The shocking truth: women and chillers first

June 5, 2006
Kansas City Star
By Robert W. Butler

Daddy's little girl wants blood and guts.

A new generation of graphic horror movies is slaying 'em at the box office, thanks to a generation of young women who thrive on gruesome thrills and chills.

"Hostel," the "Saw" franchise, "Wolf Creek" - even a French serial killer movie "High Tension" - have slashed their way into the black with the support of female viewers.

Lionsgate makes and distributes the "Saw" series, in which a fiend captures characters who must mutilate themselves or murder innocent others to escape.

The studio reports that 32 percent of ticket buyers for "Saw 2" were women under 25; men under 25 made up only 28 percent of the audience. In a survey conducted for the studio, more than two- thirds of teenage girls identified themselves as horror movie fans. Only half of teen boys so described themselves (they preferred raunchy comedy).

Until recently Hollywood assumed that the market for gory horror centered on males, and that while girls like being scared, they don't like being grossed out with blood and violence.

They should have chatted with Melissa Langley, the 29-year-old project coordinator for the team building the new Sprint Center downtown. She's well-educated, literate, professional - and for most of her life has been a fool for horror movies.

"Everybody seems surprised that women go for these movies," Langley said. "But from my experience it's the girls dragging the guys to the theater, not the other away around.

"I remember sleepovers as a young teen, with a dozen girls draped all over the couch, or crammed into the cushions or lying on the floor, watching a video of a horror movie most of our parents would never let us see in the theater, and sharing a huge adrenaline rush.

"Today I still go to these movies with my girlfriends. Part of me knows I'm doing irreparable damage to my psyche . but it's fun."

Corie Dugas, a 23-year-old employee of Watson Library at the University of Kansas, agrees that a big part of her own horror habit is the group experience.

"I never watch anything I think will be scary by myself," she said. "Not even videos at home. I cover my eyes and peek through my fingers at the really gross stuff, but I've got to have somebody with me or I can't watch them. Maybe that's part of the female equation - somebody else has to share it with you."

When did young women become connoisseurs of mayhem? It's been gradual, according to longtime observers of the horror genre.

"I think it has a lot to do with the rise of young adult horror novels and the appearance of 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' on television," said Michael Gingold, managing editor of Fangoria, a magazine devoted to horror, fantasy and science fiction. "A lot of these teen horror novels focus on baby-sitting and slumber parties. .It seems like an intentional effort to build a female fan base for horror."

According to this theory, youngsters who enjoy the delicious thrill of R.L. Stine's Goosebumps books may go on to more sophisticated terror through the novels of Stephen King, John Saul and Dean Koontz. Horror movies aren't far behind.

Hollywood has a two-pronged approach to horror movies, according to Chris Gore (yes, that's his name), whose filmthreat.com is one of the Internet's most popular sites for news and reviews of cult and mainstream horror films.

"On the one hand you have a recent spate of really gory R-rated movies like 'Hostel,' 'The Hills Have Eyes' and 'Saw,' " Gore said. "The harder these movies are, the more blood, the more fans like them.

"But there's also a huge market for PG-13 horror films. They're more polite and not as graphic, but they're still scary. And because they're PG-13, any teenager can see them. Then when the kids get old enough, they start going to the R-rated films. It's like graduating from middle to high school."

Hollywood has been particularly canny about casting horror movies with familiar faces from television.

"A few years back when horror started getting popular again, most of the actresses being cast were from popular TV shows, people like Jennifer Love Hewitt in 'I Know What You Did Last Summer,' " said Gingold. "These were actresses with large fan bases that bought a ticket just to see this particular actress on the big screen.

"In fact, the movie that brought back graphic R-rated horror was the remake of 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre' with Jessica Biel. Biel had a huge following from her TV show '7th Heaven,' and having her star in the movie kept girls and young women coming to a horror film that they otherwise might have avoided."

Gore points to one factor that few adults consider: video games.

"Today's young women grew up playing violent video games. They may be pixilated images, but what you see in video games is way beyond anything Hollywood will put on screen. So it takes more to shock them than it used to."

After the "Chainsaw" remake racked up $80 million in domestic ticket sales in 2003, Hollywood realized that R-rated horror could be a moneymaker.

Gingold said audiences should get ready for even bigger shocks. "I just talked to a filmmaker who's having trouble selling his horror film because . it's not shocking enough. There's no torture."

Jeanine Basinger, head of film studies at Wesleyan University, says her women students are big fans of horror, and horror is a common theme in the films they shoot as classroom projects.

Making a really disturbing horror film has become a favored way for young filmmakers to break into the movie industry.

All of this may lead moralists to decry the coarsening of American society. But the women who watch horror flicks say they know the difference between reality and fiction.

"I go to these movies for the vicarious thrill. It's almost therapeutic," said Jewell St. Clair, a 45-year-old Kansas Citian working in mutual funds. She said she's been a horror movie fan ever since she can remember.

"But real violence is an entirely different thing. I once tried to watch that 'Faces of Death' video where you see real people and animals being killed . and I couldn't take it.

"Fictionalized horror allows us to face our fears in a safe environment. That's the attraction."

Eventually the tide of horror hits will lose momentum, Gore predicted.

"The horror genre always burns out when there are too many sequels and not enough new ideas," he said. "Audiences want originality."

And time will take its toll as well.

"One of my best friends - who used to be my partner in crime in going to these movies - got married," Langley said. "Now she's got a kid and won't have anything to do with it.

"I guess horror movies just don't fit in with good mothering."