Final scene from Blair Witch Project: Does going downstairs mean feminist transgression?
Continuing my research on some of the classic films of the horror genre, I found this interesting bit on the gendered politics of space in 1999’s The Blair Witch Project:
Both the witch and the protagonist [Heather Donahue …] overstep their boundaries in a world that does not accept such trespasses (the witch by the very fact that she has dared to be a witch and, in so doing, reject norms of society—and the protagonist because she investigates this transgression). „Do not go downstairs,“ „do not go into the woods,“ „do not talk to strangers,“ and „do not open the door when you are alone“ are recurring warnings in the horror genre, yet these warnings also bleed into real psychological and sociological lessons: „Do not trespass, cross gender boundaries, or stray from social norms.“ Curbing curiosity has become a horror film tradition. We learn, adopt, and agree that curiosity is a dangerous notion.
Punishing women who trespass into forbidden realms and thus threaten to aquire too much knowledge and become too powerful has been a constant theme in horror movies, Deneka C. MacDonald argues.
(Actually, one could even extend MacDonald’s feminist reading/criticism by pointing out that in horror flicks, women who exert too much power in the domestic realm are punished as well, cf. Psycho.)
Yet, I’m not sure we can easily apply these observations to all horror movies, or, more particularly, to the slasher subgenre as a whole. (A genre of which The Blair Witch Project is not necessarily a part, but which MacDonald repeatedly refers to in her argument). In fact, Carol Clover argues that teenie slasher flicks can instead be read as tales of female empowerment. After all, the final girl as the sole survivor of a psychopathic killer becomes the agent of her own liberation by killing (or, if the director has sequels planned, by scaring away) the murderer, usually using his own weapons. Among other examples, Wes Craven’s Scream (1996) comes to mind.
To give MacDonald some credit, this is certainly not the case in the proto-slasher-flick, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). Here, it’s the male hero who promptly appears in the final scene to save the helpless girl from her tormentor. It’s even worse if we move further back in movie history and look at Victor Halperin’s White Zombie (1932). Throughout that particular film, the protagonist Madeleine is portrayed as the passive object of male desires and power games. In the end, very much like in fairy tales, she is given away to the man who saves her from the monster (to be fair, she doesn’t just change captivity like princesses in ancient dragon slayer tales, as she’s been voluntarily married to her saviour before).
The need to torment an attractive young woman to arouse feelings in the (presumably male and heterosexual) audience has been explained at least as early as 1850, by the grandmaster of horror narratives, Edgar Allan Poe, in his essay The Poetic Principle. In this regard, despite being a movie that still blows my mind, it seems when it comes to gender, The Blair Witch Project is a little more „dated“ than other contemporary horror films.
P.S.: Also in Scream, there are women who are murdered while behaving perfectly in accordance with sexist demands, such as making popcorn for their boyfriends or going to get some more beers for the guys, which maybe just means that the meta-narrative of Scream is a bad example… or rather that the horror genre as a whole is far too creative, complex and elusive for one-size-fits-all explanations.