Badass Women, Stunning Visuals, and Subverting Expectations: Looking Back at This Year in Horror

2018 was a year of amazing horror films. While a certain Vogue article may disagree, 2018 was a year for pushing boundaries in the genre and creating complex female characters who weren’t just vehicles for over-the-top sex scenes. It was a year where “woman” no longer meant singular sex object, with films like Revenge, What Keeps You Alive, and Cam. It was a year of experimentation, as seen in Mandy and Possum, which create unique, and psychedelic, visual experiences. While the past five years have been full of this kind of boundary-pushing, from The VVItch to Get Out, 2018 continued to showcase the diverse voices in the horror community and demonstrate how the face of horror is changing.

While this piece will primarily highlight the positives of horror in 2018, this was not a year without its failures. The Nun, Truth or Dare, Winchester and more made up this year’s big blockbuster releases, and all were met with a resounding shrug; these movies made to draw the big crowds to the box office instead kept the horny teens away. The two horror films that drew crowds this year were A Quiet Place and Hereditary, two films that strayed away from the typical horror narrative and created unique stories that perhaps wouldn’t always make their way into the mainstream. Despite the bigger name flops, indie horror filmmakers really showed up to create pieces of horrifying media that resonated both throughout the horror community, and in some cases larger audiences.

Redefining Genres

Rape-revenge films are commonly exploitative, over-the-top, and torturous to their female characters. Think of films such as I Spit on Your Grave or Ms. 45. But, director Coralie Fargaet wanted to change this with Revenge, a film in the vein of the French New Extremity that uses rape as more than a plot device or site of spectacle.

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‘Cam’ is a Humanizing Portrayal of Sex Work and a Horrifying Look at the Internet

Black Mirror has tapped into our fears of the looming power of technology: cell phones, virtual reality, constant surveillance, it has addressed it all. But many of those episodes address a not-so-distant future. What about the technological fears happening now? Daniel Goldhaber’s film, Cam, addresses our current fears in the digital age, using the perspective of a cam girl who has had her identity stolen.

Lola is a cam girl who aspires to be in the Top 50 performers on her cam website. For those unfamiliar with camming, it is when someone, usually a woman, holds sex shows via webcam. Lola has devoted customers who tip well and even get private Skype chats for the right price. She works hard and has cultivated an online persona and aesthetic that she believes will get her to the top. But, just as she’s hit her stride and on track to hit that coveted top 50 spot, someone steals her account. What comes next is an increasingly bizarre journey to get her account back and find out who did this to her. 

Sex workers in horror are treated like trash. They are extras to be thrown away, women to be punished for their overt sexuality, and scantly-clad figures to be torn apart. However, Cam succeeds in humanizing sex workers and showing them as hard-working people, mostly in part to Isa Mazzei’s involvement. Mazzei, a former sex worker, wrote the film and used many of her own personal experiences with camming for inspiration. This is not a film that demonizes sex work or tries to show Lola that she needs to stop doing it for some kind of retribution. Rather, it shows the reality of profession that is rarely seen in horror, or any genre of film really. Instead of sensationalizing her work or exploiting her body, the film presents her work as a job, something she’s doing for money and how she gains control over those watching her to rake in tips.

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Horror Film’s Terrifyingly Harmful Use of Queer Tropes

Horror is gay. It’s a genre about, among other things, destroying societal conceptions of heteronormativity and domesticity. Gay horror fans like myself see ourselves in these narratives about monstrosity and “otherness” and take hold of them, making them our own. In his book, Queer Horror Film and Television: Sexuality and Masculinity at the Margins, Darren Elliott-Smith says, “…the study of monstrous homosexuality in the horror film has also revealed the celebratory pleasures offered to queer, gay and lesbian viewers’ oppositional identification with the very same monsters that threaten the norm.” Our identities threaten heteronormativity and we cheer on those monsters that do the same. Horror is not only about queerness, but is shaped by queerness, with LGBTQ+ directors, like Clive Barker and Don Manici, creating horror classics such as Hellraiser and Child’s Play, respectively.  

While gay horror directors and fanatics have helped shape horror film, their work is eclipsed by toxic tropes created to “other” LGBTQ+ characters and make them into villains. Horror ultimately reflects societal fears and for much of recent history, society has been afraid of gayness and the threat it poses heteronormative conceptions of family and relationships. While our current cultural context is evolving into a slightly more accepting one, this genre has perpetuated toxic tropes, two of which that I’ll discuss here, that depict LGBTQ+ characters as deviant, horrific monsters.

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