In terms of sheer quantity, it is clear that male psycho-killers have dominated the tradition of what has come to be known as “realist” horror cinema in the United States—a tradition popularized by Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (i960), in which the impossible, supernatural monsters of earlier horror films were replaced by antagonists of an apparently (or at least loosely) human ontology.2 And with rare exception, male sociopaths, psychopaths, schizophrenics, and sexual deviants have also proven a great deal more (in)famous in American horror films and thrillers than have their female counterparts. For
every Danielle Breton (Margot Kidder in Sisters ), it seems there are twenty Robert Elliotts (Michael Caine in Dressed to Kill ); for every Dorine Douglas (Carol Kane in Office Killer ), at least fifty Hannibal Lecters (Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs  and Hannibal ).
Moreover, and to the dismay (or is it the delight?) of those who would accuse the genre of a conventionalized if not inherent sexism, for every dumb male jock or clueless stoner dude to get sliced and diced in your average slasher movie—one highly codified subgenre of realist horror cinema, initiated in 1978 with John Carpenter’s Halloween—it is practically guaranteed that two or three young women depicted as either bimbos or bitches will suffer a death that is both more protracted and more sadistic at the hands, knives, or worse of the killer. This holds true even in the more recent, supposedly innovative and self-reflexive, examples such as Scream (1996), I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997), Halloween H2O (1998), and Valentine (2001).3 As Carol J. Clover (1992, 80, 82) notes of the slasher film, “Where once [the victim] was female, now she is both boy and girl, though most often and most conspicuously girl….[E]ven in films in which males and females are killed in roughly even numbers, the lingering images are inevitably female." Although this last claim might seem self-evident to fans and scholars of such movies, it is worth providing some empirical support. According to Stephen Prince (2003, 246), “in a content analysis of the ten biggest-grossing slasher films, James Weaver found that the average length of scenes showing the death of male characters was just under two minutes and those showing the death of female characters was just under four minutes, and that these lengthy intervals were accompanied by expressions of fear, terror, and pain."4
When it comes to realist horror cinema, then, at least in the United States, it would appear that men (mostly) do the killing while women (mostly) struggle simply to survive. This bias towards male killers is nowhere more succinctly alluded to than in Scream’s memorable and frequently parodied opening scene, in which a wiseass Gen-X psychopath forces high-school beauty Casey Becker (Drew Barrymore) to play a twisted game with him on the telephone: answer correctly three slasher movie trivia questions or else die a horrible death. Casey has no problem with the first two, but then makes a fatal mistake, claiming that the hockey-masked murderer in Friday the 13th (1980) is Jason Voorhees when, in fact, it is Jason’s mother. For a self-proclaimed fan of the genre to get this “trick" question wrong by confusing the killer’s gender— assuming that it was a he rather than a she—is something to which Scream’s viewers clearly could relate.
Of course, the above observations are rendered more than a little problematic by the fact that so many male killers in the slasher subgenre, and in realist horror cinema as a whole, are depicted as cross-dressing, homosexual, impotent, or otherwise and variously “feminized.” Clover (1996, 92) draws particular attention to this point in her groundbreaking 1987 analysis of the slasher film: “The killer’s phallic purpose, as he thrusts his drill or knife into the trembling bodies of young women, is unmistakable. At the same time, however, his masculinity is severely qualified: he ranges from the virginal or sexually inert to the transvestite or transsexual, is spiritually divided.. .or even equipped with vulva and vagina.” Taking the male killer’s conventional feminization in conjunction with the masculinization of the slasher film’s surviving female, the so-called “Final Girl”—usually depicted as tough, tomboyish, aggressive, and often given a male name (e. g., Marti, Terry, Stevie, Sidney)— Clover argues for the subgenre’s characteristic emphasis on cross-gender identification. Prince (2003, 248) usefully summarizes her position as follows:
The essential viewing dynamic that these films instigate in viewers is one marked by an oscillation between subjectivities marked as “male” (active, aggressive, empowered) and “female” (passive, unempowered, victimized) in terms of their cultural coding. These “positions,” according to Clover, do not correspond in any fixed way with the gender of the viewer, in part because the films in question collapse and combine gender categories by featuring a killer who is a feminine male and a main character (the “Final Girl”) who is a masculine female.
Although she goes on to ask “why, if viewers can identify across gender lines, are the screen sexes not interchangeable? Why not more and better female killers.?” Clover (1996, 92) effectively drops this line of inquiry in favour of an extended investigation into why the vast majority of slasher film survivors are female rather than male (among her answers: this representational strategy provides male viewers a degree of emotional distance from the Final Girl’s abject terror; and it allows for these viewers to experience the thrill of playing with gender identity).
The closest she comes to answering the above question concerning the relative lack of female killers comes on the last page of her essay:
The fact that we have in the killer a feminine male and in the main character a masculine female. would seem, especially in the latter case, to suggest a loosening of the categories, or at least of the equation sex equals gender. It is not that these films show us gender and sex in free variation; it is that they fix on the irregular combinations, of which the combination masculine female [i. e., the Final Girl] repeatedly prevails over the combination feminine male [i. e., the feminized male killer]. (Clover 1996,106, emphasis mine)
Clover’s qualification in the first sentence (“especially in the latter case”) can be interpreted as indicating, if not a reluctance on her part to make any conclusive statements about slasher movie killers as opposed to survivors, at least an interest in concentrating on the latter rather than on the former.
Nevertheless, following Clover, one must acknowledge the extent to which the killer in slasher movies in particular, and in realist horror cinema in general, has been variously depicted as feminized or effeminate for this is clearly a convention in its own right—from Psycho and Dressed to Kill up through Cherry Falls (2000) and Dahmer (2002). Also, we should not overlook or underemphasize the sexual “truth” of these psychologically disturbed characters, a truth that usually (though not always) serves to confirm the killer’s biological maleness even if not his enculturated/gendered masculinity.
Having said all this, the history of realist horror cinema in the United States, an otherwise fairly heterogeneous collection of films, has thematized, often to terrifying effect, the trials and tribulations of women psycho-killers. In what follows, I survey and analyze depictions of female madness in the horror and thriller genres, with an eye towards answering the following questions: (1) are the sorts of traumas attributed to the madwomen in these movies specifically gendered? (2) how does the particular manner in (and means by) which these madwomen kill function to code them as simultaneously empowered and subjugated? and (3) is there an essential connection between the sexual identity of a realist horror film’s psycho-killer and the generic conventions that film seeks to employ, subvert, or transgress?
Although I hope to show that, in the case of both male and female psycho killers, the motives for their murderous behaviour are usually traceable back to early childhood sexual abuse and trauma (even if this is only hinted at in the narrative), I also argue that the nature of the resulting psychopathology is manifested and portrayed differently for women than it is for men. Whereas the latter typically exhibit a gender confusion signified by the killer’s possession of both masculine and feminine attributes, as Clover has revealed, the former give body to an anxiety intrinsic to patriarchal notions of femininity: namely, that the safe, nurturing, maternal female bears hysterical, possessive, violent impulses within her very soul. Thus my overarching thesis is that the representation of mad killer women in the horror genre differs systematically from that of mad killer men, with the former serving to reify patriarchal gender norms. In part because such norms hold sway across a diversity of cultures, in part because Freudian (at least pop-Freudian) themes and symbols are often self-consciously employed in the texts in question, a socio-historical index is less relevant to the present, charac – terological analysis than is the psychoanalytic approach adopted here.
In a sense, this chapter attempts to provide a brief history—more like a guided tour—of female madness in American horror-thriller cinema; the aim is not to provide a comprehensive list but, rather, to demarcate the topic and pave the way for a future taxonomy in (sub)generic terms. Along the way I stop to compare and contrast the depiction of biologically female psycho-killers with those who are (or else who turn out to be, as in Psycho, Dressed to Kill, Sleep – away Camp , and Cherry Falls) biologically male. Moreover, I extend female psycho-killers as they are depicted in American realist horror to those found in other national cinemas—for example, in films such as Repulsion (UK, 1965), The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (Italy, 1970), The Damned House ofHajn (Czechoslovakia, 1988), Heavenly Creatures (New Zealand, 1994), The Stendhal Syndrome (Italy, 1996), Tell Me Something (South Korea, 1999), Audition (Japan, 1999), and Freeze Me (Japan, 2000)—to indicate the surprising degree to which these depictions cross socio-cultural lines.