Carrie White is not someone you'd normally call trendy. In every incarnation of her (horror) story, she's a mess, beginning with Stephen King's 1974 novel Carrie, and continuing through a 1976 film directed by Brian De Palma; a 1988 stage musical, revived in 2012; a 2002 TV movie; and now a new feature directed by Kimberly Peirce, starring Chloe Grace Moretz. In each, Carrie is first an awkward 17-year-old outcast, and later, a blood-smeared symbol of vengeance, wreaking telekinetic havoc on her enemies at the high-school prom.
But last weekend, when Peirce's Carrie opened in North America, earning $16-million at the box office, the film became part of a trend that, while not exactly news, continues to grow: 54 per cent of its audience was female, and 56 per cent of those were under 25. "It's not a huge number more women, but it destroys the myth that these films are being made for 13-year-old boys," Jeff Bock, the senior box-office analyst for the Exhibitor Relations Company, said in a phone interview this week. "We used to be surprised when a horror film tilted female. We're not any more."
Horror in general is hot right now, and not because it's Halloween. While several would-be blockbusters tanked in 2013, horror turned a tidy profit throughout the year. The zombie-contagion film World War Z, starring Brad Pitt, took in $540-million worldwide. The Conjuring, a haunted-house thriller with a $20-million budget, starring Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson, earned $310-million. Insidious: Chapter 2 – another haunted house, also starring Wilson, and costing a mere $5-million – has earned $118-million. The horror-fantasy Twilight franchise wrapped up, too, grossing nearly $1.4-billion over its five films.
Female ticket-buyers are responsible for much of that heat.
The 2013 reboot of the Evil Dead franchise saw its box office jump exponentially over its 1980s version, helped by a new female lead who replaced the old macho hero, attracting more women. And the opening-weekend audience for the supernatural spooker Mama, starring Jessica Chastain, was a whopping 61-per-cent female. (It went on to gross over $146-million.)
The trend holds on TV and Netflix, too, with women tuning in to American Horror Story: Coven, True Blood, The Vampire Diaries, Hemlock Grove and the current monster of all monster shows, The Walking Dead. There's even a non-profit organization, Viscera, dedicated to expanding women's roles in the horror genre; it sponsors a Women in Horror Month and a female-centric film festival.
The reasons that women are rolling around in the supernatural muck, both as creators and consumers, are as numerous as those zombies chasing Pitt down a lab corridor. One, says Dave Alexander, the editor-in-chief of Toronto-based Rue Morgue, the world foremost horror magazine, is that cheaper filmmaking technology and changing modes of distribution opened doors for a lot of new filmmakers – "many of them women," he says, "who bring a more female perspective" to the old tropes.
"For example, Jen and Sylvia Soska, twins from Vancouver, made American Mary, an ambitious film with a strong woman protagonist – a med student – that touches on topics, including a rape-revenge fantasy and squeamish female-body horror, that are important to women."
Carrie director Peirce agrees that her perspective made a difference to the story she was telling. "I would never say, 'It's better that a woman directed it,'" she said in a phone interview this week. "But I was able to draw from my life experience as a daughter and a female-bodied person when I was rewriting the story and directing the actors."
Peirce, who also made Stop-Loss, and directed Hilary Swank to an Oscar for Boys Don't Cry, saw Carrie in a way others may not have – as a classic superhero origin story, about a disempowered misfit who suddenly realizes she has powers. She homed in on the love/hate relationship between Carrie and her mother, Margaret (Julianne Moore), and wrote a new opening scene, Carrie's birth. "Something has come out of Margaret, and she doesn't quite know what it is, and it terrifies her," Peirce says. "I think that's a lot of parents' relationships to their children: 'What is it, what's it going to be, what's it going to do to me?' I find there aren't enough mother/daughter stories, even though both men and women crave them."
Another reason for the continuing rise in women's interest in horror: More of the stories have evolved past your basic babysitter slasher. The actress Olivia Scriven (Degrassi: The Next Generation), who is 16, told me she watches at least one horror film a month, either in theatres or on DVD, with groups of friends both male and female. "I like smart movies with backstories and clever details, like The Shining or Insidious," she says. "It's too annoying when it's just about a girl who does all this dumb stuff."
Several of the current big hits – including The Conjuring, the two Insidious films, and the Paranormal Activity franchise, which has two instalments due next year – are about things invading the home and family, traditionally a woman's purview. The spate of torture-horror that arrived after 9/11 has faded, and the TV series about werewolves and vampires "have a soap-opera element to them, which appeals to women," Alexander says.
Women also respond to much of the subtext of today's horror: that the world is still a tough and dangerous place for females. These films and shows provide a forum to discuss those anxieties and exorcise those demons. Beneath its witchy bitchiness, for example, American Horror Story: Coven has a girls-against-the-world vibe: "You've got to start taking care of each other," an older witch told her younger charges in a recent episode. "We have enough enemies on the outside."
"I love that feeling of adrenalin you get watching these movies, like being on a roller coaster," Scriven says. "And I love walking home afterward, being hyper-alert, scaring myself – 'Is someone gonna get me?'" In a world where fewer females than males participate in extreme sports or daredevil acts, maybe watching horror gives young women a taste of that kind of rush.
As the stories have deepened, the women in them have evolved from mere killer-bait into strong, resourceful protagonists. Much has been written about the theory of the Final Girl in horror films (check out Carol Clover's book, Men, Women and Chainsaws). A Final Girl outlasts the other victims and outsmarts the killer; she has muscles, and often a male name: Ripley, Billie, Sidney, Teddy. Jamie Lee Curtis played one in 1978's Halloween, and there were Final Girls throughout the Alien, Scream, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and I Know What You Did Last Summer franchises. Now a strong female protagonist is the norm, Bock says: "Men and women equally like it when women take matters into their own hands."
Alexander cites Buffy the Vampire Slayer as another game-changer. "I can't say enough about it," he says. "Here was a complex female character who was sexy, sexual, strong, fun. She was an empowering figure for women, whom men could connect with and enjoy." He also mentions the female spelunkers in 2005's The Descent, who confront something nasty in a dark cave: "It wasn't about them being female; they weren't there to be 'more' vulnerable. It was just a really good story."
Of course, the fact that women are consuming more horror may be part of a change in the world in general: Women are taking ownership of a lot of things traditionally dominated by men. More women are participating in fan culture and making their voices heard (at New York's most recent Comic-Con, a group of women led a charge against the sexist practice of scantily clad booth girls). And the ongoing 50/50 audience split in horror films demonstrates that everybody, regardless of gender, likes to go to dark places from time to time and scream their demons out.
"I think we like to turn to the people next to us and have fun with them being scared," Peirce says. "Were we strong enough to stand up to [the jolts], or were we weak and got exposed? It's a very engaged relationship with the screen.
"It's funny," she continues. "Horror is like pornography. Even if it's bad it can be satisfying. You're still going to get a rise out of it."
In a movie landscape where it remains difficult to find female protagonists outside romantic comedies, horror is, at the very least, a reliable place to see stories with women at the centre. Young women don't get to play cops or killers, soldiers or spies that often. In horror films, at least, a few get to kick some monster ass.