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Female Phantoms

“In any case, ghosts are unusual among movie monsters in that they’re more often female than male, perhaps because their origins lie in the Gothic romantic tradition, which so often features haunted houses, madwomen in the attic and sinister nocturnal goings-on. It’s a particularly female branch of the horror genre, but appeals to male viewers as much as to female ones since it subverts the conventional view of woman as a passive, obedient creature and supposes that the angry, violent, retributive urges suppressed in life may emerge after death in twisted malevolent form.” – The Guardian

Author: Shreya Volety

After living at home without coming in contact with the rest of humanity for seven long months, I can confidently declare I am no longer sane. That is precisely why I found myself digging down the rabbit hole of subreddits that were all discussing why women are often the ghosts in mainstream horror films. Even movies or shows in this genre that I genuinely appreciate are also guilty of having phantoms that are certainly women. And since I had forsaken the concept of working productively, I went on to make an excel spreadsheet of the number of mainstream horror films that were released since 2000, and how many of them featured female ghosts. While it is possible my data set is highly skewed, the number turned out to be 78%. The others were either psychological horror or were centered around a paranormal genderless creature than a ghost per se.

So why are we as a society obsessed with female ghosts?

A weak, but perhaps tolerable explanation that I found in many places was that, technically it was more convenient, both cinematically and aesthetically, to have a long-haired, pale white, high-pitched female ghost walking around than a man of the same proportions. 

(Everything from this point further, is a personal opinion, and I might be completely wrong, so I request my readers, take it with a grain of salt.)

But what I personally feel is a stronger reason, is that in most of these films the victims of the said female ghost, are men. It is much easier for men to be subjects of violence, especially at the hands of a woman, if she happens to be, well…dead.

Most female ghosts are often vindictive, either because they died as a victim of strong sexual violence, or rape, or because they were burned at the stake for being witches, and in some rare occasions (I’m hoping the creators of Conjuring are reading this) it’s because they fall in love with Satan (yep, Satan). And so they’re generally malignant, looking for revenge, possessing live women so that they could commit the same kinds of violence on the men in their lives. Perhaps it is too much to ask for stories where women return alive from deep, disturbing trauma and then reclaim their agency and strength by not committing murder or homicide. Yeah, it is too much. 

While one could (and I’m addressing the one reader who is thinking this) assume that I’m a jobless feminist (yes, I am both) who seems to delight in highlighting patriarchal undertones in mainstream media, what bothers me about this, is that this such a common trope. 

The Haunting of Hill House, which I personally consider one of the best shows in this genre, also has a woman who seems to (for personal reasons) want to kill her own children. But the original novel that the show is based on, was more interested in showing the journey of a complicated, oppressed woman who finds a sense of ironic freedom in dying and being trapped in a house forever (because paranormal sexism is easier to cope with than everyday systemic sexism).

The recent 2020 Hindi thriller, Bulbbul tries to revamp this idea, but fails spectacularly. It falls into the trap of evil vs good. The movie gives a traumatic backstory to a woman, and then justifies her transformation into a vampire-like paranormal creature that “protects” other women from abusive violence. And that is equally troubling. This constant, almost mindless persecution of the living, that most (dead) women in paranormal stories seem to carry on hardly feels strong or glorious. It is not the way to combat violence against women, and it somehow indicates that patriarchy and sexism operate in isolation, one that ghost lady can fight off by simply killing everyone. And it exaggerates the idea of “emotional, sensitive” women that are so passionate, they choose bloodthirsty violence in the afterlife.

In conclusion (because I have no real conclusion), I would recommend three pieces of horror media that I genuinely enjoyed that hopefully don’t fall into the category of films I just spent the last 500 words complaining about – The Shining ( by Stephen King ), The Haunting of Hill House (the novel by Shirley Jackson), and Talaash (written by Zoya Akhtar). 

By thoughtstains

This blog page serves as a platform for the Editorial department of The Hindu Education Plus Club at VIT Vellore. We provide opportunities to budding authors across campus to hone their writing skills. We publish blogs four times a week, where writers can communicate their views on any topic of their choice with our readers.

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