Women see more horror movies than men, and no one seems to know why.
I've always loved horror, personally. I was a sullen girl as a teenager, and on the rare occasion that I'd be invited to hang out with other women I'd always want to watch something that made me seem more worldly than these other girls. The hard part was hiding the fact that I was scared shitless.
After my family rented The Ring I went up to bed and stared at the ceiling, gripping my sheets after hearing the TV turn on — my brother liked to watch it after everyone went to sleep. The last time I saw that movie, I made my then-boyfriend change his old-timey telephone ringtone.
I thought for a while that women like horror movies just because they usually star women. The "final girl" trope is as old as the genre itself, and these women have to be characters that are smart enough to not only make it to the end of the movie, but win. These women do things; they're fuller characters than the ones who surround them, because these movies don't work if they're not.
[Ed. note: This piece contains spoilers for the 2014 film The Guest.]
But it isn't just that. The only way I can explain it is this: My old roommate used to do this really annoying thing where I'd be complaining about my day, and he'd ask me what I was doing about it. I sat him down to explain that yeah, I'd already considered all those options. I didn't need advice. I needed him to tell me that my problems were actual, real problems. Just listen, and say, "Man, that sucks."
It isn't just that the women in these movies have to do things — we have to understand what they're afraid of. We as viewers need to understand not just the physical fears, of death, of bones breaking, of torture. These movies aim to make the things these women fear the fears of the audience as well.
In It Follows, Jay, played by Maika Monroe, is lying in her boyfriend's car in her pink bra and panties. She and her boyfriend have just had sex for the first time. She's lying across the back seat, head out the car door, idly gripping a flower that has sprung up from the concrete. She's talking about how she imagined all this when she was a girl — holding hands with a hot guy, going on dates in his car.
"It was never about going anywhere, really," she says, "Just having some sort of freedom, I guess." Her boyfriend, Hugh, kisses her gently on her back, then reaches around and presses chloroform to her lips until she passes out.
The central conceit of It Follows is that Jay has caught something from Hugh — a curse in the form a person that follows her. It will follow her until it catches up to her, and then it will kill her. It can look like people she knows and doesn't know — an elderly woman in a white nightgown; her friend Yara; a naked man who stands on her roof, watching her drive away. It is stronger than her. She can run all she wants — it will find her. The only way she can get rid of it is to have sex with someone else, and even then, if it kills them, it will work its way back down the chain to her.
It's tempting to try to figure out what it this all "means," as if meaning is a logic puzzle that has an absolute answer. The director, David Robert Mitchell, has stated that he doesn't particularly care.
For me, all I can think about is the dress Jay chooses when she goes out with Hugh, a pink sundress. Her pink bra and shorts. Her pink nail polish on her thumb as she clutches that flower. Maika Monroe looks particularly young in It Follows, so young that I didn't even recognize her even though I had recently watched The Guest, another horror film in which she stars.
All these kids look young, though judging by the scant context clues in the movie, they should be about 19 or 20.
Meaning isn't a logic puzzle that has an absolute answer.
That was around the age I started dating for real, started having sex and letting myself be vulnerable to men. I discovered when I lost my virginity that it isn't the sex that hurts. He wasn't a particularly capable lover, and we were so hungover but I had just wanted to get it over with, finally. It's everything that comes after. All of the men who never called me back. The things I heard about myself from friends (he said, "She was so eager it almost frightened me"). The people who were different in the morning — the ones who, I found out later, had girlfriends.
The first time you feel that deep hurt, it can take the wind out of you, but that emotional risk doesn't ever stop. It is not how we imagined it as girls. All of that pain, it follows you.
The character Maika Monroe plays in The Guest, Anna, feels much older than Jay. She's got the flat affect of a person who's been through a lot of psychic pain. It's tempting to see this as sort of a continuation of Jay, but Anna's also 20 — she's just been through some shit. Her older brother was in the military and died overseas; her parents don't approve of her boyfriend, and she dates him in secret, smoking weed on playgrounds at night.
When the titular guest, David, comes to stay with her family, she is inherently distrustful of him. He's clean-cut, dressed in a light blue polo shirt, and she's got a stick and poke tattoo on her index finger and dark eye shadow on.
But he says all the right things. He does all the right things. He won't let her drive home from a party because she's stoned. He tells her, "If I had a girl like you back home, I wouldn't have gone to the Middle East to get shot at."
When he tells her this, she doesn't know it is just after he's slept with one of her friends, and days before he will murder Anna's mother and father. And she does what I always do when I like a boy — she offers to make him a mixtape.
The Guest wants you to sexualize David, to see him how Anna sees him. When she catches him coming out of the shower, a huge plume of steam wafts out around him, his toned body glistening, his arm tensing as he grips a towel by his hip. She sighs, overwhelmed. In my bed, I reach my hand out to play the scene again.
Later in the film, when the bloom has gone from the rose, David looks less glistening and more clammy; his crooked smile has turned into a grimace, his face dotted with flecks of blood. He's a monster.
I always try to vet who I like with my female friends before making a move. You can't ever be too sure. Sometimes I feel like no one I like will ever be good enough for my friends, but the truth is that we've all just been burned in the same way.
Finding the monsters
The last guy I made a mixtape for (I mailed it to him, collaged a cover, wrote him a letter telling him how much I appreciated his warmth and his kindness; he loved it, asked to call me, just so he could hear my voice) told me that he was kinda, sorta seeing someone else too, and they were dating now. My old roommate said, "Man, that sucks," because he'd learned his lesson.
The truth is, I'd love it if everyone could see the man I made a mixtape for as a monster, too. When David strangles Anna in a high school gym at the very end of The Guest, her mixtape is playing on the speakers.
The song playing goes, "Oh Anthonio, my Anthonio, you got everything you ever wanted from me." When I first met the man I made a mixtape for, he had been my camp counselor. He was responsible for my safety. That man I made a mixtape for wasn't trying to kill me, but I felt like I was dead.
I don't think what I love about horror movies is what every woman loves about them. I don't even think it's intentional. But I want to reach out to Jay and Anna because I understand them — the things chasing them are the things that are chasing me too. Here are the things I am afraid of. Now you know that they are real.