Severen totally falls within the female gaze, as does his grungy biker aesthetic, which is an extreme take on the idea that “girls love bad boys.” Bigelow also finds a great deal of homoeroticism in Severen’s sexually motivated tormenting of a bar patron — speculating about what it would be like to fuck his mother; bristling at his beard by saying “I hate it when they ain’t been shaved!”; and the film’s finest moment of pop awareness, a post-feeding pronouncement of the blood as “finger-lickin’ good.” This attack looks looks quite a bit like a makeout session, with Severen assuming the dominant role, even over Henriksen, who’s age keeps him from having the same immediate sex appeal as Paxton. The biker bar massacre is an incredibly violent scene, but Bigelow chooses to focus on far more than just visceral gore — Severin’s new, cool sunglasses, the perspiration on a beer bottle, the dull neon glow of the whole scene — to give the scene an incredibly authentic, tactile vibe.



The ultimate takeaway of Near Dark is hopeful, as Caleb and Mae chose mortal love over eternal life, and it’s an especially optimistic ending given the graphic violence and bloodshed that has come before. This film values the love between Caleb and Mae, and celebrates Caleb’s single father and younger sister as heroes who figure out a cure for their vampirism. For a film that features a ton of vampiric nihilism, this ending beat is a radical departure from the cynical worldview held by the rest of the vampire clan. Near Dark’s influence on vampire love stories might not be immediately apparent, but just look at the film’s updated DVD art to see how large of an impact its subversion of the vampire genre has had.