It may not always be apparent at the time, but film’s tend to be a product of the time period they are made in. Watching an older film, you can usually tell what was happening socially or politically at the time by the themes and ideas explored. When they look back at this decade in film, who knows what they’ll discover other than a crippling addiction to nostalgia (remakes and sequels) and an odd addiction to comic book properties. Since it’s the month of Halloween (yes, like Christmas this holiday deserves a month of hype leading up to the day) we’re taking a look at the horror films of the 70’s and the role the civil rights movement and feminism played in the genre.
In the late 60’s, America was nearing the end of the civil rights movement following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. At this point, for over a decade, there was a fight for equal rights for all African Americans. One of the biggest horror films influenced by this period is easily George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), which introduced the first horror film to ever have a black lead actor as the hero. The film stands out not only because it essentially popularized the zombie genre, or even because of its revolutionary casting decision at the time, but because it treated the black character of Ben (Duane Jones) like any other person instead of purely focusing on his race. This was the goal at the time, equal treatment regardless of skin color. The end of the 60’s marked the end of the civil rights movement, but the start of the American feminist movement, and it is where we get some of the strongest female characters that the genre has delivered to date.
As women in the 70’s were fighting for equal treatment and equal opportunities, the women in horror films were fighting for their lives from an overbearing, typically male, destructive force. They weren’t all as brutal as The Last House on the Left (1972), which could easily be seen to echo the mercilessly oppressive nature of men and their influence over women’s lives. It turns a story of celebration into a nonstop assault of terror that turns into a satisfying revenge romp. The main question it asks the audience is, “What would you do if this happened to your daughter?” Many people would react the same way the parents did in the film, which then turns the film into a pro-feminist metaphor about society, positing that if you truly care about your daughters, you would do anything to protect them from essentially being “abused” and “raped” by a male-dominated society that doesn’t see them as equals.
That wouldn’t be the last time we see women tortured on screen, but it still proves to be the best made film with a purpose behind its savagery. Another Wes Craven film, like The Hills Have Eyes (1977) would showcase the cruelty of humanity to one another, but would also grimly highlight the hope by having a female and the child surviving as the male character sacrifices his life for them. Horror films in the 70’s would carry the theme of female survivors, which would give birth to the trope known as the “final girl”. The final girl is exactly what it sounds like. She’s the last person standing who is forced to confront the big baddie and defeat him. We see this as early as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and well into the end of the decade with Alien (1978),
The final girl is a powerful character, clearly influenced by the feminist movement, but also is a double-edged sword. To get to the final girl, several people must be killed before that, many of who have committed some sort of moral sin, such as having sex out of marriage. The perceived purity behind virginity is a common theme among the survivors of these films. An obvious counter to the free love movement that was part of the feminist movement, since many of the laws created by men were instituted to repress and limit female sexuality. The best example is the film Black Christmas (1974), which shows Jess, a pregnant, out of wedlock sorority girl as our final girl. Through the film, we see how heavy the male gaze is as we witness the oversexualization of these women. Obviously, they are going to die, but what is a welcome surprise is how it subverts the trope by having sexually active Jess openly talk about wanting to have an abortion and letting her become our hero. I don’t have to tell you how taboo the thought of female sexuality was at the time, but adding an open mention of abortion to it was unheard of.
This decade gave us strong characters like Jess, Laurie Strode from Halloween, Ellen Ripley from Alien, and Suzy Bannion from Suspiria, but it wasn’t without its comments on female sexuality. As I mentioned before, this topic was unheard of in “polite” society. At the time, women having sex for pleasure was as outrageous of an idea to men as pulling out of Vietnam and conceding defeat was to the government. You see this multiple times during the 70’s, having women ostracized for something as natural as going through puberty. Two of the best known examples of the decade are The Exorcist (1973) and Carrie (1976). Both have deep religious themes, attributing female sexuality to a form of demonic possession, but where The Exorcist plays right into the idea, Carrie subverts it by highlighting how steeped in insanity it really is. The character of Regan (Linda Blair) in The Exorcist is part of a world of excess that includes open sexuality and heavy drinking, everything Catholicism is against. Both films have a message that the sins of the parents are being exacted on the child, but The Exorcist sides with Catholicism by having Regan’s puberty related changes turn into a demonic possession. Meanwhile, Carrie’s (Sissy Spacek) puberty related changes manifest in telepathic and telekinetic abilities that her religiously fanatic mother attributes to Satan. While Regan is vaginally pleasuring herself with a crucifix (much to the blasphemy related horror of the audience), Carrie is covered in blood and slaughtering people in what can only be assumed to represent the way men (Stephen King) view “menstrual rage”.
You can see the battling of both points of view, pro- and anti-feminist, in the horror films of the decade because that’s exactly the conversation happening at the time. During this time, the birth of a horror sub genre can be witnessed as a response to it. The slasher horror genre is one we still see today in new films, remakes and sequels. It was clearly made as a response to the feminist movement, but whether it was made as a way to introduce strong female characters fighting men/the patriarchy, or as a way to fulfill some strange fetish of watching women get tortured/terrorized can be argued. What can’t be argued is the impact this decade in film had and still has in contemporary horror films.