The Gaslighting of Scream Queens

By E.E.W. Christman

In Hereditary, Annie knows something isn’t right in her house. Her mother has passed away, and yet she sees her in her workroom. Her daughter Charlie is acting strange as well. The disturbing occurrences only escalate after Charlie is killed in a tragic car accident. When Annie turns to the supernatural to cope with her grief, her husband is disbelieving. He believes she is hysterical, that she is tumbling toward a mental breakdown and is dragging the rest of her family with her. When Annie tries to warn him that there is something in their house that means them harm, he can only react with a mix of pity and disdain. And then he dies. Because of course, something was wrong all along. Annie was right. 

This is a common trope in horror films featuring female leads. The scares often rely on the protagonist not being believed to create a stifling atmosphere of entrapment. There is no help and no escape from the monster under your bed. For women, this type of gaslighting is often all too real. Women are told that their pain and their fear isn’t real. Although no longer recognized as a mental illness, the concept of “hysteria” is still relevant. Hysteria used to be thought of as a physical ailment rather than one of the mind. The Greeks believed the uterus moved around in the woman’s body, eventually causing sickness. Beginning in the 19th century, however, it started being classified as a mental illness. Symptoms included anxiety, irritability, and sexual promiscuity, but hysteria was often weaponized to dismiss women who were considered “difficult” or who were “overreacting.” 

Sound familiar? 

The social trappings of this incredibly biased “disease” continue to this day. While you can’t be committed for a fit of hysteria, you can be shunned by friends, family, and coworkers for being labeled “a bitch.” Women who speak up about their marginalization are often pushed back down. This is how structural sexism (and all forms of institutional marginalization) keep their power: by minimizing any dissenting opinions. Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby is painted as a delusional young woman not only by her neighbors, doctors, and friends, but by her own husband. She believes her neighbors are doing something to her baby, but wherever she turns for help, she is only met with condescendance. For a time, even Rosemary begins to believe that it’s all in her head in a disturbing reflection of the dynamic often found in abusive relationships. She’s being gaslighted so effectively, she normalizes the trauma. It isn’t until the climax of the movie that Rosemary realizes that she had been right all along, and everyone who told her not to worry was actually in on the cover-up (even her husband). We see this in Dario Argento’s cult classic Suspiria, where a young woman arrives at a private school that is actually a coven, and again in Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak, where, yet again, a young woman is trapped, this time by her husband and sister in law. We see this exact scenario repeated across the decades in horror from all mediums: a woman, isolated from the world and kept confined by some force, often a husband or family member. Think Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca (1938), Charlotte Perkin Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper (1892), or Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw (1898). All of these stories feature women, kept in large, out-of-the-way estates, and forced to face demons, real or supernatural, that they were told weren’t even there to begin with. 

So, do these tropes continue in male-centric stories? The answer is, sometimes. Historically, men haven’t experienced the social isolation of, say, moving into a spouse’s family home. When trying to make something scary, it’s hard to disentangle these cultural expectations from what will frighten us. In male-driven stories, the horror often resides in brutality. The unnamed men trapped in Saw must resort to violent tactics in an attempt to escape, and Ash in The Evil Dead 2 faces hordes of zombies. More often than not, these heroes must fight off women or monsters resembling women. Brent in The Loved Ones becomes Lola’s latest victim when she decides to abduct him. Often, the femme antagonists’ powers are derived directly from their sexuality. Vamp features vampire strippers who lure men to a grisly fate, Jennifer’s Body is about a teenage succubus, and Ginger in Ginger Snaps becomes a bloodthirsty lycanthrope as she hits puberty. These caricatures are reminiscent of the femme fatale often found in film noire: promiscuous, self-serving, and manipulative. The femme fatale, however, is not usually a monster. In fact, she’s usually a love interest. However, the femme fatale often suffers dire consequences for her amoral behavior. The message is clear: bad girls must be punished. In these horror films, the femme fatale is taken to an extreme, becoming less human and more grotesque, but the implication remains the same. Difficult women, or women who don’t fit the mold, are villains. So, women characters in horror are either being gaslighted into hysterics, or shoehorned into the vindictive seductress. This is darkly reminiscent of the Madonna/Whore Complex, where women are either portrayed as virgins or sluts. 

We have two contrasting pictures: one of isolation, and one of domination. Both are born of cultural expectations and gender roles, and succeed in not only reflecting these dynamics, but in reinforcing them. In horror, women are consistently painted as either damsels in distress, the victims who aren’t believed, or the temptresses. Meanwhile, men are physically pitted against monsters and abominations, fighting for their lives against the supernatural. But these characters do not strive to challenge the status quo; they simply must survive it. Of course, there are exceptions. In You’re Next, a family goes to their remote vacation home for a weekend getaway. During a socially strained dinner, an arrow shoots through the window and immediately kills someone. At this point, the family slips into panic and chaos. Everyone except for Felix’s girlfriend. Erin is the opposite of a damsel in distress. Raised in a survivalist camp in the outback, a switch is flipped in Erin’s brain. She goes from polite and helpful grad student to efficient killing machine in an instant. And when Felix reveals that he is behind the massacre, Erin doesn’t flounder in emotional turmoil; she takes quick, decisive action. However, even in a movie that is trying to comment on women in media, the heroine doesn’t walk away from her fight. In a grim homage to Dawn of the Dead, Erin is shot by a confused country cop who arrives on the scene. It appears that fighting against social constructs doesn’t actually diminish the punishment. Erin isn’t the good girl; she’s self-sufficient, brutal, and aggressive. Historically, society punishes these kinds of women. You’re Next is no exception. And even while this film is trying to lift up its protagonist, it still can’t get away from the villainous temptress trope. The female antagonist, Zee, is dark and wicked, clearly pushing her boyfriend into killing his own family. She even tries to have sex with him next to his mother’s corpse. Erin may be pushing boundaries, but Zee is a garden-variety vixen. 

As horror has evolved over the years, the heroines have not. They are still cowering beneath the oppressive forces that attempt to bend them to their will. These women of horror are often fighting their own loved ones in a bleak parallel to reality; women are usually assaulted or killed by those closest to them, often boyfriends or husbands. Let’s return to Hereditary. Annie knows there is a force in her house. First, she believes it’s her mother. Then, her daughter. Once things escalate, Annie doesn’t know what to believe. The backdrop to these suspicions is an ominous family history: a cruel and complicated mother who drove Annie’s brother to suicide and attempted to hijack the parenting of her granddaughter. We, the audience, know she is responsible for everything that has gone wrong for Annie. We also know that something much more sinister is at work. Her mother was responsible for tearing her entire family apart. However, Annie’s husband Steve doesn’t buy it. Where Annie sees the supernatural, he sees another mental breakdown. Even here, where the husband is clearly not the villain, Steve becomes yet another hurdle. His role is the nay-sayer, but in the end, he comes off as a gaslighter. Even well-intentioned men don’t believe women when it comes to horror (and real life). Think about every girl saying, “What’s that?” as her boyfriend tries to make out with her. Think about every woman saying, “I don’t want to go in there.” 

Women are dismissed, their concerns left by the wayside as the group goes marching off to their doom. Even as the heroines, the narrative considers them unreliable at best. So, the women of horror sit with their invisible pain and fear, forever waiting for their monster to come for them. 

E.E.W. Christman is a horror & dark fantasy author. She received her Master’s in Creative Nonfiction from Ohio University before moving to the west coast. She now lives on Lake Sammamish near Seattle, WA where she spends her time stringing nonsense words together. Find her online at her website or on Twitter.