When women transgress the boundaries
of knowledge, power, or gender in the contemporary horror film,
they are reprimanded to varying degrees. In slasher films such as
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1988-1995), Friday the 13th
(1987-1996), Halloween (1983-1999), Witchcraft (1984),
The Shining (1980), or The Exorcist (1985), women
who open doors, go downstairs, answer the phone, or talk to strangers
die. Women who give up their virginity within a given film also
die, as Randy so ironically points out in the postmodern horror
film Scream (1996). Scream is an interesting diversion
from conventional horror in its intertexuality, self examination,
and deconstructionist techniques. To that end, Randy is quick to
point out in the film that the cops don't watch enough movies—implying
that if they did, they might catch more killers. "If it gets
too complicated, you lose your target audience," he explains.
"If they [the cops] watched Prom Night, they'd save
time. There's a formula to it! A very specific formula." Scream
also addresses the gendering of the horror film several times, most
notably when Sidney states that she doesn't "watch that shit"
(horror films) because "there'll all the same. Some stupid
killer stalking some big breasted girl who can't act, and she's
always running up the stairs when she should be going out the door.
It's insulting." INDEED! Pioneering in its attempt to deconstruct
the contemporary horror film, Scream is perhaps the exception
to the rule that transgressions are never allowed. Unfortunately,
this is not the case for most horror films.
In the latter part of the twentieth century,
in "Notes Toward a Politics of Location," Adrienne Rich
effectively talks about the politics of location, insisting on the
importance of this subject for women and making it an integral aspect
of second wave feminism. Since then, several feminist academics
have taken location seriously and dedicated much of their scholarly
work towards exploring how we, as women, interact in/with our various
surroundings. Typically, feminists in the fields of geography, anthropology,
and sociology have tended to focus on three specific areas: public/private
space, the sexual politics of space, and transparent space. Transparent
or abstract spaces have recently been extended to include the dynamics
of language by feminists such as Shirley Ardener who contends that
all physical areas have sets of rules which determine how they will
be crossed and who will occupy the particular space (11). She adds
that "the extended use of such spatial terms is firmly embedded
in the language in which this is written" (11). Thus, Ardener
sees the language of spaces as equally important in defining gender
boundaries. Quoting terms such as "high society" and "narrow-mindedness,"
she formulates her argument whereby the notion of the so-called
"real world" and the social reality of that world intersect
and are, therefore, inter or co-dependent:
Societies have generated their own rules, culturally determined,
for making boundaries on the ground, and have divided the social
into spheres, levels and territories with invisible fences and
platforms to be scaled by abstract ladders and crossed by intangible
bridges with as much trepidation or exultation as on a plank over
a raging torrent. (12)
Using a brilliant string of metaphors here,
Ardener emphasizes not only the difficulty one has in crossing social
spheres, but the intangibility of their very nature as abstract
boundaries. This concept/notion of abstract boundaries is particularly
interesting in looking at the image of the supernatural in literature
because supernatural power is unknown and arguably knows no boundaries,
and, if so, they cannot be firmly determined. Moreover, the supernatural
woman, in particular the witch, by her very nature as unknown and
fearsome, has a literary tradition strongly fused with particular
geographical spaces, most notably the forest.
A figure whose image plays an integral role
in her literary presentation, the "witch" is typically
fused with her "forest." (We certainly see this fusion
in fairy tales like Snow White or Hansel and Gretel,
with the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz, in
Shakespeare's sisters or in Titichaba's forest performance in The
Crucible to name but a few examples). There is something fundamentally
fearsome about the deep vast forest—perhaps it is the uncharted
territory or wilderness itself that frightens us, or the forest's
deep connection with nature as a volatile and uncontrollable space.
Regardless, films, particularly horror films, whose plots center
in and around forests work to illustrate a profound sense of fear.
They tend to play upon our reluctance to venture into dark spaces,
our apprehension of the unknown, and our perverse notion that these
two things combined are both thrilling (because we are fundamentally
invading something taboo) and petrifying (because we do not know
what we will find). This atmosphere sets the tone for most horror
films that incorporate the image or the notion of the supernatural
within their narratives and plot: the forest is the witch's domain,
not to be invaded, and if so, be prepared to pay the consequences.
In such a way, the horror film confronts issues of human geography
at a visual level which is compelling: forests are "inside"
or "private" spaces associated with nature and the feminine,
whilst cities and towns are "outside" or "public"
spaces associated with culture and the masculine.
In Film, Horror and the Body Fantastic,
Linda Badley makes the point that "[h]orror has been a gendered
issue since the eighteenth century Gothic revival" (101). I
would agree and argue further that fantastic horror films, dealing
closely with witchcraft, sorcery, or feminine supernatural power,
are more obviously gendered. Moreover, if the participation in the
act of viewing a film automatically engulfs one in the act of voyeurism,
a notion closely linked with issues of spatiality and geography,
then films that employ a voyeur within the very film itself are
Take for instance, the 1999 North American
film The Blair Witch Project. Called the scariest movie of
all time, The Blair Witch Project is horrific because it
confirms society's worst fears: witches are evil, they kill small
children, they perform sacrifice and murderous rituals, and they
live in the depths of the unknown places we surely do not want to
enter. The Blair Witch Project reproduces these fears for
its audience, and in so doing, the film joins a long history of
reaffirming both the negative image of the witch and our perverse
attraction for such images.
Both the witch and the protagonist in The
Blair Witch Project 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. It is a quality that needs to be controlled, for the alternative,
lack of control, is dangerous and undesirable. Furthermore, the
apparent lack of control over the witch and her wealth of "possible"
supernatural power is perhaps one of the most fearsome notions we
face in fantastic literature.
The act of discovering, of seeking, of looking
for, or at, although both natural and pleasurable, has become, through
language, a disagreeable one because it is associated with the search
for knowledge and power; to see is to acquire knowledge, to acquire
knowledge is to gain power. It is Pandora's curiosity to see which
leads her to open the forbidden box, just as it is Eve's curiosity
to know which leads her to eat the forbidden fruit. And, in The
Blair Witch Project, it is Heather Donahue's curiosity to learn
which leads her to the woods outside of Burkittsville. Notably,
when all of these women endeavor to see, they are punished for their
"trespasses into temptation": once you have seen, you
must die a gruesome death—or so is the underlying message of the
contemporary horror film. The forbidden, once seen, cannot be unseen.
Seeing, learning, and knowledge are a masculine prerogative; they
belong to the realm of public space which men occupy and are free
to move within; women who violate this rule are dangerous and threatening.
Witchcraft, the craft, or the occult is perhaps
the ultimate of the unseen and unknown. It is this phenomena which
sparks Heather Donahue's curiosity. And curiosity, is, of course,
the main thematic structure of the film. As with most horror films,
it is the curiosity of both the characters and the audience that
leads to the climax of the story. Just as curiosity drives Clarice
Starling in Silence of the Lambs (1991) or various female
characters in the 80's slasher films mentioned at the beginning
of this paper to "go downstairs," Heather Donahue's curiosity
about the story of the Blair Witch leads her to embark on her film
project and, thus, to her eventual demise. As Laura Mulvey points
out in her influential essay "The Myth of Pandora," the
negative association between curiosity and the feminine is important:
"Curiosity projects itself onto, and into, space through its
drive to investigate and uncover secrets, carrying with it connotations
of transgression and danger" (Fetishism 60). While Mulvey
raises some crucial points about the female image and iconography
in "The Myth of Pandora," her arguments about space are
particularly important for horror fiction. Certainly the viewer
of The Blair Witch Project is fully aware of the danger inherent
in this film from the very beginning—well before anything "scary"
happens—through its association with curious investigation; culturally
we are conditioned to know this fact—curiosity has become a signifier
for danger just as the forest has become a signifier for the witch.
Heather Donahue's curiosity about the Blair
Witch is analogous to the Pandora metaphor which Mulvey draws on
as a crucial point of her thesis; like Pandora herself, Donahue
unleashes the evil of the Blair Witch on her film crew when her
curiosity leads them further into the woods. Indeed, the supernatural
entity in this film seems to permit their trespassing when they
only investigate areas on the outskirts of the forest (an area still
considered to be a "public" space). On the first night
of the excursion the film crew enjoys a peaceful night's sleep in
the woods, despite a minimal sense of fear. On the second day, however,
Heather insists on leading them deeper into the forest (and consequently
nearer the witch's "private" territory). Once there, they
unintentionally stumble across a gravesite of sorts, a forbidden
area of the forest, presumably not yet discovered by humanity. From
that point, the film crew begins to lose its way, and they are forced
to spend a second night outside, this time deep within the forest
where they are tormented by unknown voices/noises. Further, the
first victim in The Blair Witch Project, Joshua Leonard,
is killed because he stumbles into a secret place of worship; the
remaining characters are murdered, significantly, in the witch's
house, another forbidden place—one that is wholly private in which
they dare to trespass.
Mulvey contends that the female drive to investigate
is directed by a culture that has tended to consider femininity
as an enigma (Fetishism 54). Moreover, Linda Badley points
out that "[h]orror is reactionary. Its job has long been to
punish transgressions of conventional gender roles and reinforce
stereotypes" (102). This transgressive desire to know is indeed
what Alfred Hitchcock, Wes Craven, Clive Barker and others rely
on when building suspense before various characters ultimately fall.
And it is the obvious factor causing the fall in The Blair Witch
Project. The message of the contemporary horror film for women is
clear: do not transgress the boundaries of home and hearth; do not
go into the woods. But there is a further division in The Blair
Witch Project because conventional public spaces (man) and private
spaces (women) are reflected in miniature within the overall space
of the forest. Here, the private space of the forest is divided
into further territories—the outskirts (public), the deep inside
(private), and the witches home (the ultimate private). All of these
spaces belong to the witch, but the severity of the trespass varies
according to the divisions.
For the first half of the film, Heather is
the strongest character in the film. She is focussed, organized,
and domineering. Further, she refuses to be the object of both the
larger film's gaze and the documentary's gaze—she has brought her
own camera to record all of the events that take place. Moreover,
the project was her idea; her Blair Witch documentary was intended
to be a controlled student film. Thus, she takes possession of the
only map for the excursion as well as the only compass. It is also
Heather who has "scouted out" the project and who leads
the excursion. Literally, she holds all the cards. However, out
of all of the characters, it is Heather who has the most difficulty
accepting the reality of events around her. Thus, when she realizes
she is losing control of her "controlled" and "well
planned" project, she frantically dismisses what she cannot
explain. She repeatedly refuses to accept the seriousness of the
situation she finds herself in and desperately tries to hold onto
what is "real" by repeating phrases such as "things
like this just do not happen in America"; "this is America.
It is impossible to get lost, and just as impossible to stay lost."
Shoshana Felman notes the dichotomy of the real and the unreal arguing
The supernatural cannot be rationally explained and hence should
not detain us and does not call for thought . . . . Realism postulates
a conception of "nature" and "reality" which
seeks to establish itself, tautologically, as "natural"
and as "real." Nothing, indeed, is less "natural"
than this frontier which is supposed to separate the "real"
from the "unreal" and which in fact delimits only the
inside from the outside. (13)
Heather consistently tries to distinguish the
"real" from the "unreal" in her mind. She rationalizes
events that take place, even when they are clearly unexplainable.
Further, as the film gets more intense and the characters begin
to accept that they are being hunted by an unknown entity, Heather's
obsession with the camera grows stronger. She refuses to give up
the security of the camera, continually recording all of the events
they witness, continually trying to come to terms with them. During
a crucial conversation, Josh notes that he understands why Heather
won't turn off the camera. Heather is able to suspend the reality
of the events transpiring around her in the forest only when she
can view them through her camcorder. Again, Laura Mulvey's arguments
on voyeurism in film are useful in this analysis. Mulvey argues
that it is the gaze, or pleasure in looking, that is most powerful
for the film viewing audience. She explains that the object of the
gaze sets up an amazing masquerade that expresses a strange underworld
of both fear and desire (Visual 8). For Heather Donahue,
the camera offers a filtered reality, allowing her to become the
voyeur, rather than the object of both the film's gaze (The Blair
Witch Project) and camera lens itself (their Blair Witch documentary).
Finally, Heather never loses the desire to investigate even when
she is fundamentally frightened. While this is the case throughout
the film, it is perhaps most obvious in the final scene which leads
them to the Blair Witch's home as they follow Josh's desperate cries
for help—Heather insists they bring both recorders to witness the
The technique of a film within a film is an
interesting one on several levels. Anneke Smelik argues that the
mirror metaphor so often used in feminist discourse "acts as
a surface or screen which reflects dominant images of women, suggest[ing]
a possible site of subversion mimesis in cinema: the screen or the
image projected on it" (123). Indeed mirrors are a dominant
image when associated with the literary female, in particular with
the witch, but, in this case, the mirror metaphor can be further
applied to reflect the concept of the film within a film—the use
of multiple cameras that reflect and record images instead of the
use ofmirrors. Thus, voyeurism is not just a product of the film
being a film, it is inherent in the film itself. The camera work
is both objective and subjective. We see what Heather sees, we look
at the process of her looking, but we also see her.
The notion of a female gaze is one that has
been much explored in feminist film theory. As Linda Badley notes:
A woman in a scopic-phallic economy. . . is coveted, desired,
by the voyeuristic-sadistic or fetishizing male gaze. Only secondary
is she a coveting subject. . . [she] can covet only by means of
a female gaze that does not exist. She is trespasser on patriarchal
territory; she lacks a space from which to launch a female gaze,
no site, except that which she makes for herself situation by
Indeed, Donahue is a trespasser, but not because
she cannot create a female gaze. She does, in fact, reject the notion
of a male perpetuated gaze and participates in her own voyeurism
with the employment of her own camera throughout the film. However,
she trespasses within the forest, she crosses the gender boundary
by becoming the investigator, and she is an unwanted entity in this
secret territory belonging to the witch. In this way, Heather finds
herself between worlds, between territories, and, once she has witnessed
or seen, she is unable to return. Donahue takes on the qualities
of the voyeur with her camera, and by virtue of her existence in
this space, through the process of her investigation, becomes transvestite.
But Donahue does not entirely escape the eye
of the camera lens; although she fervently clutches her own color
camcorder throughout the film, there is a second black and white
camera to watch her. And her own colored eye turns on her, in the
hands of Josh, watching her, recording her vulnerability while she
teeters on the edge of sanity. Finally, frustrated, alone and hysterical,
she turns the lens upon herself and speaks to the camera. By her
own hand, she becomes the sole object of the voyeur as she dramatically
apologizes for entering the woods. Bordering on sadism, this scene
confirms all stereotypes of the helpless female and is the crux
of the male perpetuated gaze; the climax of the film depends on
Heather's visual hysteria which "signals a recognition of the
discursive pressures upon the woman protagonist to be scatterbrained,
incompetent, and stupid, to conform to a patriarchal stereotype
of hysterical femininity" (Armatage 141). While Heather may
have been strong and controlled in the first half of the film, her
role as failed investigator has, by this point, lead her to become
incompetent and highly vulnerable. For the rest of the film, she
relies on Matt to make all the decisions.
Thus, in the end, The Blair Witch
Project reinforces the notion of fear associated with the witch
by relying on our cultural perceptions and expectations with horror;
it re-establishes and re-situates the voyeuristic investigator in
film whilst projecting an image of the witch and the forest that
we have come to expect. Its power lies not just in our own imaginations
(for indeed, we do not actually see the Blair Witch), but in the
labels and rules that we accept as gendered.
Ardener, Shirley. "Ground Rules for Social Maps
for Women." Introduction. Women
and Space: Ground Rules and Social Maps. Ed. Shirley Ardener.
London: Croom Helm, 1981. 11-12.
Armatage, Kay. "Nell Shipman: A Case of Heroic Femininity."
Feminisms in the Cinema.
Eds. Laura Pietropaolo and Ada Testaferri. Indianapolis: Indiana
UP, 1995. 125-145.
Badley, Linda. Film, Horror, and the Body Fantastic. London:
The Blair Witch Project. Dir. Eduardo Sanchez and Dan Myrick.
Perf. Heather Donahue
and Joshua Leonard. Blair Witch Film Partners and Haxan Entertainment.
Felman, Shoshana. "Women and Madness: The Critical Phallacy."
Anthology of Literary Theory and Criticism. Eds. Robyn R. Warhol
Dianne Price Herndl. New Jersey: Rutgers UP, 1991. 7-20.
Mulvey, Laura. Fetishism and Curiosity. Indianapolis: Indiana
—-. Visual and Other Pleasures. Indianapolis: Indiana UP,
Rich, Adrienne. Arts of the Possible: Essays and Conversations.
New York: W.W.
Norton and Co., 2001.
Scream. Dir. Wes Craven. Perf. Drew Barrymore and Neve Campbell.
Smelik, Anneke. And the Mirror Cracked: Feminist Cinema and
Film Theory. New
York: St. Martin's Press, 1998.