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Subversive Sisters: The Female Torturer in Contemporary Horror Films

Laura Anne Stephens[1], Department of Film and Television Studies, Southampton Solent University



The female torturer has become an increasingly represented character in recent horror cinema, particularly in the sub-genre of 'torture horror'. Predominantly, female characters in the horror genre are seen as the passive victim, yet certain films allow a movement into activity, from the 'final girl' of the slasher sub-genre in the 1970s and 1980s to the rape revenge heroine. This paper explores the movement from passive female victim to active torturer through key films, in particular Hard Candy (Slade, 2005) and Audition (Miike, 1999), with the work of feminist theorists including Carol J. Clover (1992) and Barbara Creed (1993) used for critical support. I will question whether the female torturer can be seen as a subversive development in the horror genre and how dominant gender ideologies between active male and passive female are bought into question throughout the chosen films and further significant examples.

Keywords: Torture, horror, female, torturer, slasher, active, passive


The character of the female torturer has become a recent trend in contemporary horror films. This paper aims to discuss how the female torturer may be seen as a subversive development in the horror sub-genre which I will refer to as 'torture horror'. I will explore the movement of this character from passive victim to active torturer, in Hard Candy (Slade, 2005) and Takeshi Miike's Audition (1999), and discuss how her character threatens dominant gender ideologies. Critical support from feminist film theorists including Clover's seminal book Men, Women and Chainsaws (1992), Creed's The Monstrous Feminine: Film, Feminism and Psychoanalysis (1993) and Mulvey's 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema' (1999) will be explored throughout.

It is not only the torture horror sub-genre in which the character of the monstrous and violent female appears. In fact, the monstrous female can be seen throughout cinema history, not confined to one particular genre. The various incarnations of the character can be seen through more mythical creations in Hammer films such as The Gorgon (Fisher, 1964) or noir femme fatales in films such as Double Indemnity (Wilder, 1944) and Out of the Past (Tourneur, 1947). Creed explores these varied images in The Monstrous Feminine, citing the femme castratrice, vagina dentata and the castrating mother as characters who prey on male castration anxiety both psychologically, and, in some cases, literally. She is also the psychotic female monster in thrillers like Fatal Attraction (Lyne, 1987), The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (Hanson, 1992) and Single White Female (Schroeder, 1992), yet she is almost always punished for her transgression from passivity to activity. It is important to note, however, that for the active female to be seen as a subversive development in the horror genre, her dominant image must be as the passive victim. Discussing the 'look' in cinema, Mulvey notes that 'in a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female' (Mulvey, cited in Thornham, 1999: 62). This dominant, patriarchal power divide is apparent in classical Hollywood cinema, but also in films of the slasher sub-genre.

The conventional roles of the active male killer and the passive female victim are evident in 1970s and 1980s slasher films, such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Hooper, 1974), Friday the 13th: Part II (Miner, 1981) and John Carpenter's influential Halloween (1978). This sub-genre of films was evidently influenced by Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960); as Clover notes, 'its elements are familiar: the killer is the psychotic product of a sick family, but still recognizably human; the victim is a beautiful, sexually active woman' (Clover, 1992: 23-24), and these women are punished for their promiscuity. The male killer is evidently 'propelled by psychosexual fury' (Clover, 1992: 27) as the close stabbing action of the killer's phallic weapon may act as a metaphor for his repressed, sexual emotions. It is the sexualised female victims in these examples who are punished at length on screen, acting as an image for the killer's unattainable sexual partner. Furthermore, the passive female victim can also act as a source of fear for the male slasher killer. As Steve Neale suggests in his essay on Halloween, 'patriarchy positions women as subject to men (and their violence) and Halloween simply rehearses and restates that ideology as an assertion both of male aggression and male power and of male fear of women and female sexuality' (Neale, 2004: 367).This patriarchal positioning reinforces the views of Mulvey, and suggests that whoever is in control (of violence in the case of the slasher film), must therefore be masculine because they assert power over the female characters. This fear of female sexuality exemplifies the complex sexual psychology of the active male killer. However, these slasher films begin to allow some female characters to take on an active role, fighting the male killer and escaping death. According to Cherry, 'through Psycho, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Halloween and A Nightmare on Elm Street […] the heroine becomes increasingly self-sufficient and the male characters more ineffectual' (Cherry, 2009: 174). Cherry's statement highlights the movement of female characters in the horror genre from the passive victim to increasing activity. This is evidenced by what Clover termed the 'final girl' in the slasher film, and also the rape revenge heroine.

The final girl of the slasher film is not sexually active like the female victims and is rewarded for this innocence by being the last woman standing, often defeating the killer. Examples like Laurie in Halloween, Alice in Friday the 13th (Cunningham, 1980) and Stretch in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (Hooper, 1986), all show the final girl to adopt the symbolic phallic weapon, such as a chainsaw, knife and even coat hanger, to become active and escape the killer. However, this suggests that she must become masculine in order to take on an active role, as do the rape revenge heroines in films like I Spit on Your Grave (Zarchi, 1978), Violated (Cannistraro, 1984) and The Last House on the Left (Craven, 1972). These heroines take revenge by torturing and often literally castrating the male characters who tortured and raped them. It is this coded masculinity which can be said to detract from her ability to be subversive. It does not seem possible for the character of the final girl or rape revenge heroine to be both entirely feminine and active. As Clover notes, 'to applaud the Final Girl as a feminist development […] is, in light of her figurative meaning, a particularly grotesque expression of wishful thinking' (Clover, 1992: 53). It appears that power seems to lie in the hands and mind of whomever owns the phallus, whether literal in the case of the male killer or the symbolic pointed weapon of the final girl. However, when looking beyond the slasher sub-genre, these torture films can offer a varied perspective on the role of the active female in contemporary horror.

The character of the female torturer has the ability to shift the dominant gender ideologies between active male and passive female. In Phallic Panic (2005) Creed states that, 'women as monster threatens the male symbolic order of law, civilisation and language' (Creed, 2005: 16). This suggests that the female monster (particularly the female torturer I am concerned with here) is positioned outside the ideologies of active male and passive female, and contradicts the order put in place by a male-dominated society. In this sense, 'man defines woman as "other" and attempts to exclude her from the symbolic order of law, language and religion, but such expulsion is always only partial' (Creed, 2005: 16). This partial expulsion can cause the monstrous female to return to society more revengeful than before. By trying to exclude her from this order, she is seen to be increasingly resentful of both male and female characters, but predominantly male. This is clearly illustrated by my case study films, which involve both extreme physical and mental torture of mainly male victims. Hard Candy explores the meeting of the apparently innocent 14-year-old Hayley with middle-aged photographer Jeff, after they initially made contact via an internet chat room. They go back to Jeff's house, where Hayley begins to question him on his relationships with young girls, and then she mentally tortures him by pretending to castrate him. This psychological torture is combined with physical scenes in the Japanese horror Audition, which follows the widower Shigeharu Aoyama as he tries to find a suitable new wife through a fake audition process. He falls in love with the previously abused Asami, who is disgusted by the way he treats women, so she temporarily paralyses him, using needles and piano wire to inflict her torturous revenge. Inside (Bustillo and Maury, 2007) is another clear example of the female torturer where La Femme loses her child in a car accident, causing her to take revenge on the surviving driver Sarah who she ultimately blames for the pain she is suffering.

Whether it is extreme physical or intense mental torture, it appears the female torturer in these films is responding to some form of trauma. Although Clover is referring to films such as the science-fiction Attack of the 50-Foot Woman (Juran, 1958) and Strait-Jacket (Castle, 1964), her argument can also be applied to these post-millennial torture films.. She states that 'female killers are few and their reasons for killing significantly different from men's […] their anger derives in most cases not from childhood experience but from specific moments in their adult lives in which they have been abandoned or cheated on by men' (Clover, 1992: 29). These specific moments are evident in Audition, in which Asami has previously been physically abused by her stepfather; in her adult life she is ashamed by Shigeharu's actions. Although he has done nothing physically to harm her, Asami may feel it is her right to make the male victim feel passive, silenced by the paralysing drug which gives her a voice previously denied to her. Before this, Asami has become accustomed to taking on a role of passivity; as Richard Falcon states, 'it is Asami's apparent sadness and morbidity that attracts Aoyama, along with her passivity' (Falcon 2001: 39). However, it is important to note the word 'apparent' in Falcon's quote. It is this 'apparent' passivity which lulls the male victim into a false sense of security. As Shigeharu is aware of Asami's previous childhood suffering, he may think that she will not want to inflict such pain on another person. A smirk plays across Asami's face, as she slowly inserts needles into Shigeharu's chest and under his eyes, saying 'deeper' each time in a playful singing tone, drawing a stark contrast to her disturbing actions. In fact she is very controlled about how she enacts her torture, unlike the often frenetic, symbolically sexual pace of the traditional male slasher killer. Furthermore, unlike the active final girls of the slasher sub-genre, these female torturers do not need to retaliate violently in order to survive or escape the male killer. Rather, they have planned their torture and have manipulated their victims into a passive state.

The victim's passive state allows the female torturer in these examples to either release their own suffering or avenge the suffering of others. Hayley in Hard Candy has not been directly abused by Jeff, but feels it is her duty to avenge his previous victims and protect any potential future ones. This is illustrated by the concluding scenes of the film in which Jeff asks Hayley 'So who the hell are you?', to which she replies, 'I'm every little girl you ever watched, touched, hurt, screwed, killed'. Linda Ruth Williams, in her review of the film, even describes Hayley as 'the avenging angel taking on the burden of punishing men for their every predatory paedophilic gesture' (Williams, 2006: 56). However, this 'burden' does not always appear so strenuous on the female torturer, as she can be seen to take a sadistic enjoyment from the pain she is inflicting on her victims. As well as this sadistic enjoyment, the female torturers in these examples do not need to adopt the symbolic phallic weapon to become active, but can use their intelligence over brute strength. Even if Hayley at first appears naïve, and we may expect Jeff to be the predator, he is most certainly the prey and has been controlled by the teenager, lulled into a false sense of security from the very start. As Williams states, 'it isn't long before we know that Hayley knows exactly what she is doing: catching the grooming monster she has been tracking on the internet for months, as he himself was tracking his underage prey, unaware that he wasn't in control' (Williams, 2006: 56). This image of the female torturer feeling justified in her actions also allows her to emotionally detach herself from the pain she is causing her victims.

This apparent emotional disconnect from her victims and the torture she is inflicting on them may be seen as another way in which the female torturer plays with dominant gender ideologies. Throughout the history of cinema, but particularly in the horror genre, Clover argues that 'angry displays of force may belong to the male, but crying, cowering, screaming, fainting, trembling, begging for mercy belong to the female' (Clover, 1992: 51). In the films I am discussing here, however, there is an evident reversal of these emotions. It is in fact the female torturer's victims (who are predominantly male) who beg for mercy, scream and faint, and ask her why she is doing this to them. There is a clear subversion of the power dynamic between the strong male and weak female, with the female torturer also preying on the male victim's weaknesses and fears. This becomes evident in Hard Candy in which the torture set piece sees Hayley construct a fake castration. Hayley drugs Jeff and binds his arms and legs to a table. She dons doctor's scrubs, and talks Jeff through the procedure. Both Jeff and the audience believe Hayley is performing the castration as he screams, cries for help, but eventually gives in with tears rolling down his cheeks. She makes jokes throughout, saying that she shouldn't throw his castrated testicles into the garden, because 'we wouldn't want a little animal confusing it for an afternoon snack'. She has made Jeff feel entirely as defenceless and helpless as the girls he has abused. By making him the passive victim, she feels justified in her actions. While we see male killers often emotionally breakdown, such as Leatherface weeping in a childlike manner after committing murder in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, we do not see this of the female torturers. Their past trauma appears to have made them emotionally stronger and able to make others feel the pain she has suffered. Also, the female torturer in these examples often uses these stereotypes of the passive female to her advantage.

The apparent innocence of 14-year-old Hayley and the pretend naivety of Asami in Audition allow the female torturer to lull her victims into a false sense of security. It is this knowledge of other people's perceptions which adds to her subversive nature, as she is no longer the passive victim but can act like one in order to escape the situation in which she finds herself. As Hayley explains to the male victim Jeff in the final scenes of Hard Candy, who are they likely to believe? It is these dominant gender ideologies which wholly work to the female torturer's advantage. In other examples of the female monster in films such as the thrillers Fatal Attraction and Single White Female, we see her character punished for transgressing from a passive to active state, but this is not always the case in these torture horror films. Creed suggests that 'the castrated female monster is inevitably punished for her transgressions' (Creed, 1993: 122-23). However, this series of torture horror films arguably begins to subvert this conventional image of punishment, in favour of escape and even justification for the female torturer's actions. This is evidenced by the film Inside. After the female torturer La Femme destroys all the male characters who have tried to prevent her reaching the female victim and her unborn child, she performs a torturous caesarean to get the baby she has always wanted. La Femme takes the baby away from Sarah, who is left bleeding to death on the stairs, while she rocks the child to sleep, becoming the mother figure she always wanted to be. Although La Femme is physically punished by Sarah, who retaliates by burning her face, she still escapes death and defeats anyone who stands in her way. It is in fact the final girl of Sarah who is unjustly killed, with the female torturer escaping capture. Even though La Femme has tortured and killed an innocent woman, not to mention multiple male victims, she is rewarded with the child she felt was taken away from her. Furthermore, similarities can be drawn to Hard Candy in which Williams states that the film's 'final cleverness lies in the fact that Hayley ultimately makes Jeff take his punishment from his own hand, before she slips anonymously away, perhaps to meet her next target' (Williams 2006: 56). It is elements like this movement away from punishment for gendered transgression in both Inside and Hard Candy which ultimately causes the character of the female torturer to become increasingly subversive in contemporary horror films.

The female torturer in these examples may also stand as an empowering feminist figure in contemporary horror cinema, and a character which the audience can gain pleasure from. The subversion of power dynamics between active male and passive female discussed here may be pleasurable for the audience; an audience which has otherwise become accustomed to dominant images of strong men and weak women. In fact, on the subject of 'the violent woman' Hilary Neroni argues that, 'rather than embodying some mythical "pro-homicide" movement, violent women actually disrupt the structure of filmic narratives, call into question our conceptions of masculinity and femininity, and reveal the limits of, or failures of ideology' (Neroni, 2005: ix-x). This tension between representations of masculinity and femininity are evident in the films I explore here, but also as a wider occurrence in contemporary cinema. The active female monster can be said to influence the breakdown of clear gender boundaries, but this ideological shift in gender does not necessarily deter from her appeal. Neroni goes on to suggest of the violent woman that 'her threat excites us because it involves overturning the ideological structures (most especially those involving gender) that regulate our experiences' (Neroni, 2005: x). The female torturer in these films can be both entirely monstrous, yet still offer an appeal to an audience intrigued by the character's representation, previously limited due to the emphasis on iconic, mainstream male torturers. It is clear then that the torturous female of these films can be both active and use an intellect which often escapes the male slasher killer.

Although I have concentrated on the female torturer's subversive nature in these films, this is not to say that all forms of her character aid her ability to alter dominant associations between gender and power. Films such as The Devil's Rejects (Zombie, 2005) and the Australian film The Loved Ones (Byrne, 2009) often use comedy and horror to mock the female torturer for trying to become active and place her within a family unit, expressing a hierarchy of control. However, these are not the only examples of the contemporary female torturer in the horror genre; her character can be seen in Hong Kong film Dream Home (Ho-Cheung Pang, 2010), South Korean film Bedevilled (Chul-soo Jang, 2010) and the British film Eden Lake (Watkins, 2008), which all demonstrate a movement from victim to active torturer to various degrees. We also see the return of the rape-revenge heroine in the remakes of I Spit on Your Grave (Monroe, 2010) and The Last House on the Left (Iliadis, 2009). She appears evidently more violent, and the images of torture are much more visceral and extreme than previously shown. It is perhaps only a matter of time until the female torturer becomes an iconic horror monster like the slasher killers of Leatherface, Jason and Michael Myers in future horror cinema.




[1] Laura has recently graduated with a first class honours degree in film and television studies at Southampton Solent University. She will continue to study film and television, with a particular interest in horror, and hopes to go on to study an MA in the near future.



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Falcon, R. (2001), 'Audition', Sight and Sound, March 2001, p.39

Grant, B. K. and C. Sharrett (eds) (2004), Planks of reason: Essays on the Horror film, Oxford: Scarecrow Press

Mulvey, L. (1999), 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema', in Thornham, S. (ed.), Feminist Film Theory: A Reader, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, pp. 58-69

Neale, S. (2004), 'Halloween: Suspense, Aggression, and the Look', in Grant, B. K. and C. Sharrett (eds), Planks of reason: Essays on the Horror film, Oxford: Scarecrow Press, pp. 356-69

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Williams, L. R. (2006), 'Hard Candy', Sight and Sound, July 2006, p.56



A Nightmare on Elm Street (Wes Craven, USA, 1984)

Attack of the 50-foot Woman (Nathan Juran, USA, 1958)

Audition (Takeshi Miike, Japan, 1999)

Bedevilled (Chul-soo Yang, South Korea, 2010)

Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, USA, 1944)

Dream Home (Ho-Cheung Pang, Hong Kong, 2010)

Eden Lake (James Watkins, UK, 2008)

Fatal Attraction (Adrian Lyne, USA, 1987)

Friday the 13th (Sean S. Cunningham, USA, 1980)

Friday the 13th: Part II (Steve Miner, USA, 1981)

Halloween (John Carpenter, USA, 1978)

Hard Candy (David Slade, USA, 2005)

Inside (Alexandre Bustillo/Julien Maury, France, 2007)

I Spit on Your Grave (Meir Zarchi, USA, 1978)

I Spit on Your Grave (Steven R. Monroe, USA, 2010)

Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur, USA, 1947)

Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, USA, 1960)

Single White Female (Barbet Schroeder, USA, 1992)

Strait-Jacket (William Castle, USA, 1964)

The Devil's Rejects (Rob Zombie, USA, 2005)

The Gorgon (Terence Fisher, UK, 1964)

The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (Curtis Hanson, USA, 1992)

The Last House on the Left (Wes Craven, USA, 1972)

The Last House on the Left (Dennis Iliadis, USA, 2009)

The Loved Ones (Sean Byrne, Australia, 2009)

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, USA, 1974)

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (Tobe Hooper, USA, 1986)

Violated (Richard Cannistraro, USA, 1984)


To cite this paper please use the following details: Stephens, L. (2011), 'Subversive Sisters: The Female Torturer in Contemporary Horror Films', Reinvention: a Journal of Undergraduate Research, British Conference of Undergraduate Research 2011 Special Issue, Date accessed [insert date]. If you cite this article or use it in any teaching or other related activities please let us know by e-mailing us at Reinventionjournal at warwick dot ac dot uk.